Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Suburbicon




George Clooney’s new film, a dark-comedy noir starring Matt Damon and based on an old screenplay by the Coen brothers, seems like it should have been a guaranteed success. Instead, Suburbicon flopped at the box office and was panned by the critics. What happened, and is the film really as bad as the critics say?

The opening scene would suggest otherwise. By way of a TV ad that perfectly captures the time (1950’s) and place (small-town USA) in an obvious parody, the scene introduces us to the ideal all-white community of Suburbicon. Suburbicon’s 60,000 inhabitants live in nearly-identical homes and almost always have a smile on their face because they are so happy to be living there. At least until the fateful day an African-American family (the Mayers) moves into town, sending everyone reeling and soon resulting in increasingly-violent attempts to persuade the Mayers to leave. 

The music, the production design and the cinematography create a period feel in this opening scene that is just right. With regular background commentary from radio and TV throughout the film, the period feel is maintained and enhanced even when Suburbicon becomes a film noir instead of a light satire. But the story in the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the potential of that opening scene. 

Damon plays Gardner Lodge, a company vice president and one of Suburbicon’s supposedly happy citizens. Gardner is married to Rose (Julianne Moore), who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident years before, and who is helped out by her twin sister, Margaret (Moore). Gardner and Rose have a ten-year-old son named Nicky (Noah Jupe), who is actually Suburbicon’s protagonist. Other key characters are Nicky’s Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and an insurance investigator named Bud Cooper (a delicious cameo by Oscar Isaac). 

One night, the serene family life of the Lodges is disrupted when two men break into their home and do things that result in Rose’s death. (Minor spoiler alert) Margaret quickly steps in to assume Rose’s place in the household while Gardner returns to work in a state of some agitation, agitation that seems to have more to do with money than with the loss of his wife. When Gardner and Margaret fail to identify Rose’s killers in a police line-up, Nicky is at first confused, then alarmed. Too late, he realizes that the horror of his mother’s death is only the first of many horrors that are about to befall him and the Lodge family.

Meanwhile, the Mayers, who happen to live next door to the Lodges, are finding themselves under siege by the angry townsfolk, who have placed a confederate flag on their living room window.

That the dark (and darkly humorous) story of the Lodge family seems to have little to do with the story of the Mayer family next door is one of the key criticisms of Suburbicon. It stems from the fact that the dark-comedy thriller part of the film was written by the Coen brothers decades ago while the story of the Mayer family was added by Clooney and Grant Heslov just before filming. Film critics are convinced that trying to mix these two stories was a bad idea, especially because the two stories are so unequal, with far more time devoted to the Lodge family and very little to the Mayer family, who get virtually no character development (which is why I haven’t even identified them). Critics complain that using the Mayers as a social-commentary plot element on the side is distasteful; it is also seen as ironic (because of the unequal nature of the story), given that Clooney was clearly attempting to express his views on life in the U.S. in the 21st century. 

However, I believe there are factors that mitigate the critics’ complaints. First, the story of the Mayer family is based on a real-life event in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, so its inclusion in Suburbicon is a deliberate attempt to show how little has changed in a country rife with fears that Syrian immigrants or Mexicans may move next door (not to mention Charlottesville, which happened after the film was made). Second, the reason the Mayer family is relegated to being a plot element is that Suburbicon is neither a drama nor a social satire. If it were one of these, the criticisms about its heavy-handed racial satire would be well-deserved. But Suburbicon is a dark-comedy thriller with some social satire on the side, satire that focuses not only on how members of the innocent Mayer family are treated like criminals while the real criminals next door are ignored, but also on how Gardner hated his supposedly perfect but meaningless life, leading to his criminal acts.

I am not suggesting that Suburbicon is a great film. On the contrary, I think its dark comedy misses the mark as often as it finds it, its story of the Lodge family is uneven and has little to offer, and it needs substantially more character development all around.

Nevertheless, I found watching Suburbicon an enjoyable experience. Jupe and Damon were outstanding, with Jupe (as Nicky) providing the key emotional engagement in the film, and Suburbicon’s satire, unlike its darker comedy, worked quite well and does give viewers something to think about as we consider life in North America today.

So I am confused about why so many viewers and critics found watching Suburbicon to be such an unpleasant experience, especially when I think about the popularity and critical acclaim of an unpleasant film like It. It is a film that features seven wonderful teenage actors in roles that might have made for a profound and beautiful coming-of-age story in small-town Maine. Instead, for me, that ludicrous and violent film has absolutely nothing to offer and watching Suburbicon is a much better use of time (if you can handle the violence). 

Both of these films feature life-affirming messages buried within a violent narrative, but It subverted its potential message by focusing on scares, while Suburbicon added its message to an otherwise pointless plot in order to help make the world a better place. Clooney should be lauded and encouraged for doing this, not denigrated. So Suburbicon gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Faces Places (2017 EIFF 12)



The critics are raving about this unique documentary made by photographer/muralist J.R. and filmmaker Agnès Varda. Mostly for good reason. Varda and J.R. travel around rural France, taking photos of people, listening to their stories and then plastering huge versions of the photos onto buildings. The primary theme of Faces Places is worker solidarity. When in pursuit of that theme, the film is often riveting. 

Faces Places would be a great documentary for its humanization alone, but it also offers many humorous and profound observations from Varda and J.R. as the 89-year-old director and the young photographer get to know each other in the process of making this film together. It often feels like a quirky road movie.

Faces Places is a true work of art, but for me it wasn’t perfect and I can’t give it ****. The first half of the film is truly amazing, as engaging and moving as it is profound. But for me the second half lagged a bit, both in the stories of the people Varda and J.R. meet as well as their own interactions. For me, the focus on the filmmakers wears a little thin in the second half.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful documentary that I recommend to all. Faces Places gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Sweet Virginia (2017 EIFF 11)



This low-budget, Coen-brothers-like, dark indie thriller was one of the more pleasant surprises at the EIFF, primarily because of the way it kept me engaged from the first minute to the last, not least because its focus is entirely on its very compelling cast of characters (and because it has a marvellous sense of atmosphere, which fuels the constant tension). 

At the centre of Sweet Virginia is Sam (Jon Bernthal), a motel owner in a small Alaskan town, a town that is suddenly rocked by an after-hours triple-murder in the local bar. We know who did the deed (Elwood, played by Christopher Abbott) and soon learn why, but it’s a mystery to the locals, including Sam, even though the eccentric Elwood checks into his motel shortly after the murder. 

The lack of mystery for the viewer might limit one’s enjoyment in watching a thriller, but didn’t bother me much because I enjoyed the focus on how the fascinating characters interacted with each other. The big mystery to me, which did limit my enjoyment of the film somewhat, was where the police were in all this. We hardly see them at all in Sweet Virginia, as if a triple-murder is no big deal to them, making for an unusual type of small-town crime thriller (which isn’t all bad, but the lack of credibility was distracting).

Other characters of note are the wives of two of the victims, women who didn't appreciate their husbands enough to do much grieving: Lila (Imogen Poots), who finds herself in way over her head, and Bernadette (Rosemary DeWitt), who is having an affair with Sam. All of the acting is very good, though it’s Bernthal’s performance which stands out. 

As I’ve said before, I’m a fan of intelligent suspense films that focus on characters and dialogue instead of action. Sweet Virgina is such a film, and Jamie M. Dagg’s directing keeps the film moving at exactly the right pace, helped by the stunning cinematography. There could have been more character development (although there was just enough to let viewers put pieces into place themselves, which I rather enjoy) less violence (too much to expect), and more police (just for credibility’s sake), but this is my kind of thriller. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

American Made



I decided to watch American Made (which is based on a true story) because I’d heard that it exposes the role of the CIA in the central American drug trade and in the various scandals involving the Contras (including Oliver North). Had that been an accurate assessment of the film’s goals or even of its contents, Doug Liman’s American Made might have been a great film, or at least a very good one. Unfortunately, neither is true (IMHO).

Tom Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who, in 1978, is offered the chance to take photos of Soviet-supported bases in Central America. When this proves successful (thanks to Seal’s fearless flying), Seal begins taking on jobs of his own, like smuggling drugs for a new drug cartel in Colombia. When Seal’s CIA handler, known as Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), finds out about this (after Seal is arrested in Colombia), his response is to give Seal 2,000 acres of land in Arkansas and an entire small airport which Seal can use as a base for his various smuggling operations (guns to the Contras, then guns to the drug lords in Colombia and money to the Contras, then the Contras themselves, so they can be trained by the American military). 

Seal becomes enormously wealthy, filling the local banks with his millions. His wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), knows somethings’ wrong but enjoys the high life while she can. Of course, when you get that wealthy doing very illegal things, even if it’s for the CIA, big trouble is bound to come your way, and it does, though not before Seal has a chance to work with Oliver North to pin the Central American drug-trafficking, which has been supported (if indirectly) by the CIA, on the communists.

American Made has an interesting style designed to place it in the early 80’s. This is only partially successful. I had mixed feelings about the cinematography and the music, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the acting (Gleeson stood out). I also thought the story’s structure was a little too chaotic, failing to make some important connections. But my biggest disappointment was in the film’s treatment of the CIA. The blame for the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian drug trade and the various Contra scandals is pinned on one intelligent but slightly bumbling individual (Schafer), which is nonsense. There’s a great scene in which President Reagan is shown talking on TV about how the evil Sandinistas are involved in the drug trade when in fact it is his own people and the Contras who are involved, but that’s far too little too late for a film that had a chance to really say something important about the most evil organization in the history of humanity.

So American Made gets *** for an entertaining attempt. But it could have been, and should have been, much better. My mug is trying to find its way up.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Novitiate (2017 EIFF 9)



Novitiate was my biggest surprise at the EIFF. This low-budget indie film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was made by first-time director Margaret Betts (who also wrote the screenplay), has the look and feel of a big-budget Hollywood film made by a veteran director. This can, of course, be a bad thing; indeed, it may be Novitiate’s biggest flaw as well as one of its positive attributes. But once I got over my shock at how typically Hollywood the film appeared, I actually had a lot of admiration and appreciation for the non-indie feel of the film.

Margaret Qualley stars as Cathleen, a young woman in the early 1960’s who feels called to become a nun. Her abusive mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who hates religion, is horrified, but maybe she is responsible for Cathleen’s decision. 

Once in the convent, Cathleen joins a group of fellow novitiates who try to survive the strict rules and harsh discipline faced by nuns-in-training back in the early 60’s. Leading that harsh discipline is the conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is under an immense amount of stress because of the Second Vatican Council, which is changing lifelong traditions and introducing new policies on the life of nuns. Tensions rise for Cathleen and the Reverend Mother, both of whom face unexpected pressures.

The inhuman treatment of noviciates rivals the dysfunctional setting of Cathleen’s home. Change is desperately needed but we also get to see how the patriarchal Roman Catholic church never considers the opinions of the woman whose lives it is changing. There’s a lot to discuss in Novitiate, including a scene involving the only man with a serious role in the film: Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare). This disturbing scene surprised me because it seemed so sympathetic to the patriarchy, which didn’t make sense to me in a film written and directed by a woman and having almost entirely female characters. But that’s an example of something requiring discussion. 

Qualley and Leo are outstanding in the lead roles. Leo’s brilliant nuance performance reminded me of Meryl Streep in Doubt, whose character is similar to Leo’s. The rest of the performances are also very good. The cinematography is gorgeous, the score is well done, and the writing is excellent. 

Novitiate has not yet been released and so it hasn’t been reviewed by most of the major critics. My gut tells me they won’t like it as much as I did, partly because of the old-fashioned Hollywood feel. But I’m giving Novitiate ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Call Me By Your Name (2017 EIFF 8)



One of my favourite films at the EIFF, Call Me By Your Name has all the ingredients to be a four-star classic: Fantastic location, gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, vital story, marvellous music, terrific performances, and great directing. Unfortunately, one of the major characters (or the actor playing him) grated on me from start to finish, making it unlikely that Call Me By Your Name will make my top ten films of the year. 

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who made the excellent I am Love and A Bigger Splash, and written by James Ivory (based on the novel by André Aciman), Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a 17-year-old boy’s first love. The boy is Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an American-Italian Jew spending the summer of 1983 in northern Italy with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) an eminent history professor, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator. Elio spends his days reading and hanging out with Marzia (Esther Garrel), who has strong feelings for Elio, but, for Elio, something is missing in his search for love. He finds out what that something is when Oliver (Armie Hammer), a young American scholar, comes to live with the family (to study with his father).

Chalamet is phenomenal as Elio, and Stuhlbarg stands out as the understanding father. The story is beautifully-told, with a depth and intensity of feeling that time and again reaches perfection, making this a very engaging film. Even the romance between Elio and Oliver often works well, in spite of the fact that it’s the character of Oliver who just didn't feel convincing to me. It might have been Hammer’s acting style rather than the character, but I couldn’t connect with him, as much as I wanted to (because otherwise the film was so wonderful). 

I  hope I have a chance to watch Call Me By Your Name again before I make my top-ten list in January to see if a second viewing changes my perspective. For now, Call Me By Your Name gets a solid ***+. My mug is up - highly recommended.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Battle of the Sexes



Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is a very unusual film. That’s often a compliment, but in this case it’s more of a mistake. 

The story is well known, at least to those of us who were old enough in 1973 to remember watching the “Battle of the Sexes”; to remember listening to Howard Cosell’s cringe-worthy commentary. Those were the days, my friend! Men were men! Women were pregnant or in the kitchen! Guys like Bobby Riggs proudly identified as a male chauvinist. However far we may still have to go in the battle for gender equality, Battle of the Sexes at least shows us how amazingly far we have come since 1973, when men could get away with saying the most absurd things about women (e.g. “women just can’t handle pressure as well as men”).

In 1973, the 55-year-old Riggs (played by Steve Carell), who was a tennis champion is his younger days and is now a gambler, challenges the world’s best women tennis players to a match to show just how inferior women’s tennis is to men’s tennis. After Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) in two sets, world champion Billy Jean King (Emma Stone), who’s been fighting for gender equality, can’t resist taking up the challenge to put Riggs in his place. 

So much for the sports and spectacle side of the plot. If Battle of the Sexes was really just about this story, it would have been a dud. Thankfully, that story is secondary to the real story. The real story is about Billy Jean King’s fight for gender equality and her affair with her hairdresser (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough) at a time when going public with such an affair would have been a huge scandal that might have ended King’s career (and she was only 29 in 1973). 

The drama focusing on King is excellent filmmaking. Stone, who is perhaps the greatest actor of her generation (and yes, I include men) is terrific as King, and Riseborough is excellent as well. The story flows well, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s even some appropriate comic relief by way of Ted, the fashion designer (Alan Cumming, who is wonderful), who is also gay. The first half of Battle of the Sexes is almost entirely about King and it’s a solid ***+ film at this point. 

Unfortunately, the instant the film turns to Riggs, his gambling addiction, and his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), who throws Riggs out of the house, it loses its credibility as well as its class. The acting of Carell and Shue is only mediocre, their characters aren’t interesting and the story is barely average. If the film and been split between the stories of Riggs and King, it would have only been good for ***.  But fortunately that is not the case. Most of the film is about King and even the big event is secondary (as mentioned above). 

Because of this, I’m going to let the mostly-entertaining Battle of the Sexes slide across to ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Hunting Emma (Jagveld) (2017 EIFF 7)



Let’s get back to the EIFF.

My least favourite film at the EIFF was Hunting Emma, a violent South African thriller with a hint of dark comedy; in other words, it’s a dark Tarantino-esque film from filmmaker Byron Davis. 

The plot is straightforward, predictable, boring and, well, you’ll get the picture: Emma Le Roux (played by Leandie du Randt) is a beautiful young pacifist woman who has been trained in all things military by her ex-special-forces father (Tertius Meintjes). When the unarmed Emma accidentally witnesses the murder of a police officer in the middle of the desert, she goes on the run in a desperate attempt to survive against half a dozen armed men. In the end, she finds that her pacifism doesn’t cut it in the fight against real evil - it’s a good thing her dad taught her how to fight. Her final words in the film are: “I finally learned to shoot!” You get only one guess as to what I might find problematic with this film.

You got it: Hunting Emma is a film that intentionally defends the myth of redemptive violence, basically arguing that pacifism is utterly useless (and just plain stupid). Great stuff!

For what it is (a low-budget chase film), Hunting Emma is a well-made little film with decent acting and good production values. But it’s also a complete waste of time. Regardless of how tongue-in-cheek the story is supposed to be, it’s just plain wrong. * My mug is down.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

TV67: Game of Thrones, Season Seven




Back in July, after the first two episodes of the seventh season of Game of Thrones had been aired on HBO, I heard so many bad things about this season from friends and a few trusted critics that I almost thought I should avoid watching it. That would have been a huge mistake, because the short seventh season is among my favourites, not least because it has almost no gratuitous violence, sex and nudity (the first season that can make such a claim). I guess the producers/creators finally got the message that a TV show as well-made and compelling as Game of Thrones does not need such garbage in order to sustain viewership.

I won’t say anything about the plot, since by now you’re either a regular viewer or this isn’t your kind of show. I’ll just say that if you are a regular viewer, you won’t want to miss this season. But chances are you watched this season long before I did. I was sitting around the dinner table a few nights ago with friends from Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan (as well as fellow Winnipeggers) and most of them were huge fans of Game of Thrones and had long finished watching season seven. It is definitely an international phenomenon. Insofar as this promotes a lively discussion among people with such diverse backgrounds, this is a good thing. But, as I have noted in previous reviews, Game of Thrones has had its dangerous moments, promoting attitudes (consciously or not) that are not healthy in the world we live in (e.g. revenge). 

Nevertheless, this seventh season highlights the positive attributes of some of my favourite characters (e.g. Tyrion and Jon Snow) in a way that does seem to want to help us all become better people, which is a very good thing indeed. Female viewers may prefer the many strong female characters in Game of Thrones, (e.g. Deanerys, Arya), who are also among the show’s more discussion-worthy characters. All of these characters go a long way toward offsetting the show’s negative qualities, which include role models I would not want to see emulated.

I almost gave up watching Games of Thrones after the fourth season and again after the fifth season. But I couldn’t stay away, and the last two seasons have made me glad I didn’t. In particular, the growth of my favourite character (Tyrion, one of my favourite characters ever) in these seasons has been a thrill to watch. My mug is back up again for one of the best and most important shows in the history of television.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049



Update: I watched Blade Runner 2049 again, this time in IMAX 2D instead of medium-screen 3D. I can only ask WHY?. Why are 3D films still being made? Why are people watching them? The IMAX 2D was a revelation - like watching a different film altogether - so much more beautiful and so much more "a film".

Wow!

Wow!

The second ‘wow’ is for Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has amazingly succeeded in having a film in my top five of the year for the third straight year. 

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982, is among my thirty favourite films of all time. It wasn’t a big hit in its day, but I was blown away in 1982 and watched it again and again over the years (in different cuts) trying, with friends, to explain all the theological images and figure out whether Deckard was himself a replicant (human-like robot). The lack of such enigmatic images and questions in Blade Runner 2049 is why this film is not as good as the original sci-fi noir classic, but in its own way it’s still a masterpiece (and repeated viewings may yet uncover images I missed the first time).

While the sequel retains some of the feel of the original, with a similar sound and cinematography, and brings back some of the actors, there are major differences in style and atmosphere between the two films. For example, 2049 has less of a noir feel and more of a post-apocalyptic feel and there’s a sense that Villeneuve is trying to make a spectacle that will appeal to the masses in a way that Scott wasn't trying to do. Nevertheless, 2049 retains the slow pace and minimal action, combined with an intelligent sci-fi story and mind-blowing vistas, that made the original so great.

This time out, our blade runner protagonist (K, played by Ryan Gosling) knows he’s a replicant. He’s one of the latest models of replicants, supposedly incapable of rebellion (guaranteed to obey). The person responsible for these new replicants is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who has taken over the Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is keen on taking replicants to a new level of mass production (of slaves), so he and his assistant (a replicant named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks) get very excited when K uncovers a box in the desert containing the bones of a female replicant who gave birth before she died. 

K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), is not as much excited as horrified by what the news of a replicant giving birth could do to her ordered world (such as it is). So she wants K to find the child (if it still exists) and kill it, destroying any trace that the child ever existed. Luv also wants K to find the child, but with very different motives.

K’s search will lead him to the eerie ruins of Las Vegas, where he meets none other than Deckard himself (Harrison Ford), the original blade runner (I wish I hadn’t known he was in the film, but the trailers made no secret of it). With Deckard in the picture, the long slow-moving 2049 quickly picks up its pace and we’re in for a more standard wild ride after that. But along the way, K’s search for answers will bring him (and us) into contact with a number of fascinating characters and some even more fascinating questions about what it means to be human, eventually overturning K’s understanding of replicants (including himself).

I can reveal no more. The acting in Blade Runner 2049 is very good, and a lot of the credit goes to excellent casting choices. As hinted above, the score and cinematography are terrific, making this a must-see on the big screen (I was forced to watch it in 3D; as soon as possible I will watch to again in 2D and report on whether, and how much, 3D negatively impacted the film).

Blade Runner 2049 does have a few flaws, most especially the way it adheres to the typical aspects of the myth of redemptive violence, but the film is such a wonder to watch on the big screen and does such a great job of engaging the viewer and making us part of the sad world of its sad characters that the flaws are overshadowed. As a result, 2049 is going to be one of the candidates for my favourite film of the year. An easy ****. My mug is up!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

A Fantastic Woman (2017 EIFF 6)



Wow!

Yeah, I know, I’m writing about the ‘wow’ films at EIFF first rather than pacing myself. But these great films are the ones I want to write about while they are fresh in my mind. There are other excellent films still coming, as well as a couple of duds.

The most sublime performance of the 2017 EIFF (so far - I have three films to go) is that of Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, a young waitress and aspiring singer in Chile whose life is turned upside down after the sudden death of her much older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). 

At the heart of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman lies the fact that Marina is a trans woman. Because of that, she is treated abominably by most of Orlando’s family, who view her as a perversion, and by the various authorities she has to face because of the circumstances of Orlando’s death. It is devastating to watch, but Marina’s strength in the midst of grief never wavers and this well-written film tells her story with great compassion. 

A Fantastic Woman is a timely heartfelt film that features stunning cinematography, great music and solid performances, all of which are overshadowed by Vega’s performance, which is so nuanced and electric that the film’s acting and writing flaws are difficult to see. Expect an Academy Award nomination for Vega. A Fantastic Woman gets a solid ****. My mug is up - don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Florida Project (2017 EIFF 5)



Wow!

Oh my!

Looking to become my favourite film, not only of the EIFF but of the year, is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which is set somewhere near Disney World. It’s a world of  elaborately decorated box stores, restaurants shaped like giant oranges and garish motels. The motels were initially built for tourists but are now also home to people living day-to-day, unable to afford monthly rents and damage deposits. Many of those people are single mothers with young children. Among those, living in the bright purple Magic Castle Motel, are Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) and her six-year-old daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). 

The exceptionally precocious and poorly-parented Moonee is the central character in The Florida Project. She is so mature (in a sense) and worldly that she sometimes seems older and wiser than her young mother. Through the summer, we follow Moonee and her two closest friends, Jancey and Scooty (Valeria Cotto and Christopher Rivera) as they torment (in a cute way) all the adults they encounter. One of those adults is Bobby (Willem Defoe), the motel manager, who is constantly frustrated with the behaviour of the kids (and with Halley) but does what he can to support them in their difficult lives, lives that will grow ever more difficult as the summer progresses.

The Florida Project is an incredibly humane and humanizing film that perfectly captures the lives of people living on the edge, people who will do almost anything to keep a roof over their heads. The acting of Prince is so perfect and so utterly amazing that one must assume she isn’t acting at all. The rest of the acting is also superb, with Defoe giving one of his best performances in a role that is engaging and inspiring. 

This gorgeously-shot slice-of-life drama finds little pieces of beauty in an otherwise ugly setting in a way that mirrors the heartbreaking lives of those who live there. This is profound independent filmmaking at its very best. The Florida Project gets an easy ****. My mug is way up. 

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

It



Before I get too focused on the EIFF, let’s come back to the clown in the room. We need to talk about it. It, that is. It is a massive blockbuster, one of the biggest horror films ever, singlehandedly making September the biggest September in box office history. It made me scream alright. But not the kind of screaming one associates with watching horror films. It was a scream of despair.

Let me go back to the beginning. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that I’m a Stephen King fan. I think he’s a marvellous storyteller and an excellent writer and I’ve read almost every book he has written (and that’s a lot). Contrary to the views of many, I consider It one of King’s lesser works. There were moments of brilliance, especially those that didn’t involve the clown, but the horror part of the story never resonated with me. Nevertheless, I watched the the TV miniseries in 1990. It wasn’t great but at least it was trying to be true to the novel.

Now comes this blockbuster, directed Andy Muschietti and written, in part, by Cary Fukunaga, whom I admire a lot as a writer and director. When the critics weighed in with generally favourable reviews and It became such a sensation at the box office, I felt I had no choice but to see it. I have rarely in my life been more disappointed with a film.

For one thing, It isn’t even It. Nowhere on the posters and ads did I see It advertised as It: Chapter One, which is what the end credits correctly call this film. It: Chapter One tells only half of the story. This half (of the film, not the book) happens to be almost exclusively the story of seven thirteen-year-olds who are haunted by, and then deliberately try to hunt down, the incredibly evil (and incredibly ludicrous) monster called Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård). The seven actors in question were awesome, especially Sophia Lillis as the only girl in the group; for me, they were the only good thing in the entire film. 

It is otherwise an awful film, with almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever, just a lot of horror clichés, senseless violence and pointless scares that didn’t scare me at all. Somewhere behind the ridiculous and meaningless story of the clown (whose actions are as illogically ludicrous as the actions of the protagonists), there lurks a dark but beautiful story about these seven young teenagers coming of age in a small town in Maine (the fictitious Derry). But even that story is overburdened with violence and revenge. 

Frankly, I can no longer remember most of the details in King’s novel, but I know that the way this film is structured and quite a few details bear no resemblance to the novel. Yet another mistake. 

When I reviewed mother! recently, I made it clear that I wasn’t recommending it to too many readers. But I gave that film **** because I think it’s a work of genius that is simply not going to appeal to too many viewers. I can now reveal that mother! is, from start to finish, a biblical allegory about God and Mother Earth, which is part of why I ‘enjoyed’ it so much. Some people think there’s more to It than just a monster film. Maybe the orange-haired clown represents actual characters in our world, they say, or maybe it is meant to be a metaphor for the monsters all young teenagers face. To the latter theory, I say: “Okay, but then why throw in all those real-life monsters (the parents of the teenagers)? And why convey the message that the only way to confront monsters is to kill them (as gruesomely as possible)? The positive message that these kids need to move beyond fear and work together to overcome their demons instead of fighting alone is lost in the midst of all that violence.

Unlike mother!, It apparently appeals to a great many viewers. I can't understand why. I can understand Harry Potter, dystopian films and superheroes, but I can't understand this, a film I recommend to no one, because it's an almost complete waste of time. I'm giving It only *+, all of that for the performance by the seven protagonists. My mug is down. 

Monday, 2 October 2017

Loveless (2017 EIFF 4)



Wow!

Two years ago, Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev made one of the bleakest, most profound and most thought-provoking films of the decade: Leviathan. He’s back this year with yet another very bleak, profound and thought-provoking film: Loveless. The title says it all. This is my favourite film of the Edmonton International Film Festival so far (halfway through my twenty films). 

In a city in northern Russia, 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) overhears his divorcing parents argue about who should take him because neither wants to do so. Indeed, they imply that Alyosha ruined their lives by forcing them into a loveless marriage. Heartbroken, Alyosha runs away. The rest of the film follows Alyosha’s parents (Zhenya, played by Maryana Spivak, and Boris, played by Aleksey Rozin) as they hunt for Alyosha with ever-growing fears and in the midst of their new relationships and their generally stressful lives. There is no real attempt to work together on this, just blame for everybody and everything. 

The police aren’t much help, but a volunteer organization aids in the search. It is led by the ‘coordinator’ (Aleksey Fateev), one of the most intelligent and competent characters I’ve seen in a while, whose first request is that Zhenya visit her mother near Kiev, a visit that shows us where Zhenya got her attitude towards her own child. 

As in Leviathan, Loveless is a story told on two levels: the family drama and the state of Russia today. The latter is made obvious in the choice of news excerpts (all bad, of course) the characters watch on their televisions, in the way everyone is staring constantly at their smartphones and in the obsession with materialism in the midst of a society still ruled by strong traditions.

Loveless is a cold, haunting, well-structured film, full of gorgeous cinematography and brilliant acting. Its only flaw is the general lack of empathy that makes Loveless a less engaging film (for me) than the superior Leviathan. Nevertheless, Loveless gets a solid **** and will be in my top ten of the year. 

Loving Vincent (2017 EIFF 3)



Wow!

This animated film, written and directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman is unlike any film ever made. 115 artists painted 65,000 paintings (one for each frame in the film), based on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, to make this film about Van Gogh’s life and mysterious death. The art alone is worth making Loving Vincent an absolute must-see on the big screen. But the film offers much more, with a well-structured story about one man’s investigation into how Van Gogh died (supposedly by suicide). 

The investigation is conducted by Armand Roulin (voiced by Douglas Booth) only a year after Van Gogh’s death. Armand’s father (Chris O’Dowd), a friend of Vincent’s, is a postman who has found a letter written by Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) to his brother Theo. Armand’s job is to deliver the letter to Theo. In seeking to do so, Armand learns a lot about Vincent’s life and discovers there are some serious inconsistencies involving his death. Along the way, Armand speaks with characters from Vincent’s life whom Vincent has painted: Adeline Ravoux (Eleanor Tomlinson), a woman who lives at the hotel where Vincent spent his last months, Marguerite Gachet (Saoirse Ronan), the daughter of Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), Vincent’s doctor and friend, and many more. 

Throughout the investigation, we see scenes from Van Gogh’s paintings (130 of them) which become the backdrop for the story. Some critics found the endless paintings were an idea that gets old after a while, and others thought the investigation was wooden and drags on too long. I found neither to be true for me. The paintings were mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, the story was fascinating and told in a film noir style I enjoyed (helped by having the flashbacks in B&W), Clint Mansell’s score was perfect, and the acting was solid.

It’s true that the Irish accents were somewhat distracting and it was a challenge to keep all the characters in your mind, but Loving Vincent gets ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up.