Category Archives: Film

Antiviral

antivLongtime horror film fans definitely know David Cronenberg and his brand of strange body horror ranging from bizarre to completely undecipherable. But, did you know that he has a son, Brandon, and he too is now a horror film producer. Thanks to a co-worker, who did not make the Cronenberg connection when mentioning this film,  Antiviral, now I know and I’ll keep watch over his future efforts.

Antiviral is set in a dystopian future where fan obsession has reached truly unsettling extremes. When celebrities take ill, ‘virus-brokers’ harvest the illness and resell it to fans who want to make a ‘biological connection’. As happens with profitable businesses, piracy and black market deals enter the picture and that’s where the more disturbing plot twists enter.

The good news is the film is extremely stylish; cinematography is fresh with heavy use of blur and zoom to reveal plot details with timing that surprises. The soundtrack sounds a little borrowed from Papa Cronenberg’s earlier works, industrialized to appeal to modern audiences. The acting is good considering they were going for a dystopian environment. The rather heavy-handed social commentary about spiraling celebrity status is delivered as a cautionary tale, not for us, rather for the celebrities.

The bad news is the character development is poor. So poor that even with the interesting plot twists, stylish delivery and attention grabbing camera work, I just didn’t give a crap what happened to the characters.

For Baby Cronenberg’s first effort, not bad. If you’re a long time David Cronenberg fan definitely reserve the 90 minutes to see what is Brandon’s talent in the rough. For all others, you can safely fast forward to his next film.

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Eye In The Sky

Eye]Eye In The Sky doesn’t pose any new questions, at least not those that haven’t already been posed frequently since 9/11. While billed in some places as action or suspense, it isn’t, it is however a drama.

It works as a thought-provoking vehicle by putting the viewer in a position to evaluate the costs of the war on terrorism. The plot mechanism is straight-forward. A British-US drone recon mission with intent to capture a group of long sought after terrorists changes course drastically with new information – those terrorists are about to execute a new, dangerous plan. Now. From capture to kill but not without some known collateral damage. That’s the pickle for you, dear viewer. What would you do? Take out the terrorists knowing you will kill one innocent bystander or let them continue, saving one but knowing they might kill hundreds.

I liked the coverage of ethical, moral, political and social viewpoints as the military commanders, legal counsel, advisors from other countries chime in with thoughts. The sheer administrative madness to make a decision was infuriating, however the dialogue along the way was well-written and certainly current.

That aside, I was glad to see Aaron Paul in something other than Breaking Bad. His character was the drone pilot,  the person most reluctant to ‘press the button’ since he saw the collateral damage up close.

I was also glad to see Alan Rickman, who you better knew as Harry Potter’s, Severus Snape, in his final film performance. He was entirely convincing as British command and he had the sledgehammer line  – “Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the costs of war”. I don’t think you need to identify right-side or left to appreciate the weight.

Overall I recommend but not for those seeking action nor suspense, rather drama and good coverage of many perspectives of a current situation without declaring a winner. The decision to see it, however, may depend on how heavily saturated you are already with opinions about the war on terror.

 

 

 

J’ai tué ma mère

Or in English, I Killed My Mother.i-killed-my-mother_poster

Earlier this year I watched Mommy and was very impressed, particularly with the direction. I was very surprised to learn the director, Xavier Dolan, was 25 years old and had already made 4 other films. I wanted to investigate his previous efforts in compare/contrast mode to see if he had always possessed this level of talent. Short answer – yes.

About the title, no one actually kills mom, it more of a figurative title, a mental blocking out. Like his most recent effort, Mommy, this film focuses on a strained mother-son relationship. Its branded as auto-biographical on IMDB, which makes sense, Dolan is writing, producing and in this case, acting, on what he knows.

The main theme materializes through very metered waves of mother-son conflict, followed by a flashback sequence of happier times, followed by a mother-son reconciliation, however ephemeral. There are a number of subplots including the son developing his first gay relationship, which are delivered convincingly, add character depth and are necessary backdrop for the persistent love-hate tension.

My more particular friends panned this film for a naive perspective on growing pains that, to some degree, we all experience. I had a different opinion, not surprisingly. To me, Dolan was trying to convey his experiences from his perspective at that time, not a retrospective from some point later in time. You would expect a teenager to have a more naive viewpoint and that comes across beautifully; the naivety feeding a series of emotionally charged decisions which play out with a predictable cadence from an adult perspective.

I liked Mommy more from cinematography and screen-play aspects; more sophisticated in both, however for Dolan’s first film, made when he was barely 20 years old, this is an amazing accomplishment.

The acting is good. I’m not sure if we can call Dolan’s performance acting, since this is a story about him, however he carries off the character’s emotional volatility combined with a tortured self-reflection, believably. Anne Dorval, who also anchored the later Mommy, was completely unrecognizable both in appearance and personality. Going from a free-wheeling hippie mom in Mommy to a buttoned-up suburban introvert in this film, very convincingly. I did not know it was Dorval in the role until I read the credits.

So far Dolan’s film making – writing, directing and acting – is impressive for any age but he is still in his 20’s. I’ll definitely keep watch over his future efforts, I just hope he doesn’t become unnecessarily branded as the dude who creates tense mom-son relationship films.

 

 

 

The Other Son

OtherSonIf you aren’t familiar with the many complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hey, good on you. Me, not so lucky having family and friends in the region, including Israel proper, Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. I make a point of not discussing it with them because opinions from people living in the region, like recipes for hummus, vary widely and each person is certain their version is the only correct version. Propaganda ensues and time is wasted on both sides.

Still, its an interesting phenomenon – identity and how it can shape every aspect of your life. But what shapes that identity and can it be changed?

This film, The Other Son, does a tremendous job of putting identity under the microscope by a very simple plot mechanism. Two young men, one raised Muslim living in the West Bank, the other raised Jewish living in Tel Aviv  had been inadvertently switched after birth while the hospital was in chaos during a Scud missile attack. Some 20 years later,  through some routine day-to-day activities the truth is slowly and sometimes painfully revealed. Despite how lame this vehicle sounds, it is well-architected and cleverly delivered. What is more interesting, after the news hits, is how everyone reacts. The Israeli and Palestinian parents meet to discuss what to do – should we tell our kids or not – its an amicable sit down but very strained. Later the sons learn the truth through various conversations and everyone agrees to one big Israeli-Palestinian get together. Afterwards the two sons become friends but the friendship itself reveals prejudices from the rest of the family.

The writing and direction here are good, the story leading you down a path you think will be cliche only to have the plot take a unexpected twist.

The best scene for me was the Jewish Son, after having a fight with his dad, traveling solo to the West bank to spend time with his new-found Palestinian family.  The long, desolate walk from the checkpoint to the village is tense. When he arrives, he is met with both acceptance and rejection from his Palestinian family. While expected, through nothing more than facial expressions you can see his own self-acceptance and rejection parallel his family’s. At an already strained dinner in the West Bank, the Jewish Son stands up and starts belting out an Arabic song. No one knows how to react, so its silence and condescending glares. But he keeps on. Louder and more soulful. Again, without words, you see the Palestinians reactions change – ‘Crap, hes come to the West Bank to visit us, hes come by himself, he’s learned an Arabic song. He’s trying to get to know us and we’re being completely childish’.

The film ends on an ambiguously uplifting note and some acceptance of difference. ‘Family’ takes on a new definition for the lot. Identity, as they all learn, is a simply matter of choice, however those choices are heavily influenced by those they hold closest.

‘Ze Ma Yesh’ as the Israelis would say.

 

 

The Black Cat

black-catI had been doing some research on the horror genre for youngest niece’s birthday gift. I introduced her to the genre via The Ring and American Horror Story a year ago and she liked. I thought it would be fun to give her a ‘horror through the decades’ gift so I drilled back to the old school Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff era to find this film, The Black Cat.

Black Cat was made in 1934, so the film industry had sound but not many people were using sound tracks yet. This was one of the first films to have a continuous sound track behind the dialogue. Also interesting to note, this film features the first collaboration between Lugosi and Karloff, a collaboration which would continue for many years following.

The plot was interesting; a newly married couple on a train to Hungary agree to share their cabin with a pleasant but odd traveler (Lugosi) returning home after being held as a POW for 15 years. While sharing a cab to the city from the train there’s an accident and the wife is injured. Conveniently, since its his home town,  the traveler knows a long-time friend (Karloff) nearby who can assist. ‘Friend’ might be a strong word since its been 15 years. Turns out the friend harbored some secrets about the fate of the traveler’s wife and daughter in his absence and he was also dabbling in some dark arts. The last half of the film was a very creepy game of chess between Lugosi and Karloff as Lugosi tried to keep Karloff from doing some unspeakable things to the newly married couple.

This was a moody and dark film. That it was, by time-bound obligation, filmed in black and white made it all the better. The house where the majority of film took place was not the typical Gothic style, rather it was modern; its wide expanses and harsh linearity creating stark, almost anachronistic contrast to the surroundings. I found the contrast almost as disturbing as Karloff’s weird hairdo.

While the restoration is good, scenes are still grainy and suffer from alternating over and under exposure. Flawed but it works very well for setting the tone of any horror film and in fact some late-model horror films have been purposely produced this way. What made this story very compelling were the facial expressions and cadence of dialogue between Lugosi and Karloff. These two were the personification of sinister. While Karloff was top billed, make no mistake, this was Lugosi’s film and he was (arguably)  more convincing here than in his most noted role, the original Count Dracula. I think this was also the only time Lugosi played the good guy.

As for the title, I don’t know. Lugosi’s character was deathly afraid of cats and had a couple of encounters in hallways which caused him to become paralyzed in fear rather than reacting quickly.  However, this didn’t prevent his final checkmate move against Karloff.

Horror fan? See this one, you can call it research for your niece like I did. 65 minutes well spent.

 

No

noIt will be more meaningful if you know a little of Augusto Pinochet and his shenanigans as “El Presidente” of Chile in the 70’s and 80’s before watching this film.

No is based on fact but it’s still a fictional account of history. Pressured by international allies, Pinochet agrees to put his continued reign up for vote – ‘Yes’, for him to continue for another 8 years. ‘No’, for democratic elections. Campaign crews are formed and the rules are that each side has 15 minutes of air time nightly until the vote to make their case.

The Yes team figures after decades of intimidation, kidnapping and torture that the people will vote for them. The implicit ‘OR ELSE’ reigning. The No team tries a different and unexpected tactic by hiring a young account executive who treats the  campaign like any other. He objectively analyzes his market then tailors the strategy to that market. His approach – focus on the positive. He creates a campaign based on freedom and prosperity with a democratically chosen leader. The TV spots are filled with upbeat music, happy people and generally have an MTV video from the 80’s feel.  When the No campaign starts to gain traction with voters the Yes teams reverts back to their old standbys; harassing, threatening, etc. While its a matter of history which side won, its a very suspenseful journey.

The No team leader is played to the hilt by Gael Garcia Bernal. In initial stages he focuses on his goal, suppressing the enormity of what he could accomplish which Bernal emotes through academic almost naive reactions and expressions.  As Yes team cranks up the heat, Bernal adopts a dear-in-headlights perspective as the reality of what he’s trying to accomplish and the tangible repercussions start to materialize. I haven’t seen Bernal so convincing since his roles in Bad Education and Amores Perros.

Production choices are excellent. Obviously they were going for the look and feel of a 80’s college documentary made with 80’s technology: the 1-1.4 aspect ratio. overexposed frames, sepia and gold tone overlays, ghost images, tight and off centered framing of the actors. The video inserts of actual footage from the era were a nice touch. While made in 2011 the production approach gives the viewer a stealthy, time-warped seat to watch the No team remove Pinochet from power. Just in case you were not in Chile during the era.

In the not so fictional world, Pinochet died in 2006 with some 300 criminal charges still pending against him. His widow and all 5 of his children were arrested in 2007 for tax evasion, falsifying passports and trying to illegally transfer some $30 million dollars amassed during Pinochet’s rule  to foreign banks under false names.

Silly rabbits.

Monsieur Lazhar

lazharThis French Canadian film was nominated for Best Foreign Film a few years back but unfortunately it did not make an appearance in the Houston market.

What impressed me most about Monsieur Lazhar was the clarity and simplicity with which they delivered a  complex and emotional theme – loss. The film did not dwell on what the characters lose nor the subsequent pain.  Rather, it was a careful observation of how loss doesn’t play favourites with age, race, ethnicity nor socioeconomic status. It also shows that its simply difficult regardless of how familiar the event may be and that everyone processes it very differently.

A group of primary school students lose a well-liked teacher to suicide. An Algerian immigrant, Monsieur Lazhar, applies for the position after hearing about it in the news; he’s hired. While the Algerian is not properly documented nor qualified, he’s hired out of desperation.   The Algerian struggles with cultural differences in modern-day Canada versus how he was raised in Algeria. The kids struggle with his methods of teaching, which departs considerably from their former teacher’s methods. Slowly they all adjust and learn to get along.

Struggles with the loss of their teacher continue; the kids simply unprepared at their age to deal with the whys of suicide. The Algerian, as is revealed in stages, is also suffering a horrendous loss which he struggles to reconcile.

Perhaps the director, Philippe Faldereau, had incredible skill when choosing the child stars, who by the way completely dominate this film. Of course, he might have just been very lucky. Whatever the case, the kids, each have a very distinct personality which drives their path to reconciling loss and brings home the message. The bully, the know it all, the awkward social outcast; they are all so convincing you would think these are their actual personalities, maybe they are.

There is a clear, unmistakable message delivered about how our policy-driven, rules-based educational system simply lacks the substrate on which healthy human interaction can grow.  When Monsieur Lazhar attempts to hug a crying child struggling with loss, he is reprimanded. Rules made by a system focusing only on the preservation of that system will be broken.  The trick, of course, is knowing when and how to break the rules, which happens throughout the film with very uplifting effect.

Highly recommended to all, particularly anyone currently struggling with a loss.