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.

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.

 

Chef

ChefI wanted to see this in theatres since it spoke to my longer term plans of opening a food truck. Alas, like most films, I missed it before they yanked from the market. Luckily today you don’t have to wait too long before the streaming version is available.

This film will appeal to people who love to cook, people who want to work for themselves and people struggling with relationship issues, both partner and children. For foodies, I don’t know if it will appeal unless you’ve worked behind the scenes in the food industry.

A innovative chef works in a old-school Italian restaurant whose owner resists change. Chef is divorced with part-time access to his son. There are multiple levels of tension. Chef is frustrated with the owner of the restaurant since his innovative ideas are squashed for the sake of the standards. He is also frustrated that he can’t spend more time with his 10-year old son.  There is also some background tension between he and his ex-wife and her other ex-husband.

The pace of the film, as Chef has his obligatory blow-up with owner and starts out on his own with a beat up food truck serving Cuban fare,  is fast, changes locations frequently and injects an odd lot of cameos from very familiar Hollywood faces. For a dramedy, the acting if good, particularly from Chef (Jon Favreau), ExWife (Sofia Vergara) and Son (Emjay Anthony). The dialogue feels very natural and realistic even if some situations seem chaotic and contrived.

Chef avoids what could have been a tangled mess of cliches when faced with the age-old dilemma of innovation building business and business destroying innovation. It shows the two can co-exist and its really a matter of determining where in the spectrum you belong, then aligning your life accordingly. Our protagonist does a good but hardly ideal job of doing just that and in the end balance is restored to the tense relationships between chef, son and ex-wife. Chef arrives at its light-hearted and happy ending without insulting your intelligence along the way; you can have your feel-good cake without having to choke on the liberally applied saccharin icing.

 

Snowpiercer

SnowPost-apocalyptic films are interesting for the many ways film makers visualize the end of the world and what happens next. Dystopian films are interesting, albeit often brutal,  for the ways film makers tweeze out extreme human behaviour, usually in some flavour of oppression. Snowpiercer is both post-apocalyptic and dystopian. While I found the premise interesting, the film falters a little on execution, mostly in the screenplay.

The world is suffering from global warming and a scientist creates a cloud-seeding mechanism to bring down the temps. The result is less than optimal because Earth is plunged into a new ice age effectively killing off all life. All life except those people who boarded a train built by a businessman to circle the earth, withstanding extreme temperatures found at the poles. The film opens on board the train, 17 years after the Earth went into deep-freeze.

First, I get that scientists have had some negative PR lately with falsifying data then covering it up with poorly constructed spin. But, it seems there would have been some safeguards against annihilating all life. Next, why did this business man build a train to circle the earth? Is this really something that could be built? Did the people who conveniently boarded this train suspect there might be a problem with the cloud seeding?  I get that you could create a self-sustaining food supply in a closed system but that would require power. What is the source of power that keeps this train running for 17 years? Are we supposed to swallow the notion that in 17 years no parts of the train needed to be replaced; not a wheel or track needed to be replaced? Certainly there is no industry left to make those. All of this seemed to be pre-determined but it was not addressed.  In short, my disbelief was not suspended.

Back on the train a wealthy few violently oppress the poor majority. This doesn’t surprise. Later we learn there is a method to this madness, the poor serving a greater purpose and even their predictable rebellions are manipulations of the wealthy to that end.

That aside, cinematography is extremely well-done. The visuals of the futuristic, self-contained train-home are sharp; the poor living is what appears to be an overstuffed cargo bay, the others in a Ritz Carlton suite. Lavish and squalid interiors are occasionally  juxtaposed with the pristine frozen landscape from a window bay.

Acting is good and Chris Evans does surprisingly well. We a get a good back story for his character in segments throughout. Heavy guilt from some poor choices made in his early days in the train’s poor section are his motivating force. He is redeemed by poetic, if not heroic actions as he leads a rebellion against the wealthy. With all the tight shots on Evans’ face it would have been easy for him to come off not-so-guilt-driven, not-so-angry, not-so-willing to sacrifice. But, he nails it.

I can’t recommend this film to sci-fi nor post-apocalypse fans simply because I think the plot isn’t well-constructed. However if you want to see Evans in something other than his typical Marvel comic role, Snowpiercer is a good vehicle for that.

 

 

Mommy

mommyI watch about 100 films a year; about 10 of those are really good in some ways, only 2 or 3 are excellent across board. Mommy is one of the latter. All comments about film are a matter of personal taste but for me an excellent film starts with a good script telling a compelling story. It successfully executes with a director who can utilize all the tools available to express that story such that it resonate strongly with an audience. They should talk about it, think about it and probably see it again.

Writer and producer Xavier Dolan has done that with this story of a well-meaning single mother trying her best to raise a son with AHDH who is prone to violent outbursts. A mysterious, stuttering neighbor unwittingly enters their lives creating a balance, each filling a void for the other. While the story occasionally drifts off into melodramatic moments, those moments are both situationally believable and necessary for the film take you by the arm and persuade you to follow these odd but ultimately relatable characters.

Mommy2Dolan obviously took a step back from this story to consider how best to communicate the emotional components. The most obvious is the aspect ratio, a simply unheard of 1:1. I can’t say what Dolan was thinking with this but for me it had the effect of focusing intensely on the actors facial expressions rather than the props around them. Choices in color, hue, soundtrack and even the choreography of son’s skateboard moves pair so well with unfolding emotions, you really don’t need to read the subtitles. Dolan has a knack for understanding and communicating human behaviour.

The 1:1 aspect ratio put more focus and pressure on acting. All three of the leads were outstanding. Anne Dorval in particular, while looking like a reject from an Absolutely Fabulous casting call, gives an award-winning performance as the road-weary mother, ever hopeful in the midst of increasingly trying situations with her son.

Despite a few mom-son moments crossing the creepy line, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this indie film. What surprised me more than anything was that the director, Dolan, is 25 years old. It also surprised me that hes made 4 other films. I’ll be checking those out to see if he’s always had this level of talent.

Highly recommended for just about anyone.