Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Film Review - The Love Witch

Campy in the most exquisite way is the best phrase to describe Anna Biller's The Love Witch. The film is part Valley of The Dolls with a strong nod to 60's and early 70's fashion, feel and style. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a practicing white witch who has been forced to leave San Francisco due to an unfortunate incident. Elaine is all about love. Finding a man to love and please by giving him everything he wants. Her attitude brings a sharp and curt response from Trish (Laura Waddell) an acquaintance of Elaine's friend Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) who offered the small town apartment to Elaine and insists her husband loves her for who she is so she does not have to satisfy all of his needs.

Elaine continues her attempts to find a man to love in her new town. She mixes potions to enhance her chances plus some other creations that she sells in the local magic shop in town. However our heroine is a little too heavy on the pour leading to overdoses resulting in suitors falling completely under her spell obsessed then overwhelmed.

Writer Director Anna Biller uses color, distinct fashion styles and plain dialogue to set the mood for her film. The first time Elaine is on screen red is the dominant palate. She is in a red convertible mustang dressed in red from head to toe with matching luggage. When she enters the apartment for the first time red is the colour that jumps out at the viewer. The narrative also lives on a primary instinctive level. Elaine sees a man; he falls under her spell then they are together at a lightning pace. The filming style uses a lot of tight framing especially on the eyes to communicate the central characters tractor beam like power over men pinpointing the moment it takes hold.  

Relative newcomer Samantha Robinson leads the line as Elaine. She's innocent and submissive at one moment then dominant and forceful the next. Director Biller also did the costume design for the film that's key in presenting the Elaine character robing Samantha mainly in late 60's solid basic colours from head to toe. British actress Laura Waddell is a great foil to Elaine as Trish in her first major role. She is a fiercely independent modern working woman who does not see her primary function to be is  pleasing her man's every desire. Jared Sanford is strong in the supporting role of Gahan. He's the head of the local Wiccan ramping up the creepy meter anytime on screen. He lingers too long on women that are not his wife while constantly introducing very young females into the coven fold.

The Love Witch is a feature that's hard to classify. It's part sexual thriller, heavily wacky, silly and more naturally funny than expected. The costume design and wardrobe both credited to the director set the scene and mood for the film. The cast mainly full of unknowns direct their performances into the best areas of late night fright films from days gone by. It's a unique watch that despite being a bit on the long side is worth a viewing.

*** Out of 4.

The Love Witch | Anna Biller | U.S.A. | 120 Minutes.

Tags: Spells, Potions, Spices, Pleasure, Witches, Ceremony, Rebirth, California, San Francisco, Small town, Minstrels.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Film Review - Sing Street

1985 Dublin, Ireland. Young people are headed to London by the ferry load to search for work. 15 year old Conor (Ferida Walsh-Peelo) sees the hard times hit him directly as his father Robert (Aidan Gillen) is not getting any new work as an architect while his mom Penny (Mary Doyle Kennedy) is down to working 3 days a week. To ease the family burden Connor has to leave the private Jesuit school to attend the rough and seedy Christian Brothers run State school on Synge Street. Here Conor has to try to survive while being confronted by morons, rapist and bullies on a daily basis. After a particularly rough encounter with the school bully Barry (Ian Kenny) Conor meets Darren (Ben Carolan) a budding business man who teams up with Conor to start a band as he has promised to put local aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) in his band's videos.

As the band takes shape the key member is Eamon (Mark McKenna) a songwriter who can play just about every instrument alongside African Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) to give the outfit street cred  plus a rhythm section that answered the bands ad on the school bulletin board. They start out rough trying to be a cover band until Conor's wise older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) tells his sibling to do his own songs.

Writer director John Carney went back to his roots to tell the story of a young lad thrown into a foreign situation who uses the power of music to gain confidence, stand up to his rivals and garner attention from the girl that he likes. Carney also had a hand in writing the original songs that are natural head bobbers and foot tappers fitting in well with the vast catalogue of mid 80's Brit pop from the time. Conor spends many a night in his brother's room learning about new bands and life itself. Brendan introduces him to Joe Jackson, The Jam and sings the praises of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet when their videos appear on Top of the Pops. Brendan flings at him The Head on the Door album by the Cure when Conor wants to know more about Raphina's term Happy-Sad.

The fresh-faced cast don't set a foot wrong in their roles. Ferida Walsh-Peelo shines as Conor using the pain from a difficult home life and trouble at school to fuel his art. Lucy Boynton has her own demos to fight as Raphina. She resides in a home for girls having had complexed relationships with both of her parents. Raphina is prone to fantasy determined to get to London to model thinking she has found an older fellow to get her there. Jack Reynor continues a run of strong roles as Brendan. The older wiser college dropout brother who has a tuned ear for music and a keen eye for reading people.

Sing Street at its core an optimistic film that will appeal to both young people and older audience members who grew up during the time period of the film. Look for the running gag of Conor's march into the schoolyard dressed and coifed as the latest act seen on the Top of the Pops the night before. The soundtrack is a solid mix of 80's new wave hits and original tracks. It's a film that I can definitely recommend.

**** Out of 4.

Sing Street | John Carney | Ireland / UK / USA | 2016 | 106 Minutes.

Tags: Dublin, Jesuits, Christian Brothers, Duran Duran, The Cure, London, Brit pop, New Wave, School Dance, Legally Separated.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Film Review - River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent

Canadian acting icon Gordon Pinsent left his beloved Newfoundland to head to Canada a year before the Island entered Confederation. He began his acting career in Winnipeg where he met his first wife and had his first two children. Pensent in his own words was not ready for family life in his mid twenties so he hitch hiked to Toronto to embark on the next level of his acting career.

Director Brigette Berman crafts her film mainly from interviews with family and creative friends with Pinsent being the chief recounter telling barbs from his past starting from his days as a boy in Grand Falls, Newfoundland. His kids Beverly, Barry and Leah are also interviewed extensively along with director Norman Jewison and Mary Walsh. Pinsent who is now entering his 87th year is sharp as a tack as he gives a living history of his 70 year in Canadian television and film. He is at his most compelling when he recounts soliloquies from his roles on stage; Macbeth, the Tempest, Cyrano de Bergerac with a knowing slight smile fixed on his lips. The only drawback in production is the ill-advised choice to mix in stop action motion recreation of scenes from the actor's childhood plus a few additional episodes from his adult life.

The documentary is at its best when Pinsent is on camera. One particular sequence describing his first meeting with Christopher Plummer at Stafford is very juicy. Plummer remembers Pinsent as a young and annoying leaving Plummer (in his mind) with no alternative but to use a pointed expletive to get Pinsent out of his space. The actor clearly shows his devotion to Canada as he found several success in Hollywood notably in the Norman Jewison directed Thomas Crown Affair where he held his own on screen along side Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway. Despite his success he wanted to come back to Canada to tell Canadian stories on Canadian soil such as The Rowdyman shot in his native Newfoundland.

A strong element of the piece is the inclusion of Pinsent's paintings that serve as a snapshot of many moments in his life. There are several portraits that feature his beloved late wife Char normally with a cigarette in hand along with several of his third child daughter Leah as she grew from child to adulthood. Pinsent does not exclude the not so shining moments in his life. From leaving his first wife in Winnipeg with two very young kids that he would not see again for 25 years to a need to seek attention of other women while married to or during the separation periods from Char.

The River of My Dreams is a complete study of a revered Canadian actor. It touches on his television successes starting with Quentin Durgens M.P. John and the Missus and a wonderful turn on This Hour Has 22 minutes doing a serious read of the memoirs of a 16 year old Justin Beiber's book. His films including his recent tour de force performance in Sarah Polley's Away From Her is also highlighted. A certain generation may not know any of his films but might remember that he was the voice of Babar in their youth. If your're a fan of the Canadian arts from Stage to TV to Film and like a story of an actor that came back to working in Canada despite the potential of the potential of bigger and better opportunities south of the border then this production is for you.

*** Out of 4

The River of My Dreams | Brigitte Berman | U.S.A. | 201 |104 Minutes .

Tags: Documentary. Biography, Grand Falls, Winnipeg, Stratford, Shakespeare, Divorce, CBC.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Movie Nights Across Canada Film Review - Mean Dreams

Jonas Ford (Josh Wiggins) is a rural farm boy with a strong moral compass in Nathan Morlando's Mean Dreams. He has clear ideas of right and wrong, good and evil underpinned by the belief that good people deserve to have thing go right for them.  Enter into his world Casey Caraway (Sophie Nelisse) who moved in next door to the Ford rural family farm with her dad Wayne Caraway  (Bill Paxton) who has roots in the area taking a job as a local cop. One of the first acts in the new home is to drill a bolt on the inside of her room after taking her dog Blaze for a walk in the yard.

Casey and Jonas hit it off almost a little too quickly as they roam the fall flat rural landscape of windswept tall grass, leaves and dirt roads the season that splits summer from winter. They both have troubled homes Jonas pulled out of school to work the failing family farm, a convenient target for his dad as his mom has withdrawn to be sad just about every day. Casey pushed into the role of maid, wife and daughter for her dad who is prone to fits of rage as he wonders around the property with a tumbler of whisky in hand. The pair need to get away then Sargent Caraway provides the means when his funds from a drug deal ends up in Jonas' hands.

Director Nathan Morlando more than tips his cap to Terrence Malick's Badlands with this film. All the elements are present the quiet teen girl, blue collar boy in a middle of nowhere rural setting heading out on the run. The biggest drawback of the piece is the scrip. The narrative is telegraphed. As plot point is introduced and it's obvious where the story is going to next.  The reason to watch is the excellent cinematography work of Seven Cosens who uses the vast Northern Ontario Autumn palate to bring out rich yellow, browns and burnt oranges vividly on screen.

The two young leads Josh Wiggins and rising star Sophie Nelisse of Monsieur Lazhar fame hold the screen well quickly getting the audience to care about their characters Jonas & Sophie. Bill Paxton puts his own twist on the abusive dad corrupt, alcoholic cop role as Sgt Caraway. Look for veteran character actor Colm Feore with significantly more screen time then expected as the local Chief.

Mean Dreams features several strong acting performances in a picturesque rural setting framed by the attentive eye of cinematographer Steven Cosens. The story has moments of tension mixed with displays of harshness but ultimately fails to break new ground or hold a sustained level of suspense due to pedestrian writing. The visuals are pleasing and I expect great performances are sure to follow from the two young leads but ultimately this is not the film where either will make their mark.

** Out of 4.

 Mean Dreams | Nathan Morlando | Canada | 2016 | 108 Minutes.

Tags: Family Farm, Drug Deal, Runaway, Drug Money, Corrupt Cop, Abusive Father, Right vs. Wrong, Good vs. Evil.          

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Film Review - Split

M. Night Shyamalan where have you been? The prodigious director who has been out in the wilderness since 2004's The Village the fourth in a series of very well received films. M. Night's new film Split see's him return with a vengeance. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the outsider in school. She is always in trouble spending most of her time in detention. She receives a mercy invite to super popular Claire's (Haley Lu Richardson's) birthday party. When Casey does not have a ride home, Clare's dad (Neal Huff) insist that he drive her home along with Claire's BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula.

The quartet are incepted by Dennis (James McAvoy) a meticulous individual who knocks out Mr. Benoit slips into the driver's seat of his car and kidnaps the girls. The captives find themselves in a basement room a dirty mixture of wood, iron and stone featuring two cots and a pristine bright white bathroom. The door unlocks, Dennis rushes in, looks at Marcia stating I choose you first and begins to drag her out of the room as she's pulled by, Casey tells her to wet herself. Marcia is returned quickly to the room, pants damp leaving the audience to wonder if prior experiences lead Casey to give that advise.

M. Night Shyamalan plays it more or less straight ahead in this piece. His central character Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) suffers from dissociative identity disorder that manifested in 23 different personalities. The storyline uses the introduction and idiosyncrasies of each personalities to advance the plot but this disorder is more than a simple change of clothes or speech patterns. Each personality believe who they are and when they get control Kevin looks different physically due to the different physiology, mannerisms, ailments and IQ's. The second most developed character is Casey. The narrative includes flashbacks to her hunting as a little girl with her dad and Uncle. It's a happy memory of her father but also hints to an inappropriate relationship with her Uncle perhaps a clue to Casey's  earlier recommendation to avoid an assault.

James McAvoy makes this film work. In another actor's hands the result could have been bordering on laughable or venturing towards the ridiculous. Initially the Dennis persona is in charge of Kevin  but the suspense rises to a higher plain when measured female personality Patricia followed by 9 year old mischievous Hedwig make their debuts. Hedwig explains that all the persona are in one place with the one in charge getting the light. Hedwig can get the light anytime he wants which Patricia and Dennis discover wanting to use their new found control of Kevin to introduce a new personality The Beast. Anya Taylor-Joy's Casey meets McAvoy's level at just about every turn. While her co-captives  rush to carry out the first thought that comes into their heads Casey wants to know more about their situation looking for the right opportunity to make a move. Betty Buckley is very effective as Dr. Karen Fletcher. She's Kevin's psychiatrist who normally meets Barry the fashion conscious  persona tasked to keep the horde inside Kevin in line. She argues to colleagues that DID is more than multiple personalities as her patients display different accents, levels of physical strengths and physical ailments all in the same body.

Split is a psychological thriller driven by a villain that is cold and measured one moment then doey eyed and vulnerable the next. The two leads play well off each other as the thematic notions that the damaged ones are pure lies at the core of the story. West Dylan Thordson's score is key in setting the tones for many of the scenes and becomes more important as the action rolls along. M. Night has found his footing, rediscovered his mojo but be sure not to rush out of the theatre after end title as there is a small nugget still to come that's not to be missed.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Split | M Night Shyamalan | U.S.A. | 2017 | 117 Minutes.

Tags; DID, Kidnapping, Dungeon, Molestation, Cutting, Maintenance, Pure, Horror, Amtrak

Friday, January 20, 2017

Film Review - The Founder

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling milkshake mixer salesman traveling the Midwest in 1954. He goes from Drive-in to Drive-in giving his: What Came First speech The Chicken or The Egg ending by asking the restaurant owner if he can see that more volume will mean more sales only to be rejected time after time. After a particularly bad rejection he checks in at the office to hear of an order for 6 multi mixers from a couple of brothers in San Bernardino, California. Thinking it's a mistake he calls to hear chaos on the other end of the phone and confirm that it was a mistake they need eight  instead of six. Curios he looks at the map, finds route 66 and takes it from Missouri to California to check out the restaurant himself.

Ray Kroc McDonald's story is similar to many that came before and will be repeated again and again. The person who is most associated with a hugely successful enterprise is not always the originator or  the genius that came up with the concept. It's often the person who saw the true potential of the endeavour that ends up sitting across a table from the originator in a room full of lawyers striking a deal for an amount that would fill a thimble compared to the ultimate earnings of the company. The visionary normally gets a few helpful hints from like-minded individuals along the way that make the expansion even bigger.

Mark Zukerberg saw a computer based yearbook; Facebook having to grudgingly pay off the Winklevoss twins and getting two pieces of key advise from Napster inventor Sean Parker send the idea out to Stanford students and drop the "THE" in The Facebook. Bill Gates saw the real gem was controlling and licensing and owning the software on the personal computer and not running the computer business itself. Therefore he split from working with IBM to form Microsoft. Steve Jobs rose above more talented colleagues at Apple seeing iPods overtaking Walkmans, iPhones over flip phones, iTunes replacing record stores and iPads overshooting notepads, charts and books.

Before the McDonald Brothers knew what was coming Ray Kroc had literally bought the land out from under their feet with the help of smart businessman Harry Sonneborn (B.J.Novak). He also found a partner in Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who could see the big picture as opposed to his wife Ethel Kroc (Laura Dern) who seemed to stunt his creativity more often than not.

Director John Lee Hancock and writer Robert Siegel do not stray far from the standard narrative of the McDonalds story. Ray Kroc swoops in gets a foot in the door and through his main driving quality of persistence pushes the brothers further and further off to the sidelines. Michael Keaton is gloriously slithery in the lead role while Linda Cardellini is the other notable performer in the film as Minnesota franchise owner Joan Smith who also grasps where the McDonald's franchise could go.

The Founder is a standard biopic on a topic that everyone knows that the production team could have pushed the boundaries to tell a bigger story but does not to do so. The early part of the film laid out markers that could have fostered an intriguing tale but except for the few and far between scenes featuring Kroc's interactions with Cardellini's Joan Smith the balance of the piece does not do enough to hold the viewer's attention. The film is not about genius or invention its message is persistence conquers all with business being more rat eat rat over dog eat dog unfortunately storytelling falls into the same category as eating a McDonalds sandwich. The first few bites are wonderful but by the time you're halfway through you regret your food choice as the inevitable bellyache begins to take hold.

** Out of 4.

The Founder | John Lee Hancock | USA | 2016 | 115 minutes.

Tags: Salesman, McDonald's, Fast Food, Biography, Franchise, Loan, Greed, Corporation, Handshake Deal, Illinois, Minnesota, Divorce, California.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Film Review - Tampopo

Opening by breaking the fourth wall Juzo Itami's Ramen Western Tampopo signals early that it will be unlike any other movie experience the viewer has scene. 1930's style gangster (Koji Yakusho) and his girl (Fukumi Kuroda) storm into a theatre and occupy the front row. The gangster looks at then starts talking to the camera remarking that the audience is about to view a film as is he then goes on a rant on the thinks he does not like at a screening especially patrons fumbling with bags of chips. Right on cue a man in the second row tries to open a bag leading the gangster to almost strangle him. His last comment is about watch alarms going off. The scene plays like the current day warning to turn off your phone. Itami was right to note up front that nothing should distract the audience from this film.   With that prelude complete the screwball action is off and running.  The main thread is the story of Tampopo and her quest to make the perfect bowl of ramen to save the noodle shop of her late husband with regular large lines out front of the store. She begs regional Milk trucker Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his co-driver Gun a very young Ken Watanabe to help thus beginning a quest that's heavily western based, part Rocky with a dash of Avengers Assemble thrown in for good measure.

As if the two main plots are not enough to keep the audience engaged writer director Juzo Itami tosses in several non-sequitur interludes into the proceedings. One sequence in particular shows Itami's outstanding transition skills. Starting with a cat and mouse showdown between a shop owner and an elderly female customer who is obsessed with pinching foodstuff, moving to the shop owner locking eyes with an elderly distinguished gentlemen also eating Peking duck wrapped in pancake   then concluding with a man running home to his wife suffering from karoshi at a critical moment.

However the central ingredient in the narrative is food. The starts and stops of the struggle to get the ramen broth right, a decadent scene in a hotel room with the gangster and his girl featuring egg yokes and prawns to a young girl catching oysters and feeding them to the gangster right out of her hand. Food is a symbol to bring the characters together, a sexual aid, a reason to seek out a sansei and a cause for a high noon showdown with a rival ramen house after insults are hurled back and forth.

Cowboy hat wearing Tsutomu Yamazaki leads the cast as Goro. He is determined to make Tampopo a successful ramen chef and grows to have feelings for her that he will not admit. He is knowledgeable on the good qualities of a ramen house and staff especially on how they need to pay attention to their customers. Nobuko Miyamoto is very effective as the meek, timid but resilient Tampopo. She is obsesses with crafting the classic recipe creating a bowl of ramen that will have her customers daring the last drops of broth from the bowl. Miyamoto shines brightest when she shows a bit of an edge demonstrated best when she chips in insulting a rival noodle house setting up the Western equivalent of a high noon duel the following day at her shop.  Looks for a boyish Ken Wantabe as Gun. He differs to Goro most of the time but does have some of his own ideas to add in the groups quest for success.

Tampopo is a piece of comedic originality. Just when the audience things the story has gone as close  as possible to the edge another large leap follows. The strong cast excels especially with how seriously they take the subject matter. The team battle challengers to the shop like high noon showdowns in the Wild West. The food is mouth watering and an essential part of the narrative making the viewer compelled to hit their favourite ramen house moments after leaving the theatre to slurp down noodles respect the pork and drain the bowl of all its broth.

***** 5 Star Film.

Tampopo | Juzo Itami | Japan | 1985 | 114 Minutes.

Tags: Ramen, Noodles, Broth, Mik Truck, Con-man, Room Service, Theatre, Eggs, Prawns, Oyster, Toothache, Dentist.