Interview with Festival Director Larry Rosen (Northeast Film Festival Horror Fest)

Northeast Film Festival Horror Fest showcases top independent films in the genres of horror and thriller, from established filmmakers as well as new talent. The high quality films, selected by a committee, includes features and shorts as well as screenplays. The festival is hosted in Teaneck New Jersey at the historic Teaneck Cinemas; with an after party to relax and network during the festival in style and spirit.

Film Review: RED SPARROW (USA 2018) ***

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Red Sparrow Poster
Trailer

Ballerina Dominika Egorova is recruited to ‘Sparrow School’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. But her first mission, targeting a CIA agent, threatens to unravel the security of both nations.

Director:

Francis Lawrence

Writers:

Justin Haythe (screenplay), Jason Matthews (novel)

 

RED SPARROW re-unites Academy Award Winner Jennifer Lawrence with her HUNGER GAMES director Francis Lawrence.  The film is an espionage spy film written by Justin Haythe, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews.  The novel won many literary awards including the Best First Novel prize for its author, Matthews.  The film?  If you remember the HUNGER GAMES franchise, then you would know what to expect for RED SPARROW, the movie.

The film begins impressively enough with the intercutting of a Bolshoi ballet performance by star Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) and an incident in Gorky Park where Nate (Joel Edgerton), a CIA internal-ops officer who recruits and handles intelligence assets for the agency is arrested.   Dominika is injured during her performance (shot in an extremely gruesome ‘accident’ scene).  In order to support her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) and maintain her apartment,  she is forced by her uncle Ivan Dimitrevich (Matthias Schoenaerts) to undergo training at the Sparrow School, where she and other men and women were trained in how to seduce the enemy.  In the words of the film’s best line, uttered by the uncle: “There are no accidents.  We create our own fates.”

 Matthews’ novel was praised for its insight into the mundane aspects of the intelligence field, various techniques and its “high drama”.  The same cannot be said for Lawrence’s film.  At best, it glamourizes the violence and techniques used by both the Russian and American sides.  The best instance can be observed in the almost unwatchable torture scene when Nate has the outer skin of his back  pealed off by a skin grafting device.  Lawrence need not show the actual action  but the audience gets the message from the Nate’s screaming and the scene’s set-up.  Another more graphic torture scene is Dominika’s torture with her constantly hit with a melt rod..

The sex scene between Lawrence and Edgerton could have been shot with more credibility.  It is laughable to see a riding scene in which the lovers perform their act fully clothed.

Unlike spy films such as TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ directed by Alfred Hitchcock, RED SPARROW is noticeable devoid of suspense.  Plot twists replace suspense in this spy thriller.  Critics attending the promo screening were requested not to real any plot points in their reviews.  But running at 2 hours and 20 minutes (Lawrence’s HUNGER GAMES films were also unnecessarily lengthy),  plot twists can also turn ordinary unlike suspense set-ups.

The best thing about RED SPARROW is Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts.  With make up to look like Vladimir Putin, he is the most fun to watch.  The second prized performance comes from Charlotte Rampling playing the school headmistress with totally cool lesbian charm.

RED SPARROW the film is more outrageously camp in its violence and portrayal of real world espionage.  If one can take and believe Jennifer Lawrence playing a Russian ballerina and emotionless spy, then  this film is for you.  RED SPARROW is entertaining camp, but for those who expect a serious spy experience it would be wiser to read the book.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmUL6wMpMWw

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Toronto Irish Film Festival

The 8th Toronto Irish Film Festival (TIRFF) runs from March 2nd to the 4th.  The festival opens with  “Best Film” winner (A DATE WITH MAD MARY – capsule reviewed below) at the 2017 Irish Film & Television Awards with a gala presentation.  Venue is the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with highlights of a wide range of films from award-winning features, documentaries and family-friendly animated films.  The weekend is jam packed with Irish cinematic treasures, including North American and Canadian premieres, short film and documentary showcases and very special guests.

The Opening Night Gala on Friday, March 2nd features the Toronto premiere of A Date for Mad Mary by director Darren Thornton. Starring Bingham Ray New Talent Award winner Seána Kerslake (Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope), Carolyn Bracken and Charleigh Bailey, A Date for Mad Mary is a heartfelt dramedy about a woman recently released from prison seeking a date for her best friend Charlene’s wedding. When Charlene refuses Mary a “plus one” on the grounds that she probably couldn’t find a date, Mary becomes determined to prove her wrong. But her attempts at dating are a disaster and she winds up feeling more alone… until she meets Jess, a lesbian wedding photographer, and everything changes.

“This year, showcased films directly address the pertinent issues of today’s world, including same-sex relationships, mental health and delicate political negotiation.  Framed within the unique Irish perspective, Ireland is shown here to be a nation rich in the art of compelling storytelling”, states Michael Barry, Co-founder & Director of Marketing and Communications.

The full program is outlined below with 3 of the films capsule reviewed:

TIRFF 2018 Film Program

Opening Night Gala Presentation

A DATE FOR MAD MARY (Toronto Premiere)

Friday, March 2nd | 7:00 pm

Director: Darren Thornton

Run time: 72 mins

Winner of the Best Film at the 2017 Irish Film and Television Awards, A Date for Mad Mary is a heartfelt dramedy about a woman recently released from prison seeking a date for her best friend Charlene’s wedding. When Charlene refuses Mary a plus one on the grounds that she probably couldn’t find a date, Mary becomes determined to prove her wrong. But her attempts at dating are a disaster and she winds up feeling more alone… until she meets Jess, a lesbian wedding photographer, and everything changes.

Capsule Review:

A DATE FOR MAD MARY (Ireland 2016) ***1/2

Directed by Darren Thornton

 

A DATE FOR MAD MARY plays like Australia’s MURIEL’S WEDDING, a comedy about an outsider and a wedding to be attended.  Mary has just been released from prison (the reason never mentioned in the film) just in time to attend her best friend, Charlene’s wedding as the maid of honour.  But Mary does not have a date.  Based on the play “6 dates for Mary”, Mary attempts to get a date using various means including dating sites.  She almost lands one but the ‘camp’ hopeful storms out at the last moment.  She finally winds up having feelings for a lesbian photographer which results in chaos when she decides to bring her as her wedding date.  Mad Mary is the perfect film about the underdog who finally makes good.  The film is funny, dramatic and totally winning and believable.  Like Stephen Frears’ classic THE SNAPPER the film shows the spirit of the Irish lasses. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgAkhspus8A

THE BREADWINNER (Toronto Encore Presentation)

Saturday, March 3rd | 2:00 pm

Director: Nora Twomey

Run time: 94 mins

Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Oscars, The Breadwinner features the beautiful animated work by Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea). This wonderful Ireland/Canada co-production tells the extraordinary story of an 11-year-old Afghan girl who finds strength in the love of her family and the power of storytelling. Co-presented by the Ontario Media Development Centre.

Capsule Review:

THE BREADWINNER (USA 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Nora Twomey

THE BREADWINNER is animated feature created from an innovative mix of 2-D animation with acrylic and digitally painted environments, as well as digital paper cut–out segments.  It is Nora Twomey’s first solo directorial debut after making two other animated features SONG OF THE SEA (2014) and THE STORY OF KELLS (2009).  The story is a current one centred on woman’s rights in a male dominated country.  Based on Deborah Ellis’ award-winning novel, the story centres on an 11-year-old Afghan girl Parvana, born into an ever-changing world of conflict and oppression in Kabul, who finds strength in the love of her family and the power of storytelling.  Kabul is Taliban controlled and Parvana sees her father suddenly whisked to prison for no reason.  Her family – mother, older sister and baby brother are unable to fend for themselves.  Parvana dresses up as a boy in order to go around town to buy food and to work as the family breadwinner.  As in most animation, magic plays a big part in the film’s enchantment.  In THE BREADWINNER, the magic comes from the story she tells her little brother.   The story involves a village that had the village’s seeds for the next year stolen by the jaguars of the evil Elephant King.  The animation is beautifully done as the film’s story is one that matters that needs be told.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQBQw-Bh1pg

TIRFF 2018 Short Film Showcase

Saturday, March 3rd | 5:00 pm

Run time: 82 mins

In keeping with tradition, the Irish Short Film Showcase features the work of Ireland’s up-and-coming directors. Showcasing a mix of documentary, drama and animated short films, this year’s showcase highlights the powerful visions of Irish female directors with six exceptional short films.

DEPARTURE | Directed by Aoife Doyle | 10 mins | Canadian Premiere

THE CLIMB | Directed by Lynne Davison | 10 mins | Canadian Premiere

HOMECOMING | Directed by Sinéad O’Loughlin | 14 mins | Canadian Premiere

THROWLINE | Directed by Mia Mullarkey | 14 mins | Canadian Premiere

THE DATE | Directed by Selina Cartmell | 16 mins | Canadian Premiere

THE WIDOW’S LAST | Directed by Vanessa Perdriau | 28 mins | Canadian Premiere

MAZE (Canadian Premiere)

Saturday, March 3rd | 8:00 pm

Director: Stephen Burke

Run time: 92 mins

Inspired by the true events of the historic 1983 prison breakout of 38 IRA prisoners from the infamous Maze prison in Northern Ireland. With an excellent lead performance by “Peaky Blinders” star, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, this powerful drama captures the quiet tension behind what would become the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II.

ZOO (Canadian Premiere)

Sunday, March 4th | 1:30 pm

Director: Colin McIver

Run time: 97 mins

Based on a true story, this heartwarming drama follows the story of 12-year-old Tom and his misfit friends as they fight to save Buster the baby elephant during the air raids on Belfast during World War II. With “Game of Thrones” star, Art Parkinson. Co-presented with TIFF Kids International Film Festival.

GEORGE BEST: ALL BY HIMSELF (Theatrical Premiere)

Sunday, March 4th | 4:00 pm

Director: Daniel Gordon

Run time: 92 mins

He was the Beatles of soccer – a handsome, charismatic lad from Belfast, Northern Ireland who worked wonders with the ball and thrilled Great Britain. But George Best was also the lead in a Shakespearean tragedy fueled by drink and excess. With never-before-seen footage and interviews, this captivating documentary traces the life of a true Belfast hero.

GEORGE BEST: ALL BY HIMSELF (Ireland 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Daniel Gordon

 

The film opens with a woman driving her sick baby in her car during pouring rain.  She passes a hunched man soaking wet crossing the road.  She pities him before realizing that the man is George Best, her husband, drunk as a skunk.  The film documents the rise and fall of one of Great Britain’s greatest footballers.  Arriving as a kid to Manchester for an audition, this Belfast lad proved to be the world’s best footballer.  But this handsome lad’s drinking to excess led to his downfall.  At his best, George let Manchester United to win the European cup.  At his worst, he got suspended two months for slinging mud at a referee.  Director Gordon has assembled an impressive cast of interviewees that include his best friend, the Manchester United Manager Matt Busby, his mum and past girlfriends whose words paint a true picture of the man in detail.  Lots of archive football footage adds to the excitement of the game and the glory of the man.  Very, very entertaining even though on might not be interested in the sport, as this is a very human story.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvU3xW1QjCY

Closing Night Film 

IN THE NAME OF PEACE: JOHN HUME IN AMERICA (Canadian Premiere)

Sunday March 4th | 7:00 pm

Director: Maurice Fitzpatrick

Run time: 90 mins

Narrated by Liam Neeson, In the Name of Peace: John Hume in America is a compelling feature documentary about one of the most historic times in Irish politics. Dramatic, archival footage from The Troubles is paired with insightful interviews by Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bono and Tony Blair, to capture the brave moment when Derry politician, John Hume, united both sides of the political landscape to carve out a lasting Peace for the people of Northern Ireland. Co-presented by the Irish Embassy of Canada.

Film Review: THE PARTY (UK 2017) ***1/2

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The Party Poster
Trailer

Janet hosts a party to celebrate her new promotion, but once the guests arrive it becomes clear that not everything is going to go down as smoothly as the red wine.

Director:

Sally Potter

Writers:

Sally PotterWalter Donohue (story editor)

 

Writer/director Sally Potter stunned audiences with her debut feature ORLANDO, a hit with art-house audiences.  THE PARTY can be described as less art-house but Potter’s mark is still clearly noticeable.

Her characters in this farce all have strong political leaning, engage in same or opposite sex relationships and have deep personal conflicts.

The film opens with a door opening and Janet holding a gun nervously pointed at the visitor.  It is a black and white scene and the film returns to this scene at the end of the film.  This creates some anticipation for the audience.  The audience would se how Janet came to obtain the gun and also the reason she is pointing it at a guest.

The film shifts to the present where each character is introduced.  The lead character is Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a politician for the opposition party, who has just been appointed a minister.  She is having a small celebration party at her house for her hard work done, supported by her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall). Invited are her friends April (Patricia Clarkson), with her estranged German partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a life coach and self-proclaimed spiritual healer, Women’s studies professor Martha (Cherry Jones), with her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), a cook, and Janet’s colleague and subordinate Marianne with husband Tom (Cillian Murphy), a banker.

As the guests arrive, Janet’s husband Bill sits in his chair, listening to music, staring vacantly, and drinking wine.  All invited guests arrive one by one except Marianne, who Tom says will arrive later. (The audience can guess that the guess the gun pointed to at the start of the film is Marianne.)

Janet has thrown a soiree from hell.  Bile and bitterness have never been portrayed in a film to be so endearing.  Instead of celebrating her success, she ends up as a magnet opening skeletons in the closet.  Director Potter keeps the black humour coming in terms of both dialogue and action set pieces (Tom running up a cold sweat ding cocaine; Bill being punched up a couple of times.)

Potter writes sharp and occasionally witty dialogue (Martha described for example by her daughter as a first class lesbian and a second class mother)  though some of the lines, particularly those on politics and feminism sound pretentious.  Example:  Janet described as “looking like a girl, thinking like a man… ministerial, in a 21st-century postmodern, post feminist sort of way”. Potter has assembled an excellent cast, the best performance coming from German actor Bruno Ganz matched by Patricia Clarkson playing his girlfriend who constantly puts him down.  Spall plays the serious role while Scott anchors down the story.  It is the performances that make the movie.

THE PARTY suffers from not bringing the proceedings to a closure.  But for an art-house audience open ended stories with no conclusions are accepted.  THE PARTY also moves at a hectic pace so that it all comes to an end too quickly.  This is a party the characters want to end quickly but the audience wishes to stretch on.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-FuSuWienM

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Film Review: ANNIHILATION (USA 2018) ***1/2

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Annihilation Poster
Trailer

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Director:

Alex Garland

Writers:

Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)

 

Alex Garland is known for his sci-fi scripts that have gone on to make memorable films like THE BEACH, 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, my favourite NEVER LET ME GO and EX MACHINA which he also directed.  The latter brought him prominence and the chance to make his first big budget $55 million Hollywood movie.  But the film was shelved 2 years ago after production was completed when Paramount was unsure what to do with the film after test audiences found it too ‘intellectual’.

By intellectual is meant ‘hard to follow’ and ‘difficult to make sense’.  Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s award-winning novel, (supposedly the first of a trilogy) the film is filled with stunning visuals, scientific propositions and biological concepts of human and alien integration.  The fact that plants can transform to another different type means that the idea of DNA integration is not that far-fetched.

The story can be simplified in a few lines.  A biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) disappears while on a mission.  He reappears suddenly out of the blue and begins going into convulsions as if possessed by aliens.  Lena (Natalie Portman) puts her name forward for an expedition into an environmental disaster zone, but does not find what she is expecting.  The expedition team is made up of herself,  the biologist, a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh),  an anthropologist, a surveyor and a linguist (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson). 

Garland directs his film as a horror sci-fi.  At times, ANNIHILATION plays like a cross between ARRIVAL and ALIEN.  The horror scenes are particularly gory, Garland going all out to scare his audience.  The best segment in the film is the one where a member of the previous crew gets his stomach cut open with a short, sharp knife to reveal his insides being occupied by some alien parasite.  The scene ends up with a joke that had the entire audience laughing out loud in a second right after being grossed out to death.  I cannot recall what was the joke but the change in mood shows Garland’s skill at playing with the audience’s emotions.

ANNIHILATION also marks a solid female film with a female heroine and a full female team saving the world.

It s true that the film becomes intellectual (there is even a debate on self-destruction vs. suicide) especially when the audience is expected to interpret the goings-on and what is happening with regards to the transformation of the expedition team.  It is clear that only Janet survives on the inset (as she confesses to her interrogator (Benedict Wong) that the rest of her team are no more.  Still, ANNIHILATION is suspenseful, scary and tense despite its relatively slow pacing.  An additional bonus is the trippy visuals (the film perhaps being the perfect one to watch while on a brownie) and gorgeous photography, courtesy of D.P. Rob Hardy.

ANNIHILATION opens in Canada and the U.S. and internationally on Netflix after a few weeks.  But this is a film that should be seen on the big screen but being on Netflix, would reach a larger audience, as Garland admitted.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89OP78l9oF0

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Film Review: TOM OF FINLAND (Finland/Sweden/Denmark/Germany/USA 2016) ***

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Tom of Finland Poster
Trailer

Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of artist Touko Valio Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland), one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century gay culture.

Director:

Dome Karukoski

Writers:

Aleksi Bardy (screenplay), Aleksi Bardy (story by) | 6 more credits »

 

Who is TOM OF FINLAND?  Straight people will likely have no clue who or what Tom is.  And with reason.  It is comic drawn gay pornography – weathermen drawn with their big dicks.  Gays are totally familiar with Tom of Finland.  They likely grew up with the drawings of Tom. TOM OF FINLAND popularized comic drawn porn as well as the look of leather men in dark glasses and big bulges in their tight trousers with a bit of S&M.  Even famous Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki had his cool characters in films like LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA and CALAMARI UNION sport that look.  And if that is not enough, there is a very popular gay dance bar in the heart of gay Berlin named Tom of Finland.  And finally the film.  TOM OF FINLAND the film is the biographical drama of  the man who invented (or drew) the character.

The plot involves Touko Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland (Pekka Strang) returning home to Finland after serving in World War II.  In post-war Helsinki, he makes a name for himself with his homoerotic drawings of muscular men.  Before finding fame, Laaksonen finds challenges from his sister, Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) and Finnish society due to his art.

One thing director Karukoski emphasizes in his film is the non-acceptance of the gay lifestyle or practices.  It is understandable as it is after World War II and unlike the present times, the world was not ready to accept homosexuality.  “We used to put scum like you into concentration camps and then gas them to death,” quips a German soldier.  That is the reason Touko kept his sexual orientation secret from his sister.  A lot of graphic violence is depicted in the film from police beating up gay cruisers in the park to gay bashing in the toilets.

The film also contains touching moments as in the scene Kaija tells his brother that he needs someone to settle down.  It is in moments like these, that gay audience realize how fortunate that times have improved so much for the better in terms of acceptance of gay life in the wold today.

Warning:  Due to the subject matter of the film – gay sex drawings – objectionable scenes need be included, though tastefully done.

The film also deals with other issues urgent in those times.  The emergence of AIDs and coming out into the open in public are also examined.   

TOM OF FINLAND premiered in Toronto at the LGBT Gay ad Lesbian film and video festival last year.  The film was also Finland’s entry last year for the Best Foreign language Film for the Oscars.  Though it did not win a nomination, probably the film not being good enough,  TOM OF FINLAND is still worthwhile viewing if not an eye-opener providing some insight of a prohibited lifestyle in Finland after WWII.
Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKFA4WrPlfo

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Film Review: LAST MEN IN ALEPPO (Syria 2017) ***

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Last Men in Aleppo Poster

Trailer

Khaled, Mahmoud, and Subhi volunteered at the white helmets trying to save lives of hundreds of victims at besieged city during the Syrian civil war.

Directors:

Feras Fayyad 

Writer:

Feras Fayyad

 

LAST MEN IN ALEPPO has been nominated for Best Documentary for thisnyear’s Academy Awards.  It is also essential viewing for its subject matter.

 Aleppo was the largest city of Syria but now considered only the second (population 4.6 million) after the Syrian Civil war from 2012- 2016.  It is the setting of this riveting war documentary

The director and subject of The Last Men in Aleppo, the documentary about a volunteer medical relief unit in Syria called the White Helmets, has just been reported by THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER that they will not attending the Oscar ceremony in March.  The Syrian government refused to expedite the visa process that would allow Kareem Abeed and White Helmets founder Mahmoud Al-Hattar, the documentary’s producer and subject, to travel to Hollywood.  They cannot come to the U.S. because of the Trump travel ban,” director Feras Fayyad says. “Barring a miracle, he will not be at the Oscars with me. We are artists and we just want to share our stories and nothing more. It’s very sad he won’t have an opportunity to share his.”  On the bright side, last year the same thing happened to the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and THE SALESMAN.  The result?  THE SALESMAN won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, a result that occurred from sentiment.

The same might occur with LAST MEN IN ALEPPO, nominated for Best Documentary.  

The film personalizes the tragedy of the Syrians.  This is what makes the film so effective.  Within the first 10 minutes, the audience sees 4 siblings rescued from under rubble after bombings, two dead while two still alive, only to be informed after that the last one who survived has also died.  Authentic scenes like these move audiences.

The director has this message to say (in the Hollywood Reporter).  It’s time to end this war and to stop those who use their power to destroy us,’ Al-Hattar told THR.  He said he would use his speech to condemn Russia, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and “everyone who represents the authorities and supplies weapons to suppress the people of Syria.”   The Academy looks down on political speeches during its ceremonies, many in the past who have done so being boo’ed off stage (Michael Moore, a prime example).  Being banned and his film winning will definitely make a more prominent statement.

The doc follows two men Khaled and Mahmoud as they travel around to rescue bombing casualties.  As evident from the footage, it is a dangerous job, but one that needs be done.  Director Abeed leaves out the politics and history of the war, except to talk a bit of the ceasefire between the Regime and the Opposition, while being bombed by the Russians.  A bit more history would put the film into better perspective,

Forget Clint Eastwood’s 13:15 TO PARIS.  LAST MEN IN ALEPPO is the real thing, with a shocking ending.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT6IagQ7xos

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