Film Review: THE MUSTANG (France/Belgium/USA 2017) ****

The Mustang Poster

MUSTANG tells the story of Roman Coleman, a violent convict, who is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.

Credited as a 2019 American-French-Belgian production, the film’s end credits list 2017 as the year of production.  Regardless, THE MUSTANG is a pretty solid dramatic film and a textbook example of how following formula can still work to create an excellent film.  

THE MUSTANG is basically a film about a boy and his horsie which in this case is really about a wild horsie and a wild boy.  As these stories go, the wild can never be tamed and has to be set free.  The horse teaches the boy in his case a man or rather tames him as he tames the horse and as expected the horse is awarded his freedom.

The film begins with the rounding up of wild horses in the U.S.’s west.  The segment emphasizes the open spaces and the wild animals having their freedom taken away.  The scene is contrasted by a prison interview in establishing the character of the film’s protagonist.  The man is an unrepentant and violent convict named Coleman Roman (played by Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts).  In an interview with his worker, he loses it while claiming the understatement that he has a problem of not getting along with people when asked whether he values his freedom.  He is reluctantly and accidentally put into a program (called the wild horse inmates program in some states in the U.S.) where convicts train and tame wild horses to be later auctioned.  The man in charge of the program is Myles (Bruce Dern) a cynical but not necessarily a good man.  Myles knows and loves horses.

The serious nature of the film’s subject does not mean the film is without humour.  When Roman has a surprise visit from a young woman, he sits at the wrong table with another young lady.  A plaque of Myles reads: “If my horse doesn’t like you, I won’t either”.

The film benefits immensely from two outstanding Academy Award worthy performances by Schoenaerts and Dern.  Dern, who has been nominated many times might see his first win.   Schoenaerts is also extremely good and carries the film but the Academy is not one to give an unfamiliar name especially a non-American the award.

Besides Roman’s violent nature, the script which was co-written by the director with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock subtly reveals the sensitive side of the violent Roman with one scene showing him breaking down with tears and another of him showing loyalty to his co-trainer.  The film is able to connect the audience with the material, so important in any movie.     The film keeps key plot points from the audience revealing them as necessary thus heightening the audience anticipation factor.  Who the young lady visitor is and what crime Roman committed are only revealed later on in the film.  

But the film’s absolute prize and delight lie in the film’s surprise closing and extremely moving shot.

To emphasize the authenticity of the film’s story, the end credits show images of convicts and their horses: Dan and Pete, Jason and Jessie, Luis and Smokey among others.

THE MUSTANG is a well-made film in all departments, entertaining at the same time and garnishing a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing.  The film was obviously made with great pride and respect for horses, and it is executively produced by Robert Redford famous for a related film, THE HORSE WHISPERER.


Film Review: FIVE FEET APART (USA 2019) **

A pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses meet in a hospital and fall in love.


Justin Baldoni

FIVE FEET APART is an American teen weepie based on a script written and sold (they paid for this?) by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.

FIVE FEET APART belongs to the genre of teen romantic comedies, the type I used to avoid when I was a teen movie-goer.  Films like LOVE STORY with corny dialogue like “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” or S.W.A.L.K. (SEALED WITH A LOVING KISS) with Bee Gee songs gave me goosebumps.   I hate goosebumps! Now after all these years, arrive 5 FEET APART, a film about two kids suffering from C.F. (cystic fibrosis) falling in love that is supposed to tug (and perhaps break) ones heartstrings arrives.  The film will be a bit too much to take in for many but still there is a healthy market for these teen tearjerkers.  The film also comes filled with cliches including that dreaded one of the gay best friend.

The film centres on Stella (Haley Lu Richardson from COLUMBUS and SUPPORT THE GIRLS) who has made a home in the hospital – comfortable and friends particularly for her caring nurse (Kimberly Hebert Gregory).  She meets another C.F. patient. Will (Cole Spouse from RIVERDALE) who has a bacteria that requires him to stay at least six feet apart from anyone one else with C.F.  Death will and has resulted in the past, according to the nurse who insists the rule be maintained.  Of course, the lovers break the rule, 1 foot at at a time.  She gets a stick 5 feet long to keep herself and the now true love apart.

There are a few but too many coincidences in the story.  One is the nurse who has already experienced an identical situation that resulted in death.  “It won’t happen again, not on my watch,” she insists.  Stella has a dead sister, from a diving accident who will make her guilty with the sister appearing in her dreams to bring up the tears several notches.  The parents are conveniently left out of the story.  So obvious is this fact, is that when Stella’s father suddenly appears at the end of the film, audiences will likely wonder: “I never knew Stella had one.”  The parents never visit.

Actors Richardson and Spouse do what they can with the limited material and fare quite well, all things considering.

The film’s soundtrack is filled with indie songs.  But it is so manipulative to observe the way these tunes are drummed into the audience.  In the hospital scene, the nurse and others move in slow motion so that the song on the soundtrack can be finished by the time the scene ends.

To the film’s credit, it reveals a few points of awareness of the disease.  The film is also too obvious in being politically correct, which includes a nurse that has to be black.

Stay hundreds of feet apart from this one.


Film Review: WOMAN AT WAR (Kona for i strio) (Iceland/France/Ukraine 2018)***

Woman at War Poster

1:54 | Trailer
Halla, a woman in her forties, declares war on the local aluminum industry to prevent it from disfiguring her country. She risks all she has to protect the highlands of Iceland-but the …See full summary »

Those who have visited Iceland (myself included) will find extra pleasures in watching the Icelandic film WOMAN AT WAR shot in Icelandic.  The residential shots are typical what one would see around Reykjavic and the heroine moves into the countryside where the landscape shows typical Iceland – the barren outcrop, the moss and the hills.  Iceland is known as in other Scandinavian countries to be ultra-modern and more ecologically and environmentally friendly so a film that centres on an eco-terrorist is totally appropriate.  And a woman at that, makes the film even more politically correct.

The film opens with lots of promise.  A middle aged woman later revealed as Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) who conducts the local choir, is in the mountains with a bow and arrow (the modern kind), taking refuge from the police.  She takes down a huge transformer pole carrying key power lines causing havoc in outages.  Funnily, a Latino tourist nearby gets arrested and blamed for a terrorist act.  The story is quite simple, revolving around he woman and later with her new-age twin sister (also played by the same actress).  Both sisters are intent to adopt a girl from the Ukraine which explains the film as a Ukrainian co-production.

The only complaint of the film is its predictability, particularly in the story’s main twist.  It does not take a genius (I guessed it) to figure what happens when the sister visits Halla in prison, but not everyone is like me, who sees about 400 films a year.

The script co-written by the director with Ólafur Egill Egilsson pokes fun often at Iceland.  There are scenes with Halla with her face on moss, common in Iceland’s vegetation.  The part about the population of Iceland being so small that everyone is somehow related to each other is used in the film when Halla meets a farmer who hides her.  He claims that he could somehow be related, tracing verbally all his ancestral roots.  The country’s many sheep is also used to hide Halla from the cops in one scene.

The Chinese are the main villains in the film.  They are the lot to blame, taking away the blame from the Icelandic government for the anti-environment projects that Halla is so angry about.

Director Erlingsson utilizes a band of musicians and singers (in Icelandic and in Icelandic native garb) in the background of most scenes to deliver the soundtrack, which gives the film a surreal (Greek Chorus) look, adding to the film’s quirkiness and bit of humour, though the tactic is a bit distracting.

The film premiered at Cannes and won Geirharðsdóttir the Best Actress prize at Montreal/s 2018 Festival of New Cinema.  The film was Iceland’s Official Entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar though it did to make the short list.  Worth a look for its quirkiness and topicality but nothing really out of the ordinary.  But the film won 10 Edda Awards (Icelandic Film Awards) including the coveted Best Film, Best Actress and Best Director and Best Cinematography prizes.


Film Review: WONDER PARK (USA 2019) ***

Wonder Park Poster
Wonder Park tells the story of an amusement park where the imagination of a wildly creative girl named June comes alive.


Josh Appelbaum (screenplay by), André Nemec(screenplay by) | 3 more credits »

One must wonder how the filmmakers decide on whether the main child protagonist in their animated feature is going to be male or female.  Males have been highly successful in the  TOY STORY franchise while females in the FROZEN franchise.  For WONDER PARRK, creating rides and using mechanical expertise to tune up the rides would be more suited for a male child and his father rather than a girl and mother.  Girls do not generally engage in races either.  But in this age of gender equality, anything goes.  The female protagonist works well in this story to show more gender equality, credit to he filmmakers.

A young imaginative 10-year old girl named Cameron “June” Bailey (voiced by newcomer Brianna Denski) spent her childhood days constructing an amusement park filled with fantastical rides and inhabited by talking animals called Wonderland with her mother (Jennifer Garner) and her friends, but she lost her sense of imagination and wonder after her mother leaves home for an illness not mentioned and growing up, until she finds the real Wonderland in the woods while at math camp.  She needs to team up with the animals to stop the destruction of Wonderland by Chimpanzombies and bring it back to life.  Simple story, simply executed. The film obviously suffers from the lack of a single evil villain.  The cute chimanzombies do not really cut it as scary villains.  Even their name sounds cute.  But the weight of worry on a sick mother on a child can be devastating.  Credit to the filmmakers and scriptwriter to include a more serious note in an otherwise fun film.  But this sad weight does anchor down the fun atmosphere of the film.  The audience also pities the poor father who now has to look after June and do the household chores which June does not believe the father is capable of. The dialogue is sufficiently corny but doable. The characters try to put back the wonder in WONDER PARK when the park is breaking down.  The animals  also frequently chant: “We are the Wonder in Wonder Park”.  The characters con up words like ‘splendiferous’ and ‘wonderiferous’, words that children can pick up and constantly annoy their parents with after the movie.  The park also encompasses some ingenious rides that the script has churned out, rides that could perhaps work in a real amusement part, but deemed too dangerous.

Other voice characterizations from more famous actors include the ones from Mila Kunis, Ken Jeong and Matthew Broderick as June’s father.

The part of the story of twin worlds existing makes a good concept.  When June whispers into the ear of her toy chimpanzee, the chimpanzee in WONDER WORLD, Peanut (Norbert Leo Lutz) hears her ideas and implements the suggestions.

WONDER PARK is the third animation feature from Nickleodeon Pictures and Paramount Animation Studios after JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS and BARNYARD.  It was reported that the filmmakers hope the film turns out as big as Disney’s COCO.  Both films share the voice of a newcomer for the main child protagonist.

WONDER WORLD is no COCO but it is still not without its pleasures but for mostly kids. 


Canadian Film Fest 2019: RED ROVER (Canada 2019)

Red Rover Poster
After feeling he has nothing left to live for on earth, a lonely geologist tries to qualify for a one-way mission to Mars with the help of an offbeat musician who is just as lost as he is.


Shane Belcourt

Shane Belcourt performs triple duty as director, co-writer and director of photography about an odd ball geologist (Kristian Bruun) and his relationship with a pretty musician (Cara Gee).  

Damon, the geologist spends his waking hours searching for that elusive something. Whether it is for deeper meaning, love, or just “treasure” on the beach with his metal detector, it is to no avail.  So when Damon meets an offbeat musician named Phoebe handing out flyers for a one way trip to Mars, a bond quickly forms. 

 She’s going to help him find that thing he is looking for by sending him 33.9 million miles away, even though what he needs might be right in front of him.  The film hints at a love relationship rather than a plutonic one, and one can hardly tell where everything is heading even half way through the movie.  But the waywardness of the two individuals are nothing out of the ordinary and their gatherings grow tiresome quite soon.  Bruun and Gee carry the film for all that is worth. 

 The film is shot in Toronto with may familiar sights that should please audiences watching the film at the Canadian Film Fest for which this film has been chosen as the Opening Film.


Canadian Film Fest 2019: POND LIFE

Pond Life Poster
Summertime, 1994. In a quiet mining village just outside Doncaster, a rumour stirs about the legend of a giant carp in the nearby decoy ponds. Trevor takes watch one night at the water’s …See full summary »


Bill Buckhurst

POND LIFE settles on a couple at home – a seemingly happily married couple, Dick (Ryan Blakely) and Sandy (Jeanie Calleja), high school sweethearts.  

The relationship is about to be tested.  As Dick makes sexual advances towards his wife (showing a still healthy marriage), Sandy reveals that her sister or foster sister as Dick corrects his wife, Daisy (Kerry McPherson) and boyfriend, Richard (Ryan McVittie) are on their way to visit.  Two couples.  Two secrets.  And a night to celebrate a pregnancy goes haywire. As the film progresses, more plot points are revealed.  

It seems that Richard and Dick have known each other quite well and in fact have some shady business going, despite many disagreements.  The story grows more sinister.  POND LIFE turns up a an entertaining quirky tale about couples, the type Canadian films are well-known for.


Film Review: LEVEL 16 (Canada 2018) ***1/2

Level 16 Poster
Sixteen-year-old Vivien is trapped in The Vestalis Academy, a prison-like boarding school, keeping to herself and sticking her neck out for no one. Until she is reunited with Sophia — the …See full summary »

LEVEL 16, basically a young lady’s prison escape thriller evokes immediately the atmosphere of THE HANDMAID’S TALE and the little seen Irish supposedly true story of nuns’ abusive training in Peter Mulan’s THE MAGDALENE SISTERS – which is a good thing.  These three films bring out good solid drama where the audience cares for the innocent but abused characters.  Even though the final escape seems so easy (in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, ironically the escape is through an unlocked door), it is the build up that counts.  And the terror of the frequent punishment that comes with disobedience.

16 refers to both the current age of the film’s protagonist, Vivien (Katie Douglas) as well as the new Level – LEVEL 16 of Viv’s education.  It is a walled in concrete world with no windows and no pictures in what is known to the girls, all pretty young things as the Vesralis Boarding School where the young girls are educated for adoption by wealthy parents. or so they are told by their teachers, who are too strict for comfort.  They are also told their adoptive parents sponsor the school and they only wait for their adoption after completion,

The first half of the film  reveals the daily regimental routines.  The girl believe the school is a refuge from an outside world rendered toxic.  But the school is a neglected, antiseptic institution where girls without families are monitored, their day scheduled practically to the minute, and “education” consists of a constantly repeated list of “feminine virtues” – obedience, cleanliness, patience and humility – preached by a matriarch and propagandized in moral-hygiene films.  Among the activities are vitamins the girls are taking daily with a voice telling them that vitamins are good for the body and that they prevent disease.

An incident occurs.  Viv is taken away for punishment because of an accident committed by Sophie (Celina Martin).  On LEVEL 16, Sophie informs Viv, out of guilt, a secret.  The vitamins that they are taking daily are not vitamins but sleeping drugs which knock them out to sleep.  Worse, Sophie who has not taken the drug for while, has witnessed a guard who comes in the middle of the night to touch the girls.  This is where the film gets interesting.

The two villains of the piece are equally chilling  There is the matriarch of the place, white wig donning no-nonsense warden like bitch, Miss Brixil (Sara Canning).  This role seems right tailored for Tilda Swinton to play.  The other is the doctor that owns the place, (Peter Outerbridge) a creepy elderly man who one can tell has the urges to touch his girl victims.

If the climax does not match the build up, the film still is a success rather than a disappointment as the build-up is pretty good.  The script reveals just enough to satisfy the audience and to keep the suspense maintained.  It is this mystery and audience anticipation that makes this tale stand out.


Film Review: 3 FACES (Iran 2018) ***

3 Faces Poster

Three actresses at different stages of their career. One from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, one popular star of today known throughout the country and a young girl longing to attend a drama conservatory.


Jafar Panahi

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has shot to fame after being imprisoned by the Iranian Government followed by 8 years of house arrest.  Worst and not least, Panahi has been banned from making films.  As Tanya Harding proclaimed after she was banned from ever entering any skiing competition for crimes she allegedly committed (“If you have taken skating away from me, what else is there in life?”), what else is Panahi to do if he does not make films.  Thankfully, he has continued to make films, as evident in his latest entry set in repressed Iran which won him the Best Scenario Prize at Cannes this year.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s 3 FACES looks at current issues dominating not only Iran but the world today – female inequality, oppression leading to abuse and unwavering tradition.

The film begins with a lengthy and troubling video shot on a cellphone of Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei), describing how her ambition to become an actor has been thwarted by her family, and pleading for support from Iranian actor Behnaz Jafari. The footage ends abruptly, with the defeated Marziyeh appearing to commit suicide.   The footage illustrates how effective a simple device like a cell phone can be  used to make a film.  It also shows that clarity of the image is not mandatory in order to get a  point across,  Still, this sequence is overdone and overlong.  

Shaken by the recording, Jafari (playing a fictionalized version of herself) abandons a film shoot and sets off to Marziyeh’s village in the company of her friend Panahi (playing himself).  Upon their arrival, they meet with Marziyeh’s friends and apprehensive family, who remain unmoved in ostracizing their daughter for her choice of profession — a reaction rooted in the village’s traditional mindset, and one that’s forced an old silver-screen legend, Shahrazade, to live on the edge of town. The more Jafari and Panahi discover about Marziyeh, the more they learn about the community around her and the inescapable bond between tradition and destiny.

Th film contains a few clever plot twists that keep the story moving.  The film has the feel of an Abbas Kiarostami movie, particularly THE WIND WILL CARRY US, especially the scenes with the winding roads up the hill, with similar such scenes in Panahi’s film.  At times, Panahi tries to be too cute, such as the dialogue involving the honking of the car while driving to the village.  Still the simplicity of the film shows the mastery in Panahi’s work.

Despite good ideas in small budget filmmaking, most of which transpires onscreen have been seen before, especially in Iranian films who appear to have cornered the niche in this type of filmmaking.  Even at 90 minutes, 3 FACES feels long and stretched out.  It could have been compressed to 70 minutes resulting in a  less boring film.  The beginning sequence of Marziyeh committing suicide says it all.  That 8 minute sequence could have been trimmed to half the time to better effect.


Film Review: GLORIA BELL (USA/Chile 2018) ***

Gloria Bell Poster

A free-spirited woman in her 50s seeks out love at L.A. dance clubs.


Sebastián Lelio


Alice Johnson Boher (adapted screenplay), Sebastián Lelio | 1 more credit »

GLORIA BELL begins and ends with Julianne Moore dancing at a club in an 80’s setting.  The era is never mentioned but can be deduced from the 80’s song playlist and from the wardrobe and hair style of the characters.  Chilean director Leila has been known to effectively use and bring to life his films with the use of a singular song, the most notable and remembered being Richard Burton’s rendering of the song CAMELOT from the stage musical in Leilo’s film JACKIE about Jackie Kennedy.  In GLORIA BELL, Gloria Gayor’s ‘”Never Can Say Goodbye” begins the film while the popular 80’s song “Gloria” closes it.

GLORIA BELL is described in the press notes as a film on mature dating.   The film opens with Gloria on the dance floor.  Gloria Bell (Julianna Moore) introduces herself to a stranger (and to the audience) as Gloria Bell, a divorcee of 12 odd years.  She meets in the same night, Arnold (John Torturro) who she eventually begins a relationship with, after some hot sex, in which nothing much can be seen much but much can be heard, which means the audience will get the point.

Gloria has been on the dating scene for a while – probably for 12 years or so, judging from her behaviour.  She is not eager to begin a relationship right away but is not opposed to the idea either.

For a film about mature dating, the film covers all the points about its problems.  These include:

– the baggage that each member brings to the relationship with each having their own children and each with their own set of problems

  • the discomfort of still dating at such a late age; Arnold \ has qualms about telling his children about Gloria, obviously embarrassed at the situation
  • jealousies that flare up; Arnold is uncomfortable when Gloria shows affection for her ex (Sean Astin) at her son’s (Michael Cera) birthday party
  • each member is set in their own stubborn ways and behaviour; Arnold in leaving Gloria when trouble arise 
  • disapproval and constant questioning of the children; as it happens at Gloria’s son’s birthday party

The song, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally”  that is heard right in the middle of the film again is effectively used by Leilo to put his story in perspective.

Leilo’s film benefits from the performances of its actors, which are key for a dating drama of this sort.  Moore and Torturro are both excellent, especially Torturro who obviously has toned down his usual manic performances.  It is good too to see Michael Sera in the role of Gloria’s son, Cera being absent from the screen for some time.

The script is also smart enough not to take sides.  Both Arnold  and Gloria have their valid reasons for each fight and one could side with either, despite being male or female.  The film’s subplots, like Gloria’s expecting daughter taking off to Sweden to marry her beau also enhances rather than distracts the main story.

GLORIA BELL is not full of surprises (in fact, if the film seems strangely familiar, you could have seen Leilo’s original Spanish 2013 version called GLORIA which was set in Santiago) but it serves a realistic slice of life mature dating, with all its pitfalls and bright spots.  It is an entertaining watch to see ourselves in similar situations.


March 2019 Filmmaker Interviews

Read interviews with top new filmmakers from around the world.

Interviews conducted by Matthew Toffolo

 Interview with Filmmaker Michael Davis (HINDSIGHT)

Interview with Filmmaker Katie Garibaldi (STAR IN THE EAST)

Interview with Writer/Actor/Producer Judith Eisenberg (THE SECRET LIVES OF TEACHERS)


Interview with Filmmaker Cameron Kostopoulos (PERSON(A))