Hot Docs 2019 Review: ADVOCATE (Canada/Switzerland/Israel 2018) ***

The doc is he story of tireless and fearless Israeli lawyer Lea Tsemel who defends Palestinians: from feminists to fundamentalists, from nonviolent demonstrators to armed militants.   She is not popular among the Israelis.   ADVOCATE follows Tsemel’s caseload in real time, including the high-profile trial of a 13-year-old boy — her youngest client to date — while also revisiting her landmark cases and reflecting on the political significance of her work and the personal price one pays for taking on the role of “devil’s advocate.”

Directing duo Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche assume the privileged position of a fly on the wall of Tsemel’s practice, where a year of documenting is like gathering a lifetime of evidence.  The film is exciting as the two cases presented, and the audience sees not only Lea at work but how judicial systems work.  Even if the accused is innocent, a plea bargain is created for the accused to plead guilty for a lesser charge or face greater penalty if found guilty.  

The film is hastily edited with the intercut cases and a lot of padding is evident from the life of Lea from student to her current position.  The interviews of her family – husband, son and daughter break the flow the court cases.


Hot Docs 2019 Review: PREY (Canada 2019) ***1/2

PREY opens with a shot of a man dress  up in a tie and suit.  He is Rob Tallach, a Civil Lawyer.  He is nicknamed the priest hunter as he hunts down these priests perpetuators that prey on young boys.  And he has quite a number of cases to his credit.  Many have only recently come forward to speak publicly, while others have been silenced through settlements.

One of the perpetrators, Father Rod Marshall, (interviewed in the movie when he was still alive) pled guilty to 17 assault charges; a colleague, Father David Katulski, called him a “very good pedophile.” One of his victims, seeking closure for this traumatic part of his childhood, filed suit against the Basilian Fathers of Toronto for its role in enabling Marshall’s depravity. The film is partly courtroom drama. 

 Everyone loves a solid courtroom drama and PREY provides one of the best.  But this trial was not about guilt or innocence, but about how much money the church should pay in compensation for the devastating fallout from the abuse.

  The climax of the film is the verdict.  


Film Review: FAR: THE STORY OF A JOURNEY AROUND THE WORLD (Germany 2017) ***

Weit: The Story of a Journey Around the World Poster
Two young Germans spend three and a half years traveling around the world just by hitchhiking, bus, train and ship. They travel almost 100,000 kilometers through Europe, Asia, North and Central America.

The fantasy disappears and the experience begins: so says the character in the film as she touches for the first time – an elephant in India.  The dialogue immediately asks the audience which would be considered more important, fantasy or pleasure?

The film begins with the title: “The First Year”, where the feet touch the ground.  The couple, Gwen and Patrick, the subjects of the film are on their way, singing to Bulgaria in what appears to be a cab. It is revealed late that the subjects are hitchhiking around the world, first leaving Germany towards Bulgaria and soon in in Kazakhstan.  Armed with a tent, noodles and tomato sauce, they make their way through third world countries like Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China  These are vast lands that often has no vegetation.  This journey is interesting to the viewer as one seldom sees the deserted landscapes of these lands.  But they are beautiful.  With every hitchhike, the couple are told different stories and they learn lessons.  It is a freedom that requires a lot of energy. 

The camera follows the couple on their journey around the world.  One can tell that there is a third person involved as well – the cameraman.  A few scenes are re-enactments, as are quite obvious like the one where a car is stuck and later the car shown unstuck, being driven off.  But at one point, the unseen cameraman is heard asking the couple he could help push the car.

The voiceover occasionally jumps to the future.  Gwen and Patrick will have a baby one year from then in Mexico.  Four years, one of the hosts will become a guest at the couple’s place in Germany.  The doc attempts to inform audiences of the surprises life.  Not every person would embark on a journey as gruelling as this one.  It requires a different kind of person – one that will put their riches and things of the world and enjoy freedom.  

The film contains a very positive attitude and free-spirit.  The voiceover is provided by both Patrick and Gwen.  They often praise (never condemning) the different people (Iran and Pakistan) and their hospitality despite their stringent rules and laws.  Iran has the death penalty for homosexuality and bans drinking yet the Iranians are the most inviting.

One of the film’s big surprises is the beauty of Pakistan.  The film informs that the country has been given a bad deal because of a few extremists.  Pakistan is the couple’s favourite country and the magnificent landscape of the country reveals the reason.

In the same way as this world journey might not be for everyone, neither would this doc.  This doc is mostly in German and runs at a lengthy 120 minutes, many segments of which contain lots of travelogue.  A lot of time is spent revealing the different peoples, their culture and their ways living.  But for those who wish to embark on the journey of viewing this film which occasionally soars to ecstatic heights, the reward is well worth it.  

Ultimately, the film shows that people, no matter where they come from, are good.  Recommended viewing for President Trump!


Film Review: THE PUBLIC (USA) ***

The Public Poster

An act of civil disobedience turns into a standoff with police when homeless people in Cincinnati take over the public library to seek shelter from the bitter cold.


Emilio Estevez

THE PUBLIC is Emilio Estevez’s ambitious little movie that tackles a few key social issues while being commercially entertaining.  Estevez gives himself the title role as a thankless, sensitive but realistic librarian.

After instilling to the audience the oddness and importance of the librarian in the American society with voiceover over archive black and white footage, the film opens with head librarian of downtown Cincinnati, Stuart Goodson (Estevez) heading to work one very cold morning.  He encounters  people who greet him on the way and it becomes obvious he is setting himself up as the sympathetic hero of the piece.  He meets an old lady who accuses Jews of meaningless deeds, while the homeless wait for the library to open so that they can wash up in the toilets.  He is also realistic as he answers back rationally to a female librarian under him who accuses him of leaving his carbon footprint behind.  It is obvious he likes her though she appears a bit too radical for him..  All these incidents are the prologue to a lawsuit undertaken by a public prosecutor (Christian Slater), again a too obvious villain of the piece.  The prosecutor is also running for the office for mayor.  It is seldom one gets to see Slater snarling and growling as a villain.

One quarter through the film, a new character, a police negotiator (Alec Baldwin) whose son is missing because of a drug addiction problem is introduced into the story.

One feels that Estevez is too manipulative in his sardonic humour and tackling of too many issues – from the homeless to mental health to the city’s opiate addiction to the environment and yes, politics.  “Try not to kill any of my friends,” says the female librarian to the cops at one point.

The film opens a few insightful possibilities.  Do the homeless protect and look after other homeless?  The film seems to think so.  Estevez takes the notion one step further when they take down the library after a cold Arctic blast hits the city resulting in -10C. 

To Estevez’s credit, a few bits of his script are quite good.  His film also propagates the main worthy cause of the homeless, despite looking too ambitious.  The film has a twist in the story despite an Hollywood happy ending.

Estevez and Slater are both good but it is Baldwin who steals the show, showing he can play serious as well as comedy (Saturday Night Live’s Donald Trump).

The film was shot in the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.  The story was inspired and a little glamourized by the moving 2007 essay “Written Off” by Chip Ward, a now-retired assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System.

This is a film that presents problems with no solutions leaving it somewhat disappointing.  One might argue however, that these problems can never be solved, but Estevez should provide some ray of hope.  THE PUBLIC is a not half bad mix comedy/drama relevant social issues that seems too obvious in pleasing the audience.


Film Review: MARY MAGDALENE (UK/USA/Australia 2018) **

Mary Magdalene Poster

The story of Mary Magdalene.


Garth Davis

Comes Easter usually come a slew of Christianity films.  MARY MAGDALENE is one of them that does not have the Christian faith directly as a theme.  Mary Magdalene is one of the women who encountered Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible.

Besides being set in Biblical times and a film that has Jesus as a subject, there are other reasons that might attract moviegoers to MARY MAGDALENE.  The film features two stars Rooney Mara and Joachim Phoenix who normally play shit disturbers – Mara in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Phoenix in INHERENT VICE and YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, now playing a super good Mary and the Son of God, Jesus.

Though Mary is believed by may to be a reformed prostitute, no such mention of this fact is evident i any part of the film.  When the film begins, Mary is seen delivering a bay saving the mothers life before being offered as a bride to a man she does not love.  She declines to continue the typical mother and wife role set in her village of those times.  Mary and  her village are under the rule of King Herod, which the audience is informed is a puppet ruler of the Roans who has beheaded John the Baptist for preaching the Kingdom of God.  The Mary Magdalene character is present in the  4 Gospels of the new Testament that account for the life of Jesus on Earth.  The life of Jesus is in the background in the film with Mary as the protagonist.

The film’s setting is Galilee.   The cinematography is impressive and most of the scenes are spectacular to look at – with the lake in the background (according to the press notes) or sea (according to the Bible).  

MARY MAGDALENE fails for a number of reasons for two main reason – the miscasting and the fact that thesis one boring film.   Whenever Mara appears, despite her angelic face, one can always recall her bad ass roles.  The same can be said for Phoenix only worse.  It is totally laughable when Phoenix as Jesus starts preaching doing good deeds.  Director Davis also sues the film to promote the feminine cause – the role of women in society.  The film drags on with event after event that does not really connect the audience with the narrative.  No one really cares if Mary fall in love or marries her soul mate either.

The film has an eclectic cast that includes Tahar Rah as Judas Iscariot, Tcheky Karyi as Elisha and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples (I did not know Peter was black and that Judas was Arab).  One can understand current films striving to be politically correct to further the causes of feminism and racism.

For MARY MAGDALENE – see it for what it is worth, which is not much.  Better to spend your money on Easter eggs!


Film Review: SIR (India/France 2018) ****

Sir Poster
A prosperous young Indian man falls in love with his servant, a widow with the dream of becoming a tailor.


Rohena Gera


Rohena Gera

In the  bustling city of Mumbai, India, Ratna (Tillotama Shome) works as domestic live-in maid for Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), a man from a wealthy family.   When the film opens Ashwin, whom Ratna address as SIR throughout the film, has just returned home after his wedding had been cancelled.  Ratner and the other help are all recalled back to work, all wondering what had happened to their boss.  A glance at a TV show Ashwin is watching reveals some transgender program, implying that Aswin might be gay.  But it turns out that he is straight but not ready for marriage.    Although Ashwin seems to have it all, Ratna can sense that he has given up on his dreams and is somewhat lost… On the other hand, Ratna who seems to have nothing, is full of hope and works determinedly towards her dream.  Ratner’s dream is to become a fashion designer.   Ashwin’s is to be a writer.  Ashwin has written half a novel when he was in America studying.   As these two worlds collide and the two individuals connect, the barriers between them seem only more insurmountable.

SIR is a film about chasing once dreams with a dash of romanticism added.  But the film, though a crowd pleaser unfolds in an unconventional way in an unconventional setting that is at times astounding as audiences are often unaware of the cultural differences of people in India.  The film is shot simultaneously in Hindi and a bit of English.

The film’s best moment occurs in the scene where SIR tells his maid, Ratna to go follow her dreams.  It is a moment of transformation in the life of SIR or Ashwin where the defeated man suddenly sees hope in life to the point that he is now encouraging the one who had always been following her dreams.

The film also reveals the difference in class systems, especially for India where there is a different caste system.  A maid can never marry her employer not only for difference in wealth or social standing but because it is totally forbidden.  The secretly budding romance thus takes a completely different turn in this Indian story.

SIR is a film that ends in ways both predictable and unpredictable.  At least it does not turn up the traditional happy Hollywood ending.  It ends at a point where the two protagonists each enter a new stage in life where anything can happen.  And this is the wonder of life – and with all its surprises.

SIR turns out to be a beautifully told feel-good Cinderella story set in Mumbai that is enhanced by its culturally rich atmosphere.  An entertaining and surprise gem opening this week!

The film has won two major awards at Cannes including the prestigious Critics Week Grand Prize and numerous Audience Awards in film festivals around the world where it was shown including Amsterdam, Oslo, Portland, Minsk and Cabourg.


Film Review: LONG DAY’S JOUNEY INTO NIGHT (China 2018) ***

Long Day's Journey Into Night Poster

A man went back to Guizhou, found the tracks of a mysterious woman. He recalls the summer he spent with her twenty years ago.


Gan Bi


Gan Bi

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is the title of the famous Eugene O’Neill play that takes place in a day of family squabbling – the day being just like any other day in the life of that family.  There is nothing in common with director Ban Li’s film and the Eugene O’Neill play, except for the title and that the days are long and hard for the film’s protagonist.

The film has an hour long 3-D version, so be reminded to pick up the 3D glasses.  The 3-D sequence, which made the film more well-known occurs when Luo, the central character enters a movie theatre and puts on his 3-D glasses.   When this happens, Luo enters a different world where progress in life can be attained.

The movie plays an important part of the film.  Life is mixed with truths and lies but movies, as Luo mentions (in voiceover) is all fiction.

Bi’s film flits through dreams, reality and imagination, often with blurry images thought the past, present and dreams.  It is occasionally hard to follow as the main character Luo shifts through through different times and reality.  Bi’s film has a loose storyline in which nothing much happens. 

The story follows Luo, a n aimless drifter who moves around the Chinese city of Kaili (Director Gan Bi’s first film was called KAILI BLUES).  Different people cross paths with him.  There is the dead friend who likely got murdered for his gambling debt, the dead friend’s mother (a cameo appearance by Sylvia Chang), a dog, a boy (Hong-chi Lee) he plays ping pong with and a girl, Kaizhen who he chases.

The film’s blurred and saturated images immediately reminds one of the films by Wong Kar-wei. though not as good, since Wong often had Christopher Doyle to do his cinematography.

For strict cineastes who enjoy moody atmospheric films in which nothing much happens, LONG DAY’S JOUNEY INTO NIGHT will satisfy.

The film has a special limited engagement at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and other cinemas around the city.