Film Review: BOOKSMART (USA 2019) ***** Top 10

Booksmart Poster
Trailer

On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.

Director:

Olivia Wilde

Writers:

Susanna FogelEmily Halpern 

BOOKSMART is a high school teen comedy centring on two female best friends about to graduate high school and enter college.  Before one dismisses this film as a crass no-brainer, a closer look should be taken at BOOKSMART as it proves it to be perhaps the sleeper of 2019.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are two high school seniors who have been best friends since childhood and are considered by their peers as academic.  They are however, rather pretentious and lame – particularly Molly.  Amy has been out for two years and has a crush on a girl named Ryan, whom Molly urges Amy to attempt to forge a relationship with before they graduate.   The film is about partying.  And then it gets serious while not losing the comedy.  For Molly and Amy, it is all about getting into the best colleges.  They have both studied hard and managed to get into the best college.  When they discover that their classmates also enter colleges like Stanford and Harvard but have spent their time partying instead of studying like them, they freak out and decide to do one big unforgettable party before they graduate the next day.  The big task to find that big party.  While they venture the night, the unexpected happens.

BOOKSMART is fortunate to have as it two lead performers two exceptionally talented, yet to be discovered new actresses.  Their comic talent can first be witnessed in the film’s first key scene where they meet in the morning, doing their rap movies before going school – one of the film’s most hilarious scenes that seem unmatched.  The funniest one is arguably the one with Amy’s toy Panda, Ling Ling.  So good they are, that they cannot be competed even by the likes of veterans like Lisa Kudrow and Jason Sudeikis.  

The film benefits from the skilful comedic writing team of Emily Halpern, Sarah Hskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman.  Besides being hilariously funny with laugh out loud moments throughout the entire film, the film covers current key issues like coming out in high school, bullying, coming-of-age, stereotypes, doing good in third world countries like Africa and high school education.  The film proudly demonstrates how cool it is to be gay – a positive image that teens who go see this film will appreciate.  

The impressive soundtrack comprises a variety of music from rap to alternative.  Music is by Dan the Alternator.  The comedic set-ups are inventive working well in line with the main plot.  The best one is the high school hall scene where the two friends enter school amidst all the joy and cheer of the second last day of school, that scene ending with a condom of water bursting on Molly’s face.  But watch out for Molly’s high school graduation speech, one of the film’s prized moments.

BOOKSMART does for high school what NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE did for college while adding in the buddy factor as in MICHELLE AND ROMY’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION.  BOOKSMART is silly and smart at the same time.  Everyone in the filmmaking team knows humour and how to be funny.  It is not surprising that the film’s executive producers are Will Farrell and Adam McKay.  The film moves so fastened furious that the film demands second viewing to get all the jokes.  Olivia Wilde’s BOOKSMART is nothing short of brilliant and the first film on my Top 10 list of 2019.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0Mb6BgnhS0

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Film Review: ASK DR. RUTH (USA 2018) ***

Ask Dr. Ruth Poster
Trailer

Charting the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist.

Director:

Ryan White

Dr. Ruth Westheimer seems to be the perfect subject of a documentary.  Dr. Ruth was famous as a sex therapist, a TV personality and an American icon.  She has a good sense of humour and is a good sport.  She is still alive and healthy enough to provide candid interviews in this doc on her life.  She also has a colourful past the makes the doc more personal as well.

Ryan White’s (THE KEEPERS, THE CASE AGAINST 8) Ask Dr. Ruth traces the incredible life of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a Holocaust survivor who became America’s most famous sex therapist.  With her diminutive frame, thick German accent and uninhibited approach, Dr. Ruth transformed the conversation around sexuality.  As she approaches her 90th birthday and shows no signs of slowing down, Dr. Ruth revisits her painful past and her path to a career at the forefront of the sexual revolution. 

  Ryan’s film covers all the details following Dr. Ruth as she travels from New York (where she’s lived in the same apartment for 54 years) to Switzerland (where she was sent to a Jewish orphanage at age 10 from her native Germany, never to see her parents again) to Israel (where she trained as a sniper).  Two highlights will bring tears to viewers’ eyes.  (1) A sweet meet up with her childhood boyfriend.  (2) The discovery of her parents’ fate.

  Dr. Ruth’s childhood is recalled through her own diaries, with storybook animation (as opposed to clumsy re-enactments) filling in the gaps.  The film also shows lively excerpts from her hit radio show Sexually Speaking and her TV appearances with the likes of Arsenio Hall and Johnny Carson.  “Is it all right to make noise while having sex?” asks one man to Dr. Ruth in one of her open sessions.  “Only of you do not wake up the wife,” she answers.  Her shows are always humorous if not insightful – sex-wise.

  After two early marriages, Dr. Ruth’s third – to her beloved Manfred Westheimer – lasted for over 35 years until his death in 1997.  The day he died is the only time their daughter ever saw her mother cry.  The film includes interviews with her grown up children.

But why has Dr. Ruth done wrong?  Nobody is perfect.  The only instance White looks at the other side of Dr. Ruth is when he interviews an expert psychologist who claims Dr. Ruth is impulsive and should study more of her patients before dishing out advice.  Dr. Ruth claims tat she has helped countless people overcome their sex problems when they never before dared to talk about the subject of sex.  True, she also became a champion for causes like homosexuality, fighting to educate AIDs in a time that nobody dared to speak up.

White has assembled quite the exhaustive footage on his subject resulting in an informative and entertaining documentary.  The film premiere at Hot Docs to favourable reviews.

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

Film Review: THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (USA 2018) ***1/2

The Biggest Little Farm Poster
Trailer

Documentarian John Chester and his wife Molly work to develop a sustainable farm on 200 acres outside of Los Angeles.

Director:

John Chester

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM traces the difficult life of a couple as they leave city life to establish a farm that are and grew.

As the song in the famous TV series goes: “Green Acres is the place to be; farm living is the life for me; land spread out so far and wide; Goodbye Manhattan just give me that countryside.”  

These are the words pretty much in the minds of the couple, John and Molly.  They attribute the change from city to farm life to their barking black dog who cannot keep quiet when left alone.  The only option, besides putting it down is to move to a farm.  They settle on one an hour north of Lo Angeles, which they fondly name Apricot Farm.

John the subject is also an Emmy Award winning director.  In the doc, they establish 

that like the comedy Green Acres, everything can also go wrong from the wild California fires to drought and flooding but they always somehow get back on their feet.  One must give the couple  top credit for perseverance.

The film preaches the natural order of things – how the eco-cycle should not be broken.  There is a sad scene of a coyote being shot at one point in the film with John’s voiceover lamenting the deed.  John is sad at what he had done.  He had sworn it would never have come to any sort of killing.  But John reveals eventually how nature performs her miracles.  The ducks devour the snails that were destroying the crop; the coyotes eat up the gophers that were eating the face crops and at one point, the coyote population was diminished due to lack of food, thus increasing the gopher population (poor cute creatures) that were again taken down by snakes,

The film turns too preachy at the end even telling the audience to go to the website to continue their story.  But at least the message is worthy enough that the preachiness be overlooked. 

THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM is a crowd pleasing documentary. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival.  It had its second screening at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was named second runner-up for the People’s Choice Award: Documentaries.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfDTM4JxHl8

Film Review: PETERLOO (UK 2018) ***** Top 10

Peterloo Poster
Trailer

The story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.

Director:

Mike Leigh

Writer:

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh’s PETERLOO (named after the Battle of Waterloo as this other massacre took place at Peter’s Field) is described in the press notes as a historical drama that portrays the epic events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester turned bloody.  British government forces charged into a crowd of over 60,000 that had gathered to demand political reform and protest against rising poverty.  Many protestors were killed and hundreds more injured, sparking a nationwide outcry.

The outcry was made known by the Guardian newspaper thus re-defining a moment in British democracy.

It is a 150 minute film which builds up to the last 30 minutes when the bloodshed begins.  The audience is aware of what will happen, but it is a climax of the film the audience dreads.  The build up is nothing short of brilliant, resulting in an expected brilliant from an equally brilliant writer/director who has delivered great films in the past – both of historical epics (MR. TURNER) and personal dramas (VERA DRAKE, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, SECRTS AND LIES).

  The film is bookended with the presence of a young, handsome soldier dressed in red coat, who at the start of the film is seen surviving from the Battle of Waterloo.  This is Joseph (David Moorst) who returns to his loving but poor family in Manchester.  In contrast, the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, is rewarded with a staggering £750,000 from Parliament.  Joseph cannot find a job, his mother trades pies for eggs, and the rest of his family works in the cotton mill for pittance.  With no voting privileges, bad harvests and a restriction on corn imports, the labouring classes of Northern England are in a bad way.

Finally the poor and oppressed decide to make their say and plot out a plan for change.

They enlist an initially reluctant but charismatic orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) from
London to speak at a big rally in St. Peter’s Field.  Dressed in their Sunday best, thousands of men, women and children come to hear what Hunt has to say.  Joseph and his family are among them. 

There many reasons to see this historical epic.  The most important one is to listen (and hence appreciate) the well written and spoken oratorical dialogue delivered by the actors in glorious English that is seldom heard in films.  Hearing the speeches reminds one of the oratorical debates that used to take place in ones schools.

PETERLOO encompasses both the historical epic with the tragedies of personal drama.  The film is full of scenes wth crowds of the poor, with dingy clothes and bad teeth, often dirty and unwashed but then putting other Sunday best for the St Peter’s gathering.

  Cinematography is by Dick Pope (10 Leigh films), who creates a film resembling an Old Master painting.  The film is written and directed by Mike Leigh, who grew up in Greater Manchester, just a short walk from St. Peter’s Field. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhSv5-frnxk

Film Review: TOLKIEN (USA 2019)

Tolkien Poster
Trailer

Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Director:

Dome Karukoski

J. R. R. Tolkien (pronounced tol-keen, as Tolkien’s professor’s pronunciation is corrected), the LORD OF THE RINGS / HOBBIT famous author whose books have been made even more famous by the Peter Jackson films is the subject of the new bio-pic of the same name.  The film traces the story of the author’s life and includes the influences on the books.  Those familiar with the books will find the film more fascinating than others, who might treat the exercise as another period piece bio-pic.  TOKIEN is a handsomely mounted period piece production though be it a dull one at that, the film often trudging through the narrative just Tolkien the soldier makes through the mud of the trenches on the western front during World War I.

The film’s core has Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult) sick with trench fever fighting in World War I at the Battle the Somme.  Tolkien holds the rank of lieutenant.  With the aid of a faithful soldier, a diminutive Sam (Craig Roberts) who helps him search for a friend of his TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society)  club fellowship.  The film cuts to Tolkien’s life from childhood, living and playing the lush green English countryside (in the Midlands) to his schooling and friendship with four others fellow artists that they swear ‘to change the world through art’ together. Tolkien also falls in love with Edith Brett (Lily Collins), but is prevented from seeing her by his Guardian, Father Francis Morgan (Colm Meaney).  It is a choice of education over romance that the Father decides for Tolkien but the couple’s bond of romance remains strong.

While Tolkein’s life unfolds, director Karukowski constantly reminds the audiences of the influences on his writing.  These includes his war experiences, his brotherhood (hence ‘The Brotherhood of the Rings’), Sam, Tolkien’s friend in the trenches is like Grodo’s best buddy in the books and the beauty of the countryside akin to the beauty of the shire where the Hobbits live.  But the film is a slow march, the film often lingering at the landscape, scenery and sets tab on the emotions of the characters.  The film’s war segments which transforms into fire as breathed out from the mouth of dragons s in the Lord of the Rings stories look a desperate attempt at connecting the author’s experiences to his writing.  Tolkien’s aptness at the creation of his own unique language takes enables him to complete his Oxford studies under Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi) is yet another influence,

Finnish director Dome Karukowski, one of the most famous directors of his country has been chosen to do this bio, as he has done bios before, most notably TOM OF FINLAND his previous film that was Finland’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award though it did not make the short list.  It was not a very good film, short of passion and inspiration which the director has ensured does not happen again in TOLKIEN.  Still, Karukoski fails to engage his audience, due primary from the uncomfortable intercutting of the world War scenes with the rest of his story.  Just when the audience is drawn into the story, the film shifts to the trenches.

Irish actor Colm Meaney (who usually plays comedy) delivers a solid and serious portrayal of Father Francis Morgan who restricts Tolkien’s freedom.  His character is reminiscent of one of directors Karukowski’s previous character in THE GRUMP, one of his other films that made North American distribution.

The film is ultimately properly concluded with titles that summarize what director Karukoski had been attempted to do with his film.  Too bad all that all these should have been made clear without the titles.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZ1vn85iQRE

Film Review: TIFF CINEMATHEQUE Presents – Files from Iceland

TIFF CINEMATHEQUE Presents – Files from Iceland

The title of this new series on Icelandic films is Wayward Heroes: A Survey of Modern Icelandic Cinema because that is calling the series what it is.  Those who are fortunate to have traveled to Iceland (myself included) will reminisce of the amazing natural beauty of the island as they watch these films, many of which celebrate the landscape and beauty of the country,

The total of 10 films showcase the diversity of genres explored by Icelandic filmmakers, from Baltasar Kormákur’s Nordic noir Jar City to Ágúst Gudmundsson’s deadpan comedy Golden Sands, Gudný Halldórsdóttir’s absurdist Under the Glacier to Baldvin Z’s post–financial crisis drama Life in a Fishbowl.

The series will also feature introductions by three of the directors included in the retrospective: Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, who is considered to be the modern godfather of Icelandic film; Kristín Jóhannesdóttir, known for her masterful use of magical realism; and Róbert I. Douglas, whose satirical looks at Icelandic society premiered to substantial domestic box-office success in the early ’00s. 

For a complete program, ticket pricing and descriptions of each film in the series check the TIFF website at: 

tiff.net

Capsule Reviews of Selected Films:

CHILDREN OF NATURE  (Iceland 1991  ) **** 

Directed by  Fridrik Thór Fridriksson

The only Icelandic film ever nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s CHILDREN OF NATURE is the story of two seniors who escape their old age home because they’ve nature.  The film begins sadly with Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson) biding a silent farewell to the farm he has devoted his life to as he hoots his dog and prepares to move in with his grown married daughter in Reykjavík.  He is eventually put into a retirement home, where he is unexpectedly reunited with an old flame, Stella (Sigrídur Hagalín).  Stella’s words to the retirement home’s attendants: “You have no right to decide for me,” is indeed very sad and moving and has the audience rooting for her.  They flee the home, stealing a jeep to travel back to their country home while the baffled police gather the clues.  Extremely well put together and one of the most effective dramas about old age I have ever seen.  The film also celebrates the countryside beauty of Iceland.

JAR CITY (Myrin) (Iceland/Denmark/Germany 2006) ***1/2

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

As Detective Erlendur (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) investigates what he calls a messy and pointless murder where the culprit does not even bother to hide the evidence, he uncovers a three decade long crime involving a rape and some genetic dis-order.  Erlender is one tough cop and unafraid to go all out to solve the murder.  Director Kormákur (he made the Hollywood film ADRIFT and is now remaking Hollywood version of JAR CITY) ups the angst in this gruesome mystery by making the atmosphere so foul (Erlendur is shown eating  sheep’s head; he uncovers a rat infested wrapped body among the pipes) that one can almost smell the stench and rot. At the same time, another story of pathologist Örn (Atli Rafn Sigurdsson) embarking on a parallel odyssey searching for the cause of his little daughter’s incurable hereditary disease is intercut with the murder mystery.  The two stories are neatly tied together in one of the most satisfying and grossest mystery thrillers seen in a while.  The film also makes extensive use of the Icelandic landscape which makes this film a must in the Icelandic Films series.

UNDER THE GLACIER (to be reviewed and posted Saturday)

WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES (Iceland 1984) **

Directed by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

WHERE THE RAVEN FLIES is the first of Gunnlaugsson’s epic Viking trilogy.  The story unfolds in a straight forward fashion, opening as a young Irish boy witnessing the slaughter of his parents and the kidnapping of his older sister by marauding Icelandic warriors.  The film quickly moves years later, the now grown boy (Jakob Thór Einarsson) now arriving in Iceland with vengeance on his mind.  He systematically sows discord among the Viking clan that killed his family, secretly murdering some and playing off their suspicions of one another as he works his way towards their leader.  The film takes its time to establish any interest as the start of the film looks cheesy and cheap due to the music and badly staged set-ups.  The film eventually picks up with a bit of violence and Icelandic flare.  The film has promise but could have been better.

Film Review: THE HUSTLE (USA 2019)

The Hustle Poster
Trailer

Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson star as female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, who team up to take down the men who have wronged them.

Director:

Chris Addison

Writers:

Stanley Shapiro (screenplay by), Paul Henning (screenplay by) | 5 more credits »

THE HUSTLE (original title NASTY WOMEN)is a remake of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (Michale Caine and Steve martin) which is a remake of  the sophisticated comedy, BEDTIME STORY (Marlon Brando and David Niven)  One can see the casting of Anne Hathaway who looks posh and refined playing the suave con-artist in opposition to the Rebel Wilson’s con-artist.

The film is set in one of the smaller Riviera towns in the south of France.  The town is not big enough for two con artists.  The posh one, Josephine (Hathaway) plans to get the crass one, Lonnie (Wilson who also produced the film) out of the town so she can do all the cons herself.  But Amy, crass as she is still succeeds in her crooked endeavours.

Though the film can hardly be described as good, one must give credit to both Hathaway and Wilson for trying hard.  Wilson tries the hardest, putting her figure often to ridicule to get a few extra laughs while Hathaway uses her posh exterior to inject any class into the movie.  If Wilson is the sort of comedienne that annoys you, best stay away from THE HUSTLE as they are lots and lots of her comedy.  

The basic premise of the original films is kept in THE HUSTLE while a few updating touches are made.  The target is also tech savvy and has acquired his wealth from owning a lot of stock from his own company.  The enmity between the two con-artists is still present as the wager of a sum of money that will be won based who gets to bed the prized catch.  The lead con-artists have been switched from male to female for the main reason as to update political correctness with more female oriented films.  The reason given in the film is that females make better con artists than their male counterparts is that females are smarter and can prey on man’s weakness for the opposite sex.  As such the male prize in the story looks rather unattractive as a male specimen, looking nerdish and immature.  In real fact, the two female con artists do not do anything really smart either.  The main plot takes a while before settling in, allowing Wilson (this is clearly her vehicle) to do her own thing and her own comedy. 

Whether based on the two previous films or not, the story comes off as entirely predictable, right up to the very end.  When the credits finally roll – what a relief, what transpires is yet another tired and unnecessary make of the the 2 films that could be re-watched instead of this blatant and dull affair.  The only ones that turn up hustled are the audience that pay good money to see what has been advertised as a comedy.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_j5hwooOHVE