Film Review: SWORD OF TRUST (USA 2019) ***

Sword of Trust Poster
Trailer

Cynthia and Mary show up to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from her deceased grandfather, but the only item she receives is an antique sword that was believed by her grandfather to be proof that the South won the Civil War.

Director:

Lynn Shelton

Writers:

Lynn SheltonMichael Patrick O’Brien (as Mike O’Brien)

WORD OF TRUST is a low budget American comedy co-written by director Lynn Shelton and Mike O’Brien that includes improvisation from the actors.  The premise is the SWORD OF TRUST of the film title, an actual sword.

When Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) show up to collect Cynthia’s inheritance from her deceased grandfather, the only item she’s received is (no house) an antique sword that he believed to be proof that the South won the Civil War.  The sword comes with two items of authenticity, a certificate and a painting that stands for a photograph.  The script takes pains to make all this believable, as it is the reason that all incidents that follow that place.  

The two attempt to unload the object to a curmudgeonly pawnshop owner Mel (Marc Maron, “GLOW”) and his man-child sidekick Nathaniel (Jon Bass, Molly’s Game).  After it becomes clear that the film centres on these four, the film starts taking hold of the audience’s interest.

When Mel and Nathaniel discover there’s a black market for the relic, the two pairs reluctantly join forces to sell this rarefied ‘prover item’ to the highest bidder.  The adventure that ensues takes the four of them on a wild journey into the depths of conspiracy theory and Southern disillusionment.  

It is difficult to tell what is improvised and what is written in the script.  This is a good thing as the film and story flows smoothly throughout most the film.

The films starts running into trouble in the last third.  The chemistry among the four begin to wear off.  The singular jokes of Nathaniel being a man child, Mel being a radical grumpy codger made good and Cynthia and Mary having a same-sex relationship get tiresome.  Adding more story to the plot and the introduction of more characters in the third part signals Shelton’s desperation to get her film on track.

Director Shelton gives herself a cameo as Mel’s ex-lover, a dog addict who never quite get her act in life together.  She shows herself apt in dramatic comedy improvisation and is a pleasure to watch.

The best thing about SWORD OF TRUST are the individual personalities on display.  Each eccentric is ‘special’ in his and her  own way.  Each of the four actors are able to create uniques characters of distinct imperfections and strengths.  Their interaction with each other works well.  But by pitting them together in a plot that involves hitmen, con men and crooks ultimately destroys what has been carefully created.  Director Shelton has made similar small films like the YOUR SISTER’S SISTER and the more recent HUMPDAY.

SWORD OF TRUST works well for the most part but fizzles out of steam at the end, once the tired antics of the characters grow tiresome.  It is still encouraging to watch small films like SWORD OF TRUST given a chance in the market where blockbusters like THE LION KING which opens the same week dominate,

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

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Film Review: THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (USA 2019) ***1/2

The Art of Self-Defense Poster
Trailer

A man is attacked at random on the street. He enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei, in an effort to learn how to defend himself.

Director:

Riley Stearns

Writer:

Riley Stearns

One must admire and give writer/director Riley Stearns credit for going against the natural flow of the typical movie.  Though described as a dark comedy, the film turns so dark towards the last third, that it can hardly be described as a comedy any longer but some psychological mind-blower.   The story turns completely unpredictable with a plot twist that is, when one looks back quite obvious, but director Stearns has steered his audience completely in a direction that they definitely will not see what is coming next.  At the same time, the hapless hero turns and changes into a selfless all-conquering hero, sacrificing everything he has for others, a selfless act while defeating his villain in a duel to the death.

The plot revolves around a mild-mannered accountant called Casey (Jesse Eisenberg).  One evening while returning home after buying dog food, he is beaten up by a motorcycle gang and left for dead.  In hospital recovering, his boss Grant gives him a few days off.  He comes across a Karate class and enrols in the day class while learning the art of Karate, eventually excelling in it.  But it is his character that is in question not his fighting ability.  He learns that the has to overcome his cowardly attitude. This he does, in what are the film’s most hilarious moments.

Jesse Eisenberg apparent took Karate classes a few weeks for preparation for this role, though he has said that he took it as child.  He is convincing enough.  Though Eisenberg usually takes roles where he speaks an incredible amount of words per minute as in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE HUMMMINGBIRD PROJECT, this is one film where he has little dialogue.  The film often plays its dark comedy dead-pan with as little words spoken as well.  Whenever a dramatic conversation comes along, director Stearn often turns off the music and background noise.  The effect is an uncomfortable silence punctuated by the script’s dialogue.

Stearn’s wife, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead had signed on to star in the film in 2016.  But the couple separated in 2017 with the result that Winstead is no longer in the cast.  Making a film is a lot of work and one can assume that the work must have got into conflict with their relationship.  The film though appearing totally male-chauvinist is in reality pro-feminist.  Karate is described in the film as the art of achieving total masculine perfection with none of the other gender having to play any part.  Of course, the concept is wrong which the film thankfully proves at the end.  The film is also quite homo-erotic especially in two scenes, where the male karat students do cool-down exercises bare-bodied massaging each other or when practising certain moves also with little clothes on.

As such, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE might turn out a hard-sell.  Besides a few uncomfortable scenes, audiences will find it difficult in the film’s transition from comedy to psychological thriller but those willing to accept the change will find Stearn’s film a daring, bold and refreshing change from the norm.  The film is a winner!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bms6Hba-3A

Film Review: THE FAREWELL (USA 2019) ***

The Farewell Poster
Trailer

A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Director:

Lulu Wang

Writer:

Lulu Wang

Awkwafina (last seen in CRAZY RICH ASIANS) gets a starring role as Billi, a Chinese American who learns that her beloved grandmother aka Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still living in China has three months to live after being diagnosed with cancer.  The family decide not to tell Nai Nai of her illness. Instead the family organize a wedding so that the entire family will travel back to China to spend time with her before she passes away.  Hence the film title THE FAREWELL. Billi was not invited to the wedding/farewell as the family fear that she cannot hide her feelings but she shows up in China unannounced from New York City.

The titles cleverly state at the start of the film; “Based on an actual lie.”  THE FAREWELL starts off a little humorously as director Wang introduces the somewhat dysfunctional family who aim to do good.  The idea is that the family takes on the emotional burden off the grandmother if she does not know.  Half way through the movie, it will hit (as it did me) whether what transpires is legal. i.e. will the doctors allow that illness be kept for the patient as requested by the family.  The answer is supplied right outwards – a good thing – in the middle of the movie.  It is not allowed in America but is allowed in China.

Director Wang is more serious that light in her treatment of the material.  Though there are always laughs on the horizon of every scene, the sombre mood is also pressing.  Despite the simple story which is suspense less, Wang keeps her film running at a good pace.  It is more the family interaction at play than the knowledge of whether Nai Nai will discover the truth at the end.  At the end of the matter, whether Nai Nai finds out or who tells her is immaterial to the plot.

Wang captures the behavioural  mores typical Chinese family.  Important are the big meals,  the obsessive ‘fussy’ care over the young and old, the need to keep a stiff upper lip among others.  Other issues the are also important include the relationship between mother and daughter-in-law.  Billi’s mother complains that Nai Nai was always boss in the home when she married her son, which implies the probable reason they left China for America.

The farewell is not the perfect drama as the film contains many glaring flaws including the tacked on happy ending.  Still THE FAREWELL is a sincere drama aided by a solid dramatic performance by Awkwafina who previously only has been seen in comedic roles.  The film is entertaining and sheds light on the difference of cultures, in a good way, and also of respect and the difficulty a family to get along. There is nothing forced in the film, and the story unfolds smoothly that should leave the audience not only satisfied but with a  warm fuzzy feeling.

Chinese American films have always done well and have been well made like this one (and with a strong feminine protagonist too), the recent Netflix original, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE and of course, CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  There is a large target audience of North American Chinese and hopefully, there will be more films to cater towards this group.

Trailer:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RofpAjqwMa8

Film Review: MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE (USA 2019) ***

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love Poster
Trailer

An in-depth look at the relationship between the late musician Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen.

Director:

Nick Broomfield

MARIANNE & LEONARD is the in depth look of the stormy relationship between author/poet/singer/so writer Canadian Leonard Coen and his muse and love, Norwegian Marianne Ehlen.  Those who love Cohen’s music will be pleased to note that the doc is interspersed with hissings include g the famous one, So, Long Marianne which he wrote for her.

Documentarian Nick Broomfield is an award winning filmmaker well known for his serial killer docs and his most famous THE LEADER, HIS DRIVER AND THE DRIVER’S WIFE.  He is a filmmaker who knows how to capture the audience’s attention with his sect and he does the same with MARIANNE & LEONARD.  The segment of how Leonard competed one concerti  Jerusalem after shaving on acid illustrates this fact.  another part was the partaking of ‘desert dust’ with a tip of a needle dipped in it not he tongue to get high for a full 23 hours.

The first third of he film shows Cohen’s early life during the hippie ‘flower people’ days.  Marianne anthem experimented with LSD which serves as an inspiration for his work.  It is amazing the amount of archive footage that is available and on display on film.  It is a wonder why Cohen was not  filmmaker himself.

Broomfield’s most entertaining interviewee is the wife of Cohen’s contemporary, Aviva Layton.  Not only does she provide insight on Cohen’s genius, but she talks about other taboos like her husband perhaps having slept with Cohen’s mother.  Cohen’s Jewish roots are also discussed as well as its influence brought into the picture.

Director Broomfield also brings out the human side of the artist with all his faults.  Cohen went into depression mode after his novel “Beautiful Losers’ failed to sell.  Leonard’s downfall was his depression which was quite bad at one point.  As in the recent Ari Aster’s horror film MIDSOMMAR, MARIANNE & LEONARD is also a break-up film.  Broomfield illustrated that as much a muse and lover to Leonard Marianne was, they were not meant to be with each other.  Marianne had to make up her mind to break up.  One of them was always angry and destructive.  The film also looked at Marianne’s son, Axel from her first husband.  There were quite a lot of casualties.  Axel had to be institutionalized.  Marianne had an abortion when pregnant with Leonard’s child.  Another tragedy was the Johnsons, the family they stayed with at Hydra one of the Greek islands.  The parents both died and the children also died one by one from suicide, drugs and drink with only one of them surviving.  For all that is worth, tMarianne and Leonard’s relationship can be described as bittersweet while it lasted, with a last declaration of love t Marianne’s hospital death bedside.

The film also looks at the flower, hippie and acids culture.  Despite the peace and love the culture was supposed to propagate.  Just like the island of Hydra, people from there cannot function int he real world.

Broomfeld proves that there is much to be learnt from his doc on Leonard and Marianne providing an insight on life based on the experiences of failed humans.  Other lessons from the film include the need to solve ones problems besides being in love.  The film is shot in both English and Swedish.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB6nIzPf9r8&feature=youtu.be

Film Review: STUBER (USA 2019) ***

Stuber Poster
Trailer

A detective recruits his Uber driver into an unexpected night of adventure.

Director:

Michael Dowse

STUBER is an action buddy comedy involving a blind cop and a Uber driver that the L.A. cop hijacked in order to take down some drug Kung-fu fighting villain.  It is not a high brow film project.  For the promo screening, I could not get anyone to come see the free movie because of its theme.  But if one goes with the lowest of expectations, STUBER will turn put to be surprisingly entertaining.

One would not think of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorcese directing  STUBER.  But a good choice is London (London, Ontario that is) born Michael Dowse who made the Canadian cult-hit FUBAR and the impressive British feature about a DJ gone blind called IT’S ALL GONE PETE TONG.  Coincidentally, the L.A. cop, Vic (Dave Bautista, THE AVENGERS movies) is also going blind.  The Uber driver Stu (Kumail Nanjiani, THE BIG SICK) acts as his eyes.  If all this sounds pretty corny, it all is.  But the fact that this would pose a challenge to the scriptwriter, Tripper Clancy and director.  It would seem all to easy to dismiss the film as a wasted exercise, but given the fact, Dowse and his scriptwriter has risen above the dauntless task.

The film’s first 15 minutes is all edge of the seat excitement as Vic and his partner, Sara (Karen Gillan) attempt to take down an escaping Korean drug Lord, Oka Teijo (Indonesian Martial-Arts star, Iko Uwais, THE RAID, THE RAID 2, STAR WAR: THE FORCE AWAKENS)

On the negative side, the buddy buddy stuff has been seen before and done better in other buddy cop films.  The difference in characters – Stu is so mild mannered that he cannot express hi love towards his girlfriend while Vic is so stone-hearted cannot communicate with his artistic daughter.  The Ryan Gosling gay joke where Stu believes in brain over brawn is the typical homophobic shit that goes round in male chauvinistic films.  The film is also too male dominated, where females are given just a token nod.  Vic’s female partner is killed off in the film’s first 15 minute, the daughter has to struggle to become a sculptor while the chief villain turns out female.  Stu’s girlfriend is finally revealed as a real bitch who not only not now what she wants but a really floozy.

The buddy chemistry between Bautista and Nanjiani works well.  Their fight in the warehouse looks so similar to the Jonathan Winters garage destruction scene in Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD that I could almost be certain Dowse took his inspiration there. 

The film ends in the Christmas season where the film delivers a few neat surprises.  But the film has so far obtained mixed reviews from critics.  And understandably why as the film is a mixed bag of tricks.  Go see STUBER with as little expectations as possible and you won’t get disappointed.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5l6a5RiR1E

Film Review: POINT BLANK (USA 2019) ***

Point Blank Poster
To save his pregnant wife, an emergency room nurse teams up with an injured murder suspect in a race against time, rival criminals and renegade cops.

Director:

Joe Lynch

Writers:

Fred Cavayé (characters), Adam G. Simon (screenplay)

The Netflix original movie which opens this week is an action thriller not to be confused with the John Boorman 1967 classic crime-noir of the same title POINT BLANK that starred Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.  1967 POINT BLANK was one of the most well reviewed films of the year, a very violent and unforgettable piece of art.  But the Netflix POINT BLANK written by Adam G. Simon and directed by Joe Lynch (who makes B-movies like the little heard MAYHEM) is a remake of 2010 French actionthriller Gaumont film directed by Fred Cavaye which most people would have not seen.  Actually, Lynch shows promise.  This one has a male nurse played by hunk Anthony Mackie whose pregnant wife (Teyonah Parris) is kidnapped by thugs – a sort of Netflix TAKEN.

The film begins with an apparent hit and murder of a D.A.   The apparent intruder (Frank Grillo) is hit by a car while escaping and ends up in hospital where the protagonist an emergency room male nurse, Paul (Anthony Mackie) is working.  The intruder’s brother (Christian Cooke)  kidnaps the male nurse’s pregnant wife in order for the intruder to be kept alive.

A few action setups are worthy of mention.  One is a fight while the two are on a conveyor going through an automatic car wash.  It sounds silly but it works.  The film contains a few well executed car chases, with good continuity.

Good too that the film offers a black actor well deserving of a leading white role in an action flick.  Anthony Mackie should attract a large African American audience as well.

The script also offers the kidnappers a bit of sympathy, a tactic seldom tried.  The script also pays homage to the homeless, with one scene where a homeless man helps out the hero. 

Lynch’s film is not without humour.   One has to love it when out of the blue, the film pays homage to LES SALAIRES DE LA PEUR (THE WAGES OF FEAR), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s suspense classic.  The thugs watch this movie when one of them say, “When I becomes a director, I want to make this kind of shit.”

The soundtrack is impressive (Music is by Mitch Lee) ranging from rap to yes, Motown.  ABC’s “The Look of Love” is played while the baby is delivered.

Two good performances to watch  – Anthony Mackie’s and Oscar Winner Marcia Gay Harden’s, the latter who steals the show.  To say more of her role would only spoil a plot twist.  The buddy buddy nurse/ bad guy interplay works well too.

“You think killing me would make any difference?  You have no idea how high this goes.” is the only defence the villain can use.  But there is a good rebuttal (not mentioned in the review).

POINT BLANK is an entertaining enough action thriller, slick, fast and occasionally cliched that should keep not too demanding Netflix viewers satisfied.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sa-D9GbWEWw

Film Review: THE LION KING (USA 2019) ***

The Lion King Poster
After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Director:

Jon Favreau

Writers:

Jeff Nathanson (screenplay by), Brenda Chapman(story) | 3 more credits »

Not only a large portion of moviegoers familiar with the story of THE LION KING (from not only the original animated feature but from the hit musical) but the songs as well.  Disney needs something fresh.  So with the new live-action animated version, new songs have also been added, written by Sir Elton John and sung by Beyonce.

As in the original animated feature, THE LION KING 2019 is set in Africa where a pride of lions rule over the animal kingdom of Pride Rock.  When the film opens, King Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi’s (Alfre Woodard) newborn son, Simba (Danny Glover), is presented to the gathering animals by Rafiki (John Kani) the mandrill, the kingdom’s shaman and advisor. Mufasa shows Simba the Pride Lands and explains to him the responsibilities of kingship and the “circle of life”, which connects all living things.  This is, of course, the cue for the “Circle of life” song reminding audiences that they are watching Disney.

As far as animal eats animal in the wild, the violence of the jungle is toned down several notches.  The only animals that get eaten on screen are the disgusting maggots and worms, being at the bottom of the food chain.  Plants are victims too.

THE LION KING is a magnificent looking CGI feature with all the animals and background looking so real that one can hardly tell that it is special effects.  Simba can be made cute as a cub and fierce like a lion king with all the details like face frowns, fur movements and tail wags.  But its is almost a compete copy from the hit animated feature of the same title. It is fortunate that quite a few years have lapsed since, so that audiences can only vaguely remember all the scenes from the original.  Still, entertaining and stunning that the CGI LION KING is and looks, originality is clearly absent.  Racism is present in the form of hyenas who are looked down by the lions and seen with no redeeming qualities.  All this is hidden by Disney’s seemingly innocent portrayal of nature as evident in the film’s initial scenes – a morning sunrise in the African continent; a flight of birds rising from the trees and a horde of elephants making their path through the plains.

Regarding voice characterizations, James Earl Jones with his signature deep voice is the obvious choice for King Mufasa while Chiwetel Ejiofor does a menacing villain, Scar.  Comic relief is provided by Seth Rogen who steals the show as the common slow-witted warthog.  Yes, and there are fart jokes from him.  Pop star Beyonce provides the voice of Nala, Simba’s love interest.

Despite the familiarity of the material, Disney’s hard work shows and proves that old material can still be entertaining given a a few fresh twists.  And this is the strength of Disney.  Disney always uses tested formula in their film projects.  Expect record box-office takings in the opening weekend.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TavVZMewpY