Film Review: SYNONYMES (SYNONYMS) (France/Israel 2019) ****

Synonymes Poster
Trailer

A young Israeli man absconds to Paris to flee his nationality, aided by his trusty Franco-Israeli dictionary.

Director:

Nadav Lapid

Writers:

Nadav Lapid (screenplay), Haim Lapid (screenplay)

SYNONYMS is director Nadav Lapid’s new film after THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER which to me was mediocre but there are segments in SYNONYMES, supposedly based on the director’s own experiences that blew me away.  I describe two in the following paragraphs that absolutely blew me away.

The film follows young Israeli ex-soldier Yoav (played by newcomer Tom Mercier, in an incredible performance), who moves to Paris hoping to escape his national identity.  This where the film opens.  After his first night, Yoav wakes up naked in an empty apartment with all of his belongings gone, and is soon taken in by a neighbouring, young, wealthy couple.  Armed with a pocket-sized French dictionary, Yoav refuses to speak his native Hebrew as he desperately tries to immerse himself in French society.  Living on only a few francs a day, he bounces from job to job on a wildly erratic journey, attempting to assimilate into a seemingly impenetrable culture. 

SYNONYMS plays occasionally like a French version of Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER.  Yoav’s character is incredibly vague and the film hints of his possible outbursts just as they occurred in the Robert De Niro taxi driver character. 

The strength of Lapid’s film lies in its unpredictability, in Yoav’s character in particular.  Does Yoav’s character end up violent and fucked up as in TAXI DRIVER?  Or is he something else.  In one of the film’s best moments set in a bar, Yoav witnesses Jewish abuse at a stranger but says nothing.  He then relates the story of his hero Hector of Troy and his battle against Achilles when Hector ran around nine days before facing Achilles.  Then you are a coward, retorts his friend.

The film’s other best scene is the seductive sexual scene between Yoav and Emile.   Director Lapid also blurs Yoav’s sexual preferences.  Yoav is already shown at the film’s start to be an incredibly sexy ex-soldier as depicted in full frontal nude scenes in the empty apartment where he douches.  They almost indulge in an erotic embrace while listening to classical music.  The beauty of it all is that the music is inaudible to the audience as the scene has Yoav and Emile wearing headphones.  But they moan in ecstasy for hearing the beautiful classics music which sounds also like two men having a sexual encounter.  Before anything can really happen. Caroline calls out to Emile.

Director Lapid realizes the power of musical numbers in film.  This he demonstrates in  two of the film’s energetic moments.  One is the rendering of the song by two women of “Hallelujah”  during  military funeral and the other, a hilarious segment (great camera work and editing by the director’s mother here) where Yoav steals food in a club amidst beautiful ladies dancing to “Pump Up the Jam”.

SYNONYMS is one of the most spirited films of the year – never mind the theme or message, and a great pleasure to watch!

Trailer: https://cineuropa.org/fr/video/369704/rdid/365712/#cm (en franca is sans sous-titres anglaises)

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(ReelAsian Film Festival 2019): COME DRINK WITH ME (Hong Kong 1966) ****

Come Drink with Me Poster
A group of bandits kidnaps the governor’s son and demands their imprisoned leader to be set free in exchange.

Director:

King Hu (as King Chuan)

Writers:

King Hu (as King Chuan), Shan-Hsi Ting (as Ye Yang)

Undeniably the best film to be shown at the Asian Film Festival this year and free as well, COME DRINK WITH ME a must-see if you have not already seen it.  This is the film that sprouted the wuxia swords sagas and the film that catapulted its director King Hu to fame.  King Hu went on to make DRAGON INN and A TOUCH OF ZEN followed by classics like the stunning RAINING IN THE MOUNTAIN and THE LEGEND OF THE MOUNTAIN. 

 COME DRNIK WITH ME,a Shaw Brothers production stars starlet Cheng Pei-pei as Golden Swallow, 20 at the time of the making of the film, as the swords lady extraordinaire.  Golden Swallow’s task is to free her captive brother from bandits led by an evil Abbott.  It all sounds terribly delicious. 

 All the elements of a classic sworsdsaga are present, including a fight at an inn, unparalleled sword fights and incredible acrobatics.  COME DRINK WITH ME influenced Ang Lee’s CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN TIGER that also featured Cheng as an elderly fighter named Jade Fox.  Free screening November 1st at the Innis Town Hall at 8 pm.

Trailer: (unavailable)

Film Review: THE CAVE (Denmark/Syria/Germany/USA/Qatar 2019) ***

The Cave Poster
Trailer

A Thai boys soccer team is trapped in a cave while rescue workers scramble to save them.

Director:

Tom Waller

Writers:

Katrina Grose (story by), Don Linder (story by) | 1 more credit »

Director Feras Faryyad returns to his besieged Syria after his Oscar nominated Best Documentary LAST YEAR IN ALEPPO.  Fayyad’s disturbing new doc THE CAVE went on to win the People’s Choice Documentary at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

THE CAVE refers to the subterranean hospital where a doctor, 30-year old Dr. Amani and her female team fight to save lives while fending off systematic sexism.

The film shot between late 2016 and Math 2018 is set in eastern Al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. When the film opens, the audience hears bombings, which are regularly carried out by the Syrian Regime and the Russians at the Syrian citizens.  Around 400,000 are trapped in the area with no way out, as informed by the voiceover that turns out to be the voice of Dr. Amani.  She emphasizes that everyone is searching for different ways to survive.

Dr. Amani Ballour runs the hospital, tending to the wounded and malnourished.  It is heart-wrenching to watch her comfort a boy who thinks he’s dying or a baby who’s choking on rubble.  But though she and her colleagues work as equals alongside their male counterparts,
the patriarchal culture still exists.  One man comes in for medicine and then tells Dr. Ballour that “women should stay at home, not work.”   Of course, director Fayyad sets the record straight behaving him being told off.

The film’s little humour occurs in the birthday scene – Amani’s surprise birthday party where they consume salad instead of pizza and popcorn instead of candy.

The film, in all its earnest intentions accomplishes its aim at wrenching out concern and sympathy from the audience.  At times director Fayyad  step up the angst by showing disturbing scenes of injured children after bombings.  But one wishes that there is clearer direction in his film.  There seems to be lots of scenes of the wounded but not beginning or conclusion or climax.  One wishes that he has explained the origins of the bombings instead of just placing the audience in the midst of the chaos and just saying that the Russians and Syrian Regime are responsible.

  The film’s most poignant moments occur during the end credits.  Here the names of 4 of the staff are mentioned, who died during filming.  It is a sad state of affairs and a sad story and one that need to be told.

It is worthy to note the difficulties encountered in the filming of THE CAVE.  Feras Fayyad was not allowed into the area.  Thus, he directed the film, remotely, relying on three gifted Damascus-born cinematographers who give the film a visual style.  The script is by Alisar Hasan and Fayyad.  Fayyad was drawn to the female-centric story because of his own background (mother, seven sisters and four aunts) and his 15 months in prison (for making a film) where women and children were tortured.  Shot in Arabic and English.

(ReelAsian Film Festival 2019): WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (Japan 2019)

We Are Little Zombies Poster
Four Japanese orphans form a rock band.

Director:

Makoto Nagahisa

Writer:

Makoto Nagahisa (screenplay)

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES is a bad and boring film but at least off to a promising start for a while before unfortunately fizzling out.  This is not a film about zombies though a few references are made to them. 

 It is a story of 4 children Hikari, Ikuko, Ishi and Takemura with bad parents.  The parents have died in different ways but the four orphaned children who meet in a Tokyo crematorium relate their stories under the narration of the first boy.  The first story is the most interesting.  Before one can get attached to this child, the film shifts to the next.  The disorientation is only matched by another less interesting tale of childhood angst.  The film, a long haul, is deliberately made to feel like a video game (with fast edits, fast motion and jump cuts) which soon loses its lacklustre.  

The kids (three assorted boys and a girl) deliberately made to be un-cute by Nagahisa eventually form a band and sing mediocre songs.  The point to all this is that it is better to stay alive but there are better ways to get this message across.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_-9wNeRLSs

Film Review: BLACK AND BLUE (USA 2019) ***

Black and Blue Poster
Trailer

A rookie police officer in New Orleans has to balance her identity as a black woman with her role as a police officer when she witnesses other police officers committing murder.

Director:

Deon Taylor

Black female rookie cop is wounded while witnessing a killing performed by corrupt cops in the police force.  Singularly, she escapes from being killed while exposing all the corruption in the process with the help of an unlikely helper.  Everyone in the story is corrupted including her partner.  

This is familiar action thriller territory done before, most notably in the acclaimed Anthony Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY.

BLACK AND BLUE is the kind of film critics, when reading of the plot shudder with an ‘ugh’ for having to go see the film and then review this re-cycled story.  The film has already got seriously mediocre reviews on the internet.  (Rotten Tomatoes awarded 60% approval at the time of writing.)

But wait.  The promo screening that I attended had the audience not only applauding at the end but a fellow critic sitting next to me clapping at one scene during the climax.  Though the film is far from perfect, BLACK AND BLUE is not all bad, and in fact quite enjoyable – all things considered.

NOPD (New Orleans) rookie Alicia West (Naomie Harris) captures the murder of a drug dealer on her camcorder she wears on her police vest. What is more disturbing is that the murder has been committed by her partner and a squad of dirty police officers (Frank Frillo as Malone, Reid Scott and Beau Knapp).  Unable to get help from her former community or the police department she is sworn to, West allies herself with a stranger named Milo aka Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) in an attempt to expose the murder while a local gang puts out a bounty on West’s life.

BLACK AND BLUE sufferers from many of the pitfalls of similar themed action thrillers.  These include overlong chases (West is chased for the longest time through backyards), continuity (Harris looks better even as the day goes on as her character set is supposed to be fatigued and terribly wounded), familiar situations (West solo against everyone else corrupt), typical Rap soundtrack among others.   West also cannot die – the excuse given being that she had served in Iraq.

Despite the film’s flaws, one has to credit the filmmakers for really trying to differentiate their work despite treading on familiar territory.  This is obvious from the very first scenes wth cop conflict.  The good and bad characters are also not black and white cardboard written figures.  Though West’s partner is corrupt, he has some heart as evident during the film’s final moments.  Naomie Harris is convincing enough in her role though the role requires her to show a bit of skin – as she has to patch up a gunshot would with (yes, believe it or not) glue.  Apparently, that is what they do in Iraq, the audience is told.

BLACK AND BLUE costs $12 million to make.  There are not a whole lot of African American films out there and BLACK AND BLUE is a welcome entry.  It has been projected to gross between $8- $11 million opening weekend which means BLACK AND BLUE will be at least a moderate box-office hit.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywKWQs3os3M

Full Review: JOJO RABBIT (USA 2019) ***1/2

Jojo Rabbit Poster
Trailer

A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Director:

Taika Waititi

Writers:

Christine Leunens (novel), Taika Waititi (screenplay)

As wild as its title, JOJO RABBIT follows the protagonist, a German boy, a Nazi fanatic given the nickname of JoJo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis) during a Nazi training camp for failure to kill a rabbit in order to prove his loyalty to the Führer.

It is not an easy task to make a tasteful film with Nazi Germany in the setting and a fanatic Führer young boy as the lead.  But it has been done successfully – ie. Germany Nazi comedy in TV series like HOGAN’S HEROES and ALLO ALLO.

The boy also has an imaginary friend giving him advice throughout the story, as Humphrey Bogart advised the meek Wood Allen character in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM.  It is Adolf Hitler himself (played with gust by director Waititi) who gives the boy advice right to the very last frame of the film.

JOJO RABBIT, while being a satire of the german machinery during WWII is a coming-of-age story of JoJo, a boy who aims at serving the Führer the best he can while discovering love  in the form of a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in the family house from the Germans.

Jojo Betzler is a precocious kid in World War II Germany with an egregious blind spot. Socially awkward, but a proud member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo passes much of his time with his imaginary friend Adolf, a cuddly, energetic, pep-talking version of the Führer.  Having completely bought into Nazi hate, Jojo is incensed when he discovers that his mother has been working for the resistance, helping to keep safe the Jewish people he’s been taught to hate. With Germany on the brink of collapse, he is faced with the choice of clinging to his hateful beliefs or embracing his humanity.

  The film contains many laugh-out loud moments demonstrating director Waititi’s keen sense of humour.  His comedy timing is immaculate.

Roman Griffin Davis is a real find as the 10-year old boy.  Oscar Winner Sam Rockwell relishes his role as the sympathetic Nazi with a fondness for same-sex flirtations while Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson keeps popping up multiple points in the film as different characters ranging from Nazi trainer to Nazi secretary to Nazi masseuse providing additional laughs.  All the actors appear to speak english with the perfect German accent.

JOJO RABBIT turns out to be a harmless really funny comedy with a message to boot.

Spoiler alert:  I have to include this priceless moment in the review as it made the movie, but it concludes a spoiler of a key plot point.  Skip this paragraph (in italics) if it needs be.  In a key moment near the film’s end after the Germans have lost the war, Jojo’s nemesis , his imaginary Hitler appears to still give him nasty advice.  Jojo screams; “Fuck off!” and kicks him out the window of his room.  The scene elicited loud laughs and the guy next to me the screening happened to turn to me, where he, clearly a Jew, who had suffered anti-Semitism shared the laughs with me.

The film went on to win the Toronto International Film Festival Audience (Popular) Film Award.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL4McUzXfFI

(Reel Asian Film Festival 2019) : YELLOW ROSE (Philippines/USA 2019)

Yellow Rose Poster
Rose, an undocumented 17 year old Filipina, dreams of one day leaving her small Texas town to pursue her country music dreams. Her world is shattered when her mom suddenly gets picked up by… See full summary »

Director:

Diane Paragas

Writers:

Andy Bienen (Story by), Annie J. Howell | 3 more credits »

Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada) is a young Filipino teen going to school with dreams of becoming a country singer. 

 She is quite good, evident from the songs that she sings, and she goes under the wings of famous country singer Dale Watson (playing himself).  But trouble brews when her mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzala) gets arrested and faces deportation back to the Philippines for being an illegal alien.

  The lazy script fails to explain how they got to the U.S. and why Rose’s aunt and husband is wealthy (supposedly legal) American citizens.  What is most corny is the use of songs to to state the heroine’s current emotional state.  When Rose is down, for example, she croons the lyrics: “You can take the roof from above my head, but you can’t take my freedom away…”  

For lack of a credible happy ending, the film does best with Rose performing one of her songs on stage, again with the corny lyrics telling the audience of Rose’ s new state of affairs:  “You can’t get the best of me.  I ain’t going down.’ I’ll be standing tall’.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTEGWKFO9Jk