Film Review: HENRY GLASSIE: FIELD WORK (Ireland 2019) ***

Henry Glassie: Field Work Poster
The worldwide travels and unique cultural finds of renowned American folklorist Henry Glassie are enthralling chronicled in this portrait by director Pat Collins.

Director:

Henry Glassie and his wife are folklorists, the audience is told at the beginning of this Irish documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.  They have travelled around the world for field work, their last year spent in Bahia, Brazil.

What is a folklorist and what do folklorists do?

Folklorists—many of whom are members of the American Folklore Society or of similar associations around the world—live and work throughout the world. They include students, teachers, scholars, consultants, community organizers, educators, and public agency professionals. Folklorists’ interests range from local family traditions to transnational issues of ethnic conflict, from publications to public programming, from the performing to the visual arts, from everyday life to communities’ most special occasions, and from research to public policy.

Folklorists publish scholarly articles, in-depth books, and engaging exhibition catalogs. They produce award-winning documentary films and recordings (as do director Pat Collins and subject Henry Glassie), as well as nationally recognized radio programs.  Most important, they work to establish public policy that honours and respects cultural diversity as this doc demonstrates.

Whatever their particular interests or work, folklorists recognize the value of experience-based knowledge and the importance of understanding the intersections of artfulness and everyday life. The artistic, cultural, educational, historical, and political questions folklorists raise place the field at the leading edge of contemporary cultural issues, and establish folklore as a primary field of the humanities.

The doc is not flawless. Unlike other docs, there is clearly a lack of archival footage  When songs are used in the film, only photos of the singers appear on screen.  Some have titles of their names and some do not.  The film goes on to inform of Glassie’s childhood and background at the midway mark of the film instead of the start, after going through some of his subjects.  As a result, the doc looks disorganized in structure and in its arrangement of the presentation.  There is one scene filmed in Turkey in which the mike from the boom can be seen at the top the screen.

As the doc takes the audience around the world, particularly in the countryside away from the cites, there is some stunning display of nature – of the mountains, forests  and rivers, courtesy of cinematographer Colm Hogan.

Watching as a few pottery craftsmen work their wares is somewhat equivalent to watching paint dry.  The film is extremely slow.  In the midst of the film, Glassie says that folklore is patience and reverence.  That is so true.  For one to appreciate this film, one has to be interested in folklore – and to be both patient and reverent towards the material in the film.  

Director Collins only attempts to connect his audience to his subject at the end of the film.  Glassie talks about his encounters with folk in different countries.  He tells the audience that in is opinion, most people are generally good and willing too are their experiences.  Otherwise, folklore can be quite the isolated subject for many.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvzZbwSq-Lw

Film Review: BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE (Sweden 2019) ***

Britt-Marie Was Here Poster
Trailer

Britt-Marie, 63 years old, has just left a 40 year old marriage and her long life as a house wife. Being told she is a nagging passive aggressive aunt the new, only job, in small town Borg … See full summary »

Director:

Tuva Novotny

            BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE, the second feature by Swedish actress and director Tuva Novotny is a feel-good film from Sweden that serves as the perfect ‘foreign film for beginners’.  Unlike other notable Swedish films from Masters like Ingmar Bergman, there is no contemplation on death or the evil one or complicated love affairs.  It is about living.  BRITT-MARIE WAS HERE is a film that intends to show that it is never too late to start living.  The film is the second adaptation to the big screen of a novel by Fredrik Backman (A Man called Ove). 

Britt-Marie, 63 years old (Pernilla August), has just left a 40-year-old marriage when she finds out that her husband has been cheating with a younger woman.  She has lived too long a life as a housewife.  Being told she is a nagging passive aggressive aunt, the new, only job, in small town Borg will be quite challenging.  The small town of Borg has no pride left except the young soccer team, and Britt-Marie’s new job is to coach them.

Britt-Marie knows nothing about football.  All she knows is order and tidiness as in house cleaning.  When her husband leaves her, she is forced to take the job in Borg to coach football when she knows nothing about football. “One day at a time,” Britt-Marie tells herself, “One day at a time.”

  Britt-Marie’s journey that is filled with struggles, challenges but also warmth and love makes director’s Novotny’s endearing story.

A bit too eager to please, the film tends up to be a bit too predictable towards the end.  The set-up, however is fresh and full of little surprises like the ones that pop up to change Britt-Maries life.  The film also contains quite a few emotional moments that might require one to brig some Kleenex.

The small film that it is, it has a (small) limited release at the local Regent Thetare, that might be out of the way for some folks.  But if one wants to fee good and perhaps shed a tear or two, BRITT-MARIE is the one to see.  Filmed in Swedish and German.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GD4rT3GDlEI

Film Review: LUCY IN THE SKY (USA 2019)

Lucy in the Sky Poster
Trailer

Astronaut Lucy Cola returns to Earth after a transcendent experience during a mission to space, and begins to lose touch with reality in a world that now seems too small.

Director:

Noah Hawley

Writers:

Brian C. Brown (story by), Elliott DiGuiseppi (story by) | 3 more credits »

      In short, LUCY IN THE SKY is the story of a crazy woman.  But how the journey gets to this point is quite the intrigue.

            The film begins with a stunning look of an astronaut in outer space.  Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman) is told: “Warp it up, you are going home.” To which she answers “Just give me a few more minutes.”  The film also flashes on the screen ‘Based on real events.’  The term real instead of true indicates events that are likely disturbing.

            After returning to earth, an obsessive astronaut (Natalie Portman) begins to question her place in the universe — including her relationships with her gentle husband (Dan Stevens) and her alluring crewmate (Jon Hamm.  When she returns, all Lucy wants is to go back to space, at all costs.  er modest family life loses its allure and the comforting support of her gentle husband Drew (Dan Stevens) is suddenly less appealing than the masculine charisma of a fellow astronaut, Mark (Jon Hamm), a divorcee disconcertingly eager to encourage an affair.  As she determinedly trains for her next mission, her growing dissociation threatens to dismantle both her personal and professional lives.  Hawley shows all the ugliness of Lucy’s obsession.  The sympathy goes to the poor husband.  The only reason Lucy can give her husband for her erratic behaviour is: “Can’t you see I have changed.”

  Director Hawley cannot resists using the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  In fact the title is probably taken from the song as well.  That sequence is artistically done in a surreal sequence Lucy in the foreground and images of her past changing in the background.

LUCY IN THE SKY is not a very good film. Director Hawley takes too much time to set up the film’s premise resulting in a very slow and ponderous first half.  It does not help that the character Lucy is an extremely annoying and unlikable one.  But Hawley pulls a good twist in the last third of the film when the audience finally realizes that the story is about a crazy lady that they are not supposed to sympathize with. 

The cinematography of outer space, courtesy of cinematographer Polly Morgan is nothing short of stunning, especially at the start of the film.

The film includes a few ridiculous bits like one part where Lucy picks up a wig for disguise.  Since when do they ell wigs in a hardware store?  The ending with the bees also makes little sense to the story.

Ellen Burstyn has a small role as Lucy’s mother.  Burstyn steals every scene she is in, with her bitter and somewhat sarcastic dialogue on life, something more of what the film needs.

There event that film is ‘inspired’ by is the story of Lisa Nowak, an astronaut who tried to kidnap another NASA colleague at the Orlando airport.

LUCY IN THE SKY is a dull disappointing drama disguised as a space movie.  It might have worked if the material were given a twisted twist with some black humour.  LUCY had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival but to general lacklustre reviews.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQP-L2pJzmk

Film Review: GREENER GRASS (USA 2019) ***1/2

Greener Grass Poster
Trailer

Suburban soccer moms find themselves constantly competing against each other in their personal lives as their kids settle their differences on the field.

Writers:

Jocelyn DeBoer (created by), Dawn Luebbe (created by)

The opening credits appear framed by a mouth with quivering lips in front of braced teeth.  If you think that is weird, consider the following scenario when a mother Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) asks if she can get back her baby daughter she had given to her friend Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) because her only other child, her son has turned into a dog.  When the answer is no, Jill says,, “Cannot hurt in asking.” when the reply comes: “It does hurt.”  It is a good reply though it shorts stop any other possible responses that could top that.

Described rather accurately as KAFKA meets THE LOBSTER, this is absurdist satire that not everyone will be comfortable with.  But if this is your cup of tea, GREENER GRASS which could also be called ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT WITH A DOSE OF OVER-POLITENESS will be quite the delight.

The setting is an unnamed American suburban town.  The lead characters are two families each with children, and children with problems.  Lisa and Dennis (Neil Casey) do not have sex anymore.  Jill and husband Nick (Beck Bennett) on the other hand, have a sex schedule of five times a week.  The former’s son Julian (Julian Hilliard) is horrible at sports, school and music (he plunks the piano) at a concert compared to the latter’s son who is downright rude and would mouthed – all perfect excuses for hilarity.  But everyone is so polite except when telling the truth that they always do resulting in extreme awkward moments.  The grass is always greener on the other side and there is always room for improvement.  Nick thinks the pool filtration results in better drinking water despite the awful taste.  Nick brings his own water to the restaurant for drinking.

Other absurdities involve Lisa giving birth to a football that she keeps wrapped in swathing clothes.  There is another neighbour with twins who wants everyone too know that she is separated.

All the actors play their material straight faced including the child actors who are actually the funniest, special mention going to Julian Hilliard before turning into the cutest dog.  The scene stealer is D’Arcy Carden as Miss Human, the school teacher that conducts inappropriate examples in the children’s classes.

Apart form all this, the film is framed by a serial killer, a bagger at the local supermarket that serves as a kind of whodunit, and also serves as an appropriate climax to the film.

The comedy is fresh, funny and relatively clean except for the few vulgarities uttered by the rude son.  This is the kind of original comedy that one does not want to end, though the film runs only around 100 minutes.

Though relatively unknown, the actors have done Saturday Night Live before and this is SNL that works not like the 90% of the skits every Saturday that are just unfunny.  GREENER GRASS is not 100% flawless.  The film is a bit messy at times as with its ending and a few set-ups like the photography session turning up a dud.  Still it might just end up on the list of cult movies to be remembered. 

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

Film Review: DOLCE FINE GIORMATA (Poland 2018) ***

Dolce Fine Giornata Poster
The stable family life of a poetess begins to fall apart as she makes a controversial speech to appreciation.

Director:

Jacek Borcuch

Writers:

Jacek BorcuchMarcin Cecko (associate screenplay) | 1 more credit »

This is the rarer Polish film in that it is more light-hearted than the usual depressing Polish films.  Director Jacek Borcuch sets his film in the beautiful Tuscany, Italy.

One wishes director Borcuch would not have tackled so many issues as he did in this movie resulting in no clear direction on where he wishes to go with his material.  Or perhaps he wishes to keep an open mind and let the audience decide for themselves.

The film centres on semi-retired Nobel literature winner Maria Linde who is living out her golden years in casual luxury.  The celebrated Jewish-Polish poet (Krystyna Janda) enjoys a life filled with late-night dinners, wine-infused conversation with friends, and quality time spent with her adult daughter and grandchildren. The free-spirited matriarch’s privileged existence mostly keeps her at a remove from the escalating xenophobia engulfing Italy.  But a secret dalliance with a handsome (and much younger) Egyptian immigrant sets off a chain of events that will eventually lead to Maria’s life coming apart at the seams.

Director Borcuch makes one controversial statement in his script In Maria’s acceptance speech.  Maria says: “I don’t have to give an acceptance speech and that is why I will.”  This spells trouble.  In her disturbing speech she talks about the power of terrorists in using death.  Maria talks about the suicide bomber and asked what can  be done by the celebrated artist.  Then comes the whopper statement is what has been done is the setting up of refugee camps by the Government set up by the Mafia.  And she describes the incident where people have died as a work of art.  She denounces her Nobel Prize in protest for the unsympathetic Europe she is living in.

The character of Maria is that of a famous spoilt bitch.  She has a younger lover, cares not for the law (she deliberately fails to stop at roadside checkpoint) and is rude to the Police Commissioner who was so good to drop everything bare to search fr her missing grandson.  She thinks she is doing the world a whole lot of good while from what transpires is the compete opposite.  One wonders the reason director Borcuch made her character so as it destroys all the messages the film tries to put forward.  But what happens to her at the end (details not revealed here in the review) is what she deserves

Borcuch provides no answers to Europe’s current crisis of morality and identity.   One can hardly praise actress Jandaone for her performance in a conflicting role,  who infuses her protagonist with both the wilful selfishness of a child and the complicated desires of a woman finding her way in life’s later stages.

The use of the Frank Sinatra song lifts up spirits and puts the film into perspective.

Maria claims to be just a poet who is amoral.  She also says that she is made famous by a small group of intellectuals.  This does not explain the reason for her to make a moral speech.

DOLCE  FINE GIORMATA makes its debut at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for a limited engagement.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/356027770

Film Review: WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? (USA 2019) ***1/2

Where's My Roy Cohn? Poster
Trailer

Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump. This thriller-like … See full summary »

Director:

Matt Tyrnauer

Before the film title WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? first appears on the screen, the audience is given a quick introduction of the infamous lawyer.  He loves to fight power, he is a caged animal, he loves a good fight etc.  But director Tynmauer ensures that his audience knows of the evil that Cohn has amassed in his career.  Great villains usually make for good movies,
and Matt Tyrnauer certainly has a doozy in Roy Cohn.  The question is whether Tynmauer will create some sympathy for this supposedly evil person.

In Cohn’s own word as captured unarchive footage: “I would do anything to get my client to win.”  And the voiceover goes on to say that he did not care what the law is, but who the judge would be.

The doc unfolds in (almost) chronological order from the time he was born in the U.S. to his rise to fame as counsel to McCarthy and to become the all-powerful lawyer.  Firstly, director Tynmauer makes it interesting by starting on Cohn’s mother.   She was the ugliest girl on the block who no man wanted to marry.  From a clever boy at school, Roy Cohn is shown to grow to become the ruthless lawyer/political power broker whose 28-year career ranged from serving as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt to molding the career a young real estate developer named Donald Trump.

  In the ’50s, Cohn formulated his playbook, ushering in a paranoid style of American politics.  Today it’s resurfaced – with scare tactics, divisive rhetoric, and aggressions against the vulnerable.
Cohn had many celebrity friends like Andy Warhol, Aristotle Onassis and George Steinbrenner.  He was a regular at Studio 54, often accompanied by his male lovers, while adamantly denying his homosexuality to everyone.  The portion of the film revealing Cohn’s homosexuality is the most intriguing and entertaining.  It is as if God made him gay to punish him.  To make matters worse, Cohn was ugly and widely believed to have undergone plastic surgery to  having sex with a different boy every day, often with someone poor.  But he had a good slim body, doing his regimental 200 sit-ups daily.

  Some of Cohn’s best-known exploits include: spearheading J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy’s crusade against homosexuals, helping pave Ronald Reagan’s path to the oval office, torpedoing Geraldine Ferraro’s historic bid for the vice presidency, keeping many American
mafiosos out of jail and looting the bank accounts of his legal clients.

  Mixing archival footage (including journalist Ken Auletta’s ’70s audio interview with Cohn, never heard by the public before) and contemporary interviews (cousins, an ex-boyfriend, gossip columnist Liz Smith, now fallen politico Roger Stone et al.), the film also offers clues to his behaviour (a doting mother, insecurities about his looks).  

The film ends with the climax of Cohn going out fighting to the very end.  Disbarred in 1986, he went out defiantly, dying five weeks later at age 59, never admitting that he had AIDS.  Cohn is the true real life villain everyone loves to hate.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTrHL7Vo_SQ

Film Review: SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER (UK 2019) ****

Sometimes Always Never Poster
Trailer

A detective fantasy / family drama where a love of words helps a father reconnect with a missing son.

Director:

Carl Hunter

One has to love the ambiguous title SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER.  The title is as smart as its quirky script, its occasionally brilliant dialogue and the crazy way it brings the game of scrabble into the story.  But the title is not as innocent as it seems.  The protagonist is a tailor and the 3 words have significant meaning with reference to a suit.  The title refers to the Sometimes, Always, Never Three-Button Rule. When wearing a suit with three buttons a man should sometimes button the top button, depending on the style of the suit, always button the middle button, and never button the bottom button.

Everyone loves a good story.  SOMETIMES ALWAYS MAYBE has one of the best premises ever thought of.  If that is not enough, there is a twist in the plot that no one would ever predict.  Director Hunter is also playful enough (there is also a splash of colour, particularly red) to go with the material as evident at the start of the film.  Some animation is inserted to put some bite into the storytelling.

Firstly, scrabble has everything to do with the story.  Alan (Golden Globe Winner Bill Nighy) is a stylish tailor with moves as sharp as his suits.  He has spent years searching tirelessly for his missing son Michael (Sam Riley) who stormed out over a game of scrabble. With a body to identify and his family torn apart, Alan must repair the relationship with his youngest son Peter and solve the mystery of an online player who he thinks could be Michael, so he can finally move on and reunite his family.  In short, it is about a lonely man trying to gain the love lost of his missing son.  Alan is also a scrabble pro.

My favourite dialogue in the script is the spill on the reason there is no marmite in Canada.  This has significant meaning for me as I grew up on it and bovril in Singapore but never realized the fact about marmite being banned by the government in Canada for its refusal to disclose a secret ingredient.  Such are the  little pleasures in the film.

Actor Nighy is always good in all his performances, again adding dignity in the role of a distraught old man.  Jenny Agutter plays Margaret, always a delight to watch, having seen her when she was much, much younger in films like THE RAILWAY CHILDREN and LOGAN’S RUN.

Though the film has a protagonist in his senior years about to settle the one mystery in his life, the story has universal appeal as it coves other issues like family relationships and senior romancing while being current with day to day stuff like gaming and cell phones.

Does Alan find his missing son in the end?  Alan does in a different way.  Frank Cottrell Boyce (MILLIONS, CODE 46, GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN) gets my vote for most original script of the year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22R-JQRov_U

Film Review: HUMAN NATURE (USA 2019) ***1/2

Human Nature Poster
The biggest tech revolution of the 21st Century isn’t digital, it’s biological. A breakthrough called CRISPR has given us unprecedented control over the basic building blocks of life. It … See full summary »

Director:

Adam Bolt

This documentary  on the advancements of DNA technology begins with a speech by an expert on the topic at the Californian Institute of Technology waning that advancements of DNA could lead to either disaster or positive changes.   The ad for the film claims it to be the biggest tech revolution of the 21st Century and it isn’t digital, it’s biological. 

The film goes on to tell the story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 21st century – CRISPR, a genome engineering tool that allows to change certain parts of the DNA, and provides a provocative exploration of the potential applications and limitations of this tool.  

Directed by Emmy Award winner Adam Bolt, HUMAN NATURE has successfully premiered at SXSW Film Festival and was further featured as the official selection at multiple film festivals across the world, including Hot Docs. 

The film is told in Chapters.  Chapter 2 itself called CRISPR and Chapter 3 called ‘The Gene Machine’.

Director Bolt’s documentary has this simple aim – to tell the story.  But in order to do so, Bolt has to educate his audience on CRISPR and CAS9 (pronounced KAST 9).  What these are is explained (as described by Wikipedia) below;

CRISPR is a family of DNA sequences found within the genomes of prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria and archaea. These sequences are derived from DNA fragments of bacteriophages that have previously infected the prokaryote and are used to detect and destroy DNA from similar phages during subsequent infections.  Hence these sequences play a key role in the antiviral (i.e. anti-phage) defense system of prokaryotes.

Cas9 (or “CRISPR-associated protein 9”) is an enzyme that uses CRISPR sequences as a guide to recognize and cleave specific strands of DNA that are complementary to the CRISPR sequence. Cas9 enzymes together with CRISPR sequences form the basis of a technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that can be used to edit genes within organisms. This editing process has a wide variety of applications including basic biological research, development of biotechnology products, and treatment of diseases.

It is not an easy task to understand the last 2 paragraphs or to understand what Bolt’s microbiologists in the film are explaining either.  But Bolt tries hard, credit to him, using everyday English  and animation to illustrate and simplify.  In the end, it is not really necessary to understand the dynamics but how it works.  Bolt also uses an application of it with sickle cell cancer to bring his story down to earth.

Bolt goes to the extreme of using the analogy of the manufacture of the car by the Ford Motor company with genome engineering, even intercutting the latter with cars coming off the auto assembly plant.

But the doc is not without its feel good moments.  In an inspirational segment, Chinese eGenetics engineers describe enthusiastically how they can use pig cells to do the equivalent of organ donors.  With feel good also comes the horror.  Bolt informs that with one gene, it could be made available to that people could for example, be altered to survive with only 4 hours of sleep or given more muscular strength.   The ethical question is whether human beings want to go there.

HUMAN NATURE is educational though at times tough to understand film, but also a provocative and study on an urgent subject that will change the course of the human race.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/321655980

  

Film Review: ROBBERY (Canada 2018) ***1/2

Robbery Poster
Trailer

When his criminal father is diagnosed with dementia, a young thief plans a series of reckless heists in order to battle the disease and pay off a dangerous gambling debt.

Director:

Corey Stanton

Writer:

Corey Stanton

There is a very sad and moving moment at the start of ROBBERY that sets the tone of this film involving a robbery.  As the father in the driver’s seat of a car asks the passenger beside him: “Who are you?”  The reply is: “I am your son, dad.”   Everyone has or will go through the time when a parent goes through dementia.  This is a sad and real problem which ROBBERY bravely examines in this indie-Canadian feature.

When his criminal father, Frank (veteran actor Art Hindle who has been in countless TV series and films including classics like PORKY’S and BLACK CHRISTMAS) is diagnosed with dementia, a young thief, Robbie (Jeremy Ferdman) plans a series of reckless heists in order to battle the disease and pay for his medication.

The film shifts between a crime film and family drama with some comedy thrown in for good measure.  The film unfolds in Chapters – 3 of them in total.  The first is entitled ‘Robin Hood’, the second “An Awful Disease” since the dementia is one though the awful disease being referred to is Robbie’s gambling addiction.

The script, written by Stanton himself contains some solid moving lines.  It also contains the concept of a 5-minute memory span that works well into a suspenseful plot though in reality (there) is no such thing.  Frank can only remember 5-minutes at a time, so when he is on a job, it must take no longer than 5 minutes.  (In truth, if one can remember 5 minutes at a time, these 5 minutes can be linked to another 5 minutes, meaning that the 5 minutes can last a much longer time span.)

Once can tell Stanton is having a field day writing the Roxanne (Jennifer Dale) scene, the one that ends with Robbie’s fingers smashed.  Dale laps up the lines in the film’s best scene, to be taken tongue-in-cheek, obviously.  The story takes a violent twist after.

The film is not without humour, or at least not without Stanton’s warped sense of it.  After a character’s speech on setting one goal after another so that in essence that becomes living effectively the rest of ones life,  Robbie decides his next step in life is to kidnap a dog with the help of his dementia-ridden father.

Superlative performances are elicited by Stanton particularly from Hingle, Dale and relative newcomer Ferdman in the title role.  Ferdman who is a real “hottie’ has been in a few TV series and in a very minor role in the Jessie Owens movie RACE.

ROBBERY tries to be too smart for its own good leading to an over-stylish but confusing ending.

Because of its quirkiness, ROBBERY is perhaps an ideal film to be selected at the After Dark Film Festival where it premiered in October last year.  ROBBERY is clearly an above-average Canadian indie with a twisted sensibility making it worth a look.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTT_XC3TSj8