Film Review: ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (USA 2017) ***

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abacus.jpgA small financial institution called Abacus becomes the only company criminally indicted in the wake of the United States’ 2008 mortgage crisis.

Director: Steve James
Stars: Neil Barofsky, Ti-Hua Chang, Margaret Colin

Review by Gilbert Seah

 ABACUS is an old Chinese adding machine that was commonly used by Chinese shopkeepers who needed to do some accounting or simple addition. It is also a Chinese treasure now made obsolete with the introduction of the calculator. Abacus is thus chosen as the appropriate name for the bank founded by a well-intentioned Chinese lawyer turned banker, who we are introduced to at the start of the film as a good man, who thinks of himself as George Bailey, the James Stewart banker character in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In fact when there is a run on Abacus, Mr. Thomas Sung is likened to Bailey giving a sincere speech to the queue of customers assuring them that the bank is ernest and hat their money is safe.

Why a documentary of this bank and on the man Mr. Sung? The reason, according to the director is that this small Chinese bank has been unfairly singled out by the NYC District Attorney’s Office as a fraudulent bank who with its owners had committed a crime in misappropriating funds for personal and illegal gain.

But the D.A. Office picked the wrong man to pick a fight with. Mr. Sung is a fighter. The documentary is an account of the fight between the small guy and the bully, a David vs. Goliath story where the slingshot weapon used was the team of Mr. Sung’s lawyers and family.

Director gets the audience on Mr. Sung’s side by using a variety of means. The first is to connect the audience with Mr. Sung’s immediate family. Besides the analogy of George Bailey, the honest and best example of a banker, one cannot help but root for the Sung family, especially watching scenes where the family sit together to argue the facts and to fight back against the D.A. Office. Interviews are also conducted with reporters who take the side of the bank. The bank is also shown to have done good to help the Chinese community to obtain loans, which no normal bank would normally grant.

The film also documents how the bank got into trouble – in fact twice with regard to fraudulence. But according to the film, the bank had fired the dishonest and despicable loan officer, Mr. Ken Lu who the D.A. Office used to testify against the bank.

The film is a sad story of the Sung family. But the film makes a hero of Mr. Sung and his family. One of the daughters who worked at that time for the D.A. Office had to reign due to, obviously conflict of interest but she did so to help her father. Not surprisingly, the wife, Mrs. Sung says on camera that she never wanted her husband or daughters to go into the banking business.

ABACUS achieves the feat of making the subject even more intriguing by hitting all the right buttons. Everyone loves to see the underdog win, especially when fighting an evil giant. ABACUS is such a tale with a smashing finish.

Trailer: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/abacus/15c410ca34696ff5?projector=1

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Film Review: BORN IN CHINA (USA/China 2016) ***

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born_in_china.jpgDirector: Chuan Lu
Writers: David Fowler, Brian Leith
Stars: John Krasinski, Xun Zhou

Review by Gilbert Seah
 
The poster might be misleading that the new Disneynature film BORN IN CHINA is about pandas alone. The documentary is concentrated on 5 animals, all BORN IN CHINA, more precisely in the northern and central mountainous colder parts of China where there are no signs of civilization. It is a beautiful and rugged country. The 5 animals selected for show are cranes, the snow leopard, the golden snubbed nose monkeys, the antelope and of course the panda. The segments are intercut among each other.

Be forewarned, the pandas are the least interesting of the animals featured. Pandas are cute and endangered, and their cute antics are captured. Mother Ya Ya is training her daughter Mei Mei to climb trees. Once Mei Mei is able to climb a tree, she is able to escape from prey and become independent. Every time, the film returns to the panda, Mei Mei is falling down , rolling down a slope after which Ya Ya is hugging Mei Mei. It is actually quite boring stuff if you subtract their cuteness.

The film aims at cuteness for each animal. Narrated by John Krasinski in the English version, he mimics animal sounds and tries to act cute. If one likes that sort of thing, then fine, but it undermines the seriousness of these animals in the wilderness. These animals have to survive, escape prey, feed their young, mate and carry on the living process.

It comes as no surprise then that the most interesting episodes are the ones with the snow leopards. Mother (named Dawa – why must these animals be given ridiculers cutesy Chinese names?) must defend her territory and feed her cubs Her territory is threatened when another female snow leopard arrives with her three offspring. Dawa and her cubs are forced into hiding. Wen Dawa preys upon a yak calf, she almost gets food. The film is most interesting at this point as the audience cannot decide to root for Dawa or for the poor yak calf being caught and about to be rescued by her mother. One has to recall that Disney did kill off poor Bambi’s mother in BAMBI.

The cranes are given a token segment while the female antelopes are shown migrating to give birth and returning with their young. The golden snub nose monkeys are shown from the point of view of Tao Tao, an adolescent who cannot decide to hang around his family or other rebellious youngsters, nicknamed in the film as ‘the lost boys’. Of course, Tao Tao learns the importance of family at the end, After all Disneynature is aimed at a family audience.
The end credits showing the cameramen and director at work prove more interesting than the movie. As one man at the camera says, the weather changes dramatically. One moment is can be hailing and the next sunshine. The majesty of Central and Western China is also captured on film. The landscape steals the show from the animal antics.

The film shies away from any violence, typical for Disneynature films. There is nothing as disturbing here as say in one other Disneynature film, where hundreds of baby turtles trying to crawl to the sea after hatching, are devoured by preying birds. Nature is cruel and survival is tough. These elements are overlooked in this film and mostly substituted by play and silly cuteness except for only one instance.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VP0Vl6Qzb8M
 

_________

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Film Review: NO SIGNAL (Spain) Experimental Documentary

Played at the November 2016 Best of Short Documentary FEEDBACK Film Festival.

  MOVIE POSTERNO SIGNAL, 1min., Spain, Documentary
Directed by Alaa Chnana

From all the acts of the present, the one can affect the past as well as the future is the war.

REVIEW by Kierston Drier: 

No Signal  a riveting, stylized look at the crisis of war in Syria, is a study in interpretation. It it s a film that highlights the very raw, very gritty ravages of war against, and the highlight reel of pain engraved upon the memories of the people it affects.

 

The open, expressionless faces of Syrian refugees of young, old, large and small are superimposed on lightning-fast intercuts of media images of war and destruction. The effect of this stylized work is powerful and thought-provoking, begging the audience to question if we are looking at a human beings’ memories, or if we are looking at the war through the media that is used to describe their lives.

 

Ultimately, No Signal expresses the idea that we are really only ever scratching the surface of what is affected by war and political conflict. So often the rapid fire images we are bombarded with through the media dehumanize the suffering faced by real people every day.

No Signal brings us back to this humanity, by showing us these media images against the backdrop of human beings we do not know- yet we certainly recognize.

Technically speaking, the editing of No Signal must be highly commended. The sheer volume of media images that are used are superbly intercut and seamlessly tailored together. No Signal has a simple approach to storytelling that is effective and powerful, and for that, it is a film worth seeing.

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Film Review: TIME (Hong Kong) Documentary

Played at the November 2016 Best of Short Documentary FEEDBACK Film Festival.

  MOVIE POSTERTIME, 3min., Hong Kong, Docuementary
Directed by Tak Chun Patrick Cheung

In 1951 the Hong Kong clock tower was built in the district of Tsim Sha Tsui. After all this time overlooking the Victoria Harbour for 100 years, no one has realised until now that a mysterious power from the clock will change the course of time.

REVIEW by Kierston Drier: 

Time is a three-minute visual masterpiece, a stunning flurry of life, light and impeccable sound that follows one full day and night in the busy metropolis of Hong Kong. Following the image of the Iconic Hong Kong Clock Tower, TIME takes us through the cities, the roads, the boardwalks, the citysquares, the ferries wheels and the billboards of a city that never slows down.

 

Compellingly shot, flawlessly composed and brilliantly dynamic in every angle and dimension, TIME will leave you undeniably spellbound. The music entices you, the visual unity is engaging and the spectacle engulfs you in another world.

 

What is perhaps most compelling about TIME, from a cinematic and philosophical point of view, is how much modern Hong Kong mirrors any other high-profile metropolis. New York, Bejing, Paris, San Francisco, Toronto, Rome- could equally rival the brilliant days and vibrant nightlife. In this way TIME does something magical- it shows you a different world that is remarkably relatable. It takes you to another place, and still manages to make you think of home. A gripping, visually engaging, brilliant piece of cinema that takes us around the world and back again while never having to leave our seat.

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Film Review: GAYROUTH (France/Lebanon) Documentary

Played at the November 2016 Best of Short Documentary FEEDBACK Film Festival.

GAYROUTH 31min., France/Lebanon, Documentary
Directed by Charbel Raad

To be gay in Beirut, one of the most open minded capitals in the Middle East, which is sinking in the era of repressions, is not as easy as it looks. This documentary tells an exceptional and an uncommon story of two lives.

REVIEW by Kierston Drier: 

Sharp, poignant, heartbreaking and unexpectedly funny, Gayruth follows the raw, gritty stories to two homosexual men and their separate lives while living Lebanon, where homosexuality is still widely frowned upon. Hiding their lifestyles and identities from their families (and to some degree the film crew) it reminds us what a very grave risk our subjects take exposing themselves to film.

 

Gayrouth takes a journey through the uneasy realities of a homosexual lifestyle in Beirut, focusing on the struggles to carve out peace for ones’ self in a sea of disapproval from both the personal and public spectrum. Gayrouth must be commended on all the areas it covers in the short time it has to make its’ statements. It touches on the disconnect and even breakdown of family ties for those who are hiding their sexuality.  It explores the ostracisation of one from their community. Most tragically, it showcases the personal story of one man’s emotional and psychological breakdown after his isolation turns him to a life a anonymous sex, and his struggle to pull himself out of the abusive cycle.  

 

And yet, lingering in all these deep, intense and heavy emotional moments- are islands of laughter, beats of humor, images of happiness- the moments when one of our heros’ is with his partner. We see, through the closed doors of a life lived hidden away- the love that makes the sacrifice.

 

Gayrouth is an emotionally hard-hitting film, which takes a real look at the struggles and risks of what it means to be “out” in an unwelcoming place. However it also shows hope and happiness. It shows love that preserves. It shows lives worthy of loving without fear. For these reason, watch Gayrouth.

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Film Review: CAMERAPERSON (USA 2016)

cameraperson_movie_poster.jpgDirected by Kirsten Johnson

Writers: Doris Baizley (consulting writer), Lisa Freedman (consulting writer)

Star: Kirsten Johnson

The director’s vision is seen through the lens of the cinematographer’s camera. Oscar winning cinematographers? Who can forget Freddie Young’s sandstorm in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Haskell Wexler’s locust invasion in BOUND FOR GLORY or Gordon Willis’ city silhouette in Woody Alllen’s MANHATTAN? In the new documentary CAMERAPERSON that premiered at Sundance this year, female cinematographer Kirsten Johnson delivers a uniquely insightful memoir-cum-critical-treatise on the nature and ethics of her craft.

At the film’s start, Johnson declares that she is a documentary cinematographer who for the past 25 years has shot footage for other films. She declares that this film is her memoir – images that have marked for life and many that have still kept her wondering. These are strong words – and sets up the audience for a documentary that will hopefully astound and mesmerize.

As for Johnson’s credit, she has worked behind the camera for well-known films like FAHRENHEIT 9/11- there is one shot of Michael Moore making a comment, DARFUR NOW and CITIZENFOUR among others. She has travelled around the globe in different continents uncovering hidden truths.

A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home: these scenes and others are woven into the film, a tapestry of footage captured over the twenty-five-year career of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Through a series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson explores the relationships between image makers and their subjects, the tension between the objectivity and intervention of the camera, and the complex interaction of unfiltered reality and crafted narrative.

Her documentary uses images to tell the story. There is little voiceover to put the audience into any perspective of the images or places or people on display. By looking at her images on screen, the audience is to make up their own minds on what is perceived. But each snippet is preceded with a title, mostly the name of the place where the images to be seen are taken – from as diverse locations as Foca, Bosnia, to Westport, New York. Certain placers are re-visited again in the film. Some snippets last no more than a minute while others longer.

There are plusses and negatives for this approach. The plusses include the audiences having a less biased opinion of the activities that take place – and some of these are political. A few teases the audience’s curiosity. One snippet for example traces a boxer’s activities just before he enters the ring and then ends. Other images are plain stunning and need no commentary. On the negative side, some feel out of place and difficult to follow – especially the reason for Johnson’s inclusion into her film. The short snippet of the outside of an airline as shot from inside that lasts about minute is a puzzling one. One would also like to know more about Johnson’s background, her influences and who she respects working for in the past or who she would like to wok with in the future. Her take on cinematography for fiction films would also be an insightful inclusion for this film. The closing credits list the details of all the films Kirsten has used in this doc.

Regardless, CAMERAPERSON is still a fascinating film for all those who love cinema. It is these pioneers that capture the stuff of dreams and translate it into celluloid for everyone’s benefit and pleasure.

CAMERAPERSON will have a limited run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/179496166

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Interview with the director/star of THE EAGLE HUNTRESS

the_eagle_huntress.jpgWhat a thrill it was to chat with the team of one of the best documentary films of 2016 in THE EAGLE HUNTRESS.

Director Otto Bell and his subject, the eagle huntress Aisholpan Nurgaiv chatted with me in a press junket hotel room in downtown Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a bit of a surreal moment for me walking in as Aisholpan was dressed in her full huntress gear. English isn’t her first language so she didn’t have much to say in this interview. What was striking for me was her demeanor and eyes. At 13 years old, there was wisdom way beyond her years. It was interesting to hear what her next passion is (read below) too. Enjoy. And make sure you check out the film. It’s playing in all of the big cities in North America today.

Matthew Toffolo: Who is taking care of the Eagles right now while you’re in Toronto?

Aisholpan Nurgaiv: My older and younger brothers are taking care of them right now.

MT: What attracted you to making this documentary and going to Mongolia to film Aisholpan and her family?

Otto Bell: I saw a BBC photograph on the day it was posted. I was struck by it immediately. The backdrop and setting was beautiful. It was almost like an oil painting. She (Aisholpan) was training with her father’s bird at the time and the eagle had a 7 foot wingspan – like it was from prehistoric times. And I saw her face, it was striking. Those three factors got me thinking. Is there a movie here?

I found the photographer on facebook that day. Skyped him and then was on a plane to Mongolia in a matter of days.

MT: Wow. What was your headspace like when you saw the photograph?

OB: I was in my cubicle at work.

MT: I mean mentally. spiritually. What propelled you to skype with the photographer and then jump on a plane?

OB: I was in New York making short documentary films for IBM, Philips etc…. I was looking to make a feature film. At least attempting to make one. And the photograph came at the right time. It had to be the right film in order for me to plunge my life savings and go for it.

I got into some pretty tight corners making this film and I was luckily saved by Morgan Spurlock who set me up with more financing. I was able to finance about 2/3rds of the film and then they (Morgan and his team) were able to add some checks and balances to the film and legalize everything. I’m grateful

MT: (to Aisholpan) What is your feeling having Otto and his camera team consuming your lives for so many months?

Aisholpan: We got used to the cameras quickly and it was fine.

MT: Is this your film time in Toronto, Canada?

Aisholpan: Yes.

MT: How do you like the North American culture?

Aisholpan: We were in Utah for Sundance and the culture there with the mountains was fine. Not used to New York or Toronto yet.

MT: Would you ever want to live in North America?

Aisholpan: Yes.

MT: What would you like to do if you lived here?

Aisholpan: First I want to study. I want to be a doctor. I like to be a surgeon.

MT: Did you have a script already completed when you started shooting? Or did you make it ala cinema verte?

OB: I made the film with a compass, not a map. Things kept coming up and I was able to adjust. What made me able to finish was the story map of her going through the stages of being a true Huntress. So that was good.

I first thought it was going to be a “girl power” film, but the strongest theme that came out of it is a story of a father/daughter relationship.

MT: There is still a lot of social commentary happening with the female empowerment.

OB: Yes, I didn’t want to hit people over the head with that. It comes out and that’s great.

MT: You were able to grab Daisy Ridley to do the voice over. How did that come to be?

OB: Initially, there wasn’t a voice over when we first showed it at Sundance. We sold the film to Sony Pictures Classic. Through Morgan Spurlock’s machine at CAA, they had Daisy on the books and they showed it to her.

She called me up saying that she loved the film and she really got it. That was nice.

Then Sony suggested that I add some voice over in it. What they wanted to provide was a little bit of a hand-hold for the viewers. To make it easier for kids to watch. I was hesitant at first, but when they suggested Daisy I thought it would work. She has a fantastic voice and it really needed to be from a female perspective. So I was sold and it makes the film better.

MT: Tell us your experience working with your cinematographer Simon Niblett? What an amazing job he did.

OB: Simon and I made about 8 short films together around the world. I was very used to him and vice versa. He’s a natural world documentarian. And he’s an inventor. He brought in a lot of equipment, which was my biggest expense. And that’s how we got all the terrific landscape shots in the film.

MT: When I watched the film and the credits came up, I was shocked by how small the list was. A DP. An assistant. An editor. That’s it.

OB: Yes. It was very small. And we made it look like there was a whole lot more.

MT: (to Aisholpan) What is your all-time favourite movie?

Aisholpan: Ice Age. Animation films are my favourite.

MT: What film have you watched the most times in your life?

OB: The Quiet Man. I love that film.

PHOTO: Aisholpan Nurgaiv – THE EAGLE HUNTRESS:

aishpolan.jpg

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to http://www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.