Film Review: MEETING GORBACHEV (USA/Germany/UK 2018) ***1/2

Meeting Gorbachev Poster
Trailer

The life of Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final President of the Soviet Union in chronological order.

Directors:

Werner HerzogAndré Singer (as Andre Singer)

Werner Herzog’s documentary MEETING GORBACHEV is an enlightening insightful little film on his candid conversations with Gorbachev, the former Soviet head of state.  Gorbachev was one of the defining figures of the 20th century., a humanitarian and also a very intelligent individual.  More respected abroad than he is at home (where many continue to blame him for the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union), Gorbachev speaks like a man with nothing to lose, and Herzog applies his own unique perspective and inimitable narration to a deep archive of footage.

The film opens with Herzog’s last meeting with Gorbachev.  He questions him about his impressions of Germans as the Germans devastated the Soviet Union during the war.  But Gorbachev has nothing bad to say about anyone, less of all Germans.  Gorbachev says tithes first neighbours he visited as a child were Germans and they made great cakes and that anyone that cook bake that delicious a cake has to be good people.

There is a lot that many do not know about Gorbachev, myself included.  That is what makes the film more intriguing.  Gorbachev comes from a poor family, his uncle and aunt died on the farm from starvation and he was looked after by very kind grandparents.  He is revealed to be very diligent and a man who studied hard and worked himself up the ranks in a society that followed old rules and traditions.  Obviously the Russian system and government did not work as people were starving and protesting and Gorbachev had to do his thing.

Herzog reveals many outstanding qualities about the subject which pique the film’s interest.  Gorbachev is a man who is basically a good person, and one who intends to do good for his fellow man ie. the Soviet Union.   Herzog trails how thesis accomplished, through his diligence, his intelligence and through perseverance, despite bureaucratic odds, Soviet Union style.  

Herzog has assembled an impressive amount of archive footage, much of it from newsreel, on Gorbachev and also of the Soviet Union under the other leaders before him, tying in his story through voiceover from himself, or the offering his point of view, which often is intelligent, makes much sense and puts his story into perspective,

Herzog is a German director of extreme experience.  He has directed classics like FITZCARRALDO, WOYZECK and STROSZEK as well as documentaries like CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS in 3D and INTO THE INFERNO.  MEETING GORBACHEV is another impressive documentary from the German Master, that not only reveals the story of a great man, but impresses on the good one ordinary man, rising through the political ranks can do for his fellow man.  The film also shows through archive footage, how other politicians like Margaret Thatcher relate and felt about Gorbachev.

Herzog sneaks into his film several messages – his view on nuclear disarmament; desire for peace and harmony for mankind.  His images on the dismantling of the Berlin Wall are particularly moving.

MEET GORBACHEV premiered at the Toronto Itrnational Film Festival last year and begins a limited run at the Bell Lightboxthis week.  It is the best documentary playing in Toronto at the moment

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcTWadiv6vI

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Film Review: DRAG KIDS (Canada 2019) ***

Directed by Megan Wennberg

DRAG KIDS is a Canadian documentary about drag kids i.e. kids that dress up in drag to perform, just as their adults counterparts – drag queens do.

Director Megan Wennberg’s doc takes advantage of this curiosity  as well as proposes answers to questions like why would kids want to do drag and how their performances affect themselves and their close ones.

Four children are chosen from Canada, Europe (Spain) and the United States.  The children are as diverse as they are drag kids.  The four are: (their stage names used; just as their adults counterparts use) Queen Lactatia, Laddy GaGa, Suzan Bee Anthony and Bracken Hanke.  The climax of the film is their performances, their first time at Fierte Montreal (the new name for Pride Montreal) where they come together and interact, just as their parents do.  Needless to say, they have the times of their lives as in the words of Suzan: “This is the best time in my life – ever!”  Suzan is the only female doing drag.  One the music starts, and the kids go on stage, the remarkable happens!

One encouraging thing the doc exposes is the support provided by the parents of these children regardless of which continent they come from.  The parents speak highly of their children and their ability to do what they want.  One parent makes a good point putting down the fact of the question on whether his child is straight or gay.  My son is only 9, is the valid response.

The doc offers close to equal time devoted to each of the 4.  Which drag kid is the best? The answer is revealed at the end of the competition, but it does not really matter when everyone is having a good time, parents included.

It is also no easy task to perform drag, kid or adult as the film reveals.  The children undergo intense choreography lessons in preparation for their show.

One glaring fact is that Wennberg only skims the surface of drag kids in her doc and fails to go deeper into any connecting issues.  The result is an ok doc, pleasant to watch with a little information on the subject but fails to offer major insight to the its subject.

DRAG KIDS premiered at the Hot Docs in Toronto 2019.  There will be two other opportunities to view the film – one at the LGBT Inside Out Film Festival that runs from the 23rd of May and the other, when it premieres on the Documentary Channel in July of this year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUto5LJ2AmY

Film Review: CITY DREAMERS (USA/Canada 2018) ***

City Dreamers Poster
City Dreamers is a film about our changing urban environment and four women architects, inspiring trailblazers with over 60 years of experience each, who are working, observing and thinking…See full summary »

Director:

Joseph Hillel

Writers:

Bruno BaillargeonJoseph Hillel (co-writer)

CITY DREAMERS is a small little documentary that opens in the equally little cinema complex, the Carlton Cinemas for a limited run.  The doc would appeal to a smaller audience as well, not to the masses.  The target audience in this case, would be architects and city planners, more particularly female ones at that.  

The film celebrates women, inspirational women who have done their fair share of changing the world through their work and city landscapes.  Hillel’s doc is one of information and insight.  Hillel’s doc focuses on four women architects from different cities.  One of them (when interviewed) prefers to use the word aspirations instead of dreams, as what is eventually designed and constructed has to be real and effective not just an unrealistic dream.

The film’s four featured female architects from different backgrounds are:

Phyllis Lambert

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Denise Scott Brown and

Blanche Lemco van Ginkel

Phyllis Lambert (who when interviewed speaks in French), who hails from Montreal, Canada has spent most of her career as a city planner advocating for the preservation of historic properties.  She talks of Old Montreal when it consisted of burnt out buildings.  She also aided in the preservation of old historic buildings and the founding of the heritage society that prevented developers from tearing down beautiful old architecture.  The plan of the expressway were also diverted and redone. These are illustrated by looking at the old and new locations of the expressway on architectural blueprints.

Vancouver landscape specialist Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, in contrast, designs elaborate green spaces, which are now vanishing thanks to cities building upward instead of outward.  She talks of the need of parks to complement housing.

In the United States, Philadelphia, Denise Scott Brown talks about Philadelphia’s notably black and low income South Street. There are images of these poorer and dilapidated buildings.  Yet these people fight against change.  The government at the time was afraid of ensuing riots if their buildings were torn down.

Lastly, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel was one of the first female professors of architecture and engineering in the world, and her world renowned firm was committed to creating sustainable, pedestrian friendly environments since 1957.

Each is given equal importance and screen time.  These women talk about their aspirations, their work and what moved them in their respective careers.  One could also see that these architects, now in their senior years, have completed so much in their lifetimes.  They have entered University at a time when females were generally left out of higher education.  They did marry and also talk about their husbands and their influences.  At the time blueprints are literally blue prints, prints on blue paper.

A lot of the doc contains archive footage and home movies provided by the subjects.  The subjects are also interviewed and they speak candidly on camera.

What is lacking in Hillel’s doc is a clearer narrative and to have some direction as to where the doc is heading.  As such, CITY DREAMERS seem loosely strung together, in a way that any order of the presentations of the subjects would not have made any difference.  The positive side of this is that he lets the women tell their stories in an unobstructed way.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwWxKhVo8j0

Film Review: JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (USA 2019)

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum Poster
Trailer

Super-assassin John Wick is on the run after killing a member of the international assassin’s guild, and with a $14 million price tag on his head – he is the target of hit men and women everywhere.

Director:

Chad Stahelski

Writers:

Derek Kolstad (screenplay by), Shay Hatten (screenplay by) | 4 more credits »

Keanu Reeves as John Wick is back – uglier and unshaven as ever.  In trouble as ever.  And the film is bloodier and violent as ever – it obeying the rules (not like Wick in the Continental hotel) of being bigger and louder a sequel than the original.  But not necessarily for the better.  The film proves that there can be too much of a good thing – arguably if one wants to count action set pieces as a good thing.

The word Parabellum in the film title mens ‘prepare for war’ though it is arguable that all the assassins in the world vs. John Wick can be defined as one .

Chad Stahelski who also directed the original returns to the director’s chair in the third instalment of the franchise offering more action and violence as the first two John Wick films.  The film is all action based on a loose story line that surprisingly took four screenwriters, Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abram to pen.

The most interesting aspect of the first JOHN WICK1984 film is the Continental Hotel.  As every John Wick fan knows, no one can do away with anyone there – as it a place of solace and amnesty that every criminal or cop has to adhere to.  John Wick broke the rule.  As a result he finds himself on the run for a host of assassins all out to kill Wick to earn the huge bounty of $14 million put on his head.  Being declared as excommunicado after killing D’Antonio on Continental grounds, the chances of survival have never been thinner for Wick. With the aid of old allies, John seeks to turn the tide.

A subplot involves the head and owner of the Continental, Winston (Ian McShane) forced to step down but refuses who also helps Wick by giving him blood markers, whatever that means.

The film was shot in exotic locations like Morocco, Montreal and New York City.  The soundtrack by Tyler Bates who is good for putting lots o signs together in a soundtrack is a winner.

Besides Reeves, other actors in the franchise like Halle Berry as Sofia another assassin but close friend, Laurence Fishburne and Lance Reddick as Charron the continental concierge reprise their roles.

The film is excessively violent.  There nastiest of these is a blade stabbed right into a victim’s eye during fight.  Other stabbings to the head and other body parts happen frequently.

The action flick runs two hours.  After a quarter through the film, one realizes that the film is nothing more than actions set pieces that eventually get really boring and repetitive.  Wick fights his assassins using Martial Arts, knives, motorbikes, guns, hand-to-hand and cars.  All the fight options are too exhausted.  So is the audience’s attention span.  Chapter 3 is clearly the worst of the John Wick franchise.

JOHN WICK 3, as the film is alternatively called hopes to derail AVENGERS ENDGAME  from the number 1 box-office this weekend.

Trailer: ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBB1whi46QE

Film Review: A DOG’S JOURNEY (USA 2019) **

A Dog's Journey Poster
Trailer

A dog finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he meets.

Director:

Gail Mancuso

Writers:

W. Bruce Cameron (book), W. Bruce Cameron (screenplay) | 3 more credits »

How many dog movies can Swede filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom make in his career?  Ever since his claim to fame with his MY LIFE AS A DOG (English translation of its Swedish title), he championed A DOG’S PURPOSE in 2017 and now its sequel A DOG’S JOURNEY.

A DOG’S JOURNEY requires all credibility be thrown to the wind.  Even its lead character, C.J. tells her friend Trent near the end of the story that the dog story is impossible to believe.  One has to believe that:

  1. dogs can be reincarnated from one canine to another right after death
  2. this particularly canine has found and protected its mistress C.J. in 4 different coincidental cases
  3. dogs can sniff and identify cancer in human beings
  4. dogs can sniff and find someone miles away
  5. that people will love this dog movie no matter how ridiculous the plot may be

The film continues in the spirit of the faithful translation of author W Bruce Cameron’s original concept of dogs delivering humorous voiceover narration (here the voice of Josh Gad) that surprisingly got the majority of laughs at the promo-screening I attended.  But the dialogue is amusing and I found myself chuckling at best.  It is at least more respectable than the poo (or  rather dog poo) jokes that abound throughout the film.

The film opens Ethan Montgomery (Dennis Quaid) farming his land with his faithful blubbering pooch, Bailey.  Bailey does tricks, is huge and cuddly and the kind of dog that is impossible to dislike.  Well almost.  The widowed daughter-in-law, Gloria (Betty Gilpin), who is staying with Ethan and Hannah, Ethan’s wife (Marg Helgenberger) thinks Bailey dirty. Gloria has a child, Clarity June (C.J.) (Kathryn Prescott).  One day, as a result of an argument, Gloria leaves Ethan and Hannah taking C.J with her.  Bailey dies vowing to find C.J. to look after her in the next life.  The next life, C.J. grows up and owns Molly, Bailey’s reincarnation,  And the story or the dog’s journey continues.

The dog lives a total of 4 different lives in total, from Bailey to Molly, Max and Toby.  Molly the hound is the most adorable while the happy Toby the most spoilt and annoying.  C.J. grows from toddler to child to teen in the process while Ethan grows old with the faithful reincarnated Bailey by his side.  C.J. is played by n less than three different actresses.

As a family doggie movie, A DOG’S JOURNEY, written by no less than 4 authors, delivers and turns out exactly what fans of the original DOG’s PURPOSE is looking for.   A DOG’S JOURNEY is best looked as a doggie fairytale, very corny and very sentimental (imagine a doggie heaven, as implied at the end of the film).  The best thing about the film, is understandably the trained dogs on display.  Dog lovers are advised to bring lots of Kleenex.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2FrrSyyKfA

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

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