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WONDER (USA 2017) ***1/2

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Wonder Poster
Trailer

Based on the New York Times bestseller, WONDER tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman, a boy with facial differences who enters fifth grade, attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time.

Director:

Stephen Chbosky

Writers:

Stephen Chbosky (screenplay by), Steve Conrad (screenplay by)

WONDER is a family friendly film with just the correct mix of comedy and drama about a boy with a facial deformity, Auggie ( Jacob Tremblay).  The film follows his adjustment to public school, Beecham Preparatory School after being home schooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts).  His father, Nate (Owen Wilson) is supportive as well as his sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic) though she resents not being given as much attention by her parents.  WONDER is written by Steve Conrad based on the book of the same name by R.J. Palacio.

Despite the obvious message as announced via voiceover at the end of the movie: “Be Kind: You just have to look at people to see…”, there is another more important message found in the movie, as uttered by Via, Auggie’s sister when she angrily quips at her brother: “It’s not always about you.” This message is also echoed in the way the film’s story is brilliantly told – in 4 parts from 3 other points of view besides Auggie’s, showing that other people count.  The other views are from Auggie’s sister, Via, and from two of his friends, Jack Will (Noah Jupe) and Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell).  The other three are revealed in the script as individuals, just as important as individuals as being a character in Auggie’s world.

The film’s contains one mixed message in the way Auggie finds his first friend, Jack Will – by allowing him to cheat, copying from him, during a test.  He could have helped him or offered to help him study instead.

The big minus in WONDER is the filmmakers insistence on going for sentiment.  They should be more confident on the material and stop tugging at the heartstrings.  So be forewarned!  Bring plenty of Kleenex as director Chbosky chooses to milk every opportunity he can for tears.  This can be observed by the choice of music; Julia Robert’s perpetual sad look; the script’s dialogue (You cannot blend in if you are meant to stand out in the world); the fondness of close-ups of the actors’ faces.

The script could be trimmed to do away with the teen budding romance between Via and her new theatre boyfriend, Justin that does not do much with the main story.

The performances from the young kids are to be praised.  The best of these belong to Noah Jupe as Jack Will, Auggie’s best friend.  Jupe is a natural, the camera loving his every facial expression – a possible future star in the making.  Two screen veterans Mandy Patinkin and Sonia Braga lend their hands playing Mr. Tushman and Via’s grandmother respectively.

Chbosky’s film tries at making every set-up perfect.  It is therefore not surprising that the film’s best moment is a quiet and simple one – a close-up of Jack Will’s face at being happy once again at being Auggie’s friend.

The film ends with Auggie’s mom saying to Auggie: “You are really a WONDER, Auggie”.  Perhaps the film itself could have turned out a wonder if everyone did not try so hard.

But for all its flaws, WONDER is a film made about a subject that matters.  It is also good to see stars like Julia Roberts  and Owen Wilson putting their efforts in a earnest little movie for a change.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFxsRbqN8jA

 

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STEGMAN IS DEAD (Canada 2017) ***

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Stegman Is Dead Poster
Meet Stegman. He’s dead. In this crime comedy, bizarre assassins must come together to unravel the puzzle of Stegman’s blackmail secret, and why he’s already dead on the set of his own porn film.

Director:

David Hyde

 

Raven Banner Entertainment distributes low budget films – usually horror flicks or flicks with an edge.  STEGMAN IS DEAD falls into the latter category, with violence and  some foul language thrown in for good measure despite the film’s protagonist being a family man.

A family man with a past crime background, to be more accurate.  He has ‘successfully’ completed a heist in which he had accidentally killed two security guards.  His boss, Don (Michael Ironside) has cleaned up everything but unfortunately all the cleanup was recorded on tape which has been stole by Stegman who is now blackmailing him.

The film attracted attention well before its release, with two nominations at the Golden Trailer Awards in LA, an Award Of Excellence at the IndieFest 2017 Film Awards in the US and a surprising “market premiere” at the Cannes Film Festival programmed by Telefilm Canada as one of their six favourite films of 2017.

Director Hyde focuses the film on a single location (Stegman’s home/studio) and created a colourful array of criminals, each with their own distinct “style.” There are twenty-one speaking roles include a bumbler named Lars (Arne MacPherson), a sadistic Russian named Sergei (David Lawrence Brown), a psycho “terminator” named Kruger (Stephen Eric McIntyre) and a mystery-woman named Evy (Bernice Liu).

This follows Diane’s family, a deceptively pleasant, aging lot of retired criminals who want to give her struggling husband Gus, a leg up.  The father and daughter – the leads of the story – are members of a clan that goes back generations. They revere the fact that they are thieves. They live in an offbeat culture that exists outside normal society. ‘My dad taught me how to steal wallets, I’m teaching my daughter how to steal wall

When the film opens, Mike is in front of his house. The voiceover informs that he is about to rob his own house.  But the police have been to the house first.  He is to recover the tapes that will save his hide and his marriage.

STEGMAN IS DEAD is confidently put together by director, writer and cast who clearly exhibits confidence.  The trouble with confidence is that the film comes out as too smug for tis own good.  A bit more humility will result in flaws being identified and perhaps corrected.  

The film’s dialogue ranges from funny to fair.  His wife warns him:”If you don’t bring back the bacon, you do not get the sausage.”  Or an old guys saying: “No ore tension, now with pension.”  But the film occasionally hits the laughter jackpot as in one scene where everyone at gathering is forced to lie on the ground.  The wife of an elderly tells him, “Keep your arms together”, as he has difficulty going down to the floor.

The film’s setting is Middle America with its low income residences, old cars and dirty roads.  It sold remembered though that this is a Canadian movie.

STEGMAN IS DEAD is not a bad film, efficiently put together with a confident cast and crew.  It contains occasional surprises but one has to watch out for them.  There is one good thing to say about this film – it has spirit!  The film has a limited engagement at the Carlton Cinemas, again a small venue for small budget films and gems.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/223366304

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PARADISE (Russia 2016) ****

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Paradise Poster
Trailer

Follows three people whose paths cross during a terrible time of war: Olga, a Russian aristocratic emigrant and member of the French Resistance; Jules, a French collaborator; and Helmut, a high-ranking German SS officer.

Writers:

Andrey Konchalovskiy (screenplay), Elena Kiseleva (screenplay)

Shot in black and white in part documentary style with interviews, PARADISE is a harrowing if not compelling study of human behaviour and strife for a better lifestyle (or as the film unfolds, the goal is to achieve a kind of PARADISE) regardless of circumstances.  The circumstances in the film’s setting are not too good – as the setting is a Nazi concentration camp.

When the film opens, the audience sees three different individuals interviewed, whose paths cross because of the devastation of war.  

The first person interviewed is a portly middle-class Frenchman named Jules who has a wife and a son called Emile..  He goes on to talk about his son being called Emile for no real reason, except to show that he is a man dedicated to family.  Director Konchalovsky (who has proven himself with 3 well-known films, RUNAWAY TRAIN, THE ODYSSEY, SHY PEOPLE) allows his audience to form their own opinion or judgement on this not entirely unlikeable character as in the other two, despite him being a French-Nazi collaborator. 

Next is handsome high-ranking German SS officer Helmut, who once fell madly in love with Olga and still harbours feelings. They re-kindle their old flame and embark on a twisted and destructive relationship.

The third and most important in the story is Olga.  Olga, a Russian aristocratic immigrant and member of the French Resistance, is arrested by Nazi police for hiding Jewish children during a surprise raid.  As her punishment, she is sent to jail where she meets Jules and later Helmut who offers her a safe haven to South America as an escape both for her from the concentration camp and for him from the defeat of the Nazis in the war.

The best thing about PARADISE is the film’s authentic look in terms of period and atmosphere.  Everything else too from the costumes, wardrobe, sets look directly as if they were derived from old photographs.  The camera moves in and out the seemingly crowded spaces in the concentration camp.

Konchalovsky also shows the rift between the Jewish prisoners.  They fight among themselves for food and for the attire off someone who has just died.  The kapos (the prisoners selected to act as guards) are also looked down upon in the film.  Besides the grim look of the camps, Konchalovsky also shows the splendour enjoyed by the rich.  Servants stand by to serve the rich and fortunate as they play tennis in the latest fashioned attire.  Helmut looks particular sexy in his outfits among the females.

But the film’s main goal is the message that is revealed only at the end of the film – on how humanity and kindness can still exist amidst the futility of war.  The film’s theme can be summarized using the famous words of German philosopher Karl Jaspers: “That which has happened is a warning. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”

PARADISE arrives though a year late, with all the accolades after winning the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.  Definitely a film worth seeing!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzIthDhMjC4

 

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BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL (Japan 2017) ***

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Blade of the Immortal Poster
Trailer

Manji, a highly skilled samurai, becomes cursed with immortality after a legendary battle. Haunted by the brutal murder of his sister, Manji knows that only fighting evil will regain his soul. He promises to help a young girl named Rin avenge her parents, who were killed by a group of master swordsmen led by ruthless warrior Anotsu.

Director:

Takashi Miike

Writers:

Hiroaki Samura (manga), Tetsuya Oishi (screenplay)

If you have not heard of Takashi Miiki, this is the opportunity to get acquainted with the Japanese writer/director who has made 99 films so far with this one BLADE OFTHE IMMORTAL based on Hiroaki Samura’s ground-breaking and award-winning manga, being his 100th film.  Most of his films, violent as they are never get a commercial release in Canada.

Miiki is famous for action samurai films but he is also well known for his modern horror flicks, especially AUDITION, which is one film guaranteed to make one cringe – imagine steel wire supported by bricks dismembering ones foot.

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL follows the hero of the story, Manji (Takuya Kimura), a highly skilled samurai who becomes cursed with immortality after a legendary battle.  Haunted by the brutal murder of his sister, Manji knows that only fighting evil will regain his soul.  He promises to help a young girl named Rin avenge her parents, who were killed by a group of master swordsmen led by ruthless warrior Anotsu. The mission will change Manji in ways he could never imagine.

In period samurai pieces, interest is often lost without personalizing the story.  This one has Rin who hires Manji to avenge her father –  a story reminiscent of TRUE GRIT.

For amusement, Miiki inserts a debate on what is good and what evil is, only to tear apart the concept a few moments after.

  The straightforward samurai revenge flick is built around the platonic, primal ideal of what a samurai movie can be.  Still, as in Miiki’s films, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is a non-stop symphony of murder and steel filled with unbelievable weapons, gruesome amputations, rivers of blood, and charismatic warriors. It is a 2 hour 20 minute saga, though interest never flails.  It features spectacular fight scenes with a whole array of imaginative weapons, and a climactic battle reportedly involving some 300 people that took more than two weeks to film.

Miiki takes his time to establish his villain.  The villain is one Anotsu, not just a villain with no character.  He has his principle of fighting one on one, and not playing with children as he deems it vulgar.  He is a pretty boy with luscious lips, always decked in a gorgeous robe, obviously better looking than the hero, who has a scar right across his face.  That is Miiki’s weird humour that makes his film and his characters stand out against others.

Miiki remembers too that in spite of all, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is an action sword fitting flick.  So, the battles and fights are well choreographed and exciting enough to satisfy die hard fans.  There is a little combination of horror and action in the film, but the horror is not as disturbing as in his other films like AUDITION.  Still, there are a lot of chopped off hands, feet and limbs. 

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL premiered at Cannes and at the Reel Asian International Film Festival in Toronto.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M2F4-oTNF4

 

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (USA 2017) ***

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Trailer

Denzel Washington stars as Roman Israel, a driven, idealistic defense attorney who, through a tumultuous series of events, finds himself in a crisis that leads to extreme action.

Director:

Dan Gilroy

Writer:

Dan Gilroy

 

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL is a film that tries very hard to be perfect, just as its subject, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ (Denzel Washington) tries to be.  But perfection is a state that is almost impossible to achieve with regards to the film and its subject, and this point comes clear at the end of the film.  Which is a shame considering writer/director Gilroy’s noble intentions.

The film begins with a document in the making, with a plaintiff and defendant named the same person Roman J. Israel, Esq.  The film flashbacks three years earlier to explain how this state of affairs comes to be.

Gilroy introduces his man, Israel as a noble man, but one that is not respected by many as this is a man not of the world, but of humbler means but with proud aspirations.  He works in a small law firm with his partner taking on small cases that matter in terms of human rights and fairness.  The partner does all the court appearances while Israel all the ground work.  When his partner, the firm’s front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role.  He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading law firm has done that run afoul of his values of helping the poor and dispossessed, and he finds himself in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action.  

Into the his world arrives two people that make a difference.  One is Maya (Carmen Ejogo) who looks up to him and who he eventually falls in love with.  The other is the head of a well established and successful law firm, Arthur (Colin Farrell) whom his partner taught and inspired in law school.  Arthur takes Israel in, hoping to find his conscience that he has almost lost in the world of business and law.

What stands out in this incredible story is Roman’s downfall.   Like any other man, he is tempted by the good life.  Roman takes a bite of the apple in the garden of Eden.  The apple arrives in the reward money Roman quietly takes from one of his cases.  And he is found out.

A lot of the film rests on Oscar Winner Denzel Washington’s performance.  Roman is the main subject who is in almost every scene.  Roman not only undergoes a character change once but twice from good to bad and to good again.  The character also undergoes a rites-of-passage where he learns about life itself.  But the surprise and prized performance comes from Colin Farrell.  Farrell douses his unkempt and portly appearance he donned in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and THE LOBSTER to reveal a sexy business executive, a Mr. Perfect looking sharp and sexy in his  perfectly tailored suits and groomed hair.   He finally shows his transition from action actor to star commanding the screen presence in this film so magnificently.

One wishes ROMAN the film would have come out more powerful.  The main problem is the film aiming too high.  A classic movie arrives with minor flaws, some dull parts and surprises just as what life dishes out.  Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL, entertaining though it may be, is just too meticulously planned.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CItEtnp3nPY

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MY FRIEND DAHMER (USA 2017)

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My Friend Dahmer Poster
Trailer

A young Jeffrey Dahmer struggles to belong in high school.

Director:

Marc Meyers

Writers:

Marc MeyersDerf Backderf (based on the book My Friend Dahmer by)

 

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21ST TORONTO REEL ASIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

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The (21st) ReelAsian International Film Festival runs from November the 9th to the 18th, 2017 in downtown Toronto and North York. 

Capsule reviews of selected films (as recommended by the ReelAsian publicist) follows below this article.

For more information and a full schedule of screenings, please check its website at:

http://www.reelasian.com/festival/

Capsule Reviews of Selected Films

BAD GENIUS (Thailand 2017) ****
Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

BAD GENIUS belongs to the category of good movies with poor titles like the recent BABY DRIVER.   From Thailand, BAD GENIUS is a feel good teen B-movie from B-country Thailand, but from the first few segments, one is immediately impressed by director’s ingenuity and ability to entertain.  Lynne helps her friend Grace to cheat during an exam in a scene that is both comical and suspenseful.  Also when Grace remarks that she needs a 3.25 GPA to be in  school play, Lynn replies that it is harder to act in a play than to study.  Lynn is a genius high school student who makes money by cheating tests, receives a new task that leads her to set foot on Sydney, Australia.  In order to complete the millions-Baht task, Lynn and her classmates have to finish the international STIC (known as SAT internationally) exam and deliver the answers back to her friends in Thailand before the exam takes place once again in her home country.   Director Poonpiriya nows how to make a feel good movie by making all the characters likeable (and performed by good looking actors), ending every scene on a high note and having a pompous wealthy school and strict (and corrupt) authoritarians as the common enemy.  The film also covers relevant Asian issues like being filial, the attraction of studying abroad and international exams.  A discrete message tied in too about life not being fair, so that one has to help oneself.  Totally enjoyable from start to finish, with the time flying fast (as in not having enough time to complete an examination) despite its bad title.
Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6788942/videoplayer/vi970373401?ref_=tt_pv_vi_aiv_1

BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES II: THE INFERNAL BATTLEFIELD (China 2017) ***
Directed by Lu Yang

The sequel to the original BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES, number II, the sequel has already done much better at the box-office as of date, than the first film owing to better marketing.  Lu Yang returns in the director’s chair with a solid sword fighting saga like the better ones Shaw Brothers used to make in the good old days.  Set in Northeast China, AD 1619, during the late Ming dynasty,  the film centres on a captain of the Imeprial Guard, Shen Lian (Zhang Zhen) who when the film begins rescues a couple of Ming soldiers from certain death, including Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), who is eternally grateful.  The film moves forward 8 years later, in the summer of AD 1627, encounters intrigue and corruption in the higher ranks.  There is a bit too much plot to follow that audiences might to be used to for films in this genre.  The battle scenes are well done with good martial-arts choreography and fights on horses with the climatic battle taking place at a gorge for additional excitement.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JB7Q290d8ck

DEAR ETRANGER (Japan 2017) ***

Directed by Yukiko Mishima

The etranger (French of stranger) here, is Makoto Tanaka (Tadanobu Asano), divorced from his first wife, Yuka (Shinobu Terajima), four years ago and now married the younger Nanae (Rena Tanaka), who herself is divorced).  Nanae left her husband, the alcoholic, dissolute Sawada (Kankuro Kudo), because he beat her and her young daughter.  Makoto and Yuka split when they couldn’t agree on a second child:  He wanted one, she didn’t.  Makoto continues to see his daughter, Saori (Raiju Kamata), who lives with her mother and new stepfather, while he tries to be a good parent to Nanae’s two daughters, Eriko (Miu Arai) and sullen sixth-grader Kaoru (Sara Minami).  Kaoru says her stepfather Makoto is a stranger and insists on meeting her real father.  The film is real family drama, one that affects the modern family whee separation and divorce are common.  Real tensions are on display without the characteristic Hollywood melodrama or cheap theatrics.  Running a bit long at 2 hours, DEAR ETRANGER is an emotional ride, nevertheless.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-FPd35FqAY

STAND UP MAN (Canada 2017) ***
Directed by Aram Collier

STAND UP MAN opens with the only Korean in the town of Windsor performing a hard to get comedy gig in Toronto. Moses Kim (Daniel Jun) does well, getting the laughs he deserves besides dishing out rather bad dick jokes.  At this time, he is happily just married to Yoojin (Rosalina Lee) and landed with a Korean restaurant from his missionary parents who have left for Mali.  There are lots of fun poked at the Korean community and the Canadian town of Windsor and actor Daniel Jun is appropriately lively as the lead character.  The plot takes a turn with the arrival of Kim’s younger cousin Joon-Ho (Daegun Daniel Lee) form Korea who he has to babysit.  The film is sufficiently entertaining with a message of a different kind.  It is not one of ‘chasing ones dreams’ like Kim being a successful standup that is important, but something else (not revealed in this review).

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

 

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