I, DANIEL BLAKE (USA 2016) ***** Top 10

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival: http://www.wildsound.ca

i_daniel_blake.jpgA middle aged carpenter who requires state welfare after suffering a heart attack is joined by a single mother in a similar scenario.

Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty (screenplay)
Stars: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy

Review by Gilbert Seah 

British director Ken Loach is one director that constantly makes films about the country’s social problems – be it child services (LADYBIRD, LADYBIRD), the working class (RIFF-RAFF) or growing up poor (KES his first and best feature film, SWEET SIXTEEN). In I, DANIEL BLAKE, his new film, the setting is Newcastle where the Geordies speak with their accent. The accent can be understood as the actors speak slow enough and enunciate clearly but the film still comes with English subtitles.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns, who won this year’s BFTA Award for Best Actor for this performance) is caught in a rut. The government services are sending him in circles and he is out of patience and money. After Daniel suffers a heart attack, he is on the dole. But he is ‘sanctioned’ and has to show that he is applying for a job to keep his benefits. But he cannot really work because of his heart condition. It does not help that Daniel is not digital by default, i.e. he is not familiar with using the computer. While at one of these meetings, he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother who has moved from London to Newcastle with her two children because she is finally given a flat to live in. The two poor souls become good friends – each helping each other out.

There is a nice tune in the film called “Sailing On” by Ronald Binge. The tune has a great significance as Daniel’s late wife used to tell him while sick with him looking after her: “All I want to do is sail away, with the wind at my back.” These words will have again special significance at the end of the film.

Unlike a lot of films about social problems, Loach’s film (written by Paul Laverty) shows that there are still good people around – even in government offices, particularly in the scene when one sympathetic officer, Ann (Kate Rutter) offers him, for the first time, decent and heart-felt advice.

The most important message of the film is uttered no less than by Daniel himself. “When you lose your self respect, you are done for.” But the film shows how difficult it is to keep this self-respect and honesty. His neighbour, a black nicknamed China (Kema Sikazwe), finally had it and starts selling sneakers mailed from China selling them at 80 quid while these same shoes are found sold in stores in the high street at more than double the price. Daniel frowns on China. The film shows easy money could come by like an opportunity knocking at ones door, though it may not be a good thing. Katie’s children are in dire need of essentials like food and shoes. She opts for the easy way out like shoplifting (though she does get caught) and later on more desperately as an escort. Daniel finds out. The confrontation scene between the two on the subject is deeply emotional and gut wrenching to watch.

Ken Loach shows that a film appearing so simple with no special effects, cheap theatrics, sugar coating or pretentious dramatics can turn out to be so moving and absorbing. I, DANIEL BLAKE is a great film. It took away the Palme d’Or this year at Cannes. Bring lots of Kleenex!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahWgxw9E_h4

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Film Review: COUNTING FOR THUNDER (USA 2015) ***

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival: http://www.wildsound.ca

counting_for_thunder.jpgAn actor unlucky in work, money and love goes back home to the deep south to help out during a family crisis and is inspired to find his true voice as his mother is finally finding hers.

Director: Phillip Irwin Cooper
Writer: Phillip Irwin Cooper
Stars: Phillip Irwin Cooper, Mariette Hartley, John Heard

Review by Gilbert Seah

 It should be noted that this autobiographical film started out as a one-man play where Phillip Irwin Cooper played no less than 30 different odd characters. But Cooper has taken his play out in the open quite well, as it is difficult to guess that the film originated that way. Cooper does the writing, directing and lead role in the film.

Phillip Stalworth (Cooper) is an actor unlucky in work, money and love. He goes back home from California to the deep south, Alabama to help out during a family crisis. His mother, Tina (Mariette Hartley) has been diagnosed with cancer. He is more attached to her than to his father, Garrett (John Heard) who in turn is closer to his sister (Alison Elliot). So why is this film advertised (billed) as a LGBT film? Phillip is bi, who has made out with both sexes. While back in Alabama, he has a fling with an old school-mate, Joe Tishman (Peter Stebbings). There is no nudity or skin in this film.

The film benefits from two veteran actors, Hartley and Heard. Stebbings is sexy enough or at least plays sexy quite well. Cooper, however, is fond of making awkward faces whenever conversation is made. There is one scene with a key dialogue that goes against Cooper’s face making. Mother says the wise words that in a photo, the snapshot taken of there person is one that is frozen and that person will be remembered forever with that pose. This means Cooper will be remembered forever in his film as the man who makes awkward faces.

On the more serious side, COUNTING FOR THUNDER is an honest and earnest film from the heart of Cooper. There is the pain and tenderness of the lead charter that emancipates from the screen. The audience can tell that Coper is playing a real character. Cooper does not go for cheap laughs such as joking about people of the deep south.

The film contains a few really odd yet funny scenes. One wonders if they turned out this way by accident or were they carefully planned. One is the meeting outside the house where

Joe Tischman gives Phillip some collard greens from his garden telling him that he looks frazzled and the greens with olive oil and sea salt will brighten any day. While the two talk, their body language turns weirder, as if they were two roosters fluttering their feathers to see who is the more attractive.

At one point in the film, Thomas asks his mother while high on hashish, “Have you ever felt at any time that nothing in your life has every went the way that it should?” And they burst out laughing. It is an excellent scene showing that Cooper is able to laugh at his own material. But the film is more touching than funny. The film’s confrontation scene between Phillip and his father, however feels a bit forced.

COUNTING FOR THUNDER works better as a family drama than as a south middle age coming out story. The film will be released in the U.S. and Canada via Wolfe Video on May 2 on DVD & VOD and across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand.com and many major retailers.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/202288712 

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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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Hot Docs 2017 Review: ASK THE SEXPERT (USA 2017) ***

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival: http://www.wildsound.ca

ask_the_sexpert.jpgA longtime sex advice columnist gains popularity against the backdrop of a ban on comprehensive sex-education in schools in several Indian states.

Director: Vaishali Sinha

Review by Gilbert Seah

 The sexpert of the film is the columnist a 91-year old retired gynaecologist, Dr. Watsa of the Mumbai Times who has a column for years running that answers questions about sex.

Despite sex being a taboo topic in that country, the column’s brand of non-moralistic advice and humor has emboldened many to write in with their questions, the vast majority of whom seek basic information. Director Sinha follows the doctor often at work, as he sees patients or while he sitting by his computer dishing out often comical advice.

The film diverges to sex education in India and how Indians should be taught sex. There will be objections – those for the sex education curriculum and for Dr. Watsa’s column. It is not surprising that the angry people are always women. Sinha keeps her film light and flavourful.

While entertaining, ASK THE SEXPERT opens eyes on sex education in the huge continent of India.

Trailer: https://youtu.be/1yRR1_VU1cQ 

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Film Review: NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER (USA/Israel 2016)

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival: http://www.wildsound.ca

norman.jpgDirector: Joseph Cedar
Writer: Joseph Cedar
Stars: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen

Review by Gilbert Seah

Not to be confused with the other film NORMAN made in 2010, this new NORMAN comes with a long subtext in the title that essentially tells everyone what the film is about.
Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, NORMAN (film’s original title was OPPENHEIMER STRATEGIES) tells the moderate rise and tragic fall of the said man. The film is well shot and directed as a combination of set pieces are performed almost meticulously by veteran actor Richard Gere. At the age of 67, Gere could be almost be doing old fart movies like GOING IN STYLE. (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin share the average age of 80), Here in NORMAN, Gere is in top form, articulating his character who still has the ability to charm and ‘cheat’ investors of their hard earned savings.

Cedar’s film begins with two dramatic set pieces that show Norman hard at work. In the first, he is unsuccessful while he succeeds in the second. In the first segment, he stalks a high-profile businessman interrupting his private life, while he is jogging in the morning to pitch his deal. In the second, he successfully courts a young politician, Nicha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) after paying for his shoes at a shoe store. (French actor Isaac Bankole is immediately recognizable as the shoe salesman who flatters Eshel.) Three years pass and Eshel becomes Prime Minister of Israel. Eshel’s name is used to no end by Norman in all his present and future schemes.

At the film’s start in one of Eshel’s speech, he says: “I do not look at the way things are and ask: Why? I look at the way things should be and ask, why not?” The same idea can be used to critique NORMAN. The film is fine but the question that should be asked is what the film should have been with the question why not.

For one, nothing is mentioned of Norman’s background. Norman is shown the way he is – no girlfriend, minimal family and a loner at heart and in life. It is hard to identify with a person like Norman and especially as he is a trickster at heart. Norman has few redeeming qualities. There is no suspense in the way he could have got caught which could have added some needed suspense into an otherwise monotonous film.

Gere is good and the film contains an impressive cast of actors that include French Bankole and Charlotte Gainsbourg and others like Hank Azaria (always appearing in con films), Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens and Steve Buschemi. One could say that Gere is too good looking an actor to play a shady character like Norman. But one could argue too that as Gere said, when he was here for the film at TIFF that it shows that there is a Norman in each one of us.

The film is shot partly in Hebrew and English in New York City where the story is set. NORMAN is not bad but could be better. And why not?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXFCrl37HzU
 

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Film Article: CINEFRANCO SPECIAL QUEBEC 2017

HOT DOCS 2017 Reviews: PECKING ORDER (New Zealand 2017) ***

Deadlines to Submit your Screenplay, Novel, Story, or Poem to the festival: http://www.wildsound.ca

pecking_order.jpgPecking Order is a light-hearted documentary set in the world of bird breeding. The self-described ‘feelgood flockumentary’ canvases the personalities, power plays, fowl play and ‘best in show’ fervour of the 148-year-old Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club, as members prepare for the national championships.

Directed by: Slavko Martinov

Review by Gilbert Seah

Witten and directed by Slavko Martinov, PECKING ORDER is literally about the pecking order of chickens.

The setting is Christchurch, New Zealand – the 148-year old Christchurch Poultry , Bantam and Pigeon Club. The subject is competitive poultry pageantry as a highly entertaining hobby—it’s an obsession. For members of Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club in New Zealand, it’s also way of life. Among the members are Seniors Beth Inwood and President Doug Bain who have tasted the glory of raising perfect rosecomb cockerels and rumpless pullets.

Most of the members are old. But Martinov injects some fresh blood into the film with newbie teenagers Rhys Lilley and Sarah Bunton (though they do not impress me as the brightest of kids) enjoying the fun. But there appears to be trouble in paradise. Feathers start to fly when infighting breaks out in the club during the run-up to the 2015 National Poultry Show.

The film traces the change of presidency while highlighting the chooks National Show as its climax. Still the film is totally fun, shallow that it appears to be, but perhaps some of life lessons can be learnt from watching these chicken lovers. There is always something amusing when one hears chicken clucking.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyqrX4ySvKg

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Also, Free logline submissions. The Writing Festival network averages over 95,000 unique visitors a day.
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