Film Review: SPICE IT UP ( Canada 2018)

Spice It Up Poster

A film student struggles to complete her thesis project.


Lev LewisYonah Lewis | 1 more credit »


Lev Lewis (story), Yonah Lewis (story) | 1 more credit »

Directed by Lev Lewis (The Intestine) and Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas (co-directors of Amy George and The Oxbow Cure), SPICE IT UP is about a young filmmaker making her first film done as a tongue-in-cheek odyssey about the discouraging obstacles encountered by independent filmmakers.

Film student Rene (Jennifer Hardy), struggles to complete her thesis project — a piece of straight-faced, GoPro-shot absurdity about seven female friends who try to enlist in the Canadian army after they fail to graduate from high school.  To her discouragement, she finds her work dismissed or ignored by everyone she shares it with, including her own professor (Adam Nayman – Toronto’s film critic who happens to also teach film at Ryerson University, Toronto as depicted in the film), whose notes are less than inspiring.  Jumping between the ensemble-based film-within-a-film about friendship and teamwork, and the framing story of the lonely plight of its creator.

SPICE IT UP definitely has a documentary filmmaker’s look about it.  It feels that the film is directed by the protagonist Rene, while in reality the film is directed by three different people.

This is a film within a film.  Famous directors in the past have made films about their experiences in filmmaking resulting in their best works.  Francois Truffaut directed and played a film director himself in the Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Film LA NUIT AMERICAINE (English title: DAY FOR NIGHT), Federico Fellini directed bis masterpiece 81/2 with Marcello Mastroianni playing a young film director while the most recent ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is Quentin Tarrantino’s excursion on the filmmaking process during the hippie era.  It seems odd that the directors’ early film would tackle such a project that involves all the intricacies of creating a film – all of which comes with experience while making many, many films.  It is clear that SPICE IT UP turns out a little simple in its outlook on how to create a film.  Unlike the Masters’ works in filmmaking, all the information about making a good film appears to be textbook material, as advised by the Adam Nayman character in one scene where he, playing a film processor gives Rene advice on her film – create a stronger lead character instead of using 7 actors; engage a stronger narrative etc.  These words are echoed by a film editor who offers identical advice to Rene.  “Do you want me to got down and get dirty?” the editor asks Rene at one point whether he has permission to snip up her film.  In short, Rene is advised to SPICE  IT (her film) UP!

The answer to the last question would be a definite no, if one asks the opinion of the audience watching this film.  SPICE IT UP is Rene’s own film despite flaws and all and destroying it would seem nothing short of criminal. 

SPICE IT UP ends up a quiet little film that would turn out more intriguing  to cineastes.  This kind of small Canadian film would not have a release if it were not be for the TIFF Bell Lightbox and its programmers who give little films like SPICE IT UP a decent chance.

The film has its surprises and flaws.  One surprise is Rene’s professor who appears again at the end.  Nayman is hilarious as the pompous professor dishing out advice to Rene without realizing that he had watched the wrong film.  The part of Rene discovering her past unfortunately leads nowhere and serves as a distraction.

There is a Q&A (you already missed it!!) moderated by the said Adam Nayman in the film on Friday, August 16 at 8:30pm with the film’s three directors at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.



Film Review: KIDNAPPING STELLA (Germany 2019)

Kidnapping Stella Poster

Snatched off the street and held for ransom, a bound and gagged woman uses her limited powers to derail her two masked abductors’ carefully laid plans.


Thomas Sieben

KIDNAPPING STELLA is a remake of the British neo-thriller J. Blakeson’s 2009 THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED where a young woman is kidnapped by two ex-convicts, one of them her ex-boyfriend.  The original had superlative reviews especially in the acting category though it did not make much at the box-office.

KIDNAPPING STELLA is a Netlflix original film from Germany but a remake of the above described British film with a few changes.  The film still fails to deliver in either the thriller or drama mode.

As the film is playing on Netflix, viewers have the option of watching it in the original German version with subtitles or dubbed English.  The former is definitely then preferred choice as the dubbing is bad with the mouth synching and the words clearly out of place.

Kidnapping films often have as a subplot the Stockholm syndrome where the kidnapped falls in love with the kidnapper.  The opposite is true for KIDNAPPING STELLA.  A  woman named Stella (Jella Haase) daughter of a wealthy businessman is kidnapped by the men.  The two men are opposites in personality – obviously for a film script to be more workable.  In the original British version, the men are called Vic and Danny.  In KIDNAPPING STELLA Danny is renamed Tom.  One wonders at this odd choice of changing one name and not the other.  The synopses of both films are very similar, which goes to prove that  it is the making of the movie and not the story that makes the big difference.  It is interesting to note that ALICE CREED’s director Blakeson co-wrote the script with KIDNAPPING STELLA’s director Sieben.  Vic (Clemens Schick) is a vicious unsympathetic monster apparently the brains of the kidnapping while the other, Tom (Max von der Broeben) is a kinder more fumbling man.  When the latter allows Stella to go do a number 2, she unmasks him and Stella is shocked to find the unmasked her former boyfriend.  Apparently, they had a falling out of a relationship.

KIDNAPPING STELLA is nothing really exciting or entertaining.  The suspense is lacking.  The script contains false alarms like the threat of cutting off Stella’s finger when the father refuses to pay the ransom, but the threat is never realized.  One wonders the reason how these two men so different decide to come together to do the job.  When the trust between them breaks down, the story bears more credibility.

Though a German film, there is nothing specific that makes the film German.  It could be set in a any other country in the world, thus making the suspense thriller generic and less interesting.  The original was shot in the Isle of Man.  The film picks up a bit during the last 30 minutes with the story taking a few twists and turns.  

The acting is nothing short of spectacular and each actor appears to be just going through the motions.

There is one final twist at the end of the film but unfortunately by that time, no one really cares what happens.

The film has recently opened two weeks back and is still playing on Netflix.


Film Review: AQUARELA (Denmark/Germany/UK/USA 2018) ****

Aquarela Poster

Water is the main protagonist, seen in all its great and terrible beauty. Mountains of ice move and break apart as if they had a life of their own. Kossakovsky’s film travels the world, …See full summary »


Viktor Kossakovsky (as Victor Kossakovsky)

A visual feast, the documentary AQUARELA, the title derived from the Portuguese word of ‘watercolour’ is about the precious commodity of water.  The doc is shot in 96 frames-per-second (rather than the usual 24fps), which gives the images a visceral feel.

From the press notes, it appears that the filmmakers are proud that there are no talking heads or preaching.  But, even without words, it is impossible to know where each segment is shot, unless one stays and notes the closing credits.  The icebergs that glide off are of Greenland and the beginning ice lake is in Siberia and it would be informative if the audience be told these locations.

On display in AQUARLEA are these incredibly shot ice/water set-pieces.  Off the Greenland coast, icebergs glide like sculptures through the bays.  On a trans-Atlantic trip, a yacht faces 30-ft. waves.  California’s Oroville Dam overflows, flooding communities downstream.  Hurricane Irma batters Miami streets, rendering them surreal.  Then there’s Venezuela’s Angel
Falls, the world’s tallest continuous waterfall, with a plunge of 2,368 feet.

The arguably best sequence which arouses ones curiosity, is the first with a few men wearing orange outfits looking through the ice.  It takes a while before it is revealed that a car under the ice is what these men are looking for.  The men speak Russian (for those who can recognize the language.)  In one case, the car has just sunk and they pull out two men from under the ice  These are things many have not seen before.  The scenes are nothing short of fascinating.  One of the rescued mentioned that the ice melted which should not have been melted till 3 weeks later – clearly a case of the effects of global warming.  The lake is Siberia’s frozen Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest fresh water lake.  Visitors come from around the world to witness its spectacular fissures and cacophonous sound that occur when the ice melts.  But rapidly changing temperatures have shifted the seasons.  When the thaw unexpectedly comes three weeks early, drivers are caught off guard, their cars plunging into the lake while they cross it. 

The filming of both Hurricane Irma and the yacht facing the enormous waves are impressive.  But nothing can top what comes after the little yacht sailing by the towering icebergs along the coast of Greenland.  See the image attched to this review.  It is a magnificent sight.  What follows is truly astronomical.  An avalanche occurs and the ice collapses i to the sea with waves engulfing the vessel.

AQUARELA is my pick for one of the best documentaries of the year.  The achievement in filming technique alone – for example how the camera could be kept so still during a hurricane or waterfall is indescribable being words.  There should be a doc on how these efforts are achieved.  But AQUARELA is pure cinematic delight and comes complete with the all-important message of environmental conservation.  



Where'd You Go, Bernadette Poster


A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.


Richard Linklater (screenplay by), Holly Gent (screenplay by) | 2 more credits »

The answer to the question of the film title: WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? is Antarctica.  Bernadette (Oscar Winner Cate Blanchett) is seen at the film’s start kayaking along in waters with icebergs in the background.  What led to this scene?  The film flashes back the story 5 weeks earlier to explain the series events leading to this.

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is a mystery comedy drama that has two things going for it.  First is the film’s director Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD) who has made quite the name for himself as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.  Second is its star Cate Blanchett who is the main reason to see the movie.  Blanchett is nothing short of excellent, supported by an equally apt Kirsten Wiig playing Audrey her woman-made enemy.

The film is based on the recent bestseller of the same name by Maria Semple – with a few changes.  The novel could be described as unfilmmable as it consists of a series of emails and texts, so to Linklater’s credit, he has done an excellent job with his script.

The book is mostly narrated by Bee who is the daughter of Bernadette but the film makes Bernadette the main character.  Bernadette is an agropbobic architect  who after considerable success winning the prestigious architecture award in L.A. has moved with husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) to Seattle where Bernadette never leaves the family home.  Elgin is an important designer at Microsoft.  All of Bernadette’s chores are done through her cell phone via Anjuli.  When Bee convinces both parents to go on an Antarctic cruise, Bernadette tries to come up with any excuse not to go – as she hates people and seldom leaves the house.   There is much more in the plot which should not be disclosed in the review.  But it s safe today that Bernadette runs into a big fight with her neighbour Audrey (Wiig).  When her husband suspects that his wife is having psychological problems, he and assistant, Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao) arrange a meeting to have her committed. This is the Bernadette escapes ending up in Antarctica.

In the book,  Soo-Lin is impregnated by Elgin, but this is not the case in the film.  Bernadette suspects he husband of liking Soo-Lin but that is it and there is no infidelity unless one can argue that it could be implied.  This simplifies the story which is already quite complicated with too many subplots.

The script is a little too heavy on the dialogue.  The voiceover, and dialogue from all the characters appear too perfect for the typical American, though one can argue that one character is an architect and the other a Microsoft genius.  The script sneaks in quite the few world issues like environmental conservation, climate change and feminine presence.  As in recent films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA and the recent THE KITCHEN where it is said: “we women have to stick together.”, the statement is realized in the segment when the enemy Audrey bonds and ends up aiding Bernadette when her husband plans to commit her.  A woman is also in charge of the Antarctic Station.

Stay for the ending credits where the design of the Antarctic station comes alive in front of he audience’s eyes.

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE ends up an over-bloated dysfunctional family drama that is ultimately resolved in a somewhat entertaining film.


Film Review: LIGHT OF MY LIFE (USA 2019)

Light of My Life Poster

Parent and child journey through the outskirts of society a decade after a pandemic has wiped out half the world’s population. As a father struggles to protect his child, their bond, and the character of humanity, is tested.


Casey Affleck


Casey Affleck

LIGHT OF MY LIFE is the love a father (Casey Affleck) has for his daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky).  When the film opens, the father (with no name) tells the story of Noah’s Ark, his version with foxes who are cunning enough to save the world.  The story takes close to 15 minutes to be told, the camera all the while on the two figures lying down, about to sleep.  The story is sort of appropriate as it is soon revealed that the world has for some reason never explained cursed with a plague that has removed most of the female population.  For again reasons unexplained, Rag survives.  It is he father’s duty to protect the daughter’s virginity in as early as in films lie Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING.  So, the father is living with his daughter in isolation away from possible predators and the rest of the world.  In the mean time, the daughter is growing up.  Mother (Elisabeth Moss in a largely wasted role) is only shown in flashbacks and with a comical rash not he side of her body signifying ‘disease’.

The premise is nothing new as seen in films like last year’s Debra Granik’s LEAVE NO TRACE where A father and his thirteen year-old daughter are living an ideal existence in a vast urban park in Portland and in John Hillcoat’s 2009 THE ROAD where an ailing father defends his son as they slowly travel to the sea in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world.  LIGHT OF MY LIFE fails to reach any of those heights.

It does not help that the script puts in any silly premise without any explanation to propel the father/daughter relationship. Not only is credibility thrown to the wind but it is difficult to care for characters inserted in an unbelievable made-up situation.  In the case of LIGHT OF MY LIFE, anything can happen.  Strangers can appear out of the blue, as a house that no one dwells in or other probabilities.

LIGHT OF MY LIFE walks the tightrope between intense drama and dystopian sci-fi thriller.  The one film that blended the two genres successfully was the Alfonso Cuaraon’s 2006 CHILDREN OF MEN.  LIGHT OF MY LIFE misses.  One wonders what the purpose is of his effort.

There could be two reasons actor/writer/director Casey Affleck might have made this film about a father protecting his young daughter against male predators in a world largely without females.  One is to redeem himself as a female protector after sexual harassment allegations arose against him.  The other is that most film producers will not touch actors with such a reputation (prime example Oscar Winner Kevin Spacey) which means that his only chance is to make a movie (Woody Allen has a new movie out, Roman Polanski has continued to make movies).  Regardless the reason, LIGHT OF MY LIFE is a terribly boring film that leads nowhere.


Film Review: GOOD BOYS (USA 2019) ***

Good Boys Poster

Three sixth grade boys ditch school and embark on an epic journey while carrying accidentally stolen drugs, being hunted by teenage girls, and trying to make their way home in time for a long-awaited party.


Gene Stupnitsky

Right on the heels of Olivia Wilde’s incredibly smart BOOKSMART arrives the male gendered version of kids trying to be cool while keeping their friendships intact.

The three kids in the film are ironically, never referred to as GOOD BOYS but as BAD BOYS (two other films have already used that title) and other names.  The trouble starts when the three are invited to a kissing party, though they have no idea how to kiss.

The film begins, with 12-year old Max caught watching porn on his lap top in his bedroom by his father.  Instead of being chastised, his dad is proud that Max is coming of age and tells the mother.  It is a funny situation that makes a good start for a pubescent comedy about growing up.

After being invited to his first kissing party, 12-year-old Max (Jacob Tremblay, a Canadian who is also 12 years of age, best known for ROOM) is panicking because he does not know how to kiss.  Eager for some pointers, Max and his best friends, Thor (Brady Noon) and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), decide to use Max’s dad’s drone, which they are forbidden to touch, to spy on a teenage couple who are making out. But when things go ridiculously wrong, the drone is confiscated by two teenage girls.  Desperate to get it back before Max’s dad gets home, the boys skip school and set off an odyssey of epically bad decisions involving some accidentally stolen drugs, frat-house paintball, and running from both the cops and terrifying teenage girls.

GOOD BOYS prides itself as being an adult film about kids.  Thus, as expected, there is quite a lot of swearing, even coming out of the mouths of the 12-year olds.  Director Stupnisky seems desperate to elicit laughs at any cost.

GOOD BOYS contains a few unforgettable segments involving the growing up process like trying to drink one first beer (remember how awful the first taste was?), trying to cope with adult problems like a parent’s divorce and bullying.  Director Stupniksy delivers a very funny ANANBELLE (as in the horror franchise) sequence.  Whenever the three boys are having a bonding moment, one of the younger sisters named Annabelle suddenly appears just as in the ANNABELLE movies to scare them out of their wits and invade their privacy.  Another has a kid character called Atticus (poking fun at TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD).  These two parts got the most laughs out of me.  The comedic set-up of the boys crossing a busy highway is also terrifying hilarious.

The kids parents are also given the token nod and not ignored in the film.  They are, thankfully, not treated as complete idiots as in many kid-oriented films.

GOOD BOYS, though funny enough is inferior, by inevitable comparison to BOOKSMART which contains funnier jokes, more inventive comedic set-ups with more cinematic surprises (the underwater swimming pool sequence).  Still, Stupnisky’s GOOD BOYS contains a few good memories about adolescence.


Film Review: 47 METRES DOWN: UNCAGED (USA 2019) **

47 Meters Down: Uncaged Poster

Four teen girls diving in a ruined underwater city quickly learn they’ve entered the territory of the deadliest shark species in the claustrophobic labyrinth of submerged caves.


Johannes Roberts

Back in 2017, a low budget survival horror film that cost only $5 million to make earned a whopping $62 million worldwide at the box-office despite mixed reviews. The plot followed two sisters who are invited to cage dive while on holiday in Mexico.  When the winch system holding the cage broke and the cage plummets to the ocean floor with the two girls trapped inside, they must find a way to escape, with their air supplies running low and great white sharks stalking nearby.

A new survival horror sequel arrives this week with a similar title 47 METRES DOWN: UNCAGED.  The first part of the title 47 METRES DOWN will tend to be confusing but the uncaged signifies that the film is also about sharks, and this time about girls attacked by sharks unprotected by a cage.  The film was supposedly to be set in Brazil but moved to Yucaton, Mexico.  Principal photography for the film took place in the Dominican Republic, Pinewood Studios, Dominican Republic, The Underwater Studio in Basildon and Pinewood Studios, UK.

Four teenage girls scuba diving in a ruined underwater city quickly find themselves in a watery hell as their adventure turns to horror when they learn they are not alone in the submerged caves.  As they swim deeper into the claustrophobic labyrinth of caves, they enter the territory of the deadliest shark species in the ocean.  The species is supposed to have developed heightened senses for the silly reason that these sharks need to survive in deep underwater without sight, as there is no light in the far depths of the ocean.  Yet, the sharks keep missing their prey.

Mia (Sophe Nelisse) and Sasha (Corinne Foxx) are two half sisters who do not get along- till of course they bond after their encounter with the sharks – no surprise here.  They are led by Alexa (Brianne Tju), followed by troublemaker Nicole (Sistine Stallone), the latter take risks at the expense of others to satisfy her curiosity.  Needless to say, she is the first one to go.  The cast is eclectic enough with a white, a black and an asian forming three of the girls.  Surprising for a film set in Mexico, there is hardly a Mexican to be seen on the screen.

Nothing much happens for the first third of the film, where director Roberts takes his time to establish the relationship between the sisters, Mia and her schoolmates that eventually lead nowhere.  The action and mishaps are all too predictable.  When all the thrills appear exhausted, the sharks suddenly appear – not one but many. The underwater photography is impressive.

The music is a hash of old hits including the Carpenters’ song “We’ve Only Just Begun”, which is an odd choice for the movie.

The film is obviously a cash grab banging not the success of the original 2017 movie, providing much more of the same which in other words, ends up quite the bore, even at 90 minutes.