Film Review: ANTHEM OF A TEENAGE PROPHET (USA 2018) ***1/2

Anthem of a Teenage Prophet Poster
Trailer

Anthem tells the story of Luke (Monaghan) a teenager who foresees the death of his new best friend Stan (MacNicoll), the most popular guy in school. When this premonition becomes reality, … See full summary »

Director:

Robin Hays

The film (based on the novel of the same name) opens with its setting in a small fictitious American town of Stokum (with fake car license plates to go with it) where apparently lives suck.  The film is actually Canadian passing off as an indie American film.  Lives probably suck more for a teenager where success in life looks dim and worse of all, if the teenager does nothing to improve him or herself but smoke pot, skateboard, play video games and do lousy at sports.  These are typical teenage losers who have as much to blame themselves as society.  So who is this teenage prophet, where does he come from and what can he do to improve the situation?

Anthem tells the story of Luke (Cameron Monaghan) a teenager who foresees the death of his new best friend Stan (Alex MacNicoll), the most popular and buffed guy in school. When this premonition becomes reality, Luke must deal with the trials and tribulations of being dubbed “The Prophet of Death” and being titled a freak by the entire town. The town really begins to suck for Luke now.  It doesn’t help that he’s fallen in love with Faith (Peyton List) who just happens to be Stan’s girl or that he’s on the outs with his childhood best friend Fang (Grayson Gabriel) or that the premonitions just keep coming.

The film takes a bit of time to get it footing.  A little patience is required.  The first 15 minutes or so shows here annoying small town teenagers just slacking around, annoying the adults and the audience included.  It is only when it is realized that Luke has these fainting spells that allows him to see who is abut to die next that the film becomes more interesting.  In fact, this is a clever and original premise.

Monaghan looks and acts like Kevin of the hit British skit of Kevin and Perry, but a more serious version.  But he is a good actor and presence to be reckoned with.  Juliette Lewis absolutely steals the show as Luke’s super cool mother who thinks the world of her supposedly loser son.

Messages on life are dished out as funny as they arrive.  Luke is given solid advice by a midget truck driver.  “I spend my entire life diving this truck looking out this window driving along these lanes.  I cannot swerve like a madman when a deer or tree falls into my lane.  Or I will be certifiable.  One cannot control was comes into our lane.  You can’t!  You hear me?”

The film’s subplot of Luke’s weird acting gay best friend, Fang (Grayson Gabriel) shows Luke’s worth and the strength of their friendship which anchors the film.  Brilliantly, this subplot also proves the truck driver’s message wrong.

The film won accolades at the Vancouver International Film Festival.  An interesting enough film that just reaches its potential, ANTHEM OF A TEENAGE PROPHET has sufficient nuance and innovation to keep audience interest piqued.  

ANTHEM is an earnest film on teen’s angst and survival in a world that seems both strange and cruel.  It is funny, occasionally brilliant, observant and entertaining.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubt6XSZ_jmg

Film Review: MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (USA 2019) ***1/2

Motherless Brooklyn Poster
Trailer

Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog, a lonely private detective afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna.

Director:

Edward Norton

Writers:

Jonathan Lethem (based on the novel by), Edward Norton (screenplay)

Acclaimed actor Edward Norton returns to the director’s chair (this is his second directorial effort) with his passionate MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN based on the book which he read way back when, when he was starring in AMERICAN HISTORY X.  It was his long time goal to bring it to the screen and this 140 minute effort often displays his passion in the making of it.  Though by no means flawless, the 140-minute long haul moves pretty fast, thanks to the strength of the film’s source, the multiple award winning 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem of the same name.

Norton who also penned the script made several changes to the book.  As he thought the film’s theme lent to more of a noir setting, he moved the 1999 modern setting to a 1959 one, move obviously requiring greater effort in filmmaking, because of not only period atmosphere, pros and sets. but in dialogue as well.  The cinematography by Mike Leigh’s favourite, Oscar nominated Dick Pope is to be commended.  His best scene is the one where the water on the sidewalk reflects a beautiful picture similar to the one where the refection of water reflects a plane flying overhead in Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA.

The film follows a private investigator with Tourette’s syndrome, Lionel Essrog nicknamed MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (played by Norton himself) who must solve the murder of his mentor.  Lionel Essrog, has Tourette’s, a disorder marked by involuntary tics. Essrog works for Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), a small-time neighbourhood owner of a “seedy and makeshift” detective agency, who is shot (stabbed to death in the novel) to death.  Together, Essrog and three other characters—Tony, Danny, and Gilbert— solve the case.  The reason for the deduction is that Frank looked after these 4 in the orphanage when they were kids.

It is best to know about the Tourette’s (tics) syndrome as the protagonist has the affliction and director/actor Norton makes sure his audience does not forget it.  It is a nerve disorder with onset in childhood, characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal (phonic) tic. These tics characteristically wax and wane, can be suppressed temporarily, and are typically preceded by an unwanted urge or sensation in the affected muscles. Some common tics are eye blinking, coughing, throat clearing, sniffing, and facial movements. Tourette’s does not adversely affect intelligence or life expectancy.  In the film, Lionel is supposed to have heightened memory capabilities because of the syndrome.  Another fact is that adults suffering from this syndrome is a rarity, as they go away with adolescence.

The draw of he story is both the solving of the murder and the subplot involving the corruption of power.  Norton introduces the new character of Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) a city planner who is so obsessed with port ta he would do anything to gain it.  Baldwin has a field day with this role, that includes a long speech of what power is, and what it can do for people and how he craves and has it.  No one can stop me…. he boasts.  All this brings the more reason for Lionel to take the man down.

Because of the setting, the film looks and borrows from Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN though understandably never reaching the heights of that classic.  But MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a totally enjoyable watch, with Norton giving full respect to his source material while never downplaying the syndrome for cheap laughs, but offering his audience intelligent look at the rare disease.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fru8IkuDp_k

Film Review: TERMINATOR DARK FATE (USA 2019) ****

Terminator: Dark Fate Poster
Trailer

Sarah Connor and a hybrid cyborg human must protect a young girl from a newly modified liquid Terminator from the future.

Director:

Tim Miller

Writers:

James Cameron (story by), Charles H. Eglee (story by) | 8 more credits »

A few things are best known before watching the new TERMINATOR film or reading its review.   So, here are a few facts (source: Wikipedia) to get the logistics out of the way.  TERMINATOR DARK FATE is a 2019 American science fiction action film directed by the director of DEADPOOL Tim Miller making his second feature, with a screenplay by David S. Goyer, Justin Rhodes and Billy Ray from a story by James Cameron, Charles Eglee, Josh Friedman, Goyer and Rhodes.  Cameron and David Ellison are the film’s producers.  It is the sixth installment in the Terminator franchise and the direct sequel to THE TERMINATOR (1984) and TERMINATOR  2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991), while the other films occur in alternate timelines.

DARK FATE has the benefit of franchise creator Cameron involved.  The film stars Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger returning in their roles of Sarah Connor and the T-800 “Terminator”, respectively, reuniting after 28 years.   The film also stars newcomers Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna and Diego Boneta portraying new characters. 

The plot involves a Terminator, the Rev-9 (Luna), travelling back in time to kill a young woman, Dani Ramos (Reyes), whose fate is connected to Sarah Connor and her son John’s legacies, which made Dani a target. The Human Resistance sends an enhanced soldier, Grace (Davis), whose existence is also depending on Dani’s survivals, back to protect her.  Grace and Dani’s only hope for survival against the Rev-9 depends on them joining forces with Sarah and a T-800 Terminator.

It is best to remember that DARK FATE is a terminator action flick and should be treated as one and not as a serious drama with an all important life altering message.  The message “we make our own fate” thrown into in this movie is as corny as any silly one-liners can be and should be taken at face value.    The story’s time travelling paradox is also played to its fullest. The setting of a border with scenes of illegal Mexicans being held at an overcrowded detention centre with together with trains carrying hordes of illegal immigrants should also be taken with a grain of salt.  Whether making a statement or not, all this is cheesiness at its best.

It is good to have Schwarzenegger and Hamilton back, both garnishing cheers at their first appearances (in the film) from the audience at the prom screening I attended.  The other players including Mackenzie Davis and Gabriel Luna as the new terminator provide excellent support.

All the action set-pieces are solidly executed, especially the fight and chase segments that will have many at the edge of their seats.  The  humour is also dead funny, the funniest delivered  by straight faced Schwarzenegger,   The most hilarious segment is the meeting of Schwarzenegger as Carl who serves his visitors Coronas in a bottle complete with a slice of lime.

Work in  other departments are also top notch.  The cinematography is also crisp and clear, evident from the very first scene where the waves of the sea reveal pebbles followed by the skulls of human skeletons.  The special effects are also magnificent from the transformation of human to terminator and vice versa to the little leaves blowing in the wind when the jeep drives away in the film’s closing sequence.

Director Miller is  disciplined enough not to make DARK FATE look like a DEADPOOL movie.  DARK FATE acknowledges the success and keeps to the feel and atmosphere of the first two original TERMINATOR films.  Fans will not be disappointed, as evident by the loud applause given at the end of the promo screening I attended in IMAX.  And see the film in IMAX!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxy8udgWRmo

Film Review: SYNONYMES (SYNONYMS) (France/Israel 2019) ****

Synonymes Poster
Trailer

A young Israeli man absconds to Paris to flee his nationality, aided by his trusty Franco-Israeli dictionary.

Director:

Nadav Lapid

Writers:

Nadav Lapid (screenplay), Haim Lapid (screenplay)

SYNONYMS is director Nadav Lapid’s new film after THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER which to me was mediocre but there are segments in SYNONYMES, supposedly based on the director’s own experiences that blew me away.  I describe two in the following paragraphs that absolutely blew me away.

The film follows young Israeli ex-soldier Yoav (played by newcomer Tom Mercier, in an incredible performance), who moves to Paris hoping to escape his national identity.  This where the film opens.  After his first night, Yoav wakes up naked in an empty apartment with all of his belongings gone, and is soon taken in by a neighbouring, young, wealthy couple.  Armed with a pocket-sized French dictionary, Yoav refuses to speak his native Hebrew as he desperately tries to immerse himself in French society.  Living on only a few francs a day, he bounces from job to job on a wildly erratic journey, attempting to assimilate into a seemingly impenetrable culture. 

SYNONYMS plays occasionally like a French version of Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER.  Yoav’s character is incredibly vague and the film hints of his possible outbursts just as they occurred in the Robert De Niro taxi driver character. 

The strength of Lapid’s film lies in its unpredictability, in Yoav’s character in particular.  Does Yoav’s character end up violent and fucked up as in TAXI DRIVER?  Or is he something else.  In one of the film’s best moments set in a bar, Yoav witnesses Jewish abuse at a stranger but says nothing.  He then relates the story of his hero Hector of Troy and his battle against Achilles when Hector ran around nine days before facing Achilles.  Then you are a coward, retorts his friend.

The film’s other best scene is the seductive sexual scene between Yoav and Emile.   Director Lapid also blurs Yoav’s sexual preferences.  Yoav is already shown at the film’s start to be an incredibly sexy ex-soldier as depicted in full frontal nude scenes in the empty apartment where he douches.  They almost indulge in an erotic embrace while listening to classical music.  The beauty of it all is that the music is inaudible to the audience as the scene has Yoav and Emile wearing headphones.  But they moan in ecstasy for hearing the beautiful classics music which sounds also like two men having a sexual encounter.  Before anything can really happen. Caroline calls out to Emile.

Director Lapid realizes the power of musical numbers in film.  This he demonstrates in  two of the film’s energetic moments.  One is the rendering of the song by two women of “Hallelujah”  during  military funeral and the other, a hilarious segment (great camera work and editing by the director’s mother here) where Yoav steals food in a club amidst beautiful ladies dancing to “Pump Up the Jam”.

SYNONYMS is one of the most spirited films of the year – never mind the theme or message, and a great pleasure to watch!

Trailer: https://cineuropa.org/fr/video/369704/rdid/365712/#cm (en franca is sans sous-titres anglaises)

Film Review: THE CAVE (Denmark/Syria/Germany/USA/Qatar 2019) ***

The Cave Poster
Trailer

A Thai boys soccer team is trapped in a cave while rescue workers scramble to save them.

Director:

Tom Waller

Writers:

Katrina Grose (story by), Don Linder (story by) | 1 more credit »

Director Feras Faryyad returns to his besieged Syria after his Oscar nominated Best Documentary LAST YEAR IN ALEPPO.  Fayyad’s disturbing new doc THE CAVE went on to win the People’s Choice Documentary at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

THE CAVE refers to the subterranean hospital where a doctor, 30-year old Dr. Amani and her female team fight to save lives while fending off systematic sexism.

The film shot between late 2016 and Math 2018 is set in eastern Al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. When the film opens, the audience hears bombings, which are regularly carried out by the Syrian Regime and the Russians at the Syrian citizens.  Around 400,000 are trapped in the area with no way out, as informed by the voiceover that turns out to be the voice of Dr. Amani.  She emphasizes that everyone is searching for different ways to survive.

Dr. Amani Ballour runs the hospital, tending to the wounded and malnourished.  It is heart-wrenching to watch her comfort a boy who thinks he’s dying or a baby who’s choking on rubble.  But though she and her colleagues work as equals alongside their male counterparts,
the patriarchal culture still exists.  One man comes in for medicine and then tells Dr. Ballour that “women should stay at home, not work.”   Of course, director Fayyad sets the record straight behaving him being told off.

The film’s little humour occurs in the birthday scene – Amani’s surprise birthday party where they consume salad instead of pizza and popcorn instead of candy.

The film, in all its earnest intentions accomplishes its aim at wrenching out concern and sympathy from the audience.  At times director Fayyad  step up the angst by showing disturbing scenes of injured children after bombings.  But one wishes that there is clearer direction in his film.  There seems to be lots of scenes of the wounded but not beginning or conclusion or climax.  One wishes that he has explained the origins of the bombings instead of just placing the audience in the midst of the chaos and just saying that the Russians and Syrian Regime are responsible.

  The film’s most poignant moments occur during the end credits.  Here the names of 4 of the staff are mentioned, who died during filming.  It is a sad state of affairs and a sad story and one that need to be told.

It is worthy to note the difficulties encountered in the filming of THE CAVE.  Feras Fayyad was not allowed into the area.  Thus, he directed the film, remotely, relying on three gifted Damascus-born cinematographers who give the film a visual style.  The script is by Alisar Hasan and Fayyad.  Fayyad was drawn to the female-centric story because of his own background (mother, seven sisters and four aunts) and his 15 months in prison (for making a film) where women and children were tortured.  Shot in Arabic and English.

(ReelAsian Film Festival 2019): WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (Japan 2019)

We Are Little Zombies Poster
Four Japanese orphans form a rock band.

Director:

Makoto Nagahisa

Writer:

Makoto Nagahisa (screenplay)

WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES is a bad and boring film but at least off to a promising start for a while before unfortunately fizzling out.  This is not a film about zombies though a few references are made to them. 

 It is a story of 4 children Hikari, Ikuko, Ishi and Takemura with bad parents.  The parents have died in different ways but the four orphaned children who meet in a Tokyo crematorium relate their stories under the narration of the first boy.  The first story is the most interesting.  Before one can get attached to this child, the film shifts to the next.  The disorientation is only matched by another less interesting tale of childhood angst.  The film, a long haul, is deliberately made to feel like a video game (with fast edits, fast motion and jump cuts) which soon loses its lacklustre.  

The kids (three assorted boys and a girl) deliberately made to be un-cute by Nagahisa eventually form a band and sing mediocre songs.  The point to all this is that it is better to stay alive but there are better ways to get this message across.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_-9wNeRLSs

Film Review: BLACK AND BLUE (USA 2019) ***

Black and Blue Poster
Trailer

A rookie police officer in New Orleans has to balance her identity as a black woman with her role as a police officer when she witnesses other police officers committing murder.

Director:

Deon Taylor

Black female rookie cop is wounded while witnessing a killing performed by corrupt cops in the police force.  Singularly, she escapes from being killed while exposing all the corruption in the process with the help of an unlikely helper.  Everyone in the story is corrupted including her partner.  

This is familiar action thriller territory done before, most notably in the acclaimed Anthony Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY.

BLACK AND BLUE is the kind of film critics, when reading of the plot shudder with an ‘ugh’ for having to go see the film and then review this re-cycled story.  The film has already got seriously mediocre reviews on the internet.  (Rotten Tomatoes awarded 60% approval at the time of writing.)

But wait.  The promo screening that I attended had the audience not only applauding at the end but a fellow critic sitting next to me clapping at one scene during the climax.  Though the film is far from perfect, BLACK AND BLUE is not all bad, and in fact quite enjoyable – all things considered.

NOPD (New Orleans) rookie Alicia West (Naomie Harris) captures the murder of a drug dealer on her camcorder she wears on her police vest. What is more disturbing is that the murder has been committed by her partner and a squad of dirty police officers (Frank Frillo as Malone, Reid Scott and Beau Knapp).  Unable to get help from her former community or the police department she is sworn to, West allies herself with a stranger named Milo aka Mouse (Tyrese Gibson) in an attempt to expose the murder while a local gang puts out a bounty on West’s life.

BLACK AND BLUE sufferers from many of the pitfalls of similar themed action thrillers.  These include overlong chases (West is chased for the longest time through backyards), continuity (Harris looks better even as the day goes on as her character set is supposed to be fatigued and terribly wounded), familiar situations (West solo against everyone else corrupt), typical Rap soundtrack among others.   West also cannot die – the excuse given being that she had served in Iraq.

Despite the film’s flaws, one has to credit the filmmakers for really trying to differentiate their work despite treading on familiar territory.  This is obvious from the very first scenes wth cop conflict.  The good and bad characters are also not black and white cardboard written figures.  Though West’s partner is corrupt, he has some heart as evident during the film’s final moments.  Naomie Harris is convincing enough in her role though the role requires her to show a bit of skin – as she has to patch up a gunshot would with (yes, believe it or not) glue.  Apparently, that is what they do in Iraq, the audience is told.

BLACK AND BLUE costs $12 million to make.  There are not a whole lot of African American films out there and BLACK AND BLUE is a welcome entry.  It has been projected to gross between $8- $11 million opening weekend which means BLACK AND BLUE will be at least a moderate box-office hit.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ywKWQs3os3M

Full Review: JOJO RABBIT (USA 2019) ***1/2

Jojo Rabbit Poster
Trailer

A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Director:

Taika Waititi

Writers:

Christine Leunens (novel), Taika Waititi (screenplay)

As wild as its title, JOJO RABBIT follows the protagonist, a German boy, a Nazi fanatic given the nickname of JoJo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis) during a Nazi training camp for failure to kill a rabbit in order to prove his loyalty to the Führer.

It is not an easy task to make a tasteful film with Nazi Germany in the setting and a fanatic Führer young boy as the lead.  But it has been done successfully – ie. Germany Nazi comedy in TV series like HOGAN’S HEROES and ALLO ALLO.

The boy also has an imaginary friend giving him advice throughout the story, as Humphrey Bogart advised the meek Wood Allen character in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM.  It is Adolf Hitler himself (played with gust by director Waititi) who gives the boy advice right to the very last frame of the film.

JOJO RABBIT, while being a satire of the german machinery during WWII is a coming-of-age story of JoJo, a boy who aims at serving the Führer the best he can while discovering love  in the form of a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in the family house from the Germans.

Jojo Betzler is a precocious kid in World War II Germany with an egregious blind spot. Socially awkward, but a proud member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo passes much of his time with his imaginary friend Adolf, a cuddly, energetic, pep-talking version of the Führer.  Having completely bought into Nazi hate, Jojo is incensed when he discovers that his mother has been working for the resistance, helping to keep safe the Jewish people he’s been taught to hate. With Germany on the brink of collapse, he is faced with the choice of clinging to his hateful beliefs or embracing his humanity.

  The film contains many laugh-out loud moments demonstrating director Waititi’s keen sense of humour.  His comedy timing is immaculate.

Roman Griffin Davis is a real find as the 10-year old boy.  Oscar Winner Sam Rockwell relishes his role as the sympathetic Nazi with a fondness for same-sex flirtations while Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson keeps popping up multiple points in the film as different characters ranging from Nazi trainer to Nazi secretary to Nazi masseuse providing additional laughs.  All the actors appear to speak english with the perfect German accent.

JOJO RABBIT turns out to be a harmless really funny comedy with a message to boot.

Spoiler alert:  I have to include this priceless moment in the review as it made the movie, but it concludes a spoiler of a key plot point.  Skip this paragraph (in italics) if it needs be.  In a key moment near the film’s end after the Germans have lost the war, Jojo’s nemesis , his imaginary Hitler appears to still give him nasty advice.  Jojo screams; “Fuck off!” and kicks him out the window of his room.  The scene elicited loud laughs and the guy next to me the screening happened to turn to me, where he, clearly a Jew, who had suffered anti-Semitism shared the laughs with me.

The film went on to win the Toronto International Film Festival Audience (Popular) Film Award.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tL4McUzXfFI

(Reel Asian Film Festival 2019) : YELLOW ROSE (Philippines/USA 2019)

Yellow Rose Poster
Rose, an undocumented 17 year old Filipina, dreams of one day leaving her small Texas town to pursue her country music dreams. Her world is shattered when her mom suddenly gets picked up by… See full summary »

Director:

Diane Paragas

Writers:

Andy Bienen (Story by), Annie J. Howell | 3 more credits »

Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada) is a young Filipino teen going to school with dreams of becoming a country singer. 

 She is quite good, evident from the songs that she sings, and she goes under the wings of famous country singer Dale Watson (playing himself).  But trouble brews when her mother, Priscilla (Princess Punzala) gets arrested and faces deportation back to the Philippines for being an illegal alien.

  The lazy script fails to explain how they got to the U.S. and why Rose’s aunt and husband is wealthy (supposedly legal) American citizens.  What is most corny is the use of songs to to state the heroine’s current emotional state.  When Rose is down, for example, she croons the lyrics: “You can take the roof from above my head, but you can’t take my freedom away…”  

For lack of a credible happy ending, the film does best with Rose performing one of her songs on stage, again with the corny lyrics telling the audience of Rose’ s new state of affairs:  “You can’t get the best of me.  I ain’t going down.’ I’ll be standing tall’.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTEGWKFO9Jk

(Reel Asian Film Festival 2019) : GYOPO (South Korea/Canada 2019)

Several interweaving stories about an eclectic mix of English speaking Korean expats living in Seoul.

GYOPOS is abut gyopos.  A “gyopo” is someone of Korean descent who has been raised abroad.  The film opens impressively in black and white, probably because director Lee draws his inspiration from Jacques Tati’s black and white comedies like PLAYTIME.  Samuel Kiehoon Lee’s first feature tells the intimate stories of gyopos who have made a journey to Korea, only to find themselves outsiders in the country that gave birth to their parents. 

 

 Lee weaves together vignettes from a diverse band of well-educated 20 and 30-somethings as they get drunk, laugh, fall in love, and get into fistfights over a 24-hour period in Seoul.  sounds better than it is!  Instead of nuance, heart, humour, and snark, Gyopo’s portrait of the gyopo experience is misguided, non-directional confusing and eventually disorienting.  

 

Lee could have down a much better job with fewer characters and concentrate n maybe just one or two and tacked their passage of coming-of-age.  Lee shows potential but it is wasted potential in the case of this film.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/282166133