Film Review: THE MUSTANG (France/Belgium/USA 2017) ****

The Mustang Poster

MUSTANG tells the story of Roman Coleman, a violent convict, who is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild mustangs.

Credited as a 2019 American-French-Belgian production, the film’s end credits list 2017 as the year of production.  Regardless, THE MUSTANG is a pretty solid dramatic film and a textbook example of how following formula can still work to create an excellent film.  

THE MUSTANG is basically a film about a boy and his horsie which in this case is really about a wild horsie and a wild boy.  As these stories go, the wild can never be tamed and has to be set free.  The horse teaches the boy in his case a man or rather tames him as he tames the horse and as expected the horse is awarded his freedom.

The film begins with the rounding up of wild horses in the U.S.’s west.  The segment emphasizes the open spaces and the wild animals having their freedom taken away.  The scene is contrasted by a prison interview in establishing the character of the film’s protagonist.  The man is an unrepentant and violent convict named Coleman Roman (played by Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts).  In an interview with his worker, he loses it while claiming the understatement that he has a problem of not getting along with people when asked whether he values his freedom.  He is reluctantly and accidentally put into a program (called the wild horse inmates program in some states in the U.S.) where convicts train and tame wild horses to be later auctioned.  The man in charge of the program is Myles (Bruce Dern) a cynical but not necessarily a good man.  Myles knows and loves horses.

The serious nature of the film’s subject does not mean the film is without humour.  When Roman has a surprise visit from a young woman, he sits at the wrong table with another young lady.  A plaque of Myles reads: “If my horse doesn’t like you, I won’t either”.

The film benefits immensely from two outstanding Academy Award worthy performances by Schoenaerts and Dern.  Dern, who has been nominated many times might see his first win.   Schoenaerts is also extremely good and carries the film but the Academy is not one to give an unfamiliar name especially a non-American the award.

Besides Roman’s violent nature, the script which was co-written by the director with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock subtly reveals the sensitive side of the violent Roman with one scene showing him breaking down with tears and another of him showing loyalty to his co-trainer.  The film is able to connect the audience with the material, so important in any movie.     The film keeps key plot points from the audience revealing them as necessary thus heightening the audience anticipation factor.  Who the young lady visitor is and what crime Roman committed are only revealed later on in the film.  

But the film’s absolute prize and delight lie in the film’s surprise closing and extremely moving shot.

To emphasize the authenticity of the film’s story, the end credits show images of convicts and their horses: Dan and Pete, Jason and Jessie, Luis and Smokey among others.

THE MUSTANG is a well-made film in all departments, entertaining at the same time and garnishing a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing.  The film was obviously made with great pride and respect for horses, and it is executively produced by Robert Redford famous for a related film, THE HORSE WHISPERER.


TIFF 2018 Review: KURSK (Belgium/Luxembourg 2018) ****

Movie Reviews of films that will be playing at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) in 2018. Go to TIFF 2018 Movie Reviews and read reviews of films showing at the festival.

Kursk Poster

The film follows the 2000 K-141 Kursk submarine disaster and the governmental negligence that followed. As the sailors fight for survival, their families desperately battle political obstacles and impossible odds to save them.


Robert Rodat

KURSK follows the true story of the August 2000 sinking of the Russian submarine KURSK and the international effort made to save her survivors.  The film benefits from well respected director Vinterberg working with scriptwriter Robert Rodat who wrote SAVING PRIVATE RYAN with stars Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Russian Navy Officer Mikhael LKalekov,  Léa Seydoux, Colin Firth and Max Von Sydow.  

The film’s claustrophobic scenes especially the cramped quarters flooded with water are harrowing to watch.  One cannot help but feel as well as admire these men who would give up their all for their country.  But is Russia willing to do her all for these sailors?   The wives are kept in the dark as to what is happening.  Surprisingly, the film’s best scene is the naval conference where the wives attack the naval authorities for doing nothing. 

 The film’s production sets and the explosion scenes are incredibly realistic making KURSK a totally emotional suspenseful drama of the highest level.


Film Review: RED SPARROW (USA 2018) ***

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Red Sparrow Poster

Ballerina Dominika Egorova is recruited to ‘Sparrow School’ a Russian intelligence service where she is forced to use her body as a weapon. But her first mission, targeting a CIA agent, threatens to unravel the security of both nations.


Francis Lawrence


Justin Haythe (screenplay), Jason Matthews (novel)


RED SPARROW re-unites Academy Award Winner Jennifer Lawrence with her HUNGER GAMES director Francis Lawrence.  The film is an espionage spy film written by Justin Haythe, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews.  The novel won many literary awards including the Best First Novel prize for its author, Matthews.  The film?  If you remember the HUNGER GAMES franchise, then you would know what to expect for RED SPARROW, the movie.

The film begins impressively enough with the intercutting of a Bolshoi ballet performance by star Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) and an incident in Gorky Park where Nate (Joel Edgerton), a CIA internal-ops officer who recruits and handles intelligence assets for the agency is arrested.   Dominika is injured during her performance (shot in an extremely gruesome ‘accident’ scene).  In order to support her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) and maintain her apartment,  she is forced by her uncle Ivan Dimitrevich (Matthias Schoenaerts) to undergo training at the Sparrow School, where she and other men and women were trained in how to seduce the enemy.  In the words of the film’s best line, uttered by the uncle: “There are no accidents.  We create our own fates.”

 Matthews’ novel was praised for its insight into the mundane aspects of the intelligence field, various techniques and its “high drama”.  The same cannot be said for Lawrence’s film.  At best, it glamourizes the violence and techniques used by both the Russian and American sides.  The best instance can be observed in the almost unwatchable torture scene when Nate has the outer skin of his back  pealed off by a skin grafting device.  Lawrence need not show the actual action  but the audience gets the message from the Nate’s screaming and the scene’s set-up.  Another more graphic torture scene is Dominika’s torture with her constantly hit with a melt rod..

The sex scene between Lawrence and Edgerton could have been shot with more credibility.  It is laughable to see a riding scene in which the lovers perform their act fully clothed.

Unlike spy films such as TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ directed by Alfred Hitchcock, RED SPARROW is noticeable devoid of suspense.  Plot twists replace suspense in this spy thriller.  Critics attending the promo screening were requested not to real any plot points in their reviews.  But running at 2 hours and 20 minutes (Lawrence’s HUNGER GAMES films were also unnecessarily lengthy),  plot twists can also turn ordinary unlike suspense set-ups.

The best thing about RED SPARROW is Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts.  With make up to look like Vladimir Putin, he is the most fun to watch.  The second prized performance comes from Charlotte Rampling playing the school headmistress with totally cool lesbian charm.

RED SPARROW the film is more outrageously camp in its violence and portrayal of real world espionage.  If one can take and believe Jennifer Lawrence playing a Russian ballerina and emotionless spy, then  this film is for you.  RED SPARROW is entertaining camp, but for those who expect a serious spy experience it would be wiser to read the book.


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Interview with Bill Hass, Programming Director (Fort Worth Indie Film Festival)

The goal of the FWIFS is to promote grassroots collaboration between and among filmmakers. They want to call attention to the quality work produced within the independent film movement. They want to do their part to provide a platform for independent artists to share their work and unique voices; to network and gain encouragement from their peers.


Interview with the Festival’s Programming Director Bill Hass:

Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

Bill Haas: We are just three years old so we are still growing and discovering our persona. We’re seeing that we are becoming successful at relationship building. We work really hard to create an environment of collaboration versus competition. We are structured so that everything is physically close. This provides opportunity for filmmakers to see each other’s films and network. We are also building strong relationships with other festival directors who attend FWIFS. The filmmakers have opportunity to meet those directors and learn about other festivals to which they can successfully submit. For filmmakers that are actually from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, we’re providing a platform for them to show their work to family and friends in a festive environment. We’re still growing, but I can see that in the years to come, one of the key things that we will be successful at is building bridges. Establishing relationships with filmmakers, helping them grow their audience in the Fort Worth area and helping new and young filmmakers establish relationships with other filmmakers and festivals so they can continue to grow in their craft.

MT: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?

BH: If you attend the festival this year you can expect to have a complete independent film experience. We have quality films from around the world. A lot of the filmmakers will be in attendance, so you will get to meet and talk to the people who are creating the art. As a filmmaker, if you attend, you can expect a highly positive experience. All filmmakers will be celebrated for their work and treated like the professional artists they are.

MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

BH: A strong story. Whether it is a documentary or a narrative, the story needs to be interesting. We look for good writing, plausible concepts and a strong production value relative to the budget. Beyond that, we like to see good acting that results in characters that we believe an care about. Basically, we want to see a respect for the craft for filmmaking. If the person that made the film has a love for the craft, that will show; and the film made with respect for the craft is a strong candidate for acceptance to the festival.

MT: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?

BH: I see this topic come up in some form or fashion quite a bit. I honestly believe that all legitimate festivals fully consider every film submitted. Ultimately though, I can only speak for myself. We have a diverse screening committee that watches all of the submitted films. I don’t vote and I don’t speak to the committee about the films so as not to influence them with my biases. When making decisions regarding which films will be accepted, I lean heavily on their assessments. Beyond that, there are films I had a negative opinion of based on the synopsis. But then I watched the film and the story and production value turned me around, and we accepted the film. I honestly thing that all legitimate festivals fully consider every submitted film; I know for a fact that we do.

MT: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?

BH: We’re filmmakers ourselves. We know how difficult it is to get a low budget independent film in front of an audience. We want to do what we can to help other filmmakers connect with an audience and grow in the craft. That being said, this festival is not about us. We hardly ever show our own films, and if we do, we’re not eligible for awards.

MT: How has the festival changed since its inception?

BH: We’ve not really changed a lot since our inception. Our target is the true independent low budget filmmaker. We want to show the films produced by the teams that are telling quality stories with little to no budget. That is where we started and that is where we plan to stay. We have grown. We have two screens this year so we’re showing twice as many films. Aside from that, we’re the same festival that we were in year one. Next year, we’re planning to add a screenplay competition.

MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020?

BH: By 2020 we’ll be seven years old. By then we should be in a position to add at least one more day to the festival, or another screen (or both). We may be in a position to increase the value of our awards and possibly provide some level of assistance or sponsorship to student filmmakers.

MT: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

BH: The Five Heartbeats.

MT: In one sentence, what makes a great film?

BH: A great story makes a great film.

MT: How is the film scene in your city?

BH: The film scene in Fort Worth is getting better. We have a new film commission and the film community is really excited about that. We’re looking forward to more opportunities developing at all levels over the next several years.


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Movie Review: A BIGGER SPLASH. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes

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abiggersplash.jpgA BIGGER SPLASH (Italy/France 2015) ***
Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson

Review by Gilbert Seah

Luca Guadagnino’s new film after his acclaimed hit I AM LOVE is based on the 1969 Jacques Deray sex/murder flick LA PISCINE (THE SWIMMING POOL). The title A BIGGER SPLASH could mean that this film is a more modern take of the then subtle thriller, this one louder and with more sex, nudity and verbal intercourse. To be fair, both films are quite good. A BIGGER SPLASH should be examined on its own, despite the initial bad reviews it received after the Venice Film Festival premiere last year.

The story is updated and the famous Alain Delon role is now undertaken by newly popular hunk, the Belgian Mattias Schoenaerts who plays a character called Paul de Smedt. (Delon played a character called Jean-Paul.) Oddly the other three characters, Paul’s lover, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), his best friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson) all retain their same names.

When the film opens, there is a shot of nude figure by the swimming pool. Rock legend Marianne Lane is recuperating from a throat operation on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her partner Paul when iconoclast record producer and old flame Harry unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope in tow. One can tell immediately that sex is going to be exchanged between different partners. And it happens as predicted.

The four characters (in the menage a quatre), are not particularly likeable personalities. Marianne can be considered a queen bitch, full of herself and served sexually by meek Paul which the audience will likely have no patience with, especially when he is subtly seduced by Penelope. Penelope is a spoilt rich kid. Harry is the most dislikable of the 4, being loud, offensive and abusive when he wants. On the other hand, these four are performed by 4 of filmdom’s top stars. Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton – I would see her in anything and she is always good in any film. She makes gargling sexy in the bedroom scene. Schoenaerts is now hot property after RUST AND BONE and DISORDER, proving himself apt in roles of brooding, sexy men. Fiennes and Johnson are also excellent to watch – especially them inhabiting horrid personalities.

Intriguing as the story is, the film could be shortened from its lengthy 2 hours. Two characters Mireille (Aurore Clement) and Sylvie (Lily McMenamy), Harry’s friends who show up invited by Harry could have been eliminated from the film without much effect. There is also a sudden shock in the plot at the film’s end when the chief Carabiniere announces the death of 7 Tunisian immigrants. One can only guess the purpose of this revelation as it is never made clear. It is likely that Guadagnino wishes to state that the problems of the rich, white elite are not the only problems faced by the police. The dead 7 make A BIGGER SPLASH. The snakes writhing by the pool probably is a metaphor for something else in the story.

Music and sound are appropriately used. The clanging sound invoking menace is one example. In another scene, Harry teases his listeners (and the audience) to identify “What is it? the drumming sound from a record he plays that turns out to be the banging of trash cans. The end credits Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue” is also suitably chosen.

The action slowly but surely unfolds in two hours of subtle sexual pleasure. Nudity, both male and female are abundant. Writer/director Guadagnino never makes it clear at the end what really happened between Penelope and Paul. It really does not matter in the long run, which makes all the guessing so neat.

A BIGGER SPLASH marks the return of the sexy moody thriller genre that was so popular in the 70’s and 80’s. Hope the film will make a return (I will refrain from using the obvious pun) to of more films in this genre.


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Movie Review: DISORDER (MARYLAND) (France/Belgium 2015) ****

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disorder.jpgDISORDER (MARYLAND) (France/Belgium 2015) ****
Directed by Alice Winocour

Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger, Paul Hamy

Review by Gilber Seah

DISORDER is as the film title implies, a psychological thriller/drama. It traces an Afghanistan veteran transgression into deep paranoia and how he deals with it.

When the film opens, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) is having a medical examination. He is apparently tested in his hearing and later told that the results will be made known to him as to whether he can return to active military duty. In the meantime, Vincent lands a job as security at a huge mansion estate called Maryland (the film’s original title). The camera then follows him around when he patrols the estate doing his duties as he checks certain guests, some rude, some not, as he fulfills his duties. In the process, he overhears a private conversation of the owner of an arms deal gone sour. Director Winocour shows how stressful a security job can be, and even more so with his hearing problems as he has to wear an ear piece for communication. Winocour keeps the audience on their toes. Is something going to happen? Is Vincent going to break down? At the same time, the film hovers towards being a thriller, a suspensor, a drama and an action film. This is the reason Winocour’s film works so well. Her film is always several steps ahead of her audience. The reason she does certain things is clear later. For example, Vincent undergoes a lot of repetitive annoyances – like loud sounds and blurred images, but these repetitions are necessary to explain the deterioration of Vincent’s mental health.

The psychological thriller is centred on Vincent, who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is later hired by the rich client, Whalid (Percy Kemp) as security and driver for the wife (Diane Kruger) and son while he is away. Vincent speeds the car up almost running into an accident when he thinks the car is being followed. The wife freaks out but finds out later that Vincent was right. A home invasion reveals the reason being due to the husband’s arms deal gone sour. The film then switches to action. Winocour handles the fight and action scenes with efficient finesse. The temptation to include some romance between the wife and Vincent is thankfully avoided.

Matthias Schoenaerts looks and acts his part convincingly. His chiselled tattooed body complements his brooding nature. He has proven himself apt in diversified roles as a troubled soul (this film and RUST AND BONE) or as a sound and dependable one as in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD.

The film’s sound editing and effects (pounding and techno sounds) are excellent, emphasizing the imminent danger of each situation.

The imaginary ending (not revealed in this review) is subtly conceived to bring a conclusion to the movie as to the final state of Vincent’s mental state.

DISORDER reminds one immediately of classic murder films such as those directed by Claude Chabrol in the 60’s and 70’s. DISORDER is not a whodunit thriller, and is absorbing from start to finish. Winocour has proven herself a capable director and a talent to be reckoned with.

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