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Film Review: WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? (Canada 2018) ***1/2

What Is Democracy? Poster

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB)’s WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? just nominated for Best Canadian Documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle is the kind of educational film made for students to watch in schools where lots of information is provided on the subject as if coming directly from a textbook on democracy.  The origin of the word is also explained in the film, to illustrate the amount of detail going into its research.

The film questions what it means to want to live in democracy.  Therefore the question asked is what the word even means.  WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? is an idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spanning millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Celebrated theorists Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, and Angela Davis are joined by trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers and others, in a film speaking to the camera or interviewed by Taylor, that connects past and present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, to provoke critical dialogue about our future.

Though not really a feminist film, it should be noted (not a bad thing) that most of the interviewees and those involved in the making of the film including the director (who doubles her function as interviewer) are women.

  Trump is given screen time. Surprisingly Trump is not dismissed as a bad President but given due respect as well as reasons he got elected.  An identical situation can be applied to Brexit.  The masses are fed up with the elected who have forgotten the people. The Democrats have forgotten the people, says one American.  So when Trump goes down to the people at their level, he won their confidence.

An eye-opener is also revealed on how Americans are cheated on democracy in voting, especially the poorer and black parts of the United States.

Also interesting is the segment on Greece.  Greece has been in financial crisis and has to be bailed out by the other European Union countries that claim that Greece have lived beyond their means and now they have to pay. The film reveals another side that does not reflect well on the banks and the authorities.

There are lots in the film that will titillate the mind.  After all, it is the philosophers who had a big deal to do with the concept of democracy, as the film implies.  The film’s best segment has young students talking about democracy.  They talk about the results of their complaints in school, one in articular that resulted in the school taking away the vending machines.  They claim that the teachers say that they get paid regardless what they do and that the students need to go to college to success and be happy.  Yet they do not set the example.  It is a very moving and realistic situation that touches the heart.

The film summarizes democracy simply as justice – the right to self rule.  The film also demonstrates selective democracy and that real democracy is practically unattainable.  

The film will be back in the city on January 26 at Ryerson University at the DemocracyXChange Summit—a new annual event co-founded by the Open Democracy Project and the Ryerson Leadership Lab—where Taylor will deliver a keynote address, followed by an evening screening of her film.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/266692157

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Film Review: NANCY (USA 2017) ***1/2

Nancy Poster
Trailer

Nancy becomes increasingly convinced she was kidnapped as a child. When she meets a couple whose daughter went missing thirty years ago, reasonable doubts give way to willful belief.

Director:

Christina Choe

NANCY opens with the title character, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) looking after her ill-tempered mother, Betty (Ann Dowd, last seen in HEREDITARY).  The mother is ungrateful, nasty, impatient and rude making Nancy wonder the reason she is that way, as she has always been pleasant towards her mother.  The two watch OLIVER TWIST on  television, the Charles Dicken’s story of an orphan.

When the mother dies, 15 minutes into the film, Nancy watches on television the news of a mother who has had lost her daughter about 30 years ago.  Nancy thinks she might be the missing daughter and contacts Ellen (J, Smith-Cameron) and her husband (Steve Buschemi).  Nancy heads out to meet them, the meeting being the rest of he film.  Revealing more of the plot would definitely spoil the film’s effectiveness.  All that needs be said is that writer/director Choe has made an effective psychological mystery drama.

The film is set in winter in the country where Ellen and her husband live.  The falling snow and snow covered woods are beautifully shot by cinematography her Zoe White, who went on to shoot THE HANDSMAID TALE after being noticed for her work in this film.

NANCY speaks to a lot of Americans for reason of the main character’s demise.  

NANCY gives voice to and represents the many disappointed, disconnected twenty-

first-century millennials making up the first-world.   These are adults struggling to grow up, yet

unable to identify where boredom ends and untreated mental health issues begin.   Nancy is a confused grown-up kid, unable to really function socially, unable to afford to fly the coop, their 

youth saturated by inflation, aware of the dream that capitalism promises, yet living on the 

outskirts of its failings. 

Longing for physical connection, and attempting to find it through online self-

misrepresentation, Nancy has a short meeting with a well-meaning Jeb played by John Leguizamo.  Nancy wrestles with unemployment, only able to obtain a temporary job with insufficient hours.  The character also, when the film opens, has returned from a visit to Korea – not South but North Korea, to the surprise of the person Nancy was speaking to.  Nancy claims that it was easy to go there.  The choice of North Korea depicts the kind of vacation Nancy would be interested with – going to a country with dispirited and oppressed people. Director Choe herself has visited North Korea.

The film’s message comes across loud and clear as voiced by Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron, who delivers the film’s best performance): “We have to appreciate what we have now.  It is the only thing that matters.”

NANCY belongs to the category of low budget films that often struggle at the box-office but is worth a look for effort and result.  The film has already received accolades having been nominated for the following two categories of ‘Best First Screenplay’ and ‘Best Supporting Female’ for the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards.  In addition, the film won the ‘Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award’ at Sundance this year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDXSp8kfBGw

Full Review: SHOPLIFTERS (Japan 2018) ****

Shoplifters Poster
Trailer

A family of small-time crooks take in a child they find outside in the cold.

Director:

Hirokazu Koreeda

Writers:

Hirokazu Koreeda (original story), Hirokazu Koreeda (screenplay)

Hirokazu Kore-ed’s (his masterpiece AFTER LIFE and last year’s THE THIRD MURDER) latest film, SHOPLIFTERS won him the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year and is a real gem of a movie.  It tells the story of a poor family barely etching out a decent living in the outskirts of Tokyo.  The family is comprised of a couple, a grandmother and children.  The beauty of the movie is the twist in the story, that if revealed would definitely destroy the movie’s purpose.

The film’s Japanese title MANBIKI KAZOKU literally translates to ‘shoplifting family’.  Indeed so.  This is not Kore-da’s first family themed film, after making AFTER THE STORM,    LIKE FATHER LIKE SON and NOBODY KNOWS.   The patriarch, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his young boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi) complete a shoplifting spree at the residential grocery store before treating him to delicious croquettes.  They hear the cries of a hungry 4-year old who they bring back home (or kidnap) to feed her and later not return her to her family after discovering scars all over her body.  Shota and the young girl, Yuri bond.  Kore-eda’s film is kept interesting from the various characters of the family that also includes the grandmother (Kiki Kilin), Shota’s wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura) and her sister who works in a strip club.

The message that this make-shift dishonest family has more love than the typical Japanese family is obvious and drummed into the audience at the end of the film, in case the audience did not get it.  But thankfully, Kore’eda’s message is all not all black and white.  He also looks at the limitations of homeschooling as Shota is taught shoplifting and does not attend school.  “I thought kids who cannot study go to school,” Shota questions a detective at one point in the film.  The detective’s answer is: “Some things you cannot teach at home – meeting people.”

One of the film’s most interesting segments has the family go to the beach together.  How they interact with each other makes good observation.

The audience might wonder why did it took so long for Yuri’s mother to search and claim her back.  The audience overhears an argument between mother and father that they did not want her and that she was a nuisance.  

The film contains two twists that occur after the son, Shota is injured while jumping off a highway overpass in order to escape being caught from shoplifting.  This he does to save his little sister from getting caught.  What is revealed is both unexpected that teaches the audience both of that family and what an ideal family should be.  

Kore-ed’s actors need not act – his camera does.  From, close-ups, long hots, a character’s glance, the turn of a face, Kore-ed knows exactly how to capture a moment or create an effect.  The result is a superior movie from a clear Master of a medium who is not only a great story-teller (telling a story with a clear timely message) but a superb filmmaker.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwcb5ki1f-4

Film Review: AQUAMAN (USA 2018) ***

Aquaman Poster
Trailer

Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.

Director:

James Wan

Writers:

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (screenplay by), Will Beall (screenplay by) |5 more credits »

As much as I have complaints about the new Superhero DC comic AQUAMAN film adaptation, I have the highest regards for the film’s director James Wan.  Born In East Malaysia, (a neighbour of Singapore where I was born), Wan is the only Hollywood successful director from that region.  Wan was a skinny teen like myself, and his early photos reminds me of myself.  He has gained fame and fortune through his talent and horror films like he SAW franchise, INSIDIOUS and the CONJURING films.  He also brings on board Patrick Wilson from the latter two movies to play the villain in AQUAMAN.

Wan is known for his excesses.  Excesses abound in the 2 and a half hour action blockbuster aquarian fantasy AQUAMAN, played with aplomb by Jason Momoa.  There are plenty of images and CGI effects to gawk at.  The film looks amazing.  See it in IMAX and one will feel that one is in a gigantic fish tank as in one of those big aquariums found in big cities.  As far as super-action hero movies go, there is plenty to satisfy the fan base.   Superhero action fans will no doubt leave the theatre cheering, as in the case  of the promo screening I attended.   Surprise guest Patrick Wilson was present .  Who can ask for anything more? 

But one can.  The film lacks any good plot development, character intelligence and spicy dialogue.  When Aquaman is told that he has to save the underwater and land worlds by claiming the throne, all he can say is  ‘duh!’.  The script does not offer him any good one-liners either.  Lazy writing leaves a lot of unexplained and choppy facts in the story.  The effect of the evil that the villains do is brought down several notches by making them misunderstood beings.  One scene shows AQUAMAN as a boy at a city aquarium bullied by other kids, when a shark in the tank comes to the rescue.  Where did the boy, who is supposedly born and bred by the lighthouse keeper father find residence in the city and who where his foster parents?  That one scene appears from nowhere and conveniently disappears.  The key that only unlocks the trident with droplets of water is far-fetched bulls**t.   The climatic fight underwater by the edge of the cliffs makes no sense.  No one can fall off a cliff underwater.

The story begins in the year 1985, though Aquaman existed in comics way before then.   In Maine, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison ) rescues Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the princess of the underwater nation of Atlantis, during a storm.  They eventually fall in love and have a son, Arthur, who is born with the power to communicate with marine lifeforms.  Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to Atlantis, entrusting to her loyal advisor Nuidis Vulko  (Willem Dafoe) the mission of training Arthur.  Under Vulko’s guidance, Arthur becomes a skilled warrior but is rejected by the Atlanteans for being a half-breed and ultimately leaves Atlantis behind.

There is a subplot that really looks out of place with an invasion in which Arthur confronts a group of pirates attempting to hijack a nuclear submarine.  Their leader, Jesse Kane, dies during the confrontation while his son, David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), vows revenge against Arthur.   David later targets Atlantis at the behest of Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s younger half-brother and Atlantis’ king who uses the attack as a pretext to declare war on the surface.  All thistles to Aquaman having to retrieve a trident (like the Sword in the Stone) and battle Orm to ave the world.  Yes, all action here films involve saving the world.  The inter-racial subplot looks too obvious a political correct move.  We have seen all this before time and again.

Still, as far as Warner Bros. DC super hero film adaptations go, (example the awful BATMAN v. SUPERMAN, SUICIDE SQUAD), AQUAMAN, as in WONDER WOMAN is one of the better films.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDkg3h8PCVU

Film Review: THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION (USA 2018) ***

The Great Buster Poster
Trailer

Documentary on the life and works of comic genius Buster Keaton, directed by Peter Bogdanovic.

Buster Keaton is not someone as well known Charlie Chaplin.  But this is by no means to say that Buster Keaton is no less a genius.  Myself, I first saw Buster Keaton in a supporting role in Richard Lester’s 1966’s comedy A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.  The doc, THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION includes a footage of Keaton in the film.

The film is a celebration of actor/comedian/filmmaker and genius Buster Keaton.  Buster, in those days meant ‘Fall’ and Buster Keaton grew famous in funny falls from the young age touring the country with his travelling show parents.  The film is an examination of the artist from literally a baby to adult, which writer/director Peter Bogdanovich undertakes.

Who better than Peter Bogdanovich whose most famous film WHAT’S UP DOC? starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal was likely influenced by the slapstick antics of Buster Keaton.  Bogdanovich also loves black and white oldies and made the excellent THE LAST PICTUR SHOW and PAPER MOON, all black and white period pics.

Unless one is familiar with Keaton’s films or grew up in those times (i.e. if you are over 70), there is much to enjoy in the old footage assembled by Bogdanovich.  From Keaton’s early pictures like his two reelers to his shorts and feature films, expect plenty of laughs. 

Bogdanovich also ties in the passion of film into the doc.  Not only is Keaton’s talent for comedy shown but his genius in filmmaking.  

The early comedic sequences are the ones with Fatty Arbuckle and Keaton.  Arbuckle was Keaton’s mentor and introduced him to film, which aided Keaton’s fame.  The sequence of the two having dinner is not only funny but a genius in its set up.  Other simple sequences featuring these two are equally priceless.

Every genius has his downfall or at least bad times in life.  Arbuckle got entrapped with a murder charge and scandal.  For Keaton, it was his drinking and contract with MGM.  The film was clear to point out that MGM destroyed a few classic comedians of the time including The Marx Brothers, Stan and Ollie and Abbott and Castello with churning out their worst films.  Keaton’s drinking led to his divorce and firing at MGM, fed up with his drinking.  The height of his depression led him  to be committed to an army hospital taken away in a straight jacket. ‘Straight Jacket required to move Buster Keaton to hospital, ” read the newspaper headlines.   

It becomes apparent half way through the film that material is running out.  Bogdanovich inserts old Keaton film footage as fillers.  At least they are funny and satisfying in filling the time.

The film ends with Keaton’s death in 1966 and with the words of Dick Van Dyke who delivered the eulogy at the funeral service.

THE GREAT BUSTER is a celebration of not only Keaton but the artists of the silent era.  The film’s best segment is the clip from Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT where Chaplin and Keaton performed together for the first and only time.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsffUJBYya0

Film Review: BORDER (GRANS) (Sweden/Denmark 2018) ****

Border Poster
Trailer

A customs officer who can smell fear develops an unusual attraction to a strange traveler while aiding a police investigation which will call into question her entire existence.

Director:

Ali Abbasi

Writers:

John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on the short story “Gräns” by), Ali Abbasi (screenplay)| 2 more credits »

The hit at Cannes, BORDER is likely the weirdest film to emerge in cinemas this year.  And it is totally unpredictable even with a feel-good romantic element despite the ugliest looking characters in a film.

BORDER is a film about changelings.  This is not apparent till the last third of the film, so how the film gets there is a good part of the story’s mystery, which will not be revealed in the film.  A changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion.  A changeling child is believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies, and is perceived as an ugly creature.

But the film is entitled BORDER, because the film’s protagonist is a border customs officer, and one very good at her job owing to a unique ability. Tina (Eva Melander) has a bestial-looking face, a scar above her tailbone.  Her ability is sensing how people feel though smell.  She is especially adept at detecting fear or unease (sex, hilt and shame), skills that make her an invaluable border guard.  Nobody likes a border guard, especially when they get caught cheating customs by one, and especially more if the officer is as ugly as Tina.  “Ugly bitch,” is what one caught curses under his breath for attempting to sneak though above the limit alcohol.

Yet Tina’s latest customs stops are more troubling than the usual routine arrests. First, there’s the twitchy businessman carrying child pornography, whose crime so enrages Tina that she begins to take foolish risks when she’s brought in to help with the investigation. 

But her life changes when she meets a suspicious Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares physical traits with Tina (being ugly and sort of a look-alike),  Vore wears a permanent cocksure smirk that suggests he knows things she does not, which the film reveals later on to be true. 

A sample of the weirdness includes consumption of maggots, uncomfortable sex scenes and very odd mannerisms (facial twitching and grunting) of the characters.

The cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is stunning, especially the scenery around where Tina lives.  The dark water of the pool, waterfalls and forest greenery are something right out of a fairy tale.

Excellent performances by both Milonoff and Melander complete the honours in the acting department.

The film contains some acute observations (not not necessarily a life lesson or message) on life.  One is that like Tina, not matter how weird, she thought herself special as a child.  Beautiful things can also happen to someone as unfortunate as Tina.  Tina chooses good over evil.  The film demonstrates that anyone including any human being or monster is capable of both.  There should be no prejudices.

Though extremely weird, the story is based on a short story by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist,  Border conjures up memories of unsettling folk tales that tie humans to the natural world and its odder anomalies, a world that now seems distant yet creepily familiar.  

BORDER won its director Abbashi the Best Director Prize in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes.  The film has also been winning awards in festivals around the world.  The film is a must-see.  I have seen it twice, though the film loses its surprise element the second time viewing.

Trailer: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5501104/videoplayer/vi3736910361?ref_=tt_ov_vi

Film Review: THE FAVOURITE (UK/USA 2018) ****

The Favourite Poster
Trailer

In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Weisz) governs the country in her stead. When a new servant Abigail (Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Director:

Yorgos Lanthimos

Lanthimos’s latest film after DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER is his most extravagant, with a period setting in a castle with royalty as its subject.

It is the early 18th century when England is at war with the French though the film opens oddly enough with royalty involved with duck racing and pineapple eating.  The poor are taxed and the poor go to war.   A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health, temper and sexual desires .   When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.  Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots.   Abigail schemes to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfil her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.

THE FAVOURITE stands as a film that those familiar with Lanthimos will find quite similar to his last movie THE KILLNG OF A SACRED DEER.  As in both films, the status quo of a family is challenged (Farrell’s in DEER and Queen Anne’s in FAVOURITE).  Both sees the arrival of a stranger who is revealed to have closer connections with the family that will shake formalities and turn the family upside down for better or for worse.  Though Lanthimos’s favourite actor Colin Farrell is not in this film, one can see him inhabiting a similar character now taken on by Nicholas Hoult.  THE FAVOURITE also contains Lanthimos’s odd pounding soundtrack and his fade outs to black.  

Lanthimos sees that the audience takes the side of Emma Stone from the very start when she falls flat with her face onto the mud on arrival at the castle.  She can do no wrong, compared to Lady Sarah that the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara ensures the audience dislikes from start to finish.

Both films contain odd dialogue that are funny because they can occur at the least likely moment.  THE FAVOURITE’s best line is when Queen Anne rebutting Lady Sarah when asked to dismiss Abigail: “I will not, I enjoy having her tongue inside me.”  Those unfamiliar with Lanthimos previous films (and better still if the trailer is not seen beforehand) will likely find THE FAVOURITE more amusing, shocking and refreshing while those who are will find him doing the same tricks in a different setting.  All the main actors  Weisz, Stone and Colman have been in Lanthimos past films.  Surprises  are no more surprises if they are expected to occur.  One can say the same for a Lanthimos film – to expect surprise after surprise.  It would be a surprise if his films did not shock or surprise. Still. Lanthimos’s The FAVOURITE succeeds well in its ambitions.  But the dialogue (in literally the Queen’s English) – except one would imagine the words ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were not used in those times – is sped up several notches compared to the slow dialogue in Lanthimos’s other entries.

THE FAVOURITE arrives after the Venice International Film Festival with favourable reviews.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYb-wkehT1g

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