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

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

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

Review by Gilbert Seah 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Film Review: LOST CITY OF Z (USA 2016) ***

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the_lost_city_of_z.jpgA true-life drama, centering on British explorer Col. Percival Fawcett, who disappeared while searching for a mysterious city in the Amazon in the 1920s.

Director: James Gray
Writers: James Gray (written for the screen by), David Grann (based on the book by)
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller

Review by Gilbert Seah

(Spoilers)

LOST CITY OF Z is an exploration film about British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnan) obsessed with finding the lost city which he nicknames Z (pronounced zed in Britain and in the film and Zee in North America) in the wild Amazon jungles of Bolivia in South America.

The film is as expected of this sort of big productions, a handsomely mounted production with lots of candid shots of the horrors as well as the beauty of the wild. But it follows the same mould as many past exploration films, those that say track the expeditions into Africa or up Mount Everest or into Antarctica.

These films normal includes the identical premise consisting of:

getting limited or no funds for the expedition.

The same can be said for LOST CITY OF Z. Though Percy is first coerced into taking up the plight to Bolivia, he is initially reluctant. He is a soldier and a major (he gets promoted later to Lieutenant Colonel) in the British military. There is extended segment of him fighting in World War 1, always advancing towards the enemy lines, showing him the titular hero, but distracts from the main story at hand. In fact, Percy makes no less than 3 separate expeditions. For his final expedition – he had to fight for funds, most of it provided by the Americans and secondly but he British Geographical Society. It is ironical that the film was also financed by the U.S. with director Gray (THE YARDS being my favourite film of his), an American director offered the job of director. He was himself surprised, as many, for the reason he was offered the job.

The objection of the explorer’s immediate family to the task and the conflict that ensues.

The wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) objects but also decides to join him, though never realized. A strong argument is given here to update the film on a strong feminist point of view. The son (Tom Holland, the new SPIDER-MAN) objects vehemently but buries the hatchet at the end by joining his father n the third expedition.

The white man always doing what is right in the wilds

It is odd to see white men in full uniform or suits traversing the humid and wet jungles. Percy is often seen in full military garb in the incredibly uncomfortable hot weather.
But there is always something fascinating about watching a film about explorers making an expedition to foreign lands. This fascination is present and Gray capitalizes it with the strange vegetation and dangerous insects and animals around. There are scary scenes involving piranhas devouring human beings and native shooting arrows at Percy and his men.

The film is based on a true story. Percy and his son never returned from the last expedition,. This fact elevates the film out of the normal exploration films. Gray etches the main character here to a romanticized hero, worthy of the audience’s time at the cinema.

LOST CITY OF Z is long and runs close to 140 minutes. But the 3 expeditions and the war segment make the time run fast. Still, Gray’s film is a beautiful piece of filmmaking.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjqtP459uo8
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Film Review: COUNTING FOR THUNDER (USA 2015) ***

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

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

Review by Gilbert Seah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/202288712 

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Film Review: BORN IN CHINA (USA/China 2016) ***

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born_in_china.jpgDirector: Chuan Lu
Writers: David Fowler, Brian Leith
Stars: John Krasinski, Xun Zhou

Review by Gilbert Seah
 
The poster might be misleading that the new Disneynature film BORN IN CHINA is about pandas alone. The documentary is concentrated on 5 animals, all BORN IN CHINA, more precisely in the northern and central mountainous colder parts of China where there are no signs of civilization. It is a beautiful and rugged country. The 5 animals selected for show are cranes, the snow leopard, the golden snubbed nose monkeys, the antelope and of course the panda. The segments are intercut among each other.

Be forewarned, the pandas are the least interesting of the animals featured. Pandas are cute and endangered, and their cute antics are captured. Mother Ya Ya is training her daughter Mei Mei to climb trees. Once Mei Mei is able to climb a tree, she is able to escape from prey and become independent. Every time, the film returns to the panda, Mei Mei is falling down , rolling down a slope after which Ya Ya is hugging Mei Mei. It is actually quite boring stuff if you subtract their cuteness.

The film aims at cuteness for each animal. Narrated by John Krasinski in the English version, he mimics animal sounds and tries to act cute. If one likes that sort of thing, then fine, but it undermines the seriousness of these animals in the wilderness. These animals have to survive, escape prey, feed their young, mate and carry on the living process.

It comes as no surprise then that the most interesting episodes are the ones with the snow leopards. Mother (named Dawa – why must these animals be given ridiculers cutesy Chinese names?) must defend her territory and feed her cubs Her territory is threatened when another female snow leopard arrives with her three offspring. Dawa and her cubs are forced into hiding. Wen Dawa preys upon a yak calf, she almost gets food. The film is most interesting at this point as the audience cannot decide to root for Dawa or for the poor yak calf being caught and about to be rescued by her mother. One has to recall that Disney did kill off poor Bambi’s mother in BAMBI.

The cranes are given a token segment while the female antelopes are shown migrating to give birth and returning with their young. The golden snub nose monkeys are shown from the point of view of Tao Tao, an adolescent who cannot decide to hang around his family or other rebellious youngsters, nicknamed in the film as ‘the lost boys’. Of course, Tao Tao learns the importance of family at the end, After all Disneynature is aimed at a family audience.
The end credits showing the cameramen and director at work prove more interesting than the movie. As one man at the camera says, the weather changes dramatically. One moment is can be hailing and the next sunshine. The majesty of Central and Western China is also captured on film. The landscape steals the show from the animal antics.

The film shies away from any violence, typical for Disneynature films. There is nothing as disturbing here as say in one other Disneynature film, where hundreds of baby turtles trying to crawl to the sea after hatching, are devoured by preying birds. Nature is cruel and survival is tough. These elements are overlooked in this film and mostly substituted by play and silly cuteness except for only one instance.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VP0Vl6Qzb8M
 

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Film Review: PERFUME WAR (Canada 2017) ***1/2

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perfume_warDirector: Michael Melski
Writers: Michael Melski, Barb Stegemann
Star: Pasha Ebrahimi

Review by Gilbert Seah

If there is ever an inspirational film that will move audiences to return their faith in the human race, PERFUME WAR is it.

Michael Melski’s fascinating documentary explores the extraordinary friendship between two best friends, Trevor and Barb whose shared mission of peace has made an enormous impact on countless lives.

The film begins with equal time devoted to each before concentrating on Barb. Captain Trevor Greene joins the military to fight the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Barb Stegemann is a single mom who is moved to take on her best friend’s mission after he is brutally axed in the head by the Taliban. Stegemann works with Afghan farmers to grow legal orange flower crops instead of the illegal heroin poppy–the Taliban’s chief income source–and creates an unlikely weapon in the fight for world peace – perfume. The topic is an interesting as it is strange. But director Melski inserts the inspirational factor into his film.

This he does firstly by dotting quotations by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius throughout his film. Example: “Change is nature’s delight.” Next Melski inspires through the lives of both Barb and Trevor. Trevor and Barb are visionaries.

Trevor describes himself as the most driven person he knows – and one that is driven on principles, not by money. Trevor is described by Barb as the most inspirational person who changed her life completely. She is also described by her University professor as an engineer of civilization, who in his 34 years of teaching has only encountered a handful. Barb and Trevor are best friends (no sex). When Trevor met Debbie, Barb knew Debbie was the perfect one for Trevor and the three became good friends. Barb and Trevor each pushes the other towards the limit.

When the Taliban takes an axe to Trevor’s head, Trevor survives. A miracle! More inspiration! Barb decides to give her life to continue Trevor’s mission. She embarks on the business venture (even securing funds from DRAGON’S DEN) so that the business can continue and the Afghanistan farmers can continue to work.

Melski’s film is total convincing as he includes clips of the farming in Afghanistan The enactment of the meeting that resulted in the axe to Trevor’s skull is also re-enacted to full disturbing effect. Melski also debates the topic of social good vs. monetary gain. Barb had to get capital from TV’s DRAGON’s DEN.

Those who have watched DRAGON’s DEN will be pleased to see the film’s heroine pitting her wits with her social venture to the dragons who only look at the money prospects of a business venture. Dragon Kevin O’Leary obviously gives a no. But Melski shows that even dragon have consciences and a human desire to do good. Another fascinating segment of the film is devoted to how Barb beats the big companies in the perfume business.

The film is about challenge. The film is about doing what’s right and to make a difference to change the world – to make it a better one. PERFUME WARS inspires!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS7KteaH55U

 

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HOT DOCS 2017 Reviews: 78/52 (USA 2017) ***1/2

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7852An unprecedented look at the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the “man behind the curtain”, and the screen murder that profoundly changed the course of world cinema.

Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Stars: Alan Barnette, Justin Benson, Peter Bogdanovich

Review by Gilbert Seah
 
78/52 offers an unprecedented look at the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO – the “man behind the curtain” and the screen murder that profoundly changed the course of world cinema. The famous shower scene – the opening and closing of the bathroom door; the water streaming from the shower; the curtain slowly pulling apart; the repeated stabbing; the blood flowing down the bath; the door bathroom door slamming shut.

The entire scene’s storyboard with the script is read aloud (and also the pages of the novel of the same name by Robert Block, illustrating the differences) to the audience as the scene, unfolds one step at a time, offering a fresh insight.

The contribution of both Edward Hermann to the music and George Tomasini to the sound effects are detailed in the film, providing more insight and pleasure to the cineaste.

The film includes clips of films that have been influenced by Hitchcock. Director Philippe (DOC OF THE DEAD) has done thorough and detailed research on Hitchcock and the shower scene and it shows.

The result is one of the best and most insightful documentaries on the techniques of the Master of Suspense.

Clip: http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/208152/sundance-2017-new-7852-clip-goes-psycho-shower-scene/
 

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Film Review: FRANTZ (France/Germany 2016) ****

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frantz_posterDirector: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon (scenario), Philippe Piazzo (in collaboration with)
Stars: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stötzner |

Review by Gilbert Seah

What would be another year without another film from French director Francois Ozon? Ozon’s last two films were JEUNE & JOLIE and LA NOUVELLE AMIE and my favourites are SITCOM and LES AMANTS CRIMINELS. Ozon’s films have often been about twisted love. FRANTZ is no different.

At one point in the film, the protagonist is given the message to live and love life. The advice is more easily said than done. Ozon’s entire film is devoted to prove the fact.

FRANTZ is Ozon’s (which he co-write with Phillippe Piazzo) elegant tale of love and remembrance set in a small German town in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918). A young woman, Anna (Paula Beer) mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz forms a bond with a mysterious Frenchman who has arrived to lay flowers on her beloved’s grave. The mourning is representative of a larger national mourning where many Germans (and French) soldiers lost their lives. The question immediate to ones mind is who the Frenchman is and why he is laying the flowers. With Ozon, an open gay director, the best guess (and mine too) is that the Frenchman is Frantz’s gay lover and that the gay relationship was kept from the family. That would have been too obvious. This is not the case. The secret is revealed and only revealed about the half way mark of the film.

Anna’s German home town are just beginning to emerge from the shadow of horrendous war. Frantz’s parents are shattered over their son’s death. The stranger reveals himself to be Adrien (Pierre Niney) who knew Frantz in the pre-war period, when the two of them became fast friends over their shared love of art and, in particular, music. But there is much more to the story, which is revealed a bit at a time in Ozon’s carefully calculated though slow moving tale of redemption.

Anna is convincingly portrayed by 21-year old Paula Beer. Pierre Niney, famous for his lead role in YVES SAINT LAURENT shows off his magnificent (despite the artificially inserted made up war wounds) male body, basking in the son, reminding the audience that this is a film by Ozon. Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber are also excellent playing Frantz’s parents Doktor Hans Hoffmister and Magda Hoffmeister.

A bit of needed tension is provided by the village’s hatred for the French. Whenever Adrien walks about alone or at night, there is fear that he might be killed or badly beaten.

There are many issues on display in this post World War 1 drama. The most important is the individual’s search for happiness. This is seen not only from Anna’s point of view but also from her suitor, Frantz’s parents and also from the much oder Mr. Kreutz (Johann von Bülow) who wishes Anna’s hand in marriage after hearing of Frantz’s death.

This is Ozon’s most emotional and sombre film, again meticulously crafted and though might be tedious to some, succeeds in the very end. The film is shot in both German and French, black and white and in colour. Ozon reportedly drew his inspiration from the Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama BROKEN LULLABY, with stunning visual references to painter Caspar David Friedrich.

His next film L’AMAMT DOUBLE with his regular Jeremie Renier and Jacqueline Bisset should be something to look forward to.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO_z5BRsFnM

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