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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

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Film Review: LEAN ON PETE (UK 2017) ***1/2

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Lean on Pete Poster
Trailer

A teenager gets a summer job working for a horse trainer and befriends the fading racehorse, Lean on Pete.

Director:

Andrew Haigh

Writers:

Andrew HaighWilly Vlautin (novel)

LEAN ON PETE is British drama film written for the screen and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 YEARS), based upon the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin.  LEAN ON PETE is also the name of the horse that both changes and challenges the life of 16-year old Charlie (Charlie Plummer). 

The film is about a boy and a horse, but not for the whole duration of the movie.  When the film opens, the audience sees Charlie with his father and new girlfriend.  Being dependent on his father for a limited amount of money, Charlie befriends horse owner Del (Steve Buschemi) for a job.  He is introduced to a horse called LEAN ON PETE.  When the horse loses a race, coming in last, the horse is to be sold off to die.

The film benefits from the performance of its young lead, Charlie Plummer who has already proven himself in the role of the millionaire Paul Getty’s nephew in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, playing opposite Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer.  Charlie is no relation to Christopher Plummer despite the identical surnames.  Charlie Plummer captures the pain and desperation of a teen unwanted by both parents.  He has still the look of innocence that will have the audience on his side no matter the bad deed he commits.  In one scene, he suspects that he might go to jail, but heaven forbid if he does!  When the film screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress. Besides Plummer, Buscemi and Zahn both stand out in their supporting performances.  Both actors reprise their quirky character roles, though their character are very different.

LEAN ON PETE moves at a slow pace during its first two thirds of running time before switching gear with a story twist.  Haigh’s camera loves to linger on the actors.  On the few action scenes, the two punch up scenes and the one where an accident occurs with Pete (the details not to be mentioned in the review as to avoid a major spoiler) are executed with quick edits as to create a shock effect.  This succeeds as the audience is clearly jolted out of their seats the three times.

Haigh’s film suffers from a suitable ending.  He opts for the Charlie running off into the horizon (no sunset here), reminiscent of the famous French classic of youth, Francois Truffaut’s LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (400 BLOWS) where Truffaut ended his film with young Jean-Pierre Laud running on the beach.

Despite the film’s slow pace and other minor flaws, LEAN ON PETE comes off as a sincere film about a boy’s coming of age .  The story shows that life does not always hands one everything on a silver platter.  Some are born into riches and royalty.  Others like Charlie are less fortunate, born into a broken family.  He learns from his race horse, looking after Pete, the horse reflecting the same poor demise, Charlie the human is going through.  Charlie struggles and makes it at the end.  Haigh’s shows that it is a long and hard journey, but one that is necessary to take.  On these grounds, LEAN ON PETE is a successful film,  evoking the audience’s emotions and sympathy.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzlazAyylw8

 

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Film Review: THE DEATH OF STALIN (UK/France 2017) ***

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The Death of Stalin Poster
Trailer

Follows the Soviet dictator’s last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death.

Director:

Armando Iannucci

 

Stars:

Steve BuscemiSimon Russell BealeJeffrey Tambor

Joseph Stalin dies unexpectedly turning his ministers into panic.  There is a re-balance of power and power grabbing, a state funeral and other un-niceties.  The premise appears perfect for a black comedy.

THE DEATH OF STALIN, as the film is appropriately called can be divided into three parts, with sufficient chaos devoted to each.  The first part of the film establishes who is who around Stalin.  The  second is the passing of Stalin and his funeral.  The third is what happens after with Stalin’s ministry.  The film is described on film sites as a ‘comedy’.

Among the who’s who is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buchemi) who starts taking charge after Stalin’s passing.  Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) receives the worse end of the death, being accused of murder, execution, torture and yes, multiple rapes of little girls, of which Beria demands a fair trial.  Other well known actors Michael Palin (of Monty Python), Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine and Jeffrey Tambor add to the impressive cast making up ministers of various departments like defence, agriculture and so on.

Unlike his previous hit IN THE LOOP, Iannucci ’s THE DEATH OF STALIN, treads on the same grounds of political humour bordering on satire but turns out more crass and desperate for laughs.  The word ‘fuck’ is uttered too often and sounds out of place in a setting where the real Stalin and his men actually should be speaking Russian.   Example: When Stalin’s son is its on making a speech at his father’s funeral, Khrushchev’s response is: “and I want to fuck Grace Kelly.”  The questions: “What the fuck is going on?” is uttered many times.  The running joke of enemies of the State executed, tortured or imprisoned is fondly used.  When Stalin suffers a hurt attack and a doctor needed urgently, it is remarked that all the old doctors have been sent to he Gulag.

The film feels artificial with English spoken throughout, instead of Russian with subtitles.  The spectrum of accents is distracting.  While Buscemi speaks as if an American, the majority including Stalin speak with a strong British accent.

Despite the variety of accents, the performances are quite convincing.  Each actor could pass of as a Stalin comrade.  Buschemi is particularly hilarious, though the use of vulgarities could be toned down a little.  Jason Isaacs is also memorable as the Russian field marshall who is very fond of punching those he does not like right in the face, and then joke about it.

The sets, costumes and production design is to be commended for an authentic period Russian piece. 

In THE DEATH OF STALIN, which premiered last year at TIFF, cheap jokes and crass humour with lots of vulgarity appear the order of the day!  But these still bring in the laughs.  Just don’t expect classy black satirical humour but crass black satirical humour.  The ending is superb though with a shot of Leonid Brezhnev watching over the new proceedings like a cunning fox.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukJ5dMYx2no

 

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Film Review: NORMAN: THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER (USA/Israel 2016)

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norman.jpgDirector: Joseph Cedar
Writer: Joseph Cedar
Stars: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen

Review by Gilbert Seah

Not to be confused with the other film NORMAN made in 2010, this new NORMAN comes with a long subtext in the title that essentially tells everyone what the film is about.
Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, NORMAN (film’s original title was OPPENHEIMER STRATEGIES) tells the moderate rise and tragic fall of the said man. The film is well shot and directed as a combination of set pieces are performed almost meticulously by veteran actor Richard Gere. At the age of 67, Gere could be almost be doing old fart movies like GOING IN STYLE. (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin share the average age of 80), Here in NORMAN, Gere is in top form, articulating his character who still has the ability to charm and ‘cheat’ investors of their hard earned savings.

Cedar’s film begins with two dramatic set pieces that show Norman hard at work. In the first, he is unsuccessful while he succeeds in the second. In the first segment, he stalks a high-profile businessman interrupting his private life, while he is jogging in the morning to pitch his deal. In the second, he successfully courts a young politician, Nicha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) after paying for his shoes at a shoe store. (French actor Isaac Bankole is immediately recognizable as the shoe salesman who flatters Eshel.) Three years pass and Eshel becomes Prime Minister of Israel. Eshel’s name is used to no end by Norman in all his present and future schemes.

At the film’s start in one of Eshel’s speech, he says: “I do not look at the way things are and ask: Why? I look at the way things should be and ask, why not?” The same idea can be used to critique NORMAN. The film is fine but the question that should be asked is what the film should have been with the question why not.

For one, nothing is mentioned of Norman’s background. Norman is shown the way he is – no girlfriend, minimal family and a loner at heart and in life. It is hard to identify with a person like Norman and especially as he is a trickster at heart. Norman has few redeeming qualities. There is no suspense in the way he could have got caught which could have added some needed suspense into an otherwise monotonous film.

Gere is good and the film contains an impressive cast of actors that include French Bankole and Charlotte Gainsbourg and others like Hank Azaria (always appearing in con films), Michael Sheen, Dan Stevens and Steve Buschemi. One could say that Gere is too good looking an actor to play a shady character like Norman. But one could argue too that as Gere said, when he was here for the film at TIFF that it shows that there is a Norman in each one of us.

The film is shot partly in Hebrew and English in New York City where the story is set. NORMAN is not bad but could be better. And why not?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXFCrl37HzU
 

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