Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lists - Top 10 Films of 2014

It's time again to look back over the year that was and chart the best films of the year.  2014 was another solid year with many contenders for a spot in the year end top 10. Due to my attendance at several film festivals some films make my list that have not yet had a wide release while others on several top 10 lists such as IDA and WE ARE THE BEST were on last years list. Lastly I did not catch SELMA or  INHERENT VICE both of which  ave early January releases and could have made my list.  Without further adieu here are the titles:

10.  Mr. Turner.

9. The Notorious Mr. Bout.

8.    What We Do In The Shadows.

7.  Leviathan.

6.  In The Crosswind.

5.  Boyhood.

4.   Calvary.    

3.  Force Majeure.                

2.  Under The Skin.

1.  Mommy

On the opposite side of the spectrum my worst three movies of the year were Among Ravens,  Impunity and  The Monuments Men.

Cheers and best to everyone for 2015!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Film Review - Mr. Turner

How are you faring Mr. Turner? This is the standard greeting in J.M.W. Turner's world where Lord Nelson's feats at the battle to Trafalgar are a current memory. The Mike Leigh film focuses on the last quarter of the painter's life. Turner is relatively well off, travels to locations all over Europe to find the settings for his paintings and is a leading figure at the Royal Academy of Arts.

The film opens with an exquisite shot of Turner out at a vast field in the Netherlands sketching a windmill. The camera locks in on two woman walking from left to right in the frame with the windmill above them then extends back to show Turner at a higher elevation working on his sketch. of the scene sets the tone for Turner's method of going to, on, in and amongst nature to create his art.

Director Mike Leigh creates a visually stimulating mid-nineteenth century world. The dirt roads, horse drawn carriages, buildings and especially the costume design team contribute to the production in bringing the viewer into the time period. Leigh keeps the camera fixed using wide angles whenever possible to demonstrate the full scope of the settings for Turner's landscapes and naval pieces.

Director of photography Dick Pope plays a major part in creating the world that appears on screen. Pope who has worked with Leigh on many occasions captures the rich array of colours that are prominent in Turner's paintings with his lens. He is especially good at showing several sunrises and sunsets driving home Turner's reverence for the star. In one scene Pope displays a giant valley with bright green mossy areas and a body of water at its base. The shot is astonishing and naturally the spot that after his hike into the area Turner decides to sit down to sketch. Pope's vision is fully displayed at a key moment in the production as Turner is taxied along the Thames as the Temeraire is tugged to it's final resting place inspiring the famous painting of the event.

Timothy Spall is fantastic in the title role of J.M.W.  Turner. Grunting is his main method of communication. Based on the length a pitch of the grunt something is pleasing or annoying to the Artist. His verbal utterances are a cross between an Orc and a large Bear. Spall is very physical in the scenes where he paints throwing everything from brushstrokes to fingers to spit at the canvas to create the pieces.

Paul Jesson who has worked with Spall and Leigh both before in Vera Drake. Turns in a strong performance as Turner's father William. He lives with his son, does all of the paint mixing, buying and canvas construction while Billy goes out on his travels. He is in poor physical heath specifically  his lungs but continues to do all that he can for his son to allow so him to focus on painting. He makes a matching pair with Dorothy Atkinson who plays Hanna Danby Turner's dutiful housekeeper. She is constantly bent over, has trouble walking features an extremely bad complexion that worsens as the film progresses. She is tends house and is always at the door to meet Turner when he returns from his trips. Marion Bailey another Leigh regular is memorable as Turner's companion Sophia Booth. Having already buried one husband when they first meet Sophia starts a relationship with Turner following the death of he second husband. She is usually ready to assist when Turner physically overexerts himself in the name of his art.

Mr. Turner is a well acted biopic that paints a vivid picture spanning parts of three decades. Leigh presents the elements of the art along with the effort required to get the picture. The film is beautifully shot and the reliance on natural sound serves the production well.  It is a film I can recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Mr. Turner | Mike Leigh | UK | 2014 | 150 Minutes.

Tags: Biography, Painting, Nineteenth Century, Royal Academy, Romanticism, Landscapes, Watercolours, Maritime Scenes.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Review - The Gambler

Jim Bennett ( Mark Wahlberg) is an all or nothing guy. If you can't achieve genius at a task you should just give it up and forget it. Coming from a very well off family; his grandfather Ed (George Kennedy) started a successful and still striving Los Angles bank, Jim's goal is to get to zero and start over.

Bennett is an associate professor at a local University where he teaches English Lit 101. One of his students Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) has that potential to be genius.  Another Lamar (Anthony Kelley) a star basketball player that will go very high in the NBA draft and the rest in his estimation just filling seats for another credit on their ledger. Jim does not bring any conviction to his teaching. He sits amongst his students as he lectures when not confronting them with highly personal questions. It's this direct full on personality and desire to get to the ground that leads him to difficulty in the underground Los Angeles gambling dens.  

Directory Wyatt coming of blockbuster success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes has moved back to direct a character driven story in the vein of his 2008 film The Escapist. Wyatt presents a different L.A. in his film; private casino's up in the rolling hills, abandoned swimming pools in the pawnshop district through back entrances into Korean gambling halls and members sections in downtown steam rooms. There are no obligatory shots of Rodeo Drive, Capitol building or either of the Hollywood or Beverly Hills signs.

Writer William Monahan delivers another script full of rich expression and offbeat characters.  The film features two exceptional monologues. One by Bennett when he spells out his genius theory to his class working around the room challenging individuals until he gets to his Amy. The other by notorious money lender Frank (John Goodman) as he lays out the conditions of a potential loan and FU money philosophy to Jim when he comes looking for cash to pay off his debts.      

Cinematographer Greig Fraiser is instrumental in presenting Wyatt's grittier version of L.A. The film is shot in several dark settings. Fraiser uses outside light from a windows or other rooms to bring the figures on screen in into focus. He was also the co conspirator in Wyatt's determination to have no  palm tress in the film ofter resetting his lens to achieve the goal.

Mark Wahlberg delivers a top notch performance as Bennett leaving no grey areas in his characters soar or crash mentality. In one particular scene right after he pieces together the funds to makes it back to level he proceeds to sink slowly and steadily back into the hole $10,000 at a time is painful to watch. Wahlberg plays it well berating the dealers that look on him with sadness going out of their way to give him the option to stop.

Brie Larson does remarkably well with the supporting part of Amy. She does not have much dialogue but her facial and body expressions bring life to her role. She particularly shines in a scene where she walks across campus ear buds fixed in her own happy world listening to tunes. Her fresh young attitude plays well off of Wahlberg's  negative spiral into depression and self loathing.

The cast is rounded out with superior performances from the above mentioned Goodman plus Jessica Lange's turn as Bennett's up from the working class mother Roberta. Michael Kenneth Williams ( Omar from The Wire) as Neville one of the loan sharks that Bennett owes big and another Wire alum Domenick Lombardozzi as Frank's bodyguard.

The Gambler is a dialogue driven story that does not dishonour the 1974 James Caan version. The film has a strong cast and director Wyatt succeeds with his goal of presenting Los Angeles' dark alleys, basements, nooks and crannies. It's one of the rare studio driven character films that we only seem to get one or two of each year. It is a film that I strongly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

The Gambler | Rupert Wyatt | U.S.A. | 2014 | 111 Minutes.

Tags; Drama, Gambling, Professor, Addiction, Loan Shark, Korea Town, English Lit, College Basketball,

Sunday, November 30, 2014

B.I.T.S. 2014 Film Review - Black Mountain Side

Isolation is a key elements in any good Arctic Thriller. Another is the introduction of a foreign element something to the group. The foreign agent can be alien as in John Carpenter's The Thing or viral as is the case in Nick Szostakiwskyj's Black Mountain Side. 

A group of scientific specialists are stationed at Outpost 291 in the Taiga Cordillera ecozone the most northern outpost in the Yukon. Their link to the South is a radio where they call in their weekly supply needs to Ranger Station 9. The area is so far north that both that supplies and people have to be helicoptered in ever since the last supply plane attempting the trip froze and fell out of the sky. Into this group arrives Dr. Peter Olsen (Michael Dickson) an Archaeological expert from the University of Toronto who has come to investigate an unusual structure the team has begun to excavate. The group are hopeful that the structure will be a significant find confirmed by Dr. Olsen leading to more grant money for the project.

However in the passing days things begin to change. First the base cat is ritualistically dismembered and displayed at the dig site, next the workers from the reserve 90 miles to the South all leave during the middle of the night headed north to certain death, then the crew start showing symptoms of illness, some physical, some psychological but all become paranoid and suspicions of each.  On top of all this they can no longer reach Station 9 cutting them off from the outside world.

Writer Director Nick Szostakiwskyj builds an intense psychological drama moving at a rhythmic slow burning pace. The effects on the individual crew members are quite subtle at first then ratchet up with the first physical manifestation of the virus then slowing to minor irritations amongst the team of each others behaviour before surging quickly past the original shock level to a heightened intensity that's maintained for final stages of the piece.

The ensemble cast looks the part presenting the material well although Carl Toftfelt's (Francis Monroe) did present a challenge picking up all of his dialogue from time to time. The strongest part of the groups performance is how they embrace and carry out their self inflicted or projected acts of madness with an eerie level of calmness.

Black Mountain Side is a well-crafted production. It quickly establishes the conditions at the camp at the outset. The archaeological elements; carbon dating, mesoamerican tagging, Pharaohs revenge are presented in a plain non lecturing manner.  The cast are solid as they battle a mainly invisible or  internal enemy. It is a film that I can recommend.

*** Out of 4.

Black Mountain Side | Nick Szostakiwskyj | Canada | 2014 | 99 Minutes.

Tags: Yukon, Plague, Carbon Dating, Horror, Amputation, Voices, Autopsy, Hieroglyphics, Artifacts, Shrine, Temple.

Friday, November 28, 2014

B.I.T.S. 14 Film Review - Ejecta

Bill Cassidy (Julian Richings) is sitting at his kitchen table telling Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) how things go for him on a typical night. Foreign elements meet in his mind causing him pain stemming from an event 39 years ago where he was visited by extra terrestrial beings that left something behind in his head. Bill often wakes up miles from home days or weeks later with no memory of how he got to the location. He just wants the pain, feelings and presence to stop.

Joe Sullivan a documentary filmmaker has come out to visit Bill based on an e-mail invitation. He is out on eve of a coronal mass ejection. A solar wind and magnetic field sent from the sun headed for earth with the potential to knock out all of earth electrical systems at worse or be a pretty light show at best. Also lurking in the area are shadowy government troops tracking events ready to act if the events turn to develop are more on the sinister side. Bill ends up in conflict with an army unit leading to an unwanted trip to their base where he is interrogated by government agent  Dr. Tobin (Lisa Houle) who is both good and bad cop all rolled into one.

Writer Tom Burgess whose credits include another Lisa Houle film Pontypool pens a we are not alone tale with all the key elements. Bill is out on a rural farm spouting alien stories on line seen as a crackpot by all until the visitors return. Joe the green stem documentary film maker who wants to witness something extraordinary but is not remotely ready to handle it when it occurs. Plus the mysterious government agency led by Dr. Tobin who have always know about alien visits, stockpiled their technology for centuries battled to contain every contact with them while tracing anyone and everyone that may have information that they can use.

Directors Chad Archibald and Matt Wiele use a lot of handle held mobile camera for the feature. The film has a large element of found footage recorded by Joe for his film. It's used for the back story before Joe turns up at Bill's place as well as for events on the night of the coronal mass ejection. The bouncy jagged filming theme continues with the army team sending helmet cam footage back to headquarters for Dr. Tobin to view on monitors.

Veteran Actor Julian Richings delivers an intense performance as Bill Cassidy. He appears frail but switches on when Dr. Tobin uses her torture toolbox to obtain information from him about the nights events. Houle brings a schizophrenic element to the Dr. Tobin role. In one moment she is a seasoned tuff interrogator, the next tender and loving to Cassidy in her attempt to gain intel then instantly dismissive of two colleagues who make mistakes that lead to catastrophic consequences for the pair.

Ejecta ticks all of the boxes for an alien visitor story. Clearly lacking a large budget, the production uses lighting, darkness, the forest around Cassidy's home and Joe's panicked shooting to keep the keys elements the nights activities slightly out of view building the suspense. The film will struggle for mainstream appeal but enthusiast of this niche will be entertained.

** 1/2 Out of 4.

Ejecta | Chad Archibald /Matt Wiele | Canada | 2014 | 87 minutes

Tags; Sci-Fi, found footage, conspiracy theory, Aliens, Alien Technology, Cosmic events, interrogation, Secret Government Agencies, Special Ops.

B.I.T.S.14 Film Review - Berkshire County

Kylie Winters (Alysa King) is an outsider at school and her own hardest critic. When a popular boy Marcus (Aaron Chartrand) pays attention to her at a Halloween party she engages in out of character behaviour bringing her unwanted attention amongst her high school peers. Kylie does not have time to reflect on the situation as she has a babysitting job at the Harrison's Halloween night in Berkshire the next county over.

The Harrison's own a huge sprawling home featuring clashing elements of wood, brick and stone. Staircases, landings, closets and crawl spaces are scattered liberally throughout the home. Kylie meets junior grade school charges Phoebe (Madison Ferguson) and Sam (Christophe Gallander) who engage her in repeated games of hide and go seek until day turns to night and their nine p.m. bedtime arrives.  The film reeves up the main plot line 15 minutes later when a young boy in a pig mask appears to trick or treat while an adult sporting a similar mask stands back on the driveway. Kylie goes to give the boy candy starting events in motion.

Director Audrey Cummings presents a story that is a little different to killer comes a knocking stories of the past. There is not a house full of expected targets, the Heroine does not make a series of horror film standard ill fated moves and the goal of the villains is different as well.

The Harrison home is a character itself in the film. The home is highlighted in Kylie initial tour. It's also the driver in the early games of hide and go seek and due to its multiple levels, open concept landings and multiple designs it's a great tool for building visual tension as Kylie can be in the same spaces as her hunters but not be scene. The production, set and art direction teams did notable work on the production.  Jim McGrath takes a different approach with the music for the film.  It is more understated than the normal horror film with quick breezy up tones and lots of elements of natural sound and the main characters hide in the shadows while the stalkers roam the home.

Alysa King is believable as Kylie the naive, self doubting high schooler that could under the right circumstances step forward to handle a big situation. Madison Ferguson is also strong as Phoebe quickly grasping the severity of the situation and reacting very well for someone so young. Samora Smallwood in solid as Roberta the helpful voice on the phone that is uncannily always on the other end of Kylie's frequent calls to the police whenever her iPhone is in reach.

Berkshire County is a fresh take on the teen scream genre.  It has its signatory kills but the targets are much different that the normal booze fuelled hormonal crazed high school set. It features a heroine that you can truly root for plus villains that are not necessarily looking to kill victims on the spot.

*** out of 4.

Berkshire County | Audrey Cummings | Canada| 2014 | 83 Minutes.

Tags: Loner, New Kid, Self Loathe, Cell Phone Video, Bullying, Babysitting, Kidnapping, 911 Call, Pigs, Child Welfare.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - Vis -A- Vis

"O.K. I'm ready" followed by a punch to the face are the first images on the screen in Nevio Marasovic's Vis-A -Vis. The young director (Rakan Rushaidat) is huddled with his producer (Daria Lorenci) who has set up a meeting with a potential main actor (Janko Volaric Popovic) in between scene on the latter's popular soap.  The Main Actor sporting studio blood on his wardrobe from the above noted punch is happy to do the role but has questions about the actor playing his dad in the script. They agree to do a read as the Main Actor has to return to the set next door for his next scene.

The Director is next off to see the famous actor (Kresimir Mikic) who he had in mind when he wrote the role of the father. Their breakfast meeting does not go well.  The Famous Actor is interested but reports that the script it to long, he is not keen on a soap opera guy playing his son not to mention that they are only about three years apart. The Famous Actor is also not sold on using the island of Vis as a setting. The intimidated director tries to explain his thinking but ends up taking the advise of the famous actor to go to Vis over the new years holiday to work on the script.  As he still has to do the read the Main Actor agrees to go as well.

Writers Marasovic and Rushaidat weave a multi layered tale. The two men head to Vis Island for 3 days staying at the Director's family home on the island. While there both speak of unresolved emotional events in their lives for the first time strangely to a person they just met.  The Main Actor SMS buzzes constantly as he periodically displays his fetish for water as a tool to calm himself. They do some reading, the Director works on the scrip and the men are much closer when the retun to the mainland 4 mornings later.

Rakan Rushaidat is well suited for the Director role. He has to defend himself as this is his first film, the subject matter is personal and his resume consists of a student film and a couple of years of commercials. Janko Volaric Popovic is the surprising driver of the films as the Main Actor. He starts off arrogant yet defensive of his soap opera pedigree, then distracted by the constant SMS messages but continues to grow and evolve as the piece progresses to eventually knowing the intricate nuances of the scrip inside out as an immediate personal relationship unravels. Kresimir Mikic role is supporting as the Famous Actor. He is only in four scenes but commands them all playing the iconic veteran presence well.

Vis- A-Vis is a strongly written spirited film. The dialogue and interaction between the main characters are its strength. The production takes a jagged turn well past the three quarter pole that completely flips the direction of the original narrative but as the new turn plays out its clear that the new path is the correct course correction.  It is a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Vis -A-Vis | Nevio Marasovic | Croatia | 2013 | 81 Minutes.

Tags:  Director, Casting, Script, Actors, Producer, Vis, Re-Write, Funding, Isolation, Tito.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

European Film Festival Review - I'm an Old Communist Hag

Emilia (Luminita Gheorghiu) is a pensioner quietly living in a small Romanian community with her husband Tucu (Marian Ralea). Tucu visits the local market to obtain a few items for their apartment and for his wife's cooking while Emilia's tends to the home when she's not touring around town admonishing old men for drinking away their pension money. She often shows kindness to her former cleaning lady Maricica (Coca Bloos) who is now homeless living in a clunker car outside of Emilia's building.  One day she receives a call from her daughter Alice (Ana Ularu) announcing that she is on her way home in 10 days from North America for a visit with her American fiancee Alan (Collin Blair). The pending arrival of her daughter makes Emilia take a close look at her current situation making her realize that her stake in life was better during the Communist era under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Director Stere Gulea mixes in flashbacks with current day to show the build up to the most special moment in Emilia's life as factory foreman being chosen to shake the hand of Ceausescu  in a visit to the then thriving town factory in 1989. The flashbacks are in black and white showing Emilia joking with co-workers meeting with the plant boss about the ceremony along with receiving precise instructions on how to behave in Ceausescu's presence from Communist party officials. Security was so tight that Tucu and grade school aged Alice were not allowed on the grounds.

In the present the plant is closed, rundown and abandoned. A director is filing a documentary about 1989 August 23 celebrations called Life During Communism. The production team asked Emilia first for her Communist Party card then to appear in the film. On a visit to the set she wanders over to the plant meting a former co-worker who is acting as a security guard for the building sparking an idea in Emilia's mind.  Alice and Alan arrive under different circumstances then expected.  The financial crisis hit them directly. Alice's company pulled out of Canada moving back to the U.S while Alan's big ideas have not found a solid hold landing them on shaky ground with the bank circling around their home. Their predicament serves as another sign to Emilia that the Communist ways were more stable.  She had a guaranteed job, a freshly painted apartment, people were not sleeping on the street  plus she had hopes that Alice would become an engineer in the plant allowing her to stay at home.

Luminita Gheorghiu is the centre of the production playing Emilia. She is rooted in the old world, often an object of amusement by the younger generation due to her staunch communist values by evidence that her young relative would think of her first when the local film needed a communist party card considering that everyone else burned theirs. Emilia's response to the director as to why she did not do the same; She wanted to be ready if the Communist came back to power. Marian Ralea is well suited for the role of Tucu. He is far mellower that his wife, willing to roll with the punches that life throws his way greeting each new situation with a smile and a laugh.

I'm an Old Communist Hag is a look at two worlds pointing out the flaws in the expected good one while noting some of the positive elements of the presumed bad one.  Emilia romanticizes the past in order to cope with sparse conditions in the present. Director Gulea does balance Emilia's fervor with comments from others who have their hopes and dreams crushed under the Ceausescu regime. But in the end Emilia and Tucu take action locally that has positive effects for her daughter on the other side of the Atlantic.

*** out of 4.

I'm an Old Communist Hag | Stere Gulea | Romania | 2013 | 97 Minutes.

Tags: Communism, Nicolae Ceausescu, Financial Crisis, Homecoming, Pensioners,  August 23 Celebrations.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - The Gilded Cage

The film opens with a long take of Maria (Rita Blanco) walking along an avenue in a wealthy Paris district greeting or being greeted by everyone she meets along the way. She arrives at the multi level lodge where she is concierge in time to obtain the mail and promise the owner Madame Reichert (Nicole Croislle) that she will help prepare her prize winning flowers. Maria makes sure the twins in the upper level flat are set for school while her husband Jose (Joaquim de Almeida) helps with Monsieur Zu's (Yann Roussel) bonsai tree for free.

The Riberio's are indispensable to their community. Jose is a foreman for Caillaux construction company, his project leadership specifically requested by potential customers. When he is at home at the Lodge he acts as a handyman for all of the residence not just Mr. Zu. Rosa's sister Lourdes (Jacqueline Corado) has the dream of opening a Portuguese eatery in Paris featuring Rosa's cooking called The Two Cods. Their two children are truly French son Pedro (Alex Alves Pereira) in high school and daughter  Paula (Barbara Cabrita) out in the working world. So when Jose gets an official  package delivered to him at work declaring him the sole heir to the family vineyard back home in Portugal the couple is conflicted on what to do next.

Writer Director Ruben Alves first feature is full of smiles and laughs stemming from the sudden change of the Riberio's fortunes. The news of their windfall gets out to the community leading each of their business and family contacts to scheme to keep the couple in Paris. Jose's employer Francis Caillaux (Roland Giraud) offers a raise and an invitation to a posh dinner meeting to discuss a new shopping mall project of a perspective new client. The fact that his son Charles (Lannick Gauttry) is now dating Paula can only help to bind Jose to him. Madame Reichert finally approves the extension to the Ribeiro's tiny apartment and hires more help to reduce Maria's shores. Sister Lourdes dreams up an illness for her husband to keep her Two Cods dream alive. When the Riberio's find out whats going on they vow to turn the tables but their hearts are not in to being mean to their longtime friends.

The Ribero's are not into posh living first demonstrated when they spend a night at an upscale castle hotel a gift from their daughter Paula.  The fancy plated small portioned room service dinner with the obligatory over attentive waiter is replaced by a hearty home cooked hearty meal scooped out of a Tupperware container. The other being a dinner they host for Paula and Charles. They get far too over dressed serve a dinner similar to the one from the hotel where all the Caillaux were looking for was Portuguese cod as pointed out by Charles mother Solange (Chantal Lauby).

Rita Blanco's Maria is the central performance in the film. She is selfless knows everyone's schedule, likes and needs and is happy to put hers desires last.  Joaquim de Almeida turns in another strong performance as Jose. He left Portugal over thirty years ago after a dispute with his brother, has a picture of the family vineyard he looks at in his locker every day now he has the chance to go back he is wavering due to his loyalty to people in is adopted land.  The film has several strong supporting roles but two rank above the others.  Maria Vieira comedic turn as Rosa is the source of many a laugh in the film. She is the Caillaux housekeeper and they are all afraid of her. She is a close confidant of Maria and Lourdes and the source of the widespread leak of the Riberio's windfall. She also helps Solange Caillaux with some Portuguese phrases ahead of the dinner at the Riberio's which Solange augments with semi facts from Wikepedia. Chantal Lauby as Solange is the other supporting comedic performance in that need of mentioning. Her half true lines at the dinner party are perfectly timed. They are only surpassed with her dressing down of Ms. Reichert when she comes looking for Jose to fix a leaky toilet during the dinner.

The Gilded Cage presents a subject relatively overlooked in cinema before.  The plight of Portuguese immigrants that moved to France during the dictatorship years to start families. Their children are French with little to no Portuguese is  spoken in the household. The parents toil in manual labour jobs without much status. Director Alves does a superior job of presenting the material for a film that is as advertised a light comedic romp.

*** out of 4.

The Gilded Cage | Ruben Alves | France | 2013 | 90 Minutes.

Tags; Immigrants, inheritance, Winery, Concierge, Foreman, Dinner Party, Portugal.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - How to Steal A Wife.

Donatas Ulvydas' How to Steal a Wife resembles a stage play. All but two of the scenes take place in one apartment. The production uses miniature models as a device to break up the scenes, show activity outside of the apartment and to transition from day to night.

Ramutis (Ramunas Cicenas) is a school principal meeting the morning the day after an anniversary dinner with his wife Laima (Rimante Valiukaite). She is very happy with the prior nights events but Ramutis is glued to news on his iPhone. He soon comes across a story that changes his mood.  Laima's ex husband Vidas (Giedrius Sayickas) has been released from prison 3 years into his six year sentence declared innocent by the courts. Vidas a banker was sent to prison accused of steeling 300 million litas. It's the lead story on the evening news cameras flashing around him as he leaves prison. Ramutis is very agitated as he married Laima after Vidas went to prison  thinning he may want revenge.  he opens the front door to run only to find Vidas  in the doorway. He is home with no plans to leave as he has now where to go and feels entitled to one half of the apartment.

Writer Jonas Banys spins a fast paced dialogue focused tale. The script features rapid fire bantering amongst the three main players one line building on the next hurdling to a rewarding payoff. Vidas opening monologue on how he ended up with a specific matters while in prison sets the tone for the verbal Olympics to come.

Although also excels with the quiet moments mainly during scenes as they prepare food where the dialogue is sparse. Another memorable exchange high on the visual aspect occurs when Vidas' new girlfriend (Inga Jankauskaite)appears at the apartment quickly taking over the task of ironing a pair of men's trousers to impress.

Rimante Valiukaite is memorable as Laima as she ping pongs back and forth between Ramutis and Vidas. She takes verbal sparring to an art form and in the rear instant she may be loosing an argument throws out the last jab before exiting the scene.  Giedrius Sayickas is also strong as ex-banker Vidas. The viewer is never sure of his intentions. Did he steal the money or not? Does he know that his new girlfriend had a history with Ramutis? Is he still interested in Laima or has he moved on? Ramunas Cicenas plays off the other two very well. Sometimes he is allied with his wife and wants Vidas out of the apartment while at other times the two men are best buddies.  All the time he is trying to determine the truth about the money tapping on walls with a hammer and questioning Vidas when he senses a weakness or that he is in his confidence.

How to Steal a Wife is a dialogue driven piece that plays much larger that it's confined set. The production team used their imaginations to bring this story to the screen as an independent production. It is a film that I can recommend.

How to Steal A Wife | Donatas Ulvydas | Lithuania | 2013 | 86 Minutes.

Tags : Love, Marriage, Divorce, Prison, Embezzling, Innocent, Money, Happiness.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - Flowers From the Mount of Olives

When we first see Mother Ksenya she is walking towards the camera from a distance twisting her wrist ball striking alternately on a block of wood as she approaches. She has achieved every step she can in the Monastery except one the Great Schema a vow of silence but the Mother Abbess does not think she is ready. Ksenya will take it if it comes but in the meantime she will carry out her duties at the Convent. She would not mind taking a vow of silence as she does not want to speak to many people anyways and does not know many of the newer nuns.  Your first impression is that you are viewing a kind old woman who has been quietly devoted to the church for decades. That is until she begins to tell her story.

As the decision on the final step approaches director Heilika Pikkov is permitted to have unique access to the convent and speak to  Ksenya about her life and capture daily life at the Convent.  They start from the beginning Ksenya's birth in Estonia in 1928, pictures present on screen showing her soon after birth and her patents as young adults.  She did not have many friends as a child and her memory of her parent's marriage was them fighting all the time. Her father had a moment of indiscretion that inspired her mother to turn her against her father. The attempt did not work even when her mother left for another man taking her with her. She always excelled at school and was at the top of her class with early plans to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer.

The narrative film flips back and forth from Ksenya telling her life story to the every day activities in the monastery. Pikkov's lens captures a postrig sacrament as a novice becomes a nun receiving her habit for the first time, the nuns fussing over the precise positions for golden standing candlesticks, and a group of nuns in the kitchen kneading bread to make loafs and buns. Another sequence focuses on a num preparing to sound the bell for morning prayers. She does not just swing the clapper against the inside of the bell instead she works it back and forth closer and closer before it begins to strike.Yet another documents the olive harvesting process.

Ksenya continues her tale seated on the ground with a shoebox filled with old photos. She begins to sort though photos of former boyfriends and pauses longer when she gets to each of her  three prior husbands. She tells of her time while still in school she became a translator for the Germans during the Second World War.  She was on hand when the raided farms, carried a gun and was seen by some as a traitor to her country. But it was through this position that she was able to escape first to Latvia and then to freedom after the war.

The daily life at the monastery is filled with regular chores in particular taking care of plants.  The Convent has a reputation in the area and people bring all of their sick plants to them for rehabilitation.  Ksenya calls it their magic soil and once planted the plant is healthy again in a couple of days. During one scene She maliciously presses blossoms into a book with painstakingly slow accuracy. The nuns are often twisting, turning and manoeuvring loss stalks into different shapes and forms.

We do get some details on her former husbands.  The first marriage was to a German at 18, the next to Enn who helped her recovery from an addiction and she followed to Australia. The third to a fellow academic when she worked as an Oncologist in Australia their union lasting 23 years.

Until approved for her last step Mother Ksenya now at 83 years old will continue her duties of service. She has 400 people that she prays for regularly and her duties include giving both religious and psychological advise. With the many places she has lived and spend significant time she is easily able to communicate in multiple languages. In Australia as she was approaching 50 she felt a calling to the church beginning to spend more time in the spiritual world and less in the secular one until her new Spiritual Father told her it was time to take her vows. When her Spiritual Father moved to the Russian Orthodox Convent outside of Jerusalem she followed. Her next step will be the final one of monastic life . If she does not get permissions she will continue along with her formal duties, gardening, pressing flowers and taking care of her family of turtles Markus, Lisa and Versa. If she does this film will serve as a compelling account as any of the last telling of the story of their life.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Flowers From the Mount of Olives | Heilika Pikkov | Estonia | 2013 | 69 Minutes.

Tags; Vows, Nazi Occupation, Turtles, Divorce, Travel,

Monday, November 17, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review- West

The setting is East Berlin winter 1975. A woman and child exit a building make snowballs and take up post as the side of the door. A man exits the door and is pelted by the other two. He goes after the child laughingly but soon has to leave giving the child his sweater to help keep warm.

The story jumps ahead three months the woman again emerges from the same door with the child this time with their luggage packed as they hop into a waiting car and head toward the checkpoint for West Berlin. It's at the crossing where Nelly (Jordis Triebel) experiences the first instant of interrogation on her trip. Her son Alexej (Tristan Gobel) has to go to the bathroom taken there by a solider.  Nelly is next removed from the car then forced to undress and remove her jewellery in a small room. When she returns Alexej is back in the vehicle and they cross to the West. Now on the other side the pair are dropped off at the West Berlin Refugee centre. Nelly is given some money, credit for 7 days worth of meals and a room with a set of bunk beds for her and Alexej in Block B. She is also given a card with twelve spots that she has to get stamped in order to become a citizen of the West enabling her to get a full time job and a place to live outside of the Centre.

Based on a self biographical novel by Julia Franck  director Christian Schwochow weaves a tale that shows that forces on both sides of the Cold War  benefitted when people lived in fear. Nelly has to answer questions from the Allied Security Services to earn one of the stamps. When she is asked day after day by CIA agent John Bird (Jacky Ido) why she came to the West she answers to avoid treatment similar to what she is currently enduring.  It appears that officials on both sides of the wall are working the theory that Alexej's father Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek) a leading Russian Physicist and possible Stasi informant did not die three years go as believed but instead disappeared or defected and is now living anonymously in the West. This theory leads Nelly to believe both sides are watching her. Rumours of Stasi informants in the camp also get her guard up. The whisper of information effects everyone in the Centre especially Hans (Alexander Scheer) who befriends Alexej but is shunned and abused by other residents having been branded with the rat tag.

At first Nelly fights the interrogations and physical prodding but eventually realised cooperation is the best way to earn the stamps for their freedom.  However her paranoia continued to mount as evidenced by a complete meltdown when Alexej leaves her a surprise gift in the apartment that she is sure was placed in her home by someone who broke in with bad intentions.

The film is rewarded with an excellent performance by Jordis Triebel in the lead role of Nelly. She brings the viewer right back to the high tension of a time in the not too distant past from her original  overreaction to her son being taken to the washroom at the border as an act meant to separate them. In one moment she is defiant with the officials and security forces the next friendly and if it serves her purposes willing to use her female charms to achieve a goal.

Christian Schwochow brings to the screen a story set in a clandestant time that appears to have been very long ago. Much of the scenes in the interrogation room at the border, the Centre apartment hallways and inside the apartments themselves are dark perhaps a sign of the expected fate of many of the residence. It's an effective telling of an under explored subject and well worth the watch.

*** Out of 4.

West | Christian Schwochow | Germany | 2014 | 102 Minutes.

Tags: DDR, Stasi, Refuge Centre, Secret Service, Paranoia, Spy, Citizenship,

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Real Asian Film Festival Review- Monsoon Shoutout

A rookie cop stands in the alley in a downpour his prey Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) pauses halfway over a fence about to escape. Gun raised Adi (Vijay Varma) has to decide to continue the chase, shoot to wound or use deadly force.  This is the key instant in Amit Kumar's Monsoon Shoutout.  The film explores this moment in time from several angles for the duration of the film.

Mumbai is under the grips of hit men extorting builders in the city.  It's the work of the Slumlord through his main hit man the Axe Murderer. The day before Adi's standoff a builder is ambushed in broad daylight. The road blocked in by an ox cart and a blind beggar.  Once the builder's vehicle is boxed in the rear doors open putting the builder face to face with the axe murderer who based on Crime Squad intel may or may not be the man Adi has in his crosshairs a night later.

In the first version, Adi continues the chase. Shiva gets away and turns out he is the axe murder. Shiva continues his violent rampage leading Adi to desk work removed from the Crime Squad by his boss Khan (Neeraj Kabi) who doesn't mind fracturing a few rules to get to the end result. His non action also leads to Shiva's violent act of revenge on a person close to Adi that jolts us back to the rain soaked alley for version two.

For round two Adi uses deadly force which has a devastating effect on Shiva wife Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee) son Chhotu (Ferhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh) and Adi himself. Adi is not sure if Shiva was the correct target.  When he goes to pay his respects at Shiva's viewing he is chased off by Rani and Chhotu.  He is wounded when he retreats leading him to a hospital where he is treated by a former flame Anu (Geetanjali Thapa).

Adi wounds Shiva in the third sequence forcing Shiva him to turn States witness leading to a cat and mouse game as they try to get him to court. Adi is greeted as a hero he re establishes his relationship with Anu but a mishap in the courthouse leads to dire consequences for a member of the Crime Squad. Adi seeks revenge on the perpetrators adopting Khan like methods to settle the score.

Vijay Varma is favourable in the role as the wide eyed moralistic rookie cop. He is willing to confront his immediate superior Khan always striving to do the right thing. Nawazuddin Siddiqui turns in another superior performance as Shiva. He is menacing and ruthless in one instant, tender and loving with his son Chhotu the next then volatile with his wife Rani the next moment. Siddiqui is particularly strong in the third sequence as he plays naive under questioning while in custody always working on a plan while appearing to turn States witness. Tannishtha Chatterjee is also memorable as Shiva's wife Rani. She builds to a blind range towards Adi and the police in the deadly force version shouting that her husband only works with clay only to be at the Slumlord's door the next moment demanding satisfaction for the work her husband did for his organization.  In story one she plays off her violent husband while hoping to keep her son Chhotu from following in his footsteps.

Monsoon Shootout is a cop film with a twist. It starts with a choice that effects a group of people on both sides of the law. Amit Kumar directs the action back to that moment several times in the film but the cast seems to get to several of the same places each time despite the change in the jumping off point.

**1/2 Out of 4.

Monsoon Shootout | Amit Kumar | India / U.K. | 2014.

Tags: Crime, Cops, Corruption, Rookie Officer, Monsoon Rain, Mumbai, Non Linear, Choices.

Friday, November 14, 2014

European Union Film Festival Review - Fasten Your Seatbelts

When we first meet Elena (Kasia Smutniak) she is working in a cafe in picturesque Southern Italy. He best friend Fabio ( Filippo Scicchitano) toils alongside her as both dream of opening their own place.  He next closet friend Sylvia ( Carolina Crescentini) is late again, Fabio her roommate reveals that she's dating someone new who's keeping her busy. A few days later at a nigh time event Sylvia brings her mechanic boyfriend Antonio (Francesco Arca) who Elena had met and beefed with before. Antonio is loud, homophobic and a man for a few but mainly curse words. Elena has more reasons not to like him as they are complete opposites. Meanwhile Fabio has found a location for their joint venture that Elena also likes and they persuade her fiancee Georgio (Francesco Scianna) to invest in the venture. Antonio then begins to appear regularly at the cafe when Sylvia is not there. Elena is the new target of his gaze. She is attracted to him as well despite their differences their encounters on occasion leaving her heaving and rooted to one spot.

The story jumps ahead 13 years and the joint venture The Gas Station is the hotspot in town. Elena returns home after a successful 13th Anniversary party to her two young children Guela and Giovanni. Her mom Anna (Carla Signoris) and offbeat Auntie (Elena Sofia Rici) are also present at home. She notices a mess of empty liquor bottles, heads to the bedroom to find her Husband Antonio now a little heavier then our last viewing, passed out in bed. She begins to scold him but he turns amorous causing Elena to drop her argument.

Director Ferzan Ozpetek has talent for displaying complicated relationship to the screen as in his earlier works Facing Window and the volatile A Perfect Day. Elena and Antonio both know that their relationship is based on the physical. He barley speaks to her, spends all their money as Elena works countless hours at the eatery and can't be counted on to take their daughter Guela to and from an event. Another Ozpetek knack is working intelligently with chid actors as evidenced by Guela who is perhaps the smartest and most perceptive character in the story. Another strength is letting the actors show their emotions through body language and facial expression not weighing every scene down with too much dialogue.

The story has a few more twist to reveal one is grim and dominates most of the third and forth acts serving to bring Antonio and Elena closer together reminiscent of the early days of their relationship. The another in a flashback that lightens the mood that first appears to be a discussion about one subject between friends over lunch but takes a 180 degree turn.

Fasten your Seatbelts is an old time heavily dramatic story that would easily have been at home with Italian cinema in the fifties or Sixties. If you are a fan of this classic era then you'll enjoy this Ozpetek offering.

** 1/2 Out of 4.

Fasten Your Seatbelts | Ferzan Ozpetek | Italy | 2014 | 110 Minutes.

Tags: Drama , Comedy, Opposites Attract, Flash Forward, Puglia, Family, Life's Turbulence.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Reel Asian Film Festival Review - Fandry

A young boy moves though the woods with a purpose slingshot in hand.  He approaches a tree and shoots. His target a black sparrow flies away unharmed the boy Jabya (Somnath Awghade) is not pleased and heads home to his makeshift home on the outskirts of a small village in rural Maharashta. He tells his mother he does not want to work tomorrow as he has just missed three days of school.  That evening after obtaining his missed lessons from another classmate he studies by kerosene lamp while the rest of his family sleeps on the dirt floor of his home.

Jabya's family is of the lower cast Kaikadi (untouchable Dalit) moreover they live outside of the city boundaries and are the only family of that caste near the village. The family is very poor having to do the jobs that no one else wants to do in town including corralling wild fan dry (pigs). Pigs are consiered unholy and bad luck if touched because they eat dirt and waste.pigs   Jabya also has  a crush on Shalu (Rajeshwari Kharat) steeling glances whenever he can however she is rich and in a higher caste. His immediate source of frustration is his father Kachru (Kishore Kadam) who thinks Jabya is wasting his time with school and he acts better than he is not wanting to do manual labour tasks the family needs to do to survive.

Writer - director Nagraj Manjule brings a story to the screen meant to pull the caste system out of the darkness in India. Jabya is very hard working and hopeful despite his status in life but due to his rank in Indian society will not get ahead.  He will have to work when others go to school or are enjoying themselves at the Village Fair. He is so desperate that he puts his hope in a town superstition that catching a black sparrow, burning it for its ashes and spreading those ashes on his intended target Shalu will hypnotize her them getting her to do his bidding.

The production features some very touching scenes between Jabya and his friend Pirya (Suraj Pawar) as they spend their time in the woods and desert area outside of town chasing after the black sparrow and discussion the things that teenage boys do: girls and looking go to get girls. The extent of the his families poverty is visited again and again from having to beg for water from neighbours to being chased off by a farmer for steeling thin branches for wood to negotiating for the smallest of dowries ahead of their second daughters engagement then not having the money to satisfy that small dowry.

Sommanth Avghade is well cast as Jabya. He is very believable as the hopeful dreamer despite his lot in life. He also performs well in the instances where the burden of his social standings become too much for him to bear forcing him to embarrassingly hide from his classmates when performing menial tasks. Kiskor Kadam is memorable as his dad Karchu. He is basically the town gopher as he goes from business to business hat in hand asking if there is any work he can do for a few Rupees and if not can a few Rupees be spared anyways.

Fandry is an important film that news to be scene and discussed. It hones in on the fact that more news to be done for the poor especially their children so they can have a fair shot to obtain an education. Director Manjule tackles a controversial subject with a sharp eye and a quick wit.  It's a film I highly recommend.

**** Out of 4.

Fandry | Nagraj Manjule | India | 2013 | 101 Minutes.

Tags: Poverty, Caste System, Dreamer,  First Love, Superstition, Pigs, Village Fair.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reel Asian Film Festival Review - Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits

A child is born in the northern part of Korea in 1931. The child's dad shouts from another room asking if it's a boy or a girl. Another girl is the respond to which the dad request that the baby be turned face down on the bed. The baby Kim Geum- Hwa survives, her first of many brushes with death in her life.  As a young girl Kim (Kim-Sae-Ron) begins to experience possession by spirits often telling other children about impending doom in their families. Fathers were gong to die young; siblings were going to become ill, until the other parents forbid their children from playing with her.

She was then married off at 14 to avoid being a conform women during the Japanese occupation where she suffered abuse by her mother in law and ventured toward starvation. After three years she left returning to her parents. Three years later now 17 she completed her initiation ritual a Narim Gut her dreams vibrant Kim Geum Hwa now (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung) and accepted multiple spirits too many according to her Grandmother a Manshin herself who conducted her ceremony. Soon after the Korean War broke out during which Kim Guem -Hwa performed some rituals in private for soldiers and their families always being at risk from soldiers on all sides of the war.

Her next period of peril occurred during the New Community Movement in the Seventies. As it had been during the Japanese occupation and the War a renewed effort sprung up to dispel superstition Kim Geum- Hwa now (Moon So- Ri) served as an easy target with her bright outfits, chanting, ritual dialogue and banging symbols. She did not find a sense of piece until the 1980s with the students started anti government activities against then president Chun Doo-hwan. She now appeared on television, thousands attended her public Guts in public places,  the government recruited her to perform healing guts after major disasters and in 1985 she was declared an Intangible Cultural Asset.

Writer Director Park Chan-kyong uses all manner of visual styles to bring the story to the screen. The film works partly as a biopic with the three actors playing Kim Geum-Hwa the at various stages. Historical and new footage of Kim Geum- Hwa appears along with several television interviews from the 80's, 90's and the millennium. One brilliant passage shows a Manshin on a Boat Gut created for the film mixed in with footage of the same Gut 20 years ago. Kim Geum-Hwa staging of both are identical. The director also mixes in animation, stop action and claymation to depict different stories from the Manshin life.

The Korean people have a love/hate relationship with the spiritual healers. Intellectually and officially they see it as silly chanting, banging of symbols and waiving of fans.  But privately if they are moving into a new home or have concerns for  a family member they will seek out a shaman to perform the appropriate Gut ceremony.

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits is a well crafted presentation of the life of a strong and benevolent woman. Kim Geum Hwa is willing to take on peoples pain, help people heal after tragic events and set the stage for good fortune for everyday endeavours.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits | Chan-Kyong Park | South Korea| 2013 104 Minutes.

Tags: Biopic, Documentary, Japanese Occupation, New Community Movement, Gut- ceremony, Intangible Cultural Asset.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Planet In Focus Film Review- Vive La France

Residences on the French Polynesian Island of Tureia shout Vive La France in jest. The are not saying it wishing the best for the Fatherland but instead sarcastically given all the broken promises fed to them from the French government dating back to a 1966 speech by Charles de Gaulle where he promised that the arrival of the French Army to nearby Mururoa to be good for the Polynesians and signal the start of new prosperity for the residents or a magnificent future as de Gaulle put it himself.

Directors Helgi Felixon and Titti Johnson look at the consequences of the French arriving to commence atomic testing in the mid sixties and the effect on the islands and the residence that is still evident today. The film opens with Kua and Teariki commenting on how where they live is a simple paradise.  They are planning to get married but have some concurs about the health of their young son. The population of the island is 320 they fish, collect coconuts and live off the land. In the opening sequence Teariki is riding a bike beside the bed of a pick up. He has one had on the truck while his other is outstretched as the island breeze passes over him. It's as if he is flying with not a care in the world.

Between 1966 and 1996 the French government conducted 193 nuclear tests in Polynesia. Researcher Bruno Barrillot comments that Tureia has witnessed 39 fallouts. It's not just a one time occurrence. Each fallout takes about 7 days to clear the area so the 39 fallouts can be multiplied by 7. The radiation from which goes into the water, rain, soil, vegetation, algae, animals and fruit that the Islanders consume.  The neighbouring island Muroroawhere some of Tureia's older generation were born is off limits to the Islanders. It is the location of the French Military base leaving the residents reliant on the French's word that its' O.K.

Another scientist Roland Desborde from Criirad sees the situation as worse. Each atmospheric test creates a plume at 10-15,000 feet. Accurately pinpointing how long it takes to leave the area is a difficult task. The conversation turns grim as Barrillot tours the village asking different households the status of their relatives. He receives a lot of responses that brothers, Aunts and parents are dead or deceased.  He also gets a laundry list of cancers suffered by the Island inhabitants. Maro,Teariki's father who has just had throat surgery comments that no one new of cancer at all before the French military arrived in 1965 then within a couple of years the residents started to develop tumours.

The French government were able to do their testing in Polynesia because it was a French protectorate and not an independent country. The French Administrator still comes once a year to advise of the budget for the Island. The first independent sign of a problem came from the Americans when on the island they checked the children teeth to find high levels of radiation exposure.  After the findings they switched to underwater testing that has left a legacy of a weakened Mururoa Atoll that could collapse and lead to a radioactive tsunami with Tureia directly it's path 100 kilometres away .

Felixon & Johnson's production does what a documentary is supposed to do. Present information about a topic  that may not be in the public eye to spark conversation, debate and hopefully action. As one scientist puts it  Nuclear testing is a crime committed in the present with ramifications well into the future. There is 2 to 3 tonnes of plutonium in the area, two meter cracks are visible from the shot in Mururoa's reef and it will take multiple thousands of years for the area to be completely free of nuclear waste. However as Kua and Teariki continue to move towards their wedding on Tureia the resilient Islanders show that life still goes on.

*** 1/2 Out of 4

Vive La France | Helgi Felixon & Titti Johnson | French Polynesia / France \  Sweden /  Norway, Iceland / Finland | 2014 | 82 Minutes.

Tags: Documentary,  Tahiti, Charles de Gaulle, Nuclear Testing, Cancer, Crime, Protectorate.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Planet In Focus Film Review - Soul Food Stories

The film opens with a rant from one of the Village Elders. Everything bad comes from TV he declares. It leads to women wanting to be independent, a lower birthrate and bad ideas from Bulgaria's Capital Sofia. Soul Food Stories is set in the village of Satovcha boasting a population just north of 2000 inhabitants. Activities of the villagers appear to be split along gender lines.  The men sit around tables in the pensioners social club discussing freely politics, religion, women and even homosexuality while the women occupy the village kitchens spending multiple hours making the local staple a flour full banista talking about men, family especially lamenting the fact that all of the young people so quickly move away. The town features many religions, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Evangelical Gypsies plus Atheist Communists holdovers. They all coexist with food being the common bond. The timing of the production also benefits from the appearance of a Finnish couple who have come to Satovcha's to have observe the towns multi cultural make up.

At the opening of the film the towns Muslims are at the end of a 30 days Fast however some of the men were not so adherent leading to a reminder from the women that ending up in Hell is a real consequences of not taking the Fast seriously.

Director Tonislav Hristov spends time with each section of the town. He delves into the history through a couple of interviews with the two oldest men in town one Orthodox, the other Muslim who were there when the Germans and then the Soviets rolled in the 40's The Muslim elder statesmen  is almost brought to tears as he recounts how he had to hide his religion and was forced to change is name to avoid severe repercussions from the new Soviet regime. They both lament that their wives are gone along with everyone else they new as they tell their stories to the crew.

When a younger member of the community dies Hristov captures the funeral march with one remarkable stationary camera long shot. The lens catching the march of the townsmen (as according to the Imam women are too hysterical therefore not allowed at the funeral) as they walk around a bend, pallbearers constantly switching the group growing in size breath as they approach and then pass the camera location.

The most curious couple in town is a Korean Evangelical minister and his wife. Hristov shows a service in their church where they attract a lukewarm following amongst the Roma population. They are constantly filming and documenting taking pictures of the congregation and recording a Roma christening. The production interviews them at where they comment on their role as Missionaries while preparing a traditional Korean meal.

The biggest talking point in the film is a request from the women to have a second day in the pensioners social club. The request is cause for much concern amongst the elders as they sit and discuss the ramifications with Hristov camera catching every word. It's another salvo in the push and pull between the sexes in the village.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Soul Food Stories | Tonislav Hristov | Bulgaria / Finland | 2014| 69 Minutes.

Tags: Religion, Worship, Missionaries, Orthodox, Muslim, Roma, Communist, Banista.

Reel Asian Film Review - Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

The Central Market is and always has been the heartbeat of Cambodia's largest City Phnom Phenh. It's where people gather to meet, do their shopping and is a constant buzz of activity. The Market is so vital that it is presented as a character in John Pirozzi documentary on Cambodian music. Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll  which is more of a historical journey of the country rather than a documentary on Rock and Roll.

Director Pirozzi starts his narrative back with the handover of Cambodia from the French to its people in 1953. The Royal Family was very much involved in music and the arts. The Queen ran the Royal ballet and the King played Saxophone. The Arts were encouraged and music developed just like it did any other place in the world. The first major star in a Frank Sinatra mould was Sinn Sisamouth.  He emerged in the late 50's and constantly adapted to the style of the day.

In the 10 year period after Independence, Cambodia's music industry hit its stride.  Following Sisamouth guitar bands started to emerge lead by Baksei then the Bayon Band formed by an ex Bakesi member and later Drakkar. They would play power chords the same as any British or American band sing to the same rhythm but in Khmer instead of English.  Cambodian bands would see the western acts on TV then copy their moves, choreography and style of dress.

Cambodia had its chanteuses as well their songs were mostly sad as they were mainly about break ups, deception and despair. The most popular being Ros Serey Sothea who teamed up with Sinn Sisamouth in the 60's to form a power duo. Not far behind were Pen Ran and Houy Meas who had a very popular show on National Radio then as the 60's turned to the 70's Pou Vannary. The bad boy rebel singer role was filled by Yol Ailarong who sarcastically sang about being a good student and ballads about the popular mode of transportation the cyclo.

Events started to change in the early 70's.  The Vietnam War was raging next door and Cambodia tired to say neutral between both sides. But when the North Vietnamese entered the northern region of the country U.S. President Nixon laid out a plan to stop the advancement of Communism 1973. A bombing campaign of a neutral country that lasted for 200 straight days and lead rural Cambodians into the waiting arms of the surging Communist Khmer Rouge. Two years later on April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge let by Pol Pot rolled into Phnom Penh and immediately began to dismantle urban society and anything Western emptying the city sending everyone to the countryside to work in the rice fields. Their reign lasted until a more moderate Vietnamese force took over in January 1979 but by then many of the leading artist from the 60's had been executed or killed on the forced march to the countryside in the end more than 2,000,000 citizens were dead. Many families with 8 or 12 members before the take over were down to 1 or 2 after.

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll is an account of Cambodia's history from the end of colonist through to modern day. Pirozzi film features footage from the golden era of the 60's that had not been seen in the country or know by the current generation. The main group of artists are still popular today and their recordings are prominent in every music outlet.
It is a film I can recommend.

*** out of 4.

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll | John Priozzi | U.S.A. / Cambodia /  France | 2014 | 105 Minutes.

Tags; Documentary, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Afro-Cuban, Cha Cha Cha, Go- Go, Power Chords, Richard Nixon, Vietnam, Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot.

Reel Asian Film Festival Review - Mourning Grave

After a childhood incident In-su (Kang Ha-neul) left his rural hometown for United States to study but had returned home to Seoul as the film opens. In-su has a knack for seeing ghosts who often ask him for help to settle grudges in order to move from this world to the next. His Uncle Sun-il (Kim jung-tae) who also has this ability feels his nephew should ignore them and they will leave him alone.

In-su decides to go back to his hometown to live with his Uncle. Shortly after his arrival he  in the encounters a young female ghost (Kim So-Eun) who does not want any favours for her company. Life in the rural school is difficult the power clique lead by Hyun-ji (Han Hye Rin ) and her boyfriend Hae -chul (Park Doo-sik) terrorize everyone in the class picking on the weaker students while the other in the middle remain silent happy that their attention is not on them.

Soon the members of the clique begin to disappear one by one and the rumour around school is that a killer known as The Mask is preying on the students. In-su continues to keep company with the mysterious ghost their budding romance adds an element of both tenderness and comedy. One particularly poignant exchange occurs as In-su is studying in his room. He knows that her new friend is present but everytime he looks where she's at she disappears and moves to another location frustrating In-su.

Director Oh In-Chun delivers a horror film for those that prefer subtle scares. The piece has its bumps and jolts but never becomes overly graphic. A bloody palm glass strike is about as macabre as it gets. Instead the focus is on the evils of bullying especially that being neutral or ignoring someone else being bullied makes you just as guilty of the act as those directly involved.

Kang Ha Neul is very strong as the male lead In-Su. He is in about every frame of the film, has to play opposite someone that no one else can see in addition to ranging from being meek to standing up against the clique to confronting the Mask. Kim So-Eun is equally as good as the female student ghost. She doesn't know her name, cannot remember what happened to her plus although she knows that she is dead she has to be believable as her feelings develop for In-su. Kim Jung Tae is an excellent source of comic relief as In-su's agoraphobic Uncle.

Oh In-Chun hit his mark with the plan for this film. It's not too violent to make it a genre film allowing its anti-bullying message access to a wider audience. The film is wittier and muter than expected.  It's a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Mourning Grave | Oh In- Chun | South Korea | 2014 | 90 Minutes.

Tags: Ghosts, Visions, Bullying, Grudge, Revenge, Childhood Trauma, Agoraphobia.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Reel Asian Film Festival Review - 9-Man

It's the original jungle ball exclaims one player towards the start of Ursula Liang's Documentary film 9-Man. Bobby Guen the coach of the legendary Boston Nights states that other forms of Volleyball is wussy ball although well know the Knights have not one the annually Labour Title for 42 years. Guen day job is as a Dentist in Boston. He explains that when he was growing up he and other younger members of his community had no heroes. All of the dads worked long hours either in a laundry or a restaurant therefore all you saw them do was work.

9-Man is a game similar yet different to 6 player volleyball that has it's roots in Taishan, China. In Taishan its played on a dirt court. In North America the game originated in Chinatowns in the 30's thereof it was played on the available surfaces, city streets, parking lots, tennis  or basketball courts and later in gyms. One player notes that 9-Man battle scars consist of rocks in your elbows and knees.  Because of the extra three players the court is larger.  The players don't rotate and if you hit the ball off the net its gets you a 4th hit on your side. Then there are the three controversial content rules. 6 of the players have to be 100% East Asian, the other three part Asians and no women are allowed.

Director Liang film focuses on one year in the life of the game centering on a few leading teams as they prepare and build up to the Labour Day weekend championship. Bobby Guen's afore mentioned Boston Knights, Washington CYA featuring star player Patrick 2E Chin and coached by is brother Richard.  Boston Stonemasons who are labled as uncoachable personified by the hard living and playing Ty Hua and Toronto Connex known as the evil empire from the north having won 11 of the past 14 events anchored by their leader professional Volleyball player Jeff Chung.  Liang's camera follows the teams to practice, home and is even present during a Monsoon at a Washington CYA event.

Liang and Editor Michelle Chang use excellent techniques to interweave the history of the sport and rules into the story.  They present a combination of animation, still photos and lively graphics to show the essence and origins of the game. The seeds date back to the 1930's when the fall out from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was that there were no new Chinese coming to America and those that were present were predominately male and fragmented. To preserve their culture they assembled into Chinatowns and started to play 9-man as their only recreational outlet. Because on Labour Day weekend it was only $2.00 to take the train from Boston to New York the tournament was born with Providence added as the third city. To contrast the tournament featured in the film had a $100,000 budget to spend.

The focus shifts to the actual sporting event when the 53 team Labour day tournament arrives weekend . We see the now familiar faces and teams that have been featured in the film arrive along with San Francisco Westcoast a team of admitted 9- Man and Beach ringers led by U.S. Olympic Team veteran Kevin Wong. The proceedings turn real with a brawl at the pre-tournament banquet.  Liang's Sports journalism background comes to the fore as the games take centre stage.  Multi Camera angles, well timed close ups and post game emotions are all captured by the crew.

9-Man is a well researched and presented study of a sport that is heavily entwined with the culture of the Chinese community. Many participants have long since moved away from their East Asian roots and the game is the only way they keep a part of their family heritage. Ursula Liang presents the material is a raw and surprisingly funny way. It is a film I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2  Out of 4

9-Man | Ursula Liang | U.S.A. /China / Canada | 2014 | 87 Minutes.

Tags : Documentary, History, Content Rule, Volleyball, Chinatown, Chinese Exclusion Act | NACIVT, Labour Day Weekend , New York Mini.