Saturday, December 31, 2016

Film Review - Elle

Underneath the opening credits the audience hears the sounds of glasses and dishes breaking followed by screams and signs of an obvious struggle.  Paul Verhoeven's frame settles on a black cat then shifts to an ongoing rape ending with the accoster fleeing from the scene. The victim Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) picks herself up, cleans up the mess then goes on about her evening as if the event never occurred.

The next day she arrives at work where her gaming company is behind schedule on a major game release. Michelle reads the riot act pushing for the game to be more violent, more graphic, more explicit gaining praise from most of her programmers. She returns home greeting her neighbours Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) and Rebecca (Virgine Efira) who are working on their Christmas decorations. Her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who's being dominated by his manipulative girlfriend drops by for a visit looking for money for an apartment for the pair and soon to be born child of questionable lineage.

Director Paul Verhoeven takes the Philippe Djian novel and cranks up the perversity meter to fourteen with his first foray into French language filmmaking. Huppert is not a participant but rather the driver of the twisted action as she is in control in every relationship despite how it may appear some times on screen. The narrative's other subplot involving Michele's father explains our heroine's reluctance to trust the police or go them to report the assault. The piece lays out multiple complex relationships for Michele that Huppert navigates smartly.

After her attacker begins to stalk her wanting more contact; Michelle goes to a hardware store making purchases to protect herself leading to the most comedic scene in the film where her ex husband suffers the wrath of the new found defensive measures. Back at work the game progresses slowly leading to confrontations with her staff. As her mother pushes her to attend a major upcoming legal event for her father. While her son seems to be entangled with a woman that's an unappreciative bully while he works a minimum wage job to support a child bearing no resemblance.

Isabelle Huppert once again shows her mastery of the craft and a willingness to tackle the most challenging roles. Her work is physical, emotional and psychological shifting throughout the film. Judith Magre is very strong as Michele mother Irene. She is desperately trying to hang on to the last embers of youth spending time with men that Michele fears she may be paying for thier company.

Elle is a psychological thriller that is worthy of a capital P and a capital T. Verhoeven camera does not flinch at the violent exchanged but instead leads audience in closer for a better view. The story is nimbly paced featuring enough twist to through the viewer off track of the assailant but not to many to make the narrative seem staged. It's a unique production featuring one of the greatest actors working today making it a film despite its graphic depictions at times well worth the watch.

**** Out of 4

Elle | Paul Verhoeven | France/ Germany/ Belgium | 2016 | 130 Minutes.

Tags: Rape, Gaming, Violence, Pregnancy, Prison, Bail Hearing, Dinner Party, Stroke, Coma, Midnight Mass, Nativity Scene.

Film Review - Hidden Figures

A green broken down Chevy Impala sits at the side of the road, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is perched below trying to get the car to start as a local police officer pulls up to access the situation. Once the women show him their NASA badges he provides an escort to Langley after Dorothy completes a quick fix on the car. The women Dorothy, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) are human computers. They work in cramped quarters in an outbuilding basement on the NASA labeled the Coloured Computing Group. The calculate manually the geometry to project the launch and landing for the Mercury 7 astronauts. The Americans are in a race with the Soviet Union who have put Sputnik into orbit and are close to doing a manned mission into space.

Director Theodor Melfi tells an important story however the screenplay written by himself and Allison Schroeder does not deep enough into the dirty areas of the subject matter. The racial reality of Virginia in 1961 is displayed in several scenes but the passages are brief and could have used a longer look to give the sequences more impact and meaning. The script more often that not plays up the comedic aspect of racial injustice as in the running gag of Katherine's need to run back to the West Computer Building to find the only coloured women's washroom on campus when can't hold it ably longer and has to relieve herself.

The narrative does hit the main parts of the women's stories Mary Jackson's struggle to become the first NASA female engineer having to go to court for the privilege of attending night engineer courses at a local high school. Dorothy Vaughan knowing the meaning of the arrival of the IBM machine learns FORTRAN and teaches her girls to code the IBM mainframe to protect their jobs. Katherine's struggles external with her all male Space Task Force colleagues and internal with herself to trust that she's the best with numbers in the room.

The three female leads present their real life counterparts well. Singer Janelle Monae who was also very strong in this years Moonlight seems to get all of the best comedic lines and is the most assertive of the three. Octavia Spencer's Dorothy Vaughan is the most thoughtful of the three while Taraj Henderson leads the cast as the mathematical genius Katherine G. Johnson. Kevin Costner provides a steady hand as department head Al Harrison and look for Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali in his third notable performance of the year in vital supporting roles.

Hidden Figures tells the story of important contributors to the golden age of the American Space program that were not allowed to put their names on reports, were hidden away in a basement out building but did key work for NASA getting their rockets off of the launch pad and back for a safe splashdown. The women faced many obstacles to do their work many of them put in place by the laws of their country and their colleagues. The battles fought deserved more screen time but the subject matter of the piece makes it worth a watch.

*** Out of 4.

Hidden Figures | Theodore Melfi | U.S.A. | 127 Minutes.

Tags: NASA, Langley Virginia, Computer, Coloured, Mercury 7, Sputnik, John Glen, Alan Sheppard,

Film Review - Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring their tony award winning roles of Troy and Rose Maxson to the big screen as Washington also takes on the directing duties for the August Williams creation that's the central cog in the writers Pittsburgh Cycle of works. The film opens with one of the few scenes that's outside of the Maxon's family home and yard. Troy (Washington) and fellow rubbish collector Bono (Stephen Henderson) are working their route commenting on how there are no black drivers in the department. Troy has filed a formal complaint that's lead to a meeting at the Commissioners office that could result in him loosing his job. At home Troy is constantly at odds with his younger son Corey (Jovan Adepo) who has a chance at a College scholarship that Troy plans to thwart as his baseball dreams were shattered by the colour barrier and the fact that integration did not come to the Major Leagues until he had reached his 40's. Troy's also saddled with the knowledge that the family home is due to the benefit paid to his brother Gaberial (Mykelti Williamson) due to a WWII brain injury that netted him a metal plate. Lastly Troy's wandering eye with the females that has got him into trouble in the past has started up again in the opening moments of the film.

Denzel sinks his teeth, arms to the elbows and soul into this film. He delivers his lines without any effort giving the audience the feel that he is not playing a role but more greeting reacquainted with an old friend as he spouts the Troy Maxon Manifesto in his yard. Davis' Rose leads the rest of the cast along side the afore mentioned Henderson and Williamson as Bono and Gabriel. Washington seems more at easy on his third time out directing using a mixture of wide, circular, high and low angle shots effectively and to augment the action on screen.  August Williams screenplay being from a stage play is naturally heavily dialogue driven. The minimal amount of set locations does not diminish the production as it has in other stage adaptions to the big screen.

Washington's directorial eye is in step with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen as they set the tone of a mid-50's lower class Pittsburgh neighbourhood in a few sharply shot scenes; the opening where we meet Troy and Bono riding on the back of a Pittsburg sanitation garbage truck followed by Gabriel's first appearance in the neighbourhood mocked by the local teenagers as he chases after Hell-hounds and calls out to St. Peter.  Christensen's work also puts a cap on a key scene at the end of the film that leaves the players jaw dropped by the visual.      

Fences is a superbly acted film featuring the best two male and female performances in any feature this year. The entire cast are at home with the material as August Williams words flow freely over the pieces 138 minute run time. The subject matter is tough, challenging and gritty but the acting and the screenplay inject several light moments to keep an up tone beat for a good portion of the proceedings. Denzel Washington has clearly found his grove as a director with this film featuring material that he knows intimately will backed by excellent set, cinematography and costume design working making it a film that I can highly recommend.

**** Out of 4.

Fences | Denzel Washington | U.S.A. | 2016 | 138 minutes.

Tags: Baseball, Negro Leagues, Pittsburgh, 1950's, Sanitation, Affair, Marines, WWII, Mental Illness, Football, College Scholarship.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Film Review - Rogue One : A Star Wars Story

Gareth Edwards directs the first Disney Stand Alone Star Wars film. The film is based on central characters not seen before in the Star Wars universe and answers the question: Why would a weapon as complex as the Death Star be vulnerable to destruction by a single photon torpedo. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) witnesses a tragic family event as a child as her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is taken away by Imperial Captain Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to finish work on the Death Star that he created.

We next catch up to Jyn as a young adult having been in and out of trouble with the law for petty criminal acts. She's freed by the Rebel alliance with a plan that she could be of use to get the rebels close to her father to halt the completion of the Empire's super weapon. The Rebels send leading pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with her to find her former protector Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) on Jedha who may have the key to locate Galen Erso. On Jeda the pair link up with blind martial artist Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) and Mercenary Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) along with Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to form the group that will attempt to find Jyn's dad then obtain the schematics of the Death Star.

Writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy craft a more grime less fun story from the main topic of the opening act of the original Star Wars film where Darth Vader boards Princess Leia's ship hunting for the just stolen Battleship plans. The plans take centre stage again in the last act of Star Wars when they are downloaded from R2D2 then the rebel pilots are briefed how to destroy the Death Star. The writers fill the backstory with several unique and intriguing multi-dimensional characters that one expects suffered a negative fate as none of them appear in the first Star Wars trilogy.

Felicity Jones turns in another of a string of strong performances as Jyn Erso. She witnessed a family tragedy at a very young age, was raised until 16 by Saw Gerrera then fended for herself in the shadows as she entered young adulthood. She grows from a selfish petty thief to the leader of a vital mission for the rebel alliance. Diego Luna's Cassian Andor also has experienced trauma since the age of six due to Empire aggression. He's a leading rebel Captain that follows his orders with brutal efficiency only to evolve to think and choose the best course of action as he becomes more influenced by Jyn and the other members of their band of rebels. Ben Mendelsohn is formidable as the main Imperial heavy Captain Krennic. He is a longtime colleague turned pursuer of Galen Erso. His ambition exudes from every pore as does his single-minded determination to prove that his plant killing Death Star is the best weapon in the Empire's arsenal reaping all of the glory that will follow for the distinction. Watch for Alan Tudyk voicing the reprogrammed Imperial security droid K-2SO. The droid has many of the best lines of the film often keeping all of the main characters off balance.

Rogue One:A Star Wars Story does start off a little slowly in the opening frames but once the action picks up in Jeda the film finds its rhythm and does not look back. The writers did a credible job of fleshing out a full story from a plot point focused on twice in the original film aimed directly at a grown up audience.  The ensemble cast fall easily into their roles backed by the usual stunning visuals and trappings of the Star Wars universe making it a film that I can definitely recommend. It's the film audience were hoping to see when they walked into the original disappointing reboot The Phantom Menace. Based on this first outing and new technology to reverse the aging process and literally bring actors back from the dead  I strongly predict more stand along Star Wars Stories in the future.  

**** Out of 4.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards | U.S.A. | 134 minutes.

Tags: Star Wars, Death Star, Engineer, Imperial, Empire, Rebel Alliance, Computer Generated, The Force, Stand Alone Project.


Friday, December 9, 2016

levelFilm Film Review- Sugar Mountain

Brothers Miles (Drew Roy) and Liam West (Shane Coffey) are broke. The family boat and business Sugar Mountain Costal Charters that their mother kept going for 21 years they have seemingly destroyed in 3. They cannot pay their mooring fees, their insurance is behind due to 600K claim for detached fingers of a pianist making them desperate for money.  They come up with a plan with the aid of their childhood friend Tracey Huxley (Melora Walters) who is also Miles girlfriend and Liam's lifelong crush to fake Miles' disappearance on Sugar Mountain then sell the story when he appears out of the wilderness several days later. Miles cites the story of the guy in Utah who fell into a crevasse and cut of his arm as an example of how survival stories can sell.

Miles is the one to get lost as no one would believe it if Liam went missing as he knows the mountain too well. The trio add in an extra twist to juice up the narrative and ward off the search efforts as they were beginning to obtain leads on Miles' whereabouts. The local sheriff Jim Huxley (Cary Elwes) who's Tracey's dad and not a fan of Miles begins to poke holes in the scheme while local heavy Joe Bright (Jason Momoa) puts on the pressure to recover a personal debt owed by Miles.        
Alaska plays a major role in the film. It's the location of the action plus its environment,stark elements and isolated nature serves well as the backdrop of the film. The production uses many sweeping shots of the mountain and local waterways to set the tone of the piece. Director Richard Gray mixes in several shots where nature intersects with the main characters for memorable results. The most impactful being the sequence where Miles hikes into the woods passing a couple of moose standing no more than 200 yards away with a thin swatch of trees separating the actors and crew from the 1000 pound animals.

The common theme of the story is lying and withholding information. Every character except for Joe Bright the recent parolee is not what they appear. The indiscretion can be minor like a couple of local kids staling an iPad found during the search to larger ones like Sherriff Huxley's every present flask in his inside pocket feeding his daily craving of scotch.

The relative inexperience of the three lead actors allow them to sink into their roles along with the audience willing to go along because they do not have prior signature performances in mind. The novice leads are backed by veterans Cary Elwes and Jason Momoa who bring grit and toughness to their roles.

Sugar Mountain is a story driven by the harsh Alaskan landscape and nuances of day to day life in an isolated community. The small ensemble cast hit the right beat for the piece as the plot unfurls right up to the climactic moment. The viewer will think that they're on top of the storyline early only to be faced with performances that challenge type. It's a physical, emotional, earnest tale that's well worth a watch.

*** Out of 4.

Sugar Mountain | Richard Gray | USA | 2016 | 106 Minutes.

Tags; Alaska, Boat Tours, Family Business, Hoax, Debt, Insurance claim, Hike, Lost, Survival, Search, Diary, Secrets.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Landed Entertainments Television Pilot Review - Day Players

Naveen Ghezzi ( Farid Yazdani) is a Day Player. He lands acting jobs that are normally one day's work usually with no dialogue. At the start of the episode he's working as a bartender in the background of a murder investigation catching hell from the director (Naomi Snieckus) as she finds his ethnic features distracting. After that unpleasant experience he returns to his flat where his pals Devon Hayes (Brendan Jeffers) and former child star Blake Summers (Brock Morgan) hang out between bit roles and promotional gigs. The trio decide to take an acting course in order to improve their skill set and up their odds of success at future auditions.

At the acting class taught by the over expressive Professor Edmund (Adam Tsekhman) we meet the other half of the inspiring actor content of the piece. Vincent Adamo (Julian Robino) is consumed by intensity seeming to have a problem with dialing it back. He is the perfect foil for the former child star of Zac Attack fame who continues to dine out on his early childhood successes. Shiva Negar is Trinity Grace a mysterious figure of few words and very intense glances her partner in the story is destined to be the take it as it comes Devon Hayes.  Lastly, Naveen's ex Veronica Blackwell (Ashley Leggat) appears as the students are being paired up for Improv. She's paired with Naveen and they immediately begin to bicker, he jealous of her current success modeling and she upset by how their relationship ended. These improve pairings create natural chemistry likely be further explored if the story catches and there are future episodes.

Yazdani takes a writing credit along with Chris D'Alessandro. The narrative has many laughs that are not to inside of the walk on acting world that the whole audience can understand and react. The pilot plants a jumping off point for further development of the characters both in the present and the past. The production team have outlines for 10 future episodes that see different characters taking the lead then drifting back into supporting roles.

Day Players is a Canadian project that has potential for a regular episodic run on television. It's  a fresh take on the world of bit part acting which is the normal fate of the majority of people in the profession rather than the red carpet walking multi picture deals of stars like Tom Cruise Jennifer Lawrence and Will Smith. Depending on the platform the piece would work as an edgier adult oriented cable show or the comedic aspects could be bumped up for network television perhaps with a portion of the bite kept in a safe harbour time slot. The production could be challenged to keep all of its Can Con content if they find a U.S. buyer but based on the first offering they have a good chance to find a home and be to play off their tag line: Lights.Camera.Your're Signed.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Day Players | Aref Mahabadi | Canada | 2016 | 30 Minutes.

Tags: Visible Minority, Walk-on Role, Fired, Rent, Child Star, Acting Class, Billboard, Sex Tape, Stardom, Green Fury          

Sunday, December 4, 2016

BITS '16 - Selected Short Films Reviewed

WHAT DO YOU SEE - Directors Charlie Hamilton & Zach Ramelan

Opening with a shot of a teenage girl Selena (Raven Cousens) running down a residential street as if her life depends on it; What Do You See is a short film crafted by Charlie Hamilton and Zach Ramelan that could easily be fleshed out into a full feature. Selena reaches her destination a house where she is greeted by Isaac (Austin Duffey) who sports scratches on his face that we soon learn are from their last encounter. Isaac is assistant to Elijah ( Rich Piatowski) a hypnotist who puts Selena back under to face a demon in a small space where she must obtain a special object to defeat the creature before it takes greater hold of her and crosses over to the known world.

**** Out of 4

MRS. RAFFERTY'S RED ROSES - Director Greg Kovacs

Mrs Rhonda Rafferty (Alex Graham) is watering her roses when her doorbell rings It's a Mr. White (Grieg Graham) who is going door to door to offer a special service for a very low cost. He's an assassin for hire. He will exterminate anyone anywhere at any time desired. They retire to the garden where Ms. Rafferty explains her beef, gives the name of the target, location and the small fee is paid. The final touch is settling on a  message to be delivered to the intended then the hit man performs one act readies himself humming as he leaves on his way to acquire the new target. It's a clever bit of film-making by director Greg Kovacs with a very unexpected ending.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

SUMMONED - Director Victoria Angell

Amanda (Hope LaVelle) is seated in a circle of magic blood spattered on her white nightgown as the action starts. We discover that she had good reason to summon the demon who did what she wanted but continued beyond her expectations. Amanda is faced with two options; to yield or to play. She tries to explain that the results were not what she wanted, she only had one target in mind but the demon states that there is much sin to go around. Amanda has a critical thought then makes her decision. Director Victoria Angell presents a chilling short that locks the audience in from the sharp initial title sequence. The subject matter is serious and difficult featuring a cast that each perform physically challenging acts for their roles.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

INGRID AND THE BLACK HOLE - Director Leah Johnston

Time Travel should you go forward or back is the question in Leah Johnston's Ingrid & The Black Hole.  Editing is the key as the narrative jumps back and forth through Ingrid and Conrad's lives. Starting when they are both 7 and treating all time as one as the action jumps to different points in their story. The music of Christopher Barnett is paramount to set the scientific astronomy/ fantasy feel of the piece.  Is she moving back and forth through time or is Ingrid an old woman suffering from deteriorating mental health who now mistakes her son John for her late Husband Conrad?

**** Out of 4

TAKING POSSESSION - Director Peter Campbell

Isaac (Martin Huss) looking for peace and quiet buys a rural Victorian Era farmhouse and is handed the keys by his realtor  Ashleigh (Jemma Robinson). He shows up with one suitcase explaining that the truck is coming Monday with more stuff. Before she departs  Ashleigh comments that there is 150 years of memories in the farmhouse. Alone he begins to hear the noises of the home before he retires to bed. Jarred awake in the middle of the night by a child's voice hauntingly similar to his daughter Bev, he heads to the basement to investigate only to discover the real reason why the house was available.

*** Out of 4.