Saturday, May 20, 2017

Film Review - Alien:Covenant

The original 1979 Ridley Scott directed Alien is among my favourite films of all time. It was unlike anything I had seen before. The film reached new heights for terror, tension, suspense and gore. Not to mention the inclusion of a high level functioning synthetic crew member and the birth of the notion that the last man standing could be a woman. Skip ahead to the series reboot Prometheus in 2012. The film was highly anticipated by fans but the cerebral finished product lacked the signature Alien elements disappointing many; not enough Xenomorphs, acid splatter, chest bursts or frothing alien teeth extending painfully slow before striking their victims. Scott along with writers John Logan and Dante Harper heeded their base cranking familiar imagery to eleven but losing story, character development and originality in exchange.

The year is 2104 10 years after Elizabeth Shaw and her crew went missing. The Covenant is on a colonization mission headed to Origae-6 with 2000 colonists, more than a thousand embryos plus an all couple crew. After a weather event part way through the trip synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) think David from Prometheus with upgrades wakes the crew to complete repairs. Before the Captain can get out of his pod it malfunctions causing his death putting devoutly religious Oram (Billy Crudup) in charge. Out on a spacewalk they pick up a message from a nearby planet emitting human music. A scan shows the planet to be potentially habitable. Not keen to go back into the pods for another 7 plus years to get to Origae-6 the crew decide to investigate. The only naysayer is Daniels (Katherine Watertson) the wife of the slain Captain now second in command who sees a planet that the expansive mapping before their voyage failed to identify but dropping into their laps as too good to be true.

One of the enduring features of a Ridley Scott film is eye pleasing aesthetics. The landscape shots from the moment the landing party touch down are breathtaking especially when viewed on an IMAX screen. Clear running water, green mountain foliage and rich colourful vegetation leap off the screen. The attention the production pays to the planet's ecosystem serves as an important foreboding plot point. Despite the abundance of natural resources and habitat there is no animal life to be seen or heard.

Katherine Watertson leads the cast as Daniels channeling Ripley 18 years before the timeline of the original Alien film. She's smart, resourceful, quick on her feet and very adaptable. The other key performance is that of Michael Fassbender in the dual role of Walter and David. The scenes where both synthetics occupy the same frame are truly a work of movie making magic. Look for seasoned comedic actor Danny McBride toned down as Tennessee a skillful pilot willing to bring the Covenant to the brink of harms way to aid of his fellow crew when things go to pot on the planet surface.

Alien: Covenant is a bridge film. It's a detour to an uncharted planet unwittingly picking up some essential elements that will feature in future films. There was a plan to produce a film telling the post Prometheus story of Elizabeth and David but it was abandoned. Flashbacks of the dropped project are seen here along with little snippets of David's creative work. The return to familiar ground will make this sequel appealing to the 18-34 multiplex crowd. However the lack of philosophical elements, injection of new beats and underdeveloped characters will leave those that liked the new ground Prometheus explored underwhelmed.

** 1/2 Out of 4.

Alien: Covenant | Ridley Scott | UK / Australia / New Zealand / U.S.A. | 2017 | 122 Minutes.

Tags: Colonization, Hyper Sleep, Pods, Crew, Couples, Creation, Extinction, Virus, Spores, Host, Incubation, Neomorphs, Xenomorphs.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Film Review - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

If there is an expert in not taking itself seriously or the odd Aunt, crazy Uncle, demented middle child in the Marvel Universe it's the Guardians of the Galaxy.  In volume 2 playtime ratchets up a notch.  Starting with a fierce battle with a gigantic octopus with impenetrable skin that's background noise to baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) dancing as he battles minuscule foes when not hit by shrapnel from the big battle or almost crushed by his fellow Guardians as they are tossed aside by the by the immense creature. The sequence is backed by the dulcet tones of Mr. Blue Sky by Electric Light Orchestra harkening back to the feel good tunes from the soundtrack of the first film.

The meat of the story sets out to answer the biggest question who is Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) alien dad? We get some clues in a prologue circa 1980 where we see Peter's mom cozying up to a digitally youthened Kurt Russell sporting a super late 70's feathered flow as Looking Glass' Brandy (You're a Fine Girl) blasts through car speakers. Back to the present gold plated the Sovereign that hired the Guardians to defeat the space octopus in exchange for custody of Gamora's (Zoe Saldana) metallic sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) are none too happy that Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) stole their batteries give chase.  They manage to escape aided by a mysterious spaceship piloted by Ego (Russell).

The Art / Set Decoration crews deserve special mention at this point. Starting with Ego's planet a blast of colours and shapes that would make both Willie Wonka and Austin Powers jaws drop to the floor. The snow planet out post where rogue Ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker) is confronted by elder Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone) is perfectly white and barren. It's the perfect setting for perhaps the funniest gag in the film where the Sovereign priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debeicki) perhaps the most conceited person ever to grace a movie screen has technical difficulties as she approaches the Ravagers to help her find the Guardians.

The main cast fall easily back into their roles. Pratt leads the line as Star Lord very skilled but stubborn and cocky which usually gets the gang in trouble. Dave Bautista's muscle bound Drax is the definition of literal and judgemental but does it in a way that makes his utterances mainly focuses at Ego's counsellor Maintis (Pom Clementieff) funny and charming. Zoldana's Gamora is serious and competitive as ever. The biggest arc comes from the darker characters Cooper's Rocket , Rookers Yondu and Karen Gillan as Gammora's adoptive robotic sister Nebula. Of the newcomers the Sovereign are the most memorable. Every pore clogged with gold paint and glitter. They are superior, self centred but not the most adaptive or resourceful species in the galaxy.

Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the summer popcorn movie you would expect. It's a space rock comedy opera with familiar characters and a timeless storyline of the main hero trying to find out where he came from and why. Director James Gunn is back at the helm of a franchise he continues to push in the right direction. The film is fun action packed with the right amount of tension backed by another strong soundtrack featuring Fleetwood Mac, Cat Stevens and Sweet making it a film I can highly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Guardians of The Galaxy | James Gunn | U.S.A.| 2017 |136 Minutes.

Tags: Marvel Comics, Mixed Tape, Bomb, God, Golden, Princess, Outlaw, Air Armada, Batteries, Theft, Walkman.

Friday, May 12, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - 69 Minutes of 86 days

One image likely comes to mind when a large section of the public thinks of the struggles of Syrian refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean to get to  Europe. It's the image of 3 year old Alan Kurdi lifeless body being carried up from the shore by a Turkish police officer. The image was broadcast all over the world; the event played a key part in turning a federal election in my home country of Canada.  Director Egil Haskjold 's film starts on the Greek shoreline following a different Syrian family as they embark on a journey from the pebbled shoreline to Sweden where they plan to settle amongst other family relatives.

Haskjold basically sets down his camera at a meter off the ground and lets the action unfold. The opening shots are of the surf followed by life vests and water shoes as the framing moves to a makeshift tent city beside the shoreline. The lens soon finds its way to Lean a three year old girl whose eye line matches the low angle shooting style signaling that a good part of the action will be seen from her point of view.

Over the next 65 minutes the family will spend time in medical tents, food lines, red cross facilities, checkpoints, trains, buses, boats and cars. All though the journey Lean is mostly upbeat raising the spirits of her weary family members clad in a plaid winter jacket along with her ever present Frozen knapsack. The efforts of the parents to keep things normal for their kids despite their struggles is notable. Teddy Bears are ported among other toys for the children to play during downtime, long lines or a delay at a screening facility.

Director Haskjold does not give any direction to the proceedings. There are no interviews, no voice over, no text online to announce to the audience where the family is at any point of the journey. The viewer has to play detective looking for clues. Dialogue where the family mentions a city name or country or looking at road signed or names on transport vehicles throughout the piece.

The low angle perspective is a different approach to shoot the majority of a film and takes a bit of  getting use too. But once the viewer buys into the charming Lean's perspective of the world looking though the tangled legs of adults. The shooting decision makes sense coupled with no translation of dialogue and no location prompts. The viewer is swept up into the whirlwind disorienting trip that it must be for a Syrian refugee forced to grab what they can carry, hop on a rafts to an unsure future on a far away continent where you likely don't speak the language.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

69 Minutes of 86 Days | Egil Haskjold Larsen | Norway | 71 Minutes.

Tags: Syria, Refugee, Greece, Germany, Sweden, Red Cross, Ferry, EKG, Tent City.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - City of Ghosts

A black tie affair in New York where Raqqua Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) a group of regular citizens from the Syrian city turned journalist is receiving the International Press Freedom Award dominates the opening frames of this new Matthew Heineman documentary feature. The group dedicated to documenting the activities of the Islamic State in their hometown risking life and limb to get the truth out to the world. The scene shifts back to Raqqa where the history of the city starting with the 2011 Arab Spring before the arrival of ISIS is recounted then the continuing deteriorating fate of the inhabitants after the religious movement takes hold.

A large portion of the action is filmed outside of Syria. The Islamic State determined to stop RBSS use their network of informers to lean names of the group members and associates killing all that are caught usually publically in the most inhumane manner. The actions of the Religious leaders forced the founding members to flee to Turkey and Germany communicating thorough Skype plus other social media outlets to those members that remained behind to get daily updates on the fate of the city and to be a source receiving the smuggled out reports to broadcast to the world. The reach of ISIS is so great that the exiled members are not even completely safe held up in secret safe houses in the two countries.

Director Heineman clearly developed an extraordinary level of trust with the journalist activist. They are facing the threat of assassination around each corner but allow the filmmaker complete access to their homes, hidden safehouses, families and daily activities.  Heinemen  is allowed to document the methods the reporters use that are still in country, communications with the exiled leaders and their methods to get the story out to the world.

The brutality of ISIS is plainly on display in the film with their propaganda videos often featuring young rifle clad children in military uniform is front and centre. The violent chants coming from there young mouths is disturbing to say the least. ISIS vows to track down these journalist wherever they are in the world to deliver them to the grave. Several segments shows the founding members watching the ISIS propaganda videos on their laptops. One in particular shows two brothers seeing on screen the execution of their father by the terrorist group. The deep profound effect of living under constant fear combined with guilt of being the ones that got out and are living a life with happy moments is an unimaginable balancing act for the ex-pats.  On top of this reality is an important sequence where members of the group are faced with German anti-Muslimism protestors marching demanding that all Muslims refugees should be banished from their country and sent back home.   

City of Ghosts is a study of a new template in activist journalism. Yesteryears tools of a notepad, pencil, personal interviews and open on scene documentation with press markings on clothing are gone. The new social media based practice is masked, undercover, hidden methods to capture footage and smuggle the documentation out of the country for editing and broadcast.  Satellite uplinks are replaced with scrambled phone signals and hushed skype calls. Matthew Heineman presents the story of Raqqa from both inside and outside her borders. The positive results are presented clearly alongside the most brutal and negative events. It’s an important piece of filmmaking that I can highly recommend.

**** Out of 4.

City of Ghosts | Matthew Heineman | U.S.A. |  2017 | 91 Minutes.

Tags: Raqqa, Syria, Journalism, Execution, Assassination, Turkey, Germany, Skype, Propaganda, ISIS, Refugee.

Monday, May 8, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - Ukiyo-E Heroes

The ancient almost lost art of Japanese woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) is explored in detail in the Turu Tokikowa's new documentary. The story revolves around a partnership that spans the Pacific Ocean between a reserved American illustrator and an eccentric Canadian who has spent the last 30 years in Japan. Jed Henry became interested in the 18th century art form in 2010. He looked for an expert and found David Bull. Henry's idea;  use the ancient technique to create prints in the traditional manner to sell to the public. Bull who had become stagnant in his current work jumped at the chance that has lead to artistic and financial success for both parties.

Henry does the design work drawing the image based on the styles of the original masters by brush using subjects that blend well with current, comic, video games popular culture figures. The image is sent to Bull who carves out an outline of the drawing in a wood block, works in colour then uses traditional paper for the finished print. Henry takes the finished product to comic conventions where he sells them for $100.00 each. There is a large market for Japanese woodblock prints as they are a stunningly unique item for a collector to own and display.

The film is at its best when Bull gives his theories on the art alongside his personal manifesto on life. He works often shirtless and always barefoot often twisted into a pretzel as he meticulously chisels the illustration into the wood.  Another set of highlights are the interviews with the craftsmen that make Bull's tools. Their skills from making the paper, to firing the knives, or hand making brushes has been passed down in families for generations. There is also the unspoken fear that when this current generation passes on that these skills could be lost.

The second half of the piece focuses on the creation of one illustration from start to finish. Skype call flow back and forth across the Pacific during design stage.  Once the design is complete the pace slows as Bull sets off to carve the piece.

Ukiyo-e Heroes is a tribute to Japanese Woodblock printing, the craftsmen that surround the art form and to the notion that there is room for a slow steady precise endeavor in today's short attention span disposable world. The production lucked out to find such a complexed character in self taught master woodblock illustrator Bull and it's fitting that he is on screen two-thirds of the time as it seems that he does two-thirds of the work a fact that Henry admits. The subject matter and slow paced nature of the film might  not be for everyone but if you'll not be disappointed if you give David Bull a chance to grow on you as he explains and works at his craft.

*** Out of 4

Ukiyo-E Heroes | Turo Tokikowa | Japan / Canada / U.S.A. | 2016 | 97  Minutes.

Tags: Woodblock Printing, Illustrations, Conventions, Rickshaw, Warrior, Skype, Provo, Tokyo, Kickstarter.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

HotDocs 17 Film Review - Living The Game

Daigo Umehara @daigothebeast is the brightest star in the emerging world of eSports. When he walks to an event venue video game fans whisper in hushed tones there is Daigo. He takes chances with he plays, gets down to 1% power on occasion then rallies back to a dramatic win in his game of choice Street Fighter. Along with Umehara several other elite Street Fighter players are studied and profiled including Yusuke Momochi Umehara's main rival who  employs a conservative stile of play. The piece follows the players to major events, gives a history of the tournaments and documents the rise in prize money cumulating with  2015 EVO in Las Vegas Nevada with a winners prize of $120,000.

The film focuses on three tournaments The Capcom Cup which is where the documentary opens with Daigo's arrival at the San Francisco event to the awe of the spectators waiting on line to enter. The Topanga World League in Tokyo where it seems that Daigo and Momochi are always in the final with the later always loosing and the afore mentioned pinnacle of the sport the EVO Championship. The history of the rise of e-sports is best reflected in the interview of American pioneer Justin Wong who burst on the stage to win at the age of 15 collecting a modest winners cheque. Wong speaks to a sentiment of most gamers that to tell parents, family and friends that they do this professionally is looked down upon. Another top player Luffy from France sites the sigma of being a gamer as the reason that he maintains a full time job at an advertising agency. So his parents can at least tell their friends that their son works in advertising.

Takao Goutsu decision to feature a few gamers giving their background story gives the viewer the chance to choose a player to root for as the tournaments come up on the schedule. The photography decisions work well to deliver the intensity of the live tournament. Cinematographer Kouichirou Miyagawa visuals shift from the dueling players on stage, to the handwork on the oversized joystick, to the action on the regular and big screens  then to the fans going crazy watching the offensive, defensive moves leading to an expected or surprise K.O.

Living The Game is a window into the world of eSports. It's a growing market with rabid fans, superstar players and tournaments with ever increasing prize money around the world. A few of the top Street Fighter players are the films subject. They talk of their strategy, playing styles, practice routines and scouting reports on their main rivals. The film is a satisfying look into an underexposed competition that is defiantly worth a look.

*** Out of 4

Living The Game | Takao Gotsu | Japan/ France /U.S.A. /Taiwan | 87 Minutes.

Tags: eSports, Pro Gamers, Street Fighter, Madcatz, Evil Genius, Monster Energy, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Gamer Bee.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - Ramen Heads

A quality meal does not have to mean expensive, white tablecloth, suit and tie on fine china at a fancy roped off establishment. A diner can obtain a life altering food experience for $8.00 according to the four time raining Ramen King of Japan Osamu Tomita. Tomita's shop in Masuto, Chiba has only 10 seats a quality that the films narrator finds common to the best Ramen Houses as they are all tiny. Lines start at 6:30 in the morning for the 11 AM seating. But the first arrivals will not be in line for 5 hours instead the meticulous Tomita invented an ingenious system where costumers get tickets that correspond to their seating time. They are told to be at the house 10 minutes before they are too be seated. This system has cut down the lines out from of the shop by three fold.

Director Koki Shigeno takes the subject seriously as he does the history and importance of Ramen to Japan. It was a hearty food that workers could consume quickly when facing long days working to rebuild Japan after the Second World War. The historical tour of the meal starts back in 1910 when Chinese cooks brought the noodles and gamey meats to the island through the changes many that occurred by accident that produced the various forms of the dish that appear today.

The piece visits shops of other Ramen masters around the island but is at its best when Tomito is on screen. He is personally involved in every aspect of the preparation of the meal so much so that the shop is closed if he cannot make it into work. The broth stews for at least three day. He combines 4 different types to make the broth for the day. Only he stirs and pours it at the exact moment of readiness when the colour, density, blend and balance is correct. His witches brew of ingredients simmer for 27 hours. Additives include dry fish, sardines, anchovies, mackerel and pigs head. But the item he most obsesses on is noodles. He uses 4 types of flour, meads by hand looking for a thick firm  strands that will not tear. His noodles are longer than most other shops to give them that slurp ability quality. Tomita wants his noodles to snap like a firecracker in the mouth when slurped.

A couple of the other prominent chefs featured include Inoue who's been running a three mat space in the highest volume Ramen market in Tokyo for 50 years serving the classic soy says based Shoyu version. Hayama is chef in another popular local who's wrinkle is a dried sardine based broth and can be seen in the kitchen pressing his bamboo stocks with a long rolling pins hooked under his knee joint. The third is Fukujo known as the chefs chef who opens at 3:00 P.M. using utensils dating back to the post war era including a wonderful earthenware brazer. He is 74 years old and has worked in the same spot for 64 years. Not a big fan of the current Ramen craze he remembers that the dish is the main food staple for the working class and shakes his head that now Ramen chefs have Michelin ratings.

Ramen Heads is a delicious educational journey into every aspects of a seemingly very simple meal. It's broth; noodles and usually meat but the various and preparation methods for each aspect of the meal are endless. All of the masters featured excel at the craft backed by the best display of food cinematography ever presented on screen. The viewers mouth will be watering as they can almost smell the broth and taste the noodles due to the sharpness of the presentation. It's a fascinating study of several dedicated chefs to their craft making it a film that I can highly recommend.

**** Out of 4.

Ramen Heads | Koki Shigeno | Japan | 2017 | 93 Minutes.

Tags: Ramen, Japan, Pork, Noodles, Broth, Chiba, Tokyo, Apprentice, Slurpability.

HotDocs '17 Film Review - Raise Your Arms and Twist

The team pop idol craze is a phenomenon unique to Japanese culture. A troop of young girls all colour coordinated and choreographed preform whimsical pop songs for their feverous fans that are mostly men. The fans don’t buy tickets to the shows but win them in lotteries before the performances. They are armed with glow sticks, custom designed outfits for their favourite idol and shout out the names when they have a solo line or come to the front of the stage. 

Raise Your Arms and Twist centres on NMB48 the idol group based in Namba, Osaka. The group is made up of 60 girls raging from ages 15-21. They are the least popular of the 4 main groups in Japan with AKB48 out of Tokyo being the gold standard. NMB are kind of a triple A affiliate with a few girls making it up to the big leagues on occasion to perform with the major league squad.
The songs the girls sing and their performances are secondary to the intense battles that go on back stage, between girls and the different teams. The narrative focus on a few of the main members the contrast between the two founding members Captain Sayaka Yamamoto and Vice-Captain Ayaka Okita being the most intriguing. Both girls joined the group at its 2010 start. Yamamoto rocked to stardom being picked for the prestigious Sembatsu team that gives the opportunity to perform in a video for a group single right away.  She also has the longest lines at the groups fans handshake sessions. An odd ritual where fans line up for the chance to hold hands with their favourite idle for 8 seconds (timed by Security) while they tell them how great much they love them.  Okita despite being on the squad for 5 years and a role model for the later generations had never been picked for a Sembatsu team.  Every aspect of life on the squad is scrutinized. If you get lead on a song, make it to the centre of the front row on stage or have long lines at the handshake events.  The competition all leads up to the yearly General Election where fans vote for the best idol in the land by buying CD’s to obtain codes that's punched into your mobile phone to vote.

Director Atsushi Funahashi narrows his vision on the aspects of the pop idol life that really effect the girls mental stability. Many leave home at 15 or 16 to go to these teams. They are drafted based on their skills which can lead to disappointment. Being back row or not selected for a Sembatu team often results in tears from inconsolable team members. Even the ones that make it onto a team and into a video are yelled at by male video directors or team managers for not being happy enough or perhaps for something private in their personal life.

The most intriguing study is that of rising team star Ririka Sutou. The idol game seems to come easy to her as she has a song written for her and is centre stage seeming right away. She open the film on a boat floating on a river in a gritty area of Osaka reading Nietzsche while stating she wants to be a philosopher. She is very self-aware knowing that while she is doing this gig she does not have control of her individual self as she quotes John Stuart Mill.

The Japanese pop idol culture is one that is not scene or translates to Europe or North America.  The team members base their self-worth on where they fall in the hierarchical pecking order of the system.  Top ten in the yearly general election and centre stage of an AKB48 Sembatu group single being the pinnacle.  If you can get there it could lead to Graduation which means potentially television presenter roles, a solo singing career or perhaps modeling.  The most popular idols have endorsement for clothing, food and make up products.  The film could have talked more on where the money all goes considering they had over 3.2 million votes for  the June 2015 General Election which translates to that may CD singles sold or how the girls get compensated.  The production is an in depth look into a unique subject that builds personalities that the viewer truly wants to root for making it a film I can highly recommend

**** Out of 4.

Raise You Arms and Twist | Atsushi Funahashi | Japan | 2016 | 90 Minutes.

Tags: Pop Idol, Osaka, NMB48, AKB48, Nietzsche, Tokyo, Sembatu, General Election, Video, Hit Single, Fans, Handshake Event, Big Sis Saya.