Good Time

You’ll have a hell of a ‘good time’ at the cinema watching this wild hypnotic adrenaline induced crime drama that bleeds off the screen with manic electric energy. The title is ironic as the characters are having anything but a good time in this film by the Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny, a fresh and startling new voice in today’s cinema.

In competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Good Time won praise and a standing ovation from many critics for its performances, stylish look, hyper relentless pace, and disturbing but humanizing ambivalent depiction of Queens, New York’s urban underground. 

In the course of a single night, anything that can go wrong, does, and just keeps getting worse for Constantine (Connie) Nikas, played by an unrecognizable Robert Pattinson, a fast talking reckless hoodlum and con artist who leaves a path of destruction in his wake both physical and psychological. He takes advantage of everyone and every situation he comes in contact with, using them to his own single minded purpose. Even his mentally disabled younger brother Nick, (Benny Safdie) a child in a man’s body, is not exempt from Connie’s intense drive to get what he needs to survive.

After Connie coerces his brother Nick to help him pull off a daring bank robbery, things suddenly explode in his face when Nick is captured during a botched getaway and sent to prison. Connie knows that Nick will not survive long in jail without his help, so he desperately tries to raise the bail money he needs to get him out quickly.

Connie is not particularly likeable but he is extremely watchable. What keeps us hooked into the story is the way the Safdie brothers cleverly draw us in with Connie’s innocent sympathetic abused brother Nick who we see at the beginning of the film undergoing a psych evaluation by a community psychologist before Connie bursts in to take him away. It’s for his sake that we want to root for Connie, but only in a way that we might do seeing a panhandler with a loyal dog at his side. We may not want to give money to the beggar but we might for the sake of the dog.

In this dark Scorsesian thriller, there is something seamy about the people and places in the film, and the stylish visual design is intended to further enhance the feeling of depraved dread with a raw, smudged and over saturated color palette. The handheld camera angles are kept tight to Connie’s determined face as he manipulates the various characters he runs into. In this respect the film has a very European cinema verity feel and visual style.

Daniel Lopatin’s otherworldly retro electronic echo acid soundtrack is a throwback to 1970s and 80s musical scores of Tangerine Dream in suspense thrillers like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1981). Good Time is tragic and darkly comic but also mesmerizing as we follow Connie through nocturnal cityscapes from one absurdity to another, starring in disbelief at the crazy decisions he makes. The pulse-pounding score steadily increases the pace, blurring the neon house-of-horrors milieu, and allowing us to keep up with the action. 

I went into the film knowing nothing about it and came out pleasantly surprised at its edgy dark desperate vision and unique exciting perspective reminiscent of Scorsese’s early work, which may not be for everyone. Robert Pattinson’s stand out performance in particular is all-out stunning and more than carries the film with his frantic energy. 

Like a nightmare you can’t escape, Good Time gets under your skin and crawls into your psyche, wreaking havoc wherever it goes. This movie goes and goes without stopping until it just falls off the screen, leaving you wondering, like a bad dream, what did I just experience?

JP

Dunkirk

Dunkirk refers to the coastal town of Dunkerque in northern France, which played a vital role during the early part of World War II in what is known as the Battle of Dunkirk, when British Expeditionary forces, aiding French troops to defend France from Nazi invasion, were overrun and beaten back by the powerful and aggressive advance of the highly organized German army.

Forced to retreat, the British, French, Canadian and some Dutch and Belgian troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk where they were to be evacuated across the English Channel back to the safety of England. With the Germans hot on their heels, the evacuation stalled when ships sent from England to pick up the beaten troops were torpedoed by German U-Boats and the vulnerable troops became sitting ducks for German Luftwaffe fighter planes to pick off at will.

This was the desperate situation that approximately 400,000 exhausted and virtually defenseless soldiers found themselves in for an excruciating 9 days while the English scrambled to make alternate plans to defend and evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk while the Nazis closed in for the kill.

As war films go, Dunkirk offers a stunningly dark and immersive experience that gives us an all-encompassing view of the events as they occur from multiple perspectives cutting between a montage of scenes from the three main theatres of war; the frightening experience of the soldier on the ground, the lonely isolated bird’s eye view of the British fighter pilot flying over the English Channel engaged in aerial combat with enemy planes, and one of the many civilians who made the dangerous journey across the Channel in small privately owned boats to try and help save as many lives as they could from the sea.

Christopher Nolan - Interstellar (2014) – The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 - 2012), attempts to show specific aspects of the battle from the English viewpoint. We never see the faces of the enemy. The threat is shown only as an unseen relentless force driving young men into desperate situations.

Soon after the start of hostilities in 1940, Europe quickly found themselves completely outmaneuvered and outgunned by a German war machine the size and speed of which had never been seen before. Young inexperienced European soldiers were completely unprepared for the violent onslaught that rained down upon them from the air, ground and sea.

As a survival story, Nolan’s Dunkirk greatly enhances the viewer’s feeling of despair and tension by throwing us into the bewildering battle as the confused and disoriented soldiers must have experienced it without any lead up to the events or character backstories.

Hans Zimmer’s eerie pervasive soundtrack is more like a synthesized screaming of string instruments that you might expect to hear in a horror film. The music has the harrowing screeching quality of a spitfire engine closely careening overhead that’s reminiscent of portions of The Dark Knight (2008) soundtrack.

Nolan’s intention is to give the viewer a visceral experience, making the events at Dunkirk accessible using the large IMAX format which is superbly well suited for putting the viewer in close proximity to the absurd war experience. The epic scale of the film with its vast expanses of beach, troops and sea, and the many threats from air, water and ground overwhelms with stunningly powerful scenes of war and destruction.

JP

The Big Sick

The Big Sick is a delightful heartwarming original romance and the perfect antidote for the current fearful intolerant times threatening to separate people from various backgrounds instead of uniting them which will resonate with many filmgoers. 

Kumail Nanjiani, a TV actor on HBO’s Silicon Valley, plays himself in 2007 when he was a struggling comedian and dating his white Christian girlfriend Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan) who he met as a grad student at the comedy club in Chicago during one of his standup routines and is based on their real-life romance.

Kumail dreams of making it big as a stand-up comic and actor in Chicago. He practices his cultural brand of comedy at a small comedy club by night and works as an Uber driver by day. His parents are devout Muslim Pakistani Americans who are busy trying to match him up with a steady array of Pakistani American girls who keep dropping by the house whenever he comes over for dinner. Yes visions of Meet the Patels (2015) and Punchline (1988) come to mind. 

What Kumail is hiding from his parents is that he enjoys his American lifestyle and is not interested in their cultural tradition of arranged marriages. He just wants to be like other normal American guys his age, but he can’t tell his girlfriend what his parents are expecting of him for fear of losing her, his parents, or both. 

Kumail and Emily have a charming playful chemistry together and we enjoy watching their courtship flourish. But when the two are at a stage in the relationship where Emily wants to meet his parents and for him to meet hers, Kumail tries to stall while he figures out how to explain his family situation. When she eventually finds out on her own, she’s heartbroken, accusing him of lying to her and bitterly breaks up with him.

After the abrupt breakup they go their separate ways and Kumail goes back to his old life of dating random girls he meets at the comedy club. But it so happens that this time fate steps in to give them both a reality check that will make them see each other in a whole new light and bring them back together in a most unusual way.

Like a classic Bollywood musical where our hero couple, after a magical courtship, suddenly separate during an angry disagreement, and then unexpectedly find themselves drawn back together after a big tragic event, so Kumail and Emily are reunited during a traumatic medical crisis when fate strikes a tragic blow.

At this point The Big Sick turns into an emotional hospital nightmare with hilarious awkward moments when Kumail rushes to Emily’s bedside after he discovers that she has fallen ill with a mysterious infection. He eventually finds himself face to face with Emily’s parents who know all about what has happened between him and their daughter and are none too happy to see him.

The situation for Kumail keeps getting more and more bizarre as we are kept in suspense and stitches with Kumail’s sincere deadpan facial expressions and dry humor when he’s confronted with serious doctor’s questions and Emily’s worried parents, played perfectly and honestly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who are stuck in the hospital together for days while waiting for news of Emily’s condition. 

The Big Sick, which premiered at Sundance, walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy, touching on interracial relations, cross-cultural clashes, Islamophobia, and family bonds, resulting in a big emotional payoff. The film’s significant themes of tolerance, acceptance and diversity are a welcome trend made more relevant in today’s tense political environment of Trump’s volatile America.

JP

Baby Driver

Baby doesn’t talk much. He’s constantly hooked up to his iPod that pumps out tunes selected to suit his moods, prompting one character in Baby Driver to ask “Is he retarded?” about the young kid getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), in this adrenalin rush, pulse pounding heist thriller with a shuffle mix beat. 

Another character replies in his defense “Retarded means slow. Is he slow?” From what we’ve just witnessed in the opening sequence of the film, Baby is anything but slow. In fact Baby is a maniac behind the wheel. Baby Driver is so fast it will make your head spin with delight.

It’s a careening frenetic fun ride that hits all the right notes literally with a wall-to-wall soundtrack that inspires the action sequences and car chases in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. Edited almost exactly to the beat of the music, Baby Driver is precisely choreographed to the action with an eclectic mix of Rock, Funk and Hip Hop songs as heard through Baby’s iPod and stolen car radios.

Baby learned how to drive like no one else after his parents were killed in a car accident when he was little, with him being the only survivor. Now slightly hearing impaired, he can’t live without the music blaring in his ears to drown out the constant hum giving him the superhuman ability to drive a car with a single minded focus. 

His driving ability makes him a valued asset to a group of bank robbers lead by a daring fast talking crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who coerces Baby to work for him using his talent to get them out of sticky situations.

The songs drive the film in such a way that the audience hears what Baby hears through almost the entire film and the results are fascinating and exhilarating, putting us right in the driver’s seat.

Baby Driver makes a pit stop at a roadside diner where Baby hangs out when he’s not driving just long enough to develop a quick love relationship with an attractive young waitress, Deborah (Lily James), he has his eye on. When Baby thinks he is finally free to leave his criminal past behind and make an honest living to be with his new love, Doc has other plans for him which he cannot refuse. 

A guy who wants to use his remarkable talent to break from his past to be with the woman he loves is not that new a concept. Movies like Punch Drunk Love (2002) come to mind, but what makes this film unique is it’s blending of genres like the heist crime thriller with a unique musical slant. Here Punch Drunk Love meets Drive (2011) but with more action, humor and music.

British director Edgar Wright, well known for his hilarious send ups of other genres with films like Hot Fuzz (2007), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and The World’s End (2013), does it even more successfully here while raising the bar for all future action films and creating an instantly memorable film that will have audience’s jaws dropping and heads bopping to the beat.

Don’t miss this insanely stylish and enjoyable film that’s sure to make you a Baby Driver fan when it comes to cinemas June 28.

JP

American Honey

Fearless, uncompromising, and shocking, American Honey exposes the harsh underbelly of the elusive American dream. This swerving road adventure is energized with a youthful exuberance for life and a hopeful future while living on the seedy edge of an amoral lifestyle. 

It’s the Easy Rider for millennials; an unflinching and mesmerizing odyssey that follows Star (Sasha Lane), a gutsy teenage girl fed up with babysitting the young children of irresponsible parents who spend their time drinking at the local bar, when she flees her impoverished home to join a ragtag group of misfit runaway kids who ‘work hard’ scamming and robbing their way from town to town as they travel across Middle America in a van selling magazine subscriptions.

Andrea Arnold, the British director of the acclaimed film Fish Tank (2009), also about a teenage girl coming of age in working class Essex housing projects while witnessing the struggles of her single mother eking out a living by prostitution and drugs, was herself the product of years of living off welfare and scraping by while feeding her children. Here Arnold turns her eye on the American equivalent of lost aimless youth.

Using a mostly non-professional cast of actors who are utterly natural just being themselves, and filming in an array of veritable locations; truck stops, trailer parks, parking lots and abandoned houses along the endless highways of America, American Honey looks and feels as authentic as an amateur home video that never censors itself from the ugliness and beauty of the people and places it visits for short periods.

This little seen behind the garbage dump corner of American life could well be the ignored, underrepresented, low income America that recently put a reality TV business mogul in the White House.

The camera never stops moving as we are ferried endlessly in a van full of tired restless kids, capturing desolate mind numbing expanses of American landscapes, strip malls and billboards. But what is most distressing is the moral emptiness of these kids who will do anything for a buck and are heading for a dead-end life of drugs and lost dreams.

Sasha’s performance as Star is courageous and vulnerable at the same time. She wants to find an authentic life and is awestruck by the life of freedom and fun the traveling group of wild kids seem to lead. Led by the charismatic slightly older hustler Jake, Shia LaBeouf is exceptional here in a fascinating performance and brilliantly cast as the longtime team leader and go-between for the gang of kids and their intimidating female boss Krystal played by Riley Keough.

Throughout their travels and adventures together Jake and Star quickly form a strong sensual bond and have a great chemistry between them. The hip-hop soundtrack of contemporary hits that blasts on the radios of their vehicles and inside various department stores gets the kids hollering and dancing with glee as the ever changing landscapes flash by in the background giving the film a surreal fun-house feel.

Innocence is quickly lost in this dreamlike alternate reality America as the homeless kids are exposed to the severe realities of their desperate situations but do so with a life affirming resilience that is all too recognizable in children shielding themselves from the uncertainty of their plight. 

American Honey is an intimately observed and brutally honest drama about kids in hopeless situations living day to day never knowing where they will find themselves and a sad commentary on the effects of a consumerist and morally corrupt society gripping America’s youth. 

JP

KONG: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is an epic size apocalyptic creature feature that relishes in its grand visual spectacle. Not since Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic King Kong (2005) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) have we seen such awesome digital monster clashes.

Set in 1973 Vietnam War era, the psychedelic music of the 70s drug culture sets the tone for an appropriate mythic adventure of destruction and discovery. Swarms of Huey military helicopters heading into the eye of the storm, a makeshift boat cruising down jungle rivers into the heart of darkness all evoking a fond homage to Apocalypse Now (1979).

This is not a retelling of the classic King Kong beauty and the beast story but more a reimagining of and continuation of the Kong legacy. The film gets off to a stunning start with a W.W. II airplane battle between an American and Japanese pilot who crash on the undiscovered island in 1944 that could be the start of a new Indiana Jones movie.

Fast forward 29 years into the future where a government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) is putting together a secret task force of soldiers, mercenaries and scientists to find an as yet undiscovered mysterious island thought to be a black hole into which many a plane have disappeared.

The expedition, under the guise of a geological survey team, to locate and scout the uncharted island hidden from satellites by a perpetual hurricane that surrounds it, starts out in spectacular fashion that brings together a group of unusual international characters not unlike the animated Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Soon everyone is running through the jungle to Creedance Clearwater Revival and helicopters are swooping down unloading their lethal ordinance in a ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ style Vietnam War montage that explodes with operatic energy and is one of the films highlights.

A heady hybrid of jungle warfare and colossal monster films colliding in stunning awesomeness, Kong is visually glorious and a blast to watch even before we see the first Jurassic glimpses of Skull Island creating an energy and momentum that will delight even the most skeptical fan boys and girls. Even the poster is a mashup of Apocalypse Now’s sunset with Kong’s silhouette standing in for Marlon Brando’s head.

Brie Larson is well cast here as brave strong-willed heroine Mason Weaver, an independent anti-war photographer who discovers that Kong has taken a shine to her and may not be the most dangerous creature on the island. 

John C. Reilly’s comic performance as Hank Marlow, a stranded W.W. II pilot who has survived by befriending the natives of the Island almost steals the show in a role that’s equivalent to the one played by Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Most of the other characters are underdeveloped, serving mostly as fodder for Kong who is definitely the stand out star of the show.

Made by the producers of Garth Edwards Godzilla (2014) and directed by newcomer Jordan Vogt-Roberts - Kings of Summer (2013), this film is poised to start a new franchise of heroic large scale creature brawl films where the new digital age of monster effects dominates the landscape.

Kong: Skull Island gets the summer block buster season off to a great start if you’re looking for nostalgia and escapist adventure on a grand scale. 

JP

A Man Called Ove

Sweden’s Oscar entry, A Man Called Ove is a touching, bittersweet, comic tale that’s a deeply satisfying emotional experience, and it’s fully deserving of its 2 Oscar nominations for best foreign film and best hair and makeup.

Based on the international bestselling debut novel by blogger Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove’s main character, played by Rolf Lassgard, is definitely one of the grumpiest middle aged men portrayed on film in recent years that saw a growing spate of ageist comedies like Grandma (2015) and The Grump (2014).

As the self-proclaimed security guard and all round handyman in his well-maintained community of row houses, Ove has a long established routine of sternly making sure his neighborhood is safe and secure from vandals and thieves by diligently enforcing the rules to the letter. One can’t be too careful nowadays with irresponsible youth and the influx of immigrants. 

Ove has an intimidating presence with his mean scowl and quick imposing finger that he points at everyone who approaches him with a question or a simple good morning greeting. He calls everyone idiots, hisses at stray cats, tells off little old ladies who ask him for help, and yells at people who drive through the traffic free residential lane way.

Ove, who has tragically lost his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) to cancer recently, is grumpier than usual and has decided, after being forced to retire, to follow his true love into the afterlife. The problem is, every time he’s about to kill himself he’s interrupted by some imbecile neighbor who needs his help.

We can’t help but laugh as Ove matter-of-factly attempts and fails to do himself in. At first we have little sympathy for him but as we learn more about Ove’s past and especially his relationship with his wife, it becomes apparent that he has lost someone very special and is having trouble coping without her.

But the outside world that he hates so much keeps barging in, coming to his rescue as he learns to adjust to a new reality and we discover that he is not the evil unsympathetic man we thought he was.

The story takes some unexpectedly humorous turns including a backstory about his rivalry with a good friend that drives a wedge between them as they obsessively try to outdo each other with their loyalty to Swedish car makes Saab and Volvo.

Rolf Lassgard portrays Ove with perfect balance of comic bombast and vulnerability, bringing this unlikeable man to life in a way that we can all deeply relate to. 

Acclaimed Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas has created an evocative and moving musical score that beautifully blends comic and tragic moods touching the right emotional strings. Ove’s plodding base theme ‘Janitor’ perfectly complements Lassgard’s bold daring performance.

A Man Called Ove is the surprise sleeper hit of the year steadily gaining both critical acclaim and audience praise. It unexpectedly got onto the Academy Award’s radar and is a strong contender to win the Oscar for best foreign film this week against a tough group of excellent films.

A crowd-pleaser that deals with surprisingly relevant social issues and packs an emotional punch as it builds and develops one of the most endearing characters of the year; A Man Called Ove is a cherished experience that will stay with you long after its final fond images are seared into your heart.

JP

After the Storm

Hirokazu Kore-eda, a vital voice in Japanese cinema, known for his emotionally distressing family dramas – Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and Our Little Sister (2015), champions the everyday struggles of regular working class people and especially the complex family relationships between children and their parents.

After the Storm is a quietly desperate and darkly humorous portrait of a lower class Japanese family struggling with divorce, separation, financial uncertainty, and society’s expectations. 

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who has the charmingly disheveled looks and manner of a Japanese version of Hugh Grant, is a divorced novelist working as a part time private detective to make ends meet while keeping tabs on his estranged wife and son. He must come to terms with his failed marriage while competing for his son’s affections with his ex-wife’s new fiancé.

After achieving early success with an award winning novel in his youth, his family and friends keep mocking him for his lack of ambition and keep asking him when his next novel will come out. But as he struggles with midlife crisis looking back on his failed career as a novelist, his mother (Kirin Kiki) reassures him that great talents often bloom late in life.

Behind on the rent and his alimony payments due to his reckless gambling addiction, Abe’s Ryota gives an endearingly comic performance of a man-child, revealing a parent awkwardly struggling to bond with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), while trying to step-up and mend his reputation as a father by buying him expensive gifts he can’t afford.

We follow Ryota on his daily grind as he gambles and participates in shady extortion schemes to stay financially afloat. Sensitively told with delicate performances that speak volumes, the film visually immerses us in authentic lived-in locations filmed in tight intimately detailed spaces giving us the tactile feeling of a typical close-knit Japanese urban life. 

Visionary auteur Kore-eda knows how to get subtle nuanced moments out of his actors and is able to vividly unveil a human tenderness and understanding of such depth and power that it harkens back to the neorealism of Italian cinema showing regular people suffering with painful universal family issues.

When a typhoon (storm) hits Japan while visiting his mother, Ryota and his son and ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) are forced to spend the night together in her small ancestral cozy apartment, the close quarters allowing for a chance to remember the old family bonds that were lost after the divorce and confront their family failings.

After the Storm is a contemplative yet heartwarming optimistic experience that effectively deals with bitter generational human issues with a humor and insightfulness that everyone can relate to and will resonate with a wide audience of all cultures and classes.

JP

Lion

Lion is the profoundly moving true-life story of Saroo, a five year old boy living in a remote Indian village with his mother and siblings who is lost and separated from his brother one night while scavenging a railway station. 

After falling asleep from exhaustion on an empty train, Saroo finds himself being whisked away across India for thousands of kilometers to the chaotic city of Kolkata. Illiterate and unable to speak the Bengali language spoken by Kolkatans, Saroo had no idea where he ended up, or how to get back to his home. 

Surviving on the hazardous streets by himself for weeks while running from various unlawful fraudsters posing as kind Samaritans, he is finally taken to a crammed orphanage where he is eventually adopted by an Australian family and taken half way across the world to live with his adoptive parents John and Sue Brierley in Tasmania.

Based on his actual experiences, the movie follows Saroo Brierley on his incredible journey which he wrote about in his memoir A Long Way Home.

After growing up in a well to do middle class western family for the next 25 years, Saroo who now speaks English with an Aussie accent, can’t stop thinking about the family he left behind, and what they must be going through after his disappearance.  

After all, Saroo was not a runaway or abused by his family like many other children who end up on the streets. Saroo came from an impoverished but loving family who must have been extremely worried, wondering what had happened to him. 

Now much older and seeking his true identity, he decides to find out if he can retrace his steps back to where he came from and find his lost family using only his memories as a 5 year old, and a groundbreaking new satellite mapping technology called Google Earth.

Lion is a harsh but hopeful tale with a power and purpose that pays off big at the end of the film. We are treated to arresting aerial photography of some of India’s sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Greig Frazer who also lensed Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Lion feels much like a documentary that takes place in and around the maelstrom of India’s swarming streets and railways stations known for its dangerous and deadly accidents. 

The performance by the young non-professional Sunny Pawar who plays Saroo at age five is mesmerizing and note perfect. The supporting portrayals by Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother and Dev Patel – Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – as the older Saroo are also excellent but Sunny Pawar’s stunning and charming performance steals the show and clearly carries most of the film.

Making his feature film debut, Australian born commercial director Garth Davis skillfully relies on the power of the striking images to tell the inspiring story and allows his actors to convey the heartfelt realism of Saroo’s experiences.

Winning the runner up prize for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Lion found a passionate audience and is well worth seeing in any season. 

Oscar buzz aside, allow the magic of this inspirational gem to take you on an unforgettable emotional journey you won’t soon forget.

JP

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Fans and filmgoers rejoice! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story rocks, setting a new high standard for the space fantasy franchise and exceeding fan expectations. Rousing adventure and exhilarating spectacle are back in cinemas in time to make your Christmas wish list come true.

Gareth Edwards – Monsters (2010), Godzilla (2014) – is part of a new generation of filmmakers who grew up with the mythology of the Star Wars Saga and is now able to play in the Universe that George Lucas created and bring their own sense of fun and reverence to it. 

Edwards clearly has a passion for the series being a fanboy himself, and still very much in touch with the awestruck child inside of him. Able to draw from 40 years of Star Wars lore, he has brought to the screen everything that people love about the original films as well as the acclaimed animated Clone Wars series. 

Darker and grittier in tone than previous films in the series, Rogue One follows a young woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), taken from her parents at an early age whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was recruited by the Empire to help build a secret weapon that will bring order to the galaxy. 

Everyone knows about Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s adventures with the help of Han Solo to smuggle stolen plans of the Death Star back to a secret rebel base and mount a successful attack that would destroy the Empire’s most feared weapon. Well… Rogue One is the first new Star Wars film which is an adjacent story, not part of the Skywalker saga, with never before seen characters that fills a time gap just prior to the events of A New Hope (1977), revealing the story of who and how those plans were stolen and delivered into the hands of our legendary heroes.

As outlined in the opening crawl of Episode IV: A New Hope, “Rebel spaceships, striking out from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the Evil Galactic Empire” and in fact the Rebel Alliance’s secret base on the fourth moon of Yavin plays a much bigger role in Rogue One as we get to see more of the ancient temple ruins hidden among the jungle forests of Yavin 4 where the rebels regroup and plan their next move.

“Rebellions are built on hope” according to one of Rogue One’s most dedicated members Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) whose morals have suffered due to having seen too many bad things and having done things he’s not proud of in the name of the Rebellion. But hope is in short supply at this crucial time in the Star Wars saga; the Jedi, guardians of the peace and justice, are a distant memory after the Emperor’s purge in Episode III some 20 years earlier, and the growing power of the Empire is on the verge of completing a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets.

Against such a threat the Rebels have no defense or any power to stop such an attack unless they can find a way to destroy it from within before it can do any harm. But this will not be easy and will require much courage on the part of many over the course of four films.

Armed with only vague information about a critical design flaw in the Death Star’s construction covertly sent by her father, Jyn eventually inspires a small rogue band of freedom fighters, extremists, Imperial defectors and reprogrammed war droids to infiltrate a secure Imperial archive facility to steal highly sensitive plans that could save the galaxy from certain destruction.

Much like World War II where the Allies were out classed by superior weapons of the German Empire, Rogue One is very much a war film about a small but courageous ragtag band of warriors coming together by fate for a common cause to fight a more advanced enemy against all odds.

Rogue One skillfully pays homage to moments and characters from previous Star Wars films and other media especially Episode IV: A New Hope which Rogue One directly precedes, and much of the fun for fans will be recognizing those moments which resonate with earlier films. The locations are once again chosen from many parts of the world, with Iceland, Jordan and the Maldives standing in for an array of unique otherworldly planets.

Rogue One also does a great job of creating memorable new characters and matching the look and feel of the original classic films. It has a rousing and spectacular ending that plays right into the beginning of A New Hope, which had audiences on their feet and cheering as the final credits role. 

JP

The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s first collaboration with Dutch Academy Award winning animator Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a playful and moving meditation on life and the passage of time. It’s an allegorical fable about human existence that’s intensely heartfelt and artfully animated, reminding us of our limited time on earth and our deep need for companionship.

A man finds himself stranded on a tropical island with only crabs and birds for company. He makes several attempts to escape the island by building a raft with the bamboo he finds in a nearby forest but he’s continually foiled by a large sea turtle.

Angry and consumed with hatred for the turtle and desperate with diminishing resources at his disposal, he makes a plan to kill the giant turtle, yet what happens in the aftermath of the confrontation between man and turtle is an unexpected  all-consuming compassion for the subject of his hatred.

This bizarre story turns into a magical tale of deep sympathy and compassion with life taking its natural course and the turtle becoming an essential part of the hero’s happiness. In many ways the story calls to mind the same themes and ideas of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) based on Kobo Abe’s novel The Woman in the Dunes.

The film focuses closely on the physical and emotional turmoil of the castaway as he deals with his predicament; his determination to leave the island, his frustration, wonder and struggles. The absence of any dialogue contributes to a meditative philosophical mood in a place with no other humans and only the wind, the sea and nature all around to interact with.

The animation has a clean clear cinematic look with natural colors often used in European comics. It’s drawn in a minimalist yet detailed naturalistic style that harkens back to the popular Belgian cartoonist Hergé who is best known for The Adventures of Tintin.

The story’s underlying existential theme touches on the random connections that life presents us with and how our relationships and circumstances define our existence. Before we make those personal connections we are just consumed with selfish pursuits, but once we stumble into a deep love connection, it feels at first like a trap or prison, a restriction on our egocentric existence until one day we realize our life is being fulfilled beyond our expectations and we no longer seek to escape it. 

The Red Turtle steadily grows into more than the sum of its parts and is a rewarding emotional experience for those who have the patience to see it through to its satisfying conclusion.

JP

Tampopo

The long awaited return of a beloved Japanese art-house classic has finally arrived with the new Janus films 4K restoration of Tampopo (1985). 

Long before Japanese Ramen noodle houses started popping up everywhere in North American cities and became the new trendy places to eat authentic noodle soup, many of us only knew about this delicious Japanese staple by way of a hit comedy that took North American and European audiences by storm in the mid-1980s.

Juzo Itami’s humorous and touching “noodle western”, a collision of the Western and Gangster genre tropes, was a break-out hit that took Japanese cinema in fresh new directions and brought international attention to contemporary Japanese culture during an era that was otherwise marked by heavy period dramas from veteran Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa – Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), Kon Ichikawa – The Makioka Sisters (1983), and Shohei Imamura – The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and Black Rain (1989), and lead to his successful follow-up films A Taxing Woman (1987), and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988).

Tampopo was promoted as a high spirited noodle western; a satire on the appreciation and passionate relationship between food and life in Japanese contemporary culture through a montage of culinary vignettes, and observations that range from the gourmet tastes of a bumbling low level office worker at a business luncheon with company executives in a high end restaurant, to the final loving act of a dying mother and wife in a low income apartment cooking one last meal for her family.

Tampopo, which means dandelion in Japanese, is also the name of a widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) who has been left in charge of her late husband’s small roadside Ramen house with her son. When Gorô (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a cowboy hat wearing truck driver and Ramen connoisseur stops in for lunch, he gets more than he bargained for. 

After defending the widow and her son in an all-out fist fight with the local clientele who are harassing Tampopo about her awful tasting noodles, Gorô is truck by her passionate plea to teach her how to improve her cooking skills. He decides after recovering from his injuries to take up the challenge and coach her to perfect the art of Ramen. 

But it will not be easy. We are immediately thrown into the Rocky of food films; the Seven Samurai of Ramen noodle survival in a competitive cut-throat business as she goes through Olympic style training to be the best Ramen chef in town. She and Gorô start by scoping out the various local competitors to learn the secret of the most important ingredients that go into making a great Ramen dish. 

Throughout Tampopo’s training, which becomes a little like a reality TV episode of Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Makeover, the film is sprinkled throughout with a collage of brief satirical sketches of unrelated food themed side stories; food as aphrodisiac, food as culture, food as an expression of love, food as tradition and food as ritual.

The two are joined by a number of food experts and masters who help teach Tampopo to understand the nature of a great bowl of traditional Ramen soup and how to serve people to keep them coming back.

Tampopo, a little known Japanese comedy that became a sleeper hit with European and North American art-house cinephiles and would inspire future Japanese film makers like Takeshi Kitano, can now, some 30 years later, be enjoyed by a new generation of filmgoers who will discover the culinary pleasures of this most amusing and unique Japanese ode to food and life.

JP                                       

Aquarius

In the face of greed, human rights and decency are thrown out the window. Where there is the potential for profit, protection of those human rights and the environment is easily circumvented by government and corporate corruption. This is true anywhere in the world and especially in Brazil's political and business class but some filmmakers are protesting in creative, artistic and not so subtle ways.

Former film critic and director Kleber Mendonça Filho, who lives in the northeastern coastal city of Recife, where Aquarius takes place and where he also made his previous critically acclaimed film Neighboring Sounds (2012), has been making a name for himself with powerful films exposing the ruthless deceptive ways people employ to undermine the law and invade protected places.

Clara, (Sonia Braga) – Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), a renowned music critic now retired has lived in the same beachfront apartment since she was a young girl growing up in the 60s sexual revolution. Her home is a sanctuary where she nurtured her children to adulthood and where she has fond memories of the music and family events she experienced. She has a deep ancestral connection to her neighborhood.

Clara is now the only resident left in the building after a property development company has bought out every other tenant in order to make way for a new luxury condo building. But no matter how much they try to persuade her to sell, Clara resists the company’s offers against her family’s wishes.

Aquarius balances Clara’s past history as a cancer survivor, which formed her strong independent personality and the bond with her environment, and her present struggle with a corrupt developer who resorts to various nasty and illegal means to force her to leave. 

Like termites, human greed eats away at protected lands and forests of the world as well as our historic homes and buildings destroying much of our cultural identity. Clara is determined to take a stand but she has no idea who she is up against and to what lengths they will go. Her rival has much more sinister plans than she can imagine.

When Aquarius opened at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Brazil’s female President Dilma Rousseff was impeached for breaking budget laws without any proof of wrongdoing. Mendonça, Sonia Braga and the rest of the Aquarius cast quickly decided to stage a protest at Cannes to call international attention to what they saw as a coup d’etat by corrupt opposition ministers.

Considered one of the front runners to be submitted for Oscar consideration, Aquarius was snubbed by the new government committee presumably for its exposure of Brazilian government corruption and the controversial denunciation at Cannes. In protest, the Brazilian film community responded by withdrawing some of their high profile films from contention including Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull (2015), and Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son (2016), whose film The Second Mother (2015) was Brazil’s official Oscar entry in 2015.

Resonating strongly, as art sometimes does, with events in the real world, Aquarius has since taken on a new level of metaphorical meaning of resistance against Brazil's corrupt political class and undemocratic government dealings that have been plaguing Brazil.

Aquarius is a timely artistic expression of human dignity, powerfully portrayed by Sonia Braga, and bold resolve in the face of cruel unscrupulous tactics used by government and corporate agents. Truth and justice are at stake but art and freedom of expression may also be suffering in the wake of the scandal.

JP

A Death in the Gunj

From celebrated actress Konkona Sensharma, making her directorial debut, comes an Indian drama that’s a poignant and surprisingly powerful condemnation of the disturbing and destructive effects of emotional abuse that siblings and parents can unwittingly inflict on their own family members. 

Set in 1979, an extended family of brothers and their spouses gather to spend New Year’s with their aunt and uncle at their ancestral home among the decaying remains of the former Anglo-Indian settlement of McCluskiegunj in the jungle forest of Jharkhand north east India.

The film is based on Sensharma’s own childhood experiences and loosely based on her father’s short story ‘Death in McCluskie Gunj’, which was more of a supernatural thriller and fictionalized retelling of an actual incident involving a séance that took place at his parents vacation home.

As is often the case with large extended families, there’s plenty of aggressive peer pressure and boisterous playful teasing among the older siblings who all want to prove their male dominance. But one young nephew, Shutu (Vikrant Massey), a university student, seems to be less so inclined. He’s a withdrawn introvert and more of a sensitive artistic soul who is always the butt of everyone’s jokes and pranks. 

It’s clear he doesn’t fit in with the family, there’s a childlike innocence about him that no one seems to appreciate except Tani, the eight year old daughter of his uncle Nandu. Treated with disdain as a poor relative, he’s an outsider looking in and feels left out but wants desperately to be accepted as an equal member of the family. 

Relentlessly harassed by his cruel uncles, sent on trivial errands by his aunt and used as a babysitter, Shutu’s self-worth is eventually whittled away to nothing, setting the stage for the inevitable tragic consequences.

The abandoned ruins of bungalows in the lush Gunj forest make for a moody and ominous setting that seem inviting and beautiful enough on the outside, but where darker unsuspecting dangers may lurk.

Circumstances conspire that put Shutu in a more adult sexual situation, and he naively falls for a girl who’s toying with his feelings. When he realizes that he’s been taken advantage of yet again, the humiliation and realization that he will never be what others expect of him, lead to a tragic outcome.

This is not a Bollywood musical melodrama. A Death in the Gunj is very much in keeping with the tenets of a socially conscious realism style of cinema in the tradition of legendary Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s social realist dramas.

A Death in the Gunj re-creates perfectly the attitudes, fashion and visual design of late 70s India. Sensharma is also able to effectively create the social and class dynamics of a large upper-middle class Indian family with an excellent ensemble cast that will resonate with South Asian as well as international audiences. 

A Death in the Gunj played in Toronto at TIFF16 this September and will open the Mumbai Film Festival October 21, 2016.

JP

Indivisible

Near the ancient crime-ridden southern Italian city of Napoli, plagued by high unemployment, a ragtag family of musicians travel the countryside in an old van posing as a religious group with their conjoined twin daughters, Daisy and Viola, who were born attached at the hip and sing inspirational songs claiming to be holy saints.

The teenage twin sisters, despite their identical appearance, clearly have very different personalities and they share more than just their stunning voices. When one eats or drinks alcohol the other suffers from the digestion and drunkenness.

One day, while performing at a private birthday party, a doctor tells them and their controlling father that they don’t need to live their lives attached to each other. Modern medicine can perform a simple operation that can easily separate them and allow them to live normal lives.

Imagining their independence for the first time, as they were told they could never be separated, one of the teenage twins is immediately interested in this operation. But the family’s livelihood and the main reason that they are a popular attraction depends on their unique disability; a ‘miracle of god’ creation. Their father runs the show and books the gigs and has no interest in separating them, as it will spell the end of his lucrative scam.

When they learn that their father has been exploiting them for profit and gambled away all their savings, they are faced with the grim realization that they don’t have the money for the operation. But the girls become more determined than ever and decide to take matters into their own hands.

After escaping, they soon find themselves on a harrowing odyssey through rough and seedy regions alone for the first time to secure a better future for themselves. But as they approach their goal and ponder the prospect of not always being near each other, they may not be able to come to terms with the pain that separation will bring.

Filmed by director Edoardo de Angelis in the rundown dilapidated shores of Castel Volturno just north of Naples, we are shown the gypsy lifestyle of this close knit unscrupulous family as they are torn apart by greed and selfishness when the promise of a better life is offered to their unfortunate daughters.

One thing that Daisy and Viola do have plenty of is determination and drive. Despite their fears and insecurities, they never stop pursuing their dream of independence regardless of the dangers. That’s what keeps us rooting for them throughout the film.

Indivisible is a suspenseful and moving experience that immerses us in the desperate world of Daisy and Viola who represent all that is good and innocent in a world full of corruption. They are played with conviction and passion by the beautiful real-life identical twin sisters Angela and Marianna Fontana, who are making their feature film debut.

One of the best and delightfully surprising films I saw at the tiff16 festival this year, Indivisible is a crowd-pleaser that’s already generating award buzz and narrowly missed out by one vote of becoming the official foreign Oscar Entry for Italy. 

Be sure to run out and find this Italian treasure when it’s released in cinemas.

JP

Heal the Living

One of the more unusual but fascinating films I saw at tiff16 this year, Heal the Living is an almost spiritual experience that transports us from one vigorous life force cut short in its prime to another expiring life awakening with new vitality and hope via the modern biomedical marvel of a heart transplant. 

The human heart is the vital life-giving force of the film as we follow a young thrill seeking boy racing through the early morning streets of Le Havre on his bike after climbing out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window to meet up with his surfing buddies. As they enter the dark cold water and the waves begin to swell, the surfers are quick to pick up the challenge and ride the surging coils.

As dawn breaks the exhausted surfers ride home in their van and we pick up another story of a middle-aged woman in Paris who used to be a concert pianist until she was diagnosed with degenerative heart disease and now must be put on a long waiting list to find a new heart.

Based on the Booker longlisted international novel Mend the Living by French author Maylis de Kerangal, the film inhabits the time frozen space between life and death; a mixture of the heartfelt emotional journey that two families go through as they deal with heart breaking loss, and the procedural intricacies of organ donation.

Poetically shot, evoking the wonder of life with breathtaking cinematography, Heal the Living is also a visual marvel that takes us inside the minds of its characters to give us a sense of their very distinct lives and emotional turmoil.

We are shown the implications and urgency of organ donations from the first time the subject is broached to a dying patient’s parents, to the precise timing of two surgeries that must be performed at a moment’s notice miles apart from each other. First, to carefully harvest the organ from one patient, transporting it to another city as quickly as possible while the other patient’s surgery is timed and prepared to accept and insert the freshly taken heart when it arrives.

Skillfully balancing raw feelings and moral ethics, director Katell Quillévéré portrays the characters and the clinical procedures as being much more emotional than one might think possible, not only for the families of the victims but also for the doctors, nurses and surgeons themselves. 

One comes away with both a new appreciation for the professionals who perform and organize the organ donation protocols, but also the victim’s families who must make the quick and difficult decision of giving up their loved one’s body to undergo this intrusive procedure and trust that everyone involved will respect their wishes and treat the dying and living with the utmost care.

Thought-provoking and tragically inspirational, Heal the Living will remind you of the life giving opportunity that rests with all of us if we can overcome our grief and fears.

JP