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Recent Movies: Good Time; Beach Rats; An Inconvenient Sequel

Recent Movies

Good Time

Connie (Robert Pattinson) is a New York City criminal who convinces his mentally handicapped brother, Nick (Ben Safdie), to help him in a bank robbery. From then on, as so often happens in this film genre, numerous mishaps pile on top of each other.

Where the film deserves credit: it is fast-paced with more than a few surprises. It also avoids the usual fake glamour of crime films by showing how gritty life truly is for the underclass caught in the cycle of a life of crime. (Safdie and his brother Josh are the film’s directors and they deserve credit for their skills.)

There are films that have a disadvantage where the main character is truly unlikeable. In this sense, “Good Time” is extremely disadvantaged. Connie is an absolutely rancid piece of slime. He is also a hybrid of the extremities of willfulness, stupidity, and pathological narcissism. There are some rare movies that could take this negative situation and twist it into something surprisingly fascinating. “Good Time” is not one of those movies.

RATING (out of four stars): * *


Beach Rats

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is in his late teens and lives at his Brooklyn home with his family. He also lives a double life: he hangs out and does drugs with three macho friends while also living a closeted life of arranging sexual encounters with men (mostly middle-aged) on the Internet.

While “Beach Rats” has a standard tone in its coming-of-age storyline, it can be given credit to going where most films dare not go: its man-to-man encounters are upfront. While this is courageous and rare, the movie suffers like many other recent ones including “Good Time” above: the main character is unlikeable.

Franikie’s gradual descent into drug dependence might have elicited sympathy but he lacks soul and character whether he’s drugging with his friends, having secretive sex with men, trying to go “straight” with a young woman close to his age, or in the few encounters he has with his family.

Some characters in smaller roles do show glimpses of depth but these moments are too few and far between. Director/writer Eliza Hittman uses a cool, distant approach to the characters but as the characters themselves are also cool and distant, there is an empty feeling by the end.

RATING:   * * 1/2


An Inconvenient Sequel

Picking up from the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), Al Gore continues his crusade against global warming.

Like the original film, Gore uses convincing data to explain his case, only occasionally getting too technical for the average non-science-whiz viewer. This sequel uses clips of the original in which predictions were made (and immediately dismissed by climate change deniers) and later proven to be true. The folks behind this film show diplomacy as they do not directly use the phrase “I told you so” even though they have every right to.

“An Inconvenient Sequel” showed promise by beginning with brief audio clips of naysayers believing Gore’s mission to be a false one. It would have benefited by continuing with other viewpoints throughout the film but it concentrates too much on Gore alone. The restriction of one note, even if it is a good one as it is here, limits the impact.

Similarly, some sequences don’t gel well with each other overall and the movie comes off as choppy. Some of them went too far with sentimental, cheesy music during moments of victory and hope.

Despite the flaws, “An Inconvenient Sequel” is still a fine film mainly because of its relevance and the solid character of Al Gore. Like its predecessor, it can cause the viewer despair at the world’s situation but it is also balanced with hope for the good changes that are turning things around. The most unexpected moment of hope is when Gore meets a small-town super-conservative mayor in Republican Texas: Dale Ross of the town of Georgetown. The two men have a wonderful rapport because – are you ready? – the mayor believes in Gore’s cause and implements similar policies for his town, stating that renewable energy is as good for the bottom line as it is for the environment. (Hopefully, this delightful man will have greater influence in his party in the very near future.)

“An Inconvenient Sequel” provides hope in two ways. The obvious one is in the accelerating movement of positive changes going against the negative ones on the issue of climate change. Yet, it also gives a revival to something else that is deteriorating: an expression of liberalism with a solid heart and mind – something that has made this philosophy so appealing for decades. These days, there are many elements of liberalism that have become narrow-minded, mean-spirited, self-serving, hypocritical, and in some cases, violent – in other words, all the traits they accuse their opponents of having. May this movie contribute to the return of a healthy planet and a healthy liberalism.

RATING:   * * *

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Recent Movies: The Women’s Balcony; Baby Driver; War for the Planet of the Apes

Recent Movies

The Women’s Balcony

In Jerusalem, an Orthodox congregation is in a quandary following an incident that leaves their synagogue in great need of repair: as the elderly rabbi  is showing gradual signs of mental decline, a younger rabbi (Aviv Alush) helps the congregation in the mean time but his ultra-orthodox fundamentalism rubs the congregants the wrong way – especially the women.

This film has a delightful gathering of characters who show their humanity and quirkiness simultaneously although this might have been enhanced with maybe a little over-the-top characterizations and situations now and then. Among the performers, Evelin Hagoel stands out as a woman who easily refutes the younger rabbi’s forced changes on her community.

“The Women’s Balcony” deals well with that age-old inner conflict among the religious – whatever the religion or denomination: the apparent sense of duty and obedience vs. what people know deep in their hearts to be true. This theme works well up to a point but the film is less effective due to the young rabbi’s harsh, one-dimensional approach.

He easily comes off as a villain. If the film had given a glimpse as to what drives him, the audience could have been left with the inner-debate of whether to sympathize with him despite his odious actions. Despite the film’s good points, this flaw reduces the film to a mixed result.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


Baby Driver

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a boyish, young man caught up in Atlanta’s crime scene. As he is indebted to a crime-lord (Kevin Spacey), his expert driving skills are exploited as a getaway driver for various robberies. Baby would eventually like to go “straight” but the crime-lord won’t allow this.

“Baby Driver” is a competent film: the story is consistent and sometimes exciting; the acting is good; the main character is interesting; the car chases and criminal showdowns are well done; and it has a superb soundtrack (Baby has to constantly listen to music due to a traumatic incident in his childhood).

With all the praise in the above paragraph, a rating of at least three stars should be in order. But it goes down a half notch for a couple of reasons. As a film that is dependent on car chases and shoot-‘em-ups, “Baby Driver” would inevitably be compared to the hundreds of others that have already been done in this genre. More unique films that advance this well-worn genre would deserve a three-star rating or higher. While not quite formulaic, “Baby Driver”‘s depth goes only so far. Had it been more substantial, I might have given the film a higher rating.

RATING:   * * 1/2


War for the Planet of the Apes

In the third segment of a trilogy: Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the leader of a tribe of an advanced ape species, fighting against the advances of an insurgent group of human soldiers lead by a renegade colonel (Woody Harrelson).

The locales and photography in the first half of the film leave the viewer with a visual treat especially some wintry scenes during a long journey in the snow. Adding to this excitement are a great musical score and superb visual effects that give the ape characters human-like facial expressions.

When the novelty wears off around the half-way point the film remains good though it is somewhat less exciting as it falls into a standard plot of characters wrongly imprisoned and mistreated while wanting to escape. Followed by a spectacular final half-hour (albeit with a rather emotionally manipulative closing scene), “War of the Planet of the Apes” succeeds as a rarity: a modern, big-budget film with a story that is good, characters that deal with inner-conflict, and – most important – it is understandable.

RATING:   * * *

Recent Movies: A Ghost Story; The Big Sick; Dunkirk

Recent Movies

A Ghost Story

***  THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS   ***

In a rural area of the U.S., a young man (Casey Affleck) is recently deceased. His ghost (covered in a white sheet with holes for the eyes) lingers in the house he once shared with his wife (Rooney Mara) as she grieves, unaware of his presence.

The first section of the film involves the couple in an intimate way. The directing style by David Lowery (also the film’s writer) is deliberately quiet and attentive. This pays off well especially in this early segment particularly a scene where the woman has a binge-eating scene (all in a single take) as an attempt to cope with her grief.

The conclusion of this segment is the movie’s most powerful moment. The quiet sadness is almost overwhelming as one can feel so much sympathy for both characters. Had the movie began with earlier segments before the death and then finished with this scene, it would have been the perfect ending leaving the audience with a gulp in the throat.

It would be an exaggeration to say the movie goes ‘downhill’ from there. The film’s remainder is still interesting but not nearly as good as the first segment.

As the ghost stays in the house, there is an unnecessary ‘haunted house’ segment against the house’s next inhabitants. The following segment, with different inhabitants, includes a party where a guest blurts a pompous pontification about the uselessness of trying to be remembered after death. Some of the points in this monologue are interesting but it’s just too long. Will Oldham plays this role well if only to remind us of the kind of person many of us have tried to avoid at parties in our past.

Later sequences involve the switching of time periods. While this section is better than the middle, one is still left wondering at the end if it was necessary and how consistent it was with the more powerful beginning.

In the end, “A Ghost Story” is a fine film dealing with the subject of grief – not only for the woman who lost her husband but also for the man’s spirit who sees his loved one getting on in her life without him.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani (who portrays himself) is an aspiring stand-up comic and drives a cab in Chicago. His traditional Muslim Pakistani-American family frequently tries to set him up to date single Pakistani women. In the mean time, Kumail has become involved in an intense, on-again-off-again relationship with a white woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan).

While this movie is highly acclaimed, I’m among the outliers as I had a mixed response to it. I found some sections quite believable as well as enjoyable. Other sections seemed less believable which is disappointing considering that the film is based on a true story.

The more enjoyable scenes are in the beginning. Nanjiani and Kazan are an ideal rom-com pair and they share great comical banter. Also, after a plot twist in the first half, Kumail must bond with Emily’s parents (play by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). While this seemed awkward and unbelievable at first, it eventually worked mainly because of the seasoned skills of Romano and Hunter. The scenes involving aspiring stand-up comics were also quite good.

The film is less credible during the more dramatic and less comical moments. Nanjiani is a fine comical actor but his meltdown scene at a drive-thru burger joint seemed over the top. His eventual falling-out with his family had the chance for deeper feelings but it stayed mainly on the surface. The acting was under par in this segment.

So, the film wins at the comedy but not so much in the dramatic side though it does have warmth.

RATING:   * * 1/2


Dunkirk

Based on a true WW2 story: after the German invasion of France in 1940, thousands of British and Allied soldiers await evacuation to Britain in the northern coastal French town of Dunkirk.

Among war films, “Dunkirk” is unique in that it begins during the aftermath of an invasion rather than before it. The focus of “Dunkirk” is on rescuing several soldiers – too many for the sea vessels available – and preserve their lives.

The main narrative is broken into smaller stories. While all are intriguing action-wise, the characterization is  thin overall. One exception is a story in which a helpful English civilian and ex-sailor (Mark Rylance) takes his own pleasure yacht to Dunkirk along with his young son and his teenage friend. The other stories are good in showing the tension of too many people to be rescued with too few vehicles involved but this tension could have been enhanced.

Writer-director Christopher Nolan has done a superb job in co-ordinating numerous extras and evoking an event that is far from the experience of the average viewer. (Apparently, Dunkirk survivors praised the film’s accuracy.) He is greatly aided by his technical team especially those involving visual and sound effects. Some of the film’s visuals truly stand out.

Although I don’t fully join the almost unanimously high acclaim for this film, I still recommend it – especially on as large a screen as possible.

RATING:   * * *

Recent Movies: A Quiet Passion; The Wedding Plan; Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2; Old Movies: Diabolique

Recent Movies

A Quiet Passion

The life and poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) is the subject of this biopic, portraying an early feminist who lived life on her own terms within limited situations while facing sadness and despair in her later years. Dickinson was from a prominent family (her father was a lawyer) and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Writer/director Terence Davies deserves so much credit for this fine film. The first half is blessed with sharp and witty dialogue using language and repartee in a style that is rarely used in today’s America. Similarly, Davies’ directing style is as poetic as Dickinson’s writings which are frequently recited in the background. Even when poetry is not recited, there is a poetic mood that stays throughout the film especially in the second half when the lightness of the early years have passed.

For the most part, the acting is good especially Cynthia Nixon as the adult version of Dickinson. Nixon is especially strong in the later years of despair and illness. But there are moments the actors seem ill at ease with a language that no longer exists in contemporary America. Catherine Bailey portrays a very sharp-witted, independent-minded friend of Emily and her sister. While Bailey is good in the role, some extra pizzazz could have made her a scene-stealer.

The second half is quite serious at it deals with illness, dying, and the despair of living a life that is perceived as only partly lived. One particularly moving scene involved Emily brushing off the kind attention of a sincere, handsome suitor. By the end of this scene, it was easy to feel empathy and sadness for everyone involved.

“A Quiet Passion” was like the experience of visiting a historical home that is open to the public where ropes separate visitors from the rooms. But in this case, the ropes are temporarily removed and we are allowed in as long as we keep a respectful distance. With a fine cast as well as superb lighting, costumes, and set designs, Davies does a great job in recreating a time and place long gone. Viewing this film is a very soulful experience.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


The Wedding Plan

Michal (Noa Koler) is single, Orthodox Jewish woman in her thirties and living in Jerusalem. Desperate in her desire to be married, she arranges a wedding with the intent that God will help her find a groom in time for the ceremony.

Indeed, the premise is odd but it might have worked if director/writer Rama Burshtein had taken the approach of a comical farce. As the comical moments are too few and a more serious approach is used, the film falls flat by the second half even though it’s fairly enjoyable in the earlier segments.

Koler is certainly likeable in the role but her character is repeatedly and annoyingly self-defeating. After a while, I had a “Cher/Moonstruck” fantasy where I wanted to bring Cher’s character into this movie and slap Michal hard in the face twice and shout “Snap out of it” and then disappear and go back to “Moonstruck”. (I also had this fantasy while watching the excruciatingly long “Zodiac”. In that scenario, Cher’s slap victim would have been the Jake Gyllenhaal character.)

By the time the conclusion rolls around, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not it is plausible. The rest of the movie before it had already lost momentum.

RATING:   * *


Bon Cop, Bad Cop 2

The two cops from the prequel, “Bon Cop, Bad Cop” (2006) are reunited in Montreal to solve a car theft operation that is linked to a terrorist plot: Martin Ward (Colm Feore), a Toronto anglophone who is now in the RCMP; and David Bouchard (Patrick Huard), a Montreal francophone who is working undercover within the car theft operation.

This film is a good-humoured cop caper with fine acting but the premise is far-fetched with a subplot that is resolved too quickly by the film’s end. There are many good laughs in the film but it sometimes goes too far with scenes of violent torture being portrayed as “funny”.

But praise must go to the two lead actors for their individual performances as well as their solid chemistry.  Huard is hilarious as a character who is animalistic in his ways of working, living, and being. His soft side is also genuine in scenes involving his family. He also has a hilarious line directed at the U.S. President. Feore is superb in scenes of emotion involving his character’s estranged son as well as his own health difficulties. Another acting bonus comes from Mariana Mazza who is hilarious as a hyper, foul-mouthed computer hack.

RATING:   * * 1/2


Great Old Movies Seen Again

Diabolique   (1955 – France)

Christina (Véra Clouzot) is the owner of a private boys boarding school and is one its teachers. Despite her ownership of the school, her abusive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse) is the headmaster. He is also abusive to the boys and the staff including his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), another teacher. Christina and Nicole devise a plot to kill Michel. From then on, everything goes awry.

I believe that every film buff remembers how they felt during the last fifteen minutes of this brilliant thriller during the first viewing. This segment has to be one of the most frightening, nail-biting sequence in film history. As if this wasn’t enough, it is followed by a shocking plot twist.

The thrill of seeing this film the first time cannot be matched. But even knowing its conclusion, there is still much tension and suspense seeing it again. (This was my third viewing.) Director Henri-Georges Clouzot pays perfect attention to detail and from one second to the next, each moment seems to have the potential to veer into chaos. Whether it does so or not is the mystery.

And of course, H-G Clouzot brings out the best in his cast. Signoret is at her signature best but it is Véra Clouzot who stands out especially in the climactic scene.

“Diabolique” (aka “Les Diaboliques”) was written by director Clouzot and Jérôme Géronomi and based on the novel “Celle qui n’était plus” by Boileau-Narcejac.

Unforgettable.

RATING:   * * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Directing by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Recent Movies: Certain Women; Graduation; The Zookeeper’s Wife

Recent Movies

Certain Women

In rural / small-town Montana, three stories interact: a lawyer (Laura Dern) seems unable to set boundaries with an ex-client (Jared Harris) who is unhinged and deranged; a rather uptight woman (Michelle Williams) tries to find motivation in building a new home even though her husband and teenage daughter are growing more and more distant from her; a young rancher (Lily Gladstone) is infatuated with a recent law graduate (Kristen Stewart) who arrives in her town twice a week to teach an educational law night class.

“Certain Women” is written and directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Like other Reichardt films (her best is “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)), this one tells so much in the unspoken word – where a silent reply says so much more than a bluntly worded statement. She is blessed with a superb cast who can make the viewer feel so much with a camera lingering on their faces.

It’s tempting to think “nothing is happening” at the beginning of each segment. But once viewers catch on to Reinhardt’s unique style, they can see that a lot is actually happening. The Gladstone/Stewart story stands out for various reasons and not just the great acting (Gladstone rightly won many awards for her performance). It provides a great re-telling of the tragic story of someone having a crush on another who aspires to be (or already is) in a higher class in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Their story, like the others, have a theme of loneliness and isolation even for those who are surrounded by people. This film has a special and unique charm that is quite rewarding.

RATING:   * * *


Graduation

In a small Romanian town, Romeo (Adrien Titeini) is a local doctor who is hell-bent on ensuring his teenage daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) excels in her final high-school exams in order to be accepted at a university in the U.K. He is even willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries to make this happen after Eliza faces a crisis shortly before her exams.

Director/writer Christian Mungiu seems to have a knack for courageously exposing his home country’s culture of corruption and the moral dilemmas this causes for average citizens – especially when these folks are in a quandary and “taking the high road” would not likely get them what they want and need. In “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, the story revolved around arranging an illegal abortion during the Communist era; in “Graduation” (which takes place in the current time), it involves Romeo’s insistence that his only child must leave corrupt Romania in order to have a decent life and future.

“Graduation” begins quite well in introducing the audience to interesting characters and how they respond to the corruption in their midst. The middle part is even more intriguing as Romeo’s moral compass goes so downhill that he is becoming what he once condemned. It is evident he’s acted this way before but not at this level.

There are two key scenes in this section in which Romeo defends his actions. One involves an argument with his wife; the other with Eliza. During the dispute with his wife (played by Lia Bugnar), he argues how much she benefited from his smaller moral slips in the past even if she wouldn’t have acted the same way herself. His argument is so convincing that even the viewer could agree with him in a very uncomfortable way.

The final segment does injustice to the beginning and the middle. It seems to go in various unnecessary directions and fails to continue the momentum built earlier. But “Graduation” is still a film worth seeing. It includes universal themes such as well-meaning parents over-planning their children’s future plus a challenge to the belief that “the grass is always greener” somewhere else. And of course, the saying “O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” is well played out in the narrative.

RATING: * * *


The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on a true story: the title character, Antonina Zabinska (Jessica Chastain) assists her husband Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) in caring for the Warsaw Zoo, showing great affection and connection with the animals. After Germany invades Poland in 1939, the couple work together to smuggle Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to live in hidden spaces of the zoo and their home.

This particular Holocaust story is certainly worthy of being told. It is in the same vein as “Schindler’s List” in which citizens risk their own safety and lives to help others in great need.

The trouble for “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is perhaps in its timing. The best films in the Holocaust genre (including “Schindler’s List”) have raised the bar so high that it becomes more and more difficult to meet, let alone surpass, existing levels of greatness. The most recent great examples include “Phoenix” and “Son of Saul”- each released within the last three years.

The English language is used in the film and spoken with Polish accents. While this helps to add authenticity, it is sometimes difficult to understand when the actors are speaking softly.

The directing style in “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (by Niki Caro who did a great job with “Whale Rider”) is perhaps too standard though the same could be said of the screenplay by Angela Workman based on the book by Diane Ackerman. The early scenes of the invasion and the ghetto are powerful. And who couldn’t envy Chastain as she provides affection for a couple of adorable lion cubs. While we can feel tension in the movie’s second half, the overall effect just doesn’t match those of other films on this subject. There seems to be an emotional distance between the characters and the audience.

Had this film been released over a decade ago, it might have fared better. But compared to similar films of this era and earlier, it comes up wanting.

RATING: * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Your Name; The Lost City of Z; Maudie; Books: The Girl on the Train

Recent Movies

Your Name

In this animated film, Mitsuha is a teenage girl living in a rural mountainous area of Japan. Taki is a teenage boy living in Tokyo. At various times, the two switch bodies.

The animation in this film is beautiful and there are clever moments in the film as well. When the story is comprehensible, it can be engaging. The trouble, as just implied, is that it is often difficult to understand. It’s not always easy to know when each character is their real self or whether they are possessed by the other. To make matters even more difficult, the exchange is happening in different time lines three years apart.

I might have used the excuse that I’m not that familiar with Japanese Anime films but that won’t work as I’ve probably seen at least a half-dozen of them. My favourite is “Only Yesterday” (1991) which happened to have no supernatural elements. Among those with magical content, I have great admiration for “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988).

The two latter films had special universes that were bizarre but fascinating. Most importantly, they were always understandable and consistent – characteristics that are missing in “Your Name”.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * 1/2


The Girl on the Train

Rachel Watson is a divorced, unemployed alcoholic living in a London suburb with a flat-mate. During her daily trips to London and back, she observes what she believes to be an ideal couple (Scott and Megan Hipwell) living a few doors from her former home – a home that is still occupied by her ex-husband Tom and his new wife Anna. After someone in the neighbourhood goes missing, Rachel believes she has clues that might solve the mystery.

The story is told by three narrators: Rachel (the main narrator) and Anna narrate in current time while the beginning of Megan’s story is narrated about ten months earlier. All three narrators (and most of the other characters) are the kind of people we would rather avoid in life. Rachel is an active alcoholic and a compulsive liar who has frequent blackouts and many resolutions to stop drinking – resolutions that fail as often as they are made. Megan is an insecure serial adulteress. Anna is vain about her beauty, marital status, and motherhood; she also relishes the fact that she stole Rachel’s husband from her. In summary, Anna is a bitch.

It is, indeed, a drawback to have so many unlikeable characters especially when they include the main one. But “The Girl on the Train” makes the reader as compulsive for reading as Rachel is for drinking. The use of differing timelines is also intriguing especially when the Megan story repeats what was told in the Rachel story but with a different perspective. By the end, some of Rachel’s perceived flaws may not be as solid as others had thought.

The climactic scene is heart-pounding but not totally free of criticism. It begins due to a stupid and unnecessary action of one character and ends with a somewhat unbelievable action by another one. (This is code talk to those who have read the book while avoiding spoilers to those who have not.) But it’s still a fine ending to a great mystery and all of the clues and red herrings that brought us there. And even if the characters are repugnant, Hawkins is accurate in describing people who resemble the many lost souls in our world.

The last book I read so quickly was “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. Like that book, “The Girl on the Train” was very intriguing as well as entertaining.

RATING: * * * 1/2

Recent Movies: Beauty and the Beast; Citizen Jane; I, Daniel Blake; Opera: Medea

Recent Movies

Beauty and the Beast

A live-action/CGI remake of the 1991 animated musical: Belle (Emma Watson) is an intelligent outcast in her provincial town, pursued by the egomaniacal Gaston (Luke Evans). Across the dangerous woods is a beast (Dan Stevens) who lives in a castle in which he used to be a prince.

Speaking of outcasts, I feel like one myself in my assessments of this modern film and its predecessor. I believe the current film is superior to the earlier one. I found the animated version admirable but over-rated. This goes against the consensus on two counts.

One of the improvements in the current version is in the characterization of LeFou (Josh Gad), Gaston’s sidekick. Much is made of the fact that the modern LeFou is gay and infatuated with Gaston. While this bold move is admirable enough, the better move is erasing the plight of the older version of LeFou who was sadistically used as a punching bag for the bullying (and much bigger) Gaston. The previous use of schadenfreude doesn’t quite appeal to an audience’s better instincts.

Director Bill Condon clearly knows how to make musicals great. (The superb “Dreamgirls” (2006) is evidence of this.) Even while being fully aware of the storyline, there is still an excitement and energy for the viewer in this film. Condon has been blessed with a great team particularly those involved with the set design, make-up, visual effects, cinematography, and costumes. In addition, a few new songs have been added to the great ones of the original.

Condon is also blessed with a great cast. Stevens does a fine job conveying the beast’s rage as well as the inner-torment hiding behind it. Watson is good too though she could have shown more expression during the film’s climax. Even in a small role, Emma Thompson still manages to raise the bar – this time as a talking teapot.

The exciting finale is so joyous, it can lift anyone to the clouds. No wonder this movie is such a box-office blockbuster.

RATING (out of four stars): * * * 1/2


Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Writer/Journalist/Urban Activist: Jane Jacobs is the main subject of this documentary as it focuses on her battles against rapid redevelopment headed by urban planner Robert Moses in her home city of New York during the 1950s and 1960s.

This film ably conveys Jacobs’ intelligence in various ways: her unusual yet fascinating observations on how cities truly work (there is order within the ‘chaos’); and her abilities to organize activist responses to proposals that negate city living. Her views and philosophies are expressed in various ways. They include audio and televised footage as well as the narration (by Marisa Tomei) from Jacobs’ book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961).

The viewer could end up feeling a mixture of optimism as well as pessimism from the history exposed in this film. On the one hand, Jacobs’ victories (with much help) give hope. But there is despair after viewing the chronicling of “slum” neighbourhoods with vibrant communities being destroyed and replaced with housing projects that caused more problems than they solved. One feels grief not only for the loss of vibrant communities but also for the historical buildings that were destroyed – and replaced with bland ones.

Jacobs moved to Toronto (where I’ve lived for over twenty years) in 1968 and was involved in a successful campaign to stop an expressway being built in the downtown area in the early 1970s. One can only wonder (and shudder) what she would think of the current state of this city since her passing in 2006 at the age of eighty-nine.

She believed in progress as long as it mixed the old with the new and kept street life active. Downtown Toronto is losing many small shops, restaurants, and bars as they are being torn down for more and more massive glass condos. (It’s strange to think that such blandness will be considered ‘historical architecture’ in the future.) During this process, sidewalks adjacent to the future condo sites have been reduced. So much for encouraging the street life so well lauded in this documentary. Also, in regard to condo buildings that have shops at ground level, they seem to have very little activity within them. (A similar point is made in “Citizen Jane” about parks near housing projects that were frequently empty.)

Director Matt Tyrnauer has used the right mix of interviews, old footage, and music to make a fine film even for those of us who have minimal knowledge of urban issues. The footage of street life goes back to earlier decades – even as far back as the 1930s. The music by Jane Antonia Cornish has an edge that is usually used in thrillers. Perhaps, this is to imply that the monstrous mindset of the 50s and 60s has an equally evil grandchild (condo-ization aka vulgarization) in our current times that is taking over our lives today…..and we’re all in that scary movie!

In any case, this movie is encouraging me to read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. From the quotes in this movie, the book still sounds relevant today – more than half a century since it was published.

RATING: * * *


I, Daniel Blake

In Newcastle, England, the title character (played by Dave Johns) is a widowed carpenter in his late fifties who is on the mend from a heart attack. In trying to get benefits for time off work (as recommended by his doctor), he gets stuck in a quagmire of bureaucracy. During one bad visit at a government office, he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), an unemployed, single mother of two young children who has also been mistreated by government workers.

“I, Daniel Blake” is another courageous film by the team of director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty that focuses, in a realistic way, on the downtrodden who are too often ignored. While this is praiseworthy, the downturn is that the overall effect can be depressing and frustrating. While the last half hour was moving in a different direction, a final plot twist thwarted this – therefore preventing the story from adding more richness to its depth.

Johns and Squires are terrific in their performances as two society-rejects trying to get by and helping each other out when they can. Despite their hardships, they continue to maintain as much of their humanity as they can. Johns’ appeal goes further in scenes when Daniel pokes fun at humourless nincompoops on power trips.

The film has some telling (and harsh) statements of modern society and bureaucracy. There is a very noticeable contrast in how kindly the poor are treated at a food bank (run by volunteers) vs. the despicable way they are treated by government departments (run by taxpayer-funded employees). The movie has been criticized for its depiction of government employees. Among this group, there is one such character who seems to stand out as she has more soul and humanity than her peers. The film might have achieved greater depth if it had delved more into her personal story.

In any case, this movie is likely to be understood by anyone has ever experienced hard times; anyone who has ever felt empathy for anyone who has experienced hard times; or anyone has ever experienced an overwhelming desire to throttle someone who is an insensitive, incompetent, arrogant, ignorant, overpaid, bureaucratic miscreant.

RATING: * * *


Opera

“Medea” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier at the Opera Atelier, Toronto

The title character (played by Peggy Kriha Dye) is in danger of losing her lover Jason (Colin Ainsworth) in a marriage of convenience to Princess Créuse (Mireille Asselin). Unlike most spurned lovers, Medea has supernatural powers to match her desire for revenge.

For many opera productions, the stories can be minimal while the main draws are the music and the singing. “Medea”s story is actually above par (hell hath no fury like a sorceress scorned) while the music and the singing are well above par. All performers are great but Dye stands out ably expressing the rage and fury of someone with dangerous powers. The final scene between Ainsworth and Asselin is also deeply moving.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has collaborated with many great artists to create a superb production with a feast for all senses. One of the unique assets of Opera Atelier productions is their choice of producing older operas which give the audience not only beautiful singing and orchestrations but also ballet sequences that are part of the story as well. The dance sequences in “Medea”, choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, are superb.

As if this wasn’t enough, the sets, costumes and lighting take this grand production even further especially during the scenes that take place in Hell.

If only one word could summarize this production, it would be one that was likely used more often during the time of this opera’s creation than today: splendid.

RATING: * * * 1/2