RAMS

In Iceland, we are told by writer/director Grímur Hákonarson, there are more sheep than people, which is a testament to the importance of sheep in Iceland. They are animals as revered as the cattle in India. 

Two estranged brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, sheep farmers who have inherited their family sheep ranch, have split the property and live in separate houses next to each other but they haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years.

Every year there’s a fierce competition for the trophy of who has raised the best sheep in the valley. And every year the same brother wins it causing a rift between them that can never be healed. But this year is different.

This is a compassionate heartwarming and somewhat absurdly comical but tragic tale of how two stubborn brothers living close to each other are actually worlds apart and communicate only grudgingly by way of written messages carried by a sheep dog.

The remote Icelandic sheep valley is breathtakingly beautiful but as barren and bleak as the distant relationship between Gummi and Kiddi. Both are preparing their ancestral breed of sheep for this year’s competition with the utmost focus and fanatical dedication. Nothing is too bizarre or outlandish when it comes to sheep breeding.

But when Gummi discovers symptoms of a deadly disease spreading among their flocks, the news, coming just after Kiddi boastes of having won the 1st prize once again for the best Ram in the valley, is devastating to both brothers. It is determined by the community that all the sheep in the valley must be destroyed to eradicate the disease. 

They try hard to save their flocks by hiding them from the authorities but eventually realize that to save their way of life they must work together and put aside their differences. Now without their sheep, their brotherly bond, unacknowledged till now, is stronger than they ever imagined.

Rams is a cautionary tale about the extreme lengths that people will go to, to prove a point that eventually becomes insignificant next to the power of love that cannot be explained. This film is a heartfelt crowd-pleaser, a humanist drama that is the perfect antidote for our present cruelly competitive world we live in.

Our obsessions and greed for having the most or being the best are destroying the relationships we should be cultivating, not to mention the natural beauty around us as long as we continue to be so arrogant and preoccupied with accumulating wealth or prizes that we cannot acknowledge and respect as equals, others in our diverse community and those around the world who do not meet our own standards.

Rams has a deceptively deep message with large metaphorical implications for the world at large but told in a very simple disarming story. We can enjoy it as a charming local folk tale from a remote culture, or we can apply its symbolic meaning, as many of the best folk tales do, to a much larger context. 

Rams is Iceland’s official Oscar entry for 2016 Academy Awards and winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes film festival. It’s a wonderfully told, thought provoking tale that has suspense, comedy, tragedy and a great cast of characters from a culture not often portrayed in film.

JP

The Revenant

Coming out of The Revenant I felt like I had just been beaten to an emotional pulp after a relentless brutal battle against man and nature, much like the hero of this story who was mauled by a Grizzly to within an inch of his life. And that’s just the beginning of his problems as he miraculously managed to overcome his injuries despite many attempts by angry native tribes and some of his own companions to kill him off. 

The Revenant is an epic wild ride through the fur trade era’s legendary adventures of Hugh Glass, a hunting scout for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823, based on the novel by Michael Punke of the same name, and his harrowing ordeal in the wilderness of 19th century uncharted Upper Missouri River.

This is a prestige picture from an Oscar-winning director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, with a big name star Leonardo DiCaprio, and an epic story based loosely on historical legend. But despite all that, The Revenant doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood film, in fact this film is far superior to most Hollywood movies.

Director of last year’s Oscar-winning best picture Birdman (2014), Iñarritu’s obsessively demanding methods and brilliant vision have raised the bar for epic scale realism and immersive experience in today’s cinema. If you compare his film with other Hollywood depictions of this era with films like Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Revenant far surpasses them in cinematic grandeur and gut wrenching suspense.

Hugh Glass who had previously been captured by Pawnee Indians and has a son by a Pawnee native woman, is working as a guide for an English company of fur trappers when they are viciously attacked by Arikara tribe warriors who are on the warpath to rescue and retrieve the kidnapped daughter of their chief. 

The few survivors of the attack which opens the film with hair-raising realism as the camera continuously moves, caught in the thick of the battle, like one of its participants, eventually escape down river but must abandon their boat and trek on foot across frozen winter landscapes back to the protection of their fort.

Filmed in breathtaking locations of rough virgin landscapes around Alberta and Argentina, The Revenant is as stunningly beautiful as its story is brutally harsh. Iñarritu pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the harrowing struggles of men against nature, carrying out their own form of frontier justice.

When Glass is attacked by a Grizzly bear protecting its cubs, he is near death with life-threatening wounds and doesn’t have long to live without any medical attention in the harsh conditions. Unable to move but still alive he is carried by the rest of the surviving trappers as he is the only one who knows the way back through the wilderness. 

Eventually they come to the conclusion that he must be abandoned if the rest of the group is to survive and they leave him and his son and two others to give him a proper burial if and when he dies. With hostile native Indians still on their trail, one of the men, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) elected to tend to the injured Glass, is not eager to fulfill his obligations and soon succumbs to his baser instincts to hasten the inevitable.

But what Fitzgerald doesn’t anticipate is Glass’s resilience and spirit of survival and justice. What follows is one of the most excruciating depictions of inexhaustible drive to fight for life that’s ever been put on screen. It gives new meaning and dimension to the power of the human spirit.

In addition to this captivating story, The Revenant also manages to accurately give us an authentic sense of what life must have been like for people who lived during this time period, and Leonardo DiCaprio gives us one of the most engaging performances of his career. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is the year he finally goes home with the Oscar.

JP

Son of Saul

Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando has seen too much horror in the senseless deaths of men, women and children. Stripped of their dignity and unceremoniously gassed or shot to death, their naked corpses are piled like pieces of meat to be incinerated and their ashes shoveled into the river.

Son of Saul follows a single man’s perspective, a prisoner working in the hellish conditions of the death factories in Auschwitz as he methodically and mindlessly ushers thousands of Jews into the gas chambers for extermination. He is part of a special group of Jews forced to help the Nazi camp commanders to exterminate their own people knowing that they will also be subject to the same fate when the time comes.

Prisoner functionaries who were chosen to help with processing and exterminating of Jews on a daily bases as Saul is, understandably must develop an unnatural detachment as a way of coping with guilt and to preserve their sanity. For Saul, he copes by shutting down parts of his senses which are unable to process the insanity he is witness to. He doesn’t look at his victims any longer, he keeps his vision unfocused and he doesn’t hear their screams and confused cries for help.

The film is extremely disturbing to watch but also intensely thought provoking as no one has ever brought us this close to the horrors of the holocaust and specifically the experience of what it must have been like inside the death factories. Director Laszlo Nemes’s first feature film provocatively breaks this cinematic taboo to confront the Nazi atrocities in the Auschwitz death camp, but in so doing leaves much of it to the imagination.

We only see and hear the atrocities from Saul’s traumatized perspective and only peripherally and out of focus as Saul goes about his duties mundanely ushering in crowds of people who think they are being sanitized and will have a warm bowl of soup waiting for them after they shower. We hear their screams behind the locked shower doors, after which Saul and the other workers must quickly collect all the clothes for burning and remove the freshly killed corpses, cleaning and preparing the gas chamber for the next group of victims.

Shot as if the camera is attached to Saul’s body as he moves through the camp, Son of Saul is shot and made to look like old film stock footage that may have been smuggled out of an actual death camp, making the experience so much more immersive and shocking. As if we are catching a glimpse into highly secret and classified war crimes.

Son of Saul’s images of robotic humans in bleak inhuman factory conditions slaving endlessly in cavernous furnaces harken back to the futuristic dystopian underground factory scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). There’s a similar sense of a detached visual experience free of any sentiment as we try to figure out what we are seeing and hearing.

Opinions are sharply divided on this controversial film as I quickly discovered. As many people who admired the film for its realistic and uniquely focused take, disturbing as the subject matter is, there were an equal number of people who hated it and were strongly unimpressed by the seemingly unrealistic plot of a man trying to save a boy’s dead body from desecration while on a mission to find a Rabbi among the constant stream of Jewish arrivals to perform burial rights. 

In a place like a Nazi death camp where thousands were being gassed, shot and burned every day, this idea seemed too improbable to many. But others saw it as more symbolic than realistic; a man consumed with guilt preserving one sacred act he feels is his last and only chance on earth of salvation for the sins he’s committed.

JP

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is a revelation in many ways and a homage to the original classic films A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), but most importantly this film is in every way a classic in its own right and the fans are relieved that, unlike the prequels, it lives up to the staggering hype that has built up over the past three years.

The latest chapter in the Skywalker saga and the first film under the Disney/Lucasfilm banner did not have the involvement of creator George Lucas himself. The legendary franchise was sold to Disney back in 2012 and plans for new chapters in the galaxy far, far away were immediately under way based on Lucas’ unused story ideas and the Star Wars expanded universe novels which are no longer considered canon but from which ideas can still be mined for future films.

Thirty years have passed since we last saw our rebel heroes battle against the Empire in Return of the Jedi (1983) and a lot has happened in that time. The Force Awakens is like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in ages and finding out that things have not gone well and that they’ve been through some rough times.

Luke Skywalker’s attempt to rebuild the Jedi order has failed miserably due to one of his students being seduced by the Dark Side. In the void left by the absence of new Jedi Knights and a self-exiled Luke Skywalker, a new totalitarian regime called The First Order has risen up to replace the Empire bent on destroying Leia Organa’s New Republic using a planet annihilating weapon known as Starkiller Base under the rule of Supreme Leader Snoke and his new apprentice Kylo Ren.

All the familiar iconic elements of the classic Star Wars films are here. A new trio of reluctant young heroes is drawn into the galactic struggle forming strong bonds as they take up the fight against the forces of evil. Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young orphan scavenger living on the desert planet Jakku with survival instincts and mysterious powers, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an ace X-Wing fighter pilot on a secret mission, and a new Stormtrooper recruit, Finn (John Boyega), who decides after his first battle that The First Order is not the side he wants to be on.

Star Wars was always a family saga first and The Force Awakens continues with a compelling story of dark family failings and archetypal characters. Han and Leia have had a child who is strong with the Force and trained by his uncle Luke to become a Jedi. But something has gone terribly wrong with him and we find Han, Leia and Luke, consumed with regret, now flung apart to the far reaches of the galaxy. 

A Star Wars hallmark is it’s grand visual spectacle and iconic concepts and technical inventions; the lightsaber, Jedi Knights, the Death Star, aerial dogfights in space, the Force, light speed, the Millennium Falcon, a galactic cantina for alien creatures from around the galaxy, to name a few, all re-imagined tropes from classic westerns and fairy tales brought together in one compelling adventure with beloved archetypal characters.

Passed on to a new generation of filmmakers who grew up with the Star Wars films, the franchise is now in good hands with Kathleen Kennedy and skillful directors like J.J. Abrams – Super 8 (2011). I felt that here is someone that understands the appeal and the power of the original films. Here is a director, who as a fan of the franchise himself, is able to successfully play within the established Star Wars universe and tap into the feeling and nostalgia that made the original films so magical.

There’s great chemistry between John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey as they navigate the classic hero’s journey and are taken on a wild ride that’s as exhilarating to watch as the original films. John Williams also reprises his classic musical score while creating new themes with wonderful nostalgic effect.

The film ends on a satisfying emotional and somewhat melancholic note but there’s a shaft of brightness piercing the darkness that gives hope for the forces of good and the future of Star Wars. The critical reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for The Force Awakens, with many even calling it one of the best films of the year.

JP

As I Open My Eyes

Rock ‘n’ Roll is the ultimate expression of rebellion against oppression and this film reveals a flourishing underground musical culture in Tunis that clashes head-on against that society’s ultra conservative religious and cultural confines, exposing the country’s repressive regime.

Part of a growing chorus of female voices against oppressive religious authority, As I Open My Eyes is a courageous and powerful new film from first time Tunisian director Leyla Bouzid about a talented 18 year old girl, Farah who is the lead singer in an underground political rock band, and her romance with one of her band mates while struggling against social and cultural barriers during the summer of 2010, a few months before the actual Jasmine Revolution that would depose Tunisia’s dictator.

Just graduated from high school, her family hopes their daughter will continue her studies to become a doctor, but Farah has other plans. She is also a passionate poet and writes lyrics for the band that criticize her country’s ruling regime. Her band plays gigs in dingy late-night bars that, in a Muslim country like Tunisia, only men can frequent. These are not places or activities suitable for descent Muslim girls. 

Farah’s parents cannot control their rebellious daughter and anguish over the loss of her innocence if the state police steps in to intimidate or take tougher disciplinary action. Women in these societies are objectified and confined to sexual and domestic roles, but more and more outcries of resistance are being heard from around the world through important films like this.

We soon discover that despite Farah’s and the band’s talent, they have no future as musicians in that country as long as the religious and cultural restrictions exist there. But Farah will not give up that easily. She is determined to defy the people who would silence her and continues to provoke them despite the threats and warnings that the band receives.

Giving the film a fresh energy and urgency that engages us fully in her predicament is the fiery performance of Baya Medhaffer as Farah that is beautifully imbued with vigor and truth. She is the embodiment of unfulfilled ambition and aspirations that are frustratingly kept from reaching their potential.

We are witnessing the rise of a new generation of women struggling to be heard in male dominated societies at great risk to their own lives. Like many recent new films by Muslim female directors that are openly critical of their country’s oppressive societies; Circumstance (2011), Wadjda (2012), Dukhtar (2014) and Mustang (2015) to name a few, As I Open My Eyes deals with the coming-of-age experiences that most girls in the west take for granted but can be fatally risky in Islamic states. 

As I Open My Eyes celebrates with local Tunisian rock music the freedom longed for by its people from an authoritarian repressive dictatorship that will eventually lead to the start of the Arab spring revolutions.

JP

Spotlight

Spotlight focuses on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning team of newspaper reporters investigating a case of a priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of children. This is a newsroom drama that reveals a hidden conspiracy and cover-up in the tradition of All the President’s Men (1976) and State of Play (2009). 

The film focuses on a team of five reporters known as Spotlight assigned to investigate and research a shocking story no one wants to talk about, and their incredible disturbing discovery. And it’s all based on true events.

When a new editor arrives at the Boston Globe, one of his first tasks is to assign the Spotlight team to investigate a long overdue dropped case of child abuse by a priest that was never followed up with. What they uncover is an abuse scandal of pedophile priests that is far more rampant and far reaching than anyone imagined.

A trusted and powerful institution in the community, an unwillingness to speak against the Catholic Church, and reports of abuse that have been buried and silenced for decades, are some of the difficult and frustrating elements the team is faced with. This is the kind of controversial story that old fashioned newspaper journalism has always excelled at.

Spotlight is an absorbing and intensely gripping thriller that never lets up as the story delves deeper into a disturbing quagmire of statistics and victims who have been silences since childhood. Everyone involved with the investigation instantly recognizes the importance and the ramifications of this shocking story to the citizens of Boston and ultimately the world.

There are terrible secrets that are being kept under wraps by powerful people in the highest echelons of the Catholic Church as well as the justice system on the one hand, and the innocent traumatized victims who have no recourse or hope of compensation or normalization in their lives on the other.

The stakes are high and the film relentlessly reveals new disturbing facts and revelations as we follow each of the reporters while they investigate and uncover different aspects of the story. As the case develops, the scope of the scandal increases, and as more people are pulled in, the story becomes more personal, hitting closer to home for the members of the investigative team.

Spotlight builds suspense through the bewildered newsroom reporter’s reactions while researching records in dark dingy archives, spending long hours typing on their computers and going door to door to interview victims, lawyers and experts on the subject who have been involved in these cases.

It’s a fascinating look at a subject that has recently become all too familiar around the world. Catholic priests accused of molesting children, and the church that protects them by re-assigning them to other churches while lawyers are making loads of money secretly settling the allegations out of court.

The ensemble cast is excellent which include Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Liev Schrieber as the new editor of the Boston Globe, but it’s the story that takes center stage here and is also the main character in the film.

There is a great line in Spotlight as it becomes clear that the scope of the story encompasses all aspects of society; “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”

JP

Northern Soul

Set in Lancashire England, this coming-of-age tale bursts out of a musical renaissance that takes hold of a small conservative English town in 1974 and transforms it into a hot-bed of modern dance and music. 

Filmed with intimate in-your-face intensity, Northern Soul is a fever dream of dance hall hoards moving wildly in odd spontaneous twists and turns punctuated with karate kicks and fist pumps to a musical sound that starts a massive new dance movement in England.

John (Elliot James Langridge) is a shy awkward kid who is bullied in school by his teacher and at home by his mother. He has a passion for poetry and admires a girl from a distance. He feels useless and inept until he meets Matt (Josh Whitehouse), a passionate rebellious kid who dresses in strange new fashions and moves with a wild dance style that’s more like martial arts mixed with acrobatics.

The dance floor as creative outlet of personal expression set to black American soul music transforms John into a hardcore dancer and in-demand DJ whose new found confidence lifts him out of his dull victimized existence and elevates him to rock star status within the community of his peers. 

Dressed in baggy trousers and tight shirts with wide collars in the latest 70’s fashions, the two teens start their own night club with the music they select themselves. Soon their dance club is packed with young people lining up to get in and take part in the coolest new dance fever. 

With sudden access to unlimited supplies of drugs giving them a heightened feeling of reverie on the dance floor, and his new status as the hottest DJ in town, John finally gets up the courage to talk to the girl he has been admiring for so long.

John and Matt make a pact to save up enough money to travel to America together and bring back vast untapped wealth of music that must exist there. But their intense new friendship is threatened when they are offered a shot at the big time and creative compromises creep into the equation.

Can their relationship survive the drugs and ever elusive success they seek? And where will it take them? As they struggle with authority, intolerance and their growing passion for music, there are harsh life lessons learned, friendships tested and tragic consequences.

The filmmaker’s personal love for the time period and subject matter drives this film and gives it its authentic look and feel. The intensely energetic performances are absolutely mesmerizing, and keep the film constantly captivating. 

Northern Soul exudes a nostalgic coming-of-age experience set to the music of its time that’s similar to other blast from the past films like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973).

Part of the City to City program at this year’s TIFF40 (Toronto International Film Festival), Northern Soul is a fun exhilarating and intense uplifting experience that grabs you with its infectious enthusiasm and energy. 

JP

Room

The less you know about Room going in, the better. There are intense performances and disturbing revelations that make for a unique viewing experience from a story adapted for the screen by author Emma Donoghue from her award winning bestselling novel.

Filmed in Toronto, Room is an intimate psychological drama that puts us inside the mind of a 5 year-old child who has never seen anything beyond the walls of his room. He was born there and lives in Room with his mother. The room is all he knows and he is happy playing with his imagination and his Ma who is always with him. He even calls the world he lives in Room.

Room won the People’s choice award at this year’s recent TIFF40 (Toronto International Film Festival) and got overwhelming positive responses from audiences who saw it.

Jack’s mother keeps him busy with daily routines and teaches him to read and write, and about everything in the world. But Jack believes these are just made up stories that aren’t real. They couldn’t be real because he’s never actually seen any of those things in his room.

We only begin to realize what is happening when a man arrives in the room. Old Nick occasionally visits the room for a short while to bring food and toys, and takes mother with him to the bed. During this time Jack must hide in Closet until Old Nick leaves. This all seems fairly normal to Jack who has never known different.

One day when she feels Jack is old enough, Ma tells him that it’s time to leave Room, that there’s more behind the walls of Room and that the stories she told him are all true. Jack is curious but likes his room and is scared of leaving it. His mother knows that the world is much bigger because she was not always in Room. She grew up in the world and has been in Room since she was a teenager seven years ago.

Room explores the traumatic psychological effects of prolonged forced physical confinement and how as children we can adjust more easily to our environment no matter how difficult and deprived it may be. 

Abduction and its traumatic effect on the victims are not often talked about. This film delves into the issues of abduction from the victim’s point of view. Telling the story from the child’s perspective gives the film an added emotional dimension of fear and tension.

With Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s skillful guidance and collaboration with the author/screenwriter, this Irish/Canadian production feels immediate and relevant in its portrayal of the powerful subject matter.

Ma, played by Brie Larson, and Jack who is portrayed by Jacob Tremblay, have a real intimate and honest chemistry that lends itself to a powerful and truthful performance as mother and son who in many ways need each other to survive.

Room grapples with some difficult and disturbing subject matter in a positive way that feels uplifting and inspirational. Audiences have come away from the experience of the film with appreciative and emotional reactions, which is a testament to the dedicated cast and filmmakers and attests to its status as the People’s Choice award winner in Toronto.

JP

El Clan (The Clan)

In Argentina, The Clan caused a sensation. People there still remember well the incredible true events depicted in the film of a seemingly normal well-to-do upper class family who made a business out of kidnapping and torturing members of wealthy families in their own neighborhood and holding them for hefty ransoms.

The horrifying stories struck fear into citizens as the victims were killed after the ransom was paid. Argentina was still struggling to throw off the curse of a dangerous military dictatorship and people could not resolve criminal issues by appealing to the police or government as they were just as likely to be involved in the kidnappings and killings. 

As it turns out, the man responsible for these horrific crimes was a seemingly upstanding citizen and family man, Arquímedes Puccio, a former high ranking official in the government intelligence agency, along with his wife, three sons and two daughters. 

Taking place over the course of four years from 1982 – 1985, The Clan reveals the strange family dynamics of the infamous Puccio clan. Living quietly in San Isidro, a wealthy suburb of Buenos Aires, their father’s illicit activities were a dark family secret that was kept hidden from the outside world.

Their athletic son Alejandro played for the country’s successful Rugby team, and when he wasn’t working in his surfing equipment store he was helping dad to kidnap his next victim. The victims were kept in the basement of the house they lived in, but the family seemed oblivious to what was happening right under their noses.

Argentine actor Guillermo Francella plays Arquímedes, a silver haired, steely eyed fox stalking his prey with a cool obsessive intensity. He has his meticulously planned extortion routine worked out like a pro with years of experience and is careful not to leave anything to chance.

Arquímedes also makes sure his family trusts him and understands the importance of what he’s doing. He makes sure that no one feels uncomfortable, but that doesn’t stop one of his sons from figuring out that daddy is bound to get caught eventually and when he does, it would not be beneficial to be anywhere near him. When he leaves on an overseas school trip he tells his older brother he’s not coming back and that he also better get away soon.

When Alejandro meets a girl that he wants to marry, the family business becomes an obstacle to his plans that can no longer be overlooked. And when a newly elected democratic government comes to power, Arquímedes can no longer rely on the old regime to protect him.

Using the popular music of the time, director Pablo Trapero skillfully edits between brutal kidnapping footage and the outer façade of a happy family life being portrayed to the outside world. It’s a surreal experience that’s as gripping and mesmerizing as it is disturbing.

Well researched, slickly filmed and powerfully performed with surgical insight, this intensely shocking tale has been winning awards at major film festivals around the world, including the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival and has been selected as Argentina’s official Oscar entry for this year’s 88th Academy Awards. 

JP

Dheepan

Dheepan is an unusual story that mixes the immigrant experience with rogue military guerrilla war elements within an urban gang turf war environment, and it works. 

Dheepan, a former Tamil soldier has had enough of war after a lifetime of violence and killing, and just wants to fit in and start a new peaceful, quiet life. He’s a mild-mannered newly hired immigrant, learning to work as a building superintendent in a suburb of Paris. He also has some secret hidden talents. 

Trained to fight a guerrilla war in the jungle since childhood, against government military forces, destroying army bases in an effort to create their own separate homeland, Tamil soldiers have been fighting a civil war against the Sri Lankan government since 1983 to protect their citizens and culture from ethnic marginalization by the majority Sinhalese government. These dedicated soldiers were known as Tamil Tigers. 

When their leader was killed in Jaffna, the government army wiped out many Tamil citizens living in the North of Sri Lanka in violation of international human rights laws. Many escaped to India, Canada and elsewhere in Europe.

Beginning at the end of this long brutal civil war, Dheepan follows one Tamil warrior as he tries to settle into a housing block community outside of Paris, France. After picking up a young Tamil woman and a girl who both lost their families in the final days of the war, they pass themselves off to the French Immigration officials as a family fleeing the civil war chaos of Sri Lanka.

What seems immediately obvious to the audience is unknown to the newly arrived refugees who believe they are living in a normal apartment community with normal, if poor French citizens. We quickly realize that they are in fact living in the middle of a drug gang community where there is an imminent threat of turf war.

Our new refugee family tries to fit in as best they can while also getting to know each other for the first time. It’s difficult to say the least. Not only are they dealing with culture shock in a strange new country, but they also grieve for their lost families while trying to start a new life with total strangers. 

The story grapples with the personal issues of the three main characters as they go about their daily struggle to set up a household, find work and learn the new language. As they eventually gain the trust of the locals, this new family begins to feel some hope and start
to grow more intimate with each other.

But when the inevitable power struggle breaks out, threatening to destroy the safety of their precarious family unit, Dheepan’s guerrilla tiger training kicks in and he’s forced to fight the only way he know how to defend his new family from harm.

The climax is bloody and somewhat reminiscent of the climax in Taxi Driver (1976), as Dheepan is again caught in the middle of a violent war. Deciding he cannot stand by while his Tamil girlfriend is in danger, he surprises everyone by taking matters into his own hands with brutal and violent consequences.

Winner of the Palme D’Or prize at this year’s Cannes film festival, Dheepan is a powerful and personal story of the immigrant experience in Europe that shines a harsh light on the plight of Sri-Lankan Tamils.

JP

Mustang

Young, wild and free-spirited teen girls just want to enjoy life playing on the beach, going out with boys, cheering at soccer games and dancing to music. It all seems so natural and innocent, unless you happen to live in a small town in Turkey dominated by religious and cultural oppression, where girls are seen only through a veil of sexuality and as domestic slaves to a male dominated society.

Mustang is a powerful and imperative film about the injustices of strict tribal and religious societies and their treatment of women in particular. The message is loud and clear, giving voice to issues of female oppression increasingly being echoed in powerful personal films like Dukhtar (2014), Wadjda (2012), Circumstance (2011), Offside (2007), Head-On (2004) and a recent new film from Tunisia, As I Open My Eyes (2015).

Five young orphaned sisters living with their grandmother in a small coastal village in Turkey have just finished the school year. It’s a bittersweet moment as they say goodbye to their favorite teacher but also look forward to an exciting and playful summer. 

But what the sisters of differing ages thought would be a fun filled summer, suddenly turns into a nightmare when the small town community they live in turns on them, deciding that they can no longer tolerate their freewheeling irreverent behavior which is getting the local boys all excited. 

Too much for the grandmother to handle, she is forced by the community to marry off the girls as soon as possible in the traditional ways of the Turkish culture. As their home turns into a school for domesticity they are told that girls must be pure, soft-spoken and well mannered, and they’re forced to spend their time learning how to cook and clean. 

Soon bars, gates and fences are erected all over the house to stop them from sneaking out to parties and having fun. Their home suddenly turns into a fortress of chastity to protect their virginity. But the girls will not be broken so easily. They are young and will not be bartered off to complete strangers who come around with their sons.

The situation however becomes increasingly dire for the girls as one by one they are forced to accept marriage proposals and leave the house with their new husbands. Lale, the youngest of the sisters, is particularly disturbed by the sudden violent turn of events as she witnesses her older sister’s suffering.

This scathing film is not without humor and irony and the genuine camaraderie between the girls who play the sisters translates beautifully and naturally on screen, giving a sense of the tight sisterhood bond they share as they support each other when faced with this crisis for which they are unprepared. The vibrant spontaneous performances by the children make this film a joy to watch even as they fight for their freedom.

We feel for them as their initial shock turns to desperation or resignation. We want them to somehow escape the horrors of their plight, so when Lale makes a sudden bold decision and takes matters into her own hands, we are fully on her side as she battles age old traditions and the wrath of not only family but also the entire community.

A moving heartfelt gem of a film, Mustang has been chosen as France’s official Oscar entry for the 88th Academy Awards. They certainly have my vote.

JP

The Martian

From visionary director Ridley Scott - Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), and Prometheus (2012), comes the latest in the Astronaut in jeopardy genre that’s lately been gaining velocity, The Martian

Realistic space exploration films featuring isolated astronauts in life threatening situations have been around for years but were always considered to be cerebral speculative procedurals, of interest only to the hard-core Sci-fi fans. But with the success of films like Apollo 13 (1995) Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) with their visually innovative spectacular images, and suspenseful scientifically accurate stories, astronaut films have become much more entertaining and popular.

A bold blend of Apollo 13 (1995) and Cast Away (2000), The Martian follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a stranded astronaut on an uninhabited planet Mars, some 401 million kilometers from earth, trying to survive long enough using only his wits and his considerable science knowledge, until he can find a way to communicate with NASA and come up with a plan to get home.

Mark is presumed dead during the evacuation of their Ares III site after a storm forced the crew to abort their mission and return home. When Mark discovers he is not dead, he quickly realizes that even if his crew and NASA knew he was alive, it would take four years for another mission to reach him, by which time he would have surely starved to death - assuming that he doesn’t die by any number of grisly means that could expose him to the hostile Martian environment and kill him instantly.

The Martian puts the science back into Sci-fi. It’s all about the science of surviving in space and the suspense of living in a place where small miscalculations can result in catastrophic accidents. We are constantly reminded that doing the math right can save your life. But above and beyond the math and science, you still need the courage and conviction to take risks.

Mark is seriously in danger of dying the longer he stays on Mars, but he has a healthy sense of humor which helps him get through some of his most difficult ordeals and keeps us interested in him and his predicament. As the obstacles mount his chances of survival quickly diminish. Not only is his food supply running out but he has to make his own water and oxygen, which are all in limited supply.

Based on the novel by Andy Weir, which started as a self-published e-novel, The Martian is quite a complex technical read, presumably limiting its audience to the hard-core Sci-fi fans. But the humanity of the story and characters is so compelling, it actually reached a far wider readership than anticipated and was eventually bought by a publisher and picked up for adaptation into a major Hollywood film.

This film has it all; a risky complex mission to Mars in jeopardy, space travel, science, suspense, a great ensemble cast of actors and a brilliant director at the helm, all coming together to give heart to this triumphant epic story of survival that’s inspirational and educational. 

If you choose to see The Martian on a big screen in 3D, prepare to be blown away.

JP

Sicario

Sicario is a powerful well written and visceral depiction of the horrors and ambiguities of America’s war on drugs that harkens back to similarly excellent films in the Mexican drug war genre like Miss Bala (2011) and Traffic (2000).

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a fearless young female FBI agent, who wants to make a difference but is growing frustrated by the system. She volunteers to help a black-ops mission that promises to find and stop the people at the top, responsible for the terror and deaths on both sides of the border.

What Kate soon learns is that no one is playing by the rules anymore and in order to catch the kind of rabid individuals for whom life and brutality go hand in hand, she may have to give up everything she believes in. One mysterious brooding character on the team played by Benicio del Toro tells her; “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now.” 

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), is at the top of his game with this latest crime thriller about Mexican drug cartels and the war on drugs that continues to claim the lives of thousands of innocent people. 

The lawless desert wasteland between the US and Mexican border is scarred with corpses both human and vehicular. Nothing lives there for long and aerial vistas of this devastated no man’s land look like satellite images of an alien planet, testament to the changing landscape that has resulted from the increasing violence of the drug war.

Sicario, which means hit man in Mexico, gives us a searing sense of unease that we know something evil is lurking beneath the surface unseen, like the pulse-pounding opening sequence in which a police raid on a seemingly normal house from the outside hides horrific bone-chilling secrets on the inside.

Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) who head the black-ops team are tasked with stirring up enough chaos and fear to flush out some of the bigger fish that will lead them to the men who are orchestrating the violence from the top.

Visually striking and authentic looking in every way as filmed by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario is haunting in its disturbing depiction of a dark underground world of death and fear as seen through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s relatively new agent who has many questions that cannot be easily answered.

The paralyzing suspense is palpable as we follow Kate deeper into hostile territory and we’re constantly kept in the dark about who can be trusted and who is operating with their own agenda.

This is an in-your-face hard hitting action drama that pulls no punches as it executes its objective by any means available. The film asks difficult questions about how far we are willing to go to make a difference and how far will we follow the path that may lead us astray and destroy our own moral compass.

Watch for Denis Villeneuve’s next collaboration with Roger Deakins, which is reported to be the much anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s cult classic Sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982), scheduled for release in 2017.

JP

Brooklyn

With today’s headlines filled with stories of mass migrations of people from Syria pouring into Europe, leaving their homelands to flee hardship and find a better life, we would do well to remember the story of our own ancestors who once faced similar journeys and prospects when they came to America by the boatful from their ancestral lands in Europe.

Based on the award winning historical novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is director John Crowley’s beautifully told, if traditionally staged epic film adaptation of this captivating coming-of-age tale that follows a journey across the sea to a new world.  

Brooklyn focuses on an Irish girl in her early twenties, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her widowed mother and older sister in the town of Enniscorthy, Ireland. At a time when work is extremely scarce, Eilis grows frustrated with her prospects in this small town existence and the mentality of its folk, especially the young men who all dress the same and just want to get drunk.

Visually, the production is sparing and conservatively filmed but well researched and beautifully costumed with 50s fashion. The real strength of the film though is in its powerful heartfelt performances and tightly focused story of Eilis Lacey, exquisitely performed by Saoirse Ronan from Hanna (2011), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Encouraged by her sister and a local Catholic priest who has sponsored her and arranged for a job waiting for her, Eilis reluctantly agrees to venture out and board a boat headed for New York City, leaving behind the only family she has. After a difficult journey she arrives in a strange new land of modern ideas and a large community of Irish workers. 

While staying in a boarding house for Irish women, she starts working for a high-end department store as a sales clerk but becomes increasingly unhappy and homesick until she meets a charming young Italian-American plumber who is totally taken with her. Their relationship grows as she takes night classes to become an accountant, when she gets devastating news from back home that forces her to return.

What she finds upon returning to her hometown in Ireland is that she is treated very differently now. Having grown into a woman with experience from abroad she now has many more prospects than she did before but some things have not changed. Eilis must now make a life changing decision that will determine her future happiness and identity.

The film delves into strong themes of letting go of our past and embracing the uncertain future. Poignant themes of identity are touched upon and the struggles we face when torn between two places and two communities, and the frightening prospect of deciding where we belong and what we want. 

Deciding between our responsibility to ancestral family or the excitement and possibilities of a new modern life, Eilis’ predicament is universally relatable and will tug at the heartstrings. As many of our own ancestors must have done, she must make the difficult decision to return to her old life and family in Ireland for good or embrace a new one in an exciting but uncertain new world far away across the sea.

Brooklyn is an emotionally satisfying straight forward old fashioned romantic film that manages to leave a lasting impression without any fancy editing or camera effects. A must see.

JP

This Changes Everything

This Changes Everything is a powerful passionate new Canadian climate change documentary made by people who don’t like climate change documentaries, and asks the question, “Why don’t we like these kinds of movies? “

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s new documentary answers this question by telling us that it’s because we are often told that climate change is caused due to our greedy selfish human nature. That’s just the way we are so we can’t change it. But what if climate change is due to something else? What if it’s due to a story we’ve been lead to believe is true but isn’t. That, we can change.

They argue against the long and commonly held belief that the earth is a machine to be used, shaped and dominated by people. And that the current political/economic model of continued unsustainable growth and deregulation, which gives Corporations free reign to extract resources out of the earth at any cost to land and people, is linked directly to our current climate crisis and only benefits the few at the top of that system.

Five years in the making, the film shows the devastating struggles by people on the front lines whose lands and livelihoods are directly affected by today’s global economic policies and make convincing connections between our unsustainable destructive economic system and the rapidly changing climate.

The filmmakers take us to all corners of the earth where similar stories are playing out, of regular folks living in rural communities who are forced to go to extraordinary length and risking their lives to protect their families and stop brutal practices inflicted on them by their governments and multi-national corporations. 

Greek villagers living on generations-old pristine unspoiled paradise are being forced to abandon their way of life by a Canadian gold mining company who wants to completely annihilate it by constructing toxic chemical plants with bulldozers and drilling equipment.

Indigenous people in Alberta and elsewhere are being killed and forced off the land they subsist on, despite ages old treaties that promise the land will be protected and can be used only by them. There are many more examples of ever increasing violence against people and the effect these government and corporate practices are having on our environment all over the world.

The film also points to positive ways we can change these practices and continue to provide secure jobs for people by putting our efforts into safe renewable energy and technology that has already been successful in other countries. But greedy governments won’t adopt these ways on their own. They need people to demand change. 

The film shows examples of communities that, after rising up and long struggles, have been successful in bringing attention to their plight and have affected change in their government’s short sighted policies. Many communities have now created local governments that have their best interest at heart with the power to stop these global companies from taking over and destroying their land and homes.

This is an important eye-opening film that deals with issues that affect everyone and is well worth seeing. It should be shown in schools everywhere. As someone in the films says “it’s not just an Indian issue. If you drink water and breathe air, it will affect you.”

Premiering soon at the TIFF Toronto International Film Festival, make sure you take the opportunity to watch it when it comes in theaters later this year.

JP

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)

You will fall in love with The Second Mother, a charming honest and hilarious Brazilian drama. Regina Casé – from the award winning film Me You Them (2000), is a hoot as a gruff lovable nanny working for a wealthy middle upper class family. 

When her estranged teenaged daughter comes to stay with her at the home of her employer where she works to search for an apartment in the city of São Paulo while studying for the entrance exam to a prestigious school, a tense social drama begins to unfold, exposing the social divide between generations with comic results.

The Second Mother accurately reflects our current social media obsessed society with a keen observant eye that allows us to see the absurd humor in our unconscious behavior. The film is a scaled down modern version of Downton Abbey, showing us the vast psychological disparity between the servant class and the household’s wealthy family.

While revealing conflicting class values, filmmaker Anna Muylaert gives us a sensitive truthful story of a mother who must come to terms with her guilt and angry teenage daughter who she hasn’t seen in ten years while working far away from her family.

Regina Casé’s performance as Val the nanny is so convincing and charming that she dominates the screen with her large spontaneous personality and exuberant energy. She clearly enjoys her work and loves the family she works for, but she knows her place and has no illusions about her station in life as a servant. 

She knows her limits but that’s not to say she doesn’t enjoy being around the things she can never have. To Val this is just the natural way of life and she just feels lucky to be trusted enough to be a part of the lives of such grand wealthy people.

When Val’s daughter Jéssica arrives for a short stay, her employers are more than happy to accommodate her seeing how happy it will make Val. But Val’s world is quickly turned upside down when it becomes shockingly clear that Jéssica has no such illusions about life that her mother was born with. 

Jéssica has much bigger ambitions than her mother and her attitude is that if she studies hard she will have the same opportunities in life as anyone. She thinks it perfectly normal to be treated as an equal guest in the house regardless of her mother’s employment as a house maid.

It’s fascinating and entertaining to observe the tense conflicts between mother and daughter as well as how the wealthy employer, who wants to seem gracious but also preserve the status quo, suddenly feeling threatened by the less fortunate but more determined and expressive lower class guest.

This movie is well worth seeing for its amusing social commentary and its wonderful ensemble performances which won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting for its two lead actors at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film also won the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. 

Brazilian cinema has steadily been gaining world attention with such powerful, insightful and artful contemporary films as The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (2008), Neighboring Sounds (2012) and Brazilian Western (2013).

JP

American Ultra

American Ultra is a sweet tender puppy that becomes Cujo the raging killer dog. It’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) meets Jason Bourne with the ultra-violent tactics of The Raid: Redemption (2011). 

With the recent slew of spy films, this is a refreshing humorous comic book take on the military sleeper agent experiment gone rogue film. A Cohen Brothers Raising Arizona (1987) inspired take on secret agent films.

It’s a hilarious and unexpectedly touching love story about a young pot smoking couple, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who are trying to make their relationship work despite the personal issues that threaten to keep them from maturing and fulfilling their dreams. 

Mike is an imaginative nerdy timid guy who leads a mundane dull existence while living out his fantasies through his drawings of a comic ape astronaut superhero called Apollo Ape. His girlfriend encourages him to come out of his shell and wants him to succeed at something he loves doing.

But Mike struggles with a panic disorder that prevents him from traveling outside of his small town existence. Wanting more for himself and Phoebe he decides to take her on a trip to Hawaii but is unable to go through with it when he has a panic attack at the airport.

He wants to make it up to her by proposing marriage but can’t decide on the right moment because, unknown to him, he suddenly becomes the target of a top secret government operation to eliminate him from existence.

American Ultra is destined to be a cult classic with moments of delicate romance and reflection punctuated by sudden absurdly funny action and violence. Throughout the mayhem the film never loses sight of the couples’ relationship problems. 

We are treated to typical arguments between two people who love each other and we want to see their relationship succeed against seemingly overwhelming odds, when Mike’s alter-ego is activated by a hypnotic password he receives from a customer in the store where he works.

The film is done in a way that feels perfectly logical, as if this could happen to anyone and Mike has no idea what is happening to him or why. As the bad guys relentlessly come after him, the humor never lets up as the crisis explodes around them. 

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are brilliantly funny and convincing, playing it totally straight as the confused couple at the center of the storm while the supporting cast of John Leguizamo, Topher Grace and Tony Hill are enjoyable to watch in their over-the-top performances.

Some of The Raid: Redemption inspired graphic violence using everyday household items as weapons adds to the bizarre hilarity of the situations and keeps us on the edge of our seats. The cast and the filmmakers were clearly having a great time making this film and it shows.

This is a fun action packed movie if you don’t take your spy films too seriously and would make a great double bill with Raising Arizona, with which it shares many comic elements.

JP