After the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

The Red Turtle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Tampopo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP                                       

Aquarius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

A Death in the Gunj

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Indivisible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Heal the Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

Layla M.

The story couldn’t be more timely and urgent as European and other Western countries find themselves in the grip of weekly reports of young people being recruited by ISIS to perform acts of terror on unsuspecting innocent lives.

Layla M. follows a spirited, headstrong Moroccan/Dutch 18 year old, Layla, living with her family in Amsterdam where she was born, as she becomes radicalized by a local Islamic fundamentalist group.

A poignant and powerful wake-up call, Layla M. deals with the current problem of homegrown radicalization of Europe’s young and disenfranchised. This controversial film shows the struggle within a Muslim family living in the Netherlands as they deal with interpretations of their own Religious doctrines and the critical liberal society they live in.

In the wake of increasing backlash against Muslim communities sparked by terror attacks, Layla's faith grows stronger. She is warned by her family and friends from continuing on the extremist path, but she grows increasingly frustrated by what she sees as oppression of her religious beliefs by a racist western society and begins to use her new found faith as a form of protest.

Dutch director Mijke de Jong’s gripping new film immerses us in Layla’s reality as the film is shown from her perspective. Nora El Koussour gives a mesmerizing passionate performance as Layla and draws us into a world where she is coached by online radicals who convince her to persuade her parents and brother to join in protesting the injustices perpetrated on the Muslim community.

Layla’s family and friends grow increasingly worried and encourage her to focus on her studies and career to no avail. With exams looming, she is drawn further into dangerous activities; protesting and making jihadist videos which are drawing the attention of the authorities who are now keeping a close eye on her and her family. 

When she falls in love with Abdel, a quiet young man from the jihadi group, she secretly marries and follows him to the Middle East where they are free to practice a so called ‘truer’ form of Islam, only to discover that she is not prepared for the cruel realities of life in an extremist militant patriarchal society and its oppressive ideas about the role of women which goes against her ideals.

Like most teenagers, Layla is just looking for an authentic life she can believe in. We worry for her as she naively navigates her journey to find truth and battle injustice. We keep hoping that her parents or a teacher will guide her on the right path but the society in which she lives seems so aggressively hostile toward her decisions that her tragic fate seems inevitable.

Part of the 2016 TIFF Toronto International Film Festival, Layla M. is a thought-provoking must see for anyone looking for insight into the underlying causes of the current violence and terrorism spreading across European countries with large Muslim communities.

JP

Morgan

Morgan (2016) is a slick taut Sci-fi thriller that channels the minimalist slow burn story of Ex Machina (2015) with the suspenseful action of Alien (1979). Perhaps it is no accident that Luke Scott chose for his first feature film, a genre and storyline similar to that which also made his father Ridley Scott famous back in 1979.

A secret underground laboratory in a remote undisclosed forest is home to a group of dedicated scientists working for an unseen corporate entity to develop the first genetically engineered artificial person with highly evolved traits; a new kind of being not seen before.

The scientists seem proud and excited that the project has finally yielded an impressive specimen, but all is not what it seems. A corporate risk management consultant (Kate Mara) has been dispatched by the company’s head executive to investigate an accident at the lab. 

The experiment has apparently taken a violent turn as one of the scientists was injured in an altercation with the young trial subject known as Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy). Behaving like surrogate parents, the scientists all believe it was just an isolated incident and are ready to take the blame for what was surely just a misunderstand by a five year old child not yet in control of her emotions.

What this close-knit team doesn’t know is that the corporation has far more sinister plans for the Morgan project. So when a provocative psychologist (Paul Giamatti) is brought in to evaluate Morgan’s emotional stability and ultimately make recommendations to the company about Morgan’s fate, the film quickly goes into action horror/thriller mode.

While trying to save the child they have invested so much time developing from the corporation’s mandate, the isolated team of shocked scientists has no idea what they’re up against and quickly start falling victim to her special abilities.

Produced by Ridley Scott’s Scottfree productions, Morgan is visually stunning with a dark sleek futuristic design and similar mix of natural and high-tech look of last year’s Ex Machina (2015). Like that movie, Morgan poses the frightening question; if humans value freedom above all, what would an artificially engineered person with superior intelligence do to gain that freedom if it were taken away?

In that film, as in this one, the newly created being adapts and quickly learns from human behavior how to take advantage of our weaknesses. The film leaves us with unsettling questions about ourselves and our fears with possibilities for developing its characters in future installments. 

This highly entertaining film is lifted by an excellent ensemble cast giving some great performances especially by the always amazing Paul Giamatti who really gets the suspense ball rolling with his alternately sarcastic and in-your-face style nastiness.

There’s a bright future for this promising young filmmaker. Let’s hope that Luke Scott has his father’s talent for creating visually stunning and provocative films.

JP

Our Little Sister

Japan has a long history of touching intimate family portraits that are simultaneously sweet and sad, sentimental and nostalgic and pull at the heart, evoking an emotional heft with just a look between two people or a single note of music.

Many Japanese films especially those directed by Jasujirô Ozu - Late Spring (1949), Tokyo Story (1953) and Hirokazu Kore-eda - Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013) have a special quality not often seen in other films. They have this haunting ability to inhabit our subconscious. It’s a primal feeling that seems to touch a chord inside us.

It’s a sensibility unique to this close-knit country, or maybe it’s just the serine blend of ancient and modern landscapes, the way the Japanese revere nature and try to nurture it in every part of their lives. Perhaps it’s also their reverence and respect for tradition and historical places that brings out the sentiment of a lost time and past lives.

Our Little Sister has all these qualities in spades. It feels like a Hayao Miyazaki animated film but made in splendid live-action. There is the idyllic setting of a quaint ancestral maternal home nestled in the natural hillside of a small coastal town, an oasis where the three Kôda sisters live a relatively carefree independent life.

The older sister Sachi is the disciplinarian and care giver who gave up her childhood to look after her two younger siblings and keep the family together while working as a nurse in the local hospital. The middle sister, Yoshino – Masami Nagasawa, From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), is the hopeless romantic who falls in and out of short-lived relationships. And the youngest, Chica is the spirited fun-loving baby of the three.

Many years earlier their father had run off with another woman, leaving them to fend for themselves as the mother abandoned them to find another husband. Living in their grandmother’s ancestral home, the three sisters have had little contact with their estranged father. They get the news of his death in the opening segment of the film. 

Traveling to a remote region of Japan in what looks to be one of Miyazaki’s magical fairy tale trains to attend the funeral, they meet Suzu the young daughter of their father’s affair with another woman, who is also their half-sister.

The thirteen year old Suzu who is mature beyond her years, makes such a big impression on the sisters after learning that it was her who attended to their father in his last years, that they give her an impulsive but heartfelt invitation to come live with them in their home. Suzu is delighted and agrees to move in with the sisters. 

She soon learns about the family’s history and how the sisters have coped with the grief of losing their father. Suzu begins to feel guilty for the pain that the actions of her mother have caused, but the sisters are determined to make her feel at home and we see a montage of happy moments during the lazy days of summer as the sisters begin bonding over daily household tasks.

The ancestral home acts as their sanctuary from the world and their sisterhood bond builds and grows organically while Suzu becomes acquainted with her new surroundings and integrates into the lives of her new family and the community.

Suzu brings a vitality and understanding that changes and enriches the lives of these siblings who strive to honor their parent’s legacy even while struggling to understand their terrible failings.

At its heart Our Little Sister is about love, reconciliation and acceptance. It’s an enriching and emotional must-see film that radiates warmth, penetrating into the subconscious and leaves a lingering longing for childhood innocence. 

JP

Close-Up

Internationally acclaimed master Iranian film auteur Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away on July 4, 2016 at age 76, stated earlier this year at a TIFF event called In Conversation with… that “films should aim to give a higher awareness of ourselves and the world.” And this is certainly the credo that he lived by and demonstrated in all his films.

Known for his experimental minimalist style and touching stories of human frailties that often mix real events and people (often children), with a matter-of-fact simplicity and poetic sensibility, Kiarostami became an art house and festival favorite around the world, winning many awards including the Palme d’Or.

Of his oeuvre of over 70 films, some of his best known are Taste of Cherry (1997), Ten (2002) and Like Someone in Love (2012). But one film stands out as one of his most exceptional achievements and also one of his more accessible to western audiences. Close-Up (1990), representative of his unique style of filmmaking, is a true story which mixes actual events as they happened and re-enactments of recent events using the very people it happened to. 

A kind of neorealist docudrama if you will, that takes a newspaper headline and probes deeper into the lives of the people involved, turning it into a cinematic parable revealing a moral and inspirational message. The filmmakers, acting as investigative journalists, take an active role in bringing the story to life while pushing the boundaries of neorealism.

The idea for Close-Up came to Kiarostami after reading an article in the paper about a poor man in Tehran who had been arrested for impersonating a famous Iranian film director who he admired, and convincing an upper middle class family to help him make his next film. Kiarostami was struck by something the man said in the article and immediately went to the police station to talk to this man about his reasons for perpetrating this fraud, and filmed it.

What we discover through the course of the film, which is partly a re-enactment of the events leading up to the man’s arrest by the actual people in the story playing themselves, is that they all share a love and respect for the power of cinema.

To understand and appreciate Kiarostami, one needs to know a little about neorealism; a style of filmmaking that was born just after W.W. II in Italy with movies like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), which championed the common man’s struggle and exposed social and political problems.

It is generally defined by the use of real locations rather than sets and using unknown non-professional actors that are found at the location or nearby where the story is filmed. Close-Up captures the natural real life experiences of people as they would have happened and did happen based on their own testimonies, allowing for the authentic expression of emotions without the usual artifices that surround a film set.

We learn during his trial that the impersonator, Hossein Sabzian, far from having any thought of financial gain, was motivated by his love of film, and fell into a situation whereby he abandoned all thought of the consequences of his actions, so that for a short time he could enjoy being treated as a respected celebrity and live out a dream.

Kiarostami’s films have often been banned in his home country and he worked under heavy censorship and budget constraints, generally lacking professional equipment, usually filming with only one camera, minimal music, natural lighting and a simple documentary shooting style. There is often not even a script; the dialogue is often improvised by the people on the set. 

Near the end of Close-Up, once you realize what you’ve just witnessed, it’s quite extraordinary to see what has happened and how it was all captured on screen. You can’t help but be fascinated and humbled by these people and feel respect for the collaboration of everyone involved in bringing this little gem to life. 

Ultimately, through Kiarostami's universal vision, we become more aware of whom we are as humans and the world around us, regardless of where in the world we live.

JP

Everybody Wants Some!!

Take a trip down memory lane driving your Oldsmobile 442 and listening to 8-Track tapes with a carton of LPs in the back, and relive your college days with Richard Linklater’s new time machine Everybody Wants Some!!

Just as a new generation of filmmakers is affectionately recalling their adolescent school days with musical tribute films like Northern Soul (2014), Pride (2015) and Sing Street (2016), comes Richard Linklater’s new coming-of-age nostalgia film taking full advantage of a wide variety of some of the best music from 1980.

Self-taught Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater is the cinematic voice of a generation who grew up in the 70s and 80s. His first big hit Dazed and Confused (1991) followed the adventures of an ensemble group of high schoolers during the last days of school in 1976. Like George Lucas before him who spoke to a generation that grew up in the late 50s and early 60s with American Graffiti (1973), Linklater’s film brought on the full nostalgic experience with the music, fashion, haircuts and jargon of the 70s.

According to Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!! is a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused (1993), in that it follows Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner), and a group of college freshmen as they prepare for the next phase in their journey toward adulthood. Many of the characters and situations are based on real people and experiences that Linklater knew or heard about in his own Texas school.

With his new film Everybody Wants Some!! Linklater continues to develop his improvisational style with a similar ensemble cast of young freshmen students during three days leading up to the start of college in late summer of 1980. The film is a collage of familiar iconic moments and characters that’s packed with the fashion, cars, technology and wall-to-wall music, instantly sending us back in time.

The film is permeated with all things baseball, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a baseball film. Jake was a star pitcher and everyone in the house is on the college state baseball team, but we never see them actually playing a ball game except for a practice game once in the film. For most of the time the film focuses on typical college frat house activities.

Taking its title from a song off Van Halen’s 1980 album Women and Children First, Everybody Wants Some!! is a fun, rowdy comedy that has such a calm easygoing groove, giving us time to experience the full nostalgia of the mood being created. You almost feel like the filmmakers were high on weed during the filming, but rest assured that we’re in good hands with Linklater’s confident direction. 

One of the film’s strengths is the hilarious testosterone induced performances of the young ensemble cast which are completely natural and appropriate for the time. As we get to know the characters while they bond and settle into their new campus life, we are treated to some wonderful on-screen chemistry and camaraderie between the energetic cast members.

This being 1980, we get to see a variety of school cliques that were culturally significant during this period in time, including the diminishing Disco scene, the country western music crowd, the arrival of punk and new wave, and the artsy theatre crowd who each have their own iconography, fashion styles and musical influences.

Taking up where Linklater’s award winning film Boyhood (2014) left off, we get the full 80s college experience. For those who grew up during this time, this film will be a trip to remember.

JP

Alaska

The electrifying new Italian film Alaska, from writer/director Claudio Cupellini, about two impulsive and idealistic young lovers, should be called Crazy Scary Love. When two ill-tempered people have such a strong and instant connection as Fausto and Nadine, sparks fly and crazy unexpected things happen.

Alaska is an instantly captivating dark and melodramatic love story about two self-destructive personalities; outsiders, loners who latch on to each other for stability and safety. When they are happy they are really happy and when things go wrong they really go bad in a big way. Nothing is done cautiously or in half measure. 

Fausto is an Italian waiter working in a luxury Paris hotel where he meets Nadine, a French girl who is there to audition for a modeling job. The way the two meet sets the restless fitful tone for the rest of the film, throwing them immediately into a whirlwind of events, both high and low, that quickly escalate out of control and instantly bonds them for life. 

Fausto wants to impress Nadine and shows her around the most expensive suite in the hotel by using his position to manipulate the staff. At this point they are both immature innocent dreamers with high hopes for the future but little experience or patience. When the occupant of the suite unexpectedly enters they are caught by surprise and panic when he threatens to call the hotel manager. Events quickly spiral out of control from there with their rash response.

Cupellini’s skillful direction keeps the story coherent and clearly defines the character’s motivations, while creating a perfect balance of realism and melodrama. Everything that happens in this fast-paced roller-coaster ride seems to hide a larger purpose. The couple’s actions are not without serious consequences, but something good comes out of their misfortunes despite their reckless behavior. 

Alaska has been called an epic modern love story. Its scope and authentic international settings across Europe would certainly justify that statement. But what makes Alaska so compelling to watch is the passionate energy and honesty of the two lead actors; Elio Germano (Fausto) and Astrid Burgés-Frisbey (Nadine). 

These two loose cannons follow a difficult journey that is not dissimilar to that of the two volatile lovers at the center of Fatih Akin’s Head-On (2004), the German/Turkish award winning film in which a series of impulsive violent mishaps leads to tragedy and causes the lovers to become separated for an extended period of time, after which the experience changes them and the dynamic of the relationship.

But what really makes this film special is the fateful bigger than life Shakespearean romance at the heart of the film. Fausto and Nadine’s individual journeys, seemingly going in opposite directions with increasing conflicts, result in a confluence of events that brings their relationship full circle. It somehow makes us believe that despite our worst flaws and faced with insurmountable obstacles, even in today’s corrupt cynical power-hungry world, love can prevail.

Alaska is a heartfelt exhilarating experience that will leave you enthralled for days afterward. Currently playing the festival circuit, this Italian/French co-production recently played at the Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Toronto and I believe will connect with a broader audience.

JP

Neon Bull

Brazil’s revolutionary new era of cinema continues with Neon Bull, an immersive, sensuous art-house experience set in the dusty barren landscapes of north eastern Brazil. 

It’s an intimate portrait of life and livestock in the remotest regions of Brazil among a small group of cattle wranglers, both men and women, working behind the scenes and traveling from town to town, taking care of the bulls that are used in the popular Rodeo shows known as Vaquejada.

Director Gabriel Mascaro skillfully attempts to break stereotypes with his cowboy characters by reversing traditional gender roles in this parched no man’s land of stark beauty and emptiness. 

Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) is not what he seems on the outside. Beneath his macho cowboy exterior is a sensitive artistic soul who aspires to become a fashion designer. It’s not what you would expect from a cow hand. He artfully draws his provocative creations on the nude female bodies of porn magazines and sews sexy dance costumes for his female colleague Galega (Maeve Jinkings), who drives the truck that transports the cattle and performs as an exotic dancer for the rodeo sideshow in late night bars of the various towns they visit.

Iremar is actually very good at his job and also takes his designer hobby very seriously. He’s the resident fashion connoisseur, so when a traveling sales lady comes around selling cologne, they immediately strike up a friendship with their common interest and ambitions. Their dreams are as diverse as their day-to-day existence is mundane.

The intimately filmed erotic visual style effectively immerses us in the lives of these out-of-place characters as they go about their routine, giving us a sense of being part of a remote unseen world. It’s as if the camera is invisible and we are just observing life as it happens from the shadows and the makeshift tents.

With men and livestock living in close quarters like Bedouins and their camels wandering through the desert, our human instincts are shown to be closer to animals than we would like to admit.

This small cattle community are out-casts who have fallen outside the margins of society; wanderers living in isolation who dream of becoming famous one day. There isn’t much of a story to speak of and the film makes no judgements or explanations, it simply spends a short time passing through the lives of these roaming rodeo roadies. 

Neon Bull is a fascinating transient experience that mirrors the lifestyle of the characters it follows on their journey through an isolated alien frontier world, giving us a new perspective on the lives and relationships of the men and women living on the edge of civilization.

Brazilian cinema is always exciting to watch and full of creativity and powerful perspectives. Like other recent contemporary avant-garde films from Brazil, Neighboring Sounds (2012), Brazilian Western (2013) and The Second Mother (2015), Neon Bull is an artful insightful film that can be enjoyed on many levels; visually, sensually and culturally.

JP