Point and Shoot

Part Boyhood (2014) and part Full Metal Jacket (1987), this extraordinary coming-of-age documentary follows a boy’s harrowing journey to manhood. We see him grow from naïve innocent kid to hardened revolutionary soldier choosing to put himself in the middle of the most dangerous Middle East conflict since the Iraq war.

The world is a scary and dangerous place, and so many of us give up our freedoms and individuality to live a safe life of rigid clockwork schedules, and repetitive mindless monotonous work conforming to societal expectations.

But what if we had been less afraid and more courageous or foolish? Point and Shoot is the story of just such a person, Matthew Vandyke, raised in a middle class family in Baltimore, he is the sheltered only child of divorced parents and an pampered kid who had dreams of becoming the next Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker like many of us did.

This incredible quest for adventure and manhood would have been unthinkable even for the sanest and most physically conditioned thrill seeker, but for the scrawny Matthew, who is diagnosed with OCD, has strong phobias of causing harm to others and compulsively washes his hands, it is just inconceivable.

Just out of University with a degree in Middle-Eastern studies, he decides to travel through all the Arab countries in North Africa on a 35,000 mile motorcycle trip, hoping the experience will make him into a man and the person he wants to be while overcoming his phobias.

Matt admits to being inspired by his boyhood heroes that he watched growing up on television and Hollywood movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before he leaves on his quest, Matthew decides to give himself an alter-ego calling himself Max Hunter and buys a camera to document every aspect of his trip with himself as the hero.

He spends three years traveling the Arab nations and makes many strong friendships along the way, especially a good natured easy going soulful hippie from Libya. While in Afghanistan he visits many of the places where American troops are deployed and helps by becomes a war correspondent. The troops take a liking to him and eventually train him in weapons use and now Max starts to feel more like his movie heroes.

Matthew seems more serious about life than most and takes his friendships and his challenges seriously. So when revolution breaks out in Libya and his Libyan friends are describing the violence and murder that the ruthless dictator Muammar Gadaffi is inflicting on them while protesting, like Luke Skywalker he immediately feels he must go back and help them.

Academy Award nominated director Marshall Curry, known for If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) and Street Fight (2005), synthesized hundreds of hours of footage taken by Matthew on his travels and skillfully edited them into a compelling and riveting documentary.

Smuggling himself back into the now war-torn Libya, he manages to meet up with his friends. What follows is nothing short of incredible and shocking, giving us an intimate view of war and revolution in that country with unparalleled footage of the fall of a forty year totalitarian regime. The closest thing I can compare it to is another war documentary called BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge (2004) by Stephen Marshall.

Point and Shoot will leave you humbled and inspired, and is a fascinating commentary on the meaning of manhood, proving oneself by going out in the world isolated from family support, and finding ones identity through the power of images and associations with the people and cultures that become a part of our life.

JP

Nightcrawler

Watching Nightcrawler, as disturbing as it is, is like watch a slow motion car crash; you can’t take your eyes off it. In that sense the film itself is much like the darker uncontrollable side of human nature it tries to illuminate.

A self-absorbed loner, Louis Bloom, roams the deserted nocturnal Los Angeles streets for opportunities to make money from anything he can put his hands on. He is the Travis Bickle of the 21st Century working the sprawling urban West coast. There is nothing he won’t do or place he won’t go to succeed in life.

Louis, (Jake Gyllenhall), unlike Travis from Taxi Driver (1976), has a gift for corporate gab and is completely self-educated on the home computer. But like Travis Bickle he also has a disdain for people and an obsession for one special woman in the corporate world he desires to be a part of, who may just be as unscrupulous as he is.

With an over-developed sense of purpose and a single-minded focus and drive, he has learned quickly what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur and is fast-tracking himself into the highly competitive world of gathering on-the-scene disaster video footage. 

But Louis is no ordinary Videographer, he is a scavenger, a lean cutthroat hunter of bloody victims of shootings, stabbings and drunk drivers and he gets paid extremely well by the ever ravenous public appetite for tragic and graphic violent stories as they happen.

Tabloid media coverage of violence in the streets is to today’s viewers what the gladiatorial games must have been to Romans, and our appetite for graphic reality is still as strong as ever. 

Tracking police communications from his small used car with camera in hand, we get to see how Louis progresses from naïve amateur to ruthless capitalist. His skills quickly increase along with his ambitions as he learns from the other night crawlers around him and tries to out maneuver them to increase his own value and his video’s desirability. 

Soon he has a television news director, played by Rene Russo, salivating and eating out of his hands. But corporate lingo spouting Louis, who has taken entrepreneurialism to a whole new level, has even bigger plans than she can imagine.

Jake Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing and completely convincing as the creepy amoral Louis Bloom, having lost weight for the role to emulate the desperate coyote-like presence of the character.

As we watch this night urchin break every moral code, we as a society are outraged but at the same time enable him to continue. It’s strange as we try to decide who is worse; the criminal on the street causing pain and suffering, the media manipulation by the broadcasters or the scavenger who lurks unnoticed among us making a living off the misery of others? 

He’s not the kind of person you’d want to know or work for. He lives on the edge of our moral boundaries but at the same time he serves our human desire to see the worst in us during our worst moments. As Louis proudly states with a sincere smile on his face, “I'd like to think that if you’re seeing me, you are having the worst day of your life.”

JP

BIRDMAN

A surreal hallucinogenic riff on mid-life crisis, lost youth and a desperate attempt to regain relevance in an ever trending world, Birdman swoops in like a vulture picking away at the carcass of past glories with alternately hilarious and dazzling results.

The film takes place entirely in and around a famous old New York Broadway theater during the crazy maddening days of rehearsals and previews leading up to opening night. Much like Black Swan (2010) or The Dresser (1983), Birdman is one of those revealing backstage theater films that tackles the chaos and insecurities of a group of performers nervously preparing and trying to get their act together before the big night.

A young recovering addict asks an older character in the film “what would you want to do to me if you weren’t afraid?” The answer: “I would pluck out your eyeballs and put them in my head so I could see the world again the way I did when I was your age.”

That pretty much sums up the idea behind the story of a middle aged actor who once achieved fame for playing an iconic super hero, Birdman. He now struggles with his past to reinvent himself as a serious actor in a Broadway play which he wrote and directed.

In a desperate bid to shed his alter ego, Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) who is haunted by the voice in his head which sounds a lot like Batman, tries to launch a Broadway stage play to gain a more prestigious legacy as a serious thespian. Riggan, who seems to be out of touch with the new age of social media, wants desperately to be relevant again, to leave a lasting legacy he can be proud of the only way he knows how. 

Michael Keaton is perfectly cast here, as he was himself well-known for playing the legendary caped crusader Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), another iconic superhero with a cult fan base, and bares all to give a riveting performance.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is known for making films with multiple interweaving storylines and filming in the most authentic immersive locations, skillfully transporting us with vivid and inspiring cinematography in films like Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), has once again achieved an amazing technical and emotional feat with Birdman

Iñárritu, who just turned 51, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar for Gravity (2013), shot this film in what appears to be one continuous unedited take, a la Russian Ark (2002). But far from feeling gimmicky it works wonderfully. Even while time passes as we follow the various characters through their experiences, at no time does the camera stop moving or cut from one moment to another. We hover and glide through hallways and doorways as we turn and follow from one character to the next without any noticeable edits. Only a few subtle transitions are apparent near the end.

The camera moves organically around people and rooms following multiple stories as if invisibly eavesdropping on them while the soundtrack keeps a continuous rolling, clashing rhythm of offbeat jazz drum riffs skillfully improvised and integrated into the natural flow of the film by solo drummer Antonio Sanchez.

This highly entertaining film is more than just a fascinating feat of inventive filmmaking; it also makes poignant comments on the subtle and not so subtle ways that we refuse to be marginalized, even as we slowly lose touch with and stop relating with the ever changing world around us.

JP

FURY

With Remembrance Day approaching, Fury reminds us of the sacrifices that were made by so many young men and women during W.W. II.

We haven’t seen such a blazing and sobering W.W.II film since Days of Glory (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Defiance (2009), and there hasn’t been a tank film since Lebanon (2010). Tanks and tank footage are an integral part of many war films but now Fury brings W.W. II tank warfare to a whole new vivid level.

This is Das Boot (1982) with Tanks instead of U-Boats. We’re thrown in with a group of hardened American tank soldiers who have been fighting the Nazis from North Africa to D-Day landings in France and are now well into enemy territory; 1945 Germany, helping to give the final death blow that will end the war in Europe. But as Brad Pitt’s sergeant Collier says; ‘A lot more people have to die before that happens’

Director David Ayer, who brought us the excellent End of Watch (2012), delivers a worthy entry into the W.W.II war film from the Allied forces perspective. The story focuses on a young inexperienced battle shy recruit, Norman, who’s assigned to replace the tank gunner just killed in battle when the films opens and the effect it has on the rest of the group led by Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier.

Fighting the last remaining vestiges of desperate German resistance, while traveling from town to town, the Fury crew, who have a reputation for being the best at getting the job done, joins up with other armored tank divisions to liberate civilians who have been pressed into war by Hitler’s SS to defend the country.

As sergeant Collier takes the rookie Norman under his wing, he tries to teach him how to become a ruthless Nazi killer. The film is not afraid of showing us the brutal horrors of war, not shying away from the questionable morals of men pushed beyond their limits and some not so heroic behavior that may violate some of our common perceptions of the war. 

We get to know the tank soldiers intimately as they maneuver their death machine to destroy the enemy from inside a heavily armored hellish steel tight box on tracks. Working together like a well-oiled machine is the only thing keeping them alive. Their leader, the seasoned battle-scared Wardaddy, will stop at nothing to kill every last enemy but the violence he has witnessed seems to be taking their toll on him. 

Fury gives us a hair-raising tanks-eye-view of the war from inside the confines of an actual Tiger I W.W. II Tank. The images are violent and graphic but always authentic with an eye and feel for the time and the horrendous reality of fighting in tank warfare using real Sherman tanks. 

The spectacular fire power of the tanks is matched only by the strong emotional performances of the whole cast who clearly show extreme dedication in their mesmerizing portrayals that genuinely draws us into the human conflict. 

This gripping war drama keeps the suspense and the action coming at a steady unwavering pace. Memorable set pieces include a tank battle showdown with a German Panzer facing off with four Allied Sherman tanks and a tense confrontation between the tight-knit Fury crew after they enter a town held by fanatical Nazis who are using children to fight. 

Fury is well worth seeing for the intense grisly action and suspenseful drama set in a historically important time.

JP           

The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred- Foot Journey is a feast for the eyes and heart. Film making has so much in common with great cooking and Swedish director Lasse Hallström is a master chef among film makers, choosing all the perfect ingredients to make this film the most palatable it can be for its audience.

After tragedy strikes a family from Mumbai India with a long illustrious reputation of cooking traditional Indian dishes, they are forced to move to Europe seeking a new home where they will re-establish their trade mark culinary excellence. 

Hallström is no stranger to satisfying comfort films having directed such appetizing feel good films as Chocolat (2000), Cider House Rules (1999) and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011). 

After a long arduous trek through several countries looking for a place with just the right culinary vibe, they eventually stumble across a quaint rural French village where the local market bursts with exceptionally fresh locally grown produce. 

Based on the best-selling debut novel by Richard C. Morais, the story is a sumptuous banquet blend of Ratatouille (2007), Chocolat (2000) and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), stunningly filmed in the picturesque medieval country villa of St.-Antonin-Noble-Var in southern France.

Papa (Om Puri), the family patriarch immediately decides that this is the place to set up their new Indian curry house and sets to work creating a magical Indian palace that exudes spicy aromas wafting on the evening breeze right across the street into a long standing posh French fine dining restaurant. They quickly find themselves at war with the owner Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren), over cultural differences and the battle of tastes begins.

This is definitely a foodie film and a very good one too, with culinary clashes fusing traditional French cuisine spiced up with exotic Indian fare. So if you go in before having lunch or dinner you may find yourself coming out with a mouthwatering craving for Indian and French cuisine.

The garish bright and loud new Indian eatery does not sit well with the reserved local residents whose tastes are not used to the heavily spiced Indian dishes and the new restaurant suffers from lack of interest, but Papa has a few secret ingredients up his sleeve that will give his French rivals some real competition. 

An enchanting romantic fairy tale, this flavorful experience will leave you satisfied that you’ve cultivated your senses. Much effort was made to make the food, kitchens and cooking techniques look absolutely authentic and the scenic photography of charming old world villages will make you salivate as much as the orgasmic gastronomy on display. 

The film touches on many contrasting philosophical views of life; rural village vs. big city, traditional vs. innovation, sophistication vs. fun loving, modern vs. vintage, and money vs. passion, it all gives the film a visual dichotomy and food for thought.

Whatever your tastes, you will enjoy the rich, luscious emotional smorgasbord on offer and leave with fond visions of a unique toothsome film experience. 

JP                                   

Tokyo Fiancée

Tokyo Fiancée is a fun romantic cross-cultural charmer adapted from the autobiographical novel by Amélie Nothomb and based on her own personal experiences during the time she spent in Japan in 1989.

Obsessed with all things Japanese, Amélie (Pauline Etienne), a young adult in her 20s from Belgium, who was actually born in Japan, has just returned to the country where her heart is and where she feels most at home.

This film is a humorous heartwarming look at Japanese culture through the eyes of a bubbly wide-eyed westerner as Amélie goes on a personal journey of discovery and enlightenment. 

Pauline Étienne’s innocent comic performance is so captivating with her exuberant smile, pixie cut and stylish European fashion, that she keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the film. With the intention of making a life in Japan she begins working as a French tutor, giving private lessons to wealthy Japanese boys.

Tokyo Fiancée is very much a story of a flourishing romance between Amélie and one of her Japanese students, Rinri (Taichi Inoue). During their French lessons Rinri takes Amélie on tours to various parts of Tokyo to educate her about Japanese culture, and soon an awkward romantic connection between the two begins to blossom. 

Their romance quickly deepens further than expected given the culture clashes and Rinri’s disapproving parents. Western women are seen as too independent for Japanese men. But can they really overcome the ideological gap in their personalities to sustain a lasting relationship? 

If you enjoy romantic travel  and soul searching films like Lost in Translation (2003) or The Lover (1992), which are personal accounts of a secret romance abroad while discovering exciting and unusual new cultures, this is the film for you.

One of the funniest parts in the film is when she and Rinri go out one night with another expat and her Japanese boyfriend and a natural role reversal occurs when the couples are shown from the women’s perspective and the boys follow them like two puppies.

Amélie must do some deep soul searching of her own to find out how she really feels about Rinri after he proposes to her and she decides to go on a long solitary hiking trip to Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area to find some answers, leaving Rinri back in Tokyo.

The film captures the unique Japanese style of living and the charming village atmosphere of close-knit urban neighborhoods but also the sometimes difficult and lonely experience of living in a foreign country. As much as she loves Japan, Amélie loves her freedom and struggles with the idea of being tied down in a traditional marriage.

This is a delightful clash of cultures comedy that’s a thoroughly absorbing and enjoyable experience.

JP

A Girl at My Door

A Girl at My Door, the remarkable first feature film from Korean director July Jung is a brave and sharply observed drama about the ugly side of small town prejudices and thought-provoking inconvenient truths. 

We are introduced to a seaside fishing village on the Korean coast through the eyes of a newly arrived police chief, Young-nam from the capital city of Seoul.  She comes with her own psychological baggage after being reassigned but is determined to keep a low profile until she can return to the city.

This exceptional film keeps us completely entranced by the intensely captivating performances of Doona Bae as the new police chief and the story of a sullen ten year old girl, Do-Hee, who she finds wandering through the village late at night.

Curious about this glum girl’s strange behavior in her tattered clothes, Young-nam soon finds herself running to Do-Hee’s defense when the local kids, her drunken stepfather and crazy grandmother are regularly seen beating and abusing the defenseless girl.

There are many social issues that are touched on in this film about domestic violence and the state’s responsibility to protect children from abusive families. Korean films in general are well known for making jabs at Government incompetency and this film is no exception. 

The story is carefully set up from Young-nam’s perspective and we slowly discover more about the psychological damage the girl has suffered as she comes to seek refuge with the new police chief who is forced to take her in for a while to protect her from the village and her family.

Doona Bae brings the same intensity and piercing stare that she brought to her bow and arrow wielding character in The Host (2006). She is mesmerizing as we watch her battle with her inner conflicts and the town’s local bullies who seem to take pleasure in abusing the motherless Do-Hee.

Much like the fishing villages of Newfoundland that was so beautifully portrayed recently in The Grand Seduction (2014), A Girl at My Door was filmed in actual fishing villages around the Korean coastline and we get a sense of these insular communities and the small town politics that prevail there. 

Do-Hee quickly flourishes under Young-nam’s loving care and grows into a happy child over the summer vacation, but she must eventually return to her own home. And when Young-nam’s past comes back to haunt her, the only one who can protect the vulnerable Do-Hee is eventually arrested and the desperate girl is forced to take matters into her own hands.

The film makes a powerful statement about how the social system, like any government agency, fails the people they are there to protect in spite of their best intentions and is vulnerable to manipulation. 

July Jung is a powerful new voice in Korean cinema who I anticipate will be a force to watch. One of the best films at TIFF14.

JP

PRIDE

This delightful, uplifting, life affirming, British crowd-pleaser is the most fun you’ll have at the cinema this year. 

PRIDE is the true story of a genuine friendship and solidarity between the unlikeliest of people. During a bitter workers strike that saw a small Welsh mining community battling against the heavy handed Thatcher government’s closing of mines in 1984, an improbable ally came to their aide during their time of need.

Along the same inspirational feel-good lines as Billy Elliot (2000), and The Full Monty (1997), we follow similar UK working class folk finding themselves in unexpected circumstances that will challenge everyone’s preconceptions, opening their eyes and hearts to a whole new world, and creating life-long bonds between two oppressed communities.

Joe, a young shy teenager just discovering his sexuality and living in a conservative middle class family, suddenly finds himself pulled into a political conflict, attracted by a fun charismatic group of queer activists. The young passionate leader Mark, seeing a common plight against prejudice and injustice, leads the rag tag band of partying activists to take up the cause of miners in a small Welsh village they have never met and decide to help raise funds and share their years of experience fighting against government abuses.

Nestled in the remote picturesque rolling hills of Welsh country side, an ultra-conservative community is suffering under increasing pressure to give up their fight for what they believe, and are soon suffering as they find themselves cut-off from government social assistance, literally being starved back to work. The unions seem to be of little help but the unexpected kindness and assistance by what many consider to be deviants, perverts and worse may be too humiliating to accept.

It is said that ‘prejudice can’t survive proximity’ and in this shout out loud hilarious heart felt drama, friendship and good will goes a long way toward bridging differences and forging strong bonds when the small group of city activists from London decides to travel to South Wales and meet the families of the miners suffering under strong-arm tactics of the Thatcher government.

The message is as relevant today as it was at the time of the actual events thirty years ago. When the chips are down, that’s when you find out who your friends are. When the young group of radical city gays and lesbians take their first hesitant steps into the stark remote archaic Welsh village, they are as afraid and uncertain as the town’s folk are of them.

With all the awkwardness and hilarity of two people who want nothing to do with each other but find themselves coming together to fight a common enemy, and with classic 80s dance music by popular pop bands of the time like Bronski Beat, Culture Club, and Billy Idol, they gradually begin to accept and appreciate each other. 

There are superb comic performances by the British ensemble cast led by English greats like Bill Nighy – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake (2004), Maleficent (2014) and Paddy Considine – Submarine (2010).

Don’t walk, march to the nearest cinema and cry and laugh with joy at every moment of this fabulous film. Look for PRIDE opening in select cinemas September 26 and now playing at TIFF14; Toronto International Film Festival.

JP

Aire Libre

Aire Libre is a raw honest depiction of a marriage between a middle class Argentine couple, Lucia and Manuel, trying to build a life together with their young son, which slowly disintegrates under the mundane banality of everyday life. The conflicts slowly build up without acknowledgement until tempers flare, eventually culminating in an explosive confrontation.

The film is a scathing critique on marriage and asks tough questions about the viability of staying in a long term relationship with one person and the possibility of happiness within a monogamous partnership.

The attractive actors give exceptionally intimate performances that look spontaneous and make us feel like intruders in a couple’s most private moments. The sexual moments are not sensual but are meant to show the emotional distance growing between them.

This couple has big plans to renovate a newly purchased house that will become their dream home, but the dream slowly dissolves as the dysfunction between them grows and the house falls apart like their marriage. They literally grow apart from each other and seem unable to come to any common ground, as much as we want to see them achieve their dreams.

Director Anahí Berneri uses the camera to give the effect of an intimate fly-on-the-wall style documentary that helps give the film a personal quality. 

There are no easy answers to marriage’s many problems but the film can be seen as a cautionary tale depicting many of the little annoyances in every relationship, and how they are brought to bear and gradually build to a point, if not acknowledged, that it comes to a destructive and tragic end, bringing out the worst qualities in people despite the best of intentions. 

The film takes its time to show us a complete life between two people and their young son and moves along at a steady sometimes tedious pace, which is the point of the film I would say. But like Boyhood (2014), the moments eventually grow into more than the sum of its parts and the dramatic ending is a poignant and satisfying one.

Aire Libre had its world premiere at the TIFF 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. 

JP

Jeune & Jolie

Young & Beautiful (2013), a provocative new French film by director François Ozon, Swimming Pool (2003) and Potiche (2010), that explores our universal obsession with youth and sex, is a coming of age tale about seventeen year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) from middle-class divorced parents, who is drawn into a world of prostitution with elderly male clients. 

North American and English cinema tends to be uncomfortable with nudity and explicit sex acts within a family setting; American Beauty (1999) and Fish Tank (2009) come to mind as examples of taboo subject matter that did not sit well with audiences. So we are taken aback by the more open attitudes toward nudity and sexuality in European and especially French cinema, regarding it as exploitation at best and pornography at worst rather than art. 

In the opening scenes of Young & Beautiful we see Isabelle as a normal teenager on vacation with her family at a summer beach resort. She wants to have her first sex experience with a boy, but when she finally decides the time is right and is disappointed by her lack of emotional connection, she begins a journey of self-discovery that will alienate her from her family and friends. 

As with the recent Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), there are some explicit sex scenes, but here there is a disturbing sense of unease and danger as the inexperienced Isabelle, so young and naïve, finds herself alone and vulnerable with men much older than her.

Driven by a desire for acceptance and independence, she is proud that she’s taken her first steps into new adult world where her youth and beauty are highly valued and admired. Using her newly found sexual power and mature look, she eventually finds herself becoming an in-demand prostitute with a wealthy clientele of older men looking for discrete sex.

The film is a fascinating study into modern social issues surrounding sex, adolescence and family responsibilities in contemporary European society. Isabelle’s ability to emotionally disconnect from the people she has sexual relations with, allows her to continue meeting her rich clients in high end hotel rooms without imposing any moral judgments on herself.

She seems to enjoy her new found identity and acceptance into this mysterious world of power and wealth as we follow Isabelle navigating a precarious course between her relationship with her younger brother and family life at home, her class mates at school, and her secret rendezvous as a high class call girl, as if it’s just a normal part of her new life.

The film is stylishly depicted with stunning photography and natural performances in authentic Paris locations. There is a voyeurism that comes across from following this striking young girl around through her daily routine and we are drawn in by the contrast and contradiction of a seemingly normal teenager’s life and the darker world of men’s sexual fantasies.

American reaction to this film is often to question the director’s motives or intentions for making such a film, but they seem to be unaware or discount the cultural disparity of French society. French cinema and François Ozon in particular tends to be more adventurous with sexual politics and family issues.

Eventually Isabelle’s secret world comes crashing down as she discovers her vulnerability and those of her clients and family. Her inability to deal with, or even see the dangers of her double life, takes her to a place she was not prepared for as she must now face the consequences. 

JP

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a reboot of the phenomenally successful Planet of the Apes saga (1968 - 1973) that included five movies, a TV series, an animated series and a merchandising bonanza, is a worthy Apes story that improves on its predecessor with a humanist socio-political message and a strong anti-gun stance. 

On the edge of a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, ape leader Ceasar’s band of intelligent simians is surviving the only way they know how, by hunting and living in the forest, whereas humans are quickly declining in numbers and desperately clinging to life in small pockets around the globe.

The filmmakers have once again made a smart suspenseful film that’s dedicated to the emotional life of the characters and respects the spirit of the original thought provoking films.

It’s a precarious time for both humans and apes, taking place ten years after the previous film, it’s a time where mankind has all but disappeared from the earth which now looks like the History channel’s Life after People series with buildings and streets in ruins, decaying and slowly being reclaimed by wilderness. A time between the decline of humanity and the rise of the Apes who will eventually emerge as the dominant species on the planet.

After a virus has wiped out most of the human population except for a few who have a genetic immunity, Ceasar’s ape colony has grown in numbers and living in a lush ape-topian forest canopy, experimenting with the beginnings of language and a moral code of ethics that may eventually lift them out of their primitive past.  “Ape shall not kill Ape” 

The look of the apes in this film has been refined to such an unparalleled level of realism and is so convincing that the character of Caesar is completely captivating as a being caught between two worlds but not totally belonging in either. All the ape characters are unique and interact seamlessly with the humans.

Caesar has distinguished himself as a strong, natural leader and role model for the burgeoning ape colony, and the evolved apes have managed to live in peace until they accidentally come in contact with a group of armed human survivors bent on winning back what was lost. 

Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, has become somewhat of a cult legend among sci-fi and fantasy fans for being the go-to-guy for motion capture characters like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 - 2003), King Kong in King Kong (2005), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011), a consultant on Godzilla (2014) and gives a mesmerizing performance here as the brooding simian leader who now also has the responsibility of raising a family of his own.

The desperate band of humans bring with them an arsenal of weaponry and are eager to repair a hydro electrical power generator that will restore some much needed human conveniences. But the generators that need repair are in ape controlled territory and the apes are not about to trust the humans or allow them anywhere near their families, knowing all too well their racist, selfish and destructive tendencies. 

This theme has been a constant throughout the Apes saga from the very beginning. It was the destructive and war like nature of man that caused his destruction and lead to the domination of apes in the original films and it continues to be a prominent theme here in the latest installment of the popular saga. There are some striking parallels here especially with the final film of the original saga, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).

One sympathetic human, Malcolm, slowly befriends Caesar, appealing to his sense of brotherhood and cooperation for mutual benefit.  But joining forces with the humans doesn’t sit well with the rest of the ape clan, particularly one of Caesars’s most loyal apes, Koba, who holds a strong grudge and mistrust of humans after being subjected to inhumane laboratory experiments.

The mistrust of human motives is well founded more often than not, and the epic struggle between two tribes begins….again.

JP

Guardians of the Galaxy

Yes it’s true, Guardians of the Galaxy, the new film franchise based on the Marvel comic series of the same name, is as cool as it sounds. A ragtag collection of cosmic misfits careening through space by the seat of their pants, in a retro western space adventure set to classic 80s rock tunes.

It’s been an exceptional year so far for Sci-fi adventure films with excellent summer fare such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But none are filled with as much cheeky fun as Guardians of the Galaxy.

Space junker Peter Quill, abducted from earth when he was just a boy, is the Jack Sparrow of a band of space pirates, who goes in search of fame and fortune by scavenging rare valuable artifacts. Flying a stolen space ship and carrying among his worldly possessions a Sony Walkman he had with him when he was abducted, he’s a fun loving loner with a difficult back story.

The MacGuffin that brings all the various heroes and villains together from different parts of a not so faraway galaxy is a mysterious orb that gives whoever possesses it, if they’re strong enough to withstand its destructive power, the ability to destroy an entire planet; a sort of Ring of Power in the shape of a miniature Death Star if you will.

Quill gets more than he bargained for after finding the orb when he suddenly finds himself the target of a number of galactic warriors, bounty hunters, and straight up evil megalomaniacs. Everyone is after the orb for different reasons but Quill just wants to make a quick buck and has no idea of its true potential.

If all this sounds suspiciously familiar, just look at the poster art for the film and it should trigger memories of another famous Sci-fi franchise that exploded onto screens back in 1977. This could actually be the film that the original Star Wars fans were hoping for back in 1999 when the first prequel, The Phantom Menace (1999), hit theaters to disappointed fan boy groans.

Among those who are quick on Quill’s tale is a green female warrior assassin Gamora, who is the adopted daughter of an evil leader Thanos, seeking revenge on a peaceful planet, a duo of bounty hunters comprising a genetically modified genius raccoon Rocket, a walking talking tree who has created his own language with only three words by calling himself Groot, and a hulking mass of muscle with little brains but lots of heart called Drax the Destroyer.

The amount of characters and names can be a little daunting at first and the villains are of the standard and one dimensional kind, but the movie’s energy and enthusiasm more than makes up for this. It’s really about the creation of a unique band of brothers, all outcasts who have lost their own families and eventually find in each other what they have lost. 

I was told that director James Gunn behind such films as Super (2010), and the writers of this film put all of their hearts and souls into the making of this film and it clearly shows in the loving touches evidenced by the movie’s rocking tunes, an array of strange but charming characters, a great sense of humor, comic dialogue and heartfelt storyline.

This movie is fun for the whole family and is filled with so much visual detail that it will definitely stand up to multiple viewings. With future installments on the way I’m looking forward to spending more time with these funny flawed heroes.

JP

Boyhood

According to Webster’s, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos, meaning return home, and algos, meaning pain or grief. For the cast of Boyhood, home and by extension family seems to be exactly that; an elusive goal and a place fraught with grief, despite the best of intentions by estranged parents.

A boy’s eye view of the world and a remarkable nostalgic coming of age film about childhood, and parenthood by the Texas based director Richard Linklater, who brought us Dazed and Confused (1993), School of Rock (2003) and Bernie (2011), Boyhood is an unflinching portrait of a millennial family as they struggle with divorce and the demands of everyday life. 

Six year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette) in middleclass Texas towns, as mom struggles to keep the family together and financially afloat. He sees his father (Ethan Hawke) every other weekend and must suffer his mother’s boyfriends, who they move in with for a time until the relationship sours and they are forced to relocate and start anew. 

Visually, the film is a montage of moments and events in Mason’s life from his perspective that eventually grow into more than the sum of its parts. We see time passing through Mason’s growth, and it’s fascinating to see him slowly maturing throughout the film. I think Boyhood may be the first nostalgia film for the Harry Potter generation. 

What makes this film unique is the way it was made; using the same cast members over a period of 12 years from 2002 - 2013, and revisiting them every couple of years to tell an intimate drama in a documentary style. It’s kind of an American version of the Michael Apted’s 7UP series, where the film makers followed a group of British boys and girls, asking them questions about their lives, and then revisiting them every seven years to track their progress. In Boyhood we literally see Mason and his sister grow to adulthood and their divorced parents grow into middle age as they go through the varying stages of life while keeping up with a rapidly changing digital world.

At times Boyhood feels similar to other nostalgia films like American Graffiti (1973), about 1960s California teens celebrating one last night before graduating and moving on to college, Linkater’s own Dazed and Confused (1993), about graduating kids in the 1970s, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), which followed a trio of high school students reflecting on life while skipping a day of school in the 1980s. 

This is the kind of film that can only be made if the director has an extremely close relationship with his main cast members, which obviously Mr. Linklater does.  He is proving to be a gifted voice of a generation, adept at being able to find the most iconic moments and adding appropriate era defining songs and pop culture references, creating a sort of time warp that allows us to relive the past for a short time.

The film is full of candid and moving milestone moments that are so typical of a boy’s life growing up in suburban middle class America; learning to live with your annoying older sister, being teased and bullied in school, getting excited about the bra section of a shopping catalog, trying to fit in with the in crowd, dealing with teachers and step parents, changing schools and making new friends, graduation ceremonies etc.

Not afraid to show the ugly and awkward truth, the story and many situations are universal and the film is so captivatingly real and unsettling to watch at times that it’s like looking at someone’s private home videos, except that we continue to see what happens after the camera is turned off.

It's a mesmerizing microcosm of typical experiences young people encounter at a particular time and place in history and everything that influences them and makes them who they are as they find their own identity.

JP

The Apu Trilogy

Satyajit Ray is to India what Akira Kurosawa is to Japan or Vittorio De Sica to Italy. His films are so poetically evocative and stunningly photographed; told with such immediacy and assuredness, he is truly a master of the art form and clearly this trilogy is a labor of love.

He was clearly influenced by rampant social change occurring in India around the 1920s, the socially conscious Italian neorealist cinema of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), as well as the minimalist cinematic art of Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). 

For many years Mr. Ray’s films were unavailable to western audiences or even Indian audiences outside Bengal, and only known to European art-house cinephiles, but now they are finally being restored and shown in retrospectives of Satyajit’s body of work across North America, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. 

These tales tell a powerful sweeping story of a Bengali boy named Apu and his family struggling through life as he grows to adulthood, and are enthralling masterpieces worth every effort to locate and watch at your earliest convenience. Newly restored, these prints and many others will eventually be available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD. I recommend anyone to start their journey of discovery with these three wonderful gems.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) (1955), Satyajit Ray’ first film in the Apu trilogy, that began his career as a filmmaker has everything you could want from a movie. A generational coming of age saga, it contains an entire, fully realized, complete microcosm of human experience and culture. 

Apu is born of poor Bengali parents who also have a teenage daughter Durga. The father is a priest frequently away looking for work to make enough money to support his young family and his elderly mother who live in the ruined remains of a dilapidated ancestral forest dwelling.

The mother has her hands full feeding and raising her young son and daughter, who are, as children often are, playful and mischievous, while dealing with the village gossip about their lack of means.

I had heard great things about these films as they are very highly regarded in the world of international cinema and frequently considered among the all-time greatest films, but I was not prepared for such a true, authentic and honest vision; laying bare the tragic realities and every day struggles of a poor Bengali family scraping out a meager living in an isolated village among the bamboo groves.  

Apu and his sister’s carefree childhood is short lived however. During one of the father’s lengthy trips, tragedy strikes with uncommon ferocity that will leave a lasting effect on the young impressionable Apu. But his troubles are only beginning as the family is forced to relocate, leaving everything behind.

This is realist cinema in the tradition of De Sica and Kurosawa, but also art at the highest level. This film has made me a believer and fan of Mr. Ray’s films. He has captured with this film, a sensitivity and quality of artistic expression that transcends the medium.

Filmed with stunning natural beauty using authentic locations and non-professional actors, we are totally immersed in the lives of these characters and their world. The path through the bamboo forest, the fields where women toil, the monsoons, the beads, the snake, and the ominous train passing like a spirit serpent across the horizon; all are unforgettable magical images and characters that make a lasting impression. 

Written and directed by Mr. Ray and based on the novels of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, this is an epic saga that’s as intimately observed as it is powerfully told, following our young hero’s progress along with that of the country itself. His future, connected with that of India, is always somewhere on the horizon beyond the fields and groves. You can hear it creeping ever closer like a train that steams ahead relentlessly.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) (1956) Being the second part in this mesmerizing and enriching trilogy, it feels like a spiritual experience. The story is so simple but told with such clarity and sensitivity, that it feels timeless and universal. 

The time is 1920 as the British Empire is transforming the Indian landscape with industry and progress and affecting every aspect of life. Villages are being consumed by ever growing cities and not everyone will be able or willing to adapt to the changes. 

This film chronicles Apu’s education as we follow him into adolescence. Apu’s family now lives in a city by the Ganges River, where his father has found work as a Brahmin preaching on the steps of the great river.

But tragedy and poverty continues to dog Apu as his family is forced to move back to a small village in the country. Eventually, when Apu is old enough, he goes off to college in Calcutta on a scholarship and finds a job at a printing press. There he finds lodging while studying and making new friends, but his mother, alone and isolated in the village, suffers while longing for word or visits from him.

These are tumultuous tragic tales that remind us how cruel and fragile life can be, which also reflect in many ways the life of the author and filmmaker. All three films and this one in particular warns us how quickly and suddenly everything we hold dear can be taken away.

Filmed in authentic locations around Calcutta’s streets and the Ganges River, it’s a transporting and rapturous experience.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) (1959) In this third part of the Apu trilogy, we follow Apu as an adult trying to write his first novel while also searching for work to pay for his apartment in Calcutta. Starting his own family is the furthest thing from his mind until serendipitous circumstances lead him to meet the girl he will fall in love with.

Apu is invited to a wedding by his friend who may have a job for him, and finds himself in an extraordinary strange but lucky situation. When later his son is born, Apu must endure still more overwhelming tragedy before he can find happiness.

There is a constant theme running throughout the trilogy of oppressive lack of money, and struggling to make ends meet while pursuing a creative and spiritual life. In the first film it’s the father who travels far and wide to find ways to support the family, in the second film it falls to the practical mother to keep the family going and in the third it is Apu himself who must support himself and his new wife.

This final film is a tragic love story that brings the saga full circle. A generation has passed and the country, as well as its people, have transformed but not without much suffering and loss. These powerful tales have taken us on a sweeping journey of epic proportions that will resonate deeply with all who experience them.

JP

Edge of Tomorrow

Earth is being overrun by an aggressive alien force that has traveled light years across the galaxy to find a habitable planet. In the process of Terra-forming Earth, they are wiping out humanity faster than we can learn how to fight them while turning the earth into a desert wasteland for habitation by an alien species known as Mimics.

A heavy-metal fusion of Battle L.A. (2011) meets Source Code (2011); Edge of Tomorrow is a repeating time loop story set in a futuristic earth at war with alien invaders. We follow William Cage (Tom Cruise), a public relations officer who has never been in combat, as he tries to make sense of the extraordinary events he is thrown into.

Based on the 2004 Japanese military science fiction novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, this story of an ordinary soldier’s unlikely relationship with a saber wielding, full metal female super warrior, while confronted with surreal circumstances, is very much in the vein of renowned Sci-fi author Philip Dick. 

To defend against this threat to all life on earth, the nations of the world have come together to form a United Defense Force (UDF) consisting of various armies from around the world. Cage is asked to cover the war on the front lines but refuses for fear of being killed. Ironically, not only is he killed but keeps getting killed again and again.

Tom Cruise has lately become fond of Sci-fi action films with a message and plenty of visual style. This is his fourth Sci-fi thriller since Minority Report (2001), War of the Worlds (2005) and Oblivion (2013). All are smart, innovative, thought provoking films that are packed with plenty of action and futuristic hardware, following one man’s personal journey to save himself and the earth from destruction.

By pure coincidence, Cage inadvertently taps into the alien’s powers of manipulating the future by resetting time to a point in the past. He must now find a way to use this alien time loop he’s trapped in, to help his squad of Jacket jockeys fighting with the aid of exo-skeleton suits called ‘Jackets’, that give them super human speed and strength on the battle field, to win the war against the Mimics and escape the time loop.

Not unlike Run Lola Run (1998), and Source Code (2011), excellent films that explored how small changes in our behavior can have big consequences in our fates, this film similarly explores the fate of a soldier who is caught in a single day that resets itself every time he dies. If you’ve ever played a difficult video game that keeps killing you before you can win or reach the ultimate prize, then you will have an idea of what this film is like.

In this case, Cage, living a video game nightmare, is the only one aware of the time loop and actually remembers everything he learns from previous days before dying, thereby avoiding the same mistakes and taking himself further into the future each time. Die enough times while learning enough tricks in a world that keeps resetting itself and you will eventually triumph over your enemies. 

Taking inspiration from the W.W. II Allied landings on the shores of Normandy, the film starts as a grungy and gritty ‘in-the-trenches’ war film from a grunt’s point of view as Cage is literally dropped onto the hellish front lines of battle. The experience is appropriately shocking, horrifying and exhilarating to watch.

As the mystery of what Cage is experiencing begins to unfold, with the help of a tough but attractive Special Forces soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), recently seen in such Sci-fi mind benders as The Adjustment Bureau (2011) and Looper (2012), who seems to have extreme abilities and experience beyond her years, the film evolves into a decoding of the alien strategy to find its weak point and the search to destroy it.

The action is relentless, even becoming absurdly and darkly humorous at times, but in the end, as in all video games, one eventually runs out of lives and then it’s time to see how far your training will take you in a game that wants to kill you at every turn.

JP

Maleficent

Following the trend of live action re-imaginings of Disney’s classic fairy tales such as Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), now comes Maleficent, a totally re-tooled version of Sleeping Beauty (1959) that’s told completely from the never seen perspective of the evil villainess, Maleficent, in the classic animated film.

The world is divided in two; the ordinary familiar human world and the enchanted world of strange supernatural creatures called the Moors. Visually, the two worlds are juxtaposed with the human world a vast manicured tapestry of fields and fences with neatly corralled domestic livestock; a safe and orderly world. 

The Moors, on the other hand, is a wildly dark mysterious thick forest of free flowing rivers, trees, roots and rocks where all manner of mysterious magical creatures reside. Protecting this magical realm from the greedy and ambitious humans is a pure hearted fairy, who grows up to be a beautiful woman with majestic wings that allow her to travel with the speed and grace of an Eagle.

It’s a risky move by Disney to go with such a departure from the original film with a much darker and adult story, which still manages to exist in the same world as the well-loved original but where the characters are not what they seem at first.

One day she meets a curious human boy, Stefan, lost in the Moors after attempting to steal a rare gem stone. She is kind to Stefan and shows him the way out while also showing him the error of his deed. Over time they continue to meet on the edge of both their worlds and become close friends.

Be prepared for a visually spectacular film that faithfully captures the fantasy elements of the original tale but shows us a whole new side of the story never seen before. I have to give credit to Disney for not just doing a straight remake but trying to create something fresh and new while building on the original concepts.

Eventually, while growing into adulthood, Stefan falls prey to the greed and ambition of his human nature and betrays the love and friendship he has developed with his fairy loved one.

Angelina Jolie steals the show here with here sensitive and superb performance easily holding our attention against all the visual effects. Showing her character’s back story, we see now that she is not the evil person we all thought she was. Sleeping Beauty’s character, played by Elle Fanning, has been relegated to a secondary role here.

The betrayal plunges Maleficent into a deep sorrow and hatred for the man she once loved. Realizing that their love was only and illusion, she places a curse on his new born child that can never be broken accept by true love’s kiss.

Digital advances have revolutionized our film making industry to the point now where nothing is too fantastic to make real on the screen. Magic and myth in fairy tales used to be the domain of children’s books and drawings, but today anything we can imagine can be realized in full cinematic splendor.

The human story here is compelling enough to keep us engaged throughout some of the more enchanting flights of fancy in the film. It’s a timeless tale worthy of the fairy tale genre and will entertain both children and adults.

JP