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.

As her religious faith increases, Layla 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

The Jungle Book

Remember the adventures of Mowgli the man cub raised by wolves in the deep jungles of India who hung out with best friends Baloo, the singing bear, and Bagheera, the silky Black Panther? Well they’re back. And they’re bigger and better than ever in this latest magical retelling to receive Disney’s digital live-action treatment. 

Based on the classic animated feature film, The Jungle Book (1967), which was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved timeless collection of animal fables, Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book is stunningly beautiful and hugely enjoyable to watch, retaining all its charm while expanding the spectacle of Mowgli’s vast jungle world.

Roaring back onto the big screen, like Disney’s other recent live-action remakes of its classic animated films; Alice in Wonderland (2010), Snow White & the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), The Jungle Book does a magnificent job of re-imagining this enduring children’s tale, breathing new life into the time-honored traditional animal fable while staying true to the spirit of its origins.

Hunted by the wounded man-eating tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who wants to kill Mowgli (Neel Sethi) before he grows into a man and becomes a threat to him and the rest of the forest animals, the feral boy decides he must leave his jungle home to protect his wolf pack brothers.

Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), and Bagheera the Black Panther (Ben Kingsley) who has undertaken Mowgli’s training and education in the laws of the jungle, accompany him on his journey that will return him to the human village where he will be safe from harm. 

The original 1967 animated film has a special place in my heart as it was one of the first feature films I saw as a child, and I’m still to this day intrigued by animal fables and jungle stories. What attracted me back then was the visually splendid and shadowy depths of the jungle world, and the array of strange wild creatures that lived there. 

The Jungle Book had a nostalgic feel of a childhood fondly remembered and a mythical coming-of-age tale that marked the end of one idealized freewheeling life of discovery, and the beginning of another more structured world of rules and responsibilities.

Kipling was himself born of English parents in British colonial India, where he grew up with Indians and the many species of exotic Indian animals living in and around the dark tropical forest. He was inspired to create the world of The Jungle Book from memories of his childhood spent in India and the rich tradition of ancient Indian beast fables many Indians grew up with, like the Jataka Tales, The Panchatantra, and The Hitopadesha Tales which gave The Jungle Book its mythical quality.

These allegorical tales are as relevant today as ever and can easily be adapted to suit a modern society which is what Disney and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) director Jon Favreau have done here using new digital technology to create eye popping visuals that immerse us in a majestic three dimensional world of jungle wildlife a la Life of Pi (2012).

In this darker, action-packed version, Mowgli is no vulnerable little child that needs protecting, he is a curious and courageous kid with a knack for using “tricks”; inventing new tools that he uses to help his jungle friends. 

All the iconic characters from the original Disney film are back, voiced by well-known actors including Bill Murray as Baloo, Christopher Walken as King Louie, king of the Apes, and Scarlett Johansson as Kaa the sly python.

The Jungle Book is great entertainment for the whole family and re-energizes the age-old tradition of talking animal fables for a new generation while also re-kindling moviegoer’s childhood memories. 

JP

Taxi

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015) also known as Taxi Tehran, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, triumphs as a delightfully inventive and brilliant piece of heartfelt humanist cinema by one of Iran’s most outspoken filmmakers. Banned from making films in his own country, Panahi made this bold film after spending six years under house arrest by the Iranian government.

Internationally acclaimed director Jafar Panahi, known for such films as The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006), has made extraordinary  socially relevant films dealing with the plight of women in Iran and is critical of the country’s government policies and male dominated society. 

Taxi’s ingenious storyline takes place entirely inside a cab driven by the director himself through the streets of Tehran using only dash cams inside the car that can be swiveled from a front view of the road to a rear view of the taxi’s passengers. There is no attempt made to conceal the camera from the passengers who are sometimes curiously aware that something is there but not sure what exactly it is.

Even Panahi himself is not concealing his identity as he is recognized by some of his passengers as the venerated national celebrity he has become. As Panahi drives through the streets of Tehran picking up passengers while wearing a newsboy cap, we the audience learn about their lives, dreams and how they feel about society and the world through his interactions with them.

The idea is so simple and original, it’s a joy to watch. Using only a car and a camera, Panahi is able to orchestrate vital and timely stories with vibrancy and humor. We can easily believe and relate to the sometimes bizarre situations that unfold in the cab because it’s done with such honesty and realism. 

The activities surrounding a taxi as it drives through actual locations in a busy city are in themselves engaging to watch. The dashboard camera footage also makes for some fascinating angles and dynamic shots of the city as it passes by in the background. It all feels very candid and spontaneous like a documentary, as if it’s all really happening. 

Using non-professional actors, the performances are especially fresh and convincing in their innocence. Through these candid interactions both playful and profound, we come to realize some universal truths about the human condition and how Iranians of all ages and from all walks of life are fundamentally similar to all who struggle with life in a big city.

Have you ever noticed that people feel more comfortable talking freely about themselves while in a moving vehicle? Well this film certainly proves that theory. At one point Panahi picks up two fares who share the cab for a short time, one a young working class man who gives his opinions about what the government should do with thieves to set a strong example, and the other an older lady who is more liberal minded and argues with him about how we should learn more about what causes crime before condemning people so quickly.

In another lively sequence, our fake taxi driver happens upon a motorcycle accident, and the bleeding victim is rushed into his cab while the bystanders tell the driver to head for the nearest hospital. But not being an actual taxi driver Panahi doesn’t know the way, leading to some hilarious comments throughout the film about his incompetence as a cab driver.

Panahi himself plays his part with a surprisingly modest, good-humored demeanor, never becoming flustered or angry. He’s humble and always has a kind word and thoughtful advice for his passengers. Through his jovial guise, Taxi is able to reveal, like all great art, not only the personality of a city and its culture, but human nature, both good and bad.

JP

Grandma & The Grump

Poking fun at grumpy old people who have lost touch with the ever changing world around them, complaining about how much better life was back in the old days, seems to be striking a chord with the ageing boomer generation if these recent films are anything to go by; Grandma (2015) and The Grump (2014). 

These two films mine the comedy inherent in feisty silver-haired people who find no pleasure in their day-to-day routine, struggling with the challenges of modern society, new technologies, and attitudes of young people. Perhaps after losing a loved one, they are now bitter about having to cope without their partner to help them get through life.

Septuagenarian Lily Tomlin in Grandma is going through a personal crisis when she breaks up with her latest partner and finds herself caught between conflicting personalities of her uptight, career-minded daughter and her rebellious granddaughter who comes to her for help after getting pregnant.

Despite her alienating gruff exterior, Elle (Lily Tomlin) goes on a journey to collect enough money to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), while confronting her past and her failings with her own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) with sarcasm and acerbic humor.

Paul Weitz’s low-budget Sundance hit Grandma is a sensitive comedic drama illustrating how grandparents can still play an important role in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Children in today’s ever trending virtual society often find themselves without traditional role models and in conflict with their parents. Grandparents who are from the free love and flower power generation of the 60s are often the ones they feel more comfortable turning to for guidance. 

There’s an important underlying message of family failings in these two films. As the mother fails her daughter in Grandma, so the father fails his son in the Finnish comedy The Grump. Children are sometimes overshadowed by their overbearing controlling parents and struggle to find their own identity. 

When the grump, Mielensäpahoittaja, travels from his remote country home to the big city of Helsinki to see a specialist after hurting his ankle, he must stay with his son and daughter-in-law who live in the modern bustling city. The grump loves to hate on everything; he doesn’t like the city and he doesn’t approve of his son’s lifestyle and his strange new gadgets. His son never learned to drive and he is driven around by his wife who is a career woman. 

The grump is confused by all the strange new modern ways of city folk and feels like a fish out of water. Feeling bitter and out of place makes it difficult for him to connect with his stay-at-home son who looks after the household while his wife goes out to work, which seems to work just fine for the young couple. 

When the grump tries to help his daughter-in-law close a deal with a tough elderly client, the grump’s old world knowledge proves to be quite useful and he eventually discovers that if he can get over his anger and prejudices, he can still play an important role in his son’s life.

Both Grandma and The Grump have important messages for aging grandparents with extended families and use plenty of heart and humor to make us love these cantankerous characters despite their faults.

JP

The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van is the mostly true story of a British playwright and author Alan Bennett who lived for a time around 1974 in the well know literary community of Camden Town, London, where he became acquainted with an eccentric homeless woman living in a van outside his house on Gloucester Crescent.

The peaceful stone-walled, hedged and gated streets of this well-kept cultured community of old converted lodging homes was a popular area to live for many famous British authors, playwrights and artists of the time. Known for its quiet family atmosphere, the residence of Gloucester Crescent were not prepared and quite perturbed by an uninvited guest who took up residence on their front doorsteps one day.

The dubious guest was a smelly ill-natured elderly homeless woman living out of her van and moving from house to house as she pleased once she outstayed her welcome. Teased and bullied by neighborhood children, Miss Mary Shepherd, as she came to be known, eventually sheltered under the watchful gaze of the shy timid writer of plays Alan Bennett.

As Alan sat quietly contemplating in his cozy study writing and looking through his bay window, the foul bag lady in the van rolled into his view one day and became a permanent fixture of his daily life.

Maggie Smith, known for her role as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, plays the humorless acerbic lady in the van with biting realism and subtle vulnerability. No one would ever guess she was once a sensitive musical prodigy who became deeply suspicious of and hurt by a callous uncaring society.

The story is told from the perspective of the writer Alan Bennett, played by Alex Jennings, who is shown in the film as two distinct personalities. One of a person who is withdrawn and immersed in his inner world of books and writing, and the other, a social being who must interact with the chaotic world and people around him.

The Lady in the Van is filmed on location in the actual street and house where Alan and Miss Shepherd lived back in the 70s and 80s. Living apart yet always there in earshot of each of other like roommates who tolerate each other, but always wondering when she will move on to the next house.

Alan never got to know Miss Shepherd’s history while she was alive as she was just a homeless person to him like so many that we encounter on a daily basis, and she was difficult to get along with. Some of us are charitable enough to give them a little change or food but most of us just try to ignore homeless people, afraid to get too close.

It was quite extraordinary that the people of Gloucester Crescent were able to tolerate her and sometimes help Miss Shepherd for as long as they did, even becoming an accepted part of the community, especially considering that the lady in the van was not a particularly kind person. In fact by all accounts she was quite cantankerous.

The Lady in the Van film however is an enjoyable good-natured and touching comedy, thanks to the way that Alan wrote about her and himself in his diaries and the humorous sensitive direction of filmmaker Nicholas Hytner.

JP

My annual review of 2015 film year

2015 was an exceptionally rich and diverse year in film for big Hollywood films, and for smaller budget Indie and foreign films by first time or new directors. 

We saw a new Star Wars film reach box office heights not seen since Avatar (2009). We also saw terrific small budget films by new directors like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Deniz Gamze Erguven’s Mustang.

Unique foreign dramas were especially exciting this year. If you are a finicky film goer who doesn’t like reading subtitles, you either missed out on some of the best films of the year, or you decided to take the plunge and discover a whole new world of wonder with award winning films like Oscar nominated French/Turkish film Mustang, Cannes Palm D’Or winner Dheepan, Tunisia’s gripping As I Open My Eyes, Argentina’s Silver Lion winner El Clan, Chile’s El Club, Iceland’s official Oscar entry Rams, Brazil’s official Oscar entry The Second Mother, Spain’s Goya award winning Truman, and Hungary’s Oscar winner for best foreign film Son of Saul.

Indie films were also amazingly heartfelt this year especially Sundance award winner Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, - Indie favorite Tangerine, a film that was shot entirely with iPhones about the trans-gender community in L.A., - Ex Machina, a unique low budget Sci-fi thriller about A.I. technology, and award winning Irish/Canadian productions Brooklyn and Room.

Big Hollywood productions that made an impression with their inspiring stories and stunning visuals were; The Martian, multi Oscar winning Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Documentaries were again a huge force in cinema this year with eye-opening, thought-provoking films like Oscar winner AMY, He Named Me Malala, Hurt, This Changes Everything and Cartel Land to name a few.

Of the 85 films I saw this year, the list below represents the films that stood out for me with links to my reviews highlighted in orange. If you haven’t seen these films yet, put them on your ‘to watch’ list and expand your horizons.

Title                                                                       Director                                   Country

Drama:
Clouds of Sils Maria                                                Olivier Assayas                         France/US
Brooklyn                                                                 John Crowley                            UK/Ireland
Mustang                                                                 Deniz Gamze Ergüven               Turkey/France
Dheepan                                                                 Jacques Audiard                       France
As I Open My Eyes                                                 Leyla Bouzid                             Tunisia/France
El Clan (The Clan)                                                    Pablo Trapero                            Argentina/Spain
Rams                                                                     Grímur Hákonarson                          Iceland
Neon Bull                                                                Gabriel Mascaro                       Brazil
Truman                                                                   Cesc Gay                                 Spain/Argentina
Taxi Tehran                                                             Jafar Panahi                               Iran
Room                                                                     Lenny Abrahamson                    Ireland/Canada
Spotlight                                                                 Tom McCarthy
The Big Short                                                          Adam McKay
Son of Saul                                                             László Nemes                           Hungary

Comedy/Feel-Good/Romance:
While We’re Young                                                   Noah Baumbach
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl                                  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon  
Tangerine                                                                 Sean Baker
The Second Mother                                                   Anna Muylaert                           Brazil
Northern Soul                                                           Elaine Constantine                     UK
The Grump                                                               Dome Karukoski                       Finland

Action/Suspense:
Mad Max: Fury Road                                                 George Miller                            Australia/US
American Ultra                                                           Nima Nourizadeh
Sicario                                                                      Denis Villeneuve
The Revenant                                                            Alejandro González Iñárritu

Sci-Fi/Fantasy:
Ex Machina                                                                Alex Garland                             UK
The Martian                                                                Ridley Scott
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens                J.J. Abrams

Animation:
When Marnie Was There                                              Hiromasa Yonebayashi              Studio Ghibli
Inside Out                                                                   Pete Docter, Ronaldo del Carmen  Pixar/Disney
Boy & the World                                                          Alê Abreu                                  Brazil

Documentary:
Cartel Land                                                                  Matthew Heineman
He Named Me Malala                                                   Davis Guggenheim
This Changes Everything                                               Avi Lewis
Meet the Patels                                                            Geeta Patel, Ravi Patel
AMY                                                                           Asif Kapadia
The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble       Morgan Neville
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom                    Evgeny Afineevsky                    UK/Ukraine
What Happened, Miss Simone?                                     Liz Garbus