Monthly Archives: February 2016

Embrace of the Serpent – Director, Ciro Guerra

One of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film and while it has received some very positive reviews I found it long and boring. The idea of the film is great. It juxtaposes two European travellers/adventures/explorers whose travels into the Amazonian rain forest are separated by several decades. The thing that ties them together is the shaman who travels with them both, once as a young man and later as elderly. He carries memories that ties the two together. The plan is to educate these two explorers about the land and people and show them the damage that Europeans have brought to the Amazon. Unfortunately, it plays as a pedantic guilt trip and is incredibly slow moving and tedious. A great idea gone wrong. I think a lot of the praise is based on European guilt for the cultural and economic destruction of colonialism. I sadly cannot recommend this film to you.

The 33 – Director, Patricia Riggen

This movie got mediocre reviews and I think I understand why. It tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped for 69 days underground and finally miraculously rescued. It was a dramatic story that captured the attention of the world for over two months and brought in mining and drilling experts from all over the world including Canada. The making of a movie about the events made sense and I recall listening to a radio documentary about the making of the movie a couple of years ago that piqued my interest in the film and learning that Antonio Banderas and Gabriel Byrne were in the cast. The film, if it had been made as a fictional story would perhaps have garnered more praise. Unfortunately, the real story while dramatic is also disturbing.  Despite all the attention, the company that owned the mine was never punished for creating the unsafe conditions that led to the disaster and the minors were never compensated for their trauma. The film touches on these issues but never really focuses on them. Instead we focus entirely on the rescue in a pretty typical Hollywood manner. There are some interesting characters among the miners and there is some real tension. One of the best scenes is the final rescue as the minors are pulled one by one from the mine. I enjoyed the movie and am just disappointed that they didn’t do a better job.

Theeb – Director, Naji Abu Nowar

Unlike Room ( see below), which also focuses on a young boy at the centre of the story, this film is far more powerful and interesting. It is set in 1916 in Hijaz province (Western Saudi Arabia today) of the Ottoman empire. It is during the First World War at the time of Lawrence of Arabia and tells the story of a young boy named Theeb or Wolf in Arabic and his older brother. They are asked to guide a English soldier to a well on the way to Mecca. They are moving through a war torn area and are victims of a conflict they have nothing to do with. The cinematography in this film is beautiful and reminiscent of David Lean’s masterpiece. The boy is a great actor and not nauseatingly cute as in Room but very real. Unlike Room I was entranced for the full hour and a half. This movie has a high rating from reviewers but like many foreign language films has had very little exposure. The knock on this movie is that it is a simple coming of age adventure film with a predictable outcome. I am not sure this is entirely fair. The world in which it is set and the time is a violent one and this movie avoids any gruesome violence or unjustified confrontations or death.It’s a good adventure story and I would highly recommend it to you. it will be at review cinemas and the Lightbox so get out and see it.

Room – Director, Lenny Abrahamson

I really did not like this movie despite its 96 percent rating on RottenTomatoes. It is boring, unbelievable and pointless. It is winning because the kid is so damn cute but if not for that I think this film would disappear into oblivion which I suspect it will after February 28th passes. I am clearly way off the popular consensus. This starts with a woman who is a prisoner in a room with her young son. They have access to food and basic comforts but she is visited by her captor and is clearly a sexual slave to him. She has been there for seven years and the son is only 4 or 5 and is clearly the son of her and her captor. The focus of the film is that her son has no concept of the outside world except through the small television they have. The whole scenario seemed unbelievable to me. They behave as would any mother and son in a normal situation which I could not believe. The boy has concepts that he would never have if brought up in this situation. I don’t know if this is based on a real case or not or on research about people in similar circumstances but I just couldn’t believe the scenario at all. They escape in yet another unbelievable plot involving the son feigning death. Once they get out the story shifts to introducing the boy to the world he has never known. It is totally wrapped around the relationship between mother and son but it is just pointless unless you identify with the cute little boy. Sorry but this movie really is not very interesting at all. Just my opinion however. Enjoy… if you like that kind of thing.

Creed – Director, Ryan Coogler

Has it really been 40 years since the first Rocky movie? Creed is a homage to the Rocky series and is a remake in many ways of the original film only this time focussing on the rising career of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son played by Michael B. Jordan. Coogler’s previous very well received film is called Fruitvale Station also starring Jordan. I have not seen the latter but will definitely hunt it down now. As for this film, I have to wonder how Jordan does not get a nomination or how Coogler (who is black) doesn’t get one either for directing. This is particularly bad when I look at the nominated films some of which simply do not measure up to this one. If it had been nominated it would have also gone some way toward addressing the whiteness of the Academy’s process.

It is clear why Stallone gets a nomination in the acting category. Although he is not known for great performances outside of the Rocky series he is actually really good in this film. I hope I am not being overly generous here and channeling my memories from 40 years ago but hey…I had a great time watching this movie and it took me back. So I think this counts as a really good movie and a tribute to the entire Rocky series. It has, and this is a warning, great boxing scenes and I know there are those who find this unpleasant and see it as barbaric. The latter may be true but that doesn’t take from the quality of this movie. Go see it if you can.

Son of Saul – Director, László Nemes

This is a very difficult film to watch. The Nazi’s selected skilled and fit Jews to help in the concentration camps as work commandos. They were not executed unless they fell ill or were no longer needed. They collected the clothing and possessions of the inmates who were led to the ovens and gas chambers. This film follows one of these commandos who finds his son among the dead and seeks to find a rabbi and give his son a proper burial. It is filmed from his perspective as the camera follows him around focussed on his face or what he is watching. This techniques makes it very powerful and very upsetting as the reality of the camps is revealed. The ending is inevitable if not entirely predictable. It frustrates me somewhat that these excellent films are not recognized more fully by the Academy. An award for the Best Foreign Language Film is something out of a past in which the lords of Hollywood condescended to recognize films from those countries that in their opinion sadly lacked a real film industry. This kind of American arrogance needs to be addressed with a major redo of the awards and the industry. Worth an editorial on the blog shortly. In the meantime here is a very good movie that deserves the recognition it is getting.

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records – Director, Colin Hanks

This documentary covers the 45 history of Tower Records, an international record retailing company that started modestly in Sacramento California and spread right around the world. From being one of the most successful retail companies in the world in 1999, they then filed for bankruptcy in 2006. A sudden and dramatic crash. The man who founded the company was Russ Solomon and he gathered around him in 1961 a variety of unusual people who liked the fact that employees could wear what they liked, let their hair grow, do drugs and charge them as a petty cash item and drink. They only had to show up for work in order to keep their jobs. He was however a great judge of people and gathered a group of people who loved music, were friendly and committed and in the end hard working in their own way. From a very humble beginning it grew to a mega corporation that really outgrew the skills and ability of its creator. The film and the archival footage of the stores reminded me of Sam the Record Man and Solomon reminded me totally of Sam Sniderman. Interestingly both companies closed within one year of each other. Sam’s started in the basement of Sniderman’s home in 1937 but opened its main store on Yonge street in 1961 the same year as Tower Records. The similarities suggest that Tower Records and Sam the Record Man were victims of the same forces and not really victims of the inability of the founders to adapt to a new reality. Nonetheless the similarities are stunning and the film is totally fun until the end when the corporatism just becomes boring and put me off as much as it did Russ Solomon. Nonetheless this is fun movie and worth your time particularly if you shopped for LP’s in the 60’s.

What Happened, Miss Simone? – Director, Liz Garbus

Okay I will confess I really like Liz Garbus. She has not made a bad documentary in her life that I am aware of including Love, Marilyn, The World Against Bobby Fischer and the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Go check them out if you have not seen them. This is another winner. The film uses interviews with her former husband and manager, her daughter and niece to great effect but the news footage of her and Stokley Carmichael and others is even more powerful. Nina Simone was an amazing pianist and jazz/blues singer who suffered from manic depression and who took a potentially super star career to the depths of despair as she fought against racism in the US in 60’s and 70’s. Her life was tragic but through it all her powerful voice, song writing ability and passion for her music and her community kept her alive and fighting. I cannot recommend this film more. It is nominated for Best Documentary and is up against a biographical documentary about Amy Winehouse which took the BAFTA Award this year. I don’t see it. However good “Amy” is she did not live long enough nor was she committed enough to warrant beating out this movie. In this year of ever so white Oscars they could take a mini-step in the right direction to recognize this champion of human rights and freedom.

Winter on Fire – Director, Evgeny Afineevsky








Not a great movie and likely nominated for the pro-Western political perspective it offers. The technique of the documentary is very in your face with no clear narrative but a collection of real life encounters with participants in the conflict. They include not only leaders but people in the street and so it is visceral in its impact. The director followed the style of a previous Netflix movie called The Square about the uprising in Egypt that focussed in demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Both films take the viewer into the streets with the protestors and shows the conflict from that perspective. It is a powerful technique that builds sympathy in the viewers for those who are in the midst of the conflict. The problem in both cases is that it also simplifies the struggle going on in the country. In both situations and particularly in Ukraine the situation is not nearly as simple as it is portrayed. Ukraine is of critical strategic importance to east and west and is as a result the focus of much interference from both sides. This aspect of the conflict is not addressed in the film and so I am not entirely happy with it. I do not necessarily accuse the film makers of political propaganda but the film is of limited value because of its focus on the street alone. If you want to see better example of the technique however I would recommend The Square over this film.

Hail, Caesar – Director, The Coen Brothers

I liked this movie although I will admit it is not the best Coen brother film ever. It is much quieter and more subtle than I had anticipated. Reviews are mostly very positive and congratulate the Coen’s on a tribute and laugh at 1950’s Hollywood but the negative ones are very negative. I think it might be useful to see the film in conjunction with Trumbo and with Women He’s Undressed which also look at the same period. Hail, Caesar does not miss the communist element in Hollywood but does make light of it. The attack on the left wing elements of the creative people in Hollywood of the time was devastating and not funny but I am not sure the Coen’s deserve the antagonism they get for having fun with the whole thing. Certainly it is a comic take but it is so clearly comic and so tongue in cheek that I really enjoyed it notwithstanding the real story. There are some really great scenes mocking the mega dance scenes, the heroic over the top epics, and the mega stars who led the Hollywood of the time. There a number of great cameos and some wonderfully comic scenes but for the most part it is done without going over the top. I enjoyed it but as I note there are much better Coen Bros. films. Their best films are really great so their lesser efforts clearly disappointed some critics but to be fair, not being as great as their best is still pretty darn good.