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TIFF: Sea Fever

The ocean depths hold many secrets. Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) has devoted her young career to studying the patterns of ocean life in an effort to take the mystery out of the sea. Little does she know that a sea creature awaits her, beyond the scope of anything she has ever studied or could ever know.

Siobhán joins a fishing trawler manned by married couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). Fisherman are incredibly superstitious and Siobhán’s red hair is a sign that they’re in for some bad luck. Also on the vessel are a trio of fisherman Sudi (Eli Bouakaze), Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Ciara (Olwen Fouere) as well as fellow scientist Omid (Ardalan Esmaili). Siobhán is quiet, serious and anti-social and the spirited Johnny starts to bring her out of her shell. The bad luck rears its ugly head when a luminous creature that spews a blue slime, latches its tentacles onto the boat. Siobhán, the only one on board equipped for scuba diving, meets the creature face to face. The shipmates soon learn that the creature has wiped out the crew of another trawler and they’re next. One by one the creature exposes its blue slime into open wounds, laying its eggs that explode out of its victims. Will the crew be able to escape in time before the creature infects them all?

Sea Fever feels both classic and brand new. It’s in the same vein of those classic sci-fi thrillers where the creature serves a vessel to help tell a very human story. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman offers a slick and emotionally devastating story. There are so many themes that come bubbling up to the surface. Man versus nature, fear of the unknown, the importance of social bonds, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

There are no stereotypes. Everyone is their own character, true to themselves and not a pawn for the sake of the story. Siobhán is a fascinating protagonist and Hermione Corfield does her justice. Studious, smart and emotionally distant, we see her grow over time as she becomes the film’s hero. It’s great to see what a woman director/writer can do with a science fiction story featuring a strong female lead. Sea Fever had me enthralled. I usually don’t go for this genre but I’m glad I took a chance on this film. It’s thrilling in a quiet way. It’s not splashy, doesn’t depend on elaborate action sequences or fancy special effects (although the special effects it does have are pretty slick). Instead it latches on to its characters and won’t let go.

Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

TIFF Review: A Star is Born

by Raquel Stecher

A Star is Born
dir. Bradley Cooper
Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga

Review:

Before I begin my review of A Star is Born (2018) I would like to acknowledge the movies that came before it:

What Price Hollywood? (1932)
Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman
A Star is Born (1937)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March
A Star is Born (1954)
Judy Garland, James Mason
A Star is Born (1976)
Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson

Hollywood has a long tradition of revisiting and remaking its own stories. A Star is Born has evolved over the past 80+ years from a story about actors to a story about musicians. But the essence has stayed the same. What happens when an established star, on the path towards self-destruction, meets an unknown talent and falls in love? Out of the ashes of one career comes the genesis of another. A star is born.

Having seen all of the previous versions, I came to this latest iteration of A Star is Born ready to compare it to all of those other movies. And you know what, Cooper’s movie holds its own.

There are many ways in which Cooper’s A Star is Born improves upon the previous versions as well as makes this classic story relatable to a new audience. These added layers enhanced the overall story.

  • The relationship between Jackson and Ally is fleshed out more and their physical attraction to each other is palpable. While the 1937 version is still my favorite, Gaynor and March’s romance is tender but there is no sexual chemistry there. And there is no chemistry at all between James Mason and Judy Garland in the 1954 version. Fast forward to 1976 and we get a bit of chemistry with Kristofferson and Streisand (but it didn’t help that they didn’t get along in real life). In the 2018 version Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper helps us understand not only why Jackson and Ally were attracted to each other but what drew them together as artists and as individuals. It’s a more well-rounded portrait of a romantic relationship.
  • In addition to Jackson Maine’s drinking problem, he as degenerative hearing loss which adds another layer of drama to his tragedy.
  • SEMI-SPOILER: Jackson Maine’s suicide is depicted differently than in the previous versions and the method is more relevant to the conversation regarding suicide today. Also there is an added element that serves as a gut punch to the audience.
  • Pays homage to previous versions including the one last look/goodbye, the bathtub scene from the 1976 version, this is Mrs. Jackson Maine, etc.
  • Ally and Jackson Maine collaborate in their live performances and song writing. We see the pairs in the previous versions work together to some extent but it’s more substantial here. The mentor-student relationship here is key until Ally outgrows her need for Jackson’s guidance.
  • Lady Gaga’s Ally and Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine are presented fairly equally. The 1954 version is a Judy Garland showcase and the 1976 is meant to highlight Barbra Streisand, even though Kristofferson gets some good screen time too. It was more even handed in the 2018 which to me seemed more true to the 1937 version with Gaynor and March being almost equal counterparts in the story.
  • Lady Gaga shows true vulnerability in her performance as Ally which is not something I got from Gaynor, Garland or Streisand. Or even Bennett. All are superb actresses who deliver on their own vision for the part but Gaga’s Ally felt the most real to me.
  • Added characters like Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are great for enhancing our understanding of the two main leads. Ally’s relationship with her father shows us that she’s always been taking care of the men in her life. Jackson’s best friend sticks by him through the worst further showing us how difficult it is to have someone in your life who is completely self-destructing.
  • Anthony Ramos as Ally’s BFF can be seen as a call back to the 1937 version where Gaynor’s Lester has a close friend, played by Andy Devine, who has been there for her since the beginning and see her through ups and downs. Sam Elliott’s Bobby takes the manager role to a deeper level with Bobby and Jackson as brothers. The added family dynamic enhances the drama. The two brothers have their own A Star is Born storyline with Bobby’s failed musical career.
  • Garland, Streisand and Lady Gaga are all icons in the gay community. In this new film, it pays homage to that with Gaga’s Ally performing La Vie en Rose in a nightclub. She’s the only female in a line-up of drag queens and it’s at this point where Ally and Jackson meet. At the A Star is Born Press Conference at TIFF, Lady Gaga proclaimed “I wouldn’t be here without the gay community.”

 

A Star is Born (2018) has a lot to offer movie-going audiences. When I watched it at TIFF I was blown away by the stellar performances and the original takes on the story. I left telling myself “this is what a movie should be.” It should be an experience, one that touches your heart and makes you swell with emotion. This is all in addition to the amazing music performed and in part written by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. These are the types of songs that give you goose bumps and take your breath away.

 

 

 

A Star is Born (2018) hits theaters October 5th.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as a press conference for A Star is Born at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF Review: Colette

Colette

by Raquel Stecher

Colette
dir. Wash Westmoreland
starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough,

Review:

Colette was a woman ahead of her time.

Wash Westmoreland’s biopic follows Colette (Keira Knightley) from the age of 18 to 34; the pivotal years when she was married to writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, also known by his nom de plume Willy (Dominic West). Colette starts her married life as a dutiful wife, helping Willy out with his business which involves hiring writers to create stories to be published under his name. Willy is a complete cad, spending the family finances on prostitutes, in gambling dens and treating others to expensive meals. When Colette tries her hand at some writing to help Willy out, the Claudine novels are born. Published under Willy’s name and not hers, these stories become the toast of Paris. As Colette begins to discover her authentic self, Willy finds himself losing control over her. We follow Colette’s trajectory from spunky country girl to fully realized woman and creator. She comes into her sexuality discovering her physical attraction to women. As Colette and Willy’s relationship falls apart, she falls for Missy (Denise Gough), a woman defying society by presenting as a man. Through her personal and professional relationship with Missy, Colette blossoms and finds the strength within herself to live courageously.

“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

The first line of Claudine are repeated throughout the film as a declaration of identity. And that is what this film, a story about discovering your true self.  Colette is a superb character study exploring gender dynamics and politics within the confines of deeply entrenched double standards. The real life Colette challenged sexual norms while finding her agency. Her message of female empowerment is desperately needed today.

 

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The idea to bringing Colette to the big screen came from Colette herself. In conversation at the Colette press conference at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Westmoreland said he and the late Richard Glatzer found Colette’s story to be  “a compelling narrative of a woman creating while a man was taking credit.”

As someone who loves a good period piece, Colette was rich in period detail. The cast wore real costumes of the era and scenes were shot in historic buildings. This imbued the film with a great sense of place and time. The part Colette fits Keira Knightley, no stranger to period pieces, like a glove. At the press conference she proclaimed, “I stood very tall when I played Colette. She was a maverick.” Colette is quite bold for a period piece. Comparing it with the relatively tame period pieces of previous decades, this movie demonstrates that you can still tell a story about the past that is provocative and interesting to contemporary viewers. Westmoreland went on to say, “for a long time period pieces have gotten a reputation for being a kind of safer genre. But I think at the moment there is something happening with period pieces that are radicalizing.”

Westmoreland found many parallels to Colette’s turn-of-the-century France with modern day. It was an era when people were questioning gender roles and women were demanding more access to power.  Westmoreland collaborated with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who added the necessary female insights needed for the script. Actress Denise Gough called the casting one of the most progressive that she’d ever been involved with. Westmoreland went on to say:

 “With the casting we tried an approach that I don’t believe has really been tried before of having a very inclusive cast. We have trans men playing cisgender characters. We have trans women playing cisgender women. We have an out lesbian actor playing heterosexual. We have our gay actor playing someone who said he was heterosexual, we’re not quite sure. And we have Asian British actors playing characters who were historically white. We have a black actor playing someone who in history was white. And guess what? It all works. And these have been sacred rules for so long…. Colette broke a lot of rules so we though we should too.” – Wash Westmoreland

 

 

 

Colette is in select theaters starting today.

I attended a press and industry screening as well as the press conference for Colette at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF Review: The Wedding Guest

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by Raquel Stecher

The Wedding Guest
dir. Michael Winterbottom
starring Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh

Review:

It’s seems like a disservice to you, dear reader, for me to summarize the plot of this movie. The greatest joy I experienced while watching this film at TIFF was going into it knowing nothing. With no trailer and only a vague description, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I found myself enveloped in this world, not knowing what was going on or who these characters were or where this story was taking me. It was magical.

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Jay (Dev Patel) is a mysterious traveler arriving in Pakistan for a wedding. He’s not your average wedding guest because he’s there to kidnap the bride Samira (Radhika Apte). Jay’s been hired by the bride’s secret Indian beau Deepesh (Jim Sarbh) to save her from an arranged marriage. When Jay kidnaps Samira, his carefully executed plan is thrown off by a nosy bodyguard who Jay has to kill to escape. When Jay tries to return Samira to Deepesh, things are not as they seem. As news of the bodyguard’s death and bride’s kidnapping spreads, Jay and Samira find themselves on the run.

Director Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest is shrouded in mystery. It draws the audience in, peeling back the layers of the story all the while holding us at arm’s length. I got lost in this world, in the setting, in the lives of Jay and Samira. And these characters are two of the most perplexing and enigmatic ones you’ll ever encounter on screen. Every time I learned something new about them, a morsel of information, it made me hungry for more. We don’t fully understand them but we’re willing participants in their game.

Patel and Apte deliver A+ performances. Sarbh doesn’t have a big role but he stands out as the shifty beau with a secret agenda. The film was shot in India and Pakistan with a small crew which gave the film a profound sense of realism (you feel like you’re right there with them) and also an intimacy. The movie is filled with really amazing cinematography and some great aerial shots courtesy of Giles Nuttgens.

The Wedding Guest is a superbly crafted mystery with terrific performances.  Winterbottom is such a versatile director. Go see this one!

I attended the world premiere of The Wedding Guest at the Elgin Theatre as part of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Below is a Q&A with Winterbottom, Nuttgens, Patel and Apte. However it does have a major spoiler so I don’t recommend watching it until you’ve seen the film!

TIFF Review: The Man Who Feels No Pain

ManWhoFeelsNoPain

by Raquel Stecher

The Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota)

dir. Vasan Bala
starring: Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan

Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. Google it.

Surya feels no pain. Born with a rare condition, newborn Surya survives a chain-snatcher attack that leaves his mother dead and his father and grandfather injured. It’s up to the patriarchs in the family to protect Surya. Because he can’t feel pain, he has to wear goggles to protect his eyes (he won’t notice a foreign object scratching his cornea) and other safety gear. Obsessed with action movies, Surya uses what he’s learned to take on the bullies in school. He teams up with his best friend, Supri, a school girl raised by an abusive and alcoholic father. His biggest advantage in these fights is not being able to feel pain. However his greatest downfall is rapid dehydration which will make him “fall like a log.” Behind the back of his overprotective father, Surya’s grandfather teaches him how to stay hydrated and encourages him to train. Surya’s hero, Karate Man who famously defeats 100 opponents and is not hindered by having only one leg, drives Surya’s desire to fight the chain-snatcher gangs who took his mothers life. Years later Surya reunites with his childhood friend Supri who is now a highly skilled fighter. When Karate Man’s evil brother and his gang of street fighters threatens the community, Karate Man, Surya and Supri come together to take on these foes.

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“I feel like Rocky Balboa”

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The Man Who Feels No Pain is a hip action movie with kick-ass slow motion sequences, infectious music, and a lead actor who is posed for stardom. I appreciated the classic storytelling with the hero’s origin story, unusual birth, a strength that makes him stand out from the rest (his insensitivity to pain) and a weakness that threatens to bring him down (the danger of dehydration). It pays homage to 1960s-1970s action movies especially those starring Bruce Lee. The movie is filled with pop culture references and fun retro-style typography.

 “Since childhood Martial Arts movies have been great escape, I guess it’s similar all around the world. Everyone knows Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, not all have to love them but you know them. They have been our legends and the greatest stories wrapped in miles and miles of VHS tape. The quality of the image didn’t matter, the sound didn’t matter, the moment the Golden Harvest or the Shaw Brothers logo came on, we knew we were in for a spectacular ride.” – director Vasan Bala

This is star Abhimanyu Dassani’s screen debut and boy does this man have charisma. Actress Radhika Madan has great screen presence and is such a bad ass in this film. I would love to see more from her. In a film with a predominantly male cast, I appreciate that the female characters we do get to see are tough and hold their own, from Supri’s fearless mother to Surya’s street fighter.

I was really looking forward to watching The Man Who Feels No Pain and it did not disappoint. It was thoroughly enjoyable and I’m dying for a copy of that amazing soundtrack. The cinematography is stunning. Visually and stylistically this film is pure eye candy. There is much to enjoy with this movie and I hope people who love classic action movies will check this one out.

The Man Who Feels No Pain was part of the Midnight Madness series at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It won the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness Award voted by TIFF attendees.

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