Saturday, November 05, 2016

movie review: Dark Horse


Dark Horse: The True Story of Dream Alliance  
(UK, 2015)  
director: Louise Osmond

I have a particular soft spot for British underdog movies. You know the ones I'm talking about: Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Made in Dagenham. Those are fictional or at least fictionalized narrative films, but even though Dark Horse is a documentary, it bears remarkable resemblance to those other movies.

In 2000, a Welsh woman named Jan Vokes convinced 30 of her fellow villagers to form a syndicate and pool their money together to breed and raise a racehorse. As her husband notes, once Jan has put her mind to something, you can't stop her. And thus begins the story of Dream Alliance, the horse who came from dubious stock and was raised on an allotment, but went on to remarkable success.

The movie makes good use of Jan and her fellow owners' considerable charm. They are fully aware that the world of horse racing is generally reserved for the wealthy and the titled. Part of their pride comes from being working class and having stood up against the snobs--and proving themselves to be as good if not better. There are some very amusing interviews where the top class trainer the syndicate chose for Dream Alliance admits to his initial skepticism and patronizing thoughts about the horse's chances of ever running in a real race, never mind winning. His account of his change of heart is very touching and genuine.

That is actually a good way to describe this movie overall: touching and genuine. I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a smile on my face when I left the theatre. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

movie review: Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman

mrs b woman of n korea poster

Mrs. B, a North Korean Woman
(France/South Korea, 2016)
directed by Jero Yun

This documentary is a fascinating glimpse into the world of escapees from North Korea. It follows the titular Mrs. B as she travels from China to South Korea to claim refugee status. She has left a husband and sons behind in North Korea, and her ultimate goal is to help them start a life in South Korea too.

However, there are a couple of complications: when she escaped over the border from North Korea to China, she was sold to a Chinese man, so she actually has two husbands, one North Korean, and one Chinese. The more surprising complication, however, is that she actually loves her Chinese husband and his family, and the feeling is reciprocal: they are justifiably worried about her as she embarks on the long and dangerous journey to South Korea from their tiny rural Chinese village. The day before she leaves, her mother in law insists on giving her money, saying it's to help her sons. Mrs. B gruffly teases her in-laws and tries to refuse the money, saying that they need it more.

Really, nothing is as black and white in this story as one might expect. When the film first opens, we see to our surprise that the trafficked has become the trafficker: full of hustle and enterprise, Mrs. B runs a healthy business herself, helping people escape from North Korea (for pay). Part of her success stems from her fluency in both Mandarin and Korean--a sign of how completely she has embraced her new life in China. The reality is, she's a strong-willed woman torn between two families. She feels guilty and despairing over having to choose between them.

The director, Jero Yun, has managed to get amazing footage of Mrs. B and her two families. Various family members speak surprisingly openly and touchingly about their ambivalence and conflicting emotions. The film isn't beautiful in a conventional way--it's grainy and grey and suitably bleak, but it is a unique window into a life we know little about here in the West. I would love to see a follow up so we could find out how Mrs. B's story turns out.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

movie review: Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)

(This review is part of a series, related to my professional development project of attending the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.)

Bernadette Lafont Poster

Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)
(France, 2016)
directed by Esther Hoffenberg

I did not know who Bernadette Lafont was before watching this documentary. The main reasons we chose to attend this particular festival screening were because it fit with our schedule and there were still tickets available! However, within minutes I was very pleased with our serendipitous choice--it was wonderful to be introduced to this bold, intelligent, successful French actor and to learn about her role in France's feminist movement. As a bonus, two of Lafont's granddaughters were in attendance and spoke briefly and movingly about their late grandmother.

Lafont started out in French New Wave films with rising directors Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol--her 1957 debut was in Truffaut's first professional film, a short called "Les Mistons" ("The Mischief Makers"). Lafont, 18 at the time of filming, appeared with her then-husband Gerard Blain. Not long after, the two split up, partly because (as Lafont explained it), Blain could not cope with her rising career and desire for a life outside the home and in addition to her role as wife and mother.

Not only does the film take us on a tour of Lafont's film career; it also delves into her rich and complex personal life. In interviews with her granddaughters and her close friend, actor Bulle Ogier, we learn about Lafont's joys as well as her tragedies, such as the accidental death of her daughter (actor Pauline Lafont) at age 25.

Lafont was a real force to be reckoned with, both as an actor and a feminist. She chose films that embodied her views on women's rights and used her fame to create a space for women to maintain a conversation about equality and feminism. Up to her death in 2013, she was still acting in major roles to much critical and popular acclaim. In her final film, Paulette, she played the starring role as a cranky pensioner who becomes a drug dealer to make ends meet. Paulette shrewdly uses the social invisibility of elderly women to her advantage: she can fly under everyone's radar because society assumes she has no agency.

I would highly recommend this documentary to anyone interested in French film and/or the history of feminism in French culture.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

movie review: Peshmerga

France, 2016
Dir. Bernard-Henri Lévy

Peshmerga's documentary team, led by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, follows a group of Kurdish military as they battle Daesh (aka ISIS) in Iraq. It's probably safe to say most Westerners don't know much about these smart, tough men and women, and that's a shame, because they are fascinating and admirable.

The film is tense, as you'd expect from a war documentary. It's clear the film crew doesn't know what will happen next as they travel with the soldiers from one beleaguered village to the next, and this uncertainty adds sometimes unbearable tension to the scenes. At certain points, Lévy's voiceover tells us exactly what happens after the scene ends, and although we are spared seeing the carnage, it packs an emotional wallop because we have just spent a considerable amount of time getting to know the newly deceased or injured.

Some of the most interesting scenes centre around women: we meet Helly Luv, who was among those present at the premiere I attended and was introduced to the audience as "the Kurdish [pop star] Madonna." Luv is an outspoken advocate for her people, not afraid to show up and raise morale in the war zone. We also meet a group of female soldiers who are treated as equals to their male counterparts. According to Lévy, these women strike terror in the hearts of the Islamic militants they are fighting, because to be killed by a woman means the ultimate shame and no glory in the afterlife.

Peshmerga is an excellent glimpse into this little known world. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

movie review: Blood Father

Blood Father
France, 2016
Directed by Jean-François Richet

I can't say I had high hopes when I found out the final movie at Cannes would be Blood Father, starring Mel Gibson as an ex-convict trying to save his daughter (Erin Moriarty) from drug dealers who want to kill her. First of all, I'm not a Mel Gibson fan (though I have enjoyed his earlier movies like Lethal Weapon), and secondly, the story sounded cheesy and tired.

Maybe it was because of my low expectations, but I found to my surprise that the movie was pleasantly entertaining. Mel Gibson turned in a performance worthy of his pre-nutball self--he and Moriarty had lovely chemistry as a father and daughter. The other supporting actors like William H. Macy and Diego Luna were also very good. The dialogue was funny and quick, the action sequences were nicely filmed, and the plot clipped along briskly without lagging.

The story, based on a novel by Peter Craig, is nothing particularly original, but it is logical and well plotted. In a sea of action movies that insist on weirdly intricate plots, its simplicity was actually refreshing. I was thankful that the straightforward plot allowed the focus to remain on the characters' relationship; most of the screen time is taken up by Moriarty and Gibson, and they are a genuine pleasure to watch.

With Blood Father, Mel Gibson seems to have taken a step back from the abyss of Hollywood purgatory he's (deservedly) been in for a few years. If he can keep turning in good work in roles like this one, Hollywood and the viewing public may forgive him yet.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

movie review: Fool Moon (original title: Forêt des Quinconces)

Fool Moon (original title: Forêt des Quinconces)
(France, 2016)
Dir. Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet

When the movie begins, it has the appearance of being a lighthearted romantic comedy, but Fool Moon (Forêt des Quinconces) is nothing of the sort. Yes, Paul (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) is in love with his girlfriend Ondine (Amandine Truffy), and is understandably broken-hearted when she dumps him. Yes, he goes on a sad sack bender and has to be rescued from a Paris sidewalk by his brother-in-law the next morning. Yes, Paul vows to win Ondine back. However, it's at this point that the movie takes a sharp departure from rom-com territory.

Wandering around broken-hearted, Paul trips over the coin box of a homeless man (Thierry Hancisse) living in a Paris underpass. As he apologizes and picks up the man's money, he is drawn into a conversation in which it is revealed that the homeless man is actually Chance, or Fate.

It's at this point that audiences might realize the (original French) dialogue is in rhyming meter. As the film progresses, we see more Shakespearean elements and it becomes clear this is a project designed to push the boundaries of what the typical film audience is used to. It is fun to see Shakespearean melodrama clothed in 21st century garb and a modern Parisian setting, with clubs, cafes and the Metro.

It's not a perfect movie; the film is still a bit rough around the edges in terms of writing and story structure. Occasionally it seems that Leprince-Ringuet sacrifices substance in service of style. The film treads dangerously close to preciousness at times, which gets tiresome. Also, even if we accept the conceit that Paul, Ondine and Paul's new mysterious lover Camille (Pauline Caupenne) are not meant to be realistic but rather to fulfill 'types' in a Shakespearean tragicomedy, we expect at least a little bit of logic in the narrative.

However, it's an admirably ambitious project and a nice change of pace from a typical romantic comedy-drama. The dialogue, when it works, is very good, and the actors inhabit their characters well. The scene with the dance troupe is particularly outstanding in its music choice and choreography.

This movie is not for everyone, but for those who like something unexpected and are okay with theatricality, it's an enjoyable experiment. I imagine Leprince-Ringuet will only get better with each subsequent film, since he already shows clear talent, even if there is room for improvement.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

movie review: Happy Times Will Come Soon (original title: I tempi felici verranno presto)

Happy Times Will Come Soon
I tempi felici verranno presto (original title)
(Italy/France, 2016)
Dir. Alessandro Comodin

It's hard to say what this movie is about, because it's deliberately ambiguous. Director Alessandro Comodin explores the idea of local legends and their basis in real life events, but we are never sure if what we are seeing is the legend or the truth.

The movie is divided into distinct segments that tell separate stories with overlapping elements: young men on the run from...something; a sheltering but ominous forest; a wolf that hunts humans; mysterious caves and pools of water; hunters and prey; young women who disappear and reappear.

The film plays with timelines in a way that is deliberately confusing. It's hard to know the order of events, or the nature of the relationships between characters. Some segments are very naturalistic (there is one bit in the middle that suddenly shifts from narrative film to pseudo documentary interviews with local villagers about a wolf in the forest that may have abducted a young woman), while others seem dreamlike. The viewer is left with more questions than answers.

The forest is beautifully filmed, and the actors are very good. However, I was disappointed overall. I think the director deliberately aimed for (and achieved) ambiguity and incoherence, but it did not seem to serve a discernible purpose, and as a result was quite alienating. I'd only recommend this film for people who love inexplicable art house cinema and are not bothered in the least by not knowing what the hell is going on a lot of the time.

This film does get some bonus points, however, for featuring the most adorable donkey I've ever seen.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

movie review: Train to Busan (original title: Bu-San-Haeng)

Train to Busan (original title: Bu-San-Haeng)
(South Korea, 2016)
directed by Yeon Sang-Ho

Train to Busan is above all else a fun movie. It shouldn't be taken seriously and it doesn't want to be. Sequel/prequel to the not yet released animated film Seoul Station, the movie has a simple storyline: a bullet train is headed from Seoul to Busan during a mysterious national crisis...which turns out to be a deadly zombie virus. (Amusing intermittent news reports show various government officials assuring the public that they're safe and everything is definitely under control. DON'T WORRY!)

It's a fairly straightforward example of the genre, but that's fine, because it revisits well-trod ground with style. The cast is excellent, especially Kim Soo-Ahn, the young actress who plays Su-an, a smart and sensitive child travelling to visit her mother in Busan, accompanied by her workaholic, self centred father Seok-wu (Gong Yoo). The other characters who band together with them to survive are definitely familiar types: the very pregnant and vulnerable--but also super-tough and determined--Sung-Kyu (Jung Yu-Mi) and her blustery, tender, goofy husband Sang-Hwa (Ma Dong-Seok) who turns out to be a first class zombie ass-kicker. There is also a brave and selfless homeless man (whom the other passengers initially want to throw off the train while ignoring the infected young schoolgirl who initially brings the virus on the train); a pair of elderly sisters whose endearing bond provides one of the catalysts in the film, and some high school sweethearts on a sports trip with their baseball team. There is also a deliciously awful villain, the kind audiences love to hate--an amoral CEO who is determined that HE is not going to get eaten by zombies, no matter what happens or who he has to sacrifice.

The story is mostly a cautionary tale not against the undead but against the base human instincts--greed, selfishness, corruption and general moral bankruptcy--that have allowed the situation to happen in the first place. There are just as many tear-inducing scenes of emotional redemption as there are scenes that make you jump in fright. There is also a lot of humour, and of course plenty of fast moving terrifying zombie action--it is still a horror/thriller after all.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Train to Busan. It was a treat to watch it with the cast and director in the audience, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd that clapped and cheered when the heroes prevailed, and sighed sadly when they didn't. It was a very participatory experience, which suited the movie perfectly. Highly recommended if you like zombie movies...and maybe even if you normally don't!

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Hamburger knitting pattern

I've just added another free knitting pattern to my Ravelry store--this one is for a knitted hamburger toy that comes apart into separate pieces: bun (top and bottom), patty, cheese slice, tomato, lettuce leaf.

I designed and knit this for my cousin's two year old, Little E. It arrived at their house today and is apparently a big hit! Little E spent quite a bit of time assembling it and taking it apart. Her mom sent me photos and video of her doing this and it is very cute!

You can download the pdf here. Please note the errata! (I have not corrected the pdf yet since I can't seem to find the editable original document, sigh.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

chickpea soup for lazy people

"Chickpea soup" by Gail on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. This is a nice photo of chickpea soup that looks a lot like the soup I made. Unfortunately, I ate my soup before I remembered I wanted to take a picture of it, so I'm using this photo instead. Thank you Gail for making it available through Creative Commons!

Serves two, or one hungry person who is OK with eating an entire tin of chickpeas in one sitting.


1 tin of chickpeas (540 mL)
1 clove garlic
1/3 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp herbes de Provence
2 cups water
chili flakes to taste

2 tsp lemon juice
 extra virgin olive oil to garnish


1. Drain and rinse chick peas. Put in a pot.
2. Add all other ingredients except lemon juice and olive oil.
3. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer. Cook for at least 15 minutes.
4. Puree with immersion (stick) blender.
5. Stir in lemon juice. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
6. Serve topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil.

Monday, February 08, 2016

movie review: Hungry Hearts

Hungry Hearts
(Italy, 2014)
directed by Saverio Costanzo
based on the novel Il Bambino Indaco (The Indigo Child) by Marco Franzoso

The opening scene of Hungry Hearts is charming and funny: two strangers, Jude (Adam Driver) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher), get stuck together in a horrible restaurant bathroom when the door won't open. Driver (who played Lena Dunham's boyfriend in Girls) and Rohrwacher make it work. They seem sweet and believable as a potential couple, so when the next scene shows the romantic aftermath of this coincidental meeting, we are not surprised.

In typical movie fashion--i.e., quickly enough to make one's head spin--Jude and Mina become a family, with a baby on the way. There is a happy wedding scene at Coney Island, with lots of dancing and singing. We meet Jude's mother (Roberta Maxwell), who urges Mina to consider her as family, since Mina is from Italy and does not have anyone in New York.

However, after this the tone veers sharply away from simple romantic drama. It turns out that Mina has developed an obsession with dreams, signs, and omens, along with disordered eating patterns and a deep distrust of doctors. This makes for a difficult pregnancy and childbirth, and soon after their son is born, she and Jude are at odds about how to care for him.

I will not spoil any of the rest of the film. Suffice it to say that Hungry Hearts becomes as tense and suspenseful as any thoughtful horror movie. I can honestly say I had no idea how the film would end, but afterward, I felt it ended the only way it possibly could. It is easy to think the film is about Mina and her obsessions with the medical establishment (I started out thinking, "I bet she doesn't believe in vaccinations" and ended up thinking, "I wish she were a run of the mill anti-vaxxer"), but really it is about Jude. He is an excellent example of the frog sitting in a pot, the water slowly heating up until it is almost too late to jump out.  

Hungry Hearts is not a perfect movie; it is a bit too long and drags a little bit. In some ways this draggy feeling works, because it allows the audience to feel the drawn-out dread that Jude and his mother feel as the days tick by. That said, although it doesn't ruin the film, a nearly two-hour running time is excessive. This is a tiny flaw, though, in the grand scheme of things, because the cinematography, acting, and writing are all outstanding.

Hungry Hearts is currently available to stream on Netflix Canada.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

movie review: Theeb

(United Arab Emirates/Qatar/Jordan/UK, 2014)
directed by Naji Abu Nowar
written by Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

In 1916, there were Bedouin tribes living in the Ottoman Empire who were so unconnected to the outside world that they had no idea World War I raged nearby. Theeb tells the story of one such fictional tribe and the results of contact with World War I through a British officer who needs a Bedouin guide.

Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hweitat) is a young boy, son of a late sheikh, who lives a sheltered life with his older brothers in the desert of Hijaz, in what is now Saudi Arabia. He is young and innocent, but also clever and observant. So when a British officer in search of a Bedouin guide (Jack Fox) is brought to their camp by an interpreter, Theeb is entranced with the visitor. He watches him shave, asking in Arabic, "Are you a prince?" He attempts to find out what is in the mysterious wooden box that the officer protects so fiercely.

When his brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) agrees to act as guide, Theeb sets off after them, following at a distance and only revealing himself when it is too late for them to send him back. Thus the little boy gets his wish, to have an adventure--and maybe find out what is in the wooden box.

But the deserts of the Ottoman Empire are not a safe place in 1916. There are raiders and revolutionaries, and they are merciless. The journey to the officer's destination is tense and risky and soon everything goes sideways. At one point, Theeb is forced to rely on an unpleasant mercenary (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh). Can he trust this stranger?

Most of the actors in this movie are amateurs who had never acted on film before. They do an excellent job, particularly Jacir Eid Al-Hweitat. He has a mobile, appealing face, and he does a great job of portraying the resourceful, tenacious main character. The Stranger is similarly tenacious, but far less sympathetic. The desert provides a beautiful but forbidding setting, with vast stretches of sand and deep canyons of stone. One is never sure who will survive in that setting. It is worth watching the movie to find out.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

movie review: The Second Mother [Que Horas Ela Volta?]

The Second Mother (original title: Que Horas Ela Volta?
(Brazil, 2015) 
written and directed by Anna Muylaert

The "second mother" of the movie's English title is Val (Regina Casé) , a live-in housekeeper, cook and nanny for a wealthy family in São Paolo. She has practically raised the son of the family, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), and he confides his happinesses and his sadnesses to her as though she is his "second mother," often preferring her to his biological mother, Bárbara (Karine Teles), or his father, Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli). However, Val is also in many ways only a "second mother" to her own biological daughter, Jéssica (Camila Mardilá), whom she left back home in her rural village. Val has sent money back home for over ten years to the friend raising Jéssica, while she has essentially raised another family's son.

However, one day Val receives a phone call she has been wishing for: Jéssica wants to come to São Paulo to live with her mother and take the university entrance exams. She intends to apply to FAU, a very prestigious design and architecture college. Val asks her employers if it is all right that her daughter joins her for a while, and they agree amiably enough, saying that Val is very important to them, and by extension, so is Jéssica.

However, upon arrival, it becomes clear that although Val is willing to hew to the unspoken rules that govern her relationship with her employers, Jéssica has no notion of what those rules might be, and worse yet, does not care to follow the ones she is told about. Unsurprisingly, this causes tension for everyone. At one point, Val tells her daughter in exasperation, "You think you're better than everyone else!" Jéssica replies, "No, I don't. I just don't think I'm worse than anyone else." Jéssica's arrival disrupts everyone, and she is the catalyst for some uncomfortable soul searching on the part of the three adults.

Director Anna Muylaert creates scenes with a light hand, often using humour that underscores the tension that runs right below the surface. She cleverly leads the audience to suspect one thing is going to happen, then surprises by defying our expectations. She also makes good use of cinematographic techniques like static shots (but not overusing them so that the film feels gimmicky). The actors are also superb, particularly Casé and Mardilá. They provide a moving and convincing portrayal of a mother and daughter who mean a lot to each other, but have been estranged for a long time, with all the baggage that creates.

Although The Second Mother is fairly long (112 minutes), I found myself absorbed by the story the entire time. Highly recommended.