Reviews in Brief: ‘Imperium,’ ‘The Lovers and the Despot,’ and ‘Sand Storm’

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The Lovers and the Despot

Filmmakers Rob Cannan and Ross Adams have a heck of a subject to cover in their stranger-than-fiction documentary The Lovers and the Despot, but they don’t have many original ideas in terms of how they want to frame it.

It’s the story of well respected South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee and her once great filmmaker ex-husband Shin Sang-ok and how in the 1970s they had been kidnapped by then dictator-in-waiting of North Korea Kim Jong-Il to make films that would bring prestige to the country’s lacklustre cinematic legacy.

There’s a lot going on in Cannan and Adams film, and the lack of overall depth beyond talking head interviews, a smattering of archival footage, and indispensible secret recordings of meetings between Shin and his captors could be because the documentarians have so much ground to cover. Shin passed away several years before this film started, but Choi, their adopted children, friends, film critics, and international authorities are all on hand to try to make sense of how strange this situation was.

Amid the story itself, Cannan and Adams find time to give some nifty primers on the history of North and South Korean cinema, and they don’t gloss over the glaringly unanswered question as to whether or not Shin was actually kidnapped or if he went over willingly, but the rest of the film is fairly straightforward and boilerplate. There’s some personality to it, but most of the time it’s like being read a graphic novel being read aloud by a monotone news reporter. The style doesn’t really match the substance, but the substance is worthwhile.

Rating (out of five stars): 3.0 stars

The Lovers and the Despot opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on Friday, September 30, 2016.

Check out the trailer for The Lovers and the Despot:

 

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Sand Storm

The first feature from Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer, Sand Storm is an accomplished, subtle, and emotional look at patriarchal society and the generation gap as told through the eyes of a mother named Jalila (Ruba Blal) and her eighteen year old daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar).

A wedge continues to grow between the mature Jalila and her offspring, and most of it centres around the institution of marriage and the control men exert over women in a Southern Israeli Bedouin village. Jalila is primed to explode on everyone around her after frustratingly watching her husband (Hitham Omari) taking on a second, younger wife. She further finds herself frustrated when her daddy’s girl daughter decides she wants to persuade her father into letting her marry a boy from outside their social and religious circle. Jalila knows that despite all of Layla’s optimism, gusto, and relative adherence to traditional values in all other aspects of her life that the father will become enraged by this decision.

Zexer shows some first time filmmaking jitters in terms of visuals and assembly, but she has wisely gone all in when it comes to creating complex characters and a situation loaded with topics worth talking about long after the film ends. The performances from Omari and Ammar are quite good, but it’s Blal who commands the most attention. Her performance is one of rightful indignation and an increasing inability to “play nice” with those who seek to belittle her socially and psychologically.

By placing the emphasis on the characters, the performance, and the subtext, Zexer has crafted something truly accomplished. It’s easy to see why Sand Storm was selected by Israel as their selection for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year.

Rating (out of five stars): 3.9 stars

Sand Storm opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, September 30, 2016.

Check out the trailer for Sand Storm:

 

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Imperium

I love this portion of Daniel Radcliffe’s carrer; the one where he will basically take on any role that seems remotely interesting because he pretty much doesn’t have to act ever again if he doesn’t feel like it. It has led to some great performances, interesting choices, and regardless of what some might say about their quality, they’re never dull. The undercover cop thriller Imperium certainly fits into that pedigree nicely.

In the debut feature from director and screenwriter Daniel Ragussis, Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a boyish faced FBI agent who’s practically begged by one of his superiors (Toni Collette) into investigating a potential domestic terrorism plot instead of investigating outside threats that often don’t lead anywhere. Foster gets tasked with going undercover within a Neo-Nazi skinhead organization in order to get close to a controversial talk show host (Tracy Letts, who’s popping up in almost every film nowadays in need of a smug asshole) who might be plotting an Oklahoma City styled attack.

One might think that Radcliffe, who commits physically and mentally to the part, would be an odd casting choice, but Foster has been written as a character already equally out of his element and uniquely perfect for the assignment. Watching Radcliffe play the cracks in Nate’s facade is fascinating. Whenever those around him start acting dangerously violent or racist, you can see the character wince and squirm only as much as he can without getting caught. He also has exemplary chemistry with Collette and Sam Trammell, who plays a more academic and low key white supremacist. He’s so good with Collette that I would watch an entire film of B-roll that just has the two of them.

The biggest problem with Imperium, however, is that it’s never surprising. There are so many red herrings as to who might be a part of the bombing plan, and so few of them are genuinely built up that the second the culprit appears on screen, the person playing them doesn’t have to do anything to bring attention to the glowing neon sign over their head that says “IT’S ME!” That dampens things a bit, and a weirdly rushed climax doesn’t help too much, but Ragussis delivers a solid little thriller worthy of the cast who agreed to participate in it.

Rating (out of four stars): 3.2 stars

Imperium opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, September 30, 2016. You can also check it out on VOD.

Check out the trailer for Imperium:

 

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.