How to Marry a Millionaire-1953

How to Marry a Millionaire-1953

Director-Jean Negulesco

Starring-Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable

Scott’s Review #381

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Reviewed February 28, 2016

Grade: B

How to Marry a Millionaire is a light hearted, fun, romantic comedy from 1953 that features three leading ladies, famous at the time- Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and the legendary Marilyn Monroe.  The backdrop used in the film is New York City, in the 1950’s, warm and sophisticated and pleasing. This is an appropriate setting as all three women featured in the film are models searching for wealthy suitors.

Schatze (Bacall), Loco (Grable), and Pola (Monroe) are blatant gold-diggers, set on using their looks and charms to seduce rich men into marriage. They rent an enormous and lavish apartment (the owner out of the country and avoiding the IRS) and slowly sell the furniture to pay the rent. Each woman encounters potential beaus, both rich and poor, and must choose between true love and a marriage for money. Or could they achieve both?

Very soon I noticed similarities to the 1980’s television sitcom The Golden Girls. As a whole, the ladies on the Golden Girls were constantly pursuing men- albeit not always rich men, but more specifically, Schatze resembles Dorothy in her directness, leadership skills, and height. Loco has qualities attributed to Blanche- sexiness and a coquettish manner. Finally, Pola is dizzy and blonde, a close match for Rose. Unquestionably, How to Marry a Millionaire influenced the iconic television series.

How wonderful the setting is. Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Manhattan, not to mention the visible New York City skyline from the ladies luxurious apartment where men came and went in attempts of pursuing the eligible women. The city skyline is clearly a set, however other locales are not. Numerous cinematic shots include the Empire State Building, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the lights of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and the United Nations Building. As a lover of New York City, it struck me as both fantastic and melancholy to think how many people have come and gone throughout the iconic city, yet here it remains and always will. A slice of 1950’s Manhattan- another time entirely- was wonderful to see.

The film itself is arguably fluff- lightweight to be sure. But there is a 1950’s innocence and a sense of fun to How to Marry a Millionaire that has become tainted and is missing in today’s romantic comedy genre- everything is now so crude and cynical, which is why this film really works for me. There is a wholesomeness to it.

Sure, the women are manipulative (specifically  Schatze), but they yearn for true love and are kind women. Their escapades are humorous. Pola- frightened of being seen by a man wearing her glasses- and blind as a bat without them- constantly bumps her way into walls and navigates rooms by feeling her way around. More humorous still is when she mistakes a flight to Atlantic City for Kansas City, thereby changing the course of her life.

Loco (Grable), clearly the oldest of the three, and in fact, by this time Grable was looking flat out matronly, decides to go on a trip to Maine with her married beau, expecting to attend a convention filled with rich and eligible men. Misunderstanding the situation, she then engages in hilarious hijinks with her beau and also meets dashing, but poor, Eban.

Light, fun, with bright colors and sets, How to Marry a Millionaire, when watched now, brings me back to a more pure day, when films were innocent and fresh- filled with glamour and sophistication. A trip down memory lane in film is a nice thing.

Beasts of No Nation-2015

Beasts of No Nation-2015

Director-Cary Fukunaga

Starring-Idris Elba, Ama Abebrese

Scott’s Review #380

Beasts_of_No_Nation_poster

Reviewed February 21, 2016

Grade: B+

Having been made aware of this film following the healthy number of independent film award nominations heaped upon it in 2015, Beasts of No Nation is a war drama, set in an unnamed West Africa country,  that tells of dire events from the perspective of a young boy, having lost his family.  He is forced into a life of brutality and death, taken under the wing of a charismatic commander. Beasts of No Nation is sometimes raw, sometimes gorgeous, but at all times thoughtful and a powerful telling of the devastation of human life, in a world very few can comprehend.

We first meet Agu (approximately aged eight or nine), and wonderfully played by unknown child actor Abraham Attah, during happy times.  He plays with his childhood chums and adores his older brother who is attempting to woo a pretty girl. His father is a leader and the family lives in a small village protected by troops- they allow refugees in for care. Their country is in the midst of a civil war, but the family happily survives and makes a life for themselves, sharing meals together. Suddenly, the government has fallen and rebels seize the area. In no time, Agu’s family is gone, leaving him alone and scared. His world turned upside down, he becomes involved with a militia commandant, played by Idris Elba, and a fellow child soldier named Strika, who take him in.

The film really belongs to two actors- Attah and Elba, though all actors perform their roles with precision.  The relationship between the characters is interesting and complex- like a father/son mixed with mentor/protégé and is the most compelling part of the film. The commander is certainly a father figure to Agu- he sees a warrior in him and takes him under his wing- feeds him, cares for him. He is never violent or abusive towards Agu and in one powerful scene, Agu is sodomized by Attah ( mostly off-screen yet very much implied) and Agu seeks comfort in best friend Strika, who clearly has also met the same actions prior.  One cannot help but think sexual assaults like this are perceived and handled differently in Africa. In fact rape is a subject that comes up numerous times in the film- mostly against women.

What I noticed throughout the film was the beauty of the cinematography as most scenes are set outside- the lush, green forests and the villages were tranquil and beautiful- contrasting starkly with the violence taking place.

Agu does some terrible things- in one brutal scene an innocent student is hacked to bits by Agu and Strika at the commanders coaching as a sort of initiation. Agu sees the student as responsible for his families fates and goes berserk. Later, Agu tearfully mistakes a village woman for his mother, and angrily shoots her dead as she is being raped by his cohorts. The film is not soft and contains lots of violence. But again, this is a world unknown to most viewers.

At times we despise Agu and the violent rage he emits- but then we remember he is a young boy being turned into this warrior by savages. He talks to God and to his mother and knows what he does (and what is happening to his country) is wrong. I would have liked to have learned more background about Elba’s character. What makes him tick? Has he lost loved ones long ago like Agu has? I surmised that the answer is yes. He is brutal, but a calm, calculating, thoughtful man- but still one that is in control at all times.

As war rages on Agu and his fellow tribe question what they are doing. Such smarts for a young boy and the audience admires his views. He is intellectual and worldly way beyond his years. That is what makes Beasts of No Nation a compelling character study. I more than once thought that I had seen this type of film before (Last King of Scotland comes to mind in recent times), but never to the extent of what a character driven story it was, especially in the eyes of a child.

Beasts of No Nation takes the viewer to an unpleasant world of brutality and a world where there is no rule book. We are exposed to a once innocent child’s experiences and conflicted feelings in the face of danger and heartbreak, and hopefully, will learn its complications.

The Martian-2015

The Martian-2015

Director-Ridley Scott

Starring-Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain

Scott’s Review #379

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Reviewed February 19, 2016

Grade: C-

The latest film from heralded director Ridley Scott (notable for classics Blade Runner and Alien), The Martian is a science-fiction/space adventure involving a believed dead astronaut (Matt Damon) trapped on Mars after being thought dead by his fellow team. NASA and a crew of rescuers fervently attempt to save him as supplies run out. Extremely resourceful, Mark Watney cleverly avoids death by using his wits to survive and even prosper on the challenging planet.

Hot on the heels of several other modern science fiction, high profile offerings, such as Interstellar and Gravity, The Martian features a big Hollywood star in the lead role. Much of the action is Watney on his own, attempting to grow produce, ration food, and keep his sanity- think Tom Hanks in Castaway except on another planet, and with a “Hab”, an indoor operations station left by his abandoned crew.

The Martian has received lots of accolades- winning the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy Film- though that is poor categorization in my opinion. The film has snippets of humor and a few songs in the background, but that is really it. Unless some late 1970’s disco songs constitute a musical.

I found The Martian to be a Hollywood mainstream film in every sense- to some that may be a high compliment, but to me, I expect a bit more from a film. It is not that The Martian is a bad film- it is not, but it is mediocre in my opinion and has all the elements of an average film. The film was going for an emotional experience that I did not experience- I had little doubt that the ending would be a sweet one, wrapped in a bow.

Mark Watney is the typical all-american character in a “guy film”. He hates disco and loves ketchup. The film makes him a guys guy, so therefore the average film-goer will relate to him. He is in good shape, cracks jokes, and is likable. But that is also a problem with the character specifically and The Martian as a whole. He lacks substance. We know little about him except he has parents who never appear on-screen. The way that the film touts him as the hero and is cheered and praised, while in real-life would be warranted, in the film it just feels forced and contrived. This is not a knock against Matt Damon, who does a decent job. My beef is that the character is not fleshed out.  The well-built Damon in the beginning of the film versus a scrawny Damon at the conclusion is completely a facade as clearly a body double was used in the latter scenes. This lack of authenticity disappointed me.

I expected more from the supporting cast given the talent involved- Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig all play one-note types that any actor could have played. Why were big stars cast at all? Chastain as a mission commander, Daniels as Director of NASA, Ejiofor as NASA mission commander, and Wiig as a Public Relations specialist. The casting, in particular, of Wiig in the straight-laced, stale was mysterious to me, and it was not a  particularly good portrayal….and I am a Wiig fan.

The humorous parts in The Martian border on contrived and not dissimilar to countless other films with the smart-ass remarks all containing a bland quality. Lines like “eat your heart out Neil Armstrong” seem silly and unnecessary. I expected more wit.

Let me be fair- the visual effects (it is space after all) are impressive, and it was fairly interesting to see what is supposed to be the planet of Mars, but really in this day and age of CGI effects the film is not that spectacular. I would much rather be given a compelling story than visual treats any day of the week.

My review of The Martian may seem a tad harsh, but that is only because I expected a great deal more from it than I was given. With several Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, I anticipated a top-notch film, and The Martian did not come close. Mediocrity, straightforward, and predictable describe The Martian film. I have heard, however, that the novel is fantastic. I have added it to my reading list.

Violette Noziere-1978

Violette Noziere-1978

Director-Claude Chabrol

Starring-Isabelle Huppert

Scott’s Review #378

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Reviewed February 16, 2016

Grade:B+

Another in the legion of thrilling and mysterious films by French director Claude Chabrol, Violette Noziere tells the true story of an eighteen year old Parisian girl, who plots her parents murder in 1930’s France. The fact that the tale is true to life makes it even more horrific and mesmerizing. It is beautifully shot, though the action largely takes place in interior settings. This film is a cerebral experience.

The film is classy in every way- like French films typically are, and Isabelle Hupert (Violette) takes center stage. She is gorgeous and interesting looking (reminiscent of a young Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the lead role. Violette appears to be a typical French teen, but harbors a dark secret and something always appears glum about the character. She works nights as a prostitute accosting wealthy men. When she meets handsome, but spendthrift, Jean Francois, a young man she fancies, she becomes his main source of income and slowly begins to plot the murder of her low-income, yet stable parents, in an attempt to inherit their apparent savings.

The story is somewhat murky as Violette’s version of events (mainly in the past and concerning her father) are accusatory. She insists that her father sexually abused her as a child, but is this in her fantasy world or did this actually happen? One never knows. Making the film compelling is that Violette’s parents are quite likable. Struggling to make ends meet and provide a quality life, they prepare home-cooked meals, enjoy life, and appear to be decent people. What is the reality?

Later, we witness a rivalry between Violette and her mother. In one scene we see Violette’s father bouncing his daughter on his knee while mother looks on filled with hatred. When she attempts to seduce her husband, unsuccessfully, Violette looks on amused. Is this solely in Violette’s mind?

Chabrol, an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock’s, keeps the suspense going throughout the film, but the heart of the film really belongs to Hupert. From the start of the film, amid meaningless banter with her more refined girlfriend, the audience can tell there is something amiss about Violette. She seems lonely, like a lost little girl yearning for some excitement as her eyes stare into the distance. Her true colors are slowly exposed, yet Chabrol never makes her all out crazy. Violette always has a cool, calm, demeanor and that is why the film succeeds.

For fans of Chabrol, or film fans eager for a foreign language treat, Violette Noziere is a rare find, a welcome addition to the growing number of his films I have watched with interest, and heartily enjoyed. The mystique, the beauty of the artistry, and the twists and turns are top notch.

Hail, Caesar!-2016

Hail, Caesar!-2016

Director-Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Starring-George Clooney, Channing Tatum

Scott’s Review #377

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Reviewed February 16, 2016

Grade: B+

Hail, Caesar! is a quirky film created and directed by the Coen Brothers, known for such offbeat films as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Raising Arizona.  Hail, Caesar is a satirical comedy about the Hollywood film industry during the post World War II time period of the 1950’s. Including singing, dancing, and scandalous matters, the film includes a bevy of current Hollywood talent including George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Josh Brolin, and Scarlett Johannsen to name but a few. All give fine performances and add humor and wit to the film.

The plot centers on the character of Eddie Mannix (Brolin), a celebrity “fixer” and real life person, who works as an executive for Capitol Pictures, and whose main responsibility is to ensure that famous Hollywood stars remain out of trouble. The period is 1951, a particularly scandalous time in pictures. One of the biggest stars of the time, Baird Whitlock (Clooney), is suddenly kidnapped and held for ransom while in the midst of completing a big epic film for the studio. Mannix must race to keep the crisis out of the news and safely get Whitlock back.

Certainly, there are interesting subplots including handsome, yet talent-less Western actor Hobie Doyle, hired by the studio to appear in a sweeping period piece directed by suave Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), and DeeAnna Moran (Johannsen), unmarried and with a “bun in the oven”, determined to keep herself out of the tabloids.

I loved the look of the film, as numerous films within the film occur. The 1950’s set pieces and set designs are exquisite to experience, particularly the period piece set, lavishly designed with classic doors, a staircase, flowers, and a cast dressed to the nines. It brings back an extravagant time.

The film is a satire, to be sure, but also contains the serious subject matter of communism (especially for that time period), Russia and Russian defectors, all involved in a plot to prove a valuable point. Despite the film being a comedy, this is worth serious thought. Many writers in Hollywood make money for the studios and are rewarded with underwhelming salaries. The same holds true in Hollywood today. This point can spill over into other walks of life as well and the point of the “little man gets screwed” is explored. Communism is also explored throughout the film as the main message- a message that is important and resonates.

Another interesting tidbit that Hail, Caesar! mentions, though only on the surface, is the burgeoning onslaught of television programming. Suddenly, more and more folks were purchasing TV’s and staying away from the glamour of films opting instead for the comfort of their couch. What a different time it was!

An intriguing, favorite character of mine belongs to Channing Tatum’s portrayal of Burt Gurney, a Gene Kelly like character famous for singing and dancing numbers. A sizzling sailor dance gives edge and sexuality to the film. A revealing scandal involving Burt and Laurence is fantastic and delicious.

My favorite scene belongs to Frances McDormand, shamefully only appearing in one scene- quite memorable. As film editor C.C. Calhoun, she diligently shows Mannix film dailies in the hopes of discovering a clue in the disappearance of Whitlock. When her scarf gets caught in the projector, both hilarity and grotesqueness ensue. It is classic Coen Brothers comedy.

Hail Caesar! succeeds as a witty, comical, throwback to a wonderful time in film history, with a political edge, that historians will appreciate and Coen Brothers fans will relish. Perhaps not their most creative or memorable, but enjoyable all the same.

Amy-2015

Amy-2015

Director-Asif Kapadia

Starring-Amy Winehouse

Scott’s Review #376

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Reviewed February 8, 2016

Grade: B

Amy is an informative documentary that tells the story of immensely talented, yet troubled, pop singer, Amy Winehouse.  Her childhood, rise to fame, and ultimate downfall as a result of drug, alcohol, and weight battles, are all chronicled in her documentary. Despite the information, however, I never got the sense that I knew the singer  well and at the conclusion she still seemed mysterious.

Possessing a unique jazz/soul infused sound and a wonderful British accent to boot, Winehouse burst onto the pop scene like gangbusters in 2003 as a talented artist with many layers of genres in her music. A diamond in the rough you might say, and a breath of fresh air in modern music. The fact that she wrote her own songs only added to the level of talent oozing from her. The documentary wisely tells of her upbringing and her abandoned father, who later resurfaced in her life. Her mother, while decent, could not control Amy, who was full of life and energy.

The main crux of the film, however, is to show her difficulty with fame- a sad, tried and true story of celebrities near and dear, artist types, who do not do well with the attention and adoration thrown their way and Amy Winehouse is no different. As her popularity grew, all she wanted was to be left alone and, unfortunately, her life became very public,including her tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend who wound up in prison.

Sadly, Winehouse did not have the best support system and it was alluded to that, perhaps, her father was an opportunist. A tortured, pure artist that sadly wasted away due to outside circumstances. Throughout most of the film she seemed lost or overwhelmed with the success that came her way. In a cruel irony her biggest hit “Rehab” became fodder for late night television comics to poke fun at her.

The documentary itself, while informative, is also quite basic and I felt like I was given more of an overview of Winehouse’s life than a personal introspective. I did not feel like I received a true sense of her inner thoughts and dreams. Yes, she did not want to be famous and it bothered her, but I wanted to see more of the real Amy Winehouse.

Amy is an adequate documentary about the life and times of Amy Winehouse and I finished the piece knowing more about her, but not nearly as much about her as I wished I had learned. A decent effort, but more would have been nice.

Irreversible-2002

Irreversible-2002

Director-Gaspar Noe

Starring-Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel

Top 10 Disturbing Films-#4

Scott’s Review #375

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Reviewed February 7, 2016

Grade: C+

As I ponder my review of Irreversible,  a 2002 French thriller and “art film”, I am attempting (as I always do) to look at the film critically, from a story and a technical standpoint, as well as a myriad of other aspects that make up a film. This is admittedly a toughie. On the surface I despised the film wholeheartedly (more on that later), but from a critical standpoint, I found characteristics to admire and give credit to. One thing is for certain- I never want to see this film again.

The story is told non-linear style and, in fact, begins at the conclusion of the story and works backwards, which I credit the film for, giving it a unique storytelling experience, cleverly done. Two Parisian friends, Marcus and Pierre, go on a rampage after Marcus’s girlfriend is brutally raped and beaten. In panic mode, they learn the name of the attacker (Le Tenia) and go to a gay BDSM club aptly named “The Rectum”, a place the attacker apparently frequents, where they fervently search for him all the while beating club-goers and causing havoc.

Since the story is told in reverse, the audience is initially in a state of confusion at the events transpiring, and the jagged, shaky camera work, a very creative technique, only adds to the chaos. We only know that two maniacs are running rampant, destroying everything in their path. Slowly, we realize what their motivation is as we work backwards. We are introduced to Alex, a beautiful young woman- in the early stages of pregnancy, who is Marcus’s steady, but used to date Pierre. They are all very good friends. We see the romance between Marcus and Alex, and, working even further backwards, we see Alex sitting alone in a park, reading a novel, and enjoying a bright, pleasant day in the park. This peaceful closing scene contrasts drastically with the rest of the dark film. The film then becomes a flashing, frenetic, black and white experience, which I do not understand.

The film is quite bizarre and intensely brutal. The rape of Alex in a dark, gloomy underpass is one of the most intense and disturbing scenes I have ever witnessed in film, and at one point I needed to leave the room briefly. The scene is ten minutes in length and Alex is anally raped and then beaten into a comatose state. It is a sickening scene and we witness her pain, misery, and humiliation first hand.

When Pierre and Marcus avenge her rape on who they think is Le Tenia, the scene is also extremely brutal. After (supposed) Le Tenia is captured by them, he attempts to rape Marcus, and Pierre grabs a fire extinguisher and bashes the victim to death as the face is repeatedly destroyed in full detail. It is a tough scene to watch.

I question the motivations of the director wholeheartedly and wonder if his intentions were to story-tell, or simply make as gruesome and shocking a film as possible. I have read that when the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, many people walked out of the auditorium in disgust- I can see why. Irreversible is severely homophobic, with repeated gay slurs being used throughout the gay club scenes and is also anti- Asian as evidenced by Pierre’s and Marcus’s racial slurs directed at a taxi driver.

The motivations of the character of Le Tenia make no sense to me as it is revealed he is a gay man. Why a gay man would brutally rape a female is unclear to me. This, combined with the extreme brutality, anti gay, anti minority, and anti women, render the film rather pointless from a story perspective.

My assumption after processing the film is that the director wants us to sympathize with nobody in the film, except Alex. Pierre, Marcus, certainly Le Tenia are all hateful characters. It is interesting how, at first, since the beginning is the end, the motivations of the characters are unclear and confused.

My admiration of Irreversible comes solely from the unique camera work, the clever pacing of the film in the form of backwards chapters, and the frenetic style of the opening work, however the homophobia, racism, and brutality left me cold and I could not shake the feeling that this film is shocking for the sake of being shocking, and one that I ultimately cannot applaud.

Wild Tales-2014

Wild Tales-2014

Director-Damian Szifron

Starring-Liliana Ackerman

Scott’s Review #374

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Reviewed February 5, 2016

Grade: A

What a crazy adventure! Receiving a well deserved 2015 Best Foreign Language film Academy Award nomination, Wild Tales is an Argentinian film that weaves six unique vignettes together. Each tale involves conflict between characters and oftentimes centers around the subject of revenge. Each reminds me of a foreign language version of a Twilight Zone episode, albeit much darker, mixed with a prevalent Quentin Tarantino influence.

A psychopath arranges for all of his enemies to be on the same flight (“Pasternack”), a hit and run accident among a wealthy family turns murderous (“The Proposal”), a bomb expert turns his expertise onto a corrupt towing company (“Little Bomb”), a disturbed bride and groom celebrate their wedding reception in  bizarre fashion (“Until Death Do Us Part”), a revenge driven waitress waits on her rival (“The Rats”), and a brutal tale of road rage (“The Strongest”) are the stories told in this fantastic film.

Wild Tales is an outrageous journey and as each chapter unfolds we are treated to the unexpected and each is cleverly written- bear in mind that they are independent stories and have nothing to do with each other chronologically or otherwise. The vignettes also vary vastly in length with one as short as ten minutes and another hovering around the forty minute mark.

Some characters are sympathetic-others hateful, which is interesting in itself. The diner in “The Rats” is hateful and we wish for his demise. At the conclusion of “Little Bomb”, the protagonist (or antagonist depending on how you look at it) receives a heroes welcome for standing up to corruption. Other stories, particularly in “The Strongest”, all of the characters are unlikable.

Famed director Pedro Almodovar (The Skin I Live In, Volver)  does not direct Wild Tales, but does produce the project and his imprint is all over it. Almodovar has a thing for the weird and, as in 2013’s I’m So Excited, a thing for passengers in peril inside airplanes. At the conclusion of “Pasternack”, the first installment, one will experience an “OMG!” moment, which wisely sets the tone for the entire movie. We wait and wonder what can possibly happen next?

My favorite tale was a tie between two- “The Proposal” and “The Strongest”. I loved the class distinction that was evident in the former as a wealthy father struggles to cover up his family’s dirty deeds initially at any cost necessary, but has he finally had enough? Will the wealthy once again victimize the poor?  In the latter, class distinction is again explored, as a hot shot in a slick car angers a simple man in a battered car, only to regret his outburst of road rage. The story turns into a Lord of the Flies situation where it is “kill or be killed”. The clever ending for this one is fantastic as the officials completely misinterpret the events.

By far the most bizarre tale is “Until Death Do Us Part”, which is also the finale.  A glorious and festive Jewish wedding reception turns bitter and bloody as the bride’s jealousy is tested. But is the bride the unstable partner or is the groom? Or perhaps both? This chapter reminds me  most of a Quentin Tarantino film (must have been the bloody bride), as the tone and the texture is reminiscent of his films (and yes, the blood too!).

Unusual, delightful, and sometimes even deranged, Wild Tales is a nice reminder that there are still creative and left of center projects being made in modern film that must be experienced and enjoyed. This is not an ordinary, predictable film and that is what makes it quite a gem.