This Week's Film Reviews (Mar 10, 2017)

09 Mar 2017

CHOKESLAM (Canada 2016) *
Directed by Robert Cuffley

With the film’s tagline “Love is hard to pin down”, it is not hard to guess that CHOKESLAM is a romantic comedy about wrestling.

CHOKESLAM is a story about bruising ones knuckles on the barriers of love and the perils of dating a wrestler with a bad temper.  The wrestler in question is Sheena DeWilde (Amanda Crew, SILICON VALLEY).  But the film’s protagonist is a nerdy 28-year old Corey Swanson (Chris Marquette JOAN OF ARCADIA), a mild-mannered deli clerk who slices cold cuts for a living, whose first love is Sheena.   Sheena has just flown into town for their high school reunion. Corey learns of the reunion from an unfunny, clumsily staged hold-up by a classmate he recognizes.  He attends, convinced that seeing Sheena one more time will finally give him closure on that better-forgotten chapter of his life.

The script does nothing to make Corey, the romantic underdog likeable.  The only time the audience gets a surprise is when he sneaks an unexpected kiss to Sheena.  Otherwise, he could be a dirty old guy stalking a  pretty innocent lady. Corey is annoying to no end.

What makes a good comedy is timing, a good script with potential hilarious set-ups.  The script is only mildly funny and all the comedy seems to fall flat mainly to poor timing  Cuffley attempts dead-pan but often switches to sit-com style comedy as a last resort.  One example can be seen in the hospital segment where Corey looks blankly at the ceiling with his neck brace just before mother comes in and says silly unfunny remarks like how her son never gets sick.

If one expects to see some professional wrestling, be prepared to be disappointed.  There is one scene where two wrestlers go at it while Corey and Sheena look on from the side.  But the action is intercut with the conversation (and an uninteresting one at that) so no one really bothers with either.  Other wrestling scenes are mainly ho-hum.  Three-time WWF champion Mick Foley has a supporting role in the film, playing Patrick - so WWF fans might be thrilled.

CHOKESLAM is an indie Canadian film and I would normally give a Canadian film a chance, especially it being an indie as well.  But it is hard to root for a Canadian film that pretends to be American (as seen in the American money dished out from the cash register in the robbery scene).  And also harder to root if the film is this bad and uninteresting.  So, does Corey get the girl in the end?  Well, that is what the film is all about!

CHOKESLAM is part of the Canadian Indie Film Series.  The film has managed to snag preview screenings across Canada March 15th while opening widely across Canada on April the 7th.  As the director is Canadian from Calgary, the film was chosen as the Closing Film of the Calgary International Film Festival.

The only ones ending chokeslammed are the audienceA good comedy should not be that difficult to pin down!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23ScWYpjDe4

HELLO DESTROYER (Canada 2016) **

Directed by Kevan Funk

Like 1970’s SCORE: A HOCKEY MUSICAL the Canadian feature that opened TIFF years back HELLO DESTROYER condemns the violence in the sport of hockey.  Unfortunately,  good intentions aside, both are terrible films.  

The film centres on a new recruit for the minor league Prince George Warriors, Tyson Burr (Jared Abrahamson), a grinder whose primary task is digging the puck out of corners and protecting more skilled players.  Tyson is painfully shy and inarticulate, the result of growing up with a dismissive and impatient father — and being raised in a world that places little value on emotional development.  When Tyson punches out an opponent resulting in severe injury, he is slowly ostracized by everyone.  

A lot of scenes in the film are shot in extreme close-up (like the fights and the shower scene) so that what is happening can hardly be seen.  If only director Funk would pull back his camera more often to show the entire picture.  The film is hardly lit (heard this problem has been corrected), so that the faces of all the characters in most of the scenes can hardly be seen except in the shadows.  The dialogue is mostly pure ranting, if not gibberish and when articulate hardly reveal any points in the story.  

The open ending of the film does not help either.  Running at almost 2 hours, the film is almost a total mess except for Abrahamson’s performance given the film’s limitations.  A terrible film!   Wait a week for the other hockey film GOON: LAST OF THE ENFORCERS to open directed by avid hockey fan, Jay Baruchel.  This film, in contrast, is extremely violent but so much more fun.

Trailer:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eclBZXs_gw

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (USA 2017) ***

Directed hy Jordan Vogt-Roberts

There have been already too many films on King Kong.  The first and most memorable one for me was the 1962 campy Japanese version entitled KONG KONG VS. GODZILLA where audiences were treated to the climatic fight between the two monsters executed by actors in monster suits.  The KING KONG films have been improved in terms of special effects.  Even Peter Jackson had a go at it in the horrid 2005 version with an overlong attack by Kong on NYC.  This latest edition is a reboot with two writers Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and a new director Vogt-Roberts whose only other film is an indie called THE KINGS OF SUMMER.  But this new version takes a bit from each of the previous King Kong films, in fact the best from them, resulting in a satisfactory adventure film filled with special effects, action and much more humour.

The film begins very oddly in the year 1944 when a Japanese and American pilot are both shot down on Skull Island in the South Pacific (hints of HELL IN THE PACIFIC),  They fight each other, only to be interrupted by the appearance of the giant Kong.  Flash forward to 1973

when former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is hired by government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) to guide an expedition to map out an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as "Skull Island".  Randa also recruits the Sky Devils helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) to escort them to the island, and the group is later joined by pacifist photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who believes the scientific expedition to be a cover for an illegal military operation and plans to expose it.  There, they find Kong as well as the American pilot, Marlow (John C. Reilly) now older, having lived there for 28 years.

The island is also the home of other giant creatures, the most fearsome being the Skullcrawlers, the biggest one of which battles Kong at the film’s climax, similar to the fight between King Kong and Godzilla.  The other action segments involve the characters battling other monsters including a spider, ants and flying pterodactyl-like birds.  The characters are trying to get to the north of the island in order to be rescued.

The Conrad and Mason characters form the boring romantic couple of the story.  Fortunately, Vogt-Roberts treats their romance as slight.  The more interesting characters are Packard portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, obsessed by his aim to kill Kong.  There has hardly been a single film in which Jackson has not uttered the words mother f***er.  So wait for this special scene.  Reilly also steals the show as the comical Marlow who saves Kong.

The new take on the King Kong story actually works.  At least the audience is spared from Kong being brought back to American to climb the Empire State building.  But Kong still has the ‘hots’ for Brie Larson.

But most important is to stay till after the end credits.  In the comical post-credits scene that primes the audience for a sequel, Conrad and Weaver are detained by Monarch and informed that Kong is not the only monster to roam the world.  They are then shown archive footage of cave paintings depicting Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP0-9FBs2Rs

SHADOW GIRL (Canada/Chile 2016) ***
Directed by Maria Teresa Larrain

In the words of writer/director Maria Teresa Larrain: “It is one thing to live in a fog, and another to live in darkness.”   Maria Teresa Larraín had inherited her mother’s ailment of progressive myopia.  She was told this when she was little when she visited the doctor with her mother.  Maria did not know the meaning of progressive nor of the word myopia.  Maria asks her mother: “When will we be blind?”  Her answer: “We will never be blind!”  As she slowly loses her sight, she sees things in shadows but fears when the fog turns into darkness.

These be very strong words.  The first 10 minutes of SHADOW GIRL gears the audience to expect a very powerful film - with an important lesson that can only be taught be a person going blind.  Unfortunately, what follows cannot match the set-up.  Still, SHADOW GIRL is an honest testimony of a person struggling with blindness.  Maria was born in Chile with her family dotted around the globe in Chile and Costa Rica and Canada.  Ironically, Maria is in the business of creating images so as she says, SHADOW GIRL will be her last film and one that she might not be able to see.

The film is Maria’s personal chronicle of discovery inspired by the loss of her sight, and a memorable depiction of a world beyond our eyes.   Larrain is unafraid to display her lonely depression, as she began to lose her sight while editing her last film in Toronto .  She decides to rejoin society with the death of her mother in her native Chile.  The prodigal daughter returns to Santiago after 30 years away and discovers a society of blind street vendors of La Alameda.

The encounter with this spirited, kindred community forms a major part of the film as it teaches her to overcome her difficult journey. 

Maria was denied Canadian disability payments because she had worked while going blind.  She filed an appeal.  The decision of the Canadian government on her disability benefits form the climax of the film.

The most moving segment of SHADOW GIRL is obviously not whether she had been granted these payments - even though the voiceover stresses its importance.  (I only have $5 in my bank account.)  It is the film’s formulation of the images - blurry to simulate what Maria sees in her vision.  As she traces the regaining of the recognition of colours after her cataract operation, the audience sees how important even a very slight sight is to her and to every person.

SHADOW GIRL has won numerous awards, because of its candid look on the subject of blindness.  Among these are:

- Best Documentary of 2016 by the Circle of Chilean Critics

- Best National Film, Audience Award, Documentary of the Month Award and Hackathon Award at DocsBarcelona Valparaiso,

Best National Film, Best Directing and Best Sound Award at DIVA (Diversity International Film Festival

Director Larrain will be present for a question and answer session during a special presentation of the film on March the 12th at the Revue Cinema and hopefully after for a limited release.  The film will also be aired a a later date on the CBC documentary Channel, and also on the Accessible Channel at the end of the year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybNqwewnFoA

WINDOW HORSES (Canada 2016) ***1/2

Directed by Ann Marie Fleming

WINDOW HORSES is an animated film about poetry.  And one about a protagonist travelling to a poetry conference in the city of Shiraz in Iran.  The subject would be enough to scare away audiences.  But one of the best films last year was about a bus driver poet entitled PATERSON with Adam Driver,  a tremendously moving film.  So WINDOW HORSES, another film about poets, is a film that should be given a chance - for it is in its own terms, an equally awesome film - original, cute and with eye-catching animation.

I met writer/director Ann Marie Fleming last year at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Humble, quiet and shy, I had heard that she had a film playing called WINDOW HORSES.  I was dead curious what her animated movie would be like, after a fellow critic praised her film.  Fleming is of mixed race, like her film’s protagonist.

The film begins with a horse observed through a window.  The person at the window is young 20-something poet wannabe Rosie Ming (voice of Emmy Winner Sandra Oh) of mixed Chinese/Persian parents) who lives with her loving grandparents (drawn to look especially Chinese) in Vancouver, Canada.  Rose publishes her own poems in book called “My Eye Full” by a poet who has never been to Paris. 

One thing that stands out about WINDOW HORSES is its charm.  The charm is ever present from the film’s characters to the stories right down to the details in the animation.  The film is inherently funny with keen observations to family relationships, growing-up, the artistic scene and a whole lot of other issues.

Sandra Oh, who serves as the film’s executive producer lends her talent as the voice (immediately recognizable) of Rosie.  Oh has been friends with Fleming for over 20 years and she agreed to do the voice despite her very busy schedule.  Besides Oh, the film is filled with other talents such as other Canadian actors Don McKellar (as the German poet) and Ellen Page as Rosie’s funny chatty friend.  But the best is old veteran actress, Nancy Kwan (of the Roger and Hammerstein’s FLOWER DRUM SONG and LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING) as the voice of Rosie’s grandmother.

Fleming’s animation is not super stupendous, but it is colourful (her favourite colour appears to be pink), original, eye-catching and different.  While her characters are etched with proper limbs, she give Rosie stick arms and legs.  She even pokes fun at her own animation with a watch she wears dangling from her (stick) wrist.

Fleming’s film is also deep in its subject matter.  Fleming knows her material and it is clear form her film that she has done sufficient research on Iran and on her poetry.  One wonders if the story of her protagonist is biographical.  

WINDOW HORSES is a celebration of different cultures, of art, tolerance and the wonders of life.  Fleming is clearly an important emerging talent in cinema.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/155891239

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