• This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 19, 2016)

     

    Opening this week is the religious film RISEN and anti-religious film THE CLUB.  The biggest surprise is the opening of the Asian box-office hit, Stephen Chow's THE MERMAID.

     

    EL CLUB (Chile 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Pablo Larrain

    Pablo Larrain’s (NO, TONY MANERO) latest film is a very different drama that is as absorbing as it is deadly slow-moving.  The title of THE CLUB (EL CLUB) refers to an open prison for disgraced priests.  The 4 priests and nun confined there in the seaside town of La Boca in Chile by the church are about to have their idyllic sojourn shaken to the ground.

    EL CLUB is a very complex film, in a way similar to last year’s CALVARY starring Brendan Gleeson, a black comedy about a priest taking on the sins of a murderer.  Both films coincidentally take place in a seaside setting.

    The film begins innocently with a greyhound race that takes place in La Boca.  The grey greyhound wins the race.  It  is slowly revealed that the animal is trained by a father who resides in  the roomed building.  There are three other priests who all place bets.  It turns out that Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), former army chaplain Father Silva (Jaime Vadell), and senile Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking), disgraced priests are all dutifully tended to by a similarly “retired” nun, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers), who is apparently not that innocent.  She is called a bitch by one of the fathers later on in the film.

    Trouble brews when another disgraced priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) is delivered to the house.  He shoots himself after a young local fisherman, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), recognizes him.  Sandokan, kind of a crazed bum, remembers the abuses he suffered as an altar boy at Lazcano’s hands and starts screaming the abuses outside the doorstep.  Then the church dispatches Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a crisis counsellor, to settle things.  The priests come to believe, that Father Garcia’s intention is to close the house down.

    The story turns into a horrid tale of survival.  It is each man for himself, even for Sandokan and Father Garcia who is disliked and looked upon with suspicion by all.

    Director Larrain is a great story teller always keeping the audience in anticipation with always a twist in the story around very corner.  His camera work is meticulous, capturing the tranquility and imprisonment of the subjects despite the beautiful seaside setting.  Violence is kept at a minimum, and mostly left to the imagination.  He also keeps each priest as interesting as the other - each having their own individuality despite being there for the identical purpose.

    One of the greatest pleasures of the film is the director’s use of Arvo Part’s music.  I first heard the Estonian composer’s music, ‘Spiegel I'm Speigel’ when I first saw Gus Van Sant’s 2002 film, GERRY years back.  Part known for his classical and religious music, he delivers a beautiful score that adds to both the serenity and eeriness of the film’s proceedings.

    Whether the film ending is a happy one is arguable - best left to the audience to decide.  But EL CLUB is a story that concerns many key issues - identity, beliefs, redemption, fulfilment but mostly forgiveness and how one can live with oneself after any terrible deed.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8c2DYoF7lA

    EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015) ***

    (EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE)

    Directed by Ciro Guerra

    Touted as the first Colombian film to be nominated for the best Foreign Film Oscar, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT might just be the sleeper hit if voters for MUSTANG and SON OF SAUL cancel each other out.

    The Colombian film plays like an a weird combination of art-house primitive feature.  The film is set in the early 1900s, centring on a young shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in the Colombian Amazon.  He is reluctantly hired to help a sick German explorer, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his local guide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) search for a rare healing plant.  Flash forward a decade or so later when the same shaman (each played by a different actor, Antonio Bolivar) takes an American to search for the same plant.  

    Unfortunately, the film’s uncomfortable intercutting between the two twin stories makes little sense and spoils the momentum built in each segment before a switch.  It would be better to tell the two tales in two parts one after another.  Both stories are equally interesting.

    The villain of the film and hero appears to be the white man.  But director Guerra also shows the pompous native shaman as one that could learn a lesson or two.  In short, the native and white man could do best to learn from each other, one of the messages hidden in the story. But the priest that beats up the native children for nonsensical sins is quite the shock to take in.  Religion and colonization is treated as totally evil in Guerra’s film.

    The film is shot in black and white, which enhances the images.  The scenes of the boat gliding down the rivers of the Amazon are breath-taking.  

    But the slow pace of Guerra’s film and lack of narrative might be hard to take for some, despite the rare see images of  the Colombian jungle.

    It is revealed in the end credits that it is from the diaries of the two German and American explorers that the world got to learn about these Amazon tribes.  And Guerra’s heartfelt film (must be his labour of love) will extend the knowledge to the world as well.

    Trailer: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/oscilloscope/embraceoftheserpent/

    THE MERMAID (Hong Kong 2016) ****

    Directed by Stephen Chow

    Thanks to Sony Pictures, THE MERMAID gets a distribution release in Canada and the United States.  I just previewed the film on the second day of opening on a Saturday evening in a full-house of Cantonese speaking Asians.  It was quite the experience.

    THE MERMAID is produced, co-written and directed by Stephen Chow whose KUNG FU HUSTLE was widely released.  To those unfamiliar with his works, his films are pure silliness.  Lots of action, slapstick, fast dialogue with CGI added to this 3D comedic hilarity.  The film has already broken records after opening Chinese New Year in Asia.  See paragraph below (figures from and courtesy of  Sony Publicity) before the review.

    “MĚI RÉN YÚ (direct translation: Pretty Human Fish i.e. Mermaid)” opened in China on Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day (February 8) and shattered box office records.  On opening day in China, it opened in the #1 spot, grossing a whopping $66 million.  In Hong Kong, the film also opened to #1 on opening day with $709,000. To date, the film has grossed over $348 million in China. In Singapore, the film was the highest grossing Sony release for a Chinese film with $838,000, while in Malaysia it was the highest grossing opening day of all time for a Chinese-language film at $528,000.  In Malaysia, it was also the highest grossing film opening on New Years and also the highest opening day gross for director Stephen Chow.

    THE MERMAID tells the tale of a mermaid (Jelly Lin) who falls for the evil business tycoon (Deng Choa) she’s been sent to seduce and assassinate.

    The CGI in THE MERMAID is used for the most ridiculous purposes.  The flapping of the mermaid’s tail, the movements of the octopus’  tentacles, the shoals of fish in the sea, the air-borne back-strapped contraption are some examples.  But, they do to Chow’s credit generate the most laughs.  

    Anything can happen in a Stephen Chow film and the man will do anything to get a laugh out of his audience.  Take for example the important scene in which an old sage (in the form of a mermaid) tells the legendary tale of how humans and fish used to co-exist.  All the mermaids and other fish are listening.  Before she ends her story, she falls asleep snoring.  Another is the octopus cook acting as if nothing is happening while his tentacles are being cooked up in the open kitchen.

    The film contains, as in all comedies, hits and misses.  The hit/miss ratio, thankfully is high, with the laughs coming fast and furious.  There will be classic segments that might go down in Hong Kong comedy history like the chicken cooking/exercise segment in the Hui Brothers’ THE PRIVATE EYES.  One of these is the segment where Deng Chao goes to the police station to report being kidnapped by the mermaid. (See trailer below or part of this segment.)

    If you can throw logic and sanity out the window, THE MERMAID will turn out to be a big treat.  THE MERMAID is as silly (and hilarious) as can be.  The millions of asian moviegoers cannot be wrong.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jskKf5YDDAI

     

    RACE (Germany/France/Canada 2016) ***
    Directed by Stephen Hopkins

    The word RACE of the film title could mean the running competition or a people of the world.  Stephen Hopkin’s biographical sports drama tells both the story of African American athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) running in the Berlin Olympic games in 1936 and the controversy ensuing with the then upcoming Hitler regime.  Owens went on to win 4 gold medals.  Hopkins is no stranger to biography, having directed THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS.

    The script, written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, covers many stories.  The first and foremost is the story of the athlete Owens and his white coach Larry Snyder.  The other is the romance between Owens and his girl, Peggy (Amanda Crew), who he has already had a daughter with, when going to the games.  A political subplot involving the boycotting of the Games by the U.S. due to Germany’s racial policy of exclusion of blacks and Jews makes good interest into an otherwise too often told tale of underdog achieving the top prize.  This story pits Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) against  host of adversaries.  Despite the many stories, director Hopkins always has the main story in focus, the winning of the games, while keeping the other side stories in perspective.  The overall feel is a solid narrative.

    Newcomer Stephan James inhabits the role of the star athlete very comfortably.  He looks young as well as buff enough to pass off as an Olympic medallist.  He is convincing without having to overact his role.  But it is the supporting cast that deliver the prized performances.  Carice van Houten steals the show as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, commissioned by the Hitler to film the games.  She runs head to head with the Interior Minister, Dr. Joseph Goebbels (played with sinister relish by Barnaby Metschurat).  One could watch both van Houten and Metschurat, two German acorn forever.

    The period piece was sot in both Berlin where the Games took place as well as Montreal to stand in for spots of Berlin.  The atmosphere of 30’s Europe is satisfactorily convincing, but not over-stunning.  The shot of the Games are excitingly executed with camera intercutting among the faces of the athletes, the looks on the faces of the coaches and of course, the spectators.

    It is odd that this piece of anti-racism is a co-production between Germany and Canada.  One would have expected the film, supported by the by the Owens family, the Jesse Owens Foundation, the Jesse Owens Trust and the Luminary Group to have some American financial backing.

    Hopkins plays his film safe without trodding into too deep waters.  The racial controversy is tackled with tact and quickly covered for.  The result is a rather mild anti-racist film, that is more suited for the family than one to invoke controversy.

    The film ends with the pictures of the real characters against the actors that played them.  Again, formulaic safe filmmaking, like a history lesson that disturbs no one and stirs no still waters!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJgi9gCSfBg

    RISEN (USA 2015) ***
    Directed by Kevin Reynolds

    RISEN looks like a blockbuster in the making.  Even the Coen Brothers thought so.  In their recent comedy, HAIL, CAESAR!  George Clooney plays the actor inhabiting the role of a Roman Centurian who sees the light in the form of believing in the risen Jesus Christ.  It is a blockbuster movie in the making in HAIL, CAESAR!  A similar premise is adopted in RISEN, a serious story of the Resurrection seen from the point of view, again of a Roman Centurian, Clavuis Tribune (Joseph Fiennes). He too will see the light.

    Clavius, a powerful Roman Centurion, is charged by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the rumours of a risen Jewish messiah and to locate the missing body of Yeshua (Cliff Cutis) aka in the film as ‘the Nazarene’ (Jesus of Nazareth) in order to quell an imminent uprising in Jerusalem during the first 40 days following Christ's resurrection.  But three days after the Crucifixion, the body goes missing and the stone of the tomb rolled away.  Clavius investigates with the help of his new aide, the ambitious, Lucius (Tom Felton from the HARRY POTTER films).  The search leads them to the disciples who are meeting up with the risen one.

    The best part of the film is the beginning which sets the tone of the film.  The crucifixion scene is depicted with all the cruelty and gore without having to display much blood. Much is left to the imagination.  The discourse between Pontius Pilate and his trusty Clavius is also believable, even down to the discussion in the Roman baths.

    The film is shot in both Spain and Malta.  The biblical segments down to the white stone houses and vegetation of Nazareth are all there, and should not displease Bible readers.

    The filmmakers appear unable to control the temptation of using CGI in the film.  The scene in which a flight of birds fly through the disciples is totally superfluous and unnecessary, least of all a waste of good money.  But the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore, especially the ending scene with the images of fishing by the Sea of Galilee (the film is shot in Malta) is particularly impressive.

    A few liberties are taken in the script.  Christ’s tomb is sealed with Roman seals and tied closed with ropes.  The Centurian is among the 12 that get to walk with the risen Messiah.

    This is an expensive production, by Hollywood standards similar to the highly successful Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  Past Christian efforts have been small productions taken by Christian organizations.  RISEN, which caters to both believers and non-believers, is thankfully non-preachy, while believers can take consolation that the film holds true to the faith.  Even the words of the Bible are used as in the last scene where the RISEN gives the command to his disciples to: “Go into the wold and preach the Gospel to the whole creation”. (Mark 15:16 if I recall correctly from my Sunday school class.)

    Running at a little less than 2 hours, RISEN is also the perfect length before it becomes a bit tiresome.  One problems the simple story with little opportunity for twists or subplots.  One can only do so much with the material.  RISEN should prove to be a good bang for the buck at the box-office and a suitable outing for Easter!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucUbAAMEF8M

    THE WITCH (USA 2015) ****

    Directed by Roger Eggers

     

    Set in 17th Century New England, writer/director Roger Eggers (whose background is in production design and theatre) has mounted more than a handsome production in his chilling horror debut.  Looking like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT from the frequent flickering lighting (though the comparison does not do THE WITCH, the better film justice) and Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE from the period setting, the story follows a newly settled New England family from England.  

    When the film opens, we hear dialogue which informs the audience that the family has just been banished from the village due to witchcraft, details unspecified.  They settle on their own on the forest outskirts.  The religious family is comprised of William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children.  The film centres on the daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is made to look after her infant sibling while the parents toil the land.  But the baby suddenly goes missing (never explained how in the film, but assumed to be taken by a wolf), and Thomasin has no explanation either.  William and Kate descend into hysteria.  Did the evil in the woods take their unbaptized child?  Their twin children, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), blame Thomasin but their own behaviour has become disturbingly suspect.  Middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) takes it upon himself to search for the answer with dire consequences.  Thomasin admits to being a witch to scare the twins into silence but it backfires on her.

    The film has certain unexplained scenes like an actual witch that appears and kisses Caleb.  The other is the possession of the twins.

    The film succeeds for two reasons.  One is its ambiguity which makes everything all the more mysterious and scary.  Is the family descending into religious madness or are there supernatural forces afoot?  But the film falls apart when director Eggers shows actual demonic forces in motion.  Second is the scary effects created by the light, setting and soundtrack.  The characters speak with an old Northern England accent and old English which takes a while to get used to.  Sample dialogue: “What’s the matter with thee?  Come hither!”  The story is supposed to be based on folklore and the dialogue adapted directly from old literature.  

    But THE WITCH is a very scary film- not scary in the form of the typical B-horror flick but in genuine fear of the unknown.  Religion and superstition drive the family part.  Trust in God appears to be the answer for the family, but faith is obviously not enough.  The desperation of the family is on clear display and examination here.  Eggers shows differing points of view, from the daughter to the father, mother and even the brother., while always centring on Thomasin.  Eggers knows how to create a sense of evil from almost any prop, from the goat, to the evil stare of the rabbit, to the woods to the omnipresent darkness.  THE WITCH also contains very disturbing images, made even scarier because often, it is hard to make out exactly what is depicted, and much is left to the imagination.  The scariest image is the crow picking at the mother’s breast.  Evil, indeed takes many forms.

    Altogether a very impressive film debut by Eggers and definitely a most chilling one.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQXmlf3Sefg

     

     
     

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: THE WITCH

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: ANOMALISA

    Best Foreign Language Film: EL CLUB

    Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

    Best Horror: THE WITCH

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 12, 2016)

    Two films that cater to very unique tastes open this week. Make sure you do not wander into any of these two films unless you are in the know.  DEADPOOL caters to comic book antihero fans while ZOOLANDER 2 the fashion/model media disciples.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    DEADPOOL (USA 2016) ***

    Directed by Tim Miller

    DEADPOOL the latest Marvel comic book ‘hero’ movie arrives with great anticipation and fanfare of comic book fans.  Fans know their comic book hero and expect to see a foul-mouthed, angry, sexy and ugly fighter in an R-rated movie.  

    First of all, some background on DEADPOOL.  Those familiar with the marvel character, best described as an uncensored personality would best skip this paragraph.  DEAD POOL is the name of the lead character previously known as Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds). The character is less a hero than an antihero.  He describes himself in the film as a bad guy paid to take out other bad guys.  At first a normal human being, then voluntarily subjected to experiments in order to cure his cancer, Deadpool ends up totally mutated but also with accelerated healing powers and fighting agility.  He is badly scarred especially facial wise and wears a skin tight costume.  He is angry, swears all the time and beats various people up, depending on his mood.  The fans expect the film to be extremely violent, especially in the already famous touted skewer scene in which Deadpool props a baddie up with his twin blades.  Director Miller satisfies the fans with the segment not only shown twice, but also in slow motion.

    To director Miller’s credit, the film is energetic and funny enough for the audience to be distracted from the film’s flaws.  The film begins with mock opening credits that no doubt is funny at first, but soon wears out its welcome.  It says for example that the film is directed by an overpaid tool with all other members of the the filmmaking team insulted except for the writers. The real credits appear at the end of the film.  

    The film begins with Deadpool (Reynolds) taking a cab, driven by Dopinder (Karan Soni) to fight his enemies, the main one being Francis (Ed Skrein from the TRANSPORTER remake).  Deadpool has a lengthy irrelevant but hilarious conversation with Dopinder.  The fight ensues, but because Deadpool has forgotten his bag of weapons, has only 12 bullets in his gun.  As a result, he has to cut off his hand from a handcuff in order to escape in a garbage truck.  The film flashes back to how this scene takes place.  In the process, the audience learns that the film is a love story - one between Wade Wilson and Vanessa (Morena Baccarin).

    The film’s storytelling format is chopped up unnecessarily as if the target audience is assumed to have a very short attention span.  There is no need for the excessive violence, except maybe to satisfy the hardcore Deadpool comic book fans.  The humour is forced, the dialogue terribly crude and blunt and many characters appear out of nowhere.  An example is the blind old back lady, Al (the wonderful Leslie Uggams) who ends up as Deadpool’s lover, living in his apartment.  Her quotable line: “I miss my cocaine.”   All this might be entertaining to some but on the other hand , terribly boring to others, like the film critics.  

    For what it is worth, DEADPOOL delivers to its core audience.  The film turned out better than I expected, having very low expectations after watching the trailer.  But I am not the core audience.  DEADPOOL fans will definitely be pleased!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtTfd6tISfw

    NINA FOREVER (UK 2014) **

    Directed by Chris and Ben Blaine

    Writers/directors Chris and Ben Blaine’s new horror-romance film NINA FOREVER is a horror love story so dead serious, that they consider it as a real relationship story.  The question is whether it works.

    The idea of a returning dead lover, however, is not that original an idea.  It has been done before in the 1971 Brazilian movie DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS.  Dona Flor’s dead husband keeps showing up during the lovemaking to make up for her current husband’s lack of passion.  This film is pure black comedy and was a big hit in North America.

    After girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) dies in a car crash, Rob (Cian Barry) unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  As he begins to overcome his grief, Rob falls in love with a coworker from his supermarket job, Holly (Abigail Hardingham).  Their relationship is extremely complicated when Nina, unable to find rest in the afterlife, comes back to life to sarcastically torment them whenever they have sex. 

    The rest of the film involves Rob and Holly who must find some way to deal with the situation and put Nina to rest.

    As expected, the film eventually descends into a threesome involving Rob, Nina and Holly.  Though the actors are all very good-looking, the scene, with sheets covered in blood (see photo) is far from being sexually erotic.

    According to the film notes, the directors try to keep their film on the reality road, preventing it from descending into camp.  The result is obviously a more serious movie, and one quite devoid of humour.  The audience has to believe that the situation could be as real as reality can be.  In a way, the concept could happen.  People with dead loved ones, could metaphorically not get over their past lovers, and though the dead might not physically appear with dripping blood during future lovemaking with other partners, it could happen in the head.  

    But the trouble with the film is that it is too slow and too dead serious (pardon the pun).  It also requires more concentration deciphering the film’s strong British accented dialogue.  It is not really convincing either especially in the part when Rob declares his love to Holly on the  bus.  A bit of comic relief is provided by Nina’s parents, the father in particular who is trying to write a novel.  But the Blaines keep it serious with the father freaking out when Holly sits at Nina’s place at the dinner table.  One wonders what the film would be like if it were campier.  It might be an improvement.  The film also contains a different sounding soundtrack by Dan Teper.

    It is difficult to envision anyone sympathetic to a character like indecisive Rob who cannot leave his past dead lover, Nina.  As such, Holly should just move on.  The directors are too convicted with their theme on moving on, and should have themselves, moved on with the film’s limited premise.  The film has garnished generally favourable reviews after premiering at the recent SXSW Film Festival but I would rather watch DONA FLOR AND HER TWO HUSBANDS again.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IokJt_05co

    PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL MONOGAMIST (Canada 2014) **
    Directed by Christina Zeidler ad John Michell

    This spritely romantic relationship comedy is exactly what the title promises.  It is the story of monogamist, Elsie (Diane Flacks), in her thirties who cannot, no matter how much she tries change her ways.  A slight twist to the story is that Elsie is a lesbian.

    When the film begins, Elsie has just broken up with her girlfriend, Robyn (Carolyn Taylor).  Robyn has not taken the breakup too easily.  It is tough for them to remain friends without fighting.

    Meanwhile, Elsie has a fling or two while trying to survive her job was aTV producer after a corporate takeover.  She is offered advice from friends and family.  As the saying goes: “Everyone has a advice and everyone is full of sh**”

    That is basically what the entire film is about.  It is pretty boring for those who cannot connect with the main character.  Whether one does depends, but to Flacks, credit, she is not a bad actress.  

    The film is shot in Toronto and the directors are proud of the fact.  Torontonians will recognize familiar sights like the local streets, streetcars and buildings.  The film also showcases local musical and art talent.

    Diane Flacks inhabits her role comfortably, passing off as a desperate lesion trying not to be desperate.  She creates a likeable character and a very human one.  She is pretty though not overtly pretty and smart, though human enough to make mistakes and smart enough to recognize them.  She takes a little time to figure out what she wants.  In other words, she is a normal person, a nice Jewish girl from Toronto (as she describes herself) in the ordinary sense.  Of the supporting cast, Robin Duke stands out as Elsie’s mother, a nice Jewish woman from Montreal.

    The film ends up an ok watch, but there is nothing exceptional about the film, which is a shame.  Everyone tries very hard, as is evident in the last scene of the cat funeral.  During the cat funeral, Elsie and Robyn have it out amidst the ceremony.  It is definitely a far-fetched scene that is funny at parts, but feels too artificial.

    There are no sex scenes, thanks goodness for that!  The actresses are pretty but not sexy enough that the audience would like to watch them doing it in the nude.  The kissing scenes are sufficient and short.

    PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL MONOGAMIST, made in 2014 finally reaches the big screen after making its round across the country’s LGBT festival circuit.  The film is unlikely to become a big hit, but its target audience is clearly the LGBT festival audience and maybe the local Toronto art scene.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1A7_9doTVg

    RAMS (Iceland 2015) ***
    Directed by Grímur Hákonarson

    Few films from Iceland make it to North America, so when one like RAMS comes along, it is a real treat.  The audience gets to see an unfamiliar lifestyle while experiencing a tale set in an unknown setting.

    The film contains seldom seen images.  These include, obviously the somewhat barren and pastoral Icelandic landscape and also other man-made concoctions like a character scrubbing his sheep in a bathtub.

    RAMS is about sheep and rams.  As the voiceover narrative informs, for a thousand years, sheep is of foremost importance to the Icelandic people.  Sheep affect the outlook of the people. The film begins with a ram competition in a secluded valley in Iceland.  The top prizes are announced with the top two ending up in the hands of two brothers by the names of Gummi and Kiddi.  It turns out that the brothers are not on speaking terms, though they are neighbours.  The story is one of hard survival of sheep farming under the harsh conditions of winter in Iceland.

    Director Grímur Hákonarson used to make documentaries, so RAMS is detailed and authentic in its look.  It features a harsh landscape of the valley, and does not show the modern capital city at all.

    A lethal disease suddenly infects Kiddi’s sheep with the entire valley coming under threat.  The authorities decide to slaughter all the animals in the area to contain the outbreak.   The story is familiar after the recent remake of Thomas Hardy’s novel, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, the English period drama that featured a similar sheep disease.  This is a near death sentence for the farmers, whose sheep are their main source of income, and many abandon their land in despair.  But Gummi and Kiddi don’t give up so easily – and each brother tries to stave off the disaster in his own fashion: Kiddi by using his rifle and Gummi by using his wits.   As the authorities (depicted here as emotionless) close in, the brothers will need to come together to save the special breed passed down for generations, and themselves, from extinction.

    One thing is that it is difficult to distinguish between the two brothers as they are both old, bearded and slightly fat.  But one can tell after a while,as one has a whiter beard than the other.

    The reason for the brothers’ conflict is explained but not really satisfactory - not that it matters that much.  The conflict is eventually resolved, as expected, and this make the film’s more tender moments.  There are two extremely moving segments one with Gummi and Kiddi hugging each other naked as brothers.

    But the film demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit.  It shows how man survives against all odds if he has the will to do so.  Besides containing images of wild beauty that includes a snowstorm in the mountains in the film’s climax, Hákonarson’ film is a meticulously and sincere made film that is entertaining while being educational at he same time.

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

    SNOWTIME! (Canada 2015) ***
    Directed by Jean-François Pouliot

    LA GUERRE DES TUQUES (3D) is the highest grossing Canadian film of 2015.  But almost no one in English Canada has heard of it.  As the saying goes in the film industry, French Canadians see French Canadian films but English speaking Canadians do not see Canadian films at all - French or Canadian.  So, it would be appropriate then to dub the French animated feature into English complete with an English title SNOWTIME! as if the original never existed.

    But when the film, a delightful kids fantasy set in real life progresses, it becomes apparent that the film is very Quebecois despite the fact that all the character are speaking English.  Even the names of the leads Luke and Sophie sound French (Luc et Sofie). The setting is a little village, snow covered, the typical seen in pictures of Quebec, which one kid calls the best village in the world.  And he and the other kids believe it too.

    The animated feature is based on and is an animated version of the 1984 family film THE DOG WHO STOPPED THE WAR (French title LA GUEREE DES TUQUES, no change here).  

    This review is based on the 3D English version.

    The film centres on a group of children, led by Luke (Nicholas Savard-L'Herbier in the French version, Angela Galuppo in English) and Sophie (Mariloup Wolfe in French, Lucinda Davis in English), who plan and stage a giant snowball fight during the Christmas holidays.  The story is unimportant.  The fact that all the children appear to be having a fine time at war is all that matters.  Until someone loses an eye - or a dog is hurt, as in the case of this film.  As in most children’s films, SNOWTIME! is one centred around the children.  There are no adults around.  The kids behave like adults mostly, dealing with issues such as acceptance, loyalty, friendship and chivalry, elements that make a good family or children’s tale.  This is a delightful Canadian film, quite unlike Disney expensive blockbuster animated features like FROZEN.  Still, there are a few catchy tunes like “You are My Sweater” (whatever that means, I have no clue) performed at the end credits.

    The 3D effects are well done with lots of snowy stuff tossed out of the screen at the audience.  The village looks very Christmassy and the film has an overall warm and fuzzy atmosphere despite the ‘war’ setting.

    The humour is mild at best.  It is not overtly hilarious or extremely goofy, characteristics of most animated features these days. Getting brain freeze from drinking milkshakes or changing the odds of winning during an arm wrestling match are examples of the kind of humour found in the film.

    The result is a rather mediocre entertaining film.  The plusses of the film include the gorgeous animation on the screen, better bang for the buck that the multi million dollar products churned out by the Hollywood studios.  At least Canadians can say this is our animated feature.  It is up against strong competition like NORM OF THE NORTH and KUNG FU PANDA 3.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NVHUxcAYGI

    ZOOLANDER 2 (USA 2016) ***

    Directed by Ben Stiller

    ZOOLANDER and ZOOLANDER 2 are milder versions of Sasha Baron Cohen’s BRUNO which are still pretty wild for most audiences unfamiliar with films like these that satirize the fashion/modelling industry.  

    It took a while, 15 years, since the first ZOOLANDER (2001) also directed by Ben Stiller hit the screens.  It has been a long wait - the stars have grown older, and the plot makes use of the fact.  Whatever goes on in the movie does not make much sense, but famous pop stars are being killed as they are protecting the Chosen One.  “You can’t kill us all.” utters Justin Bieber, the 6th pop star killed in a year, before he kicks the bucket after posing on Instagram.  Even Madonna has struck her last pose!  Who is the Chosen One and who is the villain?  As outrageous as the plot is, the twist is even more outrageous than anything found in any film in a while.  Hilarious?  It is in a way if one sits back and ponder over what has occurred.  The script, by no less than 4 writers including Stiller, Justin Theroux (the writer of AMERICAN PSYCHO who also appears in the film as an evil DJ) is actually hilarious, though it might not seem so on first appearance.  Perhaps ZOOLANDER 2 should be seen a second time to digest the mayhem on screen.

    So, the not-so bright Zoolander (Stiller) is drawn out of recluse together with fellow model, Hansel (Owen Wilson).  The villain is Mugatu (Will Farrell hamming it up, the most he can ever muster), engineering his escape from fashion prison.  (Don’t ask!)

    Not everything is original in the film.  A lot of the jokes are similar to ZOOLANDER 1 and the ending sexy cat fight between two beauties, Penelope Cruz and Milla Jovovich, to the delight of all the males watching is way too similar to the scene from the French film (that did not get released here), OSS 117 NEST OF SPIES, directed by THE ARTIST’s Michel Hazanavicius.

    The star cameo list is staggering.  They include Bieber and real life fashion icons, Valentino, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger and Anna Wintour.  The trouble is that these icons are not immediately recognizable, but their names are emphasized at least so audiences know who they are.  Of the recognizable star cameos, Susan Sarandon (doing a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW routine), Milla Jovovich, Macaulay Culkin, Billy Zane, Katy Perry, Sting and Neil deGrasse Tyson strut their stuff, all playing themselves.  But the best of these belong to Benedict Cumberbatch who surprises as he plays All, a transgender looking super model so full of himself that he marries himself.

    ZOOLANDER 2 plays like a spy spoof as well as a satire of the fashion/model industry.  Hate it or love it, my partner best described the film as “not that funny but sill entertaining.”  Yes, and the film has lots of energy!  But audiences not in the know might be totally bewildered at the goings-on!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CL4LNWHegk

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: RAMS

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: ANOMALISA

    Best Foreign Language Film: RAMS

    Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

    Best Horror: JERUZALEM

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 5, 2016)

    Films opening include the new Coen Brothers comedy HAIL, CAESAR!.  The zombie flick PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES and MOJAVE provides some scares and thrills.

     

    FILM REVIEWS:

    HAIL, CAESAR! (USA 2016) ****
    Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

    The Coen Brothers remain in top form.  They etch out a film almost annually, with almost each one a critical hit.  Their films are an annual event many moviegoers now look forward to.  Their best films include TRUE GRIT, FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BURN AFTER READING, and all their films share the Brother’s keen sense of humour.  HAIL, CAESAR! like BURN AFTER READING is pure comedy and this one is a worthy tribute to the Hollywood dream-making machine.  It has the feel of a farce yet, it total respects the Hollywood studio system, for all its faults and errors.

    The lead character is a Hollywood studio fixer by the name of Mannix, subtly portrayed by Josh Brolin, in the kind of role he has mastered.  He is a dead serious character you do not want to mess around with.  Or you will get slapped around like his main star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) did, before being told to then go out and act like a star.  The film begins with Mannix in a confessional box, pouring his heart out to the priest.  Mannix is shown to be a decent man, one that respects other human beings, despite their faults and one who loves his wife and kids.  He is the backbone of America and the one that make sense in the Coen film.  Which is required - or all else will go to nought and the film degenerates into nonsense.  Of all the sins confessed, the one that affects him the most is his cigarette smoking.  He has promised his wife (Alison Pill) to cut down and is unable to do so.  The plot generally follows Mannix around while things in the Studio fall apart, while being offered a smoke most of the time.  Mannix fixes things, hilariously yet credibly, and that is the basic premise of HAIL, CAESAR!  While all these are going on, he is wooed for a better paying, better hours job at Lockheed Incorporated.

    The things that can go wrong provide most of the satire and entertainment.  A famous actress, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is pregnant and her image is about to be ruined.  A famous cowboy actor, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is unable to utter his lines to the satisfaction of his director Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  Tabloid columnist sisters (both played by Tilda Swinton wearing different hats) want a scoop trying to dig in dirt about star Whitlock.  The most jarring problem is Whitlock being kidnapped by a groups of disgruntled scriptwriters who want their far share of the dough.  Mannix has to sort them all out.

    All these problems provide ample opportunity for hilarity - Coen Brothers style.  And they keep the laughs coming with twists in the story as they know best.  The brains behind kidnapping turns out to be communist Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum).

    The Brothers play plenty of homage to old classics.  There is a spectacular swimming Busby Berkley swimming number, Esther Williams style as in MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, a one-take musical gay-type musical number with no dames to the tune of “No Dames”with nods to ANCHORS AWEIGH and Rogers and Hammerstein’s song “There is Nothing like a Dame” from SOUTH PACIFIC and scenes that could be taken right out of William Wyler’s BEN-HUR, just to name a few.

    The Brothers have also assembled quite the impressive all-star cast, though some on the list only appear for a few minutes in a scene or two.  The Jonah Hill character seems present just to utter the line  “It’s all part of the job, Miss.”  Fiennes and Johansson are only present for two scenes while Frances McDormand has only one as a chain-smoking editor who gets chokes by the film reel in the editing room.  For whatever they do, they leave the audience wanting for more.  Relative newcomer Ehrenreich steals the show as the cute cowboy who eventually helps Mannix instead of the other way around.

    Great directors have made films about the passion in the making of movies.  Fellini had 81/2, Truffaut LA NUIT AMERICAINE, Almodovar BAD EDUCATION and the Coen Brothers HAIL, CASEAR!.  Everything comes clear as to what the Coens are up to by the end reel.  There are elements that don’t work that well or are overdone, but or the most part HAIL, CAESAR! is quite the movie, especially for the moviebuff.  HAIL, CAESAR is a minor classic but a major delight!  I would see it again!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMqeoW3XRa0

    THE LADY IN THE VAN (UK 2015) ***1/2
    Directed by Nicholas Hytner

    There are several reasons to watch the new Maggie Smith, Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennette collaboration of  THE LADY IN THE VAN.  For one, it is based mostly on a true story - the words that appear on the screen at the film’s start, signifying a modest comedy on life.  And with an equally number of pleasures as well to be derived from the film.

    Adapted from the based-on-fact hit West End play by Bennett (best known for THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE), the film’s title referring to a high-born homeless woman, known as Miss Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) fallen on hard times who finds temporary shelter parking her van in Bennett’s driveway — for fifteen years.  It is a chronicle of the unlikely friendship between the writer (played by Alex Jennings) and the elderly eccentric who takes over his driveway.

    The play and script is smart enough to have two protagonists - Miss Shepherd and Bennett.  Bennett is seen as a double in the film.  As explained - there is the man that writes and the one that lives.  They speak to one another, the equivalent of the man talking to himself.  He gives himself a perspective of his life, humorously as well as dramatically.  He is a timid fellow, kind enough to look after his ailing mother as well as Miss Shepherd.  In contrast, Miss Shepherd is ornery, impolite, and bullying   Not all there, she claims to take advice from the Virgin Mary. And she smells bad.  There is a mystery about the woman that is kept from Bennett and the audience but all is revealed by the end of the film.  But Bennett, despite his very private nature, takes pity on her and says she can stay there for three months.

    Miss Shepherd is seen to be one that hates music.  She screams and scares away children that play music outside her van. But she has studied music in Paris and plays the piano.  The reason for her current behaviour is an intriguing one, and one that Hytner uses to full effect.

    But besides being a film about friendship and old age, it is mostly a film about life.  The film depicts the bit seedy yet very respectable London neighbourhood of Camden Town (on the Northern Tube line).  (I am proud to say I have lived there - though as a tourist and guest for 15 days and the film brings a good effective feel in of neighbourhood chivalry and friendliness.)   The message about life in the film is an obvious one, though one mostly ignored.  It is stated clearly at the end - to love life is to start living.  It is, put subtly, in the writing of Bennett’s character - that he is not to put himself in the writing but to find himself in the writing.

    Maggie Smith bares all in the film and she is not afraid of looking old, haggard and ugly for the role.  It is a completely different role from her Oscar winning THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.  She would get my vote for her second Oscar.

    THE LADY IN A VAN is a tale of life, playfully funny and authentically set in Camden Town, London.  Great performances in a film relatively well directed from a clever script full of ripe dialogue.  

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA8tMziteZM

    MOJAVE (USA 2014) **

    Directed by William Monahan

    The title MOJAVE stands for the Mojave Desert in California - the setting where the two main characters meet and settle their scores.

    William Monahan, best known as the Oscar winning scriptwriter for THE DEPARTED rather than his first feature LONDON BOULEVARD, delivers another low budget forgettable drama/thriller.  MOJAVE is a two actor handler, with the two out to outwit each other as well as kill each other off.  Both characters are social outcasts, one rich, the other not.  There is nothing much to like about each, and Monahan’s script makes no effort for the audience to do so.

    The good guy is the rich, successful actor/filmmaker.  Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) decides his rich and famous lifestyle is not good enough for him.  Neither is his beautify wife and daughter.  So, he imposes a self-imposed exile in the Californian desert.  Who wouldn’t want to swap places with him?  Herein lies the most fundamental fault of the film.  The characters are unbelievable.  Worst the is that the script introduces one after another of these characters.  Thomas’ arch nemesis, a serial killer of some sort, strolls into Thomas’ camping space in the desert.  Jack (Oscar Isaac) plays a cat-and-mouse game of killer.  Thomas accidentally shoots and kills a police officer thinking him to be Jack  Jack blackmails him till Thomas turns the tables.

    Lines like Thomas’ “I’ve been famous in one way or another since I was 19,” does not help the audience feels sympathetic either.  The script appears more to impress with flowery words than to establish the film’s narrative.

    Mark Walhberg has a small role as Norman, one of Thomas’ crazy film associates.  Wahlberg appears to be the only one having a good old time, always with at least two girls by his side.

    For half the time though the film, the audience does not really know what is happening.  Disjointed clues are thrown out an it only becomes clear of what is happening after many an incident.  Not only is the tactic infuriating but it creates more distance between the audience and the film.

    Monahan’s film does boasts some impressive images.  The desert night scenes are scary and as memorable as the sun drenched scorching hot scenes during the day.  The one with the shot of the opening of sunlight from an underground cave, the one in which Thomas shoots the police officer will be memorable for a long time.  Credit goes to cinematographer Don Davis.

    The confrontation between Thomas and Jack occurs a bit too early at the film’s climax.  For what it is MOJAVE is a confusing thriller about two men no one really cares about.  Stylish in terms of musical score by Andrew Hewitt, dialogue and camera work, but that is all Monahan’s film has to offer.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIAjF2JNnyY

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: HAIL, CAESAR

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: ANOMALISA

    Best Foreign Language Film: RAMS

    Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

    Best Horror: JERUZALEM

  • TIFF Cinematheque Presents - Seijun Suzuki

    TIFF Cinematheque Presents - The Films of Seijun Suzuki

    Toronto audiences and visitors get a rare chance to watch old Yakuza classics directed by Seijun Suzuki.  The best thing about all this is that his films are very entertaining and a great fun to watch.  Many, including myself are not that familiar with his films, us believing in the west and all, so this is a rare treat.  The series begs January 30th with STORY OF A PROSTITUTE and runs all the way to march with breaks between the movies.

    Capsule reviews are proved for 5 selected films, screeners provided courtesy of TIFF.  As this reviewer is slumped with too many films and datelines, the capsule reviews will be posted at least a week before each of the selected films open.

    For more details on ticket pricing, venue and complete program, please check the TIFF website tiff.net

    Please note that this is a travelling retrospective programmed by Tom Vick, Curator of Film, Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and co-organized with the Japan Foundation.

    Also, the programmer’s essay by Todd Brown is reproduced here from the tiff website for your convenience.  Mr. Brown penned the following paragraphs, and the capsule reviews are written by myself.

    Programmer’s Essay:

    This spotlight on the Japanese outlaw master spans his career from his delirious '60s yakuza thrillers to his late-career renaissance as an independent art-house filmmaker.

    One of the true madmen of world cinema, Seijun Suzuki is the kind of director for whom the term "iconoclast" barely suffices. Beginning his film career at the famed production house Nikkatsu in the 1950s, Suzuki turned out over forty features during his decade-plus tenure with the studio — an incredibly prolific track record that was far from a rare instance at that time and place. Filmmaking at Nikkatsu was an assembly-line affair, with the prime jobs going to those directors who could churn out product on time, on budget, and within the parameters set out by the studio heads. As Suzuki grew bored with those parameters, his work took a turn for the weird, revelling in theatricality, self-conscious artifice, outrageous bursts of colour, and bizarre characterizations.

    Putting Suzuki on notice to behave himself, the studio sought to rein him in by slashing his budgets and, after the pop-art opus Tokyo Drifter, forcing him to shoot in black and white. When Suzuki responded to these strictures by turning in the delirious hitman thriller Branded to Kill, he was summarily dismissed from Nikkatsu, sparking a legal battle that led to the director being effectively blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for a solid decade.

    While Drifter and Branded have since been rightfully reclaimed as gonzo masterpieces, they are only the entry points to the life and career of one of cinema's greatest mavericks. From his earlier, equally remarkable Nikkatsu work, to his ambitious independent films in the 1980s, to his late-career renaissance with Pistol Opera and Princess Raccoon, Suzuki has proven himself to be an unstoppable creative force. The film world has never seen anyone like him and, with the now 85-year-old master in failing health, it likely never will again.

    —Todd Brown

    CAPSULE REVIEWS:

    BRANDED TO KILL (Japan 1967) ***
    Directed by Seijun Suzuki

    BRANDED TO KILL stars Suzuki’s favourite actor the puffy faced Joe Shishido as a hit man (number 3 in the business), Hanada dispatched for various jobs.  The story does not make much sense, but neither do many of Suzuki’s films.  BRANDED TO KILL is especially stylized, Suzuki’s trait - the best of which include erotic sex on a spiral staircase fuelled by Hanada’s arousal by the fragrance boiling rice and an assassination via a billboard of a cigarette lighter.  There are lots of action sequences, most of them comic style like the type adopted by John Woo who apparently was a fan of Suzuki.  This film got Suzuki fired and blacklisted, but BRANDED TO KILL remains a cult classic for many cineastes.  Tongue-in-cheek entertaining!

    (Screening Mach 12)

    KANTO WANDERER (Japan 1963) ***
    Directed by Seijun Suzuki

    A Yakuza film that centres on Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi) who is torn between the elements of loyalty and duty to his Yakuza boss.  The plot is a bit complicated, though not difficult to follow with the action only taking place during the second half of the film, though there is not much of it.  The film is more drama than action with Suzuki fond of utilizing the full use of colours, as in the Zakuza code of red and white.  There is a lot in the film that will look foreign to western audiences like the gambling game of cards, which appear to be a Japanese staple game.  Matinee idol Kobayashi is suitably gorgeous and masculine in his role while his counterpart Daizaburo Hirata is equally impressive as his rival, Diamond Fuyu.

    (Screening Feb 20)

    PRINCESS RACCOON (Japan 2005) ***
    Directed by Seijun Suzuki

    Suzuki’s arguably most outrageous and non-gangster film is as ridiculous (though entertainingly so) as its title.  Prince Amechiyo is being hunted by his father for being too beautiful.  A takeoff of Snow White with the Father wanting to be the fairest of them all thus wanting to kill his son for overshadowing him.   Amechiyo tries to escape he runs into Princess Raccoon, a raccoon in human form.   They fall in love for each other, but humans and raccoons should never mix so the raccoon court causes some trouble.   She saves his life, then he saves hers by finding the Frog of Paradise on the Sacred Mountain and so forth, until the tragic finale.  The film is full of outlandish sets, costumes, colour, dialogue and musical numbers.  Truly Suzuki and truly a very different experience.

    (Screening Apr 2)

    TOKYO DRIFTER (Japan 1966) ***

    Directed by Seijun Sujuki

    TOKYO DRIFTER is the film resulting from the Nikkatsu Studios tightening the reigns on director Sujuki’s works.  The result is a film that often makes no sense, is all over the place (there is an extended saloon brawl scene, musical numbers and ridiculous shoot-outs) and short of narrative continuity.  Still watchable for all its bizarre segments, the plot if familiar, involves former yakuza hit-man Tetsu (blank-faced pop singer Tetsuya Watari, wearing a powder-blue suit), determined to go straight, but soon targeted by his former boss and an old rival for extermination.  One never knows what to expect but the hero still comes out alive and gun blazing nevertheless.

    (Screening March 10)

     

    YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Japan 1963) ***1/2

    Directed by Seijun Suzuki

    Featuring Suzuki’s favorite actor Joe Shishido who plays a mysterious stranger (like the man with no name in the spaghetti westerns) who hires his muscle to two rival yakuza gangs, with very violent results that are typical in a Suzuki film.  The other Suzuki traits are present like the vivid colours, hallucinatory shots and striking images lie the wester scene that could have been taken out of a John Ford classic.  The story, based on a novel, revels the stranger to be an ex-cop, out for revenge of the death of his partner.  Shishido is always a pleasure to watch, like a Japanese version of Clint Eastwood and not so pretty.

    (Screening Feb 27)

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 29, 2016)

    THE FINEST HOURS opens this week.

    Tiff Cinematheque presentations include films by Japanese Seijun Suzuki and Wim Wenders that begin this week.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    THE FINEST HOURS (USA 2016) **

    Directed by Craig Gillespie

    Following hot on the heels (or rather on the keel) of Ron Howard’s recently released sea adventure, the critically and box-office flop IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, THE FINEST HOURS follows a crew of men fighting the elements, which is just as intense though without a Moby Dick-type monster.  The plus of the two films is the authentic claustrophobic atmosphere in the vessel when the men are sailing, something that will surely discourage those intending to take a cruise some time soon.

    The title ‘based on a true story’ immediately flashes on the screen at the film’s start and the film is clear to remind its audience of this fact throughout the film.

    The film is a Hollywood account of the daring 1950s rescue mission by the American Coast Guard.  An oil tanker, the Pendleton is split in half by a perfect storm.  The surviving sailors are left adrift with no means of communication exempt to blast the horn.  A member of the nearby community hears the call and a coast guard boat led by the hero, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) with his crew then risk their lives to find and rescue the sailors.  On the tanker’s side, the hero is the chief engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck).

    Director Gillespie spends too much screen time at the start with the romance between Webber and Miriam (Holliday Grainger).  All this is to emphasize the heroism and sacrifice of both the men and the women by their side.  Gillespie directed LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and therefore uses his past experience in putting in relationships into this film.  As in most Disney films, the money making formula is kept to a ’t’.  Romance, action, a happy ending with good heroic dialogue like: “We are all going home.”  The problem resulting is a too predictable film.  There is one segment in which all power is lost in the town as a result of the storm and the rescue boat, without a compass needs to find land.  I could predict all the cars turning on the headlamps to signal the boat way before that scene occurred.  

    Once the storm occurs, Gillespie crosscuts between the action in the oil tanker and the action in the Coast Guard boat.  It is a 50-50 division.  What occurs inn the tanker turns out the more interesting, aided by the fact that the script emphasizes problems between Ray and a disagreeable mate (Michael Raymond McTavish) who has his own ideas on survival.  The introduction of a singing cook (Abraham Benrubi) lifts the spirit of an otherwise too serious film.

    But one can only endure special effects (not bad ones though) for only so long.

    Disney’s THE FINEST HOURS ends up one of the most boring tales of an incredible true mission despite all the enormous effort put in.  THE FINEST HOURS is a tad better than IN THE HEART OF THE SEA but that is not saying much.

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

    JERUZALEM (Israel 2015) ***
    Directed by the Paz Brothers

    Touted as the first Israeli zombie horror film, JERUZALEM (the Z in the word referring to ‘zombie’) takes many lessons from the found footage low budget horror flicks from the U.S.  In fact, the main two characters are American girls travelling to the old city of Jerusalem.  They were supposed to go to Tel Aviv when they get side-tracked by a cutie fellow-traveller to go visit Jerusalem, a decision that they will soon regret.

    Sarah Pullman (Danielle Jadelyn) and her best friend, Rachel (Yael Grobglas) are partying it up.  They dance, meet boys, drink, do drugs (not the hard ones) and have sex.  So when they meet cutie, Kevin (Yon Turmarkin), they are easily convinced to go to Jerusalem.  They meet a tour guide, an Arab, Omar (Tom Graziani).

    The politics of the film are present but the conflict between the Palestinians and Jews are kept at a minimum.  Soldiers are always present but their main enemy switches from the Palestinians to the zombies.

    The film begins, seriously enough with a quote from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 19 in the Old Testament.  The audience is informed from the text that there are 3 gateways to hell - the ocean, the desert and the third, Jerusalem.  A woman is resurrected from the dead only to sprout winds, then shot.  The first two thirds of the film are free and easy flowing with the zombies and real horror only occurring during the last third.

    The first two third sees the two girls touring the city, smoking hashish an having a great time.  The two are quite funny and everything is seen from the point of view of an app on Sarah’s cell phone.  When they enter an underground cave, the words fatal error, or no connection flashes on the screen, as on a cell phone.  This tactic is carried out throughout the film, and is quite funny, despite it being repeatedly used.  As such, the Paz Brothers (Yoav and Doron), who also penned the script appear very tech-savvy with the film obviously aimed at the younger crowd who will go everywhere with their iphone, iPad or laptop.  Everyone seems to be having a hilarious time - the directors, crew and actors and this rubs off on the audience. 

    When the zombies attack, the film wanes a bit, as the film falls back to familiar horror film territory, which audiences are already too familiar with.  But the Paz Brothers keep it funny.  Rachel gets infected by the zombie virus and is slowly turning into one.  When Sarah sees the wound, she tells Rachel, so as not to alarm her: “It is nothing, it is just a scratch!”  That is probably the film’s funniest line, used again later on.  Another character utters too as they scramble to escape through the underground caves: “Don’t know what’s happening out there, but I hope the good guys are winning!”  And Sarah says: “It’s all a fucking video game!”

    The film also offers the audience a good touristy look at Jerusalem, for what is - the old buildings, the market bazaars and the temples.

    Despite a few flaws, the Paz Brothers keep their film stylish, hilarious and scary while being smart and entertaining at the same time.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTIwfN-4hZ4

    KUNG FU PANDA 3 (USA/China 2016) ***

    Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni

    The third of the KUNG FU PANDA animated features provides more of the same.  However, being family fun entertainment, critics should not be too hard on the filmmakers.  As long as KUNG FU PANDA delivers a safe product, everyone especially a less discerning audience should not complain.

    The first one in the series that is a Chinese co-production, Fox obviously has an eye for the large Chinese market.  There is a Chinese version with Chinese dubbed voices.  The previous two films grossed more than $600 million each and this $120 million production should beat those records.  To be super safe, the script by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger have added many more pandas into the film - in the form of a secret panda sanctuary.

    Po finally gets to meet his real biological father in this film.  The segment of their meeting, as shown in a promotional clip before is the funniest of the film.  Of course, his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) the goose who wants to open his own dumpling stall is incredibly jealous.  Po is brought to a Panda sanitary where he trains panda students in martial-arts.  Po also meets Mei Mei, an overly eager panda, who had been promised to Po through an arranged marriage when they were children.   But the main plot involves an evil ancient supernatural spirit called Kai begins terrorizing China and stealing the powers of defeated kung fu masters.  Now in the face of incredible odds, Po must learn to train the village of clumsy, fun-loving pandas to become a band of Kung Fu Pandas.

    Added to the film are new characters like Po’s (Jack Black) biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and Mei Mei (a brilliant Kate Hudson), a female panda who has the hots for Po.  Hudson does a marvellous job resulting in the audience wanting to see more of Mei Mei.  The villain of the piece is Kai (Oscar winning J.J. Simmons) who adds a some humour to his role.  His voice is easily recognized from the low tones.  The usually Po gang is still present.  So, for those KUNG FU PANDA fans, Viper (Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and even Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) are back.

    The climatic fight between Po and Kai is ok but nothing too exciting nor out of the ordinary.  But the antics of Po is enough to entertain despite the relatively weak plot.

    The Chinese influence in this entry is clearly evident.  There is more oriental folklore, more oriental colours and more oriental architectural drawings.  This entry is also the most colourful of the three with the animation at its peak.  The ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ song is also given a Chinese slant.  Hans Zimmer hits with the overall musical score.

    KUNG FU PANDA 3 should be a big hit.  At the end of the promo screening, kids can be seen in front of the screen imitating the martial-arts moves of their hero, Po.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10r9ozshGVE

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: JERUZALEM

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: ANOMALISA

    Best Foreign Language Film: MUSTANG

    Best comedy: SISTERS

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

    Best Horror: JERUZALEM

  • TIFF Cinematheque Presents - Wim Wenders

    TIFF Cinematheque Presents - ON THE ROAD - The Films of Wim Wenders

    The On the Road - the films of Wim Wenders” retrospective is devoted to German director Wim Wenders and features new digital restorations of his essential early works.

    Born Ernst Wilhelm, Wim Wenders, alongside Fassbinder and Herzog, is a major German director of the ‘New’ German cinema.  Besides being a filmmaker, Wenders, still working at present in film is a playwright, author and photographer.  Wenders works with the medium of photography, emphasizing images of desolate landscapes which resulted in his second latest film THE SALT OF THE EARTH featuring Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado.

    Wenders has gone on to win many awards including prizes at Cannes, Venice as well 3 Oscar nominations.  His most famous film is arguably WINGS OF DESIRE that won him Best Director at Cannes in 1987.  

    Wenders’ favourite collaborators include author Peter Handke whose directorial debut THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN will also be screened.

    Wenders' films have encompassed different genres that include detective film noire, documentary and personal drama.  This is the chance for the public to appreciate a whole range of films by Wenders,

    Fo complete program, showtimes, venue and ticket ricing, please checkt he Cinemtheque website at: 

    tiff.net

    The series runs from Jan 28th to March 6th.  Films are screened at The TIFF Bell Lightbox.  

    Selected films are capsule reviewed below.  Films were provided courtesy of TIFF Cinematheque.  Dates of screenings of the selected films listed below the reviews.

    Trailer: https://mail.google.com/mail/#inbox/1527fe3aeb55d2a9?projector=1

     

    CAPSULE REVIEWS:

    ALICE IN THE CITIES (ALICE IN DEN STADEN) (West Germany 1974) ****

    Directed by Wim Wenders

    Considered one of the best but little seen Wenders film that almost never got made when the director found his film too similar to Peter Bogdanovic’s PAPER MOON.  ALICE  is the first part of Wenders' "Road Movie Trilogy" which included The Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976).  The film is shot in black and white by Robby Müller with several long scenes without dialogue, also used by other directors like Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch.  The story concerns a writer Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) who has missed his publisher's deadline for writing an article about the United States.  He decides to return to Germany, and encounters a German woman, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), and her daughter, Alice (Yella Rottländer), who are both doing the same thing.   Lisa leaves Alice temporarily in Phil's care with Phil stuck with Alice, (like father and daunter in PAPER MOON) searching various cities of Germany for her grandmother.  But it is more the story of Phil, who needs to find himself and some meaning in life.  Phil does not feel his own existence and Alice is his saviour.  A seemingly simple film with deeper undertones and a profound message.

    (Screening: Jan 29)

    THE AMERICAN FRIEND (W Germany 1977) ***

    Directed by Wim Wenders

    Wenders who has an obsession with Patricia Highsmith crime novels get his chance to film one of her stories.  Unfortunately, the film fails as a crime thriller and barely succeeds as film detective noir.  The plot concerns Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), who deals in forged art, suggesting a picture framer he knows who would make a good hit man for a mysterious Frenchman (Gerard Blain).  It is this farmer, Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) who is the film’s lead character.  Wenders treats him just as in his other films.  It is a character study of a lonely man, suffering from fear of his death from leukaemia, wanting to provide for his family.  So, he takes his job as a hit man.  Wenders does provide surprisingly suspenseful scenes, like the ones in the subway when Jonathan executes his first hit and the train sequence.  But there are too many loose ends in the story and the story lacks coherency.

    (Screening: Feb 5)

    BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (USA/UK/France/Germany/Cuba 1999) ****
    Directed by Wim Wenders

     

    The film that shows Americans more about Cuba than any other, while celebrating Cuban music at its best!  The BUENA VIISTA SOCIAL CLUB is an old meeting of band musicians and singers in a building that does not exist any longer.  The musicians used to meet weekly to perform band music while people listened and danced.  In this delightful tribute to these Cuban musicians, Ry Cooder assembled talents like Compay Segundo, Joachi Cooder, Omara Portoundo, Ruben Gonzale among others to perform together at NYC’s Carnegie Hall.  The result is a reunion of friends and music.  Just go with the flow, sit back and enjoy this free flowing tribute to times gone by and thankfully, not yet lost.  The documentary also won Wim Wenders (a  lover of music, as evident in all his film where music plays a large part) an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.

    (Screening: Feb 27)

    THE GOALKEEPER’S ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (West Germany/Austria 1971) ****

    Directed by Wim Wenders

    Wender’s second feature is an assured piece that follows the lines of many of his similar films.  As in PARIS TEXAS, the opening line was “this river looks just like any other river.”  In GOALKEEPER’S ANXIETY, the lead character (Arthur Brauss) is again a brooding nobody that resembles the nobody in his other films.  This nobody is a hot tempered goalie who ends up killing a cinema ticket seller, Gloria (Erika Pluhar) he follows home.  There is no real reason for him to do so.  Based on the novel by Peter Handke, Wender’s often collaborator, the slow moving non-film is nevertheless a captivating one.  The acting is nothing short of absorbing and the audience is drawn into the boring yet absorbing world of the man who keeps having his way with women.  In his defence, he is quite a good looking fellow.  The atmosphere of the 70’s is certainly well presented, understandably as the film was made in 1971, but the music (mainly American rock and roll from the likes of Van Morrison, The Troggs, Roy Orbison) from jukeboxes and an eerie score helps.  Wenders was supposed to be unable to pay royalties for all the songs, so this restored version has had some of the songs replaced.  Still, this is a simple film, told by a Master who utilizes the medium to the maximum.

    (Screening: Jan 28)

    THE LEFT HANDED WOMAN (West Germany 1978) **

    Directed by Peter Handke

     

    Wenders’ writing collaborator Peter Handke gets to direct his own film from his novel and script in THE LEFT HANDED WOMAN.  Wenders’ influence is clearly apparent from the camera shots particular the wide pa moving shots that Handke also uses.   The film follows the lonely and sad life of the woman in the tile, Marianne (Edith Clever) who dishes her husband to live alone with her son, for no apparent reason except to rediscover herself.  The film then plods on and on and on.  It is a slow film not helped by the fact that the reason is left for the audience to surmise and that Marianne is quite an annoying creature.  It is not surprising that her husband Bruno (Bruno Ganz) ends up slapping her around.  (I am saying this despite being opposed to female abuse.)  Her life and her husband’s lives are in tatters.  But consolation arrives later in the film with the visit of her father and Bruno's final acceptance of her absence.  The film is pensive, and pretty - the images being crisp and clear, but this is one slow film that is difficult to be absorbed into.  Maybe the film would have been different if directed by Wenders, who produced the film.

    (Screening: Feb 5)

    PARIS, TEXAS (UK/West Germany/France 1984) ****

    Directed by Wim Wenders

    Touted as many’s favourite Wenders’ film, PARIS, TEXAS is a sprawling desert epic about a man discovering and re-discovering himself in a desert landscape.  This allows stunning cinematography by Robby Miller aided with music by Ry Cooder, the musician featured in Wenders’ BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB.  Written by L.M. Kit Carson and playwright Sam Shepard, the story follows an amnesiac, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering and lost in the desert.  His long-suffering brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) finds and brings him home where it takes a while before he re-connects with his 7-year old son, Hunter (Hunter Carson) after his 3-year disappearance.   The two bond and take off to find the wife/mother (Nastassja Kinski) leaving Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clement) puzzled.  The film is as pensive as the best of Wenders’ films and Wenders allows his audience to go deep into the thoughts of his main character.  A bit puzzling is the casting of French actresses Clement and Kinski as the two wives, one of whom speaks with a strong French accent.  The film unanimously won the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival from the official jury, as well as the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

    (Screening: Feb 6)

    TOKYO-GA (USA/West Germany 1984) ****

    Directed by Wim Wenders

    A Master’s tribute to another Master.  The late Japanese director Yasujio Ozu’s work from the silent to present featured the city of Tokyo in all his films.  The film begins with the credits of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY.  Director Wenders travels to Tokyo in search of Ozu and to get a feel of the Master as well as his works.  The result is marvellous.  The audience, given a perspective of Ozu from Wender’s voiceover get to experience Tokyo as never before.  From golf, baseball, restaurants with artificial food (there is a section of how this is made) on display and arcade games, the film feels occasionally surreal.  The best parts of the film deal with his reminiscing of the Ozu films, especially in the one in which Ozu’s regular actor Chishu Ryu gets to have his say.   From the bird that flies across an image, to the shadow that a cloud casts to the gesture of a child, all those make up the wonder and power of an Ozu film - all of which are captured in this wonderfully inspiring Wenders  documentary.

    (Screening: Feb 7)

    WINGS OF DESIRE 

    (Screening in March - Review to be posted)

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 22, 2016)

     

    Big films opening include the young adult book adaptation THE 5TH WAVE and the nasty but hilarious DIRTY GRANDPA.  

    Also opening are 45 YEARS and ONE FLOOR BELOW (capsuled reviewed).

    FILM REVIEWS:

    45 YEARS (UK 2014) ***

    Directed by Andrew Haigh

    Like his previous film WEEKEND (about a gay couple’s relationship), 45 YEARS tests the relationship of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtrnay) after a marriage of 45 years.  They have in plan, their 45th anniversary party.  But trouble brews in paradise.  A letter arrives at the couple’s rural home with news that the body of Geoff’s first girlfriend, Katya, has been found, encased in ice.  Questions and suspicions arise.  Is Geoff still in love with Katya?  Are there any other secrets?  Why is Geoff unable to ‘perform' after the news?  The film ends beautifully with Geoff’s speech at the Anniversary party.  Haigh’s film is full of sensitivity and quiet power.  It moves at a slow pace with the audience having to read between the incidents and performances of the actors.  A different look at very long term relationships, a sort of British variation of Michael Haneke’s AMORE.

    BOY AND THE WORLD (O Menino e o Mundo) (Brazil 2013) ***1/2

    Directed by Alê Abreu

    As in last year’s SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE, BOY AND THE WORLD is a wordless animated feature though gibberish Portuguese can be heard occasionally in the film’s soundtrack.  Thus, this Brazilian import, has a more universal appeal, as it can be understood by people in countries speaking different languages.

    The story is also a universal one.  Being wordless, one must concentrate a bit more to put together the film’s narrative.  The story concerns the boy of the film’s title, one who journeys to the big city, to see what is both fascinating and frightening.  All this is captured by the film’s colourful visuals.

    The film begins with the boy (animated as a stick figure with huge round Charlie Brown head with black slit eyes and no mouth) looking at a coloured rock.  The patterns turn out to be inside other patterns as the camera weaves in and put different colours and patterns.  All this is very mesmerizing and captivating.  The boy then jumps onto a cloud and after jumps into the waters of a stream and runs into the woods.

    The story involves the boy leaving for the city (that looks like Rio de Janeiro) in search of his father.  He has various adventures including getting a dog, meeting mechanized workers (looking like THE WALL) and facing police oppression.  The film also has abstract moments like the symbolic fight between good and evil as seen by the fight between a black bird and colourful phoenix.

    The film contains beautiful moments such as the one emphasizing the importance of family, in which the boy eats bread with a melon dip with his mother and father.  But the film has an overall bleak look as director Abreu lays his views on world pollution of lumber and oil, as well as the slow destruction of natural resources.

    The visuals are amazing - simple and colourful being the two words best used to describe it - just like the kaleidoscope toy the boy looks and plays with.  The segment of the tankers carrying colourful containers, all rectangular in shape filling the screen makes one of the more memorable moments.  But just as amazing as the visuals is the film’s soundtrack that is made up of instruments like the flute, and Brazilian music like the samba and hip-hop.

    The film has the feel of METROPOLIS and is at times, just as intense.  To Abreu’s credit, the film is without dialogue and thus has to be more cinematic.  Though the film is animated and about a boy, children might find the film difficult to understand.  But the film has a total Brazilian feel about it - from the characters to the background.

    BOY AND THE WORLD is welcome, very original adult animation so different from what other studios like Disney, Ghibli and Aardman provide.  The film is unique and has won over 40 film festival awards so far.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqdrwu0NvY8

     

    DIRTY GRANDPA (USA 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Dan Mazer

    A party scene has one character saying: “Party till you are pregnant!”  Another has a prosthetic penis (an erect one at that) in the face of Zac Efron in bed after the De Niro character admits that ‘naked’ is the best way of sleeping.

    If the above offends, stay away from DIRTY GRANDPA - the movie.  The film is meant to offend.  If the above do not do it, De Niro gets to use the ’N’ word later on in the movie.  It is what is expected from the British co-writer Dam Mazer, who penned the BORAT and ALI G. characters with Sacha Baron Cohen.  But DIRTY GRANDPA is extremely funny, if not a bit inconsistent in its laughs. But if a few jokes fail, one knows there are more successful ones to offend just around the corner.

    But the film has a poor start with the funeral services of Dick Kelly’s (De Niro) wife of 15 years.  Cousin Nick’s (Adam Pally) drunken shenanigans (speeches and small talk) are unfunny and a waste of time.  His later appearance does more of the same and director Mazer would have done better to edit this character out of the film.  Then there is the appearance of Dick’s grandson, Jason (Efron) and his annoying fiancé, Meredith (Julianne Hough).  The Meredith character and her scenes are also unfunny at all, though her character is key to the film’s plot.  John Phillip’s script could have given her a few funny moments.

    The film’s simple plot allows for lots of hilarious distractions.  Dick fools his grandson Jason to drive him to Florida for spring break for the sole reason that Dick and his late wife go there every year.  But Dick has another agenda up his sleeve.  He finally confesses to Jason once there in the film’s funniest line: “I have been faithful for 15 years, and all I want to do now is fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”   The two get a chance when they meet two hot chicks Shadia (Zoey Deutch) and Lenore (Aubrey Plaza) on the road.

    The film’s funniest parts are nothing less than inspired.  At a beach party, there is a ‘Flex Off”, a take off from a ‘Dance-Off’ where Dick and Jason hilariously take on a couple of hunks in the contest.  Another exceptionally funny segment is when Jason gets drunk and naked, smokes crack and takes off stoned on a motorbike to a beach where he is mistaken for a child pervert.

    Oscar winner De Niro has proven his comedic skills in films like MEET THE PARENTS and THE FAMILY, while Efron has proven himself  just as proficient in last year’s NEIGHBOURS.  Together, they form a dynamic duo in comedy.

    The film’s climax does not involve anything as dramatic as the heroes saving the world but involves the heroes accomplishing an equally daunting task.  Dick gets to fuck after 15 years in another very funny segment.  If you are prepared not to be offended, DIRTY GRANDPA proves enough filth for the funny bone for the entire 2016.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZSzMIFZT7Q

    THE 5TH WAVE (USA 2016) **

    Directed by J. Blakeson

    THE 5TH WAVE is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Rick Yancey, the first of a trilogy published in 2013.  The book has been favourably compared to THE HUNGER GAMES and critics have hoped that the book and film should do for aliens what TWILIGHT did for vampires.  Sony Pictures has picked up the film rights - surprising that Lionsgate missed the boat.

    The waves refer to the increasingly deadly alien attacks that have left most of Earth devastated.   The aliens are called ‘the others’.  The 1st wave is the electromagnetic wave that destroys all of earth’s power,  The second is quakes and the third is a virus carried by birds that have wiped out most of humanity.  The 4th involve aliens inhabiting humans and the 5th of the film title refer to the others’ final attack on humanity.   All these sound quite interesting and so is the film until about a third through the film.

    As the film begins, director Blakeson’s images and attention to details captivate.  Detailed images of for example of litter on the ground, a cat, a family glaring up at the sky all raise expectations of a good solid sci-fi thriller.  The special effects (though CGI generated) of tsunamis and the destruction of major cities like London are all impressive.

    But when the 3rd wave arrives - the virus that destroys most of the earth’s population, the film begins to fall to bits, as if affected by the same virus.  The film gets progressively sillier with twists that do not make sense at all.  There are two main twists, that will not be revealed in the review, safe to say they should make solid logical sense.  They do not!

    The protagonist of the story is a heroine (like in TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES), a young Cassie Sullivan (Chloe Grace Moretz from KICK-ASS) who first loses her mother (Maggie Siff), followed by her dad (Ron Livingston).  Her first priority in the story is thus to look after her younger brother, Sammy (Zachary Arthur) who turns out to be extremely spoilt and annoying.  Sammy must keep his ugly teddy bear and has no sense to tell the bus driver to stop when his sister is chasing after the bus.  (Or maybe it is the scriptwriter who has no sense.)  The search leads her to meet the best looking hunk seen in a young adult film this year.  Evan Walker (Alan Roe) aids her in searching for Sammy.  This takes them to the facility led by Colonel Vosch (Liev Schreiber).  The film’s most outrageous scene has Cassie catching the hunk swimming naked in the stream.  Obviously, she falls for him.  She distrusts him at first but then who can resist those dreamboat eyes?

    But the film gets sillier and sillier.  One scene has Evan suddenly appearing in the alien facility.  “I have planted bombs!” he tells Cassie.  Another has Cassie looking at the sky in broad daylight seeing stars.  Yet amidst all the mayhem, Cassie manages to write her diary, which Evan reads.  Fortunately there is no scene in the film showing Cassie writing a journal entry, and that would be even more laughable.

    The 5TH WAVE works well at the start, gets terribly boring and then unintentionally hilarious.  To that effect the film is not without its entertainment value.  To the filmmakers’ credit the production costs came below $40 million, which is a bargain for a sci-fi special effects film.  The fact that unknown actors (except for Moretz) were hired helps.  It would be interesting to see if Sony Pictures continues with the film adaptation of the other two novels.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmxLybfGNC4

    FLORENCE AND THE UFFIZI GALLERY 3D/4K (Italy 2015) ***1/2
    Directed by Luca Viotto

    One of the world’s greatest attractions in Florence, Italy is the Uffizi Gallery and the central dome.  It is Renaissance art at its finest.  Cineplex’s Third Season of ‘In The Gallery’– A Spectacular Cinematic Tour of Exhibits From Around The World features this attraction.

    The documentary both explores and discovers the city of Florence, artistic home to legendary figures like Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Raphael, Leonardo and Botticelli with a detailed, central chapter dedicated to the very treasure house containing their masterpieces: the Uffizi Gallery.  The ‘secret story’ of each of the timeless works of art in the gallery is disclosed in all its beauty, including the breathtaking “Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo Da Vinci, which will be brought back to life in 2016, after several years of restoration, and here unveiled in worldwide exclusive premiere on the big screen.  Also, a fascinating, Gothic-flavoured interlude will display much darker, more monstrous and frightening paintings, such as those by Caravaggio.

    Several other selected paintings are also displayed on the screen with great 3D detail and with voiceover interpretation.  Who could ask for anything more?  The audience is given full access to proximity of greatness without having to fight with the crowds for a viewing.  

    Among my favourites shown in the film is the painting: The Birth of Venus (Italian: Nascita di Venere [ˈnaʃʃita di ˈvɛːnere]) by Sandro Botticelli (mid 1480’s).   Voiceover informs the history that Botticelli was commissioned to paint the work by the Medici family of Florence, specifically Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici under the influence of his cousin Lorenzo de' Medici, close patron to Botticelli.   The painting depicts the goddess Venus, having emerged from the sea as an adult woman, arriving at the shore on a shell.  Zepher blows accompanied by Chloris.

    A fair portion of the film features actor Simon Merrells portraying Lorenzo Il Magnifico talking abut his art as if his character is alive.  This is not really credible nor does anything above a normal voiceover.  Moreover, Merrells is not a particularly good actor either.   These segments be best edited out of the film.

    The Gallery attracts about 2 million visitors annually.  This is the chance for filmgoers to experience a unique experience without having to travel to Florence or weave through the crowded halls in a gallery not originally designed to be a visitor’s museum.  The film, a multidimensional and multi-sensory journey in the Florentine Renaissance through its most representative beauties, where the latest-generation 3D and 4K technology and the most advanced techniques of modelling and dimensionalization are put at the service of the national artistic heritage to valorise it and to export it all over the world is a definite must-see!  The film took the Italian box-office by storm scoring first place in its first two days of initial release.

    This is a special presentation with limited screenings.  Showtimes are: 3D presentation on Jan 21 and the 2D presentation on Feb 21.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JIPiOaL4qM

    ONE FLOOR BELOW (Un Etaj Mai Jos) (Romania/France/Germany/Sweden 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Radu Muntean

    Low budget, neo-realistic Romanian films have impressed Cannes and TIFF audiences lately and ONE FLOOR BELOW is no exception.  The story here centres on 50ish Patrascu, living in building when one day he witnesses a domestic quarrel ONE FLOOR BELOW that ends up in murder.  But the film follows the man about his work (he helps people registers cars) and family routine before his dealing with the murder.  Patarscu tells the police nothing.  The murderer pretends to need Patrascu’s services in order to confront him on the reason he has kept quiet regarding the murder.  Expect no closed ending from director Muntean, but he takes his audience on a good ride showing the lives, attitudes and behaviour of Romanians in Bucharest, where the film was shot.

    Trailer: https://vimeo.com/125085803

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: MUSTANG

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Foreign Language Film: SON OF SAUL

    Best comedy: SISTERS

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 15, 2016)

    Two highly different films, NORM OF THE NORTH for family and the non-family 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI open this week.

    Also opening is the French entry for the Oscar for Foriegn Languange Film, MUSTANG.

     FILM REVIEWS:

    13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (USA 2015) ***
    Directed by Michael Bay

    There is one scene in the middle of Michel Bay’s 13 HOURS that accurately describes his political stance of the movie.  As the American ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) delivers his speech on American involvement in Libya, one of the secret soldiers, Paronto (Pablo Schreiber) dozes off.

    Michael Bay, director of Hollywood action packed blockbusters such as the TRANSFORMER films, PEARL HARBOR, ARMAGEDDON, THE ISLAND (his best movie) and others, is not interested in polities but in the action that takes place.  In this case, the action involves the 6 secret soldiers that heroically served their country way above and beyond their call of duty.  To Bay, politics is a nod to sleep.  Those in politics that fear that the film will have an adverse effect for Hilary Clinton who was the Secretary of State at that time or to the Obama Administration need not be worried.  The only political notes in the film appear at the beginning of the film with the titles that America got involved after the Gadaffi was overthrown and at the end of the film with a note of the gratitude of the Libyan people.  But certain facts are true - the main one being that the secret soldiers were not supported effectively by the U.S. and security was far from sufficient.

    The story, as the film stresses a few times is a true one.  Libya, one of the most politically troubled countries in the world has no American embassy but has what is called a low security diplomatic outpost.  Here the CIA, who has in their employ, the 6 secret soldiers mentioned has to escape with whatever Americans or American sympathizers are left as they are attacked by unknown hostile forces. Among the escapees is the American Ambassador.  It is a continual battle for survival.

    13 HOURS is pure Michael Bay.  There are lots of explosions, pyrotechnics and special effects with the help of Lucas Light and Sound Company.  It is a man’s world.  All the 6 actors/soldiers are buffed, bearded and tough or at least talk tough.

    At the promo screening, actor Schreiber who was present mentioned that Bay’s intention was to give an account of what happened on the ground.  This he has done while emphasizing the camaraderie of the men under fire.  13 HOURS is not the first film depicting the behaviour of men under combat stress.  THE HURT LOCKER, KILO TWO BRAVO and AMERICAN SNIPER are a few films that have done just that.  Bay uses the same tactics as these films.  The soldiers are observed skyping their wives and talking to their kids, the wives are shown freaking out and flashbacks are used to emphasize better family times.  The soldiers also refer to what is happening as a horror film.  And like in a horror film, Bay also introduces false alarms, like shocking the audience when a lady trips breaking the glasses of tea during a high profile political meeting.  Besides action, Bay a few solid suspense segments like the one Jack (John Kravnski) gets out of, lying about drones at the start of the film.

    One fault of the film is the relatively simple story that Bay stretches into a 140-minute action film. Boredom sets in quite soon as the audience observes the senseless fighting reflecting the senseless action in the movie.

    At only $50 million, Bay is an efficient director delivering a high demand product at a low cost using little known actors, except for John Kravinski who plays the lead character.  The film was shot 3 months in Malta and 4 days in Morocco.  Like AMERICAN SNIPER and LONE SURVIVOR, this film will likely make lots of money.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CJBuUwd0Os

     

    MUSTANG (France/Germany/Turkey 2015) ***
    Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguyen

    The one-line description of the film ‘Five sisters are forced to suppress their burgeoning sexuality’ would surely entice men to take a second look at this coming-of-age film.  But MUSTANG is not a soft-porn flick and neither is it an art film with lots of naked female flesh.  The five sisters are young with the youngest not yet reaching puberty, but Deniz Gamze Erguyen’s film is not without merit, but of a different nature.  The film has already won a slew of awards including the Label Europa Cinemas (Best European Film) in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes 2015.  Now with 20 wins under its belt, the film is also France’s entry in the foreign language category at the 2016 Oscars and is a nominee in the foreign language category for the 2016 Golden Globes.

    The film begins on a bright day in the countryside and then at the beach.  With their unbridled energy, the five sisters (Gunes Sensoy, Doga Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan) innocently play with some boys.  They scream and shout and do annoying things young girls do.  But a nosy neighbour reports their ‘whoring’ to their grandmother (Nihal Koldas).  As a result they are beaten by their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).  (The sisters are orphaned.)

    Filled with delightful incidents (besides the girls being beaten up) including an escape from the house, a journey to an all-female soccer game, arranged marriages and a final escape,  it is easy to determine where the film is heading.  Erguyen sets up the stage for the oppression of the girls before engineering their escape.

    Koldas as the grandmother steals the show.  At first, punishing the sisters, one by one for their frolicking, she appears initially as an evil old with.  But she takes the side of the girls when the uncle, her son starts beating them up.  It is hilarious to see her remove all items, like cell ponds, computers and fancy clothes from them while arranging lessons for them on how to become good wives.  And they are forced to wear, in their own words, shapeless, shit-coloured dresses.

    The culture of the Turkish village is also on clear display here - the general oppression of females and the might of the men.  One of the most hilarious segments shows the ironical ban of the football match for men as they are deemed too rowdy.  The following football match becomes an all female spectacle that ties into the film’s story.  The girls escape to board a bus for the game unknown to their grandmother and uncle.

    The musical score for MUSTANG is largely provided Australian Warren Ellis, a large time collaborator with the more famous Nick Cave.

    MUSTANG turns up as enjoyable as the frolic the girls have on the beach at the start of tehf ilm.  MUSTANG is a good film but not a great film.  Erguyen could have gone more serious (excepting the one deadly serious part) with his theme of female teen oppression, but his message still comes across in this film.  The film is shot in Turkish.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU9JAN8LtIk

    NORM OF THE NORTH (Normand du Nord) (USA 2015) ***

    Directed by Trevor Wall

    The first family film of 2016 proves to be not too bad a family outing but lacks the innovativeness of many primed animated features.  Director Wall and his scriptwriters (five no less) play it safe.  The result is a safe film - but nothing out of the ordinary.

    Many of the characters in NORM OF THE NORTH is derived from other animated films.  Norm, himself is a polar bear (Rob Schneider) who does not fit in the North pole.  He is too kind to hunt and eat his fellow Arctic animals.  But he has a gift.  He can understand the human language (English to be particular).  No reason is offered why.  So when trouble arrives in the north in the form of Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong of THE HANGOVER films) who wants to destroy nature and build condos, it is up up to Norm to save the day.  He travels to NYC with his troupe. His troupe consists of three lemmings, who utter gibberish, very similar to the minions of DESPICABLE ME.  

    The voice characterizations are again competent at most.  Rob Schneider is sufficiently amicable as Norm.  Of the recognizable talents, Bill Night as Socrate, the bird, Colm Meaney as the grandfather and Jeong as the villain stand out.  But the villain is more goofy than mean, who eventually gets his comeuppance as deserved.

    The film contains a few songs and a few dance numbers.  Norm looks cute jiggling his polar white furred bum.  Again, the dance is a milder form of HAPPY FEET, just as Norm is a very mild version of a clumsy SHREK.  The human beings that meet Norm are females, which should delight the fairer sex of the audience.  There is no violence at all and no foul language, though with just a little hint.  These come mainly from the villain, Mr. Greene.  There is also a noticeable lack of romantic interest in the film. But that would tend to slow an already slow-paced animated movie.

    The sight of animals in a big city has also been done before in the MADAGASCAR films.  The scene of Norm and the lemmings travelling by boat to America is too familiar and similar the sight of the ship sailing by the penguins in MADAGASCAR.

    The message of saving the world (THE LEGO MOVIE, DESPICABLE ME) and its natural environment is also a well-worn one, though well intentioned.  

    The animation is competent enough.  I cannot comment about the 3D effects, as the screening I attended was a 2-D version.

    Overall, NORM OF THE NORTH is an ok piece.  The sight of a fuzzy giant dancing around should surely amuse the kids in the audience.  If only the humour was goofier and the script was more inventive to entertain the adults.  But the film should attract the same audience that made ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS a hit at Christmas.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8A_F5oYJGI

    RIDE ALONG 2 (USA 2015) ***
    Directed by Tim Story

    More of the same are the four words that best describes RIDE ALONG 2.  Same director and same two stars Ice Cube and Kevin Hart playing cops.  If you disliked RIDE ALONG 1 or do not find Kevin Hart funny, then avoid this one.

    Ice Cube has proven his comedy mettle by being most funny in the two JUMP STREET films.  Together with comedian and standup comic Hart, they form quite the dynamic duo.  Ice Cube plays detective James Payton who takes under his wing his future brother-in-law Ben Barber (Hart) who wants to become a detective.    In the film, Ben and James venture to Miami to work on a case that involves a mysterious and dashing figure named Serge Pope (Benjamin Pratt). While there, they team up with Maya (Olivia Munn), a smart and beautiful detective.  Ben looks forward to proving himself and hopes the case runs smoothly so that he can return to Atlanta in time for his wedding.  Tika Sumpter plays the bride.

    Ice Cube is the straight man and Hart the clown.  The angle is that Ben needs to stay focused while James has to become less uptight and more human.   James gripes while Hart clowns.  And this occurs countless times throughout the movie - so be prepared!  

    But on the plus side, the duo is quite funny.  The sequel has the addition of Ken Jeong who plays A.J., a computer hacker that Pope is after and the cops want information from.  So, if one can ignore the simplistic plot, the film is actually quite fun like the RUSH HOUR, Jackie Chan Chris Tucker films.  “Do you ever watch the shit that is coming out of your mouth,” says James to Ben in one of the film’s funnier moments, and a nice nod to the RUSH HOURS buddy cop action comedies.

    Besides the comedy, the action sequences are aptly put together.  So, an additional plus over the RUSH HOUR films is that RIDE ALONG 2 is quite exciting.  The car chase is also funny with James signalling as he tries to escape from the bad guys.  Why are you signalling?”  asks James.  “Habit” is the answer.  Ice Cube who co-produced the film too, and a well known rapper ensures a solid rap soundtrack to the film, including a catchy song during the end credits called Sound of da Police.

    The funny bits that work include subplots involving Ben constantly arguing with his wedding planner, Cori (Sherri Shepherd) who contradicts whatever Ben wants for his wedding and the impressively edited segment which blurs a car chase and a video game.  The part of A.J. being a sex pervert while computer hacking, however, generates few laughs.  The final bit involving Ben and the speedboat has too much effort for the laughs generated.

    The film’s romantic interest is the one between Ben and his bride (Sumpter).  He has to get back from Miami to Atlanta in time for the wedding.  

    RIDE ALONG 2 is posed to be number one at the box-office this weekend.  Never mind the poor critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!  The audience knows what it wants.

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

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: MUSTANG

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Foreign Language Film: SON OF SAUL

    Best comedy: SISTERS

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 8, 2016)

    The first week of the new year sees the opening of THE REVENANT and the horror flick THE FOREST.  Straight to VOD is the British comedy SVENGALI.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    THE FOREST (USA 2015) ***

    Directed by Jason Zada

    The beginning of January usually sees new low budget films make number one at the box-office.  Universal’s little horror flick , THE FOREST aims to do just that, and hopefully keep their fantastic 2015 year of box-office hits carried over to 2016.

    Twins have always been a favourite pick in the horror genre.  Films like Brian De Palma’s SISTERS, David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS and others like THE OTHER and last year’s German GOODNIGHT MOMMY are prime examples.  THE FOREST combines the twins story to a haunted forest plot in a relatively scary film about a young woman Sara (Natalie Dormer) who travels to Japan’s forest below Mount Fuji to search for her missing twin, Jesse (also played by Dormer but with black hair).

    For a ghost story, there is little gore except a stabbing and a few imagined maggots.  Director Zada is fond of false alarms to scare the audience out of the seats.  These include a homeless man suddenly banging Sara’s taxi window in Japan, her dream of little Jesse in the tent screeching at her and scares from a Japanese teenager in school uniform among others.  

    At its best, the film has genuine cinematic scares.  The dark of a forest is already creepy in itself.  THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was scary enough with its camping segment shot mainly in the dark.   Zada utilizes the segment in which Sara sits in the tent in the forest to stay the night waiting for her sister to return, to maximum effect.  The use of light and shadows from the burning fire adds to the creepiness.  Sara’s fall into a huge hole and exploring an underground cave also adds to the film’s best moments.

    Story-wise, the plot is simple enough.  It is a sister’s search for her twin in a Japanese forest known as a place where people go to die.  A few loose ends could be easily explained.  One immediate point that is questionable is character Aiden played by Taylor Kinney (Eoin Macken), who meets Sara.  He is supposed to be an Australian journalist in Japan.  But he speaks with an American accent.  But from the dialogue that specifies Aidan as a traveller, it could be assumed that Aidan is American with an Australian posting.   One scene has the Japanese guide tell Sara that in the forest bad things can happen, but they are not real and are all in the head.  This is an excuse for other non-explanations in the plot such as Jesse’s photos on Aidan’s cellphone or Aidan’s answer to Sara that Jesse has been dead for 5 days.  These could be dismissed as imaginations in Sara’s head.

    Still, this relatively slow moving horror movie is well scripted by no less than 3 writers.  Zada’s direction is apt enough and there are sufficient scares - false alarms or real ones.

    Do not expect scenic shots of Mt. Fuji or its forests below.  The film was actually shot in a National Park in Serbia with an entire crew of Serbians, as can be seen in the end credits.  But the cinematography is excellent for a horror flick and the Serbian National Park looks like quite the place to visit.

    THE FOREST will definitely make one think twice when camping at night.  

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDs_DYow7xA

     

    THE REVENANT (USA 2015) **** Top 10

    Directed by Alejando G. Iñárritu

    Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu’s (AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, BABEL and last year’s BIRDMAN) THE REVENANT is a no-holds barred almost 3-hour wilderness adventure complete with all the violence of the wild west frontier set in the 1820’s.  If one does not have the stomach for the grisly, avoid at all costs.  

    The film is based on the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) based on a 2002 novel of the same name by Michael Punke.  The plot of the film can be summarized in one line, remarkable considering the length of the film.  Hugh Glass is left for dead by his fellow travellers after a vicious bear attack and subsequently seeks revenge on them for abandoning him.

    The story contains a few subplots, like the one involving his quest for revenge.  One of his fellow travellers is John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a vicious, hardened criminal who ends up killing Glass’s son.  Another youth, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) is a good hearted drawn into the drama.

    The film begins with a 15-minutes attack of the Indians on the fur trappers.  It is an extremely violent segment, inspired no doubt by the similar lengthy beginning segment of the D-Day landing in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Both sides suffer heavy casualties. Glass, Fitzgerald, his son and Andrew escape with a few others before the crucial bear attack.

    The bear attack sequence is no less violent and occurs not once but twice in all its horror.  Silly rumours by some press describe the scene as a bear rape but one thing for sure is that there is no love in this attack.

    Despite the simple plot, there are a few details that occur so fast that they are difficult to follow.  But these are not essential to appreciating Iñárritu’s film.

    Director Iñárritu is a well respected artist who have proven himself apt at working with  different genres including Hollywood drama as in last year’s acclaimed BIRDMAN.  In THE REVENANT, he workers with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, together creating some of the most stunning images seen on screen this year.  One has the men crossing the top of a water fall, another running across the shallow waters of tall trees and another at the film’s climax during a chase when an avalanche can be observed in the background.  One can question the purpose of these, as the waterfall and avalanche have nothing to do with the story.  But Iñárritu has earned his artistic licence to indulge in such excesses.  But a few of his traits like the beginning chase camera shots used in AMORES PERROS are duplicated here in the chase scenes in THE REVENANT.

    The performances of the entire cast is nothing short of superb.  DiCaprio and Hardy excel, and credit should be given to these artists for working under the extreme conditions as shown on screen.

    THE REVENANT succeeds admirable in being a stunning looking violet wilderness adventure.  The film comes complete with a satisfactory ending, a fight between hero and villain with some spiritual highlights thrown in for good measure.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRfj1VCg16Y

    SVENGALI (UK 2013) **1/2
    Directed by John Hardwick

    The story of this straight to Video on demand British film is as simple the mind of the lead character who nicknames himself Dixie (Jonny Owen).  Dixie leaves his small Welsh mining town for the big city of London.  He intends to become the manager of what he thinks is the best band in the world.  This he thinks after watching them on Youtube.  He brings along to London his long-suffering girlfriend, Shell (Vicky McClure).  Things are not that straightforward in the big city but Dixie and Shell manage somehow.

    As the ads ask, can Dixie manage a relationship, a band and his life?   That is what director Hardwick (mostly British TV stuff) intends his audience to find out.

    Hardwick’s film has several charms.  For one, the lead character, though annoying that he may be at times, wearing the same old disgusting vintage parka and carrying around a Tesco plastic bag, is a loveable lug who always means well.  His favourite words are: “I am sorry” uttered with his Welsh accent.  It is hard not to feel for a small town boy (big though he may be) moving to London in search of his big dream.

    Newcomer Jonny Owen isn’t half bad as Dixie.  He basically plays himself, a music enthusiast, star and producer of his own internet-based sketches of the same title in real life, which he has expanded for the big screen.  But running at 90 minutes, the task becomes massive and different from the execution of short skits on the net.  The little jokes and humour fail to sustain, and the one idea film soon runs out of steam.  The story is also too predictable but there are a few prize characters such as the fat pop drinking Russian landlady.  The camera is fond of showing her ass.

    It would be an additional bonus if the band did put out some good songs on film.  As it is, the band members are all shown as a lot of arguing misfits.  

    The word Svengali, the film title, refers to a person who manipulates or exerts excessive force over another.  It also refers to a character in the George Du Maurier’s 1895 novel made into a film several times called Svengali who hypnotizes and brings to fame a young singer.  It is not clear which of the three director Hardwick or writer Owen has fashioned his title from.  Dixie manipulates his girlfriend and the band to stardom, though not with excessive force.

    The film contains cameos from several TV personalities that North Americans will not be familiar with.  Martin Freeman from the three Lord of the Rings HOBBIT films is perhaps the only one recognizable.

    It is difficult to envisage huge North American audiences getting too excited about this small British export.  Unless one is British staying in North America, in the music business industry, in a struggling band or have Welsh roots, SVENGALI will have little appeal.  This film therefore goes straight to VOD (video on demand) skipping the theatres on January the 10th.  Myself, I visited Wales 2 years back, which is the main reason this little film attracted me to review.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTlnQWFlxq0

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Opening: THE REVENANT

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Foreign Language Film: SON OF SAUL

    Best comedy: SISTERS

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

     

     

  • Best 10 Films of 2015

    TOP 10 FILMS OF 2015

    The end of the year arrives with the best 10 lists of everything.  As for films, it is always the same each year.  For the first 11 months of the year - nada.  Almost nothing good is screened and come December, a host of excellent, inventive and entertaining films arrive.  Guess it is Santa’s reward for filmgoers pumping good old fashioned money into the economy.

    My best 10 films are listed below (in alphabetical order).

    TOP 10 (in alphabetical order):

    ANOMALISA (USA 2015) ***** 

    Directed by Charlie Kauffman

    Animated feature about a lone soul (voice of David Thewlis) who finally finds the love of his life.  The entire film is narrated by only three actors because there are only three people in Michael Stone’s life.  Himself,  Anomalisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the rest of the world (Tom Noonan).  A most interesting film about the most boring person on the planet.

    THE BIG SHORT (USA 2015) *****

    Directed by Adam McKay

    A smart, hilarious look at the housing mortgage bubble burst in the U.S. and the few people that benefited from it.  An all-star cast joins in the fun with cameos from Salena Gomez and Robbie Margot who help explain some financial jargon.  

    CAROL (USA 2015) *****

    Directed by Todd Haynes

    Openly gay director Todd Haynes delivers another first class gay drama about the love affair between an older wealthy woman (Cate Blanchett) and a  struggling store clerk, Carol (Rooney Mara).  Set in the 50’s when gay relationships were taboo, CAROL is nevertheless moving, disturbing and ultimately still relevant.

    THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Canada 2015) ****

    Directed by Guy Maddin

    The Best Canadian film of the year and another weird and wonderful film by Guy Maddin with co-creator Evan Johnson - and one of Maddin’s best and most structured, which is not saying much.  And the film is in colour instead of black and white.  The film begins, humorously with a man in a bathrobe giving lessons on how to draw a bath.  This vignette is linked to another concerning a submarine crew in dire distress.  The captain is missing and the air supply is running out.  They chew on flapjacks to utilize the oxygen bubbles in the batter.  Does not make sense?  It does not matter.  All this is part of the weird pleasure that is abundant in a Maddin film. 

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

    THE HATEFUL EIGHT (USA 2015) *****
    Directed by Quentin Traction

    Shit-disturber Tarrantino’s latest film, a western is another winner.  Bounty hunters and an assortment of characters are put up at Minnie’s Haberdashery during a winter blizzard.  They do not come here without a reason.  Chaos ensues.  The film runs 3 hours with a 6-minute longer version in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission.

    HOUSEBOUND (New Zealand 2014) ***** Top 10

    Directed by Gerard Johnstone

    HOUSEBOUND is my guilty pleasure.  The film came out of nowhere that turns out to be the biggest surprise of the year.  This is the story of story of Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), an ill-tempered delinquent forced to return to the house she grew up in when the court places her on home detention.  Her punishment is made all the more unbearable by the fact she has to live there with her crazed mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) - a well- intentioned blabbermouth who's convinced that the house is haunted.   Horror comedy at its best, all neatly explained at the end.

    Trailer:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji8Tsuj3u0c

    JOY (USA 2015) *****
    Directed by David O. Russell

    Joy is indeed a great joy!  David O. Russell’s latest family/business drama sees desperate housewife Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) take on the business world with her invention, the miracle mop with the help of her immediate and extended family.  Hilariously satirical at times, this movie belongs to both Russell and Lawrence who delivers the best performance this year.

    LEGEND (UK 2015) ****
    Directed by Brian Helgeland

    LEGEND is about the notorious Krays, the gangster twins that terrorized London the 50’s and 60’s.  The Kray twins in LEGEND are both played by Tom Hardy.  Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL his best film) and based on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson, the film is told from the point of view as well as narrated by Frances Shea (Emily Browning) the wife of Reggie Kray, making it part crime and part love story.

    THE REVENANT (USA 2015) ****
    Directed by Alejandro Inarratu

    A tracker (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his fellow travellers.  The man survives and after a long track, gets his revenge.  A great wilderness adventure with a very strong performance by DiCaprio, this violent  \film might not be for everyone but it is quite the unforgettable movie.

    STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (USA 2015) *****
    Directed by J.J. Abrams

    The most anticipated film of the year lives up to the hype and expectations.  Abrams pumps new blood into the series with characters like Rey, Poe and Finn joining the legendary Star Wars characters Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia in taking down the Dark Side.  Great special effects, action sequences and musical score add to the the best that this series has to offer.  The Force has awakened and is here to stay!

  • Christmas Day Movies

    These are the film reviws of the films that open Christmas Day.  Among them are CONCUSSION, DADDY'S HOME, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, POINT BREAK, JOY and THE BIG SHORT.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    ANOMALISA (USA 2015) ***** TOP 10

    Directed Charlie Kauffman

    Charlie Kauffman outdid himself and almost everyone else for that matter with the script of FINDING JOHN MALKOVICH, made into a film so inventive, entertaining and fascinating, that one clan hardly imagine anything topping that.  ANOMALISA comes close if not succeeding.

    As the stop-motion animated adult comedy drama unfolds, slow enough to allow the audience to think over many of the film’s details, the immediate question that comes to mind is why animate this story.  The question seems more relevant since the animation appears to copy the actual human being and their everyday work as accurately as possible.  The characters are animated but the settings like hotel room, cab and props are not.  A non-animated film could have served the identical purpose.  The answer to the question might be that the story could have been told in either format, but the stop-motion animation serves to highlight certain aspects of Kauufman’s ingenious story.  For one, the story has surreal elements that are best highlighted in a surreal looking animated film resembling the real thing.  Secondly, the artificiality of life is emphasized.  And thirdly, the whole enterprise looks like a dream - a Kafka-ish world like an animated cartoon.

    The apparently ‘normal’ story concerns Michael Stone (David Thewlis), an author of books on the subject of customer service, struggling with his inability to connect to people.   Michael, born in England and married with a son lands in Cincinnati on a routine business trip.   He meets a stranger, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who changes his world view as he falls in love with her.

    The film appears really odd at the start.  All the female characters are voiced by males (except for Lisa) and soon it becomes apparent that all the voices are done by one male actor - Tom Noonan.  The reason becomes clear later on in the film.

    Kauufman’s film works on various levels.  It is one of the most human films that is animated.  The world as seen by its protagonist is exactly the way it actually is.  The most important person is oneself and everything else is secondary.  In the same way, to Michael Stone, the only person that matters is himself, which he realizes and that there is only one other person in the world that matters, the one he has fallen in love with and the one that really would make a difference.  This is the one that will de-normalize his life and hence he renames her ANOMALISA from Lisa.  The film also captures the boredom or everyday life in a most exciting way - a feat Kauffamn achieves, at apparent ease.

    The stop animation is a marvel - complete with its accuracy in details.  The animated sex scene complete with gentials should be seen to be unforgotten.  An old movie seen on TV by the characters is also animated

    ANOMALISA has won accolades and prizes where it has been shown.  It currently, at the time of writing, hold a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    ANOMALISA is an almost perfect film in every way, down to the closing song and music.  The film is a rare treat that celebrates life and the best of what it has to offer, ironically, without having a happy ending.  Not occasionally but frequently brilliant, ANOMALISA is that rare movie, yes out of the ordinary that is definitely a must-see, a near-masterpiece of originality!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT6QJaS2a-U

    THE BIG SHORT (US 2015) ***** TOP 10

    Directed by Adam McKay

    Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Michael Lewis, THE BIG SHORT

    describes several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble and thus ended up profiting from the financial crisis of 2007–2010.   But the film mainly highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market.

    It should be noted that many of the characters in the book have their names changed - to protect the innocent or the guilty, as the case may be.  The Jared Vennett character played by Ryan Gosling and the Mark Baum character played by Steve Carell have been changed from the Greg Lippmann and Steven Eismann characters respectively.  Others like Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) have remained unchanged while Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert has been changed from Ben Bockett. It is also strange that Adam McKay, a director known for his outlandish comedies like ANCHORMAN and THE OTHER GUYS be chosen to make this film based on such a serious topic.  The housing credit bubble burst cost millions of Americans their jobs and houses.  But it is a good bet.  No ordinary person would like to see a depressing film about the Ameggedon of the U.S. housing market.  McKay makes the whole enterprise hilariously off-beat, so unless one has actually been burnt, severely by what has been described, THE BIG SHORT is one hell of a ride!

    For those not well versed in the world of finance, THE BIG SHORT might be too technical.  But the film is not without its entertainment value.  McKay explains certain terms with great humour.  If one is uncertain on what mortgage credit is, he uses Margot Robbie (playing herself) to explain the term while drinking champagne in a  bubble bath.  McKay also uses Selena Gomez (again playing herself) to explain the various type of CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligation) while handed a ten and a seven at a Blackjack table in Las Vegas.

    There are characters in the book left out in the film.  No complaint here, as the film already runs over two hours.  But now wonders what magic can be added with the interesting character of Eugene Xu, a quantitative analyst who created the first CDO market by matching buyers and sellers.

    The filmmakers have assembled a more than apt and impressive cast.  For one, Burry’s character, a true one is an ex-neurologist who created Scion Capital despite suffering from blindness in one eye and Asperger's syndrome.   One can see what attracted Christian Bale, who appears to be having a field day, to accept this role.  Brad Pitt, barely recognizable with glasses and a goatee plays the anti-hero admonishing his two proteges that they should stop dancing after making so much money for the fact that people have lost their jobs and homes a s result.  Carell and Gosling also add to the festivities.

    For a film based on the worst financial disaster, director Adam McKay and gang might even make the losers shed a tear or two of laughter.  An amazing film with an amazing treatment of the material.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWr8hbUkG9s

     

    DADDY’S HOME (USA 2015) **
    Directed by Sean Anders

    DADDY’S HOME is advertised as a movie with a dad vs. a stepdad.  And in the words of the movie, the audience is to be shown the difference between a dad and a father.

    As the film opens, a mild-mannered stepdad, Brad (Will Ferrell) is married to his new wife Sarah (Linda Cardellini) and living with her and her two children.  The two children are yet to confide in him and Brad tries his best to be a good dad - poor soul.  The segments where Brad fails in his attempts also fail in being funny.  But Farrell, at least, actually makes his audience sympathize with his character.  Then enters Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), the real father who weasels his way into staying at the house.  His main aim is to win his wife, Sarah (Linda Cardellini) and kids back.  And Brad is too naive to realize what is happening.

    The above story is nothing really special to write home about.  The script is pretty lame and does not have much room for twists in the plot.  What transpires is predictable.  Dusty wins his children’s affection and Dusty tries too hard.  Brad eventually, because of his good naturedness wins Dusty’s heart and together make one healthy family with two dads.  It is a film where two males do their best to make annoying kids happy.  

    It is hard to make an unforgettable comedy with such a lame story.  There is no big villain, no end of the world scenario and no action sequences.  But given the limitations, the film does contain a few really funny laugh-out loud segments.

    The film’s subplots are not that funny either.  One involves Dusty inviting a black handyman, Griff (Hannibal Buress) to stay with the family.  Another has Dusty bringing a mongrel, who obviously hates Brad, as a gift for the kids.  And another has Brad’s boss, Leo (Thomas Haden Church) always having advice or an unrelated story to tell to Brad.  These generate a few chuckles at most.

    The film’s funniest moment occurs when it goes totally ridiculous - a characteristic of Will Farrell’s type of comedy.  Brad tells his stepson who is bullied that to solve the problem is not to fight back but to do something else like a dance-off, with the added benefit that both parties end up getting fit.  The climax of the movie is a dance-off which thankfully is really funny and almost saves the movie. 

    The film works when the actors let their hair down and play their own characters.  The parts where Farrell as Brad takes his shirt off to show his spare tires compared to Walhberg as Dusty’s ripped body form the film’s funniest parts.

    DADDYS HOME ends up a family film with few lewd jokes, the only one being Brad’s impotency as a result of a dental accident.  Farrell and Wahlberg have worked together in THE OTHER GUYS and make a good team, all things considered.  Hopefully, they will team up again in a film with a better script.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arhMMJx7tCU

    THE HATEFUL EIGHT (USA 2015) Best Film of the Year *****

    Directed by Quentin Tarrantino

     

    Though not his best film (I reserve that for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), Tarrantino’s second western after DJANGO UNCHAINED is my personal best film of 2015.  This is a director in top form, who knows his material and how to write a good script and direct with surprises around very corner.  His film is almost perfect in every department from music to cinematography to acting to sets and costumes.

    THE HATEFUL EIGHT is set some years after the Civil War in Wyoming, and revolves around eight strangers who seek refuge in a stagecoach stopover called Minnie’s Haberdashery on a mountain pass during a blizzard.

    When the film opens, John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting fugitive Daisy "The Prisoner" Domergue (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) to Red Rock where the latter will face justice for murder.  They encounter another bounty hunter named Major Marquis "The Bounty Hunter" Warren (Samule L. Jackson) and later, Chris "The Sheriff" Mannix (Walton Goggins).   A blizzard forces the four to take shelter at a stagecoach passover called Minnie's Haberdashery where they encounter four more strangers; Senior Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo "The Little Man" Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe "The Cow Puncher" Gage (Michael Madsen), and ex-General Sanford "The Confederate" Smithers (Bruce Dern).   But not everything is what it seems to be.  A lot of the 8 are not who they say they are.  This is the intriguing premise that led Tarrantino to write the script.  Through betrayal and deception, the eight strangers soon learn that they may not make it to Red Rock after all.

    Samuel L. Jackson, a staple in many of Tarrantino’s films plays the ‘bad’ good guy.  No matter what character he plays, including the American President in his last film, the words ‘mother f***er’ never fail to come out of his mouth.  In THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the words are splurged out, as expected.  Two of Tarrantino’s stars in RESERVOIR DOGS, his first hit, Roth and Madsen reprise their smart-ass character roles.  Tarrantino’s new discovery is Walton Goggins, his new Christophe Waltz, a handsome young smart-talking character with wide faced mannerisms to match.

    For those politically correct audiences, beware.   The ’n’ word is used several times.  Though it is mentioned that blacks do not favour the ’n’ word in the film, the word was not really degradatory in those times and was used freely.  On the other hand the only character that gets punched in the faced and hit and shot several times is the only female in the film.  Tarrantino is no respecter of the fairer sex.

    The film’s best joke is also the title of one of the chapters - ‘Son of a Gun”.  It refers to the front door of the Haberdashery which has to be nailed shut not once but twice as the latch had been broken and the winds of the blizzard are so strong.  Every time someone enters, the door has to be kicked open and nailed twice shut after.

    Shot in Panavision, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is stunning.  The film is set in the midst of the Wyoming winter and the landscape is beautiful from the ice covered mountain peaks to the half frozen streams to the wide snowily landscape to the blizzard that arrives with the story.

    The one thing about Tarrantino’s films is that they are full of  surprises.  The film divided into chapters - but there are 6 not 8 of them.  The beginning overture prepares the audience for an epic.  An epic western it is - but not one that would be expected.  The 6th chapter entitled ‘the 4 passengers’ is a flashback with the last chapter forming the climax of the film, in which anything can and does happen.  Channing Tatum makes a surprise too - his first appearance as well as disappearance from the film.  The film also plays lie a whodunit with like the Agatha Christie story TEN LITTLE INDIANS.  

    The film also contains lots of ‘spicy’ dialogue - a characteristic of Tarrantino films.  There is an argument of civilized justice compared to frontier justice.  Tarrantino also uses good use of music like the playing of “silent Night’ during a shootout segment.  This is followed by a 15 minute intermission after which the film continues, 15 minutes after what last happened in the last scene.

    This is a film that almost never got made.  Thank God it did.  The original script got leaked which prompted Tarrantino not to make the movie, though he changed his mind.  Ennio Morricone who score the spaghetti westerns like THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was hired by Tarrantino and one of the main reasons he wanted to make this western.

    Though slavery is part background of the story, it is not the main focus, unlike DJANGO UNCHANGED.  The appearance of a black man in spaghetti westerns is not a strange phenomenon.  Black actor Woody Strode frequented the old spaghetti westerns.

    Compared to other Tarrantino films, like his last two, HATEFUL 8 is the longest and slowest.  But it is by no means dull and is totally gripping from start to end.

    It should be noted that the film opens Christmas Day in 70mm format only.  For Toronto, this means screenings only at the Varsity of Bell Lightbox.  But the film opens wide digitally on January the 8th.  The 70mm film, shot with Ultra Panavision lens will be the 6 minute longer version, with a running time of 183 minutes not counting the intermission.  The film begins with an overture lasting several minutes with the score by Italian maestro, Ennio Morricone.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLe2P13oeIc

     

    HE NEVER DIED (USA/Canada 2014) **1/2

    Directed by Jason Krawczyk

    HE NEVER DIED is an odd movie with a theme that counters the good cheer of the Christmas festivities.  It is everything the festive season isn’t, so if one is fed up of friends and family and want something completely different, HE NEVER DIED might just be the film to satisfy.

    The film is an off-beat one with an equally off-beat character.  When the film opens, Jack (Henry Rollins) answers a knock on the door.  It is his landlady.  Paying cash from a suitcase full of money, he asked her for the time, date and day of the week.  He then goes to his usual restaurant and orders the same stuff - hot tea.  Things get weirder.  Apparently, he discovers he has a daughter, Andrea (Jordan Todosey).   People are trying to get to him and kidnap Andrea as a result.  Jack is shown to display super human strength.  Though he gets hurt, bullets do not kill him.  And Jack plays BINGO to kill time. (See photo inset of Jack with his dabber.)

    So what is the explanation?  It comes right at the end of the film.  It does not make much sense, but at least it is an explanation.  A few things are left unexplained, such as how he got the suitcase of money and how he got some woman pregnant.

    But the entertainment of the film comes from Rollins’ performance.  He is simply the best thing of the film, delivering a deadpan performance, full of one-liners while constantly sneering.  Rollins is no newcomer in film, but he has never landed a leading role before.  His credits include bit parts in Michael Mann’s HEAT, JACKASS: THE MOVIE, BAD BOYS II and LOST HIGHWAY.  The supporting cast do not fare badly either.  Booboo Stewart plays a native student, Jeremy, capturing the perfect slacker loser character while Steven Ogg plays the villain, Alex over-the-top in contrast to Jack’s character.  Kate Greenhouse plays Cara, the waitress who tries to date Jack, though one cannot see any reason to do so.

    Krawczyk’s film is exceptionally violent but deserves to be so.  Without it, the film would lose the audience’s attention.  The violence feeds into the audience so that more and more is wanted.  It is human nature to root for the underdog who is trying to survive no matter what reason.  So when Jack clips off a victim’s finger or breaks another’s foot to prevent him from escaping, one can only winch and watch.

    The film is a U.S. and Canadian co-production shot in Toronto.  The setting of the film is never mentioned but judging from the American notes in Jack’s suitcase and one reference to Jack being in the Civil War, it is assumed that the film is set in the States.

    But the one-joke one-gimmick film is unable to sustain the 90-minute length.  Despite the violence and super-dry dead pan humour, HE NEVER DIES would be deemed too slow for most audiences.

    The film opened last week is is still playing at the Royal.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6QK2T7I5uUA

     

    JOY (USA 2015) ***** TOP 10

    Directed by David O. Russell

    Writer/director David O. Russell has been known to made films with strong family content like SPANKING THE MONKEY, THE FIGHTER and.  His last movie AMERICAN HUSTLE shows him successful in a completely different genre - business.  JOY, a film about a housewife named Joy Mongano (Jennifer Lawrence), a struggling single mother who with the help of family and friends succeeds in inventing and marking her miracle mop invention combines the best of the two genres.

    Joy has not the typical family.  Her grandmother (Dianne West) who narrates the story, her TV-addicted mother, Terry (Virginian Madsen), two children live with her in her house together with her divorced husband (Edgar Ramirez) who lives in her basement.  Her dad (Robert de Niro) suddenly moves in, and causes some havoc.  But to survive, Joy decides to manufacture and sell her magical mop, going all out - to make it or go completely broke.  This is a film about mending broken dreams and making them finally come true.  JOY is a true joy to watch, a feel-good Christmas film with all the peers and quirkiness found in a Russell movie.  The film moves at a manic pace, especially in the beginning, capturing the spirit of AMERICAN HUSTLE.

    Jennifer Lawrence (MOCKINGJAY) delivers another knock-out performance capable of winning her another Oscar nomination for Best actress.  Her two memorable segments especially the one where she freaks out in front of her daughters is enough to make one cry.  The other has her telling her stepsister in words that will eventually go into movie history: “Never ever speak on behalf about my business … again!”  Bradley Cooper has a smaller supporting role but one cannot get enough of his character on screen.  Ramirez as the divorced husband is surprisingly good and truly as in the words of the film, they make ‘the most awesome couple in America”, despite not being married.

    There is also some neat words in the script.  In one scene, Joy’s father tells Joy that it is to possible to have the same dream, to which she replies she has had the same dream twice.  If one has the same dream, that means having that dream twice, so how may times is the dream dreamt if one has the same dream twice.  Funnier still, is the fact that what that dream is, is never revealed in the film.  Also, Joy’s business financier and father’s girlfriend, Trudy’s (Isabella Rossellini) four rules of business success is a real hoot.

    The trailer has a scene with Joy blasting off a rifle.  In the film, she is upset and blasts the file taken in a rifle range next to the father’s shop.  The trailer leads the audience to think Joy has shot someone, especially with anther scene with two cops handcuffing her and taking her away.  But tis is not really what transpires in the film.  It is a clever editing of the film to form a trailer to look more exciting with events imagined by the audience.  Thought his to be a brilliant touch.

    JOY has got mixed reviews so far from critics.  I have read a few but am unconvinced of the reasons that JOY is faulted with.  JOY to me, is a smart fell-good movie, appropriate for Christmas and shows director Russell in top form.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uR-2TiQVY-k

     

    OUR LAST TANGO (UN TANGO MAS) (Argentina/Germany 2015) ***
    Directed by German Kral

    This documentary tells the story of love between the two most famous dancers in tango's history - María Nieves Rego (aged 81) and Juan Carlos Copes (aged 84).

    When the film begins, a closeup of Maria has her say that if she was given the chance to do it all again, she would not change a thing - for tango.  The only thing is to do it without Juan.  The camera moves back to show Maria and Juan standing very close, face to face.  They begin to tango.  This is a powerful start.  Why did Maria make that statement about Juan.  Did she bare that much hatred fro him?  Or did she love him too much that she cannot handle it?  The doc goes on to reveal the reason.

    The film would naturally have a slow feel with two aged subjects.  Director Kral (who got his film experience working as assistant to Wim Wenders) tries to counteract this by animating his film as much as possible.  This is most evident in one scene where Maria’s two interviewers more than act out their surprise at Maria’s answers to their questions.

    OUR LAST TANGO is less a film about the tango than about the relationship between Marian and Juan.  And it is not a love but more a hate relationship.  It becomes a bit tedious, with each complaining about the other, from start to finish of the film.  Director Kral offers two sides of the story, so that the audience takes no sides.  Often each would complain about the other at great length.  Maria loves Juan too much but not unconditionally.  Her pride is terribly broken she Juan bears a child with another woman.  On the other hand, one can sympathize with Juan when he says he cannot stand Maria.  It is not easy to live with someone whom one cannot stand despite the fact that that someone loves you.

    The film has quite a lot of tango dances but not many shown in great detail or to great length.   Rather many different types are shown during the different stages of their lives.  The duo exported their dance to Broadway with ‘Tango Argentino’.

    One wishes that there be more archive footage of Maria and Juan dancing together.  Young dancers perform too many re-enactments so the film has too much of a made-up feel.

    There is little said in the film of how the two became so famous and how rich or successful they became.  Their dances on display in the film reveal very little of their talent as well.

    OUR LAST TANGO is also a film about ageing, though not much is said of the subject.  But one can see on the faces of both Juan and Maria - their past glories and regrets.  Maria is also suffering from some nerve problem, evident in her old age.  She cannot stop shaking her head.

    It is difficult to imagine OUR LAST TANGO being interesting to those with little to do with dance, for the love/hate relationship of the couple is also not something that audiences will flock to.

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

    POINT BREAK (USA/China/Germany 2015) *1/2

    Directed by Ericson Core

    POINT BREAK is a remake of the Kathryn Bigelow 1991 hit film starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves.  Bigelow is a female director able to create big hits with strong male content action films like THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY, STRANGE DAYS and my favourite and her first film, NEAR DARK.  Director Ericson Core has tough shoes to fill.  

    The surfing definition of POINT BREAK refers to the type of long-lasting wave found off a coast with a headland or point.  A point break is formed when a swell moves around the land almost at a right angle to the beach and a break which begins near the point gradually progresses along the wave.  Bigelow’s film involves a FBI agent going undercover to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers disguising themselves as surfers.  

    The difference in the new POINT BREAK is a series of robberies done by not surfers but extreme sport specialists.  They do the big surf in the last climatic scene but engage too, in other sports such as snowboarding, rock climbing and wingsuit flying.

    The story of the new POINT BREAK involves a young FBI agent, Utah (Luke Bracey) infiltrating a team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists.  He engages in this quest as redemption after losing his brother in an extreme sport accident.  Deep undercover, and with his life in danger, he strives to prove these athletes are the architects of the mind-boggling crimes that are devastating the world's financial markets.  

    Newcomer Luke Bracey delivers a weak performance.  With his blond hair and chiseled body, he looks like a model in many scenes with his perfect blond hair flung across his face.  Delroy Lindo playing Utah’s boss fairs worse.  All he does is bitch about Utah’s job.  Utah takes the risks and fights the bad guys but his boss keeps complaining and giving Utah a hard time.  Edgar Ramirez (an up and coming star, his last film JOY), who plays bad guy Bodhi, cannot help much either.

    The film contains some good scenes involving extreme sports.  The rock climbing, surfing and motorbike segments are well shot.  But the action and fight sequences lack any excitement.

    The plot lacks credibility.  The eight ordeals that Bodhi seeks make little sense.  He ends up completing seven with the last one left in limbo.  Utah somehow manages to figure out all the ordeals Bodhi has completed, something hardly believable.

    POINT BREAK which costs close to $100 million only made $10 million domestic the first weekend.  However, being a Chinese and German co-production, it opened elsewhere a week before North America grossing a remarkable $50 million, which helps the poor domestic numbers.  Still, POINT BREAK is far from being a satisfying action flick.  The film sags after the first 15 minutes and picks up just a little towards the end.  The open ending does not help either.  Action fans prefer closure.  Open endings are more suited to artsy films which POINT BREAK definitely isn’t.  

    POINT BREAK ends up the most boring action film of 2015.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncvFAm4kYCo

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

    Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Foreign Language Film: SON OF SAUL

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: CAROL

    Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

     

  • Toronto Film Critics Association Awards 2015

    The full list of Toronto Film Critics Association Awards winners and runners-up:

    BEST PICTURE

    “Carol” (Entertainment One) 

    Runners-up

                “Mad Max: Fury Road” (Warner Bros.)

                “Spotlight” (Entertainment One)

    BEST ACTOR

                Tom Hardy, “Legend” (Elevation Pictures)

    Runners-up

                Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant” (20th Century Fox)

     Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs” (Universal)

    BEST ACTRESS

                Nina Hoss, “Phoenix” (Films We Like)

    Runners-up

                Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

                Brie Larson, “Room” (Elevation Pictures)

    BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

               Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies” (Touchstone)

    Runners-up

                Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario” (Entertainment One)

                Michael Shannon, “99 Homes” (VVS)

    BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

                Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina” (Mongrel Media)

    Runners-up

                Rooney Mara, “Carol”

                Kristen Stewart, “Clouds of Sils Maria” (Mongrel Media)           

    BEST DIRECTOR

                Todd Haynes, “Carol”

    Runners-up

                Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”

                George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

                Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”

    BEST SCREENPLAY, ADAPTED OR ORIGINAL

                “The Big Short”, Charles Randolph and Adam McKay  (Paramount Pictures)

    based upon the book by Michael Lewis

    Runners-up

    “Anomalisa”, Charlie Kaufman (Paramount Pictures)

    based on his stage play

                “Carol”, by Phyllis Nagy

    based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith

                “Spotlight”, by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy

    BEST FIRST FEATURE

                “Ex Machina”, directed by Alex Garland

    Runners-up

                “Sleeping Giant”, directed by Andrew Cividino (D Films)

                “Son of Saul”, directed by Lázsló Nemes (Mongrel Media)

    BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

                “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (Elevation Pictures)

    Runners-up

                “Anomalisa” (Paramount Pictures)

    “Inside Out” (Disney*Pixar)

    BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

                “Phoenix” (Films We Like)

    Runners-up

                “The Assassin” (Amplify Releasing)

                “Son of Saul”

    ALLAN KING DOCUMENTARY AWARD

                “The Look of Silence” (KinoSmith)

    Runners-up

                “Amy” (Mongrel Media)

                “Listen To Me Marlon” ( distributor unknown )

    ROGERS BEST CANADIAN FILM AWARD FINALISTS

                “The Forbidden Room”, directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

                “My Internship in Canada”, directed by Philippe Falardeau

                “Sleeping Giant”, directed by Andrew Cividino

     

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 18, 2015)

    The Chistmas movies are coming.  But catch STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS first.  The film is excellent, well worth all the hype and anticipation.  See it FIRST!

     FILM REVIEWS:

    ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP (USA 2015) **1/2
    Directed by Walt Becker

    Lots of puns in the Alvin Chipmunks movies - Chipwrecked for shipwrecked, Fast and Furry-ious for Fast and Furious and Road Chip for Road Trip.  But there are no super fast cars or races nor a long road trip in the 4th instalment of the Chipmunks films, but it tries its best to cling on to past Hollywood box-office successes.

    For the less demanding viewer, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP provides satisfactory entertainment much in the same vein as the other 3 films.  The lazy script, credited to no less than 4 writers does not contain much of a story.

    Through a series of misunderstandings, Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) come to believe that Dave (Jason Lee) is going to propose to his new girlfriend in Miami...and dump them. They have three days to get to him and stop the proposal, saving themselves not only from losing Dave but possibly from gaining a terrible stepbrother, Miles (Josh Green).

    It is the same old cliched result.  Dave is carrying an engagement ring for his friend.  (Why he is doing this, is totally unexplained.)  But Dave ends up not proposing and the misunderstanding is resolved with everything going right including the Chipmunks becoming friends with Miles.  Sweetly sickening isn’t it?

    The casting is also lazy.  The villain in the first 3 Chipmunks films was played by David Cross from the TV series - Arrested Development.  He is replaced by no other than another member of the cast from the same TV series - Tony Hale.  Hale is no more than another clone to Cross.  Hale plays a flight marshall, who grounds the chipmunks and wants to put them in chipmunk jail.  His goofy character somehow gets the butt of the jokes.

    The female Chipmunks, the Chipettes (voiced by Christina Applegate, Anna Faris and Kaley Cuoco) make a too brief appearance.  But the actresses’ voices are unrecognizably wasted.

    One wants the script to at least attempt something different or something more daring.  But it is a thread bare script lacking in ideas or good comedy setups.  What the film does contain, however is a whole lot of musical dances and songs (mainly popular ones) ranging from rap to pop to country.  The animated creatures boogie to the music as do the real-life actors.  The dance moves are cute enough but enough is enough.

    Every critic loves to complain about Alvin and the Chipmunks  But every critic has forgotten how much they themselves loved the little creatures when they were little.  And Dave’s famous scream “Alvin!!!!!!!!!!” can be heard a few times during the film, to the audience’s amusement.

    But ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP should still be a box-office success, as it is a good harmless film for the littler ones, who might not understand STAR WARS or for families not able to get tickets for it.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZTcc1JfFvI

    CREED (USA 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Ryan Coogler

    Though featuring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, CREED (alternative title - ROCKY VII), the 7th installment of the ROCKY franchise is an anomaly.  It  does not contain Rocky in a fight scene and is not a film that is either written or directed by Stallone.  CREED is a spin-off from the original series, but it pays homage to the series.

    CREED feels like an African American film instead of an Italian American film.  It is not difficult to see why as CREED was co-written and directed by Ryan Coogle, best known for his breakout anti-racial film FRUITVALE STATION in which a black man (also played by Michael B. Jordan) was abused by white cops.  Everything from the acting, music (lots of rap) and dialogue are African American.  And that is a good thing as the film has a more authentic look than many of the other 6 ROCKY films.

    Rocky in this film is left in a supporting role.  Rocky Balboa is sought by Adonis Creed (Jordan) to be his coach.  One wonders who would name his boy Adonis.  Unless the father has a name like Apollo, of course.  Adonis is the illegitimate son of fighter Apollo Creed.  Sylvester Stallone plays his supporting role surprisingly well, winning him a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  His character comes down with cancer and has to fight to survive.  

    One of the most important points of a boxing film are the execution of the fight scenes.  The final match between Creed and Conlan (Tony Bellew) the British world light heavyweight champion shot in Liverpool, England is done with the usual cuts.  The camera switches back and forth among the boxing action, the boxer’s faces, the coaches, the spectators and Creed’s girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and ‘adopted mother’  (Phylicia Rashad) to heighten the excitement.     There is no skimping of the blood to emphasize the punishment boxers have to endure for the sport.  The bloody slow-motion bloodied knockout on the ring canvas will long be remembered.  But the first match between Creed and Tony "Little Duke" Evers (Wood Harris) is done with one single take.  This elegant sequence should be seen to be believed with credit given to director Coogle for achieving this feat.

    But story-wise, the film falls often into cliched territory.  Creed learns the ropes from Rocky.  When Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, he initially refuses treatment.  So, the audience can only winch when the story goes into - Rocky can learn from Creed as much as Creed can learn from Rocky.  Coogle also pushes the sentimentality a bit too far to make Rocky too much the lovable lug.  Another example of heightened sentimentality is the part where Rocky visits his ex-coach, Paulie’s grave and begins talking to him.

    But the film succeeds from the fight scenes and the superlative acting from both Stallone and Jordan.  Jordan body is perfectly cut and muscled like a boxer in top form.   The film also pays homage to the Rocky films such as the final scene where Creed and Balboa climb the famous steps to the Philadelphia art museum.  And when the Rocky anthem by Bill Conti is heard on the soundtrack, one can feel the nostalgia.

    CREED has been hailed critically and the film has done Stallone a good turn at the box-office.  It is difficult to imagine that it has been almost 40 years since the first Rocky was screened.  CREED is dedicated to the late producer Robert Chartoff (passed away in 2015) who also produced the first Rocky. The first weekend gross was $40 million, above the $35 million production cost.  Stallone has been struggling before with his EXPENDABLES films.  Rocky hails supreme again!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uv554B7YHk4

    LA DAME DANS L’AUTO AVEC DES LUNETTES ET UN FUSIL (France 2015) ***

    (THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN)
    Directed by Joann Sfar

    This is a remake of the 1970 Anthony Litvak British film with the same title starring Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed.  I have not seen the original but do not remember it as a particular famous film despite the reputation of  Litvak.  The film is an adaptation of the Sebastien Japrisot’s 1966 novel of the same name.  But the remake is not too bad a film, a good mystery in which the solution remains an unsolvable puzzle till the very end.  Which is very rare in a film these days.  This is an entirely French film shot in French in France.

    The film begins innocently enough with a naive and innocent secretary agreeing to work overtime for her boss (Benjamin Biolay).  Dany (Freya Mavor) completes the job overnight at her boss’ house and ends up driving her boss and his wife from Paris to the Cote D’Azur only to be convinced to drive the car back alone to Paris.  But Dany has never seen the sea and steals the car to take a detour to achieve her dream.  That is when she discovers that a lot of people that she meets recognizes her the day before though she has never met all these people.  Dany thinks she is going crazy with one weird incident after another happening.  She encounters a sleazy thief that she has an affair with that eventually steals her (or her boss’ ) car.  This is when a corpse is discovered in the trunk.

    If all the above sound interesting, it all is.  The mystery keeps the film absorbing from start to end.  As an additional bonus, director Sfar effectively captures the mood of the 60’s and 70’s of this period piece.  One can probably not be able tell the difference between the time setting of the original film and this one.  Mavor is also an extremely sexy actress, her character flirting with one man after another while she swaggers her girly figure while swinging her purse.

    The only problem is that the film’s climax cannot keep up with the interest the mystery generated.  When the solution is presented, the film starts to drag.  It is not that the solution is unbelievable but it is kind of obvious and one wonders why one has not thought of it earlier.

    The lovely title should tease audiences to see the film, though the gun in the title should be replaced with rifle as Dany carries a rifle rather than a gun.   One can probably guess that the rifle was swapped for the gun as Dany looks sexier holding a rifle than a gun.

    Still, this psychological mystery thriller satisfies.  And Dany turns out not to be that harmless as Sfar intended the audience to think.  The film turns out to be a black comedy set in the bright lights of the south of France.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHi7zj5oKYE

    SISTERS (USA 2015) ***1/2
    Directed by Jason Moore

    Golden Globe hostesses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have proven themselves apt at comedy whether on their own or as a team.  SISTERS, drawing largely from Saturday Night Live type comedy, is a mix bag of tricks, but thankful succeeds.

    Fey and Poehler play sisters.  Both are goofballs.  When the film opens, each comedienne is given the opportunity to strut her worth.  Poehler begins as Maura, a nurse earnestly providing aid outside a supermarket to a homeless man.  Not only are her antics useless and embarrassing, but the homeless man turns out to be a construction worker.  She is finally told to ‘f***-off” by the supermarket manager who she mistakes for a bag lady.  This 5-minute action is actually the film’s funniest segment as nothing else beats it.  So when the next segment shows Fey as her sister Kate, a jobless beautician fumbling a client at home while her daughter Haley (Madison Davenport) suddenly appears, it becomes immediately apparent that this mildly funny next 5 minutes are no match for Poehler’s.  But when the two appear together, they rub off each other, so Poehler becomes less funny while Fey becomes more.  The two also work hard to complement each other, whether in comedy or in dance as a later musical number shows.

    The story concerns their parents Deanna (Dianne Wiest) and Bucky (James Brolin) selling their family house in Orlando.  The sisters are called in to clean up their room.  As it turns out, they decide to throw one last big party.  Kate agrees to become the party’s house mother (which means no drinking) while Kate gets to catch up on her missed partying.  Kate’s daughter turns up.  Kate finds the daughter/mother relationship stretched and tested even more when she finds her sister has been harbouring the secret of looking after Haley.

    Many comedies are spoilt by sentimentality or the drama of the underlying story.  In SISTERS, director Moore and writer Paula Pell (a SNL veteran) do not, thankfully fall into this trap.  They realize the comedic potential of the party.  The party becomes the film’s main focus lasting half of the film’s running time.  One high jinx follows another, and an impressive cast of goofy partygoers are assembled that create quite the few laugh-out loud segments.  The supporting cast are surprisingly funny, matching and in a number of segments, getting even more laughs than Poehler and Fey.  John Leguizamo’s sleazy ex-alcoholic Bobby Moynihan, Oscar Winner Wiest’s foul-mouthed angry mother and John Cena’s bulked tattooed drug dealer are all exceptionally funny.  But top prize goes to Maya Rudolph (the bride in BRIDESMAIDS and the secretary with the helmet hairdo in INHERENT VICE) as the self-invited guest who decides to ruin the party.  It is about time Rudolph gets a lead in her own movie.

    There are a few incidents that make little sense, like a guest putting in the whole bottle of laundry detergent in the machine resulting in suds filling the house.  This scene is reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY in which Peter Sellers finds his party filled with bubbles as well.

    Ultimately, it is the hit-and-miss ratio that counts.  SISTERS has a high one.  SISTERS works, and proves that the ladies can come up with an equal if not better bad behaviour movie than their male counterparts. (Seth Rogen and gang in the recent THE NIGHT BEFORE.).

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRnhEjP3R-c

    SON OF SAUL (Hungary 2015) ***

    Directed by Laszlo Nemes

    SON OF SAUL, this year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner might not be the film for everyone. Lazlo Neme’s film has no narrative, is minimal in structure and is difficult to follow in terms of logic or story.  But still, it is a gruesome watch.  Nemes' film, with cinematographer Matyas Erdely, like the Dardennes Brothers filming with a hand held camera about head level on the side of the protagonist following him using a protagonist’s-eye view makes all the action feel more real.  The protagonist is part of a squad in a Holocaust concentration camp with the duty of herding in the prisoners for gassing and then cleaning up.  As the titles indicate, they too will normally have their turn (being gassed) after a few weeks.  The hero sees a boy that survives the gassing but consequently killed.  He takes it upon himself to find a Rabbi to say the prayers for the boy at all costs.  This is where the film fails in terms of credibility.  He is able to find a Rabbi, not get caught, find all the right connections and keeps the boy’s body - all a bit too much to believe.

    Trailer: https://vimeo.com/133125872

    STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (USA 2015) Top 10 *****

    Directed by J.J. Abrams

    The film world has finally gone crazy.  Disney and Lucasfilm has enforced a world embargo on film reviews at 3.01 (yes, to the very second) on Wednesday December 16th.  The film premiered Monday evening in Hollywood and for press, which includes this fortunate reviewer, Tuesday morning.  No one had any idea of the venues for Monday’s screenings (3 separate theatres) till the last minute.  Sales on Amazon of the old STAR WARS films rocketed 400%.  Pre-sales of tickets have not seen numbers like this since the beginning of time, in a galaxy far, far away!

    The hype on TV and anticipation have been great.  The studios made press hush up on spoilers.  And after seeing the film, one will respect those wishes.  But there are a lot of surprises and twists in the plot, none that make little sense, and revealing them will would definitely spoil the film’s entertainment value.

    The story is short and does not mean much as the film is more character and action driven.  It is set approximately 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI where the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire have become the Resistance and the First Order, respectively, and follows new heroes Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) alongside characters returning from previous Star Wars film.  Rey, a scavenger finds a droid who holds a map that has the key to finding Luke Skywalker.  The dark side wishes to bring down the resistance and thus goes all out to capture the droid and thus the map.  Lots of exciting battles result culminating with a climatic sabre to sabre combat between the heroes and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

    The film succeeds in all departments from acting, to the grand music, scored again by maestro John Williams to the costumes, creature and robot designs to sets, spectacle and cinematography. Iceland and Abu Dhabi, where the film was shot add to the grandeur from the desert to the icy mountain landscapes.  Rey’s outfit is perfectly designed, a greyish fabric that flows so that she looks elegant while fighting or tracking in the desert.  The sets of the dark force, in red and black, looks (humorously) like something taken of of a North Korean dictatorship rally.

    Director Abrams, best known for the STAR TREK rebook takes over the reins from George Lucas, who admitted the series needed new blood.  Abrams is smart enoguh to put in lots of new blood in the form of new characters like Rey the main female protagonist,  Finn an ex-trooper who moves to the good side because it is the right thing to do and Poe while not forgetting the importance of legends like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) and of course, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).  New ‘robots’ like BB-8, the droid also meet old time favourites R2D2 and C3PO.  Abrams knows how to work the audience.  When Princess Leia and Hans Solo reunite and hug, the scene will bring tears to the audience’s eyes.  And there are no embarrassing kissing scenes but lots of hugs that get the same message across.

    If one wants spectacle there are lots of it.  The blowing up of a star fighter that eventually sinks in quicksand, the flight/fight segment between the freighter commandeered by Rey and Finn and the star fighters and the shootouts are just a few examples. And it is one well-orchestrated action segment after another.  Abrams knows how to pull back his camera to show the full action spectacle while also engaging in the closeups of the characters’ faces.  Lots of smart dialogue as well, with too many quotable lines to include in this review.

    The hype and wait are worth it.  Abrams’ film is as amazing as you will hear.  And it is definitely the best action film of the year, best to be seen in 3D and IMAX.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGbxmsDFVnE&feature=youtu.be

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: CAROL

    Best Action: SPECTRE

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

    Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: BROOKLYN

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 11, 2015)

    New films opening are IN THE HEART OF THE SEA and two highly recommended films CAROL and SLEEPING GIANT.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    CAROL (USA 2015) Top 10 *****

    Directed by Todd Haynes

    CAROL, first screened at Cannes to rave reviews and winner of the TFCA Award for Best Film, is the slow moving pensive subtle new film by helmer Todd Haynes that tells the sad tale of the love affair between two women, a rich wife, Carol Aird (Oscar Winner Cate Blanchett) and a store clerk, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara).  The film is based on the ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel called “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. 

    Therese wants out of her hum drum life.  Her job as a store clerk is leading nowhere just like her relationship with her overeager boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy).  Her dreams include a career in photography and a more comfortable richer lifestyle with Carol who she meets at her store.  Carol is facing problems of her own.  Her separated husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) is denying her daughter’s visitation rights.  Harge is using her past lesbian affairs to deem her an unsuitable mother.  This is the obstacle.  Carol has to choose between her love for Therese and her daughter.

    Haynes’ film moves extremely slowly.  Not much is conveyed, for example in the first 15 minutes of the film, as the setting and introduction of the characters slowly come into focus.  Even the ending is slow as the audience wonders what the final outcome of the relationship will be.  But it is still a rewarding drama, all things considered.  The set design, wardrobe, props and costumes are almost too perfect - like the departmental store Therese works at and the clothed and jewellery worn by Carol.  The look of the film is similar to Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN where the family lives in a gorgeous neighbourhood with perfectly manicured lawns.

    Blanchett delivers another Oscar winning performance, the best sequence occurring during the lawyer and husband’s meeting when she is forced to have a final say.  Her character is a very intelligent one - one who knows the stakes at hand, the risks involved with her relationship and what she has to do in order to survive.  This contrasts with Therese’s character.  Therese does to know exactly what she wants regarding her heterosexual relationship, her career and her current romance.  It is Therese’s naiveté contrasted against Carol’s planned actions.

    For a film about a lesbian relationship, sex scenes are necessary.  It is quite uncomfortable to watch Mara and Blanchett having a go at it, in the nude, in bed.  After all, this is the actress that played Queen Elizabeth, and winning an Oscar in the process.  The sex scenes are long and could be shortened without much damage to the story.

    2015 has seen two high calibre lesbian films, CAROL and FREEHELD, both with superb performances, yet both are highly different films with different themes.  CAROL is dead serious, but not without humour, and more of the subtle variety.

    CAROL is Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE), still in top form in terms of uncomfortable drama.  Just as Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN broke taboos with male stars in a male homosexual drama, Hayne’s CAROL will do the same with the female gender.  It is great to see two stars give their all for the craft of cinema.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6ekAV16RIs

    THE DANISH GIRL (UK 2015) ***

    Directed by Tom Hooper

    THE DANISH GIRL is Tom Hooper’s latest drama from the novel by David Ebershoff, this one a period piece, a true story of a transgender operation.  Set in Copenhagen in the 1920s and focuses almost entirely on the free-spirited couple, both of them painters, Einar (Eddie Redmayne), and Gerda (Alicia Vikander).  Gerda struggles to gain attention for her work.  One day, Gerda asks her husband to stand in for a female model so she can complete her latest painting.   This is when the trouble starts.  Einar is overwhelmed by the experience of putting on beautiful, feminine clothes, and soon it turns into a quiet obsession.   Hooper takes his film too seriously resulting in a very slow film with lots of screen time devoted to the reactions of the wife, Gerda to all the cross dressing.  Oscar winner Redmayne delivers another prize winning performance, looking at times much prettier than Vikander.  

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d88APYIGkjk

     

    EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE (Germany/Canada/Fr/Swe/Nor 2015) ****
    Directed by Wim Wenders

    German director Wim Wenders has claimed after making his first 3D documentary (PINA) that he would film all future his fiction film in this medium.   EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE is not the typical action blockbuster with objects thrown out of the screen but rather a slow, pensive film about loss and reflection.  But Wenders proves his words, especially in the last scene, in which 16-year old Christopher rides his bicycle to school in glorious 3D.  The effect is difficult to describe here for it is an experience attained after viewing Wenders film in full.  Thomas (James Franco), a writer, accidentally kills a little boy, Nicholas and spends years getting back to his feet regarding his guilt.  His brother Christopher is still unable to cope with the incident.  The brooding affects almost everyone the two encounter, and counter to the title everything is not fine in the beginning.  It will, eventually, but it takes time, lots of effort and thought.  

    Wenders has crafted a beautiful film here and one that allows the audience to get into the skin of his characters.  Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg are superb.   Shot in Quebec, as determined by the name of the town quietly display.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7esbR3IMdY

    IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (USA/Spain 2015) **
    Directed by Ron Howard

    Ron Howard, the Hollywood director best known for playing Richie Cunningham in HAPPY DAYS is also known for his blockbuster films like SPLASH, PARENTHOOD, APOLLO 13 and A BEAUTIFUL MIND.  The films share one common characteristic.  Box-office successes though they may be, they are all very forgettable films.  After a year of viewing any of his films, there is not much one can remember from any of the films’ scenes.

    Based on the 2000 non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and adapted by Charles Leavitt to the script, this is supposed to be the story that inspired Herman Melville to write the classic tale Moby Dick.  In 1820, the whaling ship Essex is crewed by the Captain George Pollard, Jr., (Benjamin Walker) first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) who has nothing much to do but sit around and grow a beard, and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland).  During their voyage, the ship is sunk when it is rammed and split in half by a very large and enraged bull sperm whale, ultimately leaving its crew shipwrecked at sea for 90 days and more than a thousand miles from land.   After the attack, the crew sails for South America and is forced to resort to cannibalism.  The tale is told by a very reluctant older Matthew Joy (Brendan Gleeson) to budding author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) pressured by his good wife (Michelle Fairley) in order to exorcise his demons.  Apparently it is the cannibalism that is the problem but the wife seems to accept it after overhearing the story, thus undermining its importance in the story.  The audience is neither shocked at her acceptance.  The events of the Essex crew are intercut with Matthew telling the story to Herman in his house.

    This intercutting is annoying and serves to interrupt whatever suspense or action the film has built up.  Director Howard keeps nagging the audience to remind them fact that Herman really does not want to tell the story, as every time the film cuts back to the two men, Herman complains or changes his mind.  Yes, the audience has got the point.

    The special effects and CGI are lacklustre.  The 3D looks like back projection and one can see the various layers and shadows in the scenes.  And with CGI use these days on all the Hollywood films, one can hardly get excited when a CGI  action scene appears on the big screen.

    The film also contains some of the worst acting in a film on this side of the Atlantic, where the whales are.  Chris Hemsworth and relative newcomer Benjamin Walker look totally uninterested in the material.  They are supposed to portray two shipmates ready to kill each other.  The usually excellent Brendan Gleeson is largely wasted in a role in which he just mopes, drinking and complaining.

    For an action film, Howard’s film can hardly be called exciting.  The whale attack scenes with the monster splashing around the Essex creates less tension than a goldfish in my bath tub.

    IN THE HEART OF THE SEA might turn out the most memorable of the Ron Howard films.  But for all the wrong reasons.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs-JfPjgiA4

    MACBETH (USA/UK/France 2015) ***

    Directed by Justin Kurzel

    It does to seem that long ago (1971) that Roman Polanski, in top cinematic form directed his version of MACBETH with Jon Finch in the title role.  His was an unforgettable MacBeth complete with old nude witches brewing around a cauldron and ending with the MacBeth’s head paraded on a stick.

    No such luck in Justin Kurzel’s MACBETH.  (Kurzel is the Australian director best known for THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival years back but not released.)  The troubled King of Scotland does die at the end but his head is intact.  The witches look like normal human beings, more like Scots women, wearing normal garments.  But his version is a Shakespearean film concentrated more on poetry, both verbal and visual than on shock tactics.

    Running just under 2 hours, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is still a lengthy drama, spoken in Old English Shakespearean prose, which takes some minutes before the ear gets accustomed to.  The story that needs not be reiterated in detail, which almost everyone is familiar with, concerns MacBeth and his wife usurping the throne of Scotland from King Duncan (an excellent David Thewlis), after murdering him.  All this is foretold by three witches, and a child in the case of this film, to MacBeth who seems to believe all their predictions.  

    It is clear right from the film’s beginning that director Kurzel wants to take the Scottish play out in the open.  The witches appear in the open countryside instead of a room with a cauldron.  The epic battle which MacBeth wins to gain favour with the King of Scotland is expensed in all its gory and bloodiness.  The battle scene looks something right out of 300.  Together with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Kurzel keeps most of the action outside thus displaying the ruggedness and stunning beauty of the Scottish terrain and mountains.

    One disadvantage of pulling the camera back from the characters results in the audience feeling more distant from MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  They seem less evil.  When the camera shows the surroundings of the execution of a mother and her kids, Kurzel opts to show sympathy in the face of Lady MacBeth, thus making her more sympathetic and less ambitious and evil, and taking away the main spirit of the MacBeth play.

    Performances-wise, every actor dreams of playing the titular roles of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  Fassbender and Cotillard can do no harm but they are not exceptional.

    Kurzel’s MACBETH works as another adaptation of the Bard’s work, still worth a look and a good film for those studying the play in school.  At least it is not a modern interpretation like the recent HAMLET with Benedict Cumberbatch wearing Jeans thus bastardizing the Hamlet play.  But Polanski’s 1971 adaptation remains my favourite MACBETH.

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

    SLEEPING GIANT (Canada 2015) ****
    Directed by Andrew Cividino

    Director Andrew Cividino made a short featurette called SLEEPING GIANT a year or two ago that became a hit at festivals everywhere which prompted him to turn it into a full length feature.  Having seen both. the full feature SLEEPING GIANT is more of the same, expanded and able to take its time to tell the story of three kids with nothing to do.  Both films are impressive proving Cividino a new talent to be reckoned with.

    The minimalist story deals with three kids during summer vacation on rugged Lake Superior.  The film dos not say exactly where the film is set though the closing credits say the film was shot at a lake in Ontario.  Director Cividino introduces the three kids to the audience in a wrestling match.  The audience sees that it is Adam (Jackson Martin) who is uncomfortable wrestling where the feistiest, Nate (Nick Serino) is able to take on his much bigger cousin, Riley (Reece Moffett).  The film devotes equal amounts of time among the three so that good differing points of view are obtained.  Nick is the well bred one with a father who cares, that the other other two envy.  Nick is the twice school drop-out, the troublemaker shit disturber while Riley is the one ending up as the pawn of the other two.  

    The ‘status quo’ is changed when a girl Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher) enters the picture.  Riley takes her in as his girlfriend while Adam grows jealous telling lies.  The seemingly harmless lie ends up disastrous.  The feature length film takes the short further towards a climax that is not possible in the short for time limitations.

    SLEEPING GIANT is surprisingly similar to the excellent British film, Lynn Ramsey’s THE SELFISH GIANT.  Both films deal with pubescent non-city youth etching a meaning in their lives.  THE SELFISH GIANT had more in its narrative with the boys stealing communications cable to support the family, one of them suffering from ADHT.  SLEEPING GIANT has a simper agenda, but both films cover effectively the angst of their youthful subjects.

    The SLEEPING GIANT in the film refers to a high cliff where Nate and Riley both dive off, to prove what is essentially their manhood, but ironically also proving their stupidity.  The short also has both of the boys jumping of the cliff  but the short ended there.

    The three unknowns are unbelievably good in their performances, Cividino able to capture their nuanced work.  It is a boy’s world in the film, but the adults also play a significant role and not just taken to be there for show.  Nate’s grandmother (Nick Serino) is especially endearing, and judging from the actors’ same last names, the grandmother is likely the actor’s real life grandmother.

    SLEEPING GIANT is an important Canadian entry and is my prediction that it will win either the Best Canadian Feature or Best First Feature Film as voted by the Toronto Film Critics Association.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4SZXkKX7zo

    YOUTH (Italy/France/UK/Switzerland 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

    Best remembered for both IL DIVO and his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner THE GREAT BEAUTY, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino returns with his latest picture, dedicated to Francesco Rosi (the Italian director best known for HANDS OVER THE CITY and THE MATTEI AFFAIR who passed away January this year). YOUTH is, once again a sumptuous feast for the eyes.  With music forming the film’s main theme, YOUTH is also a feast for the ears.  The film begins appropriately with a stunning scene of a singer crooning a modern song.

    Ironically, the film is not about YOUTH but old age.

    The film is set in a Swiss spa.  For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been coming to this resort.  Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.”  Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”  The reasons are explained to the audience and to the emissary later on during the film.

    The complex film tells multiple stories, the main one centred on Fred.  The other, equally interesting story concerns his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)  Also at the spa, Mick is trying to complete a script with a team of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner).  

    The two are also in-laws.  Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard).  But Julian leaves Lena for Paloma Faith (playing herself).  She is already eccentric enough in real life and Sorrentino gets her to hilariously out-do herself in a very funny music video of “Can’t Rely on You”.  This makes the film’s best segment, showing Sorrentino’s fondness of experimenting on things new.

    Besides having the film dedicated to Rosi, he pays nods to other directors like Federico Fellini as evident in the outlandish scene of several divas in outlandish costumes by the country, that looks something right out of 8½.

    Another scene that deserves mention is the verbal confrontation between Mick and his wife, Brenda Morel played by Jane Fonda.  Their despiscability of each other is contrasted with the love between Fred and his wife.

    The script also contains many quotable dialogue which shows Sorrentino’s philosophizing.  “We are only allowed to emotionalize” and ‘We are just extras in a film,” are two examples.

    Sorrentino also spreads out weird characters in the film to spark in some spice.  One is an obese man with a tattoo on his back and a Jesus pendant.  There is also a couple that eats quietly every meal without saying a word, prompting Fred and Mick to make bets on whether they will talk.  Fred also is massaged by a pretty young thing who debates the effectiveness of touch vs. speech.

    One may argue that YOUTH is pretentious or distracting from the main narrative.  Still, YOUTH has both stunning cinematography and a varied musical score (music by David Lang) that ranges from punk to pop to classical.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T7CM4di_0c

    YOUTH (Italy/France/UK/Switzerland 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

    Best remembered for both IL DIVO and his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner THE GREAT BEAUTY, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino returns with his latest picture, dedicated to Francesco Rosi (the Italian director best known for HANDS OVER THE CITY and THE MATTEI AFFAIR who passed away January this year). YOUTH is, once again a sumptuous feast for the eyes.  With music forming the film’s main theme, YOUTH is also a feast for the ears.  The film begins appropriately with a stunning scene of a singer crooning a modern song.

    Ironically, the film is not about YOUTH but old age.

    The film is set in a Swiss spa.  For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been coming to this resort.  Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.”  Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”  The reasons are explained to the audience and to the emissary later on during the film.

    The complex film tells multiple stories, the main one centred on Fred.  The other, equally interesting story concerns his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)  Also at the spa, Mick is trying to complete a script with a team of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner).  

    The two are also in-laws.  Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard).  But Julian leaves Lena for Paloma Faith (playing herself).  She is already eccentric enough in real life and Sorrentino gets her to hilariously out-do herself in a very funny music video of “Can’t Rely on You”.  This makes the film’s best segment, showing Sorrentino’s fondness of experimenting on things new.

    Besides having the film dedicated to Rosi, he pays nods to other directors like Federico Fellini as evident in the outlandish scene of several divas in outlandish costumes by the country, that looks something right out of 8½.

    Another scene that deserves mention is the verbal confrontation between Mick and his wife, Brenda Morel played by Jane Fonda.  Their despiscability of each other is contrasted with the love between Fred and his wife.

    The script also contains many quotable dialogue which shows Sorrentino’s philosophizing.  “We are only allowed to emotionalize” and ‘We are just extras in a film,” are two examples.

    Sorrentino also spreads out weird characters in the film to spark in some spice.  One is an obese man with a tattoo on his back and a Jesus pendant.  There is also a couple that eats quietly every meal without saying a word, prompting Fred and Mick to make bets on whether they will talk.  Fred also is massaged by a pretty young thing who debates the effectiveness of touch vs. speech.

    One may argue that YOUTH is pretentious or distracting from the main narrative.  Still, YOUTH has both stunning cinematography and a varied musical score (music by David Lang) that ranges from punk to pop to classical.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T7CM4di_0c

     

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: CAROL

    Best Action: SPECTRE

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

    Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: BROOKLYN

  • Canada's Top 10 Films

    NEWS RELEASE

    TIFF TOASTS THE TRUE NORTH’S

    CINEMATIC BEST

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival expands with three-city simulcast

    and coast-to-coast screenings

    Celebrated lineup includes works by Patricia Rozema, Guy Maddin, Philippe Falardeau, Alan Zweig, plus an onstage conversation with Kiefer Sutherland

    TORONTO — TIFF® salutes the country’s cinematic superstars tonight, revealing the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival™ lineup of the top 10 features, shorts and student shorts for 2015. Established in 2001, the festival celebrates and promotes contemporary Canadian cinema and raises awareness of Canadian achievements in film. Running January 8 to 17, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, the 10-day event presents public screenings of the selected films accompanied by introductions and Q&A sessions with filmmakers, as well as special events, industry panels and free engagements. On January 16, Golden Globe–, Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award– winning Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland will take the stage for an intimate discussion about his fascinating career. The 1985 landmark film My American Cousin rounds out the lineup as the festival’s Canadian Open Vault selection.

    New this year, the festival will present a special screening simultaneously in three different cities, which includes a simulcast introduction and interactive Q&A offering audiences in Vancouver’s The Cinematheque and Montreal’s PHI Centre the chance to ask questions of the talent in Toronto. Select screenings from the lineup also return to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, with added stops in Halifax and Ottawa. Filmgoers in Toronto can once again vote to crown the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival People’s Choice Award winner. These announcements were made at an industry event in Toronto tonight, hosted by Entertainment City’s Teri Hart.

    “From exceptional debut features to veteran filmmakers at the top of their craft, Canadian talent from coast to coast cracked this year’s list,” said Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival. “What better way to escape winter’s icy grip than with a toasty lineup of special guests and homegrown films presented in eight cities across the country.”

    “One of our most geographically representative programmes to date, the strength of this year’s lineup is a testament to the diversity and curiosity of our nation’s filmmakers — from Newfoundland to British Columbia,” said Steve Gravestock, Senior Programmer, TIFF. “The collaborations from across the country demonstrate the versatility of our filmmaking community, delivering deeply engaging cinema in their exploration of Canadian values.”

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival features for 2015, in alphabetical order. Synopses below.

    Closet Monster, Stephen Dunn (Elevation Pictures)

    The Demons (Les démons), Philippe Lesage (FunFilm Distribution)

    Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones), Anne Émond (Entertainment One Films)

    The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson (Mongrel Media)

    Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard (White Pine Pictures)

    HURT, Alan Zweig (Super Channel/MDF)

    Into the Forest, Patricia Rozema (Elevation Pictures)

    My Internship in Canada (Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre), Philippe Falardeau (Entertainment One Films)

    Ninth Floor, Mina Shum (National Film Board of Canada)

    Sleeping Giant (Le géant endormi), Andrew Cividino (D Films Corp)

    A special simulcast screening of Into the Forest takes place in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Saturday, January 9 at 9 p.m. ET, and includes an interactive Q&A with Patricia Rozema.

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival shorts for 2015, in alphabetical order. Synopses below.

    Bacon & God’s Wrath, Sol Friedman

    Balmoral Hotel, Wayne Wapeemukwa

    Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson (Elevation Pictures)

    Interview with a Free Man (Entrevue avec un homme libre), Nicolas Lévesque (NFB)

    The Little Deputy, Trevor Anderson

    My Enemy, My Brother, Ann Shin

    Never Steady, Never Still, Kathleen Hepburn

    NINA, Halima Elkhatabi (Les Films du 3 mars)

    o negative, Steven McCarthy

    Overpass (Viaduc), Patrice Laliberté (Travelling, les films qui voyagent)

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival student shorts for 2015, in alphabetical order. Synopses below.

    Alia, Raghed Charabaty (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)

    The Casebook of Nips & Porkington, Melody Wang (Sheridan College)

    Cupid, Maria De Sanctis (York University)

    Dysmorphia, Katherine Grubb (Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

    ed, Taha Neyestani (Sheridan College)

    Menesetung, Kyle McDonnell (Ryerson University)

    Michi, Kaho Yoshida (Emily Carr University of Art + Design)

    Ms. Liliane (Mme Liliane), Junna Chif (Concordia University)

    Pretty Dangerous, Dan Laera (Humber College)

    Smoke, Kellen Jackson, Suzanne Friesen and Sasha Tomasky (Simon Fraser University)

    The Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival tours select films to major cities across the country including stops at Vancouver’s  The Cinematheque (January 8 to 17), Montreal’s PHI Centre (January 8 to 16), Winnipeg Film Group’s Cinematheque (January 15 to February 28), Edmonton’s Metro Cinema (January 22 to 31), Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada (January 23, additional dates TBA), the Calgary International Film Festival at the Globe Cinema (February 4 to 7), and the Atlantic Film Festival in association with the Halifax Central Library (May 2 to 8). 

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival 2015 features panel   

    A national panel of six filmmakers and industry professionals selected the best in Canadian features.

    Liz Braun ─ entertainment columnist (Sun Media/Postmedia newspaper chain)

    Marie-Hélène Cousineau ─ filmmaker and producer (Sol, Before Tomorrow)

    Stacey Donen ─ film programmer

    Kris Elgstrand ─ writer and filmmaker (Songs She Wrote About People She Knows)

    Midi Onodera ─ filmmaker and video artist (Skin Deep)

    Ravi Srinivasan ─ executive director of the South Western International Film Festival

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival 2015 shorts panel

    A national panel of five filmmakers and industry professionals selected the best in Canadian shorts.

    Sarah Goodman ─ filmmaker and writer (Army of One, Porch Stories, National Parks Project)

    Lisa Haller ─ Senior Canadian Programming Associate, TIFF

    Aeschylus Poulos ─ producer (Sleeping Giant, The Book of Negroes)

    Nicholas Pye ─ artist and filmmaker

    Albert Shin ─ filmmaker (In Her Place, Point Traverse)

    The Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival student shorts were selected by Lisa Haller (Senior Canadian Programming Associate, TIFF).

    The Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival shorts panel will select the student shorts winners for Best Film (Live Action) and Best Film (Animation).The filmmakers will be awarded with prize packages following the screening in January, courtesy of William F. White International Inc., Technicolor, and the Directors Guild of Canada.

    In Conversation With... Kiefer Sutherland — Saturday, January 16 at 4 p.m.

    Award-winning Canadian actor and filmmaker Kiefer Sutherland joins Cameron Bailey on stage for a career-spanning discussion that will touch upon both his film and television work, from his early days in Canada up through to Forsaken.

    TIFF Industry Sessions — Thursday, January 14

    TIFF Industry presents a series of sessions on current issues and trends in the Canadian film industry. The sessions are open to filmmakers, writers, producers, distributors, and film students who wish to learn more about both the creative and business side of the Canadian film industry. Sessions include Case Study: Creating the World of Room with David Gross (producer, Room), Adrian Love (senior vice president of marketing and acquisitions, Elevation Pictures), and Ethan Tobman (production designer, Room), moderated by columnist Johanna Schneller (The Globe and Mail); Visual Concoctions: How Canadians are Blending Genres with filmmakers Nick DenBoer (The Chickening) and Steven McCarthy (o negative), producer Laura Perlmutter (Riftworld Chronicles), and filmmaking duo Jen and Sylvia Soska (Twisted Twin Productions), moderated by TIFF Programmer Colin Geddes; and Master Class: Exploring Virtual Reality with Secret Location, featuring a discussion with James Milward (president and executive producer, Secret Location). To attend these sessions, visit tiff.net/industry.

    Canadian Open Vault: My American Cousin — Friday, January 15 at 3 p.m. | FREE

    Sandy Wilson’s landmark 1985 feature, about a bored preteen on an Okanagan farm whose inner rebellion is inspired by the arrival of her ultra-cool older cousin from California, is both a bittersweet coming-of-age tale and a meditation on the differences between us and our neighbours to the south.

    The Canadian Open Vault programme presents free screenings of Canadian classics every season at TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of TIFF’s efforts to make the country’s rich cinematic heritage more accessible to audiences.

    TIFF presents First Things First: Coming of Age in Canadian Film — Friday, January 15 at 1 p.m. | FREE

    Moderated by film critic Jason Anderson (Toronto Star), this free panel discussion explores five debut, coming-of-age-themed films at this year’s Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival: Sleeping Giant (represented by director Andrew Cividino), Closet Monster (executive producer Niv Fichman), Canadian Open Vault selection My American Cousin (director Sandy Wilson), short film NINA (director Halima Elkhatabi), and student-short film Menesetung (director Kyle McDonnell). Tickets are free and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at the box office two hours prior to the event start time.

    Tickets and ticket packages for Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival events at TIFF Bell Lightbox go on sale December 9 for TIFF Members and December 16 for the public. Purchase tickets online at tiff.net, by phone from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET at 416.599.TIFF and 1.888.599.8433, or in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox box office from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. Pricing as follows: regular screening ticket is $10 (feature film or shorts programmes); purchase the 6ix Pack for $50 and get six tickets for the price of five; tickets for In Conversation With... Kiefer Sutherland are $20 each. Canadian Open Vault and Higher Learning events are free. TIFF prefers Visa.

    In order to be eligible for the Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival, the film (short or feature) must be directed by a Canadian citizen or resident, Canada must be an official country of production on the film, and the film must have been released commercially or played a major film festival in Canada in 2015.

      

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival features synopses

    Closet Monster, Stephen Dunn, Ontario/Newfoundland

    Release date: summer 2016

    Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

    An East Coast teenager and aspiring special-effects makeup artist (Connor Jessup, Blackbird, 2012 TIFF Rising Star) struggles with both his sexuality and his fear of his macho father, in this imaginative twist on the coming-of-age tale from first-time feature director Stephen Dunn.

    The Demons (Les démons), Philippe Lesage, Quebec

    Released: October 2015

    While Montreal is in the throes of a string of kidnappings targeting young boys, 10-year-old Felix is finishing his school year in the seemingly quiet suburb where he lives. A sensitive boy with a vivid imagination, Felix is afraid of everything. Little by little, his imaginary demons begin to mirror those of the increasingly disturbing world around him.

    Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones), Anne Émond, Quebec

    Released: November 2015

    The story begins in 1978 in a small town on the Lower St.-Lawrence where the Leblanc family is rocked by the tragic death of Guy, found dead in the basement of the family home. For many years, the real cause of his death is hidden from certain members of the family, his son David among them. David starts his own family with his wife Marie and lovingly raises his children, Laurence and Frédéric, but deep down he still carries with him a kind of unhappiness. Les êtres chers is a film of filial love, family secrets, redemption and inherited fate. Featuring 2015 TIFF Rising Star Karelle Tremblay.

    The Forbidden Room, Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, Manitoba

    Released: October 2015 

    Honouring classic cinema while electrocuting it with energy, this grand ode to lost cinema begins (after a prologue on how to take a bath) with the crew of a doomed submarine chewing flapjacks in a desperate attempt to breathe the oxygen within. Suddenly, a lost woodsman wanders into their company to tell his tale of escape from a fearsome clan of cave dwellers, and we are taken high into the air, around the world and into dreamscapes, through spinning tales of amnesia, captivity, deception and murder, skeleton women and vampire bananas. Created with the help of master poet John Ashberry, The Forbidden Room is like a glorious meeting between Italo Calvino, Sergei Eisenstein and a perverted six-year-old child, with Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Maria de Medeiros, Jacques Nolot, Adèle Haenel, Amira Casar and Elina Löwensohn who comprise a cavalcade of misfits, thieves and lovers.

    Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, Patrick Reed and Michelle Shephard, Ontario

    Release date: January 2016

    Omar Khadr: child soldier or unrepentant terrorist? The 28-year-old Canadian has been a polarizing figure since he was 15. In 2002, Khadr was captured by American forces in Afghanistan and charged with war crimes, including murder. After spending half his life behind bars, including a decade at Guantanamo, Khadr is released. This is his story, in his own words.

    HURT, Alan Zweig, Ontario

    Release date: January 19, 2016

    Toronto Platform Prize, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival

    HURT is a documentary portrait of Steve Fonyo, who having lost his left leg to cancer, completed a fundraising run across Canada in 1985 at the age of 19. He was the youngest Canadian ever to receive the Order of Canada. The next 30 years, however, were even tougher than his legendary run: petty theft, larceny and drug addiction, until in late 2009 the Order of Canada was taken from him. Spend a year in the world of this one-time hero and see how the run has nothing — and everything — to do with his life.

    Into the Forest, Patricia Rozema, British Columbia/Ontario

    Release date: spring 2016

    Two sisters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) struggle to survive in a remote country house after a continent-wide power outage, in this gripping apocalyptic drama by one of Canada’s most celebrated filmmakers.

    My Internship in Canada (Guibord s'en va-t-en guerre), Phillippe Falardeau, Quebec

    Released: October 2015

    Guibord is an independent Member of Parliament representing a vast county in Northern Quebec who unwillingly finds himself in the awkward position of determining whether Canada will go to war. Accompanied by his wife, daughter and Souverain (Sovereign) Pascal, an idealistic intern from Haiti, Guibord travels across his district in order to consult his constituents and face his own conscience. This film is a sharp political satire in which politicians, citizens and lobbyists go head-to-head while tearing democracy to shreds.

    Ninth Floor, Mina Shum, British Columbia

    Release date: January 15, 2016

    It started quietly when six Caribbean students, strangers in a cold new land, began to suspect their professor of racism. It ended in the most explosive student uprising Canada had even known. Over four decades later, Ninth Floor reopens the file on the infamous Sir George Williams Riot: a watershed moment in Canadian race relations and one of the most contested episodes in the nation’s history. Director Mina Shum (Double Happiness) locates the protagonists in clandestine locations throughout Trinidad and Montreal — the wintry city where it all went down. In a cinematic gesture of reckoning and redemption, she listens as they set the record straight.

    Sleeping Giant (Le géant endormi), Andrew Cividino, Ontario

    Release date: April 15, 2016

    City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival 

    Spending his summer vacation on rugged Lake Superior, teenager Adam befriends Riley and Nate, smart-aleck cousins who pass their ample free time with pranks, vandalism and reckless cliff jumping. The revelation of a hurtful secret sets in motion a series of irreversible events that test the bonds of friendship and change the boys forever.

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival shorts synopses

    Bacon & God’s Wrath, Sol Friedman, Ontario

    In this short documentary, a 90-year-old Jewish woman reflects on her life's experiences as she prepares to try bacon for the first time.

    Balmoral Hotel, Wayne Wapeemukwa, British Columbia

    A dance through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside serves as a haunting metaphor for the life of a First Nations sex worker in this powerful short documentary.

    Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, Manitoba/Ontario

    Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is a strange, stirring behind-the-scenes look at Paul Gross’s new feature, Hyena Road. The film mixes deep contrast black-and-white expressionism with wry and raw western revisionism reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, as it summons unwieldy, psychedelic energy from the main event.

    Interview with a Free Man (Entrevue avec un homme libre), Nicolas Lévesque, Quebec

    Several men are interviewed to get a job and make a new start in life. Through the questions put to them, the plots of their existence are revealed.

    The Little Deputy, Trevor Anderson, Alberta

    An uncomfortable moment between a father and his son is reassessed in this witty and memorable documentary short.

    My Enemy, My Brother, Ann Shin, Ontario/British Columbia

    Zahed and Najah are two former enemies from the Iran-Iraq War who become blood brothers for life. Twenty-five years after one saves the other’s life on the battlefield, they meet again, by sheer chance, in Canada. This emotional documentary story is a surprising affirmation of humanity that cuts across political borders.

    Never Steady, Never Still, Kathleen Hepburn, British Columbia

    Distressed and overwhelmed by the mistakes of his past, a young lease-hand returns from Alberta's oil fields to his childhood home on Lillooet Lake, where he finds solace in the strength of his recently-widowed mother.

      

    NINA, Halima Elkhatabi, Quebec

    At 16 years old, Nina is helpless in the face of her four-month-old baby’s incessant crying. Without any escape from this new presence in her life, she ventures out from her tiny apartment into a working-class neighbourhood of Montreal for a brief escapade.

    o negative, Steven McCarthy, Ontario

    A young woman and the man who takes care of her find shelter in a roadside motel and take the necessary steps to feed her addiction.

    Overpass (Viaduc), Patrice Laliberté, Quebec

    Shorts Cuts Award for Best Canadian Short Film, 2015 Toronto International Film Festival 

    Police chase a teenager after he scrawls graffiti on an overpass for reasons only he understands. Patrice Laliberté’s deeply moving drama captures the power of self-expression in the midst of upheaval.

    Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival student shorts synopses

    Alia, Raghed Charabaty, Nova Scotia

    A man recounts the last few moments before the death of his beloved, in this haunting and poetic glimpse into the flashpoint that started the Lebanese Civil War.

    The Casebook of Nips & Porkington, Melody Wang, Ontario

    In this delightfully imaginative animation, clues and charac­ters literally jump off the page as two policemen investigate a mysterious crime.

    Cupid, Maria De Sanctis, Ontario

    Love becomes all the more complicated when Cupid falls for one of his targets, in this endearing twist on classical mythology.

    Dysmorphia, Katherine Grubb, British Columbia

    Both hand-drawn and 3D computer animation are used in this strikingly emotional exploration of the connections between body dysmorphic disorder, disordered eating and scoliosis.

    ed, Taha Neyestani, Ontario

    Ed is a quiet man who truly comes to life when he sets foot onstage as a nude figure drawing model, in this exuberant and beautifully rendered animation.

    Menesetung, Kyle McDonnell, Ontario

    Two siblings on a failed sheep farm in rural Ontario decide to escape their troubled home by stealing their father’s truck, but are unprepared for the consequences ahead.

    Michi, Kaho Yoshida, British Columbia/Japan

    In this mixed-media animation, Michi journeys into a brightly-coloured world filled with adventure and mysteri­ous creatures — and leaves with a renewed self-awareness.

    Ms. Liliane (Mme Liliane), Junna Chif, Quebec

    Primary school teacher Liliane is distracted from her overly disruptive class as she anxiously awaits a phone call, yet comfort ultimately comes from an unexpected source in this assured and sensitively directed work.

    Pretty Dangerous, Dan Laera, Ontario

    This intimate portrait of Seleziya “Sparx” Esho finds the pro wrestler confronting a personal obsession and the strain it puts on both her body and her family.

    Smoke, Kellen Jackson, Suzanne Friesen and Sasha Tomasky, British Columbia

    Quin helps care for her ill mother and tends to the beehives on her family’s sprawling farmland, but after an unwelcome discovery must question her surreal and mysterious world.

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 4, 2016)

    No big movies opening this week, but some significant ones.  LIFE and LEGEND are two worthwhile films making their debut.  AL PURDY WAS HERE and TRUFFAUT/HITCHCOCK are two docs that also open.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    AL PURDY WAS HERE. (Canada 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Brian D. Johnson

    The first feature by the President of the Toronto Film Critics Association whose film experience was previously limited to making film montages for the association Gala Dinner proves to be an accomplished piece.  

    Who is Al Purdy?  Where is the ‘here’ referred to in the title?  The answer to the second question is the Purdy’s resort out in the country in Ontario, Canada that is reserved as a haven for artists.  They go there to create.

    The well researched documentary asks several passers-by who have no idea who this Canadian poet (arguably the best Canadian poet) is.  This is despite the fact that they have just walked past his statue in Queen’s Park.  The film also looks at the A Frame, which is a retreat for other Canadian artists out in the Ontario country.  Johnson’s film follows Purdy’s rise to fame, his personal life including his secret second marriage an other son, Brian Purdy.  Purdy is given character and proper recognition in this worthy tribute to a man who ironically flunked out school after Grade 10 and hilariously called Margaret Atwood a academic, a big insult to a poet.  The film also contains a good mix of Canadian artists performing including Bruce Cockburn with original music by Casey Johnson.

    Despite the title, the film delves only a bit into Purdy’s place.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S7hLk1EQbE

    HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (USA/France 2015) ***
    Directed by Kent Jones

    Hitchcock and Truffaut are my two favourite directors of all time.  I learnt French so I could understand the films of Truffaut.  So for me and other cineastes, HITCHCOCK TRUFFAUT, the documentary by Kent Jones on the famous Truffaut’s interview of Hitchcock in 1966 resulting in the must-own book is a must-see.  Filled with famous shots from Hitchcock’s films, the film also interweaves interviews by 10 famous directors, including David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese et al. all in rather playful mode on the influence of the Master.  But with such high expectations for such a film, there is bound to be disappointment.  For one, most of what transpires on screen has been told many times or already known by cineastes, so that there is hardly new insight on the Master on his films.  Still, it is a wonderful nostalgia, and the film teases on what films could have resulted if the master were still alive and made films with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.  This film is still a must-see for all cineastes and is still a worthy tribute to both artists, Truffaut and Hitchcock.

    Trailer: (unavailable)

    I SMILE BACK (USA 2015) **
    Directed by Adam Salky

    The feel lousy film of the year, I SMILE BACK is a film that focuses on the self destruction of a middle aged housewife who attempts one last attempt at redemption.

    For an 85-minute film, the film is full of incidents, which unfortunately does not reveal more of her character but enforces it.  In the film’s beginning five minutes for example, the audience witnesses Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) naked bearing her breasts, having sex doggie style, snorting cocaine, talking trash during her family and husband Bruce’s (Josh Charles) dinner and rejecting the pet dog given to her.

    Based on the book by Amy Koppelman and adapted to the screen by her and Paige Dylan, this second feature by Adam Salky (DARE) follows the downward spiral of Elaine Brooks.  Difficult to reason why as she has a loving, steadfast husband, two terrific kids, Janey and Eli and a comfortable suburban home.  She has everything going for her, yet she's putting it all in danger.  Between dropping the kids off at school and doing the shopping, she does her trash including regular sex with her husband's best friend, Donny (Thomas Sadoski) who is about to become a father. When she can no longer hide her addictions, she agrees to go into rehab, but her too-brief stay isn't enough to alter a lifetime of self-medication or to heal the deep psychic wound underlying her wild behaviour.  Laney is on the road to recovery, but how far can she go without a map when temptation waits at every turn?

    Silverman’s performance is not bad though not as stellar as most critics have praised.  It is more of a brave performance in which Silverman is willing to discard her comedic roots - there is hardly a funny moment by her - and bare all, literally, to create her dramatic role.  But the film suffers from the limitation of the book, not going into more depth of its main character.  The source of Laney’s troubles is hinted as coming from her father, who is having a few problems of his own.  But it is not a convincing one for a woman who has it all destroy herself to this degree.  The film’s also hints at some mental problem of hers, but she is portrayed as a pretty sane person who is just uncontrollable.

    The open ending leaves the audience undecided as to whether Laney has redeemed herself or whether she is a total lost case or whether she will be given a last chance by her husband who just looks on.  One could also argue that it is a cop-out ending.

    Though the film is a frank account of a woman’s struggle to get back on her feet, it is hard for the audience to sympathize with Laney’s character given the circumstances laid upon her by the novel and script.  The script does not compromise, which in this case is both a good and bad thing.  

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTRqt4s64SE

    LEGEND (UK 2015) ****
    Directed by Brian Helgeland

    The second film about the notorious Krays, (the first was called THE KRAYS in the 80’s directed by Peter Medak) the gangster twins that terrorized London the 50’s and 60’s is given a glossier more modern approach.  But just as violent.  The Kray twins in LEGEND are both played by Tom Hardy.

    Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL his best film) and based on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson, the film is told from the point of view as well as narrated by Frances Shea (Emily Browning) the wife of Reggie Kray.   She met Kray at 16 and married him aged 22 in 1965 . She committed suicide in 1967, and narrates the film from beyond the grave.  “It took a lot of love to hate him the way I did,” were her famous words.

    When the film begins, the Krays are already established gangster princes.  The script does not detail how they got to be such prominent gangsters except by having them usurp the turf from Charlie (Paul Bettany) and his brother Eddie, childhood friends of the Krays and the leaders of notorious south London gang (also known as the Torture Gang).  That was when Reggie met Frances.  The film that goes on to deal with the further rise and fall of the Kray twins; the relationship that bound them together, and charts their gruesome career to their downfall and imprisonment for life in 1969.  And all from Frances’ angle.  

    LEGEND is necessarily violent.  The best segment is the well executed fight between the two brothers (made trickier to shoot as both brothers are portrayed by the same actor) which is guaranteed to make you cringe in your seat.

    The script is set up to have the audience take the side of Reggie, the sane brother.  The other, who is ultra violent and homosexual and certified insane not once but twice is the script’s set up for the downfall of the Kray’s empire.

    Hardy does an exceptional job playing the Krays, definitely proving to be Oscar material here.  He creates two very different characters in the Krays, one sane and the other insane.  Though the film uses the tactic of Ronnie’s glasses to distinguish the twins apart, Hardy creates different nuanced behaviour for each.  Of the other performances, David Thewlis stands out as the Krays business and lawyer connection who wants to make the business more legitimate, thus running foul with Ronnie.

    Ronnie’s homosexuality is treated in the film with campy seriousness.  He justifies his gay sexual acts by claiming to be the giver and not the taker.  One difference between the two KRAY films is that Medak’s dwelt on the Kray’s doting mother’s influence, the mother played by Billie Whitelaw in THE KRAYS.

    The 50’s and 60’s London atmosphere is effectively created, complete with the period posh suits, vehicles and Burt Bacharach songs like ‘The Look of Love’.

    Hard to fault, LEGEND belongs to the genre of excellent British crime thrillers of the 70’s that used to be popular.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yI3v6KfR9Mw

    LIFE (Canada/Germany/Australia/USA 2015) ***

    Directed by Anton Corbijn 

     The LIFE of the title is Life Magazine, which featured an article of brooding rising star James Dean, portrayed no other than also rising star Dane DeHaan.  The film is not so much a story of James Dean but the odd relationship between equally brooding Life photographer Dennis Stock (TWILIGHT’s  Robert Pattinson) and James Dean as he is about to land a role in Elia Kazan’s EAST OF EDEN.

    For a film directed by Dutch born Anton Corbijn who rose to fame with his biopic on Joy Division CONTROL, LIFE is surprisingly sparse in music. Most of the soundtrack is music-less and is concocted more of sounds than anything else.  And when music comes on, it is either piano thumping or trumpets blaring or drums beating, rather tan a tuneful melody.  Perhaps, these enhance the fact the the lives of the two on display are out of tune.

    Corbijn’s film is understated and terribly slow.  He leaves his audience to interpret each scene while giving them the time to do so.  The European director seems more fascinated with the farmland and country of the American mid-west than anything else.  Quiet a bit of the film is set in Dean’s family farm though there is nothing much there.

    Performances-wise, it feels that both Pattinson and DeHaan are competing on who can brood more.  DeHaan has a more difficult task of keeping the myth and memory of the James Dean legend intact.  For that he mumbles through most of his lines.  Whether he succeeds in portraying an accurate account of James Dean is left to the viewer.

    The film leaves the audience quite unconnected to both characters.  Corbijn does not make it a point to sympathize with each, and even less with Dean.  At least for Stock, there are scenes with him trying to connect with his son, whom he rarely sees.  And when in one key scene when he throws up on his son, whatever sympathy created is immediately dissipated.  But one must give credit to Corbijn for not glamorizing the material.  He allows the audience to make their own judgement.  The film looks more like an art project than a biopic of James Dean which is clearly not Corbijn’s aim.

    It is not surprising then that when Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Mr. Jack Warner, the hard-nosed studio head comes on display as when he comes down on James Dean for not keeping to his publicity promises, the film is the most alive.

    There a few neat segments in the film.  The best of these is a party that Stock walks into, where there is an actor that looks so much like Paul Newman.  In fact, that was supposed to be, as James Dean is questioned later on whether he would be more popular than Newman.

    LIFE is a meticulously directed by Corbijn and written by Australian Lucas Davies.  For a film entitled LIFE, the film is ironically so lifeless.  Perhaps Corbijn wants his audience to examine for themselves what he has put on screen.  One wonders what the film’s message or what the purpose is.  Perhaps it would be that life is what you inevitably make it out to be.  With that, Dean’s death in a car accident that occurs a few years after the time when the film ends, is just treated as a fact of life.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN4iCE7oZ-Q

    A ROYAL NIGHT OUT (UK 2015) **

    Directed by Julian Jarrold

    A ROYAL NIGHT OUT is a reversal fairy tale in which the princess envies the common folk and wishes to be enjoy a night like a commoner.  It is the opposite spin of a fairy tale that somehow also takes a few tips from CINDERELLA.  The princesses have to be home by midnight.  The princess meets her Prince Charming and there is a big ball, though the princesses escape from it.

    The premise of the story has the two princesses, 19-year old Elizabeth (Toronto’s own Sarah Gadon) and 14-year old Margaret (Bel Powley from DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL) wish to have a break from royalty during VE day in May, 1945.  VE day, as director Jarrold is quick to explain, is Victory Day in Europe when the night is devoted to the celebration of the end of the Second World War.  The King (Rupert Everett) has prepared a speech. The two want to celebrate to see what it is like not to, as in the words of their mother, the Queen Mother (Emily Watson), live a life not fully their own.  The parents (King and Queen) finally agree.  The princesses ditch their goofy chaperones (Jack Laskey and Jack Gordon).  Margaret gets terribly drunk and lost while Elizabeth tries to find her with the help of a handsome beau, an AWOL RAF corporal, Jack (Jack Reynor), who she obviously falls in love with.

    Nothing is, of course to be heard more of the story after that, as this is a secret outing that is all so hush-hush.

    The story is as frivolous as the film and as frivolous as the acts of the princesses.  Do not expect any message, lessons in life or even any insight on royalty.  The film is just a case of ‘girls just want to have fun.’  Unfortunately the fun does not translate well to the audience.  The film is only mildly funny.  When the waiters at the ball set up the champagne glasses fountain display, one knows that it is just a matter of time before they are knocked over.  Watching Princess Margaret getting drunk, pulled along by men to ‘knocking houses’ and wheeled around in a wheel barrow is not as funny as it sounds.  And Corporal Jack, the Prince Charming fight all the bad guys like Jackie Chan in a martial-arts movie.

    The film is extremely careless on details, not that one would like to be nit picking at trivial mistakes.  On the double-decker in one scene, the bus conductor grinds his ticket machine. In 1945, conductors were using the old hole puncher.   And a corporal in the RAF (as is Jack int he film) flying dozens of missions is unheard of.  But worse still is he sight of a boom hanging from the the top of the screen during the middle of the film.

    So is this film based on true events?  If it is, mum’s the word as nobody was to say anything.  And if all this is whimsy?  Not that anyone really cares!  The Royal Night Out turns out to be one big sizzle!

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLc2yo-nhjg

     

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: LEGEND

    Best Action: SPECTRE

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

    Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: BROOKLYN

  • TIFF Cinematheque Presents - Stop Motion Animation

    TIFF Cinematheque Presents - STOP MOTION ANIMATION

    Stop motion animation is an animation technique used as far back as the invention of film.  French pioneer George Melies had used it in moving his title card letters in his early shot films in the early 1900’s.  This is the technique of physically manipulating objects so that they appear to move on their own creating the illusion of movement when the series of frames is played as a continuous sequence.  Dolls with movable joints or clay figures (claymation) are often used in stop motion for their ease of repositioning. But not all stop motion requires figures or models; many stop motion films can involve using humans, household appliances and other things for comedic effect.

    One well known animator known as Willis O' Brien.  He was  most admired for his work on KING KNG (1933), a milestone of his films made possible by stop motion animation.  KING KONG will be screened in the series, and capsule reviewed below.

    O’Brien’s protege and successor in Hollywood is the well-known Ray Harryhausen.  He is famous for his work in films like MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, all three screened too, in the series.

    Clamation has been popularized by the Aardman Studios responsible for WALLACE & GROMIT and films like CHICKEN RUN and PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS.

    Of note too are the films of Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, which mix stop motion and live actors.  These include ALICE, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and FAUST, a rendition of the legend of the German scholar. 

    This series includes as many as 33 features.  Fr the complete program, ticket pricing venue and showtimes, check the TIFF Cinematheque website at:

    tiff.net

    CAPSULE REVIEWS OF SELECTED FILMS:-

    THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (USA 1958) ****
    Directed by Nathan Juaran

     

    One of the best fantasy special classics,  THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD combines the talents of stop motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, director Natahn Juaran and actor Kerwin Mathews.  This Sinbad escapade bears a lot of similarity to JACK THE GIANT KILER, from the appearance of the cyclops to the island/cave landscape of the two films.  When the film opens, Sinbad (Mathews) and his sailors land on the island of Colossa where there meet an evil magician. Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) who loses his lamp with a genie (Richard Eyer) to the cyclops.  The magician shrinks Sinbad’s princess (Kathryn Grant) to the size of TOM THUMB fooling him to return to the island in order for him to retrieve the lamp.  The film, running less than 90 minutes, is short and ultra efficient with never a dull moment.  Monsters and wonders (2 headed nestling, cyclops, blue serpent, dragon, skeletons, genie etc.) appear at every corner.  Though a little predictable in story and corny at times, it is all good old-fashioned fun, fairy tale style, in which Sinbad and his bride will live happily ever after.   A film good to be seen again and again.  This is the film with the most Harryhausen effects.

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

    20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (USA 1957) ****

    Directed by Nathan H. Juaran

     

    The film director Juaran made before JACK THE GIANT KILLER and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, all with stop-motion animation by Oscar Winner Ray Harryhausen, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH deals with a monster bright back from Venus by an American rocketship.  When the film opens, two fishermen off Sicily, watch in amazement as the  spaceship pierces the skies and crashes into the sea.  The men, Mondello (Don Orlando) and Verrico (George Khoury), row out to the site and pull two space travelers, one of which is Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper), from the capsized craft.  The monster first in the form of a jelly-like glob is brought to shore and sold by the boy who found it to Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia), a visiting zoologist who is studying sea creatures. Meanwhile, Leonardo's medical-student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) is summoned to town to take care of the injured Calder.   The monster runs loose, looking amazing from Harryhausen’s stop motion effects.  The story is given a boost by the enmity between the Italians who want no one hurt and the Americans who want the creature kept alive for scientific purposes.  A romance develops between Marisa and the Colonel.  The film’s funniest moments include an elephant battling the monster and a typical Italian woman (with a mole on the side of hr face) screaming at the monster.  More like a fairy tale than a horror film, Juaran’s film as like all his others is pure delight for the kids and the young-at-heart. 

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Ri8ogJ8q8

    EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (USA 1956) ***

    Directed by Fred F. Sears

    This sci-fi oldie is exactly as the title implies.  It is EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS.  When the U.S. sends up rocket ships for exploration, every single one is shot down by aliens in flying saucers.  And these aliens are unfriendly ones, hoping to live on the Planet Earth after their own planet is now destroyed.  The lead character is a doctor , Dr Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) who is newly married who somehow knows exactly why to do to save the world.  In comparison, the wife, Carol (Joan Taylor) has nothing to do but run around looking pretty and be on the doctor’s side.  This is a cheesy little film (people running everywhere screaming with the flying saucers overhead) but at least there are special effects by Master Ray Harryhausen, though they are not that spectacular as in his other works.  The flying saucers and falling debris from the buildings were animated using stop-motion animation.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2o4fdX8gUMY

    KING KONG (USA 1933) ***
    Directors: (uncredited)

    The original KING KONG is a marvel of special effects stop motion animation in the day and even at present  never mind the silly plot and cheesy acting. But Fay Wray can really do a good screaming sequence.   Carl Denham (Bruce Cabot) needs to finish his movie and has the perfect location; Skull Island.   But he still needs to find a leading lady. This 'soon-to-be-unfortunate' soul is Ann Darrow (Far Wray). No one knows what they will encounter on this island and why it is so mysterious, but once they reach it, they will soon find out. Living on this hidden island is a giant gorilla and this beast now has Ann in it's grasps. Carl and Ann's new love, Jack Driscoll (Robert Armstrong) must travel through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of creatures and beasts.  KING KONG is captured and brought to NYC where he escapes and climbs the Empire State Building with the girl in his hand.  Poor ape is killed and the damsel in distress is rescued by Driscoll.  The film is also racist by today’s  standards and the film contains lots of unintentional funny moments.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0WpKl2A_2k

    THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (UK/USA 2012) ****

    Directed by Peter Lord

    The Aardman Studios (CHICKEN RUN, WALLACE AND GROMIT) is famous for their claymation stop-motion features.  This time, the subject is pirates – one that the British know best since they are a nation of the sea.  The protagonist is a luxuriantly bearded (yes, he can keep tons of thingamajigs hidden there) Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a more enthusiastic than successful pirate of the high seas. His attempt at pillaging often falls flat, when he fails at various attempts after trying to board ships like a plaque shit, a ghost ship, a kid’s excursion ship and the like.  But what the Pirate Captain has his eyes for is the Pirate of the Year Award.  But he faces impossible odds as his bitter rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) have done better.  But he also has to battle the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) who wants pirates destroyed from the face of the earth. But the Queen also has eye for the Pirate Captain’s parrot, which in reality is a rare dodo bird, as discovered by Charles Darwin (David Tennant).  Queen Victoria, pirate, Darwin all in one movie? That is quite a concept and a very inventive one at that and obviously with countless possibilities for side plots and hilarity. Director Peter Lord and his crew of animators have done a fine job with lots of high jinx, too many to mention in this review.  This animation works where there is as much happening in the background of a scene as in the foreground. For the kids, the film has goofiness and cuteness, and for the adults the film has goofiness and intelligence.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tqtcj20Z778

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 25, 2015)

    Early Wednesday openings this week of VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, CREED and THE GOOD DINOSAUR to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

    TIFF Cinematheque begins their series on stop-motion animation this week.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    THE GOOD DINOSAUR (USA 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Peter Sohn

    Disney’s Pixar’s latest is, as expected, a marvel in innovative animation as evident in the scenes with the water of the falls and brooks and the fields of fireflies.  

    The story of THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a variation of boy and dog friendship only it is a dog and boy one, with the animal, in this case the dinosaur as the protagonist and the cave boy called Spot, the pet.  The story is the brainchild of Bob Peterson, the film’s initial director who was later replaced by Peter Sohn due to, according to Disney, story problems.  For the story, firstly, Disney has to make sure the audience is educated with the correct facts.  It is 65 millions years back and a meteorite headed for the planet Earth misses it.  Several millions of years later, the story unfolds which pits a boy and a dinosaur together.  Dinosaurs would have been destroyed by the meteorite and the years later allows both species to survive at the same time.

    The dinosaur family farms the land.  Mother (Frances McDormand) and Father (Jeffrey Wright) watch their three eggs hatch into Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and the littlest Arlo (Ramond Ochhoa) who of course, is the film’s protagonist.  Arlo is timid, clumsy and frail.  While chasing a human boy stealing the family’s grain, Arlo and is swept with the boy into the river that takes them miles and miles downstream.  The rest of the film is their journey back home.  Arlo and the human run through a lot of interesting adventures during their journey home.  The loose narrative allows the film to take liberties with animation, thus ‘wowing’ the audience at the same time.

    These include encounters with characters like a pink cobra, T-Rexes who are farm ranchers breeding leghorns and pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn).  But the best of these is styracosaurus (voiced by director Sohn himself) (see photo inset) whose remarks on his bird protectors are so funny and inventive, it is worth the price of the movie ticket itself.  

    The main star of the film is the landscape of snow-capped mountains, forests, rivers, falls and country.  The film blends real landscape that looks like the U.S. midwest with the animation.

    THE GOOD DINOSAUR lies in the average range of Pixar films, better than CARS and its sequel but tads below the TOY STORYs.  Still, Disney should rake in quite a profit from the toys derived from this film which cost just under $200 million to make. ‘Plush’ toy versions of the dinosaur are already in the stores for Christmas.

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

    JAMES WHITE (USA 2015) **
    Directed by Josh Mond

    JAMES WHITE is an autobiographical film about a character called James White (Christopher Abbott) based on the director’s experience in life with his mother’s recent death with cancer in 2011.  White’s mother is played by SEX AND THE CITY’s Cynthia Nixon, herself a cancer survivor whose mother also died of cancer.

    The film begins with James White leaving a club getting in a cab with his head phones on.  He is in his own world - comfortable or uncomfortable as the case may be, but it is his world.  He is sort of a mama’s boy, living at home. The film has a segment with James arguing with his mother.  He claims to be looking after her as she is ill with cancer while she calls him a free-loader.  This leaves the audience to decide what James is - though it is not always as clear as black and white.

    There is not much of a story in the film.  It is more a character study of a person stuck in a rut, unable to get out either because of his mother or because he is unable to break free of his own self destructiveness.

    Director Mond spends half the movie showing James’ self destructiveness.  His best friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi) is unable to help him.  James tells his mother he is going to Mexico to clear his mind, get in shape and to return to NYC to get his act together.  Instead, he ends up picking up girls on the beach.  It is also hard to be sympathetic for someone who shows up late and unprepared for an important job interview or picks up girls with horrid lines like, “Do you do acid?”  The other half of the time of the film is devoted to the constant bickering between mother and son.  It does not help that mother is half mental and subject to bouts of depression and forgetfulness.

    It would be helpful if director Mond gave James a few redeeming qualities.  He is so self destructive that one wants more misfortune to fall on him with the hope that maybe he will learn a life lesson.  But still no such luck.  The only redeeming quality is his love for his mother.  Mond pushes the limit further when James lies to her that he got a job.  Is he doing some good or more bad here?

    The music is scored by Scott Mescudi also known as ‘Kid Mescudi’.  Apparently, director Mond listened to his music which provided him therapy during his mother’s illness.

    Mond stays away from the Hollywood ending in which the main character redeems himself and mother and son are brought together in loving reunion.   Here, James is still destructive James, and the film has an open ending.  

    Though there is nothing really wrong with this film, there is nothing much right either.  And there is nothing to draw the a audience to pay to see such pain on screen.  And once into the film, there is nothing that will keep the audience excited or educated either.

    Of all the performances, Cynthia Nixon delivers an unforgettable one.  Ron Livingston has a nice turn as the job interviewer forced to be nice to James White who shows up late and unprepared for his interview.  This makes one of the film’s most interesting segments.  But this is not saying much a the movie is is consists of one bad incident after another. JAMES WHITE makes a good companion piece to the other recent feel bad movie about another self destructive character - ENTERTAINMENT.

    Trailer:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdw828U3KMY

    VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (USA 2015) ***

    Directed by Paul McGuigan

    One wonders if the word ‘brave’  be the best word used to describe 20th Century Fox’s retelling of the Frankenstein tale after the disastrous attempts in 2014 of retelling both the Frankenstein tale in I, FRANKENSTEIN and the Dracula tale in DRACULA UNTOLD.  In the former film, Frankenstein is saved by Gargoyles and resurrected to modern times in the fight between good and evil while for the latter, Dracula allows himself to turn into a supernatural monster to protect his tribe.  

    But the one difference to the VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN film is that this story stays true to the Mary Shelley roots.  Though quite a few liberties have been taken with the story, it is still the basics with the mad genius Frankenstein creating life in the monster with the help of hunched back Igor, with the monster finally destroyed at the very end.

    In this twist of the classic horror tale, the story is told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) point of view).  Never mind, Igor is not a true hunchback but has a huge abscess that is removed by Frankenstein after being rescued from the London circus.  Igor is supposedly a physician by nature and of brilliant mind.  So, the two begin their quest to resurrect life, Igor ’s conscience getting in the way, yet he is grateful to Frankenstein (James McAvoy) for giving him a new life.  A romantic element is added.  Igor loves a trapeze artist (why not the bearded lady?) by the name of Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).  But Victor's experiments go too far and his obsession has horrifying consequences.  Only Igor can bring his friend back from the brink of madness and save him from his monstrous creation.   Another element is brought into the story, which actually is the most interesting part of the film.  Frankenstein is being investigated for possible crimes by Scotland Yard.  An over-enthusiastic Inspector (Andrew Scott) will risk his life to prevent who he believes is Satan recreating life.

    British director Paul McGuigan (TV’s Sherlock), who I admire directs all the action with  lots of tongue in cheek, but with more restraint than Guy Ritchie in the SHERLOCK HOLMES movies.  His early film GANGSTER No.1 which starred and brought its main lead Paul Bettany to fame, remains my favourite, a film I saw in London that was never released in North America.  But when VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is turned into an action film, as in the ridiculous beginning sequence in which Frankenstein and Igor fight the circus, it falls apart.  Thankfully, there are not many of these sequences, except for the ending fight with the monster, which is barely acceptable.

    The performances of the two leads are quite in contrast.  Radcliffe goes more for quiet pensiveness while McAvoy overacts and chews up the scenery.

    One warning is that the film is not loud, but extremely loud with the volume turned up several notches.  Besides McCoy screaming most of the time, trap doors slamming shut, the noisy machinery and scientific apparatus and the electricity and the voltage screeching, McGuigan’s fondness of using closeups almost guarantee the audience a headache.  

    But the gothic atmosphere and horror of the Shelley tale are kept intact.  No doubt the mad genius and monsters are present, but the story’s twist still pays respect to the original tale, which is what is important.

    Still this is a Hollywood Frankenstein film despite its British locations and actors, with more action than horror.  Like it or hate it, but at least it is better made than DRACULA UNTOLD and I FRANKENSTEIN.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pxZxY_Siyc

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: ROOM

    Best Action: SPECTRE

    Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

    Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

    Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: BROOKLYN

     

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 20, 2015)

    Opening this week are THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 and THE NIGHT BEFORE.  If Hollywood films are not your cup of tea, other films opening include I SMILE BACK, BROOKLYN and MAN UP.  Two super documentaries DRONE and PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT are worth a look.

    FILM REVIEWS:

    BROOKLYN (Ireland/UK/Canada 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by John Crowley

    The luck of the Irish!  Quiet Eilis (Saoirse Ronan from HANNA and ATONEMENT) lands the opportunity to lead a better life as an immigrant in Brooklyn.  At first lonely, she then meets an Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) and marries him quietly before visiting her homeland due to the sudden death of her sister, Rose.  Torn between looking after her mother, a new beau (Domhnall Gleeson) and her marriage to Tony, she must decide whether to stay or return to her husband.  

    John Crowley’s (ABOUT A BOY) film, adapted by Nick Hornby (AN EDUCATION and ABOUT A BOY), based on Colm Tóibín's novel is exquisitely shot and almost perfect in every way, looking something very close to BBC’s Masterpiece Theatre.  Everything from the boarding room dinner meals, to Eilis’ man troubles and solutions are all too well staged.  The film is almost too perfect in its execution - nothing really wrong with that, as the film is entertaining enough, but there is hardly a surprise or shock which sometimes is needed to jolt a audience out of its complacency.

    Shot in Montreal  standing in fro Brooklyn and the Irish town where Ronan is from.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IM1XhTxPAE

    DRONE (Norway/USA/Pakistan 2014) ***1/2

    Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

    Can ex-President George Bush be more hated?  Can the U.S. after Guantanamo Bay violate more human rights?  Can the U.S. kill more innocent people on the pretext on halting terrorism?   One would hope that the answer to these questions would be a ‘no’, but DRONE, the new English language documentary from Norway proves otherwise. 

    There have been many films on drones including one called DRONES, the last one being the fictional film with Ethan Hawke called GOOD KILL.  But DRONE is the only one that demands to be seen.  Why?  Because DRONE has a human story that needs to be told.

    DRONE looks at the covert CIA drone war.  Through voices on both sides of this new technology, DRONE reveals crucial information about the drone war, primarily in Pakistan and offers unique insights into the nature of drone warfare.  As in documentaries of this nature, it incites the wrath of its audience for whatever injustice covered, shows what can be done and leaves the rest to the audience and the world.

    There are three heroes in the film, the first obviously being the writer/director Schei (actually a heroine as Schei is female) of the documentary.  The other is British activist and humanitarian Clive Stafford Smith, which the camera follows around Pakistan championing the course.  The third unlikely hero is the ex-drone operator Brandon Bryant who is brave enough to shed light on what it is like to kill innocent people from a distance - a case of point, click, kill.  He confesses on camera that he has killed over 500 people in this manner and of these how many are actually bad people.  He says he cannot live with it and often would rather take a bullet to his brain for what he describes himself as a worthless piece of s***.  But this hero ends up testifying at the U.N.  revealing the inhumanity of U.S. drone operations.  The film compares him to being labeled a traitor (as in Edward Snowden) for being a whistle blower going against the U.S. military.

    But other heroes demanding mention include Shahzad Akba, a Human rights lawyer, Founder of Foundation for Fundamental Rights and Noor Behram, a journalist photographer in Pakistan, human beings risking their lives to tell the story.

    The film also questions the psychology of drone warfare.  The psychology of distance is brought into focus where distance equals indifference.  It is so much easier to kill from a distance.  And the U.S. is doing just that now without having to sacrifice any ground troops.

    But Schei goes a bit far to say that President Obama dismantled Guantanamo Bay because he knows that he no longer needs to hold suspects but can kill them using drone warfare.  But one can understand Schei’s anger at this point.  But she goes on to show that it is not only the U.S. but 87 countries in total that condone such warfare.

    What Americans do not realize is the awful truth that “There has never been any technology of warfare that isn’t ultimately adopted by ones enemy or enemies.”  The film quotes the above saying followed by an aerial shot of lower Manhattan.  Schei has made her point effective.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i43vSC-dTC0

     

    THE HUNGER GAMES - MOCKINGJAY PART 2 (USA 2015) ***
    Directed by Francis Lawrence

    There are a lot of ‘finals’ in this 4th instalment of THE HUNGER GAMES film franchise.  For one it is the final film in the series, the final of the two parts novel on the Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins which the film is based and also the swan song of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (though his performance was banked before his death).  It is also the last blockbuster from Lionsgate, the company whose stock price has soared from the TWILIGHT and HUNGER GAMES films.  As the final film, it should break all previous box-office records, as most final films of a franchise does.

    The plot for this film is fairly simple.  Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is to lead the rebels of District 2 and District 13 to invade Panem, liberating its citizens and assassinate the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  As this is the last film, the quest is fulfilled.  

    But the subplots and spin-off side plots are more interesting.  One includes a significant plot twist involving the rebel leader (Julianne Moore).  The romance between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcheerson) is revived and relevant. “Stay with me..” “Always’, efficient dialogue that gets the point across.  Still the dialogue could be more polished.  Gale (Liam Hemworth) says in one scene: “You got two choices “Enter or flush our the enemies”.  The same grammatical error occurs here as in many films.  (The Bond film SPECTRE gets it perfect with Bond facing ‘a choice’.)  It is a choice not two choices.  But a lot of the dialogue make no sense at all and are there just to give the characters speaking parts.

    The special effects with crumbling buildings, firepower and especially the segment where Katniss and gang fight the skeleton things are impressive and better than the previous films.

    The entire Katniss gang is present in the film, which should not disappoint fans.  In her fight, Katniss is again teamed with a group of her closest friends – including Gale (Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and Peeta (Hutcherson).  Other characters like her fellow victors, Johanna (Jena Malone), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) who control most of Panem are also present.

    One cannot complain about the performances, with many in the cast like Lawrence, Moore and Hoffman already Oscar winners.  But one would not expect really stellar turns in a teen action film.

    There is no ‘hunger games’ in this film.  The only one Katniss has to engage in is the one last challenge to win President Snow's "game" - to conquer the Capitol at the risk of losing her friends and loved ones.

    The film runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, but the film, thankfully moves fast.  MOCKINKJAY PART 2 contains more story and brings closure to the series.  Teen fans should not be disappointed as the film has what is expected and a bit more.  Others, like adults more interested in deeper cinematic fare will still be left wondering why THE HUNGER GAMES is so popular among teens.

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

    I SMILE BACK (USA 2015) **
    Directed by Adam Salky

    The feel lousy film of the year, I SMILE BACK is a film that focuses on the self destruction of a middle aged housewife who attempts one last attempt at redemption.

    For an 85-minute film, the film is full of incidents, which unfortunately does not reveal more of her character but enforces it.  In the film’s beginning five minutes for example, the audience witnesses Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) naked bearing her breasts, having sex doggie style, snorting cocaine, talking trash during her family and husband Bruce’s (Josh Charles) dinner and rejecting the pet dog given to her.

    Based on the book by Amy Koppelman and adapted to the screen by her and Paige Dylan, this second feature by Adam Salky (DARE) follows the downward spiral of Elaine Brooks.  Difficult to reason why as she has a loving, steadfast husband, two terrific kids, Janey and Eli and a comfortable suburban home.  She has everything going for her, yet she's putting it all in danger.  Between dropping the kids off at school and doing the shopping, she does her trash including regular sex with her husband's best friend, Donny (Thomas Sadoski) who is about to become a father. When she can no longer hide her addictions, she agrees to go into rehab, but her too-brief stay isn't enough to alter a lifetime of self-medication or to heal the deep psychic wound underlying her wild behaviour.  Laney is on the road to recovery, but how far can she go without a map when temptation waits at every turn?

    Silverman’s performance is not bad though not as stellar as most critics have praised.  It is more of a brave performance in which Silverman is willing to discard her comedic roots - there is hardly a funny moment by her - and bare all, literally, to create her dramatic role.  But the film suffers from the limitation of the book, not going into more depth of its main character.  The source of Laney’s troubles is hinted as coming from her father, who is having a few problems of his own.  But it is not a convincing one for a woman who has it all destroy herself to this degree.  The film’s also hints at some mental problem of hers, but she is portrayed as a pretty sane person who is just uncontrollable.

    The open ending leaves the audience undecided as to whether Laney has redeemed herself or whether she is a total lost case or whether she will be given a last chance by her husband who just looks on.  One could also argue that it is a cop-out ending.

    Though the film is a frank account of a woman’s struggle to get back on her feet, it is hard for the audience to sympathize with Laney’s character given the circumstances laid upon her by the novel and script.  The script does not compromise, which in this case is both a good and bad thing.  

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTRqt4s64SE

    MAN UP (UK/France 2014) ***1/2

    Directed by Ben Palmer

    I am not one for romantic comedies.  In fact romantic comedies is the least liked of my film genres.  Worst still is one that features an insecure occasionally annoying, self-destructive female protagonist.  But MAN UP which is all of these, turns out to be a winning entertaining feel-good movie.

    The film is directed by Ben Palmer, famous for the INBETWEENERS, the full length movie and the TV series.  For those unfamiliar, the INBETWEENERS is a British teen comedy series, never released in North America, that became a bit hit in Britain.  (The Inbetweeners  are A-level students who are not geeks or the jocks but the ones that fall in-between.)  I have seen the first few of the series and they are very funny with a keen eye of observation of everyday life, a characteristic also present in MAN UP, which is the reason it works so well.

    Based on a screenplay by Tess Morris, the film follows a single 34-year-old woman, Nancy (Lake Bell), who after being mistaken for a stranger's blind date, finds the perfect boyfriend in a 40-year-old divorcee, Jack (Simon Pegg).  She keeps the truth from him pretending to be Jessica (Ophelia Lovibond).  As in all romantic comedies, the obstacle (in this case, the truth) almost prevents the couple from the happy ending but love eventually triumphs all.

    The film’s distracting subplots involve Nancy missing her parents’ anniversary while going on her unexpected date.  On Jack’s side, there is the meeting at a bar of his ex-wife and boyfriend.  Though all these might sound frivolous, the incidents are blended in appropriately and with lots of humour.  Another winning ploy involves the introduction of the character of Nancy’s old high school stalker fling, Sean played hilariously by Rory Kinnear.  Rory is the son of actor/comedian Roy Kinnear (JUGGERNAUT), showing off his dad’s talent for comedy.

    An added bonus is the film’s recognizable shooting locations in and around London.  These include Soho, the trendy South Bank among others.

    Besides the apt direction and bright script, it is the chemistry between Bell and Pegg that makes the film tick.  They are able to depict both a loving and arguing couple, but either way, one which the audience cannot take their eyes of.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QgPlqoxu4M

    THE NIGHT BEFORE (USA 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Jonathan Levine

    THE NIGHT BEFORE is a Christmas movie opening way before Christmas in November.  Judging from sun past movies, these early festive offerings are usually quite bad.  Thankfully, THE NIGHT BEFORE does not fall into that category.  It is a film smart enough to keep the tiding of good cheer and messages low and uninhibited humour alive.

    THE NIGHT BEFORE refers to the one before Christmas when three friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen), and Chris (Anthony Mackie) make it an annual tradition of drunkenness and debauchery.   Now that they're entering adulthood, the they make this the last night of the tradition.  One of their quests in the past is to find the ultimate party of parties - the Nutcracka Ball.  Ethan happens to find three tickets, steals them and the three find themselves there in the film’s hilarious climax.

    Co-written by Evan Goldberg (THIS IS THE END) and director Jonathan Levine, among others, the film reunites Levine with Gordon-Levitt and Rogen since their hit film 50/50, a comedy about dying from cancer.  So while the laughs are aplenty, one might expect a curve ball of drama thrown in.  But thankfully, the film is more hilarity than drama with lots and lots of high jinx from the three friends.  The only message in the film is the importance of friendship.

    The film has an impressive cast of cameos that include James Franco and Miley Cyrus who croons an off-coloured song.  These two are willing to join in the naughty games.  Michael Shannon has a great supporting role as the trio’s drug dealer who has a secret identity, revealed at the end of the film.

    But the prized performance comes from Seth Rogen who has never been funnier.  He gets too high on the drugs given to him as a  reward by his wife, Betsy (Jillian Bell).  His character, Isaac has no clue where he is at or what he is doing during half of the movie - and he provides the film’s biggest laughs, the best one in the midnight mass segment.  Gordon-Levitt plays the straight role of the hapless lover and Anthony Mackie provides good back-up.  Mindy Kalin is surprisingly funny too as Sarah, the girl taunted by the over-high Isaac.

    The Christmas film also blends in the Catholics, the Jewish Hanukkah and the traditional Christian in their celebrations.  These are tied in with the religion of the three friends.

    The script is smart enough not to be too goody-two shoes.  It is not doubt tempting to have one of the characters, the weed stealing Rebecca (Ilana Glazer) be converted and redeemed for her bad deeds.  But she is left as she is a bad girl who in the film ends up teaching Chris a moral lesson.

    THE NIGHT BEFORE is hilarious, spirited adult comedy, the type expected by the Rogen gang.  Definitely not the typical Christmas family film, and that is a good recommendation.

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

    PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT (USA 2015) ***1/2
    Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland

     

    PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT, a documentary on the grande dame of art is the perfect outing for art enthusiasts.  It celebrates Guggenheim, her art collection and her artists who range far and wide.  For others less in the know, the film also serves as a valuable education and a beneficial and entertaining  journey into the art world.

    With more than 30 years since the death of Peggy Guggenheim in 1979, the documentary on Guggenheim by Lisa Immordino Vreeland finally gives her, her due.  The documentary is further enhanced by the discovery by the director of the lost tapes of Guggenheim’s last interview with Jacqueline B. Weld, who Guggenheim loves to describe as her ‘biographer’.  When this information is shared with the audience, the film goes right away into ‘tape interview’ mode where Guggenheim’s voice can be heard voice-over.  But she serves to put direction into this informative documentary.

    Vreeland’s documentary questions the lady and her work.  Is her art collection the sole reason Guggenheim got so famous or was it her character?  The answer is both.

    Guggenheim loves colour.  Guggenheim loves the love affairs and the men around her.  She pines about getting old describing it the worse thing that can happen.  She will risk her life for her art collation as proven by the risks she took to get her art out of Europe during World War II.  She loves to throw parties with horrid food.  But she is a sad soul.  Her father died on the Titanic with a final message he wired of going down like a gentleman.  Her two sisters both died, one taking the lives of her two children with her, jumping from building.  Her own daughter married a drunk artist that led to her suicide.  Vreeland shows Guggenheim to be a character that demands attention and one that is desperate to escape the eccentricities of her wealthy family.  One would imagine that there be more dirt in the life of Guggenheim.  But Vreelan treats her with the utmost respect, often bringing things to her point of view.

    Vreeland next shows not only the art but how Guggenheim was an important force in both recognizing the talents in the art world and bringing them to notice in the world, particularly  in London, NYC and Venice.  Her greatest discovery, in her own words was Jackson Pollock.  There are clips of him at work.  Others like Motherwell, Picasso, Dali, Rothko and Ernst (whom she married) are included.

    Though not directly connected with the subject, Vreehand dishes out a few film clips, though one must confess are a delight to watch.  These include a clip of Salvador Dali’s design in Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND and a few avant-grade films like Hans Richter’s “Dreams that Money Can Buy”.

    The end credits reveal the huge source of material available to Vreehand for her documentary on Guggenheim.  And with this comes a large pack of information dished out resulting in the film being a great artistic outing at the movies.

    Trailer: https://vimeo.com/143648329

     

    SECRET IN THEIR EYES (USA 2015) *

    Directed by Billy Ray

    SECRET IN THEIR EYES is based on the 2009 Argentinian/Spanish film of the same name that went on to win the coveted Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  The title refers to the look in the eyes of the killer.  The investigators attend a football game in a huge stadium and identify the killer from the look in his eyes.  Sounds incredible for a plot?  But that film carried it off believably.  In the 2015 Hollywood version, the killer’s identity is already known.  In the stadium sequence, no eyes are needed.  This shows that the filmmakers have no confidence in the material.  The result is still an unbelievable film where coincidence after coincidence occur one after another without much effort put in to make credibility believable.

    What is left intact in the story involves a team of FBI investigators, Ray (Ejiofor) and Jess (Roberts), and their District Attorney supervisor Claire (Kidman), all of whom are torn apart when they discover that Jess's teenage daughter has been brutally and inexplicably murdered. Thirteen years later, Ray returns to Los Angeles after uncovering a new lead that he feels can permanently solve the case.  In the original film, it is not the daughter but the wife of the colleague that is raped and murdered.

    There has not been a single worthwhile film Kidman has made in a long while.  She is on a run on horrid films.  And her acting does not help either.  Ejiofor fares no better.  The acting of the two is made worse by a script that insists a romance is budding between the two characters.  This is a major gamble as it involves an an inter-racial affair that does not pay off.  Director Ray seems to be aware of the situation.  The supposedly torrid affair takes place with a peck on the cheek and a hand placed over the other’s hand.  Still these two scenes are uncomfortable enough as they are unbelievable.  Julia Roberts looks old in her role as Claire, the mother of the murdered daughter.  When Ray says she looks a million years old in one scene, he is not kidding.

    For a mystery film, Ray’s film is pretty boring.  The pacing is poor with too much dialogue happening in the first half hour.  One would imagine that the film might at least be on par if not an improvement of the original, which the director would have an opportunity to view.  Ray’s clumsy use of flashbacks does not help the audience in following the story.  For a uncomplicated plot, the film is difficult to follow.  The film also glamourizes police brutality.

    The stadium chase scene, a highlight in the Argentine film is replicated here.  But it is simplified as the original chase coincided with a scored goal, the goal omitted in this version.

    SECRET IN THEIR EYES turns out surprisingly boring for a film that contains so many credibility plot holes.  In the end, no one really cares about the killer.  The audience can only shrug when the real killer is revealed in another unbelievable twist in the plot.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3b0PFCrayE

     

     

    BEST BETS:

    Best Film Playing: ROOM

    Best Action: SPECTRE

    Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

    Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

    Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

    Best Drama: BROOKLYN

  • This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 13, 2015)

    Opening this week are THE 33 and the Christmas comedy LOVE THE COOPERS.  Other films opening include the limited release of BY THE SEA, the weird drama comedy ENTERTAINMENT, and drama SPOTLIGHT.

    The European Union Fim Festival (Free!!!) also begins its two week run.  There are a lot of good films here.  Check out separate article.

     

    FILM REVIEWS:

    BY THE SEA (USA/France 2015) **
    Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt

    By the sea… by the wonderful sea!  At 132 minutes, this overlong Angelina Jolie Pitt (since when did she change her name to Jolie Pitt?) self indulgent romantic rubbish is far from wonderful.  The last time a powerhouse Hollywood couple made a movie about their troubled marriage in an exotic location, the end was their real life divorce - a case of life imitating art.  It was BOOM! with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Burton as drunk half the time with the director Joseph Losey, but that was a perfect camp unforgettable camp film.  BY THE SEA, in contrast is a heavy load, with few strands of comedy.

    The setting is a seaside resort in France supposed in the 70’s judging from the clothes, vintage telephones and dress.  The visiting couple is one that has grown part.  Vanessa (Jolie) is an ex-dancer, likely extremely famous in her hey day, but now retired because of as in her own words, ‘old age’.  Jolie’s idea of old age is something else.  The husband is chain-smoking Roland (Brad Pitt) with a writer’s block.  They do not have sex any more.  When a newly wed couple Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) move into the next hotel room, they watch them having sex, because of the convenient hole at the convenient position for them to observe all.  All this brings about more chaos in the couple’s lives, something that the audience can only watch at a distance sans interest.

    The metaphor of the fisherman taking his boat out every morning and returning very evening is explained and overused in this un-subtle script, written by Jolie.  There is a surprise revelation at the film’s end which makes one wonder how autobiographical this story of the Hollywood couple really is.

    Pitt does Pitt and Joli does Joli with characters one expects of the Hollywood couple.  Cesar Winner Niels Arestrup (as Michel, the lovelorn bar owner) plays Roland’s patient listening ear while an unrecognizable Richard Borringer has little to do as the hotel owner.  One can imagine a larger role written for the hotel owner but it being cut out due to the already overlong film.  Laurent and Poupard have not much to do either but to flaunt their youthful bodies.  Pitt still looks incredibly sexy but Jolie looks anorexic unless clothed fully.

    Jolie loves to pay attention to details, like the camera focusing on the appearance of a cat, or her sunglasses being turned to face the correct way by Roland.  Trouble is that these details stand for no purpose nor do they propel the story or enhance any importance to a scene.

    But at least the film looks great with its likely costly production values.  The sun drenched seaside landscape looks very inviting, but one can only imagine the place being only available to the rich and famous.

    BY THE SEA is still a watchable time waster, because Pitt and Jolie are stars, and there is a reason they are stars.  They are able to draw audiences into their world, whether relevant or not.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8lMbJTsUGU

    ENTERTAINMENT (USA 2014) ***1/2
    Directed by Rick Alverson

    Directed and co-written by Rick Alverson, Tim Heidecker and the film’s lead actor Greg Turkington, ENTERTAINMENT is far from entertaining as far as the meaning of the word goes. The film is about a stand-up comic who supposedly entertains, or so he thinks, but neither he nor the film entertains.  But the film isn’t half as bad.  A non entertaining film need not necessarily be a bad one as Rich Alverson’s rare film proves.

    The main protagonist is one dead beat loser of an unfunny standup comedian.  But one will laugh at him and not at his jokes.  The comedian (Turkington) has gigs in prisons where they are forced to listen or watering dives where the drunks do not want to listen.  When they heckle him, he (no name is given to this character in the film) goes on a rampage insulting them to no end.  There is one segment when he gets on the case of a lady who happens to make a bit of noise during his routine.  He calls her a whore and hurls real nasties at her to the point that she lays wait and beats him up when he exits the bar. 

    No name is given to the character likely because he might not deserve one or that he stands for the ‘rest of the world’ - the ones who are unsuccessful, do not make it and are forgotten.

    When the film opens, the comedian is en route to meet his estranged daughter and attempting to revive his dwindling career, a broken, aging comedian play in a string of dead-end shows in the Mojave desert.  He never succeeds in either as this is not the purpose of Alverson’s film.  The purpose is questionable - perhaps to show how dead beats behave, as there have never been so many deadbeats in any one film seen this year.

    Do not expect to laugh at any of the comedian’s jokes either, because they are downright awful.   An example: What is the difference between Courtney Love and the American flag?  You don’t piss on the American flag.  He also spews a lot of ‘why’ jokes such as “Why don’t rapists eat at T.G.I. Friday’s?”  Because rapists cannot rape with a stomach ache.   He does get a laugh from the last one, delivering that one up in a prison.  The comedian does his routine in a nasal voice, breathing heavily and a drink in hand with never a smile on the face.

    Turkington knows his character and delivers it.  Turkington is an ugly man, always hunched with bad posture, thin with a gut and pale as a ghost.  To make matters worse, he wears cheap suits has his tie crooked and slicks his hair back showing his retreating hairline.  John C. Reilly has a supporting role as a cousin, an equal dead beat of a loser, who pretends to like the comedian’s material only trying to make a buck out of representing him.  Tye Sheridan plays his warm up opener, offering dirty humour dressed as a clown.  The best and most awkward scene (besides the baby delivery in the washroom) is  the one with Michael Cera (in a cameo) as a young hustler trying to make a quick buck in the toilet.

    Alverson has no sympathy for his character and neither expects his audience to have any.  He plays it as it is.  The results a very awkward film that will obviously not cater to the average filmgoer.  So stay away if you are not up to this kind of thing.  But ENTERTAINMENT is quite the odd film of the year.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laCKBx6dmW8

    THE GAMES MAKER (Argentina/Canada/Italy/Colombia 2014) ***

    Directed by Juan Pablo Buscarini 

    THE GAMES MAKER is an ambitious handsome production shot largely in Argentina and based on the best selling novel The Inventor of games by Pablo De Santis.

    Shot in English to be marketed to English speaking countries, THE GAMES MAKER has a latino look, no doubt about that.  Even actor Joseph Fiennes is made up, moustache and all to look latino.  The protagonist is a young boy with huge dreams.  It is a fairy tale that most boys and adults can identify with, but strong female content is also included for the sake of the female audience.  

    The Game Maker of the film title is young Ivan Drago (David Mazouz).  When the film opens, the audience is informed of his love for games.  In Ivan’s world, games are everything until a twist of fate lands him a comic book with a game making contest.  But father (Tom Cavanagh) wants his only son to be a sportsman but Ivan is terrible at anything physical, as demonstrated in a few funny vignettes.  Ivan enters a game making competition, encouraged by his mother (Valentina Lodovini) keeping all this a secret from father.  Winning first prize allows Ivan to escape to the town of Zyl, where he meets his long lost grandfather (Edward Asner), after losing his parents in a hot balloon.  There is a bit where Ivan is forced to live in a boarding school, which looks like Harry Potter’s school version of hell.  Believing his parents to still be alive, he goes against the villain Morodian (Joseph Fiennes) in a fight for life and death.

    The film contains stuff that boys dream off.  These include escape from a horrible school, a journey to a new place to search for dreams to come true, a romantic fling with a mysterious girl, Anunciacion (Megan Charpentier) and lots of magic.  The film has the look of Martin Scorcese’s HUGO, but not so pretentious.

    Youngster David Mazouz (best known as Bruce Wayne in GOTHAM) shows lots of enthusiasm in his role of Ivan.  Good to see too, Edward Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) in a rare role as the funny grandfather.

    The special effects are different and quite stunning.  The best of these is the sinking school.  Others include a climax involving a sweeping hot air balloon and a few magnificent sets like the fair setting.  The film contains 3 settings - Ivan’s home, boarding school and the town of Vyl.  But it is the weird assortment of supporting characters that keep interest strong.  Principal Possum (Raymond E. Lee) is sufficiently menacing and eccentric. 

    Though magical, weird and wonderful, the film lags over its length of close to 2 hours.  It could be edited to a short and sharp more effective 90 minutes without losing much of its magic.  Still THE GAMES MAKER is the rare original piece where the villain is not taking over the world and the film is not a 3D special effects action pic with objects thrown at the audience.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F66dsn_NLqo

    HEIST (USA 2015) **
    Directed by Scott Mann

    HEIST is a fast moving incident driven film about a heist involving a hijacked bus after a robbery.  All this proves too much to take for director Scott Mann and his scriptwriters Stephen Cyrus Sepher and Max Adamsresulting, in a too-many-plot holes unbelievable caper film.

    A single father, Luke Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from GREY’S ANATOMY) plans a heist to rob a casino owner, known s the pope (Robert de Niro) alongside his co-worker , Cox (Dave Baistisa last seen fighting Bond on the train in SPECTRE) in order to get the money to pay for treatment of his daughter's illness.  When things go awry, they are forced to hijack a bus.  A sympathetic cop, Kris (Gina Carano) helps out.

    There is too much going on in the film.  The fact that Luke is doing all this for his daughter in hospital will lift most eyebrows.  (Sob-sob!)  Luke gets to be the absolute good guy despite hijacking the bus.  The film’s story contains lots of loopholes that will not be mentioned in this review.  Will leave the fun for the audience to point them out one by one.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvJDL8v8lTk

     

    KILO TWO BRAVO (UK 2015) ***
    Directed by Paul Katis

    Films about explosives or land mines have always provided edge of the seat suspense, like LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR.  This is the second film this year about soldiers and land mines (the other being the Danish THE LAND OF MINE) and is just as exciting.  Both films are based on true stories.  Set in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2006, the story centres on a small group of soldiers positioned on a hilltop outpost in the country's rugged (and beautiful) interior  First time director Katis’ has created a film in which there is much waiting and watching.  The soldiers are basically stuck in a mined region with mines going off one after the other.  The soldiers have their limbs severed as they wait for the medical helicopter while being bandaged and given morphine.  Not an easy watch, but it is all true and shot with many segments in real time.

    Trailer: http://tiff.net/festivals/festival15/citytocitylondon/kilo-two-bravo

    LOVE  (France/Belgium 2015) ***

    Directed by Gaspar Noe

    Gaspar Noe is rightly known as l’enfant terrible du cinema.  Noe broke into the filmmaking scene with his one-hour CARNE followed by the one hour SEUL CONTRE TOUS a few years later.  In the latter film, he had a warning 10 minutes before the film ended for people to walk out if they cannot take violence, the clock ticking for a minute on screen while allowing people to leave.  At my screening, a few left during that minute, but a third of the auditorium cleared during the last 10 minutes.  In LOVE, a love story told from the sexual point of view, Noe seeks to provoke once again.  He opens the film with the lead character Murphy (Karl Glusman) cummng after being given a hand job by his girlfriend, the unstable Electra (Aomi Muyock) in a very erotic scene shot with filters to give the segment a sexy, forbidden look.

    Murphy receives a  phone call from Electra’s mother New Year’s morning saying that Electra has not been seen for days.  Murphy is now living with Omi (Klara Kristin) who happened to get pregnant as a result of Murphy's infidelity.  This unwanted pregnancy ended the relationship between Murphy and Electra on a sour note.  For the rest of this day, Murphy recalls his past with Electra, filled with drug abuse, rough sex, and tender moments.

    The name of the character Murphy was chosen as it was the maiden name of his mother Nora Murphy but one would guess it was likely used because of Murphy’s Law that is demonstrated in the film.  “If anything can go wrong, it will,” which applies to Murphy in the film.

    Noe’s film depicts a man’s world. Though there is little of the the female’s point of view, a lot is revealed of the man’s feelings.  Murphy’s feel on life, his emotions and explanations of his action are not inhibited.  His feelings are narrated out loud by his voice, like the way he discloses his displeasure of Omni’s living with him, his private space invaded and how he wishes her to be quiet and look after their kid.

    Movies play a big part in Noe’s life and in the film.  There is a poster of FREAKS and TAXI DRIVER in Murphy’s room.  And Murphy claims his favourite film is 2001, the director of which, Stanley Kubrick is Noe’s inspiration for his filmmaking.

    As for performances, the two actresses are women Noe met in a club while actor Glusman is an actor.  As for the multiple sex scenes, Noe claims he puts the actors in the appropriate positions and the actors take it to the next level, naturally.  The sex scenes are very erotic and sensual - no doubt about that.

    As in Noe’s other films, LOVE is difficult to watch, though not as difficult as IRREVERSIBLE and SEUL CONTRE TOUS.  Still Noe has proven himself a viable director whose work cannot be ignored. Again, see this one at your own risk.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62yCdFzP9Mc

     

    LOVE THE COOPERS (USA 2015) *
    Directed by Jessie Nelson

    LOVE THE COOPERS joins the ranks of Christmas films like CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS and NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION that open in November way before the festive season.  It not only keeps the tradition of being just plain awful films, but it breaks the ranks by being the most awful of them all.  And the worst is the director’s gall to compare it with the Frank Capra classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE at the end.

    Ambitious to a deadly fault, the script by Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU and STEPMOM) covers four generations of the Cooper family that come together Christmas eve for their dysfunctional family reunion.  As expected, there are too many characters in the film resulting in director Jessie Nelson doing more traffic control of which character is coming on next than actually directing a film.

    The matriarch and patriarch are Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and Sam (John Goodman) Cooper, their marriage falling part.  This is their supposedly last Christmas dinner with family and they will break the news.  It therefore does not take a genius to guess that the two will eventually get back together, after reliving old memories.  Coming for dinner is Charlotte’s estranged shoplifting sister, Emma (Marisa Tomei) and again it does not take anyone with an iota of intelligence. to guess that the enmity between the sisters will be wiped away.  Also coming for dinner is daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) who brings home a stranger, Joe (Jake Lacy) to prove she can meet a decent fellow.  Of course, the two will hit it off at the end.  So, all the plot points are predictable and cliched with nothing left to the imagination.  Most of the characters are annoying, Eleanor and Joe particularly as well as the other son, the unemployed snorting (why make him even more annoying?) Hank (Ed Helms), not to mention his kids.  Charlotte’s dad, Bucky (Alan Arkin) also shows up for dinner, with a stranger, a diner girl called Ruby (Amanda Seyfried) who is there for no real reason.  Bucky has a stroke in the middle of the dinner.  Has Alan Arkin never been in a movie lately that he does not fall ill or die?

    As for laugh out loud segments, there are hardly any, unless one belongs to the category of having a horrid sense of humour, laughing at anything remotely funny.  The guy sitting next to me at the promo scenting belonged to this category, giggling all the way through, snuggling close to his girlfriend - all the more reason for her to dump him.  There are a few sweet moments though like the segment when daughter Eleanor tells mother not to make ‘that face’, which she does subconsciously.  Another sweet moment has Charlotte and Sam riding a toboggan.The film has an impressive cast with others like Anthony Mackie, and June Squibb.  The task of narration is handed down to the family dog, voiced by Steve Martin.

    Rediscovery of family bonds, rekindling of lost relationships, new romances, spirit of Christmas?  These are items in a story that make the worst Christmas movies.  And LOVE THE COOPERS is no exemption - turning out to be a horrid evening out at the movies.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TSX_0rwPNc

    MAN VS. (Canada 2014) **
    Directed by Adam Massey

    MAN VS. what?  That is the question.  The film answers that question two thirds into the movie and that is where it starts getting silly and falling apart.

    Doug Woods (Chris Dimamantopoulos) is supposed to spend 5 days in the wilderness in the Canadian shield in northern Ontario, Canada for some silly reason like supporting his younger brother.  The script, co-written by Massey has Doug’s marriage in shambles, yet the wife is supportive of him, with Doug constantly receiving messages from her and their daughter while surviving the wilderness.  

    Two things allow the film to interest audiences.  One is the anticipation factor.  Massey creates quite a few of these.  When Doug makes camp, there is a background shot of a canoe rowing past.  The rabbit that he has hung on a tree is being lowered in the background while he goes to bed - though he does somehow eat the rabbit the next day, a fact of story inconsistency.  A scream is heard at night; the cell phone disappears; his chess game pieces have been moved.  All these serve to intrigue the audience though many are really left unexplained. “There is clearly someone out there,” Doug claims at one point.

    The second is the lead actor Chris Diamantopoulos’s presence.  He is a scene stealer and the script offers the excuse of a documentary being made of his trip to allow him to speak to the audience and thus keep the film’s story in perspective.

    So the magic question is who is out there?  Aliens, his friends or psycho mountain men?  The answer is revealed at the film’s 110 minute mark, and as mentioned before then gets silly and falls apart.  Pity!  The film also suffers from a satisfactory ending.

    To Massey’s credit, he does create an scary and a claustrophobic atmosphere despite the open spaces.  The landscape of the Canadian wilderness enhances the desperation of Doug’s situation.

    It is difficult to review more of this film without revealing the ending of MAN VS.  Massey’s film is not without merit, but he faces a difficult task given the main script plot.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pAqDqalqUk

    SPOTLIGHT (USA 2015) ***1/2

    Directed by Tom McCarthy

    SPOTLIGHT deals with the cover-up by the institution known as the Catholic Church of their priests committing the unspeakable sin of child molestation.  But it is not so much a revelation drama - as everyone knows the fact already after the news has already spread - but how the Boston Glove uncovered the fact.

    SPOTLIGHT is the account, based on actual events, that the words claim at the start of the film to add credibility of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that rocked the city and eventually the world.   The characters are the "Spotlight" team of reporters.  These are investigative reporters who pick a controversial topic and take it all out to provide readers of a story that would hopefully change lives.  When the new top editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes on board to put in some bite in the paper, new stories are sought.  He comes across a priest being accused of molestation which leads to his initiation of the year-long investigation covering a decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston's religious, legal, and government establishment, touching off a wave of revelations around the world.  This tense investigative dramatic-thriller traces the steps to one of the biggest cover-ups in modern times.

    The film is more a technical account of how the team discovered the facts and how they went about getting their information from the courts and past documents.  The script by director McCarthy and Josh Singer that won the Hollywood Screenwriter Award is a meticulously detailed account tracing the events, believably and comprehensively in an otherwise already too technical film.  The script intersperses human elements with just a few confrontational scenes, but enough to get the audience’s emotions riling.

    The team is made up of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams and Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), all aptly performed by the respective actors.  Stanley Tucci does a good turn as aiding lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, looking quite distinguished with his hair piece.

    Despite the controversial topic, the film manages to get its message across without resorting to any unnecessary disturbing scenes of child molestation.  It is a story already told, but still one in which the world has to be reminded of, so that the past sins will not be re-committed and the guilty punished.

    Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg5zSVxx9JM

     

     

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