The U.S. Thanksgiving this week sees a lot of early Wednesday openings. These include BLACK NATIVITY, OLDBOY, FROZEN and HOMEFRONT. More opening Friday that include THE ARMSTRONG LIE and PHILOMENA.
The Coen Brothers retrospective begin at the TIFF Cinematheque.
FILM REVIEWS: (more to be posted Friday)
THE ARMSTRONG LIE (USA 2013) **
Directed by Alex Gibney
THE ARMSTRONG LIE refers to the big lie sports cyclist celebrity American Lance Armstrong told the world that included his fans, his sponsors, his family and his friends. Finally in 2013, he admits to telling the big lie on the Oprah show resulting in the wrath of everyone.
Lance Armstrong had already won the title 7 times for Le Tour De France by 2009. He was then struck with cancer. Coming back and intending to be clean, he admits doing sports enhancing drugs. The doc documents all the people involved he has damaged by going on to say that he has lied. And on and on and on. It is easy to see the reason Gibney included all the footage as it was likely a lot of work to get what he shown on screen. But a lot of the footage is the same variation of the same lie. It is not necessary to know all the people involved with the lie.
But is more interesting in the film is to watch how a person like Armstrong can lie so defiantly on record. A film like this shows the lowest behaviour in human beings. And Armstrong comes across as just that – a lying, cheating over egoistic son of a bitch who will stop at nothing to further his own selfish aims (yes, a bit like Toronto’s major Rob Ford.)
Running overlong at over two hours, Gibney could have easily cut a more concise 90 minute film. Gibney did a whole lot of summarizing during the film’s last 10 minutes to bring it to an effective conclusion. He could have done so for the other rest of the film.
Fortunately Mongrel Media that is releasing this doc on low life scum like Lance Armstrong also has a doc on a saint that sacrifices all for the children in India entitled BLOOD BROTHER that should be seen to redeem ones faith in the human race.
BLACK NATIVITY (USA 2013) **
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU) proves herself too serious a director for the new African American contemporary update of the Nativity story, based on Langston Hughes’ celebrated play.
The film follows Langston (Jacob Latimore), a street-wise teen from Baltimore raised by a single mother, as he journeys to New York City to spend the Christmas holiday with his estranged grandparents Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). Unwilling to live by the imposing Reverend Cobbs' rules, a frustrated Langston is determined to return home to his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson). Langston embarks on a surprising and inspirational journey and along with new friends, and a little divine intervention, he discovers the true meaning of faith, healing, and family.
If the above story sounds too much even at Christmas, it is.
The songs vary from Gospel to rap. But none stand out, and some just really awful (motherless child). The film moves predictably towards the end when the entire family reunites in the church with Christian love and the congregation applauding. I never knew I had so many goose pimples.
Acting is just horrendous. But what can one expect? Whitaker is unable to save the show and his dead seriousness in the role of the grandfather makes this worse. As for the kid Latimore, I have never seen any live person who can pout as much as him. Mary J. Blige has a cameo role as a white-haired angel, if that is not enough to make one choke.
Lemmons emphasis the story milking it for every once of sentiment and song.
It is all a case of too much sweetness that it leaves an awful bad taste in the mouth. (See Image above) The best I can do is to politely shrug as I left the cinema at the end of the film.
FROZEN (USA 2013) ***
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Disney’s FROZEN is a wintry fairy tale set in a fairy tale like Kingdom of Arendelle, based loosely on THE SNOW QUEEN by the Brothers Grimm.
The story involves two Princesses of Arendelle: Elsa (stage star of RENT Idina Menzel), the soon-to-be Queen, and Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa has the ability to create snow and ice, yet has been suppressing these powers after a traumatic childhood incident involving her sister. After letting her icy powers get out of hand during her official July coronation, she goes into hiding, only for her emotions to trigger a magical, eternal winter that freezes the whole kingdom of Arendelle in solid ice. The arrogant Duke of Weselton (Alan Tudyk) plots to turn everyone against “the monster” Elsa for his own devilish needs. Sister, Anna, a fearless and daring optimist, journeys to find Anna to save the day.
The film is a bit serious for the typical Disney outing like the recent TANGLED, for example. But when she teams up with extreme mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff and reindeer sidekick Sven in an epic journey, encountering mystical trolls, a comical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), the film turns into lighter, comical mode. No need to say more abut the film as the happily ever after ending is expected.
The film poses a few but not insurmountable problems. For one, there are two beaus that Anna must decide on. But the script conveniently turns the first romancer into the bad guy. The opportunity of humour is less than in other animate features as the film’s tone is more serious in nature. But characters such as Olaf save the day. The lack of a super villain also hampers a more exiting climax.
FROZEN contains more songs than the typical Disney animation though only ‘the first is forever’ is memorable. The voice characterizations are mostly done by stage performers except for the lead Kristen Bell, likely to keep production costs down. But the animation is impressive, the one with Anna crossing the ice bridge as it forms demanding mention.
For holiday (American Thanksgiving and Christmas) entertainment, FROZEN should satisfy but it does not stand out as one of Disney’s more memorable outings.
HAWKING (UK 2013) ***
Directed by Stephen Finnigan
From his first book, ‘A Brief History of Time”, Professor and Doctor Stephen Hawkins has astounded the world for two reasons. Hawkins is arguably the most intelligent physicist still alive, and he has outlived his disease of ALs to the current age of 70.
HAWKING is the exhaustive and comprehensive story of this great man – humbled by the disease that sees a totally functioning mind in a totally failing body. The film also tracks his years from boy to undergraduate to doctor to author to the present right through two marriages. The film also contains extensive interviews with his first wife Jane, who were wed with Stephen for more than a decade. The voice heard through most of the film is that of Hawking before losing his ability to speak.
Physics especially the mathematics governing it is not something the layperson can easily understand. Though a film critic at present, I am an engineer by profession who studied two years of Physics in University. I can attest that the mathematics is both scary and difficult, But director Finnigan allows a few of the scientific intellectuals have their say. They speak of the concept of singularity and how the past has to be proven to be affected or unaffected by the present with the math that includes symbols of summation and probability density on paper. The diagrams on paper are what I recall to be similar to those found in my Quantum Physics studies. Though what is seen on screen brings back fond memories, they also recall hours of trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.
The film is fascinating primarily of its subject and how Hawking has survived so many near death experiences. It is also good to see how a human being has endured and won in his fight with the Grim Reaper. Also, that there are two good women who love and have given up their lives o be with a helpless man.
Ultimately HAWKING is less a documentary about science o about survival but about the triumph of the human spirit over the greatest adversity. Director Finnigan realizes this power of his film and fortunately gets his audience to feel the film’s highs.
HOMEFRONT (USA 2013) ****
Directed by Gary Fleder
This film has been touted as the film written by Sylvester Stallone. To the Stallion’s credit, scripts penned by him are actually quite good, a good example being the Oscar winning ROCKY which he starred and wrote. Being in countless action films, this is one man who knows his action material.
The most noticeable thing about HOMEFRONT is the tension that Stallone builds before each fight scene. At the start, the bully taunts the girl so much that when she eventually breaks his nose, the audience is at the point of cheering. The same goes when the protagonist Phil Broker has an encounter with the baddies. The torture segment also goes beyond the limit so that the audience is really riling before Broker gets his punches in. All this make perfect sense as director Fleder and writer Stallone pushes all the right though violent buttons.
The story has ex DEA agent Broker (Jason Statham) moving his daughter to new town. But the quiet that he expects is dashed when the bully his daughter had beaten up turns out to be the nephew of the meth drug lord, Gator Bodine (James Franco). Stallone’s script is smart enough to create a plausible villain who has same good points and business sense. He understands the meth business – which is that it is the distribution that counts. But the compromise is a less evil villain. The real nasty one with absolutely no redeeming qualities is Cyrus, and it is a shame that Broker has to fight Gator after Cyrus, forming a sort of anti-climax in the film. The story also assumes that Gator is totally over-the-top once his meth lab is destroyed. But forming new lab is not that difficult and it is the distribution rather than the production that makes the business, as had been established earlier on.
Kate Bosworth delivers an incredible performance, as the low life trashy mother of the bully. She belittles her husband though is addicted to the meth her brother Gator manufactures. Others like James Franco and Win Ryder are also good, but no one comes close to Bosworth.
Stallone’s script contains some sentimental rubbish involving the death of Broker’s wife from cancer. “I miss her till my stomach hurts,” cries Broker’s daughter.
The film contains some stunning photography as it is set in the south. The scene with Ryder driving a boat with her black hair blowing in the wind is worthy of mention.
Despite a few minor flaws, HOMEFRONT is an action film and the film more than delivers. It is also one of Jason Statham’s best films.
OLDBOY (USA 2013) ****
Directed by Spike Lee
OLDBOY is the long awaited Hollywood remake of the hit cult Korean classic made in 2003 of the same name by director Chan-wook Park. That film grossed less than $1million in the U.S., so this remake by Spike Lee will allow the fantastic yet credible story of an imprisoned man be told.
Spike Lee lands the director’s shoes and his adaptation of the story to the U.S. can be seen in certain scenes. As the imprisonment takes place for 21 years (but only 15 years in the Korean original), the news of events past can be seen to include the 9/11 and the Katrina Hurricane. (Lee made a documentary on Katrina a few years back.) But Lee’s version is a faithful adaptation, nevertheless, having kept the two original writers Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki to fashion the screenplay.
The film contains a few segments that is distinct Lee. When Joe finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room, there is a poster of a black bellboy with the words: ‘What Can We do To Improve Your stay?’ Later, Joe hallucinates the bellboy sitting on his bed.
The film benefits from one of the most underrated actors of all time – Josh Brolin (OLD COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). He is one hell of an actor and in this film, he undergoes both an emotional and physical transformation of his character (from a full gut to a lean 6-pack abs fighting machine.) Samuel L. Jackson plays the role of a real baddie - a sweet talking foul mouth motherf***ing son of a bitch who takes pleasure in torture. If one can remember the role he played in UNTHINKABLE, this role is pretty much in the same rein.
The story centres on a hard-drinking, obnoxious advertising executive, Joe Doucette (Brolin) who loses his job and his latest client. Joe is not a nice man. He hits on his client’s wife, vomits on the street and drinks himself to a stupor. Then one day, he is kidnapped and imprisoned for 21 years before being let go. During that time, his wife is raped and murdered with him being the prime suspect. His daughter grows up knowing very little, the police keeping the information from her in order to protect her. But Joe is let go after 21 years. As the ad of the movie asks: The question is not why he was imprisoned but why he was released. Joe attempts to find the answers with the aid of a beautiful young medical worker, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen).
For those who like a true mystery, OLDBOY more than does the trick. No one can guess what the kidnapper stranger is up to, even at the very end. The film has the most unexpected ending since THE SIXTH SENSE and PLANET OF THE APES.
Being not one who fancies remakes of foreign films, OLDBOY makes a welcome surprise. And after almost 10 years since the original was released, I had forgotten the entire story of the original.
PHILOMENA (UK/Ireland 2013) ****
Directed by Stephen Frears
Philomena is the name of an Irish Catholic woman who searches for her lost son, given up for adoption. Ex-BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) now a journalist aids her in the quest.
It all started in 1950s Ireland, when Catholic authorities shamed thousands of "fallen" Irish women into giving their children up for adoption, with no hope of ever seeing them again. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was one of these women. Director Stephen Frears tells her story in his new heartfelt drama, adapted by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope from a celebrated book by Martin Sixsmith. Based on that true story, Frears wrings out both tears and subtle laughter in a well-paced heart felt drama.
Dench and Coogan complement each other just as their characters do. Martin is cynical, angry and rude while Philomena is kind, polite and forgiving. The script uses the best and worst of their personalities. Lots of surprising twists too, in this human (and very gay positive) story that marks one of the best films of the year!
Best Bets of the Week:
Best Film Opening: Philomena
Best Film Playing: Philomena
Best Horror: Oldboy
Best Animation: Frozen
Best Action: Homefront
Best Documentary: Hawking