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This week's Film Reviews (March 1, 2013)

01 Mar 2013

Big Hollywood special effects flick JACK THE GIANT SLAYER as the teen comedy 21 & OVER debut this week.

FILM REVIEWS:

CALIFORNIA SOLO (USA) **1/2

Directed by Marshall Levy

Right on the heels of the Academy Awards Ceremonies last Sunday comes the ultimate anti-Academy Award film.  An American independent feature with no big stars, except for the lead Robert Carlyle (best known for TRAINSPOTTING, THE BIG MONTY and the Shane Meadows films), no glamour and few feel-good spots, CALIFORNIA SOLO, is not without charm.

The central character is Scots Lachlan (Carlyle) caught on a D.U.I. charge at the start of the film.  A past offence involving pot possession forces him to face immediate deportation with his lawyers just taking his money and unable to help.  This is not a story filled with happiness and joy but more heartaches and despair.  But Lachlan wants to stay in the U.S.  His efforts force him to confront the film’s key issues such as personal redemption, immigration and the U.S. judicial system.

Though I would normally root for the independent feature made with decent efforts, CALIFORNIA SOLO still comes off as a boring story about a man who has not expelled his past demons and gone on with his wife.  One scene has him saying that no one in the world would give a rat’s ass what happens to him.  Unfortunately, that is the same way his character comes across to the audience.  The subplot involving a little romance is not that exciting either.  Though Robert Carlyle is super as the loser Scotsman delivering an utterly down-to-earth performance, there is nothing really in this film that would draw an audience to the cinema.  But director Levy has a nice surprise in the form of the original song crooned by Carlyle midway through the picture.  The ending of the film is realistic an outcome that can be imagined but it fails to pack any punch.

THE GATEKEEPERS (Israel/France/Germany/Belgium 2012) ****
Directed by Dror Moreh


Nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, Dror Moreh’s THE GATEKEEPERS is as riveting a documentary that can be called one.

At the film’s start, the titles say that six former heads of Shin Bet (Israel’s secret service) have never been interviewed before.  So, it is no small feat that director Moreh has convinced them to agree to discuss their careers on camera for the first time, giving
the audience an insider’s guide to five decades of Israeli history.

Though it may be touted that this film would do more for a message of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis than what politicians could achieve in a decade, THE GATEKEEPERS also depicts the ferocity and anger of each side.  Surprisingly, the film does not takes sides, though it is an Israeli production.

Yes, the interviews are rivetting.  These are six important personnel who has the control of life and death at their fingertips.,  They give the go on whether a bomb should be dropped in the middle of a densely populated city zone or not.  Charged with overseeing Israel’s war on terror – both Palestinian and Jewish – these men were present at the crossroad of every decision made.  They reflect on their successes and failures, they ponder why, 45 years after the Six Day War, Israel has not been able to turn that battlefield victory into long-lasting peace.  As they reconsider their hard-line positions, the six as a group (and each man individually) now advocate a conciliatory approach based on a two-state solution.  The film serves as a history lesson as well as on of ethics.  Whether one knows very little about the Six Day War and conflict or is fluent, THE GATEKEEPERS has lessons to be learnt.

The film also contains choice quotes.  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  “Victory is to see the other side suffer.”  The film also takes a good look at torture methods and their effectiveness.  All the material is supplemented by newsreel footage making the documentary even more chilling.  The most chilling segment is the re-enactment of the bombing of a terrorist housse.

THE GATEKEEPERSS may be too intense a film to win the Oscar for Best Documentary.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful conversation piece on the topic of peace and war.

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (USA 2013) ***1/2

Directed by Bryan Singer


Not a remake of the Nathan Juran’s fantasy tale JACK THE GIANT KILLER that starred Kerwin Matthews, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, however follows the rules of the Juran’s flick, keeping what’s right and updating it to current audiences.

JACK THE GIANT KILLER has farm boy Jack rescue a princess from an evil warlock who uses giants to accomplish his bad deeds.  Though here is no evil warlock, the proposed betrothed, Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to the princess, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) is the villain of the piece.  He intends to use the giants from another world conquer the princess’s kingdom and then the rest of the world.  But Jack, also a farm boy (Nicholas Hoult) saves the day as well as wins her heart.

Though shot in 3D and also presented in IMAX 3D, the special effects are not in the action scenes but in the props.  The beanstalk that leads to the giant’s world is a masterwork in special effects.  So engrossed is director Singer with the beanstalk that a full third of the film is devoted to climbing the giant vine.  The first giant appears only a third through the movie.

Though an American production, all the actors are British, speaking with a slight accent, that suits fairy tales of this sort.  Singer concentrates on story than action.  The romantic element is strong and works well to establish a strong narrative.  Though predictable in storyline, the special effects and performances from the able cast more than makes up for it.  Ewan McGregor is excellent as the self assured King’s man, Elmont as Hoult is boyish as the handsome farm boy.  

Treated as a fairy tale, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is a family film for all ages, just as JACK THE GIANT KILLER.  The fight scenes are mostly without gore or too much blood and are executed excitingly enough.  The sight of giants stomping on the ground and tossing horses and soldiers into the air is quite the spectacle.  Singer also includes some symbolism in the film, such as the toppling of the statue of Eric the Great when the giants attack.  But mostly, Singer has not left out the fun element in the action flick.  Humour abounds (including two funny ‘monk’ jokes) as the amounts of derring-do.  And there is the great notion of Jack and the princess wanting to make the world a better place to live in.

Singer does what’s right in JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, lifting the film above the spat of mindless other fairy tale films like HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCHHUNTERS and the two SNOW WHITE movies.

LEVIATHAN (France/UK/USA 2012) **

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel


LEVIATHAN is not about some monstrous sea creature but a documentary about fish, ugly fish and more ugly fish.  This is how the ad describes the film: in the very waters where Melville''s Pequod gave chase to Moby Dick, LEVIATHAN captures the collaborative clash of man, nature, and machine.  Shot on a dozen cameras - tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker - it is a cosmic portrait of one of mankind''s oldest endeavours.

LEVIATHAN belongs to that category of documentary in which there is no voiceover.  Even the characters in the film that engage in conversation are barely audible or their dialogue meaningful.  What the audience has to contend with is therefore their interpretation of the images on screen.

These images are not that pleasant.  The film starts with a night catch segment in the rain. One can hardly make out what is happening half of the time.  When the camera moves into the light in the boat, the audience is offered a fish eye view of events.  The camera is often at fish eye level and the audience sees dead fish with bulging eyes or other disgusting sea creatures caught in the net.  (See Image above.)  Otherwise, the camera is on the fishermen gutting the fish or cutting off the fins from the stingrays.  The directors appear obsessed with ugly images as their art.  Apparently, there is a market for these images as they have been granted some exhibition in the U.S.

Once all the catch been sorted, the refuse is dumped into the sea.  The sea birds have a field day and again, the camera goes into weird positions to capture these segments.  The segments remind one of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS.

Other segments make no sense at all.  These mainly show the crew doing their thing.  One shows one of them in the shower, scrubbing and scrubbing.  But not to worry, as no genitals are shown….nor faces.

If one decides to see LEVIATAHN for whatever reason, be prepared for a weird experience, that might be satisfying or not, that is if one can make out what is happening on screen.  A sea monster of a documentary!  One might never eat seafood again after viewing LEVIATHAN.

OF TWO MINDS (USA 2012) ***1/2

Directed by Doug Blush and Lisa Klein


Almost everyone must have a friend or acquaintance diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  But most people are unaware of what the disorder really is and how it affects people.  The appropriately titled documentary OF TWO MINDS appears to be the perfect vehicle to shed light on the little known, troubling topic.

So little information there has been about the subject that even the noun for its degree has not been defined.  A sufferer in the film calls it bipolarness.  Or should it be bipolarity?  Or just plain degree of bipolarity.

To tell the story, the directors interviews a large number of bipolar disorder subjects as well as those in a close relationship with them, be it family or spouse.  The film eventually settles on three, Carlton a 67 old man, only diagnosed at the age of 65, Lisa and Liz.  One flaw of the film is the lack of medical documentation provided for the disorder.  The audience is just told that so and so is diagnosed and has it and that’s it.  The symptoms and signs are only provided by the patients.  They talk of hallucinations, being so tired out at the end of the day, extremely highs and lows and possible triggers.  Two of the three attribute the trigger to an childhood sexual abuse incident.

The directors look at the positive side of everything in the film, thus resulting in an uplifting film about a very depressing subject.  No one knows of a common cure and those suffering have adapted their lives and survived in their own ways.  As the film says there is a hope.  Despite the numerous numbers of sufferers, the directors concentrate on three that have survived but in their own different way. Isn’t life marvelous being different?  One character says.  Rightly so!  The word ‘hope’ is distinctly fixed in the ears of the audience as the film reaches a close.  The film also does not shy away from the sad fact that not everyone can cope.  One of the film’s characters, Misa ends up hanging herself but life goes on for her family who speak openly in the film.

The film also kicks off a national theatrical tour in Toronto on March 1st at Toronto ''s Carlton Cinemas, with an opening weekend Bipolar disorder symposium, featuring panels, celebrity guest and filmmaker Q and A''s. Featured panelists and guests include International Art star Joey DAMMIT!, Film writer Andrew Parker, Holistic nutritionist Paul Demeda, spokespeople from Mad Pride and The Mood Disorder Association of Ontario, plus many others.

Though one might not learn everything about the disease, the film teaches about life.  Love and the endurance of the human spirit conquer all!  With this, OF TWO MINDS makes compelling watching from start to end!

 

STOKER (USA/UK 2012) **

Directed by Park Chan-wook


STOKER is an eagerly awaited psychological family horror drama done gothic style by Korean director of the sleeper hit, OLDBOY, Park Chan-wook.  The script is by Wentworth Miller that was touted as 2010 best 10 scripts that went unproduced.

The story starts with the death of Richard Stoker (played by Dermot Mulroney in flashbacks).  Enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in with India, the daughter and her emotionally unstable mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  But as the film reveals, Evelyn might be even more unpredictable than mother.

This is one family in which secrets hide deep and one family one would not like to disturb unless you bear the consequence of being disappeared, as the sheriff in the film says: “People do have strange way of disappearing.”

The protagonist of the piece is India (Mia Wasikowska) who learns about her family at the same time the audience learns of it.  Park directs his film with ultimate style, using close-ups of details like of a spider crawling up India’s stockings (that often lead nowhere), colour, stunning cinematography and music.  But story-wise and character buildup-wise, the film is less than fulfilling.  Park leaves clues as who might be responsible for what killing, but then it is too easy to guess the culprit.  (I guessed correctly the plot and killer half way through the film, and I don’t usually end up correct guessing in most films).  Park then leads the film on – or the script does – to no sense at all.

It all makes sense that style works wonders if it complements the plot and story of a film.  In the case of STOKER, style is foremost resulting in a distracting film that is so monotonously paced that it appears that the film is just set up to show off Park’s direction.

All this is a pity, as a film that has the heading “Do Not Disturb This Family” bears great potential.  In the end, all it all comes to is style over substance, and not even Kidman, Goode or Wasikowska can save the day.

TROUBLE IN THE PEACE (Canada 2012) ***

Directed by Julian T. Pinder


Two films on similar topics make their rounds in March.  On nthe 15th, an American film GREEDY LYING BASTARDS directly attack its assailants, the oil and gas companies that hire politicians and false scientists to lead the world to believe that climatic change has no effect on mankind.  In TROUBLE IN PEACE, a Canadian production, a more polite way is used to achieve a similar aim.  Trouble is brewing in the Peace River region (the PEACE of the film’s titile).   Big Oil and Gas moves in, family farms suffer from lethal gas leaks and flarings, and the government fails to regulate safety standards, being instead preoccupied with catching a pipeline bomber. The community begins to fracture, with many residents expending vast amounts of time and energy on ineffectual protests and petitions.  In the midst of this, cowboy, sculptor and father Karl Mattson struggles to make sense of what is happening to his town and its residents. As the situation continues to deteriorate, TROUBLE IN THE PEACE sees Karl embark on a startling plan to save his daughter and reunite his community.

Karl’s family and their community are shown to be in trouble. And the audience is again summoned to help.  It is intriguing to note that these two films achieve their aim though by different means.  In TROUBLE IN PEACE, the first sign of trouble is just as horrific – the birth on the family farm of a two headed calf.

More information of the screening below:-

March’s Doc Soup will present the Toronto premiere of TROUBLE IN THE PEACE (D: Julian T. Pinder, Canada, 80 min., STC). TROUBLE IN THE PEACE will screen Wednesday, March 6, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., and on Thursday, March 7, at 6:45 p.m. at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St. West. Filmmaker Julian T. Pinder will be in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions following the screenings.

Single tickets for TROUBLE IN THE PEACE are $15 and can be purchased in advance online at www.hotdocs.ca or in person at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema box office. In the event advance tickets sell out, a limited number of tickets may be available at the door on the night of the screening.

The team behind TROUBLE IN THE PEACE has created a “game-for-change” companion piece to spread the film’s social issue well beyond the scope of the traditional documentary format. PIPE TROUBLE puts a clever new spin on an arcade classic, using over-the-top satire to prompt larger mainstream discussion of ongoing real-world issues surrounding the exploitation of natural gas. PIPE TROUBLE will be available in a retro-style arcade cabinet for Doc Soup audiences to play.

21 & OVER (USA 2013) ***1/2

Directed by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore


The directors of this teen comedy 21 & OVER penned THE HANGOVER before the rewrite by Todd Phillips.  It comes to no surprise that the plot concerns its three main characters carrying on with a night of drunkenness, debauchery and complete foolishness.  The film begins with two nude teens walking across Stamford campus grounds before the film flashbacks one day earlier to recount the events leading to the situation.

The two are best buddies, Miller (Miles Teller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) who show up on the eve of their friend, Jeff Chang’s (Justin Chon) 21st birthday to take him out for the night.  But Jeff Chang (this character is always called by his full name) has an important medical interview the following morning, which had been arranged by his ultra strict doctor father, Dr. Chang (Francois Chau).  Jeff Chan doesn’t want to go out for fear of falling short of his family’s expectations.  Added in is a little romance between shy Casey and Nicole (Sarah Wright) who he meets at the first bar.

Needless to say, the three have a wild time.  The first half of the film is pure fun – and teenage fun at its best.  The best moments are reminiscent of classics like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE or last year’s ambitious PROJECT X.  The antics including breaking in and then out of a female only sorority house, crashing wild parties including one with a runaway buffalo (don’t ask) and bar crawls.

The aim of the teens is to go as crazy and wild as they can.  And it appears that this is the same aim that the directors have for their film.  Fortunately, they have not forgotten to include a good story and some brief teen moralizing at the same time.

The three leads are quite good in their roles, with the supporting cast faring not too badly either.  They interact well with each other, as evident in the hilarious segment in which Miller and Casey are forced by beautiful women to make out with each other.  The film is surprisingly tastefully done, with the Asian jokes keep respectable.  Of course, vomit and barf jokes abound as are necessity in films of this genre.

21 & OVER might not turn out to be a classic like ELECTION, ANIMAL HOUSE or THE BREAKFAST CLUB, but this teen comedy has plenty of good moments to keep the audience cheering from start to finish.

PICKS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Jack the Giant Slayer

 Best Film Playing: Django Unchained

Best Comedy: 21 & OVER

Best Family: The Hobbit

Best Foreign: A Royal Affair

Best Documentary: The Gatekeepers

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