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This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 20, 2013)

18 Dec 2013

Lots of new films opening this week on the 20th and more on Christmas Day 25th next week.  These are the Christmas films and the best of the year.



The Studio Ghibli animated series continues at the TIFF Cinematheque.  These Japanese gems are a must-see!



Directed by David O. Russell


From the humble beginnings of comedies like SPANKING THE MONKEY to complex family dramas like THE FIGHTER, writer/director Russell has come full circle with his best film to date, the Oscar worthy AMERICAN HUSTLE.  Russell rewrites the script based on the FBFI ABSCAM of the 70’s and 80’s originally written by Eric Warren Singer.  His film encompasses the best bits from all his previous films with the addition of the suspense element in a story that is strong on both plot and drama.  It is often the drama that drives the film to its edginess, with the characters pushed towards their end points of emotional endurances.

The film begins with a setup in which a briefcase containing money is refused in a hotel suite.  Obviously, the film flashes back to the incidents that will lead back to this scene, which at least is not repeated as is in most other films.  The action centers on a con-artist couple, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his mistress, so-called  Sydney aka Edith from British royalty (Amy Adams).  But they are caught by Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who offers them a way out but only if they hand over some dirty big shots in the scamming business.  This they agree.  But things get complicated as DiMaso falls in love with Edith and Irving’s wife, Rosalyn starts spilling the beans to the wrong people.

Performances are more than excellent all around from Cooper to Bale.  Bale put on quite the paunch, which he appears keen to show off ever so often for the film.  But the prized one comes from already Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence who out does herself as the floozy, yet self-righteous and very sexy wife, Rosalyn.

Russell concocts a few inspirational setups, the most worthy of mention being the steamy sex scene in a club toilet stall.  They burst into the ladies’ and brush through the queue and into a stall while the line screams obscenities at them as they make out in the stall.

The story contains two love affairs – one between Edith and Irving and the other between her and DiMaso.  But Russell ensures the audience knows the one that will last.  Edith and Irving meet and share Ellington?  And this, of course means much more than the wild sex in the club toilet stall.

The intercutting between the family drama and con business at he middle of the film is worthy of Francis Ford Coppola’s ironic intercutting between the Corleone’s family dinner and Mafia assassinations at the end of THE GODFATHER.

The dialogue is razor edge sharp.  The one scene in which Rosalyn turns around her goof of blowing up the new microwave (just invented at that time) by placing metal in it has her telling her husband that thank God for her as she had read that microwaving removes all the nutrients from good.  Also, her logic of divorcing her husband while stating at the start of the film that divorce is out of question in her family is priceless.

The music by Danny Elfman is great.  Oldies are nicely mixed from Elton John numbers to the corny, Puppy Love to club anthems.

The drama, suspense, twists and the especially sardonic humor all work great in a film that surprises if not shocks.  Russell does a nice hat trick with this marvelous film in a year in which there are few films that dare take risks like he does.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5Cb4SFt7gE




Directed by Adam McKay


The sequel of the 2004 comedy hit, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY took close to 10 years for its sequel due to constant rejections between Ferrell and gang vs. the studios on the production go-ahead till the film’s budget finally got approved.

A good thing then?  Arguable as I personally did not utter more than 4 laughs throughout the sequel.  Once a comedy starts off bad, it is usually a bad roll for me all the way.  The budget goes all out to generate the laughs, a question of too much money per joke ratio, as indicative during the final fight (showdown) in the film.  But to give credit its due, most of the cast, cameos and stars included (including Ferrell, Carrell and Rudd) all took pay cuts) in order to get its budget approved.  The laborious jokes are incredibly silly, some racist and in bad taste, the plot regenerated from countless other films and the comedy questionable.  But despite my dislike for the film, my partner laughed his head off and my fellow critics at the promo screening unanimously found the film funny. (Just a point to note!)

The plot involves the formation of a 24-hour news channel.  At that time as plot has it, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) has just gotten himself fired (no difficult task here) while his wife (Christina Applegate) gains a promotion.  Ron recruits his disbanded Channel 4 news team, Brick (Steve Carrell), Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Champ Kind (David Koechner) to join the new enterprise.  They succeed as Ron deals with other issues such as reconnection with his son.

The story is clichéd with segments seen too many times in other films.  We see the lead character trying to bond with his son who he has not been able to spend enough time with due to his job.  There is the sex hungry female boss who goes berserk once Ron becomes a success, the ambition conflict between spouses in the same line of work and the competition (here in the form of a good-looking star anchor played by John Marsden) forced to eat humble pie and a large helping of groveling.  But ANCHORMAN 2 is a comedy, but even as long the jokes flow hilariously (which they don’t or do depending on the individual), one should still expect some originality in plot and not rehashed material.

ANCHORMAN 2 will be 2013’s number one film in terms of the largest number of celebrity cameos.  Too many to list everyone, but they include Will Smith, singer Drake, Sacha Baron Cohen, Nicole Kidman, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Carrey.  The main cast is impressive enough and the number of stars present in the film is already worth the price of the admission ticket.

ANCHORMAN 2 will undoubtedly be a huge hit as this is the only supposedly real comedy out this festive season, discounting GRUDGE MATCH which is a comedy drama.  This will likely spurn a third Burgundy film, which hopefully will be funnier to me.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elczv0ghqw0 


GOOD VIBRATIONS (UK/Ireland 2012) ***

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn


The film, which feels like a documentary is the chronicle of the life of Terri Hooley (Richard Dormer) a record store owner who develops Belfast’s punk rock scene.

Terri is depicted as an everyday irate Irishman.  Things are not going well with political unrest and with the constant beatings and abuse he faces in terms of business and personal dealings.  He survives by distracting himself with the setting up of a record shop called GOOD VIBRATIONS and in the process discovers punk rock bands.  Teenage Kicks by he Undertones is one song that is featured.  He also signs them up on a record label.  Dormer’s Hooley is not the perfect man but one with faults like a temper, drunkenness and tom foolery.  But that is where the beauty of the performance lies.

But the film contains one strange segment in which Terri gets drunk after failing to get a local band get recognized while his missus delivers his baby.  The next scene has him and the wife (Jodie Whittaker) and baby all happy.  It appears that the argument of the couple has been snipped of from the reel.

The film captures the period atmosphere of the times as well as the beginning of the head-banging punk rock scene.  The real Terri Hooley has a cameo in the film as well

GOOD VIBRATIONS can be nowhere be compared to Alan Parker’s THE COMMITMENTS.  Still, this is a true story and the directors tell it as it is, without adding too much icing to the cake.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DruhJkZU4EI


HAUNTER (Canada 2013) ***

Directed by Vincenzo Natali


HAUNTER, directed by Canadian Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, SPLICE) grabs the audience from the very first reel and holds on For quite a while.  A combination of mystery and horror, the entire film is set in a house with no big name stars.  Working very well with a small budget, HAUNTER delivers despite letting the audience go during the third of the movie.

The protagonist is 15-year old Lisa (Abigail Breslin from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE).  It is the day before her sixteenth birthday but she never reaches that day.  As in GROUNDHOG DAY, she wakes up to the same routine every morning. Mother (Michelle Nolden) calls her to do the laundry, she gets called up for a talk with mother and dad (Peter Outerbridge) for her attitude and there are missing clothes after she has done the laundry.  And it is the same meal of pancakes in the morning and mac and cheese at night.   Lisa decides she has to break the routine to find out what is going on.  But when she does it, she does not like the truth.  Father turns into a different person.  Lisa connects with other dead girls.  Mother finally realizes what Lisa is saying is true.

This is an excellent setup.  When the film weaves the audience into its labyrinth of mystery, the film is mesmerizing.  The bright light outside (no one can leave the house), the secret room underneath the boards and other scary props all heighten the tension and mystery.  It therefore comes as quite the letdown after the solution (the missing clothes; the repeating routines etc.) is slowly revealed to the audience in the third half.  The film transforms into the genre of a damsel in distress in a slasher movie.  The lack of a strong climax does not help either.

HAUNTER fortunately does not have to resort to cheap tricks for scares and foul language to make a point.  For a horror film, the film is quite family friendly.

But the for the first two thirds of the film, HAUNTER is excellent and delivers good mystery and scares.  Breslin is ok and one can see the difficulty of her carrying the entire film.

The film opens Friday Dec 20th and is also available on UVOD on the same day.  If the family wants to huddle together for a good scare before bedtime, HAUNTER is the perfect film.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sClAdBHrZNg 


HER (USA 2013) ***

Directed by Spike Jonze


As the film Awards season approaches, Spike Jonze’s new difficult film comes as a worthy contender.  The director of hits like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and ADAPTATION, Jonze is one in which originality is the director’s forte.

Creating quite the buzz as the closing film at this year’s New York Film Festival, HER is another fine writing and directing from Jonze.  The story concerns a tortured soul, Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix) a writer for a letter website who is recovering from a divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara).  When Theodore gets a new Artificial Intelligence Operation System (OS1) for his new computer, he falls in love with her.  The OS calls herself Samantha and the two develop a difficult relationship.

If all this sounds ridiculous, it might be – but Jonze gives his subject the deadliest of seriousness and he creates a credibility that surprisingly works.  The biggest test is the sex scene between Samantha and Theodore, which is done in good taste with  black screen and encouraging music by Ren Klyce.

Phoenix delivers a more restrained performance compared to last year’s as the shouting and screaming mental character in THE MASTER.  Phoenix does not raise his voice even once in HER.  The strength of his performance can be observed in the segment when he has lost contact with his operating system and he knows not what to do.  Deserve of mention is Scarlett Johansson who voices the operation system HER.  She replaced Samantha Morton (no reason given in the press kit) who is not a bad actress herself.

But full credit should be given to Spike Jonze for treading unchartered territory.  Though the film is long and contains a few predictable segments, it is still a worthy effort.  Just as the character HER describes falling in love – an acceptable form of insanity.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (USA/France 2013) ***1/2
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


The Coen Brothers’ latest film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, is a strange entry.  The film embodies a bit of their previous films (it is a musical like O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? A struggling artist like BARTON FINK), but the result is a less than satisfactory film – no fault of the brothers (except perhaps for their choice of the subject), but largely due to the fact that their protagonist is a very ordinary man and not a very likeable one at that.

The ordinary man is not the first time it has been chosen as the subject for a Coen Brothers’ film.  In A SERIOUS MAN, the protagonist underwent a series of life’s mishaps (broken down marriage, loss of his job tenure, impending tornado) but due to no fault of his own.  It was a modern day telling of the biblical story of God testing Job.  But in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the film starts with the performance of Davis (Oscar Isaac) at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, NYC, before being told by the manager that a well-dressed gentleman friend is waiting for him outside.  Upon meeting, Davis is beaten up and left bloodied.  It is only at the end of the film that the audience knows why – but this mishap is entirely the fault of Davis and not anyone else, less a test from God.

As the film flashes back, the audience learns more of Llewyn Davis including his weird spelling name.  He is of Welsh origin.  Llewyn Davis is a folk singer trying to make it (and big if possible) on records while doing the odd gig. He first has one at the Gaslight Café, performing with two friends. Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake).  It is clear that he is ok but not that good.  He is over confident, self-righteous and quite an asshole.  For one, he has slept with Jean causing her to be pregnant and Jill is terribly upset with him.  In the mean time, Davis has barely enough money to survive the winter and sleeps on the couch of his friends, who he often mistreats and other acquaintances.

Davis hitches rides to Chicago so that the film becomes a sort of road trip movie in which the lead meets an assortment of characters.  The most interesting of these is a big, vociferous man, Roland Turner, (played by Coen staple John Goodman) who gives Davis what he bargained for.

The bit that the Coen Brothers put in about the cat is simply hilarious and the humor derived here is typical Coen Brothers.

Davis’ trip takes him full circle back to the Gaslight Café where he finally performs again before meeting up with the well-dressed gent that beat him up at the start of the film.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS the title is so called because it takes importance to know what is inside an artist’s mind before appreciating the performance.  But one wonders the purpose of the Coen Brothers making a film about quite the unlikeable character though their film is quite near flawless.  If for anything else, those who have lived in that era of American folk music should be able to enjoy the film more than anyone else.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8eKgUW5XxQ



Directed by Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale


This $80 million dinosaur family movie attempts to put the audience in the ultimate immersive experience using 3D state of the art in the midst of a prehistoric world when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The poster also boasts  the greatest adventure in 70 million years.  But it is often not the story that is important but how the story is told.

The film begins with a skeptical boy, Ricky (Charlie Rowe) unhappy to follow his Uncle Zack (Karl Urban) look for dinosaur fossils.  But lo and behold!   Talking bird (John Leguizamo), supposedly  a dinosaur descendent, takes Ricky on an educational trip that will open his eyes to the prehistoric world.  An underdog lizard, Patchi (Justin Long) takes into the footstep of his grand Father (THE DINOSAUR KING?) to overcome obstacles, save the herd and get he girl, Juniper (Tiya Sircar).  Someone should remind writer John Collee hat Juniper is the name of a bush.

BUT WALKING WITH DINOSAURS is no LION KING.  The bad decision to treat the film is a kiddie flick has condescending dialogue so childish that even the littler ones should gawk.  Silly jokes that are just not funny complete with a film ending that turns too violent is an example of a family film that is a complete mess.  When the final dinosaur utters the final loud roar at the end, the audience can only mimic a loud grunt in response.

Trailer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P7lBKBxIwGM



Best Bets of the Week:

Best Film Opening: American Hustle

Best Film Playing: American Hustle

Best Horror: Oldboy

Best Animation: Frozen

Best Action: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Best Documentary: Blood Brother


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