- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Close to 10 new films (NEIGHBORS, BELLE, UNDER THE SKIN, FED UP, TEENAGE) opening this week including a retrospective on Orson Welles and a screening of lost and found silent film TOO MUCH JOHNSON.
Best Bets of the Week:
- Under the Skin
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- Like Father, Like Son
Best Family: Bears
Best Doc: Teenage
Best Foreign: Like Father, Like Son
Best Animation: The Lego Movie
Best Comedy: Neighbors
BELLE (UK 2013) ***
Directed by Amma Asante
Based on a true story BELLE tells of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy officer (Matthew Goode), brought to England by her father and left in the care of his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson), the Lord Chief Justice, at his estate of Kenwood House. Though the social mores of the time make her an outsider, Dido is raised by Mansfield as an aristocrat alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon). Dido's burgeoning relationship with a young lawyer, John Davinier (Sam Reid), meets with the disapproval of Mansfield who considers the match beneath her. At the same time Mansfield is deliberating a slavery case that might turn the turns of the history of slavery in the British colonies.
Misan Sagay’s script tells Dido’s story in chronological order without the subtlety that is normally expected from films in this period genre. Nothing needs to be deduced by the viewer and everything is spelt out in dialogue, often to full confrontational effect.
But it is a good story, nevertheless with a credible romance, key issues on hand and principles on trial. One cannot go wrong with a film in which right prevails, though nothing else is left for the audience to be surprised.
BELLE benefits from an apt cast that puts all the relish into their roles from Miranda Richardson as the racist Lady Ashford to the over-loving father Captain Sir John Lindsay. The characters spew out Jane Austin like dialogue such as “I have been promised the company of my aunt,” instead of simply saying “I cannot stay for dinner.” While enjoyable to a fault, BELLE is no Merchant Ivory classic and can nowhere be compared to films like ROOM WITH A VIEW and HOWARD’S END. Still, this is English Masterpiece theatre and there are not enough films like BELLE to go around.
An ambitious film with key issues such as racial prejudice and the abolition of slavery, BELLE has much more to offer than recent films such as THE HELP and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. But the fact that BELLE is British and a period piece not dealing with current issues, one can only hope that Asante’s film can only do so well.
FED UP (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Stephanie Soechtig
FED UP is a documentary that aims at angering audiences to the point to take up the fight against companies responsible for American obesity. The film trailer says vehemently: The film the food industry does not want you to see!
Director Soechtig’s ambitious film has quite a lot to say, so that if it does not appear preachy at times, it seems to be drumming some point into our heads. In general, the film follows a few obese children through a couple of years as they fight to lose weight. One undergoes risky surgery, one swims and exercises to no avail and yet another tries to go on a processed less food diet.
But the message here is that it is not the children’s fault (the eat less, exercise more maxim does not work) but that of companies that overuse sugar in its products – like pop companies, pizza companies and other processed food industries. Sugar causes as much damage as fat in foods especially in soda drinks. The film explains that one calorie in pop is different from one calorie in fruit which has fibre to break it down instead of it being converted into fat.
The film contains interviews by celebrities like ex-President Bill Clinton and ex-FDA Communications Chairman. The First Lady, Michelle Obama is also featured in her program on “Move IT”, but she has refused to be interviewed.
The one good point director Soechtig emphasizes is the similarity between pop and tobacco companies in their poisons – one being tobacco causing cancer and the other sugar causing death through obesity. The examples that could be implemented include labels on all sugar-based products, including the percentage daily requirement consumed as well a ban on children targeted advertising. Here, it seems that the filmmakers good intentions are not that faraway, if everyone in the audience does his or her duty.
THE GERMAN DOCTOR (WAKOLDA) (Argentina/Fr/Sp/Nor 2013) **
Directed by Lucia Puenzo
WALKOLDA is Argentina’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar last year though it did not make it to the nominations But one has to hand it to writer/director Lucia Puenzo for a most intriguing premise for a film.
A doctor (Alex Brendemuhl) from Germany arrives in Patagonia, befriending a family that is about to open a family hotel. He befriends the family, aiding the short daughter grow taller through injections and saving the young born twins. It turns out that the good doctor is not that good after all, as he is a Nazi criminal who had performed human experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The film is based on Puenzo’s novel Wakolda, and the scariest bit is that it is all supposed to be true. But it is revealed at the end credits that the doctor is none other than the infamous Josef Mengele, but the doctor takes another name of Helmut.
The film is not really a thriller or horror film. The director reveals at the start of the film, through the daughter’s diary who the doctor is (a war criminal) but it is clear midway through the film that the doctor ‘s only flaw is his desire to learn more about human medicine. He means good most times, though his methods are questionable. So, the audience is bewildered whether to feel sorry or to despise the character.
The film moves towards its inevitable conclusion where the doctor’s identity is revealed to the family. Still the family (and the audience as well) is just as confused what to think of him.
The film ins interesting in the way one cannot figure what kind of film Puenzo wants her film to be, but the film is still far less satisfying than its premise.
NEIGHBORS (USA 2014) ***1/2
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
NEIGHBORS (not to be confused or has it anything to do with the 80’s John Landis comedy with John Belushi and Dan Akroyd) has an oversimplified plot. A newly married couple (Seth Rogen and Roe Byrne) realize that the new neighbors are a university fraternity. Needless to say, they are a noisy bunch, partying into the early hours of the morning. The couple go all out to get the frat removed as neighbors using any way thinkable. The solid unit is the family and the relationship between the two is always of prime importance throughout the film.
On the other hand, the frat boys and girls are just rubbish and do not stand for much. Their dean, played with controlled hilarity by the excellent Lisa Kudrow is treated very much the same way.
The film takes a while to stand on its feet. But the film settles down just as the fraternity settles down to their partying.
Though Seth Rogen is the main lead and most often than not have first crack at the film’s best lines, Zac Efron surprisingly steals the show from under his nose. One of the film’s most effective moments involve him suddenly realizing the truth about himself. He realizes he is not as smart as his best friend Pete (Dave Franco) and that he will succeed in the real world. The script offers him a way out in the end with night courses. It is an awkward moment of truth and Efron carries it well in his expression. When the two (him and Rogen) are together in one scene, as in the dance-off segment, the result is magic. The baby used in the film is also he cutest little toddler seen in films in a long while. Rose Byrne can only do so much playing second fiddle to Rogen.
As in all Rogen’s films, there are unforgettable gross segments. In THIS IS THE END , it is the masturbation argument on the toilet magazines. In NEIGHBORS, the script has a quite hilarious milking the wife segment. But the most comically inspired segment has Dave Franco and Zac Efron doing De Niro from TAXI DRIVER outside Rogen’s window (See Image).
Produced by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen who both directed last year’s THIS IS THE END, NEIGHBORS tries very hard at beating that movie. Though unsuccessful, NEIGHBORS is still very funny as guarantees a laugh-out loud good time.
STAGE FRIGHT (USA 2014) **
Directed by Jerome Sable
STAGE FRIGHT has been described as an original musical horror film. But it is only the songs that are original (music and lyrics here by director Sable and Eli Batalion) but not the concept of a musical horror that many critics are raving about. THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE written by Paul Williams was the true original that popped up even before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End musical. That film was hilarious, scary with show stopping numbers and nowhere can it be compared to the trashy STAGE FRIGHT.
When STAGE FRIGHT opens, the audience gets their first loud laugh with the words “Based on True Events” flashed on the screen. What follows is a totally overdone killing scene, which if based on true events, is highly questionable. A Broadway diva (nice cameo from Minnie Driver) is slaughtered by a phantom and the film goes into the present with her daughter, now grown up, wishing to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “Life is a song to sing, so sing with all your heart”, are the words passed down from mother to daughter.
As expected, the phantom shows up again.
Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) wants to also become a Broadway diva, but she's stuck working in the kitchen of a snobby performing arts camp. The best part of the film lies in the initial 30 minutes before it falls into the typical horror slashed movie mode. The best parts include a campy (pardon the pun) song and dance number “I am gay” as the performance arts camp is introduced to the audience.
But after that Camilla falls into the typical romance of a boy who truly loves her, but she spurns, sort of, for her fame, till she realizes her mistake. Meanwhile, the phantom begins his killing spree, Friday the 13th style. There are a few funny lines in the film as someone screams out: “How can you continue in the play if someone just got killed!” But these are, unfortunately few and far between,
There are not that many PHANTOM OF THE PARADISES, so this film STAGE FRIGHT makes a welcome entrance. Too bad, it did not turn out to be as inventive and original as it leads audiences to believe.
TEENAGE (USA 2013) ****
Directed by Matt Wolf
TEENAGE is a fascinating and most entertaining entry on teenagers based on the book “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945” written by Jon Savage who also wrote the script for the film. Wolf’s (I REMEMBER and WILD COMBINATION) film is made up of a collage of archive footage, newsreel, old diaries, vintage TV shows and a few period enactments enhanced by an original musical score by Bradford Cox. In black and white, TEENAGE appeals to all as everyone (except kids) has gone through the teen days a teen right now.
The filmmakers aim more at the rebellious, be them the German youth that defied Hitler or Brenda who succumbed to drugs in the U.S. Of course, they make more interesting material. The screen time is divided quite equally towards male and female. As usual, the older adults are to bale for forcing child labour, the youth to fight in their wars and by plainly not giving them a chance. TEENAGE celebrate teenage youth and does it very well.
The film has no main plot but moves freely across time with youth at its centre. From the Nazi Youth to the Nazi rebels, from the hooligans to the Scouts and from girls to boys to women to men, TEENAGE is pure bliss to watch and never dull. It is nostalgia (and film editing) at its very best and has to be seen to be believed. “Woe to those that oppress the young and the young at heart!” appears to be the message Wolf and Savage want to get across and this they too exceptionally well.
UNDER THE SKIN (UK/USA 2013) ****
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
The opening sequence which shows the creation of a synthetic eye with a soundtrack voiceover of a voice pronouncing phonetics in order to master the human language is both creepily disturbing and visually arresting. At the same time, the audience is challenged to decipher the images to form the narrative of a film that moves as slow as it is hard to put together. The music and sounds by Mica Levi enhances the mysteriousness.
The plot based on the novel by Michel Faber, Dutch born, Australian raised and immigrated to Scotland, tells of an alien, given no name, (Scarlett Johansson) travelling in a van in Scotland, picking up various men on the pretext of sex and devouring them. Hot on her heels is another alien in the form of a male motorcyclist. In the process of meeting different men, she beings to sympathize with her victims, eventually letting one or two of them escape. She tries, at one point to try human food (a cake) as a substitute only to get sick in the process.
Director Jonathan Glazer (BIRTH) apparently shot a portion of his film with hidden cameras (like in a mall) and using non-actors that the alien picked up. Johansson is hardly recognizable in her black wig, which likely fooled the non-actors.
Glazer is a scary, creepy and intense film. The creepiest involves the alien picking up a 26-year old with a disfigured face. She knows that he is different and asks more general questions such as whether he has had a girlfriend, commenting then that he has nice hands. The actor who plays this man is Adam Pearson who suffers from the condition called neurofibromatosis. The entire segment is uncomfortable not only for the alien and the man but for the audience as well. She eventually lets him go, only to have him killed by the motorcyclist alien.
This is the turning point of the film when the alien begins sympathizing with her human prey. Which eventually turns to her downfall. One might reflect the novel’s author’s sympathy for Iraq and Afghanistan as he turned down British citizenship as a protest of the U.K. joining forces with the U.S. in the war against the two said countries.
Aliens have been depicted in different forms by different directors from the commercial E.T. by Steven Spielberg to the faceless THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH by Nicholas Roeg. But this one will be remembered for its dare to be different and effecting a most intriguing film as a result.