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This Week's Film Reviews (Aug 15, 2014)

14 Aug 2014

THE EXPENDABLES 3  and THE GIVER  are two blockbusters opening this week.

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Smaller films include YVES SAINT LAURENT and FRANK.

TIFF Cinematheque is running a Robert Altman retrospective and a series on 'sequels'.

Best Pics of the Week:

Best Film Playing: Calvary

Comedy: 22 Jump Street

Action: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Foreign: Snowpiercer (South Korea)

Horror: Under the Skin

Doc: An Honest Lie

Romance: Magic in the Moonlight

FILM REVIEWS:

THE EXPENDABLES 3 (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Patrick Hughes

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The 3rd foray into THE EXPENDABLES franchise is less serious than the original and less funny than the second.  Falling in between the two, the film recognizes its limitations of older actors and have included a younger cast of 20-somethings to join in the ranks. Patrick Hughes (RED HILL) lands a hand at the director’s wheel this time around.

The film has Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and the rest of the team come face-to-face with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who years ago co-founded The Expendables with Barney.  Stonebanks subsequently became a ruthless arms trader and someone who Barney was forced to kill... or so he thought.  Barney decides that he has to fight old blood with new blood, and hires with his recruiter (Kelsey Grammer) to help him.

The film is not short of action. From the opening prison break sequence on a travelling train, the action quickly moves to the operation the prisoner (Wesley Snipes) was sprung for.  One cannot say that the film is boring though may be far from perfect.

There is always lots to complain about a blockbuster action film.  But for the plusses, it is good to see an action film done with minimal CGI, where real stunt work has to take place, with real explosions and crashing of vehicles, and where the actors have to sweat and run about.

The visuals range from ugly (lot of mechanical and dilapidated warehouses) to stunning (scaling of a high rise building with reflecting panels).  The old fashioned special effects make a welcome change.

The film contains lots of humour that can be read between the lines.  After Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) is rescued from prison, his answer to what he was there for is: ‘tax evasion’.  Jokes abound too of the young vs. the old.  The best joke has the young recruits termed ‘the deletables’ for their tech know-how.  Gibson’s character also has his say as to how he is treated that is reflected in Gibson’s real life.  But Stallone is clearly on an ego trip with this film, though credit has to be given tom him for the difficult job of putting everything together.

Of all the stars, Mel Gibson does the best as the villain and saves the film.  The best of the others include Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford.

Background information for the film?  A near perfect DVD copy has been available on the net and has been downloaded as many as 300,000 times when this review was written.  The film has also been downgraded from an R-rating which means adults can expect less violence and blood and language while the younger can watch action figures their father’s age do their thing.  Bet is that EXPENDABLES 3 will only do so-so at the box-office.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xD0junWlFc

FRANK (UK/Ireland 2013) **1/2

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

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The FRANK of the film title is the eccentric titular character and leader of the band called Soronprfbs (yes, the name is unpronounceable) who wears a large papier-mâché head throughout the film.  He finally has to take it off at the end of the film revealing a Michael Fassbender, who is supposed to have played the character throughout the film with that head on.

But the lead character of the film is not Frank but Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a younger musician wannabe.  When he witnesses a man’s attempted suicide, he is offered the man’s job as guitarist in the band for the night’s concert.  After the disastrous performance, Jon is then whisked to joining the band and be put up at a rental cottage in Ireland to record the band album.  Jon begins posting videos on the internet of the band's rehearsal sessions as they aim to appear at the South by Southwest festival.  Fame makes strange bedfellows.

If his sounds a bit weird, the film is weirder.  Frank, the band leader never takes the head off.  Jon wonders how Frank brushes his teeth but told not to ask any questions.  There is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is clearly in love with Frank and willing to stab Jon if he gets in the way.  The other band members are just as crazy.

The film knows its music and the audience is given a good lesson on song writing - the problems, inspirations as well as the mechanics of it (i.e. the chords, scales etc.).

Domhnall Gleeson is winsome as the naive Jon, growing a full beard at one point in the film, only to have it shaven off again. But it could be anyone inside Frank’s head for that matter.  When Frank takes his clothes off, the body bearing the head did not look like Fassbender’s body, but a much smaller one. (But I could be wrong.)

The film works well as a life lesson rather than a lesson on what has to go through to attain fame as a musician.  Jon sacrifices his inherited nest egg to the band he believes in - only to have the money squandered away.  Still, he remains loyal to the very end.  But besides being a mean film most of the time, Abrahamson’s film occasionally takes a flight into fantasy.  The most uplifting segment has Frank show an European tourist the enlightenment in life.

Abrahamson’s film is weird and different that puts it one step up the pedestal compared to other films.  But it suffers in that  the climax and lack of a happy ending fails to satisfy audiences expecting a big punch given all the film’s build up.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk-hWzq67w4

THE GIVER (USA 2014) **

Directed by Phillip Noyce

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Films on teens in a futuristic, dystopian society appear to be the big moneymaker in Hollywood these days.  THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT series have proven that.  But THE GIVER which is set in a supposedly planned perfect world where there is no conflict, envy, hatred or sickness, is different in that it is not an action movie.  The novel uses the term ‘sameness society’.

In DIVERGENT, society is separated into classes.  Similarly in THE GIVER, every member of society has a specific role.  16-year old Jonas (Brendan Thwaites) is selected to be the Receiver of Memory.   As Jonas uncovers the truth behind his world's past, he discovers that many years earlier, his forefathers gave up humanity in order to have a stable society.   The Giver (Jeff Bridges) is training Jonas under the suspicious eye of the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep).

The film plays like the the old sci-fi ZERO POPULATION GROWTH, where the main characters are running away from the government.  But director Noyce seems to be at a loss on how to play his film.  There is not enough thrills or excitement nor is there a strong enough romantic element.  The trouble is that the film is predictable and the audience knows from the start, that the boy is going to rebel, be hunted down by the authorities and eventually escape.

The novel has Jonas at the age of 12 (as the the book on which the film is based is a children’s novel) but the film matures the main character to the age of 16.  It makes the story more believable as one can hardly expect a 12-year old to be in love or matured enough to carry on his intuitive feelings

Brenton Thwaites is credible as the boy in turmoil.  But Noyce is unable to illicit memorable performances form the more well-known actors like Alexander Skarsgard or Katie Holmes whom play Jonas’ father and mother.  Holmes and Skarsgard just stand around like models, obey or look bewildered.  The chief elder is one of Meryl Streep’s) silliest roles, one that would normally be played by Tilda Swinton (as in SNOWPIERCER and THE BEACH).

The film is shot largely in muted colours, the screen turning into full brightness during the segments where memories are recalled

It is surprising that Australian director Noyce who has directed on of the best Aussie films NEWSFRONT and the exciting DEAD CALM has directed such a bland film about human nature’s most essential traits - love.  When Jonas discovers the re-birth of love, one would have expected a solid power punch emotional ride.  All the audience got is the fizzle of a kiss.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJNNugNe0Wo

HARD DRIVE (Canada 2014) **

Directed by William D. MacGillivray

Laura Slade Wiggins and Douglas Smith as Debs and Ditch in Hard Drive.

Canadian director William MacGillivray’s (LIFE LESSONS) latest feature is another Life lesson in a sort of way.  Based on the novel Ditch by Hal Niedviecki, the story centres on two teens that find love amidst a world that does not dish them life on silver platters. In Nova Scotia, Ditch (Douglas Smith) is a slacker still living with his mother.  His mother nags him to go to Community College as he is good with his hands.  But he meets instead and falls in love, much to the mother’s chagrin, with runaway teen named Debs (Laura Slade Wiggins).  Director MacGillivray shows that she is not good for him.  But he still drives her back to her father in the U.S. The film is filled with a different indie music track that suits the theme of runawaysvin a road movie.  But the movie just struggles along and the script or story does not offer the two a decent way out of the rut. It does not help that Debs is portrayed as a complete crazed floozy.  She drinks most of the time despite Ditch’s objections.  She screams at him for looking at her computer (claiming privacy and liking it to reading her brains) and is completely ungrateful for what he is doing for her.  The film offers no reason for Ditch to be in love with her.  So the idea of the two lovers running away together is not very believable. The contemporary love story also contain quite a bit of nastiness that includes a segment of ironing out an old tattoo.  The other secret is in the hard drive of Debs’ computer.  The film might be an ok watch for those not too fussy about their entertainment, but otherwise there are no real life lessons learnt here. (No trailer found)

L’ECUME DES JOURS (MOOD INDIGO) (France/Belgium 2013) ***

Directed by Michel Gondry

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Based on the 1947 book ‘Froth of the Daydream’, Michel Gondry’s (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) whimsical romantic fantasy draws its inspiration from the gadgets and the then futuristic look of the past.  That is where the strength of the film as well as its failures lie.

The story is centred on Colin (Romain Duris).  Colin has a very pleasant life: he is rich, he loves the food his cook, Nicolas (Omar Sy) makes.  Colin loves his pianocktail (contraction of piano and cocktail, a word invented by Vian) and his friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh).  One day while having lunch with Chick, Chick tells him that he met a girl named Alise (Aissa Majga) with whom he has a common passion: the writer Jean-Sol Partre (a spoonerism of Jean-Paul Sartre who was Boris Vian's friend).  Colin meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou from AMELIE) at a party Chick invited him to.  They fall in love, marry, but Chloe becomes ill during their honeymoon. As time passes, Chloe's condition deteriorates while the relationship between Chick and Alise turns sour.

The setting is the future as observed in the past ie. the 40’s.  What this means is that automation is shown with conveyor belts of old fashioned typewriters, electronics displayed as solid state and cathode ray tubes and the future is seen as in the old 60’s and 70’s films.  

The best thing about the film is the Duke Ellington music numbers that add a fresh turn to the proceedings.

Nothing is bothered to be explained.  How did Colin come about his independent wealth and then run out of money?  Why the interest in all the odd inventions?  Who is this mouse and where did he come from?

It does t help that the film heads towards an unhappy instead of a happy ending.  The film also turns black and white.  The romances also turn bad.

Charlotte Le Bon who was practical unheard of this year, has the small role of Isis in this film.  She has major roles in two other films this year, YVES SAINT LAURENT, which also the same day as this film and THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNY that opened last week.

The film should be seen for the ingenious props that include everything from the door alarm running around like a roach to a workplace filled with typewriters set up like convey manufacturing. The colourful visuals that include wardrobe and set decoration are out of this world.  Unfortunately, these dwarf the main plot which ultimately turn out too whimsical at the end.

Faults aside, one has to credit the filmmakers for trying extremely hard to make a different kind of movie.  This they succeed but whether it is a satisfactory and entertaining one is up to the audience’s individual taste.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38ugyccL5zU

THE TRIP TO ITALY (UK 2014) ***
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

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THE TRIP TO ITALY follows the camaraderie and misadventures of two British friends hired by The Guardian paper to do a culinary article based on gourmet restaurants in several cities in Italy.

Director Michael Winterbottom’s (24-HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, JUDE) second edited film from the hit TV series on culinary critics Rob (Rob Brydon) and Steve (Steve Coogan) has one of the shortest introductions.  Within 2 minutes or so, Rob and Steve are whisked off to Italy doing much of the same shenanigans as in their first film THE TRIP.

At the film’s start, Steve tell Rob that sequels are rarely ever as good as the original, referring to their second excursion.  He also tells Rob, ‘No more impersonations’ during the trip, an instruction that is quickly forgotten.  One of the best things about THE TRIP was to watch the two at it competing who can do the best impersonations of selected celebrities.  This time around they do Al Pacino and Michael Caine again, the various actors that have played James Bond, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, just to name a few.

One can find it hard to complain about a film that has to amusing actors at the helm, beautiful scenery (of Italy) and mouth-watering gourmet dishes on display.  Winterbottom does away with the wives  as if it is ok to indulge in infidelity on holiday.  The film also displays what it is to enjoy the good life - when one has fame, money and rich connections.

But Winterbottom’s film runs out of material in the last third.  So, he brings in a meeting with Coogan’s son visiting.  The last scene with the two (father and son) swimming in the sunset appears clear that there is nothing more to be said.

Trailer: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/ifcfilms/thetriptoitaly/

YVES SAINT LAURENT (France 2013) ***

Directed by Jalil Lespert

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The film opens in 1957 with the camera on the back of a young Yves Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney of the Comédie-Française) as he sits at a desk working gazing out of the window.  But the man is sketching dresses rather than writing and his elegant attire coupled with the antique furniture prepares the audience to an immaculately art and wardrobed designed biopic.

Lespert’s stylish film traces the start of YSL’s career just as Christian Dior passes on and wills him the prestigious spot of the one taking over the Dior house.  His mental instability erupts but the film does wise not to  dwell too much on this dark side of the designer genius.  Laurent’s drug use is also just shown in passing of him doing a line of cocaine. The film concentrates on the human aspects, particularly his relationship with his business partner, Pierre Berge (Guillaume Gallienne, also of the Comédie-Française).  The love/hate relationship portrayed is typical not only of gay designers but of many gay couples - so nothing too much shocking here.  Laurent is displayed occasionally as a spoilt child, but not without some good sayings: "Without inspiration, there is no life!"  But the man’s occasional foray into the dangerous zone is still scary.  Lespert does well to end the film on a high note.

As expected, the film is not always easy to watch.  But the designer gowns are gorgeous and the various shows are themselves worth the ticket admission price.

Young Pierre Niney is really good (and sexy, especially in the scene in his swimming trunks) as Saint Laurent and manages to carry the film’s heavy tone from start to finish.  Charlotte Le Bon (THE HUNDRERD-FOOT JOURNEY) has the role of Victoire, Laurent's model and muse.

There are no French films that made a commercial release this year except this one.  Hopefully its deserved success will spurn more interest in French fare.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXQoO9r_CuY

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