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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 26, 2014)

26 Sep 2014

Films opening include THE BOXTROLLS, HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS and THE EQUALIZER.

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 FILM REVIEWS:

THE BOXTROLLS (USA 2014) ***1/2

Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

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THE BOXTROLLS is the eagerly awaited animation 3D fantasy from Liaka (PARANORMAN, CORALINE) based on Alan Snow’s novel “Here Be Monsters”.  From the first shot, the animation is top notch with the atmosphere and feel of a gothic British hamlet.  All the accents are British, which might be a problem for young children to understand.  But it works!  (Who cares about the little brats, anyway?)

It seems that way in the film too.  The baby boy, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is stolen by the Boxtrolles while the daughter, Winnie (Elle Fanning) of the town mayor and the leader of the white hats (Jared Harris) is constantly ignored by him.

The film tells the story of an orphaned boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) who was raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collecting trolls called the Boxtrolls. The Boxtrolls are targeted by an evil exterminator named Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) and Eggs has to save his family from Snatcher.

The script by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava stays away from any romance between Winnie and Eggs.  They are just good friends.  But clearly missing from the script is goofy humour which is the key feature often in the making or breaking of an animated feature.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are funny comedic set-ups, many of which are slapstick and inventive.  But the manic humour say in SHREK or ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is clearly missing.

The best thing about the film is the character of Archibald.  He covets the white hat and eating fromage in the special ‘tasting’ room.  Unknown to him and hidden from him by his henchmen, is the fact that he is extremely allergic to cheese, breaking out immediately into swelling and bumps as brilliantly animated in the film.  It is ironic that he wants something so bad his body rejects it.

Ben Kingsley and Wright are excellent in their voice characterizations.  Other well known names in the cast include Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Richard Ayoade (THE DOUBLE and SUBMARINE) though their voices are hardly recognizable.

The city that the animation takes place is given the name Cheesebridge, which looks very British.  The name is also appropriate as cheese is loved there.  But the atmosphere could be stolen from the film CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.  When Archibald hunts the boxtrolls, it is very similar to the child catcher hunting down children in the country of Vulgaria in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.

Stop motion animation is a very painstaking process compared to CGI animation.  The directors ensure the audience is aware.  During the closing credits, the voiceover announces it takes days to shoot the blinking of an eyelid.  But it pays off.  It is the stop motion animation and stunning visuals that make THE BOXTROLLS.  By the way, there are boxtrolls in the real world.  But they are given another name - raccoons.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9-Df4ITW7o

DAVID BOWIE IS HAPPENING NOW (UK 2013) ***
Directed by Hamish Hamilton, Katy Mullan

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DAVID BOWIE IS HAPPENING NOWis a documentary film of the groundbreaking ‘David Bowie is’ exhibition created by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A).  This exhibition continued in Toronto and then goes off to Brazil and to the rest of the wold.  The exhibition features a remarkable collection of photographs, stage costumes, and other rare possessions from the David Bowie Archive.  Why the hype?   besides the super star himself, the exhibition was the fastest selling in the V&A's history.

The film takes the audience on an extraordinary journey through the David Bowie is exhibition with special guests including legendary Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, Pulp front-man Jarvis Cocker, and other collaborators, to explore the stories behind some of the key objects that document Bowie's artistic career.  The exhibition curators, Victoria Broackes (with glittered dress and visage earrings and immaculately suited Geoffrey Marsh, provide fascinating insight into the most memorable music videos and original costumes, as well as more personal items such as never-before-seen handwritten lyrics, album cover artwork, set designs and diary entries, which reveal the creativity and evolution of Bowie's ideas.

Bowie only appears in one segment talking to the audience about his work.

As for performances, there are sufficient to satisfy his music fans including the one performed after the 9/11 bombing.  For film fans, Bowi’s most iconic film, Nicholas Roegs’ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is talked about and brought into perspective by a film historian.  The only film clips are taken from Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH in which Bowie plays the Goblin King.

True David Bowie fans would be ecstatic at the chance of watching this documentary on What David Bowie Is.  One cannot complain about the doc as it achieves directors Hamilton and Mullan’s aim at - which is to inform and exhilarate Bowie’s fans.  For all others, the 90-minutes make up just another information session.

The exhibit is presently at the MCA in Chicago until January 4 2015.  Going to the actual exhibit would be a better but for the rest, the film is the alternative.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vItKeQzN0pk

THE EQUALIZER (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

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THE EQUALIZER is so called because if someone has a problem, if the odds are stacked against them and if they have nowhere else to turn,  McCall (Denzel Washington) will help.  Therefore he is called The Equalizer.  In other words, just as in the terminator films, he terminates.  Denzel Washington inhabits the terminator role.  Director Antoine Fuqua’s (TRAINING DAY) film has hardly any narrative or story but plays like a terminator or action hero film.  Those who like stylish action (like the John Woo films) will find THE EQUALIZER pleasing.

Not much background is given on the equalizer’s (Washington) background.  He is an ex-ops killing machine and has been left alone to lead a new life.  After witnessing a sex worker, Alison (Chloe Grace Moretz) beaten up, he ties it to the the Russian mobsters and takes it to teach those responsible a lesson.  But he has to deal with another killing sadistic machine, Teddy of the Russian Mafia (Marton Csokas).  That is as much as the story goes.

As is typical in action pics the killings must be savage and stylish.  Fuqua repeatedly does close up of McCall’s eyes, then cuts to the tattoos and markings of the Mafia, then fast forwards to the killings.  The climatic confrontation scene is done in a home improvement warehouse, complete with sprinklers spraying water after an explosion and the killings executed in slow motion.

But for all the well executed pumped up action scenes, Fuqua removes one from the movie.  (Perhaps it will be available on DVD release in the deleted scenes section.)  One shot has McCall removing a giant hammer from a rack and then replacing it later.  It is assumed that he has entered the robber’s house and retrieved the stolen goods from the robber after using the hammer.  There is another odd segment that suffers from continuity.  It has McCall in the bathroom heating up honey to tend his wounds.  I have never heard of this one before.  The scene before did not emphasize that McCall was hurt either.  So, Fuqua’s film is not without flaws, though one might argue that the high octane action scenes might make one forgive him for them.

Washington plays a general action hero role in the film.  Moretz’s role is really small in this film, despite her getting almost top billing.  Csokas (New Zealand actor who was in the Lord of the Rigs films) is sufficiently menacing.

At least the audience is spared from listening to any song that singer/songwriter wannabe Alison has done.  The first meeting between Alison and McCall involving Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea metaphor is explained too much, as if audiences know nothing about literature.

Antoine Fuqua offers his audience nothing new in the genre except for his personal style, which is a combination of what other action directors have done.  To his credit, he knows how to pump up the audience’s emotions in the confrontational scenes, which are many.  THE EQUALIZER was exciting for the first half or so before turning into predictable fare.  The action segments are brutal and bloody enough to satisfy action fans.  But there should be more to movies than recycled rubbish.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAI7rF0eQyQ

FRONTERA (USA 2014) ***

Directed by Michael Berry

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Written and directed by Michael Berry, FRONTERA is a film that pits fate against the goodness of human nature.  It seems that Murphy’s Law rules Berry’s script but the goodness of the heart of the protagonist saves the day.

The film is no LONE STAR, the excellent film by John Sayles on the similar theme of Mexican/American racial problems.  But films on this topic are rare and make FRONTERA a welcome film.

Set in the tumultuous Border area of Arizona and Mexico, FRONTERA follows the events that take place after a former Arizona Sheriff's wife, Olivia (Amy Madigan) is killed while riding on their Ranch property.  It would appear a Mexican man, Miguel (Michael Pena) crossing in to the US illegally is at fault.  As former Sheriff  Roy (Ed Harris) and current Sheriff, Randall Hunt (Aden Young) search for answers, Miguel is caught and jailed.

Complications arise.  It is Randall’s son who is involved in the accident of the killing.  Miguel’s pregnant wife, Paulina (Eva Longoria) leaves Mexico to help her husband but is kidnapped and violated by ‘The Coyote’.  Yes, a bit too much occurs in the short span time of the film’s 105 running time.  The film lacks any character development with the result of it feeling ‘hollow’ at times.  But the script turns to the good and common sense of Roy who sets the record straight in the toast third of the film.

Ed Harris delivers the excellent performance needed to carry the film.  His role is so opposite the racist one he had in Louis Malle’s ALAMO BAY.  His real wife Amy Madigan does an impressive job in the short span of time she is on screen.

The film cottons a few loose ends.  Nothing is explained of what happened to ‘The Coyote’ or of Miguel’s friend after being caught at the road block.

The film is a timely piece dealing with problematic unsolvable issues.  The film shows that there are bad and good people on each side of the border.  And it is a  fine line of why will prevail - good or evil.

Berry cannot resist the segment of American Roy and Mexican Miguel shovelling shit out of the stable, the obvious metaphor for two races working together to clean out their troubles.

The film has a nice taut twist ending, which will not be revealed in this review.  Though it is a bit far-fetched, the ending is still a good shocker.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Fl6iBQPjqc

THE NOTEBOOK (LE GRAND CAHIER) (Hungary/Austria/Germany/France 2013) ****
Directed by Janus Szasz

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THE NOTEBOOK has nothing to do with the Ryan Gosling Rachel MacAdams romantic weepy, in fact it is quite the opposite.  It is a feel-bad film that will make one squirm in ones seat.  The French title LE GRAND CAHIER goes with it as the film is based on the novel by Hungarian novelist Agota Kristof who wrote it in French.

THE NOTEBOOK feels like the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel.  But with twins played by Laszlo and Andras Gyemant.  They are sent by mother and father to their evil grandmother’s (Piroska Molnar) farm at the endue of the Hungarian German border to survive World War II.  No one in the story has a name.  Mother is called mother or bitch, father called father, the granny called witch for she had poisoned her husband who she still curses and the children termed bastards.  All this should be taken all in good fun, with a big lump of salt.

On day one at the farm, the twins are left outside the house, hungry and cold.  Only when they make up their minds to chop wood does the witch allow them into the house for some food.

Following their father’s instructions, the twins record everything that happens in a notebook, decorating it with line drawings and dead insects. They also institute a regimen of exercise and self-punishment, beating each other with sticks and belts and going for days without food.

One must hand it to director Szasz for keeping his film compelling.  The story is not short of fascinating or horrible people.  There is the gay Nazi Officer that is also a pedophile.  He saves the boys’ lives so he can’t be all that bad.  There is the neighbour’s girl called harelip for obvious reasons who steal to support her blind and eat mother.  Coming into the picture too, is a pro-Nazi girl who is horny as hell wishing the tins were older.  All these incidents occur one after another, so that there is not a boring moment.  If the film looks a bit like the other horror-kid’s Michael Hanake film THE WHITE RIBBON, it is because the two films share the same cinematographer.

The film contains lots of irony and satire for those who like this sort of thing.  The liberators are shown to be worse than the Nazi occupiers.  The grandmother that is the most detested at the beginning is eventually taken care of by the twins.  Even the audience would have a change of heart for her.

All the events, characters, atmosphere and setting make excellent cinematic fare.  The film had been selected as HuIt might be deliberately too grim a movie but one can never tell.

Watch the awesome trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmAxu0kLRg8

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PRIDE (UK 2014) ***
Directed by Matthew Warchus

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What happens when the group your group is raising money for does not want it or anything to do with your group?

The two groups under attack here are the striking Welsh miners and the gays and lesbians.  The latter group decide to support the former to show what it is like to be under fire.  But not all agree as miners have been known to beat up certain queers in the group.

The contrast between the two highly different groups - one solidly male machosistic and the other flamboyant makes the brunt of the film’s jokes.  The sudden break out into dance of one of the gay members, Jonathan is singled out to be a highlighting moment in the film.

It is 1984 Thatcher’s Britain, a ragtag band of activists from London’s queer community form an unlikely, anti-Thatcherite alliance with striking Welsh miners.  As new wave music had taken over the clubs, Thatcher's government was battling mining unions, and London's queer communities were perfecting artful activism.  Into that mix walks Mark (Ben Schnetzer).  Out, proud, and always ready for a righteous battle, he can't accept that any one form of oppression should outrank another.  The LGSM (Gay and Lesbians Support Miners) activists crash into small-town South Wales (Brechan Beacon) in their brightly painted communal bus.   They meet a the hard-working Welsh woman whose support group holds the community (Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton) together, a forward-thinking union organizer (Paddy Considine),the local pub historian.  (Bill Nighy) among others.

The mining village overcome their homophobia while the gay activists have to get over themselves.

The 80’s when it was a tough time.  Gays were looked upon as perverted and disgusting.  It was also the era of the beginning of AIDs.  The Pride Parade was less a parade than a march, many joining in the march to show that make a stand as a gay person.   But as well-intentioned as Warchus’s film is, it looks like he is aiming for the good feel of THE FULL MONTY or KINKY BOOTS.  The result is a tivialization of the many issues of the day.  It is puzzling how comedic set ups like the one with the old ladies laughing at porn and their discovery of a dildo in hotel room has to do with the film.

The 80’s  period atmosphere is effectively created without waste of money.  Props like the look of the clothes, use of print photos and dialogue show that there is no need to have expensive 80’s cars on the streets (in bigger budget movies) to evoke the 80’s.

The script is also too eager to please.  Most of the members of the LGSM group are given romances.  Each is also given a happy ending.

There is one scene in a gay London drag club where the straight Welsh union organizer is about to be introduced.  The drag queen gets up to the mike and screams: ‘Shaddupp, you fuckers,” before introducing him.  This raw spontaneous humour is what is more needed in this film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rThtRkV2Pyc

BEST BETS:

Best Suspense: The Drop

Horror: The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier)

Action: The Equalizer

Foreign: Snowpiercer (South Korea)

Family: The Boxtrolls

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