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This Week's Film Reviews (Jan, 16, 2015)

16 Jan 2015

Lots of new films opening this week.  PADDINGTON, BLACKHAT, AMERICAN SNIPER, ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST and THE WEDDING RINGER provide lost to coose from.


See the Kubrick Exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.



Directed by Clint Eastwood


Eastwood is in American war hero mode as in FLAG OF OUR FATHERS.  Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) realizes the folly of his useless cowboy days and decides to aid his brothers-in-arms after witnessing on TV the destruction of the twin towers.  With full patriotism at heart, he joins the U.S. Navy Seals to emerge as the most lethal sniper in the U.S.  military history.  And this is a true story based on Kyle’s book.

Cooper got the rights to Kyle’s book, produces and stars in the film.  He has also bulked up 100% for his role, which shows his total dedication.

Eastwood directs the film after Spielberg and O. Russell could not make it.  Fortunately, Eastwood has one main storyline to concentrate on, and he goes all out on it.  Chris Kyle is the American sniper hero.  He goes to battle, comes back and becomes the loving family husband.  Unlike Eastwood’s previous THE JERSEY BOYS, that had too many subplots and was all over the place, AMERICAN SNIPER is focused and gets what story is required to be told, and told quite effectively.  Trouble is that the film is rather plain, with no surprises.  The audience knows what exactly to expect, and gets what is expected.  So, there is not much to complain.  And not much to be surprised about either.

The battle scenes are similar to what has been seen in other films like FURY and THE HURT LOCKER.  The film, shot in Morocco looks like it could be set in any small village in Iraq.  Kyle, nicknamed ‘legend’ is shown through 4 battle ‘tours’  as the toll on his family and home begins to take place.  The best parts of the film is seen through the telescopic lens of the sniper’s weapon.  One main point of the film is that the sniper, unlike other combatants wain war, has time to think and decide whether to take out his target.

Eastwood treats Kyle as the true American hero.  Like action heroes in films, this man appears invincible on screen.  His real death is not sown on screen but mentioned in words written out.  He is faithful to country and family.  Kyle merges after all the war trauma as the perfect family man.  The trouble is that Eastwood does not dwell too much on his cure, making this part of the film seem hokum.

AMERICAN SNIPER totally dispenses with any sympathy for Iraq.  It is, in a sense, pure propaganda, but that is just Hollywood delivers best.  But perhaps, this is the kind of film the U.S. needs right now.  Eastwood again proves himself a capable director of a wide range of themed movies.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xNDrSG1A8U


Directed by Desiree Akhavan


First premiering during Sundance last year, APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR is a fresh, lesbian inappropriate comedy about a confused and very funny politically correct bisexual called Shirin played by the writer/ director Desiree Akhavan herself.

Shirin is totally confused and acts it. This is what gives the film most of its freshness and hilarity. She is a bisexual Persian from Iran (where homosexuality is punishable by jail time) living in Brooklyn struggling to rebuild her life after breaking up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson).

The film begins with Shirin and ends with walking out on Maxine. What is framed then is Shirin’s life, mostly between the times when they are together. But there are parts too depicting their fights and a few after the break up. This is the main flaw of the movie - the timeline non chronological linearity of the film. The audience occasionally has to ponder to think what point exactly the story is at.

But Akhavan’s script which received the Film Spirit Nomination for best First Screenplay is smart to include enough comedic setups and interesting characters to keep the film moving. All the characters are interesting. Her best friend who keeps giving Shirin advice which she totally ignores, her parents, her casual male sexual partner and her elder brother about to be wed are all hilarious. The comedic set ups are well orchestrated, the best of these being the one where Shirin enters a boutique to buy her first bra.

But as much as Akhavan’s character is winning, she gives her characters a manic unpredictability. Shirin wold go off on a tangent, uncaringly on her girlfriend, Maixine on her birthday without consideration. She would also go crazy at her at a party.

But APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR is an intriguing enough first feature, unpredictable and daring its execution. The language is vulgar when it needs be and the anger where it should occur. The film also tackles and touches the sensitive areas of foreign immigrants settled in America. All in all, Akhavan has made an impressive feature.

The film opens theatrically only in L.A. and NYC on January 16th but is also available on VOD on the same date. It is worth a look!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdfcKGKNa04

BLACKHAT (USA 2015) **

Directed by Michael Mann


BLACKHAT is the much anticipated cyber thriller from Michael Mann, the director of classics like the critically acclaimed HEAT and more recent MIAMI VICE. But BLACKHAT does not measure or even come close to the standard of those movies.

Set within the world of global cybercrime, Legendary's BLACKHAT follows a furloughed convict, Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) and his American and Chinese partners as they hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta and Malaysia.

The film tosses technical terms at the audience without much explanation. The abbreviation PLC is one example. Unless one is in the electronics or computer field, one would have no idea that PLC stands for Programming Logic Controller. On the other hand, by just plugging in a device at the reception in another part of the film, the audience is led to believe that the complete computer host can be hacked into. Everything is possible with this hacker to the point of unbelievably.

The climax of the film which is the showdown of the hero hacker and the villain during an unnamed local festival in Jakarta is nothing short of ridiculous. For one, there is no logic for the villain to meet Hathaway. But the two do meet. A fight breaks out amidst the Indonesian parade. A bad guy is knifed bloodily while the parade goes on as if nothing is happening. The camera dwells once or twice at the Indonesian ladies throwing off their silky scarfs as the festival continues. It is as if Mann is at a complete loss at what to do and have decided to shoot the exotic peripherals instead.

The interracial romance is silly, if not unnecessary. Chinese actress Wei Tang plays Chen, Hathaway’s love interest. She is not a very good actress. When she is supposed to act angry in the film, she behaves like a spoilt child. Hemsworth grumbles off most of his lines. One can understand the inclusion of the Chinese into the film’s story for the expansion of China into the target market is a wise financial move. The Chinese enlist the help of Americans and the two countries try to work out, unsuccessfully to solve the problem in the film.

The big plus in the film is Viola Davis as Carol Barrett. But the script does not realize this and has her disposed off before the end of the film.

The story has the villain stealing $74 million by manipulating stock prices by hacking and then doing incredibly illogical stupid things like attempting to flood villages in Perak, Malaysia to reduce the supply of tin. Why doesn’t he keep just doing the hacking as making money is much simpler that way. Tin is one of Malaysia’s big exports and Perak is one of the Malaysian states. But hardly anyone, unless one is connected with the country knows that. Or cares.

Mann’s thriller about hacking is also devoid of suspense or thrills. It does display a lot of exotic places and Mann seems too obsessed with different cultures. The background language spoken in the background in scenes shot in Malaysia and Indonesia is authentic (I know as I took Malay as a third language.)

The exotic locations of Indonesia and Malaysia cannot disguise the fact the film suffers from the existence of flat characters, a silly romance, nonexistence suspense and action but mostly an incoherent and illogical plot. Like the beginning of the film when Mann spends a full 10 minutes of indulgence on CGI effects the end of which no one is sure what it is all about, the complete film feels the same way. BLACKHAT ends up a complete mess dressed up in technical cosmetics.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn2g9qGbH_k

Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne


Belge brother filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pier Dardennes' latest Cannes hit is once again a working class character drama set in a small town in Belgium. 2 DAYS, 1 NIGHT benefits from the impeccable performance of Oscar Winner Marion Cotillard who plays working class mother and wife, Sandra. Cotillard has already won many awards around the world for this role.

The film’s premise is simple. Sandra has the weekend i.e. two days and a night to convince her workers to give up their year end bonus so the company will let her keep her job. She has already convinced the manager to have a second secret ballot vote Monday after it was learnt that her supervisor, Jean- Marc had scared the workers to initially vote against her. Sandra sets out to talk to each of her co-workers one by one and bring them over to her side.

This is the stuff of high drama, made more intense for the fact that Sandra has just returned to work after a mental illness leave and that she is struggling with her crippling self doubt. On the plus side, her loving husband, Mano (Fabrizio Rongione) encourages her on.

With Sandra going to individually visit 9 workers, this makes for 9 separate vignettes, with different characters each with their own views. Sandra’s workers are just as hard up for the money, many needing it to survive, but some willing to make a sacrifice. The film alternates between sadness and joy as some rally to her side and some do not. A crucial suicide segment is marvellously treated with humour (and taste) by the Dardenne Brothers.

The Dardennes often shoot with close-ups to heighten the drama’s tension. In Rosetta and Le Fils, the camera literally follows the back of the neck of a key character. The camera is not that close in the film but it often feels as if there is an invisible arm connected to a camera close by to the side of Sandra’s head.

There is a slightly predictable twist to the story at the end. But the best part is the ambiguity provided by the Jean-Marc character who only appears at the film’s end on the Monday morning voting. Jean-Marc denies the allegations that he has adversely advised the workers against Sandra. Whether this is true or false is left to the audience to decide. Jean-Marc is also played by one of Dardennes favourite actors, and it is not difficult to guess (and a pleasant surprise to see) who he is.

The Dardennes favour child characters stuck in a grown-up world of despair (LA PROMESSE, THE KID WITH A BIKE, L’ENFANT). 2 NIGHTS deals largely with an adult character for a change but the result is no less devastating. The Dardennes have continuously made excellent films and this winner is no different. And I have seen every Dardennes film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjCakcF6kb0

ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST (Spain/France/Belgium 2014) ***
Directed by Andrea Di Stefano


ESCOBAR: PARADISE LOST is the story of innocence lost, of and told from the point of view of a Canadian surfer, Nick (Josh Hutcherson from THE HUNGER GAMES) as the innocent attempts to escape the clutches of cocaine drug trafficking kingpin, Escobar played by Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro who also co-produced the film.

The film begins with Nick in a hotel room, escorted to do one last task to help Escobar by hiding part of his loot as well as to kill the man who will know where the loot is hidden. The film flashes back to the events earlier leading to the scene.

The name Escobar in the film title will be misleading as the film is not about Escobar but of Nick. Nick unknowingly falls in love with Escobar’s niece, Maria (Claudia Traisac). He is invited to Escobar’s mansion and before long learns of the man’s illegal activities. While helping Escobar out, Escobar dishes out a death sentence on Nick. Nick has to save his skin while trying to reunite with Maria and flee the country.

The script written by Di Stefano devotes a fair bit of screen time touting the ‘goodness’ of Escobar. He is seen as a loving family man who will do everything for his family including his niece. For this reason, the reason of him doing away with Nick is questionable. Escobar is shown as a kind of Robin Hood heeling the poor in Colombia, becoming a sort of folk hero. This make his massive killings even more chilling.

Current films are fond of bookending incidents such as the beginning hotel room scene. There is no apparent need to do this, except perhaps for style and to incur some sense of audience participation. Director Di Stefano goes overboard with this tactic. He also presents Escobar praying before going himself up as well as a church scene. Three book endings are a bit much serving little purpose. The film also has a dull mid-section despite it being event abundant. The lack of a happy ending is also made too apparent with a false segment in which Nick and his brother (Brady Corbet) frolic on the sandy beach, only to remind the audience of the film’s title of Paradise Lost.

Hutcherson plays a Canadian without a Canadian accent. There is also very little background on this character, for example from which province he is from and what he was doing prior to coming to Colombia. The same also can be said of Nick’s brother, especially of his accident that prevents him from surfing. The role of Maria is an underwritten one, in which the character has nothing much to do but to look pretty and concerned about Nick, her loved one. How much she accepts of her uncle’s clandestine activities are ignored.

But it is the story that keeps the film interesting. A story of lost innocence is always an intriguing one and Di Stefano keeps the audience anticipation up by only revealing part of the story as necessary. The audience learns about Escobar’s questionable activities as fast or slow as Nick does.

The film which had its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (with a favourable reception) is apparently based on a true story which makes it all the more disturbing. For a first imd feature, Di Stefano has proved himself an apt storyteller despite the film having a few flaws. The film is shot in English and Spanish.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSen29S0DLE

HOUSEBOUND (New Zealand 2014) ***** Top 10
Directed by Gerard Johnstone


It is not often that a film comes out of nowhere that turns out to be the biggest surprise of the year. HOUSEBOUND might be that film for 2015.

This is the story of story of Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly), an ill-tempered delinquent forced to return to the house she grew up in when the court places her on home detention. Her punishment is made all the more unbearable by the fact she has to live there with her crazed mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) - a well- intentioned blabbermouth who's convinced that the house is haunted. They do not get along. Kylie dismisses Miriam's superstitions as nothing more than a distraction from a life occupied by boiled vegetables and small-town gossip. However, when she too becomes privy to unsettling whispers and strange bumps in the night, she begins to wonder whether she's inherited her mother's overactive imagination, or if the house is in fact possessed by a hostile spirit who's not particularly thrilled about her return. Nothing more should be said about the story as surprises are around every corner.

The film contains priceless stereotyped characters everyone would love to laugh at. These include stupid follow-the-book police officers, a therapist that offers the most obvious observations and a parole officer that asks the silliest questions. But the supporting characters are also priceless. The best is the gossiping, superstitious mother who can believe that the ouse is haunted but not what her daughter tells her. 

The horror comedic set-us are equally brilliantly staged from the climatic fight on the roof to the exploding head scene. As far as predictability goes, Johnstone parodies the familiar in horror films but the joked and set-ups are genuinely fresh.

HOUSEBOUND is the best horror comedy surprise coming from New Zealand since Peter Jackson stunned the world with BRAINDEAD (banned in Canada and released straight to video under the title DEAD ALIVE). Hollywood rewarded Jackson with THE FRIGHTENERS and the rest is Tolkien history. Who knows? The same may follow suit for Gerard Johnstone.

But what the film overlooks in explanation is the possessed stuffed bear. If all the noise and moving objects were due to the stranger living behind the walls, how did the bear come alive?

The film may be considered violent depending how one looks at it. Harmless fun perhaps? But funny, nevertheless. Scenes such as the one in which Kylie uses a grater to her attacker’s face could go wither way. But there are also nice touches such as Kylie finally protecting and bonding with her annoying mother.

O’Reilly is winning as the attention deficit Kylie. But Te Wiata ias the mother is completely unforgettable.

The film has had a super successful international festival run that included premieres at SXSW, Toronto After Dark, Vancouver International Film Festival, and Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival 2014 where Housebound won the HR Giger 'Narcisse' Award for Best Feature Film, and the Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival in Scotland where it landed an Audience Award.

Peter Jackson has seen HOUSEBOUND and calls the film: “Bloody Brilliant!” It certainly is!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji8Tsuj3u0c

PADDINGTON (USA 2014) ****

Directed by Paul King


Americans have Winnie the Pooh, originally British, but Americanized by Disney.  The Brits have PADDINGTON. This year, PADDINGTON the bear originally from Peru crosses the Atlantic and he should become a household name if it does as well at the box-office as last year's THE LEGO MOVIE. And it should - it is just as good if not better than that movie. Though it is like comparing oranges and apples, both are animated movies and the common denomination both films share, is that there are very, very, very good films that should be seen by adults despite the children character.

Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is the creation of Michael Bond, who has a cameo as the ‘kindly gentleman’ in the film. It all begins in the deep jungles of darkest Peru. An explorer named Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) locates a family of semi intelligent bears, who he realizes can learn English and have a deep appetite for marmalade. He tells them they are always welcome should they wish to go to Britain. The bears, Lucy (recognizable voice of Oscar Best Actress nominee Imelda Staunton) and Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon), live in harmony with their nephew, Paddington One day, an earthquake strikes their home, forcing them to seek shelter underground. Pastuzo disappears leaving nothing but his hat and Lucy encourages her nephew to go and find solace in London while she moves into a retirement home for old bears.

Paddington arrives at Paddington Station where he derives his name. He meets the Browns family and they influence his life and he does theirs. This is a very family friendly tale. Though the story is predictable - stranger Paddington brings out the best in the family (“You need him as much as he needs you”, says Mrs. Bird (Julie Waters) to Mr. Brown); finds a home; escapes villains - the humour is fresh and the jokes hilariously so. In fact, the best 2 jokes not revealed here) are the best I have laughed at in a film this year.

Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is the stern father who believes that Paddington is too accident risky for the family. His wife (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) is more sympathetic. Nicole Kidman has an over-the-top role of the villain taxidermist who wants Paddington stuffed as a specimen or the Explorers Club.

PADDINGTON despite toilet jokes is total family entertainment catered to adults too. Those who love London will be in for an additional treat. All the attractions are on display here from the London Eye to those disgusting pigeons. The diversity of the Londoners is also celebrated. The film also contains bits of inspirational animation, such as Paddington walking through a film screen, the palace’s guard’s hat containing picnic items and the mural of the tree in the Brown’s house losing its leaves when the bear is lost.

Animated films usually contain a song or two. The one on display here celebrates London and is done Caribbean style.

Director Paul King has won numerous awards for his TV work and has made his debut film BUNNY AND THE BULL in 2009. He is definitely a talent to watch judging from this brilliant family second film PADDINGTON.

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


Best Drama: Inherent Vice

Action: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Foreign Language: Winter Sleep (Turkey) and Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Belgium/France)

Animation: Paddington

Comedy or Musical: Into the Woods

Best documentary: National Gallery and The Wrecking Crew

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