- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
New films opening include PROJECT ALMANAC and the critically acclaimed A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.
See the Kubrick Exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Last Chance!
BLACK OR WHITE (USA 2014) **
Directed by Mike Bender
The film BLACK OR WHITE, title changed from BLACK AND WHITE and initially screened sat last year’s Toronto International Film Festival examines the subject of race and family. The core of the story is the custody of Eloise (Jillian Estell).
Having already mourned the death of his daughter, Los Angeles attorney Elliot Anderson (Academy Award winner Kevin Costner) is dealt a staggering blow when his beloved wife is killed in a car crash. Elliot had been raising his biracial granddaughter Eloise with his wife, and now, in the midst of his terrible grief, he's blindsided with a custody suit: Eloise's African-American grandmother, Rowena (Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer), is demanding that Eloise be placed in the care of her father, a reckless drug addict whom Elliot still holds partly responsible for his daughter's demise.
The flawed film benefits from both performances of Costner and Spencer It is an immense pleasure watching them, especially in the courtroom scenes.
The film is written and directed by Mike Bender who made REIGN OVER ME and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, two mildly successful films. Bender keeps the story at bay. The audience is not aware of what is happening, who is whom until the film is well into the second third. It is a good ploy as it keeps the audience’s anticipation up. But the story is predictable fare - too predictable in fact. One can guess that Rowena will rescind her demand and that the reckless father will save Elliot from drowning in a key scene. Even the fantasy sequence when Elliot imagines him being saved by his wife can be guessed. And so too, the outcome of the court segments. One would have expected a bit more from a film supposedly about a topic taboo in American life. Surprisingly, Bender (who has directed comedies too, like the unreleased THE SEARCH FOR JOHN GISING and also worked before as a stand-up comic) has more success with the film’s funnier parts.
The film could be argued to be racist as it is more geared toward the white folk. The whites can do no wrong. Elliot’s character has flaws like temper, drinking and pride. But the flaws of the other race are unforgivable. Eloise’s father is supposed to be unable to spell, unrepentant and irresponsible. Rowena’s character also turns sympathetic towards Elliot at the end.
One must hand it to Bender, cast and crew for trying very hard and believing in this project, which according to the opening lines, is based on true events. Too bad true events often follow too predictable paths.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (USA 2014) ****
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Hard work mentality and a good business mind are insufficient traits in succeeding in the business of crude oil in the NYC of 1981. One has to tackle dishonest competition, unfair cops in the form of Investigator, Lawrence (David Oyelowo), theft besides family pressure.
The film centres on the life of immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). He is negotiating the acquisition of a river front property that will enhance his crude oil business. But problems such as oil truck thefts continue to plague his business. But Morales is no perfect businessman either. He steals business from his competitors, sending his salesmen into their territory. He is also guilty of tax evasion. But he has a loving wife (Jessica Chastain) who will stop at nothing to help her husband though this upsets him quite a bit.
The title of the film does not refer to the events that affect the main character of the film, Abel Morales but the year in which the events occur. That is the winter of 1981. It is statistically one of the most violent years in the New York City’s history. The film is set in that time span. Chandor’s film depicts the danger of those times, in the sense that everyday poses a threat to live comfortably. If Abel’s house is not broken into, one of his fleet of trucks is stolen or he is hounded by an unfair crime probe. Writer/director Chandor’s keeps the suspense maintained from start to end, just as in his excellent thriller MARGIN CALL. The few action segments are also handled effectively.
The film has the feel of Coppola’s THE GODFATHER. Morales is as confident as Michael Corleone in handling the family business. He keeps his woman in line just as Michael did his wife. Oscar Isaac plays the role well, taking over from Oscar Winner, Javier Bardem -hard shoes to fit.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is exemplary in the sense that it does not depict a perfect world. Morales is not perfect either. He cooks his books while trying to appear honest, sincerely believing that he is totally honest in the process. When finally confronted with it at the end of the film, Morales still professes that he will not take dishonest money, before relenting after looking at himself in the mirror while shaving. The film also shows that fate can make an awful turn, as in the case of employee Louis (Christopher Abbott) whose only crime is to arm himself in case of a second robbery.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR does not disappoint in the least and should provide worthy nominations during the awards season.
PROJECT ALMANAC (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Dean Israelite
The subject of time travel makes good film fodder. It is not a new but always intriguing concept. As the latest teen time travel film PROJECT ALMANAC opens this week, websites and journals have listed for example, the best 30 time travel films.
In film, the characters travel through time, more often than not into the past to change the future. It could be to change history for the better like to kill Hitler or to prevent disasters like the Titanic (the first episode of TV’s The Time Tunnel) or just to move back a few minutes in time in order to get the perfect kiss or make it a better day (the 2013 Brit hit ABOUT TIME). PROJECT ALMANAC allows the characters - initially, anyway - unable to travel more than 3 week back into the past, for reason of insufficient power source or stuck in the past forever, to go back a few days or so in time - in order to win the lottery, get a better grade at school or to get their own on the bullies. This is all done in good fun till the film gets darker and the teens realize that changing the future even if only a bit has bad ripple effects.
The film looks like a low budget production all the way. But the production values are good. The special effects just consist of flying objects when the teens go through time. More money could actually be saved as the moving objets are hardly necessary. The non-star cast do relatively well. Jonny Weston as good-looking geek David Raskin is a mix between prom heart-throb and guy with insufficient confidence to get his girl. Both him and Sam Werner as his side-kick are particularly good.
The story is simple enough. A group of teens led by David stumble about plans for a time machine in the basement. They construct the machine and make several trips through time to make things better for themselves. They outline several rules such as - no travelling alone, which David breaks. Here is when the film gets darker, and David realizes he has to sort things out on his own or many will die as a result. This is where the film starts to falter and run into predictability. I expected the plot to go further with the reason behind the disappearance of David’s father, perhaps it having to do something with the time machine to save the world.
For low budgets like this film, studios love to go for found footage. It is assumed here that David sister, Christina (Ginny Garner) is constantly filming the group’s movements. So, be prepared for lots of jittery frames and hand held camera. This tactic has worked well in the past for films like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, so that when one watches this film in the format, one immediately recalls the horror films, and expect something to jump out in the dark. But there is no real need for found footage here, and if one were to ask the general audience, the majority would prefer non found footage and less headache at watching jumpy images.
But the film still succeeds on the strength of the story, performances and less on gimmicks. The film is obviously geared towards a teen audience with many issues like bullying, first love, ambition, school being key issues. Even the products placements deal with brands like Chipotle, X-Box and Facebook.
Paramount’s has made a bundle from cheapie films like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. It wants to do the same with this $10 million production. No star names, simple special effects and the pact of action sequences make this film ideal. PROJECT ALMANAC is a very efficient film that would make tons of money for the filmmakers. No need to travel back through time to know than.
RED ARMY (USA/Russia 2014) ****
Directed by Gabe Polski
No need to be a hockey fan or need to know anything about the sport to enjoy this immensely engaging documentary RED ARMY. RED ARMY mixes Soviet propaganda, sport, ambition, disappointment in a very humanistic story.
American director Gabe Polksi (born of Soviet parents) delves inside the Soviet Union team, the Red Army that dominated the sport of ice hockey at the height of the Cold War. Like Communism, emphasis was not on individuals but on the team, which moved like the Bolshoi Ballet. Polski interviews a wide spectrum of experts, the most time given to the team’s charismatic captain Slava Fetisov – one of the best hockey players of all time, with two Olympic golds, seven world championships and eventually three Stanley Cups. Fetisov appears proud, and without the patience to take nonsensical questions. This is seen in his interview with director Polski that punctuates he film. But when his story unfolds, one understands the reason. This man has demonstrated patriotism, familial values, and even torture and beatings. A sub-plot involves a over crazed coach that would not even let a team member visit his dying father if a game is the next day.
There is footage of Festiov made Minister of Sport by Russian President Putin, making the film more relevant to current times.
Others interviewed include an ex-KGB officer, sports journalists and Slava’s wife. But the footage of the Soviet team playing in top form (as the invincible Soviet Five) is well worth the price of the admission ticket. This is the bonus of the film - to see the five at play.
RED ARMY is one of the most entertaining and insightful documentaries this year.
WILD CARD (USA 2014) **
Directed by Simon West
Brit action star Jason Statham’s latest flick WILD CARD puts him in a meatier role as Nick Card,a rather broke gambler that cannot seem to get his life straight. He can get out of any fight a winner though.
The main thing going for this Statham vehicle is the hype of the script by Oscar winning William Goldman who penned HEAT and THE MARATHON MAN. (One can remember the famous line in which ex-Nazi dentist Lawrence Olivier drills Dustin Hoffman’s teeth asking the question of his loot: “Is it safe?”) But there is nothing exceptional with Goldman’s script for WILD CARD except for Stanley Tucci’s lines. (Tucci steals the show as Baby, the big mafia chief, whom everyone is afraid of.) This is not helped by Simon West’s (THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE MECHANIC remake) lazy direction. The above is noticeable in the awful beginning segment in which Nick Wild gets beaten up by a guy (Max Casella) at a bar to impress his girlfriend (Sofia Vergara). When Statham as Nick gets beaten up, it is dead obvious the guy’s girl is being set up. The audience can clearly predict that. One wonders if West wants the audience to guess the point or that he just does no care. The segments that follow are listlessly directed and the film limps along until the first fight scene.
The fight scenes at least are exciting enough, though every single one is shot in slow motion by Hong Kong action choreographer Cory Yuen, reminding the audience of the TRANSPORTER films. West and Yuen must have something about Christmas songs as two fights are executed to the tunes of Blue Christmas and White Christmas. Perhaps the film was originally slated for a Christmas or pre-Christmas release.
The plot concerns Nick Wild, a compulsive personality drawn to the blackjack table once too often. There are two stories here. One involves Wild’s pro-bono aid to a woman (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) from his past who’s been brutally raped by a pretty-boy super-mean gangster (Milo Ventimiglia). The second is a buddy company piece with a meek computer whiz (Michael Angarano) who wants Nick to teach him how not to get dirt kicked in his face. The computer whiz is conveniently filthy rich, providing the film’s needed happy ending. The two stories are awkwardly unconnected till the end of the film.
The script does not account much for ice Card’s background. His British accent is dismissed conveniently by the fat that the character had been to Britain.
There is less than a minute scene in which Nick Card is sailing his yacht in the waters by Corsica - a fantasy sequence. The end credits reveal a compete Corsican crew with location shooting and more. One wonders that any cheaper location that could stand for Corsica would have saved Lionsgate money.
So, the final question is whether it is safe, in the words of Lawrence Olivier to see WILD CARD. Unfortunately, not very.
The film has a straight VOD release date that coincides with its theatrical opening.
Best Drama: Inherent Vice
Action: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
Foreign Language: Leviathan (Russia)
Comedy or Musical: Into the Woods
Best documentary: Red Army