Lots of action happening this week - action films that is. THE GUNMAN, TRACERS and the much anticipated INSURGENT should keep action films happy. Ethan Hawke's doc SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION also opens.
THE GUNMAN (UK/Spain 2015) **
Directed by Pierre Morel
THE GUNMAN looks impressive on paper, which is the reason the filmmakers got financing at last year’s Cannes.
The film is a Sean Penn project with him starring and sharing writing credit. Penn has put a lot into the role as evident in his new bulked up body that can be seen many times on screen. The film is directed by action director Pierre Morel who has several successful films (TAKEN and BANLIEU B13) under his belt. The film is based on the late crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette book called ‘The Prone Gunman’ that was the film’s original title. The story deals with real events and has a humanitarian story close to world headlines. Before long, stars like Idris Elba, Javier Barden and Ray Winstone joined the cast.
The film begins in 2006 when special forces and military contractor Jim Terrier (Sean Penn) assassinates Congo’s Ministry of Mining. Jim goes into hiding, leaving his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca) behind with friend Felix (Bardem) who ends up marrying her. 10 years later, after an attempt is made on his life, Jim, now suffering from PTSD seeks out Felix and his girl to find that those in charge of hiring him in the past have decided to clean house. Jim goes on the run from London to Barcelona with the film’s climax taking place at a Barcelona bullfight arena.
But what transpires on film is far from perfect. For one, the narrative is a mess. The audience is at a loss as to what is going on during the first half of the film, as the script only reveals the details of the plot in the middle of the film. For an action film to expected from director Morel, there is less action here compared to his previous films. There is too much information about the Congo, the troubles faced by the locals and the inner goings of the organization that Jim has worked for. But when the action sequences arrive, they are top notch, but a few are over the top. The climatic segment where one of the villains (Mark Rylance) is gored to death by a bull at the bullfight is over the top, garnishing unintentional laughs by the other critics at the press screening.
It does not help that the supporting cast do not have that big a role to play in the film. Bardem as the key villain is done away early in the film. Idris Elba who plays Dupont, an Interpol operative has maybe three scenes at most while Ray Winstone, as Jim’s mentor, Stan also disappears early in the movie.
The humourless GUNMAN is at times too serious about the plot, which it ignores in the first half of the film. Jim is as puzzled as the audience is, most of the duration of the film. The plot also contains serious flaws. Jim is unable to catch a lighter thrown by Stan to light a cigarette and is often subject to dizzy spells. Yet, he can dispatch with the villains with shooting accuracy and sneaks upon them without any problems. Too bad as THE GUNMAN could have turned out to be a top-both action thriller.
INSURGENT (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Robert Schwentke
The second film of the Divergent series films and books by Veronica Roth, INSURGENT opens with the two youthful heroes Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) on the run.
They are being hunted by Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet), the leader of the Erudite faction, Tris and Four race against time as they try to figure out what Abnegation sacrificed their lives to protect, and why the Erudite leaders will do anything to stop them.
But the film quickly brings the audience (new and familiar) up to speed with what has happened to the Planet Earth, now supposed to be a peaceful place with the population divided into factions living behind walls surrounding them.
This story continues in the city of Chicago in the distant future. The city is divided into 5 factions: Abnegation, meant for the selfless; Amity, meant for the peaceful; Candor, meant for the honest; Dauntless, meant for the brave; and Erudite, meant for the knowledgeable. On a given day each year, all sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that will tell them for which faction they are best suited. After receiving the results of their test, they must decide whether to remain with their family or transfer to a new faction.
In the first film, DIVERGENT, Tris is tested DIVERGENT at 16, which means she belongs to more than one faction. Divergents are deemed threats to peace as they do not fit into any faction, and are hunted and eliminated by Dauntless.
In INSURGENT, Tris and Four must prevent Jeanine from ruling all the factions. Jeanine finds a sort of Pandora’s Box which contains a secret she believes may control who rules the planet. But only a true Divergent can open the box. (One must not question the logic of the plot.) Jeanine hunts down Tris who can open the box. In the film’s climax, the box is opened with a clever message and the film continues a bit after that.
The second film has more action than the first film as that had to go through all the logistics of the story as well as Tris’ training under the Dauntless faction. Story-wise, the film relies on the secret of the box. But the special effects (best to see the film in 3D IMAX) are the best that action blockbusters have to offer. There are lots of scenes with debris flying out of the screen, courtesy of crumbling structures and characters leaping and flying in the air.
One has to bear in mind that the film is targeted at a teen audience. So, don’t expect adult entertainment with moving drama. What we have instead is classic teen schlock, complete with the best looking young actors, silly romance, incredible fight scenes and futuristic sets and props. INSURGENT is no HUNGER GAMES or TWILIGHT, but the plot follows similar lines. There is a heroine, trying to adapt to a group, a hot romance and mindless but not too violent action.
Veteran actors Winslet, Naomi Watts, Ashley Judd and Octavia Spencer are particularly good while Miles Teller (WHIPLASH) steals the show from the younger players.
Don’t go into the film expecting much and there should be no disappointment. There will be two more films in the series based on Veronica Roth’s final book.
SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke’s hand at documentary on now 87-year old pianist Seymour Bernstein is an honest portrayal of a likeable, humble maestro who infuses life’s lessons to his talent in piano playing. Hawke (BOYHOOD, the BEYOND SUNSET series, HAMLET) has proven himself versatile and mobile in different fields. Though relatively talky in person, he shows humility as does his character Seymour by appearing in only two small segments in his film. Other than that, its is Seymour’s movie. Hawke’s presence is hardly noticed.
Hawke’s documentary is thorough and covers all the issues that I can think of. He first answers the question on the documentary: “What is it about this man that interests Hawke so?” He claims he met the man at a dinner party and Seymour has answered the all important question relating to the meaning of life: “Why is it I do what I do?”
Seymour has a highly lauded career as a pianist, evoking headlines like the New York Times “Seymour Bernstein Triumphs at the Piano.” But at age 50, he gave up performing to devote himself to helping others develop their own gifts. Seymour is first seen in the film giving piano lessons to a group of diverse students including a white male, a Japanese woman and an Asian male. The audience sees the man’s talent through his persistence in details. He insists on the lightness of the staccato notes, the flow of the energy from the hands and crescendo of a piece. He is shown to be patient never getting angry. Seymour is not an easy man to dislike. He hates performing for three reasons - the commercial aspect, the nerves and the non creativity. He also dislikes people that show off like Glenn Gould. (Hawke includes a segment of Gould in recital to comedic effect.)
One need not know much about music or piano playing to enjoy this documentary, though knowledge of it would enhance the entertainment.
The best segments include Seymour selecting a Steinway piano and performing his pieces. But the best praises come from Seymour’s pupils who lay them nonstop. These are followed by the appropriate climax of the film that ends with the maestro saying: “My hands have reached the sky,” after his first public performance in 37 years for Hawke’s theatre group.
TRACERS (USA 2014) **
Directed by Daniel Benmayor
TRACERS is an action romance film containing several good ideas that unfortunately falls part due to a flawed script (though credited with 5 writers) and loose direction.
TRACERS appears to have the key components for a movie that would attract the identical target teen audience as the TWILIGHT series. That might be the main reason the Twilight star Taylor Lautner was picked to star in the title role for TRACERS. But Lautner is no Robert Pattinson, though that is not saying much. He has the good looks and body but not that good a brooder or actor. The film’s key setting has the lead character, a bike courier, Cam (Lautner) enter into the new world of Parkour, after a girl Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos) gets his bike totalled after an accident involving her jumping around cars. It is similar to a stranger taken into a rival vampire community.
There are similar plot lines with the Twilight films and TRACERS. The girl is torn between two loves, there is a fight between the two leaders and of course, the romance that is as key to the story as the action. TRACERS is more fortunate to be set in the real world of NYC, but there are too many subplots, one involving every turn that Cam makes. Despite the attractiveness of the two leads, the romance ends up pretty boring.
Parkour is quite entertaining to watch. There is something intriguing in watching human beings scale walls and jump off high structures. The continuity is better here than in most action blockbusters. The expert editing which makes parkour look real is more fun to watch compared to CGI effects that come across as mostly ridiculous.
The story is simple enough. Courier Cam owes money to the Chinese mafia for borrowing to pay the mortgage of the house of his late mother that they lost anyway. He cannot make payments or the rent. He is taken in by Miller (Adam Rayner) who is actually Nickki’s boyfriend. Miller plans heists for the gang allowing Cam to slowly pay off his debt. But the romantic rivalry ends up in Miller double-crossing Cam in a climatic sequence that ends up quite well executed, compete with a car chase and shoot-out.
TRACERS is strictly teen fantasy. Nice bods fill the screen. No one can do no real harm. The smooth Parkour looks as real as any fantasy and the teens appear to be able to get whatever they want, regardless. Adults may get bored stiff.
For whatever TRACERS aims to be, director Benmayor barely achieves it. There are too many little side plots (Cam’s landlady and son, Nikki’s brother and her past, her love affair with Miller, Cam’s past with his mother, Cam’s past with the mafia, Miller’s dealings etc.) that could have been left out or expanded for more dramatic effect. Still, to the undiscerning teen audience, TRACERS might be the ideal escapade.
UYGHURS: PRISONERS OF THE ABSURD (Canada 2014) ***
Directed by Patricio Henriquez
This is a serious film review on a serious film based on a serious subject.
The name Guantanamo Bay strikes a nasty chord. The prison is well renowned for the torture of inmates - guilty or innocent. In Patricio Henrique’s disturbing documentary on human rights, the victims are innocent victims caught at the wrong pace at the wrong time.
The subject are the Uyghur People. They are Turkic-speaking Muslims who have become a persecuted minority since the area was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, a country already notorious for abusing human rights. The film chronicles the incredible odyssey of three refugees from China's persecuted Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, who fled to Afghanistan to seek sanctuary and found themselves rounded up and shipped to Guantanamo Bay as part of the US' indiscriminate "War on Terror.” It all started when the U.S. advertised monetary rewards for turning in terrorists creating a boom market for local informers who were not overly discriminate about whom they identified as such. More than twenty Uyghur refugees were turned over to the Americans in these round-ups and shipped to Guantanamo Bay, where they were imprisoned without trial for several years before ultimately being proven innocent.
The film is made more authentic by the interviewing of these refugees who are now finally free. But it is a long desperate journey no one wants to take. Unlike other documentaries on Guantanamo Bay, no physical tortures are on screen. But the mental torture is much worse. Not knowing what is going to happen, the removal of freedom and the fear at the mercy of the unknown captors are much worse.
The heroes of the story are, besides director Henrique who has gone all out to show the world what is happening, are the tireless lawyers who work pro bono to free the Uyghurs, because it is the right thing to do. Again, this is a painful and long process. President Obama promised to close Quantanamo Prison within a year but backed down on his promise. Henrique exposes the problem. These refugees are stateless. And no country wants to take them when they are freed. So, they are kept in prison though no charges have been proven. Hence the title of the film, Prisoners of the Absurd.
Henrique’s well-made documentary traces in time linearity, the Urghurs as they escape their villages for a better life. They journey hard in the heat and desert only to be fooled and imprisoned for no reason. They eventually are freed and get to tell their story.
This moving documentary is not light entertainment but demands to be seen for the truth to be told. The evil and cowardice of man are again exposed, but fortunately there are a few heroes in the world that work tirelessly for the Human Rights of the world!
Action: Kingsman: The Secret Service
Foreign Language: Wild Tales (Spain/Argentina)
Comedy : What We Do in the Shadows
Best documentary: Merchants of Doubt