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This Week's Film Reviews (Apr 17, 2015)

16 Apr 2015

Lots of mediocre films (UNFRIENDED, PAUL BLART, MALL COP II) opening this week.  But the most interesting of the lot is TRUE STORY with Jonah Hill and James Franco, based on a true story as the title implies.

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Cinefranco the French film festival in Toronto continues.

FILM REVIEWS:

BEYOND THE REACH (USA 2014) *
Directed by Jean-Baptiste Léonetti

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BEYOND THE REACH is a cat-and-mouse thriller involving an unscrupulous corporate shark, Madec (Michael Douglas) after a tracker, Ben (Jeremy Irvine from WAR HORSE) he hires for the purpose of hunting bighorn sheep (which the audience never sees). When Madec accidental kills of an old prospector, he wants to do away with the only witness, Ben. Madec makes him strip and wander in the hot sun, which is supposed to burn one dry (temperatures reach above 130 degrees) within an hour - although the boy seems to be able to run around more than 3 times that amount of time.

For a cat-and-mouse thriller, Leonetti’s film’s pace is surprisingly slow. It shows that one can only do so much with the script when the mouse is trying to hide in a desert. There is not much opportunity to hide or to play with the script. And Stephen Susco who wrote the script is clearly out of ideas. It does not help that the chemistry between the two is not tapped to the fullest, especially when 80% of the film’s running time involves only these two characters. The film includes a segment in which Madec throws sticks of dynamite one and a time at Ben who is running about much like the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon. It only reminds one of how cartoonish the entire enterprise is.

One wonders what attracted Michael Douglas who co-produced the film to this venture. He does not know what to do with his corporate shark character. At one pint, he is joking with Ben and another he is freaking out at the boy. Jeremy Irvine looks good shirtless, with a fantastic tan running around in his boxers in the desert. That might be the only thing attractive about the movie.

The few nice bits involve Madec laying back on a deck chair sipping his martini while Ben is scrambling for water. Another involves a swinging female dummy in white dress in the old prospector’s lair. But these off-beat scenes are too few and far-between.

The desert scenery at least is quite stunning. The film is shot in New Mexico desert.

The ending climax of the film demands mention. The ending will not be revealed as it would be a spoiler, but it must take credit as the most ridiculous and unbelievable one on screen for a long time. It must have seemed ok when filming it, but, it makes completely no sense.

The result is a rather silly low budget B movie that wastes its two stars, Douglas and Susco.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qlFGI5n_C8

THE DEAD LANDS (New Zealand/UK 2014) ***
Directed by Toa Fraser

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Nominated for an Oscar or Best Foreign Picture, the Maori action drama has much to do with originality. It is one of the few films set in pre-colonial New Zealand, features dialogue totally in Maori and features an unseen before ancient Maori martial-arts called Mau rakau. Brit director To a Fraser ensures that there is no city in sight, only warrior lands with seas, cliffs, river and country. New Zealand is as beautiful looking here as it obviously is in reality though the film’s theme is violent and bloody.

THE DEAD LANDS refer to an area of land reputed to be ruled by the dead. No one dares trespass or incur the wrath of the spirit of the guardians. A monster rules the Dead Lands, but it is revealed that he is in a actuality a man, and one quite skilled in Mau rakau.

The film is centred on young Hongi (James Rolleston). After his tribe is slaughtered through an act of treachery, Hongi sets out to avenge his father so that he may bring peace to the souls of his lost loved ones. Vastly outnumbered by the band of murderous marauders who are still on the prowl, Hongi has only one hope: he must enter the forbidden Dead Lands and seek assistance from the mysterious monster (Lawrence Makoare), a legendary fighter who is rumoured to reside there. With his people's killers still on his trail, it's life or death for Hongi as he navigates the nuanced connections between violence, revenge, leadership, and societal esteem. 

Director Toa Fraser who made a totally different film last year, the dance film GISELLE, handles the action and drama well. Wish the same could be said for the actors, who appear to think that screaming at the top of their voices and sticking their tongues in and out as fast is as possible constitute a good performance.

THE DEAD LANDS is a typical actioner complete with an epic climatic fight to the death. But apart from the original points before mentioned, all that transpires is still predictable stuff.

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

DESERT DANCER (UK 2014) **

Directed by Richard Raymond

desertdancerba

Based on a true story with titles like Iran being the land of poetry and one of the first to observe human rights despite its bad rap these days, director Richard Raymond’s directorial debut appears to take on some mighty issues including the main one which is to tell the true events of the defection of an Iranian dance prodigy to Paris.

DESERT DANCER is the story of Ahshin Ghaffasrian (Reece Ritchie). The film begins with him as a boy getting in trouble for dancing in school. Dancing is forbidden in Iran. One can go to prison for dancing, despite videos like Dirty dancing being readily available in Iran. At the University of Tehran, Ahshin risks all to start a dance company. He falls in love with a talented dancer in a romance that totally distracts from the main story. The film title is derived from the climatic dance performance that takes place in the desert, away from authorities.

The film is set during the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election, where many cultural freedoms were threatened. Raymond creates an authentic feel for the desperate times The riot segment is well shot. Afshin and friends risk their lives and form an underground dance company. Through banned online videos, they learn dance moves. Though of a different calibre, Ahshin is compared to Russian ballet defector Rudolf Nureyev.

DESERT DANCER is so commercialized that it violates its authenticity. Afshin’s chance meeting with his old Iranian teacher in Paris during the one day of the performance of The Tempest is likely made up. There are other problems with the script as well. This is odd as it is co-written by Jon Croker and the real dancer, Afshin Ghaffarian himself. The audience is supposed to believe the life lessons are taught by a heroin addict to Ahsgin. When she utters words like “You have to find your secret language before you find your technique”, it is difficult to take the advice to heart. The climatic dance performance in which the dance police are on the way just as the performance begins is cliched Hollywood territory.

The first shot of Paris when Afshin arrives there with the rooftops (sur les toits de Paris) is also such a cliched look.

So, for a film that deals with dance being forbidden in Iran and the fight for the right to dance and for freedom, Raymond’s film is an inspired mess of good intentions. Perhaps a documentary on the life and works of Ghaffarian would have been more effective. DESERT DANCER is neither entertaining nor is it effective in getting the message of freedom across. The part on stage where Afshin looses it and begins a spill about freedom to the audience’s applause and standing ovation is the last straw.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYCIXaP6pKQ

DESERT DANCER (UK 2014) **

Directed by Richard Raymond

desertdancerba

Based on a true story with titles like Iran being the land of poetry and one of the first to observe human rights despite its bad rap these days, director Richard Raymond’s directorial debut appears to take on some mighty issues including the main one which is to tell the true events of the defection of an Iranian dance prodigy to Paris.

DESERT DANCER is the story of Ahshin Ghaffasrian (Reece Ritchie). The film begins with him as a boy getting in trouble for dancing in school. Dancing is forbidden in Iran. One can go to prison for dancing, despite videos like Dirty dancing being readily available in Iran. At the University of Tehran, Ahshin risks all to start a dance company. He falls in love with a talented dancer in a romance that totally distracts from the main story. The film title is derived from the climatic dance performance that takes place in the desert, away from authorities.

The film is set during the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election, where many cultural freedoms were threatened. Raymond creates an authentic feel for the desperate times The riot segment is well shot. Afshin and friends risk their lives and form an underground dance company. Through banned online videos, they learn dance moves. Though of a different calibre, Ahshin is compared to Russian ballet defector Rudolf Nureyev.

DESERT DANCER is so commercialized that it violates its authenticity. Afshin’s chance meeting with his old Iranian teacher in Paris during the one day of the performance of The Tempest is likely made up. There are other problems with the script as well. This is odd as it is co-written by Jon Croker and the real dancer, Afshin Ghaffarian himself. The audience is supposed to believe the life lessons are taught by a heroin addict to Ahsgin. When she utters words like “You have to find your secret language before you find your technique”, it is difficult to take the advice to heart. The climatic dance performance in which the dance police are on the way just as the performance begins is cliched Hollywood territory.

The first shot of Paris when Afshin arrives there with the rooftops (sur les toits de Paris) is also such a cliched look.

So, for a film that deals with dance being forbidden in Iran and the fight for the right to dance and for freedom, Raymond’s film is an inspired mess of good intentions. Perhaps a documentary on the life and works of Ghaffarian would have been more effective. DESERT DANCER is neither entertaining nor is it effective in getting the message of freedom across. The part on stage where Afshin looses it and begins a spill about freedom to the audience’s applause and standing ovation is the last straw.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYCIXaP6pKQ

MONKEY KINGDOM (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Mark Linfield

monkeykingdomba

(Pic of Maya, Kumar and baby Kip)

Finally, a Disney documentary on our relatives - MONKEY KINGDOM.

The 8th in the Disneynature series films after AFRICAN CATS, BEARS, CHIMPANZEE, EARTH and OCEANS, MONKEY KINGDOM is pretty much the same type of documentary that can be expected from the series. A story is concocted about monkeys, with a family again in focus, with some eminent danger to provide suspense for the viewers followed by a happy ending.

It is interesting to note how stories can be made-up from filming wild life. For example, if a monkey is seen eating right after running, a story could say that the monkey works out before having a good breakfast. Credit should be given to the writer/director Mark Linfield as MONKEY KINGDOM has more story than any of the other Disneynature films. 

Again it is a story of family. The film is fully narrated by Tina Fey, so the narrative is a strong one from start to finish. It is a female protagonist this time, a monkey of low social status by the name of Maya. It is the story of her looking after her son, Kip. But the two have to eat off the ground as she is not born of the upper class like the alpha male Raja or his three queens, that the film fondly refers to as the Sisterhood. They keep Maya in her lowly place. Maya could leave the society but the society keeps her safe from predators. They reside at Castle Rock which provides shelter, view and close proximity to food. The film shows the society surviving eating different forms of food that includes figs, flying terminates (their annual feast that lasts only a day) and water lily pods, among other intriguing food sources. The threat to the Kingdom finally arrives with the appearance of a rival money group and they are ostracized after a vicious battle. But they regain Castle Rock at the end.

MONKEY KINGDOM has more story that is a minus point for younger audiences who might not understand what is happening. There are less stunning sights to behold compared to OCENAS or EARTH. But director Linfield has included other animals in the picture such as timbre bears, a 7-foot monitor lizard and yes, nasty human beings.

MONKEY KINGDOM is typical Disney. The violence is kept to a minimum, such as the scene in which the monitor lizard takes one infant monkey as prey or how sex is omitted as to how Maya suddenly has baby Kip with Kumar her suitor.

The best bits of the films are the informative bits that most audiences are unfamiliar with. These include the monkeys swimming underwater looking for food in a murky pond or feeding on a flying termite frenzy. The film is shot in beautiful Sri Lanka in the lush rain forests.

If interested in watching this film, it is best to see it during he opening week as Disneynature will make a donation from a portion of your ticket price to Conservational International as they did in their other films.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasvQYdvSD0

TRUE STORY (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Rupert Goold

truestoryba

Who would expect that the latest film from stoner comedians Jonah Hill (21 JUMP STREET, 22 JUMP STREET) and James Franco (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, THE INTERVIEW)

be such a serious film that there is not even one hint of humour? 

Their latest film demonstrates that truth is stranger than fiction.

Based on the book by Michael Finkel, the plot follows ex-NewYork Times reporter Finkel (Hill) just after being fired from his job for fabricating a cover story. Finkel attempts to redeem himself when he learns that convicted child killer Christian Longo (Franco) has impersonated him, using his name in the past. Finkel visits Longo in prison befriending him, hoping, as he puts it, “Maybe you could tell me what it is like to be me.” Finkel believes Longo to be innocent but is Longo just lying all the time and using Finkel? The answer, though rather obvious, is kept from the audience in the manipulative but well-written script by Goold and David Kaiganich, revealing the answer only at the very end. So, TRUE STORY plays as a whodunit.

The script contains neat bits that build up on the characters and film’s plot. The poker game going on in Finkel’s NY Times office emphasizes the risks he takes in life - both in the fabrication of the African story and in the taking up of Longo’s cause. Longo’s phone call to Jill highlights Longo’s manipulative behaviour.

Director Goold’s debut feature is an impressive one. Having a background in Shakespeare and London Theatre, it is not surprising that his film turns out dead serious. Despite the story being a two-handler, Goold brings his film out into the open as much as possible, showing Finkel’s girl Jill’s (Felicity Jones) Montana cottage, Mexico and into the court and visiting prison cell. He is fond of using closeups to emphasize the temperamental state of his characters, closeups obviously not possible in a theatre stage production.

TRUE STORY could have been made into a straight documentary or a film with its story told straight. Goold’s film emphasizes, like the story how easy it to fabricate lies to cover the truth and how fine the line is between perceived right and wrong. TRUE STORY plays the same way with the audience with the result of an impressive though over serious film.

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

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: True Story

Drama: '71

Action: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Foreign Language: Wild Tales (Spain/Argentina); The Resurrection of a Bastard (Netherlands); White God (Hungary)

Animation: Paddington

Comedy : What We Do in the Shadows

Best documentary: The Salt of the Earth

Horror: It Follows

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