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This Week's Film Reviews (June 12, 2014)

11 Jun 2015

JURASSIC WORLD and ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL are the big ones opening this week.  But a lot of little gems also make their debut.

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FILM REVIEWS:

HUNTING ELEPHANTS (Israel/USA 2013) ***

Directed by Reshef Levi

'Hunting Elephants' film - 2013

HUNTING ELEPHANTS is the characters’ code for robbing a bank in Reshef Levi’s Hebrew hilarious crowed-pleaser.

The film is a crime caper in which seniors with Alzheimer’s rob a bank under the plan of a bullied kid genius. The boy is 12-year old Yonatahn (Gil Blank), smarter than everyone else in school but a stutterer with no friends. When his father dies of a heart attack in the bank that he works, the mother Dorit (Yael Abecassis) goes with the bank manager, Deddy (Moshe Ivgy) in order to make their months living payments. It is a bit of Hamlet here. The man (indirectly) murders the man and steals the wife. In revenge, Yonathan, who has learnt all about the bank’s security from his father, enlists the help of his grandfather, Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai), his uncle the British Lord Michael Simpson (a very funny Patrick Stewart that audiences have never seen before) and Eliyahu’s best friend, Nick (Moni Moshonov) to rob it.

The film works on several levels. For one, it is a heartfelt comedy. The scenes in which the father dies and another where the grandfather pines over his comatose wife in hospital will be enough to make ones eyes swell in tears. The acting is top notch. Then comes the out-of-place British Lord, a third-rate actor who wows all the Jewish ladies in the old age home. The script gives the best lines to the Lord character. His dialogue in English, often uttered in proud Shakespearean prose in the midst of Hebrew is priceless. This character is the most fun and director Levi milks it for all its worth. There is also a segment of him playing (imagine Captain Pikard playing Darth Vader) Darth Vader in a London play called “Hamlet: Revenge of the Sith”.

But the the film about old age seniors falls into some of the identical traps of similar films. The chasing of young skin form cheap laughs that should have been avoided. Lord Simpson is enticed by a busty hospital worker, Sigi (Rotem Zissman-Cohen) to her apartment only to end up teaching English to her kid. The sexist subplot may offend the women in the audience.

But it is still quite the clever script with interesting characters and countless laugh-out loud moments. The execution of the bank heist is also executed with a little suspense and full credibility. It is also good to see a commercial Jewish film about ordinary people and not abut the Israel/Palestine conflict for a change, though there is mention of Eliyahu being in a Jewish terrorist group.

Despite its flaws, there is much to enjoy in HUNTING ELEPHANTS. It is a well-made movie, a hit in Israel, where it is apparent from the film that everyone has put their heart and soul into making it. And it definitely shows.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xnHUrlZgnw

 

JURASSIC WORLD (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Colin Trevorrow

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The long awaited follow-up to Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC WORLD gets a fresh treatment with new writers and a new director. The original JURASSIC PARK, was written by sci-fi writer Michael Crichton who started the trend of amusement park gone wrong with WESTWORLD and FUTUREWORLD back in the 70’s before going big blockbuster with JURASSIC PARK.

The story begins with two brothers Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) sent to spend their vacation at Jurassic World, to be looked after by their Aunt Claire (Ron’s Howard’s daughter Dallas Howard Bryce) who has neglected her nephews in the past. This silly subplot predictably allows her to bond back with them when danger strikes. At the huge amusement park, the nastiest of the dinosaurs escape its compound and creates havoc before it comes face-off with another large creature in a monster fight monster to the death like the original Japanese KING KONG vs. GODZILLA fight. In all this, there is a dinosaur whisperer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) who actually whispers into the ears of the creatures their names and sort-of tames them.

The story by the film’s 4 writers including director Trevorrow is silly enough but they know it. There is a hidden parody of another film in all this, as evident in the actually really funny bits spread out during the film. The first occurs at the start of the film when Zach says goodbye to his girlfriend when he is about to leave for his one-week vacation at the amusement park, as if he was going to war and never coming back. Within the next 15 minutes, he is caught eyeing fresh skin at Jurassic World. Another segment has Aunt Claire on high heels and in a white dress running around trying to escape the monsters and save the children. When ridiculed by Owen, she pulls up her dress sleeves and tosses her jacket, as if ready to ‘go for it’. His response is a comical “What does this mean?” to her face. It is these bits that lighten the otherwise heavy, unimaginative plot.

But the film still manages to awe audiences. When the children first step into Jurassic World, the look of the place (the rides, the creatures and the vast expanse of space) is spellbinding. This is what the recent flop, TOMORROWLAND lacked - the place’s ability to awe.

But the film’s climax fails to live up to expectations. Monster fights have been seen already too often and they are an easy solution out of the dilemma. And, the winning dinosaur is left uncaught in the park.

Chris Pratt and Howard do their normal arguing romantic pair as expected in a blockbuster of this kind. But the supporting cast that includes French actor Omar Sy (largely wasted here as Owen’s assistant left to running and screaming), Vincent D’Onofrio as the token a***hole, Hoskins in the movie (best remembered as the overweight recruit who shot himself fin FULL METAL JACKET) and Irrfhan Khan (STORY OF PI) try their best.

JURASSIC WORLD ends up giving audiences what is expected from sequels. There is more CGI special effects, more noise, more action and of course, more teeth.

LIMITED PARTNERSHIP (USA 2014) ***1/2
Directed by Thomas G. Miller

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Just as one would think gay films have run out of new themes (coming-out, gay romance, aids, senior gay coming-out, gay rights, gay marriage etc.), comes a documentary that re-visits he theme of gay rights through immigration. The film traces the trials of a couple through the period of the 70’s to the present - a 40-year period that is on film, seems as fresh now as it was then. It is the courageous love story of Filipino-American Richard Adams and his Australian husband, Anthony Sullivan. After meeting in a Los Angeles gay bar in 1971, the men became one of a handful of same-sex couples who were issued a marriage certificate in 1975 by a forward-thinking county clerk in Boulder, Colorado. But they were not allowed to remain in the United States. In an official letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, their petition was denied because they “failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” The couple then sued to prevent Tony’s deportation – thus filing the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for a same-sex marriage in U.S. history.  This is their tireless struggle that every person should feel for. Miller’s film also pays tribute to the other brave people in the story like the courageous county clerk in Boulder, Colorado who issued the marriage certificate and the immigration attorneys that fought on the couple’s behalf.  A compelling and still relevant documentary that turns into a love story at the end!

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/95349718

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (USA 2015) **
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

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Based on the novel and adapted to the screen by Jesse Andrews, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is about high school students Greg (Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke).

The film has a simple plot. Greg and buddy, Earl (R.J. Cyler) who he calls his co-worker make horrid parodies of classic films. The film offers too many examples, which were funny at the beginning but gets tiresome after a while with too many titles. But they keep making them and director Gomez-Rejon keeps showing us more titles. When classmate Rachel is diagnosed with cancer, Greg is forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to hang out with her for it is the right thing to do. Their awkward friendship ends up with him and Earl making a movie on Rachel’s life.

A comedy about death is normally off-beat enough with black humour at its central theme. But the comedy from Andrews’ script can hardly be called black. It can be called occasionally slapstick, silly, teen-oriented or self-conscious. But the film tries is too hard to be funny at any possible opportunity even if it does not make sense. Take the segment when Rachel’s mother (Molly Shannon) calls Greg and Earl ‘mousy boys’. “Do you two mice want some cheese?” She then remarks.  The attempt at comedy here is so lame and forced evolving from an instant that is made up (mousy boys). There is also an uncomfortable lengthy hugging scene between her and Greg that is supposedly be funny but ends up looking weird. Director Gomez-Rejon tries too hard to make his film up-beat and it shows.

Greg and Rachel do not get along for the most part of the film. Their awkward meeting serves to emphasize the point. At one point, Rachel tells him off and at another, Greg freaks out at her. But at the end of the film, Greg receives this ‘grateful’ letter from her thanking him for all the good he had done for her.  Where did all this amicability suddenly come from?

At one point, the script calls for the narrator to tell a lie. “Rachel does not die at the end of the film”, Greg’s voice narrates. And the title; ‘the part that comes after all the other parts” also illustrate how desperate the film is trying to be off-beat while failing to make sense at the same time. The explanation of the reason Greg calls Earl his co-worker and not his friend also makes little sense.

Gomex-Rejon also ends up using distorted camera shots to emphasize the weirdness of certain situations.

When the film finally comes to an end, the film also shifts from comedy to ‘cute’ sentimentality. Still the film is geared to please the greater audience. In that the film succeeds, judging from 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (when this review was written) and the fact that it won the 2015 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qfmAllbYC8

A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

(Sweden/Norway/France/Germany 2014) ****

Directed by Roy Andersson

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The odd title of this art film, informs the audience exactly what is to be expected from the last of Andersson’s Living trilogy on human beings. The pigeon of the said title is seen in the film’s opening scene. It is not a live one, but a stuffed one by a taxidermist perching on a branch in a museum staring down at the odd human beings that have come to visit. The film quickly moves to the next segment which is one of three entitled “Meetings with Death”.

The first is one of an old man dying of a heart attack opening the cork of a wine bottle while the wife, unknowingly continues to prepare dinner in the adjoining kitchen. The second short vignette has a old woman on her hospital bed, sadly screaming as her sone pull away her purse that she believes she can take to heaven with her valuables. The third has a man dead on a luxury ship after paying for his dinner at the chip’s cafeteria. Those resent question who will want his shrimp sandwich and beer. 

Andersson’s film is a serious of vignettes all shot in a distance in which the characters move in and out of the frame. Static camera with wide compositions is Andersson’s approach in his stylized reality. It is also appropriate to his theme in which human beings travel in and out of life’s fateful moments. The stories are short but accurately reflect the absurdity of life.

In an interview as outlined in the press notes, Andersson said that his films are inspired by paintings. In Bruegel’s painting entitled Hunters In The Snow, villagers are skating on a frozen lake in a valley while hunters and a dog return from a hunt as portrayed in the foreground. Above them, perched on the naked branches of a tree are four birds as if speculating what the humans below are doing and why they are so busy. In this film, the four birds are transformed by Andersson to the stuffed pigeon.

The film is at times, sad, funny, observant, insightful and absurdly relevant. The humour is more dead pan than subtle, often revealing real truths about life. An example is the story of the two travelling salesmen, the two appearing at various points in the film. Their first appearance show them trying to sell 3 gadgets that they believe would add humour and meaning to the buyer. One is a mask of a one toothed man, the other vampire teeth and the third just as ridiculous. There attempt is simultaneously serious, sad and absurd, the sequence ending hilariously when one scares a female while wearing the mask. The film’s most poignant and arguable moment has a wife comfort her husband as they share a cigarette while glaring out the window of the house. This is the film’s prized scene.

Andersson’s film is a brilliant compilation that entertains while forcing his audience to, like the pigeon reflect on existence. A clever film that would just be as rewarding on repeated viewings. The film deservedly won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/104770932

SLOW WEST (UK/New Zealand 2015) ****

Directed by John Maclean

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A hit at Sundance, SLOW DANCE marks another western after THE SALVATION made elsewhere outside the U.S. THE SALVATION was completely Danish while SLOW WEST is a U.K. New Zealand co-production shot in both the U.K. and Australia. The fascination of the old west is apparent in both films, especial in SLOW WEST.

SLOW WEST is director John MaClean’s debut feature and a very impressive one. He captures the spirit of the old west. And it is not a good one. There is a fantastic shoot-out ending with a plot twist and a message to boot. Part love-story SLOW WEST is more a tale of adventure and coming-of-age.

The story’s main character is a young lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee of THE ROAD) who leaves Scotland for the old west in search of his true love Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose and her father had accidentally killed someone in Scotland (Jay's fault) and had escaped Scotland to the U.S. But naive Jay is no match for the outlaws in the dangerous west. He encounters a drifter Silas (Michael Fassbender who also executive produced the film) who he pays to protect him. Unknown to Jay, Silas has a hidden agenda. He is a bounty hunter and wants to find Rose and her father to claim a reward as they are both wanted by the law. Maclean’s script (he also wrote the film) takes the pair through different adventures, one with a meeting with his former but deadly acquaintance, Payne (Ben Mendelson). Payne is an over-the-top character that goes around wearing a fur coat. There is a climatic showdown that is impressively shot in a field of wheat.

The two main characters are well written and play well off each other on screen. They are of contrasting personalities needing each other. Jay has to be protected. Silas is an old west-smart gun sharp shooter. On the other hand. Jay know what he wants in life while Silas is the lonely drifter needing to find purpose in life.

The climatic shoot out in the house by the wheat field could be deemed a classic. Payne’s men hiding in the long wheat are forced out by burning of the fields. The scene is both exciting and stunningly shot.

As the title might implies, SLOW WEST might move at a slow pace, but director Maclean knows what he wants and tells his tale cinematically. There are bouts of humour that provide keen observations of the time and the land, such as Jay’s idea of drying clothes and his discovery of a bullet hole in a used suit for sale.

But the film is not without a few flaws. The switch of voiceovers to and fro between Jay and Silas is a bit disorientating. But they do provide alternative points of view. The flashbacks finally tell what happened that led to Jay and Rose leaving Scotland, but Maclean keeps the audience in the dark for a while.

But for a low budget first film, John Maclean has delivered a handsomely shot and compelling film complete with a good plot and interesting characters with character development. SLOW WEST is also very entertaining and a definite winner!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFfsTsdJfF8

THE WOLFPACK (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Crystal Moselle

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A documentary is often as interesting as its subject.

The WOLFPACK that won the Documentary award at Sundance has one of the strangest subject matter captured on film.

THE WOLFPACK is seven homeschooled children (6 brothers and 1 sister) isolated in an apartment in lower east side Manhattan by their father. They learn about the world from movies which they hold an extensive collection. When one of them escapes, the family unit eventually breaks down. THE WOLFPACK is an extremely disturbing film about good intentions gone desperately wrong.

Director Crystal Moselle chanced upon them on the street, became friends with them and made this documentary about them.

One wishes the film would put in more perspective into the story. More homeschooling examples could be given, offering both successes and other failures. Despite following the family around, interviewing the various family members including the father, the film is as secluded as the family itself. The film could have also gone into what initiated the idea for the father to seclude the family and what his background is or where he came from. The only hint the audience has is that the father knows the ancient language of Sanskrit.

But it is the strangeness and curiosity of anyone on the subject matter that keeps the film going and the film’s faults overlooked. Moselle’s interview of the mother proves the most insightful of the situation. Her interview with the father provides the reason for the mess, though he would consider it a success. But when one of the sons turns on him, and is unable to forgive him, the situation says something about imposing ones rules over ones family. Though f***ed up, the sons all look pretty col walking about in their trend coats and Ray-Ban dark glasses RESERVOIR DOGS style. They especially log this film and imitate a lot of the films they watch. The audience ends up feeling sympathetic for the mother and children but much less for the stern father.

The films ends with a son making movie about a window that show different temperaments like anger, happiness and sadness passing by. In a way, this is what has happening to THE WOLFPACK. Imprisoned in their apartment, they only see the world go by through the window. The film ends on a bright note, which is good considering al the bad that he situation could have become.

Trailer: https://www.yahoo.com/movies/wolfpack-trailer-documentary-sundance-2015-imagine-118948276802.html

 

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and Slow West

Drama: Slow West

Action: Mad Max: Fury Road

Animation: When Marnie Was There

Foreign Language: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Comedy : Spy

Best documentary: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

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