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This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 10, 2015)

10 Jul 2015

Opening this week are THE MINIONS and THE GALLOWS.  Smaller films opening include the excellent documentary AMY and TANGERINE.

 

FILM REVIEWS: 

AMY (UK 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Asif Kapadia

Beginning in 2003 and ending in her death at the early age of 27 in July 2011, the film AMY traces the troubled life of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, who made world headlines with both her tragic living and her talent.

Directed by BAFTA award-winning director Asif Kapadia (SENNA), this is ‘everything you wanted to know about Amy Winehouse’, a comprehensive primer on her.  It features extensive unseen archive footage and previously unheard tracks, bringing the audience into the world of the rich, famous and unfortunate.  

Considering the fact that Winehouse has since passed away for 2 years, this documentary/biography looks fresh as if she was still around, through the amount of footage time when she is heard and seen on the screen.  Director Kapadia has done an amazing job in assembling all the footage together to create her biography seen largely in chronological order.

Director Kapadia spends a more than a fair amount of screen time on Winehouse drug and alcohol problems.  Yet she does not judge her character but the unforgiving people that causes her grief.  “I just do not know what to do if I am famous.”  Those are the sad words uttered by Winehouse before her fame.  The paparazzi are shown for all their disgust that they represent.  Idiots like Jay Reno can also be seen on his talk show benefiting on her demise by cracking senseless hurtful jokes like: “I hear Amy is now writing books on cooking…  cooking crystal mesh.”  Shame on you, Jay Leno!

The best part of the film are the Winehouse’s performances whether singing on stage on during rehearsals.  The segment with Tony Bennett would mean a lot to her fans, as he praises her for being one of the best jazz singers of all time.  The highlight of her life and also a high point in the film - her acceptance of one of the Grammy Awards on stage.

But the downside of her life is also on display, bringing the film to a sensitive balance. Winehouse’s inability to perform at a concert in Serbia is shown (archival footage) in all its sadness.  Winehouse dies a few days later from alcohol in her Camden home in London.  But the public should be sympathetic to her as her best friends in the film Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby were.  They were always there for her too.

The film show arrival footage and interviews from Any’s family that includes her father (who capitalized on her fame) and mother, ex-managers and ex-husband Blake who was sent to prison for drugs.

But AMY the film does justice to singer/songwriter, Amy Winehouse.  It captures the heart of her music and shows her as both an amazing person and music genius despite her substance abuse.  As an additional bonus, there are unrecorded tracks of her songs featured in the film done by her before her death.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A97-pQJD6Hw

BIG GAME (Finland/Germany/UK 2014) ***
Directed by Jalmari Helander

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There is much to enjoy in this G-rated crowd pleaser which adds the element of coming-of-age into the adventure formula.   The Finnish,German and Brit coproduction  is given a welcome boost by the presence of Samuel L. Jackson who always brings over-the-top energy to his roles.  I have not recalled a film in which he has not uttered his favourite term ‘mother f***er.  Here, he plays the President of the United on the survival skills of a 13-year-old woodsman.  But he still manages to utter those two words, though the last syllable clouded by the sound of a gun going off.  And because the two words were technically unheard on screen, the film could escape with the G rating.

The film begins with two totally different worlds on display.  The first is 13-year Oskari (Onni Tommila) on his hunting manhood-rite.  He is very determined (as evident from his facial expressions) to succeed though his father has less confidence in his son.  Oskari enters the woods alone. The other world has President ‘Bill’ (Jackson), trapped in the wilderness after Air Force One is forced down by a terrorist attack.

Director Jalmari Helander of the hit RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE proves his mettle with another story with a kid as the protagonist.  In RARE EXPORTS, it is a boy with his father finding an evil Santa and uncovering the secret of slaughtered reindeer and disappearing children.  Here, the boy  Oskari becomes the unlikely hero and helps the President survive thus finally making the father proud.  It is a predictable script but it is a totally entertaining film and gladly, there is no need for a plot twist, a gimmick already too often used.

Helander brilliantly executes the balancing act between action suspense and humour.  The villains, 4 in total are sinister enough, but of the James Bond villain variety.  Oscar Winner Jim Broadbent plays the most successful one, with all the evil relish he can muster, including a murder in the toilet.  The action scenes that include a freezer box containing the President and Oskari racing down the rapids and fights holding on to a helicopter are impressive enough.

A lot of the film’s success rests on the chemistry between Jackson and the young actor Omni Tommila.  The young actor is a rare find, delivering not only a winning performance but also creating the good chemistry required.

An additional bonus to the film is its Finnish touch.  Helander takes the Finnish rites-of-passage with full seriousness.  Helander also devotes quite a bit of screen time with the camera spanning the stunning Finnish landscape of the north.  In contrast, he pokes fun at the U.S.  One reason for kidnaping the President is illustrated by villain Morris (Ray Stevenson) expression of his disgust that the President has not only failed in his duty but cannot do a single push-up.  He is to be stuffed by a taxidermist as punishment.  “Instead of looking tough, you have to be tough,” is the advice given by the 13-year old to the President.

BIG GAME though the premise might hanse sounded lame turns out to be more entertaining than expected.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHdFE10n9bc

 

 
 

SELF/LESS (USA 2015) **

Directed by Tarsem Singh

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SELF/LESS a sci-fi action thriller begins with super millionaire, Damian (Ben Kingsley) having two major problems - his  poor health and his needed reconciliation with his estranged daughter.  He succumbs to the temptation of living forever.  His mind is alert and he will have his body transported into an empty vessel by Dr. Albright (Matthew Goode) through an underground process called shedding.  But the promise of immortality turns into a nightmare when he experiences flashbacks which begin to reveal the disturbing origins of the body he now inhabits.  The main story is his search for the family of the man’s body and eventually do some good in his life.

The problem with the film is that the story allows for lot of plot loopholes.  And the script by Alex and David pastor attempts to answer every question.  The result if a story with too much information and plot twists so that the suspense thriller is compromised, never mind silly neglected points like the car Damian (Ryan Reynolds playing the new Damian), Madeline  (Natalie martinez) and Claire (Michelle Dockery) conveniently parked away from their house where they were attacked.  Characters like Anton (Derek Luke) who befriends the new Damian early on in the story can also be eliminated without much effect.

The overall effect of the film is a confused and over plotted action film.  The action sequences are nothing much to write home about, through there are quite few hand-to-hand fights.

Another problem with films of this sort is that when the old Damian inhabits the new body, his character disappears due to the fact that the audience only sees the new body.  So how the millionaire feels and acts look foreign.

There has been quite a lot of sci-fi films this year but the best is still EX-MACHINA.  Director Tarsem Singh has created the similar effect in SELF/LESSas his last film - the fairy tale MIRROR MIRROR, which is a totally forgettable big budget film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mc4sz6neHDs

THE MINIONS (USA 2015) **

Directed by Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Written by Brian Lynch in a script which has minimal dialogue for its minion characters, THE MINIONS follows the history of the yellow gibberish creatures from prehistoric times to the 60’s as they search for purpose in life.  Their purpose takes the form of finding an evil master (why evil is never explained) from T-rexes to Dracula to Napoleon Buonaparte (since the directors and a lot of film crew are French).  The narration by Geoffrey Rush, National Geographic style informs the audience of the  minions’ evolution, which are lame excuses to wring cheap laughs.

The main plot involves the minions’ three saviours, Kevin, Stuart andBob (voiced by the directors) as they search for an evil master.  They eventually settle on Scarlet Overkill and aid her steal the crown jewels from Queen Elizabeth (neatly voiced by Jennifer Saunders).

There are inherent problems with the minions movie.  Firstly, it is a spin off of supporting characters.  The minions were servants of Dr. Gru (Steve Carrell) in DESPICABLE ME.  Spin off characters seldom make it as main leads.  Another disadvantage is that the minions speak no English, only gibberish.  The animators get away with sneaking a few words for the minions like ‘gracias’ and ‘kumbaya’, but the vocabulary is too limited and the words repeated once too often.  The cuteness and goofiness factors are pushed to the limit.  No doubt that these are cute characters, made more adorable by donning them with blue overalls and useless goggles and have them come in different shapes, eyes and sizes.  Kevin, the main minion is tall and long, Bob is rotund and Stuart is plan silly looking.

As the minions are hardly characters, the film relies on Oscar winner Sandra Bullock’s character, the super villainess, Scarlet Overkill.  Though Bullock has proven her comedic skills in films like Paul Feig’s THE HEAT opposite Melissa McCarthy, her character cannot stand alon in this film.  There is only so much she can do with her stereotyped uninventive character.  Carrell did much better as Dr. Gru.

The beginning skits of the minions looking for different Masters before each are destroyed due to their own doing are mildly funny.  Again these are pushed right to the limit to the end of the movie.

The ending of THE MINIONS when the creatures find a new master, a young Dr. Gru spices up the rather uninventive story.  This only proves how important the Dr. Gru character was in the DESPICABLE ME movies.

Cute as they are, the minions are nowhere as funny or goofy as the Loony Tunes characters like Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd.  And the Loony Tunes characters seldom last more than a 5-minute cartoon.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder or enough is enough should be in the minds of the directors.

A trailer of the new Universal animated feature THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS works on the same principle of the minions movie - cuteness.  The trailer appeared to garner cheers from the audience.  But the trailer lasted less than 5 minutes.  A 90-minute film, like THE MINIONS will wear cuteness to the stage of ‘enough is enough’.

Still THE MINIONS have their fans.  And Universal has been been getting hit after hit of movies this year.  This film should be no exception.  

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

TANGERINE (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Sean Baker

The film opens when Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez), fresh out of her 28-day prison stint, is hunting down her pimp boyfriend, Chester (James Ranson) after hearing rumours that he has been cheating on her with some girl whose name begins with a ‘d’.  Her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor) promises to come along with her on the promise that there will be ‘no drama’.  But it is all the drama that makes this film.

TANGERINE is no ordinary film.  For one, it is anyone’s guess why the film is so-called.  Perhaps it is tangerine country in L.A. where the film is shot.  The two subjects Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both trans-gender prostitutes, but the film should be enjoyed beyond the LGBT circuit.  The film is also completely shot using Apple iPhone 5s cameras and associate devices that include a steadicam rig to stabilize the images.

The action takes place at the Highland Avenue, Santa Monica intersections of the L.A. sex-trade neighbourhood, the corner for transgender hookers during a Christmas eve.  The date is a ruining joke throughout the film.  One comical scene occurs when one customer kicks a straight hooker out of his car because she has no dick, she obviously selling her wares on the wrong corner.  Mosts scenes follow the two friends who keep using their own lingo like ‘bitch’, ‘shut the f*** up’ and the like.  But director Baker throws another character into the story - an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who frequents the transgender prostitutes, unknown to his family till his mother-in-law catches him red handed in the donut shop where Sin-Dee finally finds Chester.  The donut shop forms the venue for the film’s dramatic or comedic climax, depending how one wants to look at it.

The little film also contains a neat message on the strength of friendships, delivered in the film in the weirdest way.

The film works because the film’s characters are so irresistibly watchable.  They are extremely catty.  If they are not at each other’s throats, they are off at others.  The script by Chris Bergoch also contains inventive set-ups.  It is always one surprise after another.  The best is Sin-Dee entering a whorehouse, finding who she thinks is the girl who slept with Chester.  She then spends a whole lot of screen time dragging her by the hair half around the city before confronting Chester.

But the film ends rather abruptly, for want of a proper conclusion.  Still, one wants to see more of the low lives on display.

TANGERINE is not everyone’s movie, and that is a good thing.  Baker’s film is full of spirit and energy, from start to finish, a feat seldom accomplished in big or small budgeted movies.  Shot on iPhones, the film is surprisingly clear as well as intimate.  One would not like to meet any of the film’s characters on the street, but one cannot keep ones eyes off them.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALSwWTb88ZU

THAT SUGAR FILM (Australia 2014) ***
Directed by Damon Gameau

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Everybody knows by now that refined sugar is not good for the body.  Yet everyone still drinks pop. “Just Can’t Get Enough”, the Depeche Mode song appropriately opens the film that educates audiences on the danger of consuming sugar.

In 2004, upcoming filmmaker Morgan Spurlock underwent a self-induced experiment of embarking on a non-stop diet of McDonald menu foods to see what damage could be done to his body.  His film SUPER SIZE ME became an instant sensation.  In THAT SUGAR FILM, Aussie documentarist Damon Gameau attempts a similar feat - this time using sugar.

In THAT SUGAR FILM, Gameau goes for 60 days on a 40 teaspoon sugar diet.  The man was sugar free before and a relatively fit person.  Keeping the calorie intake identical but only changing the source of the sugars, Gameau gained a 3 inch expansion of his waistline while gaining 15 lbs.  But most important of all, he gained a fatty, unhealthy live and became susceptible to extreme mood swings.  The raison d’être for the experiment is his and his wife’s incoming birth of a new baby daughter.  They want to know what’s best for her.

The experiment is a controlled one.  Gameau consults the experts of the  medical profession.  He concocts nicknames for them like Professor Blood, the Crusader and the Celtic Food Guru.

Gameau utilizes a mixture of education, musical numbers and humour to get his point across.  But films using this tactic often has the humour undermine the importance of the subject.  Fortunately the facts are presently so strongly in this case that the humour supplements the effect of the message.  One prime example is the segment on Mountain Dew teeth.  A small town in the States is place where all the kids drink Mountain Dew to alarming results.  A 17-year old is shown with all his bad teeth as a result.  He undergoes a procedure to extract all 26 of his teeth to be replaced by dentures.  And because of his gum infection, the anaesthetic does not work fully.  Another example is actor Stephen Fry doing a stand-up coming routine on the evils of sugar.  But Gameau’s claim of the extreme amount of sugar in a bottle of Mountain Dew is a bit exaggerated, as I did not a check of the sugar contents of a bottle.

The film also presents straight facts.  The audience is given advice as do not eat refined sugars, cake candy, ice-cream etc.

But the medical facts make the most sense and serve as the film’s best arguments.  Sugar prevents the body from processing fat so that sugar is in reality worse that fat. The film also dispenses the myth that brown sugar or corn syrup are good substitutes.  Audiences are specifically told of the evils of fructose and sucrose.

Using entertainment and much humour, THAT SUGAR FILM is an eye-opening film and would definitely make a different to the diet of anyone watching the film.  I, myself have already started a relatively sugar-free diet.

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

BEST BETS:

 Best Film Opning: AMY

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documenatry: AMY

Best Action: MAD MAX FURY ROAD

Best Foreign: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

Best Indie:  DOPE and TANGERINE

Best Western: SLOW WEST

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