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This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 31, 2015)

29 Jul 2015

Opening this week is the big Tom Cruise MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION movie.  The LEGO BRICKUMENTARY also makes it debut.

FILM REVIEWS: 

BEST OF ENEMIES (USA 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s documentary BEST OF ENEMIES deals with subject matter that would turn away the average non-American viewer.  For one it is set in the 60’s with a political agenda with the Republicans debating the Democrats.  The two debaters are William F Buckley  and Gore Vidal, the former not as well known.  The debates were a brainstorm of  ABC TV, which was number three after CBS and NBC.  For the non-American, who would even care?  Yet, BEST OF ENEMIES tuns out to be a pleasure to watch, compelling, hilarious, smart, insightful and 100% entertaining.  Thanks to the directors for careful setting up of the material and to know what works to entertain an audience.

The enemies are Gore Vidal and William F Buckley.  Vidal best known as the gay writer of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE the best selling novel that ending up one of the worst films of all time (lots of clips from it with Raquel Welch in it).  Vidal is as controversial a celebrity as they come.  His recent documentary GORE VIDAL UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA also proved intriguing fodder.  Vidal is reputed to be the greatest talker of that time as Buckley the best debater.  The former speaks for the liberal Democrats and the latter conservative Republicans.  They were hired by ABC for 10 debates telecast on National Television.  But they more than often got personal and dirty than speak on the topics they were supposed to.  These two set the stage for TV shouting programs that evolved to popular shows like Jerry Springer.  Their best debate is presented in this film in its best segment with Vidal calling Buckley a crpto-Nazi resulting in Buckley losing it (threatening to punch Vidal in the goddamm face) and regretting it after.

The documentary is as carefully and smartly staged as any Oscar winning screenplay.  The stage is set at the film start with the raison d’être laid out, as the readings by John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammar inform.  ABC was the last studio in its ratings and used these two to debate and raise the station’s ratings.  If these two could do that, they could surely also do the same for a film like this, regardless of whether the audience is interested or not in America, politics or history.  The film works like spectators in an arena where the gladiators battling verbally instead of using physical weapons.

The directors also put the debates into context as a period piece in studying America in the 60’s.  There is the post-Kennedy context of the conventions and the rioting and protests that accompanied the Democratic convention.   The ugliness and riots of Chicago are centred with lots of archive footage on display.  But the audience is still reminded that the principal subject of the film is the two best of enemies.

As the film progresses, one would definitely wonder how the directors would conclude their film.  Buckley passed away and Vidal has the last words.  But the directors end up putting in their say as well.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzgfQvB2dvA

BIKES vs CARS (Sweden/Norway 2015) ***
Directed by Fredrik Gertten

The documentary BIKES vs CARS, clearly on the side of bikes opens in the two unfriendliest bicycle cities in the world - Sao Paulo and Los Angeles.  The two cities are riddled with traffic jams with cyclists having a hell of a time for the sheer number of cars and bike unfriendly laws.

Gerrten’s doc has a wide appeal.  Almost everyone drives a car or rides a bike or does both.  And the battle is an ongoing one.  As a driver, everyone including myself at one time or other have been infuriated at cyclists who never obey the traffic rules.  On the other hand, cyclists are at the mercy of the road hog drivers who I have seen make right turns, even when not allowed to make one, endangering the lives of the cyclists, who can do nothing but swear at them.  The film tackles the issue correctly by blaming the traffic laws and the city planners.

Director Gerrten employs a good filming tactic.  He gets his audience riled up - mainly at the motorists and the government and then in the climax of the film, show how both cities have improved and how the two cyclist activists on display are finally satisfied.

In the middle of the film, other cities are on display.  Besides shots of traffic-laden cities lie Seoul, Shanghai and Mumbai, the film centres on Toronto and Copenhagen, and with good reason.

Copenhagen is the number one bike city in the world.  Gertten makes an odd but interesting choice by having a cab driver commentate on the state of cyclists in the Danish capital.  He is infuriated.  Hundreds of cyclists appear at rush hour from every direction.  He has to drive extra carefully not to hit anyone, even though he is in the right of way.  Clearly, the cyclist is King.  The film informs that 3 out of 4 people in Copenhagen own a bike whereas in L.A. 3% of the population ride a bike.

The film also brings in the subject of population and gridlock, two side plots that do not involve the battle of cars and bikes.  Interesting facts are brought out, such as the pollution level dropping by 50% when the 405 highway in L.A. was closed for a few days for maintenance and everyone left their vehicles at home.

Then, there is Toronto.  Toronto is relatively bike friendly and lies somewhere between L.A. and Copenhagen.  The number of cyclists in Toronto are increasing and despite the negatively portrayed in the film by the removal of the bike lanes in Toronto, the number of streets with the lanes are in fact increasing with more bicycles on the roads.  The easy target of the then Toronto mayor Rob Ford, the clown again brings the circus to town.  His remarks that he is compassionate at the deaths of cyclists in accidents but that it is at the end of the day, the fault of the cyclists are typical of the words that come from him.

Gerrten invokes the anger from the audience with the Sao Paulo story of the driver/bike accident in which the cyclist’s arm was torn from his body and left in the car  The driver drove for 5 minutes before dropping his friend off and then dropping off the evidence.

BIKES vs CARS is an entertaining enough documentary while educating though rather too broadly.  Still it is a good sight to see on film the modern number one bike city of Copenhagen where bikes rule.  Though the war there might still be going on.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/72980283

THE LEGO BRICKUMENTARY (USA/Denmark 2015) ***
Directed by Daniel Junge, Kief Davidson

At one point in this documentary, the LEGO character (from the LEGO MOVIE) who narrates the film with the voice of Jason Bateman, cracks a joke and then remarks that it might not be funny because the writers (the two directors and Davis Coombe) are not (funny).  The statement hits the truth on the nail’s head.  But this documentary on the success of the LEGO toy is as assured as the LEGO concept itself, and with that, it succeeds despite being too geared towards the LEGO community.

Originally called BEYOND THE BRICK, this ‘brickumentary’ celebrates the 1958 Danish company that is the number 2 toy company in the world.  It celebrates the LEGO brand, anything that is brick built, educates on the LEGO community, the LEGO institutions, its projects and includes a few spinoffs.  The film’s climax is the sort of LEGO expo in which fans bring together their prize creations in winning top prizes including the coveted people’s choice award (won by a woman three years in a row).  In short, the film playfully delves into the extraordinary impact of the LEGO brick, its massive global fan base, and the innovative uses for it that has sprung up around the world.

Since the birth of their trademark toy in 1958, The LEGO Group has produced over 400 billion bricks.  And the film is clear to point out, LEGO bricks are not just for kids, adults take them just as seriously.  Adult Fans of LEGO (acronym AFOL) around the globe are unashamedly declaring their love for the brick, brick artists are creating stunning and surprising creations, and LEGO master builders are building human scale and larger structures.  LEGO bricks are being used educationally, therapeutically and have provided a universal system for human creativity and our innate desire to build.

THE LEGO MOVIE is inevitably referenced to.  Surprisingly, only one short clip of the film is shown and it is emphasized (unfavourably) that the film was made using computer graphics and not the true Lego brick stop motion, a very tedious and painful process that is utilized in true Lego brick movies.  These true brick movies are developed by a sub group of Lego enthusiasts and their films on display here make the most interesting part of this movie.

The film omits the business part of Lego.  The part of the company almost failing and coming back to its feet is mentioned only too briefly.  But with the current success of the Lego company, aided with the LEGO MOVIE and an upcoming sequel, the company has great financial promise.  But the film fails to mention that LEGO is a private company and the public has no chance of investing in it.  But the film mentions the business aspect of a weapon Lego spin off, which the company refuses to indulge in, because of its non-weapon policy.

Cameos in the film are few (directors of THE LEGO MOVIE, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, singer Ed Shereen and Master Builder Lego employee Jamie Berard) and could do with more.  Whenever one appears, the film brightens up.

THE LEGO BRICKUMENTARY should enlighten non fans and delight fans of Lego.  And the film with a free flowing narrative has the appropriate message: “It is important not to take life too seriously”.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGC1ZoZzJ4c

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

The fifth instalment of the successful TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE delivers very much of the same.  So, fans should not be disappointed.  The only difference in this film is the emphasis on the importance of friends.  Never let friends down, as in evident in the way the characters stick out for each other.

The film is strictly formulaic beginning with a James Bond style action sequence that has nothing to do with the plot of the rest of the film.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is hanging on to the door of an airplane that is taking off as in the words of chief of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) chief, Brandt (Jeremy Renner): “The parcel is on the plane”.  The sequence, no complaint here, is exciting, stylist and fast ending with the parcel successfully taken off the plane, though with Ethan on parachute.

The premise of the story is the formation of the Syndicate (the bad guys) made up of a multinational group of ex-operatives.  The Syndicate is the opposite of the IMF and Hunt has to destroy it before the British prime Minster (a welcome return of Tom Hollander) is assassinated.  

At the same time, the IMF is denounced by an incoming CIA chief (Alec Baldwin) who wants to disband the force.  IMF operative Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) along with Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji (Simon Pegg) square off against the Syndicate to the very end.  The villain in all this is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).  Hunt’s female interest takes the form of Ilsa Faust (Rebeca Ferguson) who one is never sure whose side she is on.

The distinction between the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE films and the other action blockbusters is style.  Tom Cruise has plenty of it and director Christopher McQuarrie (he also made the Cruise action flick JACK REACHER) knows how to dish it out.

The actors appear to be winging the dialogue in the script.  In one scene, Ilsa tells Hunt: “I give you 3 choices.”  After two are discarded, Hunt says; “I’ll take the 3rd option.”  In English, three choices means choosing three times, not choosing between one of three options.  Tom Cruise answers correctly to choose the third option, not the third choice.

The film contains two Hitchcock nods, which film buffs would be pleased to note.  One is the famous PSYCHO scene in which a knife rips through a curtain and the other when an assassination takes place during a high point during the orchestra performance (as in THE 39 STEPS).

The style takes place in the form of Lalo Schrifin’s theme song heard during the action sequences, the slick action fights, the wardrobe (one scene with Faust in gorgeous bright yellow gown with high slit on the side), motorcycle chases, camera shots and quick editing.

There is hardly any story in the film, or any plot twists.  But M.I. fans are not interested in plot or character development- just fast action, TOP GUN Cruise style.  That this film delivers.

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

VACATION (USA 2015) **
Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

It has been 1983 since the Griswolds visited Walley World in San Francisco.  Those were Clark and Ellen Griswold played by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.  Now, 30 years later, their son, Rusty (Ed Helms) continues the family tradition by repeating the cross-country drive from Chicago to the theme park, hopefully to bring the family closer together.

This kind of comedy falls into the category of the ‘uncomfortable comedy’ in which the audience is supposed to laugh at the misfortunes of the characters.  Comedies such as  THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS, THE HANGOVER and other VACATION films fall into this category.  The trick is to keep the humour and not let the mishaps occur without any laughs, a fault that THE HANGOVER II fell deeply into.  In that case, mishap after mishap occur and the poor characters go through hell without any laughs generated and the audience feeling uncomfortable.  Fortunately, VACATION keeps the laughs coming, though the hit and miss ratio is quite low, aided by the fact that the characters are all likeable - husband, wife and kids, besides being a family that most of the audience can relate to.

It is good that the script allows the female to be funny as well and not just there as the  straight act.  Christina Applegate gets to demonstrate her comedic skills as Debbie Do-Anything in a fraternity re-visit when she disastrously attempts to redo her early obstacle drunk course.  To the surprise of her husband and two sons, she pukes and gets knocked all about in one of the film’s funnier scenes.

The two children James (Skyler Gisondo) and younger Kevin (Steele Stebbins) also have significant parts.  Nice take on the younger one being the bully.

Though it is good to see Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprise their Griswold roles, they do not have much to do but stand around.  Chris Hemsworth is surprisingly hilarious as hunk, Stone Crandall with the very big package that is finally revealed in all its glory during the end credits.  So stay for it!

Besides the package joke, the film contains a fair number of off-coloured jokes for a family film.  The one about ‘rimming’ should have been discarded as it neither funny nor is it in good taste.

The script’s concentration on the couple’s sex life and the faithfulness of the husband is a tiresome retread journey down an already too familiar road.  The film also lacks a good surprise ending.  

But credit should be given to actors Helms and Applegate for trying their hardest in a film with a script that is barely funny.  They do work their best and the material works in their favour.  At times!

But the two directors and writers, Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo cannot save this VACATION.  At best, the jokes are sporadic.  No wonder National Lampoon took its name off the title.  And most of the jokes were already seen during the various trailers.  VACATION ends up as an unsuccessful attempt at rejuvenating the series of National Lampoon vacation films.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScMOyURq9os

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: BEST OF ENEMIES

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: AMY

Best Action: ANT-MAN

Best Foreign: A HARD DAY (South Korea)

Best Indie:  DOPE and TANGERINE

Best Western: SLOW WEST

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