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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 11, 2015)

11 Sep 2015

Films opening include THE VISIT and WOLF TOTEM.

The Toronto International Film Festival begins.  Lots and lots of new films here.

FILM REVIEWS:

THE VISIT (USA 2015) ****
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

The mystery question is whether Shyamalan’s new film THE VISIT is going to be a hit.  The director of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS sure needs one after the disaster bombs like AFTER EARTH and THE LAST AIRBENDER.

THE VISIT returns the Indian director to familiar territory with a new angle of new found footage which he has not done before.  It is the horror genre again with a twist ending.  The premise is two children, a girl, Becca (Olivia DeYonge) and her younger rapping brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) visiting their grandparents for the first time at an isolated Pennsylvania farm.  The children are making a documentary video on their mother (Kathryn Hahn from REVOLUTIONARY ROAD).  Their mother has not spoken to her parents since then as they had a falling out due to her eloping with an older man who eventually ditched her.  The grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) turn out to be strange and murderous.  Simple premise , which allows Shyamalan the opportunity to tap his story without much restrictions.

The twist in the plot is something that is expected from Shyamalyan.  In all his films, the ending is an unexpected surprise.  Sometimes it works, as in UNBREAKABLE and THE SIXTH SENSE and sometimes it doesn’t like THE HAPPENING and THE LADY IN THE WATER.  And there is one in the simple plot of THE VISIT as well.  Despite some clues given in in the script by Shyamalan, my critic colleague and I both could not guess it.  As an added bonus, there is some morality added at the end for good measure.

The found footage angle is effectively done by Shyamalan.  Unlike many found footage films that cheat with a lot of footage on screen that is not the result of any of the characters doing any filmming, THE VISIT has all the angles covered.  All the scenes shown can be explained as shot by either Becca or Tyler.  This gives Tyler the opportunity to do 3 rap routines.  No doubt they are good, but thankfully the last one is left at the end credits.

A lot of the film’s funny parts (like Becca asked to go into the oven to clean it) have been shown in the trailer, that Universal has been bombarding a lot on television.  But there are still surprises to come.  THE VISIT is Shyamalan’s funniest film - the humour being quite camp, similar to the kind found in SIGNS.  Recall the scene with the family sitting in front of the TV looking so ridiculous wearing aluminium foil on their heads to prevent radiation?

The film is also good and lean at under 90 minutes.  There are no loose ends and every detail has a place in the plot.  There are a few ‘loose’ un-explainables in the plot that cannot be revealed in the review for being spoilers, but these are very few and far between.

THE VISIT is a return of Shyamalan to top form.  Made on a micro budget with no known stars and little special effects, and released in a month with little competition, this is a moneymaking winner.  Very camp, very funny and also very scary at times, the film is yet another hit on Universal’s record success year of films this year.

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

WOLF TOTEM (China/Canada 2015) ***
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud would best be remembered for films like SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, THE NAME OF THE ROSE and QUEST FOR FIRE rather that his animal wilderness film L’OUR (THE BEAR).  But this Master director proves his mettle once again with a stunningly shot animal adventure drama set in Inner Mongolia.  The film has runs in IMAX for audiences to experience the full wilderness effect (and pay more money).

The ambitious film, a French/Chinese co-production is based on the Chinese novel by Jiang Rong and set during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Two students, Chen Zhen (Feng Shaofeng) and Yang Ke (Shawn Dou) are sent to Inner Mongolia to live for a period of 2 years to learn the lifestyle as well as to teach Mandarin to the Mongolians.  The Mongolians end up speaking quite good Mandarin though how Mandarin is taught is never shown or explained.  

The footage of the wolves is nothing short of amazing and saves the film from what might be considered a silly story line, despite it being based on a best-selling novel.  It is the typical story of a hardened village chief, but with reason, teaching the newbies of the matter of livelihood in the cold north.  The students learn herding and Chen eventually adopts a wolf cub to disastrous consequences.  The tribe take their skills to be akin to the wolves, and they respect the wolves.  Chen also falls in love with the chief's daughter-in-law Gasma (Ankhnyam Ragchaa) after her husband is killed.  The story omits the other student completely.

Besides the story’s flaws, the film benefits from the stunning wild action sequences.  There are two of these, both equally impressive.  The first is the attack of the wolves on unsuspecting gazelles.  The closeups of the wolves’ tongues hungrily dripping with saliva differentiates the scene from other nature programs.  The second is the attack of the wolves on the prize horses at night in the midst of a snowstorm.  The two segments are worth of the premium IMAX ticket price.  Another scene that demands mention is the one of the dead horses frozen on the lake.

One would have expected more cultural conflict between the Mongolians and the  Chinese.  Most of the arguments involve the raising of the wolf cub and nothing else.  The interracial romance is taken as an accepted given.  One expects the politics toned down for the sake of the film catering towards a family audience.  Violence is at a minimum, even in the animal attack segments,

At a cost of $40 million, the film has only done so-so box-office in China.  Animal films are always a tough sell.  Even the Disney animal world films made little money.  And there are so much more difficult, as evident in this film, to make.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbhOhVimfRE&feature=iv&src_vid=Li5EP6T--Pg&annotation_id=annotation_1146457585

 

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: THE VISIT

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: MERU

Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA

Best Foreign: SECOND MOTHER

Best Indie:  DOPE and TANGERINE

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