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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 25, 2015)

24 Sep 2015

Films opening include HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2, THE INTERN and a few smaller gems.  This is the time of year where last year's 2014 TIFF films are dumped to the theatres.  Some of these are quite good films like GOODNIGHT MOMMY.

FILM REVIEWS:

A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (old title: X + Y) (UK 2014) ***

Directed by Morgan Matthews

A socially awkward teenage math prodigy, Nathan (Asa Butterfield from HUGO), lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.  

The film is divided into three parts, besides having lots of mathematic riddles for those interested in the subject.  The first deals with the boy’s background (father’s death; behaviour in school) before going to Taiwan for selection into the squad, the second part.  The final is the Olympiad in Cambridge where he learns a more important lesson in mathematics.  The film is a feel good weepie and director Matthews does well in the film’s buildup considering that there is no climax of a final contest in which the audience is cheering the contestants winning.  

The film benefits greatly from two of the best actors in Britain, united together again since Mike Leigh’s HAPPY-GO-LUCKY.  Sallly Hawkins plays the boy’s thankless mother and Eddie Marson the mathematics squad leader.  The film celebrates differences in people.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWAS-q2PpnA

GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH) (Austria 2014) ****
Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz

This is a film about 9-year old children that is not for children.  The suspense thriller is a solid one that will match other classics in the genre like SISTERS, THE OTHER and DEAD RINGERS.  The film has sufficient blood and gore, frightening scenes and nudity.

ICH SEH ICH SEH means I spy with my eye in German, a smarter title for a horror movie than GOODNIGHT MOMMY.

The film begins with an image of an Austian mother and family with the sone “Lullaby and Goodnight’ sung in the background before shifting to the countryside and a corn field where twins are playing.  In an isolated house in the countryside, nine-year-old twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live with their mother (Susanne Wuest), who is recovering from recent cosmetic surgery.  With her face puffy and grotesque under a swath of bandages, the mother requires absolute peace and quiet in order to recuperate, and this quickly begins to grate on the two restless boys.  As she becomes more and more strict, the brothers retreat ever-further into their own private, aggressively anti-social world, their anger and suspicion mounting and their imaginations running wild — even to the extent of doubting that the person beneath the bandages is actually their mother at all.

The film gets the audience on the side of the twins as segments concentrate on the mental cruelty and restrictions imposed by the mother.  The twins are to keep quiet, not allowed pets and Elias forced not to listen to his twin Lukas.  The twins eventually get the better of the situation and tie their ‘mother’ up.  At this point in the film, the audience is till on the side of the twins, hoping the mother never escapes.

It is the tension of the film that makes the film tick.

The script contains a few clues to the solution of the mystery - i.e. whether the woman is the twins’ real mother.  But unless one is actively figuring out the plot, the ending will be a surprise.  Otherwise, it does not take a genius to figure everything out, but chances of doing so would still be less than 25%.

For a horror film, the film, thankfully does not rely on cheap tricks like false alarms of things going bump in the night to the sound turned up several botches.  But there are a few nightmare scenes.  Special effects are kept to a minimum, but these are effective like roaches crawling out of the mother’s cut stomach.

The cinematography especially the night scenes with the glowing specks is stunning and creates a good atmospheric chiller.  There are serial scenes created for maximum scary effect - like the one in which the twins play a game with the mother with bald dolls in the background.

There are also a few carefully created suspense moments worthy of Hitchcock.  One is the tied up and gagged mother trying to signal to the Red ross workers downstairs visiting to get a donation.  And one more when the workers turn back to the house only to wave to the twins instead of noticing the mother.

This is the first fiction feature from the writing-directing team, and a new filmmaking force to be reckoned with.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kXpUaQpXMA

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2 (USA 2015) **
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

The second of the HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA films is blander than the original, both of which are directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.  It is more of the same with a slight change in plot which is something too similar to MONSTERS INC in which the monsters have to learn how to be scary.

In HT2, it is Drac’s grandson who is not scary enough, since he has half human half  monster.  So, grandad Dracula (Adam Sandler) tries his best to get his monster pals to teach the kid how to be scary.  These take the form of a series of quite unfunny skits, with the kid and the audience none too wiser.

The film is a sequel so it carries on the tradition of Hotel Transylvania, a hotel for monsters only to rest - no humans.  But the change in policy to allow humans does not sit too well with the old school monsters.  The hotel and Drac’s grandson’s education form the gist of the film.  This plus the lack of a true villain undercuts any potential of excitement in the cartoon.   Most animated features (examples: MINIONS; THE LEGO MOVIE) have a villain aiming at ruling the world or the universe. The different monsters like Frankenstein, the blob and others should provide ample opportunity for comedy but the uninventive script co-written by Sandler and others fails miserably.  If only the monsters were used to their full potential like the fairy tale characters in the other Sony Pictures’ SHREK films that were such a pleasure to watch.  SCTV’s Count Floyd is much funnier than Sandler’s Count Dracula.

It may be argued that the humour and scares are toned down for the kids.  That may be so, but adults will surely be bored.  Even Mel Brooks as Vlad cannot save the day.  Brooks has had also his bad spell in unfunny comedies, and this will add to his list.

Still Sony Animation’s HOTEL TRANYLVANIA is a marvelously looking 3D animated comedy.  It hits a few right notes – superlative animation, a good so-so storyline with a few rude jokes, family message and entertainment and so on.  But the trouble is that the film is not inventive, funny or goofy enough.  But Sandler fans and the notion of animated monsters in a 3D feature should still make it big at the box-office.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3nqmGgnJe8

THE INTERN (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Nancy Meyers

Writer/director Nancy Myers has not been known for outstanding films.  But the director’s 7th directorial feature stands as one of her better ones.  Like IT’S COMPLICATED SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE and THE HOLIDAY, THE INTERN is a comedy with a strong female presence, which is not really a bad thing these days.  Old romantic comedies (though THE INTERN is not one - but has a little romance) always had male/female tension.

THE INTERN first of all is a feel-good comedy about the old and the new.  Two generations with differences that the script shows are not that different and can work together in harmony.  Meyers script is surprisingly full of quite funny lines.  She should be remembered as an Oscar nominee for her script in Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Some of the script’s set-ups are inventive. 

The film is set in a high fashion clothing website store founded by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), a woman as difficult to work with as the Meryl Steep character in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.  She is forced to take under a wing a senior intern, Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) for reasons sketchily explained and not too convincingly at that.  Jules is overworked.  So Ben, who ends up her driver, turns out to be the best thing for her.  Observant and helpful, he wins her and all the other employees over.  If only there was a character like him that exists in every company.

The film has many different set-ups which are linked by the main theme of internship.  One involving a computer heist at Jule’s  mother’s (Mary Kay Place) house is the funniest and for the only time showcases the comedic talent of the actors playing the other interns.  This breaking and enter scene has little to do with the main story.  But when Meyers breaks out of the movie’s mould, and let her characters run lose, the film works better  Just like the ending where Jules find Ben in the park taking a day off.  But when she goes for the film’s standard set-ups like romance - Ben and Fiona (Rene Russo); Jule’s marriage problems and Jule’s cute kid shenanigans, the film gets boring and clichéd.

One could complain at the Whittaker character being too perfect.  On the other hand the script could have swung the other way, where the intern learns a thing or two about life in the modern fast lane.  That might be the premise of another film.

Robert De Niro proves once again his affinity for comedy as in his previous films like MEET THE PARENTS and THE FAMILY.  Hathaway shows she is able to cry on cue.  The two make good chemistry - laugh and cry.

The film starts to wane she it gets into serious mode.  The slow marriage break up with Jule’s husband beginning an affair and their final patch up destroys the light, comedic mood of the movie that Meyers so carefully created.  But on the plus side, it helps build a stronger narrative to the story.

THE INTERN has enough charm comedy and drama to earn the light applause it got at the end of the promo screening.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZU3Xban0Y6A

PAWN SACRIFICE (USA 2013)***
Directed by Edward Zwick

Anyone who lived and remembered the current affairs of 1972 would have ben fascinated by the world championship match “the match of the century” between Russian Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer.  They made headlines in the news and the covers of all news magazines including Time.  The stories of the individuals as there were very, very eccentric ones superseded the match.  It took more than 3 decades for Hollywood to bring their story to the screen, but it is worth the wait.  What transpires on screen fully captures the angst anticipation of the times.  Another documentary  Liz Garbus’ 2011 BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD also told the story in a non-fiction format.

PAWN SACRIFICE is centred on American chess phenomenon Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) squaring off against his Russian rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in the 1972 "Match of the Century" in Reykjavik, Iceland.  It is the 6th decisive match which would determine the champion of the world in this gripping docudrama from director Edward Zwick (GLORY, his most famous film) and screenwriter Steven Knight (who wrote David Cronenberg’s EATSRN PROMISES).

Though Spassky was just as weird as Fischer, the film shows only one incident (the film’s most amusing segment) of the case.  Spassky believes his chair was emitting frequencies which affected his game and had it X-rayed.  They did find something in it.  Humorously it was two dead flies.

Zwick’s film takes no sides.  But it does humanize Fischer’s behaviour by dishing a reason for every odd activity.  Fisher’s absence from the second match which he forfeited was attributed to the government not granting his wishes to ‘no press’.  His insistence of no cameras and no close proximity of an audience were attributed to the distractions they made, as emphasized by the increased volume they made in the soundtrack of the film.  Zwick treats the chess genius as another human being with faults, the main ones being pride and eccentricity.

One need not know the game to appreciate the film, for it is not the game or winning the game that matters in the film.  It is the two characters on display.  The 6th crucial match forms the film’s climax.  Quite a lot happened to Fisher after the game in the last few minutes of the film (no spoiler here as most would have already known whatever happened to the Master including his death), and the events are related to the audience to make this docudrama complete.  The audience is constantly reminded of the era from shots of Watergate and the Vietnam War interspersed during the film.

Performances are apt all round especially the supporting ones from Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN).

The one point of the film being a docudrama is the fact that he film appears aimless, as the film does not have any message to convey.  But this can hardly be considered a flaw or complaint.  That aside, Zwick’s PAWN SACRIFICE is a compelling film about compulsive people about a world match that not everyone was that interested in till thee two came along.  What’s next could be a film about tennis and John McEnroe.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFHvH9FtACg

SICARIO (USA 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

The word SICARIO means hit man in Mexican or also to mean the ‘zealots of Jerusalem’.  In Villenueve’s (PRISONER) new film, the term is referenced to officers involved in taking down the Mexican drug cartel for various reasons.  The story is centred on FBI agent Emily Blunt, who together with questionable government operatives Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro take part in a high risk takedown against a top Mexican cartel boss.  With dire consequences.  Despite the familiar story which is full of cliches, the dramatic setups (the bar pickup; execution at a family meal; the football games) make the film well worth it.  Blunt is good but it is Oscar Winner Del Toro who steals the show.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sR0SDT2GeFg

UNBRANDED (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Phillip Baribeau

There is much to enjoy in this relatively non demanding and educational documentary on wild horses appropriately entitled UNBRANDED.  It is easy to see the reason the film won the Audience Award at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival this year.

The film is an adventure following four friends Ben Masters, Ben Thamer, Jonny Fitzsimons, and Thomas Glover as travel 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada through the deepest backcountry in the American West on wild mustangs.  Why do they embark on the dangerous journey?  Because they are crazy - as they admit themselves.

Besides the entertainment value, the film offers a lot in terms of educate and beauty.  For one, not many people know that the mustang is not a breed of horses.  It just means wild horse.  The number of wild horses roaming free in the American wild is significant and kept to a minimum or they will fight and cannibalize each other, as experts claim on camera, despite activists fighting to prevent containment of the mustangs.  These clips are interspersed with the journey of the four friends.

The friends are also shown at their testiest when problems arise - such as bad weather or terrain and when the horses escape.  Some comic relief is provided by a donkey that accompanies them on part of the trail.

The reasons for the journey are quickly mentioned and not too convincing, including what they are going to achieve.  But that is beside the point.  People do weird things for different reasons and this journey of horses is one of them

UNBRANDED is stunningly shot and showcases the beautiful landscape of western country as seen in the States of Nevada, Utah, Montana and Arizona, seldom seen in fiction films

UNBRANDED should be seen by anyone who owns a horse or maybe who has ridden one.  For others, the film is still entertaining and educational enough for the price of a ticket.

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

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: GOODBYE MOMMY

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: MERU

Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA

Best Foreign: GOODNIGHT MOMMY

Best Indie:  DOPE and TANGERINE

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