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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 2, 2015)

29 Sep 2015

Films opening include THE WALK, THE MARTIAN 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, now playing.  THE WALK has an early opening Wednesday.

FILM REVIEWS: (More Reviews posted on Friday - Opening days of Other films)

COMING HOME (China 2014) ****

Directed by Zhang Yimou

COMING HOME is a welcome return for director Zhang and his actress Gong Li who have not made a movie this good since RAISE THE RED LANTERN and THE ROAD HOME.   The film begins with the setting of the cultural revolution when imprisoned Lu (Chen Daoming) escapes to see his wife Feng (Gong Li).  Their teenage daughter Dandan (Zhan Huiwen) reports him and during his recapture at the station, Feng suffers a head jury causing her amnesia.  

The larger part of the film now takes place 3 years later when the revolution is over.  Lu is released to go home to his wife.  Feng does not remember him at all.  The film goes into full melodrama mode with Lu trying to cure his wife so that she can recognize him again.  This is all heart breaking stuff made more desperate with issues like politics, family values, redemption and love at play.  

Director Zhang’s backdrop is the poor housing area where the family dwells.  The piano music by Lang Lang aids the atmosphere of desperation and hope.  And as in the best of Zhang’s films, Gong Li shines once again - the Chinese beauty ageing to an old age in the film while never losing her love for her husband.

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

DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF THE NATIONAL LAMPOON (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Douglas Tirola

This documentary illustrates how times have really changed.  National Lampoon is now known by most people as comedy films, the last one VACATION, being so lame that the word National Lampoon were taken away from the title.  But in the 70’s when political incorrectness, racism, lewd vulgarity and animal rights were in their infancy, National Lampoon the magazine prospered.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon (the tile appropriate as the words described many of the staff) looks longingly back at the 1970s when a smart, tasteless joke could make one laugh out loud without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or being attacked on social media.  The film traces the magazine’s roots from its start as the Harvard Lampoon found by three Harvard graduates — Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman  

After getting funds, The National Lampoon was founded in 1969 and first published in 1970.

The film looks unorganized in its first half.  Director Tirola is all over the place looking at the different founders, undecided which one is the most influential and to centre on.  The film also shows too many of its magazine issues, without a clear goal to achieve. But it brings out lots of nostalgia in the classic covers like the one in which a gun is pointed at a dog with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

But the footing gets sounder in the second half once the audience becomes familiar with the magazine's staff.  The film also delves into the magazine’s offshoots like the radio show and the movies.  The most successful movie of all is of course NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE and it would have been good to have seen again a few clips from this hilarious film.

Tirola also goes into the decline of the magazine including how many talents were stolen by Saturday Night Live.  The drug addiction and death of the genius comedian founder Doug Kenny is fondly recalled.

The talking heads are influential and knowledgeable enough.  The two most prominent and influential ones are director John Landis (ANIMAL HOUSE) and Chevy Chase (The VACATION films and THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE).  They also talk about Doug’s death.

Tirola’s documentary still contains enough magazine’s laughs and film’s jokes as well as antics from the likes of John Belushi and Gilda Ratner.  And if one has grown up after the 70’s the film is still a fond, nostalgic look at the times gone by when the world was not so uptight.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EXQgTDZs60

JAFAR PANAHI’S TAXI (Iran 2014) ***
Directed by Jafar Panahi

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi made the international film scene with his simple THE WHITE BALLOON and more recently with the smuggled out THIS IS NOT A FILM, made while in prison for crimes against the Islamic state.  Panahi’s film begins with a shot which the audience can se as the part front of a dashboard and a windscreen.  Panahi shoots this film almost entirely from a taxi cab, circling the streets of Tehran.  he picks up passengers who argue, confess their doings and express their thoughts about their lives and routines.  The big question is to whether the film is staged or a realistic documentary?  The answer is delivered early in the film when a passenger tells Panahi, who is driving the can that it is obvious he has hired actors as the last line his last passenger made was taken from his film CRIMSON GOLD.  The fact that Panahi next takes a passenger who has just suffered a bike accident with his wife attests that the film is staged.  The film is also better than it sounds, as the slice of Iranian life on display is a pleasure to watch.  Plus Panahi gets his two cents in by having his passengers articulate his feelings and thoughts, even of the government.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hYkteGqZfY

THE MARTIAN (USA 2015) ****

Directed by Ridley Scott

One of the year’s most anticipated films finally arrives after receiving rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival.  And true to word, Ridley Scott the director of BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN delivers an intense and exciting space adventure close in look to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is abandoned and left for dead on the Red Planet after a storm.  When he survives, a team of scientists, astronauts and administrators brings him home.  It is a very simple story in which the entire audience knows the outcome.  But it is not the story but how the story is told.  

Between the time Mark is stranded and rescued, the script by Drew Goddard (CABIN IN THE WOODS) from Andy Weir’s novel contains a series of set pieces leading to the climax.  Mark cultivates food (potatoes); Mark burns hydrogen to obtain water for his crops (unknown to Mark, water has only a week back been discovered beneath the surface of Mars);  Mark travels the red planet to uncover equipment from a previous Mars landing.  Meanwhile back on Earth, Nasa deals with the public outcry to bring Mark back; there is the designing and testing of the equipment to bring Mark back with subplots involving a genius mathematician as well as the Chinese with their secret space program.  Fortunately, all those are interesting enough to keep the audience attentive even though they might not understand exactly what is going on.  An example is the hexadecimal coding.  The need to decode information in ASCII because of the limitation of the rotation of the camera makes little sense, but it all sounds so cool and logical.

A few glaring things are overlooked in the film.  As Mark counts the days, the days are numbered sol 1, sol 300 and so on.  But nothing is mentioned how long a day on Mars is compared to a day on Earth.

Mark Damon is marvellous as the stranded astronaut showcasing a wide range of emotions from anger to exhilaration, from sadness to joy.  Damon shows his prowess a comedy as well.

The soundtrack containing mainly 80’s music might not be to everyone’s taste.  The reason given is that Mark is left with all of his captain’s (Jessica Chastain) CDs.  She only listens to disco.

Directed by Ridley Scott (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER) and shot with special effects 3D, THE MARTIAN is a marvel in intense excitement, especially the film’s last 15 minutes that is masterly executed to great detail.  

The set and art direction is as good if not better than in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, released at that time in Super-Cinerama.  The interior of the space craft is designed for zero gravity where entrances could be on top or side of the walls, with the astronauts swimming in mid-air while transversing the spacecraft.  

Mark’s character is a lean one, with no family baggage unlike Sandra Bullock’s in GRAVITY allowing the film to dispense with melodramatic nonsense.  He has no wife, children or girlfriend.  His parents are mentioned but never shown on screen.

THE MARTIAN better than GRAVITY, should be a big Oscar contender and box-office success.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ue4PCI0NamI

THE WALK (USA 2015) ****
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

One cannot review THE WALK without bringing it into perspective with the Academy Award Winning 2009 documentary MAN ON WIRE by John Marsh.  Both films deal with Philippe Petit’s world famous illegal wire walk across the twin towers in NYC, yet both are completely different films.  MAN ON WIRE was an exceptional account of fact while THE WALK is a fairy tale treatment.  Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon -Levitt), a Parisienne juggler sees a picture of the twin towers in a magazine in the dentist’s office and realizes his dream of walking the wire between them.  He narrates his story from the top of the Statue of Liberty.  This totally looks like fairy tale fluff.  But that does not mean Robert Zemeckis' film is bad.

Zemeckis is a Master of directing entertaining commercial fare and he has proven his mettle with hits like BACK TO THE FUTURE, CAST AWAY and FOREST GUMP.  In THE WALK, based on Petit’s book, To Reach the Clouds’, the title of which demands the story to be treated as a fairy tale, the film tells of Petit’s dream come true as narrated by Petit, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt sporting a convincing French accent.  There is also the almost perfect romantic encounter in which love conquers all.  Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) gives up her all, leaving Paris with Petit to help him and his crew achieve his dream.

There is one segment when Philippe Petit and his crew wait in the loading docks for the elevator to take their equipment up to the top of the twin towers.  The workers are shot in slow motion while Philippe’s watch is shown in fast motion emphasizing how slow time appears to pass for Philippe.  It is a great device which also rings the opposite for the audience watching Zemeckis' film.  His story unfolds really fast with the audience practically seeing all the events happening in fast motion within the two hour running time.  Zemeckis’ film also contains other prized moments like the appearing of the wire across the buildings with the best occurring when Philippe pays his respects to the twin towers in YC by taking a bow in the middle of his walk.  There is much to enjoy and admire in the film, besides it being a visual pleasure.

But the film is not without suspense.  Besides the climatic walk on the wire, the hide-and-seek between the crew while setting up the rigs and security provide taut moments.  Zemeckis also delivers inventive false alarms, like the clever Walkie Talkie segment.

There are parts of the story that pushes credibility limits. The role of Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, Philippe’s trainer is something right out of Rocky - with a proud trainer that knows all, taming a wild foal.  But still, Kingsley who has played parts like Gandhi steals the show.  “You cannot lie on stage”, is one big advice given by him, as if Zemeckis is telling his audience the same truth.  The supporting cast that form the assortment of Philippe’s crew are also entirely watchable and entertaining.

There will surely be critics and others who will hate the fairy tale treatment (the sheer audacity of converting fact into a fairy tale) of the Petit story.  To each his or her own.  But one cannot deny Zemeckis credit for his superlative visuals and innovative flare.  THE WALK, should be seen in IMAX 3-D.  It has great 3D effects, and though I am not one who favours 3D, I ducked when the balancing pole fell downwards from one of Petit’s walks, something that 

I have never done before in a 3D film.  THE WALK has an early opening Wednesday Sep 30th and opens in IMAX theatres.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR1EmTKAWIw

 

 

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: THE WALK

Best Animation: INSIDE OUT

Best Documentary: THE CREEPING GARDEN

Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA

Best Foreign: GOODNIGHT MOMMY

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