Opening this week is THE LAST WITCH HUNTER. Quite a few smaller films are opening including GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE, REMEMBER, A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY, NORTHERN SOUL among others. The TIFF hit that won the Audiecne Award ROOM makes its debit.
A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (Canada 2015) ***
Directed by Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan
Canadian made A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY, a collection of Christmas horror vignettes begins on a relatively good start. It could have turned into a classic like BLACK CHRISTMAS but unfortunately the rest of the film could not not maintain the momentum.
The film begins with DJ Dangerous Dan (a hilariously festive drinking DJ) pulling a long shift on Christmas Eve at Bailey Downs, enjoying his constantly filled glass of good cheer while announcing to his listeners to be good and stay home as something odd is happening around the malls. It is during the broadcast that 4 murderous events take place.
The film is comprised of 4 separate horror stories, intercut and just loosely tied together (if not) by the dj’s warnings. The trouble is that the audience expects some kind of connection but there is none. Each ends in turn before the film resorts back to DJ Dan and ends.
The four stories are different in theme. The weakest concerns a group of 4 teenagers breaking into a school to film a student documentary assignment of a brutal murder that occurred a year ago. They get locked in the basement of a building. They suspect the principal. But things get weird and possession might be the clue. But this theme is a well used one, and nothing really new or exciting comes out from this story of annoying teens.
The second weakest is Santa (George Buza) versus the elves. Due to an unexplained illness, Santa’s elves are infected and turn into zombies beginning with his favourite, Shiny. Nothing else happens except for Santa killing off his elves or zombies one by one in a rather comical, violent and hilarious fashion.
The second best story involves a black family entering a forbidden enclosed wood area to chop down a Christmas tree for the house. The young son is lost. When he is found and brought back home, it becomes apparent that the boy is not the son but a changeling. There are a few nice touches here like the way the segments tease the audience. When the wife goes to take the shower, an expected Hitchcock PYSCHO nod turns out completely different. The changeling or boy also appears suddenly at the oddest moments making this story a welcome camp experience. Father (Adrian Holmes) also turns out to be an alcoholic who has fits of thrashing the son.
But the best segment has the Bauers, visiting their rich aunt for the reason that father is broke and need the old aunt’s money for investment. There is ideal comic material here as the family despises the aunt and vice versa. Father and mother and kids are constantly arguing too. It looks like National Lampoon’s Vacation from hell with a Christmas horror twist. This is the funniest story and works quite well in surprises and scares and comes complete with a plot twist. The monster Krampus also arrives with quite impressive special effects.
A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY turns out like the presents under a Christmas tree. Love some and hate some. But still, better to do with the presents. The best thing about the film is William Shatner’s DJ Dan.
GUIBORD S'EN VA-T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA)(Canada 2015) ****
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
Too bad I had missed this political farce at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as this is one of the best Canadian films I have seen this year. Directed by Philippe Fallardeau who also directed two of my favourite films in the past, CONGORAMA and MONSIEUR LAZHAR, Falardeau has proven to be consistent in delivering thought provoking and entertaining fare.
Farce is a bit strong a word to describe this political film. By definition, the film is a political farce, but it is a gentile one, likeable without tearing apart any beliefs or adversely putting down any political parties or indigenous groups. The film respects all which makes it particularly affable while still getting its message of peace across. But it does condemn hypocrisy and government politics. It is an intelligent and humorous film, well acted and executed while never getting distracted from the main issue at hand.
The French title translates to Guibord Goes to War. Guibord (Patrick Huard) is an independent Member of Parliament in Canada. The film opens with him hiring an intern from Haiti, hence the English title of the film. The young Rousseau quoting Haitian intern (Irdens Exantu) ends up surprisingly aiding the hapless backbencher navigate the complexities and pitfalls of Parliament Hill.
It all happens when a Conservative minority government tries to pass a bill that will enable them to go to war. It suffers a setback when one of the Tory MPs falls ill — leaving the key vote to MP Steve Guibord. Guibord’s wife (Suzanne Clément) wants him to say yes while his peacenik daughter (Clémence Dufresne-Deslières) wants a no vote. Guibord is unable to decide. At the same time, he is trying to solve highway blockages by the Natives protesting logging and polluting their land.
These are all key political issues. The film claims in the titles at the start: “Based on true events, that have not happened but will happen soon.” But many of these the events have already hit close to home. In Canada, natives blocking highways in peaceful protests are common. The current Prime Minister Harper is a warmonger, sending troops to fight in foreign countries claiming to fight freedom. The actor chosen to play the P.M. looks like Harper, down to his white hair and pudginess. The P.M. bribes Guinord to cast the vote for the war while promising him the minister’s seat. The P.M. is shown hilariously as a hypocrite, playing classical piano to his politicians while jamming with heavy metal music on his guitar in private.
Director Falardeau is clearly on the side of peace though he also exposes the politics of peace groups. One hilarious scene has the door of the tour bus of the peace open to white doves flying out. But when an Afghan native veteran amputee show up to correct Guibord’s ambitions, it is a moving experience.
The film shows at many times both sides of an argument, illustrating how difficult it is for Guibord to please both sides. If he goes on the sides of the natives to protect their land, the miners and loggers in his ridings will lose their jobs. Guibord is also a hockey star in his youth, again the irony of a fighter now fighting for peace. At the same time, his family conflict comes into the open. Guibord discovers that his wife did not vote for him. But her answer is that politicians rarely make any difference, so not voting for him means him not going to Ottawa and she having more time with him.
This is a very moving, relevant and eye-opening political feature. A major surprise for me and one that I would highly recommend as it is the Best Canadian Film I have seen so far this year.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (USA 2015) *
Directed by Breck Eisner
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the new action fantasy, a Vin Diesel vanity project directed by Breck Esiner who is best known for the flop SAHARA.
Vin Diesel plays Kaulder, a witch hunter who destroys the witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht) at the beginning of the film. Before she is killed, she curses immortality for Kaulder who ends up spending eternity as a witch hunter. The witches and humans have this silly pact of living in peace, provide the witches never harm any humans. But what have the humans ever done for the witches?Dolan 36 (Michael Caine) and Dolan 37 (Elijah Wood) are given the thankless task of protecting Kaulder who drives a fast and furious car. (Don’t ask!) Why would an immortal need to be protected is another question. The plot goes on to reveal that the witch comes back to life (again, don’t ask!) with the aim of bringing the black plague to NYC. It is up to Kaulder (now serving 800 years in this occupation) and a good witch Chloe (Rose Leslie) to save NYC.
Vin Diesel imagines he can achieve box-office success with a film that has as little plot like his FAST AND FURIOUS films. He does not realize that the FAST AND FURIOUS films come with a large loyal fan base and also a solid cast that included the late Paul Walker. Diesel is no actor - that is for sure. Even his funny lines are delivered stale and flat. I have never seen muscles on a face remain so stationary. His co-star Rose Leslie who plays Chloe speaks with an unexplained British accent. Poor Oscar Winner Michael Caine and Elijah Wood! How can they live this one down?
Never has a film with so many action sequences and special effects been so boring. The special effects, a large number of them involving insects, are all repeated for want of ingenuity.
The idiot from some radio station who introduced the film practically read the film’s entire story from a piece of paper and had to be hushed up by the audience. The idiot probably did everyone a good turn as the audience could have left then without having to sit through the entire movie.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is likely taken from a character in the Dungeons and Dragons game - a weak excuse for a movie and one with a big $90 million dollar budget at that. Time to sell the Lionsgate stocks!
The film’s only saving grace is the lack of a romance. The film comes close with Kaulder and the good witch. Chloe claims that she would do anything for Kaulder and that he can trust her. Fortunately nothing happens as she looks as if she could be Kaulder’s daughter.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER has a running time of 105 minutes and runs 105 minutes too long. At the time of writing, it had an approval rating of 18% on rotten tomatoes which is 18% overrated.
NORTHERN SOUL (UK 2015) **
Directed by Elaine Constantine
There is much to like and dislike about Elaine Constantine’s labour of love, a film tribute to an era of dance and music that most North Americans are unaware of. For one, most North Americans have no idea of what working class Northern England Brits are like, the type that favour seaside resorts like Blackpool and lewd entertainers like Roy Chubby Brown. They are a tough bunch and the characters, mostly rude, dirty and always looking for fights not easy to get along with. The film has done well opening in the U.K., on their top 10 box-office list, but it is doubtful that it will do well here. The film demonstrates a regional subculture centered on the industrial towns of northwest England –chiefly Manchester, the Blackpool mentioned and Wigan, the latter home to the scene’s most famous club, the Casino.
For one thing, the end credits claim that the dancers had to take classes to do the moves as shown in the film. These moves are rough ones, and one does not want to be hit in the face by a swinging limb of a dancer close by. The soundtrack – containing songs by the likes of Frankie Valli, Tobi Legend, Edwin Starr and Linda Jones is what makes the film tick.
While director Constanine’s film achieves the realism it strives for, it fails in its story of Brit working class lads in the said environment. It is 1974 and the lead character is a shy but quietly rebellious teenage schoolboy John (Elliott James Langridge). His outlet from being bullied, an overbearing family, a dull factory job and awful school lessons (the two bits of his encounters with an arrogant teacher played by Steve Coogan form the film’s best 2 segments) is the power of music. He meets his new mate, Matt (Josh Whitehouse), after helping him in a fight. Matt initiates him into the ecstasy - fuelled nightclubs, athletic dance steps and fierce culture of the northern soul scene. John has the dream of going to America. He has the hots for a mixed girl who he meets on the bus, after offering her a seat. She is a tough lass as well, a nurse named Angela (Antonia Thomas) and they finally hook up by the last reel. But this is a too often told tale seen time and again in tons of films.
Despite some spritely performances from Langridge and Whitehouse, the dull characters are swamped by their own problems and unable to get out of the rut, and neither can the film once it gets mired down in John’s quest to leave town. The painting of the words describing his town Burnswoth (a fictitious one) as a shit hole is revisited more than once. The audience gets the message already.
Too bad that the euphoria of the music and dance is laden down by the film’s story. Even a commercial story like BILLY ELLIOT’s would have improved this film.
REMEMBER (Canada/Germany 2015) ***
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Egoyan’s latest films slant towards murder, mystery and suspense. Poor Egoyan has been having a bad time with poor reviews and booing at Cannes from his last film CAPTIVE which in reality is not all that bad. In REMEMBER, a taut suspense mystery drama, a retiree from a nursing home (Christopher Plummer), after the death of his wife Ruth, undergoes the task of killing the Nazi who murdered his family. But Zev has dementia and can hardly travel on his own. To Egoyan’s credit, the 3 Hitchcock nods work well as well as the twist in the plot. But the film has one big discontinuity plot hole. Zev travels to Canada and the other parts of the film following has him back in the U.S. But still REMEMBER works as a good mystery story, well acted by Oscar winner, Plummer.
ROCK THE KASBAH (USA 2015) **
Directed by Barry Levinson
ROCK THE KASBAH has nothing to do with the Clash’s song of the same name or the 2013 Moroccan French film, Laila Marrakchi’s ROCK THE CASBAH which won the Toronto International Film Festival Public Choice Award. In fact the biggest joke is that it has nothing to do with Africa at all. The lead character, Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) thinks Kasbahs exist in Afghanistan, only to be corrected in the film that they are only found in Africa.
The comedy/social drama concerns Richie Lanz, a has-been rock manager in Van Nuys California, where the film begins, taking his last remaining client on a USO tour of Afghanistan. When Richie finds himself in Kabul, abandoned, penniless and without his U.S. passport by his client (Zooey Deschanel), he discovers a young Afghan girl with an extraordinary voice and manages her through Afghanistan's version of American Idol. She is good and she can sing.
The trouble is that females are not allowed to sing on TV and the girl’s father would kill anyone than see his daughter shame him and his family.
Levinson’s (DINER his best film to date) is all over the place and inconsistent in tone. He cannot decide to make his film a drama or comedy. Setting his story in an unfamiliar country like Afghanistan where he and the audience are unfamiliar with the culture does not help either. Worst still is Murray’s performance. Murray is supposed to portray a series negotiator but he appears to be in stand up comic mode. Whenever he faces the enemy, the scene seems more a setup for him to utter a punch line than to seriously negotiate. Kate Hudson looks totally out of place and out of it as a ‘young beauty’. The film’s funniest line has Lanze asking her what a beautiful thing like he doing in a place like Kabul. (It should be the other way around.)
The climax is a negotiation scene in which Lanz is shot in the shoulder and then an all out shoot out occurs. What happens after is totally unconnected and Lanz appears fine with an arm sling. The reason Lanz becomes so involved in the mayhem is also unconvincing.
This film rocks nothing.
ROOM (Canada/Ireland 2015) ***** Top 10
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
ROOM arrives with the highest praise after winning this year’s Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. It is based on the Booker-shortlisted bestseller by Irish Canadian Emma Donoghue who also penned the screenplay and is a story of the triumph of the human spirit against all odds.
A woman (Brie Larson) is kidnapped and kept in a shed by a man known as old Nick (Sean Bridgers). He has sex with her. Born in captivity, the now five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) knows nothing of the world beyond the shed to which he and his mother are confined. Mother devises a plan for their escape. They escape. For the mother, the process of recovery will now require just as much courage as her years spent enduring her imprisonment.
The film can be divided into three quite separate parts - each working at its own level. The three parts could also be described as different films because of the different tones. The first is the mother and son’s captivity. What they do, how they adjust, how the boy learns and how they survive make up this descriptive study of survival. The second is the escape from captivity. The boy is told by the mother what to do, which the boy obeys to a ’t’. Things obviously do not go exactly as planned. This is perhaps the film’s most thrilling part. The segment in which the policewoman questions the boys is the most suspenseful segment. As the issue here is human life, the stakes are higher and the audience is guaranteed to be cringing at the edge of their seats. The third is the duo’s adjustment back into society. Here the effects of the abduction are examined.
The film never ceases to amaze as there is always something unexpected at every corner. Abrahamson moves his film fast with a more exciting surprise at each corner.
Abrahamson also emphasizes that imprisonment can also be a state of mind. Escaping from the shed, the mother and son face another kind of imprisonment. As the film shows, their freedom is still taken away owing to the large number of media waiting to get shots of them. They have to be ushered in and out of the house they are being put up at, and the house has to have the curtains closed.
Abrahamson also makes sure the audience feels Jack’s elation as he experiences many things for the first time - like seeing the sky. This is probably the best part of the film where the beauty and awe of nature are realized by both Jack and the audience.
The city where the story is set is never mentioned. One dialogue has ‘America’ mentioned. But there is a shot of Nathan Philips Square in Toronto and a restaurant scene in Apache Burgers, which is a hamburger joint in Toronto.
As the main subjects of the film are Jack and the mother, the film ignores Nick’s punishment. The audience is just told, as shown on the television, that Nick has been arrested. The abduction of the mother is also not shown on screen. Whether she was raped or coerced to have sex is also not revealed. Not knowing the details makes the story more disturbing.
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL (USA 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz
The title comes from the tabloid magazine Confidential - a journal much feared in Hollywood as it exposed the subject so much so that his or her career could be ruined in the process.
Tab Hunter’s arrest at a gay party was one such article in the paper. TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL is the story of the actor/singer told by the star (he is still alive) himself talking to the audience throughout the film. The film details his entire life from a boy brought up by a single mother, how he got into show business, achieved fame, lost it and came out. His romance with a star skater is also a revealed.
The era of the 50’s when homosexuality was outlawed is effectively evoked as well as the nostalgia of the past and glamour of the movies. For those that were born around the time of the baby boomers, this film all bring back sweet memories of an era begone, good and bad. The segment on the death of Hunter’s old fling, Anthony Perkins (best known as Norman Bates in PSYCHO) is indeed sad and moving. Hunter’s take on Perkins’ marriage is both admirable and insightful. The documentary is a well-told biography, revealing, insightful and entirely entertaining.
Best Film Opening: ROOM
Best Animation: INSIDE OUT
Best Documentary: JUMPERS FOR GOALPOSTS
Best Foreign: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA)
Best Action comedy: AMERICAN ULTRA
Best Horror: A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY