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

25 Nov 2015

Early Wednesday openings this week of VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, CREED and THE GOOD DINOSAUR to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

TIFF Cinematheque begins their series on stop-motion animation this week.

FILM REVIEWS:

THE GOOD DINOSAUR (USA 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Peter Sohn

Disney’s Pixar’s latest is, as expected, a marvel in innovative animation as evident in the scenes with the water of the falls and brooks and the fields of fireflies.  

The story of THE GOOD DINOSAUR is a variation of boy and dog friendship only it is a dog and boy one, with the animal, in this case the dinosaur as the protagonist and the cave boy called Spot, the pet.  The story is the brainchild of Bob Peterson, the film’s initial director who was later replaced by Peter Sohn due to, according to Disney, story problems.  For the story, firstly, Disney has to make sure the audience is educated with the correct facts.  It is 65 millions years back and a meteorite headed for the planet Earth misses it.  Several millions of years later, the story unfolds which pits a boy and a dinosaur together.  Dinosaurs would have been destroyed by the meteorite and the years later allows both species to survive at the same time.

The dinosaur family farms the land.  Mother (Frances McDormand) and Father (Jeffrey Wright) watch their three eggs hatch into Buck (Marcus Scribner), Libby (Maleah Padilla) and the littlest Arlo (Ramond Ochhoa) who of course, is the film’s protagonist.  Arlo is timid, clumsy and frail.  While chasing a human boy stealing the family’s grain, Arlo and is swept with the boy into the river that takes them miles and miles downstream.  The rest of the film is their journey back home.  Arlo and the human run through a lot of interesting adventures during their journey home.  The loose narrative allows the film to take liberties with animation, thus ‘wowing’ the audience at the same time.

These include encounters with characters like a pink cobra, T-Rexes who are farm ranchers breeding leghorns and pterodactyls led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn).  But the best of these is styracosaurus (voiced by director Sohn himself) (see photo inset) whose remarks on his bird protectors are so funny and inventive, it is worth the price of the movie ticket itself.  

The main star of the film is the landscape of snow-capped mountains, forests, rivers, falls and country.  The film blends real landscape that looks like the U.S. midwest with the animation.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR lies in the average range of Pixar films, better than CARS and its sequel but tads below the TOY STORYs.  Still, Disney should rake in quite a profit from the toys derived from this film which cost just under $200 million to make. ‘Plush’ toy versions of the dinosaur are already in the stores for Christmas.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-RgquKVTPE

JAMES WHITE (USA 2015) **
Directed by Josh Mond

JAMES WHITE is an autobiographical film about a character called James White (Christopher Abbott) based on the director’s experience in life with his mother’s recent death with cancer in 2011.  White’s mother is played by SEX AND THE CITY’s Cynthia Nixon, herself a cancer survivor whose mother also died of cancer.

The film begins with James White leaving a club getting in a cab with his head phones on.  He is in his own world - comfortable or uncomfortable as the case may be, but it is his world.  He is sort of a mama’s boy, living at home. The film has a segment with James arguing with his mother.  He claims to be looking after her as she is ill with cancer while she calls him a free-loader.  This leaves the audience to decide what James is - though it is not always as clear as black and white.

There is not much of a story in the film.  It is more a character study of a person stuck in a rut, unable to get out either because of his mother or because he is unable to break free of his own self destructiveness.

Director Mond spends half the movie showing James’ self destructiveness.  His best friend, Nick (Scott Mescudi) is unable to help him.  James tells his mother he is going to Mexico to clear his mind, get in shape and to return to NYC to get his act together.  Instead, he ends up picking up girls on the beach.  It is also hard to be sympathetic for someone who shows up late and unprepared for an important job interview or picks up girls with horrid lines like, “Do you do acid?”  The other half of the time of the film is devoted to the constant bickering between mother and son.  It does not help that mother is half mental and subject to bouts of depression and forgetfulness.

It would be helpful if director Mond gave James a few redeeming qualities.  He is so self destructive that one wants more misfortune to fall on him with the hope that maybe he will learn a life lesson.  But still no such luck.  The only redeeming quality is his love for his mother.  Mond pushes the limit further when James lies to her that he got a job.  Is he doing some good or more bad here?

The music is scored by Scott Mescudi also known as ‘Kid Mescudi’.  Apparently, director Mond listened to his music which provided him therapy during his mother’s illness.

Mond stays away from the Hollywood ending in which the main character redeems himself and mother and son are brought together in loving reunion.   Here, James is still destructive James, and the film has an open ending.  

Though there is nothing really wrong with this film, there is nothing much right either.  And there is nothing to draw the a audience to pay to see such pain on screen.  And once into the film, there is nothing that will keep the audience excited or educated either.

Of all the performances, Cynthia Nixon delivers an unforgettable one.  Ron Livingston has a nice turn as the job interviewer forced to be nice to James White who shows up late and unprepared for his interview.  This makes one of the film’s most interesting segments.  But this is not saying much a the movie is is consists of one bad incident after another. JAMES WHITE makes a good companion piece to the other recent feel bad movie about another self destructive character - ENTERTAINMENT.

Trailer:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdw828U3KMY

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Paul McGuigan

One wonders if the word ‘brave’  be the best word used to describe 20th Century Fox’s retelling of the Frankenstein tale after the disastrous attempts in 2014 of retelling both the Frankenstein tale in I, FRANKENSTEIN and the Dracula tale in DRACULA UNTOLD.  In the former film, Frankenstein is saved by Gargoyles and resurrected to modern times in the fight between good and evil while for the latter, Dracula allows himself to turn into a supernatural monster to protect his tribe.  

But the one difference to the VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN film is that this story stays true to the Mary Shelley roots.  Though quite a few liberties have been taken with the story, it is still the basics with the mad genius Frankenstein creating life in the monster with the help of hunched back Igor, with the monster finally destroyed at the very end.

In this twist of the classic horror tale, the story is told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) point of view).  Never mind, Igor is not a true hunchback but has a huge abscess that is removed by Frankenstein after being rescued from the London circus.  Igor is supposedly a physician by nature and of brilliant mind.  So, the two begin their quest to resurrect life, Igor ’s conscience getting in the way, yet he is grateful to Frankenstein (James McAvoy) for giving him a new life.  A romantic element is added.  Igor loves a trapeze artist (why not the bearded lady?) by the name of Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).  But Victor's experiments go too far and his obsession has horrifying consequences.  Only Igor can bring his friend back from the brink of madness and save him from his monstrous creation.   Another element is brought into the story, which actually is the most interesting part of the film.  Frankenstein is being investigated for possible crimes by Scotland Yard.  An over-enthusiastic Inspector (Andrew Scott) will risk his life to prevent who he believes is Satan recreating life.

British director Paul McGuigan (TV’s Sherlock), who I admire directs all the action with  lots of tongue in cheek, but with more restraint than Guy Ritchie in the SHERLOCK HOLMES movies.  His early film GANGSTER No.1 which starred and brought its main lead Paul Bettany to fame, remains my favourite, a film I saw in London that was never released in North America.  But when VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN is turned into an action film, as in the ridiculous beginning sequence in which Frankenstein and Igor fight the circus, it falls apart.  Thankfully, there are not many of these sequences, except for the ending fight with the monster, which is barely acceptable.

The performances of the two leads are quite in contrast.  Radcliffe goes more for quiet pensiveness while McAvoy overacts and chews up the scenery.

One warning is that the film is not loud, but extremely loud with the volume turned up several notches.  Besides McCoy screaming most of the time, trap doors slamming shut, the noisy machinery and scientific apparatus and the electricity and the voltage screeching, McGuigan’s fondness of using closeups almost guarantee the audience a headache.  

But the gothic atmosphere and horror of the Shelley tale are kept intact.  No doubt the mad genius and monsters are present, but the story’s twist still pays respect to the original tale, which is what is important.

Still this is a Hollywood Frankenstein film despite its British locations and actors, with more action than horror.  Like it or hate it, but at least it is better made than DRACULA UNTOLD and I FRANKENSTEIN.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pxZxY_Siyc

BEST BETS:

Best Film Playing: ROOM

Best Action: SPECTRE

Best Animation: THE GOOD DINOSAUR

Best Documentary: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT and DRONE

Best Foreign Language Film: GUIBORD S'EN VA T-EN GUERRE (MY INTERNSHIP IN CANADA) 

Best comedy: THE NIGHT BEFORE

Best Drama: BROOKLYN

 

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