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

11 Dec 2015

New films opening are IN THE HEART OF THE SEA and two highly recommended films CAROL and SLEEPING GIANT.

FILM REVIEWS:

CAROL (USA 2015) Top 10 *****

Directed by Todd Haynes

CAROL, first screened at Cannes to rave reviews and winner of the TFCA Award for Best Film, is the slow moving pensive subtle new film by helmer Todd Haynes that tells the sad tale of the love affair between two women, a rich wife, Carol Aird (Oscar Winner Cate Blanchett) and a store clerk, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara).  The film is based on the ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel called “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. 

Therese wants out of her hum drum life.  Her job as a store clerk is leading nowhere just like her relationship with her overeager boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy).  Her dreams include a career in photography and a more comfortable richer lifestyle with Carol who she meets at her store.  Carol is facing problems of her own.  Her separated husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) is denying her daughter’s visitation rights.  Harge is using her past lesbian affairs to deem her an unsuitable mother.  This is the obstacle.  Carol has to choose between her love for Therese and her daughter.

Haynes’ film moves extremely slowly.  Not much is conveyed, for example in the first 15 minutes of the film, as the setting and introduction of the characters slowly come into focus.  Even the ending is slow as the audience wonders what the final outcome of the relationship will be.  But it is still a rewarding drama, all things considered.  The set design, wardrobe, props and costumes are almost too perfect - like the departmental store Therese works at and the clothed and jewellery worn by Carol.  The look of the film is similar to Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN where the family lives in a gorgeous neighbourhood with perfectly manicured lawns.

Blanchett delivers another Oscar winning performance, the best sequence occurring during the lawyer and husband’s meeting when she is forced to have a final say.  Her character is a very intelligent one - one who knows the stakes at hand, the risks involved with her relationship and what she has to do in order to survive.  This contrasts with Therese’s character.  Therese does to know exactly what she wants regarding her heterosexual relationship, her career and her current romance.  It is Therese’s naiveté contrasted against Carol’s planned actions.

For a film about a lesbian relationship, sex scenes are necessary.  It is quite uncomfortable to watch Mara and Blanchett having a go at it, in the nude, in bed.  After all, this is the actress that played Queen Elizabeth, and winning an Oscar in the process.  The sex scenes are long and could be shortened without much damage to the story.

2015 has seen two high calibre lesbian films, CAROL and FREEHELD, both with superb performances, yet both are highly different films with different themes.  CAROL is dead serious, but not without humour, and more of the subtle variety.

CAROL is Todd Haynes (FAR FROM HEAVEN, SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE), still in top form in terms of uncomfortable drama.  Just as Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN broke taboos with male stars in a male homosexual drama, Hayne’s CAROL will do the same with the female gender.  It is great to see two stars give their all for the craft of cinema.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6ekAV16RIs

THE DANISH GIRL (UK 2015) ***

Directed by Tom Hooper

THE DANISH GIRL is Tom Hooper’s latest drama from the novel by David Ebershoff, this one a period piece, a true story of a transgender operation.  Set in Copenhagen in the 1920s and focuses almost entirely on the free-spirited couple, both of them painters, Einar (Eddie Redmayne), and Gerda (Alicia Vikander).  Gerda struggles to gain attention for her work.  One day, Gerda asks her husband to stand in for a female model so she can complete her latest painting.   This is when the trouble starts.  Einar is overwhelmed by the experience of putting on beautiful, feminine clothes, and soon it turns into a quiet obsession.   Hooper takes his film too seriously resulting in a very slow film with lots of screen time devoted to the reactions of the wife, Gerda to all the cross dressing.  Oscar winner Redmayne delivers another prize winning performance, looking at times much prettier than Vikander.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d88APYIGkjk

 

EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE (Germany/Canada/Fr/Swe/Nor 2015) ****
Directed by Wim Wenders

German director Wim Wenders has claimed after making his first 3D documentary (PINA) that he would film all future his fiction film in this medium.   EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE is not the typical action blockbuster with objects thrown out of the screen but rather a slow, pensive film about loss and reflection.  But Wenders proves his words, especially in the last scene, in which 16-year old Christopher rides his bicycle to school in glorious 3D.  The effect is difficult to describe here for it is an experience attained after viewing Wenders film in full.  Thomas (James Franco), a writer, accidentally kills a little boy, Nicholas and spends years getting back to his feet regarding his guilt.  His brother Christopher is still unable to cope with the incident.  The brooding affects almost everyone the two encounter, and counter to the title everything is not fine in the beginning.  It will, eventually, but it takes time, lots of effort and thought.  

Wenders has crafted a beautiful film here and one that allows the audience to get into the skin of his characters.  Franco and Charlotte Gainsbourg are superb.   Shot in Quebec, as determined by the name of the town quietly display.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7esbR3IMdY

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (USA/Spain 2015) **
Directed by Ron Howard

Ron Howard, the Hollywood director best known for playing Richie Cunningham in HAPPY DAYS is also known for his blockbuster films like SPLASH, PARENTHOOD, APOLLO 13 and A BEAUTIFUL MIND.  The films share one common characteristic.  Box-office successes though they may be, they are all very forgettable films.  After a year of viewing any of his films, there is not much one can remember from any of the films’ scenes.

Based on the 2000 non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and adapted by Charles Leavitt to the script, this is supposed to be the story that inspired Herman Melville to write the classic tale Moby Dick.  In 1820, the whaling ship Essex is crewed by the Captain George Pollard, Jr., (Benjamin Walker) first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), second officer Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy) who has nothing much to do but sit around and grow a beard, and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland).  During their voyage, the ship is sunk when it is rammed and split in half by a very large and enraged bull sperm whale, ultimately leaving its crew shipwrecked at sea for 90 days and more than a thousand miles from land.   After the attack, the crew sails for South America and is forced to resort to cannibalism.  The tale is told by a very reluctant older Matthew Joy (Brendan Gleeson) to budding author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) pressured by his good wife (Michelle Fairley) in order to exorcise his demons.  Apparently it is the cannibalism that is the problem but the wife seems to accept it after overhearing the story, thus undermining its importance in the story.  The audience is neither shocked at her acceptance.  The events of the Essex crew are intercut with Matthew telling the story to Herman in his house.

This intercutting is annoying and serves to interrupt whatever suspense or action the film has built up.  Director Howard keeps nagging the audience to remind them fact that Herman really does not want to tell the story, as every time the film cuts back to the two men, Herman complains or changes his mind.  Yes, the audience has got the point.

The special effects and CGI are lacklustre.  The 3D looks like back projection and one can see the various layers and shadows in the scenes.  And with CGI use these days on all the Hollywood films, one can hardly get excited when a CGI  action scene appears on the big screen.

The film also contains some of the worst acting in a film on this side of the Atlantic, where the whales are.  Chris Hemsworth and relative newcomer Benjamin Walker look totally uninterested in the material.  They are supposed to portray two shipmates ready to kill each other.  The usually excellent Brendan Gleeson is largely wasted in a role in which he just mopes, drinking and complaining.

For an action film, Howard’s film can hardly be called exciting.  The whale attack scenes with the monster splashing around the Essex creates less tension than a goldfish in my bath tub.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA might turn out the most memorable of the Ron Howard films.  But for all the wrong reasons.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs-JfPjgiA4

MACBETH (USA/UK/France 2015) ***

Directed by Justin Kurzel

It does to seem that long ago (1971) that Roman Polanski, in top cinematic form directed his version of MACBETH with Jon Finch in the title role.  His was an unforgettable MacBeth complete with old nude witches brewing around a cauldron and ending with the MacBeth’s head paraded on a stick.

No such luck in Justin Kurzel’s MACBETH.  (Kurzel is the Australian director best known for THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival years back but not released.)  The troubled King of Scotland does die at the end but his head is intact.  The witches look like normal human beings, more like Scots women, wearing normal garments.  But his version is a Shakespearean film concentrated more on poetry, both verbal and visual than on shock tactics.

Running just under 2 hours, Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is still a lengthy drama, spoken in Old English Shakespearean prose, which takes some minutes before the ear gets accustomed to.  The story that needs not be reiterated in detail, which almost everyone is familiar with, concerns MacBeth and his wife usurping the throne of Scotland from King Duncan (an excellent David Thewlis), after murdering him.  All this is foretold by three witches, and a child in the case of this film, to MacBeth who seems to believe all their predictions.  

It is clear right from the film’s beginning that director Kurzel wants to take the Scottish play out in the open.  The witches appear in the open countryside instead of a room with a cauldron.  The epic battle which MacBeth wins to gain favour with the King of Scotland is expensed in all its gory and bloodiness.  The battle scene looks something right out of 300.  Together with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, Kurzel keeps most of the action outside thus displaying the ruggedness and stunning beauty of the Scottish terrain and mountains.

One disadvantage of pulling the camera back from the characters results in the audience feeling more distant from MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  They seem less evil.  When the camera shows the surroundings of the execution of a mother and her kids, Kurzel opts to show sympathy in the face of Lady MacBeth, thus making her more sympathetic and less ambitious and evil, and taking away the main spirit of the MacBeth play.

Performances-wise, every actor dreams of playing the titular roles of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth.  Fassbender and Cotillard can do no harm but they are not exceptional.

Kurzel’s MACBETH works as another adaptation of the Bard’s work, still worth a look and a good film for those studying the play in school.  At least it is not a modern interpretation like the recent HAMLET with Benedict Cumberbatch wearing Jeans thus bastardizing the Hamlet play.  But Polanski’s 1971 adaptation remains my favourite MACBETH.

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

SLEEPING GIANT (Canada 2015) ****
Directed by Andrew Cividino

Director Andrew Cividino made a short featurette called SLEEPING GIANT a year or two ago that became a hit at festivals everywhere which prompted him to turn it into a full length feature.  Having seen both. the full feature SLEEPING GIANT is more of the same, expanded and able to take its time to tell the story of three kids with nothing to do.  Both films are impressive proving Cividino a new talent to be reckoned with.

The minimalist story deals with three kids during summer vacation on rugged Lake Superior.  The film dos not say exactly where the film is set though the closing credits say the film was shot at a lake in Ontario.  Director Cividino introduces the three kids to the audience in a wrestling match.  The audience sees that it is Adam (Jackson Martin) who is uncomfortable wrestling where the feistiest, Nate (Nick Serino) is able to take on his much bigger cousin, Riley (Reece Moffett).  The film devotes equal amounts of time among the three so that good differing points of view are obtained.  Nick is the well bred one with a father who cares, that the other other two envy.  Nick is the twice school drop-out, the troublemaker shit disturber while Riley is the one ending up as the pawn of the other two.  

The ‘status quo’ is changed when a girl Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher) enters the picture.  Riley takes her in as his girlfriend while Adam grows jealous telling lies.  The seemingly harmless lie ends up disastrous.  The feature length film takes the short further towards a climax that is not possible in the short for time limitations.

SLEEPING GIANT is surprisingly similar to the excellent British film, Lynn Ramsey’s THE SELFISH GIANT.  Both films deal with pubescent non-city youth etching a meaning in their lives.  THE SELFISH GIANT had more in its narrative with the boys stealing communications cable to support the family, one of them suffering from ADHT.  SLEEPING GIANT has a simper agenda, but both films cover effectively the angst of their youthful subjects.

The SLEEPING GIANT in the film refers to a high cliff where Nate and Riley both dive off, to prove what is essentially their manhood, but ironically also proving their stupidity.  The short also has both of the boys jumping of the cliff  but the short ended there.

The three unknowns are unbelievably good in their performances, Cividino able to capture their nuanced work.  It is a boy’s world in the film, but the adults also play a significant role and not just taken to be there for show.  Nate’s grandmother (Nick Serino) is especially endearing, and judging from the actors’ same last names, the grandmother is likely the actor’s real life grandmother.

SLEEPING GIANT is an important Canadian entry and is my prediction that it will win either the Best Canadian Feature or Best First Feature Film as voted by the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4SZXkKX7zo

YOUTH (Italy/France/UK/Switzerland 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

Best remembered for both IL DIVO and his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner THE GREAT BEAUTY, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino returns with his latest picture, dedicated to Francesco Rosi (the Italian director best known for HANDS OVER THE CITY and THE MATTEI AFFAIR who passed away January this year). YOUTH is, once again a sumptuous feast for the eyes.  With music forming the film’s main theme, YOUTH is also a feast for the ears.  The film begins appropriately with a stunning scene of a singer crooning a modern song.

Ironically, the film is not about YOUTH but old age.

The film is set in a Swiss spa.  For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been coming to this resort.  Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.”  Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”  The reasons are explained to the audience and to the emissary later on during the film.

The complex film tells multiple stories, the main one centred on Fred.  The other, equally interesting story concerns his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)  Also at the spa, Mick is trying to complete a script with a team of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner).  

The two are also in-laws.  Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard).  But Julian leaves Lena for Paloma Faith (playing herself).  She is already eccentric enough in real life and Sorrentino gets her to hilariously out-do herself in a very funny music video of “Can’t Rely on You”.  This makes the film’s best segment, showing Sorrentino’s fondness of experimenting on things new.

Besides having the film dedicated to Rosi, he pays nods to other directors like Federico Fellini as evident in the outlandish scene of several divas in outlandish costumes by the country, that looks something right out of 8½.

Another scene that deserves mention is the verbal confrontation between Mick and his wife, Brenda Morel played by Jane Fonda.  Their despiscability of each other is contrasted with the love between Fred and his wife.

The script also contains many quotable dialogue which shows Sorrentino’s philosophizing.  “We are only allowed to emotionalize” and ‘We are just extras in a film,” are two examples.

Sorrentino also spreads out weird characters in the film to spark in some spice.  One is an obese man with a tattoo on his back and a Jesus pendant.  There is also a couple that eats quietly every meal without saying a word, prompting Fred and Mick to make bets on whether they will talk.  Fred also is massaged by a pretty young thing who debates the effectiveness of touch vs. speech.

One may argue that YOUTH is pretentious or distracting from the main narrative.  Still, YOUTH has both stunning cinematography and a varied musical score (music by David Lang) that ranges from punk to pop to classical.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T7CM4di_0c

YOUTH (Italy/France/UK/Switzerland 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

Best remembered for both IL DIVO and his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner THE GREAT BEAUTY, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino returns with his latest picture, dedicated to Francesco Rosi (the Italian director best known for HANDS OVER THE CITY and THE MATTEI AFFAIR who passed away January this year). YOUTH is, once again a sumptuous feast for the eyes.  With music forming the film’s main theme, YOUTH is also a feast for the ears.  The film begins appropriately with a stunning scene of a singer crooning a modern song.

Ironically, the film is not about YOUTH but old age.

The film is set in a Swiss spa.  For more than 20 years, Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) has been coming to this resort.  Now retired after decades conducting orchestras in London, New York and Venice, he’s approached by a Buckingham Palace emissary (Alex MacQueen): The Queen is offering a knighthood, and wants him to conduct his most famous composition, “Simple Songs.”  Fred refuses, “for personal reasons.”  The reasons are explained to the audience and to the emissary later on during the film.

The complex film tells multiple stories, the main one centred on Fred.  The other, equally interesting story concerns his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel)  Also at the spa, Mick is trying to complete a script with a team of young collaborators (Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern and Mark Gessner).  

The two are also in-laws.  Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), is married to Mick’s son, Julian (Ed Stoppard).  But Julian leaves Lena for Paloma Faith (playing herself).  She is already eccentric enough in real life and Sorrentino gets her to hilariously out-do herself in a very funny music video of “Can’t Rely on You”.  This makes the film’s best segment, showing Sorrentino’s fondness of experimenting on things new.

Besides having the film dedicated to Rosi, he pays nods to other directors like Federico Fellini as evident in the outlandish scene of several divas in outlandish costumes by the country, that looks something right out of 8½.

Another scene that deserves mention is the verbal confrontation between Mick and his wife, Brenda Morel played by Jane Fonda.  Their despiscability of each other is contrasted with the love between Fred and his wife.

The script also contains many quotable dialogue which shows Sorrentino’s philosophizing.  “We are only allowed to emotionalize” and ‘We are just extras in a film,” are two examples.

Sorrentino also spreads out weird characters in the film to spark in some spice.  One is an obese man with a tattoo on his back and a Jesus pendant.  There is also a couple that eats quietly every meal without saying a word, prompting Fred and Mick to make bets on whether they will talk.  Fred also is massaged by a pretty young thing who debates the effectiveness of touch vs. speech.

One may argue that YOUTH is pretentious or distracting from the main narrative.  Still, YOUTH has both stunning cinematography and a varied musical score (music by David Lang) that ranges from punk to pop to classical.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-T7CM4di_0c

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Playing: CAROL

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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