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This Week's Film Reviews (Dec 18, 2015)

18 Dec 2015

The Chistmas movies are coming.  But catch STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS first.  The film is excellent, well worth all the hype and anticipation.  See it FIRST!

 FILM REVIEWS:

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP (USA 2015) **1/2
Directed by Walt Becker

Lots of puns in the Alvin Chipmunks movies - Chipwrecked for shipwrecked, Fast and Furry-ious for Fast and Furious and Road Chip for Road Trip.  But there are no super fast cars or races nor a long road trip in the 4th instalment of the Chipmunks films, but it tries its best to cling on to past Hollywood box-office successes.

For the less demanding viewer, ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP provides satisfactory entertainment much in the same vein as the other 3 films.  The lazy script, credited to no less than 4 writers does not contain much of a story.

Through a series of misunderstandings, Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) come to believe that Dave (Jason Lee) is going to propose to his new girlfriend in Miami...and dump them. They have three days to get to him and stop the proposal, saving themselves not only from losing Dave but possibly from gaining a terrible stepbrother, Miles (Josh Green).

It is the same old cliched result.  Dave is carrying an engagement ring for his friend.  (Why he is doing this, is totally unexplained.)  But Dave ends up not proposing and the misunderstanding is resolved with everything going right including the Chipmunks becoming friends with Miles.  Sweetly sickening isn’t it?

The casting is also lazy.  The villain in the first 3 Chipmunks films was played by David Cross from the TV series - Arrested Development.  He is replaced by no other than another member of the cast from the same TV series - Tony Hale.  Hale is no more than another clone to Cross.  Hale plays a flight marshall, who grounds the chipmunks and wants to put them in chipmunk jail.  His goofy character somehow gets the butt of the jokes.

The female Chipmunks, the Chipettes (voiced by Christina Applegate, Anna Faris and Kaley Cuoco) make a too brief appearance.  But the actresses’ voices are unrecognizably wasted.

One wants the script to at least attempt something different or something more daring.  But it is a thread bare script lacking in ideas or good comedy setups.  What the film does contain, however is a whole lot of musical dances and songs (mainly popular ones) ranging from rap to pop to country.  The animated creatures boogie to the music as do the real-life actors.  The dance moves are cute enough but enough is enough.

Every critic loves to complain about Alvin and the Chipmunks  But every critic has forgotten how much they themselves loved the little creatures when they were little.  And Dave’s famous scream “Alvin!!!!!!!!!!” can be heard a few times during the film, to the audience’s amusement.

But ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: ROAD CHIP should still be a box-office success, as it is a good harmless film for the littler ones, who might not understand STAR WARS or for families not able to get tickets for it.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZTcc1JfFvI

CREED (USA 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Though featuring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, CREED (alternative title - ROCKY VII), the 7th installment of the ROCKY franchise is an anomaly.  It  does not contain Rocky in a fight scene and is not a film that is either written or directed by Stallone.  CREED is a spin-off from the original series, but it pays homage to the series.

CREED feels like an African American film instead of an Italian American film.  It is not difficult to see why as CREED was co-written and directed by Ryan Coogle, best known for his breakout anti-racial film FRUITVALE STATION in which a black man (also played by Michael B. Jordan) was abused by white cops.  Everything from the acting, music (lots of rap) and dialogue are African American.  And that is a good thing as the film has a more authentic look than many of the other 6 ROCKY films.

Rocky in this film is left in a supporting role.  Rocky Balboa is sought by Adonis Creed (Jordan) to be his coach.  One wonders who would name his boy Adonis.  Unless the father has a name like Apollo, of course.  Adonis is the illegitimate son of fighter Apollo Creed.  Sylvester Stallone plays his supporting role surprisingly well, winning him a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  His character comes down with cancer and has to fight to survive.  

One of the most important points of a boxing film are the execution of the fight scenes.  The final match between Creed and Conlan (Tony Bellew) the British world light heavyweight champion shot in Liverpool, England is done with the usual cuts.  The camera switches back and forth among the boxing action, the boxer’s faces, the coaches, the spectators and Creed’s girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and ‘adopted mother’  (Phylicia Rashad) to heighten the excitement.     There is no skimping of the blood to emphasize the punishment boxers have to endure for the sport.  The bloody slow-motion bloodied knockout on the ring canvas will long be remembered.  But the first match between Creed and Tony "Little Duke" Evers (Wood Harris) is done with one single take.  This elegant sequence should be seen to be believed with credit given to director Coogle for achieving this feat.

But story-wise, the film falls often into cliched territory.  Creed learns the ropes from Rocky.  When Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, he initially refuses treatment.  So, the audience can only winch when the story goes into - Rocky can learn from Creed as much as Creed can learn from Rocky.  Coogle also pushes the sentimentality a bit too far to make Rocky too much the lovable lug.  Another example of heightened sentimentality is the part where Rocky visits his ex-coach, Paulie’s grave and begins talking to him.

But the film succeeds from the fight scenes and the superlative acting from both Stallone and Jordan.  Jordan body is perfectly cut and muscled like a boxer in top form.   The film also pays homage to the Rocky films such as the final scene where Creed and Balboa climb the famous steps to the Philadelphia art museum.  And when the Rocky anthem by Bill Conti is heard on the soundtrack, one can feel the nostalgia.

CREED has been hailed critically and the film has done Stallone a good turn at the box-office.  It is difficult to imagine that it has been almost 40 years since the first Rocky was screened.  CREED is dedicated to the late producer Robert Chartoff (passed away in 2015) who also produced the first Rocky. The first weekend gross was $40 million, above the $35 million production cost.  Stallone has been struggling before with his EXPENDABLES films.  Rocky hails supreme again!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uv554B7YHk4

LA DAME DANS L’AUTO AVEC DES LUNETTES ET UN FUSIL (France 2015) ***

(THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN)
Directed by Joann Sfar

This is a remake of the 1970 Anthony Litvak British film with the same title starring Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed.  I have not seen the original but do not remember it as a particular famous film despite the reputation of  Litvak.  The film is an adaptation of the Sebastien Japrisot’s 1966 novel of the same name.  But the remake is not too bad a film, a good mystery in which the solution remains an unsolvable puzzle till the very end.  Which is very rare in a film these days.  This is an entirely French film shot in French in France.

The film begins innocently enough with a naive and innocent secretary agreeing to work overtime for her boss (Benjamin Biolay).  Dany (Freya Mavor) completes the job overnight at her boss’ house and ends up driving her boss and his wife from Paris to the Cote D’Azur only to be convinced to drive the car back alone to Paris.  But Dany has never seen the sea and steals the car to take a detour to achieve her dream.  That is when she discovers that a lot of people that she meets recognizes her the day before though she has never met all these people.  Dany thinks she is going crazy with one weird incident after another happening.  She encounters a sleazy thief that she has an affair with that eventually steals her (or her boss’ ) car.  This is when a corpse is discovered in the trunk.

If all the above sound interesting, it all is.  The mystery keeps the film absorbing from start to end.  As an additional bonus, director Sfar effectively captures the mood of the 60’s and 70’s of this period piece.  One can probably not be able tell the difference between the time setting of the original film and this one.  Mavor is also an extremely sexy actress, her character flirting with one man after another while she swaggers her girly figure while swinging her purse.

The only problem is that the film’s climax cannot keep up with the interest the mystery generated.  When the solution is presented, the film starts to drag.  It is not that the solution is unbelievable but it is kind of obvious and one wonders why one has not thought of it earlier.

The lovely title should tease audiences to see the film, though the gun in the title should be replaced with rifle as Dany carries a rifle rather than a gun.   One can probably guess that the rifle was swapped for the gun as Dany looks sexier holding a rifle than a gun.

Still, this psychological mystery thriller satisfies.  And Dany turns out not to be that harmless as Sfar intended the audience to think.  The film turns out to be a black comedy set in the bright lights of the south of France.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHi7zj5oKYE

SISTERS (USA 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Jason Moore

Golden Globe hostesses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have proven themselves apt at comedy whether on their own or as a team.  SISTERS, drawing largely from Saturday Night Live type comedy, is a mix bag of tricks, but thankful succeeds.

Fey and Poehler play sisters.  Both are goofballs.  When the film opens, each comedienne is given the opportunity to strut her worth.  Poehler begins as Maura, a nurse earnestly providing aid outside a supermarket to a homeless man.  Not only are her antics useless and embarrassing, but the homeless man turns out to be a construction worker.  She is finally told to ‘f***-off” by the supermarket manager who she mistakes for a bag lady.  This 5-minute action is actually the film’s funniest segment as nothing else beats it.  So when the next segment shows Fey as her sister Kate, a jobless beautician fumbling a client at home while her daughter Haley (Madison Davenport) suddenly appears, it becomes immediately apparent that this mildly funny next 5 minutes are no match for Poehler’s.  But when the two appear together, they rub off each other, so Poehler becomes less funny while Fey becomes more.  The two also work hard to complement each other, whether in comedy or in dance as a later musical number shows.

The story concerns their parents Deanna (Dianne Wiest) and Bucky (James Brolin) selling their family house in Orlando.  The sisters are called in to clean up their room.  As it turns out, they decide to throw one last big party.  Kate agrees to become the party’s house mother (which means no drinking) while Kate gets to catch up on her missed partying.  Kate’s daughter turns up.  Kate finds the daughter/mother relationship stretched and tested even more when she finds her sister has been harbouring the secret of looking after Haley.

Many comedies are spoilt by sentimentality or the drama of the underlying story.  In SISTERS, director Moore and writer Paula Pell (a SNL veteran) do not, thankfully fall into this trap.  They realize the comedic potential of the party.  The party becomes the film’s main focus lasting half of the film’s running time.  One high jinx follows another, and an impressive cast of goofy partygoers are assembled that create quite the few laugh-out loud segments.  The supporting cast are surprisingly funny, matching and in a number of segments, getting even more laughs than Poehler and Fey.  John Leguizamo’s sleazy ex-alcoholic Bobby Moynihan, Oscar Winner Wiest’s foul-mouthed angry mother and John Cena’s bulked tattooed drug dealer are all exceptionally funny.  But top prize goes to Maya Rudolph (the bride in BRIDESMAIDS and the secretary with the helmet hairdo in INHERENT VICE) as the self-invited guest who decides to ruin the party.  It is about time Rudolph gets a lead in her own movie.

There are a few incidents that make little sense, like a guest putting in the whole bottle of laundry detergent in the machine resulting in suds filling the house.  This scene is reminiscent of Blake Edwards’ THE PARTY in which Peter Sellers finds his party filled with bubbles as well.

Ultimately, it is the hit-and-miss ratio that counts.  SISTERS has a high one.  SISTERS works, and proves that the ladies can come up with an equal if not better bad behaviour movie than their male counterparts. (Seth Rogen and gang in the recent THE NIGHT BEFORE.).

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRnhEjP3R-c

SON OF SAUL (Hungary 2015) ***

Directed by Laszlo Nemes

SON OF SAUL, this year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner might not be the film for everyone. Lazlo Neme’s film has no narrative, is minimal in structure and is difficult to follow in terms of logic or story.  But still, it is a gruesome watch.  Nemes' film, with cinematographer Matyas Erdely, like the Dardennes Brothers filming with a hand held camera about head level on the side of the protagonist following him using a protagonist’s-eye view makes all the action feel more real.  The protagonist is part of a squad in a Holocaust concentration camp with the duty of herding in the prisoners for gassing and then cleaning up.  As the titles indicate, they too will normally have their turn (being gassed) after a few weeks.  The hero sees a boy that survives the gassing but consequently killed.  He takes it upon himself to find a Rabbi to say the prayers for the boy at all costs.  This is where the film fails in terms of credibility.  He is able to find a Rabbi, not get caught, find all the right connections and keeps the boy’s body - all a bit too much to believe.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/133125872

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (USA 2015) Top 10 *****

Directed by J.J. Abrams

The film world has finally gone crazy.  Disney and Lucasfilm has enforced a world embargo on film reviews at 3.01 (yes, to the very second) on Wednesday December 16th.  The film premiered Monday evening in Hollywood and for press, which includes this fortunate reviewer, Tuesday morning.  No one had any idea of the venues for Monday’s screenings (3 separate theatres) till the last minute.  Sales on Amazon of the old STAR WARS films rocketed 400%.  Pre-sales of tickets have not seen numbers like this since the beginning of time, in a galaxy far, far away!

The hype on TV and anticipation have been great.  The studios made press hush up on spoilers.  And after seeing the film, one will respect those wishes.  But there are a lot of surprises and twists in the plot, none that make little sense, and revealing them will would definitely spoil the film’s entertainment value.

The story is short and does not mean much as the film is more character and action driven.  It is set approximately 30 years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI where the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire have become the Resistance and the First Order, respectively, and follows new heroes Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) alongside characters returning from previous Star Wars film.  Rey, a scavenger finds a droid who holds a map that has the key to finding Luke Skywalker.  The dark side wishes to bring down the resistance and thus goes all out to capture the droid and thus the map.  Lots of exciting battles result culminating with a climatic sabre to sabre combat between the heroes and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

The film succeeds in all departments from acting, to the grand music, scored again by maestro John Williams to the costumes, creature and robot designs to sets, spectacle and cinematography. Iceland and Abu Dhabi, where the film was shot add to the grandeur from the desert to the icy mountain landscapes.  Rey’s outfit is perfectly designed, a greyish fabric that flows so that she looks elegant while fighting or tracking in the desert.  The sets of the dark force, in red and black, looks (humorously) like something taken of of a North Korean dictatorship rally.

Director Abrams, best known for the STAR TREK rebook takes over the reins from George Lucas, who admitted the series needed new blood.  Abrams is smart enoguh to put in lots of new blood in the form of new characters like Rey the main female protagonist,  Finn an ex-trooper who moves to the good side because it is the right thing to do and Poe while not forgetting the importance of legends like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Hans Solo (Harrison Ford) and of course, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).  New ‘robots’ like BB-8, the droid also meet old time favourites R2D2 and C3PO.  Abrams knows how to work the audience.  When Princess Leia and Hans Solo reunite and hug, the scene will bring tears to the audience’s eyes.  And there are no embarrassing kissing scenes but lots of hugs that get the same message across.

If one wants spectacle there are lots of it.  The blowing up of a star fighter that eventually sinks in quicksand, the flight/fight segment between the freighter commandeered by Rey and Finn and the star fighters and the shootouts are just a few examples. And it is one well-orchestrated action segment after another.  Abrams knows how to pull back his camera to show the full action spectacle while also engaging in the closeups of the characters’ faces.  Lots of smart dialogue as well, with too many quotable lines to include in this review.

The hype and wait are worth it.  Abrams’ film is as amazing as you will hear.  And it is definitely the best action film of the year, best to be seen in 3D and IMAX.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGbxmsDFVnE&feature=youtu.be

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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