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This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 15, 2016)

14 Jan 2016

Two highly different films, NORM OF THE NORTH for family and the non-family 13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI open this week.

Also opening is the French entry for the Oscar for Foriegn Languange Film, MUSTANG.


Directed by Michael Bay

There is one scene in the middle of Michel Bay’s 13 HOURS that accurately describes his political stance of the movie.  As the American ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher) delivers his speech on American involvement in Libya, one of the secret soldiers, Paronto (Pablo Schreiber) dozes off.

Michael Bay, director of Hollywood action packed blockbusters such as the TRANSFORMER films, PEARL HARBOR, ARMAGEDDON, THE ISLAND (his best movie) and others, is not interested in polities but in the action that takes place.  In this case, the action involves the 6 secret soldiers that heroically served their country way above and beyond their call of duty.  To Bay, politics is a nod to sleep.  Those in politics that fear that the film will have an adverse effect for Hilary Clinton who was the Secretary of State at that time or to the Obama Administration need not be worried.  The only political notes in the film appear at the beginning of the film with the titles that America got involved after the Gadaffi was overthrown and at the end of the film with a note of the gratitude of the Libyan people.  But certain facts are true - the main one being that the secret soldiers were not supported effectively by the U.S. and security was far from sufficient.

The story, as the film stresses a few times is a true one.  Libya, one of the most politically troubled countries in the world has no American embassy but has what is called a low security diplomatic outpost.  Here the CIA, who has in their employ, the 6 secret soldiers mentioned has to escape with whatever Americans or American sympathizers are left as they are attacked by unknown hostile forces. Among the escapees is the American Ambassador.  It is a continual battle for survival.

13 HOURS is pure Michael Bay.  There are lots of explosions, pyrotechnics and special effects with the help of Lucas Light and Sound Company.  It is a man’s world.  All the 6 actors/soldiers are buffed, bearded and tough or at least talk tough.

At the promo screening, actor Schreiber who was present mentioned that Bay’s intention was to give an account of what happened on the ground.  This he has done while emphasizing the camaraderie of the men under fire.  13 HOURS is not the first film depicting the behaviour of men under combat stress.  THE HURT LOCKER, KILO TWO BRAVO and AMERICAN SNIPER are a few films that have done just that.  Bay uses the same tactics as these films.  The soldiers are observed skyping their wives and talking to their kids, the wives are shown freaking out and flashbacks are used to emphasize better family times.  The soldiers also refer to what is happening as a horror film.  And like in a horror film, Bay also introduces false alarms, like shocking the audience when a lady trips breaking the glasses of tea during a high profile political meeting.  Besides action, Bay a few solid suspense segments like the one Jack (John Kravnski) gets out of, lying about drones at the start of the film.

One fault of the film is the relatively simple story that Bay stretches into a 140-minute action film. Boredom sets in quite soon as the audience observes the senseless fighting reflecting the senseless action in the movie.

At only $50 million, Bay is an efficient director delivering a high demand product at a low cost using little known actors, except for John Kravinski who plays the lead character.  The film was shot 3 months in Malta and 4 days in Morocco.  Like AMERICAN SNIPER and LONE SURVIVOR, this film will likely make lots of money.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CJBuUwd0Os


MUSTANG (France/Germany/Turkey 2015) ***
Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguyen

The one-line description of the film ‘Five sisters are forced to suppress their burgeoning sexuality’ would surely entice men to take a second look at this coming-of-age film.  But MUSTANG is not a soft-porn flick and neither is it an art film with lots of naked female flesh.  The five sisters are young with the youngest not yet reaching puberty, but Deniz Gamze Erguyen’s film is not without merit, but of a different nature.  The film has already won a slew of awards including the Label Europa Cinemas (Best European Film) in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes 2015.  Now with 20 wins under its belt, the film is also France’s entry in the foreign language category at the 2016 Oscars and is a nominee in the foreign language category for the 2016 Golden Globes.

The film begins on a bright day in the countryside and then at the beach.  With their unbridled energy, the five sisters (Gunes Sensoy, Doga Doguslu, Tugba Sunguroglu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan) innocently play with some boys.  They scream and shout and do annoying things young girls do.  But a nosy neighbour reports their ‘whoring’ to their grandmother (Nihal Koldas).  As a result they are beaten by their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).  (The sisters are orphaned.)

Filled with delightful incidents (besides the girls being beaten up) including an escape from the house, a journey to an all-female soccer game, arranged marriages and a final escape,  it is easy to determine where the film is heading.  Erguyen sets up the stage for the oppression of the girls before engineering their escape.

Koldas as the grandmother steals the show.  At first, punishing the sisters, one by one for their frolicking, she appears initially as an evil old with.  But she takes the side of the girls when the uncle, her son starts beating them up.  It is hilarious to see her remove all items, like cell ponds, computers and fancy clothes from them while arranging lessons for them on how to become good wives.  And they are forced to wear, in their own words, shapeless, shit-coloured dresses.

The culture of the Turkish village is also on clear display here - the general oppression of females and the might of the men.  One of the most hilarious segments shows the ironical ban of the football match for men as they are deemed too rowdy.  The following football match becomes an all female spectacle that ties into the film’s story.  The girls escape to board a bus for the game unknown to their grandmother and uncle.

The musical score for MUSTANG is largely provided Australian Warren Ellis, a large time collaborator with the more famous Nick Cave.

MUSTANG turns up as enjoyable as the frolic the girls have on the beach at the start of tehf ilm.  MUSTANG is a good film but not a great film.  Erguyen could have gone more serious (excepting the one deadly serious part) with his theme of female teen oppression, but his message still comes across in this film.  The film is shot in Turkish.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU9JAN8LtIk

NORM OF THE NORTH (Normand du Nord) (USA 2015) ***

Directed by Trevor Wall

The first family film of 2016 proves to be not too bad a family outing but lacks the innovativeness of many primed animated features.  Director Wall and his scriptwriters (five no less) play it safe.  The result is a safe film - but nothing out of the ordinary.

Many of the characters in NORM OF THE NORTH is derived from other animated films.  Norm, himself is a polar bear (Rob Schneider) who does not fit in the North pole.  He is too kind to hunt and eat his fellow Arctic animals.  But he has a gift.  He can understand the human language (English to be particular).  No reason is offered why.  So when trouble arrives in the north in the form of Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong of THE HANGOVER films) who wants to destroy nature and build condos, it is up up to Norm to save the day.  He travels to NYC with his troupe. His troupe consists of three lemmings, who utter gibberish, very similar to the minions of DESPICABLE ME.  

The voice characterizations are again competent at most.  Rob Schneider is sufficiently amicable as Norm.  Of the recognizable talents, Bill Night as Socrate, the bird, Colm Meaney as the grandfather and Jeong as the villain stand out.  But the villain is more goofy than mean, who eventually gets his comeuppance as deserved.

The film contains a few songs and a few dance numbers.  Norm looks cute jiggling his polar white furred bum.  Again, the dance is a milder form of HAPPY FEET, just as Norm is a very mild version of a clumsy SHREK.  The human beings that meet Norm are females, which should delight the fairer sex of the audience.  There is no violence at all and no foul language, though with just a little hint.  These come mainly from the villain, Mr. Greene.  There is also a noticeable lack of romantic interest in the film. But that would tend to slow an already slow-paced animated movie.

The sight of animals in a big city has also been done before in the MADAGASCAR films.  The scene of Norm and the lemmings travelling by boat to America is too familiar and similar the sight of the ship sailing by the penguins in MADAGASCAR.

The message of saving the world (THE LEGO MOVIE, DESPICABLE ME) and its natural environment is also a well-worn one, though well intentioned.  

The animation is competent enough.  I cannot comment about the 3D effects, as the screening I attended was a 2-D version.

Overall, NORM OF THE NORTH is an ok piece.  The sight of a fuzzy giant dancing around should surely amuse the kids in the audience.  If only the humour was goofier and the script was more inventive to entertain the adults.  But the film should attract the same audience that made ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS a hit at Christmas.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8A_F5oYJGI

RIDE ALONG 2 (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Tim Story

More of the same are the four words that best describes RIDE ALONG 2.  Same director and same two stars Ice Cube and Kevin Hart playing cops.  If you disliked RIDE ALONG 1 or do not find Kevin Hart funny, then avoid this one.

Ice Cube has proven his comedy mettle by being most funny in the two JUMP STREET films.  Together with comedian and standup comic Hart, they form quite the dynamic duo.  Ice Cube plays detective James Payton who takes under his wing his future brother-in-law Ben Barber (Hart) who wants to become a detective.    In the film, Ben and James venture to Miami to work on a case that involves a mysterious and dashing figure named Serge Pope (Benjamin Pratt). While there, they team up with Maya (Olivia Munn), a smart and beautiful detective.  Ben looks forward to proving himself and hopes the case runs smoothly so that he can return to Atlanta in time for his wedding.  Tika Sumpter plays the bride.

Ice Cube is the straight man and Hart the clown.  The angle is that Ben needs to stay focused while James has to become less uptight and more human.   James gripes while Hart clowns.  And this occurs countless times throughout the movie - so be prepared!  

But on the plus side, the duo is quite funny.  The sequel has the addition of Ken Jeong who plays A.J., a computer hacker that Pope is after and the cops want information from.  So, if one can ignore the simplistic plot, the film is actually quite fun like the RUSH HOUR, Jackie Chan Chris Tucker films.  “Do you ever watch the shit that is coming out of your mouth,” says James to Ben in one of the film’s funnier moments, and a nice nod to the RUSH HOURS buddy cop action comedies.

Besides the comedy, the action sequences are aptly put together.  So, an additional plus over the RUSH HOUR films is that RIDE ALONG 2 is quite exciting.  The car chase is also funny with James signalling as he tries to escape from the bad guys.  Why are you signalling?”  asks James.  “Habit” is the answer.  Ice Cube who co-produced the film too, and a well known rapper ensures a solid rap soundtrack to the film, including a catchy song during the end credits called Sound of da Police.

The funny bits that work include subplots involving Ben constantly arguing with his wedding planner, Cori (Sherri Shepherd) who contradicts whatever Ben wants for his wedding and the impressively edited segment which blurs a car chase and a video game.  The part of A.J. being a sex pervert while computer hacking, however, generates few laughs.  The final bit involving Ben and the speedboat has too much effort for the laughs generated.

The film’s romantic interest is the one between Ben and his bride (Sumpter).  He has to get back from Miami to Atlanta in time for the wedding.  

RIDE ALONG 2 is posed to be number one at the box-office this weekend.  Never mind the poor critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!  The audience knows what it wants.

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


Best Film Opening: MUSTANG

Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT



Best Foreign Language Film: SON OF SAUL

Best comedy: SISTERS

Best Drama: CAROL

Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

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