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This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 19, 2016)

18 Feb 2016


Opening this week is the religious film RISEN and anti-religious film THE CLUB.  The biggest surprise is the opening of the Asian box-office hit, Stephen Chow's THE MERMAID.


EL CLUB (Chile 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Pablo Larrain

Pablo Larrain’s (NO, TONY MANERO) latest film is a very different drama that is as absorbing as it is deadly slow-moving.  The title of THE CLUB (EL CLUB) refers to an open prison for disgraced priests.  The 4 priests and nun confined there in the seaside town of La Boca in Chile by the church are about to have their idyllic sojourn shaken to the ground.

EL CLUB is a very complex film, in a way similar to last year’s CALVARY starring Brendan Gleeson, a black comedy about a priest taking on the sins of a murderer.  Both films coincidentally take place in a seaside setting.

The film begins innocently with a greyhound race that takes place in La Boca.  The grey greyhound wins the race.  It  is slowly revealed that the animal is trained by a father who resides in  the roomed building.  There are three other priests who all place bets.  It turns out that Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), former army chaplain Father Silva (Jaime Vadell), and senile Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking), disgraced priests are all dutifully tended to by a similarly “retired” nun, Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers), who is apparently not that innocent.  She is called a bitch by one of the fathers later on in the film.

Trouble brews when another disgraced priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza) is delivered to the house.  He shoots himself after a young local fisherman, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), recognizes him.  Sandokan, kind of a crazed bum, remembers the abuses he suffered as an altar boy at Lazcano’s hands and starts screaming the abuses outside the doorstep.  Then the church dispatches Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a crisis counsellor, to settle things.  The priests come to believe, that Father Garcia’s intention is to close the house down.

The story turns into a horrid tale of survival.  It is each man for himself, even for Sandokan and Father Garcia who is disliked and looked upon with suspicion by all.

Director Larrain is a great story teller always keeping the audience in anticipation with always a twist in the story around very corner.  His camera work is meticulous, capturing the tranquility and imprisonment of the subjects despite the beautiful seaside setting.  Violence is kept at a minimum, and mostly left to the imagination.  He also keeps each priest as interesting as the other - each having their own individuality despite being there for the identical purpose.

One of the greatest pleasures of the film is the director’s use of Arvo Part’s music.  I first heard the Estonian composer’s music, ‘Spiegel I'm Speigel’ when I first saw Gus Van Sant’s 2002 film, GERRY years back.  Part known for his classical and religious music, he delivers a beautiful score that adds to both the serenity and eeriness of the film’s proceedings.

Whether the film ending is a happy one is arguable - best left to the audience to decide.  But EL CLUB is a story that concerns many key issues - identity, beliefs, redemption, fulfilment but mostly forgiveness and how one can live with oneself after any terrible deed.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8c2DYoF7lA

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina 2015) ***


Directed by Ciro Guerra

Touted as the first Colombian film to be nominated for the best Foreign Film Oscar, EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT might just be the sleeper hit if voters for MUSTANG and SON OF SAUL cancel each other out.

The Colombian film plays like an a weird combination of art-house primitive feature.  The film is set in the early 1900s, centring on a young shaman, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) in the Colombian Amazon.  He is reluctantly hired to help a sick German explorer, Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his local guide (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) search for a rare healing plant.  Flash forward a decade or so later when the same shaman (each played by a different actor, Antonio Bolivar) takes an American to search for the same plant.  

Unfortunately, the film’s uncomfortable intercutting between the two twin stories makes little sense and spoils the momentum built in each segment before a switch.  It would be better to tell the two tales in two parts one after another.  Both stories are equally interesting.

The villain of the film and hero appears to be the white man.  But director Guerra also shows the pompous native shaman as one that could learn a lesson or two.  In short, the native and white man could do best to learn from each other, one of the messages hidden in the story. But the priest that beats up the native children for nonsensical sins is quite the shock to take in.  Religion and colonization is treated as totally evil in Guerra’s film.

The film is shot in black and white, which enhances the images.  The scenes of the boat gliding down the rivers of the Amazon are breath-taking.  

But the slow pace of Guerra’s film and lack of narrative might be hard to take for some, despite the rare see images of  the Colombian jungle.

It is revealed in the end credits that it is from the diaries of the two German and American explorers that the world got to learn about these Amazon tribes.  And Guerra’s heartfelt film (must be his labour of love) will extend the knowledge to the world as well.

Trailer: http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/oscilloscope/embraceoftheserpent/

THE MERMAID (Hong Kong 2016) ****

Directed by Stephen Chow

Thanks to Sony Pictures, THE MERMAID gets a distribution release in Canada and the United States.  I just previewed the film on the second day of opening on a Saturday evening in a full-house of Cantonese speaking Asians.  It was quite the experience.

THE MERMAID is produced, co-written and directed by Stephen Chow whose KUNG FU HUSTLE was widely released.  To those unfamiliar with his works, his films are pure silliness.  Lots of action, slapstick, fast dialogue with CGI added to this 3D comedic hilarity.  The film has already broken records after opening Chinese New Year in Asia.  See paragraph below (figures from and courtesy of  Sony Publicity) before the review.

“MĚI RÉN YÚ (direct translation: Pretty Human Fish i.e. Mermaid)” opened in China on Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day (February 8) and shattered box office records.  On opening day in China, it opened in the #1 spot, grossing a whopping $66 million.  In Hong Kong, the film also opened to #1 on opening day with $709,000. To date, the film has grossed over $348 million in China. In Singapore, the film was the highest grossing Sony release for a Chinese film with $838,000, while in Malaysia it was the highest grossing opening day of all time for a Chinese-language film at $528,000.  In Malaysia, it was also the highest grossing film opening on New Years and also the highest opening day gross for director Stephen Chow.

THE MERMAID tells the tale of a mermaid (Jelly Lin) who falls for the evil business tycoon (Deng Choa) she’s been sent to seduce and assassinate.

The CGI in THE MERMAID is used for the most ridiculous purposes.  The flapping of the mermaid’s tail, the movements of the octopus’  tentacles, the shoals of fish in the sea, the air-borne back-strapped contraption are some examples.  But, they do to Chow’s credit generate the most laughs.  

Anything can happen in a Stephen Chow film and the man will do anything to get a laugh out of his audience.  Take for example the important scene in which an old sage (in the form of a mermaid) tells the legendary tale of how humans and fish used to co-exist.  All the mermaids and other fish are listening.  Before she ends her story, she falls asleep snoring.  Another is the octopus cook acting as if nothing is happening while his tentacles are being cooked up in the open kitchen.

The film contains, as in all comedies, hits and misses.  The hit/miss ratio, thankfully is high, with the laughs coming fast and furious.  There will be classic segments that might go down in Hong Kong comedy history like the chicken cooking/exercise segment in the Hui Brothers’ THE PRIVATE EYES.  One of these is the segment where Deng Chao goes to the police station to report being kidnapped by the mermaid. (See trailer below or part of this segment.)

If you can throw logic and sanity out the window, THE MERMAID will turn out to be a big treat.  THE MERMAID is as silly (and hilarious) as can be.  The millions of asian moviegoers cannot be wrong.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jskKf5YDDAI


RACE (Germany/France/Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Stephen Hopkins

The word RACE of the film title could mean the running competition or a people of the world.  Stephen Hopkin’s biographical sports drama tells both the story of African American athlete Jesse Owens (Stephan James) running in the Berlin Olympic games in 1936 and the controversy ensuing with the then upcoming Hitler regime.  Owens went on to win 4 gold medals.  Hopkins is no stranger to biography, having directed THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS.

The script, written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, covers many stories.  The first and foremost is the story of the athlete Owens and his white coach Larry Snyder.  The other is the romance between Owens and his girl, Peggy (Amanda Crew), who he has already had a daughter with, when going to the games.  A political subplot involving the boycotting of the Games by the U.S. due to Germany’s racial policy of exclusion of blacks and Jews makes good interest into an otherwise too often told tale of underdog achieving the top prize.  This story pits Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) against  host of adversaries.  Despite the many stories, director Hopkins always has the main story in focus, the winning of the games, while keeping the other side stories in perspective.  The overall feel is a solid narrative.

Newcomer Stephan James inhabits the role of the star athlete very comfortably.  He looks young as well as buff enough to pass off as an Olympic medallist.  He is convincing without having to overact his role.  But it is the supporting cast that deliver the prized performances.  Carice van Houten steals the show as German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, commissioned by the Hitler to film the games.  She runs head to head with the Interior Minister, Dr. Joseph Goebbels (played with sinister relish by Barnaby Metschurat).  One could watch both van Houten and Metschurat, two German acorn forever.

The period piece was sot in both Berlin where the Games took place as well as Montreal to stand in for spots of Berlin.  The atmosphere of 30’s Europe is satisfactorily convincing, but not over-stunning.  The shot of the Games are excitingly executed with camera intercutting among the faces of the athletes, the looks on the faces of the coaches and of course, the spectators.

It is odd that this piece of anti-racism is a co-production between Germany and Canada.  One would have expected the film, supported by the by the Owens family, the Jesse Owens Foundation, the Jesse Owens Trust and the Luminary Group to have some American financial backing.

Hopkins plays his film safe without trodding into too deep waters.  The racial controversy is tackled with tact and quickly covered for.  The result is a rather mild anti-racist film, that is more suited for the family than one to invoke controversy.

The film ends with the pictures of the real characters against the actors that played them.  Again, formulaic safe filmmaking, like a history lesson that disturbs no one and stirs no still waters!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJgi9gCSfBg

RISEN (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Kevin Reynolds

RISEN looks like a blockbuster in the making.  Even the Coen Brothers thought so.  In their recent comedy, HAIL, CAESAR!  George Clooney plays the actor inhabiting the role of a Roman Centurian who sees the light in the form of believing in the risen Jesus Christ.  It is a blockbuster movie in the making in HAIL, CAESAR!  A similar premise is adopted in RISEN, a serious story of the Resurrection seen from the point of view, again of a Roman Centurian, Clavuis Tribune (Joseph Fiennes). He too will see the light.

Clavius, a powerful Roman Centurion, is charged by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the rumours of a risen Jewish messiah and to locate the missing body of Yeshua (Cliff Cutis) aka in the film as ‘the Nazarene’ (Jesus of Nazareth) in order to quell an imminent uprising in Jerusalem during the first 40 days following Christ's resurrection.  But three days after the Crucifixion, the body goes missing and the stone of the tomb rolled away.  Clavius investigates with the help of his new aide, the ambitious, Lucius (Tom Felton from the HARRY POTTER films).  The search leads them to the disciples who are meeting up with the risen one.

The best part of the film is the beginning which sets the tone of the film.  The crucifixion scene is depicted with all the cruelty and gore without having to display much blood. Much is left to the imagination.  The discourse between Pontius Pilate and his trusty Clavius is also believable, even down to the discussion in the Roman baths.

The film is shot in both Spain and Malta.  The biblical segments down to the white stone houses and vegetation of Nazareth are all there, and should not displease Bible readers.

The filmmakers appear unable to control the temptation of using CGI in the film.  The scene in which a flight of birds fly through the disciples is totally superfluous and unnecessary, least of all a waste of good money.  But the cinematography by Lorenzo Senatore, especially the ending scene with the images of fishing by the Sea of Galilee (the film is shot in Malta) is particularly impressive.

A few liberties are taken in the script.  Christ’s tomb is sealed with Roman seals and tied closed with ropes.  The Centurian is among the 12 that get to walk with the risen Messiah.

This is an expensive production, by Hollywood standards similar to the highly successful Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  Past Christian efforts have been small productions taken by Christian organizations.  RISEN, which caters to both believers and non-believers, is thankfully non-preachy, while believers can take consolation that the film holds true to the faith.  Even the words of the Bible are used as in the last scene where the RISEN gives the command to his disciples to: “Go into the wold and preach the Gospel to the whole creation”. (Mark 15:16 if I recall correctly from my Sunday school class.)

Running at a little less than 2 hours, RISEN is also the perfect length before it becomes a bit tiresome.  One problems the simple story with little opportunity for twists or subplots.  One can only do so much with the material.  RISEN should prove to be a good bang for the buck at the box-office and a suitable outing for Easter!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucUbAAMEF8M

THE WITCH (USA 2015) ****

Directed by Roger Eggers


Set in 17th Century New England, writer/director Roger Eggers (whose background is in production design and theatre) has mounted more than a handsome production in his chilling horror debut.  Looking like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT from the frequent flickering lighting (though the comparison does not do THE WITCH, the better film justice) and Shyamalan’s THE VILLAGE from the period setting, the story follows a newly settled New England family from England.  

When the film opens, we hear dialogue which informs the audience that the family has just been banished from the village due to witchcraft, details unspecified.  They settle on their own on the forest outskirts.  The religious family is comprised of William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children.  The film centres on the daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is made to look after her infant sibling while the parents toil the land.  But the baby suddenly goes missing (never explained how in the film, but assumed to be taken by a wolf), and Thomasin has no explanation either.  William and Kate descend into hysteria.  Did the evil in the woods take their unbaptized child?  Their twin children, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), blame Thomasin but their own behaviour has become disturbingly suspect.  Middle child Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) takes it upon himself to search for the answer with dire consequences.  Thomasin admits to being a witch to scare the twins into silence but it backfires on her.

The film has certain unexplained scenes like an actual witch that appears and kisses Caleb.  The other is the possession of the twins.

The film succeeds for two reasons.  One is its ambiguity which makes everything all the more mysterious and scary.  Is the family descending into religious madness or are there supernatural forces afoot?  But the film falls apart when director Eggers shows actual demonic forces in motion.  Second is the scary effects created by the light, setting and soundtrack.  The characters speak with an old Northern England accent and old English which takes a while to get used to.  Sample dialogue: “What’s the matter with thee?  Come hither!”  The story is supposed to be based on folklore and the dialogue adapted directly from old literature.  

But THE WITCH is a very scary film- not scary in the form of the typical B-horror flick but in genuine fear of the unknown.  Religion and superstition drive the family part.  Trust in God appears to be the answer for the family, but faith is obviously not enough.  The desperation of the family is on clear display and examination here.  Eggers shows differing points of view, from the daughter to the father, mother and even the brother., while always centring on Thomasin.  Eggers knows how to create a sense of evil from almost any prop, from the goat, to the evil stare of the rabbit, to the woods to the omnipresent darkness.  THE WITCH also contains very disturbing images, made even scarier because often, it is hard to make out exactly what is depicted, and much is left to the imagination.  The scariest image is the crow picking at the mother’s breast.  Evil, indeed takes many forms.

Altogether a very impressive film debut by Eggers and definitely a most chilling one.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQXmlf3Sefg




Best Film Opening: THE WITCH

Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT


Best Animation: ANOMALISA

Best Foreign Language Film: EL CLUB

Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR

Best Drama: CAROL

Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

Best Horror: THE WITCH

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