This Week's Film Reviews (Mar 4, 2016)

03 Mar 2016

Films opening this week inlcude LONDON HAS FALLEN, WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT and the excellent ZOOTOPIA.



Directed by Babak Najafi

Audiences are always awed when world famous landmarks are demolished on screen.  But when these are done by CGI, it loses its effect and even more when too many, as in this film tumble to the ground.   The single sight of a bus crashing at Piccadilly Circus in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON one without CGI is so much more exciting than anything seen in LONDON HAS FALLEN.

For those who have forgotten the film OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, LONDON HAS FALLEN is a sequel to that 2013 film in which terrorists attacked the White House  In LONDON, the terrorists are shifted from the Koreans to the Muslims.  All the actors in the first film reprise their roles in the sequel.  Aaron Eckhart plays the U.S. President, Benjamin Asher with the same lead character the super U.S. Secret service Agent, former Army Ranger, Mike Banning, again played by Gerard Butler.  Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Robert Forster Radha Mitchell and ours reprise their roles.

Swede director Babak Najafi takes over the directing reigns from Antoine Fuqua.  Nahafi’s only credit is the sequel to EASY MONEY called EASY MONEY 2 that never got a release in North America.  

The simple plot involves the British Prime Minister dying under questionable circumstances.  When all the world’s most powerful leaders including President Benjamin Asher and Manning travel to London for the funeral, all the leaders including the Canadian P.M. are assassinated. 

There can be little suspense less excitement in a film where the lead character like this super security bodyguard is invincible.  No matter how low the odds on survival, no matter how much enemy firepower or enemy numbers there are, the audience knows he will get through with hardly a scratch.  The script attempts to up the angst by having his wife (Mitchell) deliver a baby while he is on assignment in London, but with little effect.

There is little to praise in a script that follows the rules of an action flick without much imagination.  It begins with the set up, the main staging of the falling of London and the saving of the U.S. President at all costs.  And of course, the mastermind villain is taken down at the end.  The dialogue is also run of the mill.  President: “What if you don’t come back (for me)?”  Butler: “Then you are f***ed.  Don’t jinx me”  President: “That was encouraging.”  At least in the first OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, the First Lady (Ashley Judd) gets killed - a major surprise.  No twists in the plot or surprises in this one.

Gerard Butler is too eager to be seen in blockbuster 5-star films.  In these two weeks, he has been over-exposed in GODS OF EGYPT and LONDON HAS FALLEN.   5-star movies?  Apparently London is not the only thing that has fallen.

Compared to OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, LONDON HAS FALLEN is more of the same.  But mostly, recycled material that the audience has seen already once too often.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AsOdX7NcJs

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China/France/Japan 2015) ***
Directed by Jia Zhangke

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is the new film from China’s art house favourite director Jia Zhangke whose all other films that included PLATFORM, STILL LIFE, 24 CITY and the most recent A TOUCH OF SIN were all screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.  His films share the same theme of the individual living in a changing society, which in this case is China.

His films are interesting primarily because Jia is a director who does what he likes, and therefore breaks the mould of films in this genre.  In MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART for example, the film is told in three parts, but they do not dwell on three separate characters but on three different times, the years being 1999 (the millennium eve), 2014 and the future of 2025, where the 3 characters found in the first segment spawn new characters that appear in the last while themselves disappearing from the story.

Jia shoots the three time periods in different aspect ratios with the square Academy frame expanding to widescreen.  Those in the filmmaking business will be elated to discover this fact, but the ordinary filmgoer including film critics may not even realize the difference.  It is a neat tactic but would hardly do anything but maybe alter a bit of the tone of the story. 

The first part of the film set in 1999 plays like a melodrama. Tao (Zhao Tao), the dance instructor and town beauty has two boyfriends an picks and marries the rich entrepreneur Zhang (Zhang Yi) over the poorer coal miner.  In the 2014 segment, she is divorced and brings their son or her father’s funeral.  The call miner ex is now married, has cancer and leaves the film at this point.  Tao gives up her son who loves to Australia with his dad.  The third and final part set in the future of 2025 centres on the son, Dollar and his difficulties with his dad, Zhang.  Dollar befriends his college professor (Sylvia Chang) who is an addition to the film’s story.

The trouble that most will have with the three stories is the transition from one segment to another.  Director Jia makes no qualms about easing the flow, so when plot switches to the son at the end, most would favour the third part the least even though it makes the most point in Jia’s film.

Jia comes across a bit preachy by turning Zhang’s character into an obnoxious human being.  He is all about money, evident by his naming of his son Dollar.  He becomes more distraught when his son wants out of the father/son relationship.  The college professor is a very interesting character inserted into the film and more time should have been devoted to her character.

Still Jia’s epic of the negative impact of China’s capitalism on the Chinese individual comes across loud and clear.  MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is an important film that emphasizes a point that is already too clear and one that has affected too many.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc1ZKyhMG6o

THE WAVE (Bolgen) (Norway 2015) **

Directed by Roar Uthaug

Norwegian big production (Norwegian standards) of a Hollywood disaster movie sees unlikely hero, a seismic worker and geologist save his family from a tsunami.  You see, he works and sees the disaster coming and despite all his efforts is unable to warn the people concerned in time.  He is with his daughter while the wife and son stuck in a hotel basement when the disaster strikes in Norway’s Geiranger regions, a big tourist attraction..  Yet, he is able to find her and open the steel door despite all odds.  This is an attempt of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking at its worst with the expected special effects and confusing instrumentation.   THE WAVE falls into all the similar traps and ends up a goal waste of time, money and effort.  THE WAVE is Norway’s entry for The Best Foreign Film Oscar.  It would be a true disaster if it wins, but it did not even pass the nomination phase.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH44U3Tmi1k


Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT is the military communications term for WTF which stands for….what everyone is familiar with.  The title sounds more appropriate than the lengthy title of the memoir called The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan written  by Kim Baker about her own experiences as an overseas reporter.

The film charts Baker’s life story while reporting in various cities in Afghanistan.  She leaves boyfriend Chris (Josh Charles) to fend for himself as she leaves for an initial 3 months.  She befriend the only other female journalist on arrival, Tanya (Margot Robbie).  As Baker learns the ropes and gets her reporting done, she learns much about the state of Afghanistan, though these tend to be feminine biased.  She falls for a fellow reporter, Scotsman Iain (Martin Freeman).  She learns a few painful life lessons as well.  All this seriousness is however, conveyed through in a humorous manner.

The film is directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who did an ok job also with I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS.  

An outright flaw is the film’s preachiness on women’s issues.  One can understand where this is coming from as the film is produced and performed by Tina Fey based on a female's novel.  But one would have expected the all male scriptwriter and directing trio to at least moderate some of the material.  The romance overshadows what is going on to the point that the film almost turns out into another annoying Hollywood romantic comedy.  The lady saves her lover at all costs with her ingenuity?  It is really hard to take in as fact what she did in the film to save Iain.  Also, the film praises many feminist issues like the right of afghan women to gossip and socialize at the well, their right to ensure foreigners cover their heads and not hold hands (two scenes has the Fey character admonished for those two ‘sins’) and the women’s roles are much strongly written than the males.  The men exist to service the purpose of the female characters.  There is the alpha male security of Baker, a hunky no-brain ready to have sex with her at her command.  Her main love interest Iain is always there to beckon her ever wish and woos her to no end.  And at the social gatherings, the men never have anything important to say.  The chief male, General Hollanek is depicted as an egoistic goat who succumbs to Baker’s plans while the Afghan chief of the Interior Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) does more of the same.

The female audience may be delighted however at the Afghan war being looked at from a different perspective.  Also, the war with all its horrors is depicted as just that, though doused with quite the bit of humour.  One can always be reminded that this is an SNL film - if such a thing exists - produced by Lorne Michaels (SNL) and Fey.

In one segment of the film, Baker is asked the reason she went to Afghanistan.  Her answer that she realized that day in and day out she has moved  backwards in life as metaphorically observed in her stationary bike that moved backwards after constant use and that she should move forward, one can only wish that the directors’ reason for making this movie also could have achieved this same goal.  WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT could have been better, but as the title implies WTF, it leads nowhere. WTF?

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxAcIWDi8ps


ZOOTOPIA (USA 2016) Top 10 *****

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

ZOOTOPIA is the Utopia for animals, so called because the 10% predators (lions, wolves, foxes) can co-habit side by side with 90 % prey (rabbits and other smaller animals).  The status quo is about to be altered when the usually calm predators start exhibiting unruly behaviour threatening the 90% population of the ‘prey’.  It is up to the heroine of the story, a wannabe cop by the name of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) to solve the mystery, CHINATOWN-style and save the animal world.

The premise allows the film plenty of opportunity to reflect and criticize the real world of today - particularly America.  If one reads between the lines of the script, there is much more pleasure to be derived, besides just enjoying a Disney movie.

And as for Disney movies go, ZOOTOPIA is the best there is, that I have seen for a long time.  The film is clever, funny, superfluously animated with never a dull moment, even for the adults.

The film begins with Judy the bunny, leaving her comfortable home of carrot farming to achieve her dream of becoming a cop.  After passing the course, with much effort, she is sent to Zootopia for her first assignment.

The animation is stunning.  As the train arrives to Zootopia, the audience is given a birds-eye view of the gorgeous city, recalling the awe when on comes to a new fantasy land as in the movies JURASSIC WORLD and TOMORROWLAND.

The cop world is very similar to the American police system.  The tough get the best assignments and Hopps, is given parking ticket duty.  The problems she faces with this job are also very similar to the real world.  The ticketed complain that they don’t deserve to be ticketed with the same reasons real people do.  Judy is so dedicated that she gives herself a parking violation ticket as she forgotten the time on her meter.  Though this might sound ridiculous, it should send a message to the police that they are not above the law and should also be bound by the same rules as the general public.

Racism is also examined with a sense of humour.  Hopps takes offence of being called ‘cute’, the word bunnies take offence to.

The switch of lambs being the bad villains and the foxes and more ferocious animals being the victims is also a brilliant idea.  The ultimate criminal in the film turns out to be the unsuspected meek Deputy Mayor Dawn Belweather (Jenny Slate).  The mayor  Lionheart (voiced by J.K. Simmons who is also heard in KUNG FU PANDA 3) is pulled away and arrested for the same crime most city mayors are also guilty for.

ZOOTOPIA plays more as a suspense thriller (think CHINATOWN) than action animation.  The film also gives an obvious nod to THE GODFATHER films.  The film’s funniest segment is the sloth segment (even if you have seen it once in the trailer) in which Hopps and her friend the fox, Nick (Jason Bateman) goes to get a run (see photo in-set) on a license plate.  Again, the marvel of Disney animation is reinforced by the tearing on the perorated line of the ticket in slow motion, showing the details of the paper tear.

But it is the humour that makes the film really tick.  It is a laugh out loud moment at least every minute.  The writers and directors have a great sense of humour, clear from the film’s very start.  There are a lot of rabbit jokes, the funniest ones poking at the rate they populate.  Judy, has for example, 365 brothers and sisters and the population numbers on the town Bunnyborrow is constantly ticking upwards.

The film denounces power and all the evil power brings with it.  Though a bit preachy with a voiceover at the end, ZOOTOPIA is near movie perfection - yes, the Utopia of animation.  Even the ending song “Try Everything” sung by a gazelle that is supposed to be Shakira is nothing short of brilliant.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWM0ct-OLsM



Best Film Opening: TRIPLE 9

Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT


Best Animation: ANOMALISA

Best Foreign Language Film: MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR

Best Drama: CAROL

Best Documentary: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT.

Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

Best Horror: THE WITCH

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