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This Week's Film Reviews (Mar 17, 2016)

17 Mar 2016

Films opening this week include the second last of the DIVERGENT films, ALLEGIANT and Spike Lee's CHI-RAQ.  Also opening are THE PROGRAM, THE BRONZE and the Canadian HAPPILY EVER AFTER.

FILM REVIEWS:

THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT (USA 2016) ***

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Based on the final book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, ALLEGIANT arrives as the first of two parts with the final film, ASCENDANT arriving in 2017.  The same money making formula of splitting a final novel into two films has worked for the HARRY POTTER and HUNGER GAMES series and has no reason not to work here.  The only trouble is the second last film sets the stage for the grand finale and is present just to serve that purpose.  ALLEGIANT does just that.  It serves its purpose, which should satisfy the Divergent series fans.  The film garnished a very low rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but that rating often dos not mean much.

The film begins with the revelation after INSURGENT when Tris (Shailene Woodley) must escape with Four (Theo James) and go beyond the wall enclosing Chicago.  For the first time ever, they will leave the only city and family they have ever known to find a peaceful solution for their embroiled city.   Once outside, old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless with the revelation of shocking new truths.  The villain of the story is played by Jeff Daniels, who reflect the evils of conglomerate modern society in which power is connected to funding and money,

As the story changes, some elements will be notably missed.  The Kate Winslet character that was done away in the last film is an example.  This film lacks a true villain.  Jeff Daniels is good, but lacks the sinister and wicked characteristics of Winslet.

But most of the characters DIVERGENT fans are familiar with are present and they perform more of the same.  The Miles Teller character is as spineless and as manipulatively ambitious as in the other films.  Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) achieves more maturity in this adventure while the story ups the romance between Tris and Four.

ALLEGIANT does not contain as many action packed scenes that would make it stand above the first two of the series.  But the CGI and social effects are impressive nevertheless, especially of the depiction of a built up protected Chicago behind walls and a destroyed landscape surrounding the city.  Story-wise, ALLEGIANT provides a few interesting plot points, but nothing as spectacular for example as the revelation in that all was an experiment for the purpose of human survival in the first film.  The actors appear here to be going through the motions of completing the film.  But what can one expect from the third of an instalment of 4?

So far, the first of the series DIVERGENT is the best of the lot because it was an interesting premise about human survival divided into factions that keep peace, realized as an experiment as a good twist of plot.  The other books cannot match the idea nor this film in terms of intrigue.  ALLEGIANT sets up the stage for an action packed final feature.  Let’s hope  ASCENDANT delivers.  The fate of Lionsgate might also depend on it.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGdTr7ofbPY

THE BRONZE (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Bryan Buckley

THE BRONZE is a feel good crowd pleaser about a has-been foul-mouthed bronze gymnastic medallist that makes it good.  The trouble with feel-good films like the recent EDDIE THE EAGLE is that it is too formulaic, with all the right buttons pushed that everything is predictable right up to the secret smile of a coach to the end credits.  Fortunately for THE BRONZE, the niche of the lead character being a foul mouth breaks the trend - a little anyway.  

It all began a decade ago when Hope Ann Greggory (Melissa Rauch) was America's sweetheart.  Her inspired performance on a ruptured Achilles at the world's most prestigious gymnastics tournament clinched an unlikely bronze medal for the U.S. team and brought glory to her hometown of Amherst, Ohio.  But in the years since that epic third place victory, Hope has wasted her life.  Still living in her too loving/possessive dad Stan's (Gary Cole) basement, still sporting her daily uniform of a Team USA gym suit with teeny-bopper bangs, ponytail and scrunchie, she spends her days at the mall milking her minor celebrity for free food and favours.

Hope's routine is upended when she learns that she must coach Amherst's newest gymnastics prodigy Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) in order to receive a sizeable financial inheritance.   Hope is faced with a serious dilemma: whether to jeopardize her "hometown hero" status by devotedly training this rising star to achieve the dreams she never could?

The film plays like STRANGERS WITH CANDY, another comedy with a lead character similar to Coach Hope’s.  In fact Melissa Rauch’s mannerisms in THE BRONZE are so similar to the lead’s in STRANGERS WITH CANDY that one wonders if she uses that film as her inspiration.  It works anyway.  The success of THE BRONZE lies largely on Rauch’s nuanced performance and she delivers it right up to the very end with her very vulgar end credits rendering of the rap song called “F That”.

Some things are still predictable in the script like her romance, her turning over a new leaf and her final making-up with her long suffering father.

Director Buckley serves his humour without constraint.  The gymnastic sex segment is a prime example of humour gone bonkers.  A second example is the the vulgar F That song at the end credits.

The gymnast competition segments are also exciting enough - executed with superior camera work and choreographed synchronicity.  

Buckley also approaches the film with a no-nonsense approach. The first 10 minutes of the film, for example are used to establish Hope’s character - ranging from user (getting free favours at the local mall from her past glory) to sympathetic (aiding an invalid with money to fix his wheel chair).  Her one-liner “I’m a star, not a coach,” effectively captures all that needs to be shown.  In a similar way, this is a comedic version of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY HOPE?

Not too preachy, sufficiently hilarious, well shot with a prize performance from the lead actress Rauch, THE BRONZE is an entertaining enough time waster.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6B7JH30oCME

CHI-RAQ (USA 2015) ***
Directed by Spike Lee

CHI-RAQ, the film’s title is made up of the first and last syllables of the cities of Chicago and Iraq respectively and used s the title for the reason that more people have been killed in Chicago than the Americans in the Iraq war with the result of south side Chicago (the film’s setting) being declared a war zone.

The film, a mix of satire and musical contains lots of song and dance numbers with a very strong message.  The message is to save the babies and do away with guns. The film begins with the death of a little girl from a stray bullet.  The black women of Chicago have had enough.  The women of the two gangs, Spartan and Trojan (their meeting is plain hilarious) decide to withhold sex to prevent their husbands from fighting.  The local priest, Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack) steps up to help the fight.

One has to be able to bare Lee’s preachiness.  And Lee can be the most preachy at his most preachiness.  This is illustrated in a segment in which the priest preaches his preachy sermon to a congregation, in which part of his sermon is repeated so that nothing can be left out.

If the film’s dialogue sounds Shakespearean, it should be noted that the script, written by Lee and Kevin Willmott is based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the classical Greed comedy play in which women withhold sex as a weapon to prevent their husbands from going to war.  The film is framed with a spritely delivered narrative by no less than Samuel L. Jackson.  Jackson has never been in a film in which he has not uttered he m***f**er word, and this film is no exception.

An impressive cast includes old Lee collaborators like Jackson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes (as Cyclops) and new ones like Jennifer Hudson, Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon playing the lead role.

CHI-RAQ is everything one can expect from the controversial Spike Lee.  His film touted controversy from the film’s music supervisor Kendricks who got fired for charging a fee to musicians for having their music considered on the soundtrack to Lee calling the Chicago mayor a bully for demanding the film’s name be changed or the city’s tax credits not apply for the film.  Love it or hate it, this latest joint by Spike Lee is unforgettable.

Music and dance play a big part in Lee getting his message across.  The first segment has a song played loud with subtitles for those unfamiliar with the south side Chicago accent.  But the film with its message is catered towards the adult black folk, judging from the steamy sex scenes and language.  Perhaps the message should also be told to the younger teens and pre-teens who eventually become the violent criminals depicted in the film.

The $15 million budget film has already grossed $2.7 million in a limited release in December of 2015.  For all the good intentions and huge effort put in by Lee and his gang, the film hopefully, will do well in its wider release now.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/144523728

 

HAPPILY EVER AFTER (UK/Canada 2014) ***
Directed by Joan Carr-Wiggin

Running at almost 2 hours, HAPPILY EVER AFTER is a delightful comedy drama about two high school friends who both have the identical goal of living happily ever after.  The only problem is that it is almost impossible task to accomplish, as most human beings can attest to.

The film centres on Heather (Janet Montgomery), an edgy documentary filmmaker in her 20s returning to her small Canadian hometown to look after her ailing father, Walt (Oscar nominee Peter Firth).  She had left the town and her friends and family for Toronto after high school.  She then reluctantly agrees to film the wedding video for her former high school best friend Sarah Ann (Sara Paxton).  Things turn out more complicated than expected as the film turns into sort of a bedroom farce involving the whole town.

And between family and secrets, Heather is convinced that she and the seemingly carefree bride-to-be have nothing in common – except perhaps the high school teacher they both fell in love with (Tom Cullen).

It takes quite a while for Carr-Wiggin’s film to get a solid footing.  The first half of the film appears to be all over the place with too many characters and an annoying lead.  The situations all centring around a wedding also seems superfluous.  But one has to be patient for HAPPILY EVER AFTER to settle in.  It takes a while but the waiting pays off.  The film shifts its focus from the lead character to the two leads, the lead and her best friend with an additional twist in the plot coming near the end (which will not be revealed in this review).

The film is about leaving a small town and making good.  Another film that deals with this same theme, my favourite but highly forgotten INDEPENDENCE DAY (not the disaster pic) also showed the really difficult decision of small town folk having to make the decision to get away even though all logic points into doing so.  The best thing about HAPPILY EVER AFTER is that the lead has left for the big city of Toronto but has not got much success either.  She is a documentarist wannabe.  Yet all the small townsfolk still admire her, if not for her decision to leave, despite the current state of affairs.  The fact that Heather is not perfect and has just an equal if not larger amount of problems makes her character a more interesting one.

The film grows on the audience like a small town does on its visitors.  At first annoying and uneventful, a small-town and the film gradually enchants its audience with its small town charm.  

Carr-Wiggins characters also are all searching for simple happiness.  They are all looking for love, and often in all the wrong places - i.e. the same town.  The ‘follow your heart’ message is a bit too obvious, but given the situation of losers, it is an appropriate one to entertain the audience.  There is more than meets the eye in this neat little film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwKoGJgtIY8

THE PROGRAM (UK/France 2015)**

Directed by Stephen Frears

Lance Armstrong is infamous the world over.  The recent documentary on his disgrace THE ARMSTRONG LIE had informed the world of his demise, and now the fictionalized version is ready to do more of the same.  Lance Armstrong (played by Ben Foster) is an American cyclist who won the Tour De France 7 years running.  He entertained controversy of his taking performance enhancing drugs (particularly EPO in short).  He denied it totally and the world believed him.  But after his comeback after a 4-year break, a fellow team member, Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) confessed to his and Armstrong’s taking of EPO.  The Tour De France stripped Armstrong of all 7 gold medals.

THE PROGRAM is understandably a French/British co-production as Armstrong obviously not only disgraced himself but the county he represented.  THE ARMSTRONG LIE was made and shelved when the disgrace hit the news 3 years later, but released after Armstrong appeared on Oprah. 

THE PROGRAM of the title refers to the drug program enforced by the French Doctor, Michele Ferrari (Guillaume Canet), who was eventually banned from practice after word came out of his abuse.  When Armstrong realized other cyclists may be using performance enhancing drugs, he begged the doctor to put him on the program at all costs.

It is surprising that Frears and the script by Jon Hodge sees so little time on the Irish reporter, David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd) who uncovered the truth of the story.  The film based on Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins’ spends minimum time, showing the reporter’s work and quiet after Armstrong put him to shame.  But when he was eventually proven correct, his triumph is just dismissed with the fact that the Sunday Times got their money they initially paid as damages to Armstrong back.  Dustin Hoffman, credited in the film also has a one-line scene.

Armstrong is an extremely dislikable man.  He shows no humility, is proud and obsessive and full of himself.  A film that centres on a lead character with such a personality is obviously going to run into problems.  Audiences disliking the lead will most likely dislike the film as a result.  Director Frears who has in his carer made some excellent films (PHILOMENA, THE QUEEN) seems at a loss with the character of Armstrong.  In his previous films that dealt with unsavoury characters like the pregnant teenage daughter in THE SNAPPER and homosexuality in MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, Frears used humour and satire to make his movies work.  But in THE PROGRAM, Frears uses none of these tactics.  He tells the story of the ARMSTRONG LIE in a straight forward story-telling convention.  Using standard formulaic biopics story-telling, he charts the rise to fame, and slow downfall of the cyclist, highlighting his winning moments to lift the spirit of the story.

There is absolutely no need to watch another version of a disgraced human human being.  Armstrong describes himself s a champion.  But in reality he is one who has disgraced the sport and a spineless worm with no conscience.  The documentary THE ARMSTRONG LIE has already told the same story and extremely well by Alex Gibney (ENRON, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE), with the real Armstrong as himself using actual footage of himself at the race without any re-enactments.  At least Frears shows him, as the worst person that can be, still trying to convince the world of his ability.

The end credits predictably showing each of the featured characters in real life from Armstrong, to the doctor that enforced the drug program re-enforce the fact that Frears seem to be gnu through the motion with this one.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vD5Jric0Rc

 

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: CHI-RAQ

Best Film Playing: THE HATEFUL EIGHT

Best Action: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Best Animation: ANOMALISA

Best Foreign Language Film: MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART

Best comedy: HAIL, CAESAR and THE LEGEND OF BARNEY THOMSON

Best Drama: CAROL

Best Documentary: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT.

Best Comedy/Drama: JOY

Best Horror: THE WITCH

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