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This Week's Film Reviews (May 26, 2016)

26 May 2016

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE and ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS make their debut this week.

 Other smaller films opening include LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, THE BOY AND THE BEAST and MR. RIGHT.

FILM REVIEWS:

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (USA 2016) **
Directed by James Bobin

 

Based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass”, the sequel to ALICE IN WONDERLAND entitled ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS is produced by Tim Burton but the director’s reins are now taken over by The Muppet’s James Bobbin.  Burton’s dark first film is replaced by glowing dizziness, all shiny stuff and sparkles, delivering a louder and glitzier Alice.  Which one is better?  Critics have been divided roughly 50-50.  But both films had the common trait that the plot’s logic is largely incomprehensible.

When ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS opens, the titles inform that the ship Alice Kinsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is captain of, is sailing the Straits of Malacca in the year 1874.  To those rusty with their geography or history, the straits is the narrow sea separating the west of West Malaysia (known at that time as Malaysia) and Sumatra, Indonesia.  It is the time when trade was opening between Britain and the East Indies.  Alice is supposed to be prospering in trade.  But now, she is pursued by pirates.  The pirates are inserted, perhaps to whet audience’s appetite for a new version of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN from Disney.  Alice’s ship escapes, thanks to the magic of CGI but she returns to more trouble in London, England.

The plot involves a few different stories.  One is her losing her independence and her ship to a former suitor, Hamish (Leo Bill).  But Alice escapes through a looking glass back into Wonderland where she meets her old friends  Tweedledee/Tweedledum (Matt Lucas from LITTLE BRITAIN), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).  Everyone appears worried about the depressed Hatter (Johnny Depp), and the White Queen dispatches Alice to travel back into the past to save his family.  So the second story involves Alice stealing time in the form of a gyroscope under pursuit by Time (Sacha baron Cohen) himself.  The other less interesting one has the red queen (Helena Bonham Carter) dealing with her evil issues.

The humour is very, very mad and all over the place.  Imagine sitting in a room having tea with a bunch of crazies or on an uncontrollable acid trip.  Johnny Depp is in home territory here.

Sadly, the film’s most interesting segments are Alice’s problems back in reality dealing with her mother's contract to Hamish and how she deals with them.  It is when Alice goes to Wonderland, which is the majority of the picture, is when the film gets too crazy.

All the gaudy excesses cannot hide the fact that a film with a convoluted and confusing plot results in a less satisfying entertainment - whether a dark or glossy look is used to disguise it.  Both ALICE fins fail to hit the mark.  And the film contains too many puns on the word ‘time’.

The film is lovingly dedicated to Alan Rickman who voiced Absalom, the blue butterfly that leads Alice to the magical looking glass. It is funny that Rickman should be remembered by his last film a a blue butterfly than in his first film and best role in DEEPLY, MADLY, SWEETLY.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3IWwnNe5mc

THE BOY AND THE BEAST (Japan 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

When his mother dies, the nine year-old boy, Ren (voiced by Aoi Miyazaki) runs away from his relatives in modern day Tokyo and stumbles into a parallel realm inhabited by anthropomorphic beasts.  There he becomes the apprentice to bear-like Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho) who trains him in martial arts.  Kumatetsu is a grumpy sort and the boy is feisty – so there is non-stop bickering back and forth.  When the boy turns 17 (Shota Sometani), a darkness descends, putting the bond between him and Kumatetsu to the ultimate test.  Ren re-enters the human world to search for his missing dad and halts the martial-arts training.

THE BOY ANDTHE BEAST is not entirely original in its story.  It has taken bits from other animated features.  The mixing of two worlds the beast and the human, and the crossings from one to the other is similar to what occurred in Hayao Miyazaki Studio Ghibli’s animated SPIRITED AWAY where the spirit and human worlds were crossed.  The mouse like creature in the film is also similar to he furry balls in Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.  (Hosoda initially worked on that film before taken off by the studio.)  But Hosoda’s film takes premises one step further.  He bonds both worlds.  What initially seems strange as the beast walks in the human world becomes natural by the film’s end.  The training of apprentice and master is also given a good turnaround.  Hosoda’s Master in the film has lots to learn unlike other films where the Master is perfect.  As he trains his rebellious apprentice, both learn from each other and fine tune their techniques.  Ionically, this is what happens with Hosoda.  As he learns the techniques from other films, he does not merely copy but takes each film ahead, changing the rules and fascinating the audience.

Hosoda started his apprenticeship at the famous Toei Studios before starting his own Studio Chizu in which BOY AND THE BEAST is its second film.

As the film progresses, what initially appears as a predictable tale turns out to be a unique story full of wonder and surprise.  The humour and lightness the of the film are never lost as important messages are subtly wound into the story.

Excepting the mousy creature, Hosoda refrains from cutesy bits, typical in Disney and other animated features aimed at kids.  THE BOY AND THE BEAST thus has a more universal appeal despite it being targeted as a family film.

A key component in the majority of Miyazaki’s film is the love element.  There is always a love story and one involving first love.  In Hosoda’s film, Young Ren falls in love for the first time when he returns to the human world though it occurs at the half way point of the story.

The soundtrack of piano playing scores is very pleasant covering the darker nature of the story.   Hosoda’s hand drawn animation is top-notch.

THE BOYS AND THE BEAST turns out surprisingly entertaining.  It was a box-office smash in Japan and should do well in Norther American given its universal appeal.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uifJLWoWv8c

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Ireland/France/Netherlands 2015) ***1/2

Directed by Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman is a Harvard educated American writer/director famous for his trilogy METROPOLITAN (this one winning him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), BARCELONA and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.  LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is his fifth film after DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, his favourite (and mine too).  All films share the common theme of young adults embroiled in a social class structure.  DISCO and DAMSELS featured female protagonists, the former with stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny.   Stillman uses them again in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.  

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is based on the Jane Austen epistolary (a series of documents such as letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings) novel “Lady Susan”.  So, most of film’s dialogue, really funny and written in the English spoken in the Austen novels is written by Stillman himself.  He moulded the main character of Lady Susan with his star Beckinsale in mind, often writing into the early hours of the morning to suit the different actors in their roles.

Set in the 1790s, the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) seeks refuge with her in-laws as rumours about her private life circulate through society.  While staying at the estate in Churchill, Lady Susan decides to find herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a husband.  As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.  She also pursues a romance with handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) while pushing her daughter to marry the wealthy and extremely talkative Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, stealing every scene he is in).  Frederica is opposed as Sir Martin is (as in the words of the script) a bit of a rattle.

Stillman’s Lady Susan is a likeable one.  Stillman does not judge her deeds but lets her manipulate those around her in a comedic fashion.  Her victims are looked upon as weaker characters whose existence in life is primarily to be taken advantaged of.  Even her pregnancy and husband stealing is given a light look, given the period of the story.  The result is a light film which stresses a comedy of manners rather than a tale of morality.

The film contains a large number of characters, related, married or related by marriage  They hold titles.  To familiarize the audience quickly, each character is introduced, at the start of the film with a picture portrait followed by cute titles below such as: “he’s a bit of a rattle”, or “wealthy but not well liked”.   The tactic works, and the audience is soon familiarized with all the story’s characters and their relations, though it requires a bit of attention.

As the film is an Austen period piece, the costumes, props and sets are important in setting the mood and atmosphere of the film.  The film was stunningly shot in Ireland by Dutch cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout.  The costumes were designed by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh in which her massive use of green (for example in the footmen uniforms) explains her Irish heritage.  Lady Susan’s dresses can be seen morphing from black to purple to red as she changes moods from mourning her late husband to finding a new suitor.  

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP will definitely delight Jane Austen fans who have seen their favourite Austen adaptations like PERSUASION, SENSE & SENSIBILITY, EMMA etc on the screen.  LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is Austen with a naughtier, more mischievous female character, not a prim and proper one as in her famous novels, with the additional bonus of a Whit Stillman’s imprint.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MaSK3POHI0

 

MR. RIGHT (USA 2015) *

Directed by Paco Cabeza

Mr. RIGHT is a romantic comedy about a girl on the rebound meeting her Mr. Right.  Unfortunately, Mr. Right comes with some baggage.  He is a hit man trying to get out of the business.  The two are right for each other because they are both absolutely crazy and judging from their behaviour, also suffer from behavioural attention deficiencies.  The premise sounds perfect for an outlandish comedy with lots of action.  The script is penned by CHRONICLE’s Max Landis (son of John Landis) who has proven his mettle at writing edgy, fast paced films.  

The film begins with the lead character, Martha Agatha (Anna Kendrick) catching her boyfriend cheating on her.  He  proposes a threesome and accuses her of not being open when she says no.  On the rebound, she meets Francis, her Mr. Right (Sam Rockwell) who woos her.  At his point in the film, the humour provided is far from funny, and it is clear the film is going to be a totally dud if director Caneza does not pick it up.

And Caneza does not.  The gags gets sillier and more outrageous.  Worst thing is that all the antics make no logical sense and are unfunny at all.

The rest of the story involves Francis trying to get out of the game.  His employer does not let him quit and wants him killed.  So, when they meet, it is all stylist slow-motion fighting in which Francis always wins.  The bad guys then decide that they should kidnap Martha.  So, as far as predictability goes, Francis ends up saving her and they live happily ever after.

But the film is not without surprises, which in this case is a bad thing.  In one odd sequence, Francis convinces Martha that she has the ability to catch knives.  He keep throwing knives at her, which she catches, no problem at all.  After she is kidnapped and faced with the bad guys, she suddenly uses her knife wielding skills in fighting and defeating her kidnappers.  All this makes no sense in the least - and is in fact more irritating than entertaining that the script is going all over the place.

Kendrick and Rockwell, however are not bad in their roles.  They make a good mismatched couple look good. 

Francis is often dressed in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt while Martha herself dons outlandish outfits.  The film’s settings are equally weird.  They meet at a park (New Orlean’s City Park’s ‘Storyland’, for example where there are sculptures of three pigs and other nursery rhyme characters. 

Tim Roth has the supporting role of another hit man - the one that trained him.  Roth sports a southern accent that is so bad that his British one can be heard in every line.

MR. RIGHT is a textbook example of a case of maximum effort, minimum results.  MR.  RIGHT is all wrong.  I did not laugh once throughout the entire movie.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TatqilQ8rI

 

Please note that certain spoilers regarding key plot points are included in this review so that the review could be more objective.

 The spoiler(s) are highlighted in bold italics.

REVENGE (HEVN) (Norway/Canada 2015) **
Directed by Kjersti G Steinsbø

 

It is clear right away from the very beginning of the film that the film is a story about REVENGE.  For one, the title of the film is called just that - REVENGE.  The audience sees a lone female protagonist using the name of Andrea, real name Rebekka (newcomer Siren Jørgensen) visit a remote hotel by a scenic fjord.  So it is obvious to assume that this is a lady on a planned journey of revenge.

The working title of the film and the title of the book, “The Doll in the Ceiling” would serve as a subtler title to the film.  Director Steinsbø spends a fair amount of the film’s initial time setting up the stage for Rebekka.  She pretends to be a travel journalist writing a hotel article for a famous magazine.  When she meets the owner of the hotel, Morten (Frode Winther), the audience knows right away he is her target.  The reason for revenge is revealed only after the first third of the film, when she communicates to Morten’s wife that her sister had committed suicide after being molested as a child.  The film then traces Morten’s downfall as his past behaviour resurfaces, instigated by Rebekka who executes her scheme step by step.

Steinsbø’s film encounters quite a few problems.  Firstly, the serene and stunning landscape of the film’s setting in west Norway conflicts with the dark nature of the film’s theme.  But on the other hand, the towering cliffs give the impression of imprisoning the inhabitants of the idyllic village - a point that Steinsbø stresses at least twice at the start and end of her film.  Another problem is the film’s pacing.  REVENGE is monotonously slow for a revenge film.  One could argue the fact that perhaps Steinsbø is using idle time for her audience to ponder over certain key plot points - such as Rebekka's re-questioning of her motive or whether Morten is alone responsible for her sister’s death  But one is never sure as Steinsbø never makes anything clear.  It does not help that the climatic fight between Morten and Rebekka is so clumsily done, lacking any thrills that one wonders if Steinsbø had executed her film the way she envisioned.

A few other loose ends in the film involve the convenient omission of the baby after Morten’s wife leaves him.  The wife also stands by him at first and leaves him without a word, assumed with the baby.  One would expect them to have a confrontation with him given one last chance.  The details of the molestation is vague.  Is it a rape, a kiss or something in between?   A key character, the barman named Bimbo (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who apparently knows Rebekka from the past serves no purpose in the plot.  This character is new in the film but not in the original novel.

The best performance comes from Frode Winther as the handsome villain Morten.  His good clean cut looks stresses how evil can be hidden.  Siren Jørgensen’s characterization of Rebekka is vague and is not helped by the script - her character indecisive as to whether to complete her revenge plot or not, a point that is never resolved at the end of the film.  She drives off at the end of the film leaving Morten to be discovered by Bimbo.  Did she have cold feet or did she realize that she is partly to blame for her sister’s death?  Not sure here if  Steinsbø deliberately intended Rebekka’s behaviour to be ambiguous.

In an interview with Cineuropa, Steinsbø claims she spent two years developing the script.  It does not show.  A more experienced director tightening the material might have come up with a more satisfactory suspense thriller.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5zRPQXC2gY

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Bryan Singer

From the first 15 minutes of X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, it appears that director Bryan Singer, the director of the new X-MEN movie (and the director of all the others except for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) is going all out to outdo all the other X-MEN films in terms of yes, everything.  The film begins with the first mutant born in ancient times (3600 B.C.) in Egypt.  He is none other than En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), and if that name is too difficult to remember, he is also called Apocalypse.  He is entombed.   Singer has the volume up full blast, the special effects at full throttle, 3D included, so there are tons of rocks, sharp objects and metal thrown out of the screen.  If you think Singer will give audiences a break, forget it!  The film is nonstop action, effects, noise and explosions all the way - the way an action super hero film should be.  But he also builds in the storyline (script by Simon Kinberg), so that it is not just meaningless action.

The story involves Apocalypse resurrected in 1983.  There is some humour and irony in him being disgusted by the human race ruled by weaklings.  So, he decides to take over the world and rid the world of weaklings.  This actually sounds not too bad an idea.  So Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is conned into joining him.  If Apocalypse gains the power of Professor X (James McAvoy) he can rule the world.  So, it is up to Professor X aka Charles Xavier and the good X-Men to save the day.  It is also good to see so many super heroes (or mutants) in a single movie - enough to satisfy any action fan.  And it seems that it must be a requirement to look good to be in this film.  Every male and female are drop dead gorgeous.

The action sequences especially the climax in which all the X-MEN have to join powers to destroy Apocalypse, are super well executed, much better than all the recent super hero films.  The film also works because all the actors seem to take their roles seriously.  But the oddest is Jennifer Lawrence as the blue Raven.  She looks as if she does not want to be in the film, as she is making so much money being famous right now.  She gives Professor X the kind of look: “You want to recruit me again to save the world?  I have better things to do.”

Unlike DEADPOOL, BATMAN V SUPERMAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA, Singer’s film has action segments that are imaginative and cinematically stunning.  The best of these has Quicksilver (Evan Peters) save his fellow X-Men amidst slow motion or stopped background to the song “Sweet Dreams”.  The final fight scene in which a big silver X falls from the sky would definitely draw cheers from a packed house of elated fans.  The one with Professor X’s wheelchair pulled backwards with his head tilted to the side is yet another inspirational storyboarded sequence. 

The film also contains great scenes of the world being destroyed.  The dialogue also contains lots of quotable lines like: You are no longer students, you are X-Men”, “I have never felt so much power in my life, “ etc.

APOCALYPSE costs a whopping $234 million to make.  Singer makes sure it shows.  And the results are worth it.  This is the best Super Hero Action Movie so far this year.  Let’s hope it pays off at the box-office.

Trailer: http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/x-men-apocalypse

         

BEST BETS:

Best Film Opening: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

Best Foreign: MEN & CHICKEN

Best Animation: ZOOTOPIA and ANGRY BIRDS THE MOVIE

Best Foreign Language Film: MEN & CHICKEN

Best Comedy: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Best Documentary: DARK HORSE

Best Horror: THE WITCH

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