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

18 Aug 2016

This week sees the release of three highly recommended films.  They are WAR DOGS, LA TETE HAUTE and HELL OR HIGH WATER.  All 3 should not be missed.

FILM REVIEWS:

EDGE OF WINTER (BACKCOUNTRY) (Canada/USA 2016) **
Directed by Rob Connolly

This wintry thriller written by Kyle Mann and Rob Connolly and directed by the latter is a suspensor set in the cold snow and ice of the Canadian winter.  The original title BACKCOUNTRY has been changed, probably not to be confused with a film with the same title about survival in the cold country two years ago.

Elliot Baker (Joel Kinnaman) seizes the chance to develop a better relationship with his sons, Bradley (Tom Holland) and Caleb (Percy Hynes White) when his ex-wife, Karen (Rachelle Lefevre) and her new husband take a vacation and leave the boys with him.  What starts as a bonding opportunity turns into a nightmarish adventure when they get stranded in a deserted cabin near the lake as night falls and a snowstorm rages. Bradley, 15, and Caleb, 12, quickly learn more about their father and what they truly mean to him in this gripping tale of family and survival.

There are three reasons to see this film - all of them being the film’s actors.  The first is Joel Kinnaman, in his role as the psychotic father.  Kinnaman is the Swede star of hits like EASY MONEY and the recent SUICIDE SQUAD, is a real dreamboat, but sports a scruffy, outdoorsy look here.  Another is Tom Holland’s portrayal of Bradley, the elder son.  Holland is the new Spider-man, a name destined to be among the world’s rising stars.  Third is the younger brother of Kiefer, Rossif Sutherland who has a small role as Luc, an intruder.  

The film has a few genuine scary moments, like the ones where the sons are locked up by their father in the room of the cabin.  They take the floorboards apart and the younger has to search for an alternative exit in the dark from below.  But these moments are too few and far between.  Most of the plot falls into predictability territory.  Is the father really crazy?  So, does the father becomes a threat rather than a help?   The boys now have to fend themselves against psychotic father - nothing too original here.  The script hints at the point the father turns crazy, as the part when he realizes that he may be separated by the boys for good as the boys’ new family is moving to another city.  Some dialogue like the lines when Bradley tries to convince the father that they can live together in the woods and caring for each other, is quite lame and unbelievable.

The night scenes in the snow in the woods are unbelievably bright in order for the characters to be seen.  Otherwise the chilly wintry atmosphere is quite convincing.

The segment where a son falls through the ice is well shot and should provides a few thrills.

At one point in the film the father warns his sons: “Do you have any idea what could happen out here?’  The audience would likely be able to guess all the answers.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_El-zhWD3io

HELL OR HIGH WATER (USA 2016) ****

Directed by David MacKenzie

The term HELL OR HIGH WATER is the phrase used in contracts that demand payment regardless.  It is also the title of the new film directed by David MacKenzie (ASYLUM and his last excellent film STARRED UP) and brilliantly written by Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO), the script of which won the 2012 Black List of Screenplays.

The film begins with an exciting bank robbery.  The bank is robbed by two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and the recently out-of-jail Tanner (Ben Foster).  It is a case of Good Crook, Bad Crook variation of Good Cop, Bad Cop.  Toby, the good crook needs the money for payments on the house his children has inherited from his recently deceased mother.  Toby is separated from his wife and children.  The payments must be made HELL OR HIGH WATER or Toby will lose much, much more as the property is spouting oil.

The film does not have one main protagonist but three.  Toby appears to be the main one, but his volatile brother and the retiring ranger after them are also given due attention.  Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is the most interesting of the three, a wise-cracking, gruff and smart veteran who constantly cracks racist jokes at his indian deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham).  The film could very well be another version of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

The film is well performed by everyone especially Bridges who turns out an Oscar Winning performance.  His mannerisms and drawl fit perfectly his character of an aging, fed-up law enforcer.  Chris Pine proves he can do more than Captain Kirk in STAR TREK.

MacKenzie knows how to create excitement.  The camera is placed, for example in the getaway car, all jittery but capturing the desperation of escaping the cops.  The shootout scene at the end of the film is also meticulously staged.  The film also contains a superb climax - a verbal showdown between Toby and Marcus.  The music by Australian actor, singer song-writer Nick Cave is a pleasure, also adding atmosphere and mood to the film.  The film is interspersed with his songs.

The film was originally titled Comancheria.  The reason can be seen in one of the film’s best written and key scene when Tanner confronts a comanche in a casino.  Comanche means ‘enemy of everyone’, the comanche tells Tanner.  “Then I am one,” he retorts.  “An enemy?” asks the comanche angrily.  “No, a comanche.”  The description of Tanner’s character is spot on, Tanner being a volatile man who cannot get along with anyone, less his brother and has been in prison in and out a couple of times.  Another scene, which is so funny that has to be seen to be believed is the age old waitress who serves the ranger and his deputy in a restaurant asking, “What can’t I get you?”   The film and script is full of inventive surprises and smart humour, which adds on to the plot.

The story also bears a truth about human beings.  If you ask most people what the main goal or aim in life of a man is, the ultimate answer is to see their children do at least as well or better than them.  For Toby, whose only expert advice he can give his son is: “Do not be like me,”  the one way he can be a good father and satisfy his goal in life is to provide for his two sons by making final payment on the house before disclosure by the bank.

Director MacKenzie has made an excellent film on a well written script with prized dialogue.   It is good to see that he could do the same for a script without dialogue as in the case of his last film, STARRED UP,  where the dialogue in heavy accent need not be understood for the film to be appreciated.

HELL OR HIGH WATER premiered at Cannes at Un Certain Regard.  It is an excellent entertaining and rewarding film hat comes highly recommended.  And the film gets my vote for Best Original Script this year.

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

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (USA 2016) ***1/2

Directed by Travis Knight

While watching KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, the film brought back grand memories of one of my favourite animated features that my parents took me to as a child - ALAKAZAM THE GREAT.  The first Japanese anime film to be released in the U.S., the film featured a monkey and a journey with friends in two, similar to KUBO and a journey to complete a quest.  KUBO and his protectors journey to find a magical suit of armour to prevent him losing his other eye.

Travis Knight’s film reminds the audience in the very first 15 minutes how far animation has come.  The first scene has mother and Kubo in a tiny vessel in the high seas amidst a storm.  Water could not be animated in the earlier days.  Now, it can with the aid of CGI.  Following is a scene with mother and son by a fire - again fire being impossible to animate in the days of stop motion animation.  The figures in KUBO are also a 3-rendition of the characters compared to 2-D.  The facial expressions of the characters - the smiles and frowns also make a difference.  The animation of KUBO is noticeably stunning though the film faces really stiff competition from Disney and Pixar.  Still, credit should be given to the animators.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS is set in Ancient Japan.  An eyepatch-wearing young boy named Kubo, voiced by Art Parkinson (he has lost one eye) cares for his sick mother, who is also suffering from alzheimer’s in a village.  A spirit from the past turns Kubo's life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta.  This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armour once worn by his late father, a legendary Samurai warrior.   He also gains a few allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).  Actress Brenda Vaccaro ( long absent in films, rendered most famous in MIDNIGHT COWBOY) makes a welcome return as the voice of Kameyo.

Knight’s film has the feel of a fairy tale.  There is magic, a journey, a quest, ghosts and demons.  Who does not like a well-told fairy tale?  But the journey part with Kubo and his two protectors is a bit too long for comfort.  The climax which involves a feel-good, do the most for the goodness of mankind, is a bit too sappy.  But the exotic Japanese atmosphere adds to the mystique of the story.

The film has scary scenes, the scariest being the underwater segment that might be too much for the littler ones.  The fight scenes are also a bit too violent.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS inevitably succeeds in entertaining because of its originality.  It is hard to beat Disney's animation, but this originality is sill a worthwhile effort.

From Laika Studios who also made CORALINE, PARANORMAN and THE BOXTROLLS.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4-6qJzeb3A

LA TETE HAUTE (STANDING TALL) (France 2015) ****

Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot

LA TETE HAUTE follows, for a large portion, the same filming style as the Cannes winner Laurent Cantet’s ENTRE LES MURS (THE CLASSROOM) and the more recent Stephanie Brize’s LA LOI Du MARCHE (MEASURE OF A MAN).  All three turn out to be fascinating films, real life dramas suited to this kind of filming technique.  The filming often has the camera stationed in a set-up in which a confrontation occurs.  The actors have their role plays and they go at it, ensemble-style.  The result is a compelling watch, with a more realistic feel as the scene looks totally unscripted, though it may not be.  The camera focuses primarily on the actors, often with closeups on the reactions of dialogue that take place.  The Dardenne Brothers attain an identical realism with a different technique, often placing the camera at neck level of the actors and following them closely around.  LA TETE HAUTE occasionally feels like a Dardennes film since the protagonist is a kid, as kids are frequently the subjects in a Dardennes film.  It would to be surprising if Bercot herself got some inspiration from Dardennes’ LE FILS another film about a delinquent boy.

Bercot allows the audience to root for the hot-tempered delinquent called Malony (Rod Paradot).  Who would not like to see someone progress through the system and improve to be a functional citizen?  But Bercot shows that the process is long and difficult but not impossible.  Bercot (who co-wrote the script) attributes more effort by those helping the boy than put in by the boy himself.  As the adage goes: “It takes a village to rear a child.”

Besides the boy, the supporting characters are all equally interesting.  The mother, who is herself a delinquent, loses her two younger boys to social services.  The boy’s councillor was himself a delinquent, younger on and got this job believing in the system.  And there is the judge, magnificently played by Deneuve with all her regality.   The scene in which she stretches out her hand to the boy in both desperation and sympathy is the film’s most touching moment.

But director Bercot takes her film one step further.  She inserts more incidents than are normally found in a family drama.  Included is a car crash, expertly shot and a home abduction. 

There is much change the boy goes through, but these changes must be observed by the viewer.  Malony is shown for once in a very vulnerable state crying for his mother when placed in prison for the first time.  The way he holds the pencil to sign his name at the judge’s office shows progress from the way he held a pen with his fist at the start of the film.  It can also be observed that most of the characters, the councillor and judge are also victims of the system.  They have to work the system, just like the boy to each’s own advantage.  There is much to be observed and learnt from Bercot’s film.  That is what makes it so outstanding.  It is a film about life and hardship - and how everyone faces his or her own at one time or another.

It is seldom that we get good French films these days.  Cinefranco is gone.  The number of French films that are commercially released has been reduced.  This winner, that was chosen to open Cannes this year (the last time a French film opened Cannes was in 2005, Dominik Moll’s LEMMING that never got released here).  It is a surprise and indeed good news that LA TETE HAUTE is released and before TIFF.  The film comes highly recommended.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bd_Wlnn7Qo0

 

UNLOCKING THE CAGE (USA 2015) ***

Directed by  D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Do animals have certain rights as humans?  Animals are caged and cannot argue their way out.  The same can be said for the inhuman way chicken and cattle are reared for food.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE closely follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans.  After 30 years of struggling with ineffective animal welfare laws, Steve and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), are making history by filling the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a "thing" with no rights to a "person" with legal protections.

Supported by affidavits from primatologists around the world, Steve maintains that, based on scientific evidence, cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights (such as bodily liberty) that would protect them from physical abuse.  Using writs of habeas corpus (historically used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), Wise argues on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State.

The film spends a considerable amount of time trying to convince the audience of the supposedly monumental shift in our culture, as the public and judicial system show increasing receptiveness to Steve's impassioned arguments.  It is an intimate look at a lawsuit that could forever transform out legal system, and one man's lifelong quest to protect "nonhuman" animals.  But he audience gets the point quite wary without the idea having to be constantly drummed into the audience.

There is nothing really wrong with this well intentioned documentary that achieves its aim of what it is supposed to do - which is to inform and to rally up people for animal rights and more.  But being so straight forward, it is quite a boring doc tailing the activists from start to finish.  There is more anger generated in the many other documentaries about abuse of other animals like sharks (for their fins), dolphins and other animals.  UNLOCKING THE CAGE, though moving at times, is tame in comparison.

UNLOCKING THE CAGE had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016 and its Canadian Premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in May 2016.  It will open in Toronto on August 19th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The opening night screening in Toronto will be followed by a Q & A session with Steven Wise, via Skype, moderated by Canada’s first animal rights lawyer, Lesli Bisgould.

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

 

WAR DOGS (USA 2016) ****
Directed by Todd Phillips

If you enjoyed the hectic style championed by Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and David O. Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE and JOY, then you can expect more of the same in Todd Phillips’  (ROAD TRIP, THE HANGOVER films) WAR DOGS.  WAR DOGS is a black hilarious no holds-barred type comedy, farcical, loud and into-ones-face.  Not every topic is suited to this kind of treatment.  The hectic pace of Wall Street traders, the madness of the falling real estate market and the rise in fame of an inventive mop heiress made perfect subjects.  WAR DOGS deals with two 20-somethings striking it rich with arms dealing through the internet with dangerous wheeling and dealing - again a perfect subject.  Director Phillips graduates to his first serious comedy after apprenticeship in madcap nonsense comedies like THE HANGOVER.  And WAR DOGS, surprisingly is both a fantastic entertaining comedy and a farce on the American military arms sourcing.

The film is aided by the performances of two terrific young actors - Jonah Hill, twice Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actor (MONEYBALL and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) and Miles Teller, best known for THE DIVERGENT series and who has proven his acting mettle in WHIPLASH.  Hill is expert as portraying smart and crazy while making his dislikable character likeable and one to be somewhat admired.  Not many actors can achieve this feat.  Teller carries the other lead role confidently, proving himself to be one of the the hottest actors with talent.  The film is told from David’s point of view, with him narrating the entire film.

The film follows two arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller), who get a government contract to supply weapons for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  The film is heavily fictionalized and dramatized.

The story is based on true events, but events so crazy, they have to be seen to be believed.     But a key segment, the drive through Iraq (the triangle of death) depicted in the film never actually happened.  Their first major job runs into trouble when the guns are stuck in Jordan.  They solve their problem while Teller keeps the arms dealing a secret from his wife Iz (Ana de Armas).  When this problem is solved, they hit another huge project.  They enlist the aid of a mysterious American, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper, who co-produced the film). The family scenes with David and Iz tone down the madness and put all the mayhem into perspective.

It is difficult to imagine how the film would have gone if the original actors Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were hired.  But I would rather see Teller than Eisenberg who is now over-exposed with too many films already (CAFE SOCIETY, NOW YOU SEE ME).  LaBeouf is too crazy and Hill brings a needed maturity to the role.

The company formed is called AEY, the letters not meaning anything.  When told that IBM stands for International Business Machine by an employee, Effraim fires the guy in disgust claiming that only geeks know this fact.  Phillips sets up this entire scene (running 5 - 10 minutes) for this one joke.  But he funniest scene is the one where the two attend a military meeting totally stoned out of their minds,

Phillips intersperses the film with titles/sayings and there are about 5 of them.  (Examples: When does telling the truth ever helped anybody?  God bless Dick Cheney’s America.)  The neat thing is that a character would ultimately utter the exact saying out in the segment.

A puzzling point in the film is Henry Girard thanking David for not exposing him in the Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson.  If that is true, how come his character exists in the movie?

WAR DOGS is smart, funny and edgy entertainment.  It marks a brilliant debut from Todd Phillips who now proves himself a talented director to watch.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwh9c_E3dJk

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