This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 23, 2016)

28 Sep 2016

Films opening include THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, QUEEN OF KATWE and the Korean hit AGE OF SHADOWS.



THE AGE OF SHADOWS (South Korea 2016) ***1/2

Directed by Kim Jee Woon

THE AGE OF SHADOWS (original title SECRET AGENT) marks the second hugely successful patriotic South Korean film released this summer.  The first OPERATION CHROMITE was far too serious failing to convince audiences with its plausible plot despite having Liam Neeson as General McArthur in the cast.  THE AGE OF SHADOWS is a much better film because it improves in the credibility department.

Asian patriotic films are often a problem with western audiences.  For one, westerners are unfamiliar with Asian history such as the Japanese/South Korean conflict in this film.  Asian patriotic films are often confusing.  This one is a little at the start, and runs a little too long (2 hours and 20 minutes) for its own good. 

THE AGE OF SHADOWS thankfully, contains lots of intrigue, like the best of spy movies.  The beginning segment has an exciting chase amidst rooftops that ends dramatically with the victim’s big toe being taken off.

If one wishes to complain that audiences may be aloof at the film’s historical content, there is a full torture scene with a red hot iron that will will make anyone wince.

A crucial portion of the plot involves Captain Lee (Song Kang Ho from THE HOST), initially a spy for the Japanese switching to the Korean side.  A fair amount of screen time is devoted to this important subplot.  Captain Lee is shown with the Resistance Leader drinking a whole barrel of liquor before taken night fishing.  Important words are exchanged: “You can’t trust words; you can only trust in deeds…..To which side (country) will you write your history?… etc,” do the trick efficiently.

As for espionage suspense, the train sequence is one of the best that even Hitchcock will be proud off.  The Resistance fighters are on board carrying the explosives, followed by the Japanese and Captain Lee who has jet switched sides with the Resistance.  As the Resistance changes plans, the new plans are immediately known as there is a rat among them.  Included is a standoff that ends with a shoot out in the train carriages with the wind blowing right through the train’s broken windows.

One problem this film might incur is its inherent racism. Besides the Koreans played as good looking (the men) and pretty (the women), the Japanese are portrayed as evil and creepy.  The torture segment would be deemed too effective that it might incur more hatred by the Koreans towards the Japanese.

Of all the actors, supporting actor Tae-Goo Um stands out as the super creepy (complete with pencil-thin moustache, crooked nose and over high cheek bones) Japanese agent ordered to bring in the Resistance.  His tongue-in-cheek performance perfectly compliments Song’s seriousness as Captain Lee.

The film also benefits from an authentic period atmosphere together with costumes and vintage cars, trains  and other props.  The landscape of the Korean countryside also adds to the film’s rugged beauty.

THE AGE OF SHADOWS emerges as a film several notches up from OPERATION CHROMITE.  Despite a non-white cast, the film should appeal more to western audiences as well.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iII68QCGEDo

THE GIRL KING (Sweden/France/Canada/Germany/Finland 2015) ***
Directed by Maki Kaurismaki

Though one might initially shrug at a costume period film on European royalty, this true story of a queen from age 6 might instead, turn heads.  THE GIRL KING paints a portrait of the brilliant, extravagant Kristina of Sweden.  She fights the conservative forces that are against her ideas to modernize Sweden as she begins her sexual awakening and her love for women.  The film is also a Canadian co-production that went on two win two awards at the 2015 Montreal World Film Festival - for Best Actress Malin Buska in the lead role and for the most Popular Canadian First feature.

Maki Kaurismaki (Aki’s older brother) introduces certain controversial segments that question whether they actually happen.  One of these is the one in which Descartes is summoned to Queen Kristina’s court to perform an incision from the brain (open surgery) where he removes what he claims is the seat of a man’s soul.  It is a gruesome scene where many of the court leave and also one that will make many an audience wince.

Kaurismaki shows the two sides of Queen Kristina - her strong willed side as well as her weak one.  The audience will both take her side and the side against her at different points in the film.  Her romance with the countess (Canada’s own Sarah Gadon) is displayed less than a love story than Kristina’s weakness leading to her downfall.

Kaurismaki’s GIRL KING is not the first film made on the controversial Queen Kristina.

Besides several stage productions, the most famous was Greta Garbo’s portrayal in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 classic  QUEEN CHRISTINA which totally ignored her gay romance with her lady-in-waiting.  Given the modernity and freedom of today’s times, THE GIRL KING is the most open in the gay treatment of the material, including a scene with a roll in the bed.

But Kaurismaki’s film surprisingly lacks real drama, despite many dramatic confrontations the best being the one between Kristina and her mother.  But most of the film often feels like history lesson, bumped up a bit with emotions that do not affect the audience.

During the Coronation speech when Queen Kristina is opposed after she quotes French philosopher Rene Descartes and imposes peace for the sake of learning, her Counsellor stands up and declares ; “This is Queen Kristina, and when she speaks, she commands!”  But she is often opposed by the court and does not always get her way.  The end of the film has titles that heard her victory in achieving academia for Sweden, tough how this come about is not explained.  The only thing she did was to bring philosopher Descartes to her court.

THE GIRL KING is one of Kaurismaki’s most dramatic features.  He as a credit of 35 directorial films.  His other films have been slight and mostly forgettable.  Though not in any means the best 10 films of the year, THE GIRL KING is a worthy effort and will well be remembered as one of Maki Kaurismaki’s better films.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxL0S78DZfc


Directed by Mira Nair


The film is based on the book entitled “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” by Tim Crothers.  The title itself tells exactly what is going to happen in the Disney film - Disney Studios the one being most famous for making formulaic films.  Do we need then to watch this movie?

Apparently a lot of people think so.  QUEEN OF KATWE has already been selected to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and the London Film Festival later in November.  

QUEEN OF KATWE is directed by Indian American Mira Nair.  She is an odd choice for the job having taken on controversial projects like THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST.  But she has directed crowd pleasers like MISSISSIPPI MASALA and SALAAM BOMBAY!  The public will likely be quite pleased with QUEEN OF KATWE as Nair hits as many right notes as she can in this biographical sports drama.

For sports dramas where the sport involved is football or soccer or boxing, whoever watching the game knows what is happening and who might be winning. The same cannot be said for chess.  Even at the crucial moment of a checkmate, by looking at the pieces on the board, no one can tell what is happening.  This is a challenge for the director who needs to incite excitement in the game.  This is achieved in one vey funny part when one character asks another during a match.  “What does it mean?”  The answer is jubilantly shouted: “It means she is winning!”

The film begins in 2011 when Phiona is playing in the chess championships.  The rest of the film is told mainly in flashback - how Phiona has reached this point in her life and the film carries on from here.

Once can hardly complain about Nair’s direction or William Wheeler’s script.  The film is thorough to include everything that an underdog has to go through to become a champion.  The girl Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her family are evicted form her home; Phiona comes into conflict with her uneducated mother (Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o) who understands little of the importance of education; she loses an important game; she learns humility etc. etc. etc.  By the time the film gets to the last reel with the climatic crucial chess game, the story has stretched out far too long.  But for many who love getting their right buttons pushed. QUEEN OF KATWE will likely have them reaching for their tissues.   David Oyelowo plays her coach Robert Katende, who always has the right advice for everyone and cannot do the wrong thing.

The best and most important part of the film is the one in which Phiona grows too proud after winning a game and decides she is too special to wash the vegetables for her mother.  Her mother pulls her out of bed in the important scene screaming that maybe Phiona needs her feet washed as well.

The film ends well with each actor standing beside the real character their portrayed.  There are no photos here, real people with real actors.

The film will be screened with in conjunction with a delightful and inventive animated short called INNER WORKINGS (director Leo Matsuda) - a sort of alternative take on INSIDE OUT.   Running just over 5 minutes., this terribly funny film outshines QUEEN OF KATWE.  But QUEEN won the runner-up prize for the People’s Choice Award at the recent TIFF.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4l3-_yub5A

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

This 2016 version that opened the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is a western film remade from John Sturges’s successful 1960 version that itself was a remake of the 1955 Samurai film called SEVEN SAMURAI by Akira Kurosawa.  Those who have seen either of the remakes know that either one was much superior.  But Fuqua’s updated version is true to its source, still fun and pays loyal homage to the classic western in every department.

The story, simple enough is one that most are familiar with.  A band of 7 misfits are recruited to save a town from an evil land baron.  They succeed with some losses no doubt.  The original 7 spawned a sequel and this one should as well, as this film seems destined to be a hit, helped by the fact that there is no competing action film out right now.

THE MAGNIFICENT 7 are played by: 

Denzel Washington as Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter, the leader of the Seven

Chris Pratt as Josh Farraday, a gambler with a fondness for explosives

Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, a sharpshooter

Vincent D'Onofrio as Jack Horne, a tracker

Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks, an assassin[9]

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, a Mexican outlaw

Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior

The cast is excellent though a few like 2-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has nothing much to do but grit his teeth.  Director Fuqua has directed both Washington and Hawke before in TRAINING DAY and it is of no surprise that they play the two lead characters in the story, though the dullest of the 7.  The most interesting of the 7 are the asian characters, Red Harvest who eats a raw heart and Billy Rock a Japanese with a hidden history though played by a Korean star.

Peter Sarsgaard plays the main villain Bartholomew Bogue, a corrupt industrialist well enough for an audience to hiss and boo at him.

For all that this remake is worth, Fuqua appears apt at setting up the action set-pieces, right from the very first scene when the town is taken over by Bogue.   The mid-section when the 7 rid the town of Bogue’s men and the final showdown are all expertly setup from the camera angles, to the close-ups, to the fights right down to the way the sun shines through the camera lenses (cinematography by Mauro Fiore), as is seen so often during the old westerns.  The screen also saturates to red like the old 60’s credits of the spaghetti westerns.

Just as the confrontational shootout at the climax is riddled with bullets, the film is also riddled with cliches.  When Robicheaux is reprimanded by Chisolm after turning chicken and taking off the night before, one knows he is going to show up the next day to help the fight.  When another Red Indian is shown as one of Bogue’s new recruits, he and Red Harvest will face off in a hand-to-hand combat fight.  The Mexican and the gambler throwing insults at each other will end up saving each other’s lives.  And the villain and the hero, Bogue an Chisolm eventually meet for a gunfight draw in the true western tradition.

Fans of westerns will not be disappointed with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.  The only surprise in the movie is that the entire film, directed by Fuqua has only one black character, throne played by Washington.

There is no credit mention of Sturges’s MAGNIFICENT SEVEN  or Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI in the end credits though Elmer Berstein is credited with his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN score which was used in Fuqua’s film.  But the film is dedicated to James Horner, who partly did the music for the film and passed away before the film’s completion.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anyMa2gN6uw


TRANSPECOS (USA 2016) ***1/2

Directed by Greg Kwedar

Co-written and directed by Greg Kwedar, this thriller/drama has the odd setting of the desert surrounding a makeshift U.S./Mexican border control post.  It begins as a drama about the three stationed patrol agents that turns into a thriller once trouble starts.  The set-up seems so ideal for a superb thriller that one wonders why no other filmmaker has ever made a film with this setting.

The film stars three excellent unknown actors  Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, and Clifton Collins, Jr. as border patrol agents Benjamin Davis, Lances Flores and Lou Hobbs respectively.  The film begins with the three buddying around, making jokes about their job and talking trash.  It is a good way to start the film where the audience is introduced to the 3 characters.  It turns out that Hobbs is the senior no-nonsense guard, willing to put everything into the job.  Davis is the youngest and most immature while Flores the most level-headed.  It is Flores that the story concentrates on.    Gabriel Luna is nothing short of perfect in his role as Flores and the film succeeds primarily from his performance.  Luna is able to bring the audience at any time to tears or to draw them to the subject at hand.

The trouble in paradise starts when a car is stopped by Hobbs.  The car is carrying a hidden stash of cocaine and in the process of stopping the car, Hobbs is wounded by Davis.  The driver of the car is shot and killed.  It is revealed that Davis is in with the drug smuggling as the drug cartel has his family at ransom.  “They know everything,” Davis tells Flores, “even when my sister goes to the grocery store.”   But how Davis got into trouble with the cartel is not revealed.  Though it does not really affect the rest of the film, one is still curious to know.  Now, Davis pulls out his gun on Hobbs and Flores and decides to do the drop off off the cocaine himself to protect himself and his family.  But Flores has to deal with both the wounded Hobbs while trying to save his buddy Davis.

It appears to be a lose-lose situation.  There is no way out, with jail appearing to be the best alternative and the cartel killing them to be the worst scenario.

The rest of the film has the two of them, Flores and Davis dealing with the cartel.  Though TRANSPECOS is not an action film, the necessary action segments are accomplished with sufficient expertise.

The desert setting is used to its full potential.  The most beautiful segment, courtesy of Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron has Flores crawling up a hill of sand silhouetted by the sun, his body shown in shadows.  The segment in which the Hobbs is brought to an old Mexican medicine woman deserves mention.  It brings the culture and beliefs of the people of the area into the picture completing the atmosphere of the story.

The film works best as a character study of patrol guards in the desert setting. It succeeds less as a suspense film trying to sort out a solution.  But as an absorbing film in which the audience can identify with its characters, TRANSPECOS definitely succeeds with full marks.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osD5DjWnLXE


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