This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 7, 2016)

06 Oct 2016

Films opening include THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, MIDDLE SCHOOL and documenatries GUN RUNNERS and OFF THE RAILS, both with African content.


DENIAL (UK/USA 2016) ***
Directed by Mick Jackson

DENIAL refers to the denial of the existence of the holocaust.  The film is a courtroom drama that contests the case. 

After historian Deborah Lipstadt (Oscar Winner Rachel Weisz, THE DEEP BLUE SEA) publishes her book on the Holocaust, she is challenged by David Irving (Timothy Spall), a once well-regarded historian.   Irving began citing the pseudoscientific Leuchter report as proof that the Holocaust was a hoax. Lipstadt explicitly labelled him a denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, and he sued her for libel.  But since the burden of proof in English libel law lies with the accused (a point very clearly stated in the film as a difference between American and British law), it bizarrely fell to Lipstadt and her legal team to demonstrate that one of the defining events of the century did indeed transpire.

There are a few reasons to see this film.  Besides extraordinary performances from the top three in the cast (See photo inset), the script is written by director and famous British playwright David Hare (THE READER and THE HOURS) which he adapted from the book by Deborah E. Lipstadt “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier”.

The villain of the piece is Irving played with evil relish by Spall epitomizing the banality of evil while gloating in all the publicity he receives.  The film also shows the amount of preparation that goes into a case, and even more for an important a case as this one.  An important fact too is the fact that a client’s trust in her solicitor is key to the winning of the case.  DENIAL is one of the rare courtroom film that shows more of the goings-on behind the scenes.

DENIAL besides being a film about the truth triumphing over lies, is also one that reveals a lot about the individuals involved in a fight.  DENIAL is all an entertaining well-shot period drama.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH7ktvUWaYo

OFF THE RAILS (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Adam Irving

OFF THE RAILS is the story of a black man who has spent a majority of his life on the NYC subway and buses.  But he is not an employee but a transit worker impersonator who has landed himself in jail 32 for criminal impersonation of NYC Subway workers, hijacking trains and buses, endangering the lives of the public and a whole lot of assorted charges.

Why make a documentary of such an unimportant person and who would want to watch a documentary on such a person?  Co-writer and director Irving makes it a point to make his documentary on Darius McCollum one of the most intriguing and entertaining documentaries that it won the prize of the top 20 Audience Popular docs at Canada’s Hot Docs Festival.

Irving has clearly done his homework.  He has assembled  everything about Darius and has shown him to be a most unfortunate victim of the U.S. system.  One cannot help but feel both pity for the man yet wanting to punish him for his deed.  But there is more…….  Darius McCollum is revealed as a man with Asperger's syndrome who cannot help himself.

A patient with Asperger’s is one who can deal with objects better than human beings.  But Irving includes two human beings that affect Darius the most.  One is his mother who is interviewed on film.  Their letters of correspondence while Darius is serving sentence are read aloud.  The other woman in his life, an immigrant from Ecuador who can hardly speak a word of English is also interviewed.  Here, the audience sees that even true love cannot alter Darius’s obsession with the NYC Transit System.

Like many a successful documentarist, Director Irvin know how to rally his audience’s emotions.  Irving has as his target the U.S. judicial system.  Darius is an unfortunate sick man who has not done anyone any harm, though it is made clear that he could have, given the opportunity.  Darius offers the police information on the weaknesses of the transit in order to better protect citizens from possible terrorist attacks on the subway.  Yet because of fear of being contacted by terrorist while incarcerated, Darius is put into solitary confinement.  His lawyer clearly states that no system would punish a man who has helped them in this way.

OFF THE RAILS is not without humour.  Irving parodies jail with the transit system.  “The doors are closing,” is heard in voiceover as the jail doors automatically close shut.  The way in which Darius manoeuvres his way around the system is quite hilarious.

OFF THE RAILS is a very thorough examination of Darius McCollum.  The origin of his sickness is shown to be catalyzed from a stabbing by a pair of scissors in school when he was a kid during a snow day.  Asperger’s experts also explain Darius’s behaviour in impersonating transit personnel and his comfort within the transit system.

An obvious solution is to have Darius hired by NYC Transit. But Transit has replied that Darius is a risk and Transit cannot have the safety of the many millions of riders lie in the hands of someone who never obeys the rule book.

OFF THE RAILS finally emerges as both an entertaining and absorbing documentary about an ordinary person with a problem.  The doc is tremendously effective because that ordinary person that is the subject in OFF THE RAILS could be any one of us.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/160158306


Directed by Tate Taylor

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is based on the best selling novel of the same name by British author Paula Hawkins.  The suspense mystery revolves around Rachel's daily trip on the train to work in London.  The film is adapted to a setting in the U.S. with the train now travelling along the Hudson.

The film and book is divided three chapters - Rachel, Meghan and Anna in that order.  It makes sense in the novel as the story is told from the three points of view of the three women.  In the film, however, it is not and while unfolding totally from Rachel's (Emily Blunt) point of view, it is told in non-chronological order, flipping back and forth from the present to 6 months ago, to 4 months ago to 2 months ago again back to the present.  The titles appear, which is really redundant and confusing.  One title of 6 months ago should suffice, with all the events now occurring in chronological order. The film's mystery is heightened artificially by these antics coupled with blurry images of Rachel's memory.

The film opens with Rachel Watson travelling on the train.  It is revealed that Rachel is an alcoholic (reason not given except perhaps to make her a sad and pitiful protagonist) who divorced her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after she caught him cheating on her.   During her daily journey,  she sees through the train window and fantasizes about the relationship of her neighbours, Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan Hipwell (last seen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). That all changes when she witnesses something from the train window and Megan goes missing and is presumed dead.

One can see the attraction of the story. It is also one of redemption - the redemption of the sad, alcoholic Rachel.  She goes to the detective (Allison Janney) with her story of what she had seen, hoping to do some good.  This of course backfires.  The story, full credit to the book, is very intriguing where truths and secrets are hidden and images are lies.  For those who like a good yarn, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN will not disappoint.  But director Taylor is unable to prevent unintentional laughs (as observed in the promo screening) during a few of the film's key scenes.

The film is aided by excellent performances, the best of which is provided by Blunt in the lead role.  Janney is also outstanding as the disbelieving detective.

But the film is totally geared towards a female target audience (i.e. film is a chick flick to put it crudely).  All the female characters are strong like the detective and those who are not, finally get it together at the end as in the characters of Rachel and Anna.  The men are all male idiots who cannot keep their dicks (the doctor, Tom and Scott) in their pants.  The actors playing them all have great bodies.  No female should complain about the eye candy.  The only male who has a good character is a fellow passenger on the train who ends up saving Rachel from two thugs when she passes out.  Even then, he is also told to "fuck off" when Rachel comes to.  Enough said about a film with main female characters in a female novel written by a female with a script adapted by a female. (The director of one of my outlets has already told me I have female issues).

The film does have a few good sinister moments.  The best is the one where a victim (not to be revealed in the review) is about to be murdered.  She is half-conscious and being pushed under the vegetation in the woods.  It is an excellent scene as she looks at her killer, knowing that she is about to die and unable to do anything.

Apart from a few over melodramatic segments, THE GIRL ONTHE TRAIN is a satisfying mystery with a credible solution with the bonus of the sad heroine’s redemption.   

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkoEE1i0CX8



GUN RUNNERS (Canada 2016) ***

Directed by Anjali Nayar

Right hot on the heels of the success story of a chess champion from Uganda in QUEEN OF KATWE, Canada’s National Film Board’s  (NFB) GUN RUNNERS follows a moving story of 2 runners from Kenya.

The GUN RUNNERS refer to the mostly police-wanted warriors, running for their lives.  They are cattle rustlers who have used guns to kill while hiding in the bush.  For years, Julius Arile and Robert Matanda thrive among the roaming bands of warriors that terrorize the North Kenyan countryside.   By the time they reach their mid-twenties, stealing cattle, raiding and running from the police is the only life they know.  So when both warriors suddenly disappear from the bush, many of their peers assume they are dead or have been arrested.  Instead, they trade in their rifles for sneakers, part of a governmental peace program, in the hopes of making it big as professional marathon runners. Years of fleeing from the police have prepared the men for running marathon distances, but the film asks if they have what it takes to overcome the corruption, mistrust and jealousy that threaten to derail their careers and whether they will give up on their dreams and return to a life of crime.

But as one coach of the runners in the training camp aptly puts it: “Some people walk over the boulevard of broken dreams, and they still try,” and the voiceover in the middle of the film goes on:  “Only a few runners make money and yet much fewer make more money.”

The film suffers from repetition.  The fact that previous criminals are offered a chance is repeated time and again.  The concentration of the film on just two runners, Arile and Matambe limits a larger outlook at the system.

The film feels like a documentary as the real Julius Arile and real Robert Matanada play themselves in the film while also talking to the camera at times.  The film could also exist as a non-fiction biographical film with two actors playing he 2 runners.

The film picks up when the human element is intruded a third through the film.  The audience suddenly learns that his first wife is broke and the kids have not gone to school.  His third wife is shown.  She and Arile met in running camp.  The two have much in common.  They share the common dream of most human beings - to be able to live in love together.

The film also shows some of the stunning landscapes that make Africa a beautiful place, like its green vegetation, even the barren brown lands.  The sight of hundred of young Africans running a race to pick the best is also quite a sight to behold.

GUN RUNNERS makes a welcome change from the awful sweetness of the crowd pleasing QUEEN OF KATWE.  The film is actually two stories in one.  The closing credits inform the audience what Arile and Matambe are doing at present after their story in the film ends.  (Robert Mataambe has passed away in the year 2016.)

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-Ki5FewD94



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