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This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 13, 2017)

12 Jan 2017

Lots of new openings this week to satisfy every taste from weird documentary (BUGS) to period gangster (LIVE BY NIGHT) to family film (MONSTER TRCUKS).  or you can c]still catch the festive films that are still playing.

 

20th CENTURY WOMEN (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Mike Mills

Mike Mills hit it big with his coming out movie BEGINNERS based on his father who came out of the closet at the age of 75.  Mills continues his personal films with 20th CENTURY WOMEN based on his upbringing by both his mother and her sister.  The film has clout since, it is based on his life.  This is a heart felt feature.

The story is set in 1979, Santa Barbara, California.  Single mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning) seeks the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).  Abbie and Julie rent the rooms upstairs of Dorothea’s house.

Despite the film title, 20the CENTURY WOMEN is not solely about women.  It is also about a boy being brought up by three women, only because the mother deems she needs help in his upbringing.  So, the film should cater to a male audience though the ads and trailer do not make this point known.  It is quite clear where the film is leading.  Not only is the boy learning from the women, but the women are slowly influenced by the boy - by the boy’s reactions and deeds.

Mills demonstrates that minimal dialogue can also be used to highlight the drama in a confrontation scene.  This is evident in the one where the boys argues with his mother after she chastises him on the ‘choking stinge’.  The boy just walks away.  The tactic of not using lengthy flowery arguments or screaming matches heighten the credibility of the story.

Mill’s film emphasizes details the characters indulge in that help the audience understand them.  Dorothea smokes like a chimney - because it is stylish.  But she smokes Salem menthols believing the harm is reduced.  Julie sleeps with Jamie, sneaking into this room each night, but there do not indulge in sex.

A lot of effort seems to be put into the hairdo of the characters.  Jamie and his mother have very curly hair while Abbie and daughter Julie noticeably straight hair.  Abbie’s red hair symbolizes her desire to be different as she is.

The film is put into perspective by titles as well as Jamie’s voiceover.  Still, one wonders where the film is leading to, and whether there is some hidden message.

Annette Bening shines in her role as the unsure mother.  I am not really a Bening fan as she usually undertakes roles of unlikeable women like in AMERICAN BEAUTY and RUNNING WITH SCISSORS.  But this sympathetic role suits her.  Elle Fanning has been taking roles of and doing well with weird characters lately (LIVE BY NIGHT and THE NEON DEMON) and her role in this film will add to the list.

It would be interesting to see what kind of film Mills will be involved with next - after he has used up all the stories in his family and personal life.

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

BUGS (Denmark/Netherlands/France/Germany 2016) ***
Directed by Andreas Johnsen

According to the United Nations, insects will be a future part of the human diet.  This creepy statement seems sufficient for filmmaker Andreas Johnsen to create an entire documentary on the subject called BUGS.

This is not the first time a film has been made of disgusting consumption.  In a recent documentary on water, the film documented how sewage water could be treated and rebottled into drinkable water - in order to provide a solution to the dwindling world supply of water.  The trouble is that no country would knowingly drink the new bottled water except for only one country (Singapore, where I come from) which was educated into acceptance.  In the often fascinating BUGS, the problem is different.  Though the population of the world is rapidly increasing, the United Nations do not anticipate any shortage of food.  The problem comes from marketing and the distribution, especially to famine-prone lands.  As such the magic question then, is why the need to eat BUGS?

The question is answered but finally at the end of the film.

In the meantime, BUGS follows, for the past three years the team from Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab made up of chefs and researchers Josh Evans and Ben Reade.  When Reade leaves, Roberto Flores comes on board.  The team travels the world to learn what some of the two billion people who already eat insects have to say.  It is simply fascinating to watch them forage, farm, cook and taste insects with communities in Europe, Australia, Mexico, Kenya, Japan and beyond.  During their journey they encounter everything from revered termite queens (described as God’s own sausage) and desert-delicacy honey ants to venomous giant hornets and long-horned grasshoppers trapped using powerful floodlights, that sometimes cause their catchers temporary blindness.  The immediate question that comes to mind is whether the food tasters get any food poisoning.  The matter is brought up later on in the film.  But the case of getting sick occurs infrequently.  Reade claims that it is more unnatural to eat a burger that could come from a dozen cows than to eat insects that are purely natural.

The film’s two best scenes are as gross as they are fascinating.  The one where a queen termite is roasted on a tin pan and then its abdomen cut up like a sausage  and served with a fork on a plate with greens and manage sauce will be quite revolting as the scene where flies are allowed to infect cheese being cured.  The cured cheese is cut open, with the maggots squirming everywhere in the fromage.  Reade is first to put the maggots into his mouth to taste, despite him complaining of the stench.

The film has the feel that it has insufficient material or research despite the fact that the film was shot around the world.  One problem is that the entire weight of the project of bug food is primarily looked upon from the points of view of only two people (Reade and Evans) young as they are.  Reade is the more vocal one while Evans the more attractive.  A weak reason dismisses the disappearance of Reade from the last part of the movie.  

The relevance of the film hinges on the need for insects to be eaten in the future.  Evans delivers a concluding speech at the film’s climax.  Unfortunately, the argument is not very convincing.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/162505800

LIVE BY NIGHT (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Ben Affleck

Ben Afflecks’s fourth film (after ARGO, THE TOWN and GONE BABY GONE) is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane which like BURN,BABY, BURN is a novel that contains a lot of plot.  But LIVE BY NIGHT contains too much plot dealing with as many issues as there are plot turns.  Unfortunately, Affleck’s script is unable to cope and the film fails despite worthy efforts. 

Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the story follows Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the prodigal son of a Boston police captain (Brendan Gleeson).  Joe is a World War I veteran of Irish decent who is in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of the notorious gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), the boss of the Irish Gang of Boston.  Joe's father disapproves of Emma.  Joe and Emma decide to move to California escaping the wrath of White, but to their misfortune the head of Albert's rival Italian Mafia Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) finds out about their affair and blackmails Joe to kill Albert.  The story goes on, leading Joe to finally work for Maso and rising in the ranks.  Success comes with a price with a lot of casualties in the process.

The best thing about LIVE BY NIGHT are its impeccable performances.  Gleeson at his growling best, plays Joe’s chief of police, who unfortunately dies 20 minutes into the film.  The gap, fortunately is filled by Chris Cooper as Irving Figgis, another chief of police, who is as pious as he is crazy.  The other supporting cast members are uniformly good from Matthew Maher (as a creepy Ku Klax Klan member) and Anthony Michael Hall as an overconfident lackey for a crime boss.

Affleck’s script is all over the place and tries to handles too many issues like father/son relationship; romance; crime; good vs. evil; racism and loss of innocence just to name a few.  The dialogue also includes a fair amount of ‘f’ words including the ‘mother f” words that are out of place in a film set in the roaring twenties.  

The handsome mounted production from the vintage cars (in the robbery car chase) to the wardrobe, music and props make the film a memorable period piece.  Affleck dresses himself very sharply, always in pressed white suits and hat.

As the story deals with war between crime families, LIVE BY NIGHT will inevitably be compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s GODFATHER films.  Joe keeps his criminal activities from his wife, Gracilea (Zoe Saldana) reminiscent of how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) hid his crime duties from his wife played by Diane Keaton.  This is when one can detect the inferiority of of LIVE BY NIGHT.  The power and bite are just not there.

LIVE BY NIGHT is well paced with a good speed in the first third of the film.  The varying pace from the highly edited car chase to the slow paced meeting a a tea shop between Joe and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fannng).

The film also contains dialogue with heavy Irish accent (from Gleesona nd Miller) which is occasionally hard to understand.

The film could have done with some script doctoring.  Affleck taking the co-producing, writing, directing and lead acting duties has obviously got his plate full in this $65 million production.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtFZcAuH-qI

MONSTER TRUCKS (USA 2015) *

Directed by Chris Wedge

A monster truck is a vehicle (usually a pickup truck) that has been modified with a larger suspension and larger tires so as to compete in shows and mud bogs.  While vacationing in New Brunswick years back, I was taken to a mud bog.  It was the most boring time of that vacation.  But there is no monster competition show in this film called MONSTER TRUCKS. But there is a real life monster living inside a truck, the one modified by the protagonist Tripp (Lucas Till) who drives it.

Looking for any way to get away from the life and town he was born into, Tripp Coley, a high school senior, builds a monster truck from bits and pieces of scrapped cars.  After an accident at a nearby oil-drilling site displaces a strange and subterranean creature with a taste and a talent for speed who he names Creech, Tripp may have just found the key to getting out of town and a most unlikely friend.  The rest of the film has Tripp rescuing the creature, embedded in his truck (don’t ask) and retiring it to its habitat, ET-style.  The story was reported to originate from ex-Paramount President (reason he is now ex-President is obvious) and his 4-year old son.  

Director Chris Wedge (who made ICE AGE and the forgettable animated features like EPIC and ROBOTS) appear to be just going through the motions with his latest feature.  The film is cliched from start to finish.  But the greatest fault of the film is the seriousness everyone seems to be taking of the material, despite the film’s really ridiculous plot of monsters surviving near oil wells and able to join in human beings and amalgamate with their trucks.

It is the same old cliched story of boy wanting to escape from small town with subplots of single mother trying to keep son in town; overbearing mother’s boyfriend (Barry Pepper) who must be the sheriff of the town; pining wannabe girlfriend; loner befriending monster and so on.  With uninspired direction and writing, the film turns boring within the first 10 minutes.  The silly message about caring for the environment does not help the film’s originally either.

Lucas Till (the X-MEN films and yes, in that teen awful film HANNAH MONTANA) is plain awful as the lead who appears o be hired for the job based on his looks.  The sequence where he pretends to drive a truck in the garage proves how bad he is.  Amy Ryan as is mother is totally wasted but Barry Pepper is at least watchable.  Pepper is an actor from Vancouver and likely hired as the film was shot in the Vancouver Production Studios.

The film has so far garnered negative reviews (example 22% on Rotten Tomatoes as of time of writing). Paramount is reported to be taking a $115 write down for the film which cost $125 million to make, mostly for the special and CGI effects, which are the only impressive things about the film, despite looking silly (tentacles protruding from the body of the trucks).  MONSTER TRUCKS turns out to be a big awful monster of a movie.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQrj2M-2Uiw

MOSTLY SUNNY (Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Dilip Metha

MOSTLY SUNNY is not the first documentary made on a porn star.  Two of the most memorable documentaries made on a porn star are PORN STAR: THE LEGEND OF RON JEREMY in 2001 and SAGAT: THE DOCUMENTARY.  Both of these films featured a male porn star, one an American and the other French.  Both of the adult stars like SUNNY, became more famous than they ever imagined.  

All the three films are radically different in the way they dealt with their subjects.  RON JEREMY was well- known not because he was handsome or attractive but because he had an enormously huge tool that could be kept functioning for long periods of time.  Despite the humorous treatment of Jeremy, the doc took quite a serious look at the underground pornography industry.  SAGAT, only 80-minutes in length was as lively as its subject, Francois Sagat was.  And Sagat is quite the showman.  (I have seen him perform in Toronto during the Gay Pride Military Party where he was not too bashful to jerk-off  onstage.  But that doc treated the subject in dead seriousness, tracking Sagat’s rise to fame.

In MOSTLY SUNNY, Dilip Mehta (COOKING WITH STELLA) continues the lightness of his previous film with his portrait of Indian porn star Sunny Leone.  For those unfamiliar, Sunny Leone is the most famous of all the porn stars in India and who has now ventured into Bollywood Cinema.

MOSTLY SUNNY is produced by Deepa Metha (FIRE, WATER, EARTH, MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, THE BEEBA BOYS) and her husband David Hamilton.  For those wondering about the connection, Dilip is Deepa’s brother.

Those venturing to watch MOSTLY SUNNY should not expect too serious a film or a message or even controversial film.  Metha’s treatment of his film and subject is as breezy as his subject Sunny Leone.  Sunny is filmed in most scenes smiling or laughing.  Even when talking about a serious topic like the reason her father chose to live in a small Ontario town of Sarnia, she is laughing and giggling.  So, the subject of Sunny in the adult film industry, infuriating her parents and Indian community is treated as a brush off.  Her fame in porn is also treated lightly.  Those expecting to see Metha in any sex act in his doc will be disappointed, though there are a few nude pictures.  The only one time Sunny gets really open, is when she tells the camera (through a past interview) that she is bisexual and got really excited when she shot a film segment in which the male came in both hers and another girls’ mouths.  Metha shows more of Sunny in her non-porn Bollywood films than in her porn films.

The film runs at slightly over 80 minutes.  Metha is short of material on his easy-going doc as evident in the segment where he tries to get any member of Sunny’s family still living in Sarnia to have a word or two to say to the camera.

As it turns out, Metha’s doc about a porn star is not really about a porn star - but about an ordinary hard-working Indian immigrant who just happens to turn out to be a porn star by accident.  And it is not a bio-pic of Sunny either.  Sunny is teated as mostly normal throughout the film, also marrying the one true love of her life - her manager who has accepted her past work.  Perhaps a more appropriate title of the film wold be MOSTLY NORMAL.

Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmC1DOLiCBg

PATRIOTS DAY (USA 2016) ***

Directed by Peter Berg 

PATRIOTS DAY tells of the heroes behind the capture of the Boston marathon bombers.  Arriving 3 years after the incident, the film is still as timely owing to similar terrorist attacks around the world - in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Paris, just to name a few.  In fact, the film also pays homage to the victims of those attacks as they are mentioned during the film’s closings credits.

The second film in less than year from director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg sees PATRIOTS DAY as an improvement with a more serious tone than the previous DEEPWATER HORIZON.  More so, since the film is a re-creation of the Boston Marathon bombing on the holiday Patriots Day, which the title of the film derives from.  It is the star vehicle again of Wahlberg and it is not surpassing he chose this role as Boston is the star’s hometown.

The film is an earnest account of Boston Police under Commissioner Ed Davis's (John Goodman) actions in the events leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath, which includes the city-wide manhunt to find the terrorists behind it.

The film takes a while before establishing a sound footing.  The first third of the film feels like the garbage that was in director Berg’s DEEPWATER HORIZON as in the scene where Wahlberg’s young daughter explains to him and wife how an oil rig could explode with a can of coke at the breakfast table.   The family scenes of various characters at the film’s start sets the film up like a soap opera with the director like a traffic cop, but the film improves from there getting to the main business at hand.

The film’s best segments are those that involve the terrorists - as one is always curious of a world one knows very little of.  The best of these is the interrogation segment where a lady expert is brought in to question the wife of the deceased bomber.  One cannot help but admire the professionalism on display here - from the scripted questions to the suspenseful staging of this scene.  The ultimate question that needs to be answered is “Is there another bomb?”

The film feels racist in the one scene with the asian whose car is hijacked by the terrorists.  He speaks with a typical Chinese accent with all the ‘r’s pronounced as ‘l’s.  But when the actual Chinese portrayed appears at the closing credits, he speaks with the same accent pronouncing all the ‘r’s as ‘l’s. 

The purpose of the film is clearly a dedication to the strength and courage of the citizens of Boston from the law enforcement to the victims to the FBI.  The last 10 minutes including the end credits are specially devoted for this purpose and though director Berg overdoes it, one can hardly complain over words like ”We consider ourselves not the victims of violence but the ambassadors of peace,’ voiced from the actual bomb victims.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWPRxMj8Wl8

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Action: Rogue One

Best Animation: Sing

Best Comedy: Why Him

Best Documentary: Bugs

Best Drama: Manchester by the Sea

Best Foreign: Julieta

Best Horror: The Eyes of my Mother

Best Romance: Lala Land

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