This Week's Film Reviews (Mar 31, 2017)

01 Apr 2017


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THE BOSS BABY (USA 2017) ***

Directed by Tom McGrath

Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox’s THE BOSS BABY finally arrives after KUNG FU PANDA 3 upstaged its arrival last year.

The animated feature, written by Michael McCullers is actually based on a novel called “The Boss Baby” by Marla Frazee.  The film has a solid story, though not a totally inventive or unpredictable one.  It involves a 7-year old adapting to the arrival of his new baby brother.  Things take a turn when the two bond in order to save their parents.  

The story begins with a narration by a man named Tim Templeton (Tobey Maguire).  He describes his seven-year-old self (voiced by a younger sounding Miles Bakshi) as being jealous of his fast-talking, briefcase-carrying baby brother named the "Boss Baby" (Alec Baldwin). When he goes on a mission to win back the affection of his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), he finds out about a secret plot by Puppy Co.'s CEO Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi) which revolves around his baby brother and threatens to destabilize the balance of love in the world.   Both brothers must unite to save their parents and restore order to the world and prove that love is indeed an infinite force.

BOSS BABY suffers from being over confident of its material - story; action and cuteness so that nothing special is added to the quite lengthy middle portion of the story.  Once the baby attackers invade Puppy Co. to discover and destroy the new puppy invention, the film turns into a big yawn.  Fortunately, it picks up during the crucial last 20 minutes.

The film contains a few memorable neat bits such as the segment when the boss baby explains to Tim on the toy abacus (containing 6 blocks) how the blocks representing love have to be shard.  At the end of the film, Tim learns that there is always enough love to go around.  On the other hand, the film mentions the fact that a triangle is the strongest shape.  I never knew this and had to google the fact, though my partner said he learnt that in Grade 3.  Predictable parts?  When dad tells Tim that one day, he is going to love his baby brother with all his heart (to which Tim says “Never!”), one knows that the day will eventually arrive.

The last 20 minutes are the film’s funniest parts - not the action or cutesy parts.  In fact the cutesy parts, particularly the beginning when the babes are shown manufactured at Baby Corp are a bit too sugary sweet.

7-year old Tim is voiced by Miles Bakshi who has voiced characters in all the Shrek films, though not really well-known.  Alec Baldwin has a field day voicing BOSS BABY after his rise to fame doing President Donald Trump during SNL.

THE BOSS BABY as an animated feature looks pale in comparison to Disney’s efforts such as ZOOTOPIA, the last Oscar Winner for Best Animated Feature or MOANA in terms of animation, humour and innovation.   But on its own terms, comparing with its other efforts like KUNG FU PANDA, THE BOSS BABY delivers adequate entertainment.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2Bsw3lrhvs

MR. GAGA (Israel/Sweden/Germany/Netherlands 2015) ***

Directed by Tomer Heymann

Timing is everything.  MR. GAGA documentary about bad boy dance choreographer, Ohad Naharin is being released just a few weeks (though made earlier) after a similar documentary about another bad boy dance choreographer.  The first doc called DANCER follows the troubled life of now 37-year old Sergei Polunin, acclaimed as ‘the most naturally gifted male ballet dancer of his generation’.  Both films follow the same outline.  They trace the influences (Ohad, dancing when young as a boy in the kibbutz) and childhood of the dancers, their troubles (marriage and choreograph methods), there talent and their rise to fame together with lots of footage of dance performances.  Hopefully, MR. GAGA can still attract audiences after they have seen DANCER.

Ohad Naharin is the Israeli choreographer who’s revolutionized modern dance, even although he himself didn’t begin formal dance training until age 22.  Now in his mid-60s, Naharin has headed up Tel Aviv’s famed Batsheva Dance Group since 1990, creating pieces and training dancers with “gaga” – a dance language he invented, whereby dancers feel the sensation 

of movement.  In 1998, Naharin rebelled against censorship when he withdrew Batsheva 

from Israel’s 50th anniversary gala after organizers – bowing to pressure from religious groups – insisted he clothe his dancers more modestly.

The dance performances are well tracked and form the most interesting segment of the film - even f one is not an avid dance fan.  Excerpts include:

2013 - The Hole

2015 - The Last Word

2003 - Mqnootoot

2011 - Sadeh (three times)

2005 - Three, the most homo-erotic,  in that order.

The performances are put into perspective of the dance’s life, making them more relevant in the film.

As expected, the best insight into Ohad’s personality is provided by the dancers under his charge.  They claim him to be ‘so strong’ and ‘so intense’.  His intimidation can be seen when he tells them during their performances not to f*** it up, as it is his life.  He would use words like: “Don’t f*** with me,” and “You are boring me”.  These only goes to show that talent can never be substituted for hostility not matter how talented the antagonist is.  There is no interview with his wife.  It would have been even more interesting to know what living hell living with this man might have been.  Director Heymann allows Ohad to have his say as well.  Ohad claims that he is able to get the most of of his dancers.  A former dancer recalls that everyday someone would leave the studio either yelling or crying.

Judging from most of his choreography, Ohad has a lot of aggression in him.  His moves are fierce and hard and often include movements like falling and hammering.  As expected, the genius and spoilt boy behaviour is incorporated in the same one person - in Ohad.

But Heymann keeps the audience on track with Ohad’s likability.  If the audience hates the subject, it usually follows them hating the film.   When the Government forces Ohad’s dance to wear leotards instead of their original skimpy outfits, he announces the change of costume to his dance troupe and subsequently resigns.  This causes massive protests in the country.  His wife and true love also dies of cancer and Heymann shows the power of dance to heal through Ohad,

The film is shot in English and Hebrew.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/139907441

OBIT (USA 2016) **
Directed by Vanessa Gould

In one comic routine, the late comedian Academy Award winning actor George Burns (THE SUNSHINE BOYS) said: “When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is read the obituaries.  If I don’t see my name there, I get up.”

OBIT is a documentary on obituaries - the writing of obituaries and the people (at the New York Times) who write them. ‘The Obituaries” is literally a dying art.  In-depth obituaries require investigation, sensitive interviewing and deft writing.  Besides it dealing with the subject of death, it is a short resume of the person at the point of death.  They are a connection to history that defies the ephemerality of the digital world.  Director Vanessa Gould (BEHIND THE FOLDS) offers in her documentary a look at the people behind the obituaries, particularly the one at the New York Times.  Obit writers like Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox and William Grimes come to the job with a lifetime of journalistic skill sets.   And they dedicate themselves to becoming “instant experts” on all-but-forgotten politicians, artists, eccentrics and history-making behind-the-scenes figures.   The only question is whether this subject is interesting enough for people to pay for an admission ticket and be amused for 90 minutes.

One of the most interesting points in the film reveals the department that contains all the clippings of all the obituaries (old-school) run at the New York Times.  It is just one person who looks after all the drawers, and he has his say and time in the film.  

OBIT turns out to be a boring watch, despite the wide range of obituaries chosen by Gould.  One is the bass player of Bill Haley and the Comets (Rock around the Clock).  He is chosen because his obituary included the odd fact that heather was a hog butcher.  Another is the air force pilot who pulled the over that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and yet another is a TV political consultant (Bruce Weber) to Richard Nixon.   The pre-debate prep is supposed to help swing the public perception of Kennedy as a more vital candidate than Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election.  The pick of Manson Whitlock a typewriter repairer is the most interesting of all the obituaries chosen.  Gould includes an amusing segment of Liberace playing a ‘typewriter’ sounding piece on the piano.

The obit writers have been called nasty names based on what they have written or based on mistakes.  But they make their stance saying that if the subject had a gambling habit, or did drugs or had a drinking problem, all these had to be put down as they are basically reporters, not grief councillors.  

Gould also brings out the fact that the majority of obituaries written were on male white subjects.  He attributes the reason to the fact that most of the people passing on were made famous during the world wars when while male men were the news of the day.  She insists that there are are present more obituaries written on minorities and women.

OBIT reveals a few points about people and the industry on obituaries.  Too bad the subject is just to interesting or weird enough, just as the writers not as charismatic enough to brighten up this documentary.  The only times Gould gets the audience juices flowing is her segment on obit corrections. and at the end when she milks  the audience’s sentiment with a collection of past obituaries.  OBITS tuns out a mildly amusing time-waster if one can spare the time.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PBb4ygrO1Y

Directed by Niki Caro

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE, based on the 2007 novel by Diane Ackerman of the same name is the type of story that appears ideal for filmmaking - which could also lead to Oscar success.  This is the likely reason star and Best Actress Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain was attracted to the material ending up in the starring role as the zookeeper’s wife, Antoninia Żabińska.

The setting is the 1930s. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) is the director of the thriving zoo in Warsaw, Poland; his wife Antonina (Chastian) has a remarkable sympathy for animals, and their villa in the zoo was a nursery and residence for numerous animals as well as their own son, Ryxzard (Val Maloku).   All good things seldom last.  This life comes to an abrupt end with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which started World War II (1939-1945). Most of the zoo's animals and structures were destroyed in the bombings and siege of the city. The zoo was closed under German occupation, but the Żabińskis continued to occupy the villa, and the zoo itself was used first as a pig farm and subsequently as a fur farm.

As the film continues, Jan and Antonina Żabiński became active with the Polish underground resistance.  At the villa and in the zoo's structures, they secretly sheltered Jews, most escaping from the doomed Warsaw ghetto. As many as 300 such "guests" passed through the zoo, and many did survive the war with the assistance of the Żabińskis and other members of the underground. The German occupiers executed those they discovered helping Jews. Nonetheless, Antonina Żabińska maintained a semblance of prewar life at the villa, harbouring a menagerie of animals - otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes - as well as the secret guests. 

The film introduces a German character and animal lover, Lutz Heck (Oscar nominee Daniel Bruhl) who rises the German ranks during the War.  He has the hots for Antonina and finally discovers what the two are up - harbouring Jews.

As this is not the first film or story about harbouring Jews, the attraction of the story is far gone.  It does not help that the script by Angela Workman runs through the predictable process of false alarms in terms of discovery of the harbouring.  The beginning sequence in which the audience is treated to the delivery of a baby elephant, initially dead but revived to life by Antonina stretches credibility.

Antonina’s character is treated as perfect.  She can do no wrong, whether having feelings for Lutz, hugging all the animals or blatantly lying to her husband.

The fact that the audience knows the couple survived the war diminishes the suspense of the story.

The film, shot in Prague, captures the European look of the war.  The filming of the animals, especially of the animals escaping the zoo compound and running around in the town is well done and makes the best sequences of the film.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is an ok watch, but rather uneventful and boring despite the source material.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJNFeHHGGN4

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