This Week's Film Reviews (Apr 24, 2017)

21 Apr 2017



BORN IN CHINA (USA/China 2016) **
Directed by Lu Chuan

The poster might be misleading that the new Disneynature film BORN IN CHINA is about pandas alone. The documentary is concentrated on 5 animals, all BORN IN CHINA, more precisely in the northern and central mountainous colder parts of China where there are no signs of civilization.  It is a beautiful and rugged country.  The 5 animals selected for show are cranes, the snow leopard, the golden snubbed nose monkeys, the antelope and of course the panda.  The segments are intercut among each other.

Be forewarned, the pandas are the least interesting of the animals featured.  Pandas are cute and endangered, and their cute antics are captured.  Mother Ya Ya is training her daughter Mei Mei to climb trees.  Once Mei Mei is able to climb a tree, she is able to escape from prey and become independent.  Every time, the film returns to the panda, Mei Mei is falling down , rolling down a slope after which Ya Ya is hugging Mei Mei.  It is actually quite boring stuff if you subtract their cuteness.

The film aims at cuteness for each animal.  Narrated by John Krasinski in the English version, he mimics animal sounds and tries to act cute.  If one likes that sort of thing, then fine, but it undermines the seriousness of these animals in the wilderness.  These animals have to survive, escape prey, feed their young, mate and carry on the living process. 

It comes as no surprise then that the most interesting episodes are the ones with the snow leopards.  Mother (named Dawa - why must these animals be given ridiculers cutesy Chinese names?) must defend her territory and feed her cubs  Her territory is threatened when another female snow leopard arrives with her three offspring.  Dawa and her cubs are forced into hiding.  Wen Dawa preys upon a yak calf, she almost gets food.  The film is most interesting at this point as the audience cannot decide to root for Dawa or for the poor yak calf being caught and about to be rescued by her mother.   One has to recall that Disney did kill off poor Bambi’s mother in BAMBI.

The cranes are given a token segment while the female antelopes are shown migrating to give birth and returning with their young.  The golden snub nose monkeys are shown from the point of view of Tao Tao, an adolescent who cannot decide to hang around his family or other rebellious youngsters, nicknamed in the film as ‘the lost boys’.  Of course, Tao Tao learns the importance of family at the end,  After all Disneynature is aimed at a family audience.

The end credits showing the cameramen and director at work prove more interesting than the movie.  As one man at the camera says, the weather changes dramatically.  One moment is can be hailing and the next sunshine.  The majesty of Central and Western China is also captured on film.  The landscape steals the show from the animal antics.

The film shies away from any violence, typical for Disneynature films.  There is nothing as disturbing here as say in one other Disneynature film, where hundreds of baby turtles trying to crawl to the sea after hatching, are devoured by preying birds.  Nature is cruel and survival is tough.  These elements are overlooked in this film and mostly substituted by play and silly cuteness except for only one instance.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VP0Vl6Qzb8M


Directed by Matt Tyrnauer

Tyrnauer’s film begins with an introduction to the progress of city growth with images of crowded streets.  The disturbing images of over-packed cities around the world are shown while the voiceover tells of how fast a city’s skyline changes.  Then out of the blue, Tyrnauer produces this small elderly woman known as Jane Jacobs, introducing her as the person to challenge the growth of a city.  The city is supposed to be for the people.  This is a great introduction to the main character also called Citizen Jane whose 1960 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds.

The Battle of the City was the battle for New York City between two fierce combatants.  Robert Moses was NYC’s master builder.  The other was Citizen Jane or Jane Jacobs, activist who challenged Moses.  Her first victory was Washington Square.  Moses wanted to tear it down but Jacobs had it retained from destruction.

The film includes many talking head experts who knew the two.  They speak of the fights and the incidents of the times.  The dialogue is interspersed with lots of black and white archival footage.  A few of these showing the poverty of the slums are understandably disturbing.  Those who live in NYC might find these details interesting and relevant but for other audiences like those not living in the United States might find all that is occurring on the screen ho-hum.  Tyrnauer makes no effort to relate the matters to other world cities.

The film picks up in the middle aided by the inclusion of a voiceover by Jacobs herself.  Just after her book was published, she learns that the city had planned to remove West Village.  The audience now can better relate to the film’s material.  Instead of watching a distant city in conflict, the audience can relate to a small old woman, a writer by profession and not a politician take up a fight because it is the right thing to do.  It is comical too to hear her condemn the city planning committee as being dangerously inert - moving towards a path of destruction if not stopped.   There is nothing more inert than a planning bureau.  According to her, it is time that the residents start to frustrate the planners - and frustrate the planners they did.

The film includes a clip of black activist James Baldwin speaking on the removal of ‘Negroes’ by these urban projects.  (The clip was also seen in the recent documentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.)

Tyrnauer uses the big fight of the Lower Manhattan Expressway as the film’s climax - and with reason.  It is Jacobs biggest victory and of course, Moses’ greatest defeat leading to his resignation.  Most notable is the speech by one older woman who speaks from the heart - that building the expressway is just not right.  Her face is later shown victorious, when the lower Expressway is finally put to rest.  The film also uses several quotations for Jacob’s book at the end.

A relatively smart movie despite its narrow context!  In amusement, Jane Jacobs has moved and lived in Toronto till her death in 2006 where she also halted the construction of the Spadina Expressway.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fwf5h3MIdRs

COLOSSAL (Canada 2016) *
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

An eccentric movie is occasionally praised by critics for just being different.  But there are films like COLOSSAL (that premiered at last year’s TIFF) and the recent SWISS ARMY MAN that are so weird that they make no sense at all.

SWISS ARMY MAN had a farting corpse dragged around from start to end of the movie.  Plain awful, unfunny and senseless.  Director Nacho Vigalondo (TIMECRIMES) is given big money with this high flyer starring Anne Hathaway and Dan Stevens, among others.  But his eccentric film would be a very hard watch for the commercial moviegoer, less any critic.

The film opens with a little girl witnessing a monster in the playground.  The film quickly forwards 25 year years after.  This is really funny, similar to the opening sequence of THE LOBSTER, but that is the only scene that gave me a giggle.

The film’s protagonist is a going-nowhere party girl, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who discovers a mysterious connection between herself and a giant monster wreaking havoc on the other side of the globe, in Seoul, South Korea.  Gloria (Anne Hathaway) parties too hard, drinks too much, and does not think about the consequences — that is, until her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) gets sick of her behaviour and throws her out.  Unemployed and with nowhere to live, Gloria heads back to her hometown and rekindles a friendship with childhood chum Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now runs his dad's old bar.  Dreams of a fresh start are dashed when Gloria slides back into old habits: she drinks till last call every night with Oscar and his cronies (the hilarious Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell), she stumbles home each night via a playground-sandbox shortcut, and she sleeps through each day till it's time to drink again.

One day (lo and behold!) she emerges from her haze to the news that a giant monster is stomping its way through the panicked metropolis of Seoul.

Why is the film that weird?  Gloria has awakened to a different world to discover how the real-life monster movie taking place halfway across the world might be somehow connected to her.  The monster mirrors her moves.  For example if she falls, so does the monster, killing Koreans on the ground.  The segment in which Gloria and Oscar have an all out fight is also total ridiculous.

Vigalodo attempts to blur the lines between fantasy, drama and sci-fi.  He only succeeds in dumping all three genres into a cauldron of messy brew.

The special effects of the robot menacing Seoul look like a cheap version of GODZILLA.

Hathaway looks half lost throughout the film.  Actors Dan Stevens and Jason Sudeilis are largely wasted.

If things cannot get more ridiculous, Gloria travels to Seoul at the end of the film.

Director Vigalondo makes no effort to get the audience to like any of her characters.  His sense of humour is lacking and the film is neither funny nor amusing. The film ends open ended, (not revealed in this review) with an inside joke on the protagonist.  Best to give this film a complete miss.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqcZtz8VXXE


FREE FIRE (UK 2016) **

Directed by Ben Wheatley

Irrelevant as his A FIELD IN ENGLAND, the hate it or love it British film set entirely in the U.S. in 1878 for no apparent reason, Ben Whetaley returns to his black comedy roots of SIGHTSEERS, the film that shot him to recognition.  This is a 70’s crime caper set totally in an abandoned warehouse where a guns deal takes place.  But a previous altercation between two separate members of the different sides results in a  free-for-all shoot out that lasts the entire film.  The humour and violence is entertaining initially, but greadullay wears out its welcome.  Known names Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Oscar Winner Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy do their best to liven up the proceedings but they can only do so much with the limited amtrial.  Director Wheatley works with his loving wife, Amy Jump who wrote the script and co-edited the film with him.  FREE FIRE may work for a few but will not for the majority as FREE material. FREE FIRE ens up a queer piece for a select few.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDD3I0uOlqY


LOST CITY OF Z (USA 2016) ***
Directed by James Gray

(Spoiler:  the paragraph in bold letters.)

LOST CITY OF Z is an exploration film about British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnan) obsessed with finding the lost city which he nicknames Z (pronounced zed in Britain and in the film and Zee in North America) in the wild Amazon jungles of Bolivia in South America.

The film is as expected of this sort of big productions, a handsomely mounted production with lots of candid shots of the horrors as well as the beauty of the wild.  But it follows the same mould as many past exploration films, those that say track the expeditions into Africa or up Mount Everest or into Antarctica.

These films normal includes the identical premise consisting of:

getting limited or no funds for the expedition.

The same can be said for LOST CITY OF Z.  Though Percy is first coerced into taking up the plight to Bolivia, he is initially reluctant.  He is a soldier and a major (he gets promoted later to Lieutenant Colonel) in the British military.  There is extended segment of him fighting in World War 1, always advancing towards the enemy lines, showing him the titular hero, but distracts from the main story at hand.  In fact, Percy makes no less than 3 separate expeditions.  For his final expedition - he had to fight for funds, most of it provided by the Americans and secondly but he British Geographical Society.  It is ironical that the film was also financed by the U.S. with director Gray (THE YARDS being my favourite film of his), an American director offered the job of director.  He was himself surprised, as many, for the reason he was offered the job.

 the objection of the explorer’s immediate family to the task and the conflict that ensues.

The wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) objects but also decides to join him, though never realized.  A strong argument is given here to update the film on a strong feminist point of view.  The son (Tom Holland, the new SPIDER-MAN) objects vehemently but buries the hatchet at the end by joining his father n the third expedition.

  the white man always doing what is right in the wilds

It is odd to see white men in full uniform or suits traversing the humid and wet jungles.  Percy is often seen in full military garb in the incredibly uncomfortable hot weather.

But there is always something fascinating about watching a film about explorers making an expedition to foreign lands.  This fascination is present and Gray capitalizes it with the strange vegetation and dangerous insects and animals around.  There are scary scenes involving piranhas devouring human beings and native shooting arrows at Percy and his men.

The film is based on a true story.  Percy and his son never returned from the last expedition,.  This fact elevates the film out of the normal exploration films.  Gray etches the main character here to a romanticized hero, worthy of the audience’s time at the cinema.

LOST CITY OF Z is long and runs close to 140 minutes.  But the 3 expeditions and the war segment make the time run fast.  Still, Gray’s film is a beautiful piece of filmmaking.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjqtP459uo8

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