This Week's Film Reviews (June 2, 2017)

31 May 2017

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES opens and should be this week’s #1 at the box-office.  Also opening is the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival.  

Best Bets of the Week:

Best Film Opening: GRADUATION



Best Foreign: GRADUATON

Best Documentary: RISK


 To find a review for a past film, type the title of the film in the SEARCH box on the front page of site.


#ANAMERICANDREAM (Canada 2016) ****
Directed by Ken Finkelman


With its American theme and setting, this Canadian film #ANAMERICANDREAM

that was first screened earlier this year at the Canadian Film Festival is quite the gem of a movie.  It is original, hilarious, current, absurd, Kafkai-ish but mostly frighteningly entertaining.

The unlikely hero of the film is William Bowman (Jake Crocker) a 17-year old footballer, who when knocked unconscious during a game, is sent to the future, one that is as weird if not similar to the Australian film BLISS where the protagonist, who when suffering a heart attack witnesses odd things going on around him.

The education of William Bowman as the film calls it, takes Bowman through several amusing set pieces on life.  The first has him doing internship for the Payne Financial Company where he learns that lying is more acceptable company culture than telling the truth.  The second has him working for a born-again Tally Pepper who sets him up as a travelling salesman.  The third has him running from the police and government.  But there is no escape, as they can see everything he sees, due to a transplant of a camera in his eye.

Writer/director Finkelman takes the audience on a journey through America from Bowman’s point-of-view while satirizing everything from TV, corporate culture, school, the future, the second amendment to the country’s beliefs of the future.

Despite the film jumping from one set-up to another, Finkelman transits from one segment to another smoothly and hilariously.  Bowman enters his office, the Payne building one morning to suddenly realize that every employee he sees is Asian.  When he sees another Asian at his desk, he is informed that his company has been taken over and that he is out of a job.  This takes him to the next segment.

Newcomer Jake Crocker is excellent in the role of a confused man tying to make sense of the craziness.  Crocker is sufficiently good-looking that the audience can believe that most women will want to have sex with him.  Or most men would want to punch him in the face.  Both happens.  The film includes some quite steamy sex scenes, showed in blurring images, but still sexually arousing.

The film goes into futuristic sci-fi mode at the end, when Bowman is being chased after becoming the most hunted man in the country. This segment gives Bowman the chance to meet a wide range of Americans from sexy teen babes to an old codger who ends up shot after helping him.

Finkelman’s film is full of surprises with a new one coming round every corner. The dialogue is also razor-sharp in observation and wit.

#ANAMERICAN DREAM is that rare Canadian film that is set in the United States not to be more commercial but because the story is set there.  The film is also one of the sharpest Canadian films I have seen this year.

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


Directed by Steve James

ABACUS is an old Chinese adding machine that was commonly used by Chinese shopkeepers who needed to do some accounting or simple addition.  It is also a Chinese treasure now made obsolete with the introduction of the calculator.  Abacus is thus chosen as the appropriate name for the bank founded by a well-intentioned Chinese lawyer turned banker, who we are introduced to at the start of the film as a good man, who thinks of himself as George Bailey, the James Stewart banker character in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  In fact when there is a run on Abacus, Mr. Thomas Sung is likened to Bailey giving a sincere speech to the queue of customers assuring them that the bank is ernest and hat their money is safe.

Why a documentary of this bank and on the man Mr. Sung?  The reason, according to the director is that this small Chinese bank has been unfairly singled out by the NYC District Attorney’s Office as a fraudulent bank who with its owners had committed a crime in misappropriating funds for personal and illegal gain.

But the D.A. Office picked the wrong man to pick a fight with.  Mr. Sung is a fighter.  The documentary is an account of the fight between the small guy and the bully, a David vs. Goliath story where the slingshot weapon used was the team of Mr. Sung’s lawyers and family.

Director gets the audience on Mr. Sung’s side by using a variety of means.  The first is to connect the audience with Mr. Sung’s immediate family.  Besides the analogy of George Bailey, the honest and best example of a banker, one cannot help but root for the Sung family, especially watching scenes where the family sit together to argue the facts and to fight bak against the D.A. Office.  Interviews are also conducted with reporters who take the side of the bank.  The bank is also shown to have done good to help the Chinese community to obtain loans, which no normal bank would normally grant.

The film also documents how the bank got into trouble - in fact twice with regard to fraudulence.  But according to the film, the bank had fired the dishonest and despicable loan officer, Mr. Ken Lu who the D.A. Office used to testify against the bank.

The film is a sad story of the Sung family.  But the film makes a hero of Mr. Sung and his family.  One of the daughters who worked at that time for the D.A. Office had to reign due to, obviously conflict of interest but she did so to help her father.  Not surprisingly, the wife, Mrs. Sung says on camera that she never wanted her husband or daughters to go into the banking business.  

ABACUS achieves the feat of making the subject even more intriguing by hitting all the right buttons.  Everyone loves to see the underdog win, especially when fighting an evil giant.  ABACUS is such a tale with a smashing finish.

Trailer: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/abacus/15c410ca34696ff5?projector=1


Directed by David Soren

I once saw a skit of Superman and Batman at an unemployment office.  Superman tells Batman that they will never get a job.  Why Batman asks?  Because no one would hire anyone who wears underpants over their clothes - was the answer.  CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS the animated movie takes the joke to another level.  The hero only wears underpants!

This last collaboration between Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox (before Dreamworks moves with Universal) is fortunately a huge animated comic success.  As the title of the film implies, the story involves lots of goofy absurdity and toilet jokes (there is even a symphony of body fluid noises performed on the school stage in the middle of the film), but who cares as CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS is a very funny movie, almost matching the best of the SHREK films.  The comic song “I Love Saturdays” at the film’s stet sets up the mood of the film.

The film is based on the children's novel series of the same name created in 1997 by Dav Pilkey, who sold the rights to Dreamworks in 2011.  The plot follows two imaginative elementary school prankster students, George Beard and Harold Hutchins (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) who hypnotize using a hypnotic ring from a cereal box, their mean-spirited principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms), into thinking he is Captain Underpants, a hero in comic books George and Harold write together.  Mr. Krupp runs all over the place trying to what he thinks he is doing, saving the world.  But the story includes a villain, Professor Poopypants (Nikc Kroll) (looking like the child catcher in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG), the new science teacher who wants to rid the wold of laughter.  His assistant is one of George and Harold’s fellow students, a swatter and a rotter called Melvin (Jordan Peele) with an uncanny resemblance to minions in DESPICABLE ME.  Yes, as in all animated films, the world needs to be saved - but always for a good cause - as the return of laughter in this story.

There is plenty of laughter in this film, thanks to the goofy antics of the animators, the smart script by Brit Nicholas Stoller and the comedic timing of director David Soren.   Writer Stoller directed the very funny NEIGHBOURS, NEIGHBOURS II and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and Toronto-own Stoller had proven his animation mettle in TURBO (the animated on snails).  Kevin Hart is funny voicing George but the surprise comes from Ed Helms who voices both the principal and Captain Underpants.

The animation is 3D computer animated, with the heads of the characters rounded, similar to THE PEANUTS MOVIE.  The characters have a 3D rather than a two dimensional look.

Despite all the toilet humour, the film contains a decent message of genuinely doing good in the world.

There is a fine line between stupidity and goofiness.  Animated films often have to tread this fine line between success and failure.  CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS succeeds in this respect while another cent animated feature THE LEGO BATMAN failed because it was too manic and incomprehensible.  It should be a worthwhile wait for CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS: THE SECOND EPIC MOVIE.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDm_2m-Hg6c

DRONE (Canada 2017) **
Directed by Jason Bourque

Canadian director Jason Bourque directs this new thriller shot entirely in his native Vancouver, British Columbia.  The film centres on a drone pilot who conducts covert operations from his hometown.

DRONE begins predictably with an overhead shot of a good kill, similar to the recent film about drones which is also called GOOD KILL.  It is an effective device - the overhead shot.  But the problem in this film, is that it has been used in drone films all too often already and the taut atmosphere is slowly diffused after the first segment.

An innocent girl is taken out by mistake somewhere in Pakistan.  The distraught father (Patrick Sabongui), obviously seeks revenge.  He is seen later on in the film, suddenly apparently a successful businessman, Mr. Shaw (without explanation) stalking the contractor that affected the kill.  This contractor is Ian (Brit Sean Bean sporting an American accent in a Canadian made film) who’s father has just passed away.  His wife is having an affair.  His son is too quiet for comfort.  Ian never visited his father regularly in the senior home.  He has issues with his younger brother.  Yes, Ian has family problems.  Are all this necessary?

Too many incidents are crammed into an apparently what should be simple film with a solid purpose.  At the funeral home, the sibling rivalry emerges but its origin is never explained.  How Neil got into the drone business is also unexplained.  The poor relationship between Ian’s son and wife are also left vague at best.

The constant intercutting among Pakistan and the United States is disorienting.  The audience is never sure whether they are supposed to be sympathetic for be Ian or for Mr. Shaw.

The film goes about with Ian’s problem of writing his late father’s eulogy for the funeral.  “Allow the story of your father have true meaning.”  is the odd advice the enemy gives to Ian for the writing of his father’s eulogy.

The film is so bad, it ends up an interesting watch, but only to see how many more mistakes can be found in the film.

Performances are ordinary at best.  What can one expect from a bad film with a bad script?  It is also odd to phantom the reason a Canadian film would be tackling an American subject, especially when the subject of a guilty American at war (also tackled in Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER) has been down and done so well before.

The film has a climatic takedown at the end.  But the film is confusing in whether Ian will pay for his crime.

Ian says at one point int he film to Mr. Shaw when his wife keeps talking about other matters, “We better get back to the business (selling of the boat) at hand.”  This is advice the director should have taken for himself so as not to get too distract from all the too many elements in the script.  This supposedly taut thriller ends up diluted with poorly executed family drama.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UqxCUrT5-Y

GRADUATION (Romania 2016) ****
Directed by Cristian Mungiu

A stone is thrown for no reason at the start of the film breaking the living room window of Romeo’s house, as if serving as an omen for bad things to come to this self-serving man.  Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is revealed to be a doctor, an unfaithful husband and for the most part in the story intent of doing what he thinks is right for his teenage daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) by ensuring she wins a scholarship that will have her complete studies in the U.K.  

Things take a turn when Elizabeth is assaulted one day before her exams.  These exams are part of the ones that will guarantee her the U.K. scholarship.  As a result of the trauma, she does not do well.  In desperation, Romeo sees his friends high up in administration to fix her grades.

Mungiu’s camera doggedly follows Romeo around like a parasite, tracing his every move as he manipulates everyone around him.  One can believe that he is doing it for his daughter, but eventually the main benefactor is himself.  Romeo is not a despicable character.  Mungiu entrusts human qualities in the man - qualities that everyone has him or herself.  It is universally true that the goal in life of every parent is to see the child grow up to be better than him/her.  So Romeo’s goals of ‘innocently’ helping his daughter get the scholarship is totally unbelievable.  Though the film is a drama, it is so absorbing that it feels as suspenseful as a horror movie.

Worthy of note is the conformation scene between Romeo and his mistress Sandra.  Sandra complains that all her life she has been second fiddle to his wife and family and at age 35, she needs a plan for her life.  If this segment was shot in an American film, the two would be arguing and screaming at each other at the top of their voices and making wide gestures.  But Mungiu shoots the scene with the the couple arguing with low voices.  With Sandra’s  head down, and speaking softly with reason, the confrontation becomes even more relevant as the audience sympathizes with her.

Also Romeo and his friends illegally scratch each others back.  Romeo’s police officer offers the services of his friend to up Romeo’s daughter’s grade because the friend owes the officer a favour.  Romeo offers to help his friend with his kidney transplant while he helps Romeo.  They insist, fooling themselves and easing their conscience that the deed does good and they refuse any monetary exchange.

It is a fine line between siding with Romeo and despising him.  Mungiu’s direction treads the fine line.  A key scene of the film occurs when Romeo is looking after Sandra’s kid in the playground.  The kid throws a stone at another because the other was doing something wrong..  The kid is admonished by Romeo in the same way life has done the same to him for doing what he thought was right.  This is the point where Romeo claims his redemption.

GRADUATION is a meticulously executed intelligent film by Mungiu who won the Best Director Prize for this film at Cannes last year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hKtgrj7UXo

TANNA (Australia 2015) ***
Directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler

Tanna is the first film shot in the South Pacific nation of Vanuata, based on a true story that happened there in 1987 as interpreted by the Yakel tribe.  Hardly a word of English is spoken in the film.  The dialogue is totally in the tribal language which all the tribes in the story appear to be able to speak and communicate with each other with.

The film plays like a Romeo and Juliet story.  The story centres on doomed, star-crossed lovers.  There are two warring tribes but the lovers belong  to the same tribe.  The bride, Wawa (Marie Wawa) of the Yakel tribe is betrothed to the enemy Imedin tribe as a peace offering.  But Wawa is in love with the grandson of the chief (Mungau Daen) and they have slept together already.  The lovers escape to another part of the island.  The chief (Chief Mikum Tainakou) of the Imedin tribe is furious and sends his men to find the lovers - to kill Daen the boy and bring Wawa back to be wed.  Wawa’s father, Lingai (Lingai Kowia) also travels to find Wawa to bring her back and to warn Daen.  And so the story goes.

When the film opens, the audience is immersed in a fairy tale land.  It is interesting to see the customs and living practised in another country.  The film works like a fairy tale just like African films made of their tribes such as the excellent 2004 film, MOOLAADE by Ousmane Sembène. The people are clothed with straw skirts and mostly topless.  The children play unfamiliar games.  The people live in strange-looking huts and they speak in a different language.   Unfamiliar sights are displayed on screen - like a big black sow with piglets sucking from her nipples.

Directors Butler and Dean love to use the smoking volcanoes in their film - both as a metaphor and for its landscape beauty. 

Though the story is set in a different land, the human problems encountered are not different.  Love is once again restricted by social culture.  The lovers are unable to show their love for one another in public.  Wawa is forced to decide between the fate of her tribe and her personal desire for happiness.

The directors choose to tell their story from two points of view, from Wawa and from her younger sister Selin (Marceline Rofit).  Selin is the prepubescent younger sister of Wawa who though still playing childish games like hide-and seek is aware of what is going on.  She eventually helps her sister by aiding her tribe find Wawa and Daen.  The audience sees as a result, how Wawa’s decision will affect the lives of Selin and the later generations.

The directors were reported to have spent 7 months living with the Yakel tribe to understand the tribal customs and to capture them accurately on the screen.

TANNA works as the perfect combination of an ageless romantic story of true love set in a fresh never seen before setting.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di2cHkHrPwg


Directed by Patty Jenkins

Not to be confused with the two other WONDER WOMAN films made in 2009 and 2014, this updated expensive $149 million film has been marketed well and is one of the most anticipated films this summer.

Gal Gadot is WONDER WOMAN though the term WONDER WOMAN is never used even once in the film.  She is known as Diana.  The character played by Gadot, and reasonably well by her, combining sexiness and a certain ferocity was first introduced to excited audiences in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.  She gained 17 lbs. of muscle while training in martial arts for the role.  Now audiences can see her for a full 140 minutes or so.

Diana first appears as a little girl fiercely intent on becoming a fighter much to the chagrin of her mother, the queen (Connie Nielson).  Diana’s aunt who is also the general (Robin Wright) trains her eventually to become the warrior with special gifts destined to save the world as it is written in the Book of the Gods.  The film’s voiceover informs that Diana is made from clay by the God Zeus and she must destroy the evil Ares before mankind is destroyed.  As such this bevy of beauties appropriately named Amazons live on a Greek-like paradise island till a World War plane crashes into the waters nearby with the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) saved by Diana.  How the two worlds collided is never fully explained.

With the world of the Gods brought into the human realm, the film grows more interesting.  Diana is drawn into fight against the Germans in WW1.  The trouble with all this is that Diana, Trevor and a assorted troupe of fighters kill Germans one by one to save innocent people as well as allied soldiers.  This is a very simplistic look of things as German soldiers killed are people too.  The script does attempt to discuss this problem but not too convincingly.  Diana is shown to be naive as to the human world, with humour thrown in whenever possible.

For a $149 million production, there are as expected, lots of special effects and pyro-technics.  In addition, there are a lot of sexy fighting (but ridiculous) poses by Diana.

The film contains three villains as if one is not enough.  David Thewlis plays the main one, The God of War Ares in human form.  The other two villains are more comical than sinister, two Germans, one a female doctor, humorously named Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) with a disfigured face and the other a sinister German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) who will stop at nothing to win the war.

Business wise, WONDER WOMAN cost $149 million to make, thus requiring to gross at least $460 million worldwide to break even.  The estimate for the opening domestic weekend is $100 million so it likely will bring Warner Bros. a tidy profit.

The fourth film of the DC Comic Universe after SUPERMAN, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and SUICIDE SQUAD, WONDER WOMAN is the best of the lot with a good combination of action and tongue-in-cheek humour.  But that is not saying much considering how awful the first 3 were.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSB4wGIdDwo








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