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This Week's Film Reviews (June 9, 2017)

08 Jun 2017

Tom Cruise takes over Brendan Fraser in the new THE MUMMY re-boot.  Also happening is the ICFF The Italian Contemporary Film Festival in Toronto.

Best Bets of the Week:

Best Film Opening: MEGAN LEAVEY

Best Horror: ALIEN: COVENANT

Best Family: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Best Foreign: GRADUATON

Best Documentary: RISK

Best Comedy: THE DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: THE LONG HAUL

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

AWAKENING THE ZODIAC (Canada 2017) **

Directed by Jonathan Wright

The Zodiac killer, who threatened the San Francisco area was as famous as Jack the Ripper was in London, in the day which was not too long ago.  Zodiac’s murders were accompanied by taunting letters to the police, along with evidence of the crimes.   When Zodiac threatened to attack school busses, authorities had police cars follow the busses.  But more important of all,  Zodiac went further by accompanying his letters with ciphers, which he claimed contained clues to his identity.  Zodiac is believed to have killed between 7 and 12 people in California between 1966 and 1971. The last Zodiac letter was received by police in 1974.  This is where the film AWAKENING THE ZODIAC takes its inspiration.

Following history, police investigated over 2500 people but no one was ever arrested.   One famous suspect was Editor Richard Gaiowski, and this person is referenced in the film.

It all begins when a down on their luck couple Mick Branson (Shane West) and Zoe (Leslie Bibb) discover a reel of what they think is the murderer’s tapes.  This happens, when they pay for the contents of a storage locker, the owner of which defaulted on its contents after not paying the rental fees.  This is a sorry excuse for the script, which never achieves the status of its source material.  Mick and Zoe wish to split the $100,000 reward money with Harvey (Matt Craven) for what their think is relevant information on the Zodiac killer.  Harvey is an encrypting expert and he can figure out the name of the killer since the killer’s name  is supposed to be encrypted in his coded letters.

Mick, Zoe and Harvey investigate while the Zodiac killer strikes again.  For all that the film is worth, director Wright’s film deteriorates into a slasher film in which it ends with the slasher, in this case the Zodiac killer,  chasing after Zoe, running for dear life in the dark, while defending herself the best she can.  There is nothing new in the climax of this film that has not been seen already in countless horror films.

The only fairly interesting thing about the story is the relationship of the couple.  They are broke.  Zoe keeps falling for Mick’s get rich quicks schemes that either never work or are extremely dangerous. It is interesting to see how the couple have different reactions once disaster strikes.  When the Zodiac killer appears for example, Zoe wants to to get out while Mick wishes to confront the killer head on with a baseball bat.  Zoe is always mad at Mick but Mick can always calm her down with hints of sex.  It is an interesting relationship, one which I am sure exists in many couples in which loser needs another loser in order to survive.

Harvey decrypts the code much too easily for comfort.  If the police are unable to identify the Zodiac killer after investigating 2500 suspects, it is difficult to believe the killer’s identity compromised by the couple.

This is one of those weird films made in Canada based on American source material.  The main leads are American while Craven is Canadian.  The only well-known name in the cast is Stephen McHattie who plays the Zodiac killer.

As a thriller, AWAKENING THE ZODIAC is a pretty steady snooze.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0rtR2EQliE

CHURCHILL (UK 2017) ***
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

CHURCHILL begins with the scene of an image of World War I and II Prime Minister Winston Churchill standing on an isolated beach.  He imagines blood washed by the sea on its shores while his black bowler hat eventually floats out into the vast horizon.  The scene is rich in metaphors while being solemn, setting the mood for a 2-hour film on a Winston Churchill most of the world do not know.  It is a Churchill depicted as a bully, drunk and opinionated self-pitying cad.

It is the week before the planned D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy which everyone knows led to the defeat of Germany in World War II.  No one is aware of the victory of D-Day in the film, and the planning is set with uncertainty.  Churchill, after his failure of the Gallipoli war which resulted in the loss of thousands of young British men, was intent not to let the mistake of leading thousands to their death happen again.  So, he would stop the D-Day landing at all costs.  But planning was already under way,.  Everyone including Dwight D. Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Bernard Montgomery (Julian Wadham) believed that the landing would be instrumental in winning the War against the Nazis.

The trouble with this film is hat there is not much story but much repetition of the same storyline.  Churchill is against the landing.  He is shown the truth and he will only budge at the very end after learning that he had no choice.  Still, the film still hails Churchill as a great man, as the title ‘the greatest Briton that ever lived’ is flashed on screen.

There are scenes that show Churchill at his worst.  These include those where he is constantly pouring himself whisky and more so, when he takes it out on his secretary, screaming at her for little reason.  The script, written by Alex von Tunzelmann is full of great oratorical speeches, which is expected as this is a story of a man who gave the great speeches.

British actor Brian Cox is nothing short of stunning in the title role of the Prime Minister.  Cox is currently of the same age as Churchill during the time of the story.  The supporting performances of Slattery and Wadham are also impressive.  But arguably, the best performance comes surprisingly from Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill, his long suffering wife.  She does not have the freedom of the luxury of leaving her husband no matter how tortured the marriage had become.  The film emphasizes the importance of duty during the War. 

CHURCHILL is a war drama without any battle scenes.  It would serve as an effective prelude to the upcoming summer blockbuster DUNKIRK, directed by Christopher Nolan which reported is supposed to depict the horrific realities of the landing of the Allied forces on the Normandy beaches.  CHURCHILL only hints of the horrors of the landing.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVOzMZ4IrMA

IT COMES AT NIGHT (USA 2017) **
Directed by Trey Edward Shults

IT COMES AT NIGHT begins with a taut medical examination of an older man later revealed to be Bud (David Pendleton) lying on a made-shift stretcher infested with lesions and boils.  “Can you hear me?” is the question asked.  After the examination, the patient is carted off, to the woods outside a boarded up shack where he is crudely wrapped up and burnt with gasoline.

It has all been done before.  Despite writer/director Shults’s genuine effort of differentiating his film from the end of the world plaque infested survival horror flick, one cannot help but feel a certain similarity of events from start to end.  Never mind the carefully planned shocks, the effective use of enclosed space (cinematography by Drew Daniels) and darkness and never mind the effective use of sound to scare the audience.  It does not help that the script has no plot twists or has the addition of more human interaction.

The story first appears to be told from the point of view of the first family’s 17-year old teen son, Travis (Kevin Harrison Jr.)  But the view shifts later on the film as Travis has less screen presence.   The only survives on display appear to be his family.  Order is kept in the home by his father, Paul (Joel Edgerton who also co-produced the film).  His mother, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) is present and also an assortment of farm animals and dog, who are allowed in the house, apparently to prevent them from catching some deadly virus.  When they venture outside, they wear gas masks.  It is a test of survival.  When they hear a noise from outside, Tom carefully opens the door to find another man, (Christopher Abbott) looking to find his family, in this case his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and baby some food.  

Shults does not make any effort or even need to explain his film.  After the first scene (described above), the audience can correctly deduce that the apocalyptic film is in the near future.  A plaque has deserted most of civilization.  The family on display is surviving at all costs.  As expected there are intruders from the outside.  The two families ave something to share or trade.  But mistrust exists and survival takes place with sacrifice of their human souls.

It is easier to make a faultless minimalist horror film like this one that a complex film with flaws. IT COMES BY NIGHT falls into the first category.

It does not help that the film does not have a happy Hollywood ending or a closed one at that.  Despite all the film’s plusses, IT COMES AT NIGHT does not succeed at all as an original or absorbing drama or horror film.

Schultz, whose first feature KRISHA secured Shults some fame, which resulted in a two-picture deal with A24 films, IT COMES AT NIGHT being the first one.  The film had its premiere in April this year at the The Overlook Film Festival.  The film has so far, garnered favourable reviews.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YOYHCBQn9g

MEGAN LEAVEY (USA 2017) ***

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite 

MEGAN LEAVEY is a film about a girl and her dog.  Based on a true story written by Pamela Gray with the help of Annie Mumolo (BRIDESMAIDS), Tim Lovestedt, and Jordan Roberts, the story’s setting often shifts to an Afghanistan combat war zone where female Marine Megan Leavey and a combat dog named Rex have the task of exposing explosives that would lead to the saving of many lives.  The film stresses the unique bond between man (or in this case woman) and man’s best friend.

The many times told similar tale of man’s best friend comes complete with owner and dog running together from a distance re-united to scenes where the canine saves the life of its owner or in this case, dog handler.  The title of the film MEGAN LEAVEY, the name of the combatant, implies that the owner is given more importance that the canine.  In fact, the dog does not appear till about 30 minutes through the film.

The film works on many accounts.  The most important fact is the script and director Cowperthwaite’s effort in connecting the audience with the main character, Leavey.  A well-written voiceover informs the audience at the film’s start of Leavey’s problem of a lack of motivation in her home town.  When she is fired because she is unable to connect with other people, she joins the marines.   The film takes time to show her relationship with an unsympathetic mother who fails to understand.  By including scenes of Leavey suffering through boot camp, the audience sees that Leavey has accepted the punishment unfairly dished out to her. 

The film gets a bit too sappy at parts.  The cliche of the dog teaching Leavey human lessons is carried out a bit too far.  The dog and Leavey’s separation and reunion are milked for sentimentality.

For the few battle scenes that are present, Peter McNulty’s clever editing captures the suspense and terror of the soldiers securing a few buildings that are littered with hidden explosives and unseen gunmen.  Leavey and the dog, called Sergeant Rex are deployed twice in Iraq, first in Fallujy in 2005 and again in Ramadi in 2206.  During the latter, both were injured by an improvised explosive device.

While Leavey was awarded the Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with a "V" device denoting heroism in combat with retirement, Rex was pulled back into service with another handle till Rex suffered from facial palsy, which ended his bomb-sniffing duties.  This fact was surprisingly omitted in the film.

The film contains one over-preachy part when Megan’s father tells her to keep on trying and never give up despite constant failure, which is supposed to spur her to overturn a decision from preventing her adopting Rex.

The film omits the last few retirement years of Rex with Leavey though clips of  the real Rex are shown during the closing credits emphasizing that the film is based on true events.  Bring lots of Kleenex to this one.

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

THE MUMMY (USA 2017) **

Directed by Alex Kurtzman

When THE MUMMY’s opening credits begin, the words Dark Universe appears instead of the studio name Universal on the company logo.  THE MUMMY launches the studio’s Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe of classic movie monsters.  

Tom Cruise takes over the leading role from Brendan Fraser and Dwayne Johnson in this MUMMY re-boot that does not do any justice to the franchise.  Cruise plays rebel soldier Nick Morton who steals ancient artifacts, while dressed like Indiana Jones.  This runs him into trouble with an old Egyptian curse that the film spends a whole 15 minutes of opening time explaining.

It all starts way back when, when really bad Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Algerian actress, Sofia Boutella) murders her father and infant brother to usurp the throne.  As if this is not bad enough, she consorts with some demon that can give her everlasting life.  But she is caught and mummified as punishment with her body banished from Egypt.  The silly plot has the audience believe that she is put in a tomb and buried underneath London, England where she is dug up when building new tunnels for London trains, thus unleashing some curse.  That is THE MUMMY’s humour.  If that is not enough silliness, the demon  later possesses Nick Morton when Nick Morton attempts to save the day.  Tom Cruise as a demon possessed character means Tom Cruise in hyper-active mode.

The tie in of ancient times to modern day activities is laughable.  Morton is a soldier in Iraq where the enemy wants their cultural monuments destroyed.  The other tie in is the modernization of London’s trains resulting is uncovering the tombs.

The climax of the film requires the director to show that the possessed Nick Morton resurrecting Jenny (Annabelle Wallis from THE TUDORS) instead of the evil princess.  This segment is done in the most sloppy way ever. 

At a production cost of $125 million, THE MUMMY is a complete mess.  The story, pacing, acting (Cruise desperately trying to show he still has the chops), dialogue are all less than memorable.  Director Kurtzman who has never made a blockbuster special effects movie deserves some credit for two well executed action segments.  The plane crash action set-up, after Morton fires bullets in a plane causing it to crash due to cabin de-pressurization is well-executed with bodies and debris flying all around.  The other scene, an underwater segment showing the undead skeletons swimming after Morton is impressive and stunning.

The final ending is totally incoherent.  The script requires the Russell Crowe character to explain what is happening.  The next scene has Nick Morton and partner riding their horses in the desert with a voiceover promising another sequel soon in the making.  What is all this about with the horses, Morton’s possession and evil returning and some saying that it takes a monster to kill a monster?

At least four more monster movie reboots have already been planned for Universal’s Dark Universe including BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, VAN HELSING and THE WOLF MAN.  Judging from this horrid first entry, the fate of the films might follow the equally horrid DC’s extended universe films MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, SUICIDE SQUAD and the mediocre WONDER WOMAN.  It looks like the mummy’s curse desperately needs to be broken.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjHgzkQM2Sg

THE SKYJACKER’S TALE (Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Jamie Kastner

These two years have seen a presence of excellent African American films including the Best Film Oscar winner, MOONLIGHT.  The documentary THE SKYJACKER’S TALE is one of them, telling the little known story of Ishmael Muslim Ali (aka LaBeet).  The film’s timing is perfect as Kastner captures Ali’s first interview since his hijacking.

Kastner cautiously plays both sides.  Kastner makes it clear that Ali had been sentenced to 8 years lifetime imprisonment to be served consecutively - whatever that means.  Ali was brutally tortured in jail too.  So when he was transported on an American Airlines plane, it would only seem natural for him to try an escape.  After all what has he to lose, but lots to gain?

The two reenactments of the massacre of the 8 people at the St. Crois’ Fountain Valley  golf course (which Ali was convicted of) in he Virgin Islands and the plane hijacking make this documentary are exciting as any action fiction feature.  And this is the real thing.

There are many reasons and much to enjoy in Kastner’s documentary.  For one, it is short at 76 minutes and to the point.  It is exciting and based on true events.  The subject has his say in the interview, from start to the end of the film.  Kastner shifts the audience’s point of view of the man.  In the start, he is described by others as a terrorist, a truly evil person and a killer.  By the end of the film, the audience sees a different person - one that is totally mistreated by society.  Ali has a dream of escaping and it is difficult not to side with someone who lives up to his dream.

Kastner has also assembled an impressive list of interviewees to aid the film’s credibility.  Among them are the police officials (who admit to torturing Ali), the St Crois prison guards, the prosecutor and defendant lawyers.  For the hijacking, Kastner also got the pilot, flight attendant and a passenger to talk on camera.

The film is not without humour.  The film ends on a funny note where Ali reveals how he smuggled the gun from prison on to the plane through the metal detectors.

As stated by one of the talking heads in the film, the issue at hand is not whether Ali was guilty of the crime.  The issue was the wrong-doing done by the justice system and the prison authorities and guards - especially the torture of hanging the men from the trees, using electric cattle prods and water torture.

By the end of the film, the audience is totally on the side of Ali, hoping he is successful in his escape to Cuba.  This he was.  When imprisoned in Cuba for the hijacking, he claims on interview that he was glad to be imprisoned in Cuba, away from the f***ing Americans.

After the opening of this disturbing document of injustice done on the black people, the coming week will see the equally arousing bio-pic of the true story of rap singer Tupac (ALL EYEZ ON ME) who was shot dead at the age of 25.  He too was imprisoned and tortured in prison.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ydbAhwJ4MI&feature=youtu.be

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