Two worthy animated features open this week. Disney Pixar’s COCO and Angelina Jolie’s executively produced THE BREADWINNER.
BEST 5 FILMS PLAYING:
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
THE BREADWINNER (USA 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Nora Twomey
As cute as the animation of THE BREADWINNER is, the film’s charm lies more in the delicious tale set in a foreign county where surprises can occur around every corner. Surprises can be good or bad, but the good ones are elating.
THE BREADWINNER is animated feature created from an innovative mix of 2-D animation with acrylic and digitally painted environments, as well as digital paper cut–out segments. It is Nora Twomey’s first solo directorial debut after making two other animated features SONG OF THE SEA (2014) and THE STORY OF KELLS (2009). The story is a current one centred on woman’s rights in a male dominated country. Angelina Jolie, known for her humanitarian efforts executively produced this film.
Based on Deborah Ellis' award-winning novel, the story centres on an 11-year-old Afghan girl Parvana, born into an ever-changing world of conflict and oppression in Kabul, who finds strength in the love of her family and the power of storytelling. Kabul is Taliban controlled and Parvana sees her father suddenly whisked to prison for no reason. Her family - mother, older sister and baby brother are unable to fend for themselves. Parvana dresses up as a boy in order to go around town to buy food and to work as the family breadwinner.
It’s just the way it is. That is the reason things are the way they are in Afghanistan. Those are the words uttered to her when she is told that she is unable to visit her father in prison.
Still, if there is a will there is a way, especially if money involved.
“Don’t do anything that stupid.” “I will find him. Nothing you can do will stop me.” That is her determination to see her imprisoned father. Her spirit is enough to inspire as the film does occasionally.
As in most animation, magic plays a big part in the film’s enchantment. In THE BREADWINNER, the magic comes from the story she tells her little brother. The story is so original and magical that it almost eclipses the main one at hand. The story involves a village that had the village’s seeds for the next year stolen by the jaguars of the evil Elephant King. The boy’s quest is to get the seeds back and thus save the worried villagers from starvation. To overcome the elephant king, the boy has to find things, that shine and ensnare. It is a good story which intercuts to the main one at the climax of Twomey’s film. One wonders though as this is a strong female movie, the reason the hero in the story of the Elephant King was not a female in the first place. The score by Jeff Danna and Mychael Danna features traditional musicians and young voices partly recorded in Kabul.
THE BREADWINNER is a story of oppression that stresses the message that one can accomplish wonders from pure determination. It is also one that best be told animated as the story might have turned out too harsh as a full live action film. The animation is beautifully done as the film’s story is one that matters that needs be told.
COCO (USA 2017) ***** TOP 10
Directed Lee Unkrich
COCO has excellent animation. One only has to sit back and concentrate on the details to notice the painstaking efforts made to produce the marvel that is witnessed on screen. Disney had a presentation before the press screening of COCO to show how some of the animation was done and planned through one of COCO’s Canadian animators from Burlington, Ontario. One shows petals dumped into Miguel (the film’s protagonist) mouth and his spitting them out, his tongue coming out twice from his mouth. This is shown in real life how a person would do it, followed by the animation and how the animation was improved by the director’s notes. The same was demonstrated with the loose skin under Mama Coco’s jaws and arms.
As the saying goes: The devil is in the details. Beside the animation details, the keen observations made in real life projected as animation on the screen also creates the magic of Disney. The main character is Mama Coco in the film, who is losing her memory from Alzheimer’s and bound to a wheelchair. Yet whenever, she is moved around, she received a kiss on her cheek by Miguel or by her daughter in the film. This kiss works wonders in affecting audience emotions as everyone will come across an aged relative at one time or another who will be losing his/her memory.
Other magical moments, important in an animation tale include the real magic in the story. In COCO, there is the crossing of the two worlds of the living and the dead. It is a clever twist on Mexican legend of the festival of the dead. COCO plays like a fairytale, Mexican style without the snow, ice and royalty. But there are still the classical elements of a fairytale like a long journey to be made, magic, a faithful animal (a smart street dog) and a quest (to find music). The dialogue based on the script by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich contains many quotable lines like: “Never estimate the power of music”; “Got to have faith in your dream” and “Grab your dream and make it come through’, to list a few of many.
Miguel is forced to make the choice of music when confronted to decide between music and family, for that is where his heart is. He learns later through his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, that the singer is not all that he makes out to be. It is a sweet story of truth and the film completes Miguel coming-of-age and rites-of-passage as he is forced to correct a wrong.
Despite all the feel-good moments and magic, COCO has the element of death throughout. Miguel crosses into the land of death. His great grandmother, Mama Coco is at the point of dying. Music is also dead in Miguel’s family. Skeletons and dead people are always around Miguel.
The magic question now is how successful at the box-office COCO will be. Will it beat its toughest challenger FROZEN? COCO is a Mexican based story compared to FROZEN’s all white caucasian fairy tale. COCO is the best animated feature this year.
LAST FLAG FLYING (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Richard Linklater
Director Linklater broke into the film-making scene with youth films like SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED. He progressed into romantic comedies like BEFORE SUNRISE and BEFORE SUNSET, but with a more realistic edge. His breakthrough film was the highly acclaimed BOYHOOD that reported too12 years in the making. His latest, LAST FLAG FLYING is arguably most serious film, dealing with real adults coming to terms with their lives and with the death of one of the sons.
LAST FLAG FLYING is based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan co-written by him and Linklater. The film understandably contain the least improvisation of Linklater’s work, the story bound by the novel and the script that Linklater co-wrote. The more structured narrative serves as both an advantage to his film with more focus but then lacks some of the inventive energy he is so well known for.
The time setting is 2003. 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with ex-Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) on a different type of mission: to bury Doc's son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. This is a serious road trip reuniting the marines as the three reminisce on what they themselves have gone through.
Linklater is unafraid of the use of strong language in his script. Foul language involving the ‘f’ word is common along with talon drugs and prostitution (though none are on display on screen).
The story takes its time to unfold - the film more devoted to character development than plot revelation. The film is not without humour despite its serious theme, quite a it of it deriving from Cranston’s character.
The film’s tagline is: Their last mission was not on the battlefield. The film’s story is a bit dated, and the film would definitely be a hard sell since it is about ex-marines during the Vietnam War with a bit on the Iraqi War that Americans are also trying to forget. Would one want to spend two hours in a theatre watching ex-marines mopping on their past?
The film contains solid performances by Steve Carell (almost unrecognizable with moustache) in more serious form as well as Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, in contrast in lighter mode. Oscar nominated Actress Cicely Tyson (SOUNDER) does a nice turn in a cameo role. The film definitely benefits from its 3 relatively big stars playing ex-Vietnam Marines.
LAST FLAG FLYING is the unofficial sequel to the 1973 film directed by Hal Ashby which also starred Jack Nicholson. Though LAST FLAG FLYING is not bad, it comes no where close to the biting humour and satirical approach of THE LAST DETAIL.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (Ireland/Canada 2017) *
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
The last Christmas Ireland and Canada collaborated on a film that had a setting in NYC was the film BROOKLYN that was an immense success, critically, commercially and financially. THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS appears on paper as another perfect adaptation, that begins in NYC at Yuletide. This is the story of how Charles Dickens came to write about A CHRISTMAS CAROL, the arguably most popular of all his novels - yes the one where Ebenezer Scrooge turned over a new leaf after meeting the ghosts of Christmas, past present and future.
The film opens in 1943 in NYC, right after Dickens (played cheerfully by DOWNTON ABBEY’s Dan Stevens) achieved fame an success from his latest book “Oliver Twist”. He is the toast of the town. An appearance at a theatre shows him over celebrated amidst dancing fanfare and fireworks that shock him, literally to the ground.
The idea of making a film about the writing process of A CHRISTMAS CAROL instead of another remake make seems more logical given the uncountable number of film or TV films made already. Unfortunately, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS based on the reported well-researched book of the same name by Les Standiford on the inspirations behind Charles Dickens' beloved 'A Christmas Carol,' is a travesty.
For one, though the biopic reveals lesser-known details of the author's life, these details are not so favourable, thus changing the beloved view the public has on the man - not a good idea at Christmas, the time of good cheer. Dickens is portrayed as a man who loves fame, who is often out of touch with his family and book ideas. He thinks he can come up with a hit at any time and the fact that he has had several flops after “Oliver Twist” never bothers him. He does not have any financial sense. But worse of all, director Nalluri makes the fatal mistake to reveal that Dickens steals ideas and names, and does not possess original ideas for his stories.
To make matters worse, Christmas is depicted here as dying commercially. It is deemed to be an excuse for workers to take a day off. Dickens is shown the awkwardness of a tall Christmas tree, and told that the Germans use it.
The film does look good with sufficiently cheery Christmas period atmosphere with horse drawn carriages and some snow.
The films highlights Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer in the role of Scrooge. Plummer only briefly appears and does the customary performance that is nothing special.
THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS offers nothing more than the disgusting artificial cheer of the season. Everyone is supposed to be in good spirits with all the problems of the world hidden away. A predictable story, bland direction and unconvincing acting among other things result in this very bland and boring Christmas film.
There is only one word to describe THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. In the words of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Humbug!”
ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL is a film that tries very hard to be perfect, just as its subject, ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ (Denzel Washington) tries to be. But perfection is a state that is almost impossible to achieve with regards to the film and its subject, and this point comes clear at the end of the film. Which is a shame considering writer/director Gilroy’s noble intentions.
The film begins with a document in the making, with a plaintiff and defendant named the same person Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film flashbacks three years earlier to explain how this state of affairs comes to be.
Gilroy introduces his man, Israel as a noble man, but one that is not respected by many as this is a man not of the world, but of humbler means but with proud aspirations. He works in a small law firm with his partner taking on small cases that matter in terms of human rights and fairness. The partner does all the court appearances while Israel all the ground work. When his partner, the firm’s front man, has a heart attack, Israel suddenly takes on that role. He finds out some unsettling things about what the crusading law firm has done that run afoul of his values of helping the poor and dispossessed, and he finds himself in an existential crisis that leads to extreme action.
Into the his world arrives two people that make a difference. One is Maya (Carmen Ejogo) who looks up to him and who he eventually falls in love with. The other is the head of a well established and successful law firm, Arthur (Colin Farrell) whom his partner taught and inspired in law school. Arthur takes Israel in, hoping to find his conscience that he has almost lost in the world of business and law.
What stands out in this incredible story is Roman’s downfall. Like any other man, he is tempted by the good life. Roman takes a bite of the apple in the garden of Eden. The apple arrives in the reward money Roman quietly takes from one of his cases. And he is found out.
A lot of the film rests on Oscar Winner Denzel Washington’s performance. Roman is the main subject who is in almost every scene. Roman not only undergoes a character change once but twice from good to bad and to good again. The character also undergoes a rites-of-passage where he learns about life itself. But the surprise and prized performance comes from Colin Farrell. Farrell douses his unkempt and portly appearance he donned in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER and THE LOBSTER to reveal a sexy business executive, a Mr. Perfect looking sharp and sexy in his perfectly tailored suits and groomed hair. He finally shows his transition from action actor to star commanding the screen presence in this film so magnificently.
One wishes ROMAN the film would have come out more powerful. The main problem is the film aiming too high. A classic movie arrives with minor flaws, some dull parts and surprises just as what life dishes out. Gilroy’s ROMAN J. ISRAEL, entertaining though it may be, is just too meticulously planned.