This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 22, 2019)

22 Feb 2019

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 opens this week to compete with the LEGO MOVIE 2.  The German entry nominated for Best Foreign Language Film NEVER LOOK AWAY also opens.  Also check out the Oscar nominated shorts - animated, live-live-action and documentary which are a delight to watch.  These are now playing at the Bell Lightbox.

BEST FILMS PLAYING:

 

Best Animation:

The Lego Movie 2

 

Best Documentary:
They Shall not Grow Old

 

Best Foreign: 

Never Look Away

 

Best Drama:

Ben is Back

 

Bets Horror/Sci-fi:

Bird Book

 

 

 

 

 

 

FILM REVIEWS:

 

ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE (China 2018) ****

Directed by Jia Zhangke

The first 15 minutes of ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE shows the difference between China and the western world.  Everyone is smoking in the train that goes into the city.  Smoking is still allowed everywhere in 2001, China.   When Qiao arrives at a mah-jong parlour. she hits several men who tease her hard on the back.  Hitting is tolerated.  A debt argument in the parlour results in a firearm pulled out and pointed at the debtor.  This is clearly a China or country one is unfamiliar with, which would make a good intriguing story for a film.  The first half of the film is set in 2001 and the second half in 2006 after Qiao has served a 5-year jail sentence for firing an illegal gun.  She did it to protect her gangster boyfriend, who leaves her when she gets out of jail.

The story follows Qiao, a strong willed woman who survives the changing environment of cultural progress and her relationship changes.  Qiao never break down.  The film begins in Shanxi, a dying coal town, where Qiao, a modern, feisty local beauty spends her time with her boyfriend, Guo Bin, a local gang boss.  Qiao takes care of her father, who insists on fighting for the coal workers’ rights, although in an embarrassing fashion.  Qiao is not Bin’s woman, as she carries herself as an equal among gangsters. When a group of young thugs starts making noise in the town, the clash with Bin’s gang is inevitable, and in the film’s most violent scene, Qiao ends up saving her boyfriend by shooting a gun, in a series of events that lead her to prison.

Five years later, and during the fourth phase in the evacuation of the Three Gorges Dam Project area, Qiao is released and tries to reconnect with Bin, who is is avoiding her.

ASH is a female dominated picture.  The protagonist, Qiao is a survivor.   When she is robbed, she pursues and cares her thief and retrieves the stolen I.D. and money.  When sex affronted by a motorcyclist, she steals his bike.  The film is told from Qiao’s point of view.

Jia’s sprawling film can hardly be classified as a particular type of genre.  It is a character study while the protagonist undergoes changes in her life as society progresses as well.  New cities have sprung up and adapting is difficult.  Jia’s shows that one cannot always control destiny.  Qiao and Bin begins as a  decent couple, not overtly loving but not in an abusive relationship either.  Bin’s gangster connections lead him to trouble. One can see and pity Qiao.  She loves him and sacrifices 5 years of her life for the man she loves, spending it in prison and still helping him along when Bin loses everything while becoming a cripple.  One can see Bin’s bitterness.  Bin also cheats on Qiao with another woman.  “I don't hate you.  I do not have any feelings for you,” Qiao tells Bin at the end.

The film’s message is revealed during early in the film.  Bin tells Qiao, “Enjoy the moment.”

Jia’s film is never short of surprises.  The surprises propel the narrative and are not without reason.  One of these involves Qiao on a train where she meets, by chance a loud man trying to recruit others for his UFO-tourism company.  “Yes, I have seen one.” Qiao quips.

ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE  is a moving story, one so deep in emotional content that it should keep audiences fully glued to the characters and the story.

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

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Dean DuBlois

Two years after the first sequel, Toothless the dragon and Hiccup the dragon trainer , along with their fellow dragon riders and friends, continue to rescue captured dragons in order to bring them back to Berk and create a bustling dragon and human utopia.  Unfortunately, their efforts have also resulted in the island becoming severely overpopulated with dragons. In a response to the overcrowding, Hiccup desires to find the "Hidden World", a safe haven for dragons that his late father Stoick told him about.  Meanwhile, a white Fury dragon, held captive by warlords, is given to infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly as bait for him to capture Toothless for the warlords' use as an alpha.

Toothless discovers the white Fury (dubbed a "Light Fury" by Astrid) in the woods and the two quickly become enchanted with each other until the Light Fury, sensing Hiccup's nearby presence, flees. Hiccup and Tuffnut later discover Grimmel's dragon traps in the area. Grimmel visits Hiccup that night, but Hiccup has prepared an ambush to capture him; Grimmel escapes, burning down Hiccup's house and part of Berk in the process. In response, Hiccup rallies the citizens and dragons to leave Berk on a quest to find the Hidden World and safety from dragon hunters. The rest of the plot is silliness and uninspired writing from director DuBlois.  There is the climatic fight between Grimmel and Hiccup while Fury and Toothless fall in love.  The Hidden World is now the place the dragons reside without their masters, now humans and dragons in their own worlds till the next sequel. What is lacking in plot an story is more than made up by special effects and solid animation.  Often there is too much going on-screen than meets the eye.  The film is best seen in 3-D IMAX but the screening I saw was in normal 2-D.  Still the film looks stupendous.  The humour is only slight and could do with a lot more funnier.  The dialogue comes off as ‘cute and amusing’ at best.

Jay Baruchel does a good voice characterization as Hiccup as does F. Murray Abraham as the villain Grimmel.  But the best of all voices come from comedienne Kristen Wiig as the annoying Tuffnut.  The dragons do not speak so no voices from Toothless or Fury.  The filmmakers seem to oddly love the Vikings speaking with a Scots accent.

The film turns too romantic and sappy, especially with two twin romantic couples - Hiccup and Astrid and the dragons Toothless and Fury.  The dragon  matingis overextended and silly.  Worse still, the film goes on several years into the future when each couple show up complete with overcute offspring.

The film will likely take over the box-office #1 spot this weekend.  The film has already broken even making $175 million internationally at the time of writing, more than its $129 million budget and it has not even opened in North America.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYe7oMmCFr0

 

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Germany 2018) Top 10 *****
Directed by
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

 

German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is known for his excellent work (the past Oscar Winner for Best Foreign Language film: THE LIVES OF OTHERS) and the crappy (the Johnny Depp flop THE TOURIST).  His latest outing puts the man back up on the pedestal with his handsomely mounted period piece looking back at Germany’s most famous painter set in Nazi times.  NEVER LOOK AWAY, the German title, WERK OHN AUTOR however translates to something quite different - work without author, which accurately describes the painter Gerhard Richter’s work.

NEVER LOOK AWAY offers a look at the Nazi Germans that is seldom seen and hardly known. It deals with the Nazi crimes the Nazis do to their own people.  Germans who have disabilities are gassed and put to death just as the Jews were.

The film, inspired by the life of the German painter Gerhard Richter, follows art student Kurt Barnert (Tom Schilling) as an adult in post-war East Germany.  He falls in love with fellow student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), but her father, Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), opposes their relationship.  Complications arise as Carl’s role in the Nazi eugenics program becomes known.

What is most interesting in the film is watching how personalities are developed. The boy Kurt ’s visit to the art museum (exhibition: “Entartete Kunst" (degenerate art) in Dresden) as a child with a strict no-nonsense guide puts food for thought in the growing boy’s mind.  Carl Seeband, proudly Nazi is jailed but released following a good deed that develops his dour character in his later life.  Ironies abound.  Seeband destroys his own bloodline to keep it pure.  Truth is still told though it is already known.  These are additional pleasures in the film.

Also fascinating is the display of alternative art in the film - the sort that can be seen in European Contemporary Art museums in Europe.  These include canvas slashing, wallpaper art, a potato pendulum, and fats and grease sculpturing.

The film best performance is delivered by Sebastian Koch, and delivered with such military effectiveness as the part he portrays - a Nazi medical professor hiding from the authorities after the downfall of the Nazis.

The film’s sex scenes deserve mention.  The first one is the main and longest one while the others three  more are reminders of the love and sexual attraction the lovers have for each other.  The sex scenes are exceptionally erotic aided by the fact that the two main leads are  almost perfect human specimen

The film though touted as the unofficial biography of Gerhard Richter, one of Germany’s most famous painters, has been declared by Richter himself, in a journal - his displeasure at the film and of the film’s portrayal of his life.  As such the main character in the lead is not called Gerhard Richler but by another name.  But the director and the painter did spend many, many days in conversation with the painter revealing his life to the director.  One can clearly see many instances in the film that are beautifully written and created with too many life lessons and ironies - something too good to occur in real life. 

Many of Richler’s paintings are on display in the film - especially the ones he painted of blurry photographs.  The woman and child, the Nazi officers including the coloured nude woman  at the top of the staircase are all on display.  In an interview

The film concentrates on Richler’s first wife.  Nothing is mentioned of his other two wives, the latter of which accompanied the director and Richler himself on their meetings.

NEVER LOOK AWAY has been nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Best Cinematography.  It faces tough competition from the likes of favourite ROMA and CAPERNAUM, but NEVER LOOK AWAY is just as brilliantly conceived and executed as either film.  It has my vote for the prize.

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

 

RAMEN SHOP (Singapore/Japan/France 2018) ***1/2

Directed by Eric Khoo

 

The third film of Singaporean director Eric Khoo named after noodles (after MEE POK MAN and WANTON SOUP) RAMEN SHOP shows Khoo at his sappiest and most melodramatic.  Despite this flaw, RAMEN SHOP still shows the director's brilliance especially when he meticulously examines both sides of the Singapore-Japan relationship.  Not many westerners are aware that the Japanese did far worse than the Nazis in torturing their enemies especially during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore during WWII.  The film sees a young Japanese, Masato (Takumi Saito) travelling to Singapore to discover his roots and to make peace with his grandmother (Beatrice Chien).  This is achieved with the help of his comical uncle (Mark Lee) through the fine-tuning of a gourmet dish - bak-kut-teh.  This is Singapore as it really is, as depicted by Khoo in all his movies where the Chinese speak ‘Singlish’ and not perfect English with a western accent as in CRAZY RICH ASIANS and where the citizens live in cramped single or double roomed flats and not in mansions holding extensive parties.  Khoo is Singapore’s film pioneer and his films have won awards the world over including at Cannes.  As this is Khoo’s first film to get a commercial release, it is the chance for Toronto to watch a quality film made by a top-notch Singapore director.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joHJKFC77ic

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