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This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 12, 2010)

11 Nov 2010

Films opening this week include SKYLINE (no press screening and hence no review), MONSTERS and thriller UNSTOPPABLE.

In Toronto, ReelAsian film festival opens with a good selection of Asian fare including a sneak peek of  IP MAN 2 which opens in the U.S. Jan 2011.

Film Reviews:

CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER (USA 2010) ***1/2

Directed by Alex Gibney 

The master of controversial documentaries such as TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, Alex Gibney takes on the story of Eliot Spitzer, the New York Governor who fell from grace in this just as spirited film.

Director Gibney’s work in CLIENT 9 is less difficult than in his other 2 films.  He had to go out exposing the truth in TAXI and ENRON, likely facing reluctance and opposition from companies and the government in releasing information leading to the truth.  In CLIENT 9, Gibney’s subjects (Spitzer and his enemies) would more than likely volunteer information s they would want the world to know their version of the truth.  Here, Spitzer and his enemies are interviewed and both parties are gung-ho in telling their story.

But whatever side one is on, one cannot doubt the guts of Eliot Spitzer for taking on such formidable foes.  Known as the "The Sheriff of Wall Street" when he was New York''s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer aimed his fire at some of America''s largest financial institutions and their most powerful executives in the country.

Spitzer''s roster of business targets included Richard Grasso, onetime head of the New York Stock Exchange; Ken Langone, once an NYSE director; and Hank Greenberg, CEO of AIG.  Eliot Spitzer made a lot of enemies.  One of them claims that it was as good as seeing evil written on Spitzer’s forehead.

Gibney shows both sides of his subject – his good side, exposing the villains and corrupt company officials and also his bad side, when he allows Spitzer’s enemies to say what they want about him on screen.  His rise and downfall are well documented as well as his slow but unsuccessful rise again to political office.

But the audience can see Gibney’s soft side for Spitzer.  He has the point put across that Spitzer’s only sin was his adultery and many, many like Clinton have also succumbed but emerged unscathed.  But it is the powerful enemies of Spitzer who ensue that their enemy is totally destroyed.

Gibeny’s film is full of anger and spirit with hardly a dull moment.  At the end of the film, one only wishes that Spitzer never visited the Emperor’s Club so that he could continue exposing the corrupt, but all human beings are fallible one way or the other.

 

 

DOWN TERRACE (UK 2009) ***
Directed by Ben Wheatley

Real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill play a dysfunctional father and son in the dark crime drama DOWN TERRACE. 

Robert plays Bill, just released from prison back to his terraced home. Hence the title.  In Britain, a terraced house is one where its side walls are shared with the neighbours’ houses.  The place is small and the family including the mum, Maggie (Julia Deakin) see too much of each other.  The first half of the film sees Bill trying to get revenge on the rat that sent him to prison.  During the second half, the film shifts focus on the ups and downs (downs mainly) of the family.  Complications arise when Bill’s son Karl’s girlfriend (Kerry Peacock) shows up pregnant at the door.

“I do not want any drama,” screams Maggie at one point in the movie.  But an abundance of drama is afoot coupled with bouts of violence.  There is a stabbing and a clobbering with a hammer with lots of blood thrown in.  The family does drugs as if taking daily medication.  DOWN TERRACE is no happy families, though the family tries to be.  “Let us be happy families”, says Karl at the dinner table after an altercation.

The film is set in sea-side Brighton though the audience never gets to see the sea, beach or pier.  Instead Wheatley shows the dumps around the city where a body gets dumped.

Wheatley’s humour is extremely dark.  Consider the film’s funniest scene where the hit man pushes a woman right into the path of a speeding car.  This is a story about idiots trying to get out of their idiotic life in idiotic ways.  In the similar recent British drama.also about a crime family ANIMAL KINGDOM, there was a way out for the protagonist.  Here, there is none!

DOWN TERRACE is often a nasty piece of work!  But it is at least a very well-done piece of work.

 

I WISH I KNEW (China 2010) ***

Directed by Jia Zhang-ke

Following the footsteps of 24 CITY, I WISH I KNEW is director Jia’s documentary or part-documentary of the Chinese city of Shanghai told from the points of view of different people of ages and walks of life.

This is a history of Shanghai from its establishment as a port of business to its liberation in 1949 to the present day.  Other places like Taiwan are also interweaved into the story.  Told non-chronically, I WISH I KNEW is history from a personal perspective.  Many of the interviewees end up weeping as their stories are very sad, often involving death or execution of their loved ones.  Though most incidents are foreign (actress Zhao Tao, race car champion Han Han) to North America, Jia includes a few more familiar segments involving famous Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien and Italian master Antonioni.

I WISH I KNEW would more likely interest those familiar or interested in Chinese culture.  For the rest, though the film appears light and playful, the events are too loosely strung together to make a more meaningful focus.

 

KISSES (Ireland 2010) *****

Direceted by Lance Daly

KISSES begins with pre-teen Dylan (Shane Curry) hiding in the cupboard underneath the stairs as his father goes into a temper tantrum rampage.  Leaving the house, he is confronted by his pre-teen neighbour, Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) who asks him: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – a very relevant question considering the event that has just occurred.

The film is a small budget gem of two kids who runaway from their home in the outskirts of Dublin.  They escape into the recesses of the dark night of Dublin wandering in and out of the Temple bar area, shopping (at Top Shop, where else?), eating and running from scary adults, one of which wants to rape the under-aged Kelly.  But their quest is to find Dylan’s brother, ran away from home two years earlier never to be seen again.  The brother is never seen and the city has eaten him up, as Dylan says.

Daly paints a very bleak picture of life for the two heroes but his film is so full of charm and life’s little surprises.  One is the meeting of a street musician who calls himself the music God, spewing up melodies of Boy Dylan.  The other is a recent immigrant who drives a barge up the river.  He does monkey impressions and sings like a lark.

But it is the interaction of the two pre-teens that make the movie.  The kiss they finally share at the end of the movie would show Hollywood a thing or two about how to make romantic movies.

Director Dylan also handles his action scenes with great finesse.  The two with the boy chasing down the would-be rapists in the car and the boy’s escape from his furious dad are two of the most exciting segments seen in a film this year.

KISSES is a film of contrasts.  A downer adventure set during the festive Christmas season with kids stuck in an adult world.  KISSES is also a little picture that bursts any expectations.  It makes my top 10 list of best films for 2010.

As one character says in the film: “Kisses, you either give or you take!”  KISSES has plenty to be given and taken and should not be missed!

 

MONSTERS (UK 2010) **
Directed by Gareth Edwards

Except for a short glimpse of the monster during the pre-credits, the squid-like gigantic alien is never shown until the first half of the film is done.  Hitchcock used that trick to create intense anticipation in THE BIRDS, mirrored by Spielberg in JAWS, but in MONSTERS, what happens in the second half is more than a let-down. 

The plot for MONSTERS concerns an unlikely couple, journalist photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) assigned to take care of magazine heiress, Sam (Whitney Able), looking very much like Paris Hilton, as they have to take a journey across the contaminated zone to reach back safe territory in the U.S.  The first half of the film show the couple overcoming obstacles in getting a passage through land and water and the second half has them falling love while dodging one monster attack. 

The film was reported made without a working script.  It shows as the film lacks direction as much as the characters appear lost finding their way!

The monster attack sequence is rather lame with director Edwards deciding to film tow squids mating.  What the f***?  The result is a different, no doubt, monster movie but one that makes little sense or generates much excitement.  The special effects are impressive though!

 

MORNING GLORY (USA 2010) ***

Directed by Roger Michell

MORNING GLORY tells the story of a hotshot Television executive producer who saves a struggling morning show program in the guise of a romantic comedy.  It stars chic flick master Rachel McAdams and is written by 27 DRESSES and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA writer Aline Brosh McKenna.

The script is nothing out of the ordinary.  Becky (McAdams) gets fired and is hired at half the salary at Daybreak by Jerry Barnes (Jeff Goldblum), the morning show with the lowest ratings.  She blackmails a top newsman, Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to co-host the show with regular Colleen Beck (Diane Keaton), a bitter woman who knows has how ahs no hope.  Naturally, the two do not get along, which allows McKenna to write in quite a few good insulting banter between both of them.  While all this is going on, the workaholic Becky falls for local hunk, Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson).  And of course, she saves the show in the process.

Despite the predictable storyline, Roger Michell’s (PERSUASION, NOTTING HILL) film is full of laugh-out loud moments.  Though many of the jokes are peripheral and only slightly to do with the plot (Diane Keaton wrestling in a body suit; the weatherman shot live on a roller coaster ride), the film maintains the laughs from start to finish. 

 The two veterans Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford steal the show from Rachel McAdams, She tries hard enough with her clumsy overworking character that was very annoying at the start eventually growing endearing.  Hardly the same can be said for Patrick Wilson who seems to be in the picture only for his good looks.

As they say, the audience will forgive an awful film if it makes them laugh. Fortunately, MORNING GLORY is not that awful at all.  See it for all the laughs are guaranteed!

 

UNSTOPPABLE (USA 2010) ***1/2

Directed by Tony Scott

A variation of the highly successful SPEED about a runaway train, this new action thriller entitled UNSTOPPABLE deals with a something more ambitious, a runaway train.  Not that a runaway train has not been dealt with before, there was a Russian 1985 film with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts playing convicts on a runaway train, also with no brakes.

Directed by Tony Scott who has proved himself apt with action films like DAYS OF THUNDER and TOP GUN, UNSTOPPABLE also deals with two heroes.  An Engineer, Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and a rookie conductor, Will Colson (Chris Pine from STAR TREK) race against time to stop a runaway train carrying a cargo of toxic chemicals before derailing on a curve that will decimate a town.

The special effects are impressive, the best being the chase sequences when the cars are sped up to equal speed alongside the train, so that a man could hop on from the car to the train.  The derailing explosion segment should also satisfy pyrotechnic fans.

For a film that starts and ends with a runaway train, the script by Mark Bomback contains sufficient material for a 100 minute movie.  The usual distractions are present – like the family problems of the two heroes.  These are discussed mostly, aboard the train, and humorously too (especially how Colson got his restraining order) during the breaks when their locomotive is travelling.  Though there are no real villains in the film, Kevin Dunn is excellent as the sleazy railroad boss the audience would love to hate while Ethan Suplee does a good turn as the lazy, smart-ass employee responsible for the disaster.  The casting of Rosario Dawson (she is of multi-ethic heritage) as a non-white smart, all-together female railroad boss is also a good move.  Worthy of mention too is relatively unknown Lew Temple who plays and steals the show as country-boy Ned who helps save the day.

One would also note the self promotion of Fox 43 News Network that is used to display what is happening to the train on screen, as UNSTOPPABLE is a 20th Century Fox film.

One can complain about Oscar Washington and upcoming Pine opting for more challenging material than commercial no-brainers.  But as far as commercial no-brainers go, this one isn’t half bad, and Hollywood’s better actors need solid hits like this one to keep them comfortable enough to pick more worthwhile projects.

 UNSTOPPABLE is very exciting well-paced action from start to finish. Once the train runs unstoppable, the audience is given a good ride for their money.

 

Best Bets of the Week:

Best Film Opening This Week: Kisses
Best Film Playing: Fair Game
Best Family: Megamind
Best Doc: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Best Foreign: Le Pere de mes Enfants

Avoid: For Colored Girls

REEL ASIAN 2010-11-09

The 14th Reel Asian Film Festival runs from Nov 9th to Nov 15th at various cinemas downtown.  Films arrive from the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and other parts of Asia.

Highlights include the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival Best Picture BI, DON’T BE AFRAID from Vietnam.  Also screening is IP MAN 2, the follow-up to the successful IP MAN and my favourite of the festival, the closing night film AU REVOIR TAIWAN.

Workshops and music presentations are also open to the public.

For the complete program, check the website at:-

http://www.reelasian.com/

Capsule reviews are provided for key films at the festival.

AU REVOIR TAIPEI (Taiwan 2010) ****

Directed by Arvin Cheng

AU REVOIR TAIPEI begins with 3 shots, one of a busy lit night street of the city, one of a group doing tai-chi and the other of a train making a curve on a monorail.  These are beautiful shots of the city of Taipei and as the film goes on, it is clear that director Cheng has a particular love for this city.  The story concerns a nerdy youth who pines after his girl who has moved to Paris at the start of the film.  In his effort to learn French, he meets up with a girl at the bookstore and the two take on an adventure that takes them into the Taipei night where they encounter hoods in orange suits, a cocky cop in a leather jacket and the delivery of a McGuffin (Hitchcock style) which propels the plot.  The film has the freshness of Godard’s A BOUT DE SOUFFLE as the two young lovers escape cops and hoods.  Cheng uses music and movement to great effect with his film feeling fresh, light and totally enjoyable.  Chen was Edward Yang’s apprentice and with this film executively produced by Wim Wenders, this must say something of the talent of director/writer Arvin Cheng.  But see this film for yourself to find out the pleasures of Taipei and of this film about Taipei.

 

BI, DON’T BE AFRAID (Vietnam, France, Germany 2010) ***
Directed by Dang Di Phan

This slow moing but effective art-house piece is set in an old house in Hanoi, where the main lead, Bi lives with his parents, his aunt and their cook. His favorite playgrounds are an ice factory and the wild grass along the river. After being absent for years, his grandfather, seriously ill, reappears and settles at their house. While Bi gets closer to his grandfather, his father tries to avoid any contact with his family. Every night, he gets drunk and goes and see his masseuse, for whom he feels a quiet strong desire. Bi''s mother turns a blind eye on it. The aunt, still single, meets a 16-year-old young boy in the bus. Her attraction to him moves her deeply.  The goings-on are seen largely from the point of view of Bi, but it is the cook who knows what is going on.  There are lots of nasties that occur in what apparently appears to be a normal family.  Aunt masturbates with the ice with her sex craving eventually settled by a youth she meets on the bus.  There is no climax to the story except to emphasize the fact that life goes on.  An interesting and original piece!

 

DOOMAN RIVER (South Korea/France 2010) ***

Directed by Lu Zhang

Heavily patrolled by armed soldiers, the Dooman is a frigid river on the border of North Korea and China. More than 400,000 Koreans have risked their lives to cross the river in order to reach China.  The story  highlights the friendship between two 12-year-olds: Chang-Ho, a Chinese-born Korean living in a poor border town in China with his grandfather and mute sister; and a starving Korean boy who crosses the river in search of food for his sick sister. Sharing what little his family has, Chang-Ho welcomes the Korean boy and invites him to play soccer with his friends.  But animosity exists between the Koreans an the Chinese as is eminent in the state announcements encouraging the Chinese to report illegal immigrants.  Violence erupts at tomes in the borer village.  The situation makes interesting film material.  Director Zhang often film his action with a stationary camera with the subjects moving in and out of the frame but occasionally also follows his subjects as they move out of frame as in a football segment.  Zhang loves to tease with his camera.  The first scene shows what might appear to be solid ground then revealed to be a desolate frozen river.  The camera moves back a bit to reveal a boy lying on the frozen river.  Zhang repeats this tactic often with an empty scene followed by characters moving into the frame from behind the camera.  Though slow moving, DOOMAN RIVER is never boring and quite a lot happens in this film.

 

GALLANTS (HK 2010) ***

Directed by Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng

What looks like a silly martial-arts comedy has much, much more in it than what appears on the outside.  The characters in the film are mostly ageing kung-fu fighters but they are in reality heroes of the old Shaw Brothers alumni.  I have seen especially the diminutive Teddy Robin in countless Hong Kong features and it is absolute delight to see him here as a crazed kung-fu Master Law who awakes after a 30-year coma to teach his disciples how to fight and live again.  Other well knowns include including Leung Siu Lung, Chan Koon Ti, Chan Wai Man and Lo Meng.  The story concerns nerdy office worker Cheung (Wong You Nam) sent to a remote village to secure property rights for his real estate company. Two martial artists run the village''s teahouse, which was once the kung-fu school of their teacher Master Law. Law is in fact lying unconscious upstairs in a three decades-long coma, but he awakes when gym boss and local landlord Pong attempts to secure the teahouse for redevelopment.  More comedy than action, but the fights are choreographed well enough to satisfy action fans.  Watch for the important and abs unbelievably hilarious message that comes at the end of the film.

 

GOLDEN SLUMBER (Japan 2010) ***1/2

Directed by Nakamura Yoshihiro

GOLDEN SUMMER (the title is derived from the old Beatles hit that is brought up half way through the movie) is likely the quirkiest film to be screened at the festival.  For example, when the girl wants to identify a car model, she remembers and hums the ad tune for the Toyota Corolla instead of mentioning the car name.  Quirky is good!  Director Yoshihiro’s film is never boring and always ingenious in the way it tells the story of a deliveryman, framed Lee Oswald style for the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister.  He runs away from the car that just blown up after the PM is killed, in disbelief that all this is happening to him for no reason.  The killer has his face after going through plastic surgery.  Even the character admits it is unbelievable.  The film goes on to show how he saves himself with the help of old college friends and a wanted killer.  All this is good clean fun, with zero violence proving that an entertaining film is best made with wit and humor.

 

IP MAN 2 (Hong Kong 2010) ***
Directed by Wilson Yip

IP is the initials for the Chinese term of ‘master’.  In IP MAN 2, the sequel of the very successful IP MAN, the hero IP MAN (Donnie Yen) moves to Hong Kong to begin a martial-arts school.  But he has to deal with the locals before dealing with the whites.  The film is in two parts – one with him and his disciple fighting, and then befriending the other local martial-arts groups before tackling a really nasty western boxer (Darren Shahlavi).  Shahlavi must surely deserve the award for the best hamming and overacting!  Thought he film claims that it is based on a true story, the film plays it goofy with authenticity given to the dogs.  Director Yip hams it up as well.  During the fight scene when IP MAN is knocked down to the floor, he cuts to his wife carrying their baby in her arms.  The subtitles are atrocious!  Sample: Do you know if you have no interest to see western boxing?   But veteran actor Summon Hung does a marvelous turn as an evil foe turned over a new leaf by IP MAN’s goodness.  The fight choreography is one of the best I have seen in films this year, and this saves the show from all its flaws.  IP MAN was Bruce Lee’s teacher but the last bit with a young Bruce Lee (Jiang Dai-Yan) appearing in front of IP MAN appearing is just plain hilarious. 

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