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This Week's Film Reviews (Apr 1, 2011)

01 Apr 2011

April marks Easter and the Easter animated live action HOP opens everywhere this weekend.

Also opening are SOURCE CODE and the excellent war coming of age movie WINTER IN WARTIME.

HOP (USA 2011) ***1/2

Directed by Tim Hill


HOP is directed by Tim Hill who also directed the so-so ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS but storyboarded the excellent SPONGEBOB AND SQUAREPANTS movie and series.  At its worst, HOP descends into Chipmunks territory with E.B. like Alvin the chipmunk being babysat by Dave and in this case, human Fred O’Hare (James Marsden) but the film gets only better and better.  Fortunately!

E.B. (Russell Brand), a teen rabbit, on the eve of taking over from his father, the Easter Bunny (Hugh Laurie), leaves his home in Napa Rui, in Easter Island for Hollywood to pursue his dream of becoming a drummer.  But hit by Fred O''Hare (James Marsden), an out of work slacker who was driving to the house, E.N. is then the caretaker of. Feigning injury, E.B. manipulates Fred to take him in as he recovers. E.B. causes trouble in the home and at Fred''s job interview.

Up to this point, the film starts lagging with unfunny jokes and annoying situations.  But a villain in the form of Head Chick Carlos appears and saves the movie with his scheme of taking over Easter.  With a good solid plot and an impressive climax, HOP finally delivers.  Easter Chick Carlos (Hank Azaria doing the best voice characterization of the cast), disappointed that he is not allowed to take E.B.''s place, revolts against and imprisons E.B.''s father. Fred and E.B. are brought back and imprisoned by the Pink Berets, but they manage to break free and suppress the revolt, and E.B.''s father appoints them to co-workers as Easter Bunnies, thus saving Easter.

HOP tells twin stories of two failing sons having to prove themselves.  At the end, both succeed beyond their father’s expectations so, there are double fell-good emotions.

Most of the songs work well into the story.  There are no original ones but a few like I WANT CANDY were re-written for the movie.  AMERICANA is perfectly used for the segment (looks like a music video) where the two sons are on training for the Easter Bunny job.

For an animated feature, the filmmakers have taken the care to offer the film some accuracy.  Like the start of the film being at a place that actually exists, Napa Rui, Easter Island.  One other scene has E.B. complaining that what’s going on is enough to make him puke – but he can’t as rabbits don’t.  For youngsters, it would be good to learn that rabbits can only vomit internally.  Another neat trick has the real Russell Brand appearing in person cueing E.N. on stage.

The film’s message is relevant and not drummed into the audience.  E.N. sacrifices his big chance at drumming for his friend but ends up using his talent to save the day.  It is loyalty – family and friendship – that ultimately counts in this Easter season.

INSIDIOUS (USA 2011) ****
Directed by James Wan


INSIDIOUS is small budget horror film directed by James Wan and written by Lee Whannell who have collaborated in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and the SAW movies.

Thankfully, INSIDIOUS is closer to the first film and the audience is delivered genuine scares and spared the tacky gore and violence of the SAW movies.  INSIDIOUS is a very scary movie.  It deals with a family, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai’s (Rose Byrne) account of saving their haunted boy, Dalton (Ty Simpkins).  The story is simple enough.  Dalton goes into a coma without the normal comatose signs.  A medium (the excellent Lin Shaye) discloses the fact that Dalton is haunted and his body is in a place called the Further.  Josh has to bring him back before Dalton gets possessed by the demon with the fire face.

All this sounds like rally scary stuff and director James Wan knows how to deliver the scares.

Wan’s pacing is close to perfect.  For a horror film which demands lots of explanation and which contains lots of scary jump- out of your seats scenes, the tendency is often for parts of the audience to burst out with laughter.  No such thing in INSIDUOUS.  The auditorium was silent throughout with no unintentional laughter – a great feat, I thought!

But what is enormously scary about this film is that what has occurred to the family deals with common fears.  I recall being scared for years as a child watching a Twilight Zone episode in which a child wandered into another dimension through the wall by his bed and had to be pulled back by a medium.  In this similar plotted film, Dalton the child is lost (though through a different means) into another space and time called The Further. (The filmmakers originally wanted to title this film The Further.).  When father enters The Further to bring back Dalton, the place is seen as one of total darkness filled with ghostly creatures.  Wan has a field day scaring the audience at this point, using a combination of eerie music, camera angles, creatures with dolly painted faces and scenes that suddenly burst out on the screen.

Wan has not forgotten to infuse humour into his film either, in the form of the interaction of two experts in paranormal activity.

For INISDIOUS, Wan and writer Whannell were given full artistic freedom in the film’s final cut as the film is also Wan’s lowest budget.  This explains the reason the film not having a happy ending (not revealed here) but one that is genuinely shocking.

At the promotional screening, director Wan and Whannell expressed their wish to the audience that this film would be the scariest or at least one of the scariest films they would have ever seen.  Judging from the response during the screening, their wish is not far from true.

LOVE ETC. (USA 2010) **

Directed by Jill Andresevic

 

 

Executive produced by Jonathan Tisch, LOVE ETC. was inspired by the day Tisch and his fiancée Lizzie spent waiting in line for their marriage license at the City Hall Marriage Bureau, surrounded by an incredible diversity of couples. LOVE ETC. is a witty and poignant exploration of the universal stages of love, depicted through five real stories filmed over the course of one year in New York City.   The topics include first love, divorce, marriage among others.

The problem with this movie is the over easy flowingness of the material.  For one, who made Tisch or director Andresevic experts on this topic?  Shouldn’t thy talk to real experts, maybe psychologists or counselors on what really love is?  The five couples could have behave in any way and the film would have been left the way it is.  What occurs on screen is occasionally interesting enough – whatever happens in real life is never boring – and Andresevic’s film is moving at times, especially in the gay man’s determination to have children.  But the Indian Wedding and divorcee segments turn out the most boring.  But the audience could very well observe other couples in the process.  And have learnt just as little!

MONOGAMY (USA 2010) **

Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro


The film begins with the lead character Theo (Chris Messina) working his gumshoot, a service which his clients pay for him to stalk and photography them unknowingly.

As the film progresses, it turns out that Theo is a bored professional wedding photographer engaged to be wed to Nat (Rashida Jones) who seem to be of perfect character compared to Theo.  Director Shapiro reveals Theo to be a voyeur with dirty intentions (his stalking of ‘subgirl’ played with subdued sexiness by Meital Dohan), non-committal to his job (he uses his cell during shooting of the wedding shots) among other faults.

For a film centred on Theo and Nat, Shapiro does not draw the audience to his characters.  Worst still that Theo is not that likeable and in fact quite a bit of an as*hole, but Shapiro seldom highlights his good points.  Worst still, Nat seems to just grin and bare him.

Though the sets ups are believable enough, the end result is still a film where the characters are too annoying or listless with them and the film ending up as something the audience does not care about!

LA NOSTRA VITA (Italy/France 2010) ***

Directed by Daniele Luchetti

Debuting at Cannes in last year, this Italian family drama is known for its actor Elio Germano sharing the Best Actor prize with Xavier Bardem.

LA NOSTRA VITA (OUR LIFE) is an award-winning drama about life and love tells the story of a working-class man, Claudio (Elio Germano) from the suburbs of Rome.  In order to keep his job and support his growing family, he conceals a shocking secret. However, when tragedy turns his world upside-down, he must come face-to-face with his past, and look to the help of friends and family to triumph against the odds.

The film begins with the family having the perfect life.  Claudio is in perfect harmony with the love of his life – his wife and the family get along famously.  She is expecting a third and disaster strikes.  The audience can expect something to happen when all goes too smoothly.  She dies giving birth and things get worse for Claudio.  He runs into debt and also conceals the secret accidental death of an immigrant worker while looking after the immigrant’s son, Ari (Luca Zingaraetti).

The film is largely shot with hand held camera giving the audience a certain anxiousness as it does its lead character throughout the film.

Director Luchetti has worked and got his training from Nanni Moretti and the film shows as their films share as easy flowing authentic style.  The trouble with LA NOSTRA VISRA is its predictability.  The audience can guess that family will help and Claudio will make it in the end.  It does not make sense for the film with a likeable well-meaning hero not to have a happy ending.  Still, the film has a likeable charm and Luchetti directs with a firm hand like Claudio supervising his construction workers.  And actor Germano is quietly attractive and totally watchable, deserrvong his prize in the acting department.

SOURCE CODE (USA 2011) ***

Directed by Duncan Jones


When the lead character wakes up with the identity of an unknown man, the idea of the recent film UNKNOWN springs to mind.  With SOURCE CODE, the upcoming LIMITLESS and last year’s INCEPTION, suspense thrillers involving the brain and the mind appears the in thing in Hollywood movies.

This is a good thing as films of this genre play mind games with the audience and forces the audience to think in order to enjoy their movies.  In SOURCE CODE, a thriller variation of GROUNDHOG DAY, decorated soldier Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) repeatedly wakes up in the body of an unknown man after dying in a train bombing.   He discovers he''s part of a mission to find the bomber of the Chicago commuter train. In an assignment unlike any he''s ever known, he learns he''s part of a government experiment called the "Source Code," a program that enables him to cross over into another man''s identity in the last 8 minutes of his life.

With a second, much larger target threatening to kill millions in downtown Chicago, Colter re-lives the incident over and over again, gathering clues each time, until he can solve the mystery of who is behind the bombs and prevent the next attack.  Only then is he allowed by the agency to die.

Filled with mind-boggling twists and heart-pounding suspense, SOURCE CODE is a smart action-thriller directed by Duncan Jones who has proven his mettle at suspense thrillers with his last smaller budget film MOON.  Gyllenhaal is convincing as the desperate soldier but top acting honours goes to Vera Farmiga who plays Goodwin, a sympathetic soldier who aids Colter in his mission.  For a boring character role that demands mainly her speaking to Colter on a video screen, Farminga brings emotion, tension and spark.

The films special effects are excellent, especially the exploding train.  The recurring segments are as much fun to watch as they are brain teasers.  Though the story is quite novel, the script sinks into clichéd territory with characters like the evil agency head (Jeffrey Wright) who will stop at nothing to further his career on the pretext of doing good for humankind.  Having him walk with a limp and a cane (I found this hilarious) reminds one of a James Bond villain.

The film ends, obviously with Colter completing his mission.  But the script has a twist that tags on an unbelievable happy ending that is somewhat unsatisfying for that very reason.  Films that do not have a happy ending like CASABLANCA can turn out to be better films.

WINTER IN WARTIME (Netherlands 2008) ***** Top 10

Directed by Martin Koolhoven


A Dutch war film based on the novel of the same name by Jan Terlouv based on his war experiences; WINTER IN WARTIME is a combination coming-of-age and adventure story of one 14 year old Dutch boy in the midst of WWII.

Told from the point of view of a young boy named Michiel van Beusekom (Martijn Lakemeier), the film begins with his witnessing of a crashed plane from his bedroom window.  He meets the downed and injured pilot Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower).  As he befriends Jack, he comes to terms with family loyalty, guilt and doing the right thing.  Michiel hates the Germans and dislikes his father, the town major for being neutral instead of helping the Resistance like his Uncle Ben.  But nothing is what it seems as Michiel finds out the hard way.  His sister Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse is forced to aid and falls in love with Jack.  Circumstances lead to Jack killing a German soldier. The result is the Germans shooting the town major unless the culprit owns up.  Finally Michiel and Ertica aid Jack escape in a very suspenseful segment reminiscent of Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN.

The winter cinematography is stunning with the screen covered in beautiful white most of the time.  From the snow of the countryside down to the frigid cold freezing water of the pond that Michiel falls in, WINTER IN WARTIME is gorgeous to look at, especially the bright red blood dripping on the white snow.  The music by Pinio Donnagio especially at the end is chilling, like the score Bernard Herrmann used to churn out in the Hitchcock films.

The most satisfying element in the film is the story’s irony.  As much as Michiel hates the Germans, it is a German soldier that saves him and pulls him out of the frozen pond.  Michiel is torn between loyalty to his family (particularly his father) or to the allies.  The film has a neat twist towards the end that sets all things right.

WINTER IN WARTIME is a rare adventure film that comfortably blends in the human element. The emotions and feeling of the young boy are reflected in his dealings with the enemy, strangers, his family as well as the shady characters.

But WINTER IN WARTIME is primarily a true exercise in suspense.  Koolhoven utilizes many Hitchcock tactics – like the boy looking through the binoculars and then having them snatched by his sister’s so hat the audience has what they see suddenly taken away from them. He does this again at the end when Jack is making his escape by climbing under the bridge.

This film was a major box-office hit in the Netherlands when it opened. WINTER IN WARTIME was also chosen by the Dutch Critics as the best Dutch film of 2008 and it won the PZC Audience Award (best movie based on a novel), three Rembrandt Awards and three Golden Calf awards. It was chosen Best Film by the Young Jury (14-18 years) at the Rome Film Festival and was shortlisted (with 8 other movies) at the Oscars for Best Foreign Film. It took 3 years to reach North America but the film is well worth the wait.

WRECKED (USA 2010) **

Directed by Michael Greenspan


WRECKED is yet another thriller like UNKNOWN and SOURCE CODE where the protagonist wakes up not remembering who his and how he got there.

The plot of WRECKED, however, is overtly simple.  A man, simply called ''Man'', (Oscar winner Adrien Brody) who wakes up in a car after an accident, covered in blood and with no recollection of who he is or what he''s done before. When he goes through the contents of the car wreck he starts to suspect he has committed an armed robbery gone bad.  The rest of the film documents his escape to safety amidst several obstacles that include his leg trapped in the car and a hungry menacing wild cat.

No, thankfully, man need not have to cut his leg (as in 27 HOURS) to get free.  But WRECKED similar to one man movies like BURIED suffers the same problems.  The writer puts in the story isolated objects that will be used to aid the escape.  In BURIED, the one in the coffin for no reason had matches and a cell phone.  In WRECKED, man has a lighter and cell phone.  The script conveniently had the cell not work because of poor signal strength till later on.  Also, at the film’s climax when man is approached by the wild cat, there is conveniently a dead body by his side for man to feed and satisfy the wild cat.  When watching the film, there is no suspense and one knows that the writer will put in some object to save man.

The success of films of this sort depends largely on the lead’s performance.  Brody, who has already won an Oscar for THE PIANIST is good, but he has already proven the point.  In fact Brody gets really annoying during the second half of the film.

At the end of the film, flashbacks suddenly occur revealing the circumstances behind man being in the wreckage.  Again, how convenient!  WRECKED was shot in just 18 days!  And it shows!

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening This Week: Winter in Wartime
Best Film Playing: Winter in Wartime
Best Family: Hop
Best Documentary: Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
Best Foreign: Winter in Wartime


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