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This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 15, 2011)

15 Jul 2011

The final HARRY POTTER opens this week.  Question is whether it would beat out TRANSFORMERS 3 at the box-office.  WINNIE THE POOH makes the rounds for the younger ones.

The John Cassavetes restrospective begins at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto.

A BETTER LIFE (ISA 2011) ****
Directed by Chris Weitz

The title of the film basically reveals what the film is all about. An illegal alien, Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) from Mexico works hard as a gardener in East L.A. hoping to earn a better life for his son, Luis (Jose Julian) who seems distracted from school.

Films of this nature of immigrants legal or illegal often have trouble of a satisfactory ending. The lead is either stuck in gang wars, drugs, bad influence from the old culture or deported. A BETTER LIFE struggles with this problem in order to keep the film realistic, but at least it ends on an optimistic note.

The film depicts the difficult father/son relationship between Carlos and Luis. As the film begins, director Weitz shows the rebellious and lazy side of the son. But when the father has his truck which he spend his savings on stolen, the two bond together to find the truck. Vittorio de Sica’s classic THE BICYCLE THIEF immediately comes to mind as both films have father and son searching for the vehicle that is essential for the father’s means of living.

Both lead actors are excellent. The film is most effective when the two are together in a scene, each working off the other’s character. As good as actor Bichir (who played Fidel Castro in CHE) is, it is Julian as the son who steals the show. It helps that the script by Eric Eason manipulatively wins the audience to the boy’s side by having him convert from a lazy lout to a street-smart kid aiding his father who is too honest to get his truck back.

Despite the simple storyline and low budget, the atmosphere of East L.A. from the slang and the surroundings are accurate. Then hip hop soundtrack works well too. Weitz had the help of former gang members show him the ropes in the filming.

The film gets a bit sappy at the end but it is a tearful scene when father and son are reunited after insidious circumstances.

A BETTER Life is an excellent realistic drama that also shows the problem of illegal immigration. Weitz shows two sides of the problem, as is evident in the scene where a concerned social worker tells Carlos of his options regarding deportation.

 

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2 (UK/USA 2011) ****

Directed by David Yates


When the ads trumpet: “It all ends here”, it is true.  The film and final battle ends with HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2, the final adventure in the Harry Potter film series. The much-anticipated motion picture event is the second of two full-length parts.

As all Potter and filmgoers are aware by now, this is the epic finale, the battle between the good and evil forces of the wizarding world that escalates into an all-out war. The stakes have never been higher and no one is safe.  Director David Yates makes sure this feeling is felt during the battle segments.  But the twist to the story is Harry Potter who is called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice as he draws closer to the climactic showdown with Lord Voldemort. As author J.R. Rowling warned, there are important characters in the story that will not make it to the end.

While the major part of the film centres on the battle, director David Yates has not forgotten the elements of a good narrative, strong characterization and lastly audience anticipation through tension build up, especially through dialogue confrontation. The film moves at a much better pace that DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (which I did not like) and captures audience’s attention from beginning to end.  Yates is unafraid to devote time in dialogue to (as in the film’s lengthy talking starting scene with Harry and the goblin) establish a mood or atmosphere.

Yates, who directed the most of the most (total of 4 including this one) of the Harry Potter series, is definitely experienced and knows how to work the magic in the Rowling movies.  He sneaks in some of the most nostalgic moments through flashbacks in order to recap the story. (There is likely no need to refresh on the Potter stories prior to watching this on, but it would help if one does a quick review using the article in Wikipedia when googling ‘Harry Potter Wikipedia’). Shots especially of the old school staff (played by Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and even Imelda Staunton), old allies like Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) tied up by the enemy while defending Potter and old friends like Harry’s old Asian flame bring back sweet memories.

When the final battle rages between the evil forces attacking the Hogwarts School, Yates has created an impressive feeling of fear. The staff and pupils hide behind the walls as the walls are crumbling down.  This is a very frightening scene mentally when a person’s home and fortitude are broken down.

Yates plays expertly on the emotions as well – with Hogwarts ready to sacrifice their lives for Harry, and when Harry realises so, decides to do likewise to save lives. Chivalry, the most admired highest human quality is played well by Yates here.

When all the final battle finally comes to a close, appropriately with the 3, Harry, Ron and Hermione discussing the fate and the power of the last wand, no more can be said about the danger of evil once again rearing its ugly head. But as audiences want more, the film moves on to a ’19 years later’ epilogue which shows Harry and other characters, all grown up and married, at the train station sending off their grown kids to Hogwarts. It is kind of ridiculous that all the characters have their children somehow sent off during the same year, but still ones throat feels lumpy to see all the characters, as if the series were beginning again.

LIFE, ABOVE ALL (South Africa, Germany 2010) **

Directed by Oliver Schmitz


It feels really bad to fault a film with so earnest intentions as this one. As the title implies, the story is one in which the protagonist, amidst extreme hardship and odds, puts life (her mother’s or life in general) above all personal needs.

Based on the award-winning book "Chanda's Secrets" by Allan Stratton, the film focuses on the trials of 12 year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka). Chanda has to look after her siblings, who seem oblivious of what is going on, her mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) and stepfather, Jonah (Aubrey Poolo).  Everyone appears to have other ways of living life. It does not help that both Lillian and Jonah have come down or suspected to come have with the dreaded AIDs disease so that everyone, including neighbour Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) wants them out of the neighbourhood.

Despite Chanda’s too good intentions, director Oliver Schmitz’s film is too depressing. He seems to turn every single event against poor Chanda. If she is being rejected at school, she is failing her examinations.  Her little baby sister Sarah dies from influenza (or is it also AIDS, Schmitz never lets his audience know) and other sister falls down a hole. The women form the strong characters in the film. The men are all idiots, prejudiced or womanizing as Jonah, who if not drunk and down on his feet, has also fallen into the same hole as the little sister. Poor Chanda is also at loggerheads with Mrs. Tafa. At one point, Chanda has to threaten (really?) Mrs Tafa that she would go into prostitution if not allowed to use the telephone.

With everything going wrong, it is surprising that Schimtz ends the film on an up note.  Or can things ever get worse?  Mrs. Tafa (unbelievably) has a turn of heart.

On the positive side, Schmitz creates an authentic atmosphere of a down ridden poor African village where all the characters speak Sotho, a Bantu language.  The women are pictured as the stronger sex with Chandu leading the way as the girl whose circumtances have forced her to grow up faster than normal.  Khomotso Manyaka delivers a master performance as the young Chanda.

Schmitz fondness for close-ups is apparent at the film’s first half hour. He seldom pulls his camera back with the result that the background often appears too bright and blurred. The background of the film is similarly overpowered by the incidents surrounding Chanda.

But more could be revealed on the political situation surrounding the village. With all of what transpires on screen, it is surprising the film does not ask for AIDs donations at the end of the film.

SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN (USA/China 2011) **

Directed by Wayne Wang

The subject of Wayne Wang’s new movie is as obscure as nothing that I can recall opening this year and one must admire the filmmakers of SNOEW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN for undertaking such a project.  The result is audiences able to experience a new world.  But the backlash is that most will be unable to relate to the topic and lose interest quickly.

The subject is called ‘laotong’ which in Mandarin translated to the words ‘old identical’.  Two seven year old girls, Snow Flower and Lily are matched as loatongs.  This means they are bound as sisters to support each other in this life.  The girls communicated by learning together a secret language called nu shu.  They write words in the folds of a Chinese fan and hence the film’s title.

Wang’s film begins in the present in Shanghai where Sophia (the snow flower’s descendent) (Gianna Jun) to start up the company business in the U.S.  At this point, her plans are pit in disarray when she suddenly gets a call in the middle of the night informing her of her best friend’s Nina’s (Bingbing Li) accident. She is in a coma.  This starts off s series of events in which the two recall their closeness of the past and their resolve to remain faithful to each other.

If all this sounds like lady’s film, it is. There is not much in terms of subject matter here that guys can feel for. Get drunk and bond is more of what guys would likely do, as in John Cassavetes’ HUSBANDS.  Still, as the story is set in the 19th century, the art direction is pretty to look at and the atmosphere authentically created. But guys might still stay away.

Wang is clear to set the intimacy of the girls’ relationship non-sexual.  Like as in the Chinese culture, the ancestral connection is important as respect for the elders and ancestry. Thus film would be most interesting to those interested in older Chinese culture and practices.  As Wang does not really attempt to up the notch in the dramatic department, maybe all else should stay away.  And this one is not as intriguing as Wang’s last THE JOY LUCK CLUB.

WINNIE THE POOH (USA 2011) ***
Directed by Stephen Anderson

WINNIE THE POOH is true to the Pooh everyone (young and old) loves.  Director Stephen Anderson and crew keep the tale true and faithful to what we remember of the beloved stuffed animated and cuddly bear.

The film is based on 3 Winnie the Pooh stories: "In Which Eeyore Loses His Tail and Pooh Finds One" from Winnie-the-Pooh and "In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day and We Learn What Christopher Robin Does in the Mornings" and "In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expedition to the North Pole".  Pooh, as he is called in the film, wakes up one day to find his tummy growling and that he is out of hunny (honey).  Plez!  A bear needs hunny!  The misspelling is deliberate and throughout and part of the charm of the books.  The story goes on to have Pooh and friends (Tigger, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga and Roo) rescue Christopher Robin who has offered a prize of a pot of hunny for finding donkey Eeyore’s tail.

No prize to guess who wins the pot of honey.  Then the film ends.

Most of the voices are done by unknowns except Owl’s by Craig Ferguson.  The narrator is John Cleese whose voice is very well known.

The original song by the Sherman Brothers is heard on the soundtrack and songs are redone and sung by Zooey Duschamel.

It is good to watch good old fashioned animation with good character expressions.  There is no CGI, special effects or pyrotechnic explosions.  No, the honey pot does not blow up!

WINNIE THE POOH moves at a snail’s pace, much like the past Pooh films.  This gives audiences time to ponder certain questions like, is the Pooh male or female or why is the bear never wearing any pants.  Winnie is a girl’s name but the bear has a male (Jim Cummings) voice.  Running at 69 minutes, the film is and feels really short.  Somehow the audience at my screening (comprising critics) stayed till after the end credits which is really rare.  But there is more cute animation at the end, so audiences should stay till the light come on.  WINNIE THE POOH is still a magical experience.

The film has already opening and grossed a moderate sum in the U.K.  It should do well here with its millions of faithful family followers.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening This Week:  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best Film Playing: The Tree of Life
Best Comedy: Bridesmaids
Best Family: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best Documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Best Foreign: Potiche

Avoid: Zookeeper

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