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This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 22, 2011)

22 Jul 2011

Opening this week are CAPTAIN AMERICA and FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS.

The Cassavetes retro continues at TFF Cinematheque.  Quite the number of docs opens too such as PROJECT HIM, CIRCO AND TRIBE CALLED QUEST.

CAPTAIN AMERICA (USA 2011) **
Directed by Joe Johnston


(Warning: This review contains spoilers)

CAPTAIN AMERICA is the age old story of the fight between good and evil.  Good is the Captain America (Chris Evans) and evil is the Nazi regime under the evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

The story involves a gutsy but sickly American, Steve who yearns to serve his country and fight the war.  But he is rejected so many times due to his poor physique.  Finally, he is recruited for an experiment that transforms him into a super being that will fight the enemy forces and hopefully win the war.

CAPTAIN AMERICA, the superhero suffers from identical problems of many other Marvel comic superheroes.  The powers are undefined.  His is upped with vials of the equivalence of steroids that make America a sort of super-being.  But is he bullet proof?  If he cannot fly, how far can he leap?  How strong is he?  When the climatic battle occurs between America and Red Skull, it appears in moments to be like a duel between two ordinary human beings.  The climatic fight also lacks punch and excitement of other films in this genre, say even GREEN LANTERN.

As far as performances go, Stanley Tucci stands out and Tommy Lee Jones does a fair day’s work.  Nobody would really care if Chris Evans could really act, as he looks so good, physically body, face and all.

For the 3D, special effects and art direction, the film excels.  The film is gorgeous to look at.  The bleak, foggy and grey World War II atmosphere is so impressive, it distracts the audience from the film being an action film.  America at times, when it moves slowly looks like a period drama.  Johnston who was hired to direct the film because of his part experience in special effect movies, shows his mettle especially in the zip line scenes where America and troops descend upon a moving train in snowy weather.

The part of the sickly underdog, who has redeeming inner qualities works well to have the audience root for the hero.  But certain sequences like the Steve muddling through the army obstacle course are both clumsy and unfunny.

But on the whole, the script looks as if it could be written by a 12-year old kid, action parts, climax, romantic elements and all. (I used to draw comics from ages 10 -12 and I would churn out stories like this one.)  Nothing is offered in terms of explanation of where the power Red Skulls derives really comes from.

An important part of the movie involves America leading a special forces group from his hand picked selected few to infiltrate the enemy’s fortress.  Nothing much distinguishes the individuals from each other.  The most that happens is that one or two crack a few one-liners.

(Spoiler alert!)  The film suffers from smooth narrative flow.  It does not help with the weird ending (that demands a sequel) in which America wakes up 70 years into the future.  No explanation is offered why!

Surprisingly, the film has a bright soundtrack.  Part of the film has America perform the part of a glorified chorus girl wearing tights selling war bonds.  The songs are catchy and memorable and these segments provide welcome laughs.

The filmmakers have high hopes with this reported $140 million mess of a movie.  It is pretty much like the sickly Steve who thinks he can win the WWII sheer will alone.

CIRCO (ISA/Mexico 2010) **
Directed by Aaron Schock


A documentary about a Mexican travelling circus, first time director Aaron Schock’s film could very well be a fictionalized family drama.

The focus character is Tino, whose life is totally circus.  His wife, Ivonne ran away from her town to join him (out of love) at the circus at the age of 15.  They have 4 children and a niece who perform at the circus, the eldest excelling and clearly following in his father’s footsteps.  Tino’s parents (who won the circus) and grandparents are also from the circus.

Not much is shown on the training or interaction between the family and other circus employees.  Though hardships and financial problems are mentioned, these are never seen on screen and are just said in the voiceover.  Director Schock is more interested in the family drama.  The arguments between wife and husband over the importance of the family over the circus and also the fight between Tino’s brother and his parents are emphasized.  The more interesting acts about circuses like setting up the tent in a new village or dangers with the animal acts are neglected.  The best part of the film shows the circus driving their trucks around the back roads of Mexico.

Tino’s aim is to make the circus strong enough so that it can play the cities.  The aim of director Schock is to show the hardships of a circus family.  That he does, with an ending that likely can never be guessed by the average audience.  But the film grows monotonous after a while with a family drama that most have seen before, only with this one in a different setting in a circus.

The balancing act between work and family has to be sorted, and Schock literally shows the circus performers walking the tightrope or doing balancing acts while mentioning this fact!  How subtle!

ECO-PIRATE: THE STORY OF PAUL WATSON (Canada 2010) ***1/2

Directed by Trish Dolman


If you have seen documentaries on overfishing, the name of Paul Watson would be familiar.  Captain Paul Watson has been on a crusade to save the oceans for 40 years and he isn’t about to stop now.

Through the life and convictions of this notorious often over zealous activist, director Trish Dolman crafts an epic tale of the birth of the modern environmental movement, and the founding of Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.   The audience is taken on a high-octane adventure aboard Watson’s ship (Dolman shoots aboard his ship often using it as a framing device), together with the crew, and follows them as they hunt down a Japanese whaling fleet in the vast expanse and stunning beauty of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, and seamlessly segues in and out of a wealth of archival footage from decades of confrontational activism around the world.  Dolman intercuts in-depth interviews with Watson, his wife, Bob Hunter, Patrick Moore and Farley Mowat, among others, capture the heroics, the ego, the disputed tactics and the urgency of Watson’s mission.

Dolman also brings out the bad side of Watson in the failure of his marriages, especially his first one.  But his flouting of the law is forgivable, according to the film as long as Watson saves the oceans.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (USA 2011) *1/2


It takes something between a few minutes to 30 minutes before one can guess the storyline of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy.  For Will Gluck’s (EASY A) FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, the title enough is sufficient for anyone to outline the film’s story.  Worst still, two other recent comedies NO STRINGS ATTACHED and JUST DO IT tread similar waters.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) decide to add sex to their friendship, no strings attached, just do it kind of thing!  They start having feelings for each other.  They fight.  They make up and become a couple.  The audience really feels the familiarity of the plot as the film really drags towards the end.  Was this the same Gluck that made the awesomely funny EASY A?

Timberlake has the perfect body – bubble butt (the camera shoots it) and 12-pack abs.  The best thing of the film is the chemistry between him and Kunis but everything else sucks, from humour to drama to of course, story.  The two have to pretend in reality to make love during their fist love making, and it comes across quite convincingly though awkwardly.  The one part in which he turns her over from her back to her front while he is still (obviously) inside her is the film’s naughtiest part.

The film put down other Hollywood comedies but still falls into the same trap.  One scene has Dylan criticizing a Jason Siegel romantic comedy saying that the film has totally unrelated music after a scene for the purpose of adjusting the audience’s mood.  Gluck’s film does the exact same thing with the music after the couple quarrel on the rooftop.  The incident is so obvious that one wonders if Gluck did it deliberately to see whether his audience notices it that the joke is being played on them.

The story calls for Dylan to realise that it is a mistake to let the girl of his dreams go.  The script has a direct cop-out with his father (Richard Jenkins) who suffers from Alzheimer’s tell him so.

Gluck tries too hard to make the comedy work.  This is evident from the film’s start when the actors speak at double the normal rate about things that make no sense.  The jokes frequently appear from nowhere (like the snowboarder) and are hardy funny.

Gluck’s second film after EASY A scores a sad F.

PROJECT NIM (USA 2010) ***
Directed by James Marsh


Acclaimed director, James Marsh of MAN ON WIRE tackles a total different subject in PROJECT NIM.  Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.                                                                                Marsh has created a very intense film.  From its very first 10 minutes, when the baby chimp is taken, the audience can feel that they are in for a rough but insightful ride.  Marsh’s film runs chronologically from the birth of NIM to his growth to full adult when his animal behaviour takes full control.  He shows too, that the experimenters and human beings involved (except or the last keeper) are totally oblivious of the real nature of an animal – and how that will eventually overpower whatever NIM has been taught.                        The question of success of the project depends on the definition of the term language.  If language be just the communication of intention or the ability to form a sentence from words or phrases, then the degree of success of failure would be different.  Director Marsh identifies the issue but his documentary is not concerned on the project but rather on the inhumanities performed on NIM, the chimp.  This is one film that almost all the human beings depicted are bad and that the human race is basically no good.                                                                                                                                      Marsh shows too that NIM should be forgiven even though he is a killer.  He has killed a barking poodle and knocked unconscious his adopted human mother during her visit after a span of many years.  What is remarkable about the film is that the message is hidden in the movie.  But the audience will clearly leave the cinema with an awful taste in the mouth after watching this gripping, but uneasy film.                                                                   An interesting point to note too, is that an actor chimp doubled for NIM in a few of the re-enactment scenes.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:


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

Avoid: Zookeeper

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