This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 29, 2011)

29 Jul 2011

Two Alien films open this week, one big budget studio and the other small indie British.  The smaller budget ATTACK THE BLOCK kicks COWBOYS AND ALIENS butt to kingdom come.

At the Bell Lightbox, TIFF Cinematheque presents Italian neorealism classics that are not to be missed!


Directed by Peter Cahill

ANOTHER EARTH has the audience believe that there is a parallel earth that has all the identical beings living the same lives as those on the planet earth.              Writer/director Peter Cahill is also daring enough to display the familiar earth in the sky where his lead characters walk.                                                                                              The story has Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), a physics student at MIT, is driving back from a party when she notices a planet on the horizon. Leaning out her window for a better look, she hits a minivan and kills the family in it. She is imprisoned for four years. Upon her release, she seeks out the widower of the family, composer John Burroughs (William Mapother).

If things are not stranger, the planet she saw is a mirror planet of Earth, seemingly to the extent that it even has the same people on it, and an essay contest is held where the winner can ride a space shuttle to visit it. As the planet moves closer to Earth, Rhoda considers the possibility of visiting it to find out what kind of life her mirror self would have led, while concurrently developing an increasingly intimate relationship with John.  The script has a contest to be won where the winner wins a free trip to this planet. And Rhonda wins the trip!

The script contains many loopholes.  If the two earths are identical, how come the accident part is different.  It seems that Cahill writes whatever he wants to suit his story – what most people call a cop-out.

His imagery and camera work are also weak.  At the start during the car crash, I thought (and so did one other fellow film critic I asked after the screening) that the young woman (Brit Marling) was in the car crash with the man and daughter and not the one that ran into the car.  Only near the end of the film did I realise my misunderstanding.  Cahill makes no attempt to make his characters clear.  Why too, is the other earth suddenly discovered the same time as the car crash?

With sci-fi blending into reality, the film deteriorates into a slip-shod story in which anything can happen for the sake of the writer’s fancy.  In this case, the premise of the guilty entering a family’s privacy for the purpose of redemption has been done often enough in other movies and watching all this again with ANOTHER EARTH is just too much.  I regret not previewing ANOTHER MOVIE that was screened the same time as this one.

ATTACK THE BLOCK (UK/France 2011) ***** Top 10

Directed by Joe Cornish

If there is ever a surprising sleeper of the year that would make most critics’ top 10 films of the year ATTACK THE BLOCK is it.  Hoodies vs. ALIENS is another apt title for the film to compete with the upcoming COWBIOYS AND ALIENS.

The premise of this inventive, high-spirited, utterly enjoyable romp is an unlikely alien invasion that begins in a South London project.  These aliens that look like black furry monsters with florescent green fangs and are in reality big alien gorilla-wolf mother f**kers, as they are called by the characters in the film.  These are nasty creatures bent on re-populating the planet unless our unlikely band of heroes can save the day. The heroes are five central 15-18 year old hoodies that rob a white trainee nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) as the start of the film.  After the aliens attack, Sam and her robbers become unlikely comrades.  At one point, gang leader Moses (John Boyega) questions why Sam had had not thanked them for saving her life to which she retorts: “f*** you!”   Becoming friends, hoodie Pest (Alex Esmail) makes a pass at her claiming that he is wearing his sexy Calvin Klein underwear.

When the film is not working brilliantly with the characters all playing off each other, director Cornish (who has past experience in comedy British TV) is eliciting audience anticipation and genuine scares as the monsters are chasing and killing off part of the gang.  Cornish’s blend of humour and horror works better than most films of the genre for example, Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD or Dario Argento’s OPERA.  Whereas the hilarity is so successful in those two films, the horror aspect is lost unlike Cornish’s film.  When the aliens are chasing the kids around the block for example, the audience is literally at the edge of their seats.  And Cornish is not afraid of doing away with key characters too as in the scene when one alien tears away the sinews and skin of the neck of a victim.

Authenticity is created not only by the sets but by the dialogue and the accents of the actors.  The performances from the cast of unknown players are simply superb.  Like in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, the characters decide the safest place to hide from the aliens is the fortified weed house, at the penthouse of the building.  In SHAUN, it was the local pub.

The film also works with a totally credible premise.  Unlike the recent and unbelievable SUPER 8 that required the alien to attract magnetically all the metal of the town to build a spaceship for it to return home,  ATTACK THE BLOCK has not only a believable story but one that provides redemption for the film’s hero Moses as well as a message to all.

Dialogue is surprisingly current and bitingly accurate.  When Pest asks if Sam has a boyfriend and if so why he is not protecting her, her answer is that he is working with the children in Africa. His quick appropriate reply is: “And what is wrong with working with the British kids.”  Moses also believes the conspiracy theory that feds (what the kids call the cops in the film) in the film have developed these aliens, just as they have trained dogs in the past, to eradicate blacks from London.

Following the lead of the past B-horror movies clocking slightly less than 90 minutes, ATTACK THE BLOCK is the one rare film that is so thoroughly enjoyable (great blend of funny and scary) that the audience just does not want the film to end.


(USA 2011) **

Directed by Michael Rapaport

Whether you like hip hop or not, Michael Rapaport’s hip hop documentary, BEATS, RHYMES AND LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST is bound to either move or bore you, as he gets right down to the nitty gritty of the individuals of the group.

The group is called ‘A Tribe Called Quest’.  They are iconic pioneers in hip hop, with Jazz and Afrocentric rhymes.  They have released a total of 5 albums, three making gold.  Such is their talent and influence.  Director Rapaport’s film is a study of the individuals and the group.

Rapaport offers each member their personal say.  Phife is revealed with his medical (diabetes) problems, which affect the group’s performances.  Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jorobi White all speak to the camera including a few worthy cameos as Mary J. Bilge, the Jungle Brothers, and Busta Rhymes.  More performances should have been recorded on film, as when the group performs, the film really rocks.

Bu it is the group’s break-up that is Rapaport focus during the second half of the film.  He traces the differences, though never blaming anyone individual.  He shoots one moving scene when Q-Tip and Phife argue just before going on stage, each refusing to speak top each other.  Yet their come back concert in 2008 proves that the group has what it takes.

The differences of the 4 group members stayed right into the making of the film and over he film’s premier at Sundance.  Director Rapaport himself said that making the film was not a smooth ride and it was only at one stance that the group were together in the film’s making.  At Sundance, only Phife showed up with Rapaport during the premiere though each individual member was offered producer credits.  As Phife’s wife says in the films: “It saddens my heart to see the group not be together.”

Rapaport’s film is biased.  Everyone interviewed kept saying how talented the group is.  The individuals praise themselves too.  Rapaport never delves into the root problem of the group –  so that one naturally assumes that it is ego that separates the members.  Drugs and alcohol are never mentioned, a problem when every famous group faces problems.

Rapaport never attempts to make his subjects more interesting.  So, for the majority of audiences, chances that if you don’t like or care for the group, you won’t care too much about this documentary either.

Directed by Jon Favreau

The title of the film COWBOYS AND ALIENS indicates an absurd film that marries the western to aliens sci-fi.  True enough, this film’s plot is the stupidest there is to come across screens this year.

The odd thing is that if this was a western alone, the film would likely attract less at the box-office.  By making the film silly, COWBOYS AND ALIENS would not only garnish more money but also horrid reviews.

Written by no less than 5 writers, the script was reputed to have undergone many changes ranging from the tone of hokey to dead serious.  The end result is a deadly serious script. As a western, the script, director Favreau and all the actors play their parts with equally dead seriousness.  The film actually works and the excitement and build up in a typical western are all there.  But once the aliens start attacking and the script attempts to make logic of what has occurred, the film starts to fail miserably and look ridiculous.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the film is set on 1873 Arizona.  When the film starts, the hero, a loner named Jake Lonergan (James Bond’s Dabniel Craig) awakens with no memory recollection of his past but notices a mysterious shackle around his wrist that exhibits weird powers! (Don’t ask!)   He enters the town of Absolution where he learns that he is a notorious criminal wanted by many people, including Colonel Dolarhyde (the perpetually growling Harrison Ford), who rules the town with an iron fist. Absolution soon faces an even greater threat when alien spaceships attack the town and abduct the town folk.  While his shackle holds the key to defeating the aliens, Lonergan must ally with Dolarhyde and other former enemies to make a stand against them.                                                                                                                      The script leaves many things unexplained such as why the aliens want to abduct so many town folk.  The only (silly) reason given is that the aliens want to study human weaknesses.  The fact of another alien being present in the form of Olivia Wilde is also difficult to swallow.

On the plus side, Favreau’s film is quite exciting.  The film works best when the aliens are not around as in the film’s beginning when Jakes is protecting the town from Dolarhyde’s trigger happy son, Percy (Paul Dano).  The silliest parts are when the cowboys and Indians are fighting the aliens and when Jake enters the aliens’ lair.

Surprisingly enough, a similar small budget alien movie opens the same day as COWBOYS AND ALIENS.  Called ATTACK THE BLOCK, this film could very well be called HOODIES AND ALIENS.  ATTACK THE BLOCK shows the filmmakers of COWBOYS AND ALIENS how an alien film is done right, and that film comes complete with a totally believable plot.

LIFE IN A DAY (USA 2011) **
Directed by Kevin MacDonald

Lots of places, too much to see!  Too much footage to be condensed optimally into a film!  This is unfortunately the demise of Kevin Macdonald’s otherwise wishful thinking of an idea of his film entitled LIFE IN A DAY.

Folks all over the world were asked to film their lives on July 24, 2010,
and upload their footage to YouTube.  Kevin Macdonald’s LIFE IN A DAY selects 90 minutes from hours and hours of 80, 000 entries of footage serving as a time capsule for that particular day.  The hundreds whose work made the cut are credited at the end credits as directors.

The film begins in the early hours of the morning.  The sun rises around the world. There are shots of animals waking up in Africa, babies waking up next to their mothers and other variations, the most interesting being the daily routine of a Japanese Hiroaki Aikawa and his son Taiji mourning the death of his wife in Tokyo, Japan.

The hours shift from morning to afternoon to evening as the film journeys across different continents. At times, MacDonald gets sidetracked, for example in a sequence in which he asks what each person has in his or her pocket.

The film is shot in chronologically order, obviously but still the film is nothing more than a series of at times intriguing montages loosely linked together.  Bits are interesting but on the whole, there is nothing that holds much interest and the film starts to lag quickly.

One cannot blame MacDonald as such problems exist with similar films like BARAKA and KOYAANISQATSI.  The desperation to condense the film or to put a purpose into the exercise is evident in the film’s ending image claiming that she wished this day would have been special, but it is not, but is still somehow special to her.

THE SMURFS (USA 2011) **

Directed by Raja Gosnell

THE SMURFS first outing to the big screen is a hybrid live action 3-D animation complete with the familiar Smurfs and their antagonist, the villain and evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria).

After a quick introduction to the Smurfs, their reason for being and the Smurf village in the middle of some nowhere forest, evil wizard Gargamel chases the Smurfs out of their village.  He wants their blue essence to make an important spell.  They are forced through a portal (something involving a blue moon), out of their world and into the world of human beings, landing in the middle of New York’s Central Park.  Just three apples high and stuck in the Big Apple, the Smurfs must find a way to get back to their village before Gargamel tracks them down.

The human beings in the story who encounter the Smurfs are Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays who play husband and expecting wife.  The excuse for meeting them is a weak one as is the character’s story involving his cosmetics company.  Once the Smurfs are in NYC, the story loses interest fast.  The Smurfs are not particularly cute or inventive beings.  Gosnell attempts to make them cutesy and has them perform musical (but boring) numbers as well. The lead Smurf is a boy called Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), who of course is clumsy though not really funny.  If the audience would be interested in these blue creatures, why would the filmmakers decide to have the whole story set in the NYC instead of their village?  This is something that is difficult to understand!

The littler ones in the audience may enjoy the Smurfs outing, but the adults would find themselves, as they say in Smurf language more likely smurfed!  Apparently this film is supposed to be the first of a Smurf trilogy. Ugh!


Best Film Opening This Week:  Attack the Block
Best Film Playing: Attack the Block
Best Comedy: Bridesmaids
Best Family: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best Documentary: Project Nim
Best Foreign: Potiche

Avoid: Another Earth

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