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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 7, 2011)

07 Oct 2011

Opening this week is the George Clooney directed THE IDES OF MARCH which is a really good movie.

Also opening are MARGARET, REAL STEEL and Jackie Chan’s 100th movie 1911.

CIRCUMSTANCE (USA/Iran 2011) **

Directed by Maryam Keshavarz


Set in contemporary Iran but shot in politically freer Lebanon, CIRCUMSTANCE is a stubborn drama that despises everything traditional, religious or connected to the mullahs.  As many Iranian filmmakers have recently been jailed, footage had to be smuggled out of the country to prevent confiscation.

One must admire filmmakers like Maryam Keshavarz that risk almost everything to put out what they have to say on film.   This film concentrates on the relationship of two teenage girls who risk everything when they fall in love with each other.

Atafah (Vancouver’s Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are Tehrani female schoolmates in the throes of burgeoning sexuality.  The school authorities warn them of their undesired behaviour which they both laugh off.  Atafeh lives a privileged life with her wealthy, loving parents (Nasrin Pakkho and Toronto’s Soheil Parsa).  On the other hand, Shireen is more steeped in reality.  Her parents, once critics of the Islamic Republic, are now dead.  Like other Iranian youths, Atafeh and Shireen secretly attend underground parties.  Shedding their veils and stripping down to club clothes, they indulge in music, dancing, politics and self-expression – activities that are not only
forbidden but criminal in their country.  But even at these parties, Atafeh and Shireen take pains to camouflage their romance by flirting with boys.  Trouble arises when Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) embraces fundamentalist Islam and quietly joins the Morality Police, a volunteer force that pursues those who break Iran’s strict cultural laws.  Attracted to Shireen and suspicious of her love for Atafeh, Mehran begins spying on his own family.

Director Keshavarz spends too much time celebrating the sexuality and love affair of the two girls.  Though crucial to the story, watching them constantly flaunt their sexuality, lip synch to western songs (as in the Total Eclipse of the Heart sequence), act with total disregard as teenagers with respect to authority with no respect for any others is a bit much after a while.  The two grow annoying and at times.  One wishes the parents will come down hard on Atafeh.

What is interesting about the film is the way of life depicted in the film of Iran, seldom seen by western audiences.  The underground parties in which recreational drugs are passed around is shocking as the police degrading interrogation sequence.  Money means something too in this closed culture as an officer threatens Atafah’s father.  The Iranian hip-hop soundtrack is pretty cool.

The subplot involving Mehran is more interesting the main plot at hand.  Recovering from drug abuse, Mehran takes refuge in religion, becoming a bit of a fanatic taking it out on his family as he joins the morality police.  (At least there is one good that comes out of this!)  The subject of the morality police, the volunteer group is also intriguing to western audiences,

But ultimately, the film fails to provide the answers that it seeks throughout its entirety leaving the audience just as baffled as its characters as to where to carry on from where they were.  Which is a shame as one would expect the tormented family to at least have a little of a happy ending as well.  The only high notes are the fantasy sequences, as Atafeh and Shireen dream of running off to Dubai, frequenting lesbian bars and making love in luxury hotel rooms.

The film screened in Dramatic Competition at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award.  At least the film seems to please the public with its daring theme, despite its flaws.

FRENCH IMMERSION (Canada 2011) **1/2

Directed by Kevin Tierny

Kevin Tierny co-wrote the relatively successful bilingual comedy NON COP, BAD COP.  It is not surprising that his first full length feature, which he also co-wrote deals with the theme of bilingualism.

FRENCH IMMERSION could be considered a more ambitious project for the sole reason that it boasts a long list of Canadian celebrities, though mostly from TV.  Besides well-known Quebec actress Pascale Bussieres and Colm Feore, the others Martha Burns (TV’s Slings and Arrows), Gavin Crawford (TV’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes), Fred Ewanuick (TV’s Dan forMayor), Jacob Tierney (TV’s St. Urbain’s Horseman) and Emmanuelle Vaugier (TV’s Two and a Half Men), alongside Quebec stars Dorothée Berryman,Robert Charlebois, Yves Jacques, Rita Lafontaine, Laurence Leboeuf, Monique Spaziani, and Karine Vanasse – and South Asian-Canadian Ali Hassan are lesser known.  The story is set in the remote Quebec village of St-Isidore-du-Coeur-de-Jésus where the town is surviving on the proceeds of the French Immersion School.  If the school fails, there goes the town.

When the film begins, five Anglos arrivein St-Isidore-du-Coeur-de-Jésus to take a two-week crash course in French.  The school has adult summer camp, where the students find themselves under constant surveillance, all the while living with Quebec families.  If anyone tries speaking English on the outside, they are sure to get caught.  Spies everywhere keep handing them yellow cards that bear two words: en français.

When the time is up, neither the students nor the village will ever be the same.

The problem with a film of this structure is that there is no strong narrative to push the film along.  With so many characters, the job of Tierny is pretty much reduced to the role of a traffic cop deciding which character is to go on next.  The script is quite predictable and it does not take a genius to guess that the school will be saved by the connections on one of the students.  Love will also blossom during the course.  So, the film lacks a good climax but the good ending is that the village will survive.

But despite the film’s flaws, FRENCH IMMERSION turns out to be quite watchable. The decision to put in a hockey game between the Anglos and French is well paid off with some genuine laughs created.  It helps too, if the audience knows French (or Quebecois French) to appreciate a few of the jokes that would otherwise fly over the heads of the pure English speaking audience.

THE IDES OF MARCH (USA 2011) ***** Top 10
Directed by George Clooney

THE IDES OF MARCH puts George Clooney back in the director’s chair for this edgy political drama set in the days leading up to a fictional presidential primary. Clooney also stars as a Democratic candidate, Mike Morris who schools his idealistic campaign press secretary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) in the dubious machinations of modern politics.

Myers becomes too good at his work forcing Morris to come to terms with his past mistakes and reckon with his prodigy.

Clooney’s film plays like a thriller and once the foundation is set in the first 30 minutes, turns into pure edge-of-your-seat drama and thriller.  IDES OF MARCH is everything one would expect in a political drama – wickedly biting humour, great dialogue with lots and lots of sarcasm and nastiness.

Clooney is excellent as the dubious governor but it is Ryan Gosling who combines sexiness with a controlled smart performance that steals the show.  And it is difficult to tell whether it is Paul Giamatti or Phillip Seymour Hoffman who is giving the better supporting performance.

Near the end, the film contains one exceptional shot of Stephen Myers, now promoted Senior Campaign Manager during Morris’s victory speech.   With his head bowed low with hardly a smile on his face, Steve has realized that Morris, the man he got elected is the same man he had blackmailed to get his position and that Morris had not only compromised his principles but has proven not the perfect man Steve thought him to be.  And that the only reason Steve is in politics in the first place was that he (Steve) believed in and had the highest respect for Morris.  (In Steve’s own words at the start of the film: “I believe in Morris; he has to win!).  Stephen Myers had matured with the grave payment of innocence lost.

The film also demonstrates how good speeches can fool the masses.  The script also uses past American politics to make a point.  As in the Clinton Administration as well as in the case of Morris, a President can get away with murder, war and corruption except the screwing of an intern.  The father’s eulogy at the intern daughter’s funeral is also brimming with irony.  Better irony is when Tom Duffy (Gimatti) proudly rebuffs Steve on how he got him fired on what in his view is a win/win situation.  By the film’s end, Tom Duffy loses.

At one point during a confrontation between Paul and Steve, Steve remarks sarcastically, after getting Paul fired that he has learn from the best.  Clooney has obviously learnt the art of filmmaking from the best (no doubt from working with many films under director Steven Soderbergh) and with his great cast and talented crew, have come up with one of the best American films of 2011.  Viewing THE IDES OF MARCH the second time, (first time was at TIFF), it can be seen how everything falls in place, lighting, camera work, acting coupled with a great script to make this a remarkable movie.

The film is based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon (loosely modelled on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary campaign).

THE INTERRUPTERS (USA 2011) ***
Directed by Steve James

 

From Steve James, director of the unforgettable HOOP DREAMS comes a different themed documentary.

THE INTERRUPTERS are the teams from an innovative organization based in South Chicago that intervene to stop senseless killings that are taking a toll on the youth of the city.  The Violence Interrupters to intervene at the beginning of gang- and drug-related hostilities, sometimes risking their own lives to stop a fight.  Most of them are previous gang members who themselves have served time.  They know the gangs and speak the lingo of the streets.  Still, they are faces with a dauntless almost impossible task.  The film follows three of them, two guys and a girl who give their all to help their people.

Director James likely had an incredible amount of footage as his film runs 126 minutes.  The film intercuts the work of the three interrupters, but the film seems all over the place, thought eh film ends of a hopeful note with song to emphasize the fact.  It would be good if he showed how the organization actually started and where it is headed rather than just follow the workers doing their work.  James also dwells on the sentiment, milking as much tears he can get from the audience during the funeral ceremonies.

But credit is due to the many confrontation scenes and for the many heated and personal meetings documented on film.  At the film’s start, the audience would likely be aloof to the troubles of the minorities who have a totally violent lifestyle.  Subtitles are provided as it is often hard to catch what the characters are saying.  But by the film’s end, James has won his audience over in terms of sympathy and care.

For all its flaws, THE INTERRUPTERS is quite the eye-opening film.  Despite all the violence and killing from that group, still a number from the group would emerge to help to do good and stop the killings.

MARGARET (USA 2010) ****

Directed by Kenneth Lornegan

After a 5 year hiatus, director Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature after the critically praised YOU CAN COUNT ON ME is a personal drama centering on a teenager bent on doing what is right by telling the truth.  The trouble is that she has lied before and like the boy who cried wolf, has trouble in being able to convince the police investigators otherwise.

While distracting a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) witnesses the driver running a red.  A woman is hit and dies in Lisa’s arms.  She initially lies to the cops that the light was green.  In her attempts to set things right she meets with opposition at every step. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalizing her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world.

This is a personal drama involving multiple issues that is difficult to be convincing on screen.  Director Lornegan takes his time with many drawn out sequences to make his point.  At times, the film could have been sped along, as in the many slow motioned sequences in which Lonergan shows people walking slow-mo, but the overall effect is that the tactic works in a way.  The film runs more than 2 hours.

In the process, Lisa learns about life and matures in the process.  Her contempt with her mother (an excellent performance from Lonergan’s wife, Allisan Janney and an actress to be reckoned with) grows when the mother appears more interested in her new boyfriend (Jean Reno) and the new play she is starring in.  She bonds with the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) but the amity eventually turns into animosity when conflict arises.

The film is both character and event driven which makes the film more watchable.  The events that involve basically allow Lisa to make a case against the bus company and the driver which initially appeared hopeless.  More characters are also introduced into the film as it progresses as well as the character of Lisa developed, as with the relationship between mother and daughter which is also a focus of the story.

Paquin is excellent as the 17-year old teen but it is Janney as the mother who steals the show.  Janney is so good that whenever she appears, she wins the side of the audience in her arguments.  The film contains many confrontation scenes and credit is due to Lonergan from eliciting both views of each argument, of course, after shouting matches.

Lonergan seems to have a thing against teachers.  The title MARGARET comes from the Margaret in the poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child" by 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, taught in Lisa’s class by Van Tassel (Matthew Broderick).  Van Tassel is shown as an indecisive teacher who ignores key arguments only, interested in his course’s subject matter.  When upset, he sips juice and eats a sandwich.  The other teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) who Lisa has a crush for is unable to deal with adult situations.

The film also pits youth ideals with the harsh realities and cruel adult world.  Lonergan succeeds in his dramatic tale which might not be liked by all audiences because of a mixed happy ending.  The film’s release was delayed with resulting lawsuits due to Lonergan’s rejection of the film’s final cut.

 

1911 REVOLUTION (China 2011) ***
Directed by Jackie Chan

Also touted as Jackie Chan’s 100th movie, no doubt to bring in more of Chan’s fans to the theatre, 1911 is a very different and unlikely vehicle.  This is a serious historical war epic without Chan’s famous comedic drunken fighting techniques.  But there is one fight sequence near the film’s end where Chan fights his opponents.

Chinese history is not familiar to western audiences or a popular genre among Chinese audiences.  It does not help that many such epics, big production epics have failed in the past, last year’s THE WARRING STATES and Chen Kaige’s THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN immediately coming to mind.  Last year had a barely successful film (don’t recall the title) that also saw the rise and formation of the communist party which includes this film’s history taking the film further.

2011 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai revolution that brought down the imperial rule of the Empress Dowager (Joan Chen).  Where most of the previous films concentrated more on historical facts, Chan’s 1911 has a story weaves around two characters – one a revolution fighter, Huang Xing and the first Chinese President Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao).  The film opens as Huang Xing awakens from a sleep in a camp among other revolutionary fighters in the island of Penang Pulau.  The film cast forwards to his fight in the front lines in China to the fall of Chinese imperialism.

With a resulting stronger narrative, the film works well as both a historical drama and an action entertaining piece.  The fight scenes are well drawn out, looking authentic from the faded colours, as if right out of an old newsreel.

Chan fares well in a more serious role and even better in the director’s chair.  The blend between history and chamber piece (personal drama) makes for good entertainment.  The best scenes, however are those involving the Empress Dowager, played with aplomb by veteran Chinese Joan Chen.  Whenever confronted with bad news such as needed funds to provide ammunition to fight the rebels, all she does is get irritated and wishes not be bothered by such details.

1911 was chosen to open the Tokyo Film Festival.  With Chan at the helm of 1911, the plight of ancient the ancient China and the fight of decency should be better understood by western audiences.

 

REAL STEEL (USA 2011) **
Directed by Shawn Levy

The idea of robot boxing (not that the idea is so novel) originated from an old Twilight Zone episode.

Set in the near future, where robot boxing is a top sport, a struggling promoter, Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) feels he has found a champion in a discarded robot. During his hopeful rise to the top, he discovers he has an 11-year-old son, Max (Dakota Goyo) who wants to know his father.  The two actually make a good team and against all odds, reach the boxing championships with their robot.

For a film of this nature, all logic is thrown out the window.  The audience is led to believe that Max, 11-years old has the genius engineering ability to adapt a voice recognition system from an old robot to a completely new environment.  A robot from the rubbish dump can also take on the world champion Zeus, engineered by the World Masters.

REAL STEEL would aim for the family audience. There are lots of oil spilled but no blood.  Charlie is beaten up a few times, but all the audience sees are a few bruises.  Language swearing is kept to a minimum.

As far as acting goes, Jackman has to act as much like a kid as possible while Goyo as much of an adult as possible.  And both must act as if they are really into robot boxing.

The script ignores details.  The year or even decade in which the film is set dispensed with.  All the audience is required to know us that the film is set in the near future.  How robot boxing got to be the top sport is also anyone’s guess.  Much is left out of who Max’s mother is, except that she is a good woman.

It comes therefore as quite the surprise that director Levy has gone all out with the making of this film on robot boxing – treating the project at times like an epic.  The details that go into the actual bouts, the mechanical movements and CGI effects are top notch impressive.  The subject on robot boxing is treated with such utmost seriousness that any disbeliever would be easily converted.  Disney Studios has also upped their marketing campaign of the film with great zealousness.

For who would otherwise want to see a robot boxing movie with a father/son with the well worn theme of a father/son?  But the fact still remains that REEL STEEL is still a film about mechanical boxing, a rip-off from the success of the TRANSFORMERS films, cliché ridden and predictable.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening This Week:  The Ides of March
Best Film Playing: The Ides of March
Best Comedy: Bridesmaids
Best Family: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Best Documentary: Chasing Madoff
Best Foreign: Poetry

Avoid:  Abduction

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