This Week's Film Reviews (Feb 3, 2012)

03 Feb 2012

Big film opening this week that seems to come from nowhere is the superhero teen flick CHRONICLE.

Lots to choose from for as many as 8 new films open this week.

ALBERT NOBBS (Ireland 2011) ***
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

ALBERT NOBBS is an entertaining enough gender bending drama about a woman taking the identity of a male ALBERT NOBBS in order to survive in poverty stricken world of the 19th century.

Based on the screenplay by John Banville and Glenn Close which is based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore, ALBERT NOBBS pushes all the right buttons, despite a not so happy ending and a story that borders on lesbianism.  That is likely the reason the film got an R rating in the U.S.                                                                           The Albert Nobbs (Close) is a woman passing as a man for over thirty years to find work in the hard world of 19th century Ireland.  Working at a hotel as a waiter for Mrs.Baker (Pauline Collins), Albert is known for her steadfast dedication to her job as well as her introverted personality.  She has been saving all of the money she can in the hopes of buying a shop for herself with, hopefully, a wife by her side.  But things take a turn when Albert''s steady course of work is shaken by the sudden arrival of Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), a house painter who has been hired by Mrs. Baker. Albert is shocked when she learns that Hubert is to room with her for the duration of his work at the hotel. Hubert discovers Albert''s secret on the first night and promises to keep it a secret, much to Albert''s relief.  The next day when Albert catches Hubert alone, Hubert reveals her breasts. Hubert leaves soon after, but not before revealing that she has a wife named Cathleen, who is a dressmaker.  As such Nobbs believes it best that she herself do the same, by taking a wife, Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who she eyes.  This is where the trouble starts.

Both Close and Janet McTeer offer outstanding performances winning them Oscar nominations as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.  But Pauline Collins as the fuss bucket owner of the hotel, Mrs Baker delivers the best performance in the film.

Some clever ironic dialogue is delivered occasionally in the film.  The Hotel doctor (Brendan Gleeson) says to Nobbs during a costume party in which they are not dressed up; “We as all disguised as ourselves!” are words that ring so true.  The film leaves the message that all human beings are looking to better themselves whether is desperation or not.  But sometimes in doing so: “We do make our lives so miserable!” as the doctor says so at the end of the film.  But perhaps the main message of the film is uttered by Mr. Page (McTeer): “You don’t have to be anything you are not what you are!”

The film spends the first half with the audience getting use of the environment of Albert Nobbs and her gender.  More of the story unfolds during the second half with more incidents occurring such as the though of Nobbs settling down with a wife; the outbreak of cholera; the possible theft of her savings and her dream tobacconist shop.

The rather sad ending of the film (that might bother audiences used to happy ones) is expected given the tone of the story, the message and where the story is leading.  Nobbs is not true to herself and she must pay for that dearly.  But Albert Nobbs is in itself a fine made film with both excellent performances and a good period story.

BIG MIRACLE (USA 2012) ***
Directed by Ken Kwapis

BIG MIRACLE is a feel good save the whales nature drama as well as a romantic comedy.  The film is based on the 1989 book Freeing the Whales by Tom Rose, which covers the true 1988 international effort to rescue 3 gray whales trapped in ice near Point Barrow in Alaska.

Kwapis’ film moves fast and furious.  This can be observed at the number of times the film switches locations from Barrow, to Anchorage to the L.A.  The whales are already trapped beneath the ice within a minute of the film’s opening.  No opening credits either – credits are left to the very end.  Three Californian gray whales lose their way and find themselves stuck in the Arctic.  They have the surface to breath through a hole in the ice.  As winter approaches, the waters will freeze and they will die just as the hole will freeze up.  This is the story of how the whales are saved through human effort largely championed by Greenpeace worker, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore).  In the meantime, she is courted by hr ex, Adam Carlson (John Krasinki) making this a side romance as well.

The film shows all the issues and departments involved in saving the whales. Even the Russians are called in to help, and they do.  The film is in part educational as well, showing how a freezing wall of ice get develop and grow from a huge travelling iceberg,

On the negative side, Kwapis’ film is over sentimental.  Make sure to bring enough Kleenex for this movie.  This is a classic case of too much icing over the cake.  Kwapis should trust the material for its intrinsic emotional drama.  The script also shows the good side of all the characters from the head chief of the Petroleum company (Ted Danson) to TV reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) who wants a TV story, advancing her career (Kristen Bell) to the native Indians who initially want to hunt the whales for meat.  Kwapis does not skimp on the whale shots (them bopping their heads out of the ice at the humans) either.

The script by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler contains lots of spicy debates between arguing parties on the issue of saving the whales.  But a lot of dialogue such as “I do not hate you as much as I expected!” have bees used in other films before.  The romantic portion of the film is at least kept at a minimum on the sidelines and does not interfere with the main issue of saving the whales.  The film also introduces sufficient new obstacles to the problem which keeps the film fresh and entertaining.

BIG MIRACLE should not disappoint or bore anybody.  If one can take in the saccharine sweetness, that would be an additional bonus!

CALVERT (UK 2011) ***

Directed by Dominic Allan

Hot Docs is pleased to announce that February''s Doc Soup will screen the Toronto premiere of CALVET (D: Dominic Allan, UK, 86 minutes). Called "an emotional roller coaster" by Daily Telegraph UK and "the perfect documentary subject" by The Guardian, CALVET will screen on Wednesday, February 8, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Advance tickets are now available for purchase online at www.hotdocs.ca. Filmmaker Dominic Allan will be in attendance to introduce the film and answer questions following the screenings.

A documentary is often as intriguing as its subject.  In the new doc CALVERT, director has found the almost perfect subject.  Jean Marc Calvert, now a successful painter has had a life that took him to hell and back.  He finally finds redemption in his art, which fetches tens of thousands of dollars in exhibitions in New York.

The documentary is basic.  There is nothing really special in terms of research, filming techniques or interviews.  The film tells the life of Calvert with the man narrating his life from past to present.  As he has lived in different places such as the South of France, Costa Rica, and Miami, the camera takes the audience to these places as Calvert tells his story.  Calvert is as animated as his story is, and this aids in the spirit of the film.  The most fascinating parts of the story are obviously the dangerous portions of his life as well as his experiences while being extremely high on drugs for days on end.  The stories are interspersed with his painting, illustrating the connections between his art and life.

Calvert’s quest in his new life is to find his son that he abandoned.  This he finds at the end, though the meeting is not shown on screen.  What is shown is the phone conversation between him and his son as he waits for the call.  One wonders though whether this is actually the real conversation on an enactment.  Still, CALVERT is a true, intriguing story of a man’s troubled life and his redemption.

CHRONICLE (USA 2012) ****

Directed by Josh Trank

Out of nowhere comes this solid debut of a movie called CHRONICLE.  The film earned an impressive 90% rating on rotten tomatoes (at the time of this writing) and has taken critics and audiences alike by storm.

The film centres on geeky Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a bullied high school teen who buys a video camera and starts shooting everything.  Thus the film takes a hand held feel as everything seen on screen is as if Andrew has shot it.  The script by Max Landis has Andrew as a sympathetic protagonist.  His mother is dying of cancer, his father beats him and he is bullied at school.  He, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular school jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan) come across a meteor during a party and the trio gain super powers.  The film follows the format of the typical super hero film with the heroes learning how to control their new found powers (like Spiderman).  Then comes the darker part of the story, which will not be revealed in this review, less the enjoyment of the film be compromised.

But the three ‘superheroes’ in this film do not combat evil villains like Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN or The Joker in BATMAN.  The three schoolers have enough battles within their own environment.  Andrew has problems with girls, his family, his school peers and even his closest friends.  Those are sufficient demons for any super hero.

Filmmakers Josh Trank and Max Landis are both 28 years of age.  They know their material and their target audience.  One sure thing - the dream for most adolescent males growing up is to attain super powers. (Quote the dialogue from John C. Reilly and Christophe Waltz in CARNAGE).  The film brings forth the wet dreams of males with the three leads garnishing super powers.  It then takes the plot in a whole different dark direction blowing their minds away.

The film is fast and furious.  By the last reel, the innocent adolescent audience would not know what hit them.

But one question about the film is the need for the hand held camera, CLOVERFIELD and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY type feel.  The film could be done without that headache.  Special effects courtesy of CGI are impressive enough to satisfy action fans.  The script attempts at the film’s start to philosophize a bit about life – about physical will being unfulfilled and such (care of Jung) but then playfully laughs it off.

Upon greater consideration, CHRONICLE is in reality a stupid little film about delinquency.  But this apparently stupid film is extremely well thought of, executed and paced, entirely unpredictable, keeping everyone’s attention from start to end.  CHRONICLE emerges as an exciting and well above average entertaining little movie.

Directed by Ty West

Though touted as a ghost haunted house film or rather haunted hotel film, THE INNKEEPERS is more light comedy or unfunny light comedy that turns horrific at the end.

The INN under consideration is Yankee Pedlar Inn in Connecticut.  Such an inn actually exists and to the filmmakers’ credit, the film was shot there.  The premise is that the inn is going out of business.  It is the last weekend and only two innkeepers are employed.  Only three guests check in, a woman and her son, an ex-actress now a healer and an old man.  The story has it that the two employees, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are checking out for paranormal activity in the premises.  The two have a hate/work relationship.  When not checking for the existence of spirits, they engage in really annoying and uninteresting banter that audiences could do without.  The guests are even less interesting.  The mother and boy have hardly anything to do with the plot and the old man’s (George Riddle) visit is too coincidental with the film’s plot.  In other words, the script by Ti West is sloppy and uninteresting.

It appears that no one can make up their minds.  Writer/director West cannot decide whether THE INNKEEPERS should be a ghost story or a relationship film.  Even his characters are indecisive.  The ex-actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis from THE ACCUSED in her better days) cannot decide on her profession, now becoming a ‘healer’.  Luke cannot decide whether to give up the paranormal investigations just as Claire cannot decide whether to stay or leave the inn.  The ghost only decides to scare up a storm at the end of the movie.

For an inn that is supposed to close for good, the inn looks immaculate.  The inn’s main foyer, staircase and corridors are spotless with all the furnishings in tip-top condition.

The only surprise of the film is that none characters are doing any drugs, judging from the way they are acting.  They do drink and get obnoxious and torment each other, like these are the things that audiences would like to see.

Though many critics claim INNKEEPERS claim to be a different exercise, the film is nothing but a big bore in which almost nothing happens during the first ¾ of the film.  When things start getting scary, the film transmutes into nothing more than a typical haunted house movie with tried before, overdone and predictable jumpy scenes which upon deeper consideration form an even a more boring exercise.

MISS BALA (Mexico 2011) ****
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo

MISS BALA is a fast paced disturbing drug crime action drama that was a hit at Cannes where it debuted.  MISS BALA is Mexico’s entry for this year’s Oscar’s Best foreign Film though it did not make it.

The story is told from the point of view of MISS BALA the winner of the local Beauty Pageant who by sheer bad luck gets caught in drug trafficking activities.

The innocent Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) is a tall, willowy girl from a poor family in Tijuana.  She dreams of participating in a beauty pageant with her best friend Suzu. Their plans take a nasty turn in a gangland disco.  Laura is in the bathroom when armed men slip over the wall and start firing on the dancers, leaving a bloodbath behind them. As an eyewitness, she’s kidnapped by the hitmen. Her ravishing looks may be what saves her life because instead of killing her, the inscrutable Lino (Noe Hernandez) forces Laura to become a driver and drug runner for the gang.

The film is extremely fast paced with the film escalating in violence, tension and gunfire.  The more Laura tries to save herself and her family, the more trouble she gets into.  Perhaps it is best that she did not survive in the first as there is no redemption for her, as the last reel indicates.  It is weird that director Naranjo has this horrid chain of events occur to her.

The only good thing (if it can be called that) happening to her is Laura’s winning of the first prize in the beauty contest.  The moral of the story?  One can guess that comes from the start of the movie when Laura’s father tells her to go to school and study instead of having her hopes on the beauty contest.  Laura does not listen, skips school to register for the contest.

Naranjo creates a scary picture of drug infected Mexico, something audiences can imagine after reading all the current news of the country.  The picture makes Mexico look worse.

MISS BALA is an exciting piece of filmmaking full of action and drama.  It is not easy to take in especially watching an innocent person lose everything as a result of pursuing her personal goal.  Better to listen to the advice of the elders?

MOON POINT (USA 2011) **

Directed by Sean Cisterna

MOON POINT (the name of a place) is an extremely low budget feature made for the paltry sum of $1.25 million that begins a one-week special engagement run at the AMC, Toronto.

The film begins with Darryl’s cocky cousin Lars'' wedding approaching. Darryl (Nick McKinlay) decides that the best way to prove to his family that he is not quite as worthless as they think, is to track down his elementary school crush, Sarah Cherry (Kirsten Gutoskie) - now an obscure B-movie actress shooting a horror film in Moon Point - and bring her to the wedding. Darryl enlists his best friend, known affectionately as Femur (Kyle Mac), and travels hundreds of miles in a wagon hooked onto the back of Femur''s electric wheelchair. But naturally as tends to happen on such a quest, things don''t turn out quite as planned. Along the way, Darryl and his friends get shot at, track a banana to an AA meeting, and are the victims of theft by a karaoke competitor. For a while, it all seems hopeless.

Most of the characters or situations are derived from other notable films.  The lead character resembles NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and in fact the actor playing Darryl looks somewhat like Napoleon.  Darryl also enters a talent competition (Karaoke) and wins it.  The journey to MOON POINT in the film is undertaken using Femur’s electric wheelchair that travels 5 mph.  This is some what like Mr. Straight’s trip to visit his brother using his electric lawnmower in David Lynch’s THE STRAIGHT STORY.  The story follows clichés paths - two buddies on a trip picking up a girl on a trip; two buddies breaking up and making up again; losers trying to get out of town.  It is also very noticeable that Cisterna tries very hard vying for her audience’s attention.  Except for the main leads, all her characters (Darryl’s cousin, the Karoake weirdo, the film director) are all exceptionally quirky.

Another part of the film’s problem is that most of the incidents happen too conveniently to suit the plot.  The cousin’s bride that does not show up turns out to be someone else in the film too occidental to be believable, for one.  Others include the theft and retrieval of the scrap book and the timing of a surprise party.

The no-name actors fare well in their roles but the scene stealer is Kyle Mac who oozes with charm as the buddy in the wheelchair.

MOON POINT is a worthy little effort that could have cut it if the film was more original.

LE VENDEUR (Canada 2011) ****
Directed by Sebastien Pilote

LE VENDEUR (THE SALESMAN) begins with a slowly shot montage of a dead moose removed from a snow bordered road.  The scene, an important one in the film’s plot development is re-visited half way through the film.

Once the segment and a few of the opening credits done, writer/director Sebastien Pilote moves his camera across the small wintry industrial Quebec town of Lac Saint-Jean.  Snow is everywhere and the audience can tell that is cold from the movement of the people and the show covered landscape.  Pilote’s film is a slow moving but craftily planned one, and one then eventually turns out to be an emotionally powerful film for two reasons.  Pilote builds his characters and his film allows the audience the opportunity to think.

The protagonist of the film is LE VENDEUR or the car salesman from the town’s autodealer.  Marcel Lévesque (Gilbert Sicotte), a 65+ but still quick-witted car salesman nearing retirement, lives to sell.  He has been salesman of the month for the last sixteen years at the dealership where he has spent his career.  But Lac Saint-Jean is a town that is declining as the huge paper plant that used to employ over 2000 residents is about to shut down its doors for good.  And where it''s cold enough to scare away the tourists and buying a car sometimes seems completely absurd.   But there''s just one thing on Marcel’s mind: getting his beloved Detroit rides off the lot.  Marcel Lévesque is a salesman from a bygone era, a man who learned his trade by telling tales - "fibs dressed up with flowers" - and making his customers happy.  But as the film progresses, a tragedy will change everything for this peddler of dreams.

That is enough said or perhaps that is already too much of the plot revealed.  But Pilote’s film is not about incidents but about people – their reactions, emotions and purpose in life.  The audience finds in this movie, real life characters with real problems that affects their feelings.  It is guaranteed that the audience will be moved by both Marcel’s life and his reactions to the tragedy.

LE VENDUER was voted the top 10 Canadian films for 2011.  LE VENDEUR, a major surprise needs or should be seen for both its sheer simplicity and power.

Directed by James Watkins

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is best known as London West End’s second longest play in history after MOUSETRAP.  The ghost story is based on the book written in 1983 by Susan Hill and had already been adapted into a TV movie.  I had seen the original play some 15 years ago in London but hardly remember anything of it except at how difficult it is to stage a scary ghost story without it being laughable.  The play succeeded.

It is easier to create a ghostly atmosphere on screen than on stage. Director James Watkins must be credited for doing fine work here as THE WOMAN IN BALCK is rich in gothic atmosphere as it is scary and suspenseful.  Apart from a few cheap tricks and false alarms, Watkins should be forgiven for more of what is accomplished.

The story centres on a young widowed financially troubled solicitor, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who is summoned to a small coastal village Crythin Gifford to the house to settle the affairs of an elderly and reclusive widow in a secluded mansion, the Eel Marsh House.  The house is completely cut off at high tide from the mainland with only surrounding marshes.  Kipps finds the village folk superstitious and unwelcoming.  He finds a friend in Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), a rich local landowner who helps in along the way.  Kipps sees a ghost, THE WOMAN IN BLACK and finds out from the villagers that a child in the village dies whenever some person sees the ghost.  Kipps own son is about to arrive to Gifford, so Kipps is worried about his son being the next on the woman’s hit list.

THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a Hammer film production.  The story is similar to Hammer’s old Dracula films in which a stranger, in this case Kipps comes to rid a village of a monster, – in this film with Dracula replaced by THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

Daniel Radcliff of HARRY POTTER fame shows promise in this leading role.  He solicits sympathy from his character protrayal.  Oddly enough, he does not reveal how he has grown up physically.  The only part of his body shown throughout the film, oddly enough is part of his upper arm – despite the fact that he takes a thorough bath after being immersed in the brackish waters of the marsh.

Watkins’ film moves along at a snail’s pace.  That might be a problem with modern audiences used to fast moving action flicks.  But what lacks in speed is more than made up by atmospheric detail and gothic scares.

The ending (not revealed here in this review) might leave audiences dissatisfied.  The ending could be construed as a cop-out happy ending or one that follows its course, depending on ones interpretation.  Mine was the former but a fellow critic argued his case for the latter.  At least THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a well made ghost story and one has not see on the screen that often these days!


Best Film Opening: Chronicle

 Best Film Playing: Carnage
Best Action:  Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol
Best Drama: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Best Foreign: A Separation
Best Comedy: The Artist
Best Family: The Adventures of Tin Tin
Best Documentary: Pina

Avoid: Sherlock Holmes and The Devil Inside

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