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This Week's Film Reviews (April 27, 2012)

29 Apr 2012

Big films opening include THE FIVE YEAR ENGAGEMENT, PIRATES MISFITS and SAFE.

The Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival makes its run in Toronto as well.

DARLING COMPANION (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

The DARLING COMPANION in the new movie by Lawrence Kasdan (THE BIG CHILL, SILVERADO) could very well be the protagonist, Beth''s (Diane Keaton) husband of many years, Joseph (Kevin Kline) or the ragged dog she has found and given a new home.

Joseph is a back surgeon who is good at his job. As expected in Hollywood movies, this character has neglected his family, his wife in particular. But this does not mean that he does not love her, and in the end of the movie, proves that he has all that it takes to prove his love for her.

DARLING COMPANION is thus a romantic comedy/drama for the older generation. The teens and seniors have their love stories so why not those in their 40''s and 50''s. There is nothing wrong in targeting this target audience but why can''t Hollywood make good films?; DARLING COMPANION turns out to be predictable, sappy fare, sub-standard Kasdan filmmaking.bWhat ever happened to the ingenuity found in his BODY HEAT and THE BIG CHILL?

The main story concerns Beth finding her dog. In the picture comes an assortment on rather uninteresting characters that include Joe''s sister Penny (Dianne Wiest), her new lover Russell (Richard Jenkins) and her son, Bryan (Mark Duplass) who happens to work also as a surgeon in Joes'' clinic. All these are excellent character actors stuck with mundane characterizations that do not do much but mope around.

In the middle of the movie, the dog goes missing. Who is more important the husband or the dog? What is more important? The husband keeping his medical appointments or finding the lost dog? These are questions that are only valuable to Beth. Diane Keaton has been dumped with mediocre roles from this one to MORNING GLORY to MAD MONEY. She is best remembered and done much better in any of the Woody Allen films. And all those are in reality romantic comedies from ANNIE HALL to SLEEPER to LOVE AND DEATH.

The search for the dog goes on for such a long time that all the audience can wish for is for that damned dog to be found and the film to come to a close!

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Co-writer (other writer Jason Segel) and director Nicholas Stoller''s new movie after the highly hilarious FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and not so funny GET HIM TO THE GREEK falls right between the two just as the film''s protagonists fall behind the engagement and marrying process.

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT takes quite a while to get on its feet. The first 30 minutes or so really drags on, with tried and tiresome unfunny comedic sets ups like the engagement party and introduction of relatives. When the plot goes on with lame excuses why the wedding cannot take place, one would just wish the couple just do it and get the movie done with.

As far as originality goes, this film starts off where most romantic comedies end. The couple gets engaged. The meeting of the couple at a New Year''s Eve is re-visited once too often for comfort. But then, the film takes the down trodden part of arguments and delays for the wedding. Needless to say, the happy ending involves the wedding finally, which takes place impromptu style (quite funny).

Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt)''s wedding plans are put on hold when she gets taken in for a psychology studies in Michigan under Professor Winston Childs (Rhys Ifans). Tom gives up his prestigious head of kitchen job at a fancy restaurant to be with Violet. But the only job he gets in Michigan is pitiful and when things turn out to go longer in Michigan then planned, the relationship is put to a tried test. But as in films of this sort, true love prevails and the couple gets sorted back for the best.

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT is sporadically funny. When it is, it is really laugh-out loud funny.The old WHAM decorated room of Violent is one example of unexpectedly funny as is the sisters'' Cookie Monster and Sesame Street segment. But the film''s serious parts, like the two big arguments (the bedroom and telephone scenes) between Violet and Tom are very well thought off and put together. What this film has that many romantic comedies leave out, is the male pint of view on romances.It helps that Segel co-wrote the script as he knows also what he does is funny. The part when he talks about the stale donuts that it is not the freshness but the flavour that really counts, he hits the nail on the head. Also when Tom talks about his hurt, it all makes sense from the male point of view.

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT also shows how difficult it is to put out a really good comedy. Thank God, that for the most part, director Stoller and actor Segel get it mostly right, excepting the first 30 minutes. It would still be worthwhile waiting for their next comedy project together.

The premise of this story is the odd circumstances that come about from the discovery of two Asian men in German uniforms when the British Allies stormed the Normandy beaches during World War II.

There has been a spat of excellent Korean films these past few years with titles like POETRY, MEMORIES OF MURDER and ODD BOY immediately coming to mind. MY WAY boasts to be Korea''s most expensive movie at $25 million to date, but unfortunately it does not match the high expectations of its predecessors. An epic war effort, but done in action flick style, MY WAY looks catered to an adolescent audience looking for cheap action, sentimentality and unnecessary violence. These three components, director Kang more than provides, but his film thus falls flat from being the epic it aims to be.

MY WAY is supposedly inspired by a true story. The centre piece conflict is between two rivals, a Korean and a Japanese, both marathon runners.It all starts off on the wrong foot when the two were children. Jun Shik (Dong-gun Jang) works for Tatsuo''s (Jo Odagiri) grandfather''s farm while Korea is colonized by Japan, but he has a dream to participate in Tokyo Olympics as a marathon runner. Tatsuo also aims to become a marathon runner, so the two are in rivalry in sports. War breaks out and they both are forced to enlist in the army. Tatsuo becomes the head of defense in Jun Shik''s unit and he devises a scheme but fails. Jun Shik and Tatsuo are captured by the Soviets. They run away but soon are captured by and forced to fight for the Germans.

As this is a Korean production, the film is pro-Korean.The Koreans are the good guys but always called Korean dogs by their Japanese counterparts. Of course, the Koreans, Jun particularly is the chivalrous hero who will stop at nothing to keep up the good name of being Korean.

The high production values of the film are evident. The battle scenes are effectively staged with lots of explosions, tanks, military weapons and the like.

But ultimately, MY WAY fails to engage despite its length of over 2 hours. One wonders what the point is of all this, as the message of the Koreans being the underdog and hero is already drummed into audiences very early into the movie.

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (UK/USA 2012) ****

Directed by Peter Lord

The latest from the Aardman Studios (CHICKEN RUN, WALLACE AND GROMIT and the most recent ARTHUR CHRISTMAS) is just as jubilant, inventive and entertaining as their previous stop-motion features. This time, the subject is pirates – one that the British know best since they are a nation of the sea.

The protagonist is a luxuriantly bearded (yes, he can keep tons of thingamajigs hidden there) Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a more enthusiastic than successful pirate of the high seas. His attempt at pillaging often falls flat, when he fails at various attempts after trying to board ships like a plaque shit, a ghost ship, a kid''s excursion ship and the like. But what the Pirate Captain has his eyes for is the Pirate of the Year Award. But he faces impossible odds as his bitter rivals Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek) have done better. But he also has to battle the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton from ARTHUR CHRISTMAS, VERA DRAKE and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX) who wants pirates destroyed from the face of the earth. But the Queen also has eye for the Pirate Captain''s parrot, which in reality is a rare dodo bird, as discovered by Charles Darwin (David Tennant).

Queen Victoria, pirate, Darwin all in one movie? That is quite a concept and a very inventive one at that and obviously with countless possibilities for side plots and hilarity. Director Peter Lord and his crew of animators have done a fine job with lots of high jinx, too many to mention in this review. This animation works like the original SHREK movie, where there is as much happening in the background of a scene as in the foreground. For the kids, the film has goofiness and cuteness, and for the adults the film has goofiness and intelligence.

The setting is 1851 London and the animation shows it. The comedic sets ups include clever bits like the Pirate of the Year ceremonies (a very funny take of the Academy Awards), a fight involving what is best about being a pirate (it turns out to be the ham at dinner meals) and of course, the pirate ship and sword fights.

But the songs are slight and American.

Hugh Grant, doing animated voice for the first time, does a marvelous job straining his voice that he sounds at times like John Cleese. But the supporting cast that includes talents like Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Piven and Salma Hayek is just as good. But the prize performance belongs to Imelda Staunton whose Queen Victoria, bumbling about with her protruding bum is pure relishing delight.

If there is a message in the film, it actually appears at the end credits, which itself is a really good send up joke on animated features. And the pirates ''RRrrrrrr'' jokes are all present as well, so as not to disappoint! And did I forget to mention that all this high jinx is in 3D? What more can one ask for in entertainment?

THE RAVEN (USA /Hungary/Spain 2011) ***

Directed by Lewis Teague

The Raven with Edgar Allan Poe as its main protagonist has nothing to do with the narrative poem of the same name that Poe wrote. The title of the film, based on a screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare was chosen obviously to benefit from using the name of the famous poem.

But the film uses the fact that Poe did die on a bench in the park and the script takes it from there.THE RAVEN works as a good gothic thriller combined horror for two main factors. One is the realistice gothic atmosphere, aided that the film was shot in Hungary and the other is the inventive script. A madman commits horrific murders inspired by Edgar Allan Poe''s (Poe played by John Cusack) works. A young Baltimore detective, Fields (Luke Evans, who steals the show from Cusack) joins forces with Poe to stop him from making his stories a reality. The coincidences are too obvious for Poe to be suspect, as Fields determines. In the meantime, Poe has a romance with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) much to the chagrin of her father (Brendan Gleeson) who would not stop at anything to prevent the romance from going on, till he discovers that he has to rely on Poe to save his daughter from the murderous clutches of the madman. Emily is the next victim. She is kidnapped and laid in a coffin underneath ground.

THE RAVEN plays like a Sherlock Homes mystery. In fact this is what the two Sherlock Homes films that Guy Ritchie directed should be like – not the rubbish that he has concocted. THE RAVEN is just as stylized as the SHERLOCK HOLMES film with close ups and slow motioned movement of a bullet for example. This one has a good story, a good mystery complete with clues and is almost a perfect whodunit.

Cusack resembles Poe in his mannerisms likely accurate from his reputed testy and angry nature. But Cusack overacts and the script over dramatizes many incidents. Perhaps this is required for audiences of the present day, but all this can be too much at times. The violence and gore is also upped a notch, the most gruesome segments been the pit and pendulum killing and the removal of a bullet from Detective Field''s chest, not to mention the grisly murders. But to director McTeigue''s credit, he keeps the interest of the audience piqued from start to finish.

The climax in the mist filled woods with close up of a flying silver bullet with ravens hovering about is impressive.

After viewing THE RAVEN, one can conceive why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne cited the influence of Poe''s works on detective fiction.

SAFE (USA 2011) ***1/2

Directed by Boaz Yakin

Like most of the Jason Statham action flicks, the plot can be summarized in a line or two. Here, a former elite agent takes on a two-tier mission: rescue a Chinese girl who''s been abducted by the Triads, then use a safe combination to outwit the Russian Mafia, corrupt NYC officials and the Triads themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Who wants a cumbersome plot when one comes to see heads bashed in and guts spilled? In Statham''s latest actioner directed by Boaz Yakin (UPTOWN GIRLS, REMEMBER THE TITANS), Yakin gets most things right. There are lots of action, most of which occurs only during the second half and a good solid story with strong performances (James Wong, Chris Sarandon), particularly from the supporting cast. And thankfully, there is no nonsense romantic interest. The young Chinese girl, Mei (Catherine Chan) happens to be a math child prodigy. The bad guys want her for various reasons and kidnap her. She escapes but is saved by Luke Wright (Statham) who has almost given up on life after losing all in a caged fight. He risks all to help the girl.
When asked why, he replies that she is life, which is a very appropriate answer. She has given him a purpose to live. For a Statham film, this is unexpected strong stuff – and it works. The young girl cutesy type character is done away with and replaced by a very smart, grown up little girl, against what can be found in a typical Hollywood script. Mei''s character plays very well with Wright''s as both are smart talking human beings used by society. Besides saving Mei, the story involves Wright sorting out the three bad groups, the NYC officials, the Triads and the Russian mafia. The gay slant on the NYC major (Sarandon) works well to provide an edgy surprise to the story. The action set-ups are well executed from the car chase in the busy NYC streets to the escape from the busy Chinese gambling den. The abduction of the girl by the Triad from a hotel swarming with cops is suspenseful worthy of Hitchcock. Director Yakin loves to film in crowds, but the continuity (as in the car chase) is not always there. Needless to say, Wright saves the day and the life of Wei, now an orphan as well. The variation of a love story in the girl/beast relationship works well into classic action filmmaking. SAFE is simply the best Statham film after TRANSPORTER to date.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: The Pirates: Band of Misfits

Best Film Playing: The Deep Blue Sea
Best Action: Safe

Best Drama: The Deep Blue Sea
Best Foreign: A Separation
Best Comedy: Damsels in Distress

Best Family: The Pirates: Band of Misfits
Best Documentary: Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry (Opening Film: Hot Docs)

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