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This Week's Film Reviews (May 11, 2012)

11 May 2012

Films opening include DARK SHADOWS and docs CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT and BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*.

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

BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*  (Swe/Den/Germ/USA/UK 2012) ***

Directed by Fredrik Gertten

This is the type of film where a director catches a multinational company committing something and exposes the bad deed.  The additional bonus here is that the company (the big boys of the title) goes after the poor director with a lawsuit claiming that the film is a fraud.

It all started with the first doc made by Gertten 3 years ago, BANANAS!  That film chronicled the lawsuit that 12 Nicaraguan plantation workers brought against the fruit gain company Dole.  The film was selected to screen in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and word of mouth was positioning it as one of the year’s most anticipated issue-documentaries.  But not long after the L.A. Film Fest announcement, the festival did an about-face, informing Gertten that it would be removing BANANAS!from competition. Shortly thereafter, the film was the subject of a scathing article in the Los Angeles Business.  Gertten received a letter threatening legal action against him unless he pulled the film out from the screening.  This film chronicles Gertten’s fight against Dole.  Gertten gets really put to work to support his film.  Fortunately his company and film producer as well as the Swedish Government backs him up.

Everyone loves a David and Goliath story and this one is one of the best.  In fact, the whole film is a gradual account of how Gertten fights back and eventually wins.  It is not a spoiler to say that Gertten wins at the end but not after a big fight and psychologically exhaustive work.  Is it really worth it?  It is if one considers what is really at stake here.  Freedom of speech and the right to be right!  Gertten gets his film right here and also the angry juices flowing from his audience.  If Doe had not backed down, I would bet that 99% of the audience would boycott Dole products.

The additional bonus of Gertten’s ordeal is the existence of this new documentary BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS!*  Enjoyable, entertaining and believe it or not suspenseful as well, this film was picked as one of the 10 best favourites at this year’s Toronto hot Docs Film festival.

CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT (Canada 2012) **

Directed by Yung Chang

CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT by UP THE YANGTSE’s director Yung Chang tells the story and follows three characters in their personal struggles.  A Master Coach Qi Moxiang trains two teenagers in boxing in order to compete at National levels.

The pull of professionalism also weighs upon their shoulders.  Coach Qi Moxiang, hopes to make a storied comeback in a final pro fight, to show them the way. The top student boxers face dramatic choices as they graduate - should they fight for the collective good as amateurs, or for themselves and their own personal gain as professionals?   Yung Chang uses boxing a metaphor for the choices that everyone faces now, in the New China.

The two young boxing hopefuls are Miao Yunfei and He Zongli who Chang’s crew discovered from a school in Huili County, Sichuan Province that has produced 200 champions in 20 years.  Miao''s family was quite successful as tobacco farmers and He Zongli''s family were poor subsistence farmers. Their personalities were polar opposites with Miao outgoing and Zongli quiet and introverted, and these traits translated to their fighting personas.

It is interesting to note the similarity between CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT and the recent doc about MMA fighting called FIGHTVILLE.  Both films trace the stories of a devoted coach and two fighters.  But FIGHTVILLE ends up the more interesting film as the film builds up a stronger narrative and has the fighter going into the cage in the film’s climax that turns out just as exciting as any ROCKY film.  Yung Chang’s films follows the two boxers but unfortunately his boxer loses to the Japanese opponent.  Yung Chang does not build as strong a narrative as that found in FIGHTVILLE.

Yung Chang also fails to explain the origins of Chinese Boxing that existed before the times of western boxing.              There are also other points that could be covered in this documentary but are overlooked like the difference between Chinese or western training and the real effect why boxing was banned in China for a while.

In an interview, Yung Chang said that he learned that the subject does not have to say much in order to have depth and that he liked stories told in unspoken silences.  But many stories and valid issues could also been left out as a result.  Leaving after viewing CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT feels empty as if a story had not been fully told.

DARK SHADOWS (USA 2012) ***1/2

Directed by Tim Burton

The film begins in 1972 with a lengthy prologue of Joshua and Naomi Collins, with young son Barnabas, set sail from Liverpool, England to start a new life in America. But even an ocean was not enough to escape the mysterious curse that has plagued their family.

Two decades pass and Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has the world at his feet-or at least the town of Collinsport, Maine. The master of Collinwood Manor, Barnabas is rich, powerful and an inveterate playboy...until he makes the grave mistake of breaking the heart of Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green).  A witch, in every sense of the word, Angelique dooms him to a fate worse than death: turning him into a vampire and then burying him alive.

The film is rich in gothic atmosphere coupled by the 1972 setting.  Burton makes great use of the year of 1972, the year Barnabas has risen from the grave as Dracula.  He plays ‘Top of the World” sung by Karen Carpenter, has the car of the year, a Chevy driven by the witch and also plays the SUPERFLY soundtrack heard as blackpoitation film hit the theatres in Collinsport.  Even Alice Cooper renders two songs at the ‘ball’ thrown by Barnabas.  Barnabas reads and quotes Erich Segel’s LOVE STOIRY.

The low pacing of the film of the film is more than made up by the gorgeous attention to detail and CGI effects.  The gothic atmosphere of the cliff by the rocky sea where Barnaby’s love plunges to her death is something like a nightmare come true.

Eva Green steals the show as the over-the-top nasty witch.  Depp, playing another tortured soul similar to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS adds a little humour to the otherwise very serious tone of the film while keeping the comedy in check in an otherwise horror film.  The film is funny at parts but they do not compromise the seriousness of the matter at hand.  The hilarious love making scene between Barnabas Angelique is diabolitically sexy.

The balance of horror, action and comedy is blended well by Burton in DARK SHADOWS.  The rich atmosphere, costumes, sets and make-up add an additional bonus.

SOUND OF MY VOICE (USA 2012) ****

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

SOUND OF MY VOICE is a Sundance film winner that is basically a very simple film.  But once the end credits roll, the only thing audiences can say is “Wow!”  - the reason being that director Zal Batmanglij sure knows how to tell a story well.

The film begins with a couple pulling into a stranger’s garage and following blindly the stranger’s instructions.  Blindfolded, they are led to a remote location where they experience their first night of a cult meeting.  “You are not allowed to ask questions and you must not make any sudden body movements,” they are ordered.  But apparently this journalist Peter (Christopher Denham) and girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have no intention of joining the cult but to secretly shoot a documentary about the cult.  So they pretend, hiding transmitters and do the routines, once of which is the consumption of live worms.

Things get stranger once the cult leader, Maggie (Brit Marling) claims that she is from the future.  Stranger still, when she orders Peter to kidnap a 12-year old girl from the class he is teaching.

But there is a bit of cheating going on in the script by Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Near the film’s end, a cop tells Lorna, I will tell you what the girl is being used for if you keep the secret from Peter!” But this secret is never revealed in the film.

The film is told in 10 parts, with the titles ONE, TWO, THREE appearing in order on screen.  The first two and last two parts are the most attention grabbing.  Though the pace might at times be slow, the tension mounts.  The music including a song sung by Maggie from the Cranberries is well chosen.  Despite the tense nature of the film, the film contains two very fuuny laugh out loud moments.

Still the film works, especially with an ending so unexpected that it will blow one away.  Upon careful re-examination of the movie, one will realise that the plot, story and surprises are really nothing that special.  Yet the audience’s feeling of awe comes about from the fact that Batmanglij is such a fantastic storyteller, keeping his film always at least a step ahead of the audience.  And for such a small budget film, this is a great achievement.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Dark Shadows 

Best Film Playing: The Deep Blue Sea
Best Action: Marvel''s The Avengers  

Best Drama: The Deep Blue Sea
Best Foreign: Headhunters (Norway)
Best Comedy: Damsels in Distress
Best Family: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Best Documentary: Big Boys Go Bananas!*

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