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This Week's Film Reviews (June 29, 2012)

29 Jun 2012

Openings this week include Steven Soderbergh’s ultra serious MAGIC MIKE and Todd Solondz’s DARK HORSE which in itself is a dark horse of all the movies opening.

The Italian Contemporary Film Festival makes its debut this week – its first year!

DARK HORSE (USA 2011) ****

Directed by Todd Solondz

Writer/Director Todd Solondz (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, HAPPINESS, PALINDROMES) has used a telephone pervert, a child molester and in his latest film, a fat loser toy collector as his main character.  The common element in these three characters is that each contains an incredible amount of self-loathing while the main difference is that this toy collector is the only character who is a dark horse (a nobody that emerges to prominence).

Abe (Jordan Gelber) is a 30-something self-loathing overweight and self destructive man, who believes that he has the right to complain and have things handed to him because he was not as fortunate as his brother Richard (Justin Bartha from THE HANGOVER films) to be born smart, handsome and lovable.  As a result, he still lives at home with his parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) and works for his father, never doing any serious work that is required for the company.  Father wants him fired and out of the house, but mother is still attached to Abe.  Into the picture, comes Miranda (Selma Blair) who Abe woos to no end.  In a surprise twist of the story, he gets the girl, warts and all.

The tone in Solondz’s DARK HORSE is identical to the tone found in most of his films - sickly funny.  DARK HORSE is a very, very sad comedy which unfortunately is about many people existing in today’s society.  It is up to Solondz to bring these worms out of the woodwork, disgusting and weird as these characters may be.  However, this makes for a very compelling and intriguing story and film.

Solondz’s choice of a song that is played throughout the film is at first questionable that comes across as very appropriate.  The lyrics tell the audience of what state the film is at and how the main character is and feels.  The song gets so annoying, just like the main character, that it eventually becomes engagingly hilarious.

An accomplished feat too is the way Solondz finally gets his audience to become sympathetic with his self loathing despicable main character.  Though this required two big twists in the plot (which will not be revealed in this review), the tactic works well to great effect.

Newcomer Justin Bartha inhabits the role of toy collector Gelber very well.  But Solondz elicits more than great performances from his entire cast, even from newcomers like Tyler Maynard as the store clerk.

Whatever message Solondz has for his audience in this great small movie is unclear and speculative, which makes him always an intelligent sand unpredictable director.  Is it that everyone has a chance in life as a dark horse?  No one can really tell what goes on in the mind of the ultimate DARK HORSE, Todd Solondz.

JAWS (USA 1975) ***** Top 10

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Opening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in time with the Blu-Ray DVD release, JAWS stands the test of time and remains one of the best commercial Hollywood films ever made.   And deservedly put its director Steven Spielberg on the moviemaking map.

Based on the so-so Peter Benchley novel of the same name, the story revolves around the terrorizing by a great white shark of a beach seaside holiday town called Amity (in reality Martha’s Vineyard where film was shot).  As the holiday July 4th weekend approaches, a shark attack prompts Police Chief Brody (Ray Schneider) to close the beaches.  The major (Murray Hamilton) and other businessmen prevents him from doing so.  But when more attacks occur, the town is forced to hire shark Hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw) and together with Brody and marine scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), they hunt down the shark.

First seen in 1977 (Singapore was two years later to see this film*) by me and once again 10 years following, JAWS is still as scary, refreshing and inventive as when I saw it initially.  All the elements of a good scary money maker are present - family style entertainment with only just enough gross out scares (a severed shark bitten leg sinking to the bottom), humour, a suspenseful built-up climax, genuine inventive scares but mostly lots of audience anticipation.

Spielberg, whose mentor is Hitchcock follows the Master’s grand tradition.  For one, audience anticipation is present from start to finish.   Every time the John Williams pounding musical score is heard, the audience is set in expectation of a shark attack.  The typical Hitchcock’s reached out hand to grab the hand of a possible victim is present in the second shark attack.  In Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS, the winged creatures were not seen till half way the film was through.  In JAWS, the audience gets the first glimpse of the shark after 90 minutes when Brody shouts: “We need a bigger boat!”

The attention grabbing shocks Spielberg uses in JAWS are fully memorable.  The audience attention grabbing scene when Quint screeches his nails down the chalkboard, the partly decomposed head dropping out of the bat as Hooper scuba dives to check a boat and Brody’s son imitating him at the dinner table are unforgettable classic segments.

From the first scene when Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) gets chomped up from her night swim to the unforgettable climax with Quint swallowed whole by the Great White, orwhether one knows the whole story or not, JAWS is still enjoyable when watching, even if just to see what Spielberg does to get a film done right.

*

Singapore theatres were primarily owned by either Shaw or Cathay which released all the films from the main studios prior to 1972.  When Universal and Paramount formed CIC (Cinema International Releasing) for outside North American release, a new cinema chain, Golden wrestled the contract out of Cathay and Shaw.  When CIC’s major hits particularly THE STING and THE GODFATHR failed to perform that well at the Golden Cinemas, CIC took back the contract.  Trouble in releasing Universal and Paramount lasted a full 2 years in which hits like JAW never got released.  Shaw finally won the CIC releasing contract after building a very large modern theatre close to the new Golden Cinemas.

 

 

It is about time someone did a movie about male strippers.  Steven Soderbergh makes an attempt here after delving into drugs (TRAFFIC), disease (CONTAGION), robbery (OCEAN’S ELEVEN AND TWELVE), the environment (ERIN BROCKOVICH) and various other relevant current issues.  In MAGIC MIKE the world of strippers is dealt with, but too seriously that it falls flat.

Soderbergh give a free hand to his actors allowing them to both strut their stuff and improvise their dialogue.  Unfortunately, Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) is not too adept at this with the result of much of the dialogue being repeated and the conversations making not much sense.  The dancing is a bit over the top but one has to give it to Tatum, McConaughey (as club owner Dallas) and Alex Pettyfer (Adam the kid) for trying their best.

The final result is a shallow piece of work that plays like poor soap opera.  At least the standard stripper newbie story of a novice learning the ropes and finding out the stripping world is not what it is meant to be is not followed.  The novice here, Adam is a bad kid dealing drugs and saved by his mentor Mike and sister, Paige (Cody Horn).

Sodererberg’s decision to make the world of strippers totally realistic with ensemble acting and free flowing story works counter to his aim.  The film is forced, pretentious and the dancing eventually becomes boring.  However, quite a few of the girls in the audience can be heard to be screaming most of the time the strippers take off their clothes.  There has to be more class in movies.  Soderbergh should know that style doesn’t replace substance in movies.

TAKE THIS WALTZ (Canada 2011) **

Directed by Sarah Polley

Couples break up when the marriage becomes troubled or when there is no more love left.  In the ambitious TAKE THIS WALTZ. Actress Sarah Polley’s second film, a woman Margot (Michelle Williams) leaves her husband even when the marriage is ha happy one and when they still both love each other.

One can argue against the premise of such a film – that it encourages infidelity and a high divorce rate.  The argument is doubtless, true but it also questions the point that one should not continue to lead a mundane satisfied life without trying out something new.  After all, isn’t this what western culture is all about?  The individual comes first?  And screw the rest?

Margot meets Daniel while on a trip to write a Canada Parks brochure.  By chance (too much of a coincidence really), he is there at a heritage park, seated next to her on the plane and also happens to be her neighbour living next door to her on the same street.  Polley who wrote the script could have come up with better.  At least the first meeting segment (always very important for romantic dramas or comedies) is highly amusing.

There is nothing very much that goes on in this domestic drama once the message is guessed.  It is not difficult to guess the outcome from the incidents that occur.  All lead to her leaving loving husband Lou (Seth Rogen) and taking to bed Daniel (Luke Kirby, from the recent THE SAMARITAN).  The film tends to be a bit boring despite the many quirky parts (the showering scene; the party scene; the gym nude segment.

The lovemaking segments between Daniel and Margot is really odd in that if features a third person, once a male and the other time a female.

The script is relatively one sided.  It is prejudiced on Margot’s side.  It does not offer much of what the husband Lou has to say or feel.  Much less is known about Daniel except that he paints disturbing portraits that should trigger Margot’s suspicions on whether Daniel is of sound mind.

But the film finally comes off as neither a not very credible case study nor a worthy one.  The title comes from a Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen’s song which is featured at the end of the film.  TAKE THIS WALTZ also features many sights not scene by tourists like the local Toronto beaches by the lake or the older neighbourhood houses as in the Queen Dufferin area, where the film is set.  Apart from this, the film does not offer much.

PEOPLE LIKE US   (USA 2012) **

Directed by Alex Kurtzman

PEOPLE LIKE US takes a while to get on its feet.  The first 40 minutes are incredibly boring and annoying, especially since everyone from cast and crew intends to impress the audience for no particular reason.

At the start of the film the lead character Sam (hunk Chris Pine from Star Trek) reveals his occupation as a facilitator.  He then has a conversation with a potential customer, both speaking at 100 miles per hour using flowery language mixed with technical jargon,  most of which, under scrutiny do not make that much sense.  Then when Sam parks his car, he has to reverse and forward into the two cars from and back of his car.  All this is totally unnecessary, except perhaps to impress the audience.  It seems more of a distraction than anything else, with the audience trying the best to understand what is going on.

The rapid fire dialogue does not continue throughout the entire film though the jargon and ‘cleverness’ of the dialogue do.  Even the kid speaks that way like the adults rather than how a kid should talk.

The story concerns Sam (Pine) requested by his recently dead father’s wishes to pass the sum of $150,000 to his dad’s mistress’s grandson, Josh (Michael hall D’Addario).  He first gets to meet Josh’s mother, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and gets to know her.  Frankie, who works bartending, has trouble looking after Josh.  Sam helps and a bond develops.  But Sam does not intend to give him the $150,000 as he is broke and had just lost his job.  And so the story goes.

The film has a bit of comedy but is more of a drama.

One thing that stands out in the movie is the script’s expertise on music and musicians.  At one point, Sam instructs Josh on the proper listening, in order to a number of bands that will a distinct effect on his life.  The film’s score also deserves mention.  Perhaps Kurtzman, who co-wrote the script is likely a music buff.

Pine is annoying but it may be argued that so is so because of his character.  Banks is exceptionally good as the mother.   But the kid D’Addario who plays the son is absolutely winning.  At first, I was wondering the reason for this weird looking kid casty to play the major role, but as the film went along, I could see why.

PEOPLE LIKE US plays like a romantic drama.  The only difference here is that the leads are siblings. The brother meets the sister, develops a relationship and then has a major argument and break up.  They get back together and continue their sibling relationship brought back by the sister’s son.  With that respect, the audience has seen all this before in other predictable romantic comedies.

TOWN OF RUNNERS (UK/Ethiopia 2012) **
Directed by Jerry Rothwell


The TOWN OF RUNNERS in question is Bekoji, a rural town in the Southern Highlands of Ethiopia.  It has produced 8 Olympic Gold Medals, 32 World Championships and breaking 10 world records, its runners won all four gold medals in the Beijing Olympics in the long distance track events.

Award winning director Jerry Rothwell (DEEP WATER, HEAVY LOAD) attempts to tell the town’s story through two girls in training Alemi, a farmer’s daughter and Hawii who stays in the family’s small holding.  Their coach, Sentayehu Eshetu who runs the sports centre and is in reality a good guy, responsible for the training of the Olympic champions.  Rothwell allows him to have his say.  He brags but he is deserving of the praise due to him.

The film paints a bleak picture of Ethiopia.  The people are poor and for most citizens, running is the only way out of poverty.  But talent is not the only obstacle.  When the girls Alemi and Hawii travel to other sports centres to compete, they are treated badly and they are short of cash.  The centres promise them much but deliver little.  Here is where the documentary follows the champions in other fields such as beauty contestants cheated out but unscrupulous companies.  But director Rothwell only dwells on the girls’ complaints and never interviews the heads of the centres that fail to deliver.

It seems that Rothwell avoids as much conflict as possible in his film.  He never solves any pressing issues or talk to the failures of the sports participants.

TOWN OF RUNNERS could have been more and the film could have helped the runners get their act together by attacking those who abuse the diligent athletes.

TYLER PERRY''S MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION  (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Tyler Perry


The 3 star rating for the new Tyler Perry film is to be considered in perspective of the 14 films that he has directed.  Perry does what he does best, the politically incorrect Madea in drag at his/her funniest.

At least Tyler Perry does not get over preachy as he does in his serious non Madea film like his awful last entry GOOD DEEDS.  The joke about Madea’s Witness Protection is that there isn’t any, Madea takes a family hunted down by the mafia in for a period of 4 months for the sole purpose of earning $4,000 a month.

George Needleman (SCTV’s Eugene Levy, playing comedy in the deadest of seriousness), a high level CFO is at the center of a Ponzi scheme in New York City.  He is being accused of spearheading the scheme involving the mob and has to enter his family into a witness protection program.  The program''s location is a place that absolutely no one will think to look for them: Madea''s house down south with her brother Joe and nephew Brian (played by Perry as well).

The message and direction of the story can be predicted by a non genius.  The family with the rude daughter and spineless but innocent father are put right by Madea, the old fashioned way.  Madea believes in all the old fashioned things like respect for parents, waking up during sunrise and earning a decent living – never mind the fact that she did some pole dancing (when poles were thicker in those days) for income in her younger days.

Most of the preaching here is done through the characters’ actions rather than dialogue as in GOOD DEEDS.  Perry’s film, as in all the other MADEA films is in your face, loud, crude and totally crass.  But this is what is expected from Madea and in this respect, Tyler Perry’s MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM delivers!

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Dark Horse
Best Film Playing: The Amazing Spider-Man (from Monday)
Best Action: Marvel’s The Avengers
Best Drama: The Deep Blue Sea
Best Foreign: The Intouchables (France)
Best Comedy: The Dictator
Best Family: Brave
Best Documentary: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present

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