This Week's Film Reviews (Jul 20, 2012)

20 Jul 2012

The biggest film of the year THE DARK KNIGHT RISES opens this week everywhere.  Smaller films opening are TRISHNA, MOVING DAY and FIRST POSITION.

The Summer in France series at the TIFF Bell Lightbox continues for those close to Toronto.


Directed by Christopher Nolan


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, this year’s most anticipated film is no doubt spectacular but whether it satisfies, is largely personal.

THE DARK KNIGHT is no more BATMAN or the Caped Crusader but now transformed into the darkest of heroes, and appropriately named the Dark Knight.  (It seems Daniel Craig’s James Bond is also headed into too dead serious territory.)  What has happened to the fun of the BATMAN and James Bond action flicks?  Don’t expect to hear the most common line in the D.C. comic: “Holy Cow, Batman!”

The target market has also changed to the more serious adult.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes off eight years after Batman (Christian Bale) vanished into the night, turning, in that instant, from hero to fugitive.  Assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent, the Dark Knight sacrificed everything for what he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) both hoped was the greater good.   For a time the lie worked, as criminal activity in Gotham City was crushed under the weight of the anti-crime Dent Act.  There are lots and lots of brooding here.  Bale appears as billionaire Bruce Wayne unshaven and walking with a limp.  But everything changes with the arrival of a cunning cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) with a mysterious agenda.  The burglar is CATWOMAN though that name is oddly never used.  Far more dangerous, however, is the emergence of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked terrorist whose ruthless plans for Gotham drive Bruce out of his self-imposed exile.  So it becomes Batman vs. Bane to save Gotham City.

Nolan can take his hero to extremes.  In BATMAN RISES, the audience witnesses the most ridiculous with Batman training with the Tibetan monks while in exile.  In this film, he is left for dead in a prison cell but climbs up to the top and wreck revenge though he suffers a broken protruding back bone.  Can the human body be this resilient?

The scriptwriters take too many liberties with the Batman legend - the loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) resigns; too many people including the villain know of Batman’s true identity and the film ends the full Batman story so that a reboot is needed.  Too many new characters are added to the story such as Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Fox (Morgan Freeman).  At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film takes too long to establish a strong footing.  The plot is also more confusing than usual.  It can a bit much for the audience to comprehend fully of what is happening in very scene.  Examples include the reason for Band attacking the stock exchange; the reason for Bane’s wearing of the mask and his breathing difficulty; how the stolen fingerprints brings down the Wayne fortune; how the bomb can be detonated in several ways and so on.

The special effects and props like the Bat-tumbler and the Bat-pod are more than impressive.  But just as troubling are the oddities in the plot.  Who has ever heard of an atom bomb with a 6-miles destructive radius?  The too many tacked on twists to the story (such as the real villain) at the end of the film are also hardly convincing.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES though ambitious and pensive, is now a comic book drama with action rather than comic book action with drama.  If one can stomach the changes mentioned, Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT might turn out to be the most exciting film of the year.  For others, it could just Nolan’s concocted complicated rubbish that should stay in the recesses of his mind!

FIRST POSITION (USA 2011) ***** Top 10

Directed by Bess Kargman

The award winning FIRST POSITION is a riveting documentary about children ballet.  Every year, thousands of aspiring dancers enter one of the world''s most prestigious ballet competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix in the U.S, where lifelong dreams are at stake.

In the final round, with hundreds competing for only a handful of elite scholarships and contracts, practice and discipline are paramount, and nothing short of perfection is expected.  First Position follows six young dancers as they prepare for a chance to enter the world of professional ballet.  The film documents everything these dancers go through from their high aspirations to their struggling through bloodied feet, near exhaustion and debilitating injuries, all while navigating the drama of adolescence.

Director Kargman has chosen quite the eclectic assortment of dancers.  One is Aran, a gifted young boy whose whole world is ballet.  When asked about it, he responds that he just loves it and that his whole life is it though unable to articulate the reason why.  The others include Michaela, adopted almost dying from Africa by white parents but with a pigment defect; a brother and sister team (Miko and Jules) of American Chinese decent; a Colombian Joan Sebastian with a poverty stricken family back home and typical American Rebecca.  So no matter what background the audience might be, it is most likely the audience would be connected to one of these population groups.  A documentary is also often as interesting as its subject and though the subject of striving for a better future is a good enough reason for a documentary, connectivity with the audience is just as important.  An example is the recent doc THE REDEMPTION OF GENERAL BUTT NAKED.   The subject of a mass assassin turned preacher is more than an interesting subject but the fact that the audience cannot really related or connect to this African general (unless perhaps one is a born again Christian), all that transpires on screen is superfluous.

It also helps that the film has a happy ending.  The 6 succeed with jobs and scholarships.  Aran wins the FIRST POSITION.  This again is in contrast to docs like GIRL MODEL and TOWN OF RUNNERS in which the subjects train unsuccessfully for running or modelling but with failure at the end.

Kargman interviews the dancers, the family, the trainers and includes segments involving lots of wonderful dancing during their training and actual performances.

The film also provides a lot of information that is assumed in the ballet world.  A costume could cost as much as $2500, the cost of a wedding dress and the dancers would continue dancing through an injury.  The sight of blistered feet with open bruises is eye-opening reality.

But when the dancers finally strut their stuff at the end of the film with them winning in the finals, the film soars to emotional heights.  And with the audience connected to the subjects and the topic, FIRST POSITION turns out to be one of the most enjoyable, informative and emotional documentaries of the year!

MOVING DAY (USA/Canada 2012) ***1/2

Directed by Mike Clattenburg

Mike Clattenburg is the director of the Canadian famous TRAILER PARK BOYS a trashy film about white trailer trash.  MOVING DAY originally titled THE GUYS WHO MOVE FURNITURE sounds a similar sort of film, but fortunately it rises above the occasion.

MOVING DAY is about that certain day that four misfits who working as movers for a furniture store under the unscrupulous Wilf (Victor Garber) decide that is moving day.  Not the moving day that denotes the day of moving stuff but the day in the lives of two of them to make a move in their lives to leave the company and better themselves.

But the four movers are not the three stooges.  The four, led by van manager A.J. (Gabriel Hogan) goof around but director Clattenburg and the occasionally bright script by Clattenburg and Mike O’Neill give them lots of genuine sympathy.  The fat one Clyde (Will Sasso) is always abused by a 4th mover, a member of his own rock group called Son of Rock (Gerry Dee) but has a good friendship with the black member (Charles Murphy) who shares a similar smiling expression with Eddie Murphy.

Though A.J. drinks on the job, the Son of Rock is a real annoyance and Clyde is an embarrassment, one must hand it to the script that it still makes all of them winning characters – no easy fit.  Sasso is one of the few fat comedians (unlike Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis are just two examples) who does not come across the screen as annoying.

The film is funnier at the start and gets progressively serious.  Most importantly, the characters grow on the audience.  What MOVING DAY is, is a sad comedy which is real live drama about real people stuck in the rut of life but managers to come out if not on top, but better than before.  Though not over inspiring, MOVING DAY is one of the few surprising more entertaining films of the year,


Directed by Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss

They say that a documentary is as interesting as its subject.  One probably would not find a more interesting subject than General Butt Naked, so called because he takes off his clothes while fighting and killing his enemies believing that bullets and explosives will not harm him.

The doc tells the story of Joshua Milton Blahyi (from his point of view) - aka General Butt Naked aforementioned - a brutal warlord who murdered thousands during Liberia''s horrific 14-year civil war.  Today, the General has renounced his violent past and reinvented himself as a married Evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi. This portrait takes viewers on Joshua''s crusade to redeem his past, as he confronts his victims and attempts to rehabilitate the former child soldiers who once fought for him. Whatever you make of him -- liar or madman, charlatan or genuine repentant -- the film challenges viewers to ask important questions about both the power and the limits of forgiveness, amid a nation''s search for healing and justice.

The film contains a massive amount of Joshua’s chantings – some from the pulpit, some from just sheer exhibitionalism.  It also contains quite a number of scenes in which Joshua goes to his previously tormented to beg for forgiveness.  One is his ex-bodyguard, who has lost his legs from amputation as a direct result of the General firing shots at his legs while being in a rage.  Another is a teen to ask forgivenenss of blinding her in one eye.  Though these scenes contain lots of tears (forgiveness or happiness), the scenes are less than affective, as it all seems so surreal.

Apart from the showmanship of Pastor Joshua, the film does not reveal anything else much.  The directors could have provided similar conversions or interviews with those of Christian Authority or more with those who know the ex-General well.  His wife is not given enough to say.

No doubt General Butt Naked’s antics grow a bit stale after much repetition.  So does Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss’ film as it runs out of steam.

TRISHNA (UK 2011) **

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Director Michael Winterbottom already filmed one Thomas Hardy novel JUDE and his second TESS OF THE D’UBERVILLES is adapted and set in India.

Winterbottom transforms Tess to TRISHNA (Freida Pinto), a poor lass living with her family in a small village in Rajasthan, India’s largest state.  She meets a rich tourist Jay (Riz Ahmed), the wealthy son of a property developer. When he takes up managing a resort at his father’s request, he meets Trishna at a dance and their fates cross. Jay finds every opportunity to win Trishna’s affection and hires her at the hotel and very soon a steamy sex affair ensues.  The two make good chemistry together and their sexual attraction is believable.

But most of the drama of the class differences and family issues is lacking compared to reading the novel or to Roman Polanski’s unforgettable version TESS with Natassia Kinski.  In the novel Tess takes an instant dislike to the new suitor, but there is no such thing here.  Trishna finds Jay a good catch from the very start.

Shot in Jaipur and Mumbai, the film looks great and the new setting makes a difference to a familiar story.  But the ending killing and suicide does not come across too convincing.  One wonders also Winterbottom’s reasoning for the adaptation to India.



Best Film Opening: First Position


Best Film Playing: The Amazing Spider-Man
Best Action: The Amazing Spider-Man
Best Drama: Savages
Best Foreign: The Intouchables (France)
Best Comedy: The Dictator
Best Family: Brave
Best Documentary: First Position

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