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This Week's Film Reviews (Aug 17, 2012)

17 Aug 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2 and SPARKLE are two big films opening this week.  But foreign flicks   like PAINTED SKIN are also worth a look!

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

THE AWAKENING (UK 2011) ***
Directed by Nick Murphy

THE AWAKENING is a ghost story in the vein of “I see dead people”.  But enough said or the ending will be no surprise.

The film starts James Bond style with the arrogant but highly effective Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) famous for exposing hoaxes and helping the police to arrest con artists at work.  It is period 1921 London.  The stranger Robert Mallory (Dominic West) tells her that the headmaster of a boarding school in Rookford had invited her to travel to Cumbria to investigate a ghost that is frightening the pupils to death.  He also tells that many years ago there was a murder in the estate and recently pupil Walter Portman had died.  The reluctant too busy Florence finally accepts to go to Cumbria.  On arrival, she is welcomed by governess Maud (the always excellent Imelda Staunton) and the boy Thomas Hill (Isaac Hempstead Wright).  Soon Florence discovers what had happened to Walter and then the students, teachers and staff are released on vacation, and Florence remains alone with Robert, Maud and Tom in the school. Florence is ready to leave the boarding school when strange things happen.  Nothing is what it seems.  Florence is somehow connected to the events of the school.

Despite the fast beginning, the film then moves on to a slower pace that is typical of a ghost story.  Victorian London and the period atmosphere is more than impressively created on film.  The suspense mount and as the film progresses, the audience would be pleased at quite the few plot turns.

The main trouble of the film is the too many coincidences – the main one being Florence’s close connection to the school.  But still ghost stories require that audiences suspend belief and director Murphy succeeds in making a rather incredible plot plausible.            Hall is perfect as the victim and aggressor and the film has a bang on ending.

 

THE EXPENDABLES 2 (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Simon West

The second outing of THE EXPENDABLES sees once again Beefcake actors led by Sylvester Stallone (playing again Barney Ross) doing their thing, blowing things up before they get too old to do anything else.

After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry when one of their own is brutally murdered by rival mercenary Jean Vilain (a really youth-looking Jean-Claude Van Damme).  The Expendables set out into hostile territory – with their new members Bill the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and Ross’ new romance Maggie (Yu Nan) – to put a stop to a deadly weapon and gain their revenge against the people who killed their brother-in-arms.  The plot has something to do with Jean stealing nuclear material from a mine using the local villagers as worse than slave labour.  So, after many killings and explosions, the expendables win their way.

Simon West (CON WEST) takes over the Sylvester Stallone in the director’s role.  THE EXPENDABLES 2 is quite similar to number one with a lot of the original cameos Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis expanded to full roles. Other action stars in the film include Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and an especially amusing Chuck Norris making fun of an old Lone Wolf McQuade character.

For a $100 million budget film, THE EXPENDABLES looks very good and much more expensive.  Besides the exotic locations of Nepal, inland China, Bulgaria and the all action-star cast, the very impressive first segment itself contains a chase involving everglade-type boats, helicopters, tanks, seadoos, with lots of pyrotechnics.  No room in this film for sissy computer generated graphics!

As for the dialogue, there is plenty of small talk and inside jokes that should satisfy actions fans.  Many of the dialogue lines play on the cast’s past roles such as Schwarzenegger’s TERMINATOR and Willis’ DIE HARD films.

THE EXPENDABLES is reasonably violent but not as violent as the original.  But the audience knows it is all harmless violence that does not strike psychologically as in say the upcoming Swedish actioner, EASY MONEY.

THE EXPENDABLES I and 2 prove that the 80’s Beefcake stars still have what it takes.  And they sure make sure the audience does not forget it.

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN (USA 2012) **

Directed by Peter Hedges

Everyone likes a good story.  That is likely what the filmmakers are banking on with their new fantasy drama THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN about a happily married couple yearning for a child of their own.

The film begins at the adoption agency where Cindy (Jennifer garner) and Jim Green (Aussie Joel Edgerton from ANIMAL KINGDOM) tells their story of Timothy Green in order to adopt a child.  The sentimental tone of the film is set here as the couple relates the story.  For those who have seen the trailer, the story is already well known and predictable.  The Greens place a wooden wish box in the garden.  After a storm, a boy appears and calls them mother and father.  Timothy (CJ Adams) has leaves on his legs.  The new family adapt well together keeping their secret of how Timothy appears from everyone else.

But the leaves slowly drop off and when the last one falls, Timothy will be gone.  Nothing can be done.  This is the Green’s story to the agency review board (a man and a woman) and this review will not reveal more of the tale, not that it does not take a genius to figure how everything ends.

The film is divided into 4 parts.  First is the discovery of the boy followed by the lessons of how to cope.  Then comes the adjusting to the new life and finally the last segment of the boy’s departure.  Director Hedges lets his story flow chronologically, at times pretty slowly, but with a few surprises such as the soccer game.

Everyone loves a good story but not necessarily a good yarn.  For one this tale is too syrupy sweet and mushy.  It would be advisable to bring at least one box of Kleenex even though you might not be taken captive with the yarn.  Lots of stereotyping and overused situations (bad boss; factory closing in small town; townsfolk meeting to save factory) exits in the story.  But the main flaw with this film is that director Hedges assumes the audience will go with the flow despite the fact that the story and premise is totally unbelievable.  An unbelievable story will never work no matter how much audiences are led to believe that they have to let their imagination run wild during a movie.  A similar predicament fell on Billy Bob Thornton’s ridiculous THE FARMER ASTRONAUT in which the audience had to believe a man could build a spaceship on his own in his backyard.

But the supporting cast of Robert Morse as grandfather Big Jim, M. Emett Walsh as Uncle Bubbles and Dianne Wiest as the hairy-chinned woman spice up the film a little.

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN ends predictably.  But at least the adopted child showing up is not a replica of Timothy Green.  The filmmakers have at least spared us that.  At a modest budget of $40 million, this Disney entry should reap big bucks for the Disney Studios based on the premise that everyone does like to have a good cry now and then.  If not this will be an EARTH NEEDS KIDS bomb!

 

PAINTED SKIN: THE RESURRECTION (China 2012) ***

Directed by Wuershen

 

 

PAINTED SKIN: THE REURRECTION is the sequel to the highly successful 2008 PAINTED SKIN fantasy action flick.  The reason for this release in North America is likely that THE RESURECTION became the highest grossing domestic film in China.

The film is typically the type of film churned out in the hundreds, one weekly by the former Shaw Organisation in the 60’s and 70’s that drew families to the cinemas every weekend. For myself, this was a tradition as well.  The film has lots of swordfighting action, magic, demons and spirits, romance and a period setting.  Often the story is inconsequential to the success to the film’s box-office.  Any so-so story would suffice, as long as it gave an excuse for lots of fighting.  PAINTED  SKIN: THE REURRECTION is directed by Wuershen in the same mould.  The narrative is weak, but at least the film makes sense.

The film follows the ancient lore.  If a human freely offers their heart to a demon, that monster can become mortal, experiencing the true pains and passions of existence. This is the ultimate triumph of the underworld.

Xiaowei (Xun Zhou, THE GREAT MAGICIAN, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE), a millennia-old fox spirit, is freed from her frozen prison and transforms into a dangerous seductress, consuming living hearts to keep her beautiful as she searches for her chance to become human.  Meanwhile, Princess Jing (Wei Zhao RED CLIFF, SHAOLIN SOCCER), hiding her marred beauty behind a golden mask, flees an unknown threat to her kingdom by pursuing the only man she ever loved: the guard who was unable to protect her, so many years ago.  A twist of fate brings Princess Jing and Xiaowei together, and a slow game of wits, deceit, and seduction begins for the princess’ very own heart.

The film benefits from strong female roles.  That would draw in female audiences as well as males to the action film.  The film contains above average special effects with old fashioned spectacle not generated by computers.  Though a little overlong at 2 hours, the film flies fast.

Most of the actors in the original reprise their roles in this film.  No knowledge of the original is required in the enjoyment of THE RESURRECTION.

Besides the film’s main flaw of the weak narrative (no one really bothers), PAINTED KSIN: THE REURRECTION still delivers the goods, as is evident already in its success in China.  At a mere $20 million cost in US dollars, it has already grossed $120 million.

PARANORMAN (USA 2012) ****
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell


From the company that brought CAROLINE comes the 3D stop motion full length animated feature PARANORMAN.  The stop motion technique though painfully time consuming pays off in this impressively looking animation.

The film follows the vein of “I see dead people” movies.  In PARANOMAN, Norman (Kodu Smit-McPhee) sees dead people and animals.  They (the people) communicate with him.  Deemed a freak at school, his parents (Jeff Carlin and Leslie Mann) do not like his ‘gift’ either.  Nobody believes him.

The plot involves Norman forced to save his town of Blythe Hollow from total destruction from an old witch’s curse.  (He is informed of this through a dead bum.)  So, Norman recruits his friends and his reluctant sister and the adventure begins.

The film contains scary images that might be too intense for littler children.  But the film caters to both adults and kids.  But most kids, used to all the violence and frightening images of video games should be thrilled with an animated horror film with real witches typical in a horror movie.  But the blood and gore is replaces largely by humour brilliantly blended in.

The script contains a few neat touches.  One is Norman’s teaming up with his bully to save the town.  The other is his gay brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), a super good-looking dude who totally ignores girls, the reason of his sexuality revealed only at the end.  The town folk instead of being terrified, have a wild fine time hunting down the zombies.  But mostly, PARANORMAN is extremely funny.  The jokes come fast and furious and though some are unrelated to the plot, they are welcome in a film that might have turned out too scary.  The film also contains the message of prejudice as the town is paying for what sins their ancestors committed.

Entertaining all the way with full use of 3D effects, PARANORMAN is actually likely the funniest film playing at the theatres.

 

 

SPARKLE (USA 2012) *** 

Directed by Salim Akil

SPARKLE is the rough story of the Supremes and works like overdone melodrama with Motown songs and period atmosphere sort of forced into your face.  Surprisingly, the film is still entirely watchable and actually entertaining. 

SPARKLE is the story of three sisters growing up under the strict supervision of mother, Emma (the late Whitney Houston).  The story is told from the point of view of the songwriter sister, Sparkle (Jordon Sparks) of the title who forms the group called Sister and the Sisters led by Sister (Carmen Ejogo) with her and Dolores(Tika Sumpter).  Dolores.  In the process, she falls in love with Stixx, (Derek Luke) who manages the group.  But trouble arrives in two forms.  Mother disapproves.  Sister gets married into bad company in the form of coke snorting Satin (Mike Epps) who occasionally bets up Sister. 

It is the trouble that generates interest in the film.  Otherwise, it is just one sogn after another and the silly Sparkle/Stixx romance which one has seen before in countless films.       

As this is Whitney Houston’s lat film, that would be the very reason to see SPARKLE.  Houston is given a solo song in the film.  Though it is a Gospel song delivered in church, the number is still a showstopper.  Her confrontational scenes with the daughter Sister and Sparkle are the best segments in the film. 

The Motown and period atmosphere are so well created that one cannot forget that this is a movie of the70’s.  The songs, musical score, wardrobe (including Sister and the Sister’s outlandish costumes), dialogue and sets all work too well.  The rise to fame to reality of the plot, though used countless times in films in this genre still packs a little punch.  Everyone loves a little drama in their films.  

The best line in the film comes from Emma: Keep dancing like that you will bring home some kid you can''t feed.  Director Akil keeps this spirit alive during most of the film with segments like the Gospel singing session in church, the opening song number in the smoke filled cheesy nightclub and the domestic violence scenes.                                   

Yes, SPARKLE sparkles and often enough!

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Paranorman

Best Film Playing: The Amazing Spider-Man

 

Best Action: The Amazing Spider-Man
Best Drama: Savages
Best Foreign: Easy Money (Sweden) Best Comedy: Paranorman
Best Family: Brave
Best Documentary: First Position

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