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This Week's Film Reviews (Sep 28, 2012)

27 Sep 2012

ARBITRAGE (USA 2012) ****

Directed by Nicholas Jarecki


ARBITRAGE is a remarkable first directorial debut by 25-year old Richard Jarecki.  His film, which he also wrote, is a taut suspense thriller/drama that keeps the audience on edge from start to end.

ARBITRAGE tells the story of New York Hedge fund magnate, 60-year old Robert Miller (Richard Gere).  On the surface he appears to be the American success man.  But in reality he is about to be unveiled as a big fraud unless he pulls the sale of his company to a large bank, hiding falsified accounting figures of unaccountable assets.  At the same time, an automobile accident leaves his mistress Julie (Laetitica Casta) dead and him slightly injured.  Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is all out to get Miller at all costs.  In short, Miller is trouble on legs.

The clever script works as a detective cat-and-mouse game, a family drama, and a financial suspense nail-biter.  And the film works on all three levels with a clever plot twist that almost makes everything right at the end, but also gives morality its fair due.  Nothing is predictable here and the script has quite a few neat tricks such as the falsifying of Jimmy’s (Nate Parker) license plates.  There is a sarcastic song entitled “One More Chance” that plays half way through the film.

Director Jarecki who is only 25 is definitely a director to watch.  This is no easy feat – a movie of this calibre – smart, current and entertaining.  Jarecki also draws one of the best performances of Richard Gere’s career.  At age 60, Gere demonstrates maturity, restraint and thought in this fine performance.  Tim Roth is also excellent as the weasily detective who makes his character’s actions and behaviour totally believable.

The two confrontational scenes between Robert and Miller and daughter (Brit Marling) and then wife (Susan Sarandon) are both different and unforgettable.

What is totally striking is how the film transforms from drama into a little satire of the financial world at the very end.  The looks on both the daughter and father’s faces as they praise each other in public are well captured by the camera.

Though most of the film’s premise is really nothing novel, the ways in which events and incidents develop are.  And the way Miller fights to save his sinking ship and the way his wife fights to save her family are remarkably feels remarkably real as to the lengths people will go through. And all this is made totally believable and suspenseful in this gem of a brilliantly made movie.

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Neil Berkeley

“Who said there are no second acts in American life?  F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Fuck you F. Scott Fitzgerald.”  - Wayne White.  The last statement sounds ludicrous, but when White says this at the end of the movie, it is a laugh-out loud feel good moment.  This is when you know director Berkley has successfully captured the essence of artist White’s formula for feeling good.

Neil Berkeley’s doc BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING is about the life and artistic works of Wayne White over a period of 30 years.  A visual artist, illustrator, puppeteer, cartoonist, sculptor, musician, the multi faceted White is most famous for being one of the crazed creators of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.  The film starts off with the man delivering a lecture to a full auditorium of a very attentive audience as he details his philosophy on life and enlightens the impetus behind his work.  The film ends as he concludes the lecture but the film also contains interviews of him talking to the camera as well.

For two years, Neil Berkeley traveled with White through Houston, Miami, New York, Chattanooga, Nashville and Los Angeles retracing Wayne’s steps from childhood to parenthood.  He peeled back layer after layer of Wayne’s singular creative process and his astonishingly prolific career. In addition to the 300+ hours of footage shot by Berkeley and his team, the director discovered hours of video which White shot throughout his career including never-before-seen behind the scenes footage of the making of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

The film gets at times a bit confusing as Berkeley does not tell his tale chronologically.  There are scenes with White’s grown children at the start and towards the end of the movie, they are shown as younger kids.  The intercutting of White’s lecture, his interviews and his musings add to the confusion.  The film also diverts to tell the story of White’s collaborator at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Berkeley also shows the dark side of the man’s genius.  His rise to fame, fall from grace and rise again are depicted on film without restraint.  But Berkeley also shows the brilliance of White, from the children’s shows like Beakman’s World to the music animated videos for The Smashing Pumpkins.

But overall, the film is clear to state White’s (and likely Berkeley as well) outlook in life which is positive and inspiring.  The film ends on that high note leaving the audience feeling entertained and enlightened at the same time.

EDDIE (Canada/Denmark 2011) **

Directed by Boris Lorenzo


The original title of this film is EDDIE: THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL.  Though the title has been modified, the film still looks like a cheapie grade B horror flick especially when Eddie walks around with carnage in his mouth.

The protagonist is Lars Olafssen (Thure Lindhard) once a young celebrity in the art world who is slipping away fast into the land of has-beens.  His long-time art dealer, Ronny (a wry comedic turn by Stephen McHattie) is now an ungracefully aging hipster who desperately wants his meal ticket back.  But Lars refuses to paint.  His creativity comes at too high a cost - his inspiration is carnage - blood, guts and limbs.  Nevertheless, an eager Ronny arranges a teaching job for Lars at an art school in Koda Lake, a small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere.

There, he meets backward Eddie (Dylan Smith) who he helps the town care for.  But Eddie is a sleepwalking cannibal and leaves behind the blood, guts and limbs required to inspire Lars.  Lars paints ‘masterpieces’ selling enough paintings to help save the art school that is in financial dire straits.

And so the silly plot goes.  But this dark comedy is neither dark nor funny enough.  The story just plods on lamely just as a romance that blossoms between Lars and the unaware Lesley (Georgina Reilly), an unsuspecting co-teacher.  A nosy cop finds himself at the slaughtering hands of Lars who still needs more carnage to paint.

The Canadian background of woods and lake and the lead actor being Danish is what gives this Danish Canadian coproduction its look.

All this is in actuality quite a bore.  The premise is not that believable either.  And neither is the romance between Lars and Lesley.

The few bits of humour are provided by Ronny and the nosy cop who takes an instant dislike to Lars.  Apart from that, EDDIE is as uneventful as the fictitious town of Koda Lake.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

 

Sony Animation’s HOTEL TRANYLVANIA is a marvelously looking 3D animated comedy that centres on Count Dracula (Adam Sandler) letting his little 118 year-old (the film’s running joke) daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez) of his strings to find her romance and own life.  She has been kept away from the human world in the hotel the father had created to let monsters vacation away from humans. Mavis finds love in human form (Andy Samberg).

There is nothing really wrong about this animated feature.  It hits all the right notes – superlative animation, a good enough storyline, family message and entertainment and so on.  But the trouble is that the film is not inventive, funny or goofy enough.  Dracula is not typically a character that has traits to be made fun of, and this is obvious when Dracula claims that he does not go: “Blah, blah, blah,” as people think.

Other monster animations like SHREK is way funnier, with even more going on in the background than in the foreground.  No such luck here.  HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA often has Sandler trying his desperate best to be funnier than the material he has to work with.

LOOPER (USA/China 2012) ***
Directed by Rian Johnson


LOOPER is an action thriller set in the near future that looks stunning on screen.  Chosen to open the Toronto International Film Festival, the film is a Chinese coproduction which suits the festival’s Asian Summit, but the film is at times all show, as TIFF is.

The setting is the near future when the mob can get rid of someone by sending the target 30 years into the past, where a hired gun awaits.  Someone like Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who one day learns the mob wants to ''close the loop'' by transporting back Joe''s future self.  The reason is that if an assassin lives past the 30 year mark, he will be a threat to the organization.

So the film is the future Joe (played by Bruce Willis) against the present self.  In the story the present Joe meets a mother (Emily Blunt) protecting a precocious child.

But the film is narratively weak with the film badly joined together by mere action set pieces.  Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM) does not even get the year right.  If the film is set in 2044 and they time travel back is 30 years, the year is 2014, whereas it should be 2012 or 2013 when the film is screening.  The film contains lots of unexplained facts such as where the government is and how come it is doing nothing when the criminals run loose.  And why is it the city of Shanghai picked in the film?  The likely reason is that LOOPER is a China/U.S. coproduction.

The characters are hollow emotionless human beings despite the theme of the mother saving the son and Joe saving both the mother and son.  The future and present characterizations are so different that bit is hard to believe both are the same person.

The action scenes are stylized.  Bodies suddenly appear out of nowhere and the pyrotechnics look stunning on screen.  But the excitement and continuity are missing, substituted by hollow eye candy.

As for the paradox logic in time travel movies, the script does not intrigue as much as recent fare like MEN IN BLCK III or past fair like TIME AFTER TIME.  The ending solution in the climatic scene is far from novel least predictable

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Stephen Chbosky

Based on his book, first time director makes his debut with a heart felt comedy drama THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, about a guy called Charlie (Logan Lerman) suffering trying to get through his high school days.

One can see author Chbosky’s dedication to his subject matter.  He intensifies the best parts of the story, such as the part of the drives through the tunnel with the tunnel song.  But his inexperience as a director shows.  The first half of the film is extremely slow-paced containing lots of smug dialogue that is not funny in the least bit, in a film that has a theme that is dramatic and light.  The film takes half of its running length to get its footing before it takes off.  Fortunately, it comes together in the second half.

The story contains many endearing secondary characters, the most intriguing being Charlie’s gay best friend, Patrick (Ezra Miller from WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) whose character turns out to be more interesting that Charlie’s.  His need to find a soul mate overshadows that of Charlie’s need for the same, and not for lack of trying.  Miller also steals the show from Leman in the acting department.  There is more to be learnt about growing up from Patrick than from Charlie.  Charlie’s parents (played by Kate Walsh and Dermot McDermott) have underwritten roles,

The film succeeds as a fable about growing up a it contains a good number of adolescent issues.  Bullying, first love, coming out, sibling rivalry, partying are just a few of the important issues teens go through.  Basically a coming of age story from Charlie’s point of view, the romantic drama is the issue that Chbosky is primarily interested in.  Charlie is in love with Sam (Emma Stone) while dating Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman).

The wallflower of the title?  That is someone who sits back and observes rather than acts.  This is a person between geek and jock, a group that has made it very popular in the British hit TV series and upcoming film THE INBETWEENERS.

Just as the film is about the dizzying highs and crushing lows of growing up,

Chbosky’s well-intentioned film contains moments of intense delight as well as boring lows.

PITCH PERFECT (USA 2012) ****

Directed by Jason Moore

It is tough to be a successful moneymaking DJ.  Everyone who has been to a dance club would likely at one time or other aspires to be the cool dude mixing the tracks. The trouble is that there are too many (even talented) ones and too few opportunities to go around.

Anna Kendrick plays Beca, an aspiring DJ.  Her father forces her into college with the condition that he will let her do her stuff if she cannot adapt to any campus activity group.  Beca ends up joining a acappella singing group led by control freak Aubrey (Anna Camp) who lost the last contest to the all male Treblemakers largely because she projectile vomited during the group’s (the Bellas) performance.

PITCH PERFECT plays like a dance competition movie like the STEP UP series, but with a twist.  Beca does not end up winning at the spinning contest but uses her mixing skills to put together a singing mixed track the Bella’s performance leading to a victory.

PITCH PERFECT should be a total hit.  During the first 15 minutes in which the camera shows Beca at her mixing, anyone who has been to a club can tell how awesome the mixing is.  The Bella’s rendering of a dance vocal version of a Bruno Mars’ hit Just the Way You Are is an adrenaline high performance.  And if that is not enough, the different vocal musical numbers of other popular songs like Ace of Base’s The Sign and Gloria Estafan’s Turn the Beat Around (though performed more than once) are also funny, inventive and catchy.

Kendrick is nothing short of marvellous in a role of an isolated freshman, smart enough to hold her won against the mean girls, the weird girls and other distractions.  But it is a pity that the film does not show much in the way of academic learning in the campus.

As for the members of the Bellas, the film concentrates on a few – Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), the butch lesbian and the soft-voiced Asian.  The two politically incorrect commentators (Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins) who just happen to be present at every competition are inspired hilarity.   The silly puns with as many words beginning with aca- as in acappella also work.

Major surprise that this girly teen movie is based on a book (by Mickey Rapkin)!  If one can forgive the tedious romance between Beca and a nerdy Treblemaker, PITCH PERFECT is quite the riot with lots of spirited re-mixed song and dance numbers. Director Moore’s film with the help of Anna Kendrick and the capable cast lift the material high enough to become the best teen comedy so far this year!

 

THE SOURCE (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos

 Disturbing, informative and ultimately satisfying, THE SOURCE is a comprehensive examination of a religious cult, an ‘aquarian’ tribe of the said name.

Set in the 70’s when communes and new religions were on the rise, Wille and Demopoulos’ film looks just like a film made at that time, as the doc is made mostly of archive footage, stills and photos intertwined together to form a chronological narrative.

The research is quite thorough, to the directors’ credit.  They have found some of the cult followers at the present time giving their testimonies of what things were like when they were in the Source in the 70’s.  It would have been even better if Father Yod, the guru would be able to be interviewed as well.  But for reasons not to be revealed in this review, this is not possible.

But this is the story of a man who followers worshipped as a God and teen girls worshipped as a sex Master.  If not for anything else, THE SOURCE is intriguing enough entertainment that has never a dull moment.

(Special One Day screening part of the Docs Soup Series on October 3RD at the Bloor Cinema.)

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: ARBITRAGE

Best Film Playing: EASY MONEY

Best Doc: BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING

Best Family: BRAVE

Best Comedy: PARANORMAN

Best Re-release: DIAL M FOR MURDER

Best Foreign: EASY MONEY

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