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This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 5, 2012)

05 Oct 2012

Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE begins its run this week to compete with HOTEL TRANSYLVANNIA.  Bell TIFF Lightbox presents a restored 3D version of Hitchcock’s classic DIAL M FOR MURDER .  Remember the identical latch keys?

DIAL M FOR MURDER (USA 1954) ****
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The famous murder suspense by Hitchcock gets a run again at TIFF Lightbox in restored digital 3D.  Not that 3D is a necessity to enjoy Hitchcock’s work, but it does give another dimension to the world of suspense.

Jealous husband, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) plans the perfect murder blackmailing an ex-colleague to murder his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly) who has taken fancy to a mystery writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  But things never go as planned.

Though based on a one-act play, Hitchcock takes the play out into the open unlike ROPE.  The first scene shows a copper outside a residence and so does the film ends with a copper.  When it is mentioned that the mystery writer is to arrive on the Queen Mary, Hitchcock has a shot at the docks.

The Master’s camera work and touches are evident throughout the film bringing additional enjoyment to Hitchcock cineastes - the shadows of the lovers part as reflected on the door as the husband enters; Hitchcock makes his comical customary appearance; the fear of the police.

The humour is as subtle as the Master’s famous practical jokes.  Just when you though you had planned the perfect murder, the killer’s watch stops when he is supposed to make the timed phone call.  Worse still, when he progresses to make the call, he finds the booth used.

Ray Milland is the typical Hitchcock villain, sufficiently menacing while sounding very much like James Mason in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  Grace Kelly’s first film with Hitchcock, Hitchcock knows how to show Kelly at her sexiest, especially during the attack scene which close rivals PSYCHO’s shower scene.  But the actor that steals the show is John Williams who plays chief inspector Hubbard (the one that solves the crime) with proud restraint and suave, relishing his discoveries and he goes along like a kid in a candy store.

It was reported that Hitchcock was not too pleased with the large cameras required for the 3D process.  The film was largely screened in 2D during first release and nothing much could be lost if the film is watched in either format.

As a Hitchcock film DIAL M FOR MURDER is more stagey than most, but the Master still holds the audience’s attention from start to finish. Be excused for a moment and one would feel that something important would have concurred in the plot.  Ultimately satisfying, his is one film that can stand the test of time despite certain dated events (like travel by the Queen Mary and lack of telephone extensions).

(Screening of this film is at TIFF Bell Lightbox.)

Dial M at TIFF Bell Lightbox
- The theatrical release of this new digital restoration is exclusive to TIFF as of the present in Canada. The film will also screen at Film Forum in New York from Sept 26 to Oct 4.
- Given that Warner Brothers was restoring the film for Blu-Ray, TIFF worked with them to make a theatrical version (no easy feat because as the theatrical 3D is different than Blu-Ray 3D) in order to bring this restored classic to the big screen, as the remaining 3D prints are no longer in pristine condition. This allows audiences to experience the film as it was intended, for the first time since it was released - even then it was mostly shown in 2D, then in the 80s'' it had a marginal re-release (it actually played TIFF back then - but extremely limited).

FRANKENWEENIE (USA 2012) ****

Directed by Tim Burton


A simple take on the Frankenstein story, FRANKENWEENIE has poor Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) bringing his dead dog back to life after it has been run over by a car.  Using what he has learnt in his Science class from the new odd teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Sparky is back as part of the school science project.  Too bad the secret leaks out, and Vic’s other classmates have other dead creatures to be brought alive too.

Shot in black and white, obviously to capture the look of the old Frankenstein films of the past, a drawback is that the day scenes look like night.  The night scenes look even gloomier.

But Burton proves that scary can group with a lot of other genres.  In FRANKENWEENIE, scary blends in with cutesy (long nose spouts of the hounds), comedy (the Science class teacher; fat lady screaming) tragedy (loss of Sparky) and a whole lot of issues like bullying, prejudicial ignorance and social acceptance.  Burton pays tribute to classic film like VERTIGO, GREMLINS, GODZILLA v.s. BAMBI and of course the FRANKENSTEIN films including THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

But the best thing about the movie is Burton’s imagination which comes through his dark animation.  The dead come to life, even the nastiest of insects and sea monkeys.  The attention to detail of his animation that includes shadows and innovative camera angles give the film an extra lift.  The blending into animation of real life (the characters carrying torches that shine real beams of light; the parents watching real life television; the rain falling when the characters try to harness electricity through lightning) are reflective of Victor trying to bring the dead back to life.

The voice characterizations are way better in FRANKENWEENIE compared to other recent animated features.  Martin Landau excels as the science teacher matched only by Atticus Shaffer playing the weirdo Igor-like hunchback kid, Edgar.

Characters from horror films have often been used in animated features.  Burton does a fine job here.  Compared to the recent bland HOTEL TRANSYLVANNIA which has an unimaginative storyline involving Dracula and his daughter, FRANKENWEENIE the movie is full of wonderful innovation and imagination, that takes its characters more than one more step into the beyond.  Next to BRAVE, FRANKENWEENIE is the best animated feature in cinemas this year.  It looks like Disney is on the roll.

SAMSARA (USA 2012) ***
Directed by Ron Fricke

From director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magdison (BARAKA and CHRONOS) comes another visually stunning film combining camerawork and music with the aim of mesmerizing audiences with a unique sensory experience.

Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means "the ever turning wheel of life" and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives.

Filmed over a 5-year period in 25 countries, SAMSARA transports the audience to sacred grounds (monasteries), disaster zones (barren landscapes), industrial sites (manufacturing of food produce; farming of chickens and cattle) and natural wonders (forests), though some material; have been duplicated from KOYANIQAATSI (the fast motion photography of vehicles on night lit highways).

What stands out is the filmmakers’ decision not to use descriptive text or voiceover dialogue, thus encouraging the audiences’ own interpretations.  But in most cases, especially in one odd segment involving a man putting on scary make-up, the end result is confusion.  A little description of what is being watched is a good thing and would not have hurt that much.  In a lot of segments, the audience is left in the dark of what is happening, visually stunning or not!

TAKEN 2 (France 2012) ***

Directed by Olivier Megaton


Those familiar with Luc Besson action flicks and the first TAKEN film know what to expect from this formulaic actioner.

The story involves former government agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) who has retired and attempts to reassemble his old life, after years of overseas employment have left him estranged from his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). But when he and wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped while in Istanbul, Bryan must revert to his old skill set to rescue her, but with Kim’s help before she disappears forever.  The villain is Murad (Rade Sherbedgia) the father of the men Bryan killed to save his daughter in the first TAKEN film.

The addition of the daughter element into the story to differentiate the two TAKEN films is trite.  Most of the scenes involving both father and daughter turn out funny (the driving test; the boyfriend encounters), intentional or not.  The daughter’s role is much stronger that the wife’s who is not given much to do except to moan most of the time.

Dialogue is unintentionally funny (Bryan protecting Kim for her boyfriends) and also especially in the chase scene when Kim is driving.  The words of the father: “Go faster”, with the daughter’s reply: “I can’t!” are repeated ever so often.

The message of the movie, if ever there was one is that father knows best or father kills best.  The efficiency at which he dispatches the Albanian villains whether by gun, blade or bare hands is unbelievable.  He also offers precise information to his daughter to find his whereabouts or memorizes the route when blindfolded to his kidnapped spot.

The sound of the prayers from the mosque in Istanbul right after the Mills are kidnapped unconsciously puts the Muslims in a bad light.  Other than that, the terrorist element in the movie could well apply to both the Americans as to the Albanians, observing the way lives are dispatched.  At one point, Bryan tells his daughter that the local police are now after them after casually mentioning that he had killed one of them.  The scene of a diplomat playing golf amidst the terror of the Mills suggests that that Americans just sit back and treat the foreign affairs lightly.

But to director Megaton’s credit, he follows much in the same footsteps of TAKEN’s director Pierre Morrel.  The action is nonstop and the editing is quick and short.  The result is the audience having a jittery feel at the expense of film continuity.

As he old adage goes, don’t fix it unless broken.  TAKEN 2 is so similar and familiar that the audience could be watching an action scene from another Besson film as TRANSPORTER 3 or TAKEN 1 without realizing the difference.  At least the film contains a neat little twist at the climax when Bryan faces off the villain.  Other than that, the audience is taken for a similar ride.

The end of the film has Bryan confronting Murad that if he kills him, Murad’s other sons will come after him.  This promises another sequel in the future.

BEST BETS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Frankenweenie

Best Film Playing: Easy Money
Best Action: Premium Rush
Best Drama: Laurence Anyways
Best Foreign: Easy Money (Sweden)

Best Comedy: Paranorman
Best Family: Frankenweenie
Best Documentary: Beauty is Embarrassing

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