This Week's Film Reviews (Nov 9, 2012)

09 Nov 2012

Biggest film opening this week is the much awaited new Bond SKYFALL.  In line with the U.S. Presidentisal elections, LINCOLN makes its timely debut.

Toronto: Lots going on at the Bell TIFF Lightbox with the series, BOND, Beyond Bond and Birth of a Villain series.  And do not forget the Reel Asian Film Festival.

DANGEROUS LIASONS (China 2012) ***

Directed by Hur Jin-ho

DANGEROUS LIASONS is another example of a joint effort between Asian talents, in this case Korean, Chinese and Hong Kong.   Like the recent THE THIEVES, this film is a lavish, ambitious and expensive production that can be admired if not for anything else, for looks alone.

Based on the French classic by Choderlos de Laclos and making no shame about it, since it retains the novel’s name in the film title, DANGEROUS LIASONS adapts the tale from 18th century France to 1930’s Shanghai.  For myself, I generally dislike such adaptations of literary classics, the most recent case in point being Michael Winterbottom’s THRISNA bringing the story of Tess to rural India.  But somehow, the production values, sets art direction, props and wardrobe as well as the age old story of love and deceit result in still a fresh film.  The only thing is that Stephen Frear’s last adaptation based on the Oscar winning adapted screenplay by Christopher Hampton was such an excellent film with stars like John Malkovic and Glenn Close that those images are still recent in ones memory. 

In Korean director Hur’s version, Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) is Valmont, the charismatic libertine.   Mo Jieyu (Cecelia Cheung) is Marquise de Merteuil, the affluent femme fatale bracing herself for beauty’s expiration date. And Du Yufen (Zhang Ziyi, most recognizable to Northern American audiences from CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) is Madame de Tourvel, the innocent human collateral haplessly caught in the cynical sexual gamesmanship between these two erotic schemers — but victim becomes victor when the beautiful young widow is able to inspire true love from the seducer who had elected her as the pawn in his nefarious game.

Hur is fond of close-ups which helps brings the audience right up close to the emotional action.  Jang is sufficiently sexy and ruthless with his pencil moustache and good-looks just as Ziyi is forever gorgeous.  DANGEROUS LIASONS is a film in which everything looks gorgeous even the poverty surrounding 1930’s Shanghai.  With that, one can overlook the few flaws the film has.

LINCOLN (USA 2012) ***

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Spielberg’s LINCOLN is a well-made sprawling historical epic that focuses on the political collision of President Abraham Lincoln with the powerful men of his cabinet as they establish the abolition of slavery and end the Civil War in the 19th century.

Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography on Lincoln, the film is based only on the last few years of the man’s life which as everyone knows ends in his sad assassination while watching a play at the theatre.  Still, there are lots and lots to tell, as evident when one watches the movie.  However, by nature of the subject, this is a periodic piece in which the characters are required to speak in 19th century English, thus rendering the film difficult to understand and inaccessible to a wide audience.  One is also required to have a bit of knowledge of American history to appreciate the film.

Spielberg treats his subject as arguably the greatest working President in American history doing some of the greatest and noble work in the world.  Daniel Day Lewis plays Lincoln as a self spoken person, seldom shouting (except in the one fight scene with his long suffering wife played by Sally Field) but with an inner strength that encompasses patience, understanding and wisdom.  The other supporting players are hard to recognise but Fields and Tommy Lee Jones stand out.

The $50 million spent on production shows.  The battles scenes are breathtaking, perhaps rivalling Spielberg’s other war film SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.  Costumes and set decoration of the period piece look magnificent as well.

The climax of the film which is the vote against slavery is meticulously plotted and serves as the suspense and excitement for the movie.  Even if one is lost for the first half of the film, the second half of Spielberg’s film more than redeems itself.

THE ORANGES (USA 2011) ***
Directed by Julian Farino

This is the story of two dysfunctional families the Wallings and the Ostroffs who live in a boring New Kersey suburb with the street name ‘Orange’.  The film offers almost equal screen time given to each family.  The two fathers are the best of friends, who since the beginning of time, jog together without fail every morning.

But things take a turn when one, David Paige (Hugh Laurie who has totally lost his Brit accent) falls in love with his best friend David’s (Oliver Pratt) young daughter, Nina (Leighton Meester), much to the chagrin of all, especially his own daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat) who is best friends with Vanessa.

The story is narrated by Vanessa’s character and offers good arguments on each side whether the couple should stay together.  The argument of David is: “I am Happy!”, but that does not hold for Vanessa who in one of the film’s funniest scenes (the revelation confrontation scene) threatens to go to the back to make out with the other dad as revenge.  The story does not appear much but director Farino milks the best as well as the most hilarious jokes from the situation.

All the performances are top notch especially Catherine Keener as David’s long suffering wife.  Yet, Farino has transformed the story in the feel-good film of the year, the typical small indie film that Fox Searchlight loves to distribute.

PUSHER (UK 2012) ***

Directed by Luis Prieto

PUSHER is the British remake of the Danish film of the same name directed by Nicolas Winding (who did DRIVE) who now serves as producer.  Winding gives this version his full blessing.

I have not seen the original film version, which consists of a trilogy, but those who have seen both have attested that the original Danish films were more violent, less commercial and edgy.  So, this one set in Britain around the cobblestone street alleyways and warehouse dance clubs, this new PUSHER has an authentic feel for its surroundings.

Prieto’s film opens TRAINSPOTTING style with the main characters introduced by first name on credits splashed with big letter on the screen.  The lead is Frank (Richard Coyle) a small time drug dealer (and user) trying to tech out a decent life with his girlfriend (Agyness Deyn) and best mate, Tony (Bronson Webb).

Prieto plays it safe with a standard narrative storytelling.  First he introduces his characters and dealings then the main plot that goes sour followed by how Frank deals with the problem before ending the film with a twist.

The problem is Frank borrowing a kilo of white from his supplier and then friend Milo (Zlatko Buric).  After the sale goes sour due to a bust and Frank having to dump the gear into a pond to remove the evidence, Milo goes berserk when he does not get the money.  Given an ultimatum, Frank goes down a downward spiral trying to cough up the dough that includes beating up Tony and fooling his mum and his girlfriend.

Prieto’s film moves at a fast pace and he resorts to jumpy editing to create the effects of edginess likely the same kind a user would feel when under the influence.  But the edginess is slight and does not come off as effective as films like SPUN or SMOKIN’ ACES.  The violence and gore are all there though not as excessive as would be expected for this kind of film.  Acting is convincing with Buric coming off best.  Buric reprises the same role he did in the Danish film.

Prieto creates sufficient tension and emotion in both his characters and situations.  The result is a tense, credible piece of commercial filmmaking that is accurate down to the price of the product, which is £2300 for 2 ounces.

SKYFALL (UK/USA 2012) ****
Directed by Sam Mendes

AMERICAN BEAUTY director Sam Mendes lands the Bond director’s chair in his first but successful entry in the 007 franchise.  Though not known for films in the spy action or even action genre, but known for his dramas like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, ROAD TO PERDITION and of course, AMERICAN BEAUTY, Mendes brings more drama as opposed to comedy to the Bond film.  And it works well!  SKYFALL connects to the audiences.  John Logan who was brought in to rewrite the script did a good job with some major twists and plot turns (not to be revealed in this review) that would satisfy Bond fans.

SKYFALL is smart in many ways.  It begins with the standard action pre- opening credit sequence.  But unlike the previous Bonds in which the segments have nothing to do with the rest of the film, this one does.  A list of names is stolen and M (Judi Dench) says this one line, Hitchcock style to create audience anticipation: “We cannot afford to lose this list!”  The list is the introduction to the plot for the rest of the film in which MI6 undercover agents are revealed by the villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) putting MI6’s relevance in question.  Nothing in the rest of the film matches the excitement of this segment which includes a bike chase on rooftops of supposedly Istanbul and a fight atop a racing train.  The phrase “shaken not stirred” is replaced by “Perfect!” after Bond receives the correctly made martini.  His date appropriately replies to her drink: “I like mine straight up with a twist!”

Daniel Craig as James Bond is once again overtly serious.  Thankfully, the script has most of the other characters played tongue in cheek such as the new young Quartermaster, Q (Ben Whishaw), the other operative Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) including the over-the-top performance by Barden as Silva which includes an uncomfortable gay scene.  The Bond girls range from very sexy Severine (Berenice Marlohe) to very functional Eve (Naomie Harris).

Most of the standard Bond stuff remains untouched in SKYFALL.  Q still insists that merchandise be returned unspoiled, M still disfavours Bond (M confesses this in the first film she is played by Dench in GOLDENEYE) and a catchy Bond theme by Adele can be heard at the film’s start.  However, the famous Bond theme by Monty Norman is only first played in the middle of the film after one excellent action sequence, and then used again after.

The death of Bond at the film’s start (this is not a spoiler as it occurs only briefly) occurs as if Bond can ever be mores serious.  Darkness often spoils a film franchise as can already be noticed in THE DARK KNIGHT (BATMAN) films.  But the relevance of a spy film in the age of sci-fi futuristic films is also parodied in the plot of this film in which M has to defend her MI6 agency in the present age.

But SKYFALLS delivers in the action department aided heavily with lots of ammunition in the drama department.  This is above average Bond which more than makes up for the previously awful QUANTUM OF SOLACE.


Best Film Opening: Skyfall

Best Film Playing: Argo

Best Drama: The Sessions

Best Documentary: The Imposter

Best Family: Frankenweenie

Bets Action: Skyfall

Best Foreign: Dangerous Liasons (China)

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