This Week's Film Reviews (Jan 19, 2018)

Lots of new movies open this week.  Lots to choose from if one includes the Christmas films still playing.

BEST FILMS PLAYING:

Animation: COCO and PADDINGTON 2

Action: THE COMMUTER

Drama: PHANTOM THREAD

Doc: THE FINAL YEAR

Fantasy: THE SHAPE OF WATER

Foreign: THE SQUARE and IN THE FADE

 

FILM REVIEWS:

12 STRONG (USA 2018) ***
Directed by Nicolai Fuglsig

There are two kinds of action hero movies - those based on comic book or fictional heroes and those based on real life ones.  Warner Brothers Studios have done well on both fronts, the latter with Clint Eastwood’s AMERICAN SNIPER standing as the best example. 12 STRONG tells the true story of 12 American heroes who took on major Taliban targets after 9/11 that possibly prevented other attacks on the United States.  (February also sees the upcoming WB real action Clint Eastwood movie The 15:17 TO PARIS.)

Based on the non-fiction book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton and adapted for the screen by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, 12 STRONG the film tells the declassified true story of the Horse Soldiers made up of CIA paramilitary officers and U.S. Special Forces i.e. the US Army Green Berets Operational Detachment Alpha 595 (ODA 595) sent to Afghanistan on October 16, 2001.  The Americans, 12 in number join forces with General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) of the Northern Alliance to help conduct unconventional warfare against Taliban forces.

The 12 are led by Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth), a character inspired by Mark Nitsch.  Among the 12 that the script pays attention to are his Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sergeant Sam Diller (Michael Pena).  The others are given little to say or do but to show their faces in the action scenes.

The film does not contain much plot except to illustrate the difficulty and accomplishment of the mission.  The state of New Mexico stands in for the sandy and rocky landscape of Afghanistan.  The atmosphere looks convincing enough.  The battle segments with too much artillery and gunfire make the real enterprise a little too gung-ho.

Good intentions aside, the film contains some preposterous moments, the most obvious being the climatic scene with the American (Captain Nelson) on horseback leading the Afghan Alliance.  (Really?) “He is charging, follow him,” says an Afghan and then comes the glorification of America.

The best thing the film achieves is placing the audience in a totally foreign atmosphere and educating in what is involved in an almost impossible successful mission.  The audience sees the 12 all gung-ho, angry at 9/11 and wanting revenge to do their best for their country.  But when the film first shows them dumped into foreign territory in the dead of night, with practically no knowledge or bearings, one can tell that heroics is often just in the mind waiting for a reality wake-up call.

The film necessarily has to go through the cliched process of showing the soldiers with their loved ones before and after the mission.  Wife and kids are upset at them while the soldiers have made up their minds to put duty over family.  Of course, the promises that “I will come home!” are uttered and made, regardless of reason.

The film obviously displays the real 12 in a photograph at the closing credits.  The film also mentions the monument of the 12 in a statue that stands in NYC.  For a film based on true events with the fact that all 12 survived, it still looks too implausible.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Denciie5oA

DEN OF THIEVES (USA 2018) **
Directed by Christian Gudegast

DEN OF THIEVES is a bank heist action thriller complete with shoot-out, car chase and suspenseful robbery execution, the kind that was popular in the 70’s but is seldom seen on the screen these days.  It is written and directed by German American Christian Gudegast, whose German roots can only be noticed at the end of the film when Gerard Butler curses: “F***ing Fraulein!”

DEN OF THIEVES stands out from the typical bank heist caper as it shows two sides of the coin - the Los Angeles Sheriff Department’s elite unit and the robbery crew, with about equals screen time divided between the two.  The former is led by ‘Big Nick’ (Gerard Butler) while the latter by Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber).  But Merrimen is sure no Robin Hood.

Whose side will the audience take?  When the film starts and the heist planning gets under way and then the execution, it is human nature to root for the robbers, to want them to succeed - especially when the voiceover explains how impossible a heist in L.A. is.  But Gudegast also has Nick utter the words to one of his suspects: “We are the bad guys. We don’t arrest criminals.  We kill them and do the paperwork after.”

Gudegast’s film is by no means perfect but it has it pleasures.  In fact, it is really easy to pick out what is wrong with the film and to dismiss it as total rubbish.  But on the positive side, Gudegast creates a very credible nitty-gritty atmosphere where life seldom, if ever turns out right.  At times, it feels like one is dunked in porn culture, from the strip joints, cheap restaurants and other shady stores (3 suits for $100) that the characters frequent.  But the climax leaves much to be improved.  The shoot out scene on the highway with cars back to back is hardly realistic when one cannot see any bystanders or drivers in the stalled vehicles.  The cops keep shouting to the drivers, stay down, stay down, but when an overhead shot pans the tops of the cars, no person can be seen unless they have really stayed down perfectly low horizontally.  The twists in the plot (not to be revealed in this review) is also explained sloppily in flashback.  There is a clumsy scene set in a London pub, where Donny suddenly spawns a British accent.  The film runs too long at 2 and a quarter hours.  Though one could com pain on the slow segments, these segments actually provide a good breather for the audience to catch their breathe and evaluate the past proceedings.  The insertion of Nick’s family problems is also clumsily insetted, just to provide sympathy for the protagonist.

Butler is ok in his DIRTY HARRY role but it is O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Donnie who steals the show.

The first third of Gudegat’s film works better than the other two thirds with the climax a complete letdown.  But the first third is actually pretty good and an effective and absorbing bank heist planning.  The conclusion is that the flawed film achieves its promised good nitty-gritty atmosphere with some suspenseful moments.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKd_ks0rdAM

THE FINAL YEAR (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Greg Barker

As the film title implies, Greg Barker’s documentary is an eye-opening unprecedented look during the final year (actually 30 days of the final year) of US foreign policy by following key members of outgoing US President Barack Obama’s administration.

If all this sounds too political, the film is.  The question then is whether it is necessary to watch a film on American policy.  American policy as a stand-alone entity might not have any interest to non-Americans or even Americans.  But the U.S. being the most influential country in the world therefore would have a policy that would have ramifications all over the world.  So, unless one wants to live like a man in a cave and not wish to know what is going outside, this film will not affect you.  It is also good to see the real goings-on in the Obama Administration besides just hearing the points of view of the news.

It is one year before Trump came into the U.S. Presidency.  During 2016, filmmaker Greg Barker (SERGIO, MANHUNT: THE STORY OF THE HUNT FOR BIN LADEN) gained access to key members of outgoing US President Barack Obama's administration — Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, confidant and speech writer Ben Rhodes, and others — for an unprecedented look at the shaping of US foreign policy.  While TV shows from The West Wing to Madam Secretary have invented dramas from this milieu, this documentary captures the real players so much in the moment.

The film begins inside the home of Power.  The audience sees that these high profile state politicians are also ordinary people with kids and a family life.

The globe-spanning journey involves stops on multiple continents.  Rhodes, who is described as sharing a "mind meld" with Obama, joins the President on historic visits to Ho Chi Minh City, Hiroshima, and Havana.  Power seeks to put ordinary people at the heart of foreign policy in Nigeria and Cameroon.  Kerry negotiates at the UN for a Syrian ceasefire and bears witness to global warming in Greenland.  Every move they make stirs reactions from media, Congress, and the public.

Inevitable comparisons will made with the current Trump Administration.  (The film ends with the unexpected Trump win as the new U.S. President.) Clearly, there are noticeable differences.  One can likely see that there is more planning and cooperation with Obama.  Also Obama is one to give good speeches.  One in the film where he speaks to foreign young audience, Obama talks of stories that need be told and in this case, for America the importance of the Declaration of Independence in which all peoples are treated equal.  This is to contrast to President Trump, who never gives a proper speech and talks in short phrases like: “No!”; “Wrong!” etc.

There are many best segments captured live on camera like President Obama’s Hiroshima and Power’s immigration speeches.  But most important of all, the film reveals the true nature of the Presidential Aides, many of whom are inspirational in their duties.

I would like to see the equivalent of this film with the Trump Administration.  That would be an eye-opener.  But it would be highly unlikely seeing already that Trump already dislikes the media.  Trump has already opted out of the climate change accord and the Iran Treaty, two policies Obama and his Administration have worked so hard to achieve.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5tKa22hZGc

FOREVER MY GIRL (USA 2018) *
Directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf

As unimaginative as the title of this romantic drama is, FOREVER MY GIRL is the kind of film critics hate to see but love to write about.  As in the words of Lucille Ball who played Bob Hope’s critic’s wife in the movie CRITIC’S CHOICE: “If come back excited, the play you have seen must have been terrible and you have plenty to write about, but if return bored and disappointed, the play must be excellent.”

To keep from getting bored, one might want to keep score on sentimental or corny points to see whether FOREVER MY GIRL is too corny or too sentential.  Example (corny): Liam’s manager’s advice: “It is not what you do that matters.  It is what you do after that matters.”  Example (sentimental): Liam explains to his daughter why he left while unbeknown to him, his father and ex are both listening.

When country music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) returns to his hometown, he runs into Josie (Jessica Rothe), the bride he left at the altar, choosing fame and fortune instead.  Their relationship was left unresolved as he never got over her or forgot his Southern roots in the small community where he was born and raised.  While there for the funeral of his high school best friend, he is faced with the consequences of all that he left behind.

Dialogue and direction are awful, acting is just as bad and the film does not know where to go once the protagonist, Liam returns home.  He has to win back his ex, Josie and the daughter he just discovered he had.  And then what?

When Liam learns he has had a daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), he has to decide what to do next.  What transpires in the plot will not be revealed so as not to spoil your enjoyment of the film (this review’s bigger joke), but it does not take a genius to guess the film’s predictable outcome.

Alex Roe was likely chosen for his role for his dreamy good looks while Abby Ryder Fortson for the role of his daughter for her irreresistable charm.  This charm unfortunately turns really annoying after a while.  Forston has to resort to screaming to be charming and this tactic does not work!

Most of the songs are composed and performed by Brett Boyett.  The songs are bearable but nothing too memorable.  The lyrics are written to tell the audience how they should feel and where the plot is at.  The last song is called “Finally Home” so you get the idea,

There is one segment where Liam performs in London.  This must make the funniest and most ridiculous part of the movie.  There is the title “London” appearing at the bottom left of the screen followed by the night skyline of the city.  This is followed by a song performed by Liam that ends in a small enclosed hall with him leaving London after the performance. 

FOREVER MY GIRL is based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin.  (This was based on a novel?)   If your girl insists that you watch this film with her, leave town and never return!

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mv6ktjg_RPk

HOSTILES (USA 2017) ***1/2

Directed by Scott Cooper

HOSTILES opens with a statement by D.H. Lawrence on how hostile the west was - and how the heat of the west can never be melted.  Scott Cooper’s (BLACK MASS) film attempts to prove otherwise in his brooding western, interspersed with action sequences that are enough to jolt any audience from thought.

The setting is 1892.  The film opens with a tense and well executed sequence of the massacre of the Quaid family by Indians, the only survivor being the widow (Rosamund Pike).  Director Cooper makes sure the audience feels for her, and for her hatred towards the Indians. 

The film then introduces its main character, an embittered and battle-hardened US Cavalry officer, Joseph L. Blocker (Christian Bale) ordered to accompany a Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their tribal lands in Montana.  Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen more than his fair share of violence and bloodletting on the frontier and will obviously see more by the end of the film, but this mission, which he is forced to accept, is a particularly bitter pill to swallow: Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been his mortal enemy for years due to a conflict that killed many of Blocker's friends.  On the other hand, the Chief has also lost friends in the conflict.  To make matters worse, the widow, Rosalie Quaid joins in the journey.

Blocker is a racist, a man who harbours a deep hatred towards the former prisoners now placed in his care.  As the challenges mount, Blocker is forced to confront his own bigotry while carrying out his orders.  But there are no long monologues or cheap theatrics to get the message across.

But in the final scene, Blocker says goodbye to Rosalie at the train station, her hand holding the young orphaned  Cheyenne boy.  “You are a good man, Joe Blocker.”   These are Rosalie’s farewell words to Blocker.  These are unexpected words resulting in events that show that reconciliation is possible, despite how hopeless things appeared at the start.

Christian Bale is almost perfect in the title role of the racist with a conscience.  It is not a cardboard character but one that undergoes development.  Bale does a lot of brooding, but the changes in him come from the vents that flow his journey through the hostile land.  Pike is also good as the storm-willed suicidal widow.  Adam Beach (SUICIDE SQUAD) is surprisingly not given much to do while Wes Studi (DANCES WITH WOLVES, LAST OF THE MOHICANS) has a few lines that emphasize his strong character as the Indian chief.  Ben Foster is sufficiently menacing as an escorted criminal.

Coopers action scenes are well orchestrated and lift the otherwise slow moving film that at times almost sinks too low.  The film is quite lengthy, running at over the 2 hour mark.

HOSTILES is a quietly powerful film, difficult to watch but nevertheless gets its message across with the hopeful ending.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M5cj4UmscE

IN THE FADE (Aus dem Nichts) (Germany/France 2017) ****
Directed by Fatih Akin

Director Fatih Akin broke into the film making scene with small films on gypsy music.  He has come a long way since with his new film IN THE FADE.  IN THE FADE stars top German actress Diane Kruger, which won her the Best Actress Prize at Cannes in 2017.  She totally deserves it and IN THE FADE is an incredible film that attests Akin’s prowess as a filmmaker.  The film also tackles the current problem in the world of racism and prejudice, looking at the face of neo-Nazism.  The film is named after a song by the American rock band Queens of the Stone Age, whose lead singer, Josh Homme, wrote the film's score.

The film opens in a prison setting.  The inmates are cheering a prison wedding where Kurdish inmate, Nuri Sekerci is being wed to German Katja (Kruger).

The story moves to the present in Hamburg, when Nuri is out of prison and has a business in helping the needy.  They now have 5-year old son.  Katja met Nuri when she bought hasish from him.  Since the birth of their son Rocco, Nuri has quit drug trafficking, studied business administration while in jail, and now works in Hamburg at a translation and tax office.

Akin shocks the audience with the sudden death of Nuri and his son by a bombing, just when one expects Nuri to be the main protagonist, similar to the Janet Leigh character being killed off in PSYCHO.  No doubt an old trick, but one that still works.  It turns out that the killers are neo-Nazis.  After they are acquitted, despite damming evidence, Katja decides two things.  There is no purpose in her life and longer and that she wants justice and revenge.  No more should be said of the plot to prevent any spoilers.

Akin’s IN THE FADE moves along smoothly with nary a dull moment.  He succeeds by inserting various different events like the courtroom drama, the impact on Katja of both her parents and parents-in-law, her sister’s pregnancy and daughter and her own turmoil.  One does admire Katja’s strong character though she breaks down doing drugs at several points in the film.  But it shows the strength of her love for both her husband and child.  This is revisited in home footage she views of her son and husband at the beach, the segment that finally cracks her up.

A different look at the law is also observed.  The investigating officer initially is biased against her because of her husband’s racial background, but he eventually takes her side at the court hearing.  Her lawyer, Danilo Fava (Denis Moschitto) is also sympathetic, always probing her on, and never to give up on justice.  Any romantic involvement between the two is halted immediately with the line Fava utters that he has to drive his kid to kindergarten the next morning.

IN THE FADE is also this year’s German entry for the Best Foreign Film entry at the Academy Awards.  A good choice.  It just won the Golden Globes Prize for Best Foreign Film.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyjnzhXJlHU

LA PETITE FILLE QUI AIMAIT TROP LES ALLUMETTES (CANADA 2017) ****
(THE GIRL WHO WAS TOO FOND OF MATCHES)

Directed by Simon Lavoie

Chosen as this year’s Canada’s Top 10 films of the Year, the Quebecois film LA PETITE FILLE QUI AIMAIT TROP LES ALLUMETTES receives a deserved run this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  It is a strangest of all the 10 films and rightly so because the novel (by Gaétan Soucy) it is based on is indeed a strange one. This novel was chosen for inclusion in the French version of Canada Reads, broadcast on Radio-Canada in 2004, where it was championed by actor, film director, screenwriter, and musician Micheline Lanctôt.

The story is about two siblings who live in complete isolation with their father. They are both his "sons".  One day the father kills himself by hanging and his sons decide one of them needs to go to the nearby village to get a coffin.  While in the village it is unveiled that the one son is actually a female although she has no idea of that (she has no idea of sexuality and thinks she was castrated when she was very young and that is why she doesn't have testicles). It also become apparent she has been being used for sex by her brother and eventually becomes pregnant with child.

The film takes certain liberties with the novel and director Lavoie changes a few things to make it more believable.  Lavoie lets the audience know from the beginning that one of the siblings is a girl and not a boy.  This is a wise decision as the actress playing the part looks more feminine than masculine despite the male clothes and short hair.  The father only hangs himself at the 30 minute mark of the film.  The evil things that go on are revealed while the father is alive while he has a part to play in them.  In the book the girl thinks she was castrated while in the film, she is told by her father that her pee-pee dropped off when she was a child.  Her Prince Charming in the film is a land surveyor for the government and not a mine inspector.

The story is a dark one.  Twists in the plot show up every 15 minutes or so, and they are not for the better.  But the girl is strong willed and able to resist her brother, the villagers and her unknown fears.

The film is even creepier with the existence of the unknown monster kept in the shack outside the main house.  Who or what is this creature?  Director Lavoie teases the audience, led to believe at first that it would be the siblings’ mother. 

The film is a worthy and well plotted adaptation of the novel.  Wisely shot in black and white with choral music in the soundtrack to give the film a Gothic look, the film captures both the creepiness and innocence of the girl in the story.  A  disturbing film undoubtedly due to its theme, but indeed a Top 10 Canadian film of the year! 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rcH8cJ-PGo

 

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