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Born in China – Movie Review

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Born in China – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Nobody is going to mistake the Disneynature series as being strongly educational, especially when compared to other nature documentaries. Even its inspiration, the True-Life Adventures, sought more to provide educational facts about animals. However, films like Born in China serve a necessary purpose in allowing children to experience these animals up close in a manner that still shows the dangers of their natural habitat. The narration may threaten to get too cutesy, but these are swiftly paced and pleasant for all audiences. They don’t beat a day at the zoo or even Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for that matter, but the Disneynature films do their job with the right level of respect for the environment.

Most Disneynature films keep the focus primarily on a specific animal they provide a name sake to. Born in China takes a different approach by telling stories about three animals and their search to survive through the changing seasons. The pandas and monkeys will probably be the audience favourites and they provide the necessary “Aww” factor, but the snow leopard is a splendor to watch, too. The animals are instantly endearing and the story the filmmakers craft for them do not belittle what they might be feeling in those moments. All of these plots are given equal attention by director Chuan Lu.

Born in China might be the most beautifully photographed of the Disneynature films, with some incredible shots of the landscapes and environments of the Chinese wilderness. The crew captures some amazing angles, though the end credits reveal they were a lot closer than we might think. The entire film gives an immersive experience as the camera swoops over the hills and near the trees, placing us directly in the middle of the action. Even the best zoos can’t capture the feeling of being right along with the animals as they attempt to survive or try to catch their potentially tasty prey.

As is tradition, a celebrity has been brought in to provide a narration. Disneynature scripts tend to overemphasize the cuddly nature of these animals and John Krasinski’s narration continues that aspect of these films. He gives the animals names and context for their apparent thoughts. It is fairly obvious the footage is edited to fit into a specific narrative created by the filmmakers, but Krasinski’s narration doesn’t descend too much into cuteness like earlier Disneynature narrations from John C. Reilly and Tim Allen’s. These documentaries are produced primarily for a child audience, but Born in China doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh environments as much as previous entries in this series.

It is nice Disney continues to produce the Disneynature films. These films give money to good causes as well as introduce children to some amazing animals. They are hardly the most thematically rich nature documentaries, but they are a necessary good deed and a calm break from other fare that is usually released in multiplexes. Next year will see the release of Dolphins, which should provide plenty more charming adventures. This is an annual Earth Day tradition people should welcome more.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Free Fire – Movie Review

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Free Fire – Movie Review

Rating: C+ (Above Average)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

The concept behind Free Fire holds a lot of promise and Ben Wheatley certainly directs it with a certain amount of flourish. However, there is something almost juvenile about the way this story is written and the film does not do much to create the necessary excitement. The influences from classic westerns and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs can certainly be felt with its singular location and constant gunplay. Yet there is a distance from the characters and the constant shooting gets tiring rather quickly. Teenagers will almost instantly fall in love with the sly script and action set-pieces, but for those who have experienced it all before, frequent yawns will be had.

The best aspect of Free Fire comes from its actors. Wheatley has assembled an international collection of thespians and each of them dig into the roles with the proper relish. The stand-out is Brie Larson as the lone female gunslinger in this band of misfits. The biggest laugh comes courtesy of Larson and it’s not even a word of dialogue. Sharlto Copley delights in portraying one of the more unhinged members of the group, truly emphasizing the 1970s setting and slightly exaggerating his native South African accent. Armie Hammer displays the necessary suaveness and coolness during the film’s intense situation. The other actors also somewhat succeed in elevating their thinly written roles.

Profanity is one of the trickiest elements to write in a screenplay without sounding forced. Writers like Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers have mastered the art of peppering their dialogue with salty language. Wheatley and his usual collaborator Amy Jump merely drop the f-bombs to emphasis the criminal nature of their characters, but they lack the proper weight. Free Fire feels entirely like a college student’s first screenplay, awkwardly throwing in swearing just to make the script appear more mature. It never earns the right to use these curse words and the film suffers for it.

Two thirds of the film is devoted to the characters shooting at each other. Gun heavy action scenes are hard to make exciting. There needs to be a proper level of tension and character investment, neither of which are in Free Fire. The film spends far too much time on making them look cool without properly delving into why we should care about their fates. Wheatley certainly gives the direction his all, but it becomes too repetitive rather quickly. A couple of clever twists and turns are occasionally thrown in, but not enough to break up the mundanity of the action. For one hour, we get characters shooting at each other with not enough creative choreography to make the inevitable end worthwhile.

One can imagine the excitement of walking on set and putting this entire set-piece together. One is instantly reminded of Mad Max: Fury Road, a strong technical accomplishment that was merely about going from Point A to Point B. Free Fire sticks firmly in Point A and many a great film has made strong use of a simple location. However, it gets tiring seeing the gun shots ricochet off this dreary looking warehouse and it’s easy to get lost of who is on what team and who is shooting at each other. Free Fire will almost certainly inspire a host of potentially better imitators.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Their Finest – Movie Review

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Their Finest – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

The British have a different perspective of World War II, as while they weren’t affected in the same way Continental Europe was, the threat of Nazism was still nearby. The focus of Their Finest is primarily on the morale boosting done during the war and while it follows the expected story patterns, there is nonetheless an emotional attachment to the people affected. Even as the filmmakers seeking to bring patriotism to the British public are sitting in offices and typing up scripts, bombs continue to fly overhead. Director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe, adapting Lissa Evans’s novel, craft the proper tone with Their Finest in addition to showing the power of good filmmaking.

Scherfig immediately manages to get a handle of the time period and need for morale during the Second World War. Even though Their Finest is largely fictional, the characters we follow feel like genuine members of the British film industry at the time. The chemistry between Gemma Arterton’s screenwriter Catrin and Sam Claflin’s head script writer Tom is sweet and it makes their inevitable romance one that feels earned. Their conflicts and closeness showcase the collaboration that can happen between creative types and how the melding of good ideas can turn into great ones. Bill Nighy and Jake Lacy are scene-stealers as a veteran actor and a soldier forced into the wartime film, respectively.

The best scenes in Their Finest are the ones showing the filmmakers at work. Considerable research appears to have been made on how the British film industry went about creating morale-boosting pictures during the war. The humour is not too in-jokey and throughout it all is a crew bonding and finding common ground in wanting to bring relief and inspiration to the British people. However, the script always remembers that Nazi storm cloud looming above and how cinema existed as a necessary relief for both the creative types making them and those who paid to see them.

Their Finest does tend to lag during the scenes of Catrin in her home life. Her painter significant other merely exists as a plot device and a necessity to keep her at a distance from Tom. Nonetheless, Scherfig delivers on the home stretch. Even as we feel her pulling the emotional strings behind the camera and Rachel Portman’s score swells, the audience reaction does feel earned. There is an authenticity when seeing the finished movie the filmmakers within the film have put together. One can imagine this same picture being released in the early 1940s, alongside the likes of Mrs. Miniver and In Which We Serve.

The troubles of war never truly disappear and that’s why inspirational films are needed to allow the populace to know they can triumph. Their Finest is itself an inspirational film, a charming and likeable piece of cinema and a fitting tribute to the British film industry. The actors all deliver and Lone Scherfig guides them and her crew to create the proper response from the audience. Their Finest does its job suitably enough and probably would not be out of place among the films the United Kingdom made during the Second World War to encourage the population. It is a needed film for the Great Britain that seems so divided these days.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Gifted – Movie Review

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Gifted – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sentimental films deserve more credit for the difficulty that comes from not making them too schmaltzy to the point of sappiness. Gifted, on occasion, manages to overcome that boundary and then leaps back into syrup at other points. Marc Webb, returning to a smaller film after two big budget Spider-Man blockbusters, manages to guide the film okay enough, but the screenplay still falls into the obvious traps. Having a precocious child at its centre affects the picture, too, especially with the adults around her seemingly making the decisions for her. This is the stereotypical crowd-pleaser and it will find just as many supporters as it will those rolling their eyes at it.

Having an intelligent child lead is also tricky as youths talking too much like an adult can quickly grate on the nerves. Mckenna Grace plays the role of math genius Mary in the way the script writes her, but none of the dialogue is believable. Occasionally, glimpses of a nine year old come out, but the screenplay is definitely written by an adult male. Screenwriter Tom Flynn seems to have trouble writing her as both intelligent beyond her years and as a child. Chris Evans most succeeds in grounding the movie. Frank’s love for his niece is evident in every scene and his fight to make sure she gets a normal education is believable. Evans is smart not to portray the role with a twinkle in his eye.

Lindsay Duncan, portraying Frank’s mother, plays one of the more stereotypical characters in the film. The screenplay constantly points out the differences between her and her son with obvious lines meant to show how the two have drifted apart. Duncan does get a big acting moment in one of many courtroom scenes and proves to be the only bit where the character is not written so one dimensionally. Jenny Slate’s helpful teacher begins promisingly enough and is then suddenly written as Frank’s central love interest, a disappointing and unnecessary bit of character devolution. Octavia Spencer’s neighbour is merely superfluous and is yet somebody else who gives Frank obvious life advice.

Rob Simonsen’s piano score pounds on the soundtrack at multiple points, almost begging the audience to cry at the obvious sentimentality. More successful are the little bits of humour that Flynn utilises and which make Marc Webb the ideal choice for director. The stand-out character in Gifted is not one of the people, but rather a one eyed cat who finds himself in the middle of this conflict involving Mary’s custody. Evans also takes advantage of his charm to make some lines elicit the proper laughter. At this point in his career, he has already morphed into a real-life Captain America.

For all of Gifted’s problems and overt sentimentality, it is a competent and inoffensive little film. The actors are certainly giving the material the proper respect and its heart is in the right place. It does not necessarily seek to make a major statement of the educational system and it’s easy to understand where certain characters are coming from. Even if the final result appears like a cross between Matilda and Good Will Hunting, it makes sense why this script would find its way to these talented actors and director. Plus, it’s difficult to hate a film in which a main character decides to randomly watch Ice Age.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


Song to Song – Movie Review

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Song to Song – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy eOne Films

Terrence Malick’s recent output has been one of contention among cinephiles. Once revered for his amazing visual eye and use of classical music, many feel he has become a parody of himself. However, there are still those who support his vision and freewheeling directing approach. Malick is clearly comfortable with this current loose phase of his career, so wishing for another Days of Heaven seems almost fruitless at this point. Song to Song is a step-up from his previous effort Knight of Cups, in that it seems to have actual characters and arcs. Malick eventually loses the plot after the first hour, leaving a second hour of required patience on the viewer’s part.

Song to Song is, at its core, a love story and there is a clear motivation behind the characters’ actions. Using an Austin music festival at his backdrop, Malick explores the relationships that form beyond the stage at these environments. The romance that grows between Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara, and one would have to be forgiven for only seeing the actors rather than the characters, does seem genuine with the necessary elements of heartbreak and uncertainty that come from a relationship. The friendship between Gosling and Michael Fassbender as they seek to create music is also more of an arc than we’ve seen in the past couple of Malick films. There are more conversations here than were featured in To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, allowing for better insight than his trademark narration normally does.

Malick’s use of montage also works to Song to Song’s advantage early on, with his three principal editors piecing them together with the music in a way that still develops the rather threadbare story and its participants. The most fascinating comparison that can be made between his current crop of films and his early output is the shift in focus from working class people trying to get by to well-off folks who can just jet off to Mexico on a whim. One could analyse that these films have an emptiness in them to reflect that. Or, more likely, he lacks a screenplay and an editor to reign him in. There is a heavy improvisational quality to the performances here, fittingly as Malick traditionally crafts his films in the editing room.

The second hour of Song to Song starts to fall into the usual Terrence Malick annoyances. The story loses focus, with only occasional glimmers that he is trying to say something. Short appearances from Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer and Cate Blanchett show up, cut from hours of footage. There’s little insight gained from these characters and it becomes a wait until the end as he shows field after window sill. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, so key in their collaborations on The New World and The Tree of Life, now has a cheap digital look to it. Malick lovingly filming his female leads is hardly new. He has been doing that since he started shooting Sissy Spacek in Badlands. However, there is an uncomfortable male gaze with which he points the camera at Mara and Natalie Portman. He wants the audience to admire their beauty, but there’s a leery quality to how he displays them. There are a couple of scenes where the film veers dangerously close to becoming pornography.

Terrence Malick still has his passionate admirers and followers who find joy in the art gallery pieces he releases on the few cinema screens who will take them. His current films are not without their merits. Song to Song does seem to have more to say, but his loose shooting style will definitely not be to everyone’s tastes. Malick seems completely uninterested in following the rulebook and that’s perfectly acceptable. However, important elements like pacing are still key in gaining audience investment and Song to Song loses that in its second hour. Opinions will be varied on this new film, just as they were on To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. That does succeed in keeping Malick in the conversation among cinephile circles.

 

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE


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