Film Review: ABOMINABLE (USA 2019) ***

Abominable Poster
Trailer

A magical Yeti must return to his family.

Directors:

Jill CultonTodd Wilderman (co-director)

Writer:

Jill Culton

The new Dreamworks animated feature that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival has nothing abominable about it.  It is so pleasantly nice that that the film title should be re-named “Pleasant” or perhaps “Happiness” since the setting is Shanghai, China.

In the current times of  ‘more women in movies’, it is not surprising  that the main protagonist is a female.. She is Yi (Chloe Bennet), a resourceful girl in a totally female family consisting of mother and granny, ‘nai nai’ right after the loss of her father.  Being Chinese, she knows how to play the violin (a little stereotyping here),the instrument worth to her more than anything else in the world.  What is puzzling in one scene is when asked to play for the family after dinner, she says she sold the violin.  The reason is never clear and left for the audience to decide the reason for her decision to say that.  The gender of the yeti that she saves is brought into question in one scene, as likely to the filmmakers whether to make the yeti male or female.  It would be a little much to make it also a female, so ‘male’ looked after by a female would be the expected option.

Having fled the secret laboratory where he’s been detained, a young Yeti, that is named Everest (non-speaking, just making abominable snowman sounds) frantically scurries through the streets of Shanghai before hiding on an apartment rooftop, where he takes solace in a billboard advertisement for travel to Everest. It’s also where he meets Yi. Yi and the Yeti discover a shared fondness for Yi’s grandma’s dumplings — which the Yeti consumes in crazy quantities — and a love of music. An outspoken advocate for Asian actors and film roles in Hollywood, Bennet voices Yi with an impressive mix of American confidence and Chinese family values.

Yi quickly surmises and turns correct that her new companion is being hunted by a squad of ruthless militiamen, led by wealthy collector Burnish (Eddie Izzard) and the zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson). with red hair looking like an animated Tilda Swinton who usually has roles of this nature in films. Recruiting two cousins as accomplices (Chinese have large families – stereotyping?), Yi determines to help the Yeti get away. With their pursuers hot on their tails, the quartet hop on a barge bound fo

The setting in China instead of the U.S, makes total sense.  The Himalayas where Yi takes Everest is close to the Himalayas compared to the U.S.   Also, a film set in China will do better at the box-office globally as Chinese the second largest market in the world.  (Will this film be subject to tariffs on the Chine-American trade war?)

The film draws from other films like E.T. (also from Dreamworks). Yi is aiding Everest finding home and reuniting with his parents.  The bonding between master and teen is reminiscent of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

The animation from Dreamworks is great as expected though there is not much excitement in anything in terms of insight or innovation.  Recommended for little kids!

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

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Film Review: MONOS (Colombia 2019) ***

Monos Poster
Trailer

On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow.

Director:

Alejandro Landes

Writers:

Alejandro Landes (screenplay), Alexis Dos Santos (screenplay) | 1 more credit »

Premiering at this year’s Sundance, MONOS  (meaning ‘monkeys’) is an original enough film that draws from Lord of the Flies but filmed in Colombia.  A commando group of youth train in the jungle while given the task of looking after an American hostage by their chief.  Thing go south when the cow they have borrowed is killed and the hostage escapes.

There is something inherently beautiful to see male bodies tugging at each other during military training.  Famed French director Claire Denis realized this and her film BEAU TRAVAIL has an image of topless men in combat – a very homoerotic image.  This image is repeated 20 minutes into MONOS with half naked men (youths in this case) fighting each other.  But the recruits on training her are of both sexes, so naturally there is some making out between male and female (of the characters Wolf and Lady, which they celebrate.

Looking at youth reacting to war and chaos has been a fond subject in English literature as evident in the bestseller Lord of the Flies, where a group of boys stranded on an island start up their one rules for survival.  MONOS holds intrigue for the identical reason but in an ambiguous war setting.

The setting is on a remote mountain in Latin America.  The film tracks a young group of soldiers and rebels — bearing names like Rambo, Smurf, Bigfoot, Wolf and Boom-Boom — who keep watch over an American hostage, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The teenage commandos perform military training exercises by day and indulge in youthful hedonism by night, an unconventional family bound together under a shadowy force known only as The Organization. 

The script (co-written by Landes and Alexis Dos Santos) does not give details of what the group MONOS is fitting for or where the hostage is coming from.  These lack of details undermine the authenticity of the plot.  Director Landes does not favour any singular one of the rebels. Each react more with their instincts than their brains.  Anyone of the revels can turn violent and kill, including the American hostage who ends up killing a rebel.

The musical score by Mica Levi is accompanied with non-musical sounds which creates an eerie environment.  The landscape of the jungle (fog hovering around the mountain tops;  thick rain clouds) and the river waters is stunning, credit to cinematographer Jasper Wolf.

The film takes a more violent turn after an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, both the mission and the intricate bonds between the group begin to disintegrate. Order descends into chaos and within MONOS the strong begin to prey on the weak in this vivid, cautionary fever dream. 

MONOS opens with a special week long engagement at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  The film has already played at many film festival receiving accolades of praise.  MONOS is also Colombia’s entry for Best Foreign Language film for the next Academy Awards.

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

Full Review: PREY (Canada 2019) ***1/2

Prey Poster
Most civil, clergy sex abuse cases are settled quietly, out-of-court and far from public view. But PREY follows one survivor and his lawyer as they pursue justice through a public trial in … See full summary »

Director:

Matt Gallagher

Hot and as widespread as today’s disturbing headlines: sexual abuse within the Catholic Church that has traumatized thousands.   The worse are the cover ups the church is responsible for in order to protect their own and their institution.  Many docs and fiction films have been made on this sensitive topic and PREY is yet another, and powerful one of them.   

PREY opens with a shot of a man dressed  up in a tie and suit.  He is Rob Tallach, a Civil Lawyer.  He is nicknamed the priest hunter as he hunts down these priests perpetuators that prey on young boys.  And he has quite a number of cases to his credit.  Many have only recently come forward to speak publicly, while others have been silenced through settlements. One of the perpetrators, Father Rod Marshall, (interviewed in the movie when he was still alive) pled guilty to 17 assault charges; a colleague, Father David Katulski, called him a “very good pedophile.” One of his victims, seeking closure for this traumatic part of his childhood, filed suit against the Basilian Fathers of Toronto for its role in enabling Marshall’s depravity.  As the case moves through the courts—led by “the priest hunter,” lawyer Rob Tallach—the silence the Catholic Church fought so vigorously to maintain is broken. 

Director Matt Gallagher opens a channel for those brave survivors who are willing to provide testimony, culminating in a powerful damnation of an institution that must be exposed and held to account.”     

PRAY OR PREY?  The purpose of the film is to open the window, to check the record straight and to give the punitive damages back to the victims.  The church allows children to continually be abused, as the doc attests.  

There are actually three films that could have been made.  A film could be made with the subject of Rob Tallach, maybe titled THE PRIEST HUNTER, where he discuses all his cases.  Another could be the examination of the Catholic Church at how many cases they have covered up, or settled out of court.  And the third of the various victims.  In the case of PREY, director Gallagher tackles all there – quite a feat.  While touching the surface of these three topics, he could have created more anger in his film against the Catholic Church of the abuse done over the century.  But he lets the facts tell the story.

PREY follows one survivor and his lawyer as they pursue justice through a public trial in the hopes of forcing the dark and hidden story of clergy sexual abuse to light.   Being a local story set in Toronto, it still fills with global resonance. 

  The film is partly courtroom drama.  Everyone loves a solid courtroom drama and PREY provides one of the best.  The abuser, Father Hod Marshall, makes his presence known at the civil trial in the form of a haunting video deposition taken before his death. The video had been sealed from public view until now.  But this trial was not about guilt or innocence, but about how much money the church should pay in compensation for the devastating fallout from the abuse.  The climax of the film is the verdict.  The film (not revealed this review) gos one more disturbing step after this.

Special One Night Screening Presented by TVO

September 25 – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Panel Discussion | Q+A will follow with Subjects and Director

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/323986619Prey

Film Review: HONEY BEE (Canada 2018) ***

Honey Bee Poster
Follows the journey of Natalie “Honey Bee” Sorensen, an underage truck stop prostitute trapped in a human trafficking ring until she is transplanted into foster care in remote Northern Ontario and forced to confront her identity.

Director:

Rama Rau

HONEY BEE is teen Natalie’s nickname which she is fond of that many of her friends or acquaintances use.

When the film opens Natalie (Julia Sarah Stone) is having a name tattooed on her wrist.  The tattoo reads “Ryan” (Stephen Love) a handsome boy who on first appearance acts a little weird sending and vibes to the audience.  But Natalie is head over heals in love with Ryan and she plans to go with him to the ‘Big Nickel’, which is, as many who live in the Province of Ontario, the mining town of Sudbury.

Just when one thinks that this is going to be the run-of-the-mill teen romance story, the story takes a sharp turn.  Natalie, who is really skinny and looking sort of emancipated is not what she seems.  The next scene shows her giving sexual favours to a trucker before being arrested.  But she is minor and put into a farm with foster parents instead.  It turns out that Ryan is a pimp who intends to sell her to another pimp in Sudbury.  And so the story goes.

It is a solid story.  The best thing too is that the audience is not on the side of Natalie as she is shown to be brash, rude and ill-disciplined.  The foster home is a farm where she is supposed to work while attending school.  But she is a rebellious teen and one can hardly sympathize with her.

Again director Rau  slowly turns the tables and evokes the audience’s sympathy.  She begins to realize through the signs that Ryan is not the decent man of her life and that he was using her, if not intending to sell her off for a large sum of money.

HONEY BEE has an indescribable charm that radiates throughout the story.  This is due to the enduring characters, each of of the characters in the film exhibiting charm at some point or other.  Cliched ,perhaps but the tactic works.  Natalie eventually wins the audience over, thanks to the subtly manipulative script by Bonnie Fairweather and Kathleen Hepburn.

The character of Natalie’s plump roommate, Chante (Michelle McLeod, DON’T TALK TO IRENE) always needs mention.  This is one person who has trouble fitting into the world.  When Natalie shows up, Change pictures her as the perfect saviour.  At first the two are at loggerheads, but they eventually bond together.

HONEY BEE works well foremost because director Rau tells the story in a straight forward fashion in chronological order.  Many directors would have opted for more style with a non-linear story telling that one becomes annoying hard to follow.  Director believes in the material and lets it workouts magic.

HONEY BELL ends up a little predictable coming-of-age story not only of Natalie but also of her roommate.  The film, based on solid script transformed into a well directed film, ends up charming the audience because of its endearing characters.  

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

Film Review: BEFORE YOU KNOW IT (USA 2019) ***

Before You Know It Poster
Clip

A pair of sisters find out that the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Director:

Hannah Pearl Utt

Warning that BEFORE YOU KNOW it is almost totally a feminist movie.  When the film opens, two women are seen making small talk as they cross streets before one of them, the protagonist, Rachel Gurner (Hannah Pearl Utt) stops outside her place of residence, an apartment above a theatre.  The two women share an intimate kiss.  Rachel returns home where the audience sees she lives with her sister Jackie (Jen Tullock) and niece, Dodge (Oona Yaffe).  Jackie is complete opposite from rachel, who is the more stable one.  The only male in the picture is the father Mel (Mandy Patinkin) who is comically passed on so that the women’s world is complete.  As if there are not enough females in the story, the sisters learn that their supposed deceased mother is alive.  They seek to find her.  BEFORE YOU KNOW IT strangely enough has got no director credits just writing credits for both actresses Tullock and Pearl Utt.

Even the dialogue emphasizes ‘women’.  Example is the only line of dialogue uttered by the mother: “I have a very low tolerance for controlling men.  I will run screaming the other way.” The daughter’s response. “I feel exactly the very same way.”  There are only controlling women in this movie.

The dialogue is very New York City’s as evident from the ladies’ small talk at the film’s start.  The target audience for the film is thus quite narrow.  Audiences not in theatre or live in the city would find it difficult to relate and connect with the characters.

The film picks up a little when the sisters finally find and meet their long-lost mother who is a thriving soap-opera star.  She is quite the personality. But no one can beat Jackie who is hilariously running around with big bunting boobies.

Director Utt elicits family dysfunction with ease.  The trouble is that she does not know what to do with it.  Mother and Jackie are both equally weird while Rachel is the more rational one.  Utt’s film is extremely talky so expect to be listening to dialogue from start to finish, more than what normal people articulate to each other.

It is difficult to sympathize with the three women when they all behave as if the each suffer from PTSD.  It one thing in one instant and another the next.

As they say in moviemaking, make films about subjects one is familiar with.  Director Utt looks extremely comfortable as her film sails merrily towards its ending.  Trouble is that nothing much really happens not to mention the co-out happy ending that has nothing much to do with the street hand except to bookend the activities.  If only one could say the film ends BEFORE YOU CAN KNOW IT.

BEFORE YOU KNOW IT caters to a select target audience.  So as they say, one man’s or woman’s meat os another woman’s poison.  Myself, I am tolerant with these kind of films, though I find the exercise  boring and un-affecting.  So the rating of 3 stars would apply for the film’s target audience – mostly the old term yuppie female.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj3pOkFWFBI

Film Review: KUNG FU LEAGUE (HK 2018)

Kung Fu League Poster
Fei Ying Xiong, an indigent comic book artist, is romantically interested in Bao’er, but the head manager of their company, who also has a interest in Bao’er, prevents that from happening. … See full summary »

Director:

Jeffrey Lau

Aptly titled KUNG FU LEAGUE director Jeffrey Lau’s Kung Fu comedy action extravaganza hopes to capitalize on the success of the Justice League Hollywood blockbuster.  The league in the reviewed film is comprised of 4 well-known martial-arts heroes (at least to the Chinese).  They are: Wong Fei Hung (Vincent Zhao), Wing Chun champion Ip Man (Dennis To), martial artist Huo Yuan Jia (Andy On) and fictional character Chen Zhen, who was played by Bruce Lee in Fist Of Fury (Danny Chan).  Western audiences will recognize Bruce Lee and maybe IP Man, from the IP Man films, a total 4 in all.

The story centres on super geek Fei Yingxiong (Ashin Shu), a comic artist who is in love with his colleague, Bao Er (Madina Mamet.)  This love is the catalyst of the troubles that bring into his present time the 4 Kung Fu experts.  Bao Er is also fancied by silly acting Zhang Peng (Steven Zhang), the President of the company that Yingxiong works at.  Frustrated, Yingxiong makes a wish, summoning the masters on his birthday.

So the four masters are summoned.  The film takes a while for the 4 to figure out what is going on and that they have ‘time travelled’.  The film takes even more time for the 4 to meet with Yingxiong, which is the purpose of the summonin g.  So Yingxiong trains with the 4 with the sincere hope of winning over the girl of his dreams.  Whether he does so or how he actually does will not be revealed in this review.

The trouble with this plot is that the silly romance is insufficient a reason for the film to have any urgency.  There is romance betrayal and a kung fu competition at the end.  The fight scenes are well choreographed, most notable being the one at the film’s start in the pouring rain.

Lau’s film is action slapstick but do not expect the madcap antics found in Stephen Chow’s classic 2004 KUNGFU HUSTLE.  The comedy and laughs all nowhere close.  At best, KUNG FU LEAGUE is good for a few chuckles.  Though the premise of the film is superior, Lao lacks Chow’s madcap sense of humour and fast camerawork, though Lau has made comedic hits like ALL FOR THE WINNER and ANOTHER PANDORA’S BOX.

So with the most well-known characters of Chinese martial arts saga, each portrayed by a promising young action star, and putting them on screen together in a comedy-action blockbuster looks like a good idea but here proves that good ideas do not always workout.  The film will still entertain Kung Fu fans and the not so demanding viewer.  

The film is available on digital, VOD, DVD and Blu-Ray September 17th, 2019.  The video and film are released by Well Go USA Home Entertainment that specializes in a lot of commercial Chinese and Hong Kong movies.  They have a lot of other titles that are worth a look at.

Trailer: Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ny72LxO_oKA

Film Review: AD ASTRA (USA 2019) ***1/2

Ad Astra Poster
Trailer

Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

Director:

James Gray

The concept of AD ASTRA began with director James Gray’s (THE YARDS, THE LOST CITY OF Z) idea which he announced in 2016 of making a  realistic depiction of a space travel movie.  The baby of both Gray who co-wrote, produced and directed and star Brad Pitt who also share producing credits, AD ASTRA is a very serious, if not always realistic depiction of a space movie.  For example, there is one scene where astronaut Roy McBride (Pitt) closes the hatch of his spaceship in the deeps of outer space and the audience can still hear the latch bang shut when one clearly knows that there is no sound in the vacuum of outer space.  But some minor complaints aside, AD ASTRA lives up to Gray’s ambition.  AD ASTRA has so far been positively reviewed by film critics and is quite a serious and authentically looking space drama.  Note that this is not an action movie but a thriller that plays around with other classic space movies.

Astronaut Roy McBride travels to the outer edges of the Solar System to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones) and unravel a mystery that threatens the survival of humans on Earth.  A surge has been received from the Neptune project near Neptune where the father had worked.  The surge might destroy earth and all in it.  Roy’s journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and its place in the cosmos.

To list a couple of important space moves in the past, Gray’s AD ASTRA draws from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and GRAVITY while sharing common traits with APOCALYPSE NOW and his LOST CITY OF Z.

Gray attempts to show the marvels of space technology as in Kubrick’s 2001.  The modern look of the spaceship including its exterior shots are stunning, thanks to the expensive production design.  The rest mishap with the unexpected surge takes place on the exterior of a space antenna is one fo the film’s most exciting scenes.  There are not that many, but when they arrive, they are a knock-out.  The zero-gravity and the re-entering into the spaceship share common thrill elements with Cuaron’s GRAVITY.  Gray’s zero gravity fight with the two battlers tumbling around is a new set-up not seen (or seldom seen) before.  The crazy and obsessive father in AD ASTRA reminds one immediately of the Marlon Brando character in Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW and the traveller IN LOST CITY that lost himself reminds one of the protagonist in AD ASTRA.

The story is somewhat predictable with it set primarily on astronaut Roy McBride and his human condition.  For most part of the film, Roy is in acceptable psychological state but when he goes into ager mode, he is in trouble.  Director Gary anchors his story on Roy’s mental state.  There is little information provided on Roys personal life, with his wife played by Liv Tyler showing up for just a brief token moment.

Credit to 20th Century Fox on financing an thinking adult space movie.  It is a big gamble and hopefully it will do well at the box-office with Brad Pitt’s name to help.  Disney that bought Fox have expressed concerns on Fox’s slate of movies on making money like this one and Fox’s upcoming FORD V FERRARI. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykC_wu6ffOU