Archive for October, 2013

ENDER’S GAME: 3 ½ STARS. “complicated and timely view of the importance of honor.”

Enders-Game-tease“Ender’s Game” is jam packed with boffo special effects that bring its epic battle scenes to life, but the film isn’t really about that. It’s about empathy in a world that is in dire need of compassion and as such its best effect is in the clear blue eyes of its teenaged star Asa Butterfield.

The young actor—best known as the lead in “Hugo”—is physically slight to be playing a leader of men, but his piercing eyes suggest he has the strength and determination to be all he can be.

Based on a bestselling 1985 novel by  Orson Scott Card, the story begins fifty years after Earth was almost annihilated by alien invaders called the Formics. Only the efforts of a brave fighter pilot named Mazer Rackham saved the planet, and in the subsequent years the army has been training recruits to take his place.

The program, lead by the hard-as-vanadium Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), focuses on videogame playing kids with lightening fast reactions and cognitive skills. Ender Wiggins (Butterfield) is a superstar among the best and the brightest, a young man who thinks tactically but has a complicated relationship with authority.

Through a series of ever escalating simulations the ruthless Graff trains Ender and his team—Hailee Steinfeld, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha and Conor Carroll—to become the last line of defense against the Formics and in doing so prevent all future wars.

There are obvious bloodlines connecting “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games” to “Ender’s Game”—warrior kids with special powers—but a crucial element is missing. For as much time as they spend setting up Ender’s backstory, the cold father and violent brother that feed his problem with authority, by the time we get to the huge battle scenes (with villains we never meet) there doesn’t seem to be that much at stake.

We’re told the future of the human race depends on Ender’s actions, but the film doesn’t have the urgency to pull off its bombastic finale.

What it does have, however, is a complicated and timely view of the importance of honor, the value of state sanctioned violence and its desensitizing effect on Ender.  That complexity is reflected in Butterfield’s eyes.

“Ender’s Game” has an old school feel to it, valuing the ideas of tolerance and diversity over the flash of the effects, but doesn’t quite find the balance necessary to truly succeed as a sci fi epic, although it’s almost worth the price of admission to see Harrison Ford float, Sandra Bullock style, through a space shuttle.

In it’s core cast the movie presents a diverse vision of the future, interesting given the troubling anti-gay politics of its author Orson Scott Card—he suggests gay rights is a “collective delusion” and gay marriage shouldn’t be legal—that more fits the Gene Roddenberry’s utopian cultural image of the future than you would expect from someone who also wrote an essay titled The Hypocrites of Homosexuality.

So, for me, “Ender’s Game” is a judge the art and not the artist situation. The movie works well. There’s a bit too much repetition in the early scenes—we get the backstory of the original Formic assault three times in the first twenty minutes—but perhaps the film’s positive messages of tolerance, compassion and understanding will drown out the less open-minded views of Card’s other work.

LAST VEGAS: 1 ½ STARS. “content to coast along on the reputations of its stars.”

LAST-VEGAS-PosterSome will find “Last Vegas,” the new all-star Ovaltine comedy, charming and funny.

Others, like me, may be put in the mind of “A Christmas Carol” with the cast—Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline—as the Geriatric Ghosts of What is Yet to Come, providing a terrifying glimpse into the future filled with titanium hips, pill organizers and dinner parties that begin at 4:15 pm.

The Flatbush Four, a quartet of Brooklyn buddies, have been friends since childhood. They now live in different parts of the country, but for the most part the bond they formed on the block fifty-eight years ago is still as strong as the Marlboros they once stole from the corner store. When the deeply-tanned Billy (Douglas) announces his marriage to a much younger woman, Archie (Freeman), Sam (Kline) and Paddy (De Niro) throw him a bachelor party in Vegas. “We’re here to celebrate Billy’s marriage to an infant,” says Archie.

Time has taken its toll on their lives and relationships. The highlight of Archie’s day is organizing his medication, Sam is romantically restless and Paddy is in mourning for his late wife. Complicating things is Paddy’s resentment toward his former best friend Billy.

Friendly faults aside, the four wrangle high roller status, hook up with an obliging saloon singer (Mary Steenburgen) and try to party like it’s 1959.

Imagine a mix of “The Hangover” and “Grumpy Old Men” and you’ll get an idea of the tone of “Last Vegas.” It’s almost two hours of old codger jokes—“The first bachelor party to be covered by Medicare!”—but without the tigers and Mike Tyson set against the glitz of Sin City.

The main enjoyment here comes from watching the headliners create chemistry between their characters given a script that has as much nuance as a game of Keno.

Kevin Kline has most of the funny lines and delivers them well—mistaking Curtis Jackson for a member of the Jackson 5 is funny, a bit of slapstick with a straw, not as much. The rest of the guys make the best of it, gamely strolling through the script on the way to pick up their pay cheques.

The problem with ”Last Vegas” isn’t with the performances—the above the title actors share five acting Oscars among them and Steenburgen won one for “Melvin and Howard”—it’s with a predictable script that takes no chances. No stereotype is left unturned. Dirty old man, check. May-December romance, check. Advice spewing wise old man, check. Viagara joke, check. It’s all here and more, but the movie is content to coast along on the reputations of its stars.

FREE BIRDS: 2 ½ STARS. “will kids gobble up the pro-Tofurky message?”

Free-Birds-Trailer-8“Thanksgiving is a turkey’s worst nightmare.” So says Reggie (voice of Owen Wilson), an outcast turkey who has never been part of the flock.

This year, however, Reggie has much to be thankful for. On the eve of Thanksgiving he is pardoned by the president, and taken to Camp David where he leads a life of luxury, watching TV and ordering in pizzas.

Reggie is in turkey heaven until a wild turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson), the leader (and only member), of the Turkey Freedom Front, kidnaps him, babbling a wild story about the Great Turkey and a magic doorknob. Jake’s plan is to use a top secret egg shaped time machine to travel back to Plymouth Colony in 1621, just days before the first Thanksgiving, and take turkey off the menu.

PETA will likely approve of “Free Birds” pro-Tofurky message (and just in time for American Thanksgiving) but will the kids gobble up “Free Birds”?

They’ll probably enjoy the turkey characters and the cute little fuzzball chicks are guaranteed to make little voices go “Ahhhh,” but story wise “Free Birds” is as dry as Aunt Mable’s overdone turkey. There are good lessons about being part of the flock and learning about confidence, but the story feels drawn out to feature length.

The voice work is solid. Harrelson, Wilson and Amy Poehler do confident work, and George Takei amps it up as the voice of the time machine, but despite the headline voices, many of the jokes fall flat, plucked of the impact by long awkward “Family Guy” style pauses that don’t work as well for an audience full of kids as they do for adults.

Compared to many recent animated kid’s films—or even Angry Birds for that matter—“Free Birds” feels average, like a flightless bird trying to soar with the Pixars of the genre.

ABOUT TIME: 3 STARS. “Rachel McAdams gets a time travel romance right!”

video-undefined-1BA4E07F000005DC-49_637x367The time travel in “About Time,” a new rom com starring Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, is what Alfred Hitchcock would have called the McGuffin. It’s the thing that drives the movie’s plot but ultimately isn’t that important to the story.

When Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) turned 21 his father (Bill Nighy) lets him in on a family secret—he comes from a long line of time travellers. “We can go back and kill Hitler,” or shag Helen of Troy,” explains dad, they can simply go back to the recent history and make minor changes.

With visions of inter-dimensional travel in his head he does what any twenty-one year might do. Use his unique ability to get a girlfriend. The object of his affections is Mary (Rachel McAdams), but to win her over he’ll have to use his special gift to hone his Casanova skills.

As they live their lives together, however, he comes to discover that not everything can be solved with a quick trip back in time.

“About Time” is the kind of movie critics will call sappy and sentimental. They’ll bash it because it wears its heart on its sleeve, which is exactly the reason I liked it.

After “The Time Traveller’s Wife” it’s time Rachel McAdams got a time travel romance right!

It’s a silly premise but for me the idea wasn’t about the time travel but the lessons Tim learns while jumping dimensions about life and happiness. It is sweetly romantic, but it plays better as a comedy about family than a rom com or sci fi farce mainly because of its unlikely and charming leading man.

If John Hughes had made British films he would have loved this guy. He does have a bad haircut, but I thought he was a charming, if unlikely, leading man. He has a way with a line and I felt there was a real arc to his character. He literally grows up and becomes a man on screen, which is something you don’t see in rom coms very often.

“About Time” is a bit labored at times, but McAdams is an engaging presence, Nighy is warm and odd and Richard E. Grant, who is only on screen for three minutes manages to steal the show with a beautifully timed slow burn.

DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB: 4 ½ STARS. “an emotional drama that never stoops to melodrama.”

hr_Dallas_Buyers_Club_5Matthew McConaughey plays Ronnie Woodruff a rough and tumble Texan oilrig electrician who is diagnosed with HIV. In 1985 this is a death sentence and his doctor matter-of-factly tells him he has only thirty days to live. His first reaction is denial, and for several of the precious days he wallows, doing drugs and drinking.

A second visit to the hospital, this time hoping for a cure, he sees Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) in hopes of buying some AZT, an HIV drug seeking approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Turned down, he leaves, the words, “Screw the FDA, I’m gonna be DOA,” hanging in the doctor’s office.

His search for a cure—or at least something to make him feel better—leads to Mexico and a non-FDA approved holistic approach to controlling his symptoms. With the help of cross-dresser Rayon (Jared Leto), he establishes the Dallas Buyer’s Club, an exclusive arrangement where customers buy a $400 monthly membership in return for unlimited access to Woodruff’s stash of illegal but effective vitamins and concoctions.

His operation soon catches the attention of the local law enforcement and the FDA so Woodruff must step up his efforts to keep his club open.

Based on a true story, “Dallas Buyer’s Club” raises many questions regarding a person’s right to treat terminal illness in whatever way they see fit. It’s a David and Goliath story with Woodruff battling against bureaucracy and big pharma to extend his life and the lives of his customers.

At the core are dual powerhouse performances from McConaughey and Leto. They play polar opposites, bound by a disease that neither understands. Woodruff is brash, obnoxious, quick to anger but obsessed with finding answers. McConaughey, who is startlingly thin here, leaves behind the movie star grin that made him a star and relies on the acting chops that have kept him in the top tier.

Rayon is troubled, a drug addict with a heart of gold. Leto delivers a heartbreaking performance that will make you wish he’d find a way to balance his creative life between his band 30 Seconds to Mars and his acting with more emphasis on making movies.

They spend much time together on screen, but it is one quick, wordless embrace that is their most effective moment. It’s a poignant and totally earned tear jerking scene that illustrates their bond and Woodruff’s slow change from selfish redneck to altruistic man.

In “Dallas Buyer’s Club” Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has made an emotional drama that never stoops to melodrama. Instead it’s an inspirational film about standing up for what you believe in.

DIANA: 1 STAR. “It flits through time like a distracted tse tse fly.”

Naomi Watts as DianaDuring her lifetime, and for many years afterward, Diana Spencer was the most famous woman in the world. Compared to Lady Di’s worldwide twinkle notorious bright lights like Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna seemed dim by comparison.

She led a tumultuous life, cut short at age 36 in a tunnel in Paris. She became legend, the stuff of Elton John songs and now a movie, starring Naomi Watts, details the years she was separated from Prince Charles.

“Diana” is a romance about a woman in an impossible circumstance falling in love and trying to reboot her life.

According to the film Diana’s attraction to heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) was love at first sight. He’s a bit of a rogue–a surgeon who smokes–and a philosopher–“You don’t perform an operation,” he says, “it performs you.”–who takes himself and his job very seriously.

He loves Diana, but her fame interferes with the focus he needs for his job (SPOILER ALERT, BUT ONLY IF YOU HAVEN’T READ A NEWSPAPER OR MAGAZINE IN TWENTY YEARS) which complicates their already complicated lives.

Eventually, despite Diana’s assertion that “I’m a princess, I get what I want,” he breaks up with her and she finds solace and her fate in the arms of another man, Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar).

“Diana” plays like a Cole’s Notes of Diana’s last years. It flits through time like a distracted tse tse fly, jumping from one unsatisfying scene to the next. I would imagine the choppiness is supposed to create a sense of the chaos that swirled around Diana, but instead it acts as a disjointed and extended montage.

There are moments that hit the mark. “I’m having a great time,” she says, sitting alone in an opera house, when it is clear she is not. Those moments reveal much about living a life once removed from reality but they are rare in a movie that seems content with skimming the surface.

Combine that with AMAZINGLY clunky dialogue, some supposition—it suggests Dodi Fayed was little more than a pawn to make Hazenat jealous—and the idea that Diana was a manipulator of the media that killed her and you have a film that plays like a “National Enquirer” exposé with better pictures.

THE MAN OF TAI CHI: 3 STARS. “fun genre movie that pays tribute to the past.”

55282Fight fans will salivate at the re-teaming of Keanu Reeves and the man who created some of the most memorable fight scenes ever. Choreographer Yuen Woo-ping brings the same physical pyrotechnics to “The Man of Tai Chi” as he did to “The Matrix,” but this time there’s no blue or red pills or metaphysical mumbo jumbo, just fist-to-the-face action wrapped around a story about honor and bloodlust.

Linhu (Tiger Chen) is a Bejing courier and practitioner of a form of tai chi called Ling Kong, which means “Empty your spirit.” He is a keen but impatient student whose master is constantly instructing to slow down.

Tai Chi is not usually used for fighting but Tiger Chen wants to prove it can be useful for more than just exercise. He gets the chance to showoff his skills when he is recruited by high rolling businessman Donaka Mark (Reeves) to fight in his underground (and illegal) fight club.

“No referees, no rules, real fighting, man to man,” says Mark. Linhu justifies the increasingly brutal nature of the fights by giving the money he earns to his master to pay for badly needed renovations to his ancient and crumbling temple.

Soon though, Linhu fights his biggest battle yet, an internal struggle between his pacifist teachings and his newly developed violent impulses.

With “The Man of Tai Chi” director Reeves has made an entertaining genre movie that pays tribute to the past with a traditional story about honor and the discipline of martial arts. He’s thrown in a curveball or two, but it is essentially possible to draw a straight line between this story–in Chinese with subtitles–and the great kung fu movies of Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers.

Not that it kicks as high as Lee’s movies. The fight scenes are fun, particularly a wild strobe lit sequence, but, agile as Tiger Chen is, he’s nit nearly as charismatic as many if those who have come before him. He’s a fearsome but slightly dull presence.

Reeves can’t be called dull, but he hands in a performance so stoic he’s just a step or two removed from statue status. It’s a strange performance, but nonetheless, he’s effectively evil.

“The Man of Tai Chi” is a good martial arts film, probably best seen on a grindhouse theatre screen as a double bill with “Game of Death.”

‘The Exorcist’ still turns heads at 40 By Katie McLaughlin, CNN

131031040800-exorcist-1-horizontal-gallery“The Exorcist” was released 40 years ago to great fanfare.

“This film, when it came out, lived at the very center of popular culture,” film critic and author Richard Crouse told CNN. “It was the only thing that people talked about. The speed of popular culture wasn’t as fast as it is now. Even a big hit like ‘Gravity,’ people are excited for a week, excited for two weeks, and then it fades away until awards season comes around. But it wasn’t like that in 1973. This movie, for a year, really inked out all available entertainment space.”

Crouse, author of the book “Raising Hell,” recalled “stories about people throwing up at screenings…

Read the whole thing HERE!


Richard’s “Canada AM” walk through of the exhibit David Cronenberg: Evolution

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 4.39.24 PMRichard’s interview with David Cronenberg and his Canada AM walk through of the exhibit David Cronenberg: Evolution. 

Watch the whole thing HERE!

Launching November 1 in the HSBC Gallery at TIFF Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s first major original exhibition, David Cronenberg: Evolution, parallels David Cronenberg’s evolution as a filmmaker with his longstanding fascination with the possibilities and perils of human evolution itself. Curated by TIFF Director & CEO Piers Handling and Artistic Director Noah Cowan, and divided into three major sections that provide a loosely chronological overview of Cronenberg’s career, the exhibition traces the development of the director’s evolutionary themes across his filmography through more than sixty original artifacts, visionary designs, and rare and unseen footage.