John Rabe

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4
August 26th, 2014 No comments

John Rabe, 2009, France/China/Germany

John Rabe is not a name that is particularly well known to most North Americans. Indeed, I hadn’t heard of him before doing research into this film prior to watching it. John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) was a Siemens employee working in Nanking in late 1937. He was a member of the Nazi party and due to return home to Germany when the Nanking Massacre begins. Rabe ushers Chinese employees and other civilians onto the factory grounds under a Nazi flag, where the Japanese airplanes will not bomb. Rabe reluctantly becomes the leader of an initiative to create the Nanking Safety Zone, a plan that was proposed by Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Brühl), a German-Jewish diplomat. He works closely with Rosen, Dr. Robert O. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), an American doctor who dislikes Rabe for his loyalty to Hitler, and Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny), the director of an International Girls’ College. Together they must run the Nanking Safety Zone, negotiate with Japanese personnel, and keep the Chinese refugees safe at a very perilous time in human history.

Rabe, and his fellow committee members were all heroes who were able to save over 200,000 lives. The film never shies away from Rabe’s faults – he was initially very reluctant to act as the leader of the committee, and he is a member of the Nazi party, even writing Hitler personally for help stopping the Japanese army from killing Chinese citizens in Nanking. This scene was purposefully uncomfortable, as it relies on the audience’s knowledge of history, and the fact that Hitler clearly wouldn’t care about what the Japanese army is up to, given that he commits his own genocide a few short years later. In some respects, it reminded me a Schindler’s List – both films are about businessmen members of the Nazi party saving lives using their influence and connections.

Tukur was wonderful in the title role. Some of my favourite scenes were the ones where he and Buscemi butted heads. Both characters were simply too alike and too stubborn, but it was a joy to see their relationship evolve over the course of the film. Brühl was excellent as Dr. Rosen, who often acts as the sole calm-head and voice of reason in the film.

Another thing this film touches on, is the fact that the Nanking Massacre is still debated and even denied in Japan to this day. Despite the fact that there is eyewitness testimony from a great many people, there is a minority of people in Japan who deny it happened, or deny the scale of it, including politicians. This is horrifying. John Rabe was actually never released in Japan, despite being about a period of Japanese history.

John Rabe was a wonderful film about an important piece of history, and is available for purchase on Amazon.

Short Term 12

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
August 23rd, 2014 No comments

Short Term 12, 2013, USA

Grace (Brie Larson) is the supervisor at a group home called Short Term 12. She maintains an aura of strength, but deep down, she is struggling with experiences from her past. She lives with her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), a colleague of hers. One day, a young woman named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) comes to stay at the group home. Jayden swears that she will not be at the facility for long, and that her father will pick her up. Grace sees herself in Jayden, and tries to get to know her and get her to open up to her.

Short Term 12 is a moving and painfully honest look at the lives of children who have been forgotten by much of society. The work Grace and Mason do is thankless, and requires dedication and passion. Each of the young people in the facility are developed, and have their own troubles. It’s often bleak, but director Destin Daniel Cretton refuses to shy away from the difficult subject matter.

Larson is wonderful as Grace. Her story is told in pieces throughout the film, but from the opening moments of the film, you can tell that she is a troubled and damaged soul. Life has not been easy for her, but she works hard to make life a little bit better for the kids she cares for. I had great admiration for Grace’s strength and ability to make something beautiful out of something so terrible. How did Larson not receive more acclaim for her incredible performance?

The ending of the film is a little bit too neat and tidy given the subject matter of the film, and the events that occurred before it. However, Cretton wants the audience to leave the film with a feeling of hope. Both Grace and Mason serve as inspirations throughout the film.

Short Term 12 was definitely an emotional film, but it is beautifully written, and inspiring. It’s now available on Netflix.

A Friend of Mine

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
August 20th, 2014 No comments

A Friend of Mine, 2006, Germany

Karl (Daniel Brühl) is a quiet and rather dreary insurance executive. His boss assigns him the task of working at a car rental agency for research purposes. At this job, he meets Hans (Jürgen Vogel), a free-spirited and very chatty man. Karl initially finds Hans irritating, but Hans is persistent, and invites him home to meet his girlfriend, Stelle (Sabine Timoteo). Despite being complete opposites, Karl and Hans become friends – a friendship that isn’t tempered when it becomes clear that Karl is attracted to Stelle.

Throughout the film, Karl and Hans bond over their mutual love of cars. They work together driving cars from place to place for the agency, so they’re given the opportunity to drive some pretty nice vehicles. The film showcases Germany’s car culture, which, admittedly, I know very little about. Heck, I know nothing about cars in general – my knowledge of cars can be summed up by this little Simpsons clip.

Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed the film. I think everyone has had the experience of meeting someone you find initially off-putting, only to find them worming their way into your heart. Hans was certainly a “high impact” character – one that I definitely found a bit off-putting at first, but he was warm, and kind of sweet. It’s so easy to write exceedingly kind people off as being naïve or out of touch – something that is covered in the film.

Vogel was excellent as Hans. It would have been quite easy to be a bit too over-the-top, and slip into being consistently annoying, but he manages to balance the line between obnoxious and charming. Brühl was wonderful as Karl – the straight man in the film, and the one the audience is meant to relate to. That’s not to say he wasn’t funny as well – there was a scene where Karl was placed in a rather unfortunate position at the airport that had me howling with laughter. He was excellent comedic timing. And, as an actor, he’s just as good at playing the “straight man” roles as he is at playing the “larger than life” type of characters. His range is just incredible, and it’s really a shame that much of his work is so hard to find here in North America.

I loved the film. It won’t be an easy one to find here in Canada, unfortunately, but it’s worth watching if you can track down a copy of it.


Movie Rating:
August 17th, 2014 No comments

Aladdin, 1992, USA

I saw Aladdin many times as a child, and revisited it when I was about 18-years-old. Then, I found I didn’t particularly care for it. I found Aladdin (Scott Weinger) to be a bit of a brat. However, I’ve always loved Robin Williams’ brilliant portrayal of the Genie.

After Williams’ tragic death, I decided that it was time to give Aladdin another shot. I found the movie to be rather dull before the Genie entered the scene, but once he was around, things livened up considerably. The vast majority of his performance was ad-libbed, and it was pure Williams comedy. I found myself laughing hysterically. So, the film was certainly more enjoyable to me now than it was when I was 18, and the sole credit for this is Williams. I’d still probably rate Aladdin as my least favourite of the Disney Renaissance era films.

That being said, in the wake of Williams’ death, Aladdin is very much worth revisiting. He created an iconic character, and the fact that it was all ad-libbed and improvised just speaks to his genius as a comic.

Growing up, Williams was one of the first actors I found myself recognizing in movies. I knew that he voiced the Genie, and I knew that he was very, very funny. As a child, I watched Jumanji countless times, and my family and I went to go see Jack, Flubber, Patch Adams, and Bicentennial Man in theatres. As an adult, I’ve seen that he can be a wonderful dramatic actor in films such as Good Will Hunting. And – Williams starred in one of my favourite cult films, Death to Smoochy. This film was widely panned by critics and bombed at the box office, but it does have a cult appeal now. I’ve seen it several times and I laugh hysterically every time I watch it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot, and you may love it – it has some of the blackest comedy I’ve ever seen.

I feel sad to have to write this blog post. Depression is such a terrible thing, and I hope his family and loved ones can find peace and privacy in the coming weeks, months, and years. Thank you for the laughs, the tears, and the entertainment Mr. Williams. RIP.


Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 2.5
August 14th, 2014 No comments

Intruders, 2011, USA/UK/Spain

I dislike horror films, save for horror films featuring zombies. I’m admittedly quite skittish and wimpy, and generally find them to be an uncomfortable experience. That being said, I sucked it up for two hours and watched this one.

John Farrow (Clive Owen) is a loving father to his daughter, Mia (Ella Purnell). On her birthday, Ella discovers a letter in the woods referencing a mysterious being named Hollow Face, and reading it unleashes him on Mia. She’s haunted, and eventually assaulted in their home, but only John and Mia can see him. At the same time, in Madrid, a young boy named Juan (Izan Corchero) and his mother (Pilar López de Ayala) are haunted by Hollow Face and seek the help of a young priest (Daniel Brühl).

The film actually wasn’t particularly scary – it plays out closer to a thriller than a horror film. If I’m going to watch a horror movie, I would appreciate at least a few scares. And it’s not even hard to scare me – I’m about the most skittish person alive! So if I’m bored by your supposed scares, you’re doing something wrong.

In fact, the first half hour is downright dull, save for the opening moments of the film. The slow beginning of the film was meant to give the audience a chance to get to know the characters, but I felt that it was a waste of time, for the most part, and the same probably could have been achieved in about 15 minutes.

Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo wrote and directed the excellent 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to 28 Days Later (perhaps the only horror film I’ve watched repeatedly). It’s a shame that Intruders, for the most part, wasn’t particularly good. Owen and Brühl were very good in their respective roles, but they were stuck with fairly weak material. And, admittedly, I wouldn’t have watched the film in the first place if Brühl wasn’t in it – I’m a huge fan of his work.

The climax of the film was sloppily done, though the actual message of the film was rather interesting and surprisingly insightful, given the mess of everything before it. There was certainly potential there, but ultimately an interesting premise and good ideas are wasted by blandness and weak writing.

Intruders is available to rent on Apple TV.

The Five-Year Engagement

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
August 10th, 2014 No comments

The Five-Year Engagement, 2012, USA

Tom (Jason Siegel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) are newly engaged and planning their wedding. At their engagement party, Violet’s sister, Suzie (Alison Brie) and Tom’s best friend, Alex (Chris Pratt) sleep together and end up expecting a child. Tom and Violet delay their wedding, and Violet ends up getting a position at the University of Michigan. In Michigan, Violet’s career soars, while Tom struggles to find a place for himself. As their wedding plans continually get shuffled, Tom and Violet’s relationship suffers.

Siegel and Blunt have excellent chemistry together. Blunt has excellent comedic timing. Their characters are well-rounded. Both contribute to the problems in the relationship, and I appreciated that the blame was not solely on either one of them.

What I liked about the film was how realistic and insightful it was. It’s a comedy, directed by Nicholas Stoller, so I was expecting something a bit more outrageous, admittedly. Sure, there were some over-the-top moments played for laughs, but it was an often painfully realistic look at the struggles of relationships. When one partner is successful and the other isn’t, that can create friction in the relationship, as we see in the film. Other issues are depicted as well: a lack of meaningful communication, and a lack of honesty with one another. I’d argue that the long engagement was the least of their problems: it merely makes for a catchy title and premise.

The film does have its issues, though. Like pretty much every film produced by Judd Apatow, it’s too damn long. It’s slightly over 2 hours long, which is ridiculous for a film like this one. It drags terribly in the middle, and a good half hour, or even 15 minutes could have been compressed. The filmmakers were trying to show the audience the issues in the relationship and emphasize just how unhappy Tom is in Michigan, but they didn’t need an hour to do this!

The Five-Year Engagement was a lot of fun, despite an overly lengthy running time. It’s now available on Netflix.

Lila, Lila

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3.5
August 7th, 2014 No comments

Lila, Lila, 2009, Germany

David Kern (Daniel Brühl) is a soft-spoken and slightly awkward waiter. He’s invisible, both by nature of his occupation, and his own personality. He is terribly infatuated with Marie (Hannah Herzsprung), a literature student who frequents the restaurant he works at. At Marie’s prompting, David purchases a nightstand at a flea market, and forces open the jammed drawer, finding an unpublished manuscript. Desperate to impress Marie, David gives it to her, passing it off as his own work. Marie loves it and sends it to a publisher, where it is soon published, and David is an immediate literary sensation. He soon draws the attention of the author of the novel (Henry Hübchen). Jacky is a crass alcoholic, who is not interested in revealing the truth to the public, but is eagerto manage every aspect of David’s growing fame, which leads to tension between David and Marie.

Lila, Lila is a humourous look at the literary world, and the notion that a particular story can be sweet and delightful if it is perceived to be written by one author, but cliché and dated if perceived to be written by another. The novel is lauded as a post-modern work of art because it is set in the 50s, and credited to a young man.

And, of course, the film is a romantic comedy, but it does not follow many of the clichés that damn most contemporary romantic comedies. For one thing, the story is told from a male perspective – something that’s not particularly common in romantic comedies. I have noticed that is changing, however, which I appreciate, because it’s recognition that male feelings, and men falling is love is just as compelling. Male-fronted romantic comedies also tend to be a bit more appealing to male audiences (See: The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Crazy, Stupid, Love.).

Brühl, as always, was wonderful as David. He made an admittedly invisible character shine, and, despite the moral misgivings of stealing a manuscript and publishing it as your own, you can’t help but root for everything to turn out well for him. In one scene in particular – David’s first reading, I was crying from laughing so hard. It was truly genius work. Herzsprung did fine work as Marie, even if I didn’t find the character herself to be particularly likable at times (something the film cleverly acknowledges). I really loved Hübchen as Jacky, who was an absolutely despicable character – but also one that was incredibly fun to watch.

The ending was a little bit abrupt, and could have done with a few more minutes of lead-up. However, Lila, Lila takes a common premise and tells a wonderfully funny and engaging story. It was just released on DVD with English subtitles here in North America, so track it down on Amazon if you’re interested in watching it.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
August 4th, 2014 No comments

Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014, USA

Marvel has shown us time and time again that they have a solid plan for their many franchises. It’s hard to imagine another film studio making a film featuring a walking and talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a humanoid tree (Vin Diesel). But the gamble paid off: Guardians of the Galaxy is fantastic fun, and one of the best franchise debuts Marvel has done yet.

Peter Quill, who calls himself Star Lord (Chris Pratt) has been traveling through space with Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his band of Ravagers since his mother’s death many years before. He is tasked with stealing a mysterious orb, but draws attention to himself in the process. A Kree named Ronan (Lee Pace) wants to bring the orb to Thanos (Josh Brolin) in exchange for the destruction of Xandar. Peter is tracked down by Gamora (Zoe Saldana) who looks to keep the orb from Ronan, as well as by Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel), bounty hunters who want to return Peter to Yondu. After being thrown in prison, the four of them meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a man who seeks vengeance against Ronan for the death of his family. The five of them must figure out how to work together to protect the orb and stop Ronan.

Guardians of the Galaxy is full of charm, humour, and heart. Pratt is perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the lovable loser who discovers his heart and learns how to be a hero in the process. Our heroes are misfits, but this makes it even more satisfying whenever they manage to succeed over the course of the film. Cooper did a beautiful job voicing Rocket. He has the comedic timing necessary for the character, as well as the ability to sound intimidating. Diesel brings a surprising amount of heart to Groot – even more amazing, since Groot is only capable of saying “I am Groot”. And Bautista was surprisingly good as Drax.

The film makes use of pop culture references and music from the 70s and 80s. The music is cleverly integrated, and it is actually a plot point throughout the film, as the songs are tracks on Peter’s beloved Walkman. There’s a hilarious reference to a specific 80s film, as well. What makes these references work is that it highlights the cultural differences between Peter and the other guardians, who have no understanding of Earth pop culture or expressions.

One downside of the film was its huge cast. Guardians of the Galaxy features a massive ensemble cast, and many very talented actors are lost in the shuffle. In many cases, their brief appearances will set up future franchises, or appearances in other films. And, I thought that they could have done a bit more to develop Ronan as a villain. He’s a formidable foe, but wasn’t overly developed. Marvel’s a bit weak when it comes to villains much of the time, but I’ve come to expect that a little bit. Thanos makes a few brief appearances in the film, which was very exciting. Marvel is doing an excellent job building his motivations, and I cannot wait until the inevitable showdown between him and the Marvel heroes.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D at the IMAX theatre and I quite enjoyed the 3D. It was done well, and the excellent cinematography looks even better in 3D. However, my eyes were a little sore as the credits rolled – I’m not sure if I was simply in a badly angled seat in the theatre, or if the film itself gave me eye strain.

Don’t miss Guardians of the Galaxy in theatres. It’s one of the highlights of the summer, and another huge win for Marvel.

Secrets of the Tower of London

Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 3
August 1st, 2014 No comments

Secrets of the Tower of London, 2013, USA

A photo I took during my trip.

Secrets of the Tower of London is an approximately 55 minute documentary produced by PBS. It’s available on Netflix, and I decided to watch it, in part, because I visited the Tower of London while I was in London back in December.

This documentary looks at the history of the tower, from its grisly history as a prison, execution spot, and a place of torture, to its history as a mint and the location where the crown jewels are held. The Tower of London is an iconic landmark, and has a very rich history.

The documentary goes into some area of the tower grounds that are off limits to tourists, including an underground prison, and the private quarters of the Chief Yeomen Warder. These moments were easily the most interesting part of the documentary, as it offered insights I didn’t get while I was at the tower itself. It also briefly explores the history of Tower Bridge. I drove over the bridge while I was in London, but I didn’t get a chance to explore it further, as we had so little time in each of our destinations.

Admittedly, much of the history covered in the film was information I already knew from visiting the tower itself; the boards and descriptions through the grounds were incredibly informative and thorough. I did notice that the documentary must have been filmed during one of the peak tourist seasons, as the grounds and entrance were often packed with people in the B-roll footage. I went during the off season, and I’m glad I did, because it was not crowded at all while I was there. However, there is always the risk of cold or wet weather during the off season – I was insanely lucky during my trip, and only encountered bad rain once in the evening.

I’d recommend watching the documentary if you’re interested in English history. It’s short, but very interesting. If you’re planning a trip to the UK, this film would be a good way to get a little bit of background information before you leave.


Movie Rating: This entry has a rating of 4.5
July 28th, 2014 No comments

Snowpiercer, 2013, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France

I think I’ve watched the best film of the year so far. Snowpiercer is a bleak dystopian social satire that takes place entirely on a train. The year is 2031. After a failed attempt to control global warming results in a profound global cooling, the world is now uninhabitable. The only survivors are residents on the train, which moves along the same rail track year after year. Each car is separated by class: the lowest of the low are in the tail; the richest are in the front. Curtis (Chris Evans) is a resident of the tail and he is planning a revolution with the help of his mentor, Gilliam (John Hurt) and his second-in-command, Edgar (Jamie Bell). They need someone who can open the gates, so they storm the prison car, freeing Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko). Namgoong built the gates, and agrees to open them in exchange for kronol – a highly addictive and flammable drug produced out of industrial waste. The goal of the revolution is to take the engine: he who controls the engine controls the train.

Director Joon-ho Bong’s English-language debut is a highly stylistic and unusual film. The cinematography was astoundingly beautiful, both in and outside the train. The fight sequences take advantage of the tight space on the train, and are choreographed brilliantly. In fact, during one sequence, I was reminded of the iconic fight scene in another South Korean film – Oldboy. He plays with light and dark, but everything about the train feels desolate and sad – even the walk-through aquarium and pompous dinner parties.

Evans was excellent as Curtis, a character who is, at times, devastatingly human. One of the highlights of the film was Tilda Swinton as Mason, who might be the most irritating, detestable character put to screen this year. She was incredibly good (and kudos to the makeup folks who created her teeth!). In the hands of a lesser actress, Mason might have been mere comic relief, but she manages to keep her menacing.

The Weinstein Company purchased the North American distribution rights to Snowpiercer, but have since tried to bury the film. They had wanted to cut 20 minutes out of the film, citing a need to make the film easy for American audiences to understand, but the director refused, so it has been released in only a few American theatres and on Video on Demand. This is complete bullshit. It is a foreign film (though primarily in English), but it is in no way inaccessible to a Western audience. The Weinstein Company simply fears an intelligent, thought-provoking blockbuster rife with metaphor and allegory. It’s a bleak film that says some dark things about humanity, but that comes with the dystopian territory. However, the film has been getting astoundingly good reviews, and word of mouth has been ensuring that people watch it.

I intend to be that word of mouth. Watch Snowpiercer. It’s a brilliant film – truly one of the best of the year.

Powered by Netfirms