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Recent Movies: The Assassin; The Martian; Room; Old Movies: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Theatre: Spoon River

November 29, 2015

Recent Movies

The Assassin

In 9th century China during the Tang Dynasty, the title character (played by Shu Qi) is a young woman who is trained and assigned to murder a government official in a rebellious province. The official happens to be her cousin.

“The Assassin” is a feast for the eyes and ears. The sound effects beautifully express the wind in the nature scenes and occasional music. The cinematography complements the many beautiful nature scenes as it does for the movie’s beautiful interior sets and stunning costumes. For these crafts, the film deserves to win many awards and other forms of recognition.

However, such elements cannot make a film great by themselves; they can only upgrade it to a higher level e.g. they could elevate a good film to a very good one.

Subtle and slow films can definitely have a lot of impact but to do so, they require extra effort by the actors to express a deep interior life. None of the performances are bad by any means; they just lack that extra heft that is needed to maintain a viewer’s interest despite being surrounded by so much beauty. The story itself was also too thin. Sadly, “The Assassin” does not meet its potential.

RATING (out of four stars):   * *

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The Martian

Set in the near future, a NASA astronaut (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars. NASA attempts to bring him home.

It’s easy to compare “The Martian” to other popular science-fiction films. The Damon character is like the earthling version of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. His situation is also similar to that of the Sandra Bullock character in “Gravity”.

“The Martian” is entertaining even if it doesn’t meet the higher level of the other films mentioned nor of many other well loved sci-fi films such as “Apollo 13” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. There is a lot of scientific jargon that is difficult to understand for the average viewer and the movie seems a bit long. There is also a fair share of cheesy, sentimental jingoism that is cringeworthy at times. Just one more grudge: the main character seems to reflect the writers in holding a 30-plus year grudge against the fact that some people like disco music of the 70s.  (Get over it, man-boys.)

But overall, “The Martian” is enjoyable. Damon (like Bullock in “Gravity”) is more than able to live up to the difficult task of keeping the viewer interested in long scenes while being the only person on screen. The NASA staff also seemed to reflect a solid gender and racial diversity. (Hollywood is finally catching up here.) And the very talented director Ridley Scott shows his able hands are at work once again as he did in other great sci-fi flicks “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and his best work “Thelma and Louise”.

Despite the flaws, it’s still entertaining.

RATING: * * *

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Room

A young woman (Brie Larson) and her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) live in the confined “room” of the title with only a ceiling skylight and a TV as their access to the outside world. As the story progresses, the viewer learns of the bizarre and heinous circumstances of their situation. The movie is based on the novel by Emma Donoghue who also wrote the screenplay. While it takes place in the U.S. , the film is a Canadian-Irish co-production.

When I read the superb novel a few years ago, I hoped it would be made into a film with similar impact but I wondered, is it possible? The answer is an absolute yes thanks to the sensitive directing by Lenny Abrahamson, his brilliant cast, and Donoghue’s perfect adaptation.

The film follows the book’s premise of seeing the story only through the eyes of the young boy. In the book, the interior life and thoughts are illuminating. Luckily, Abrahamson, Larsson, and Tremblay convey similar impact in the film version meeting the challenge of keeping the viewers’ attention within the dingy and limited space of the room.

The movie’s climax happens in the middle, creating an almost entirely new story. It provides amazing insights such as the awkwardness and disillusion that can happen after a presumably positive change. Here again, Abrahamson’s attention to detail and subtlety say so much with so little while continuing to get great work from Larson and Tremblay and also from the always dependable Joan Allen.

The last scene seems bizarre at first but is understandable considering the trauma of the main characters.  It’s a perfect result of the other great scenes that precede it and it leaves one’s heart wide open.

Tremblay gives one of the best child performances since that of Victoire Thivisol in “Ponette” (1996). He and others boost “Room” to be one of the best movies of 2015.

RATING: * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Directing by Lenny Abrahamson

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Great Old Movies

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof   (1958 – USA)

Big Daddy (Burl Ives) is the wealthy patriarch of a dysfunctional extended family in the Deep South U.S. As his health is worsening, family members gather like vultures at his birthday party. One of the two sons is Brick (Paul Newman), a troubled alcoholic with many issues. He has no interest in the family fortune but his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) definitely does.

The film is based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Due to production codes in the 1950s, important changes were made such as significantly reducing references to Brick’s homosexuality.

The last twenty minutes also seem too sentimental compared to the great drama that preceded it. Despite these flaws, this is a magnificent film.

Aside from the avoidance of homosexuality (or at least diluting it), the movie is adept at other juicy issues: alcoholism, suicide, and “marrying up” into a wealthy family. It also seems to take open jabs at false concepts of ‘family values’. Brick’s brother (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood) have five bratty children against whom Big Daddy often shows contempt in hilarious ways.

Director Richard Brooks does a fine job in keeping the movie always fascinating; it never feels constrained despite being based on a stage play. The jazzy score adds even more sizzle.

Ultimately, it is the great acting that raises this film to such a high level. Newman and Taylor clearly show their legendary status individually and together as a couple in conflict – especially Newman as a very troubled soul. As the family matriarch, Judith Anderson seemed at first to be in a role that might be dismissed as a footnote. Yet, she has a few scenes near the end where she truly chews the scenery. Among all this greatness, Ives manages the difficult feat of being a true standout. His performance shows a full range and is truly exceptional. It’s one of the best ever and one of the most under-rated.

The film is also generally under-rated but hopefully, its status will improve in time.

RATING: * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1) Acting Ensemble
2) Individual Performance by Burl Ives

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Live Theatre

“ Spoon River ” at the Young Centre, Toronto

Based on the poems by Edgar Lee Masters; adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz, music composed by Mike Ross

In a small U.S. Midwestern town around 1900, deceased spirits appear in the town cemetery as a young woman has just joined their community. In song and in spoken word, the spirits tell the stories of their lives and deaths.

From the moment of entering the auditorium, it was clear that this was going to be a very unique theatrical experience. Patrons walk down a hallway of a funeral parlour and then through a forest before taking their seats.

This production has earned much deserved praise but the word that best summarizes its greatness is ‘unique’. The initial appearance of the spirits is unforgettable. And then, there are the stories of the spirits recounting their lives and deaths some of which include murder, suicide, and accidents.

Most amusing are people who were in conflict during their living years. They include many married couples, a pair of women on opposite ends of a love triangle, and a man sitting on a bench with a pair of women on each side of him. (He had seduced all of them when they were quite young.) The staging and lighting are also very effective especially during a scene involving a train.

The songs are the best part of the production as many of the players are also instrumentalists. The messages about life can vary from cynical to life-affirming. With a closing number that, more or less, says: “Hey, you’ll join us in spirit world eventually; so enjoy what you’ve got right now”, it was a perfect ending to a very special production.

I saw the second remount of this production but it looks like there will be many more to come.

RATING: * * * 1/2

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