The Master, Looper, Pitch Perfect, Hotel Transylvania, Vulgaria, Won’t Back Down
The Vancouver International Film Festival gets some tough competition just as it’s started up. Two superb Hollywood films, the Master and Looper, open in regular theatres here today. And don’t count out Pitch Perfect either.
Here’s the whole list …
The Master: 5 stars
Pitch Perfect: 3 ½
Hotel Transylvania: 3
Vulgaria: 2 ½
Won’t Back Down: --
THE MASTER: I don’t expect to see a better movie the rest of the year. This one is close to perfect. It’s rich with ideas and wonderful performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays an unstable drifter traumatized by World War 2. One evening he wanders onto a brightly lit party boat where Philip Seymour Hoffman as a glib spiritual leader presides over his daughter’s wedding, dispenses hushed observations on history and humanity and welcomes the former sailor with: “You’ve wandered from the proper path haven’t you?” He also takes him on as an aide and possibly a project. Man is not an animal he insists although his protege reverts now and then to attack the critics of the movement. The rest of the time he seems absorbed by the hokum about past lives and the need to expunge trillions of years of psychological wounds.
Sure it’s inspired by Scientology but we’ve seen charismatic charlatans before in the movies. Usually, like with Elmer Gantry, it’s to expose feet of clay. This film warns of all hucksters who claim to know the one right way. (Always valuable in an election year.) As with his last masterpiece, There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has written a heady critique of the American way and directed it into a calmly dazzling motion picture. Phoenix is raw, gaunt and rough, Hoffman is smooth and confident, and Amy Adams provides mysterious backup as a wife with influence. (Park, Scotiabank and a few suburban theatres) 5 out of 5
LOOPER: There used to be rules in time travel stories. Don’t change the past is long gone. This film totally dispenses with Don’t meet yourself and makes up a new one to hinge an engrossing story on. In the future, which seems to be 2072, time travel has been perfected and banned. Only criminals use it and that’s to send people they want whacked some 30 years back in time where minions called “loopers” kill them. Those bodies can’t be identified. Perfect crime.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt receives his victims at the edge of a cornfield which is handy for the rest of the story. It seems somebody in the future is on a power trip and shutting down the system, or “closing the loops.” That’s done by sending the looper’s own future self back in time for killing. Got that? Joe, who’s future self is Bruce Willis, can’t bring himself to shoot him. Bruce escapes through the corn; Joe runs too and ends up at a farm where Emily Blunt is a single mom handy with a gun and chopping wood. The film slows down a bit from then on but you know that other guys will be coming and the time conundrum will have to be resolved. Rian Johnson, who made the equally clever Brick, also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, manages to keep it all consistent and hold us absorbed. Gordon-Levitt does a perfect Bruce Willis homage. He’s got the mannerisms and that smirk right on. Jeff Daniels is a standout as a crime boss. (5th Avenue, Scotiabank and many suburban theatres) 4 out of 5
PITCH PERFECT: “We do not stray from tradition.” That line could be in any of a dozen movies in which a new comer to a group challenges the established leader and shakes things up. Here we get that familiar plotline in the sphere of a cappella singing. A college freshman (Anna Kendrick) who really wants to be a DJ but is deterred by her professor father, joins a singing group run by uptight Anna Camp, who suffered an embarrassing vomiting incident at a national competition the year before. They’re going back this year but how? Doing the same tired songs or with a new act? The two women face-off at the first rehearsal and again through the preliminaries and into the final.
This is a funny and spirited movie showing what I’ll call the Bridesmaids effect. That would be some gross humor in a story women’s friendship, some strangely weird scenes and also a wise-cracking fat woman (she calls herself Fat Amy) stealing many scenes. She’s played by an Aussie named Rebel Wilson. The film is structured like all those streetdance films, building up to the big showdown. And one more influence: a pair of broadcasters (Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins) offer wisecracks, like in Best in Show but far less funny. So. Not at all original but good fun. (International Village and a few suburban theatres) 3 ½ out of 5
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: The best animated films have lots of heart. Think Up, Despicable Me, Brave and others. This one has very little. It does have excellent animation though (half of it done here in Vancouver; the other half in California) and it has a huge cast of monsters on holiday. They don’t scare or threaten. They act like hyperactive tourists, trot out obvious jokes and even close things out with a rap number. Well, it is an Adam Sandler film partly written by Robert Smigel, the guy who performs Triumph, The Insult Comic Dog. They ease up and play to the family audience.
Sandler voices Dracula who runs a hotel for monsters only. That makes it a haven, safe from discrimination and mobs with torches. The guests include a werewolf (Steve Buscemi) looking more like a fox, Frankenstein (Kevin James) and the invisible man (David Spade). Also wives, relatives and children, making the place busy and often chaotic. The main story involves an overly-protective parent (Dracula of all people) who won’t let his 118-year-old daughter (Selena Gomez) go to the outside world he claims is unsafe. A human backpacker dude (Andy Samberg) arrives, catches her eye and stirs up the family dynamics. It’s goofy, often funny, always moving but full of routine emotions. (The Dunbar, Dolphin, International Village many suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
VULGARIA: Yes, the title is meant to offend. The whole film tries to and even offers you a 10-second pause to get out if you don’t want to experience “high amounts of course language, adult themes, political incorrectness, discrimination and sexual situations.” That’s a boast of course. This comedy from Hong Kong gleefully delivers all that (although notice: no nudity) as it skewers the current sorry state of the film industry there and takes a few shots at Chinese mainlanders too. It’s funny, with clever dialogue that often drifts over into some outrageously raunchy territory and it’s become a big hit.
One of Hong Kong’s steadiest actors, Chapman To, plays a film producer who’s struggling with both his alimony payments and financing his next project. He agrees to re-make an old soft-porn classic for a mainland gangster who wants to see the girl called Yum Yum again. The actress who played her 36 years ago, Susan Shaw, returns in one of several nods to the real Hong Kong film scene. Most of the humor is broad but with enough sly satire to elevate it a bit. That comes in a series of vignettes sparked by the producer’s appearance before a film school class. He’s asked what does a producer do anyway? The answers are just as true as they are absurd. (International Village and Riverport) 2 ½ out of 5
Also now playing …
WON’T BACK DOWN: We know from all those movies that American inner schools are a mess. This said- to-be-true story shows how two women, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, fought beaucracy to make their school better. How much? Can’t tell. The film wasn’t previewed for The Vancouver Observer. (5th Avenue, International Village and some suburban theatres)
NOTE: All these images are movie stills provided by the studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.