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12 Years a Slave, a masterpiece, leads a long list of new movies now playing

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LAST VEGAS:  There’s no Hangover here. These guys are too old to carouse quite like that. But they do kick up a few heels and flip a few chips on a weekend in Last Vegas. There are four of them, Academy Award winners all: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, who won for A Fish Called Wanda.  They were the Flatbush 4 in their youth in Brooklyn. Now, 58 years later Douglas is getting married (to a woman half his age) and hosting a bachelor weekend. De Niro comes under protest because of an ancient issue with Douglas, and before long they’re at odds again. They’re both interested in a lounge singer played by Mary Steenburgen, another Oscar winner. 

The hi jinx remain tame; the jokes about what old people can and cannot do and what medicines they have to remember to take predominate. Some scenes get silly; others sentimental but in a quest for mild entertainment with a good heart as played by some old troopers and a few thoughts on long-lasting friendship, you’ll feel rewarded. (International Village and many suburban theatres) 3 out of 5

DIANA:  Naomi Watts gives it a good try but can’t capture the essence of the late and beloved Princess Diana. Her strength and her charisma aren’t there. Partly, it’s the fault of the script which is pedestrian and feels like a TV movie. It portrays her too much as a little-girl-lost, which would work if it also showed scenes to justify the image. We only get the motivating background spoken, by her, and she comes off as whiney and needy because of it. We only see her briefly with her sons and only from far away.

 

The story tells of her love affair with a London heart surgeon, named Hasnat Khan.  He came after Charles and before Dodi Fayed in her life and the film, based on a book by Kate Snell, does a lot of imagining. Who knows what Diana and Hasnat said to each other in bed after sex? Or privately anywhere? Still it’s not a disaster as some British critics have it. Naomi has Diana’s mannerisms and voice right, though not always her appearance. Naveen Andrews doesn’t look that much like Dr. Khan but does come across as charming and strong. The film explains well the pressures were under. It also looks substantial with good use of settings and locations and great care in working in the events that were public. It does not stoop to re-creating the fatal car accident. (International Village) 2 ½ out of 5

MAN OF TAI CHI: This is also a meditation on aggressiveness and as so often happens peace wins the moral ground but fighting gets the attention. Martial arts guy Tiger Hu Chen plays a Beijing tai chi enthusiast (named Tiger Chen) who sees more than serenity and exercise in his sport. Although his master at the temple recommends meditation, he fights and wins in a televised contest. That draws an invite from a shady promoter (Keanu Reeves) to join an illegal underground fight-to-the-death in Hong Kong. Chen does because he needs money to save his master’s temple from a developer and a crooked building inspector.

The story is trite but the presentation makes it entertaining. Reeves, who is also making his debut as director, keeps the camera moving, the editing tight and the focus on his main theme: loss of innocence.  (He can’t do anything about his own stiff acting though).  Chen is remarkable in his fight sequences, sometimes twirling into a jump to give a kick to the head or flipping over and kicking upside down in midair. Watch for him. He’s got a future.  (Rio on Broadway) 3 out of 5

Three at the VanCity Theatre …

A TOUCH OF SIN: The ever-popular question “what is going on in China” gets a visceral answer in this four-story film by Jia Zhangke. He’s known for tales about the lives of real people. Here he takes on a bigger reality: China’s obsession with money.  Consumerism is paramount; tradition is falling under the advance of modern life. The stories he uses to illustrate his themes are based on real events. A coalminer gets revenge when he learns of corruption in the privatization of a mine. A migrant worker thinks a gun will help dispel his poverty. A woman is humiliated at the sauna where she works. An aimless young man drifts from job to job. Each story leads to violence. It’s shocking, gripping and, according to a gentleman who sat beside me when I saw the film at VIFF, a perfect match for the China he knows. For the director it’s also a call to action. “Do you understand your sin?” he wrote in the film’s last line. He won a big award at Cannes for his screenplay. (VanCity) 4 out of 5

CUTIE AND THE BOXER: That’s what’s so great about documentaries. You get to meet people you had no interest in and often enough find they’re delightful. Case in point: Ushio Shinohara (the boxer) and Noriko Shinohara (she’s Cutie). He’s an avant garde artists from Japan who arrived in New York in the 1960s, just in time to hang out with Andy Warhol. She was half his age when she arrived, married him, shelved her own art ambitions and had his child.

 

More in New Movies

Widows of criminals doing it for themselves, the seed of modern politics and the perils of war reporting

Also an ingenious take on the migrant crisis, and a second appreciation this year of Ingmar Bergman that adds to what we already know from the first

Melissa’s forgeries, Rami’s dead-on Freddie Mercury and a cult classic re-imagined

Also: a bit of opera (real with Maria Callas and fictional in Bel Canto) and an ode to BC’s chief geographical feature in This Mountain Life
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