Monday, September 5, 2011

Two Kidnappings, Human Trafficking, Mad Max Wannabes, Murderous Fathers, Evil Nazis and Damn Dirty Apes

I've seen so many films this summer which I haven't chronicled.

I saw seven, general or limited release films in August.

Rapt starring Yvan Attal; directed by Lucas Belvaux; French with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
The Whistleblower starring Rachel Weisz; with Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn & Monica Bellucci; directed by Larysa Kondracki; English and some Ukrainian, Russian & Bosnian dialogue with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Point Blank starring Gilles Lellouche; directed by Fred Cavayé; French with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Captain America: The First Avenger starring Chris Evans & Hugo Weaving; with Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones & Stanley Tucci; (2011) - Official Website
Bellflower starring Evan Glodell & Jessie Wiseman; directed by Evan Glodell; (2011) - Official Website
Motherland starring Françoise Yip; directed by Doris Yeung; (2009) - Official Website
Rise of the Planet of the Apes starring James Franco & Andy Serkis; with Freida Pinto & John Lithgow; (2011) - Official Website

I went all over the Bay Area seeing these films.

Rapt - Camera 3 Cinemas; San Jose
The Whistleblower - Landmark Bridge; San Francisco
Point Blank - Landmark Embarcadero; San Francisco
Captain America - Landmark Shattuck; Berkeley
Bellflower - Landmark California; Berkeley
Motherland - 4 Star; San Francisco
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Presidio; San Francisco

The screenings at the California and Presidio are the first time I've been to those theaters.


Motherland needs little summarizing. It was a plodding film with wooden performances. The film was replete with San Francisco connections. Former San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival Assistant Programmer Taro Goto had a producer's credit. Screenwriter and director Doris Yeung lived in the Bay Area before and the story was based on her mother's murder. Real events and the film portray Yeung's father as responsible for the murder of his ex-wife. By the end of the film, the lackluster performances and unimaginative plot left me apathetic. Françoise Yip as Doris Yeung's alter ego seemed unfocused in her role. Occasionally, Kenneth Tsang (with 152 acting credits on IMDB) as her father showed some beneath the surface malevolence but otherwise his role was thinly developed. I'm sorry that Ms. Yeung's mother was murdered but this movie wasn't very good. I notice this is Ms. Yeung's first directorial credit. I wonder what a more experienced director could have done with the material.


A step above Motherland was Captain America: The First Avenger. A retelling of the classic Marvel comic, Captain America suffers from lack of imagination as well. Recapping the plot since I was unfamiliar with or had forgotten the origins of Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 98 lb. weakling who is constantly trying to enlist in the armed forces during WWII. Classified 4F, Rogers resorts to using aliases to enlist. At the World's Fair in New York (historically inaccurate), Rogers meets Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist who has defected to the US. While in Germany, he was researching methods to create the perfect soldier. Dr. Erskine has nearly perfected the biochemical solution which is effectively and an instant super-steroid but is more concerned about the psychological effects. Erskine handpicks Rogers because as a weakling, Rogers will have compassion once he is transformed.

Inexplicably, after the transformation, Rogers is rejected by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) for combat duty and instead assigned to play the role of Captain American at USO shows to sell war bonds. A USO tour through Italy, puts Rogers in proximity to Bucky's (his best friend) unit. However, the unit has been captured so Captain America enlists the help of engineer Howard Stark (likely Iron Man's Tony Stark's father or grandfather) and beautiful but dangerous Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) to equip him and put him behind enemy lines so he can save Bucky and his unit. Once there, Captain America encounters one of Dr. Erskine's previous patients, Red Skull, who operates the Nazi's semi-autonomous terrorism unit.

After that, the film was paint by numbers. I liked the rainbow coalition of soldiers in Bucky's unit (another historical inaccuracy). Stanley Tucci, one of my favorite actors, turned in the nicest performance even while speaking with a German accent. Steve Rogers' humility was largely lost once he became Captain America which I would have like to have seen explored at greater length. Captain America was boxed in because the film had to end with a setup for next year's The Avengers so certain aspects of Rogers may have been thrown overboard.

In comparison to Iron Man, Captain America came off as uninspired and listless. It was nice to see the WWII era depicted with steampunk flourishes; Red Skull flies an airplane that looks a lot like the Stealth Bomber. Otherwise, the film barely interested me for its 2+ hours.


At the other end of the spectrum was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This could easily has been a cheesy film but for what it lacked in content and imagination it made up for with enthusiasm and gusto. The premise is that Alzheimer's medical researcher is testing cures on chimps. Franco has a personal reason for his research - his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from Alzhemier's disease. The research is promising until a chimp freaks out and puts an end to the project. At that point, Franco's Dr. Rodman slips down an unethical slope. He takes home one of the baby chimps and raises it like a son. This chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis via CGI), has extraordinary mental capacity which was passed on from his mother who was pregnant while given the Alzheimer's medication. Caesar is taught sign language and eventually understands English although he can't speak. This is the first psuedo serious moment of the film. Caesar is self-aware. He understands he is not human (even though he is more capable than Lithgow's character). He also understands that he frightens humans and is looked upon as a dangerous monster. Finally, an encounter with a leashed dog leads him to question whether or not he is closer to family pet or family member.

Caesar eventually attacks a neighbor while protecting Lithgow. He is placed in a primate shelter which leads to the second psuedo serious moment. While in the shelter, Caesar realizes he is quite different from the other chimps, gorillas and orangutans there. Like a prison film, Caesar is attacked by the alpha male but by using his superior intelligence, Caesar is able to form a bond with the resident gorilla; thus establishing the chimp leader/gorilla soldier societal model used in previous Planet of the Apes films. It's also in prision/primate shelter where Caesar loses his "humanity" and turns rejects Rodman. Instead, Caesar envisions himself as the leader of the apes and wants to gain independence for his "people."

That sets up the finale where Caesar leads a prison break and goes on to free the primates at the zoo and the test chimps at the labs where Rodman works. The primates and human police have their showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Of course, if you think about this for too long, it is all very silly. However, for two hours, Rise of the Planet of the Apes entertained me and even made me think. The most compelling character in the film is Caesar which probably says something about the plot and James Franco. I was actively rooting for the apes in the film because all the humans were so flawed...Rodman included. I felt more empathy for Caesar than any of the humans. Combined with the special effects and filling in the backstory of Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the energetic summer film Captain America wished it could have been.


The Whistleblower is based on the true story of human trafficking during the Bosnia conflict. Not only were the main clients of the forced prostitutes United Nation workers and contractors but UN personnel were involved in the trafficking directly or indirectly by tipping off the traffickers. The eponymous character is former Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac played by a nearly unrecognizable Rachel Weisz. David Strathairn & Vanessa Redgrave have small supporting roles as UN officials who try to help Bolkovac expose the UN's involvement. Monica Bellucci is featured prominently in the credits but only shows up in two scenes.

The heavy lifting is performed by Roxana Condurache as Raya, one of the exploited women and some of the actors portraying their abusers and captors. I can't recall the characters names so I can't call the actors out. A woman walked out of the theater during one particular violent torture scene.

Weisz gives a subdued performance which probably matches the real-life Bolkovac's demeanor. The film doesn't seem any more powerful than a newspaper article. For example, at the beginning of the film, Bolkovac was trying to get a transfer from the Nebraska State Patrol job she had to a location where her ex-husband and daughter were moving (I can't recall the state). The fact that a woman didn't get custody of her daughter is unusual but is never explained. Initially determined to move closer to her daughter, Bolkovac oddly takes a job in Eastern Europe. Presumably, the high pay would be enough to relocate closer to her daughter without the need for an immediate job. As Bolkovac investigates the trafficking syndicate, her daughter is completely dropped from the script. In the epilogue, it is mentioned that Bolkovac has moved to the Netherlands to be with her boyfriend (whom she met while working at the UN). No mention is made of her daughter.

The backstory of Bolkovac's failing to gain custody of her daughter as well as the source of her dogged determination in investigating the crimes in Bosnia are left a mystery. The result is that the film sheds no light (fictitious or real) on Bolkovac's character. She is simply goes about her business despite familial pressures, UN retaliation, indifference from Bosnian authorities and physical attacks on her staff and the prostitutes. The film lacked the setup needed to understand the lead character. However, the film propels itself based on the strength and drama of the abuse and to a lesser extent, the UN coverup. The Whistleblower is a great story made into a mediocre film.


Rapt is one of my favorite films of 2011. It's the story of Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal), the CEO of a large French conglomerate. He is a rockstar CEO who hobnobs with prime ministers and is well known through his press coverage. One day, he is kidnapped for ransom. However, the real troubles are only just beginning for Monsieur Graff. First off, M. Graff is not as wealthy as one would think. He has a gambling problem. Not only that but he keeps expensive mistresses. This is all reported, to his wife's embarrassment, by the police and media as they investigate his abduction. Also bad luck for Graff is that his captors are not very financially savvy. They have conflated his personal wealth with his company's holdings. Unfortunately for Graff, his company's Board of Directors are unwilling to use corporate assets to pay the ransom; they do have a fiduciary responsibility after all.

Graff is kept captive in brutal and terrifying fashion as the kidnappers try, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to collect their ransom demands. He is eventually released after promising to pay future ransom demands. Graff's problems are only beginning. His company has done fine without him and the Board finds his gambling and womanizing to be an embarrassing distraction. His wife is resentful of the secrets he has kept from her and the humiliation of reading about them in the tabloids. Finally, Graff is having troubles adjusting to his regained freedom as well as his newly descended station amongst his co-workers and family. In fact, it is only his dog who seems to give him any comfort. Just when Graff hits rock bottom, he receives a note in the mail with the word "Calypso" which is the code word his kidnappers have told him is the signal for him to gather his cash to pay the ransom.

Yvan Attal is magnificent as Graff. What a wonderful role it must have been as he goes from being on top of the world to being a disheveled captive to being a nervous and angry man coping with his new life. Anne Consigny as Graff's wife does well in her role but Rapt is a vehicle for Attal to shine brightest.


Point Blank is also a French film about a kidnapping but in this case the victim is a pregnant woman and instead of ransom, the kidnappers want a male nurse to sneak a drug courier out of the hospital. Not nearly as thought provoking as Rapt, Point Blank is like an adrenaline rush as Gilles Lellouche as the nurse and Roschdy Zem as the drug dealer form a team to escape killers, free Lellouche's pregnant wife and expose corrupt cops.

In the US remake (if one is made), Point Blank will be ruined by cartoonish car chases and explosions. The French version strikes the right balance between action and character development. However, what is does best is show some dirty cops who are meanest but realistic bastards I've encountered on film in a long time. One female cop tries to push the pregnant woman out a second story window. Point Blank never goes off the reservation so it is just realistic enough to appreciate the grittiness and corruption along with the heart pounding action scenes.


Bellflower is a difficult film to categorize. The basic premise is that two guys (aka losers) in LA are building their dream car which is inspired by the film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the 1981 film with Mel Gibson. You may recall that film as the one where Mad Max encounters a bunch guys who look like they belong at the Folsom St. Leather Fair. I recall Lord Humungus (I wonder what is large) who is quoted in the prologue of Bellflower. His henchman was guy in assless chaps with a foxtail covering his crack who exhibited "brotherly love" when a young colleague was killed. Putting aside the homoerotic overtones of Mad Max 2, Bellflower focuses on automotive excesses of the former.

Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) don't seem to have any means of supporting themselves but they somehow come up with the scratch to buy accessories for their car, Medusa. Not surprisingly, they aren't too popular with the ladies but even a blind chipmunk gets a nut once in awhile. Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman) at a bar. Not a stone cold fox but still out of Woodrow's league (in my opinion), Woodrow falls for Milly and surprisingly, vice versa. Their romance burns white hot.

Then the logic drops out of Bellflower. There are not one but two scratch-your-head plot twists in Bellflower that left me disappointed. The ending of the film is open to interpretation. I didn't choose to read much into it in terms of social commentary. It might say something about modern day masculinity and maturity among twentysomething males. Or it might just be hallucinations. Regardless, the journey was more enjoyable than the destination.

Bellflower isn't a great film but it showed some creativity, interesting cinematography and the performances by Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes as Milly's best friend were memorable. I enjoyed the film enough to recommend it. It is currently playing at the Roxie.

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