The Fruit Hunters Review (Kirk Haviland)

The Fruit Hunters (2012)

Written by Yung Chang and Mark Slutsky – based on the book by Adam Gollner

Directed by Yung Chang

After a highly successful Toronto debut screening as part of last week’s Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival Richmond Hill program, Yung Chang’s The Fruit Hunters starts an exclusive engagement this weekend at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema. The film about people obsessed with seeking out and growing exotic fruits from around the world spans the globe in search of these hidden treats and director Chang introduces us to people of all nationalities. From the South American trying to save the banana business from extinction to the Hollywood celebrity trying to launch a community orchard in the Hollywood Hills, we are invited into all of these stories through Chang’s lens.

The Fruit Hunters is indeed a globetrotting tour of places with the people to whom fruit is a way of life and not just a suggested daily dietary recommendation. Spanning from Borneo to Colombia, Italy to Hollywood, these fruit-obsessed individuals band together through the shared joy of hunting down these sources of the elusive “sublime taste”. These Fruit Hunters come from all walks of life, including life-long scientists, obsessed average Joes, and celebrities like Bill Pullman. They search the world for new mango varieties, track down surreal-sounding fruit like orange cloudberry or the blackberry jam fruit, and the Superfruit, which alters your taste buds, making lemons taste sweet.

The film comes with a multitude of information and facts about these fruits and is likely to make your mouth water a bit. The end credits even include pictures and names of all of the fruits used in the film so that the audience can investigate them for themselves. Director Chang also strives to show us the impact the globalization of the fruit industry has had on the way we buy and consume the fruit we get in supermarkets. The characters are plenty, you can imagine as with all obsessions that you can attract a varied assortment of people, and Chang finds many quirky and oddball hunters to flesh out the film. The camera does spend most of its time with Pullman and his efforts in Hollywood and hunting abroad, seemingly enamored with someone so famous who has been ensnared in this small niche group.

What doesn’t work for Fruit Hunters are the goofy, ill produced re-enactments that pop up on the film, trying to explain that these exotic fruits have been influential through history. These excursions are usually jarring and ill-fitting to the general story being examined. While I give kudos to Chang for trying to lighten and liven up some of the more dry sequences of the film with these vignettes, they really do not work well. And that does bring up the other issue of the film in that there are dry spells in various places. Either some more in-depth exploration of some of the other non-Pullman storylines or even trimming the film down a bit may have resulted in a stronger beginning-to-end flow.

The Fruit Hunters does achieve its ultimate goal in educating and fascinating the audience with all the exotic treasures, but as a film it is hardly a slam dunk. Even with its issues, Fruit Hunters still packs more than enough punch and information to entertain and fascinate. The Fruit Hunters is a mild recommend.

The Fruit Hunters starts its exclusive run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema Friday Nov 23rd. For more information check their Online Schedule.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Reel Asian Film Festival 2012: Cold Steel Review (Kirk Haviland)

Reel Asian Film Festival 2012

Cold Steel (2012)

Starring Peter Ho, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Jia Song, Mickey Ho, Ringo Yu and Wilson Chu

Written by David Wu, Li Xiao-Min

Directed by David Wu

Making a welcome return to Chinese action filmmaking after a long absence working in North American television, frequent John Woo collaborator David Wu brings us Cold Steel. After a very successful showing at Fantasia in Montreal this year, the war-time epic has finally made its Toronto debut thanks to Reel Asian and co-presenter Toronto After Dark. So how does Mr Wu’s Cold Steel stack up to the classic films of Woo’s that he worked on?

In 1938, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Mu Lianfeng (Ho), a 19-year-old orphan, watches an American military plane crash in the forest. Lianfeng comes to the pilot’s rescue and takes him to his village where Liu Yan (Song) has transformed her teashop into a makeshift hospital. As the pilot gradually recuperates, a relationship between the three slowly blossoms. However, when Lianfeng defends Liu Yan against soldiers of the Nationalist army, commander Wu (Xinyu) arrests him. On their way back to base their convoy is attacked by a Japanese sniper who is eventually neutralized by Lianfeng. Impressed, squad leader Zhang Mengzi (Leung Ka-fai) selects him to take part in an assassination mission targeting four Japanese generals. However when nothing goes as planned, Japanese general Massaya (Chu) is infuriated prompting him to send out his best sharpshooters to take down every last one of them.

The strongest part of Cold Steel lies in its action sequences, of which there are tons. Having expert action director and editor Wu behind the lens helps elevate these to things of beauty. The script is goofy with many tongue in cheek gags and situations. Our lead is a goofy, gangly treat with a face a rubber as Jim Carrey as he mugs his way through awkward situations. The love interest is a gorgeous older woman, which could have been a risky choice but it works well in this context. The relationship between Lianfeng and Liu Yan plays out modestly, yet honestly, and helps give Lianfeng’s decisions more weight and gravitas. Chu is way over the top here, in a performance that goes almost entirely cartoon bad guy. This performance and the not so subtle fleecing of the Japanese characters in the film, it is decidedly one-sided, may alienate some. But having the director Wu actually execute the English subtitles himself leads to a lot less confusion and misinterpretation of the humor and dramatic sequences of the film, some of the things that can occasionally get lost in translation.

But as I have said, the real bread and butter are the action sequences. The ambush scene where Lianfeng proves his worth is a tightly directed treat. The final sequence where an entire village is decimated is an explosion bonanza. Throughout the film the bullets zip by with authentic pace and timing, the film does a great job of depicting just how devastating a sniper rifle can be in the right hands. Freely borrowing from films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bourne Ultimatum, director Wu incorporates his own spin on films that have served as inspiration to him over the years. Wu also decides to use practical explosions and effects work to heighten the tension and reality of the film, especially with the intricacies of some of the well-executed stunt work.

A solid action film, not without its issues, Cold Steel offers wall-to-wall action and should be more than enough to please any action fan. Wu proves he is more than ready to step into the spotlight and his next effort should be eagerly anticipated. Cold Steel is a recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Reel Asian Film Festival 2012: Cha Cha for Twins (Kirk Haviland)

Reel Asian Film Festival 2012

Cha Cha for Twins (2012)

Starring Huang Peijia, Paul Chiang, Lun Ou Yang

Written by Yi-Chien Yang

Directed by Jim Wang, Yi-Chien Yang

Kicking of Saturday’s lineup at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts is the award winner from this year’s Taipei Film Festival, Cha Cha for Twins. This coming of age story centers on the tale of twin sisters who, now that they have turned 17, are discovering just how different, and alike, they truly are as they both strive to emerge as individuals apart from each other. But growing pains aren’t called ‘pains’ without reason.

Poni and Mini (Peijia in a dual role) have always done everything together. They go to the same school, get good grades, and play on the basketball team. But Poni starts to feel angst about being so inextricably linked to her identical sister, and desperately strives to stamp out her own individual identity. What was once convenient and even advantageous has become a burden for Poni, especially once Mini catches the eye of the Debate club captain Yogurt (Yang), who can easily tell them apart and only has eyes for Mini. Desperate for the same attention, Poni bumps into Ping (Chiang), a boy already held back one due to poor grades, who has no idea how to tell to the two apart.

Cha Cha for Twins carries all the typical trappings of a twins movie. Mistaken identity, false accusations and other typical sitcom fare are all evident but in this instance there is a lot more. The film plays out as a standard formula picture until we get half way though, then the script and direction change. Writer and co-director Yang brings in the real life experience of her being a twin to flesh out the background and stories of both girls while infusing each of the girls with a distinct personality. Poni’s desires, as she also serves as narrator, become clearer and Mini’s trepidations come to light through their relationships with Yogurt and Ping.

The real strength of the film comes in the performance of Peijia as both Mini and Poni. Peijia manages to deliver two very different and separate performances as each sister. Her performance is what elevates the film from the real possibility of this becoming a very generic picture, her work really picks up in the second half when the film could easily make the transition to goofy but instead becomes stronger. The supporting characters do decent work here, Chiang’s Ping is a lot better realized than Yang’s Yogurt, but this film is really a showcase for Peijia’s talented work.

Sometimes when we get a film with two directors the direction can get muddied and split between the two vantage points. In this case having two directors may have been a blessing, as the film manages to keep a crisp pace with emotional sidebars with the twins that are clearly influenced by director Yang’s personal experiences. This allows us to adopt a close relation with the twins and makes them all the more relatable. The effects work put in to place Peijia against herself on screen are actually a well-executed mix of cg and body double work, despite one sequence involving a track meet that has some very clearly evident work done to it.

A complete surprise, the film almost dies in the first third of the film but really grabs you in the middle and gets you to buy in until the end. Cha Cha for Twins is a one woman tour de force for Peijia and it’s because of her performance that I give Cha Cha for Twins a recommend.

Cha Cha for Twins plays on Saturday Nov 17th, more info can be found on the Reel Asian website HERE.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Reel Asian Film Festival 2012: Wolf Children Review (Kirk Haviland)

Reel Asian Film Festival 2012

Wolf Children (2012)

Starring the voices of Aoi Miyazaki, Takao Osawa, Haru Kuroki, Momoko Oono, Yukito Nishii and Amon Kabe

Written by Satoko Okudera, Mamoru Hosoda

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Considered by many in Japan as the heir apparent to the anime crown currently adorning the master animator Hayao Miyazaki, director Hosoda delivers a fairy tale/fable with a very sophisticated and adult message, Wolf Children. An anime master in his own right, Hosoda shows off classic hand drawn characters on sophisticated backgrounds in a coming of age story with a very worthwhile message at its core. But how will Wolf Children measure up to the classic Miyazaki fare like Princess Mononoke, Ponyo and Spirited Away?

Hana is a nineteen-year-old college student. She meets and falls in love with a man, only to discover he is a direct descendent of the Japanese wolf, able to change between man and wolf at will. The two build a life together and Hana bears two children, a son and daughter named Ame and Yuki. After a tragic accident Hana and the children are left alone, Hana having no idea how to raise the children to deal with their inherited abilities.  She makes a life-altering decision to take her children and move to a rural town and raise them in seclusion. Ame and Yuki suffer growing pains in their new environment, but soon they must make difficult life choices of their own, to lead a life as either a human or a wolf.

The story and script for Wolf Children is eloquent and moving, and yes I am talking about an anime. The film depicts the trials, tribulations and sacrifices of a single parent, living and raising children completely lost without her soul mate, in a more mature and realistic way than a lot of more established productions could hope for. The children are portrayed as some of the most realistic of that age I have ever seen. Rambunctious, curious, enthusiastic and fiercely stubborn, these children have oodles of personality and jump of the screen.  The story forces the brother and sister to fight and literally claw their way towards adulthood, and while the two take different paths which lead to much tension between them, there is still a love there, just below the surface.

The animation here is fantastic. It’s great to see a fantastically executed hand drawn style in this world dominated by computer generated animation. The backgrounds are part CG and in most cases are breathtaking, photo realistic vistas. But all the characters in front of these pieces of set and scenery are wonderfully animated by hand and the characteristics of them shine through because of this. The setting of the farmhouse where they move is fantastic and shows how even animation can use a setting to enhance storytelling.

A charming and fantastic surprise, Wolf Children is a tale that will enchant and delight audiences of all ages, and it really does it in a smart and funny way. This is a film that stays with you and grows in fondness the more you think upon it. One of the best animated films of the year, Wolf Children is an absolute recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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Reel Asian Film Festival 2012: Graceland Review (Kirk Haviland)

Reel Asian Film Festival 2012

Graceland (2012)

Starring Arnold Reyes, Menggie Cobarrubias, Dido De Le Paz and Ella Guevara

Written and Directed by Ron Morales

One of the grittiest films to play Reel Asian this year is the crime thriller Graceland from the Philippines. Not to be confused with the lavish estate of Elvis in Memphis, Graceland in this case refers to the seedy underground that inhabits and seeps out of every pore of the city of Manila. A place where everything has a price and nothing appears to be as it seems.

Marlon Villar (Reyes) is a pious family man who minds his own business, takes care of his daughter Elvie (Guevara) and visits his bed-ridden wife at the hospital every night. He holds down a day job as a chauffeur for a powerful and corrupt politician named Chango (Cobarrubias). Marlon’s world falls apart when Elvie becomes the victim of a botched kidnapping and ransom plot against Chango, when the kidnappers mix her up with Chango’s daughter. As the sole witness, Marlon becomes tangled between the kidnappers, Chango and the police, all while stopping at nothing to get Elvie back.

A well thought out script and tight direction is at the heart of this tense thriller. Reyes and Cobarrubias are both excellent here. The men are at different ends of the social ladder yet they both are bonded by Chango’s secret activities of which Marlon has been pressed to be complicit in. The desperation of Reyes’ Marlon is matched by the stoicism of Cobarrubias’ Chango, Marlon being his number one suspect. The film jumps between the parents trying to track down the children and the kidnappers trying to stay ahead of them. The film creates a sense of atmosphere and building tension around each corner instead of your typical action shoot out.

The city of Manila, and all its griminess, becomes an integral supporting character in the film as we work through the backstreets in and out of brothels and seedy hotels along the way. Even the hospital, in which Marlon’s wife stays, feels like it has a thin layer of grime on everything. Manila is a place where you can buy a 14 year old girl, the same age as the daughter in question, for your sexual pleasure almost as easily as food on the street. The level of corruption on display plays heavily in to the motivations and decisions of the characters we follow throughout the film.  The actions of the past rest heavily on the shoulders of these two fathers.

One of the better thrillers I have seen all year, Graceland has a way of staying with you after it’s over. A bold film that is not afraid of taboo subject matter, Graceland is definitely a film to keep an eye out for. Graceland is a solid recommend.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

Make sure to keep up with what’s going on at Entertainment Maven by liking our Facebook page and having updates delivered right to your Facebook News Feed. It’s the only way to stay on top of all of our articles with the newest blockbusters and all the upcoming films, festivals and film related events in Toronto.

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