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Films I Neglected To Review: Special International Edition
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Evolution,' "Kung-Fu Yoga" and "Toni Erdmann"

As Evolution opens, we see a young boy (Max Brebant) swimming in the ocean in a gorgeous montage of imagery that is eventually interrupted when he happens upon the submerged corpse of a boy roughly his own age with a bright red starfish resting on his chest. This is certainly jarring but as we quickly discover, it is hardly the only weird thing on display in his isolated hometown, which is located on a desolate coastline made of volcanic rock and has a population that consists entirely of young boys and women who take care of the kids but whose demeanor could hardly be considered motherly by any stretch of the imagination. His curiosity piqued, the boy begins trying to understand what is going on in the world around him and stumbles into a murky, psycho-sexual nightmare that feels like an exceptionally odd amalgamation of ''The Wicker Man'' and early David Cronenberg and which gradually unveils a shocking secret that may prove to be a little less shocking to viewers with some working knowledge of the ins and outs of starfish.

Directing her first film since the 2004 art-house favorite ''Innocence'' (which is like a mirror image to this one in several ways), Lucille Hadziahalilovic has certainly made a visually intriguing film and there are a number of individual moments that are striking and haunting in equal measure. The problem is that while many of the elements on display here work as metaphorical meditations on gender roles, parent/child strife, pre-adolescent fear and confusion about human sexuality, alienation and other fun subjects, they donít really work as a story--this is one of those films that is so puzzling that even if you watched it with rapt attention throughout, you might be convinced afterwards that you dozed off during a couple of key moments that might have made sense of the whole thing. In addition, the kid is a blank, the women are slightly less interesting than that and everything on display is so goddamned symbolic and portentous that you can barely breathe while watching it. Even the bizarro stuff on display isnít that strange--certainly not enough to make up for the filmís other deficiencies. ''Evolution'' is certainly distinct and ambitious and those with a taste for the strange may embrace it. However, both as a straightforward film and as a mind-bender destined for the midnight movie market, ''Evolution'' never quite makes that final leap that would have transformed it into something truly interesting.

At 62, Jackie Chan may no longer quite be capable of the kind of astonishing physical derring-do that made him an international action star (though I daresay that he could still run rings around most people a fraction of his age without breaking a swart) but as his latest film, the goofily-titled Kung-Fu Yoga' shows, he is still capable of churning out a fairly satisfying and cheerfully entertaining adventure saga even when he isnít necessarily risking life and limb for a knockout shot. In it, he plays Jack Chan, an archeology professor and yoga enthusiast who is contacted by Indian counterpart Ashmita (DIsha Patani), who needs his help in uncovering a priceless treasure dating back to 647 AD. After arriving in the Kunlun mountains, their ranks bolstered by their respective teaching assistant (Amyra Dastur, Lay Zhang and Miya Murqi) and the son of a fellow archeologist whose first name just happens to be Jones (Aarif Rahman), they are ambushed by the forces of Randall (Sonu Sood), an Indian crime kingpin who wants the treasure for himself. This precipitates a globe-trotting (okay--China, Dubai and India) that finds Jackie trying to outwit the bad guys, solve the riddles that will lead him to the treasure and fight off endless arrays of bad guys, a plethora of snakes and even a lion named Little Jackie that pops up at a most inopportune moment.

As you can probably guess, ''Kung-Fu Yoga'' is not exactly shy about borrowing things from ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' (right down to a throwaway bit in Jackieís classroom where a lovestruck student tries to get someoneís attention via decorations on her eyelids) and while it never comes close to approaching the status of that classic, Chan and director Stanley Tong (whose previous collaborations have included ''Supercop'' and ''Rumble in the Bronx'') have still managed to spin a fun time out of the familiar material. Admittedly, it takes a while to get going--there is a historical prologue filled with very sketchy CGI and a lot of scenes containing far more gab than is really necessary--but one the first big fight scene, set in an icy cavern in the mountains, kicks off, the film gets on track with a number of well-staged action scenes that allow Chan to show off his moves while leaving his younger counterparts to do the trickier stuff while Tong comes up with new twists to liven things up, the best example being an elaborate car chase that gets an additional ingredient that really makes the sequence shine. As always, Chan remains one of the most sheerly likable movie stars around and is fun to watch here and, as his ally, Bollywood actress/model Disha Patani is equally engaging and, as a bonus, is one of the most ridiculously attractive people to step in front of a movie camera in a long time. ''Kung-Fu Yoga'' may not be anybodyís idea of a masterpiece but, unlike certain members of the cast, viewers wonít have to go through contortions in order to find things about it that they like.

Ever since it premiered at last yearís Cannes Film Festival, the German comedy/drama Toni Erdmann has been racking up awards and acclaim around the world (it is now a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) and even though I have seen it twice now, I am still at an utter loss as to understand what all the fuss is about. It tells the story of Winifred (Peter Simonischek), an amiable goofball who uses his retirement and the death of his dog as an excuse to go to Bucharest to pay a surprise visit on his corporate lackey daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). His fondness for silly jokes drives her to distraction and she insists that he return home. Deciding that she is in a rut that only he can get her out of, he turns up again--now barely disguised in a cheap suit, tacky wig and embarrassingly fake teeth--claiming to be her CEOís life coach and instigates a series of provocations designed to inspire her to a new path. As she responds to his various challenges, which are essentially practical jokes that she is both in on as well as the focus, she slowly begins to realize that not only does her father deserve a place in her life but that she is more like him than she is willing to admit.

In other words, Toni Erdmann is basically a Touchstone Pictures project from the early 90s that has been resurrected, been given a German touch and stretched by writer-director Mare Ade to a running time that clocks in at nearly three hours. (If Robin Williams were alive today, I am certain that an American remake starring him would already be in the works.) From a conceptual standpoint, that might sound perversely intriguing in the manner of the late Andy Kaufman going out on stage and reading aloud from ''The Great Gatsby'' (Ade has cited Kaufman as a key influence on this film) but in practice, the results--while never necessarily bad by any meansóare just not particularly interesting. Aside from one very funny sequence towards the end, the various outrages are not especially outrageous, neither one of the main characters are particularly interesting and the more dramatic and emotional moments are never as powerful and devastating as its proponents have suggested. I donít necessarily hate the film and it has received enough raves from people whose opinions I do respect to suggest that my inability to connect with it is more my fault than anything else. And yet, despite all of those people who have embraced ''Toni Erdmann'' wholeheartedly, I must confess that the whole thing pretty much left me cold.

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originally posted: 01/28/17 02:59:17
last updated: 01/28/17 06:22:41
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