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Films I Neglected To Review: "I'm Seeing Triple--Nine Vanessa Hudgens!"
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Collective," "Jiu Jitsu," "The Last Vermeer," "Mangrove," "The Princess Switch: Switched Again," "The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special" and "Vanguard."

I could not even begin to guess how many documentaries I have seen over the years but I don't think that I have ever seen one that so powerfully illustrates just how widespread corruption in business and politics can get and how many lives can literally be destroyed just so that a few people can make a lot of money than Alexander Nanau's astonishing and rage-inspiring film "Collective." It begins with an enormous tragedy--a 2015 fire in the crowded Bucharest nightclub Collectiv during a concert that claims 27 lives--that only grows worse when an additional 37 victims end up dying over the next few weeks as a result of inadequate hospital facilities and infections, despite the clams by the Social Democrat government's Minister of Health that the country's facilities were just as good as those found anywhere else. Most of the first half of the film is focused on journalist Catalin Tolontan and his colleagues at the Sports Gazette as they uncover an almost unfathomable web of greed, scandal and corruption that eventually leads to the toppling of the government. The second half shifts its focus to Vlad Voiculescu, a patients rights activist who is named the new government's Minister of Health and who allows Nanu and his crew incredible access to his office as he continues to expose new avenues of corruptions while trying to simultaneously convince a now-suspicious public that he is trying to turn things around and combat the lies and propaganda of the Social Democrats as they attempt to return to power.

Eschewing talking head interviews for a pure fly-on-the-wall observational approach, Nanu presents a portrait of a conspiracy so vast and so utterly indifferent to anything resembling humanity that it would likely be dismissed as paranoid fantasy if it had been conceived as a fictional story. And yet, although "Collective" is both infuriating and horrifying in equal measure (and woe unto anyone who needs to go to a hospital after watching it), it also serves as an important testament to the importance of investigative journalism and the willingness of dedicated journalists to pursue stories that donít smell right and bring the dirty secrets that have the power to affect us all out in the open. At a time when the entire journalistic profession is under attack, "Collectiv" serves as a timely reminder that it is one of the bedrocks of a true democracy and that a free and independent working press is always in the public's best interests.

Seeing as how it is a hybrid of "Predator" and "Mortal Kombat" in which a warrior suffering from amnesia is compelled to do hand-to-hand combat with an interstellar warrior who appears via a portal in a Burmese temple every six years to fight the one he considers to be worthy of the honor--with the fate of the planet in danger if he is refused--my guess is that it will come as little surprise to most viewers to discover that "Jiu Jitsu" does indeed feature Nicolas Cage in its cast. What is surprising, though, is how little a part he plays in the overall proceedings. Our hero is instead played by Alain Moussi, who may have the kind of physique that makes him look like an action hero but shuffles through the proceedings as though he took about three shots to the head right before co-writer/director Dimitri Logothetis began every take. As for Cage, he plays a mysterious hermit who turns up about 40 minutes into the movie to explain the plot and offer support to our dazed and confused hero, a task that he has apparently decided to make more interesting by basing his entire performance, costume and all, on Dennis Hopper's memorably freaky turn in "Apocalypse Now." This is momentarily diverting, I suppose, but not quite diverting enough to overcome the otherwise tiresome nature of the proceedings or how weirdly removed the stuff with Cage seems to be from them--his scenes often feel as if they have been artlessly dropped in from an entirely different movie. Other than Cage, the only real moment of interest comes when one of the elongated fight scenes suddenly takes a bizarre visual shift from the third to first person, an arresting bit that ends too soon and which is never replicated. Action fans with extremely low expectations may find "Jiu Jitsu" to be mildly diverting but if you are interested primarily for a bit of Cage-style nuttiness, you--and he--can do much better than this.

The basic story and central character of "The Last Vermeer" are so undeniably fascinating that it is a little bewildering to see them handled by the filmmakers in a manner that seems to be deliberately going out of its way to render them both as dull and uninteresting as possible. It revolves around Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), a failed Amsterdam-based artist who helped to fund his lavish lifestyle during WWII by selling precious artworks to Nazis, including a Vermeer painting that he sold to Goering for the then-astronomical sum of 1.6 million guilders. In the weeks following the end of the war, Goering's art collection is discovered and former Resistance fighter Joseph Piller (Claus Bang) is charged with tracking down how they were acquired and who sold them to him. This eventually leads to his crossing paths with van Meegeren, who is soon charged with collaborating with the Nazis and selling them stolen artwork, both capital crimes. However, something doesn't sit right with Piller--how did van Meegeren get his hands on a priceless work like the Vermeer in the first place?--and he sneaks him out of custody and stashes him away while delving further into the case, leading to any number of starling discoveries--though the degree of startlingness may vary depending on how much you know about van Meegeren going in.

The problem with "The Last Vermeer" is not so much the story as the manner in which it has been told. Han van Meegeren is an undeniably fascinating character and a film based solely upon his life and escapades might have proven to be just as fascinating and complex as he clearly was. Sure, the big surprise reveal at the halfway mark would be eradicated but it could have been replaced with a more interesting and nuanced work that could have grappled with questions of art, life and the compromises that one is forced--perhaps not that unwillingly--to make in order to survive under a totalitarian reign. Here, however, the focus is on Piller as he conducts his investigation, grapples with his unresolved feeling regarding his wife (Vicky Kreips) and the things she needed to do to survive during the war as part of the Dutch Resistance, and defends van Meegeren as he goes on trial for his life during the court case that takes up most of the film's second half. By going that way, much of the potentially interesting drama is cast aside in order to make room for the usual array of courtroom theatrics and Pearce's scenery-chewing turn as van Meegeren. In the end, "The Last Vermeer" is a glossy but ultimately blah programmer that never demonstrates any particular reason for its existence, except to possibly serve as inspiration for someone to make another film or a documentary that will do van Meegeren and his story justice.

Although his work has been hailed around the world, I have to confess that the films of British director Steve McQueen--which have included "Hunger" (2008), "Shame" (2011), "12 Years a Slave" (2013) and "Widows" (2018)--have not done much of anything for me. Oh, he is an undeniably talented artist but there is something about his approach that has just never clicked with me--his films have always felt more like elaborate art installations based around grandly important ideas instead of compelling narratives. Even a comparatively grubbier genre piece like "Widows" strained so hard for greatness in every frame that all the life and energy was eventually choked out of it. That, however, is not the case with "Mangrove," the first installment of "Small Axe," a series of five films revolving around the experiences of London's West Indian community through the Seventies and early Eighties that will be premiering on Amazon over the next few weeks. The film tells the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parker), an immigrant from Trinidad whose Notting Hill restaurant became the target of race-based harassment from the local police. When the community takes to the streets one day to protest this treatment, the police step in and arrest nine protestors, including Crichlow and union organizer Atheia Jone-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) on a litany of trumped-up charges that include inciting a riot. The subsequent trial (Spoiler Alert) would become a bit of a circus as the story presented by the police collapsed on the stand and the case would become significant not only because all were acquitted but because the presiding judge was essentially forced to concede that there was indeed racism on the part of the police.

The difference between this film and McQueen's other efforts is as clear as the difference between night and day. Instead of bringing an imposing and oftentimes ponderous approach to the material--the kind that never let you forget that you were in the hands of an Artist--he handles it in a more direct and forthright manner that does an uncommonly effective job of encompassing the anger and horror at these past events while quietly reminding viewers that the issues at heart--racism, immigration, police violence--are still incredibly relevant today in a way that the superficially similar "The Trial of the Chicago 7," for all of its virtues, never quite managed to pull off. Besides McQueen's smart handling of the narrative, the film also benefits mightily from the powerhouse lead performance from Parkes as Crichlow, a man who has admittedly done some shady things in the past and is so determined to turn over a new leaf that he is willing to put everything he has on the line because he has nothing to lose. "Mangrove" is a stirring film that works both as a historical document and as a human drama and if the other installments of the "Small Axe" series are as strong as this one, it could indeed turn out to be one of the major cinematic events of the year.

Two years ago, "The Princess Switch" offered viewers the chance to view a mashup of "The Prince and the Pauper" and all those factory-issued basic cable Christmas movies that my brother and his wife watch with inexplicable regularity with a tale of a Chicago baker (Vanessa Hudgens) who travels to a foreign country for a baking contest, discovers that she is a dead ringer for the local princess (also Hudgens) and winds up switching places with her for a couple of days of whimsy and romantic complications that wind up ending happily for all involved. As forgettable as it ultimately was, the film clearly struck a chord with its target audience and now we have the not-exactly-necessary "The Princess Switch: Switched Again," a film as bold and adventurous as its title suggests. As this one opens, we learn that Duchess Margaret is about to be crowned Queen of Montenaro and that her romance with humble baker Kevin (Nick Sagar) has fallen aside. Obviously this cannot stand so Stacy, the lookalike former baker now happily married to Prince Edward (Sam Palladio), makes a brief stopover on her way to the coronation to pick up Kevin and his moppet daughter and bring them along in the hopes of rekindling the spark that once grew between him and Margaret. Alas, Margaret is so busy that she can hardly spare a moment to talk things out with Kevin (though there is enough time for her to somehow accidentally dump a sack of flour on him) and so she and Stacy contrive to pull another switch so that Margaret can have some quality time with him while Stacy fills in for her regal duties for a few hours. Alas, before they can switch back, the big plan is upended by lookalike royal cousin Fiona, a black sheep relation who elects to kidnap Margaret (actually Stacy) as part of an overly elaborate plot to loot the royal treasury of millions before fleeing to an island paradise without extradition.

Look, I am not completely averse to the pleasures of cheerfully silly nonsense involving princesses and crazy mix-em-ups--if the long-rumored third "Princess Diaries" movie ever gets off the ground, I would greet it with the sort of anticipation that most people deploy for the latest superhero extravaganzas--and will readily attest to the fact that Vanessa Hudgens is still as adorable as can be, even after "Spring Breakers" demonstrated definitively that she could be a lot more than that when given the right material. That said, watching this film is roughly akin to being hit in the head with an endless array of sugarplums for 96 straight minutes--even by holiday movie standards, it spends too much time trying to be as warm and fuzzy as possible and not nearly enough time on even the most rudimentary aspects of storytelling. Of course, these criticisms will likely seem meaningless to those who enjoyed the first film and who essentially want to see it for a second time. Those people will probably enjoy it on some basic level but while they may come away from it eager for the all-but-inevitable third installment, my guess is that many of them may hope that any future film will change up the formula at least a little bit. My suggestion--instead of once again aping "The Prince and the Pauper," try doing an homage to either "Duck Soup" or "Face/Off" instead.

As someone who is actually old enough to remember watching the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special" during its original 1978 broadcast and being bewildered by the whole thing even then, I admit to having been slightly curious by the announcement of the imminent arrival of "The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special," debuting almost exactly 42 years later to the date. Was it possible that Disney+ had, in a fit of madness, had elected to blow a chunk of subscriber money on a Legoized version of what remains arguably the most notorious element of the ever-sprawling "Star WarsĒ legacy," right down to the sight of a Lego Bea Arthur once again behind the bar of the cantina? That might have been a thing of bizarre glory but other than both being set on the all-encompassing holiday known as Life Day, there is no real connection between the two. In this one, Rey is struggling to gain a deeper knowledge of the force in order to help Finn train as a Jedi and leaves her friends to prepare for Life Day as she visits a remote temple that contains a device that sends her and BB-8 on a trip through various points in the entire timeline, allowing her to witness key moments in the history of the saga while inspiring the Emperor and Darth Vader to try to snag it for their own diabolical ends. In essence, this is little more than 44 minutes of blatant fan service filled with enough color and noise to keep little kids occupied and enough references and in-jokes to keep their parents and older siblings mildly amused. Some of the bits are amusing but too much of it feels like a relentlessly toothless episode of "Robot Chicken" and while it is ultimately a little too short to fully wear out its welcome, it does come pretty close to accomplishing that dubious goal. As bad and bizarre as the original "Holiday Special" may have been, at least it wasnít at all forgettable and there is an excellent chance that we will still be talking about it 42 years from now, which will most likely prove not to be the case with this new one.

Considering the fact that Jackie Chan is now 66 years old and inevitably not nearly as spry as he was when he astounded moviegoers around the world with action extravaganzas in which he came across as the possible love child of Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton, only a churl of the highest order would dare criticize "Vanguard," his latest effort with longtime collaborator Stanley Tong, for not living up to the astonishing heights that they set with such classics as "Supercop" and "Rumble in the Bronx." Unfortunately, the film proceeds to give viewers a multitude of elements that are very much worthy of intense criticism. Chan plays Tang Huating, the head of a London-based high-tech security firm that appears to be equipped with the kind of budget and resources that would be the envy of most developed nations. As the story opens, Vanguard rescues wealthy businessman Qin (Jackson Lou) and his wife from a bold kidnapping attempt staged in the middle of a Chinese New Year parade. The kidnapping was attempted by a terrorist cell led by a wild-eyed Arab whose father was betrayed by Qin and he now dispatches his men to Africa, where Qin's daughter, Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) is working as a nature conservationist, to kidnap her to use as a bargaining chip in his vendetta against her father. Tang and his operatives get there first and thus begins a cat-and-mouse pursuit involving elaborate action sequences breaking out in a number of international locales.

Although Chan is the best thing about the film--even with the combined toll of the years and countless injuries, he can still occasionally conjure up a move that blindsides you with its sheer gracefulness---there isn't nearly enough of him and his charms to help overcome the other flaws as was the case in the past. Most of the heavy lifting--not to mention punching, kicking and the like--is done by the younger cast members and while their efforts are adequate, none of them inspire the kind of joy that one derived from seeing Chan go through his paces. Of course, back in those glory days, one got an additional thrill from the knowledge that they were seeing real people doing real and often quite dangerous stunts. Here, so many of the action beats have been augmented with CGI, running the gamut from adequate to dodgy, that they lose any of the tension that they might have once maintained. As for the non-action aspects, the story is an uninteresting paint-by-numbers contraption that veers between the formulaic and the borderline racist, the characters are largely forgettable and Tong allows the proceedings to drag along at an unforgivably pokey pace. Look, Jackie Chan is one of the great movie stars of our time and the fact that he is still up and kicking in movies is a cause to celebrate but if it comes to a choice between retiring or more films as forgettable as "Vanguard," my guess is that I would not be the only fan who would prefer for him to retire gracefully instead of tarnishing the memory of his accomplishments with slipshod product like this.

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originally posted: 11/20/20 04:34:39
last updated: 11/20/20 04:57:09
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