Pandora (2016)


Disasters bring chaos.

(2016) Disaster (Netflix) Nam-gil Kim, Jung Jin-Young, Yeong-ae Kim, Junghi Moon, Kyeong-yeong Lee, Myung-min Kim, Shin-il Kang, Se-dong Kim, Seong-mok Yoo, Dae-myeong Kim, Joo-hyeon Kim, Gang-yoo Bae, Han-jong Kim. Directed by Jong-woo Park

 

Nuclear power has been controversial for nearly half a century; the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have only furthered that controversy. While some countries have moved to phase out nuclear power as part of their energy production, South Korea continues to support their nuclear power program and in fact is moving to expand it.

Jae-hyuk (Nam-gil) is a technician at the Hanbyul nuclear plant near Busan. He is unenthusiastic about his employment there; his father and brother both died because of their work at the plant and he wonders if he is meant for the same fate. He lives with his mother Mrs. Seok (Yeong-ae), his sister-in-law Jung-hye (Junghi) and his nephew. He has a girlfriend, Yeon-ju (Joo-hyeon) who is pretty and encouraging but he finds it tough to get out of bed in the mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, the country’s young President Kang (Myung-min) reads a report from the Hanbyul chief engineer (Jin-young) detailing safety concerns and the company’s corner-cutting when it comes to maintenance. The idealistic President means to investigate but is thwarted by the Prime Minister (Kyeong-yeong) who is in the pocket of the corporation that runs Hanbyul.

Things are about to come to a head however; a 6.1 earthquake rocks the village and the gaskets on the coolant pipes spring some terrifying leaks. The maintenance deficiencies come to roost as the plant comes closer and closer to a major meltdown. With the cowardly management backed by the sniveling Prime Minister try to cover things up and refuse to allow the Chief Engineer to implement the measures he needs because they don’t want anyone to know what they’ve been up to. Finally, when all seems lost the technicians of Hanbyul will face an impossible choice.

Disaster films are all the rage these days in Korea and Jong-woo Park has a good one under his belt (Deranged) and this one did some major box office damage in December of last year. While most of the actors will be unfamiliar to Americans in general (unless they happen to be fans of Korean cinema) this is definitely an all-star line-up in Korea. Given the impeachment proceedings going on against the South Korean president and the extraordinary mishandling of the Sewon Ferry disaster by his government, it’s no wonder Koreans are flocking to these sorts of movies.

The movie is a mixture of disaster action and political/corporate intrigue and Park melds them seamlessly, with a slight edge going to the intrigue portions. Not that the action sequences are any slouch; some of the best effects houses in South Korea were utilized to make the nuclear plant set realistic (as no Korean power plants would allow filming in or near their facilities) and the damage is realistically done.

Also realistic is the reaction of the town populace which is mostly panic and chaos with a few notable exceptions. Nam-gil makes a decent hero and while his last scene is stretched out to near ludicrous length, his performance is nonetheless heartfelt. American audiences may have issues with the dialogue which is nearly all shouted as is traditional in Asian films. There is also an extraordinary amount of puking going on which I suppose you’d expect in a movie which depicts radiation poisoning to the levels you would imagine to be a given with a radiation leak of this magnitude.

The comic relief may be a bit too broad for American tastes and might feel inappropriate given the gravity of the subject. Still, I think American audiences who are willing to forgive that sort of thing will find this extremely entertaining and while the specific political references may go shooting over our heads, we can certainly relate to the collusion between politicians and corporate weasels to screw over the environment and the people living in it for the sake of profit. That sort of thing is sadly quite universal.

REASONS TO GO: The movie succeeds on a technical level. The general panic is accurately depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit over-wrought in places. The comic relief might be a bit too broad for American tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of disaster violence, some gruesome images, a bit of mild profanity, more puke than you can shake a stick at and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to be pre-sold to Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The China Syndrome
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: David Lynch: The Art Life

Power Rangers


Welcome to your childhood, revisited.

(2017) Science Fiction (Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Caroline Cave, Kayden Magnuson, Lisa Berry, Wesley MacInnes, John Stewart, Fiona Fu. Directed by Dean Israelite

 

Never underestimate the value of nostalgia in selling a franchise movie. The toys and games of our youth become the $100 million franchise film of our present. Michael Bay turned a TV show meant to sell toys into a billion dollar film franchise which shows no sign of abating.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were arguably a bigger kid’s show in their day. Certainly it paved the way for all sorts of shows that were arguably toy ads and included such shows as Pokémon and Animorphs.  There were a couple of movies made with the Rangers (the first one I was forced to endure since my son was a MMPR junkie at the time) but while the show has continued in a variety of forms over the years, it hasn’t quite had the same cache as it did back in the day. Now Saban, the American distributor of the original, has started a film arm and is pulling out what is arguably their most valuable property to help get it going.

Five misfit teenagers in the sleepy California town of Angel Grove have been drawn together. Jock Jason (Montgomery) has a bright athletic future ahead of him but throws it all away for the sake of an unfunny prank that ends up getting him arrested. Kimberly (Scott) is a cheerleader whose clique has turned against her. Billy (Cyler) is a brilliant but bullied young man who is on the autism spectrum. Jason, who hates bullies, stands up for Billy but not because he is bullied – Billy is able to disarm the ankle bracelet he’s forced to wear.

Billy takes his two new friends to an old mine his late father used to take him to. There they meet Zack (Lin), an outgoing Asian kid and Trini (G), a Latina loner. The five of them discover that they picked a mine that happened to be above a buried alien spacecraft where they discover five coins. The coins give them a variety of super powers but nothing like what they would have if they could manifest the Power Ranger suits.

At least, that’s what giant head Zordon (Cranston) tells them. With his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Hader), the five are meant to be the new Power Rangers who have to battle interstellar baddie Rita Repulsa (Banks) who has plans to nab the Zeo Crystal and destroy the planet – unless the bickering teens can get their act together and team up to beat her and her giant robot Goldar. We’re doomed.

It’s hard in some ways for someone like me to review this; I really didn’t follow the show and while my son was way into it for a certain part of his youth, it was his show, not mine. We didn’t watch it together but that was okay – it was something that could be his and his alone, which is important for a young boy. The connection I have to the show is tenuous and the Easter eggs and cameos that litter the film go straight over my head. Younger people who grew up with the show in the 90s will find more resonance here than I ever could so keep that in mind.

The special effects are fairly spectacular for the most part – the climactic battle is a little bit overwrought and difficult to follow. It takes a long time to get there however; the Rangers don’t appear in uniform until the movie is nearly done and the dinosaur-like vehicles they operate, the Zords don’t appear until even later.

The movie is chock full of terms and expressions that will only make sense to those who grew up with the show.  That’s okay, mind you, but just be warned that those of us who weren’t into the show will have less of an experience. The same thing can be said about the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies and so on and so forth. That’s kind of the point of going to see a movie like this.

The movie is a bit schizophrenic in that part of it seems to want to be a slam-bang action movie and the other more of a Freeform teen angst movie. Israelite is more successful at the latter than the former and quite frankly the integration of the two could have been better and I think that’s where the movie has its biggest issue. When the action sequences come, they are a bit on the cheesy side and don’t look terribly convincing. They’re also quite jarring when you put them together with teens who are sexting, experiencing sensuality for the first times in their lives, dealing with autism and bullying and alienation from not only the adults in their lives but from people in general. All the special effects in the world can’t help you with those.

If you loved the original series, chances are that you’ll enjoy this depending on how much a stickler you are for keeping things the way they were in the 90s. Chances are you’ll have seen this already as well. For those wondering if they should catch this at the local dollar theater, do. It should definitely be experienced on a big screen with big sound. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a mediocre movie that could have used less of an eye on the bottom line and more of an eye on writing a great story involving these characters instead of one drowning helplessly in liquid cheese.

REASONS TO GO: There is a nostalgia factor for those who grew up with the original TV show.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries to be both an action movie and a young adult drama and doesn’t really integrate the two disparate sides together very well.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of sci-fi violence, a smattering of mild profanity and a little bit of crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third Power Ranger movie to make the big screen (although as a reboot it isn’t connected to the other two) and the first in 20 years to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pandora

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

New Releases for the Week of May 26, 2017


PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Kevin McNally. Directed by Joachim Renning and Espen Sandberg

Jack Sparrow returns to the high seas but not in the style in which he has been accustomed. Down on his luck having lost the Black Pearl, he ekes out a living pirating on the desultory Dying Gull, a small and shabby ship with a small and shabby crew. But as bad as things are, ill winds are blowing a storm in of biblical proportions as a deranged and enraged Spanish captain returns from the dead to wreak revenge on all pirates – particularly one named Jack Sparrow.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence, and some suggestive content)

96 Souls

(Gravitas) Grinnell Morris, Sid Veda, Paul Statman, Toyin Moses. A university researcher, about to lose his funding, has an accident in the lab. Afterwards, he discovers he can see what the true intentions of people are. Like most superpowers, it makes his life a whole lot worse.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Baywatch

(Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Priyanka Chopra. This reboot of the hit 90s TV series sees head lifeguard Mitch Buchanan budding heads with a new recruit – an Olympic champion who has been brought aboard to rehabilitate the fading Baywatch brand. When the two discover a criminal conspiracy that may threaten the bay and their livelihoods forever, the two are forced to take action.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release (opened Thursday)

Rating: R (for language throughout, crude sexual content and graphic nudity)

The Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

(Broad Green) Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuando. The sequel to the groundbreaking documentary looks back at the history of the Buena Vista Social Club and its effect on the music and culture of Cuba. With the island nation facing an uncertain future in the wake of the death of Fidel Castro and the loosening of embargo restrictions by the United States, the surviving members of the group look to be part of that future.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for historical smoking throughout, thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

Chuck

(IFC) Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman. Chuck Wepner was a mid-level boxer who’d had some success, but not really a lot of it. When Muhammad Ali, then the boxing champion of the world, decided he wanted to fight an underdog to celebrate America, Wepner was the boxer he chose. The improbable fight would eventually become the inspiration for Rocky.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Biography
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity and some bloody images)

David Lynch – The Art Life

(Janus/Amazon) David Lynch. Once the enfant terrible of filmmaking, Lynch went from cult classics like Eraserhead to Oscar nominees like The Elephant Man with stops at Dune, Videodrome and Twin Peaks along the way. This documentary looks at the creative process of Lynch who also looks at his less-known but equally brilliant career as a painter as well.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Drone

(Screen Media) Sean Bean, Mary McCormack, Joel David Moore, Patrick Sabongui. A high-level defense contractor operates covert drone missions, then goes home to his wife and son and a suburban life far removed from what he does for a living. When a Pakistani businessman who believes the contractor was responsible for the death of his family, the contractor will have to come to grips not only with keeping himself and his family safe but also the guilt for the things that he’s done.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Lovers

(A24) Debra Winger, Tracy Letts, Aidan Gillen, Melora Walters. A middle-aged married couple has seen their marriage slowly lose its luster over the years. Both are in the middle of long-term affairs and both are growing more committed to their partners outside of their marriage. On the verge of calling it quits, something quite unexpected happens – they fall in love with each other all over again.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace

Rating: R (for sexuality and language)

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan