Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception

Advertisements

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Box office champions tend to have the last laugh.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Rob Zombie, Rhoda Griffis, Seth Green (voice), David Hasselhoff, Gregg Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Chris Sullivan, Elizabeth Debicki. Directed by James Gunn

 

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, Da Queen loves everything Guardians, particularly Rocket Raccoon. If I were to say anything negative about either the franchise or the characters, I am likely to get the cold shoulder for weeks on end at best or a heavy object upside my head at worst. Thus, I waited for her to go out of town on business before publishing my review for this massive hit.

Taking place only four months after the first Guardians (making this 2014), the nascent team continues to bicker like, well, family. They are getting set to take on a CGI alien tentacle thing that is kind of a cross between a squid and the machine ships of the Matrix trilogy. Incongruously, Baby Groot (Diesel) sets up a boombox and dances along to the strains of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while all around him is chaos. That kind of sets things up and sums things up at the same time.

Rocket (Cooper) being a raccoon has a distinctly kleptomaniac kind of attitude and before long their former employers, the genetically perfect (but not too bright) Sovereign are after them and they are saved by a mysterious figure but are forced to crash land on a primitive planet to make repairs. There the mysterious figure reveals himself; his name is Ego (Russell) but more to the point, he’s also Star Lord’s (Pratt) dad and he invites his boy over to his planet for a bit of father-son bonding time. Rocket and Groot stay behind to repair the Merano and guard their prisoner Nebula (Gillan) while Gamora (Saldana) – sister to Nebula – and Drax (Bautista) go along for the ride, joining the ultra-empathetic Mantis (Klementieff) who works as a kind of valet for Ego.

Things being what they are for the Guardians, Ego turns out to be a God-like Celestial and as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and Ego’s power is as absolute as it gets. The Guardians are once again called into battle but can they overcome the power of a god?

This is everything fans of the first film hoped it would be; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it for Marvel fans in general (like a cameo appearance of Howard the Duck) and Guardians fans in particular like the appearance of the original Guardians team of Yondu (Rooker), Starhawk (Stallone), Charlie-27 (Rhames) and Aleta Ogord (Yeoh).

The downside of that is that it feels at times like Gunn is trying to cram a bit too much into the movie; not only is he setting up future Guardians movies as well as, indirectly, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War but he’s also trying to throw in a whole lot of Guardians lore while trying to tell a coherent story of his own. There is also a whole lot of carnage and some impressive battle scenes – a ton of them in fact – and for some it might end up being geek overload.

Gunn also wisely spreads the wealth among his talented cast; we get to learn a whole lot of backstory for all of the characters and while Peter Quill is the ostensible focus, Drax ends up getting almost all of the laughs while Nebula and Yondu are given some scenes of tremendous pathos. And yes, the sci-fi spectacle is all there from the art deco splendor of the Sovereign to Ego’s planet which the most ambitious computer effect is ever created to date with something over a trillion polygons of computer graphics.

The chemistry between the cast continues to be strong and while the story sometimes might be a little hard to follow, there is still some investment and I’m sure that Marvel’s lords and masters over at Disney were smiling at the theme of family which is one of their sweet spots. This year’s summer blockbuster slate has been inconsistent in quality but certainly it has had its share of smart and entertaining successes and this is one of the biggest so far.

REASONS TO GO: One of Kurt Russell’s best performances in years. The song selection is masterful. The special effects are truly special. Baby Groot nearly steals the show.
REASONS TO STAY: Gunn tries to pack in a little bit too much into the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (of the sci-fi nature), some mild profanity and a little suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glenn Close filmed scenes as Nova Prime but they ended up on the cutting room floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ice Pirates
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

New Releases for the Week of July 28, 2017


ATOMIC BLONDE

(Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, James Faulkner. Directed by David Leitch

The most lethal assassin in MI6 is sent on assignment to Berlin to smuggle a dossier out of the city which has been destabilized by opposing forces. In a simmering cauldron of betrayal and murder, she is allied with the embedded station chief to navigate the back alleys and halls of power to get what Her Majesty’s government requires of her. She soon realizes that she has been betrayed from within and you know what they say hell hath no fury like. This is based on the Oni Press graphic novel The Coldest City.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, B-roll video and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)

A Ghost Story

(A24) Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Kesha Sebert, Will Oldham. Recently deceased, a ghost – complete with white sheet – haunts his beloved home while silently observing his grief-stricken wife. He is also able to see other inhabitants of the house both past and present. The latest film from director David Lowery has gotten much acclaim on the festival circuit.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for brief language and a disturbing image)

The Emoji Movie

(Columbia) Starring the voices of T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Patrick Stewart. Deep in the heart of your smart phone lies a place called Textopolis where all your favorite emojis live. Each one of them has but one facial expression – except for poor Gene who has many. Wanting to be normal, he and his friends Hi-Five and Jailbreak search the phone and all its apps to find the code that will fix Gene. When unwittingly they discover a greater danger threatening the entire phone, the resourceful emojis will have to use all their skills to keep the emojis from being deleted for good.

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

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for rude humor)

The Exception

(A24) Christopher Plummer, Jai Courtney, Lily James, Janet McTeer. As the Second World War looms, Kaiser Wilhelm II lives in exile in the Netherlands. A German soldier is assigned to determine whether the Dutch resistance has a spy or spies in the former ruler’s household. In the course of his investigation he falls for a Dutch Jewish girl who may or may not be the droid he’s looking for.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Historical Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for sexuality, graphic nudity, language and brief violence)

OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Manifesto
Mubarakan
Vikram Vedha

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

13 Minutes
A Family Man
Imperfections
Lady Macbeth
Landline
Mubarakan
My Father’s Land
My Journey Through French Cinema
Vikram Vedha
Wolf Warrior 2

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

A Family Man
The Black Prince
Imperfections
The Last Face
Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back
Mubarakan

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

I, Daniel Blake
Mubarakan
Vikram Vedha

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

A Ghost Story
Atomic Blonde
The Emoji Movie
The Exception
Lady Macbeth
Landline

 

The Road to Mandalay


Oh, what a tangled web we weave.

(2016) Drama (Fine Time) Kai Ko, Ke-Xi Wu. Directed by Midi Z

Illegal immigration is at an epidemic all over the world. Repressive regimes, civil wars, genocides and economic hardships are forcing thousands and millions of people to leave their homes to seek a better life elsewhere. The citizens of Myanmar which most of us know as Burma and whose land has been torn by civil war as well as suffering under a particularly brutal military junta ruling their nation with an iron fist, are among those looking for a way out of their troubled land.

Lianquing (Wu) is among those streaming out into neighboring Thailand. She is rowed down a river to a meeting with smugglers who are to drive them over the border. Although she only has the cash to pay for passage in the trunk, a young man from her village – Guo (Ko) – gallantly changes places with her, giving her the expensive and much coveted passenger seat.

While it is obvious that Guo has a big-time crush on her, it is also just as obvious that their life goals are very different. Lianquing wants to get a Thai passport (by hook or by crook) and eventually move to Taiwan where there is opportunity to make something of herself whereas Guo has no ambition other than to one day return to Burma with enough cash to open up a stall where he can sell imported clothes at cut-rate prices.

Conditions are hard and without proper documents it is nearly impossible to find good jobs. There is enormous corruption and the undocumented workers work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, working brutal hours and having to pay “fees” to their employers and immigration officials in order to do it. Lianquing gets arrested in an immigration raid and is bailed out by Guo. By this time her cousin Hua, dispirited after losing her own job due to a lack of proper documents, throws Lianquing out after telling her to expect the same. Although Guo offers his sister’s house rent-free, the fiercely independent Lianquing prefers to live in a dormitory with other undocumented workers.

She gets work in the same factory that Guo works in and their romance slowly begins to take hold, although things are often rocky between them. Guo for one thing thinks her attempts to get proper documentation are a waste of time and money, and he is there time after time to pick up the pieces when her hopes and dreams are shattered when she pays some pretty hefty sums for papers that are useless to her cause. Desperate, she makes a choice that will change both their lives forever.

The plight of immigrants leaving Burma is a favorite subject of director Midi Z and this may well be the most focused and powerful of his four films to date. Certainly he gets some extremely strong performances from both his leads; I was most impressed by the efforts of Wu who is often stone-faced, using her body language to convey her emotional state and to say things she can’t say out loud. Ko has terrific chemistry with her, both awkward and tender as he tries to win her and is increasingly frustrated by her refusal to go further into a relationship than he would like.

One of the things that I found that worked real well here is that the images are often bright and sunny, and the tone almost cheerful despite the plight of Lianquing and Guo which makes for visual irony. Beautiful place, terrible circumstances and of course the two make for a meaningful juxtaposition.

The drawback here is that the movie is paced as if it has nowhere particular to go. There are plenty of shots of Lianquing staring into the darkness; I suppose that is meant to portray her state of mind but as I said earlier she doesn’t utilize a whole lot of facial expression here. These shots as time goes on get less and less useful and more and more unnecessary.

Mostly we seem to be more concerned with Syrian refugees and Central American refugees; we tend to forget that there are people fleeing oppression all over the glove. The brutal existence of undocumented workers is nothing to celebrate, but if it wasn’t better than the lives these illegal immigrants were fleeing than they’d probably stay put. Definitely this is an important film that calls clarion to up and coming talents in the forms of Ko, Wu and Midi Z.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers try to portray a realistic depiction of the plight of illegal immigrants in Asia. Wu acts mainly through body language rather than facial expression – effectively so. The cinematography utilizes a lot of natural light, giving a chillingly cheerful tone to a movie that is downbeat.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is way too slow – there are far too many shots of Lianquing staring at nothing in the darkness.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief but disturbing images as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Midi Z was born in Burma (also known as Myanmar) but he left the repressive regime there to attend art school in Taiwan where he currently resides.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: English as a Second Language
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Truth Beneath

Battle of Memories (Ji yi da shi)


This battle may remain in your memory.

(2017) Psychological Thriller (China Lion) Bo Huang, Jinglei Xu, Yihong Duan, Zishan Yang, Tiffany Hsu, Hanmeng Du, Jieli Liang, Eoin O’Brien, Zhener Wang. Directed by Leste Chen

What makes us the person we are? While some would say genetics there are those who insist that it is our memories that make us who we are. If that is true, it stands to reason that if those memories are taken away that we would change as people.

It is the year 2025 and the technology exists to “surgically” remove unwanted memories from the human brain utilizing a Lasik-like device. Bestselling author Jiang Feng (Huang) is undergoing this treatment. He and his wife Zhang Daichen (Xu) are divorcing and he finds his memories of her too painful. However when the procedure is completed she insists that she won’t sign the papers until the memories are reinserted.

Fortunately, the new technology has a kind of “buyer’s remorse” feature that allows those memories to be put back in, although it will take 72 hours for the memories to fully reconstitute. Once that happens, they cannot be removed again. Therefore Zhang can sign the papers and Jiang can have the memories once again removed so long as she signs within three days.

However, something is wrong – Jiang is having flashbacks of murder, a murder he didn’t commit. It soon becomes apparent that a gigantic screw-up has taken place – he’s been given the memories of the wrong man and it turns out that the man is a serial murderer. When Jiang approaches detectives Shen (Duan) and Lei (Liang) they are at first skeptical. As Jiang’s memories become more and more clear they soon realize he’s telling the truth but they lock him up anyway – after all, he could be the actual killer trying to give himself an alibi. He is put under the psychiatric care of Chen Shanshan (Hsu).

Jiang is anxious to co-operate but he has an ulterior motive; it stands to reason that if he has the wrong memories, the real killer has his own. With his wife Daichen in mortal danger, Jiang gets more and more frantic. Worse still, the memories are  beginning to change Jiang fundamentally, turning him from a gentle, sweet man into an angry violent one. Can the murders be solved before Jiang loses his personality to the unwanted one taking over his mind?

This is essentially a cop thriller with sci-fi overtones but those who are less comfortable with speculative fiction be of good cheer – other than the memory removal machine, there is little that distinguishes 2017 from 2025, although the production design has a sleek modern look to it. The memory switch is essentially a plot device and the mechanics and ramifications of it are not explored at any great length. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s a nifty premise but the filmmakers seem content to go full-on psychological thriller.

Huang has a bit of a hangdog look early on but as the movie progresses he becomes a bit more unstable and at times frankly scary. His unwanted memories contain scenes of serious domestic abuse and it becomes a major thematic element of the film. The psychology of abuse – the victim’s tendency to make excuses for the abuser, the assurance that the violence is an aberration and not a trend, the victim-blaming – all of it is part of the story. Huang captures both the sweet Jiang and the scary Jiang with nimble ease.

Chen uses the hoary old device of filming the flashbacks in black and white but it ends up making sense, particularly since cinematographer Charlie Lam is not only comfortable with the medium but also adept. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the ones with the ugliest subject matter, and that is all Lam’s doing.

I would have liked to see a bit more of the sci-fi element emphasized; it makes the memory removal surgery seem exclusively a plot point rather than something that is a part of life as it is in other movies that use the conceit. That aside, this is an extremely well-made and well-written thriller with plenty of twists and turns including a final swerve which is at least a pretty nifty idea although the execution could have used some work. This is the kind of film I could see being remade as a Hollywood production. It has all the right elements for a box office winner. Those who appreciate good psychological thrillers should keep a sharp eye out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is absolutely terrific. The ending twist is one of the best I’ve seen recently. Some of the memory removal mythology is well-considered. Domestic abuse is utilized as a theme about as well as it could be.
REASONS TO STAY: The thriller element is somewhat by-the-numbers. The film runs quite a bit too long..
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and related disturbing images
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second psychological thriller Chen has made starring a member of China’s hugely popular Lost In slapstick comedy series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Road to Mandalay