Return to Mount Kennedy


There are all sorts of ways to conquer peaks.

(2019) Documentary (1091Bob Whittaker, Chris Kennedy, Eddie Vedder, Malcolm Taylor, Senator Robert Kennedy, Jim Whittaker, Mark Arm, Bruce Pavitt, Matt Lukin, Steve Turner, Leif Whittaker, Dan Peters, Dave Hahn, Blanche Montbroussous, Eric Becker, Brian Jones, Dr. Michael Ross, Rich Hayward. Directed by Eric Becker

 

Often, we compare the greatest obstacles in our lives to mountain peaks. Scaling those peaks is used as a metaphor for overcoming those obstacles. Like our own limitations, the loftiest peaks are often the ones in our own mind; once we get around to climbing them, we find they aren’t so tall after all.

Bob Whittaker lived under an enormous shadow. His father Jim was the first American to scale Mt. Everest and was a national hero. He also co-founded the REI sporting goods chain and was the CEO there until he retired a few years ago. He is named for one of his father’s closest friends; Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of the former President and former Attorney General during his brother’s administration.

In 1965, the tallest unscaled peak in North America was Mount Kennedy in Canada. As the peak was named for his brother, then-Senator Kennedy thought that it would be fitting if he were to accompany the first team to scale the peak. Even though he had no previous mountain climbing experience, the Senator was in safe hands as one of the leaders of the expedition was Jim Whittaker. It was there that the two formed a bond that would last until the Senator’s tragic assassination in Los Angeles just three years later. Bobby Kennedy’s son Chris speaks affectionately of Jim Whittaker taking on some of his late father’s duties, helping guide the young boy into manhood.

But Jim was away a lot during Bob’s childhood and the two grew estranged. Bob became a part of the grunge scene in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, becoming road manager for the indie rock legends Mudhoney. A somewhat wild and personable young man, he became the face of the Seattle scene for many. To this day he counts among his friends such luminaries as Eddie Vedder. Bob would eventually become road manager for REM for a dozen years before moving on to all sorts of other bands.

But rock music is a young man’s game and as Bob grew older, he began to pull away from the glamour of the music scene. He began to appreciate the joys of the wilderness. He became active in creating and maintaining green spaces in and around Seattle, and then in Washington state. Like his father before him, he became an avid conservationist and outdoorsman.

As the 50th anniversary of his father’s trek up Mount Kennedy with his good friend Robert Kennedy loomed, Bob began to think about that accomplishment and what it meant to his family. He decided that it would be a good opportunity to reconnect with his brother Leif, who had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a respected climber. Chris Kennedy was also invited and the son of the late Senator jumped at the chance even though he, like his father before him, had no mountain climbing experience.

The documentary tells the parallel stories of the two expeditions to the mountain in alternating fashion, entwining the story of the elder Whittaker and the late Presidential candidate with that of their sons. Legacy plays a big part in the movie’s theme; for all three of the men, their father’s achievements are inspiration to do something important with their lives. While at times it is a burden to them – as it is to most sons – it is also a source of pride to them as well – as it is to most sons.

The movie has almost a schizophrenic nature; there are the serene, wild places of the mountains and the Pacific Northwest and there’s the loud grunge, rock and roll excess of the music scene. Both make up different sides of Bob Whittaker and both are equally valid, even if he is emphasizing the mountains more than the music these days. It couldn’t have been an easy path from one to the other; it certainly isn’t the path most take in that direction but it seems to have worked for Whittaker.

But it isn’t Bob Whittaker’s movie alone, even if he is in most respects the central character. It is about family, first and foremost; for sons paying tribute to fathers. Its friends gone but not forgotten. It also gives us a glimpse at Bobby Kennedy and even as brief and superficial a glimpse as it is, it makes one sad to think of all the good he might have accomplished had he not been murdered for no real reason.

I don’t know that this is necessarily inspirational. I didn’t feel moved to recreate my father’s greatest triumphs by watching this but I was given a certain feeling, one of knowing that like Bob Whittaker, Leif Whittaker and Chris Kennedy, I’m walking in the footsteps on the trail my own father blazed. Being reminded of that may not necessarily set the world on fire, but it is important – and comforting – nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Bob Whittaker’s enthusiasm is infectious. The stories from the first climb are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a bit of focus during the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mount Kennedy lies in the St. Elias Mountain Range located in Kluane National Park, in Yukon, Canada. The peak was named for the slain U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1964 as a tribute by the nation of Canada.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

Little Woods


When you’re knocked to the floor it can be a savage affair getting back to your feet.

(2018) Drama (NEON) Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Rochelle Robinson, Morgana Shaw, Joe Stevens, Brandon Potter, Alexis West, Lydia Tracy, Gary Teague, Jeremy St. James, Carolyn Hoffman, Lawrence Varnado, Jason Newman, Stan Taylor, Charlie Ray Reid, Max Hartman, Allison Moseley. Directed by Nia DaCosta

Sometimes, I wonder how on earth we ever ended up with our current President. One need look no further than this film which addresses issues that hit close to home for far too many working Americans, particularly those in rural areas – issues that the other party failed to address in 2016 and if they don’t get their act together and start talking to these same working Americans about these issues, will end up in a very similar result in 2020.

Ollie (Thompson) lives in a bleak town in North Dakota near the Canadian border. The town is booming thanks to the fracking industry and filled with plenty of rough and tumble men who work the pipeline. However, it’s a rough existence in which muscles are constantly in pain and the nagging work injuries aren’t well-served by the town clinic where the waits exceed the amount of time these men have to visit a medical facility so they rely on drug smugglers bringing Oxy from Canada at prices they can afford. This isn’t their story.

Ollie was one such smuggler who got caught. Out on probation, she is mourning her mother for whom she was caretaker during an extensive and eventually terminal illness. She remains in her mom’s house, sleeping on the floor of her mom’s room, trying to eke out a living selling coffee and sandwiches in lieu of painkillers. The house is in foreclosure and the bank isn’t particularly compassionate. Making money legitimately for a woman in this town is almost impossible; the career choices that pay enough to survive for women are essentially what Ollie got busted for and dancing on a pole (the world’s oldest profession goes unremarked upon but is likely a choice as well).

Ollie’s estranged sister Deb (James) returns at an inopportune time. Pregnant by her abusive alcoholic boyfriend (Dale) and trying to support a little boy on her own, Deb lives in a trailer illegally parked on a diner waitress paycheck that doesn’t begin to cover the cost of her pregnancy. The nearest abortion clinic (and the only one in the state) is 200 miles away and is still expensive enough that Deb can’t afford it. As Ollie puts it, your choices are only as good as your options.

The two manage to reconcile but it becomes obvious to Ollie that the only way out is to resume her previous life. She will need to make a run to Canada and get a Manitoba health care card for her sister to do it; the drug dealer (Evans) she worked for previously who is as dangerous as they come. As things spiral down from bad to worse to untenable, the two women must find an inner reservoir of strength that may not even be enough to get them through.

Although the movie addresses a lot of topics that have some serious political ramifications here in 2019, this isn’t the kind of movie that hits you in the face with its politics. DaCosta sets up a situation that is not uncommon among women in rural areas and lets the characters tell their own stories. When considering the assault on reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade that is occurring in certain states at the moment, one can appreciate the frustration and concern among women who are stuck in similar situations where money isn’t plentiful and neither are good options.

Okay, I need to stop getting political here but it can’t be denied that the issues are exceedingly timely. It also can’t be denied that Thompson, as Ollie, shows a range that puts her in very elite company and marks her as a potential Oscar contender down the road – maybe not necessarily for this film but for others that follow. She has that kind of capability. DaCosta, who has been tapped by Jordan Peele to helm the upcoming Candyman reboot, has a similar capability.

My issue is that the movie is taking too many clues from films like Frozen River and Winter’s Bone, both with powerful female leads placed in an environment of despair, drugs and bleak prospects. It gives the overall film a sense of familiarity that isn’t a good thing. The movie’s ending is also a bit disappointing and derivative. DaCosta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel but I thought her choice was a bit too safe. I also thought the score was a bit intrusive.

There is much to like about the film and despite its relatively low score I do urge most cinephiles to check it out. There is some real talent here in front of and behind the camera. There is a raw tone to the movie that might turn off some but nonetheless as mentioned before these are the people who are suffering in 21st century America and whose needs are far from being met. There is enough power here that despite the film’s flaws it is worthwhile to consider it for a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Thompson cements her reputation as an actress with big things ahead of her.
REASONS TO AVOID: Been there, seen that.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of drug references and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was conceived as a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Othello.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen River
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
If the Dancer Dances

I Am Thor


It's good to be Thor.

It’s good to be Thor.

(2015) Music Documentary (Blue Lame 61) Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Rusty Hamilton, Jack Cionne, Katherine Elo, Stuart Morales, Thundergeek, D. Stevens, Steve Zazzi, Frank Soda, Nik Turner, Jack Holmstrom, Ed Prescott, Bruce Duff, Mark Weiss, Al Higbee, Mike Muzziani, Don Hill, Frank Meyer, Ben Perman, Ani Kyd, Linda Dawe. Directed by Ryan Wise

Florida Film Festival 2015

Some of our rock gods live in palaces, Taj Mahal-like and florid. They are truly Gods among men, regal and unlike us mortals in every way. We aspire to their greatness for they are great indeed, touching millions of lives in different ways. Then again, some of our rock gods live in trailer parks. They scrape and struggle to get by, trying to bring their music to the masses and somehow, failing. It isn’t always because their music isn’t up to snuff; sometimes it’s bad decisions or just plain bad luck.

Jon Mikl Thor is one such rock god. In the 1970s, he took up bodybuilding and as a baby-faced blonde youth, he showed some promise. What he really wanted to do was entertain however, and so he went to Las Vegas where he starred as a nude waiter in a Vegas revue – until someone with a bigger package took his spot.

So Jon picked himself up, dusted himself off, went back home to his native Canada and put together a band. I mean, doesn’t everybody? The strange thing was, this band had talent. They had potential. They had a contract with RCA in Canada. The band called itself Thor, after Jon’s onstage persona. And on the eve of their debut album release, a dispute erupted between the record label and the band’s management company. And in the middle of all this, Jon disappeared. Indeed, he was kidnapped – or at least he says he was and while perhaps you might be skeptical as you see him discussing this early on in the documentary, as the film wears on you come to believe that Jon Mikl Thor is a lot of things but he isn’t a liar.

This incident alone could have sustained a documentary but Wise, who followed the band for 15 years, instead focuses on the band’s attempts to break out into mainstream prominence. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a man on a mission who at every turn sees his mission prevented. And the hell of it is, Thor is actually a pretty damn good band. They actually deserve to have some fame, and yet it eludes them. That doesn’t mean that Jon and his bandmates have given up on the dream, or more importantly on themselves.

Now on the over side of 60, Jon continues to chase the rainbow of success. He keeps up a cheerful and optimistic attitude, perhaps to the point where he might be considered delusional. I have to admit that at first, I thought he had a problem distinguishing reality with desire, but the more I got into the movie, I began to realize that he still believes in the dream and knows full well the uphill battle he’s fighting. He also understands the inherent ridiculousness of a man putting on fake armor and battling fake monsters onstage.

Indeed, Thor is an engaging and charismatic guy. Not only does he have plenty of onstage presence, enough to grab the attention of a gigantic rock festival crowd, he also is humble and likable offstage (which is his Canadian heritage showing, eh?) which helps make this a fascinating view. I had no problem spending an hour and a half with Jon Mikl Thor and wouldn’t have minded hanging out with him for a much longer time.

Thor’s live show is, even by metal standards, something to behold. Many of Thor’s bodybuilding feats are displayed, from blowing up a hot water bottle through his own lung power until it explodes, to bending steel bars to having concrete blocks broken on his chest. Thor is an impressive entertainer and he is canny enough to surround himself with some superb musicians, particularly Price and Favata.

I have to admit that while I like heavy metal and listen to it from time to time, I’m not much of a fan and while I was semi-aware of who Thor is, I didn’t really expect much from this documentary. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that this is not only entertaining but poignant. You end up rooting for a man who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who’s had more than his share of bad  breaks. Against all odds, I became a fan which is a difficult achievement for any band these days given how many bands I’ve heard in my misspent days as a rock critic and since as a listener. So, rock on God of Thunder. Long live Thor!

REASONS TO GO: Thor is an engaging and charismatic personality. A look behind the trailer park of rock and roll.
REASONS TO STAY: Heavy metal isn’t for everyone.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During his bodybuilding days, Thor once finished as runner-up in a bodybuilding contest to Lou Ferrigno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul Williams: Still Alive
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cartel Land

Stake Land


Some sizzle for this stake.

Some sizzle for this stake.

(2010) Horror (IFC) Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Marianne Hagan, Stuart Radin, Adam Scarimbolo, Michael Cerveris, Sean Nelson, Larry Fessenden, Chance Kelly, Jean Brassard, Phyllis Bash, Bonnie Dennison, Ellis Cahill, James Godwin, Heather Robb, Vonia Arslanian, Gregory Jones, Traci Hovel. Directed by Jim Mickle

One of the things about a good movie is that it will often take things that work in one genre and transfer it into another and create if not necessarily a hybrid, then at least a new take on an old form. Movies like that can occasional inspire entire new genres but more often than not end up as being inspired entries in an old one.

Stake Land takes elements of post-apocalyptic Westerns and zombie apocalypse films and fuses them into the vampire film, adding a big dollop of Cormac McCarthy to the mix. Here young and somewhat naive teen Martin (Paolo) whose name is a tip o’ the hat to George A. Romero’s sole vampire film to date is taken under the wing a vampire killer known only as Mister (Damici, who co-wrote the film with Mickle). You see, a plague that turns people into mindless ravening vampires who are as much zombie as vampire has ravaged the United States. There are a few safety zones but mostly those who can move around are headed for Canada for a community called New Eden which is, as rumor has it, vampire-free. Stories like that can lend hope to the hopeless as the Resident Evil films have shown.

The humans that remain aren’t always any better than the hordes of vampires. Hardcore cults that seem to be somewhat like conservative Christian metaphors seem eager to help the apocalypse along in hopes of scoring brownie points with God, dropping planeloads of the undead into towns in maybe the ultimate terrorism dick move.

 

As Mister teaches Martin how to survive in this world which is often harsh and cruel, they pick up a few strays including a pregnant teen (Harris) that Martin takes a shine to, an ex-Marine (Nelson) and a nun (McGillis). In a movie with an attitude like this one, don’t expect a happy ending although you can be sure it won’t be so bleak that you want to take the disc and smash it against the wall.

Mickle is an adept filmmaker who takes his visual cues from Terrance Malick. This is as good-looking a horror film cinematically speaking as you’re likely to ever see. Filmed in real life industrial wastelands that are essentially abandoned and empty, the look of the film is authentic, of a society that is dying slowly but inevitably and those who remain are desperate to escape, so much so that they’re willing to take rumor to heart.

The cast is largely unknown although some might remember McGillis from some pretty decent films in the 80s including Top Gun, Witness and The Accused, Nelson from Fresh and Harris from Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots. The acting is essentially solid and the effects mainly practical. In some ways you’ll be reminded of The Walking Dead although that TV series isn’t as dark if you can believe that.

While the movie is for the most part familiar, with elements taken from things as disparate as the Mad Max movies and Near Dark to the aforementioned Walking Dead and McCarthy’s The Road, there is enough here that works to make it worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into post-apocalyptic horror. Hidden gems like this are why guys like me start blogs like this.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric with an appealing post-Apocalyptic aesthetic that trades zombies for vampires.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Nothing particularly innovative here; feels like a bunch of things were cobbled from a bunch of films albeit a bunch of good films.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violent bloodsucking gore and goodness as well as a cornucopia of foul language and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fire scene on a studio set, the flames got out of control and burned not only the set down but the studio stage as well. While nobody was hurt and production resumed the next day, equipment was flown in from all over the world to replace that which was lost in the fire.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are production video diaries which also include a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening of the film, as well as a feature called Prequels in which seven actors from the film give some brief insights into their lives just before shooting on the production started.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,245 on a $625,000 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental/Blu-Ray Rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daybreakers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Penguins of Madagascar

X2


Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Katie Stuart, Kea Wong, Cotter Smith, Chiara Zanni, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Wingfield, Shauna Cain. Directed by Bryan Singer

As I write, moonlight shines down blue as sapphires through my open window. I can see a four-leaf clover clearly in the grass of my front lawn. If a haystack were at hand, I could unerringly find the needle hidden therein. Actually, none of those things are happening, but it feels as if they could. After all, I’ve just witnessed the extremely improbable: a sequel better than the original. Hard to believe, but true.

When last we left the X-Men (in 2000), their greatest foe, Magneto (McKellan) was confined to a plastic prison, unable to use his powers to escape. Rogue (Paquin) was back among the students at Xavier School, sporting a cool white streak in her hair after her ordeal on Liberty Island. Wolverine (Jackman) was leaving for Alkali Lake, a facility in Canada where some clues to his past might be found. To get there, he liberated a motorcycle belonging to Cyclops (Marsden). And Senator Kelly (Davison) had come out against the mutant registration bill he had sponsored. Of course, we know that the good senator was really Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), but that’s just our little secret.

As this sequel opens, the White House is under attack from a single mutant; a blue-skinned, acrobatic guy with a long tail and the ability to teleport. He takes on the Secret Service and dispatches agents with nearly no trouble, threatens the President (Smith) with a knife before teleporting out of the Oval Office, leaving the commander-in-chief more susceptible to his Mutant Affairs advisor, Colonel. Styker’s (Cox) suggestion that he raid the Xavier School, which he described as a training facility for mutants. Of course, it sounded much more sinister when he said it.

About this time, Wolverine returned home to Xavier’s School, having found nothing but rubble and deserted buildings at Alkali Lake. The attack on the president, obviously carried out by a mutant, troubles Professor Xavier (Stewart). He decides to send two of his most capable X-Men, Storm (Berry) and Jean Grey (Janssen) to retrieve the President’s attacker. Professor X uses his neato-keeno computer Cerebro, through which he is able to connect with every living person on the planet, to find the blue teleporter. Professor X also decides to pay his old pal Magneto a visit, taking Cyclops with him.

While visiting Magneto, Professor X finds out something horrible; the secret of his school has been compromised by Magneto. Not willingly; Magneto would never betray his own kind to humans. Using an acid-like substance applied to the back of the mutant’s neck, Col. Stryker was able to control the powerful Magneto just enough to get him to reveal the information Stryker wanted; the exact location of Cerebro. Too late, Professor Xavier realizes he is caught in a trap and both he and Cyclops are gassed into unconsciousness.

At the same time, Storm and Jean Grey have found the mutant responsible for the attack on the White House, a pious German named Kurt Wagner, or as he was known in the Berlin Circus, Night Crawler (Cumming). Rather than being a dangerous villain, he’s actually rather sweet and endearing. Puzzled, Storm and Jean arrange to transport the German back to the Xavier School. It’s about here they lose contact with everybody.

Of course, things are not going too well at the School. Under attack from deadly commandos who menace shrieking children with what looks like Tasers, the soldiers find the mutant children to be a little harder to capture than they may have thought. Some, like Kitty Pryde (Stuart) are able to literally walk through walls to escape. Some, like Colossus (Cudmore) grow an impenetrable metal armor on their skin. Others, like Bobby Drake (Ashmore) can create walls of ice. And Wolverine? Well, he just kicks ass.

Wolverine escapes with Rogue, Bobby Drake, and a kid with attitude named Pyro (Stanford) who can manipulate fire. They go to Boston, where Storm and Jean Grey are and where Bobby Drake’s family lives. It leads to an awkward confrontation with Bobby’s parents, leading to one of the best lines of the movie; “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” whines Bobby’s rather dense mother. Unfortunately, before any kind of understanding is reached, Bobby’s brother calls the police, which leads to a great deal of destruction and injury, most caused by Pyro. Things threaten to get WAY out of hand before Storm and Jean Grey arrive to whisk Wolverine and the kids away.

Now we find out what the reason for all this is. Col. Stryker doesn’t just fear mutants. He doesn’t just hate mutants. He wants to kill all of them. Permanently. And, using a second generation of Cerebro based on the components he’s stolen from the school, he has the means to do it in Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, the X-Men have no choice but to rescue their mentor, stop the genocide and save the day. And they have acquired a most unlikely ally: Magneto, who has escaped from prison in a rather clever (but gruesome) way. And, Mystique.

This uneasy alliance leaves you wondering about Magneto’s own agenda, which manifests itself in a spectacular way. The inevitable rescue attempt will lead to a surprise outcome in which one of the X-Men will defect to Magneto, and another will face the ultimate challenge. And when did this start sounding like a comic book?

The special effects are far more extensive here than in the first movie, and utilized more effectively. The fight scenes between Nightcrawler and the Secret Service, Wolferine and Lady Deathstrike (Hu) and Pyro and the Boston Police are done well, marrying expert fight choreography with special effects that bring to life the powers of the comic book heroes. Visually, the movie never lets up.

The X-Universe that Marvel Comics has created has a rich tapestry of characters from which to draw; many standbys, such as Gambit, Beast and Angel, have only been glimpsed so far in the movies.

What really sets X2 apart from its predecessor is the depth that is given to the characters. Jean Grey faces, in one of the movie’s better subplots, the increase of her own powers beyond her own abilities to handle them. Stryker is evil, but not in a cartoon-like manner. His hate is the man’s driving force, his fear the engine that powers his hate. His fear of mutants has hit his home in an impactful way, and drives him to exploit even those closest to him to meet his genocidal objectives.

Storm has always been one of the more enigmatic figures in the comic; she is aloof, distant and cold, but also loyal and fiercely determined. Berry plays her with all her vulnerabilities intact, quite a juxtaposition for a character able to create dozens of tornadoes with a thought.

That is, perhaps, why we relate to the X-Men so well; they are powerful, yet completely human, with all the vulnerability and frailty that implies. Even Magneto, the arrogant master of magnetism, is not all-powerful. Hugh Jackman captures Wolverine’s essence: feral and utterly devoid of conscience when fighting, but tormented by a past he cannot remember, held hostage to questions he can’t answer. Some of his questions are answered during the course of X2 but of course not all of them and several new ones arise in the process.

Wolverine’s defense of the Xavier School is one of the most vicious fight scenes ever filmed in a superhero movie and while it got cheers from the audience, it also left me a bit unsettled. There is something about stabbing a soldier with diamond-hard, razor-sharp claws that is more violent than beating him into unconsciousness with closed fists, or shooting him with a rifle. It made me wonder how far one can stretch the concept of “good guy” when the good guy is stabbing people. It’s all psychology; stabbing is a far more personal act than shooting someone. Dead is dead either way, but in our culture, heroes don’t stab.

Cumming portrays Nightcrawler as a tormented, but gentle soul whose faith is the rock that he clings to, even when his faith is sorely tested. He’s almost puppy dog eager to please his new friends so when the rubber hits the road he is there for them at great personal risk to himself. Cumming makes excellent use of his screen time, making his character one that you want to see more of.

Keep an eye out for Colossus, as well. The audience really reacted to his limited onscreen time; you can bet the filmmakers are taking notice of this for a future movie in the series although to this point that hasn’t happened yet.

The true test of a movie can be broken down to a single old saw: did the audience leave wanting more? X2 has got it all; eye candy, subtle undercurrents to which most of us can relate, characters who are not cartoons (another irony, given that this is based on comic books), big explosions, terrific fight scenes, everything for the summer movie Neanderthal in all of us. X2 is a perfect popcorn escape.

WHY RENT THIS: All the action you an ask for. Character depth and sophisticated story. Perfect summer popcorn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Still gives short shrift to some of the characters.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of comic book violence, a bit of sensuality and brief rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Entered the Guinness Book of World Records on its opening day by getting the most number of screens for a single movie on its opening day ever.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The special edition DVD release included a feature on Nightcrawler and rehearsal footage of the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike as well as a web-based Q&A session from the film’s release date. The Blu-Ray adds a history of the comic book X-Men as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $407.7M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Wind Rises

Life, Above All (Le secret de Chanda)


Determination mixed with sadness.

Determination mixed with sadness.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Khomotso Manyaka, Keaobaka Makanyane, Harriet Manamela, Lerato Mvelase, Tinah Mnumzana, Aubrey Poolo, Mapaseka Mathebe, Thato Kgaladi, Kgomotso Ditshweni, Rami Chuene, Jerry Marobyane, Tshepo Emmanuel Nonyane, Johanna Refilwe Sihlangu, Vusi Muzi Given Nyathi, Patrick Shai, Nelson Motloung, Ernest Mokoena, Mary Twala. Directed by Oliver Schmitz

Here in America, AIDS isn’t the same issue it used to be. Advancements in pharmaceuticals and care have given many their lives. It’s a different story in other places

Chanda (Manyaka) is a bright 12-year-old girl in the Elandsdoorn township near Johannesburg, South Africa but this day she is far from happy – she’s picking out a coffin for her baby sister. Her mother is too overcome with grief to do it and her father is too busy drinking and hanging out with floozies to do it. Not long after the funeral, her mother (Mvelase) takes ill and is sent away.

This leaves Chanda with younger sisters who basically don’t want anything to do with her and a sympathetic neighbor Mrs. Tafa (Manamela) keeping an eye on them. Chanda’s best friend Esther (Makanyane) has taken to prostituting herself to truck drivers in order to survive – she has been orphaned as both her parents passed away from AIDS.

Meanwhile in the township rumors are starting to circulate and whispers that Chanda is cursed – sickness seems to revolve in the air around her. Chanda needs answers and the only person who can supply them is her mother, so she sets off to find her. But be careful what questions you ask – you might not like the answers.

This is a searing, emotionally powerful movie that takes on AIDS and the way that sufferers of the disease are treating in Africa. There are those who ostracize and stigmatize the victims, as if they were to blame for  their illness. Chanda’s situation isn’t uncommon in South Africa – in Africa in general in fact.

Manyaka delivers an amazingly intuitive performance; as you can see above, her eyes are incredibly expressive and she fills the character of Chanda with plenty of energy and strength. Chanda as written is an impressive girl but I think Manyaka might just be as impressive. You don’t accomplish this kind of performance without real soul.

This isn’t always a pretty picture. There is some ugliness to how the villagers react and of course the situation is pretty grim in and of itself. The thought of 12 year old girls giving truckers blow jobs is absolutely outrageous to me, and yet it is a way of life for girls in that part of the world.

The ending is pretty upbeat despite the overwhelming despair that you would think is part of everyday life in Elandsdoorn (which is actually a pretty middle class suburb in many ways). The title can be interpreted in a few different ways (and is a bit of a clue to the denouement if you think about it) but for the girls in this movie, you can’t help but admire the strength of the African women here. It is a strength that seems to be part of their genetic make-up and it is nice to see it portrayed so positively even given the bleakness of the subject matter.

WHY RENT THIS: Astounding performances by the mainly local and inexperienced cast. Calls attention to the continuing stigmatization of AIDS victims.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Improbable ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are very adult in nature; there is also a bit of sexuality in the mix.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Canadian Dennis Foon adapted the screenplay from Allan Stratton’s novel Chanda’s Secrets.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $134,461 (domestic) on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunt

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Closed Circuit

Sicko


Sicko

Everything is golden in France.

(2007) Documentary (Lionsgate) Michael Moore, Tucker Albrizzi, Tony Benn, Reggie Cervantes, Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Billy Crystal, John Graham, Linda Peeno, Aleida Guevara, William Maher, Patrick Pedraja . Directed by Michael Moore

There is no doubt that America’s health care system is a national disgrace. It was true when Michael Moore made this documentary in 2006 and it is even more so today. While politicians bicker and posture, and lobbyists work their magic (in 2007 there were four health care lobbyists for every politician in Washington), people suffer and die.

Rather than point the camera at the 50 million Americans without any health care (a number that has increased since this film was made), Moore instead focuses on the 150 million that do (a number that has decreased since the film was made). He does it in a way reminiscent of an old joke; all Americans who think they are covered by their health care plans step forward – not so fast, you there.

He does this anecdotally, looking at individual cases that are heartbreaking and horrific. Mothers whose daughters were in need of critical attention at an Emergency Room being told their health care plan didn’t cover care at that hospital, and having the daughter die en route to a different hospital. A woman knocked unconscious in an auto accident being carted to the hospital by ambulance only to be charged for her ride because she didn’t pre-approve the ambulance, something she could have done if she were conscious.

Bureaucrats who are paid bonuses to deny coverage, to the point where legitimate claims are being denied because of an undisclosed yeast infection years ago. Volunteers at Ground Zero, breathing in toxic fumes in order to help recover bodies, develop respiratory ailments and are denied coverage because they were volunteers. It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Moore makes a case for socialized medicine and on the surface it’s a pretty compelling one. In France, doctors make house calls and maternity leaves are a full year. In England, doctors in their socialized medical system continue to live among the upper strata of society, putting paid the fear that doctors here would become underpaid and eventually the best and brightest wouldn’t want to be in the medical profession here.

Moore looks at the bureaucracies at HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, noting the obscene profits they make and debunking the popular excuse that these companies put their profits into research and development, which is patently not true.

Moore pretty much leaves no room for doubt as to where he stands – that’s pretty much true of all his films – and while you have to admire his conviction and loyalty to his opinions, there is no discussion of any other options, as if we’re either stuck with the system we have or go with socialized medicine. There is no middle ground, or even different options. However on a personal note, I happen to agree with Moore in this instance.

In the four years since this documentary was made, a new President has been elected, one who attempted to institute reform to our health care system and has been fought tooth and nail on every front. We wound up with a watered-down version of what he originally wanted, one which Republicans vow will be overturned.

As I said to begin with, the state of health care in the United States is a national disgrace. It doesn’t have to do with the doctors and nurses and technicians who provide extraordinary care to their patients but with the bureaucrats and politicians who undermine the ability of those health care professionals to provide that care to all who need it.

Let me put this in another way. Let’s say the CEO of Goldman Sachs gets a rare form of cancer. At the same time, an unemployed factory worker gets the same exact disease. Both need an expensive and rare treatment. The CEO, with the best health care money can buy, will in all likelihood not be denied by the health insurance he carries and even if he is, he can afford to pay for it himself. The factory worker, unable to afford the treatment, must hope he gets better on his own. My question to you is this; why is the life of the CEO of Goldman Sachs worth more than that of the unemployed factory worker? And why is some functionary at a health insurance company allowed to make that call?

WHY RENT THIS: A scathing look at a problem which continues to plague us to this day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is typical for Moore, he tends to be overly slanted towards his own beliefs; other solutions tend to be ridiculed or not given coverage at all.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a little rough and the concepts might fly over the head of younger people.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Insurance companies banned their employees from speaking to Moore under any circumstance for this documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video, a featurette on Norway’s policies which outdo those of France, a look at an attempt to introduce a national health insurance plan pre-Obamacare and a look at community fundraisers to aid those who can’t afford their medical bills.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.1M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Make Believe