To Dust


“It could be worse. It could be raining!”

(2018) Dramedy (Good Deed) Gėza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno, Ziv Zaifman, Leanne Michelle Watson, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Marceline Hugot, Natalie Carter, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Joseph Siprut, Linda Frieser, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jaclyn S. Powell, Sarah Jes Austell. Directed by Shawn Snyder

 

In life, death is certain but growth is optional. The wisdom of a Star Trek movie “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life” is lost on most of us. We deal with death by ignoring it.

Shmuel (Röhrig) can’t ignore it. His beloved wife has just passed from cancer and it has thrown him for a loop. A cantor in the Hassidic Jewish faith, he is having a hard time dealing with it – he can’t even tear his coat properly until his mother supplies him with a tiny pair of scissors. Shmuel is nothing if not tied to his faith but he begins to have nightmares of his wife’s body decomposing. Troubled, he seeks the advice of his rabbi (Hammer) but is left unsatisfied. He needs to know precisely what is happening to his wife’s body. He has questions: is her soul suffering as her body decays? He needs to know.

His quest takes him beyond the parameters of his faith and to a scientist. Well, to a guy who teaches science at the local community college: Albert (Broderick). Albert is going through a rough emotional time of his own, having just been divorced. At first, he finds Shmuel’s persistence annoying – anybody would. Shmuel has the dogged determination of a mule trying to get that carrot. Eventually though Albert warms to the scientific aspect of the question and the two begin to delve into “experiments” that are started by an innocent remark on Albert’s part that Shmuel takes literally and eventually involves dead pigs, kidnapped pigs named Harold, road trips and body farms.

This movie is plenty quirky and mostly in an endearing way. Death and the mechanics of bodily corruption are not things we are geared to talk about much as a society. Nobody wants to know about the bacterial breakdown of our mortal remains; nobody wants to hear about maggot infestations and what happens to our skin, our eyes and our brains. It’s a vaguely disturbing subject but it is tackled with surprising compassion here.

It helps having a pair of charismatic leads. Broderick is perfectly cast here to the point where I can’t imagine any other actor playing this role. Albert is a bit of a kvetch in many regards and Broderick excels at those kinds of roles. Albert copes with his grief by smoking a lot of dope and listening to Jethro Tull – in other words, reverting back to his high school years in which he likely smoked a lot of dope and listened to a lot of Tull. I give the movie a lot of cultural points, by the way, for including Tull on the soundtrack. Rock on!

Röhrig, who some might remember from a much different movie called Son of Saul, plays a man who is consumed by his obsession to the point that he can’t see that his sons are also grieving and need him more than ever. His behavior is so odd that the two believe he has been possessed by a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish demon, and are researching the prospect on their own. The problem here is that often we don’t get a sense of Shmuel’s actual grief, the pain of losing someone so beloved although I will give you that maybe his obsessions with the body’s breakdown is his way of dealing with it. We all grieve in our own ways.

I don’t know enough about the Hassidic culture to determine whether or not the production was accurate on their rituals or lifestyle. Shmuel lives in an upstate New York townhouse, drives a station wagon and occasionally curses like a sailor. His sons are conversant with the Internet and computers. This is a different portrayal of their culture than I think most of us are used to.

Death isn’t an easy subject to tackle and our own mortality and the end disposition of our remains may be a little bit too uncomfortable a subject for some. The filmmakers are to be commended for taking it on and handling it in a mostly sensitive way – there is a lot of humor involved here but also a lot of respect for the subject. I’m not saying that this should be considered a primer in grief in any way, shape or form but any movie that allows us to discuss something so basic but so disconcerting deserves praise in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is quirky in an endearing way. Broderick is solid as usual
REASONS TO AVOID: Röhrig is a bit too laconic at times. The subject matter may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images of corpses, some brief nudity, drug use and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set at the community college were filmed at the City University of New York’s Staten Island campus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Everybody Knows

Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

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

Bad Genius (Chalat Kem Kong)


Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t following you.

(2017) Thriller (GDH 559) Chutimon Cheungcharoensukying, Elsaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Sarinrat Thomas, Ego Mikitas, Pasin Kuansataporn, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Kanjana Vinaipanid, Yuthapong Varanukrohchoke, Nopawat Likitwong, David Gray, Laluna Nitze. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya

It is easy to admire smart people; it is also easy to distrust them. After all, knowledge is power and we all know what power does – it corrupts.

Lynn (Cheungcharoensukying) is a brilliant girl whose teacher father (Warakulnukroh) is trying to get her into one of Bangkok’s most exclusive private schools. It appears that her divorced dad won’t be able to afford the prestigious school’s fees and tuition but after Lynn accurately reads the headmistress’s (Thomas) greed, she uses math-based analysis to talk her way into a full ride scholarship.

Brilliant but socially awkward (the two often go hand in hand), she is befriended by Grace (Hosuwan), an aspiring actress who helps Lynn “look her best.” The two become fast friends and when Grace confesses to her much smarter companion that she’s worried about an upcoming math test, Lynn offers to tutor her for the test. However, Grace proves to be even dimmer than Lynn could account for and when she forgets everything she was supposed to have memorized for the test, Lynn writes the answers down on an eraser and ingeniously delivers them to Grace by a process that can only be called “shoe-mail.”

Grace’s wealthy boyfriend Pat (Supapunpinyo) sees a gold mine in test cheats and organizes a bit of a racket that the wealthy students of the school are only too happy to pay for if only to get their achievement-fixated parents off their backs. The fact that the school is charging her father exorbitant “maintenance fees” on what was supposed to be a free ride sways the formerly naïve Lynn and turns her cynical. She comes up with a brilliant idea utilizing codes tapped out on the desk like a piano etude. The plan works too – until another impoverished genius, Bank (Santinatornkul) blows the whistle on them. Lynn ends up getting her scholarship pulled.

Determined to right what Lynn sees as an inequity in that wealthier students who can afford it can bribe teacher for test answers in advance, she decides to go after the holy grail of test cheats – the Standardized Test for International Colleges or STIC, a fictional version of the SAT – with a bold and brilliant plan. Grace and Pat will help but she will need Bank and his photographic memory to pull it off. However, getting the test answers to students willing to pay for it isn’t going to be easy

The movie starts out as something of a social justice allegory with the hoity toity private school standing in for Thai society in general (and not far off from our own these days). It ends up as a slick heist thriller that wouldn’t be out of place on the resumes of Steven Soderburgh and Harmony Korine. Poonpiriya proves to be a director with formidable talent, melding the two disparate types of film into a singular whole that is entertaining as well as having something to say.

Cheungcharoensukying needs to carry the film and she does; considering that her background is in modeling and that this is her first feature film is absolutely astounding. The lady has plenty of screen presence and is able to handle Lynn in both her shy and socially awkward phase and in her cynical and criminal phase without making either look cliché. They are both Lynn but there are differences between the Lynn at the beginning of the film and the Lynn at the end.

The movie does take awhile to develop but once it gets going it’s like a runaway freight train. There’s also a sense of humor that is a bit sly and subversive; American audiences may not necessarily take to it but I’ve been wrong on that score before. While this is based on an actual issue that is scandalizing Asia at the moment (but not on a specific incident) it doesn’t let up on the fun either. This has a good shot at being remade by Hollywood according to the trades but I think discerning audiences would seek the original out if some distribution could be found. Certainly this is one to keep an eye out for; hopefully at the very least it will be a presence on the Festival circuit for the time being.

REASONS TO GO: Hollywood-slick, the film is as good a thriller that has come out this year. Chutimon is an actress with a future. The sense of humor here is subversive and fun.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit slow to develop.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of violence and peril, not to mention some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor playing Lynn’s father (Warakulnukroh) also starred in Pop Aye which played at the Florida Film Festival earlier this year and is set to be released by Kino-Lorber later this month.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bling Ring
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: KFC

Sleepless


Jamie Foxx: Amish cop!

(2017) Crime Action (Open Road) Jamie Foxx, Michele Monaghan, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, T.I., Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, Octavius J. Johnson, Tim Connolly, Drew Sheer, Sala Baker, Tim Rigby, Eli Jah Everett, Tess Malis Kincaid, Steve Coulter, Matt Mercurio, Chan Ta Rivers, Brooke Boxberger, Chelsea Hayes, Holly Morris. Directed by Baran bo Odar

 

There are some movies that sound good on paper but when you see them in the theater you wonder what anyone involved with it was thinking. This is one of those.

Las Vegas is rocked by a shoot-out in which a couple of masked men take out several thugs. As it turns out, those thugs were carrying 75 kilos of cocaine which is wanted back very badly. And as it turns out, the two masked men were dirty cops – Vincent (Foxx) and his partner Sean (T.I.) – and the casino owner (Mulroney) who is brokering the deal wants the drugs back. You see, they’re for Novak (McNairy), scion of a crime family but whose position won’t protect him from his own father if this deal gets messed up. So Vincent’s son Thomas (Johnson) is kidnapped which doesn’t do wonders for Vincent’s relationship with his ex-wife (Union).

Neither does it do wonders for his relationship with Bryant (Monaghan), the Internal Affairs officer who is certain that Vincent is dirty and sees this situation as a means to finally get the proof. Everyone is after everyone and not everyone is who they seem to be. There is definitely a dirty cop in the mix but is it Vincent? And will Thomas pay the price if it is?

Quite frankly when you know a movie is going to be released in January, it falls into one of two categories – one is a movie that the studio is burying in the tundra and the other is a movie with Oscar ambitions that is getting a qualifying run in November/December and then released out in January so it isn’t lost in the mix with all the other Oscar could-bes This one is certainly one of the former.

Foxx is a terrific actor who has earned his spot on the A-list. It is to his credit that even for this movie he gives it his best shot despite having very little to work with. The character as written does a lot of senseless things, especially given the revelations that come later in the film. Foxx makes the character at least somewhat sympathetic, despite the fact that he’s written to be essentially a douchebag. Monaghan is an underrated actress who ends up with the role of a bloodhound with blinders on.

Most of the movie is absolutely preposterous. It is also loaded with cop movie clichés which doesn’t help matters any. The action sequences aren’t particularly exciting which is absolutely deadly for a movie like this. Fortunately for movie audiences, it came and went quickly but it should be coming to home video soon. Seriously unless you are on a mission to see every one of Jamie Foxx’s performances there isn’t a lot else to recommend this. Give it a skip.

REASONS TO GO: Jamie Foxx is almost always entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: There is nothing new or original here. It may be more sleep-inducing than sleep-preventing.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense; there’s also plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of a French/Belgian film entitled Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night). It is also Swiss director Baran bo Odar’s English language debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Training Day
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table

The Ivory Game


It's a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

It’s a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

(2016) Advocacy Documentary (Netflix) Craig Millar, Richard Leakey, Andrea Crosta, Prince William, Richard Bonham, Hongxiang Huang, Elisifa Ngowi, Ian Williamson, Ian Craig, Uhuru Kenyatta, Robert F. Godec, Iain Douglas Hamilton, Winnie Kiru, Otir Drori, Georgina Kamanga. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson

 

The magnificent elephant is an iconic sight on the African plains, majestically walking through the savannas. One cannot think of Africa without thinking about these beasts, but these creatures are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

That is because of their tusks. The ivory from them can fetch exorbitant prices in China (where most of the ivory goes to) and so poachers are attacking elephants with a will, killing one every fifteen minutes on the average. If that goes unchanged, there will be no African elephants in the wild within 15 years and those remaining in zoos will die off not long thereafter. For most of you reading this, that means the African elephant will be extinct in your lifetime.

There are those who are fighting for the elephants. Craig Millar, head of security for the Big Life Foundation (dedicated to the protection of elephants from poachers), patrols areas of Kenya trying to protect the herds from poachers. He talks to farmers who are dismayed that the elephants wander into their farms and eat their crops – a problem when you consider that food is scarce in that part of Africa. They see elephants as pests and aren’t inclined to report poachers, which Millar can sympathize with. His solution is to build large electrified fences to keep the pachyderms out but those are expensive and most of the farmers can’t afford them.

Investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang is ashamed that his country is responsible for gobbling up the ivory. The market is heavily regulated but dealers have no problem bringing in illegal ivory and corruption is rampant in the enforcement of regulations. Huang’s hidden camera interviews show the brazenness of the dealers and his reports helped stir the Chinese government out of lethargy.

Government investigator Elisifa Ngowi has been chasing one of the biggest poachers in Namibia, a man who goes by the name of Shetai which translates to “devil.” His gang has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 elephants by themselves and not a few humans as well. A lot of good citizens who deplore the slaughter of the elephants are far too frightened of Shetai to say anything, but Ngowi is doggedly and determinedly pursuing the criminal.

Georgina Kamanga is the head of intelligence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Zambia. She is tough as nails, but the sight of elephants, freshly decapitated, is enough to move her to tears. “I’m taking the whole thing now very personal,” she says in a voice that betrays her emotion. Finally there’s Andrea Crosta, the founder and lead investigator for the website WildLeaks, which looks into animal rights issues. He sends undercover investigators to document corruption in the ivory trade in China – and is horrified when one of them is discovered.

The filmmakers depict all these stories in the vein of a thriller, and in some ways I suppose it is. There are bad guys, victims and crimes being committed. Certainly the extinction of a species like the African elephant is fodder for that kind of genre, particularly when the poachers are hell-bent on exterminating the entire species since it will drive the price up of ivory the fewer of them there actually are. When they are all gone, the price for African ivory will be sky high.

That works well along with the thriller-like musical score, but the filmmakers bounce around from story to story without any sense of flow. If this were a scripted thriller, I’d likely have marked it down a great deal but it gets a bit of a pass due to the documentary nature of the film, and the African vistas are beautifully shot as are the more urban jungles in China, London and African cities.

Elephants are incredible creatures who are fiercely protective of their families (the shots of baby elephants cavorting are among the most priceless in the film) and who mourn their dead with silent grief. Like humans, they bury their dead and can instinctively tell when they are in the presence of a graveyard, even if none of their herd are buried in it.

Produced by actor/environmental activist Leonardo di Caprio and former Microsoft executive Paul Allen (among others), the documentary is an important one and like most advocacy documentaries give viewers opportunities to become involved, either through financial contributions or by getting involved directly. If you don’t have Netflix or don’t wish to view the film but would like to help, you can go to the film’s website by clicking on the picture above.

Some of this movie is hard to look at. I’m not an elephant junkie by any means, but these are amazing creatures who don’t deserve to be wiped off the planet and it is man’s greed and man’s indifference that is doing it. Spin it however you want to, this is a crime pure and simple and if a film can spur people to action as Blackfish and The Cove did, then perhaps this film can do something similar. God knows the elephants need someone in their corner.

REASONS TO GO: The elephants in the wild make compelling visual subjects and the baby elephants are as cute as the dickens. The subject is a vitally important one.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps from subject to subject in a seemingly haphazard fashion at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of dead elephants as well as adult themes and occasional bouts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Following China’s ban on importing ivory, this film became an official selection of the Beijing International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lion

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace


The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

The Jedi are more badass than you can imagine.

(1999) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed (voice), Lewis Macleod (voice), Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Directed by George Lucas

 

sci-fi-spectacle

The Star Wars franchise has been a cultural touchstone for many since the film series debuted in 1977 and remains a beloved cinematic collection for most. However, none of the films in the series has been reviled by its fanbase as much as this one.

It starts with a breakdown in negotiations between the Republic and the Trade Federation (think Ferengi) to end a blockade around the planet Naboo, resulting in an assassination attempt on Jedi Knight negotiators Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor). The Trade Federation ends up invading Naboo and the two Jedi, aided by a Gungan (one of two sentient species on the planet) named Jar-Jar Binks (Best) rescue Queen Amidala (Portman) and flee the planet in her starship, sustaining damage and forcing them to land on a faraway desert planet with their hyper drive out of commission.

The desert planet they are stranded on ends up being Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a young boy who was born a slave and lives with his mother (August). Jinn notices that the boy is incredibly strong in the force; so much so that he has the potential to become the most powerful Jedi in history. As most fans know, what he actually ends up being is Darth Vader. They enter the precocious boy in a violent and dangerous pod race to not only get the parts they need to repair their ship but to win the boy’s freedom as well.

The Jedi bring back their findings to the Jedi counsel, led by Master Yoda (Oz) and Master Mace Windu (Jackson), along with the boy whom Qui-Gon puts forward for training. Yoda and Windu, both concerned about the boy’s susceptibility to the dark side, turn down the request so of course Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin himself. In the meantime, things on Naboo are coming to a crucial point and Amidala, frustrated that the Galactic Senate is too corrupt to act, returns to Naboo to lead her people in a struggle against their oppressors. That corruption is being fanned by Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who is orchestrating these events with an eye to eventually cause the Republic to crumble and install an empire with a Sith Lord at its head.

The effects for the film were in 1999 absolutely breathtaking. Lucas and his technical crew created a number of wildly different environments, from the undersea world of the Gungan people to the Venice-like capital city of Naboo to the desert world of Tatooine to the massive skyscrapers of Coruscant, the capital of the Republic. Each of the environments is distinct and realistic and paved the way for the computer generated worlds that we take for granted today in modern blockbusters.

The Star Wars series has never been noted for its character development and for the most part there is almost none here. Yes, familiar faces are around in the film which takes place more than 30 years before the original, including Yoda and droids R2D2 (Baker) and C-3PO (Daniels) the latter of which is essentially a skeletal frame of a droid that Anakin is building. We kind of know who they are because we’ve grown up with them and it is pleasing to see some of their backstory.

Unfortunately, Lucas wanted to make the movie more family-friendly which was a wild misstep. Binks has become something of a symbol and for all the wrong reasons; he is so hated by the fanbase of the films that his role was greatly reduced in the following two films of the trilogy – who can forget the rap parody starring Binks “Me-ssa So Horny”? The character was meant to be comic relief but ended up being a tremendous irritant.

I don’t like criticizing child actors because they aren’t equipped to deal with the criticism as well as their adult counterparts so I’ll criticize Lucas instead – putting Jake Lloyd in the role of Anakin, a role that was so super critical to the film was absolutely irresponsible. Not only does Lloyd not have the acting ability to handle it, his flat line reading and irritating demeanor stop the film dead in its tracks. Lucas should never have put a kid – any kid – under so much pressure. Lloyd did the best he could under the circumstances but I’m not sure anyone could have handled the scrutiny that Lloyd was under. As much as I sympathize with the youngster, there is no getting away that his performance is detrimental to the film overall.

There are a lot of good things about the film – the duel between Qui-Gon and Sith warrior Darth Maul (Park) is absolutely spectacular, one of the best in cinematic history. Still, this has to rank among the most disappointing films ever. The anticipation for a new Star Wars film was so great that almost nothing could have lived up to the expectations of the fans, but this was so far below the bar that the series had nowhere to go but up, but it would take 16 years before fans got the satisfying sequel they were looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Seeing Yoda fight is a completely badass experience. Neeson lends some much-needed gravitas. Park very nearly steals the movie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jake Lloyd is absolutely wooden. Jar Jar Binks is an abomination. The whole thing is entirely too dumbed down.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of action and violence of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Keira Knightley’s first name was misspelled as “Kiera” in the credits.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a series of a dozen documentaries produced for the film’s website; some of the footage from these docs appear in the main “making-of” featurette. There are also plenty of stills and animatics from the pre-production as well as a featurette on the making of the videogame based on the movie.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), iTunes, Google Play (purchase only), Fandango Now (purchase only)
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.027B on a $115M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix Revolutions
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!