Family Life (Vida de Familia)


Look what dragged in the cat.

(2017) Dramedy (Monument) Jorge Becker, Gabriela Arancibia, Bianca Lewin, Cristián Carvajal, Lucas Miranda, Adara Casassus. Directed by Alicia Scherson and Christián Jiménez

Most cultures in humanity revere the family. For the most part, we all love our families and would do anything for them. Those without families by circumstance or by choice are often objects of pity, sometimes of scorn but generally we don’t trust people who turn their backs on family. Of course there are those who yearn for a family of their own. We always want what we don’t have.

Bruno (Carvajal) is an academic – a professor of Chilean poetry at the University in Santiago. He has been invited to spend a semester teaching the subject in Paris and is taking his young family – wife Consuelo (Lewin) and daughter Sofi (Casassus) with him. He needs a housesitter for their posh apartment and at the funeral of his cousin he meets Martin (Becker), his relative’s son. Martin in addition to mourning his father is unemployed and has just broken up with his girlfriend who he continues to pine away for. Sympathetic, Bruno offers the job of watching his house and caring for his cat Mississippi while he’s gone.

Bruno is kind of diffident and melancholy. He strikes the family in different ways; Bruno characterizes him as “a little weird” while Consuelo is a little bit more compassionate. When Martin makes an awkward attempt to kiss her the night before they leave, she rebuffs him but is nonetheless oddly moved by the man. He is handsome and has a thing about black leather, but he is also unemployed, single and nearly 40. Not exactly a catch.

Once the family is gone, Martin seems content to just hang out around the house. He is lonely but yet is unmotivated to go out and do things. A housekeeper is hired to assist but he doesn’t really feel right letting her clean once a month but he pays her the money that Bruno left for her anyway. He tries on Bruno’s clothes and goes though the family’s things like a criminal investigator.

One day the cat is missing and Martin puts up flyers. He is annoyed later to find flyers for a lost dog pasted over his own. Irritated, he calls the number on the lost dog flyers and gives the person an earful. Eventually the dog owner, Pachi (Arancibia) or Paz as she’s called in the iMDB credits, and Martin meet. She’s a single mom, strong and forthright but she is attracted to Martin. At first it’s a sexual thing but as Martin begins to bond with her son Seba (Miranda) their relationship begins to change.

Martin convinces Pachi that he is the owner of the house; he had taken down the pictures that featured Bruno, leaving only pictures of Consuelo and Sofi. He explains that those are pictures of his ex-wife and daughter; the divorce was acrimonious and she had taken his daughter and was refusing to let him see her. At first Pachi is suspicious – he must have done something to deserve such treatment – but her heart overrides her good sense and she falls very hard for him.

Even with the impending return of the real owners of the home, Martin maintains the fiction and seems for the first time to be truly content. Still, cracks begin to form in the facade as plans are made to introduce him to Pachi’s family. How far will he take the charade and what will happen when Pachi discovers the truth?

Scherson and Jiménez have directed three other movies each, although this is their first project as a unit. This is a much more quiet film than some of Scherson’s previous efforts. It is based on Alejandro Zamba’s book (Zamba did the initial adaptation which was then refined by the directors who are also given co-writing credit) and with nearly all of the action taking place in a single apartment, there’s a bit of a stage-y feel to it.

There is a definite sense of humor here although it is not broad or filled with pratfalls. It is more of a subtle sense of humor, the way old friends sit back and reflect on the absurdities of life. That is very much within the Latin temperament although those not familiar with Latin culture might be surprised, given that the comedies that come out of Latin countries are very often overly broad and slapstick.

But this isn’t strictly speaking a comedy; there are some moments of genuine pathos such as a climactic encounter between two of the characters in which in a moment it is clear that both understand exactly what’s going on. The irony of the movie is that the perfect family life that Martin initially yearns for is not what’s happening for Bruno and Consuelo. They have reached a kind of uneasy understanding between the two of them, but the tension is clearly there; even Sofi notices it as she displays on a somewhat shocking note she leaves on her wall.

The performances here are uniformly strong, with Becker being the most notable. While the motivations of Martin are opaque at best and he is something of an enigma, Becker keeps the character grounded and while we often are scratching our head about Martin, because of Becker the character never feels unbelievable or far-fetched. His motivations may be suspect and at the end of the day he isn’t a very likable character despite all his charm, but you won’t soon forget him and that’s thanks to Becker primarily. He reminds me a little bit of a young Thomas Kretschmann which is nothing but praise.

There is an awful lot of sex in the movie and those who are offended by such things should be forewarned. The pacing is a little slower than American audiences typically like, although European audiences should have no trouble with it. There is a slice of life aspect to the film that I found attractive; the life may be a bourgeois one but it’s a valid life notwithstanding.

Overall this is a solid movie. It debuted at this year’s Sundance and at the recent Miami International Film Festival won the Knight Grand Jury Prize, a very prestigious award. It’s beginning a slow theatrical roll-out in cities around the country; keep an eye out for it if it plays near here you live. If you’re looking for something that is going to make you think a little bit about the place of family in your life and what the ideal family looks like – and how it almost never is the family you get – this should be right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are naturalistic particularly by Becker. There is a sly almost gentle sense of humor that is more reflective than uproarious.
REASONS TO STAY: Martin as a character is a bit on the murky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, some profanity, sexuality and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in Scherson’s own apartment.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borgman
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Amnesia

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

Phoenix (2014)


Just one look was all it took.

Just one look was all it took.

(2014) Drama (Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Römer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Sofia Exss. Directed by Christian Patzold

Some people will do anything to survive, even throw the people they love under the bus. Some people will do anything for those they love, even refuse to believe they’d throw us under the bus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nelly Lenz (Hoss) before the war was an acclaimed singer in Berlin. However, she is part-Jewish, enough so that she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Before the camp is liberated, she is shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead. Fortunately she survives but she needs reconstructive surgery on her face. Even though her surgeon tells her that making her look like she did before would be difficult, she opts to be herself rather than look like someone different.

Part of the reason for this is that she wants to be with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) again. However her good friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf) tells her that her husband, who was arrested two days before Nelly was, was released hours before her own arrest and likely betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly refuses to believe this though and goes looking for her musician husband through the rubble of Berlin – and eventually finds him in a seedy nightclub named Phoenix.

However, astonishingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. However, her resemblance to his wife is enough that he hatches a scheme. You see, Nelly had a sizable fortune when she was arrested, but there’s no proof of her death so Johnny can’t collect it. If he can mold this woman to be just like Nelly, she can sign for that inheritance and split it with Johnny. She agrees to the scheme, only to get close to her husband.

She’s walking a very fine line, knowing that if he discovers her true identity there could be trouble. However, she keeps doing as he says while looking into the allegations Lene brought up. The day comes when she is to reveal herself as Nelly – what will she do and how will Johnny react?

This is a brilliant bit of filmmaking by Patzold, who is becoming one of the best directors in Europe. He sets a mood of tension and keeps it going throughout the movie, not so much that you feel that if it isn’t broken you’ll just explode but enough so that you feel a lovely discomfort throughout. He also has crafted a wonderful allegory of guilt and rebirth that is just as relevant now as it was during the period this is set.

His regular collaborator Nina Hoss is absolutely sensational here. A lot of critics have complained that it was slightly implausible that a husband wouldn’t recognize his wife, but clearly Nelly was deeply changed by her experiences. She is hunched over, wrapping herself in her arms as if the terror of her experience hadn’t faded even though her ordeal was over. Her performance is densely layered and is at the heart of the movie; it’s not that Zehrfeld (another frequent Patzold cast member) doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that Hoss is amazing.

The rest of the cast, like Zehrfeld, is solid, but it’s Hoss’ show. They are all a little zombified by the effects of the war; dead expressions that come from being a defeated nation, something that perhaps Americans might not understand directly. The expressions of the American soldiers are much different; we can see a clear difference between the victors and the defeated. Like just about everything else, this is subtly set so that you have to work a little bit to get the actual meaning of what Patzold is presenting to you visually. This is what makes him such a marvelous director.

The setting of a mostly destroyed Berlin is perfect; the rubble is ripe for a resurrection, and Nelly, as ruined in her own way as Berlin is, makes an excellent allegory. War destroyed a beautiful woman and a beautiful city; they both had the option of becoming anything they wanted but had to excise the demons of their past first. Berlin’s transformation would take much longer, but Nelly’s transformation was in many ways more profound.

This is a movie that succeeds on a lot of different levels, from the easily seen to the more subtle. Certainly it gives the audience a whole lot to think about. The ending, incidentally, is just about perfect, from the way it is executed, the camera angles and the expression on the faces of the actors. It wasn’t the way I expected it to end for sure, but it was the right way for it to end. The great ending is very rare these days so when one comes along, it is much appreciated.

Phoenix is a revelation, notice that here is a director who is to be reckoned with. This will likely be showing up on Netflix and other streaming services shortly – it’s American release was back in July although here in Central Florida the Enzian is reportedly considering booking it for early December – and it’s very much worth checking out once it does. Few movies will leave you as breathless as this one does especially after you consider the ending you just saw as it fades to black and are left jaw dropped and mind blown.

REASONS TO GO: High tension. Hoss’ performance is outstanding. Ending is incredibly good.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoss has appeared in five of Patzold’s seven films thus far.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (Check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flame and Citron
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Burnt

Waking Ned Devine (Waking Ned)


David Kelly doesn't like his wardrobe.

David Kelly doesn’t like his wardrobe.

(1998) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ian Bannen, David Kelly, Fionnula Flanagan, James Nesbitt, Susan Lynch, Maura O’Malley, Eileen Dromey, Brendan Dempsey, Paul Vaughan (voice), Adrian Robinson, Robert Hickey, Paddy Ward, James Ryland, Fintan McKeown, Kitty Fitzgerald, Dermot Kerrigan, Jimmy Keogh, Matthew Devitt, Rennie Campbell. Directed by Kirk Jones

Once in a while, movies come in from left field that are sweet, gentle, and good-natured. They make the viewer feel like he or she has become, for two hours, part of a family or a community. These movies generally look at the foibles of life with a little bit of a wink and a wry smile. There is a sense of reality about them, or at least reality as we wish it were.

Movies like that are worth seeking out and embracing with both arms. Waking Ned Devine is such a movie. With the Isle of Man subbing for Ireland, the movie engenders such a feeling of warmth you’ll swear you’ve had a drop of the most heavenly whiskey west of the Emerald Isle.

Aging roustabout Jackie O’Shea (Bannen) has discovered that someone in the tiny town of Tulaigh Morh (i.e. Tullymore) has won the jackpot in the Irish lotto. He, his best friend Michael O’Sullivan (Kelly) and his long-suffering wife Annie (Flanagan) set out to ingratiate themselves amongst the townsfolk to find out who the lucky winner is.

And a charming lot the townsfolk are, for the most part. There’s Finn (Nesbitt), a pig farmer who has a deep, abiding love for the lovely poet Maggie (Lynch) who returns his love, only she can’t stand the smell of him. There’s the amorous store clerk, Mrs. Kennedy (O’Malley), and certainly not least, there’s the vicious Lizzie Quinn (Dromey), a mean-spirited cross between Lizzie Borden and the Wicked Witch of the West, only less friendly. She’s the type of woman who rides a wheelchair not because she’s disabled, but because she likes rolling over other people’s feet.

Jackie, Michael and Annie rule out the townsfolk one by one until they figure out who it is: Ned Devine (Keogh), a fisherman who lives in the remotest section of town. Trouble is, when they go to visit Ned, they discover that the shock of the lottery win has stopped his heart.

Therefore, the three perpetrate a bit of a scam; to convince Jim Kelly, the representative of the Irish Lottery (Dempsey) that Jackie is Ned Devine, and claim the winnings for themselves. Unfortunately, the early arrival of Kelly (signaled by the unmistakable sound of the poor man’s hay fever) puts their plans in a tizzy and the less, ummmmmmm, untruthful Michael is forced to assume the role of Ned. However, when Kelly explains that he has to verify Ned Devine’s identity with the townsfolk, and that the amount of the jackpot is several MILLION pounds instead of a few hundred thousand as they expected, they must involve the entire town. Some are willing than others.

The acting is so good you can’t tell that anyone is acting. These all seem like real people who have wonderfully rich lives. Every character has character, and there’s a sweetness about the movie that hits every charm button you may have. It’s a shame that Bannen passed away in a traffic accident a year after the release of this movie; he makes the most charming rogue that I have seen onscreen since Darby O’Gill.

The term “feel-good movie” is tossed about in reviews and on daytime shows without regard, but this film defines it. The movie not only feels good, it makes YOU feel good about watching it. It’s the kind of movie you won’t be able to avoid telling your friends about, and it’s one you’ll almost certainly want to own once you’ve seen it. If you need a pick-me-up after the world has kicked you around some, Waking Ned Devine is tonic for the troops.

WHY RENT THIS: As Irish as a pint of Guinness. Makes you feel toasty-warm inside.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dry sense of humor.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, a bit o’ foul language and some mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: UK and European distributors shortened the title to Waking Ned because they felt it was snappier and more user friendly. The US and Canada were the only territories to keep the original working script title.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $55.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brigadoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Legend of Hercules

Margin Call


Margin Call

Kevin Spacey discovers the wonders of Internet porn.

(2011) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi, Ashley Williams, Susan Blackwell, Maria Dizzia, Jim Kirk. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Money makes the world go round, and certainly we all need it to get by. There are those, however, who can’t get enough of it and have plundered and pillaged their way into a global economic meltdown. The worst part of it is that there are those who knew what was about to happen but did nothing; they are at least complicit partners in the crime.

At a staid, respected Wall Street firm in 2008, layoffs are underway. A tap on the shoulder is the kiss of death as 80% of the workforce on this particular floor is about to be sent home. One of those being let go is Eric Dale (Tucci), a manager in the risk assessment team. As he is being escorted out, he hands a flash drive to his protégé Peter Sullivan (Quinto) and tells him it’s something he was working on and asks Peter to see if he can finish it. Then, somewhat strangely, he tells him to “Be careful.”

Well, that’s like catnip to a former rocket engineer like Sullivan so while the other survivors are out celebrating their stay of execution, Sullivan is working on the file and when he figures it out, the results are so monstrous that he has to call someone in. That someone is senior trader Will Emerson (Bettany) who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Spacey), the head of trading.

What Sullivan has discovered is that the company has purchased a lot of mortgage-based securities that, if their value were to deteriorate by just 25% would mean that the companies losses would be greater than what the company was worth. That would mean bankruptcy and scandal and the end of the gravy train they’ve all been riding on.

During the course of the night, the findings are pushed up the ladder. The head of Risk Management Sarah Robertson (Moore) and her boss Jared Cohen (Baker) are brought into the loop and it soon becomes apparent they knew  a lot more about the situation than they had let on. It quickly becomes a case of looking out for your own tush as the firm’s British CEO John Tuld (Irons) flies in via helicopter as dawn breaks.

These executives will be making decisions that will have far-reaching economic implications, not to mention a moral dilemma as Tuld’s decision is to sell off the worthless securities before it becomes general knowledge that they’re worthless. Can Rogers order his traders to essentially destroy their own careers to save the firm? Should he?

The story is rather loosely based on that of Lehman Brothers (whose CEO is Richard Fuld) although there are certainly some factual differences. That there are those in the financial industry who played fast and loose with the rules and with morality there is no doubt. That the greed of banks, financial firms and those politicians who helped remove the safeguards and overseers that might have protected us from these rapacious sharks has put our economy down the tubes there is also no doubt.

Chandor, the son of a Merrill Lynch executive, has an insider’s perspective and he helps make a movie that really covers some fairly arcane numbers-based material without going too far over the heads of the average audience member. There’s some good writing here; understanding what happened in 2008 often feels like you need a degree in math just to grasp the basics. Here, it’s shown in fairly plain terms what happened to a lot of firms at the time.

The performances here are universally compelling. Spacey is more or less the focus of the moral dilemma; he alone of most of the executives has a pretty good wrestling match with his conscience. He isn’t possessed of a snowy white soul – he certainly is flawed – but at least his first thought isn’t of his own career but the ramifications on the general public when this gets out.

Irons is also amazing as the reptilian CEO. There is a moment when he’s rattling off the dates of all the crashes and downturns on Wall Street, seemingly not noticing how much closer together those dates are getting as the years go by. Does he really not notice or does he actually not care that each of those dates represent enormous human misery?

This isn’t what you’d call action packed fare; much of it takes place in conference rooms at high level meetings. It gets pretty talky at times. While this is mostly an indictment of the greed and arrogance of Wall Street, it also does put a certain onus on the general public for aiding and abetting, a charge which isn’t entirely unfounded. In that sense, this is as fair and balanced a portrayal of the meltdown as I’ve seen to date.

This movie puts a human face on the greed and how the mentality of CYA and testosterone-fueled “profits first, people second” culture in Wall Street made what happened in 2008 inevitable. This is the dark face of capitalism and that the executives sound uncannily like prison guards at Dachau only makes this movie more compelling.

REASONS TO GO: A very realistic look at what goes on behind the curtain on Wall Street. Terrific performances and a well-written script augment this.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the talky side.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly at One Penn Plaza in New York on a floor recently vacated by a trading firm.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: In Time

What Goes Up


What Goes Up

Steve Coogan prays for more roles like this one.

(2009) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, Hilary Duff, Olivia Thirlby, Josh Peck, Molly Shannon, Molly Price, Max Hoffman, Sarah Lind, Laura Carswell, Ingrid Nelson, Andrea Brooks, Andrew Wheeler, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Jonathan Glatzer

Some movies are easy reviews. They stay with you or they are of such quality (or lack thereof) that the reviews almost write themselves. Others, like this one, are much harder to find the right words for.

Campbell Babbitt (Coogan) is a journalist doing a backstory on teacher Christa McAuliffe, who is about to go up in the Space Shuttle Challenger, at her high school in New Hampshire. As it so happens, an old college buddy of his also teaches there but before Babbitt can hook up with him, he commits suicide.

He is left to talk to the surviving students, such as Lucy Diamond (Duff), a somewhat self-centered sort who thinks that every guy who lays eyes on her is automatically her conquest; there’s also Tess Sullivan (Thirlby), a pregnant teen who is as manipulative as she is expectant and Jim Lement (Peck) who plays things close to the chest.

As a matter of fact, the whole town seems to be a bit on the eccentric side (as towns in New England often are in the movies) with Penelope Little (Shannon) putting on a somewhat avant garde musical production honoring the Challenger and its famous local astronaut. In the meantime, Campbell is going to get a close look at himself and his own ethics.

This is the kind of movie that drives me crazy. There’s a good deal of promise here, both in the subject matter and in some of the casting – I like Steve Coogan and this is the kind of role he doesn’t tackle often, something with a little meat to it. Coogan has the ability to tackle roles both comedic and dramatic and this one shows off his talents in both fields.

Duff is cast against type as something of a slut, and to be honest with you I can’t say as she looks comfortable in the role. Shannon is wacky as ever and this is the kind of part she has played many a time, both on SNL and in movies. She’s a little more sympathetic than usual here but that’s all.

Using the Challenger disaster as a framing device wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, but there doesn’t really seem to be much of a point here. The point is, I suppose, that the students are teaching Campbell something about life and maybe there’s some merit to that, but they seem to be more cliche indie film eccentrics more than real characters.

Some of the moments are really touching, and there are some moments that are charming but sadly, they are not as plentiful as they might be. Some of the cinematography is marvelous – there are some beautiful shots of the bleak winter, but that’s not enough to carry the movie. It’s sort of a noble failure; there are enough things that work to make it worth my while to review, but there are not enough of them to provoke me to recommend it, as much as I wish I could.

WHY RENT THIS: A definite change of pace for Coogan. Some really affecting moments. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is inconsistent in places; sometimes thought-provoking, other times not so much. Casting seems a little haphazard.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s teen sex, language and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in New England, the movie was filmed in British Columbia to help better establish the winter setting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beastly

The Cove


The Cove

A bucolic place for a slaughter.

(Roadside Attractions) Richard O’Barry, Louis Psihoyos, Hayden Panettiere, Dan Goodman, Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, Isabel Lucas, Charles Hambleton, Simon Hutchins, Paul Watson. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Since the advent of “Flipper,” most people generally look favorably upon dolphins. Research indicates that dolphins are highly intelligent and even self-aware. There are many reported instances of dolphins saving humans from harm in the ocean, and anybody who has seen dolphins in the wild playing and cavorting will know that these are creatures who know what joy is, perhaps better than we do.

Most civilized nations deplore the killing of dolphins and certainly the eating of them. It is in many ways similar to the taboos we have about eating dogs and cats, but there is also a medical reason for it as well – dolphin flesh is highly saturated with mercury, and repeated ingestion of dolphin can lead to mercury poisoning and eventually, death.

There are also those who love dolphins above the affection the general public gives them. Richard O’Barry is one, and he comes by that love honestly. At one time, he was considered the world’s foremost dolphin trainer. When the creators of “Flipper” were looking for someone to be their dolphin guy, Richard O’Barry was that guy. He trained five of the dolphins used in the store, including Kathy, the one among them who was his favorite.

After the show was canceled, the dolphins were sent to places like the Miami Seaquarium where they would perform in shows, captivating large audiences who thrilled at their stunts. The dolphins seemed happy enough – after all, they were always smiling.

That smile, according to O’Barry, is one of nature’s greatest deceptions. Dolphins smile because their facial structure is built that way – it is not a reflection of their emotional state, which is communicated through a body language that O’Barry eventually learned to read. What his dolphins were telling him, said Barry, was that they were stressed and desperately unhappy – to the point where Kathy committed suicide in his arms by deliberately closing her blowhole so she would stop breathing.

From that moment O’Barry would devote the rest of his life to tearing down a business he had helped to build up – the captivity of dolphins. Needless to say, he is not one of Sea World’s favorite people.

But even that has taken a back seat to his most recent focus. Japan is one of the few countries left that condones whaling; whale meat is consumed in Japan and whale by-products are used in various products. Despite a worldwide ban on whaling, Japan continues to do just that and thus television shows like “Whale Wars” depict the ongoing struggle between Japanese whalers and opposing activists from such organizations as Greenpeace and the Cetacean Society.

Even more shocking, however, is the secret in a small town called Taiji. Beautiful, quaint and charming, set into the rocky and hilly slopes leading to a beautiful shoreline, the fishermen of Taiji have every year lured thousands of dolphins into their Bay, where female bottlenose dolphins primarily are selected to be sold to Sea World and other such parks; it’s a lucrative business, with each dolphin netting upwards of $150,000 U.S. from the parks.

While that in itself isn’t a good thing, it’s what happens to the rest of the dolphins who aren’t selected for theme park use that is truly horrible. Whatever it is, it takes place in an isolated cove where the security is tighter than Fort Knox. Angry fishermen protect it with ferocity; the police and the town mayor is in on whatever it is that’s going on. As recently as this past week, O’Barry has received death threats for his activities, forcing him to cancel face-to-face meetings with the leadership in Taiji.

O’Barry knows the secret; the dolphins, instead of being released back into the wild, are slaughtered, and for no good reason. Ostensibly, it’s for their meat but because of its toxicity dolphin meat fetches next to nothing on the Japanese market, so the good citizens of Taiji mislabel it as whale meat and sell it for quite a bit more. Lies upon lies upon lies – it’s like a small child who is trying to hide their stolen cookies. It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing.

However, there’s no real proof, so O’Barry enlists Psihoyos, a National Geographic photographer and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, a non-profit group that tries to save the ocean and its inhabitants from man’s degradations. Once O’Barry shows him the security in Taiji and Psihoyos has drawn his own conclusions, they decide the world must see what’s going on behind figurative closed doors – in that secret cove, protected by razor wire and guards.

What follows is as tense and entertaining as any Mission: Impossible movie and worthy of the Best Documentary Oscar that it won earlier this year. A team of experts, including world class free divers, adrenaline junkies, technogeeks and audio experts are put together to hatch an insane plan to capture footage of the cove. They enlist some geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas’ special effects group, to create cameras that can be disguised as rocks. Special underwater cameras and microphones are brought in.

Planting them won’t be easy. The team, particularly O’Barry, is being watched night and day by the police. When they go out to place their equipment, it is under cover of darkness and they use decoys to throw off the cops.

Although it’s a bit of a spoiler, I have to tell you that they get their footage and when it is revealed onscreen, it is absolutely horrifying. The entire cove turns red with dolphin blood. It is one of the most sickening things you will ever see, and those who are sensitive to such things should probably turn away or even leave the room when the footage begins to show.

However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t see the movie. It’s an important message and one that will shock and outrage you. The Japanese excuse their behavior as it being a part of their culture. Well, slavery was a part of our culture too and that got stamped out – at great cost, yes, but stamped out nonetheless. That’s something the good people of Japan need to impress upon their leadership and they can do it by refusing to eat whale meat, and refusing to eat anything that comes from Taiji. That’s how you change hearts and minds.

Of course, that’s for the Japanese people. If you’re interested in helping, you can either go to the movie’s website (just click on the picture above) or you can go to Richard O’Barry’s new organization at this website http://www.savejapandolphins.org/ for updates on O’Barry’s crusade.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s an important documentary that tells a shameful story; after seeing it you are certain to be up in arms over the situation. Psihoyos directs this almost as a thriller more than a documentary and it is a wildly successful gambit.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes of dolphin slaughter are very disturbing and go on a bit longer after the point is already made.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some truly disturbing scenes of humans perpetrating dolphin slaughter, as well as some harrowing true-life suspense. The very sensitive little ones, particularly those who love dolphins, should be forewarned that some scenes may be too graphic for them.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This documentary inspired a new Animal Planet series called “Blood Dolphin” starring O’Barry; it made its cable debut on the network in advance of the new series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an informative piece on the effects of Mercury poisoning, as well as some additional details on the special cameras used in the making of the film.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Extract