The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

ELIÁN


Elian underwater.

(2017) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures/CNN) Elián Gonzalez, Marisleysis Gonzalez, Donato Dalrymple, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Jorge Mas Santos, Carl Hiaasen, Sam Ciancio, Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Manny Diaz, Gregory Craig, Ninoska Pérez Castellón, Ricardo Alarcón, Janet Reno, Joe Garcia, Spencer Eig, Alan Diaz, James Goldman, Aaron Podhurst, Carole Florman. Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell

 

As the 2000 Presidential election campaign was ramping up in November of 1998, two Florida men out fishing in the Straits of Florida outside of Miami noticed an inner tube floating on the water. As they neared it with their boat, they saw there was a child floating in the inner tube. When the child’s hand moved weakly, Sam Ciancio dived into the water, grabbed the boy and handed him to his cousin Donato Dalrymple on the boat. They sped back to Miami, Dalrymple calling his wife urging her to call 911 and have an ambulance meet them at the dock.

The boy was Elián Gonzalez and his mother had drowned in an attempt to get from Havana to Miami. She and her boyfriend had picked up Elián in the middle of the night at the home of her ex-husband Juan Miguel Gonzalez and told Elián they were going to visit his uncles. What she really wanted for her boy was the kind of freedom she felt could not be found in their native Cuba. Her husband was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and would not think of leaving Cuba.

The Gonzalez family took Elián in with open arms. His survival was called a Thanksgiving miracle and soon was the subject of network and cable news headlines. Everyone thought that this would be the end of the story with the happy ending of the boy adjusting to a new life in the United States with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis who clearly adored him, an affection that was clearly returned.

But it was not the end of the story, not by any means. It turns out that the boy’s father wanted him back, understandably. However, the Gonzalez clan in Miami dug in their heels. The boy’s mother clearly wished him to be raised in the Land of the Free and had died trying to make that happen; her wishes should be respected. Fidel Castro, his economy reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, very badly needed a symbol for his impoverished country to rally around and he found one. He began making demands of the United States that the boy be returned to Cuba, and exhorted his people to take to the streets in protest and they did, by the hundreds of thousands.

The US Government, under President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, came to the decision that the boy belonged with his father, regardless of ideology but Elián had become a cause célèbre among the exiled Cuban community in Miami, who remained vehemently anti-Castro. It soon became clear that the Miami Gonzalez family wouldn’t budge; the boy would stay with them. Castro was equally intransigent; the boy must return to Cuba.

In the middle of the night, armed INS agents broke down the door to the Gonzalez home where Elián was staying. Agents armed with automatic weapons broke into the bedroom of the boy who was being held by Dalrymple who had become a close friend of the family. The terrified child was snatched from the equally terrified Dalrymple and driven away, leading to riots in Miami. The boy was soon safely home with his father while the angry Cubans voted overwhelmingly Republican in the next election that fall, paving the way for the Presidency of George W. Bush.

The documentary which will be airing on CNN shortly after a brief limited theatrical run covers both sides of the Elián issue with fairly even hands. Most of the main players, including Marisleysis, Dalrymple, Juan Miguel and Elián himself, are interviewed. So are the peripheral players, like Jorge Mas Santos of the Cuban American National Foundation, who was extremely anti-Castro in those days but following the events of 1999 changed tactics and would later be instrumental in helping former President Obama begin opening relations with Cuba after the death of Castro.

There are some complexities to the incident that still remain a sore spot with Cuban-Americans today. Many view it as a triumph for master manipulator Castro who played the American government like a harp. As a Cuban-American myself, I have very mixed feelings about the events; I do believe that a 5-year-old boy should have been returned to his father from the outset; biology trumps ideology. I also understand why the Miami Gonzalez family would be reluctant to trust the Castro government who they believed – accurately as it turned out – would use the boy for political purposes. It was a shame that a compromise couldn’t be worked out but I don’t believe one was possible at the time.

Golden covered the Elián affair as a journalist so he’s fairly knowledgeable about what happened. He gives both sides pretty much equal time, although he omits certain facts like Marisleysis had intimated that the family was armed and would defend the boy with deadly force which likely was why the INS had gone in there armed to the teeth. Elián himself gets the final word, however. He is today about the same age his cousin Marisleysis was when this all happened. He is pro-Castro almost to obsessive lengths; he even goes so far as to say that if he had a religion, he would worship Fidel as God which is dogmatic to say the least. One wonders how much of that was indoctrination and how much was hero-worship of a 5-year-old boy who’d lost everything he knew and then was put through the grinder of the American media.

Even though 15 years have passed, the wounds remain fresh in the Cuban community. One gets the sense that the American government mishandled the situation – Reno was haunted by the fallout from Waco where children had died as a result of her decision to take on the Branch Davidians. One gets the sense that it will be many years before the Elián Gonzalez affair can be reviewed dispassionately and without prejudice, but it’s possible that it never will. This is a comprehensive documentary that covers the subject more than adequately but I’m not sure they are as objective as they make themselves out to be. It seemed to me that the Miami Gonzalez family came out looking better than the Cuban side, although that might be my own prejudices coming insidiously to the surface.

REASONS TO GO: A clearly emotional subject even now is covered even-handedly.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the crucial details have been left out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some of it extreme as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dalrymple was portrayed in the press as a fisherman, he was in reality a housecleaner who had gone fishing that day with his cousin Sam who was indeed a fisherman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Desert Flower
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wedding Plan

In the Heart of the Sea


Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

Chris Hemsworth wonders where his hammer went.

(2015) True Life Adventure (Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle, Edward Ashley, Sam Keeley, Osy Ikhile, Gary Beadle, Jamie Sives, Morgan Chetcuti, Nicholas Jones, Donald Sumpter, Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Riley. Directed by Ron Howard

Most people are aware of the saga of Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with a great white whale that took his leg and eventually much more than that. Many consider it the greatest novel ever written by an American. What a lot of people don’t know is that it is based on the story of the whaleship Essex which was attacked by an unusually large whale in the Pacific in 1820.

It’s a story that has made the rounds in Nantucket and the whaling community of New England, so Herman Melville (Whishaw) wants to get the scoop right from the horse’s mouth – the last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Gleeson). At first, Tom is loathe to tell the tale but at the urging of his wife (Fairley) who points out to her husband that they need the money – and to Melville that Tom needs to let all of the demons of that ill-fated voyage that have troubled him for so long out. Eventually, Tom tells the tale and quite a tale it is.

Putting to sea for a two year voyage, the Essex is commanded by George Pollard (Walker), scion of a respected Nantucket seafaring family but inexperienced at the helm. He is given Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a well-regarded first mate who has ambitions to captain his own ship someday but a son of landsmen (or land lubbers if you prefer). As they head out on their trip, hoping to pull In 400 barrels of whale oil, Pollard steers them directly into a squall, nearly wrecking the ship in the process. Not an auspicious start.

Things get worse though. The usually fruitful hunting grounds of the Atlantic are barren – already almost completely fished out – so the crew makes a try to go around Cape Horn for the Pacific fisheries, a long journey adding months to their already long and arduous trip. Lurking there is an abnormally large white whale, one that means business. The encounter between the whale and the Essex won’t be a happy one – certainly not for the seamen of the Essex.

The ship is stove and the crew is forced to abandon ship, the survivors getting into three ships normally used in the harpooning of whales. One disappears completely, never to be seen again (in reality, the third ship washed ashore years later with three skeletons aboard, and while the remains were never positively identified it as believed to have been the one from the Essex) while the other two, try for the coast of South America or at least Easter Island. However there are more than a thousand nautical miles to make it there and little food or water. Pollard commands one ship, with his cousin Henry Coffin (Dillane) aboard while Chase the other with his close friend Matthew Joy (Murphy) and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Holland) on board. Which ones, if either, will make it to safety? And what must they do in order to get there?

Tales like Treasure Island and Moby Dick have always excited the American imagination, although to be honest in these more cynical days of CGI and cell phones, the lure of uncharted waters is not as enticing so in that sense In the Heart of the Sea is something of a hard sell for the American moviegoing public. It would take a truly stirring movie to get people into the theater to see it.

Unfortunately, that’s not what Ron Howard delivered. There are moments, yes, where the movie really works – the sequence of the whale attack is actually one of them, although it is clearly a digital creation. The framing device of the conversation between Melville and a middle-aged Nickerson also works, mainly because Gleeson is so compelling an actor.

But there are also moments in which the movie just seems to drag. Quite frankly, watching sailors slowly dying of starvation and dehydration is not exciting which sounds a little bit cold but there you have it. Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt draw parallels from the whaling industry of the 1820s to the oil industry of today, parallels which have some justification, but still the harpooning sequences are bloody and a off-putting to modern sensibilities. I’m not sure we need to be told that whaling was a brutal, bloody business.

I did want to like this movie more than I ended up doing and I think that I may well have gone a little easy on it if the remarks of other reviewers are to be believed. Hemsworth, usually reliable an actor, feels like he’s had all his charisma sucked out of him for this one; you get the sense he’s like a caged animal, wanting to break out of the shackles his character has had put upon him. When the framing sequence is what works best about a film, you have a problem. And yet, I still recommend the movie nevertheless. There is enough here to keep one’s attention, but if you choose to wait until it’s available on home video, I wouldn’t dissuade you.

REASONS TO GO: Rip roaring adventure yarn. Framing sequences work well.
REASONS TO STAY: The story isn’t as exciting as the book based on it was. The pace is a bit leaden through the second act.
FAMILY VALUES: Some startling violence, disturbing images, moments of peril and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the sixth film directed by Howard to be based on a true story. The others are Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon and Rush.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moby Dick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Youth

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation


Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

Tom Cruise is within earshot of Rebecca Ferguson.

(2015) Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Baldwin, Mateo Rufino, Fernando Abadie, Alec Utgoff, Hermione Corfield, Nigel Barber, James Weber Brown, America Olivo, Adam Ganne, Eva-Marie Becker. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

When we go to the movies in the summer, it is with a different expectation than when we go in the fall. In the autumn and winter months, we expect something more thoughtful, something challenging. In the summer, we want spectacle. We want things blowing up and car chases and bullets flying but never ever hitting the hero, who is usually a big Hollywood star. We wanted to be wowed.

Well, nobody ever accused the Mission: Impossible franchise of failing to give the people what they want. The IMF finds itself in hot water, but not from some baddie with an axe to grind who wants to take over the world; no, not unless you count the CIA and Congress among that demographic. You see, the head of the CIA (Baldwin) wants to break up the band – shut down the IMF. He feels that they have no oversight, they do essentially what they want, have a ginormous budget and the return on that budget is shall we say chancy. Being that there’s no Secretary to speak up for the IMF, it is up to agent William Brandt (Renner) to carry the torch and he basically has his hands tied. End result: the IMF is history.

It’s a bad time for the IMF to take a header. The Syndicate, an evil organization that is out to sow the seeds of chaos and war around the world (and fans of the original series will remember was often the antagonist to the IMF back in the day), is ready to rear its ugly head and agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has made contact with them – at least, he knows what some of their agents look like. Aided by a British agent named Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) who has a name that would have sounded better on a sexy SS agent, he escapes their clutches and sets out to foil their plans and bring the anti-IMF – which is what the Syndicate is – to its knees, if not on its back in the morgue.

To do so Hunt is going to need old friends Brandt, Benji Dunn (Pegg), an expert on computers and gadgets and Luther Stickell (Rhames), maybe the world’s best hacker. They’ll be going up against Solomon Lane (Harris), the head of the Syndicate and a soft-spoken but wholly deranged former British agent, and his top dawg Janik “The Bone Doctor” Vinter (Hulten) who should sue for a better nickname. They also can’t be sure about Ilsa, who may be a double agent but has some pretty messed up stuff in her past, nor about Atlee (McBurney), the weasel-like head of the British Secret Service who is either a ruthless spy out to protect his country at all counts, or just plain ruthless.

The film begins with a sequence that includes Hunt holding on for dear life to the outside of a cargo plane – which is an actual stunt actually done by Cruise which I’m sure led to some cardiac arrest in the halls of insurance companies worldwide. He also is really driving the car going down the steps and flipping over like something out of NASCAR, and that really is his knee almost touching the asphalt as he drives his high speed motorcycle around a hairpin curve on a mountain road outside of Casablanca.

The action sequences are big and bold and exciting. The sets range from gleaming high tech to dusty ancient cities to the gilded grandeur of the Vienna Opera House. Each location is proclaimed in big graphic letters so we always know where in the world Carmen Sandiego, or at least the IMF team, is. Like the Bond movies which set the formula, we get the team in exotic (and not-so-exotic) locations, we get nifty gadgets and we get amazing stunts and action. We even get beautiful women, although in this case it’s just one woman, but when she emerges from a swimming pool in a bikini, don’t tell me that you more veteran moviegoers weren’t thinking about Ursula Andress.

McQuarrie started out as a writer, penning the excellent script for The Usual Suspects among others, and has lately graduated to directing with solid results (Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) has graduated to better than that. This has all the ingredients for solid summer entertainment; and likely will dominate the box office (given the anemic early results of Fantastic Four) throughout August.

Like a lot of the M;I films, there are some twists and turns to the plot, most of them involved with Ilsa’s true allegiance, but for the most part they don’t fool anyone and in all honesty, I think the movie could have used a little more vagueness when it came to her true intentions. Well before the final denouement we all knew which side she was buttering her bread as it were.

The main fulcrum that the movie revolves around however is Cruise, and at 53 years old which in action star terms is a bit long in the tooth he still has the boyish good looks that have always been his stock in trade (although he is starting to show his age just a tiny bit). Then again, both Schwarzenegger and Stallone have been doing action films with effectiveness in their 60s. Cruise is still in fine shape and looks like he could do another  three or four of these movies without breaking a sweat and given the satisfying box office numbers here at least one more is almost certain. Cruise is a star through and through and he continues to have maybe the best fundamental understanding of how to remain a star as any in Hollywood.

This is definitely a “grab the popcorn and an ice cold soda” kind of movie, the kind that you can drag the whole family out to, or your entire circle of friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old or in between – this is entertainment for nearly everybody. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Top notch action sequences. Cruise still has it.
REASONS TO STAY: The twists are a little on the lame side.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and intense action sequences with a scene of brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each Mission: Impossible film has had a different director: Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and now McQuarrie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale (2006)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Nightingale

August: Osage County


The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells

In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.

Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.

When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.

Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.

Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.

There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.

They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.

Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.

Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.

I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.

At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lone Survivor

Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead

Man of Steel


I believe I can flyyyyyy...

I believe I can flyyyyyy…

(2013) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Richard Zetrone, Mackenzie Gray, Samantha Jo, Christina Wren. Directed by Zack Snyder 

 

Look! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! It’s a flying guy in blue tights! Superman is an iconic figure not only in pop culture but it can be argued in American literature as well. He represents the American ideal – powerful, invulnerable and unstoppable but just and fair as well. He was our self-image, America in the post-war years. One strong man against the world.

But times have changed and Supes has fallen out of style in favor of  the darker superheroes, particularly Batman. The optimism and idealism of Superman seemed to be something of an anachronism when the successful superheroes were brooding damaged men who faced demons who ravaged their souls. They may have superpowers but they have crappy lives just like us.

Resurrecting Superman in a film form was a daunting task. Superman Returns back in 2006 was considered a failure, unable to make back its pretty steep production and marketing costs at the box office. The studio assigned Zack Snyder, maker of 300 and Watchmen to take the reins of the property and hired Christopher Nolan who made the Batman franchise one of the most profitable for Warner Brothers as an executive producer (and co-writer of the script along with David Goyer). The execs at DC Comics and Warner Brothers were fully aware that while they’d had success with Batman, none of their other comic book properties had taken off yet and with Marvel essentially printing money with every film release, DC knew that they need to get in on that action and have a superhero hit that doesn’t have Batman in it.

Krypton is dying. Jor-El (Crowe) knows it as does his friend Zod (Shannon), general of Krypton’s military. The dithering High Council of Krypton doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation so Zod acts by attempting a coup. In the chaos, Jor-El steals the Codex, a genetic directory of Krypton and downloads it, sending his infant son – the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries – in a rocket headed for an obscure system orbiting an unimportant star. Zod is sent to the Phantom Zone along with his followers, chief of whom is Faora (Traue), after the coup fails leaving Jor-El murdered by Zod. Lara (Zurer), Jor-El’s wife and mother of the infant Kal-El (now rocketing to Earth) can only wait helplessly for her world to end, which it does in spectacular fashion.

The infant lands in Kansas and is raised by farmers Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Lane) Kent. Realizing quickly that this boy is not only from somewhere else, he is possessed of great powers – x-ray vision, super hearing, heat vision, super strength and the ability to fly. Pa counsels young Clark (which is what they renamed Kal-El) to hide his powers from a world that was clearly not ready for them and although it involves a lot of soul-searching, loneliness and turning the other cheek, Clark complies.

Now grown to manhood Clark (Cavill) wanders around, doing odd jobs and flying below the radar. His father, who passed away some years before, would definitely approve but Clark is haunted by questions of who he really is and where he comes from. The only clue he has is a black object, with a stylized “S” on it.

Clark’s wanderings take him to the arctic where the government has found an ancient craft buried under the ice that has been there about 20,000 years. Reporter Lois Lane (Adams) has successfully sued for access, much to the chagrin of Colonel Hardy (Meloni) who is the military commander on the project, and Dr. Hamilton (Schiff), the scientific chief. Lois spies Clark walking in the Arctic ice apparently in jeans and a t-shirt in the frigid weather. Intrigued, she follows him and finds a recently melted hole (heat vision comes in handy). A protective robot attacks Lois but Clark saves her and delivers her to a place near the base where she can be attended to. In the meantime Clark discovers a keyhole which his object fits into. This brings out a holographic projection of his father who tries to explain to him who he is and what his hopes are for him.

It also sets off a beacon which brings back Zod looking for the codex and revenge. Having escaped the Phantom Zone during the destruction of Krypton, they make a beeline for some of Krypton’s abandoned deep space military outposts and are well-armed with advanced weapons and ships, and have all the powers that Kal-El possesses. Can Superman save the day?

The movie has been (depending on the source) decried or embraced as dark, and that’s absolutely true. How you’re going to react to it depends entirely how tied in you are to the Superman mythology; this is certainly no cream puff Clark. He kicks ass (more on that later) but this isn’t your father’s Superman, or your grandfather’s. This is a reinvention of the character for modern sensibilities, for better or for worse. I suspect older audiences are going to have a harder time reconciling this Superman with the one they grew up with than younger audiences are.

Cavill is given the ball in this movie and he runs with it. Superman is by nature a polite, gentle soul who happens to have the ability to throw a tanker truck like you and I would toss a Frisbee. Cavill captures that side of him. Peter Parker in another film was told with great power comes great responsibility but what if you have the powers of a God? How much more responsible do you have to be? The answer is exponentially more. It is a difficult thing to determine what is just and what is not when you literally have unlimited powers and that’s really the crux of Man of Steel.

Of course, there’s a whole lot of stuff getting blowed up real good.  The last 45 minutes of this more than 2 1/2 hour film are of big battles in Smallville and Metropolis to the point that I wondered “Who’s going to clean this mess up?” as the skyline of the latter undergoes a radical transformation. While the battles are pretty thrilling, there isn’t a whole lot of variety to them and they get old fast. These are definitely scenes that could have been trimmed.

It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of comparing Man of Steel to those that preceded it. I was going to write that the chemistry between this Lois and Clark isn’t as profound as that between Margo Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve (which is true) until I realized that I’m not here to review Superman: The Movie; that’s a whole different film experience than this. It isn’t fair to either film to compare them, even though the story is pretty similar (more so to Superman 2). In any case, if you go to the multiplex expecting something like the 1978 classic, you’re going to leave the theater disappointed.

The filmmakers have gone on record that they hope to use this as a jumping off point to create a shared DC Universe in much the way Marvel has created a shared film universe. Already there is a sequel to Man of Steel on the way and talk is it will be followed soon after by a Justice League film. I hope so. The DC Comics tradition is rich and has some amazing stories to draw on. Man of Steel isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means but it is an entertaining one and the box office numbers indicate that there are a lot of other people who think so as well. I look forward to see what comes of it.

REASONS TO GO: Good performances top to bottom. Epic scope befitting an icon.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Fight sequences repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, destruction and mayhem on a mass scale as well as some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cavill had become notorious for having other actors selected ahead of him for franchise roles, including Daniel Craig for Bond, Christian Bale for Batman, Robert Pattinson for Edward Cullen and Brandon Routh for Superman Returns before finally breaking through.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; critics are very divided over this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Beneath the Darkness