Blood on the Mountain


Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

Beautiful West Virginia is paying the price for its coal.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Chris Hedges, Davitt McAteer, Chuck Keeney, Richard Trumko, Rev. Ron English, John Cavendish, Doug Estepp, Rev. Matthew Watts, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (archival footage), Peter Galuszka, Bruce Stanley, Terry Steele, Denny Tyler, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Chuck Nelson, Jack Spadaro, Charlotte Neilan, Maria Gunnoe. Directed by Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman

 

I’m sure not many of us thought that coal mining would be a major controversy in 2016. President-elect Trump has vowed to bring more jobs to coal country, particularly West Virginia. At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to bring to a vote the Miner’s Protection Act that will protect the pensions and rights of tens of thousands of coal miners, all the more heinous because he represents a coal state.

This documentary, co-directed by West Virginia native daughter Evans and activist Freeman, takes a sober look at the history of coal mining, starting with the labor wars of the first part of the 20th century on through the reforms to working conditions brought about by the union, the erosion of the union in the latter part of the century and how the mining companies, particularly Massey and it’s absolutely amoral chairman Don Blankenship, has exploited the miners as surely as they’ve exploited the environment.

Of late, mining is mostly done by the mountaintop removal method, which causes egregious harm to the ecology, leaving pristine mountains scarred and as lifeless as the lunar surface, and yet the people of West Virginia have been solid supporters of coal companies who are the main providers of jobs in the Mountain State.

Evans and Jordan don’t pretend to be impartial; there’s a bias here and while I admit it’s hard to argue against them, there isn’t much of an attempt to address the concerns of the people of West Virginia regarding jobs and employment, a key issue in the recent election and certainly one of the big reasons West Virginians voted for Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers.  As a liberal, I have to admit that the left has fallen down on addressing the people of West Virginia (and other states like it), rather almost telling them “we know what’s good for you.” In West Virginia, jobs are good for them.

And yet West Virginians have not done well by the coal industry. Coal mining has killed scores of West Virginians, from black lung to mine explosions, floods and mine collapses to labor disputes over the decades. Coal miners have worked in some of the most abysmal conditions in human history, but the feeling is any job is better than no job. Coal companies created company towns, often putting their employees into what amounted to slave labor, paying their employees in scrip which they could only spend at company stores at vastly inflated prices, the workers knowing if they rocked the boat they’d be forcibly evicted from the company-owned home they live in with their families.

It is a mournful litany of abuse, corporate greed and political spinelessness, buttressed by archival footage and talking head interviews, with intervening footage of the natural beauty of West Virginia – one of the most beautiful states in the Union – and the results of the Big Coal’s irresponsible lack of regard for the consequences to the environment of their actions.

This is one of those documentaries where the content is so compelling that I end up overlooking that the actual craft of the documentary could be better; the filmmakers leap around in time and subject to sometimes dizzying effect. A more linear narrative would have served the film better. I also would have liked to at least hear more from West Virginians concerned about jobs over environment and health; they are rendered here mainly to hysterical screaming mobs. There are some intelligent people on the other side and their point of view certainly should have been heard. Still, this is something that in the words of former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and activist Tom Morello every American worker should see, and I agree with him. While this focuses on coal, one of the most egregious industries in terms of abuse of its workers in American history, it is also the story of all workers in America. It is time their voices were heard.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the archival footage is nifty. The film is a timely look at the state of the labor movement.
REASONS TO STAY: There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of impartiality here. The filmmakers could have tied the struggle here more in with the current political climate.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s tagline “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” is a quote from Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, an ardent union organizer and the person for whom Mother Jones magazine was named.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan County, USA
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Rules Don’t Apply

Deepwater Horizon


The moment when you realize that your crazy uncle is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

The moment when you realize that your crazy uncle is coming to Thanksgiving dinner.

(2016) True Life Drama (Summit) Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Dylan O’Brien, Joe Chrest, James Dumont, J.D. Evermore, Douglas M. Griffin, Brad Leland, Jason Pine, Jason Kirkpatrick, Dave Maldonado, Robert Walker Branchaud, Jonathan Angel, Jeremy Sande, Juston Street, Stella Allen. Directed by Peter Berg

 

On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit exploded, paving the way for one of the worst ecological disasters in history. Most of us know about the aftermath and the damage to the Gulf Coast, to the fishing industry and to wildlife. But what of those who were on the rig at the time?

Mike Williams (Wahlberg), an oil rig electronics technician, is getting ready to leave his wife (Hudson) and daughter (Allen) to go and spend 21 days on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon. He reports to Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Russell), a grizzled non-nonsense kind of guy who depends on his electronics technician to keep the various systems running on the rig, which is no easy task; many of the systems are outdated and are badly in need of overhauling, systems including waste disposal (i.e. the toilets) all the way up to telecommunications and even the computers. Although Williams grouses, he keeps the rig going and running as efficiently as possible.

But British Petroleum, who is leasing the oil rig, wants their exploratory well finished and the Deepwater Horizon is already five weeks behind schedule. BP representative Vidrine (Malkovich) is putting pressure on Harrell and Jason Anderson (Suplee), the control room supervisor, to finish running the various safety checks – Harrell is a stickler for safety – that he feels are redundant and slowing down the operations that he is tasked to complete.

Both Harrell and Williams are concerned that a concrete plug hasn’t been installed and those who were supposed to install it have left the rig at Vidrine’s insistence. That Vidrine seems more concerned with profit rather than safety gets under Harrell’s skin, but Vidrine seems perfectly content to let Harrell run the tests he wants to run to make sure that the drill is secure. Harrell goes to take a shower and all hell breaks loose.

Massive blow-back in the line leads to a series of explosions on the rig, crippling it. Fire rages everywhere and an abandon ship order is issued. Navigator Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez) desperately tries to keep the floating rig in place so as not to rupture the pipe and release the petroleum into the Gulf but with the power failing and her boss, anxious to protect his ass, waiting for orders rather than disconnecting the pipe from the crippled rig, the stage is set for a disaster that will continue to have repercussions on the Gulf Coast for decades to come.

Eleven people died aboard the Deepwater Horizon and there are some concerns that a movie like this will exploit their memories. There are also those who think that Leftie Hollywood will use the movie as a springboard to jump on the offshore oil drilling business in general, but I think both concerns should be allayed. The movie is not about the oil spill (it is barely mentioned in the film) but about the heroism of those aboard who took care of each other and performed extraordinary deeds of courage in the face of terrifying events. People running into infernos to rescue injured comrades, climbing aboard cranes swinging like pendulums to save those awaiting rescue – it is hard not to take great faith in human nature because the movie illustrates the higher aspect of people rather than their baser natures.

Sure, Vidrine is something of a villain here but not out of malice; he’s just trying to do his job and while he isn’t well-liked by the crew of the Deepwater Horizon, he also agrees to safety checks and acts on the information that those tests give him. While the Justice Department would later rule that BP acted recklessly, the movie doesn’t show a lot of that.

Russell and Wahlberg make an effective team. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me that the Mike Williams role would have gone to Russell – has it really been 35 years since Escape from New York? Russell’s performance recalls his work in Tombstone as Wyatt Earp; same kind of gravelly intensity here. As for Wahlberg, roles like Mike Williams are tailor-made for him. He has settled into a niche which suits him perfectly; if you look at most of his roles over the last five years they are very similar in that we’re talking about ordinary family men placed in extraordinary situations that give them an opportunity to do heroic deeds. This won’t be remembered as Wahlberg’s finest hour, but it is certainly right in his wheelhouse.

The Deepwater Horizon set is absolutely amazing. The production designers recreated it at 85% of scale and it may be the largest set ever built for a single film (although the Egyptian set for Intolerance may have given this a run for its money but the special effects crew does some amazing work here. It’s hard to believe the actors didn’t get burned on a regular basis.

The ending features a tribute to the survivors as well as those who didn’t and while I think that one is necessary, there’s a bit of mawkishness to those final scenes that precede it that was a bit off-putting to me. Still, it is clear that the movie was made respectfully and as far as entertainment value goes it is a solid work in that sense. However, I’m not sure how to feel about being entertained by a film depicting real events in which eleven people lost their lives. I suppose it’s no worse than being entertained by a film about a war in which millions lost their lives, or by Titanic in which a thousand people lost their lives – but it may be that the events of April 20, 2010 may be too fresh in the minds of the friends and families of the victims for this to be the right time to release this movie.

REASONS TO GO: The set is absolutely amazing. The film concentrates on the heroes aboard the doomed rig rather than at pointing fingers at those that doomed it.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers don’t really look at the repercussions of the disaster with any depth. It’s a little too manipulative at the end.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is disturbing disaster imagery and sequences of violence, as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first time Kate Hudson has appeared in a film with her stepfather Kurt Russell; they only share one scene together however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Birth of a Nation (2016)

Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Red Planet


Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

Val Kilmer gets a little face time with a killing machine.

(2000) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Tom Sizemore, Benjamin Bratt, Simon Baker, Terence Stamp, Jessica Morton, Caroline Bossi, Bob Neill (voice), Neil Ross (voice). Directed by Antony Hoffman

It’s 2025 and do you know where your atmosphere is? Yup…hopelessly poisoned, the soil sterilized by toxins, and our planet has less than a century of sustainable life left in it. That’s just a bad day for everybody.

All eyes turn to the Mars terraforming project; everything seems to be going well, but something odd’s been happening up there; the algae that had been sent to the planet to create a breathable atmosphere seems to be failing, and the oxygen levels on Mars are dropping fast. It looks like we’ll have to take care of this in person or else learn to hold our collective breath.

Mission commander Bowman (Moss) (Nyuck nyuck nyuck on the name, guys, open the pod bay door Hal?) leads a crew to examine the Mars problem. A habitation has already been sent to Mars and should be up and running. The mission is going smoothly, although one of the scientists (Stamp, who is wasted in a too-small role) is showing signs of wigging out, philosophically speaking. The “space janitor” — or systems engineer, (Kilmer) lacks respect from the crew, but has the eye of his commander (and apparently a bunch of other body parts).

Once in Mars orbit, things go wrong as they normally do in space movies. A severe solar flare cripples the mother ship and forces an early launch of the Lander, which promptly crashes (don’t you hate when that happens?) far away from the habitation. Commander Bowman, who had to stay behind in order to get the Lander away, is managing to repair the mother ship for the return to earth, but the mission looks junked, especially when the survivors from the Lander reach the habitation to find it completely destroyed, and only 15 minutes of oxygen left in their tanks. They wait around to die, only to discover something strange — there IS a breathable atmosphere on Mars after all. There is also a pissed-off robot who has gone military on their butts. What’s an astronaut to do?

Well, make chest-beating speeches about duty and sacrifice, for one thing. Kilmer and Stamp are terrific; Moss could have been the big action heroine that Linda Hamilton chose not to be; as it is she’s had a pretty solid career thanks to performances like these. Sizemore and Bratt are solid in support, and the effects are pretty nifty. The script, however, is pretty lame. It’s one Deus ex Machina after another, one amazing miraculous coincidence piled atop another until you’re screaming for mercy, but sadly, in Hollywood, nobody can hear you scream.

Red Planet  is fair enough eye candy, but could have used a plot that didn’t have quite so many holes in it  – the destruction of the habitation is never fully explained; when you figure out what caused it, you wonder how a station that was designed to withstand an F5 tornado could have succumbed to what destroyed it, for example. Kilmer is as laid-back as action heroes go; Sizemore makes a pretty good second banana, but it’s Moss who captured my attention here, as she will yours  and she would have without the somewhat obligatory, unnecessary nude scene.

This came out the same year as Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars which was slightly better than this although I think Mission stands up better over time, despite the Kubrickian noodling of its ending.  I’m as big a fan of sci-fi adventure movies as you’ll find but even I couldn’t find a lot of positive things here. This was one mission I could have done without.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent special effects. Carrie-Anne Moss rocks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written. Too much chest-beating. Kilmer too laid-back for the role.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a fair share of violence and foul language and a brief nude scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Many of the Mars scenes were filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan – a desolate narrow valley.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on an $80M production budget; the movie flopped big time at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Host (2013)

Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)


Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot