Roar (1981)


Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my...

Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my…

(1981) WTF (Drafthouse) Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Zakes Moakae, Lenord Bokwa, Shamasi Sarumi, Will Hutchins, Eve Rattner, Peter Thiongo, Michael Franz, Alexandra Newman, Pat Barbeau, Michael J. Jones. Directed by Noel Marshall

Some movies are extraordinary due to technical achievements, acting performances, excellent writing, beautiful cinematography and/or sure direction. This isn’t one of those. It is extraordinary due to the fact that it got made.

Husband and wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were a successful Hollywood couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Hedren had been an actress who’d starred in the Hitchcock classic The Birds and was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her husband was a producer, who had among other credits The Exorcist and The Harrad Experiment to his credit.

Both were animal activists, particularly when it came to big cats, and kept nearly a hundred animals on their ranch in Soledad Canyon, near Los Angeles. They hit upon an idea to make a movie that would inspire audiences to conservation and preservation as many big cats were hitting the endangered species list. Oddly, they decided to use their own wild animals rather than trained ones that were more used to human company.

The production was plagued with problems from the start. What was supposed to have been a six-month shoot would stretch out for seven years – this after it took four years to get the financing together to make the movie in the first place. However, two years into shooting, the financing was withdrawn and Marshall and Hedren were forced to use their own funds to complete the movie, putting up their own property and possessions as collateral. Animal attacks during the shoot would lead to 70 confirmed injuries, some of which were serious (an assistant director had his throat partially torn out and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make Speed had most of his scalp torn off in a wound that required more than 200 stitches). A flood and brush fire in 1979 wiped out the set and took out most of the completed footage, and feline disease took the lives of many of the cats, including Robbie, who plays the King of the Cats in the film.

Still, the filmmakers persevered and the movie was completed but after all that it tanked at the box office; especially galling was that it didn’t get a release here in the United States. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain found the movie at a local video store and fell in love with it. He arranged to buy the rights and is giving it a brief theatrical re-release before bringing it back out on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

The movie’s plot is simple; Hank (N. Marshall), a scientist living in the African veldt trying to protect big cats from poachers while examining their co-existence with humans in a wild state, invites his family to come visit him. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, he ends up being late to go fetch them from the local airport so while he is off going to get them – no easy feat – they find alternate transportation to his ranch. They are horrified to find dozens of ferocious predators inhabiting his home and spend much of the movie running from room to room trying to escape.

The movie definitely has a 70s vibe to it, with songs that would appeal to the James Taylor/Carole King crowd and clothes and hairstyles that date the movie. So too does the broad sense of humor complete with sitcom musical cues. Noel Marshall as an actor makes a great producer; most of his lines are half-shouted and his character seems completely out of touch with reality. His Chicago accent sounds a bit bizarre on a scientist studying cats in Africa – and Africa by the way except for a few establishing shots, is Southern California. At least here. Marshall, incidentally, passed away in 2010 having never acted again.

Someone had to think this was a good idea and it’s a good bet that some sort of drug use was involved with the decision making process. Put a cast and crew in among a hundred wild animals whose actions would be unpredictable to say the least? Sure! Because of that unpredictability give the cats co-writing and co-directing credit? Why not! Encourage people to support conservation and animal rights causes by depicting multiple harrowing animal attacks on humans by those same animals? That’s gotta work, right?

I’ve heard this film referred to as less a movie so much as a carnival sideshow and there is something to that description. This is a movie that has to be experienced; describing it doesn’t do justice. Ratings therefore go out the window, which is why it has essentially a 50% rating here. You are either going to love it or hate it, you’ll get it or you won’t. Me, I vacillate wildly between loving the movie and the heart that is obviously put into it, with the footage of the big cats doing their things and wondering what on earth these people were thinking. Words can’t possibly do this film justice.

REASONS TO GO: Curiosity factor. Some beautiful cinematography and the animals can be delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its time. The acting is not so good. The comedy is awfully broad and occasionally inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Animal attack footage that ranges from comical to gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While no animals were harmed during the film, 70 human injuries were reported and at least one was life-threatening, although thankfully not fatal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Animals Attack
FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but a N/A would be more applicable)
NEXT: Amy

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Ong Bak 3


Ong Bak 3

Tony Jaa doesn’t much like his new spear collar.

(2010) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Dan Chupong, Sorapong Chatree, Nirut Sirichanya, Primrata Det-Udom Phetthai Wongkhamlao, Sarunyoo Wongkrachang, Chumphorn Thepphithak. Directed by Tony Jaa and Panna Rittkrai

 

I’ll say it now and get it out of the way – Tony Jaa is one of the most charismatic and breathtaking martial arts stars in the world today. Maybe Jet Li and Bruce Lee in their heydays could keep up with Jaa, but nobody today can. The action sequences he does are done au natural – that is, without wires, CGI or any film trickery; when Jaa runs up the tusk of an elephant, he really does. When he bounces off a wall to kick an enemy fighter in the face, that’s all him. To watch him is to watch human endeavor at its best.

What Jaa really needs though is a writer and director who can give him something to work with. While the first film in the series had a good story and character development, the second film was a royal mess. In many ways this is a bit of an improvement – but still, at the end of the day, it doesn’t quite add up to a coherent whole.

Picking up where the previous film left off, Tien (Jaa) is now in the hands of the ruthless warlord Rajasena (Wongkrachang). Rajasena, you may remember, murdered Tien’s parents in front of him when Tien was but a child. Now we find out why – Rajasena has a curse leveled on him which prophesized that he would be killed by someone…ummm…no, that’s not it…by someone who…no, not that either. Okay, the explanation didn’t make any sense either. Moving on.

Rajasena has Tien beaten within an inch of his life. Rajasena watches this with the repulsive glee of a sadist, then as sadists will he grows bored an orders his men to kill Tien. Before they can behead him, an envoy from the king arrives with a pardon which irritates Rajasena no end but there isn’t anything he can do. Unfortunately, Tien has died from the severity of his beating so his body is taken to a small village where his old friend Master Bua (Sirichanya), who has joined a Buddhist monastery as a monk over the guilt he experienced for his actions in the previous film uses an ancient treatment regimen to help revive the late Tien who as it turns out wasn’t quite dead yet.

After being caked in mud for a bit, Tien emerges a little less inclined towards beating people up and learns from Bua and his fellow monks the tenets of peace, harmony and elephants; Buddhism seems to suit the new Tien but things are getting worse outside of the walls of the monastery. A new figure has emerged in the villain scene, one even nastier than Rajasena. He’ s Bhuti Sangkha (Chupong) who briefly showed up in the last film to kick Tien’s ass decisively (the only person to do that) and as it turns out, the movie is big enough for only one baddie with ambitions to rule all of Asia. Rajasena has to go and go he does, but not before levying a curse on Bhuti the baddie – from his severed head no less. Nobody can say these Thai filmmakers aren’t over the top.

This sets up a showdown between Bhuti and Tien because…well, because. Only one will walk away but can Tien who has renounced violence and nobody is really sure if he retained his martial arts skills (big hint – he did) can defeat the magically enhanced Bhuti.

The action sequences once again are worth it. Chupong is nearly as accomplished a martial artist as Jaa and the fight between the two may well become a classic confrontation for the genre. However the action bits are few and far between here; during filming of the first film Jaa had something of a breakdown which – and things are vague here – either was a result of financial issues during filming or caused them. Either way, he became a devout Buddhist and joined a monastery his own self following the conclusion of filming. It seems likely that Jaa wanted to impose his new-found pacifist beliefs on the films, which doesn’t really work well when your audience is expecting – nay, demanding – wall-to-wall ass kicking.

If anyone can pull it off, it’s Jaa and he comes close. His natural charisma and likableness make him one of the most compelling stars in Asia today (and yes, for those wondering, he has recently left the monastery and will be returning to acting on screens next year). Compared to the mish mash that was the last film, this is far easier to follow. If it weren’t for the gigantic lull in the middle, this might even compare favorable to the first film. However those who come to Jaa’s films for the action will find it light on that element although what’s here is memorable.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine action footage – when they get around to it. A bit more competent in the storytelling than the previous entry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags quite a bit in the middle for an action film.

FAMILY VALUES: Once again, the violence is pretty intense with this installment in the trilogy being a bit more bloody than the first two films.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quite a bit of the footage in Ong Bak 3 was filmed during the production of Ong Bak 2: The Beginning; the delays in filming that project led to the decision to add a third film to the series with some of the completed footage moved to that film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; while this probably made money, it was a disappointment compared to previous films in the series.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix Revolutions

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

The mine train ride from hell.

(1984) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Kate Capshaw, Ke Huy Quan, Amrish Puri, Rushan Seth, Philip Stone, Roy Chiao, David Yip, Ric Young, Chua Kah Joo, Rex Ngui, Philip Tann, Dan Aykroyd, Raj Singh, D.R. Nanayakkara, Stany De Silva. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom can only be kindly called a miscalculation. With Lucas wanting to go with a darker mood, which served him successfully in the Star Wars trilogy, writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were brought in (Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was unavailable) and came up with a dreadful mishmash that is set prior to Raiders (of course if Lucas had been thinking properly, he might have remembered that The Empire Strikes Back was the weakest entry in the original trilogy). Yes, there were some dark moments in Raiders, but nobody was ripping anybody’s heart out, and in fact because of this movie the MPAA created the PG-13 rating as a stopgap between PG and R ratings which this movie clearly fell between.

As Temple of Doom opens, Indy is in China, trying to sell the remains of the first emperor of China to Lao Che, a Chinese gangster (Chiao). When the gangster tries to kill Indy, the hero escapes, using unwilling accomplice (and nightclub singer) Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a shield, and a kid, Short Round (Quan, who also appeared in The Goonies) as a driver. Indy’s agent at the airport (Aykroyd in a cameo) books Indy, Shorty and Willie on a cargo plane which turns out to be owned by Lao Che.

The pilot and co-pilot bail out over the Himalayas, causing the plane to crash in India. After a thrilling bail-out and a ride down a mountain in an inflatable raft, Indy, Willie and Short Round reach an impoverished village where the children have been stolen — along with a sacred stone — by the local maharaja (Singh). Indy takes his team to a palace to try to retrieve the stone, and uncover a hideous Thuggee cult, led by Mola Ram (Puri, one of India’s top actors) which is using children as slave labor to uncover the remaining two Sankhara stones, to become tremendously powerful. Indy is briefly drugged and becomes a slave of Mola Ram, but Short Round saves him and the trio escapes, only to find themselves trapped by Mola Ram’s troops while on a rickety suspension bridge over a crocodile-infested gorge.

This movie never feels quite right.  For one thing, instead of retrieving the Lost Ark of the Covenant, he’s basically after three rocks that have some power that is never really defined. There were other problems with the story; it was evident that without the support system of Brody and Sallah, Indy seemed a trifle lost. Also, having the precocious kid save the hero’s bacon again and again also smacked of cliché. I think all in all that it wasn’t able to capture the feel of the old time serials the way Raiders did.

Capshaw’s character whines so much that she’s become truly despised by many fans of the trilogy. Capshaw is a fine actress who performed better in other films (although she basically left acting behind her after marrying Spielberg whom she met and fell in love with during filming of Temple of Doom) and her chemistry with Ford never really meshes.

While Puri makes a terrific villain (maybe the best in the series in many ways), the way he is dispatched at the end of the film is far too easy and convenient. In fact, the movie’s last reel is a real howler, with Ford telling a village elder “I understand the power of the stones now,” which makes one of us. As MacGuffins go, the stones are pretty weak; both the Lost Ark and the Holy Grail at least have some specific uses. Of course, Hitchcock might have said that it really doesn’t matter what a MacGuffin does as long as everybody is after it.

 That’s not to say there aren’t things to recommend in the movie. The mine train chase scene is frankly amazing (although the special effects are a little bit dated) and there’s a riff on the famous swordfighter scene in Raiders. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shows off Sri Lanka’s natural beauty (standing in for India, where government officials refused to give the production permission to film because of objections to portrayals of Indian culture) to great effect. Although this isn’t his best work of the series, it’s still Harrison Ford (and yes, he takes his shirt off here and he looks pretty good) and while it’s arguable whether this will be the role he’s most remembered for (some will say Han Solo is and I can’t bring myself to disagree) it certainly is in the top two.  

This was clearly the weakest entry in the series (at least before the most recent one). With the participation of Short Round, the writers kind of made Indy a bit emasculated; one wonders if they wanted to make the second film more kid-friendly. If so, why have scenes in which human sacrifices are performed where a heart is torn out of a person’s chest still beating and then have the victim lowered still alive into a lava flow? Not exactly Disney now is it?

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Indy; great action scenes and Harrison Ford shirtless which wasn’t a bad thing back in the day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much kid saving the day. Dark tone clashes with attempts to make it more kid-friendly than the first. Capshaw whines far too much. Fails to capture the serial spirit of the first film.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some scenes of intense torture and violence; could be nightmare inducing for wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first sequel that Spielberg ever filmed, although technically it was a prequel since it took place the year before Raiders of the Lost Ark was set.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: All of the special features on the DVD are on the fourth disc of the four-disc collection and include a massive Making of the Trilogy featurette that is more than two hours long and includes much behind the scenes footage. There are also featurettes on the stunt work, the music, the special effects and Ben Burtt’s amazing sound work. There is also a promo for the new (at the time) Indiana Jones video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $333.1M on a $58M production budget; the movie was an international blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Lucky One

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super

Earth


A ballet of water, fish and seals.

A ballet of water, fish and seals.

(Disneynature) Narrated by James Earl Jones. Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Mark Linfield.

Our planet never ceases to amaze. With all the things we do to it, all the ways we abuse our trust of this fragile world, it still shelters and nurtures us. As much of it as we have explored and seen, it still manages to take our breath away, often unexpectedly. Earth is mostly footage from the Discovery Channel/BBC documentary mini-series Planet Earth with new narration from the great James Earl Jones. While some of the footage here is devoted to the world’s geography and plant life, the focus here is on the animals of our world.

Here we see polar bear cubs being helped by their mother on their first steps outside of their den, and then guided to the shore so that they may hunt – after initially heading the wrong way. Exhausted elephants trek across bone-dry desert, desperate for water and beset by predators preying on the weak. Birds of paradise strut their extraordinary plumage in an effort to attract a mate. Storks fly across the Himalayas, fighting treacherous air currents and exhaustion trying to migrate to warmer climates. Ducklings leap from trees attempting to fly for the first time – and plummet to the leaf-carpeted floor, not so much flying as Jones intones, as falling – with style.

There are shots of breathtaking beauty. The camera pulls back from a flock of birds to reveal that there are not dozens but thousands of birds in the flock. Schools of fish (sardines I think) are a living hurricane as they dance with seals and dolphins in a playful ballet (see photo above). An arboreal forest, covered with snow, thaws into spring blooms. Time lapse photography takes a forest from the green leaves of summer to the brilliant colors of autumn. There is also amazing poignancy. A polar bear, having to range farther and farther afield in a fruitless effort to find food, is trapped by the melting ice floes and must swim to shore. Completely worn out and starving, he is forced to attack a herd of walruses, whose tusks are lethal weapons. Failing to kill any of them, he slumps to the ground, dying while the indifferent walruses go on about their lives around him. It is the brutal side of nature encapsulated.

As is the wont with Disney’s nature movies, the animals are anthropomorphized to an almost silly degree. The trapped polar bear, for example, is named as the father of the cubs from the first scenes of the film, but it seems to me unlikely that the filmmakers could have possibly known whether that was true or not. It seems to be an unnecessary dumbing down for the sake of appealing to children. My experience is that children tend to love animals whether you give them human personalities or not. Disney perhaps should have checked with their Animal Kingdom staff on this point. Still, it’s a small complaint and easily overlooked.

The larger question is whether it is worth going to a theater to see footage that is available not only on cable (the Planet Earth series is re-run occasionally) and widely on DVD (on high-definition yet). The answer is a resounding yes. Some of the more epic footage is far more stunning on a big screen, and Jones’ narration is to my mind much more memorable than Sigourney Weaver’s narration – which is just fine, mind you – on the Discovery Channel edition (BBC viewers got to hear Patrick Stewart do the narration, although I haven’t heard his work on it to compare).

Walt Disney inaugurated his True Life Adventure series back in 1948, and the series of nature documentaries would continue for twelve years, garnering three Oscars for best feature documentary, as well as for the since-discontinued category of two-reel short features. Many of these were repeated on his Wide World of Color television program, and were staples in classrooms across the country in my formative years. This is the first of a series of nature documentaries that Disney intends to release on Earth Day in succeeding years (the next is Oceans in 2010) and given the challenges facing our climate, our environment, our world, the time is right for films to remind us just how precious this world is – and how important the life that resides upon it is as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular footage that constantly takes the breath away. This is as informative a documentary as I have seen recently, and has much more going for it than just the “wow” factor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Much of the footage previously available on cable and home video. The animals are often anthropomorphized and “dumbed down” for children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming of the documentary (including additional footage filmed exclusively for the feature) took place over 4,000 days, making it the most extensive documentary project ever undertaken.

FAMILY VALUES: Informative, educational, spectacular and full of cute furry critters, what kid isn’t going to love this?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains some fascinating footage detailing how the larger Planet Earth mini-series was whittled down to this feature film.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: X-Men Origins: Wolverine