Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane

Racing Extinction


Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) Louie Psihoyos, Shawn Heinrichs, Elon Musk, Jane Goodall, Christopher W. Clark, Leilani Munter, Ady Gil, Charles Hambleton, Austin Richards, Paul Hilton, Heather Dawn Rally, Michael Novacek, Travis Threikel, Stuart Pimm, Joel Sartore, Kirk Johnson, David Doubilet, Charlie Veron, Lester Brown, Synte Peacock, Elizabeth Kolbert. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos, a former contributor to National Geographic (now Fox’s National Geographic), made a literal splash on the national cultural scene with his documentary/thriller The Cove, which exposed the mass slaughter of dolphins on a particular Japanese island. Now a committed marine activist, he turns his focus to a much broader issue.

We are undergoing one of the most massive carbon spikes in our atmosphere in the history of the planet; the amount of carbon in our atmosphere currently is thought to be higher than it was when the dinosaurs went extinct, a very sobering thought. One of the consequences of the increased carbon has that it has been getting absorbed by the ocean, our planet’s great filter. The result has that the ocean has been gradually become more acidic, which in turn has killed a significant amount of phytoplankton, which provides about 50% of the world’s oxygen.

There has also been a die-off of entire species, one of the worst in recorded history. Psihoyos and his band of eco-activists can show the direct link between the activities of man and the disappearance of species. He takes hidden cameras into Chinese merchants who sell endangered species for consumption – piles of shark fins piled as high as the eye can see and manta gills, taken because a group of natives in Malaysia believe that they cure cancer. Often the folk medicines of one small group can through the miracle of the internet and word of mouth become fashionable elsewhere. He also uses operatives to bust a trendy L.A. eatery for selling sushi made with endangered whale meat.

Psihoyos pairs up with tech CEO turned activist Shawn Heinrichs to expose those who are flouting the laws governing endangered species; he also utilizes some gorgeous images of whales, sharks and other marine life from cinematographers Sean Kirby, John Behrens and Petr Stepanek. Psihoyos states bluntly that part of his mission is to introduce these animals to a mass audience; hopefully getting people familiar with these species will inspire people to help save them.

While the facts that are given are sobering, the movie isn’t without a bit of fun. Psihoyos enlists race car driver Leilani Munter and projectionist Ady Gil to create mobile holographic displays on skyscrapers in New York (a demo of which can be seen above). And some of the animal footage is bound to bring a smile to your face.

There’s also the less fun stuff but is no less fascinating. Special filters allow us to see carbon and methane emissions going into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factories and cows. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Psihoyos uses graphs and charts to make his point. And while I tend to be a supporter of environmental causes, conservative readers will note that Psihoyos attributes almost all of the extinctions to man and certainly man is culpable for a lot of it, but some of the factors for some of these extinctions may be more Darwinist than capitalist.

All things considered, this is an important, serious subject which is treated with the gravity that it deserves. It does end on a hopeful note; there are things that we can do as individuals to help nurture the planet and assist in staving off a lot of the dire things that the movie refers to. I suspect that supporters of Donald Trump will probably find this an uncomfortable viewing and might write it off as liberal Pinko Hollywood alarmist propaganda. Certainly the movie has a point of view that appeals more to left-leaners. Still, this is vital viewing for all of us – the facts are indisputable and heart-breaking, particularly when you hear the warbling of a Hawaiian songbird, the last of his species, singing a mating call for a partner who will never come.

Incidentally, if Racing Extinction doesn’t play theatrically in a city near you, the movie will be broadcast on the Discovery channel later on this fall. Check your local listings for date and time. If you can’t see this in a theater – and I would urge you to so as to take advantage of some of the truly gorgeous imagery, then this would be the next best thing. Either way I would urge you to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing cinematography. Sobering but hopeful.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to those leaning to the right.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cop Car

Rio


Rio

Linda (foreground, in the blue) gets her inner samba on.

(2011) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Tracy Morgan, Jermaine Clement, Carlos Ponce, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Carlos Saldanha

The benchmarks for animated features have been Disney for traditional animations and Pixar for computer animations. While some recent entries into the field have shown some promise, for the most part the best animated features to come from places other than the Mouse have largely been those with their own style and subject matter.

Fox has had success with their Ice Age trilogy (a fourth entry makes its way into theaters next year) and the makers of those films have turned their eyes to more sultry climes, the Brazilian paradise of Rio de Janeiro. However, things start off initially in the Arctic-like environment of Moose Lake, Minnesota where lives Linda (Mann), who found a blue macaw that had been stolen from the rain forests of Brazil and sent to the United States for purchase (except it had fallen off the truck). Blu (Eisenberg) lives a very pampered life, warm and secure in Linda’s bookstore, wanting for nothing and being provided with every little need by the doting Linda. They have a wonderful life together.

Into their life walks Tulio (Santoro), a Brazilian ornithologist who informs Linda that Blu is one of only two blue macaws left in the world and that it is imperative that he be mated with the last female, who is in Rio. Because they have a controlled environment available in his bird research center, it is decided that it would be easier to bring Blu to the mountain rather than the mountain to Blu. Reluctantly, Linda agrees to it although she’s not too enthusiastic about leaving home – she has no desire to see the world, somewhat refreshing amongst spunky animated movie heroines.

Blu is flown down and shoved into a lovely environment with Jewel (Hathaway) who wants nothing more than to escape captivity. She is not really interested in mating, particularly with a pampered pet that can’t even fly. The two don’t get along at all which means of course they are going to get along GREAT by the end of the movie.

An amoral poacher named Marcel (Ponce) sends a couple of thugs and a nasty cockatoo named Nigel (Clements) to kidnap the two blues, knowing that as the last of their species they’ll fetch a hefty price. Together Blu and Jewel manage to escape and flee to the rain forest where they are aided by a crafty toucan named Rafael (Lopez), a couple of disreputable looking birds named Nico (Foxx) and Pedro (will.i.am) and a drooling doggie named Luis (Morgan). With Nigel and a barrelful of monkeys looking for them, Blu unable to fly and Linda and Tulio desperately searching for them, it will be a long walk back home. Oh, and did I mention it’s Carnival time in Rio?

In many ways this is the most Disney-like of all the Blue Sky/Fox films. From the score to the musical numbers, this looks and sounds very much like a traditional animated Disney film, from the bright colors to the cute, cuddly anthropomorphized parrots. This is going to appeal to the very young and the merchandising that’s sure to go on is going to drive the kiddies absolutely bonkers and their parents to the poorhouse.

The problem here is that all the color is on the screen – none of it went into the characters, who are all as bland as can be and could have been culled from dozens of animated movies and television shows. And for a movie set in Brazil there’s little to no spice and this movie could have used some. Brazil has some beautiful, exotic locations but one gets the feeling that the farthest the animators went to research their drawings was the Jungle River Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland.

Sure, it’s a great looking movie but I for one am getting tired of animated features that extol kids to believe in themselves. Judging from surveys, self-belief and self-confidence isn’t something our children are lacking. Rio looks good but in the end it’s like cotton candy – colorful but lacking any substance.

REASONS TO GO: Lush and colorful, with some beautifully drawn images.

REASONS TO STAY: Stock characters and story; trying too hard to be Disney-esque and wind up without much of an identity.

FAMILY VALUES: This is absolutely fine for any family – nothing for parents to be concerned about for any ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The makers of the wildly popular Angry Birds game created a version of the game set in Rio as a tie-in with the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: It’s beautiful and the kids are gonna insist.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Hanna

Mountain Patrol: Kekexili


Mountain Patrol: Kekexili

Even Olympic sprinters would have difficulty running at this altitude.

(Goldwyn) Duo Bujie, Zhang Lei, Qi Liang, Zhao Xueying, Ma Zhanlin. Directed by Lu Chuan

In the Tibetan highlands of the Kekexili pass, life is brutal and merciless. The altitude makes physical activity demanding, and the cold, thin air makes vegetation sparse and unappealing. There is little of value there – but some things more precious than gold.

The Kekexili pass is the last remaining habitat of the Tibetan antelope. Once numbering in the millions, the animal had been hunted by poachers to near-extinction, with less than 10,000 remaining of the breed by the mid-90s. Appalled at the unabated slaughter of the animal, a group of Tibetan men took it upon themselves to protect them against the poachers.

They have no government support and almost no supplies. They have little authority which mainly consists of confiscating illegally poached antelope pelts. They are poorly armed and in harms way, demonstrated as the movie opens with the brutal execution of one of the Patrol’s members.

Chinese journalist Ga Yu (Lei) arrives in the village where the patrol is based just in time to make the funeral of the executed patrol member. These funerals are referred to as Sky Burials by the locals. Afterwards, Ga is taken to the leader of the patrol, Ritai (Bujie). Formerly a member of the military, he has taken leave from his unit to lead the patrol. Taciturn, brooding but with a deep abiding love for the land and its creatures, he proposes to lead a patrol to find the poacher who executed his man. This poacher has grown progressively bolder and with him murdering a member of the patrol, the time has come to take action against him.

The patrol goes out, with Ga in tow and Ritai’s right hand man Liu Dong (Liang). They capture a family of poachers who have ties to the one who murdered the patrol member and manage to extract the location of the bandit in question. However, the journey is a long and difficult one, and it becomes clear that they will be unable to continue the mission with the entire team and the captured poachers. They release their prisoners and Liu is sent back to the village with the injured and sick. Once Liu gets to the medical clinic, however, it becomes clear that they can’t afford the fees for treatment. Ritai instructs him to sell some of the pelts. Ga is aghast at this but Ritai tells him, matter-of-factly that the government had not sent any financial support in over a year.

One of their trucks breaks down, so Ritai and Ga head after the poachers alone, leaving the men to wait for Liu Dong, knowing that if he cannot find them they will die very quickly in the unforgiving environment of the Kekexili. And what of Ritai? Outnumbered and outgunned, how can he hope to take down the poacher who he has chased into the very roof of the world?

This movie takes place in a bleak and harsh landscape and in many ways the storyline reflects this. Director Chuan’s cast is mainly amateurs, with the exception of Lei and Bujie. They do exceptionally good jobs in conveying the kind of men who live such a difficult existence, but carry with them a great passion for the land and the things that live in it. The name “Kekexili” in their language means “beautiful mountains” and also “beautiful maidens.” For them, the highlands are both.

Bujie makes a fine heroic figure, a man fully aware of how tough his men need to be to survive, but at the same time fiercely protective of them. Handsome in a rugged way, this is the kind of role that Jack Palance or Robert De Niro would have taken on had they been younger or Tibetan (preferably both).

The real star here is the Kekexili itself. Cinematographer Cao Yu is one of the best in the world at what he does, and he makes wonderful use of the beautifully bleak vistas. So alien is the landscape that it almost seems another planet. Still, in the harshness there is great beauty and poetry, and it is captured nicely.

So too is the life of those who live in the Kekexili, a life filled with little promise but still lived with great joy. The Tibetan villagers are a rugged lot – they have to be to survive in an unforgiving place as the Kekexili, where one misstep, one mistake can mean death.

The movie is based on actual events – the mountain patrol really existed in the mid-90s, although this is a fictionalized account of their deeds. The movie has gone on to great acclaim in Asia, and has brought about changes in how the Chinese government deals with poachers. There is now a military patrol that actively prosecutes poaching in the Kekexili highlands and the size of the antelope herd has more than tripled since the movie was set.

This is a look at a culture as alien as the one displayed in Avatar, yet it is here in our world. The movie is unrelentingly grim in many ways, and it doesn’t end well for all those who are portrayed in it. Still, it is a fascinating movie, beautifully photographed and well worth a look, even if you’re not fond of subtitles (the movie’s dialogue is almost entirely in Mandarin and Tibetan). We seldom get to see what is going on in our own attic, but this movie gives us a glimpse at a place and a culture we rarely are able to see. That’s all the incentive I need to see a movie like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning landscapes of harsh barrenness are breathtaking. A rare look into a part of the world rarely seen onscreen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The bleakness of the scenery carries over into the movie, which may be a bit too disturbing and grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality and several disturbing scenes, particularly the shooting of an antelope and the death by quicksand of one of the patrol.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene in which the antelope is shot utilizes a Mongolian Gazelle as actual Tibetan antelope are protected by international and Chinese law. The crew affixed the antlers of an antelope and filmed the shooting with two cameras. Some of the crew were very upset by this and the animal was given a funeral and buried.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Home