The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

In Circles (2016)


Some movies go around in circles.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) James Fisher, Chloe Farnsworth, Jonnie Hurn, Cassandra Tomaz, Jodie Jamieson, Dan Burman, Jon Campling, Adrian Dunham, Sandy Kate Slade, Terry Roderick, Ian Manson, Steve Di Marco, Louis Mitchell, Olly Hunter, Marie Pope, Dayna Shuffle, Jacob Price, Rosalie Martin-Hurn, Isla McDonald, Denis Hurn, Serena Tombolini. Directed by Jonnie Hurn and Ian Manson

 

For decades, people have been trying to figure out what causes crop circles – intricate geometric figures hundreds of meters long in fields around the world. Mostly they can only be seen in aerial views. This has led some to speculate that they are the work of aliens from outer space; others are sure that they are pranks performed by particularly artistic humans on Earth. Some point to a supernatural origin other than extraterrestrials. Nobody knows the answer for sure.

Lara (Tomaz), a television journalist from Brazil who has to her mind been exiled to Europe to report on news that nobody in Brazil cares about, is looking to make a name for herself. Yossi (J. Hurn) is a cameraman who has already worked for the best and watched her get blown into a million pieces trying to rescue a small boy during one of many conflicts he has covered, one after the other, over the years. He wants something peaceful and meaningful; he longs to cover the act of creation rather than the acts of destruction. The two have been paired up and sent to Wiltshire in England, the world capital of crop circles where the vast majority of them are found.

Hatter (Fisher) is a local who is estranged from his son Dean (Burman) who works in London. Hatter owns an inn – well, it’s kind of an inn. It really is more like a pub with tents in the fields out by the river. From time to time Hatter has visions, very painful ones accompanied by loud noise and migraine headaches. The only relief he can get is to draw what comes into his mind which are often patterns that become significant only later on. The one employee at the pub is Aideen (Farnsworth), a pretty blonde who holds things together when Hatter is recuperating from his visions or tramping around the fields.

Wiltshire draws a lot of tourists because of the amount of crop circles there which the farmers don’t mind; they put donation boxes on the fences around their land and often make more money from those donation boxes than they do from harvesting the crops so if they have to put up with new age sorts and retro-hippies tramping around their land, it’s a small enough price to pay. When Lara and Yossi roll up, they meet Hatter who is cryptic about the circles but agrees to guide them to ancient stones and other sites that have dotted the Wiltshire countryside for centuries (Stonehenge is not far from where this takes place).

Dean picks this opportune moment to return home after a forced vacation is called for by his boss (Hunter) who is concerned that Dean’s work has fallen precipitously in quality. He and Lara hit it off and soon a romantic thing ensues which would likely be a shock to Yossi who dismissively calls her the Ice Monster and is derisive of her ambition and journalistic skills.

Yossi, for his part, is bonding with Hatter who recognizes that the cameraman is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needs to vent about the things that are haunting him, most notably the death of his partner whose final moments which she urged him to capture on video he is unable to sell to anyone. This causes him to feel that her death was in vain.

As the two journalists get involved more deeply in the lives of the Wiltshire locals, Yossi begins to share some of the visions that plague Hatter including that of the Electromagnetic Man (Campling), a kind of Celtic image who causes mysterious cuts on the arms of the men and Dean in a moment of weakness confesses something momentous to Lara which will throw everything into turmoil. Will Lara take the information she has received and use it for her own gain despite what it might do to the locals? And will Yossi lose himself in the mystery of the crop circles?

This is a fairly low-budget British affair that examines a phenomenon that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from Hollywood which is surprising. There is a rich vein of material that could be mined here for some amazing or terrifying movies. This one steers clear of the terrifying aspect, preferring to be something more like a suspense film. While there are elements of the fantastic, they aren’t the centerpiece of the movie. Still, I think I could characterize this as New Age sci-fi and not be far off the mark.

Hurn is from the area depicted in the film – the nighttime sequences in the fields were shot in the village he grew up in. That makes for a compelling story because it means something to the filmmaker, so it means something for the viewer. Unfortunately, the execution of the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the main issues is that the music is absolutely annoying. It is neither interesting nor beautiful; it is often used inappropriately to generate suspense when none is needed and is frankly embarrassing to the film. I would have preferred no music at all to what I heard in the film. The sound effects are also loud and jarring. If ever a movie was sabotaged by one technical element, this is it.

The acting performances are pretty solid with Burman standing out with an uncanny physical resemblance to Colin Farrell but also stylistically similar as well. I also liked Farnsworth a good deal; she has a great spunky presence that made me think of Judy Greer somewhat. I’m hoping to see more of her on this side of the Atlantic in years to come.

The directors seem to be fond of what I call visual nonsequitirs; images that are unconnected with the action seeking to establish a mood or to set a style. For example, during a fairly important sequence in the film the director cuts away to a shot of little girls dressed as fairies gamboling in a crop circle. A beautiful image, yes; germane to the story, no. The little girls make no other appearance of the film and are only there to symbolize innocence which was a point that was already made.

I think as Hurn and Manson mature as a filmmaker he’ll get away from those sorts of shots and concentrate on telling his story simply and effectively. I’m not opposed to artistic license or inserting images that may not necessarily advance the storyline into a film but it shouldn’t be a habit. I do like that Hurn at least told a story that was essential to him and it shows in a few places, just not enough of them.

REASONS TO GO: Burman is reminiscent of Colin Farrell both physically and in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a whole lot of visual nonsequitirs. The soundtrack is one of the most annoying I’ve ever heard on a film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as plenty of profanity and a few scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional the interview sequences were shot with actual crop circle investigators and researchers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Clinical

The Tenth Man (El Rey del Once)


The King of Buenos Aires!

The King of Buenos Aires!

(2016) Drama (Kino Lorber) Alan Sabbagh, Julieta Zyllerberg, Usher Barilka (voice), Elvira Onetto, Adrian Stoppelman, Daniel Droblas, Elisa Carricajo (voice), Dan Breitman, Uriel Rubin, Dalmiro Burman. Directed by Daniel Burman

 

There are those of us who embrace our roots. Then, there are others of us who want to disconnect ourselves from our roots entirely. Much of that has to do with our childhood and how we feel about it. The traditions of our upbringing can be a prison – or set us free entirely.

Ariel (Sabbagh) is an economist currently living in New York but who grew up in El Once, the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. He is dating a ballerina (Carricajo) and things are getting serious between them. He is returning home to Buenos Aires to introduce his girl to his father Usher (Barilka) who runs a charitable foundation in El Once, serving the poor of that area and providing them with prescription medicine, clothes, food and even arranging for shelter.

Things start going wrong before he even leaves for the airport. His girlfriend has to stay behind because she’s wangled an audition for a major ballet company, so she will be arriving a few days late. Usher asks Ariel to find a size 46 shoe with Velcro instead of laces for a bed-ridden client of the foundation, and although Ariel searches everywhere, he can’t find shoes with Velcro in the short amount of time that he was allotted by his father, who sprung that on him just hours before he had to board his plane.

Once he gets to town, Usher is nowhere to be found although his Aunt Susy (Onetto) shepherds him inside the foundation which is surrounded by angry clients, looking to get meat for the upcoming Purim celebration; the Foundation has none due to a payment dispute between Usher and Mamuñe, a local butcher. Finally Usher calls and has Ariel deliver the shoes, then go to the apartment of a deceased client to find unused prescriptions to take back to the Foundation to redistribute. He is accompanied by Eva (Zylberberg), an attractive but mute Orthodox Jew whose hand he cannot even shake due to the proscriptions of their brand of the faith. It’s this kind of thing that drove a wedge between Ariel and Usher to begin with.

As the week progresses, things begin to fall apart for Ariel who continues to be avoided by his father and who gets roped into performing errands for the Foundation. However, Ariel begins to be inspired by Eva’s spirit and sweetness, and slowly he begins to succumb to the charm of his old neighborhood. What will this mean for the fractured relationship between father and son, and more to the point, between the son and his faith?

Burman has a history of films that deal with the Jewish faith in Latin America that explore similar subjects as he does here, although not quite in the same way. The early part of the movie is a little bit off-center, even a bit surreal as the two most important people in Ariel’s life – his father and his girlfriend – are nothing more than voices on a cellular phone and he wanders about El Once, a bit lost and befuddled. Gradually, though through the rhythms of the neighborhood and its rituals and particularly through the sweet and gentle Eva (who actually does have a voice), he finds a sense of purpose and connection and that journey is at the heart of the movie.

Sabbagh spends most of the movie on the phone, and that can be fairly boring cinematically speaking but the actor, who resembles Jason Alexander a bit to my mind, pulls it off. He plays Ariel as a fairly low-key individual; there are no histrionics, only a sense of frustration that grows as the movie begins, but the more he becomes involved in the neighborhood and with Eva, the more he changes and finds himself. It’s a stellar performance and one you may not want to miss.

I have to admit I was squirming a bit through the first half of the film but the longer it went on, the more it appealed to me. Burman clearly feels a connection with El Once (he is also a resident of the area) and just as clearly a real affection for it. The movie was filmed in the neighborhood and many of the people who live there show up as extras or in small roles.

Most of the time when we see movies about the Jewish experience, we are seeing it either in New York, Eastern Europe or Israel. Burman’s films provide us a look at what Judaism means in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region but certainly with a fairly large Jewish population. The movie isn’t necessarily a love letter to El Once, but it certainly plays a role in the film and is a large part of why I liked it so much.

Given the charm of the neighborhood and Ariel’s evolution (or de-evolution from a certain standpoint) this is the kind of movie that generally appeals to me. It’s low-key, charming and provides a look at life somewhere that I probably will never see. Movies like this give us perspective into our own daily lives and even if you’re not Jewish, you will likely find this as heartfelt and warm as I did.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of movie that grows on you as it plays. Sabbagh plays it low-key and gives a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find this a bit overly out there, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed in the Mad About Fabrics store was filmed in the actual store with the owner of the store playing himself. Usher Barilka, who runs the charitable foundation in the area that the one in the film is based on, provides his voice as Ariel’s father.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Putzel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Pets