The Ivory Game


It's a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

It’s a sobering thought that these magnificent animals could go extinct in our lifetime.

(2016) Advocacy Documentary (Netflix) Craig Millar, Richard Leakey, Andrea Crosta, Prince William, Richard Bonham, Hongxiang Huang, Elisifa Ngowi, Ian Williamson, Ian Craig, Uhuru Kenyatta, Robert F. Godec, Iain Douglas Hamilton, Winnie Kiru, Otir Drori, Georgina Kamanga. Directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson

 

The magnificent elephant is an iconic sight on the African plains, majestically walking through the savannas. One cannot think of Africa without thinking about these beasts, but these creatures are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

That is because of their tusks. The ivory from them can fetch exorbitant prices in China (where most of the ivory goes to) and so poachers are attacking elephants with a will, killing one every fifteen minutes on the average. If that goes unchanged, there will be no African elephants in the wild within 15 years and those remaining in zoos will die off not long thereafter. For most of you reading this, that means the African elephant will be extinct in your lifetime.

There are those who are fighting for the elephants. Craig Millar, head of security for the Big Life Foundation (dedicated to the protection of elephants from poachers), patrols areas of Kenya trying to protect the herds from poachers. He talks to farmers who are dismayed that the elephants wander into their farms and eat their crops – a problem when you consider that food is scarce in that part of Africa. They see elephants as pests and aren’t inclined to report poachers, which Millar can sympathize with. His solution is to build large electrified fences to keep the pachyderms out but those are expensive and most of the farmers can’t afford them.

Investigative journalist Hongxiang Huang is ashamed that his country is responsible for gobbling up the ivory. The market is heavily regulated but dealers have no problem bringing in illegal ivory and corruption is rampant in the enforcement of regulations. Huang’s hidden camera interviews show the brazenness of the dealers and his reports helped stir the Chinese government out of lethargy.

Government investigator Elisifa Ngowi has been chasing one of the biggest poachers in Namibia, a man who goes by the name of Shetai which translates to “devil.” His gang has been responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 elephants by themselves and not a few humans as well. A lot of good citizens who deplore the slaughter of the elephants are far too frightened of Shetai to say anything, but Ngowi is doggedly and determinedly pursuing the criminal.

Georgina Kamanga is the head of intelligence of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Zambia. She is tough as nails, but the sight of elephants, freshly decapitated, is enough to move her to tears. “I’m taking the whole thing now very personal,” she says in a voice that betrays her emotion. Finally there’s Andrea Crosta, the founder and lead investigator for the website WildLeaks, which looks into animal rights issues. He sends undercover investigators to document corruption in the ivory trade in China – and is horrified when one of them is discovered.

The filmmakers depict all these stories in the vein of a thriller, and in some ways I suppose it is. There are bad guys, victims and crimes being committed. Certainly the extinction of a species like the African elephant is fodder for that kind of genre, particularly when the poachers are hell-bent on exterminating the entire species since it will drive the price up of ivory the fewer of them there actually are. When they are all gone, the price for African ivory will be sky high.

That works well along with the thriller-like musical score, but the filmmakers bounce around from story to story without any sense of flow. If this were a scripted thriller, I’d likely have marked it down a great deal but it gets a bit of a pass due to the documentary nature of the film, and the African vistas are beautifully shot as are the more urban jungles in China, London and African cities.

Elephants are incredible creatures who are fiercely protective of their families (the shots of baby elephants cavorting are among the most priceless in the film) and who mourn their dead with silent grief. Like humans, they bury their dead and can instinctively tell when they are in the presence of a graveyard, even if none of their herd are buried in it.

Produced by actor/environmental activist Leonardo di Caprio and former Microsoft executive Paul Allen (among others), the documentary is an important one and like most advocacy documentaries give viewers opportunities to become involved, either through financial contributions or by getting involved directly. If you don’t have Netflix or don’t wish to view the film but would like to help, you can go to the film’s website by clicking on the picture above.

Some of this movie is hard to look at. I’m not an elephant junkie by any means, but these are amazing creatures who don’t deserve to be wiped off the planet and it is man’s greed and man’s indifference that is doing it. Spin it however you want to, this is a crime pure and simple and if a film can spur people to action as Blackfish and The Cove did, then perhaps this film can do something similar. God knows the elephants need someone in their corner.

REASONS TO GO: The elephants in the wild make compelling visual subjects and the baby elephants are as cute as the dickens. The subject is a vitally important one.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary jumps from subject to subject in a seemingly haphazard fashion at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of dead elephants as well as adult themes and occasional bouts of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Following China’s ban on importing ivory, this film became an official selection of the Beijing International Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Lion

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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

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

Man of Steel


I believe I can flyyyyyy...

I believe I can flyyyyyy…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Beneath the Darkness

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh

Dinosaur


Dinosaur

Aladar enjoys the easy life

(2000) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of D.B. Sweeney, Alfre Woodard, Ossie Davis, Max Casella, Hayden Panettiere, Julianna Margulies, Joan Plowright, Peter Siragusa, Della Reese, Samuel E. Wright, Zachary Bostrom. Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton

Dinosaur represented a technical advance in animation that raided the bar for future generations of animated movies. It looks so terrific that even big people were stunned at the scope of it when it came out a decade ago. That said, its groundbreaking technical advance is not matched by its storyline, which is typical Disney fare. For that reason, it remains somewhat forgotten among Disney animated films.

Set back in the age of dinosaurs (no duh), we follow the adventures of Aladar (Sweeney) who as an unhatched egg is transported from his nesting site to an island where the thunder lizards aren’t really kings of the jungle. It is where fledgling lemurs, led by the cautious Yar (Davis) and the maternal Plio (Woodward) rule the roost and where the evolutionary facts of life are ignored – primates and dinosaurs? I don’t think so.

Plio prevails upon Yar to help raise the young hatchling Tarzan-style (anyone see a tie-in here?) which they do, transforming the young dashing dino into a sort of big plaything for his much smaller and younger…ummmmm, primates.

Their frivolous games are interrupted by a rather inconvenient asteroid shower, which devastates the island something awful. Aladar swims the surviving lemurs over to the mainland where they find an equal amount of devastation, but join with a herd of dinos heading for the fabled Nesting Ground, led by the brutal Kron (Wright) and his right-hand reptile Bruton (Siragusa), with Kron’s comely sister Neera (Margulies) providing the love interest. Do these sound like Pokemon or what?

Aladar espouses a philosophy of teamwork in order to get the entire herd through the long and dangerous trek; Kron is more of a Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest kind of guy (kind of ironic when you think about it). Inevitably, the two come into conflict, and with a couple of carnivorous Carnotaurs prowling about, well, let’s just say things look a bit shaky for the herd.

Visually, this is eye candy to the extreme. Everything looks completely real, from the rippling muscles of the dinos to the wind-blown fur of the lemurs. The backgrounds were filmed around the world (including Seminole County in Central Florida, where This Writer and Da Queen currently reside) in order to add realism to the feature, and man, does it work. The asteroid sequence is one of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen in an animated feature to this day, which is saying a lot. The CGI animals react to and interact with their real environment which was filmed with early High-Def cameras and still looks pretty sharp.

Although the storyline is strictly for the birds you’ll be completely entertained for the hour and a half you’re in the theater. Using a species which eventually died out to illustrate the value of staying together and never losing hope doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – my sense of irony only extends so far.

For a more, shall we say, realistic look at dinos in a format just as visually impressive, may I recommend the Discovery Channel’s “Walking With Dinosaurs” which is available on DVD pretty readily and will be the subject of a feature film in 2013. It’s an expensive purchase, but it’s well worth it.

As for the Disney version, great for the kiddies, wonderful eye candy, but in the end, just The Land Before Time with a better budget and a more ambitious visual sense. It certainly does engender a sense of wonder that makes it worth the price of a rental, but in the end it would have been better served to go with a DisneyNature-style narration rather than with the storyline of the doomed species working as a team to survive. The message becomes “no matter what you do you’re still going to be extinct.” Not exactly what I want to pass on to children, y’know?

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing visuals. The asteroid sequence is one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen in an animated feature.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is dumbed down for children and creates too much irony in having an extinct species tell us the value of teamwork in order to survive.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a bit too intense for the way little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aladar’s name was originally supposed to be Noah but it was thought that would alienate Christian members of the audience so the filmmakers went with Aladar instead.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Two-Disc DVD edition contains an amazing amount of features, including a trivia track, a couple of games and a herd of hidden features (that can be accessed by clicking on a dino logo that appears in several of the menus) including an old Disney short on the history of animation and another short cartoon featuring dinosaurs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $349.8M on a $127.5M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sicko