Tigerland (Taken by the Tiger)


Pavel Fomenko anxiously searches for two tiger cubs whose mother has been relocated.

(2019) Nature Documentary (DiscoveryPavel Fomenko, Amit Sankhala, Karan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Kailash Sankhala, Yulia Fomenko, Vasily Solkin, Jai Bhati, Bittu Sahgal, Valmik Thapat, Elizabeth Kayzakova, Irina Pavlova, Belinda Wright, Indira Gandhi, Tarva Bhati, Dimple Bhati, Anne Wright, Debbie Banks. Directed by Ross Kauffman

Jack Lemmon once won an Oscar for a film entitled Save the Tiger, a title that was a metaphor for his character’s own existence. However, the title has become more literal in this day and age with right around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands only a century ago.

There are a lot of reasons for their decline. Human intrusion on their habitat, poaching (tiger skins remain an in-demand luxury item and tiger parts also form the basis for a good deal of folk medicine which is also a lucrative trade) and hunting – among Indian maharajahs it was considered an act of masculinity to shoot and kill a tiger with some (as well as the British colonials who followed them) shooting hundreds of the animals alone.

There are those who would halt the decline of the tigers and this film from Oscar winning director Kauffman focuses on two of them – Pavel Fomenko, head of endangered species protection for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, and Amit Sankhala whose grandfather Kailash was instrumental in directing attention to the plight of the tiger and along with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was responsible for the enacting of legislation that protects them relatively speaking. Both men approach the problem in very different ways; Sankhala follows in his grandfather’s footsteps in creating and protecting tiger preserves in India, whereas Fomenko is more of a hands-on kind of guy rescuing individual tigers in dire need.

Fomenko gets involved with a Siberian village on a nature preserve where a mother tiger has begun to attack village dogs. With kids walking to and from school, Fomenko knew it was a matter of time before villagers would kill the tiger to protect their kids (understandably). He stepped in and captured the mama tiger to relocate her but was less successful in finding her cubs, organizing a tiger hunt in an attempt to find them before they died.

The first third of the movie dwells a bit overly much on the spiritual aspect of the tiger – how it is a symbol of power particular from a male standpoint. There’s a lot of fairly dry material on the elder Sankhala and his efforts to document the plight of the species and to convince his government to step in and save them. The movie also opens with an odd and somewhat disconnected voice over about the history of tigers and how humans have considered them, done in a child’s singsong voice as if in a nursery rhyme.

During the last third the movie picks up steam and ends up packing a wallop; we are shown the gruesome results of a poacher’s work and the danger of advocating for the tigers, especially in the case of Fomenko who is changed by the experience. There is a mournful roll call of the various types of tigers, most reduced to less than a thousand remaining in the wild and several already extinct – all within the lifetime of most of us.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through that we actually see a tiger in the wild – until then all we see are representations and drawings – and we are reminded of what a magnificent animal tigers are. Seeing them padding around their natural environment like the lords they are is an almost spiritual experience; I can only imagine how much more intense and affecting it would be to see one in person (one not in a zoo).

Kauffman peppers the film with watercolor-like animations from Daniel Sousa (himself an Oscar nominee for Feral) that enhance rather than distract. The younger Sankhala is certainly passionate about tigers but he doesn’t have the personality of Fomenko who is a force of nature. The movie really hums along when Fomenko is onscreen.

The movie has already received a brief theatrical release and is currently available on Discovery Go. It is debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight for those who prefer the broadcasting route. Documentary and nature lovers should seek this one out.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers capture the power and spirituality of the animals. The watercolor animations are lovely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the footage is graphic and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some slight profanity as well as disturbing footage of the results of tiger mauling as well as of dead and skinned tigers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kauffman shared an Oscar for co-directing the 2006 Best Documentary Feature Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Journey To a Mother’s Room

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The Workers Cup


All for one moment of glory.

(2018) Documentary (Passion River) Kenneth Kwesi, Padam Kumal, David Kwesi, Samuel Alabi Ago, Grahame McCaig, Sebastian, Carlton, Paul, Umesh. Directed by Adam Sobel

 

Although Americans tend to believe that the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the world, the reality is that the World Cup is bigger and draws more viewers – even more so than the Olympics. Like the Olympics, the World Cup occurs every four years. The 2022 edition will take place in Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, and the oil-rich nation is constructing a mammoth stadium as well as additional buildings, roads and infrastructure, to accommodate the influx of tourists who will arrive for the games.

Much of the construction work is done by migrant workers imported mainly from Africa, and Asia. There are dozens of companies working on various projects having to do with the Cup; the governing body in Qatar that has been responsible for the World Cup activities decided to put on a tournament of teams representing 24 of the construction companies working on the facilities.

One of these companies, GCC, is the one that the filmmakers followed. Kenneth, 21, from Ghana would be the team captain. Lured to Qatar by a recruiting agent who claimed he would be playing professional soccer there (which turned out to be a lie), he works and dreams of getting the opportunity to play the sport professionally. Samuel from Kenya was a professional player but still couldn’t make ends meet so he went to Qatar to make more money working construction. Sebastian is an office worker for GCC from India who becomes the team manager.

In all, six men stories are told here but although the director asserts that this is a sports movie, most viewers won’t remember the tournament. It is the conditions that the workers are forced to live in that will stick with you. There’s an aerial shot of the Umm Salal Camp that is more reminiscent of a Prisoner of War camp to my eyes. It’s startling and a bit sickening as well.

The company has absolute control over the lives of their workers. They are not allowed to leave camp ad have to get permission to go anywhere, even to wire money back home or go out on a  date. The gleaming skyscrapers and beautiful malls are there in the capital but they are not for such as these; even the security guards aren’t allowed to be in the malls past 10am. This is literally slave labor paid a barely minimum wage. The workers can’t even choose to quit and go home; in one chilling scene, a worker is sent to the infirmary with a bad cut on his leg inflicted by another worker who wanted to go home and that was the only way he could think of being sent home.

The movie’s soccer scenes don’t really flow well with the rest of the movie; they are almost two separate movies weaved into one. Because there are so many subjects, we don’t really get to know any of them all that well so that while the subject matter should be riveting, the movie is less compelling than it might be.

REASONS TO GO: This is not so much about soccer as it is about imported workers.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the film is interesting but it really isn’t compelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobel was based in Qatar for five years producing pieces for CNN, the Guardian and other news outlets; this allowed him to gain extraordinary access to the laborers and the camps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Great
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Soufra

Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

Lion


Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

Dev Patel contemplates the blue screen of death.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Divian Ladwa, Tanishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Deepti Naval, Keshav Jadhav, Rohini Kargalya, Saroo Brierley, Sue Brierley, John Brierley, Menik Gooneratne, Madhukar Narlwade, Emilie Cocquerel. Directed by Garth Davis

 

We know who we are largely because we know where we came from. We know who raised us, who gave us life. For those who don’t know the latter, there are always questions – they are almost forced to wonder who they really are or where they came from.

Young Saroo (Pawar) lives in a small village in Hindi India with his mother (Bose) and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). They live in extreme poverty with Guddu and Saroo finding means of stealing coal and reselling it so that they can help put food on the table, particularly the delectable treats that Saroo craves. At night, Guddu goes to the train yard without Saroo who at five years old is too young although Saroo himself doesn’t think that’s true. He wheedles and he whines until Guddu finally reluctantly agrees to take him.

They get to the station and Guddu leaves Saroo on the platform while he investigates possibilities to where the two of them can find some coal. While he’s gone, Saroo gets sleepy – it’s way past his bedtime – and in a bit of a fog wanders onto a train where he can sleep more comfortably. When he wakes up, the train is moving – and the station by his home is long behind him. There is nobody else on board and nobody to hear his cries for help; the train is being relocated to Kolkata (what used to be called Calcutta). Once he gets there, he is as lost as a human being can be; he doesn’t speak Bengali, the language that is spoken there. He narrowly avoids being kidnapped by a child slave labor gang and eventually gets picked up by the authorities after days on the street.

Returning him to his home soon proves impossible; he doesn’t know the name of his village, or even the name of his mother (what five year old knows beyond “Mommy”?) and he is eventually put up for adoption. He gets lucky; a kind-hearted Australian couple – John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) Brierley take him into their Tasmanian home and raise him as their own, along with a second Indian orphan named Mantosh (Jadhav).

Years pass. Saroo (Patel) and Mantosh (Ladwa) have grown up; Saroo is attending university in Melbourne majoring in hotel management, while Mantosh has had a much more difficult time adjusting, becoming a drug addict and is often confrontational with his parents and adopted brother. Saroo considers John and Sue his parents and loves them with all his heart but at a party one night at the apartment of a student of Indian descent takes him back to his childhood and leads him on a quest to find his original home and family. That quest becomes something of an obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara) who is supportive, and his standing at the school. He hasn’t told his adoptive parents about his mission; he fears it will break his mother’s heart. Using the then-new Google Earth on his laptop, he embarks on the seemingly hopeless task of finding his way back, but there’s no guarantee his family will even be there in the unlikely event that he does find his village – and considering how large India is and how the vast the train system, it will take years to find the right station with the right water tower if he finds it at all.

This true story, based on a book by the real Saroo Brierley (who appears at the end of the movie in footage detailing the end of his search along with his parents), is absolutely compelling and heart-warming. The first part of the movie, showing the five-year-old Saroo’s journey, has little dialogue and beautiful images – the very first scene in the film depicts young Saroo surrounded by butterflies. The countryside of rural India is juxtaposed with the urban squalor of Kolkata and makes for essential cinema. Part of the reason for this is Sunny Pawar who provides a sensational performance. He acts with his face, with his eyes – something you really can’t teach – unlike a lot of child actors who try too hard to act and ultimately come off as inauthentic. Pawar is nothing but authentic.

Patel is similarly sensational, having garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor and is likely to receive serious Oscar consideration. This is nothing short of a star-making performance; the young actor has given notice that he can ascend to the next level and is in fact likely to. Saroo isn’t always pleasant in the movie; like many obsessed people, he sacrifices current relationships and dreams to scratch that itch. Basically though he is a character we root for even when he’s shutting his supporting girlfriend out.

Kidman, who chooses to play the part of Sue without glamour, is also likely to receive Supporting Actress consideration for the upcoming Oscars. It’s the kind of performance that makes you wish she was getting more screen time – there’s a scene where she confesses her fears to Saroo that is absolutely mesmerizing. She’s gone from being one of the most beautiful women in the world to a talented actress who has compiled an enviable record of mind-blowing performances. She’s become an actress whose movies I look forward to no matter what the subject.

The movie succeeds on nearly every level even though it does kind of lose its way in the middle a little bit. The ending, even though you can predict what’s coming, will absolutely floor you and to be honest there’s a component of the ending that will bring tears to your eyes in an absolute gangbuster of an emotional payoff. I can’t recommend this movie enough.

REASONS TO GO: The story packs an emotional wallop and the payoff at the end is considerable. Patel, Kidman and Ladwa give terrific performances. Sunny Pawar gives a surprisingly powerful performance amid some wonderful cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a little bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the events may be a little rough for sensitive children to watch; there’s also a bit of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Lucy character played by Rooney Mara is not based on a specific person but is rather an amalgam of Saroo’s real life girlfriends during the period covered by the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warchild
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Assassin’s Creed

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

Point Break (2015)


Attack of the flying squirrels.

Attack of the flying squirrels.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Edgar Ramirez, Luke Bracey, Ray Winstone, Teresa Palmer, Matias Varela, Clemens Schick, Tobias Santelmann, Max Thieriot, Delroy Lindo, Nikolai Kinski, Judah Lewis, Glynis Barber, Steve Toussaint, James Le Gros, Bojesse Christopher, Ronak Patani, Eddie Santiago Jordan, Patrick Dewayne, Seumas F. Sargent, Senta Dorothea Kirschner. Directed by Ericson Core

In 1991, Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze toplined one of the most iconic action films of that decade – Point Break – and now, two decades later, a remake is in theaters. I suppose that was inevitable. In the spirit of “bigger better more,” the Ex-Presidents are now not merely surfers but extreme athletes and world class ones at that.

Johnny Utah (Bracey) is an FBI agent. He wasn’t always one. Seven years ago, he was a YouTube warrior who wanted nothing more than to film extreme motocross stunts that would get him hits on the venerable Internet video channel, but something goes wrong and a friend winds up paying the ultimate price for Johnny’s hubris. Now, he is looking at a daring diamond robbery in which the thieves escape via parachute. Later, they grab some currency from a plane, drop the bills into an impoverished Mexican village and escape via a daring sky dive into a gigantic cave. Utah, being from that world, deduces that the criminals are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of extremely demanding tasks meant to test the limits of the human spirit while at the same time honoring the forces of nature.

When Johnny finds out that there are ginormous waves occurring in the Atlantic, he is certain that the thieves will be there. He is dispatched to the scene under the wing of Agent Pappas (Winstone) from the UK office. He sees a whole flotilla of ships in the region with thrillseekers attempting to surf the waves that are the size of five story buildings. Johnny was never quite as skilled a surfer as others and when he attempts to surf one of the waves, he ends up going to the bottom, only to be rescued by Bodhi (Ramirez), who takes him to a huge yacht owned by Pascal al Fariq (Kinski), one of those insanely wealthy people who have more money than they know what to do with – so they get other people to tell them what to do with it.

As Johnny gets to know Bodhi and his crew, including Grommet (Varela), Roach (Schick), Chowder (Santelmann) and the lovely Samsara (Palmer), he knows he’s found his thieves but he has to prove it. Going against orders, he infiltrates the group and goes with them to ski down insane mountain ranges and put on flysuits to jump off of mountains. Eventually he earns their trust – well, at least the trust of Bodhi and Samsara, the latter of whom he ends up in bed with – but by this time he has begun to change his mind about their motivations and perhaps sympathize with them. So when push comes to shove, which side will Johnny end up on?

This is very much a Keanu Reeves movie without the benefit of Keanu Reeves in it. As Johnny Utah, Bracey resembles Heath Ledger facially but resembles a young Reeves in line delivery and not in a good way. He’s a bit wooden and stiff in his performance. I’m not sure whether that has to do with the writing or Bracey’s ability as an actor. Hopefully it’s not the latter.

The writing is a definite problem. This is the most bro-tastic movie you’ll see, unless the threatened Bill and Ted sequel comes together. You will never hear the word “brother” used so much in a single movie that doesn’t have two males with the same mother in it. It’s definitely a film loaded with testosterone and bro-bonding and bro-mancing is the order of the day here.

I can handle that but dumb is not as easy to dismiss. The plot grows more and more preposterous as the movie goes on and one begins to see through the Bodhi character as a selfish jerk spouting off New Age aphorisms; why would anyone in their right mind follow a guy like him? He talks about giving back to the poor while murdering middle class police officers and endangering innocents all to attain his personal goal. Of course, this is a different time now and people do worship at the altar of the almighty mirror but I didn’t get that feeling from the original film.

Let’s face it; the 1991 film had something in spades that this movie has little of – fun. The original was an entertaining ride. While the stunts here are impressive – and they are impressive – there’s no soul to them. There’s nothing here that makes me feel like I’m having a good time and why on earth would you go to a movie where you weren’t having one?

REASONS TO GO: Nice stunt sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumb and dumber. Too much bro-ism. Ham-fisted acting. Wastes great locations.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and language, some stupid ideas that nobody should remotely try to imitate, a little bit of sex and a little bit of drugs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film Teresa Palmer acted in after giving birth to her son, coincidentally named Bohdi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Mavericks
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Joy

Meru


On the shark's fin.

On the shark’s fin.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.

Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.

Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.

Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.

That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.

The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.

This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.

The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.

The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.

This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.

This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima