Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker


Jonathan Baker, meet Jonathan Baker.

(2018) Documentary (Random)  Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Adrian Lyne, John Badham. Directed by Neal Thibedeau

 

It goes without saying that it takes a certain amount of ego to be a successful Hollywood motion picture director. You need that ego to maintain focus on your vision and refuse to let compromise and collaboration dilute it or divert it. Without that ego, a director’s crew, his/her actors and financial backers will walk all over them like a linoleum runner on your mom’s best carpet.

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not ambitious. Not only does he want to direct movies, he wants to be really good at it – Oscar-winning good, name above the title good. He was getting ready to direct his first feature film – a suspense film from Lionsgate called Inconceivable with a stellar cast including Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway and Gina Gershon. Baker wisely figured out that he could avoid a lot of pitfalls by talking to other directors and finding out what their experiences were on their first films – and what advice they had for an aspiring director.

The interviews with such luminaries as Foster (Little Man Tate), Badham (Blue Thunder), Hackford (Ray) and Lyne (Fatal Attraction) are actually mega-informative and have some good advice for those who want to direct movies as a career – in fact much of their advice can be applied to leadership roles in other fields as well.

Baker is clearly passionate about film and filmmaking and I have no doubt that he wanted to make the best film he could. He talks about the interference and lack of faith from the studio, the bond holders and even his own crew. Often he felt that it was “me versus them alone on an island,” a comparison he uses more than once. Overcoming these sorts of hurtles and completing his film was a Herculean effort that is worth respecting.

But Baker is also extremely full of himself. Some might remember him from The Amazing Race 6 which he ran with his then-wife Victoria Fuller and became one of the most hated contestants in the history of the show, allegedly shoving his wife to the ground in anger after losing a foot race to the rest stop for one of the legs in Paris. While Baker maintained that he would never hit his wife (and the tape is inconclusive as to whether she lost her footing or if he shoved her), he certainly verbally abused her throughout the race. He seems a lot calmer now.

Getting back to the present, Baker drops names incessantly, particularly that of Warren Beatty whom he characterizes as his mentor – not once but at least a good half a dozen times during the film. He also mentions that he owns Beatty’s first house, which he claims that the legendary actor/director wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. We’ll just have to take your word on that one, Mr. Baker.

So much of the movie we’re made to watch Baker walking down streets, walking in parks, sitting in an editing bay…at times it is difficult to figure out whether this is meant to be an instructional documentary or a biographical one, omitting his stint on The Amazing Race which brought him notoriety and fame enough that likely opened a few doors for him.

Baker’s advice often comes off as a means of pumping himself up, to illustrate that he had the inner strength and purity of vision to withstand all of the obstacles and in honesty those obstacles were considerable. When he concentrates on the other directors and their experiences – even on his own experiences – the movie is at its best. When we hear the actors on his single feature film describe what it’s like to work with the Iconic (eventually) Jonathan Baker, or hear Baker talking about how talented and strong in character he is, well, it comes off more like a love letter to himself.

Director Neal Thibedeau doesn’t do himself any favors by inserting as many random issues that are sometimes only tangentially related to what’s being discussed onscreen as possible. He also managed to get a soundtrack which sounds like it belongs on a 1980s action film, preferably one based on G.I. Joe. The two elements together take a movie that needs all the help it can get and lets it drown in shallow water.

Not to discount Baker’s accomplishment in getting his film made, but it should be noted that Inconceivable carries with it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 31, not a number that speaks of a natural talent immediately making waves. Baker has a considerable distance to go before becoming iconic – even some of the directors interviewed here are experienced rather than iconic. That’s not to say that Baker one day won’t make amazing, insightful award-worthy films but in the meantime it might serve him well to remember that along with a healthy ego a good director needs humility as well.

REASONS TO GO: Hearing some of the stories by the likes of Foster, Hackford, Lyne and Badham is invaluable particularly to budding filmmakers but also budding leaders of other fields as well.
REASONS TO STAY: The name-dropping and self-promotion wears one down. This may come off a little bit as “Movie Directing 101” for first year film students. There are a lot of visual non-sequiturs and the soundtrack is inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

The 33


Chippendale's goes underground.

Chippendale’s goes underground.

(2015) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers/Alcon) Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuňez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviňo, Adriana Barraza, Kate del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Elizabeth De Razzo, Naomi Scott, Gustavo Agarita, Bob Gunton, Gabriel Byrne, Paulina Garcia. Directed by Patricia Riggen

One of the problems with bringing a real life event to the big screen, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the destruction of the Hindenburg is that everyone knows what’s about to transpire pretty much. For the mine collapse of the San Jose copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert on August 5, 2010 that trapped 33 miners miles below the surface for 69 days, most people are aware of how that turned out.

For most of the miners of the San Jose copper mine, August 5, 2010 was just another working day. After a retirement party for Mario Gomez (Agarita) who has just a few days to retire, Mario Sepulveda (Banderas), engineer Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Phillips), Elvis impersonator Edison Pena (Vargas), Dario Segovia (Raba), a homeless alcoholic and the devout Jose Henriquez (Treviňo) are among those who go down to earn their living, even though there are signs that something catastrophic was about to occur (and in real life, several miners had died and the mine owners repeatedly fined for poor safety conditions in the century-old mine).

Then a rock twice the size of the Empire State Building shifts and falls, burying the miners miles below the surface. When the 33 miners in the bowels of the earth reach their refuge, they discover that the medical supply cabinet is empty, the emergency food rations nearly so, and the telephone to the surface unconnected. The ladders in the ventilation shaft are also discovered to have never been completed. At first the miners take out their frustrations on foreman Urzua but Sepulveda’s level head prevails. They go about rationing the little food and water they have access to.

On the surface, the families of the miners, led by Maria Segovia (Binoche), the estranged sister of Dario, demand to be informed as to what is being done. The mining company, without the wherewithal to mount an expensive rescue operation, has decided to assume the men are dead and are making only token attempts to see if the miners are alive. The arrival of Chile’s Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne (Santoro) changes that; as he quickly discovers the lack of interest on the mining company’s part of getting their employees home alive, he takes charge of the rescue operation, with the blessing of Chilean President Piňera (Gunton) and with the assistance of mining engineer Andre Sougarret (Byrne).

In the meantime, things are looking dire in the mines as the first boreholes sent to the shelter miss their targets. However, once the miners are discovered alive and well, the gaze of the world turns to this compelling story in a small Chilean town.

Part of the problem with The 33 lies in its own title; there are 33 miners trapped underground and the movie can’t really spend a whole lot of time developing any of their characters. Throw in the families, political and media figures, the rescue teams including the one led by American Jeff Hart (Brolin) and it’s nearly impossible for director Riggen to give us a figure for the audience to latch onto, with the exception of the larger-than-life “Super Mario” who became a media darling in Chile during the actual event.

So a solid cast led by Banderas and Binoche, one of the most gifted actresses in the world, is left with frustratingly little to do other than occasionally mouthing a cliche meant to project their character’s role in the movie as comic relief, antagonist, love interest and so forth. Riggen has been criticized for this somewhat but to be fair I don’t think any director could have wrangled all of these characters and made them three dimensional unless she had a mini-series to do it with. Going back to Super Mario, during the movie there’s an incident when the miners turn on him because of his perceived favored status. One wonders if the actors in the film felt the same about Banderas who is really the only one of them who gets to make any sort of impression.

The rugged Chilean desert nicely contrasts with the mine scenes which were filmed in working mines in Columbia. They do capture nicely the flavor of being deep underground, although the sense of just how deep they were gets a little lost – in reality it would take the miners about an hour to reach the level they were trapped on from the surface, and of course an hour to return.

The movie glosses over some of the more disturbing aspects of the story, such as the mining company’s negligence or the absolutely disgraceful dismissal of their lawsuit three years after the disaster, or of the Chilean government’s opportunistic use of the miners to prop up their own sagging popularity. However, to be fair, the movie makes it clear that this was a defining moment in the history of Chile and that cannot be overlooked.

All in all, it’s an uplifting story that is a tribute to human endurance, the unmistakable power of hope, and the undeniable lure of bare masculine chests. I don’t know that the movie captured the true nature of what the miners endured – the second half of the movie there is almost zero tension because by that time supplies were making regular appearances down a tube from the surface, they had video communication with the surface and they made it seem less of a life-threatening situation than an endurance race. In the actual situation, there were serious doubts that the miners would survive – the unstable geological situation and the unknown performance of the rescue capsule were certainly question marks. Unfortunately, Riggen doesn’t really capture that adequately and maybe no director could have. After all, it’s no secret (and therefore not a spoiler) that all of the miners were rescued. That’s certainly the outcome we all wanted, but as dramatic cinema goes it doesn’t really stack up well.

REASONS TO GO: Inspiring. Plenty of beefcake.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks character development. Little tension since we know how it ended.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor profanity and a disaster sequence that might be a bit scary for young ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final film to be scored by the late James Horner, who died in a plane crash two months before the movie’s release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Sky
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spotlight