Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

Deadpool 2


Deadpool: Superhero in training.

(2018) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, Jack Kesy, Eddie Marsan, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgård, Brad Pitt, Lewis Tan, Rob Delany, Nikolai Witschl, Randal Reeder, Shioli Kutsuna, Stefan Kapicic, Matt Damon, Alan Tudyk. Directed by David Leitch

 

The Merc with a Mouth returns for a second go-round (third if you count the abortion that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in a movie that takes nothing seriously, least of all itself.

In this blockbuster sequel, a despondent Wade Wilson attempts to kill himself which turns out to be impossible. He finds a reason to live when he befriends a 14-year-old sexual abuse victim who calls himself Firefist (Dennison). The kid seeks revenge against the headmaster (Marsan) of an orphanage who has tortured and abused him. When you can shoot fireballs from your hands, revenge isn’t all that hard to come by.

Standing in the way is Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg who has come back in time to kill the boy. Apparently in the future, a grown up Firefist kills his family and scorches a whole lot of the Earth. To fight the nearly indestructible Cable, Deadpool recruits a superteam of his own although they turn out to be short-lived. Extremely although Domino (Beetz) whose superpower is crazy good luck survives – which is a good thing because she’s one of the best things about the movie.

Nonetheless, Deadpool hopes to reason with Firefist and get him not to turn to the dark side while Thanos…I mean Cable…thinks that the greater good will be served by ghosting a 14-year-old boy. I gotta admit, I was rooting for him to kill the boy at times.

Like the first film there are plenty of occasionally gruesome action sequences. Also like the first film there is an explosion of meta-based humor, poking fun of everything from comic book movies (duh) to Barbra Streisand (Brolin’s stepmother) to every action cliché ever to Les Miserables. There are plenty of brief cameos, some of them virtually unrecognizable.

In short, it’s a hoot and a half. The humor is hit and miss at times but hit more often than not. The movie feels a lot more cluttered than the first but it also has much more scope than the first. The action is an improvement and there’s even a little bit of pathos to mix things up a little bit. I don’t think those who loved the first one will feel any less love for the sequel and I’m pretty sure that most of us will be eager for the threequel. Maybe they can convince Hugh Jackman to show up for the third. That would give Reynolds a whole new opportunity to riff.

REASONS TO GO: Reynolds continues to make Wade/Deadpool a compelling character. There are lots of fun celebrity cameos and Easter eggs throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit more cluttered than the first.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence – some of it extreme, gore, profanity and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dennison, who was 15 when the movie was released, was legally unable to see it in his native New Zealand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios/Verizon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Blue Iguana

Annabelle: Creation


The power of Christ compels you!

(2017) Horror (New Line) Anthony LaPaglia, Samara Lee, Miranda Otto, Brad Greenquist, Lulu Wilson, Tabitha Bateman, Stephanie Sigman, Mark Bramhall, Grace Fulton, Philippa Coulthard, Taylor Buck, Lou Lou Safran, Joseph Bishara, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten, Fred Tatasciore (voice), Brian Howe, Adam Bartley, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by David F. Sandberg

Creepy haunted dolls have been a staple of the horror genre for a very long time. Sometimes they are the avatars for demonic spirits; other times they are physically possessed. They are sometimes played for laughs but there are few things scarier than a demonic doll coming at you while brandishing a knife with intent to do homicide.

I imagine nobody would know that better than Sam Mullins (LaPaglia) since he is a dollmaker. He is also a grieving father; his daughter Bee (Lee) was killed in a tragic auto accident some seven years earlier (this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s by the way). Since then, he has retreated back to the California farmhouse that is also his workshop along with his disfigured and disabled wife Esther (Otto).

When he hears of an orphanage in need of some housing space, he invites them to stay in his spacious home. For the six girls who are brought to the Mullins farm, it’s like heaven on Earth. Their caretaker, Sister Charlotte (Sigman) is grateful that they have a place to stay, particularly for the two youngest, polio-stricken Janice (Bateman) whose leg is in a brace and her cheerful, optimistic bestie Linda (Wilson) who has sworn to stay together with Janice no matter what.

There is one room that is locked in the whole house, one of two that the girls are forbidden to enter; one is the bedroom where Esther rests; the locked door is Bee’s former bedroom. However, when Janice discovers the door to Bee’s room open and ventures in, she finds there a doll that seemingly can move on its own and the spirit of Bee begging for help. What does Bee need? “Your soul,” she snarls and Janice is on the road to Linda Blair-land. Soon after the orphans and the grieving couple are going to be doing a lot of running, screaming and in some cases, bleeding.

This is a prequel to the first Annabelle film which in turn was a prequel to The Conjuring. Sandberg was apparently reluctant to tackle this initially after achieving a rep with the successful Lights Out  He decided to do it because the film is almost a stand-alone entry; very little of the rest of the Conjured universe is even referenced here. With Creation netting $300 million (and counting) at the box office on a production budget of $35 million, you can bet he’ll have the juice to pick and choose his next few projects at his leisure.

The movie is a slow burner; it starts off slowly, builds gradually than erupts in the third act in a chaotic whirlwind of gore and terror – very old school when it comes to that and you’ll find no objection coming from this critic on that count. I also like the air of melancholy that Sandberg sets up and is particularly enacted by LaPaglia who is a much underrated actor. Sigman gets to look worried an awful lot and Otto gets almost no screen time whatsoever but makes good use of the time she does get.

The rest of the cast playing the orphans are all very attractive and well-scrubbed although they are mostly given one-note characters to play; the mean one, the flunky, the perky one and so on. Bateman does a credible job playing the frightened Janice, a young girl who’s gotten a raw deal from life although that deal gets even worse when Annabelle shows up; the before and after portrayals show some real talent for Bateman. I’m not familiar with Hart of Dixie, the TV show she was a regular on but judging on her performance here I think she certainly has a future.

Although critics were solidly behind this one, I found it to be the weakest entry in the franchise so far and mainly because it really doesn’t have much of a personality. While there are a few legitimately good scares here, the vast majority of them are pretty predictable. The plot utilizes a lot of elements that are typical for horror films including the panic-driven dumb moves by the protagonists. There felt like a shortage of imagination in writing this film which is what really bothered me about it. The CGI was a little subpar as well.

Still, this is a solid horror movie that will entertain; it just doesn’t hold up as well next to the other entrants in the franchise. Given its box office success and with at least two more spin-offs in the works from the second Conjuring movie, I can say with confidence that we haven’t seen the last of Annabelle quite yet.

REASONS TO GO: LaPaglia gives a melancholy performance. There are a few really nasty scares here.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s definitely the weakest entry in the franchise thus far. It feels a bit short on imagination with too many horror movie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific images, lots of violence and situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in The Conjuring franchise in which Ed and Lorraine Warren are not mentioned in any way.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Child’s Play
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw

The BFG (2016)


This is giant country.

This is giant country.

(2016) Family (Disney) Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Adam Godley, Michael David Adamthwaite, Daniel Bacon, Jonathan Holmes, Chris Gibbs, Paul Moritz de Sa, Marilyn Norry, Callum Seagram Airlie, Haig Sutherland, Shauna Hansen, Denise Jones, Gabrielle Rose. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

What dreams may come are the ones that spark our imaginations and inspire our journeys. No matter how small and insignificant we are, our dreams make giants of us all.

Sophie (Barnhill) is a level-headed young girl living in a London orphanage. Her life is a dull routine of rules (that she routinely breaks) and drudgery. Her only joy comes after everyone is in bed asleep. She then finds books to read, that transport her out of her dreary surroundings to places of luxury, adventure and excitement.

One night, she spies a giant man (Rylance) striding through London. Unfortunately, he spots her and so he plucks her out of her bed and carries her home with him to Giant Country. There, Sophie discovers that her Giant is a gentle one, so she names him (since he has no name) BFG, standing for Big Friendly Giant. She also discovers that there are nine other much larger giants who bully BFG and who are not so nice; they eat human flesh (BFG turns out to be a vegetarian) and are always hungry. They also have figured out how to travel to our world, where they pluck little children away from their homes and eat them. They’re led by the water-phobic Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and include such worthies as Bloodbottler (Hader) and Maidmasher (Olafsson).

The BFG also has an important function; every night while the Giants sleep, he strides over to Dream Country where on a gigantic tree dreams are formed. He captures the dreams (which flit around like multi-colored fireflies) and stores them, eventually making his nightly rounds in London to give people the dreams he’s caught. It’s a very taxing job but one that the BFG seems well-suited for.

Despite being 24 feet tall, the BFG is actually a runt as far as the other giants are concerned (they are at least double his height) and he is bullied endlessly, used as a bowling ball. Sophie knows that the bad giants must be stopped and the only one who can do it is the Queen of England (Wilton) which shows that Sophie can use a lot of work in her civics lessons.

Spielberg alone other than maybe Walt Disney understands how to tap in to the wonder and magic that children see the world as. His movies are classics that understand how to access the child in all of us; what made E.T. such an indelible classic is that he first of all doesn’t talk down to children, nor does he surround the kids in his movies with incompetent, bumbling adults. In fact, he gives credit to kids much more than a lot of the family film makers of the 21st century do.

Some were hoping that this would be a return to E.T. inasmuch as he was using the Amblin Entertainment team that was largely responsible for the iconic 1982 hit. The mood is a bit darker here, although Spielberg remains a master of evoking wonder – the dream tree sequence is vintage Spielberg. However, this isn’t to the level of some of his more beloved work.

Part of why that is may have to do with the difference in my age in Spielberg’s golden years and now. Perhaps I’m just being more of a curmudgeon, but I found myself getting annoyed with the BFG’s constant malapropisms and bizarre words (“figglers” instead of fingers, “strawbucklers” instead of strawberries) that make him sound like he has some sort of severe mental illness.

Barnhill’s character also rubs me the wrong way. She’s been getting much critical praise for her performance, but quite frankly I just felt…annoyed by her. It’s not that she’s doing anything particularly wrong as an actress and the character is, I suppose, well within the parameters that we should expect our plucky British heroines to be. She just felt condescending and sort of twee. I just felt like I’d just had a thousand Pixie Stix poured down my throat at once whenever she was onscreen.

Don’t get me wrong; there is every reason to go see this movie this summer and to take the family with you. Flawed or not, this is still Steven Spielberg and he knows how to make an entertaining movie that inspires amazement. This isn’t his best work, but his less-than-stellar efforts blow nearly everybody out of the water. There is also the possibility that I simply have outgrown him and that might be the most horrible contemplation of all.

REASONS TO GO: It does have plenty of charm and imagination.
REASONS TO STAY: The giant-speak gets incredibly annoying as does Barnhill’s plucky kid performance.
FAMILY VALUES: The very young may find this a bit frightening; otherwise there’s just some mildly rude humor to contend with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last produced screenplay by Melissa Matheson prior to her passing away in late 2015. The film is dedicated to her memory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Happening

Pan


Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

Hugh Jackman glares at his hair stylist.

(2015) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Nonso Anozie, Adeel Akhtar, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougall, Cara Delevingne, Tae-joo Na, Jack Charles, Bronson Webb, Mike Shepherd, Brian Bovell, Kurt Egyiawan, Jimmy Vee, Paul Hunter, Spencer Wilding, Dean Nolan, Giacomo Mancini, Ami Metcalf. Directed by Joe Wright

Most of us are familiar with the boy who never grew up, whether through the stage play or the Disney animation. Author J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan was not terribly forthcoming when it came to his origins, other than what we all know – that he was an orphan who was kidnapped and brought to Neverland where he became leader of the Lost Boys and took on his nemesis, Captain James Hook. But how did he become leader? Where did Captain Hook come from? How did Peter get his sword? And what was he like before he became The Boy Who Never Grew Up?

In Blitz-scarred London during the Second World War, young Peter (Miller) has lived his entire life in an orphanage, run by the malevolent Mother Barnabas (Burke) whom Peter suspects of hoarding the war rations of the Orphanage. With his partner-in-crime Nibs (MacDougall) Peter is also highly suspicious of the rapid disappearance of the boys in the Orphanage; adopted, say the sisters; sent to the country for their own safety, say the sisters. Peter says bunk!

His suspicions soon prove to be correct as it turns out that the boys are being kidnapped by pirates, taken in a flying galleon (which engages in a thrilling battle with Spitfires that are already dealing with the Luftwaffe bombers) and brought to a strange island floating placidly above an ocean which sits in the heavens. This is Neverland and it is ruled with an iron fist by the famous pirate Blackbeard (Jackman) who uses the boys as slave labor in the mines who are digging not for gold but for Pixum, the concentrated remains of dead fairies which Blackbeard killed by the thousands. However, they have all fled to the Fairy Kingdom which Blackbeard cannot find and he is growing frantic; the Pixum preserves his youth and vitality and he will die without it. Peter, kidnapped by the pirates but saving his pal Nibs in the process, ends up in the mines with an adult – James Hook (Hedlund), who is friend to nobody but for some odd reason takes to Peter.

There is also a prophecy among the natives that a boy would come, a Pan warrior bearing the symbol of their tribe (pan pipes) that would kill their oppressor and lead them to freedom. When Peter discovers that he has the ability to fly, Hook sees a way out of the mines and enlists Peter and the overseer Sam Smiegel (Akhtar) – whom Hook addresses as Smee – they are successful but end up captured by the natives led by Princess Tiger Lily (Mara) whose father (Charles), the chief of the tribe, orders that Hook fight the tribe’s most valiant warrior. If he defeats their champion, the three of them go free. If not, the three will be put to death. Tough place, Neverland.

The fight is interrupted by Peter who is discovered to be wearing a chain bearing the tribe’s Pan symbol and Hook blabs about the boy’s ability to take flight. The trouble is, Peter isn’t confident that he can repeat his feat and Blackbeard is on his way to reclaim the boy, whom he sees as not just a threat but as a means to lead him to the fairy kingdom. A final battle will ensue and ’tis life or death. Will Peter become the warrior and leader he is destined to be?

Well, yeah. That’s the thing about prequels; you know essentially how things are going to turn out. Therefore it is important that the journey getting there is interesting. Certainly the visuals are amazing, with majestic flying pirate ships, skeletal prehistoric giant birds and native Neverlanders exploding into multicolored dust when the pirates kill them. Visually, this is a treat.

Story-wise, not so much. The movie plods along with virtually no energy. Peter Pan is meant to make our spirits soar, to allow us to recapture (or retain) our childhood. None of this is really uplifting or enjoyable. It feels like all the effort went into the visuals but the story itself got little more attention than being an excuse for some spectacular production design.

There’s also the odd propensity to use anachronisms, like the miners greeting Blackbeard with an a Capella performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit” or the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop.” They both take us out of the movie and remind us that we are watching a movie. The surest way for a filmmaker to sabotage his or her own film is to use pop songs inappropriately.

Jackman, as Blackbeard, alone appears to be having fun here. While he looks something like a demented Cavalier, he has a joie de vivre that is missing from the rest of the movie. Miller as the titular character isn’t bad but he isn’t memorable either. He has some potential I think but he is thrown into the cinematic fire, essentially being expected to carry much of the load of this film and it really is an awful lot to expect out of an inexperienced kid (this is his first feature film). That he acquits himself as well as he does is a minor miracle.

Hedlund for some odd reason chooses to play Hook as the love child of Indiana Jones and James Cagney. It isn’t an embarrassing performance but quite frankly his odd line delivery is distracting and I don’t think he got a lot of direction on how to play the character. The man who is to be the nemesis of Peter Pan should be much darker than this Hook is who comes off mainly as spoiled and scared. There’s no sign of the great pirate Captain Hook here which is a shame.

The movie has been getting roundly panned by critics (couldn’t resist) and has been a box office bomb. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as you’ve heard it is, but it isn’t very good either. I’d put it up there as mediocre mindless entertainment that might be too dark for the kids and too childish for their parents. Considering the amount of money spent on this, I have to say that the audience has much better uses for their time than on this early serving of turkey.

REASONS TO GO: Great production design. Jackman is clearly having fun with this.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and top-heavy. Doesn’t have the heart that Peter Pan films should have.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material, some mild cursing and fantasy violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Bardem was originally offered the role of Blackbeard but turned it down.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hook
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Death Valley

Miral


When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you're in trouble.

When a schoolgirl looks at you with that kind of intensity, you’re in trouble.

(2010) Drama (Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Omar Metwally, Vanessa Redgrave, Willem Dafoe, Makram Khoury, Alexander Siddig, Yasmine Al Massri, Rana Al Qawasmi, Ruba Blal, Stella Schnabel, Donald Liddawi, Shredi Jabarin, Dov Navon, Liron Levo, Yolanda El Karam, Rozeen Bisharat, Iman Aoun, Lana Zreik. Directed by Julian Schnabel

Woman Power

The West Bank conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on virtually since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. There seems to be no end to that fight and even today no compromise between the two seems within reach.

Shortly after Israel became a nation in 1948, Hind al-Husseini (Abbass) finds a group of 55 children, orphaned by the fighting, sitting in the street with nowhere to go. She takes them in, founding an orphanage and school that came to be called the Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Quickly, 55 refugee children grew to over 2,000.

Nadia (Al Massri) is a woman who has suffered brutal sexual abuse, eventually running away from home. She is eventually sent to prison for slapping an Israeli woman who called her a harlot and shares a cell with Fatima (Blal), a former nurse who set a pipe bomb in a crowded theater. The two women grow close and Fatima sets Nadia up with her brother Jamal (Siddig), a kind man who doesn’t hold with his sister’s terrorist beliefs. Nadia eventually gives birth to a daughter named Miral, named for a desert flower common in Palestine.

As a young girl (El Karam), Miral is sent to the Dar Al-Tifel Institute to study under Hind who sees something special in Miral. Hind preaches that education is the way to eventual peace and at first, Miral is inclined to agree with a woman she has grown to admire very much. However, as Miral (Pinto) grows into a young woman and sees that outside the walls of the Institute the Israelis are treating her people so poorly, she begins to have doubts. And when she is sent to teach children in a refugee camp, she falls in with Hani (Metwally), a young man part of a terrorist organization, her point of view begins to radicalize.

Schnabel who is an American of Jewish descent has received a good deal of critical adoration for his film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Here, he continues to apply his artistic sensibilities (Schnabel is also a noted painter) to the silver screen although here with mixed degrees of success. He and his cinematographer Eric Gautier pull forth some really beautiful images, but in order to make some of them more compelling there are a lot of over-exposed shots as well as extreme close-ups or oblique camera angles that make the image unidentifiable until the camera pulls back or changes angle. That’s okay as an occasional trick but it happens a bit too often for my taste.

He also employs the hand-held camera a bit too much. Shaky-cam as it’s popularly known can lend a sense of immediacy to a movie, giving the viewer the perspective of being amidst the action but too much of it can be vertigo-inducing. It’s like driving a dirt road for too long in a car with bad suspension.

Pinto, best known for her work in Slumdog Millionaire captures the essence of the Miral of the novel that the movie is based on. While some have criticized her casting (she is from India rather than Palestine and speaks with a pronounced accent), I find that kind of criticism invalid. Either she’s right for the part or she isn’t, and she clearly is.

Most of the first third of the film belongs to Abbass who is simply put one of the greatest actresses on the planet, although she is largely unknown in the United States because she works mostly in the Middle East. She plays Hind with compassion and gravitas, but always with a life that shines through. She swamps most of the actors here and there are some pretty darn good ones, like Siddig who in his post Deep Space Nine career has turned into a fine actor and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.

The middle third is Nadia’s and Al Massri captures her fragile nature nicely. She’s a woman whose life is pervaded by the terrible things that have happened to her and she can’t escape her demons, ultimately succumbing to them. She is a tragic figure who is a sympathetic one in the pages of the book but here we have a harder time sympathizing with her.

The story is told with lots of flashbacks and with seemingly random events that are without initial context until something in the film gives them that. It can be very confusing to the casual viewer and requires a great deal of focus to really follow it – reading the book beforehand was helpful to me, I have to say. I do like that Schnabel takes the Palestinian view which is so rarely seen in the United States, although that is changing as there have been more films shown from the Palestinian viewpoint as of late although mostly from independent distributors. I also found it unnecessary to make all the Israeli characters but one essentially monsters. You can show the Palestinian point of view without reducing it to a cartoon of good guys versus bad guys.

This is a movie about women coping with an impossible situation; two are strong, one damaged and all of them come out changed. While this received little critical love when it came out and was essentially given little support by the studio when it came out in limited release, it’s still a compelling film to watch if you have the patience to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully filmed.  Abbass is a force of nature. Unusual for Hollywood, presents Palestinian viewpoint.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit chaotic and occasionally confusing. Too much shaky-cam and image modification.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a sexual assault as well as some other violence and adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Journalist Rula Jebreal who wrote the screenplay based on her semi-autobiographical novel was dating Schnabel at the time (the director, not the actress).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a post-screening Q&A with Julian Schnabel as well as a tour of his production office.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900,647 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Woman Power concludes!