William (2019)


So simple even a caveman could do it?

(2019) Drama (Dada) Will Brittain, Maria Dizzia, Waleed Zuaiter, Susan Park, Beth Grant, Callum Seagram Airlie, Krystle Dos Santos, Kevin Dzah, Stefania Indelicato, Jaren Moore, Ellie Harvie, David Nykl, Nisreen Slim, Christian Convery, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Sydney Bell, Finn Haney, Michael Meneer, Kurt Ostlund, Iris Paluly, Lisa MacFadden. Directed by Tim Disney

 

Neanderthals occupy an interesting place in pop culture. On the one hand, they are our ancestors; we evolved from them and then eventually wiped them out (or out-survived them). On the other hand, they are portrayed as both stupid (“So easy even a caveman could do it”) and brutish, normally portrayed as being possessed of enormous strength and aggressiveness. In truth however, we really don’t know very much about them.

Paleontologist Julian Reed (Zuaiter) would very much like to change that. He dreams of coming face to face with a Neanderthal, particularly after a colleague (Grant) of his at Wallace University where he teaches discovered a nearly-perfectly preserved body in a Pacific Northwest bog not far from the University. Bio-engineer Barbara Sullivan (Dizzia), attending one of Julian’s impassioned lectures on the subject, thinks she can make it happen by cloning a Neanderthal using DNA from the remains of the Neanderthal. The two find common ground and eventually get married.

As for cloning the Neanderthal, the University brass reacts with horror. It’s not just a no but a Hell, no! Being the maverick scientific power couple that they are, they decide to do it anyway, using one of Barbara’s eggs as an embryo. By the time the university finds out, the deed is already done and a baby – named William, after Irish naturalist William King who was the first to identify Neanderthals as a separate species – and the university has no choice but to support the two scientists after the fact.

Barbara and Julian develop a deep rift in their relationship on how William’s upbringing should be handled. Julian wants to keep the boy at the University where he can be closely monitored, whereas Barbara, once the gung-ho maverick, has turned all mom on him and demands the boy be raised in an environment where he has a shot at a normal life which in retrospect doesn’t seem terribly realistic because there’s no way other children are going to let up on a completely different species. William mostly tolerates the abuse although from time to time when cornered he does show an ability to more than adequately defend himself.

William also has trouble with literary interpretation, particularly when it comes to humor and metaphors. Think of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy who didn’t understand anything in other than a literal sense. William is that, only more soft-spoken and less blue. William is in all ways polite and brilliant but his shortcoming in this one department threatens to derail his plans for college – or perhaps more his dad’s plans. Also, William is getting a little tired of other people making decisions about what’s best for him.

While this sounds like soft sci-fi along the lines of Creator or Encino Man, this is more of a coming-of-age drama with some light science fiction overtones. This is not so much about the creation of William but of the practical ramifications of creating him. Given that some scientists believe that we’ll have the ability to clone dinosaurs by the end of the next decade, the immortal line “They were so busy trying to figure out if they could they never bothered asking themselves if they should” from Jurassic Park immediately comes to mind. The premise is an interesting one and it is handled in an unexpected way which is reason enough to recommend it right there.

Brittain does a great job of making William sympathetic and alien at the same time. He’s just like us, only he’s not. There is a universal truth hiding in that statement; that truth is that we’re all under that category. I don’t know if that was a message Disney meant to send but it was one I read loud and clear all the same.

Cinematographers Graham and Nelson Talbot utilize the Pacific Northwest setting nicely and some of the shot compositions should be used as teaching tools in film school. The negative here (and it’s a big one) is that the ending is completely tone-deaf with the rest of the film. Disney went out of his way to approach the subject in a unique way and then just about wipes out the good will of the audience by tacking on a cliché ending. The ending is an easy one that has the advantage of tying things up neatly more or less but it is almost like it came out of another movie – and not a better one.

Despite the disappointment of the film’s ending this is still that rarity – an intelligent movie with an intriguing premise that never talks down to its viewers (until the last ten minutes) and generally takes the road that isn’t easy or safe. I only wish that Disney had the faith in his own project to give us an ending that didn’t feel so out of tune with the rest of the film.

REASONS TO SEE: The premise is interesting. I liked the shot composition going on here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a bit of violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim Disney is Walt’s grand-nephew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
One Child Nation

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Pick of the Litter


This film is truly about man’s best friend.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac. Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

 

All right, in the interest of full disclosure I will make my confession now: I am a dog nut. Not a dog lover – that implies some sort of sanity. I’m absolutely crazy about dogs. There was a meme going around Facebook not long ago about the seven signs your spouse is a dog nut – I fit all seven of them. It drives my poor wife to distraction sometimes. Naturally, when I found out about this documentary about puppies going through the rigorous training of becoming a guide dog I was all in.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is a Northern California-based organization that as their name implies provides guide dogs for those who are sight-impaired. The standards are high and the training rigorous. Many of the puppies that are enrolled in their training program are born right there at GDB and in this particular case we follow the five Labrador puppies from a single litter. Their names are Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and, incongruously, Phil.

Each of these puppies will be weaned from their mother in the San Rafael kennel, then placed at five months with “puppy raiser” families which include “empty nest” couples, a high school student and his mom, a PTSD-suffering man who uses the dogs as a distraction from his own issues, and families who simply want to help out. Each of the pups will have one of three outcomes. If they are unable to handle the standards of training, they will be “career changed” i.e. washed out of the program and placed with other charities or, occasionally, placed with families permanently. The second outcome is that females may be kept at the San Rafael facility to be bred. Finally the outcome everyone wants, to pass all the rigorous tests and be placed with a blind person to be their best friend and protector.

The puppy raisers go into this with the understanding that they will get the dogs for no more than a year and in some cases, much less. They are fully aware that they are training their charges for someone else’s benefit, not their own. Throughout the process, the dogs will be tested every three months for certain sorts of behaviors that might disqualify them; an inability to follow commands, a tendency to be easily distracted – that sort of thing. Some dogs may be taken out of the program before their time with the puppy trainers is done.

When their time with the raisers is done, the puppies are brought back to the GDP facility for more intensive work with trainers who will give them particular skills, such as dealing with traffic, with train platforms, walking on streets without sidewalks, the kinds of things that the sighted take for granted but can be deadly if not navigated correctly. The dogs go through a series of exams that test them on particular skills. If they don’t pass, they are given one more chance. If they pass, they advance. If not, they are career changed.

While this is like a lot of child competition documentaries that have proliferated like Starbucks franchises lately, there is a distinct difference in that while there is rooting interest in all the pups, there are no real losers here. None of these dogs have any awareness of the stakes involved; they are all going to wind up somewhere in caring environments.

We don’t see a whole lot of the training the pups go through with their puppy raisers, although the primary responsibility of the raisers is to bring the candidates into the world, learning to interact with their surroundings so that they are better able to do their jobs. The puppy raiser parents are trying to give their charges the best possible chance at acquiring the skills they will learn in the more intensive training phase in San Rafael.

The dogs have plenty of personality; Potomac is “mouthy” and loves to nip his handlers. Phil is endearing and has a bit of a hound dog appeal. Patriot has a ton of energy which sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus. Primrose is affectionate almost to a fault and Poppet is cool, calm and collected (for the most part).

This is as much about the trainers and the raisers as it is about the dogs themselves and I’m sorry that I didn’t get their names written down but I’d forgotten my notebook when I attended my screening. However, I was completely enchanted (dog nut) and was grinning ear to ear throughout the film (dog nut). I was rooting for all the dogs to succeed (dog nut) but I did have one particular favorite (dog nut). In these times of divisiveness and stress, dogs are a natural tonic (dog nut) and this movie may even convince a few non-dog nuts. However if you’re anything like me (and more power to you if you are) you’ll want to see this one every time you’re feeling blue. Expect that this one will be a permanent part of my video collection once it’s available for sale.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers, this is your jam. The stories of the trainers and foster families are pretty compelling. Gives you a sense of what the training the dogs go through. I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end and never lost interest.
REASONS TO STAY: Cat people may take umbrage.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in San Rafael, California in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers returning home from the Second World War.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heart of a Dog
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
All About Nina

Mandy (2018)


Nic Cage is never happier than when he’s driving a car while drenched in fake blood.

(2018) Horror (RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephen Fraser, Ivalyio Dimitrov, Kalin Kerin, Tamás Hagyuó, Madd’yz Dog Lollyta, Corfu, Paul Painter (voice), Hayley Saywell. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

 

Nic Cage has, in this stage of his career, carved out a reputation as having the best freak-out in the business. Perhaps not what he had in mind back when he was considered one of the finest actors in the business for serious works like Leaving Las Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married but it’s always good to be good at something.

Here he plays Red Miller, a taciturn lumberjack living in the Pacific Northwest woods of the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his hippie chick girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) who makes a living doing illustrations for fantasy and science fiction-themed album covers. She’s a bit of an aging waif with anime eyes who brings in a little extra cash working as a cashier at a local gas station/grocery. Walking home, she is espied by Jeremiah Sand (Roache) who decides that this is the woman from him. He sends Brother Swan (Dennehy) to see that she sees the light.

Using an odd instrument called the Abraxas Horn Swan summons a group of demonic bikers who use a sort of liquid extreme LSD to get themselves in the mood for violence. They break in to the rustic cabin of Red and Mandy and restrain Red in a kind of barbed wire manacle. Mandy is brought to Jeremiah who makes an art form of tooting his own horn. His attempts at seduction don’t get him the results he wanted so in a fit of Trump-like pique he decides to teach the couple a lesson.

The results aren’t pretty. Mandy meets a grisly end witnessed by her boyfriend who is stabbed and left for dead. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Red and he goes about collecting himself an arsenal and then going on a little ass-kicking expedition and you know it won’t end until every mutha who messed with his girl exsanguinates all over his face.

For those who, like me, love Conan O’Brien’s Nicolas Cage threat level gauge, he delivers one here that is sure to be Defcon One the next time O’Brien puts one together. Through the first half of the film Cage is fairly quiet but once Mandy is taken from him he goes full-on Nicolas Cage and that can be highly entertaining.

Director Panos Cosmatos isn’t above ratcheting up the crazy, using a good deal of psychedelic footage and LSD-inspired footage melds that with a largely electronic and almost progressive metal score from the late Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson that really captures the heart of the film. Any movie that starts out with King Crimson’s criminally underappreciated “Starless” is a friend of mine.

Riseborough is not your usual lead here; oddly, Jeremiah seems to treat her as a younger woman but she’s clearly middle aged. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder but her character’s new age babble is a little bit distracting. What isn’t distracting is the final half of the film which is essentially one long action sequence with all sorts of gory violence which is bound to bring a contented smile to most horror fans.

This is not your typical horror movie; there are some themes of love and violence, obsession and ego. There are some animated scenes that are sort of like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. So it’s very much a situation of the 70s have called and they want their horror film back. This isn’t a movie from that era (even though it’s set in ’83) but it captures the spirit of psycho horror films of that era nicely.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his most ludicrously demented which is saying something. The action sequences are bizarre but in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie does take a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: Deep breath now; there’s gore and violence (some of it extreme), the full Monty, copious drug use, profanity and likely lots of mean thoughts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roache and Brake both previously worked together in Batman Begins in which Roache played Thomas Wayne and Brake played Joe Chill, who murdered him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive Angry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Coors: The Will to Live

David Lynch: The Art Life


Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(2016) Documentary (Janus) David Lynch. Directed by Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes and Olivia Neergaard-Holm

 

David Lynch is one of the most celebrated, iconoclastic and cerebral directors in cinematic history. From his breakout in 1977 with Eraserhead, his filmography has an impressive list of films including Elephant Man, Dune, Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Blue Velvet, The Straight Story and of course the legendary TV series Twin Peaks which he has just resumed with a sequel on Showtime. While he hasn’t made a narrative feature film since 2006 (Inland Empire), he has remained busy with a plethora of short films (most of which can be found on his website) as well as writing music and painting.

This documentary is mainly directed by longtime admirer Nguyen and the hero worship is evident. Nguyen emulates the style and the pacing of a Lynch film which I suppose is appropriate; therefore rather than getting a straight documentary film that tells Lynch’s story as a filmmaker, we get the director himself narrating the story of his childhood, adolescent and young adult years essentially leading up to Eraserhead. We see that his first love is painting (which he continues to do to this day) and that he lived a fairly normal, suburban life in the 50s and early 60s as his research scientist father moved them regularly to states in the Pacific Northwest and Big Sky country.

Lynch speaks very warmly about his mom who once she discovered his talent at drawing refused to buy him coloring books although she bought them for his siblings. This had the effect of forcing Lynch to use his imagination and coming up with his own pictures rather than filling in the blanks for someone else’s.

So where does the darkness that fills almost all of Lynch’s art, both cinematic and painting, come from? Lynch, notoriously reticent, is cagey about that. He discusses an incident in which he and his siblings were playing outside after dark when a naked woman, bleeding from the mouth, staggered onto the cul-de-sac on which he lived and sat down on the curb and wept. Lynch talks about not knowing what to do, and apparently the incident stayed with him; it sounds very much like a moment out of his own films.

Lynch had a love of painting and when he discovered that the father of one of his school chums was artist Bushnell Keeler, he knew he had a calling. Keeler encouraged him, allowed him to rent space in his workshop and when David’s father threatened to throw him out after the two argued about a curfew, Keeler came to the rescue and assured the elder Lynch that his son was working hard on a passion, something he wished his own son would do. Keeler also helped get Lynch into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where Lynch began to thrive.

If you’re looking for a movie that is going to explain the influences on Lynch’s cinematic career, or explore his methodology and inspirations, you’ve not going to find it here. The film ends essentially with Eraserhead and none of his other cinematic works gets so much as a mention here. In true Lynch style, we get next to nothing of what we want to know and instead have to make do with what he’s willing to tell us. That may drive less enthusiastic fans bonkers but his diehard followers will nod sanguinely and enjoy the ride.

This is the rare documentary that isn’t a parade of talking heads. There’s only one here – Lynch himself – and we see him throughout, wreathed in a fog of cigarette smoke (Lynch is more or less a chain smoker and has been since youth), an everpresent glass of Coke at his side. Mostly he paints on-camera although from time to time he plays with his toddler daughter Lula (to whom the film is dedicated) or stares off contemplatively into the distance. This is a bit of a double-edged sword. The film isn’t cluttered but at the same time we get no other viewpoints. We see images of his brothers, his sister, his friends (like the inimitable Jack Fisk) but we don’t hear from them. Everything in this movie is through Lynch’s eyes, or the eyes of the filmmakers.

Consequently we’re left to gaze at Lynch painting, smoking and reminiscing. He can be a charming raconteur but there are times he starts an anecdote, pauses, then says “I can’t talk about that right now” and moves on. Like the painting he is working on, it is left intriguingly but infuriatingly unfinished for the audience. Sadly at least for my part, I found this somewhat boring after awhile. It was the cinematic equivalent of reading a Wikipedia entry and served to make one of the most interesting filmmakers extant actually boring. That’s unforgivable as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers do an admirable job of making this look and pace very much like Lynch’s own work.
REASONS TO STAY: This is very much for Lynch fans. We get no other point of view other than Lynch’s own.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some art nudity and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign; those who gave money at a certain level were awarded Producer credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny
FINAL RATING:4.5/10
NEXT: Fate of the Furious

Rings


All is not well with Samara.

(2017) Horror (Paramount) Matilda Lutz, Alex Roe, Jonny Galecki, Vincent D’Onofrio, Aimee Teegarden, Bonnie Morgan, Chuck Willis, Patrick Walker Zach Roerig, Laura Slade Wiggins, Lizzie Brocheré, Karen Ceesay, Dave Blamy, Michael E. Sanders, Randall Taylor, Drew Gray, Kayli Carter, Jill Jane Clements, Ricky Muse, Jeremy Harrison, Jay Pearson, Rose Bianco. Directed by F. Javier Gutiérrez

 

Urban legends have a tendency to take a life of their own. They also make for some pretty nifty horror movies, whether they are actual urban legends or made-up ones. One of the best of the latter was the Japanese horror film Ringu by Hideo Nakata which helped make the Japanese horror film industry a global powerhouse back in 1998. Four years later, Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made an American version that didn’t disgrace itself and in 2005, Nakata himself directed the American sequel.

Now in 2017 the powers-that-be at the studio felt the time was right for a third installment of the series but forewent most of the attributes that made the two films so successful and tapped Spanish director Gutiérrez to take his shot. I don’t think that the film’s problems rest primarily on the director’s shoulders necessarily.

The new installment is a sequel. In it, the videotape that brought death to whomever watched it seven days to the tick after watching it is still making the rounds. Holt (Roe) has left his high school sweetheart Julia (Lutz) behind to attend college in the Pacific Northwest. At first, all is hearts and roses as the two lovebirds Skype their sexy across the miles. Then, Holt stops answering his phone. Julia becomes worried so like any good girlfriend she treks to the school to find out what her boyfriend is up to.

It turns out that he has become part of a study of that very videotape as presided over by whacked-out Professor Gabriel (Galecki from The Big Bang Theory) who keeps his students alive by having them do the only thing that gets the video watchers off the hook – show the video to another potential victim. It turns out her man has seen the video and is 24 hours away from an up close and personal visit from Samara (Morgan), the angry spirit who crawls up out of the video screen to murder those foolish enough to give in to temptation.

When Holt’s relief watcher doesn’t show up, Julia herself takes the bullet and watches the tape – which has now been, conveniently enough, transferred to a digital file for easy streaming. It’s the 2010s after all. S’anyway, Julia wants to get to the bottom of this whole rigmarole and ends up chasing clues about the real Samara to a small village on a remote island in the Puget Sound. There she finds a blind priest (D’Onofrio) who may know more about the legend of Samara than he’s letting on.

I think most fans of the series would have welcomed an updating of the original, made in the age of VCRs and modems, into a more digital format. There are certainly a lot of ways good writers could have taken this – Hell, even the concept of a collegiate study of the phenomenon might have worked if the writers had shown some originality.

But they didn’t – not even a little bit. The dialogue is preposterous and the characters are largely too bland and personality-challenged to care about. Lutz and Roe seem to be trying but I have to say that I found their performances simply didn’t create any chemistry or energy onscreen. The producers, going for a PG-13 rating, didn’t even leave Gutiérrez graphic gore or sex to fall back on.

D’Onofrio is a smart actor, who sometimes shows up in bad movies but he never does anything less than his best. Here, his role has little depth to it but what it does have D’Onofrio gives it by the dint of his performance. None of the other actors in the film really hold up next to him although Galecki comes close.

This is a bit of a yawner as horror films go and that’s not what you want to hear when trying to make a scare flick. It has enough going for it that I can give it a very mild – VERY MILD – recommendation but this is a mediocre attempt at resurrecting a franchise that deserves better treatment. I’m quite sure both Nakata and Verbinski would be rolling in their graves if they had one.

REASONS TO GO: D’Onofrio gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO STAY: A poorly written script and not enough imaginative scares doom this franchise revival.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might imagine, there’s plenty of horrific sequences, spooky images, profanity, a bit of sexuality and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the franchise without lead actress Naomi Watts and special make-up effects master Rick Baker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ringu
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: John Wick Chapter 2

Morgan (2016)


Mirror images.

Mirror images.

(2016) Sci-Fi Thriller (20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Crispian Belfrage, Amybeth McNulty, Jonathan Aris, Charlotte Asprey, Frank Cannon, Bobby Marrio, Martin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Harris. Directed by Luke Scott

 

As our technology and scientific understanding progress, we will be confronted by questions having to do with what it means to be human – and whether or not that definition is broad enough to cover the wonders that are sure to follow. Will artificial life forms have the same compunctions we do? Can we ever truly trust them?

Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is the results of a bio-engineering experiment using artificial DNA. She is brilliant, strong and yet emotionally immature; she’s only five years old chronologically speaking although she is in her teens in terms of physical development. When she suddenly and without warning attacks a psychologist (Leigh) in the compound, the corporation funding the experiments sends risk analyst Lee Weathers (Mara) to make the determination if the plug should be pulled on the experiment.

When she reaches the secluded Pacific Northwest compound where the scientists studying Morgan are housed, she is met with wariness. Lee is surprised to find the personal attachment many of the scientists have with Morgan with the exception of nutritionist Skip Vronsky (Holbrook) who still refers to Morgan as “it.” The rest of the team has bonded with the girl in spite of the attack on one of their number; they show affection towards her, even though they keep her in what amounts to a cage.

After an examination by another psychologist (Giamatti) ends in disaster, the lead scientist on the Morgan project (Yeoh) reluctantly decides to terminate Morgan which meets with resistance from the team, but Lee is adamant that the directive be carried out. However, like all living beings, Morgan is possessed with a strong survival instinct. She also has not only the ability to use it, but deadly abilities not even her handlers were aware she had.

Artificial life forms gone amuck have long been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi horror films. This isn’t really a horror movie per se, although there are some pieces of shocking violence here (particularly the initial sequence). Mostly this is a thriller with philosophical overtones as the cold, calculating Lee is put up against the occasionally sympathetic Morgan, although at the end of the film all our sympathies are confused.

Most will see the twist coming, although that isn’t the fault of the actors involved. Mara and Taylor-Joy both play polar opposites for much of the movie and both do credible jobs, with Mara getting a slight edge in terms of performance. The supporting cast, including Leigh, Yeoh and Giamatti, are stellar and are sadly underused here; their combined screen time is probably less than ten minutes all told and we end up wishing to have seen more of them by the time the movie ends.

There are some beautiful images here as well, with Ireland subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Then again, this is a micro-budgeted film and that unfortunately shows in some of the production design; for whatever reason the housing compound for the supposedly high tech facility is ramshackle and looks pointedly like the Psycho house. If they had just gotten ordinary dormitories it would have looked more realistic and I can’t believe it would have cost them any more to use, particularly in the exterior shots.

Mostly this is a credible thriller that goes off the rails near the end of the movie when it becomes a standard action film and quite frankly, the action portions aren’t particularly noteworthy. That spoils some of the nifty mood making that Scott engaged in during the bulk of the movie, in which viewers are given a disturbing feeling that things Aren’t Quite Right Here, which of course most would know anyway from seeing the trailer.

Scott has some good techniques and when he gets something in his wheelhouse, he knows what to do with it. I can’t say if he’ll end up being as good or better a director as his dad but for my money he has the potential to do so. Let’s hope he finds the right material to enable him to do just that.

REASONS TO GO: Mara is cold and remorseless. The film raises some interesting philosophical questions.
REASONS TO STAY:
Another film peopled with characters who don’t behave like real people. Several terrific actors in the cast are wasted in roles that go nowhere.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence in the film is pretty brutal; there’s also a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott is the son of director Ridley Scott.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ex-Machina
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Train to Busan

Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden