Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

Arrival (2016)


Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

Amy Adams contemplates an interplanetary craft.

(2016) Science Fiction (Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sangita Patel, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowski, Mark O’Brien, Jadyn Malone, Ruth Chiang, Anana Rydvald, Julia Scarlett Dan, Nathaly Thibault, Leisa Reid, Frank Fiola, Russell Yuen, Pat Kiely, Larry Day, Joe Cobden, Julian Casey, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Andrew Shaver, Genevieve Sirois. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

 

We take language for granted. After all, despite the many languages on the planet, we are basically aware of all the various alphabets and pictographs that make up written language. We are also the same species and can communicate non-verbally if necessary. What happens when we encounter an alien species with whom we have no basis for communication?

Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist teaching at a fairly well-known university. One day her class – already sparsely attended – is interrupted by the students all getting excited texts over the phone. At last Louise, watching her students abandon her classroom, finds a television set and discovers that an alien spaceship has arrived in Montana. As it later turns out, it is one of twelve positioned all over the world.

Of course, the big question is “what do they want?” When the military in the form of Colonel Weber (Whitaker) knocks at her door, she takes the opportunity. What scientist wouldn’t want to be among those making first contact with an alien race? Certainly not Ian Donnelly (Renner), a theoretical physicist who is also on the team whom Louise meets on the way to the landing site, although landing is perhaps a misnomer; the alien vessel floats majestically 28 feet above the ground. It’s not as if Louise has anything holding her at home, as she is completely alone. She often thinks about her teenage daughter Hannah who passed away of what appears to be cancer.

As it turns out, the aliens appear every 18 hours like clockwork but nobody has been able to communicate with them yet which is of course why Louise was brought in. The team enters the spaceship via a scissor lift which gets them to a certain point; after that the aliens thoughtfully manipulate gravity so the team can make it comfortably the rest of the way.

They appear behind a glass barrier with swirling white mist. The aliens, gigantic grey beings with seven limbs are dubbed “heptapods” as they somewhat resemble octopi with a missing limb. Louise discovers that the circular shapes that they conjure up in the mist is their written language. With eleven other scientific teams also working to make contact in places like Siberia, China and Venezuela, the scientists work overtime trying to interpret the alien language. Louise begins to make breakthroughs, understanding that the squiggly circles all represent concepts rather than letters of an alphabet.

However, differences in opinion over what the squiggly circles mean begin to raise tensions between the various nations. The Chinese are certain that the aliens are trying to give them a weapon and their leader, General Shang (Ma) has cut off communication with the other teams. The CIA type (Stuhlbarg) at the Montana site is inclined to believe the same thing. Now the race is to prove that the aliens are not out to start a war or destroy humanity utterly and it’s a race that Louise is not sure she can win.

This is based on the story “The Story of Your Life” written by scientist and science fiction author Ted Chiang and from what I understand the movie is remarkably faithful to the short story. Villeneuve went to great lengths to insure the scientific accuracy on his production which also deserves kudos. This is most definitely not for those who think sci-fi movies should be full of lasers and space battles and sleek spaceships. The spacecraft used here resembles a contact lens more than anything and is pretty much bare and featureless. Villeneuve purposely made the alien environment foggy and grey with almost no color whatsoever. Some might find that boring.

Those who like their sci-fi cerebral won’t find this boring. The concepts brought up by Chiang and Villeneuve include our perception of time, the importance of language, and of course our perspective on our place in the universe. There are also themes of loss, grief and faith. Villeneuve doesn’t really spoon-feed you anything; he sets you up with an idea and allows you to process it however you choose. Not everyone will like that; my lovely wife felt that she was condescended to although to be truthful I didn’t feel that way at all.

Adams who is already one of the top actresses in Hollywood today moves to another level here. Her Louise is surrounded by an air of sadness and regret. There is already much Oscar buzz around her performance here and she will certainly merit consideration for a nomination. It is a layered performance that is both emotional and smart. Roles that change the way you think about an actor are few and far between; this is one of them.

It is always refreshing to see a movie that really isn’t like any other. Sure, first contact films have been done in many different ways but none quite like this one. Denis Villeneuve has put forth a bold claim to being one of the best filmmakers of this era; his filmography certainly backs it up. Arrival may be the best movie the French-Canadian director has done and given what he has on his resume that’s saying something.

REASONS TO GO: The script is profound and thought-provoking. The filmmakers don’t skimp on the science. Adams gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Arrival shows out of the box thinking on nearly every level of filmmaking.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too cerebral for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some profanity is briefly uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Renner and Adams previously co-starred together in American Hustle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contact
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: All We Had

Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)


Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

(2012) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright, David Boat, Ethan DiSalvio, Delphina Belle, Gary Littman, Maggie Villard, Joe Ochman, Ashley Brooke, Marsha Clark, Ashley Earnest, Cameron Dickson. Directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

Florida Film Festival 2014

Childhood was a magical time. It was a time of perfect summer days, running around outdoors in the fresh air and finding places where there were meadows, greenery, fresh water or a lovely beach – places we would find we could play in and let our imaginations run wild. It was a time of cold winter nights, tucked into our warm beds after a cup of hot cocoa and a story. It’s not like that anymore.

These days it is a time of video games and day care, a time when overworked parents working harder and longer hours just to make ends not quite meet spend less and less time with their kids. It’s a time of fear and paranoia, of worrying about all the lunatics out there who want to hurt our children. It’s also a time of plopping the kids in front of the TV, computer screen or videogame console just to get them out of our hair for an hour or two.

Ernest & Celestine, a French animated feature based on a series of classic children’s books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, is a welcome return to that feeling of warm comfort that only comes in childhood. There is a hand-drawn feel that is simple but not in the way of the excremental Cartoon Network crap that passes for animation these days – there’s a pastel watercolor beauty to the film that shows why animation is art first and foremost. That it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards is no accident.

In an underground city of mice, Celestine (Foy) is an orphan who is obliged to go out in the above-ground city of bears to steal discarded teeth so that the school of orthodontics can practice (apparently all mice want to be dentists) as well as scraps of food so that they can, you know, eat. The mice orphans are regaled with tales of the Big Bad Bear who will eat misbehaving mice by The Grey One (Bacall) at the orphanage. It is definitely the bedtime story from Hell.

One night a mishap occurs while Celestine is trying to steal teeth and she is obliged to spend the night in a trashcan in the Bear Town. Ernest (Whitaker), a down on his luck bear, has just awakened from his winter hibernation and man, is he starved! With nothing in the house, he busks around the town square as a one man band, getting hassled by the police. Desperate, he starts foraging in trash cans and finds the sleeping form of Celestine. About to eat her, the quick-witted mouse manages to convince him not to and shows him a way to get into the candy store. Delighted with this turn of luck, Ernest gorges himself on candy until he is discovered. Celestine hides him in the Mouse city and soon, a friendship of necessity is born as both mouse and bear become wanted as fugitives.

This is a simple tale of friendship and of getting past preconceptions, although it must be said that children are much better at it than adults are to begin with. Still, as this is most certainly geared towards younger children, it is a lesson that bears reinforcement.

I’m told that the original French version is superior to this (and it was originally shown in the U.S. in that form) but I have to say – Forest Whitaker was born to be a bear. He captures the essence of bruin vocally, gruff and growly but with a big heart. The look of Ernest is just perfect too, rumpled and disreputable – a bear whose every move should be accompanied by the sound of a mournful oboe. It is also nice to hear Bacall’s distinctive voice once again.

This is a fairly short film so it won’t tax the attention span of the very young. While the attitude and vibe is very French, American kids will love this – it’s as charming as can be and waaaay better than the stuff they see on cable and the humor is kind of Looney Tunes style so adults will get a kick out of it too. As far as this adult is concerned however, the best part was feeling that warm fuzzy feeling of being cared for that one gets as a child – that’s a priceless commodity these days that makes the effort of seeking this out worth every bit of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful animation. Heartwarming and not boring for adults. Whitaker was born to be a bear. Perfect for toddlers and very young children.

REASONS TO STAY: Older kids may find this unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfectly suitable for all family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated movie to win Best Film at the Magritte Awards, the Belgian equivalent of the Oscars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charlotte’s Web

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Druid Peak

Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror