Wonders of the Sea


It’s a squid bonanza!

(2017) Documentary (Screen Media) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Celine Cousteau, Fabien Cousteau, Gavin McKinney, Richard Murphy, Holly Lohuis. Directed by Jean-Michel Cousteau and Jacques Mantello

 

The ocean is the mother to us all. From her depths all life rose including mankind. She absorbs more carbon than any other item on earth. She feeds us, gives us nourishing rain. Without the oceans, life on Earth would not be possible.

We have taken the oceans for granted. We dump our trash into it, leading to floating trash heaps of plastics. Through global warming, we have raised the temperature of the oceans to a degree where certain species have had to retreat further into the depths in order to survive. We have overfished, devastating the population of tuna, cod, octopuses and other sea creatures. In recent years we have begun to understand that the ocean as a resource is truly finite.

One of the earliest researchers into the ocean was the legendary French engineer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, who in addition to inventing scuba gear and the aqualung which allow us to explore the ocean more thoroughly, is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries inspired a generation of ichthyologists, oceanographers and conservationists.

His son Jean-Michel has carried on the Cousteau family tradition. On his ship the Pacific Monarch he has continued on the mission of exploration and education. This film is the culmination of his efforts and in many ways it is brilliant. Using cutting edge underwater camera technology, he is able to take breathtaking footage in the great depths of the ocean as well as in the shadows; many of the creatures he turns his lens on (as well as cinematographer Gavin McKinney) are tiny and rarely photographed.

And those images are amazing and breathtaking, from a night dive where bioluminescent creatures prowl the deep, to swarms of mating squid to the great biodiversity of the coral reefs, the images explode with color and wonder. In fact, they almost do their jobs too well as after awhile we begin to experience sensory overload.

If only the narration matched the images. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, not noted for his ecological leanings, does a passable job but the information he is relating is generally available in other films. The coral reef section which takes up almost half of the running time is at least comparable to what you’ll see in the Netflix doc Chasing Coral which has a similar message. There is also some banter from the Cousteau family – Jean-Michel and his two adult children, daughter Celine and son Fabien – that feels forced and a bit incongruous.

Another thing to consider is that this was filmed in and meant to be seen in 3D. I don’t have the capability to watch 3D movies at home and so it feels like I lost a good deal of the impact of the movie. Even to my not-always-discerning eye it appeared that 3D would give the viewer much more of a “you are there” experience.

Technically, this is a marvelous achievement. The images are enhanced by a beautiful score by Christophe Jacquelin. Those with kids in the family will likely enjoy the coral reef sequences, particularly if the kids are devoted to Finding Nemo as there is some really fascinating looks at clownfish.

Preserving our planet is a very important cause and one which should be stressed not only to our young people but to their parents and grandparents as well. As stewards of Earth, we are failing miserably at our jobs. At least Wonders of the Sea has the sense not to politicize the film and point fingers (although we all kind of know where blame lies) and if they get a little shrill from time to time, it’s understandable. This is very much a virtual aquarium with a window onto the deep and there certainly isn’t anything wrong with that at all. I only wish I could have seen it in 3D as it was meant to be seen.

REASONS TO SEE: The imagery is dazzling with a dizzying array of color. Cousteau lives up to his father’s legacy.
REASONS TO AVOID: After a while, it all begins to blur together.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five year period.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Lavender Scare

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Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Elysium


Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

Jodie Foster watches her 2013 Oscar footage uncertainly.

(2013) Science Fiction (TriStar) Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, William Fichtner, Wagner Moura, Brandon Auret, Josh Blacker, Emma Tremblay, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Faran Tahir, Adrian Holmes, Jared Keeso, Valentino Giron, Yolanda Abbud L, Carly Pope, Michael Shanks, Ona Grauer, Christina Cox. Directed by Neill Blomkamp

When the world becomes too overpopulated and too polluted to live comfortably, where are the super-rich going to go? Why, to outer space of course.

In 2154, the same year Avatar is set in – perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not – the Earth has become one gigantic favela – a kind of super-barrio that has appeared in Brazil and are ultra-violent. The wealthy, whose corporate interests have destroyed the Earth and enslaved the population, have fled to Elysium, an idyllic space station which looks a whole lot like Boca Raton except for the humidity. There the rich live in peace, quiet and plenty living indefinite lifespans due to an automated medical bay that cures pretty much anything short of death.

Of course, no such machines exist on Earth for the general population who overcrowd hospitals using 20th century technology for the most part. This is the world that Max (Damon) lives in. An orphan who became a legendary car thief and was imprisoned for it, he’s trying to scrape together a life on the straight and narrow building robotic police officers. Somewhat ironically, one of the robotic cops ends up breaking his arm when he gets lippy during a routine bus stop hassle. However, the silver lining here is that the nurse who cares for him is Frey (Braga), a childhood friend and fellow orphan who Max is sweet on. Frey is reluctant to get involved with an ex-con though, especially since her own daughter (Tremblay) is in the end stages of leukemia.

However, Max gets accidentally irradiated in an industrial accident caused by an uncaring and sloppy corporate bureaucrat. He has five days to live before the radiation kills him. His only chance at survival is to get to Elysium. His only chance to get to Elysium is through Spider (Moura), which Max’s good friend Julio (Luna) warns him against but nevertheless supports him for. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium but first he must do a job for Spider; to download the codes and passwords from a citizen of Elysium so that Spider’s shuttles can successfully get through the formidable defenses of the station without getting blasted into atoms. Max chooses Carlyle (Fichtner), the uncaring and callous owner of the robotics factory.

Unknown to either Spider or Max is that Carlyle is conspiring with Elysium Defense Secretary Delacourt (Foster) to stage a coup from the satellite’s somewhat milquetoast president (Tahir). Carlyle has created a program to reboot all of Elysium’s systems and effectively give control of the entire satellite to Delacourt. When Max gets that information from Carlyle, he immediately becomes the most dangerous human on Earth. Delacourt sends her brutish operative Krueger (Copley) and his thugs to collect Max and download that data. Krueger doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get that information and Max doesn’t care what he has to do to get cured. The results of their struggle will shape the future of two worlds.

Blomkamp is best known for directing District 9, the surprise South African hit that was nominated for four Oscars. He showed a real flair there for fusing social commentary with an all-out action movie. He also showed a unique visual sense that is also very much in evidence here – this is one of the most stunning movie this summer visually in a summer full of great visuals.

There are a lot of modern parallels here from the Occupy Wall Street class war scenario to Obamacare. Clearly Blomkamp has some liberal sympathies; I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t compared this movie as a thinly veiled love song to Obamacare which it isn’t – it’s far more liberal than that. If anything, the filmmaker seems to be advocating a single payer system in which health care is free for all.

Matt Damon is considered to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actors both from a box office standpoint (a recent study revealed that his films make more money per every dollar he is paid than any other major Hollywood star) but also from a quality standpoint. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Matt Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of this generation, the everyman who triumphs over adversities large and small. Here even though his character has an overly-developed sense of self-preservation (so much so at times that he is willing to throw friends and loved ones under the bus for his own gain) he’s still so thoroughly likable that you end up rooting for him anyway. I doubt if any other star in Hollywood could get away with a role like this.

Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico so there is a healthy dose of Mexican talent in the film, including Diego Luna who is growing into as compelling an actor as there is in Hollywood. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, is lustrous and shows why many consider her one of the most promising actresses in the world. Copley is a bit over-the-top as Krueger, more brutish than anything. He would have been more compelling a villain had his character been fleshed out a little (no pun intended – for those who have seen the movie already you’ll know what I mean). Foster, an Oscar-winning actress and one of the finest performers of her generation, throws us an oddly lackluster performance which gives me the sense that she really didn’t understand or care about her character at all. It makes me wonder if her experience on this film may have led her to announce (in a roundabout way) her retirement from acting. If so, I hope that she reconsiders; I’d hate this movie to be her acting swan song.

I like that the movie gives us something to think about, although conservatives may find the film to be unpalatable to their viewpoints. Some of the film is a bit wild in terms of the potshots it takes, sacrificing believable story to make its political points. Liberals may be more forgiving of its sins in this area however.

In a fairly tepid and disappointing summer blockbuster season, this is one of the brighter lights. While the box office to date leads me to believe that it will have to rely on overseas revenue to make back its production costs, this is still a compelling movie that you might want to see on a big screen for some of the awesome visuals (a shuttle crash on Elysium is simply amazing). Hey, in the heat of August an air-conditioned multiplex might be just the thing.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful science fiction. Nice performances by Damon, Braga and Luna. Sweet special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems scattershot at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlyle’s shuttle bears the Bugatti Automotive logo.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100; more positive reviews than negative but not by much.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zardoz

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Red State

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax


 

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Introducing the Lorax.

(2012) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Zac Efron, Ed Helms, Danny DeVito, Taylor Swift, Rob Riggle, Betty White, Jenny Slate, Nasim Perdad, Stephen Tobolowsky, Elmarie Wendel, Danny Cooksey, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

 

The world we live in is the only one we have. It is beautiful and full of life, a virtual paradise without any help from us. However, that world is also terribly fragile and if we succumb to greed and short-sightedness, we run the risk of losing it.

Thneedville upon first glance seems to be a great place to live. Everything is plastic, there are no living things anywhere save the people. Air is bottled for the most part; the mayor O’Hare (Riggle) has the air concession.

Ted (Efron) lives in this town and he doesn’t much care one way or the other. His attention is on Audrey (Swift) who he very much would like to get to know better. He contrives ways to get her attention – like crashing a radio-controlled plane into her yard. Once there, he sees that she’s painted some odd-looking things on the back of her house. She calls them “trees” and tells him that they used to be plentiful around there but nobody has seen one in years. She sighs and tells her that her fondest wish is to see a real live one – and that she would just about marry the man on the spot who could show her one.

That’s all the information that Ted needs. But where does one find a living tree in a place where there aren’t any? Ted’s granny (White) fortunately has the answer, one hastily whispered – the Once-Ler (Helms), who lies outside of town. Outside of town? Gulp! Nobody ever goes outside of town. But Ted is determined and so he goes.

The trip is perilous but at last he finds the Once-Ler’s lonely home in the wilderness of tree stumps and sunless barren desolation. The Once-Ler isn’t particularly interested in helping Ted out – he really wants to be left alone but at last he gives in and agrees to give Ted a tree – but first he must hear the story of how the trees went away.

You see, the Once-Ler is the one who is responsible for the disappearance of the trees. He had arrived in the area as an ambitious young man, looking to make his mark on the world with his own invention – the Thneed. However he needs raw materials to make his Thneeds and this place is perfect. It is filled with woodland creatures (mostly little bears and the occasional Sneetch) and smiling, singing fish – but most importantly, thousands upon thousands of beautiful truffula trees whose tut-like branches are softer than summer rain.

After chopping down a truffula tree to make his first Thneed, the Once-Ler is visited by the Lorax (DeVito), a mystical and slightly annoying (as the Once-Ler describes him) creature who is the advocate of the forest. He speaks for the trees, presumably since the trees have no mouths. And the Lorax warns of dire consequences if the Once-Ler continues on his path of destruction.

At first, the Once-Ler is spectacularly unsuccessful at selling his Thneed but pure happenstance demonstrates how useful the item is and suddenly everyone wants one. The Once-Ler promises the Lorax that he will use sustainable means of harvesting the truffula trees and the Lorax seems satisfied with that. The Once-Ler brings his family into the peaceful valley to help him ramp up his manufacturing operation. Instead, they convince him to clear-cut the forest to harvest more efficiently which he finally gives in to. The results are that the Once-Ler completely depletes the forest, he runs out of materials to make his Thneeds and his family deserts him. The Lorax takes the animals and goes, leaving behind a rock with the word “Unless” carved into it.

Can Ted stand up to the powers-that-be of Thneedville and bring back the trees and animals? Or are the inhabitants of Thneedville doomed to their plastic existence?

The Lorax has come under a lot of fire on both sides of the political fence. Conservatives decry its message which has been described as anti-capitalist and the indoctrination of children into super-liberal causes. Liberals have pointed out the hypocrisy of a film with a green message and over 70 product placements in the movie. The former is a crock; the message here is of acting responsibly and thinking globally rather than of short-term profit. There is nothing anti-capitalist about promoting responsibility. Those who think so have guilty consciences in my book.

The latter however is definitely an issue. It sends conflicting messages, to support environmental causes on the one hand and to embrace consumerism on the other. Now, I understand the economic realities of film making – these product placement help pay the bills – but couldn’t there have been other ways to get the sponsorship money?

The movie is otherwise fun and adheres to the spirit of Dr. Seuss. There are a trio of singing fish who act much as a Greek chorus, even if they aren’t always singing lyrics. They are, as the minions are in Despicable Me (whose animation studio produced the movie but the actual animation was done by the French Mac Guff Studios which Illumination recently purchased). They are sure to be big hits with both kids and adults alike.

DeVito makes an awesome Lorax, a little bit befuddled but possessed of great wisdom and love for the trees. He stands out most among the other voice actors who do their jobs pretty well, but are fairly innocuous compared to DeVito whose voice stands out anyway. We get the sense of who the Lorax is and the great pain he feels when the Once-Ler makes his wrong turn.

The animation itself is superb, keeping the distinctive Seussian style throughout. There are few straight lines (if any) in the movie and the bright colors will keep the littlest tykes happy, not to mention the cute little bears and the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in Thneedville.

There are those who complained about the message being preachy but given the state of our environment and climate, this is a message that needs to be preached because apparently the grown-ups haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps our kids will – and perhaps it won’t be too late when they get a chance to do something about it.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and irreverent, holding close to the style of Dr. Seuss. Inspired vocal casting. A good message for kids.

REASONS TO STAY: Excessive product placement subverts admirable message. Lags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a couple of mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ted and Audrey are named after Dr. Seuss (real name Theodore Geisel) and his wife Audrey. This is also the first movie to feature Universal’s spiffy new 100th Anniversary logo and was released on what would have been the 108th birthday of Dr. Seuss.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100. The reviews are mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away

THEME PARK LOVERS: There is a scene where the Once-Ler’s bed is put in a river and floats off and winds up running some rapids – looks like Universal’s got a new Seuss Landing attraction in mind for Islands of Adventure…

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Turning Green

Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo)


Ponyo

Escaping a tsunami in a small car is never a good idea.

(2008) Animated Fantasy (Disney) Starring the voices of Cate Blanchett, Noah Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Frankie Jonas, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Cloris Leachman. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Perhaps the most honored and beloved director of Japanese anime is Hayao Miyazaki. An Oscar winner for Spirited Away, he’s also directed some of the most enchanting and beloved anime films ever, including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Tortoro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service and my personal favorite, Princess Mononoke among others. He remains one of the few feature animation directors working exclusively in the hand-drawn animated style that established Disney (who distributes the output of his Studio Ghibli here in the U.S.) and is as imaginative a director working anywhere in any medium today.

His latest may well be one of the most beautiful animated features in recent memory. It begins with a 5-year-old named Sosuke (Jonas) finding a goldfish trapped in a jar on the seashore which he names Ponyo (Cyrus) – the fish, not the seashore.

But Ponyo is no ordinary fish. She is the daughter of Fujimoto (Neeson), a sea wizard with incredible powers who has renounced his humanity to rule under the sea. When Sosuke takes her from her natural environment, it causes the balance between the sea and the land to be sundered and soon tsunamis are buffeting the small port town where Sosuke lives.

He brings the fish to his mother (Fey) who is having issues with her husband Koichi (Damon), a merchant sailor who is away more than he is at home. When he visits the retirement home his mom works at, a trio of the residents (Tomlin, White and Leachman) there realize immediately that Ponyo is no ordinary fish.

Sosuke has a paper cut and when Ponyo licks the cut and magically heals it, the taste of human blood allows Ponyo to take on the attributes of a human and she magically grows arms and legs. This causes further imbalance which even Fujimoto is powerless to prevent.

When Sosuke and her mom get separated by the tsunamis, Ponyo transforms a toy boat into a large sailing vessel to go searching for her in the now flooded town. However, the cost of all this magic is taking its toll on Ponyo and the continued imbalance between sea and land threatens to completely undo the world – unless Sosuke and Ponyo can intervene.

The tale told is a simple one, and it is meant to be appealing not just to the adults who make up the core of Miyazaki’s audience to date, but also to small children, a market he hasn’t really gone after up to now. Quite frankly, he’s successful at capturing both with this film which is destined to be considered among his very best.

Miyazaki’s imagination seems boundless, and his underwater scenes are filled with strange beauty, the kind heretofore found in nature films but given a touch of wonder that is entirely man-made. Miyazaki is telling on one hand a cautionary tale; the sea bottom is badly polluted with trash and sludge, while above the waves the adults are blissfully (and perhaps criminally) unaware of the damage their society is inflicting on the sea, which doesn’t endear them to the powerful creatures – including Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Blanchett) who is literally a goddess.

There are other lessons as well, with the familiar “we all must be who we are, not who others want us to be” which is a staple in children’s films, but certainly the ecological issue seems to be the one most pointedly presented.

Miyazaki isn’t all about the fantastic, however; the human characters have a great deal of depth to them. Sosuke’s parents aren’t the perfect couple; they squabble and bicker, and neither one is wrong and neither one is right. Lisa is frustrated with having to raise her child essentially alone, and Koichi certainly isn’t doing what he does by choice; the family needs the income he brings in to survive, and when additional work is available, he has no choice but to take it. It’s a problem that isn’t an unfamiliar one in tough economic times.

Even peripheral characters like the three elderly women from the retirement home have distinct personalities and play crucial roles in the story. The mark of a great storyteller is not that he creates characters that move the story along (how often do we see characters in movies both live action and animated that exist only to perform a singular function in the film) but that he utilizes the characters he has to make the story flow; in other words, the characters belong in the story and they drive what happens in it, rather than exist as a reaction or an action within that story. It’s all a bit complicated, I know, but trust me – I can recognize great writing when I see it.

Japanese culture has a thing about cute; you can see it in everything from Hello Kitty to Sailor Moon. At times, that cuteness goes over the top and makes you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid with twice the sugar added; you just want to gag. Miyazaki is not known for embracing that cultural element, but it does appear from time to time in this movie, and while I can understand that it helps to make the movie relatable to small fries, I have to admit as a curmudgeonly middle aged man it was annoying to me.

Be that as it may (and it is an admittedly personal bias) I can still give this movie a very strong recommendation. For those who might be skeptical about Japanese anime, be assured that there are no subtitles here; the story is recorded completely in English with an all-star cast as you can see in the credit list at the top of the review. Disney has made a great effort to make this very special movie work in an American market, hiring Melissa Matheson, screenwriter of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to pen the Japanese translation, and the opening and closing sequences were redone to be more appealing to American audiences (on the Blu-Ray if you choose the Japanese language version you will see the Japanese openings; if you choose the English language you’ll see the American version).

This is a marvelous movie whether an animated feature or not; you will probably not see a movie so beautifully drawn as this for a very long time. Those who are admirers of Miyazaki have probably already seen it, and will no doubt look to purchase the Blu-Ray version which is packed with features enough to keep you occupied for awhile. Those unfamiliar with his work can do worse than to start here. It’s well worth your effort to do so.

WHY RENT THIS: Miyazaki creates an imaginative world that you want to explore. This is one of the most beautiful animated films of the past decade. The characters are strongly written and are more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to advance the plot along.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit simplistic, aimed squarely for younger children. The Japanese penchant for the overly cute rears its head here.

FAMILY VALUES: Although there are some scenes of jeopardy for Sosuke and Ponyo, the movie is certainly meant for small children and can be recommended for all audiences on that basis.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s son Goro when he was five years old.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Not surprisingly, the Blu-Ray version of the movie is chock full of interesting features, including a visit to the Studio Ghibli compound, with one specific feature showing how the establishment of a day-care center led directly to the creation of Ponyo and very nearly became a setting for the movie. We also visit the village on the Seto Inland Sea that became a model for the one in the film, and examine the father-daughter relationship at the center of the film, and how it relates to Japanese culture. There is also a marvelous interactive guide to the World of Ghibli, which depicts the various films released by the studio as locations on an island, several of which you can visit (and is tied in to the video release of three other Ghibli films for the first time in the U.S.).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201.7M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a major hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Montana Amazon

Oceans


Oceans

Underwater, turtles become sprinters.

(DisneyNature) Narrated by Pierce Brosnan. Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud

The oceans are vast, covering nearly three quarters of our planet and yet humans have laid eyes on only 5% of it. It makes up the largest territory of our planet and yet what we know about what lives there is infinitesimal compared with what there is to know.

As our technology has evolved, so has our ability to study the creatures of our seas. Some, like the bottle-nose dolphin and the blue whale, are creatures who swim close to the surface and as a result, we’ve been able to study them at some length. Others exist at greater depths, or swim in places that are more difficult for humans to access. Even these remote places, however, are becoming more and more reachable with submersibles that can withstand greater pressures, high-tech scuba apparatus and underwater cameras that can take amazing footage.

This is the second in what is slated to be an annual Earth Day event by Disney’s nature documentary division (last year, they released Earth to much acclaim). While Disney is distributing these movies, it should be noted that both Earth and Oceans were made by documentarians in England and France, respectively and were financed and produced outside of the Mouse House.

Still, the images here are magnificent, from the stately blue whale migration to the antics of sea otters and dolphins, from the weird and mysterious spider crabs to the serene and beautiful jellyfish. There are orcas and sharks, to be sure, and gulls dive-bombing for sardines, clouds of krill and schools of yellowfin tuna. There are squid-like creatures undulating through the liquid world with scarf-like streamers trailing them like a Spanish dancer, and tiny eels dancing in a strange ballet on the ocean floor. There are beautiful clownfish darting in and out of the Great Barrier Reef and penguins in the Antarctic, clumsy clowns on the ice but graceful and sleek in the water.

In its own way, Oceans is a beautiful movie but I’m wondering if there isn’t a bit of overkill here. After last year’s Earth and the latest BBC/Discovery Channel epic nature documentary series “Life”, Oceans feels almost like too much of a good thing.

The other quibble is with the narration. Pierce Brosnan is a fine actor but he doesn’t make a great narrator; his voice lacks the gravitas of a James Earl Jones or even a Sigourney Weaver. In all fairness, the narration he is given to read isn’t very inspirational and lacked the humor Disney nature documentaries are known for.

Still, that’s not what you come to a movie like this for. You come for amazing images and to see things you’ll never be able to see with your own eyes. The way to approach a movie like Oceans is to let the images sweep over you, wash you away and take you to the deep blue. It is as alien a world as anything George Lucas has ever devised and yet it is on our doorstep.

Asking the question “What is the ocean,” as the narration posits at the movie’s beginning, dumbs down the movie. Unless you’re a very young child, you know what the ocean is and clearly Disney is going for parents with very young children. While young children will ooh and ahh over the pictures, they don’t have the attention span to last the entire 90 minutes of the film. The trick is to get the same sense of wonder from adults, which they do nicely. It then becomes unnecessary to talk down to the audience by asking them “What is the ocean” because the questions you want them to ask are “What more is the ocean” and “How can we help save it.”

There are sequences that are powerful, with a forlorn shopping cart sitting on the ocean floor (which led me more to wonder how on earth it got there) and garbage floating on the ocean’s surface sending the requisite ecological message which should have been stronger; a segment that showed species that are now extinct was excised for the American version. Perhaps Disney didn’t want children to dwell on the harsh realities, but then why show baby turtles being picked off by frigate birds if that’s the case?

The co-directors were responsible for the much-superior Winged Migration and to their credit to capture some amazing sequences, but quite frankly I wasn’t wowed. Oceans turns out to be less of an educational tool than a new age video, and to my way of thinking our oceans deserved a better movie.

REASONS TO GO: Some very spectacular and beautiful footage, as well as amazing behavioral mannerisms of creatures both familiar and unfamiliar.

REASONS TO STAY: Perhaps a victim of Earth’s success; didn’t stack up favorably. Brosnan’s narration didn’t carry enough gravitas.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect viewing for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Perrin narrates the French version; his son Lancelot makes an appearance as the young boy in the movie’s framing segments at the beginning and the end.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the magnificent footage should be seen on a big screen for full effect.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Express