Finding Dory


Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Alexander Gould, John Ratzenberger, Torbin Xan Bullock, Andrew Stanton, Bennett Dammann, Katherine Ringgold. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

 

People with mental and emotional issues are all around us; sometimes within our own families. We see people who have these issues and sometimes they are the butt of jokes, sometimes objects of pity but only rarely do we see them as fellow human beings even if they’re fish.

A year after Dory (DeGeneres) helped reunited Nemo (Rolence) with his father Marlin (Brooks), they are all living in the Great Barrier Reef seemingly as happy as…well, clams, but Dory feels there is something missing. She has vague memories of a mother and a father in…California! Yes, that’s it! California!

If you saw the first film Finding Nemo you’d know what a big deal that is. Dory has a short-term memory issue that prevents her from remembering things that happened even five minutes earlier. In fact, she can barely remember anything at all. But this is the first time that she’s had a very real memory and she feels the need to go to California and find her mom and dad. Though the journey is long, Marlin and Nemo feel that it’s the least that they can do to help her be reunited with her mom and dad the same way she helped Marlin and Nemo reunite.

So off they go with the help of the Pacific current and Crush (Peterson) and Squirt (Dammann) get them to the Marine Life Institute – think the Monterey Bay Aquarium if it were a theme park (initially the movie was to be set at Sea World but that was before Blackfish was screened for the animators). Dory gets separated from Marlin and Nemo, and manages to get caught and brought into the Institute’s rehabilitation wing. There she meets the octopus Hank (O’Neill) who points out he’s actually a septapus – he lost a limb in an accident.

The Marine Life Institute, as narrated by Sigourney Weaver often throughout the film, has a three-pronged mission; rescue, rehabilitate, release. Hank wants nothing to do with release; he doesn’t think he could make it in the open ocean. Dory has been earmarked to be sent to an aquarium in Cleveland and Hank wants the tag she’s been given that’s her ticket to Cleveland, which may be the first time in history anyone actually wanted to go to Cleveland. Clevelanders, I kid…I kid because I love.

Anywho, Hank agrees to help Dory find her parents but they are elsewhere in the complex so it will not be an easy journey, particularly since Dory can’t, y’know, breathe air. But she and Hank are nothing if not inventive and they find ways to travel around the Institute, but can they find Dory’s parents? Are they even still there? And will Marlin and Nemo manage to find Dory?

The sequel to the second (now third) largest grossing film in Pixar history is dominating the summer box office this year. It has already pulled in a billion dollars in global box office, one of only 24 movies in history to achieve that feat (and ten of those are Disney films). This is the year of Dory and you can bet it will be a lot sooner than 13 years before the next sequel is released (which is how long it took for this to get made).

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of the original movie. I recognize the technical proficiency (which is of course even more apparent here) but I never connected with it the way most others did. I also found the character of Marlin extremely irritating. Fortunately for me, he takes a backseat in the film to Dory and Hank, both of whom are far more interesting and far less neurotic. Dory has been described as a one-joke sidekick, but she is really front and center here and is a lot more than that. DeGeneres is one of the most empathetic people in show business and that empathy is very much apparent in Dory.

One of the biggest drawbacks to the movie is that the plot is essentially the same. There are some major differences, but I personally would have appreciated a little more inventiveness when it came to the storyline. I suppose for small children who have had the first movie around their entire lives, the familiar is somewhat comforting.

Certainly the movie should get some props because it gives kids, parents and teachers a discussion point to talk about people with mental and emotional problems, and how to deal with people who are different than they are. Kids are used to being cruel to anyone they perceive as different; perhaps having characters like Dory around will give them pause the next time they want to say something mean to the kid with a stammer.

As I said, I am not a fan of the first movie, although I found this one slightly better in many ways, both from an animation standpoint and from the standpoint that I find Dory far more likable a character than Marlin or even Nemo. That the characters and the environment appeal to mass audiences is abundantly clear and I’m sure that most people would give the movie a higher rating than I am. Take it therefore with a grain of salt and know that you’ll probably find Dory a lot more interesting than you found Nemo.

REASONS TO GO: Less Marlin, more Dory.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be very much a rehash of the first.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for everybody. There is a tiny bit of peril but even the very young will be enchanted.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elba appears in three different Disney movies this year, all as animals.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Nemo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Now You See Me 2

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The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

Farewell, My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji)


The King and I.

The King and I.

(1993) Drama (Miramax) Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Qi Lu, Da Ying, You Ge, Chun Li, Han Lei, Di Tong, Mingwei Ma, Yang Fei, Zhi Yin, Hailong Zhao, Dan Li, Wenli Jiang, Yitong Zhi, David Wu, Qing Xu. Directed by Kaige Chen

Life imitates art, it is said, much more than art imitates life. Art can only capture an instant, a moment at best but life is long term. It is rich and full of the twists and turns that are not entirely all of our own making. We are relentlessly buffeted by the tides of history, even if we aren’t aware of it.

In the mid 1920s a prostitute brings her son to a prestigious school where the various disciplines of the Peking Opera are taught. However, he is rejected because he was born with a sixth finger. Undeterred, she takes her son home and hacks off the extra digit with a carving knife, then brings the boy back to the school where he is at last accepted. There, he meets a friend who will be an integral part of his life both professionally and personally.

The discipline at the school is brutal and absolute. The smallest of infractions, the most trivial of mistakes would lead to extravagant punishments painful, bloody and over-enthusiastic by the somewhat sadistic Master Guan (Lu). Eventually the boy and his friend grows up, becoming Cheng Dieyi (Cheung) who performs female roles as a male and Duan Xioulou (Zhang) who takes the masculine roles.

Their most famous roles come from the classic opera Farewell, My Concubine in which Dieyi plays the concubine, a most loyal servant of a King (played by Xioulou) who takes her own life after a military defeat of her master even though she has the opportunity to leave safely. The two become the toast of China and Dieyi, trained from boyhood to be effeminate, develops an attraction to Xioulou who doesn’t feel the same. When Xioulou meets and marries a former courtesan of the infamous House of Blossoms, the headstrong Juxian (Gong Li), a rift develops between the two friends that lead to the dissolution of the company on the very night that the Japanese invade.

The two men and the woman who has become unwittingly the third part of a triangle endure the tribulations of the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang administration, the Communist revolution and eventually the Cultural Revolution. They have to endure the betrayal of Xiao Si (Lei) whom Dieyi rescued as a foundling and who becomes an opportunist, jealous of Dieyi’s status within the troupe. Eventually they have to endure the consequences of their decisions over the years.

Epics of this scale have become exceedingly rare over the years, due in large part to the prohibitive cost of making them but also because of the shift in moviegoers’ tastes over the intervening years. For American audiences the subject matter, the turmoil of 20th century China, is largely new territory. Most of us are taught little of events in that country in school and those of us who lived during some of the events either didn’t pay much attention to them or dismissed them altogether. Kaige Chen brings those events to life, giving audiences who didn’t live in that place at that time a sense of the horrors that took place. I can only imagine what those who lived through them thought of the film.

The Dickensian opera school would make Oliver Twist sympathetic to the plight of the boys while the lavish productions of the Opera are stunningly rendered by one of the last three-strip Technicolor labs left. While Cheung is exceptional as Dieyi and portrays his inner torment (and outer bitchiness) with a great depth of emotion, it is Gong Li whose performance will remain with you for a long time after you see this movie. Hers is a tormented soul, suffering through love for a man who isn’t entirely hers. It is as exquisite a performance as you’ll ever witness and reason alone to laud her as China’s finest actress (although I’m still partial to Michelle Yeoh myself).

The Chinese government had some issues with the movie – not the least being the depictions of the hardships during and after the Cultural Revolution and not a little because of the underlying homosexual relationships – and has banned it and un-banned it repeatedly. It shows China with all her warts and scars, but also her spirit and perseverance. It is a marvelous portrait of 20th century China, a nation in upheaval that rose to becoming the dominant world power that it is now. Even though the movie might be overly long for some, it is nonetheless more of an education than it is an entertainment, although there is plenty of the latter to be had as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautifully shot lyric poem. Gong Li is breathtaking.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags on a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of rough language not to mention some pretty heavy thematic material that may be inappropriate for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film from the People’s Republic of China to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: While complete box office figures aren’t available, it is worth noting that the movie pulled in $5.1M at the American box office, an unusually high figure for Chinese films until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came along nearly a decade later.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Scent of Green Papaya

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 27 Dresses