Bears


Here are the three bears - where's Goldilocks?!

Here are the three bears – where’s Goldilocks?!

(2014) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) John C. Reilly (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Adam Chapman

We humans have an affinity for bears. Teddy Bears, the Berenstein Bears, Yogi Bear, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh and of course Smokey the Bear. Cute and cuddly as they may be (and they are most certainly the former although I would think long and hard before cuddling with a bear), they nevertheless have a rough life up there in the Alaska wilderness.

Sky, a mama bear, has two cubs – Amber and Scout. Where is papa bear, asked some critics – far, far away so that he doesn’t try to kill them and/or eat them. I told you they have a rough life. Anyway, their long winter nap is over. While the mountain peaks they made their den in is still covered deep with snow (so much so that avalanches are a problem – more of that rough life stuff), spring is coming to the valleys below.

They haven’t eaten all winter and they are near to starving, but the first order of business isn’t finding food once they get out of the mountains. No sir; that business is keeping the cubs away from predators, like Magnus and Chinook – fellow bears who are so hungry they could eat…another bear. There’s also Tikaani, a wolf who is as sly and persistent as they come. There’s that rough life thing again.

What bears really crave is salmon – loaded in protein and abundant as they swim up river to spawn, bears have to become adept fisherman which is a lot easier than it sounds – they’re slippery little buggers. But getting there is no easy task and until then, they load up on muscles, eels and whatever they can find to put at least something in their bellies to keep the engines going. However, that won’t be enough to build up enough fat to last the winter. Not only do the adult bears live off their own fat, metabolizing it into sugars and proteins, the energy also keeps mama bear’s milk supply flowing. Without enough fat stored, the mama bear might survive the winter but the cubs won’t.

And the odds aren’t in the cubs favor anyway – 50% of all bear cubs born in the wilderness don’t make it to their first birthday, mostly due to predators although disease, starvation and a shrinking habitat all have something to do with it. Did I mention they have a tough life?

DisneyNature has made a niche for itself by delivering nature documentaries with absolutely breathtaking images, following in the tradition of Walt’s True Life Adventures  There are plenty of gorgeous images of the Alaskan landscape, mostly taken in Katmai National Park (the same place where Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell lived for 13 summers with the bears and eventually was killed and partially eaten by one). It is easy to see from the footage why those who live in Alaska love it so deeply. It is truly the last frontier.

One of my ongoing irritations with the DisneyNature series is their repeated need to give human characteristics, motivations and names to these animals. I would maintain that they are incredible creatures on their own without making them more “like us” in an effort to appeal to kids. Not only does this do a disservice to kids by giving them the impression that wild animals have the same motivations as we do (which in some cases they do but not all).

There is at least one glaring factual error in the narration which any naturalist worth their salt would have caught. Bears don’t actually hibernate; they nap. They don’t sleep throughout the winter; they simply stay in their dens, sleeping most of the time but not all. True hibernation is non-stop slumber. If you’re going to be a nature documentary, the least you can do is get your facts straight. I would have liked to have hears some fairly obvious explanations, like the whereabouts of papa bear and why mama bear was looking after the kids alone.

Lest I forget, John C. Reilly’s narration is da bomb. It has the right amount of humor to keep things interested, entertaining and lively but not so much that it overshadows the information and message that the filmmakers are trying to get across. I understand that Reilly had some input into the dialogue, which is even more aces in my estimation.

Still, this is some terrific footage, often so close-up that you can see individual follicles of fur easily. It is oddly intimate and makes you wonder how close the camera crew got (as the end credits show, pretty damn close although perhaps not as close as you’d expect). Bears are insanely cute and make excellent subjects for the camera. Amber and Scout are primarily used as comedy relief although there is some legitimate peril to the cubs; one nearly drowns at one point, and one disappears while Tikaani is stalking them.

This isn’t the best of the DisneyNature films, but it is solid and as beautiful as anything you’ll see on Discovery or Animal Planet – or the BBC for that matter. Your kids will be entranced and maybe motivated to look up more information about bears, their habitat and their behaviors. Worthwhile stuff for kids to be interested in, if you ask me (not that you are). And if the movie motivates some kid to go that route, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor indeed.

One last thing; Disney had pledged to donate a portion of ticket sales during the first week of release (which has now passed) to the National Parks Foundation in order to help protect our National Parks which sorely need it. Some cynical sorts have been sneering that the amount was infinitesimal. According to Disney’s website, they are donating twenty cents from each ticket sold with a minimum of $100,000 going to the Foundation. That’s a fairly substantial amount for which I know the National Parks Foundation is appreciative.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful photography with some amazing close-up shots. Cute and cuddly critters.

REASONS TO STAY: Once again over-anthropomorphizes.   

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bear battling and other bear stuff might frighten the wee ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first four DisneyNature films are among the top five highest grossing nature documentaries of all-time.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grizzly Man

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Zero Theorem

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Rabbit-Proof Fence


Took the children away.

Took the children away.

(2002) True-Life Drama (Miramax) Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford, David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, Natasha Wanganeen, Garry McDonald, Roy Billing, Lorna Leslie, Celine O’Leary, Kate Roberts. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Some stories are so unbelievable, so outlandish that they can only be true. Rabbit-Proof Fence is, sadly, one of those cases. I say sadly simply because of the hardships endured in this movie by a woman who was blameless of anything but of having a white father and an aboriginal mother.

Molly Craig (Sampi), her sister Daisy (Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Monaghan) live with Molly’s mother (N. Lawford) and grandmother (M. Lawford) in Jigalong, an Aboriginal community in the desert outback of Australia.

In the 1930s, Australia had a policy for half-caste children. Led by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs A.O. Neville (Branagh), the idea was to take the children out of their aboriginal homes and train them as domestic or slave labor. There they would join the white culture, marry and have children with white mates, and eventually breed the black out of them, as is graphically illustrated during a scene early in the movie when Neville explains the policy to a women’s group, using slides.

The order goes out to round up the children, and the three young girls are taken from their homes in an emotionally wrenching scene and transported to the Moore River Native Settlement, some 1,500 miles away – roughly the same distance as Minneapolis, Minnesota is from Orlando, Florida. The girls spend some time there, long enough to decide for themselves that what is being done to them is wrong and that their only hope is to escape and walk back home.

Escape they do, chased by a taciturn tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), whose heart may or may not be in his work, and also by the Australian police. The girls’ odyssey becomes a media sensation in Australia; sightings of the runaways keep the story alive, and the vast distance they are covering, with no food, no water and no shelter make survival a real problem.

What’s worse is that the girls don’t really know where their home is. They only know that their home is alongside the great ”Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the longest fence in the world, built to keep rabbits from destroying the crops of the fertile farmland nearby. If they can find the fence, it will lead them home.

The story is simple enough, but powerful. Director Phillip (Dead Calm) Noyce wisely uses powerful cinematography to convey the vastness of the Outback, and the land itself emerges as a character in the film; unforgiving, but bountiful enough when respected. The three children survive their ordeal mainly because of the tutelage of their grandmother, who taught them how to live off the land. The music of Peter Gabriel further enhances the vast expanse.

The three girls who play the main characters are not actresses, although Everlyn Sampi certainly has a future in it if she chooses. They can’t really conceive of how impossible is the task before them; they are just walking home, as naturally as if they were walking 1 mile instead of 1,500. Certainly, they get frightened, they get depressed, their feet ache, but Molly’s strength holds them together. At the end of the journey, when only two of the children reach their destination (one is entrapped by the police), Molly weeps in her grandmother’s arms because she had not brought them all back. It is a powerful moment, one that will affect even the most stone-hearted moviegoer.

The Australians call the children who were taken in this manner The Stolen Generation, and it is not a period in their history of which they are particularly proud. That it lasted until 1970 is mind-boggling. A large percentage of their aboriginal population were affected by these events, and remains so today – singer Archie Roach made a wonderful CD about it, Charcoal Lane, with the powerful ”Took the Children Away” – and it remains a sore subject in Australia today, one which their government has refused to recognize or to apologize for until 2008.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is as a powerful testament to the human side of this issue. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being deeply affected. Here in North America, our treatment of the aboriginal peoples of the continent has been shameful as well. The experience of seeing this movie got me thinking about my own attitudes not only towards the American Indian culture but also about my attitudes towards other ethnic groups. We are all human beneath the skin and what color that skin is makes no difference any more than the color of the wrapping paper makes any difference towards the gift inside. Rabbit-Proof Fence celebrates this. It’s a movie everyone should see.

WHY RENT THIS: Powerful issue that is a celebration of life. Terrific performance by Everlyn Sampi. Moving and wrenching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too wrenching for those who have lost children.

FAMILY MATTERS: The themes of the movie bring out some very intense emotions; may be too intense for children and those who are sensitive to the taking of children from their parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The premiere of the film was held in an outdoor venue in Jigalong where the descendents of the children still live. The real Molly Craig appears in the last shot of the film although her health was so frail that the decision was made to shoot that scene first.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Making-Of feature is far from standard, giving a look at the history behind the events of the film. The commentary track similarly veers from typical fashion, including author Doris Pilkington, daughter of the real Molly Craig and whose book the film is based on. Her recounting of her own experiences and those her mother shared with her are heartbreaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.2M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Breaking Upwards

Life of Pi


Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

(2012) Drama (20th Century Fox) Suraj Sharma, Irffan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussein, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Tabu, Ayan Khan, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Shivakumar, James Saito, Jun Naito, Andrea Di Stefano, Elie Alouf, Shravanthi Sainath. Directed by Ang Lee

 

Things happen. Whether it is for a reason or if they just happen has been a question that we have been trying to figure out since we could put a coherent thought together. In many ways, this is what is driving our entire faith versus reason argument that we seem to be engaged in as a culture.

Piscine Molitor Patel (Sharma) was born in Pondicherry, India, where the French once held sway. He was named for a swimming pool in France where the waters were remarkably clear and his swim-crazy uncle (with a body that can only be described as cartoonish) was remarkably fond of. Unfortunately, his school mates pronounce his first name as something that young boys are prone to doing in swimming pools (think about it) and he decides to shorten it to “Pi” and paves the way for it by memorizing the numerals of Pi to many, many decimals in turn impressing both students and teachers in his school.

Nothing about Pi’s life is ordinary. His father (Hussein) owns a zoo although he really know nothing about animals. It is up to Pi’s mother (Tabu), his brother Ravi (Shivakumar) and himself to tend the animals. Even so, Pi finds time to fall in love with Anandi (Sainath), which looks like it could be going somewhere.

Unfortunately, fate has a curveball in store for Pi. The zoo is failing and his father has decided to move the whole family (including the animals) to Canada to start a new life. Pi is devastated. He has no desire to leave but this is not anything within his control. After a tearful goodbye to Anandi (which he doesn’t remember, only spending that last day with her) he and his family board a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada.

Once again, fate steps in with another game-changer. In the middle of a terrible storm, the ship sinks and everyone aboard drowns. Everyone, that is, except for Pi, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Oh, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who find themselves marooned in a lifeboat. The law of the jungle prevails and the tiger kills and eats everything except for Pi who takes refuge on a makeshift raft made up of oars and life jackets. Richard Parker guards his territory well and as the boat and raft floats aimlessly in the Pacific, the odds that Pi and Parker will survive dwindle.

This is all told through a framing mechanism in which the adult Pi (Khan) relates the story to a writer (Spall) who was urged to hear the story from Pi’s uncle who remained in India. Pi is still affected by the emotions of his ordeal (breaking into tears at one point) but is remarkably sanguine about the whole ordeal which his uncle told the writer would make him believe in God. However, let’s just say that Pi may not be the most trustworthy narrator you can find.

This is as visually inventive and breathtaking a movie as you will see this year. Everything about it rings true but there is also a kind of fairy tale-like flavor to the story and even to the visuals, turning Pondicherry into an idyllic place, and a sea into a multiple personality disorder entity, alternately calm as glass with a cloud-streaked sky reflecting in it, to full of luminous green plankton and raging with storms. The water is a metaphor for life, changing when we least expect it and never into anything convenient.

The movie is based on a book that was widely considered unfilmable and it is to Lee’s credit that he found a way to make it work. However do keep in mind that the bulk of the action takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with one human and one tiger. While it never gets boring, it can get slow.

Much about the film is fanciful and towards the end of the movie you are given a choice to make which essentially gives you the option of faith or reason. The movie heavily skews its own leanings towards one side and that might be offensive towards those who lean in the other direction. And while it is professed that Pi’s story will make you believe in God, quite frankly I don’t see it converting any atheists.

Still, it does lead you to ask some pretty deep questions as to the truth behind faith and reason. What is reality, after all, but our perception of it and what we perceive as fact and what we perceive as beyond our understanding can be tricky. The will to survive can’t be quantified or measured but it is undeniably there – yet a Bengal tiger that looks for all the world like a living, breathing animal can be completely computer generated. Is he any less real for that however? This is the kind of thing that used to give Aristotle headaches.

The good thing however is that you can give these thoughts whatever attention you believe they deserve or what you’re willing to give them. You can sit back and relax and take in the breathtaking images and let not a single stray thought invade your skull if so you choose. It’s all up to you. Now, there are those who won’t even consider seeing this without a single solitary star in the cast (Gerard Depardieu appears briefly as a ill-tempered ship’s cook but many Americans wouldn’t even consider the French Colossus in the same firmament of a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt), although several of the actors including Irffan Khan and Tabu are big stars in India. Still, that hasn’t been enough to really propel the film into stratospheric box office numbers which does give rise to the theory that Americans really don’t like movies that make them think. Ah well. Perhaps Lee should have figured out how to put a car chase in this one, or had the tiger fight the shark with machine guns and rocket launchers. And you wonder why our test scores suck.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully shot. Deeper and more thought-provoking than the average Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the emotions depicted here are pretty rough. There are also some action sequences that are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Khan doesn’t appear in any scenes with the tiger, this is the second movie in 2012 he has appeared in with a character named Richard Parker, the first being The Amazing Spider-Man.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The critics definitely love this one..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where the Wild Things Are

BENGAL TIGER LOVERS: Richard Parker, the tiger in the movie is mostly CGI – every scene in which he appears with Pi is CGI. However, real tigers were used in certain scenes early on in the film, as when the tiger was swimming for example.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Killing Them Softly

Chimpanzee


Chimpanzee

There's nothing quite like savoring a fine meal.

(2012) Nature Documentary (DisneyNature) Tim Allen (narrator). Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

 

Watching chimpanzees in their own natural habitat is not unlike looking at our aboriginal beginnings. They live in tribal families, forage for food in an unforgiving environment, utilize tools to crack open nuts and are fiercely territorial. Sounds a lot like modern man to me.

Oscar, a baby chimp, is nurtured by his fiercely protective mom Isha. As is true with most moms, she tries to teach her son everything she can so that he can take care of himself when the time comes for him to be on his own. Unfortunately, that comes much sooner than expected.

Oscar’s tribe has rivals. Led by Scar, they have pretty much eaten themselves out of their own territory and crave the rich nut groves of their rivals. Their survival in fact depends on it as does Oscar’s tribe, who will defend their territory with their lives. It’s tough to be a chimp.

Something incredible happens however. After Isha is killed, Oscar is in dire straits. Unable to forage for himself, lacking the experience and the know-how to feed himself, he slowly begins to starve to death. However, the alpha male of his tribe, Freddy, decides to adopt the baby and raise him as his own. Some naturalists have theorized that this occurs in the wild; however, this is the first time such an occurrence has been captured on film.

The visuals are dazzling. Filmed in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest, the movie gives us a sense of both the harshness and the grandeur of the primeval location. It took four years to film this and the resulting footage is worth every moment of hardship and danger (some of which was documented on First Look pre-show featurettes that screened in a number of movie theaters nationwide in March, hinting at an extensive home video extra features cache when the movie becomes available on DVD and Blu-Ray) that the crew endured to film in the remote location.

I’ve discovered that the narration by Tim Allen is a bit polarizing. Many critics I’ve read have damned his work, saying that it demeaned the animals and was too jokey. Personally I found it entertaining; Disney has a tendency to anthropomorphize their nature documentaries, making the animals more accessible to children who in Disney wisdom need it to relate to their stories (which I think personally is demeaning to children, but that’s just me). If you’re going to create personalities for the animals, you might as well have a narrator who can make it interesting and Allen does that. Some may find it annoying however – so be warned.

Personally, I’d love to see a DisneyNature feature that is a little more nature and a little less Disney. They send teams of camera crews to get this stunning footage and then don’t trust the footage to stand on its own. While I agree narrators are generally necessary to give background information and provide some context, it isn’t necessary for them to assign human traits to the animals or infer what they’re thinking. It is possible to relay information about animals without making it sound dry; it’s just a difficult line to walk. I wish more would attempt it is all.

The footage here is amazing, some of the best that DisneyNature has come up with in their four releases to date. Sadly, there was no preview for their next film (as they have traditionally done with all their releases until now) so there’s a very real possibility this may be the last DisneyNature release for awhile – let’s hope not. I’d love to see some looks at animal life in the Australian outback, in China, or the rain forests of South America. These days most nature documentaries seem to be stuck in Africa and the Arctic, which is fine because there is plenty to see but the world is a diverse place and I’d love to see some nature documentaries set in other places as well.

Really small kids might have some difficulty with the jeopardy that Oscar is placed in and at the off-screen death of his mom. Parents should expect some hard questions to come up when they leave the theater, but certainly their kids should fall in love with the majesty of the forest that is displayed here – I know this adult did.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography, clever narration by Allen and compelling storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have used more background about chimp habits and behaviors.

FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing here your kids shouldn’t see (and won’t want to).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening weekend box office of $10.2 million was the most ever for a nature documentary.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jane’s Journey

TRACKING SHOT LOVERS: The filmmakers used a zip line and a specially designed camera to create the smooth tracking shots of the rain forest that frame the documentary and are stunning to look at.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Cast Away


Cast Away

Tom Hanks gets primitive.

(2000) Drama (DreamWorks/20th Century Fox) Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth, Nick Searcy, Garret Davis, Vince Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Geoffrey Blake, Lari White, David Allen Brooks, Paul Sanchez, Peter von Berg, Dmitri S. Boudine, Semion Sudarikov. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The poet said that no man is an island, but that is not so. In fact, every person is an island. We are not Borg either with the thoughts of millions in our heads; we are alone inside our skulls, and though we may share space and intimacy with others, at the end of the day it is ourselves we are alone with, no matter what the situation.

For Chuck Noland (Hanks), an executive and troubleshooter for FedEx, the situation is always chaos, perpetual motion on a stopwatch. He travels the world for FedEx, helping various branches become models of efficiency in processing packages for delivery. After a successful stint in Russia, he returns home to a well-deserved holiday break andan adoring girlfriend (Hunt) to whom he pops the question just as he is getting on a plane to put out another fire halfway around the world.

Life, according to John Lennon, is what happens when you’re making plans. In Noland’s case, life is a terrifying plane crash into a stormy sea. Noland eventually washes ashore on a deserted island, but unlike Gilligan and his crew, there are no huts, no supplies of food and no ingenious professors who can do anything except build a shortwave radio. The island is barren, a great big rock in the South Pacific.

After the initial shock, Noland slowly begins to realize that there will be no quick rescue. In certain Hollywood movies, Noland would be an ex-Army Ranger who can survive on a cantaloupe and a thimble for thirty days; in Cast Away, he has few survival skills other than an insatiable will to live, and a picture of his fiancée to motivate him. Chuck mustreinvent himself on a primitive level in order to survive; he must become food gatherer, fire bringer and water bearer. He must survive heat and storm, loneliness and depression, hunger and thirst. He also must survive a tooth that has been bothering him for months and threatens to get infected. He must learn to carry hope with him like a wallet, and fend off the madness slowly encroaching into his mind.

As time goes by, Noland is able to just get by, but even through his dementia he realizes that if he remains on the island he will eventually die. To avoid that, he begins devising a daring escape, using flotsam from the crash and other debris washed up by the sea.

The great majority of the movie takes place on the island. Most of the movie is just Hanks, without music or very much dialogue. Few actors could pull it off, but Hanks again gives an Oscar-nominated performance (the most recent one on his resume to date) that transcends traditional movie logic. If you described to a studio suit a movie with the situation just described, he would undoubtedly respond with have your people call his people, let’s do lunch and don’t let the door hit you in the drawers on the way out.

In this case, the director, Robert Zemeckis, and the star, Tom Hanks, had a certain amount of stroke (considering the previous time they teamed up they delivered Forrest Gump it isn’t hard to see why) and the two had the presence of mind to seek out DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s company, to co-distribute. They also had the might of 20th Century Fox behind them.

The results are an amazing movie, full of splendor, beauty and tension. Hanks is perfect in the role. If it were Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson on this beach, you’d expect them to survive. For Hanks, the modern equivalent of Jimmy Stewart, the boy next door is in real deep kimchee in this situation. The movie works because you believe it. During the escape sequence, when Noland’s companion, Wilson, parts, it is an extremely moving moment. Da Queen had a box of hankies for that one.

The movie takes place in three distinct sequences, and as has been noted elsewhere, constituted a break in filming while Hanks emaciated himself and Zemeckis went on to make What Lies Beneath. Our world is full of noise, frenetic motion, a busy cornucopia of career and personal life. The island is quiet, paced as the waves lapping against the shore. Time dilates into a distant memory here. Even the watch won’t work.

On a different level, however, the movie is about time and how we use it — and how it can be taken away from us. Time is a funny thing; it enslaves us, it is a brutal taskmaster but to a very real extent it defines us as well. It is about survival, what we can manage to accomplish in a desperate situation. It is about the island that is all of us. Some of us are rocky promontories in the Pacific; others are Oahu. Either works.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the first great movies of the 21st Century. Another Oscar-caliber performance from Hanks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle part of the film on the island has no music or dialogue which can be disconcerting for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some disturbing sequences here, particularly the plane crash and the body of the pilot arriving on the island.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Chuck Noland names his volleyball companion Wilson after the sporting goods manufacturer. Tom Hanks is married to Rita Wilson, and played a character named Kip Wilson in “Bosom Buddies.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a Charlie Rose interview with Hanks, as well as feature-length documentaries on real live survival situations (and how survival experts put writer William Broyles through a survival course) and on the island that was used to film the South Pacific sequences – both are extraordinarily interesting. These are, strangely enough, only available on the 2 Disc DVD edition; they are missing from the Blu-Ray edition which does have a trivia track if you’re into such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $429.6M on a $90M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: That Evening Sun

Seraphim Falls


Seraphim Falls

Pierce Brosnan discovers you need a lake in order to go ice fishing.

(2006) Western (Goldwyn) Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Anjelica Huston, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Tom Noonan, Kevin J. O’Connor, John Robinson, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi. Directed by David von Ancken

There are things that can’t be left alone, cheeks that cannot be turned. There are crimes so heinous that they cannot stand and if we can’t get justice in the conventional way, we must find a way of seeking it ourselves.

Gideon (Brosnan) is a trapper in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada roasting his dinner over the fire when a shot rings out. Gideon is shot in the shoulder. Not knowing where his assailants are, he tumbles down the mountain, taking as many of his things as he can. He flees to a secluded spot and builds a fire, digging out the bullet from his shoulder with a hunting knife and then heating up the blade to cauterize the wound.

We find out that the pursuer is Carver (Neeson), who has with him a posse of four grim men. While some of his company thinks Gideon is dead, Carver knows he isn’t. They spread out to try and find him – which turns out to be a mistake as Gideon jumps one of the posse and kills him.

Gideon escapes from the mountains and attempts to steal a horse from a homesteader. He is discovered but his wound prompts the family to give him shelter. Realizing that the posse is on its way, Gideon steals a horse anyway. He makes it to a railroad camp where the foreman, recognizing the horse, detains him. He manages to get away and steal another horse and rides into the desert. There he will have his final reckoning with his pursuers. Who will emerge alive?

Westerns are not the most popular of genres these days and quite frankly, the problem with them has been that a lot of the stories are somewhat derivative. This one smells a lot like The Outlaw Josie Wales in construction, and that bothered me a bit. As the film progresses, we get to see why Carver is chasing Gideon (and to be fair, the reason is pretty compelling) and your sympathies begin to shift from Gideon to Carver – but this film is much less successful at making the vengeance seeker seem sympathetic as we were for Josie Wales.

But you can’t really complain all that much when you have an Oscar-winning cinematographer like John Toll at your disposal and he doesn’t disappoint, giving us vistas of snowy mountains, dusty railroad camps and dry, barren deserts. It is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see.

There are also some close-ups of hideous wounds that will turn the stomach of the squeamish, so be warned about that. However, even the squeamish will enjoy the acting performances here. Brosnan is guttural in his speech resembling Clint Eastwood crossed with Brando in a way, his face careworn and grizzled. The deeds of his past are apparent in his eyes. Brosnan has always had the reputation of being more of a pretty face than a good actor, but since leaving his former job as Bond he has become a pretty decent actor.

Neeson, on the other hand, has always had a good reputation since day one; only lately has he become an action hero. He broods with the best of them and as a wronged man there are few better at inspiring sympathy, although strangely enough he is so brutal early on it is hard to get behind him when the reason for his pursuit is revealed.

The two are supported by a surprisingly solid group of character actors, including Lauter and Wincott as members of Carver’s posse, Studi as a fast-talking Indian trader, Huston as a snake-oil saleswoman and Harmon in a brief appearance as a loyal wife. Von Ancken, who has extensive television experience in his background, does a decent job with the movie but at the end of the day, doesn’t really add anything to a story that’s already been done before.

Part of the problem with filming westerns is that there are fewer and fewer locations to shoot them in. That is sad in a big way – westerns have a lot to offer and it’s a pity that more of them aren’t made. While the movie is set shortly after the Civil War (which figures heavily into the plot), this is definitely a movie about the West and not the war, although the director has stated that this is an anti-war film with parallels in our current Iraqi conflict.

In all honesty, I couldn’t see those parallels except in a very broad, very general sense. I tended to prefer the first half of the movie which was action-packed and featured Gideon getting out of one situation after another, over the second part where there was more of a 70s acid western feel to the film. If either of those scenarios suit you, by all means rent away. If not, keep on riding cowboy.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome cinematography and nice performances from Brosnan and Neeson, as well as the fine character actors in the supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Odd near-hallucinatory sequences near the end of the movie detract from it.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Western for both Brosnan and Neeson who in separate interviews said they really loved shooting this film because of their mutual love for the genre as kids.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m betting this probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Bad Teacher

World Trade Center


World Trade Center

Port Authority Police Officers attempt to outrun the collapse of the World Trade Center.

(Paramount) Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez, Joe Bernthal, Armando Riesco, Jude Ciccolella, Donna Murphy, Danny Nucci, Nicholas Turturro, Patti D’Arbanville, Stephen Dorff, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley, William Mapother, Peter McRobbie, Ed Jewett. Directed by Oliver Stone.

One of the more indelible events of our lifetimes—all of our lifetimes—is the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The images and emotions of that day are etched forever in our minds and hearts. I truly believe that our generation will be judged by how we respond to it in the same way a previous generation is judged on its response to Pearl Harbor.

While Pearl Harbor happened sixty years ago (ironically, the sixtieth anniversary was less than three months after 9-11), the WTC fell only eight years ago as this is posted (this review was actually written contemporaneously with the film, five years after 9-11). For many of us, the events are too fresh and too painful and I can understand why people I know have stated that they will not go and see this movie under any circumstances. They simply aren’t ready to. Still, it seems that as a nation we need to address these events. The process began with the release of United 93 and continues with World Trade Center.

John McLaughlin (Cage) and William Jimeno (Pena) are Port Authority police officers in New York City. On a Tuesday morning in September, 2001 they both go to work like any other weekday. They go about their business of patrolling the bus terminal or handing out daily assignments. When news of a plane hitting the World Trade Center reaches them they are shocked and horrified.

As they and their comrades Pezzullo (Hernandez), Amoroso (Bernthal), Rodrigues (Riesco) and others are hurriedly sent down to the WTC to help with the evacuation, at first nobody is really clear on what is happening. While McLaughlin seems to have a clearer idea, most of the men are assuming it is all a terrible accident. Once they arrive at the towers and see the devastation, their expressions turn to that of awe and horror. Everyone immediately understands it is going to be a bad day.

They are sent into tower one to go and assist with getting people out. Knowing that the building is full of smoke and flames, McLaughlin wants to make sure they are properly equipped. They have retrieved some additional oxygen from tower two and are walking through the concourse to tower one when the unthinkable happens. The tower collapses on top of them. Despite a desperate attempt to run out of the building, it’s too late. They are caught and buried beneath tons of rubble. Because McLaughlin led them to an elevator shaft, the strongest points of the building, the survivors have hope—they are less than 20 feet from the surface. However, both McLaughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble and unable to help each other. They keep their spirits up by talking about things from their families to why they became cops to the theme from “Starsky and Hurch.”

Back at home, their wives Donna McLaughlin (Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Gyllenhaal) watch in horror at the events unfolding. Fully aware that their husbands were quite likely at the site, they frantically try to get information from the Port Authority. However, things are in chaos—nobody seems to know whether or not they were in the building or not when it came down. There are no answers. The women are forced to sit and wait with their families and friends, unable to give up hope but unable to hope that their husbands are safe and sound. Allison, five months pregnant, in particular is close to the edge. She is preparing herself for the worst case scenario with such conviction that her father (McRobbie) fears for her.

The tension is unbearable. At first the news is that they are all right, then later it is that they are missing. Eventually, word comes down; the two men were inside the Trade Center when it came down. The odds of their survival are bleak.

To a marine named Karnes (Shannon) who came on his own from Connecticut to help aid the rescuers, he cannot give up hope. After the search is called off due to darkness, he takes it upon himself to go into the rubble and search for survivors. Incredibly, he finds two—McLaughlin and Jimeno.

Oliver Stone, whose previous movie was the bloated mess Alexander redeems himself with maybe the most mainstream movie of his career. He keeps the storytelling simple, and why shouldn’t he? The story he is given to work with is one of the most compelling of the 21st century. Even though the movie is well over two hours long, it never drags and keeps hold of your attention throughout.

World Trade Center

The real Will Jimeno and John McLaughlin with the actors who portrayed them.

Cage comes through with maybe the most low-key performance of his career. By all accounts, John McLaughlin is not a man who shows emotion easily (during one point of the movie he pokes gentle fun at himself for “not smiling a lot”) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel. His will to live is bolstered by his need to return to his wife—and complete the kitchen cabinet project he’d been working on. Hey, it’s the little things.

Both Bello and Gyllenhaal turn in outstanding performances. As the wives who are forced to wait, they deal with the stress, the fear and the frustration in different ways. Neither one of them strikes a single false note throughout the movie. Both deserved far more acclaim than they received when the movie was released.

I have to say that the scenes of the Trade Center work extremely well. I’m not sure if they used archival footage of the towers or if they put the towers there digitally, but either way it was tremendously effective. The scene of the actual collapse is breathtaking in a literal sense.

We get a first-hand glimpse of what the survivors and their families went through. I would have liked to have seen a little more on the rescuers, but as Da Queen pointed out to me, it really isn’t their story. I might also have liked to have seen the viewpoint of a family of one of the officers who didn’t survive, but I can understand why that might not have been possible to show. I would imagine few of those families are able to conceive of seeing a movie about the deaths of their loved ones, or about the pain they went through until they finally heard the awful truth.

I’ve always blown hot and cold about Oliver Stone. I love JFK to this day with all its flaws, and I respect Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July but I’m less enamored of Alexander and Natural Born Killers. This ranks up there with his best work. Whether or not you go and see it really is a personal decision. It is not an easy movie to watch in places, and there are a lot of moments that are really hard to keep from crying.

Nicolas Cage, speaking for John McLaughlin, had it right when he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) “On that day we saw the worst of humanity, and we saw the best. We saw people taking care of each other.” I left the movie feeling inspired in the same way. We could all use a lot more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: A heartwrenching account of the survival of two heroic transit cops buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, their rescue and the frustration and fear their families felt as in the chaos little or nothing was known of their whereabouts. Bravura performances by Bello and Gyllenhaal are worth noting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who still are emotionally tied to the tragedy of 9-11 may find this too hard to watch.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie may be disturbing as a whole to those who still feel strong emotions about the WTC collapse. There is also some foul language and some scenes depicting the condition of the men who were rescued that are hard to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Will Jimeno and John McLaughlin, as well as members of their family, can be seen in the “Welcome Home” cookout in the final scene. Pena, as Jimeno, hugs the real Will Jimeno.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several. There’s a commentary track with the real Jimeno as well as members of the rescue team, including Scott Strauss who was portrayed by Stephen Dorff and acted as a consultant on the film. There is a documentary on the rescue of the two men, as well as their recovery containing footage from Ground Zero that may be too graphic for the sensitive. There is also a making of feature that Stone discusses the pros and cons of making the film, why it was made so soon despite protests that it should not be and some of the technical difficulties of creating Ground Zero in Los Angeles.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Taken