Tigerland (Taken by the Tiger)


Pavel Fomenko anxiously searches for two tiger cubs whose mother has been relocated.

(2019) Nature Documentary (DiscoveryPavel Fomenko, Amit Sankhala, Karan Singh, Jairam Ramesh, Kailash Sankhala, Yulia Fomenko, Vasily Solkin, Jai Bhati, Bittu Sahgal, Valmik Thapat, Elizabeth Kayzakova, Irina Pavlova, Belinda Wright, Indira Gandhi, Tarva Bhati, Dimple Bhati, Anne Wright, Debbie Banks. Directed by Ross Kauffman

Jack Lemmon once won an Oscar for a film entitled Save the Tiger, a title that was a metaphor for his character’s own existence. However, the title has become more literal in this day and age with right around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, down from hundreds of thousands only a century ago.

There are a lot of reasons for their decline. Human intrusion on their habitat, poaching (tiger skins remain an in-demand luxury item and tiger parts also form the basis for a good deal of folk medicine which is also a lucrative trade) and hunting – among Indian maharajahs it was considered an act of masculinity to shoot and kill a tiger with some (as well as the British colonials who followed them) shooting hundreds of the animals alone.

There are those who would halt the decline of the tigers and this film from Oscar winning director Kauffman focuses on two of them – Pavel Fomenko, head of endangered species protection for the Russian arm of the World Wildlife Fund, and Amit Sankhala whose grandfather Kailash was instrumental in directing attention to the plight of the tiger and along with then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was responsible for the enacting of legislation that protects them relatively speaking. Both men approach the problem in very different ways; Sankhala follows in his grandfather’s footsteps in creating and protecting tiger preserves in India, whereas Fomenko is more of a hands-on kind of guy rescuing individual tigers in dire need.

Fomenko gets involved with a Siberian village on a nature preserve where a mother tiger has begun to attack village dogs. With kids walking to and from school, Fomenko knew it was a matter of time before villagers would kill the tiger to protect their kids (understandably). He stepped in and captured the mama tiger to relocate her but was less successful in finding her cubs, organizing a tiger hunt in an attempt to find them before they died.

The first third of the movie dwells a bit overly much on the spiritual aspect of the tiger – how it is a symbol of power particular from a male standpoint. There’s a lot of fairly dry material on the elder Sankhala and his efforts to document the plight of the species and to convince his government to step in and save them. The movie also opens with an odd and somewhat disconnected voice over about the history of tigers and how humans have considered them, done in a child’s singsong voice as if in a nursery rhyme.

During the last third the movie picks up steam and ends up packing a wallop; we are shown the gruesome results of a poacher’s work and the danger of advocating for the tigers, especially in the case of Fomenko who is changed by the experience. There is a mournful roll call of the various types of tigers, most reduced to less than a thousand remaining in the wild and several already extinct – all within the lifetime of most of us.

It isn’t until about a third of the way through that we actually see a tiger in the wild – until then all we see are representations and drawings – and we are reminded of what a magnificent animal tigers are. Seeing them padding around their natural environment like the lords they are is an almost spiritual experience; I can only imagine how much more intense and affecting it would be to see one in person (one not in a zoo).

Kauffman peppers the film with watercolor-like animations from Daniel Sousa (himself an Oscar nominee for Feral) that enhance rather than distract. The younger Sankhala is certainly passionate about tigers but he doesn’t have the personality of Fomenko who is a force of nature. The movie really hums along when Fomenko is onscreen.

The movie has already received a brief theatrical release and is currently available on Discovery Go. It is debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight for those who prefer the broadcasting route. Documentary and nature lovers should seek this one out.

REASONS TO SEE: The filmmakers capture the power and spirituality of the animals. The watercolor animations are lovely.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the footage is graphic and disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some slight profanity as well as disturbing footage of the results of tiger mauling as well as of dead and skinned tigers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kauffman shared an Oscar for co-directing the 2006 Best Documentary Feature Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Journey To a Mother’s Room

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Roar (1981)


Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my...

Lions and tigers and a bear, oh my…

(1981) WTF (Drafthouse) Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, Kyalo Mativo, Frank Tom, Steve Miller, Rick Glassey, Zakes Moakae, Lenord Bokwa, Shamasi Sarumi, Will Hutchins, Eve Rattner, Peter Thiongo, Michael Franz, Alexandra Newman, Pat Barbeau, Michael J. Jones. Directed by Noel Marshall

Some movies are extraordinary due to technical achievements, acting performances, excellent writing, beautiful cinematography and/or sure direction. This isn’t one of those. It is extraordinary due to the fact that it got made.

Husband and wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren were a successful Hollywood couple in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Hedren had been an actress who’d starred in the Hitchcock classic The Birds and was one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her husband was a producer, who had among other credits The Exorcist and The Harrad Experiment to his credit.

Both were animal activists, particularly when it came to big cats, and kept nearly a hundred animals on their ranch in Soledad Canyon, near Los Angeles. They hit upon an idea to make a movie that would inspire audiences to conservation and preservation as many big cats were hitting the endangered species list. Oddly, they decided to use their own wild animals rather than trained ones that were more used to human company.

The production was plagued with problems from the start. What was supposed to have been a six-month shoot would stretch out for seven years – this after it took four years to get the financing together to make the movie in the first place. However, two years into shooting, the financing was withdrawn and Marshall and Hedren were forced to use their own funds to complete the movie, putting up their own property and possessions as collateral. Animal attacks during the shoot would lead to 70 confirmed injuries, some of which were serious (an assistant director had his throat partially torn out and cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make Speed had most of his scalp torn off in a wound that required more than 200 stitches). A flood and brush fire in 1979 wiped out the set and took out most of the completed footage, and feline disease took the lives of many of the cats, including Robbie, who plays the King of the Cats in the film.

Still, the filmmakers persevered and the movie was completed but after all that it tanked at the box office; especially galling was that it didn’t get a release here in the United States. However, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse chain found the movie at a local video store and fell in love with it. He arranged to buy the rights and is giving it a brief theatrical re-release before bringing it back out on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year.

The movie’s plot is simple; Hank (N. Marshall), a scientist living in the African veldt trying to protect big cats from poachers while examining their co-existence with humans in a wild state, invites his family to come visit him. Due to a set of unforeseen circumstances, he ends up being late to go fetch them from the local airport so while he is off going to get them – no easy feat – they find alternate transportation to his ranch. They are horrified to find dozens of ferocious predators inhabiting his home and spend much of the movie running from room to room trying to escape.

The movie definitely has a 70s vibe to it, with songs that would appeal to the James Taylor/Carole King crowd and clothes and hairstyles that date the movie. So too does the broad sense of humor complete with sitcom musical cues. Noel Marshall as an actor makes a great producer; most of his lines are half-shouted and his character seems completely out of touch with reality. His Chicago accent sounds a bit bizarre on a scientist studying cats in Africa – and Africa by the way except for a few establishing shots, is Southern California. At least here. Marshall, incidentally, passed away in 2010 having never acted again.

Someone had to think this was a good idea and it’s a good bet that some sort of drug use was involved with the decision making process. Put a cast and crew in among a hundred wild animals whose actions would be unpredictable to say the least? Sure! Because of that unpredictability give the cats co-writing and co-directing credit? Why not! Encourage people to support conservation and animal rights causes by depicting multiple harrowing animal attacks on humans by those same animals? That’s gotta work, right?

I’ve heard this film referred to as less a movie so much as a carnival sideshow and there is something to that description. This is a movie that has to be experienced; describing it doesn’t do justice. Ratings therefore go out the window, which is why it has essentially a 50% rating here. You are either going to love it or hate it, you’ll get it or you won’t. Me, I vacillate wildly between loving the movie and the heart that is obviously put into it, with the footage of the big cats doing their things and wondering what on earth these people were thinking. Words can’t possibly do this film justice.

REASONS TO GO: Curiosity factor. Some beautiful cinematography and the animals can be delightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its time. The acting is not so good. The comedy is awfully broad and occasionally inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Animal attack footage that ranges from comical to gruesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While no animals were harmed during the film, 70 human injuries were reported and at least one was life-threatening, although thankfully not fatal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: When Animals Attack
FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but a N/A would be more applicable)
NEXT: Amy

We Bought a Zoo


We Bought a Zoo

Matt Damon doesn't realize that tigers hate staring contests and so this will end very badly.

(2011) Family True Story (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, John Michael Higgins, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, J.B. Smoove, Stephanie Szostak, Peter Riegert, Desi Lydic. Directed by Cameron Crowe

 

The thing about grief is that there isn’t a manual that tells you how to deal with it. That’s because everyone deals with it differently. Some push it aside and try to live life as normally as possible; others wear sackcloth and ashes and make it plain to the entire world that they are GRIEVING dammit. There is no right way and no wrong way to deal with grief; there’s just your way.

Benjamin Mee (Damon) is dealing with it, right now. He and his two kids teenaged Dylan (Ford) and youngster Rosie (Jones) are facing the loss of Mee’s wife Katherine (Szostak) to cancer. Mee, a photojournalist for an actual newspaper – a dying breed in and of itself – he decides that he’s had enough of being pitied and quits his job (a rather interesting way to deal with that problem) and since the acting-out Dylan has gotten himself expelled, figures it’s a perfect time to pull up stakes and find a new place to live somewhere that he isn’t constantly reminded of Katherine.

An enthusiastic realtor brings Benjamin to a dilapidated zoo. The state of California picked up ownership when the previous owners ran out of money. A skeleton crew cares for the animals there and there is a charming house on the property. Benjamin’s accountant brother Duncan (Church) advises him not to do it but Benjamin sees this as the kind of adventure that will heal his broken-hearted family.

Not everyone sees it that way. Dylan is angry he has been uprooted and separated from all his friends; his father is much harder on him than he is on the ultra-precious Rosie and Dylan resents that as well. In fact, Dylan resents just about everything and spends much of his time drawing dark and disturbing pictures that would be raising alarm bells in any reasonable child psychologist.

If Dylan has doubts about this venture, so does the zoo crew. Zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) is a no-nonsense sort who realizes that running a zoo isn’t just putting a bunch of animals in cages – excuse me, enclosures as she points out midway through the film. It takes dedication and above all, money. Bookkeeper Rhonda (Gallo) is skeptical that Benjamin will see the project through. Hard-drinking Peter MacCready (Macfadyen) is angry that his innovative enclosure designs were stolen by the very man who is in a position to grant the zoo it’s license, Walter Farris (Higgins) who will be making an inspection a week before opening day to see if the zoo meets California standards. About the only person who is happy that the Mees are there is Kelly’s cousin Lily (Fanning) who has a big-time crush on Dylan (God knows why).

This is based on a true story, although it has been transplanted to the San Diego area from England where it actually occurred (if you want to see the zoo where it actually happened, click here or better still donate to them so they can keep their gates open – I wasn’t kidding when I said it takes money to run a zoo). While a bit of Hollywood gloss has been added to make the story a bit more family-friendly, the basic facts are there but there are a few differences – it took the Mee family two years to actually buy the zoo, for example. Their initial offer was rejected due to their lack of zoological experience. Also, the real Mee children are much closer in age than they are in the film – the daughter was four when these events took place, her brother six. Also, the real Katherine Mee passed away while they were living at the zoo and after it had actually been purchased – in the film, her death is part of the reason they buy it to begin with.

Damon, who has met with success as the grifter in the Oceans films and as an action hero in the Bourne movies once again shows his versatility here. It’s been said – by me among others – that Damon is the Jimmy Stewart of his generation and I don’t think this movie will dissuade anyone of that notion. He plays a family man here but moreover a grieving husband – one of the movie’s most heartrending scenes is when Benjamin Mee looks at a photo slideshow on his laptop and sees a picture of his wife and kids dancing in the sun on an idyllic picnic and then suddenly the three of them are whirling around him in his kitchen. It is a bittersweet magic.

You would expect that the movie would create a romance between Benjamin and Kelly and while there’s attraction there, it’s also realistically tempered with the fact that Benjamin is not yet over his grief. There is near the end some indication that things might go there in the future but I think that Crowe makes a wise choice not to emphasize it.

Instead, the big romance is between Dylan and Lily. I get that Dylan is dealing with his own grief, but he comes off as really unlikable in a lot of ways and I don’t see how Lily would be attracted to him other than that he’s the only adolescent boy for miles. Fanning is also much taller than Ford which further makes the relationship awkward, despite the filmmakers obvious attempts to mitigate that by putting Ford on uneven planes with Fanning, or having them sitting down.

Still, Fanning’s cheer and ethereal beauty as well as her natural screen charisma make it clear that she’s destined for success. Like her sister Dakota, Elle is a fine actress (as we saw in Super 8) and she has some very nice moments here. Church is a  wonderful actor as we’ve seen in films like Sideways and he makes the most of a role that’s right in his wheelhouse.

It’s very clear that this movie is not so much about running a zoo as it is about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. That each of the main characters in the film deals with that grief in their own way is to be expected. While I felt that the movie sometimes got so saccharine sweet that it could induce a diabetic coma, there was at least an attempt to deal with the subject in a gentle yet realistic way. I won’t say that the movie didn’t pull any punches because it plainly does, but I do give it credit for tackling a subject that Hollywood tends to back away from.

A note about the soundtrack; it is written by Jonsi, the lead singer of Sigur Ros (one of my favorite bands) and as is typical with that band’s music is very atmospheric and makes a lovely background for the movie. The cinematography is uniformly excellent as well, so this is a good-looking as well as good-sounding film.

As family entertainment goes, the holiday season has been responsible for some truly special family films this year and this movie is certainly one of the movies that stands out in that regard. While the execrable Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked might be garnering better box office numbers, this is actually a family movie that will appeal to both adults and kids and won’t have to be “endured” by either of them. Common ground is a pretty big deal when it comes to family films as it is in families.

REASONS TO GO: Heartfelt and heartwarming. Damon does a surprisingly fine job as a family man here. Fanning and Church do well in support.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids can be overly annoying and/or precocious at times. Too much eccentricity among zoo personnel.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few thematic elements a little too rough for the sensitive (children dealing with the loss of a parent) and a few mildly bad words here and there but kids will love the animals.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Benjamin Mee and his children appear in the scene where Matt Damon climbs over the fallen tree on opening day; they are the first family in line.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are solid but not spectacular.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hotel New Hampshire

ANIMAL LOVERS: Definitely something you’re going to enjoy, with capuchin monkeys, tigers, lions, ostriches, hedgehogs, peacocks, snakes and grizzly bears among others on display.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: War Horse

Fired Up!


Fired Up!

This is where a funny caption would go if I could think of any.

(2009) Teen Sex Comedy (Screen Gems) Nicholas D’Agosto, Eric Christian Olsen, Sarah Roemer, Molly Sims, Danneel Harris, Philip Baker Hall, Adhir Kalyan, Annalynne McCord, John Michael Higgins, David Walton, Edie McClurg. Directed by Will Gluck

Ahh, to be young and horny; the arrogance that comes with it and the sad realization that we were all young and horny once. Hopefully, we weren’t all this stupid.

Shawn Colfax (D’Agosto) and Nick Brady (Olsen) are star football players on the Gerald R. Ford High School Tigers and they are entering their senior year. Good looking, popular and with Texas-sized libidos, they’ve been sowing a trail of broken hearts and soiled panties all through their school. Now they are faced with going to football camp with a bunch of sweaty guys and a mealy-mouthed coach (Hall) in the middle of the Texas desert in August. No, I wouldn’t want to do it either.

Instead they concoct a brilliant scheme; they decide to help out the cheerleaders at their camp in idyllic Illinois. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I’d much rather spend the month of August with 300 nubile teenage girls who are limber, horny and have few options to choose from romantically as nearly all the other guys are either gay or old (like 25 years old…grody!). They convince the powers-that-be that going to cheer camp was really what the two guys wanted. Astonishingly, the powers that be agree with them and send them on their way.

Of course, the head cheerleader Carly (Roemer) sees right through them and of course Nick falls hard for her. Shawn, on the other hand, gets the hots for Diora (Sims) who happens to be married to the head cheerleading coach Keith (Higgins). There’s also a group of rival cheerleaders, the Panthers, who like finish first all the time and it’s so unfair. Like, OMG. Their head cheerleader, Gwynneth (McCord) is such a bitch; she, like, always dresses in black and that’s sooooooooo Goth.

But of course, everything turns out okay, despite the machinations of Carly’s boyfriend Dr. Rick (Walton) who’s actually a first year medical student but he wants to get used to the sound of it. And why wouldn’t things turn out okay? It’s cheerleading, man!

Now, the natural inclination is to compare this to Bring It On! and not just because both films have exclamation points in their titles. No, they’re both cheerleading movies and have two groups of rival teams vying for the top spot in a competition, with one team being a perennial champ and the other a perennial doormat. There are a lot of differences however; for one thing, this is much raunchier.

The writing team (operating under the nom de plume of Freedom Jones) tries to liven things up with snappy dialogue that sounds like an unholy crossbreeding of Diablo Cody and Garson Kanin. There are plenty of pop culture references and at times there are some very funny one-liners. Part of my issue is that the dialogue as spoken by these (ahem) teenagers mostly sounds arrogant. I guess it might be hip, but when you dis the message of John Lennon because most of the people who listened to him as contemporaries are in their 50s now then you just sound ignorant.

One other bone I have to pick is that most of the girls in this movie are depicted as bubble-headed idiots waiting for some acne-faced slimeball to charm their way into their pants. I’m not saying teenage girls are the most level-headed strata of our society, but they aren’t all dimwits either.

You don’t see a teen sex comedy for the acting and that holds true here. The performances are okay I guess, just not memorable. When the movie works as it occasionally does, it works really well. However it falls flat in too many places for me to give it anything more than a mediocre rating. It’s not the kind of entertainment you’ll probably care much for fifteen minutes after you’ve seen it. And that, my friends, isn’t necessarily a criticism – sometimes we all need a little disposable comedy to occupy our time.

WHY RENT THIS: The dialogue is clever in places. As teen sex comedies go, this one isn’t too bad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much smug, “look at me I’m young and hipper than you ever were” bullcrap. Too many of the girls are too empty-headed.

FAMILY VALUES: Seeing that this is a teen sex comedy, there’s an awful lot of, well, sex. And talking about sex, sometimes in the crudest terms possible. And nudity, not a lot of it but a little. And other bad words which I won’t repeat here. Anyway, you’ve been warned.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Eric Christian Olsen was playing a high school senior, he was actually 31 years old at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a kinda sorta funny interview from the press junket which goes viciously, horribly wrong but that’s it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.6M on a $20M budget; the movie flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: War

Gladiator


Gladiator

Gladiators do battle...or is that the WWE?

(DreamWorks) Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, David Hemmings. Directed by Ridley Scott

When everything that we love is taken from us we have two choices. We can wallow in our pain and let it overwhelm us, or we can do everything in our power to take what revenge we can. That revenge may take the form of retribution, or merely of survival – of learning how to rebuild your life.

Maximus (Crowe) is a general in the Roman army, much beloved by his men. He has just completed a successful campaign in Germania and has the eye of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Harris). Aurelius is old and dying, and as happens with the old and the dying he is reflecting on the achievements of his life and has found them wanting. He wants to do the unthinkable – restore the Republic – and needs Maximus to maintain order and see to the transfer of power from the Caesar’s family to the senate, which Senator Gracchus (Jacobi) would like nothing more.

Maximus wants nothing more than to go home to Spain, to a farm with his wife and young son, and raise crops in peace. However, Aurelius’ plan doesn’t sit well with his son Commodus (Phoenix) who is heir apparent and would lose everything if Aurelius goes through with his scheme. Being “not a moral man” as his father describes him, Commodus kills his father and assumes the throne. He wants Maximus to support him but Maximus knows immediately what has happened when he sees Aurelius, whom he admired, dead in his bed and refuses. Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Nielsen) who has a thing for Maximus takes the better part of valor and supports her brother. So does Quintus (Arana), Maximus’ second-in-command who recognizes an opportunity when he sees it.

Commodus orders the execution of Maximus. Maximus begs Quintus to watch over his family, but Quintus tells him that his family will join him shortly in the afterlife. Maximus, knowing that time is of the essence, fights out of his execution and escapes but is badly wounded in the process. He races to get home but his wounds slow him down and he arrives to find his house burned and his family crucified. Maximus buries his family and collapses in despair.

He is collected by a passing slaver, and cared for by Juba (Honsou), an African slave. They’re all taken to an outlying province and sold to Proximo (Reed), a trainer of gladiators. Proximo was a former gladiator but he was given his freedom by Marcus Aurelius himself. Despite this, he resents the late Caesar because he did away with gladiator games in Rome, banishing them to the  provinces far away from the glittering center of the Empire.

Maximus at first wants no part of anything – no part of life, in fact. He just wants to hurry up and die so he can be with his family in the afterlife, but Commodus’ betrayal gnaws at him, worrying at him like a dog with a bone. Before he sees his family he must have his vengeance, and Proximo convinces him the best way to achieve that is to become Rome’s most famous gladiator, after which he will be freed and can then do what he must.

Since Maximus is fighting as “The Spaniard,” Commodus is unaware that Maximus is alive. By the time he finds out, Maximus is far too popular for him to kill – the mob that is Rome is not yet in love with Commodus, and he needs that love to maintain his hold on the Empire. The dream of Republic that Marcus Aurelius once had is still in the air, held by Lucilla and Gracchus. They hatch a plot to break Maximus out of the gladiator’s quarters and take him to his army, which he can then lead into Rome to enforce Marcus Aurelius’ dying wish. Can a slave, a gladiator, take on an entire empire and hope to win?

This was the best movie of 2000, in the eyes of the Academy (which gave it the Best Picture Oscar) and in the eyes of this critic. Director Ridley Scott resurrects the swords and sandals genre, giving it new life. CGI recreates the glory of Rome, creating magnificent vistas of Coliseum and Senate. This isn’t Rome as it was so much as we would like it to have been, but that suffices.

That said, the cinematography is curious for this movie. At times, it seems the entire movie has been filmed in overcast conditions with badly overexposed stock. I suppose that’s part of the film’s overall look in an attempt to create a period, but it just seems unnecessary to me. I guess I’m a simple kinda guy at heart.

Nothing wrong with the performances here though. Crowe and Phoenix are magnificent as antagonists; Crowe, on a roll to becoming one of the best actors in the world, is expected to do this kind of quality but what was surprising is that Phoenix held his own and at times, outdid Crowe. Still, Crowe won a Best Actor Oscar that year while Phoenix received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris certainly could have been considered for the same nominations as well.

In many ways this was one of the first iconic movies of the 21st century. Given the note-perfect score co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (she the voice of the magnificent but much-missed world music group Dead Can Dance) and the opening battle scene which is one of the most impressive ever filmed, it’s no wonder. While some critics thought this overblown and bloated, over-relying on CGI and brutal gladiatorial sequences, audiences adored this movie and so did I. It’s Entertainment with a capital “E” and deserves to be treated as such.

WHY RENT THIS: An essential movie from the past decade, with star-making performances by Crowe and Phoenix.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The cinematography is a bit mannered and some of the violence is a little too Peckinpah for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of gore and violence, as well as some sexuality make this a bit brutal for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oliver Reed had a massive heart attack with three weeks left to film and passed away. The remainder of his scenes was shot with a body double, with Reed’s head inserted digitally.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has an extensive group of features on this two Blu-Ray disk version, including a documentary on the historical basis of various elements of the film, a History Channel special on Roman gladiators, and a feature on abandoned and deleted sequences and why they never made it to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Hangover


The Hangover

Zach Galafianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms suffer the effects of The Hangover.

(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Sasha Barese, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong, Rachel Harris, Mike Tyson, Mike Epps, Jernard Brooks, Rob Riggle. Directed by Todd Phillips.

The bachelor party is an ages-old tradition, a rite of passage in which single men transition from being men to being grooms. It’s the last hurrah for close friends as they lose one of their own to marriage, bidding goodbye forever to his independence and his cojones.

Such is the situation for Doug Billings (Bartha), whose groomsmen plan on taking him to Vegas for a night to remember. Phil Wenneck (Cooper) is the irresponsible one, married and missing the life of a single alpha male. He hopes to reclaim that, at least for one night. Stu Price (Helms) is a henpecked dentist, mortally afraid of his girlfriend (Harris) who is a world-class bitch, but he’s determined to propose to her at the wedding anyway – with his grandmother’s engagement ring, no less. Along for the ride is Alan (Galifianakis), the obese brother of the bride who has a thing about recreational drug use and gambling.

The quartet raise a glass of Jagermeister on the roof of Caesar’s Palace, then head out for a night of debauchery. When they wake up in their hotel room the next morning, they find it completely trashed. They have absolutely no memory of what occurred the night before. Stu is missing a tooth and wearing a wedding ring. The groom-to-be is nowhere in sight, and there’s a tiger in their bathroom. And where did that baby come from?

The boys have a limited amount of time to piece together what happened during their lost night and find the missing groom so they can get him to the wedding on time. Along the way they have to dodge a diminutive Chinese gangster (Jeong) with a real rude streak, two dim-witted but sadistic cops and Mike Tyson, owner of the tiger in question. Time and the odds are against them, but this is Vegas and anything can happen.

Director Phillips (Old School) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) have hit a home run. This is one of the best-written comedies in years. Nearly every situation is funny as is most of the dialogue. Phillips has cast an excellent ensemble, mostly from television, and is rewarded with some career-making performances, starting with Galifianakis, who resembled John Belushi physically, but has a personality all his own. He will be catapulted into a stratum with guys like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel – and who knows, maybe alongside guys like Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey.

This is also a career-making turn for Cooper, who shows potential as a leading man, and has since his turn in the TV series “Alias.” Here he finally fulfills that potential and makes good use of his considerable charm. The character of Phil could very easily descend into obnoxious cliché, but Cooper makes him believable. Helms rises above his work on “The Office” and shows that he has far more depth and range than most give him credit for.

I have always liked Heather Graham as a comedic actress since her appearance in the Austin Powers series, and she also shows remarkable range as well. The stripper with a heart of gold is a hoary cliché in the film industry, and Graham pulls it off without sinking to formula. Her Jade is a woman with dreams and hopes who has no reasonable chance to climb beyond where she is right now, and yet she still believes. There’s a little bit of poignancy to the role that the likable Graham is perfect for.

This is a movie that has flown beneath the radar, overshadowed by much higher-profile releases, and proves to be a pleasant surprise. The critical praise for the movie has been loud and well-deserved. To be fair, there are a few false steps that the movie takes, primarily in the character of the bitchy girlfriend who might have fit the film’s ethos a bit better if she had some redeeming quality. She’s there mainly to serve as a comic foil for Helms, who doesn’t actually need one here. And, quite frankly, this is a guy’s movie. A lot of women may not necessarily find this as funny or as clever as men do.

Still, any criticisms you might level at the movie have to be minor. I’m all for pleasant surprises and The Hangover is just that, a movie with a premise that in less capable hands could be just crudeness for the sake of being crude. Instead, we get a marvelous comedy that makes you laugh without asking you to leave your brain behind. Color me impressed.

REASONS TO GO: Breakout performances by Cooper, Helms and especially Galifianakis. A smartly-written comedy that relies on believable characters and outrageous situations for its humor.

REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a movie intended for men; some women may find it offensive and not funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There is nothing remotely suitable for family audiences.  

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The characters stay in room 2452, which adds up to 13, which is meant to be a theme for the bad luck the characters experience throughout the movie.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: On the 2-disc deluxe edition, there is an interactive Map of Destruction which details where the movie was filmed. There are also pictures taken by the missing camera (which has been heavily promoted in the advertising of the DVD). There is also a feature on actor Ken Jeong and how he developed his character.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Tsotsi