The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

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Pretty Woman


Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

(1990) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Alex Hyde-White, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Amy Yasbeck, Elinor Donahue, Judith Baldwin, Jason Randall, Bill Applebaum, Tracy Bjork, Gary Greene, William Gallo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Hank Azaria, Larry Hankin, Jacqueline Woolsey. Directed by Garry Marshall

Cinema of the Heart 2015

In my day, most little girls dreamed of being princesses swept away by a handsome prince and taken to a life of wealth and pampering. Little girls still have those dreams but sometimes the definition of “princess” and “prince” change a little.

Vivian Ward (Roberts) is a lady of the evening. Not her first choice in professions, but a necessity that will help her earn the cash she needs. Her best friend and roommate Kit De Luca (San Giacomo) is also a hooker. The two work the red light district of Hollywood.

Edward Lewis (Gere) is a ruthless corporate raider from New York, in Los Angeles for meetings to purchase a shipping company from James Morse (Bellamy). Lewis, not familiar with Los Angeles, gets hopelessly lost on his way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ends up on Vivian’s corner. He asks her for directions; she asks for money. Edward, having trouble driving the stick shift on the Lotus Esprit, agrees to pay her to drive him to the hotel.

Once there, intrigued by her wit and her intelligence, he decides to hire her for the profession she has chosen for $300. They have strawberries and champagne (when she flosses the seeds out of her teeth he is amused) and watch reruns of I Love Lucy until they end up having sex.

Edward needs a date to several social events during the week and having hit it off with her, hires her to be with him for the entire week for $3,000. He also gives her a credit card and tells her to purchase some elegant dresses to wear. She goes to a shop on Rodeo Drive and is humiliated by snooty salesgirls who make fun at her overtly sexual appearance and her apparent non-sophistication.

She returns to the hotel completely devastated and snooty manager Barney Thompson (Elizondo) who at first felt disdain at the prostitute, sees her as a human being and a young girl. He helps her purchase a dress, then coaches her on etiquette. Edward returns from work and is amazed at the transformation. However, the business dinner he takes Vivian to with Morse and his son David (Hyde-White) doesn’t end well when Edward admits his intention is to break up the company and sell the land which is worth far more on the open market than it is with the shipping company on it. The Morses leave the table in disgust.

As the week continues, Edward begins to fall for the lively Vivian and she finds herself falling for Edward who is more vulnerable than he admits to being. His lawyer and business partner Philip Stuckey (Alexander) doesn’t approve of the changes he sees in Edward and blames Vivian for it which leads to a heated confrontation among the three of them.

In the meantime, Vivian is swept up in Edward’s world, flying up to San Francisco to see La Traviata at the San Francisco opera which transports her (it doesn’t hurt that the opera is about a wealthy man falling for a prostitute). He, on the other hand, is beginning to see just how empty his life has been without Vivian. Can their two worlds truly be compatible? Will she stay with him beyond the week he paid for?

This movie, along with When Harry Met Sally is credited with the resurgence of romantic comedies which popular in the 50s and 60s had declined to the point where not a single one was produced by a major studio during the 70s. The film is a frothy mix that benefits from Roberts’ bubbly personality and of course that amazing smile which lights up the screen. This would be her second Oscar nomination (she’d already received one for supporting actress in Mystic Pizza) and first for leading actress. It would also make her a genuine star and one of the biggest female box office attractions to this day.

There are those who look at this as anti-feminist and degrading to women, as Vivian seems to need to be “rescued” by a man from a life of exploitation by other men. I don’t agree with that assessment. Vivian is strong and yes, she’s being exploited but she wants more and is on the road to achieve it without Edward’s help (she even refuses it). That she ends up with her knight in shining armor is because she changed him, not because she needed him to save her.

That aside, this is one of those movies that is a Valentine’s Day go-to. For many women, this is a favorite and for a lot of men as well – not just as a romantic comedy but as a movie. There’s something about it that appeals to people, the idea of being plucked out of your mundane existence and into a life of wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?

Roberts, who is amazing here, isn’t alone. Elizondo has always been one of my favorite character actors and this is the performance that made him that for me. Bellamy and Hyde-White are sympathetic, and San Giacomo, who I had a bit of a movie crush on at the time, is gorgeous and feisty, a perfect foil for Roberts. Even Alexander, who would go on to play more bumbling comedic roles, does a terrific job as the truly nasty Philip.

There is a warmth here that is quite frankly a hallmark of Garry Marshall films. In many ways, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for (although there are those that insist that the TV show Happy Days will be his artistic nadir) and if so, not a bad legacy to leave behind. It’s a modernization of the Cinderella fable that resonates with all of us as to the trasnformative power of love, something that is so powerful it changes our lives for the better. There’s no doubt that for most couples, this is a Valentine’s Day movie that you can’t go wrong with.

WHY RENT THIS: Roberts at her very best. One of the most romantic movies of all time. Nice supporting performances by Elizondo, Bellamy and San Giacomo.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some are uncomfortable with Vivian’s performance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and adult themes to go with a smattering of foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Bellamy’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 15th Anniversary DVD edition is loaded with ’em; a Natalie Cole music video, footage from the wrap party (in which we get to see Gere, Roberts and Marshall warble “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to an appreciative audience, a tour of the locations that the production filmed at in 1990 with Marshall as your tour guide and a blooper reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.4M on a $14M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Still Alice

Strange Magic


Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

Welcome to Fairyland Idol.

(2015) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the Voices of Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Meredith Ann Bull, Sam Palladio, Peter Stormare, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Elijah Kelley, Llou Johnson, Tony Cox, Joe Whyte, Gary Rydstrom, Robbie Daymond, Sterling Sheehy, Amanda Jean Young, Nicole Vigil, Brenda Chapman. Directed by Gary Rydstrom

At the risk of making this review about the reviewer – a cardinal sin – I want to preface this particular review with a little bit about me. I try to be fairly lenient whenever viewing a movie. I honestly try to highlight the things about a film that work rather than focus on the things that didn’t. I try to criticize constructively as often as possible, sometimes with suggestions on what I think might have improved the movie. I don’t look for pithy bon mots at the expense of the filmmakers or the cast, or at least I try not to. Sometimes it’s unavoidable; I’m only human after all.

I give out few perfect scores, but I do hand them out, usually about three or four a year. However, up until this point, more than five years into this blog I haven’t ever – not once – given out a zero. Until now.

Strange Magic is an animated feature from LucasFilm, with a story written by George Lucas himself that is loosely – very loosely – based on Shakespeare’s immortal Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s actually a brilliant idea – that’s a Shakespeare play that cries out for being the subject of an animated feature; just not this one.

After discovering her husband-to-be has been cheating on her, fairy Marianne (Wood) turns her back on love, becoming a fairyland version of Xena, Warrior Princess instead. Her younger and blonder sister Dawn (Bull) is boy-crazy in the way that mid-teen girls can be. Her good friend Sunny (Kelley) – who happens to be an elf, which means he looks a whole lot like a garden gnome – would like to take things to the next level, although Dawn has her eye on much better looking guys than Sunny.

Advised by Marianne’s ex Roland (Palladio) to get himself a love potion from the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) under the pretense of winning Dawn’s love for Sunny but in reality so he can liberally douse Marianne with the potion and get her back to the altar so that he can win the kingdom he wants to rule. However, Sunny’s success provokes the Bog King (Cumming), who has a vendetta against love but turns out to be a sweet guy despite the Jewish insect mom (Rudolph). Will true love triumph or will Roland’s plans to win the fairy kingdom end up destroying it?

The filmmakers, in a particularly Baz Luhrmann moment, decided to pepper the soundtrack with pop songs from across the various decades of rock music (the music supervisor from this film also worked on Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge) which ends up making this a cross between an excruciating night at the karaoke bar and a particularly bad episode of Glee. While some of the songs are punchy and/or performed adequately, the bulk of them seem to be thrown in there without regard for whether they fit in with the movie’s plot or atmosphere. While Wood, Chenoweth and Cumming have fine voices, the soundtrack is essentially a hot mess.

The animation is something I’m kind of torn on. The backgrounds are extremely detailed and chock full of interesting eye candy which normally isn’t a bad thing, but scene after scene of overwhelming imagery makes you want to shut down, or at least it did me. There was literally too much going on but at least it provided someplace to look other than at the characters who have that creepy rubber-faced style that made motion capture films so unpopular. At the end of the day the characters look like they sprang from a video game circa 2003.

None of the characters are given much depth and there isn’t much reason to root for anyone. “But this movie isn’t intended for adults,” you might say. “This is meant to appeal to a much younger audience.” You’d be correct in pointing that out, but appealing to children doesn’t have to mean pandering to their lowest instincts. Kids aren’t cretins; they can be very smart and yes, they actually have standards, probably higher than most adults when it comes to animation. After all, they see a ton of it, more than we do since they tune in to Nickelodeon, Disney and the Cartoon Network more regularly than we do.

I can’t honestly and in good conscience recommend this for anybody. I wish I could – I would love to see Lucas hit one out of the ballpark, something he hasn’t done in several decades – but this film is just so terribly made that it gets the absolute bottom of my normal rating scale; the dreaded Zero. Please save yourself the chore of asking for your money back after walking out halfway through by spending it on a different film in the first place – the lovely Paddington comes to mind.

REASONS TO GO: Not a one.
REASONS TO STAY: Poor animation. American Idol-like singing that sometimes approaches drunken karaoke levels. Several steps backwards in animated feature quality.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly scary images that may upset wee tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sisters Marianne and Dawn were originally supposed to have long brown hair but in order to save on animation costs, they were given short hair instead with only Marianne retaining brown hair to differentiate her and Dawn’s hair style.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Epic
FINAL RATING: 0/10
NEXT: Black Sea

The Hundred-Foot Journey


Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

Helen Mirren serves up a treat.

(2014) Dramedy (Touchstone/DreamWorks) Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon, Amit Shah, Farzana Dua Elahe, Dillon Mitra, Aria Pandya, Michel Blanc, Clement Sibony, Vincent Elbaz, Juhi Chawla, Alban Aumard, Shuna Lemoine, Antoine Blanquefort, Malcolm Granath, Abhijit Buddhisagar, Rohan Chand, Masood Akhtar, Arthur Mazet, Laetitia de Fombelle. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Some directors have an abiding patience for place and story. They allow the tale to unfold onscreen naturally, never or at least rarely forcing the action and allowing things to happen organically, giving the film a richness that comes from life’s own richness. Few directors possess such patience and trust. Lasse Halstrom is such a director.

In a small French village (mainly Castelnau-de-Levis but also Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, both in the Tarn region) there is a restaurant with a single Michelin star presided over by the iron-willed widow Madame Mallory (Mirren). Across the street is an abandoned and dilapidated former competitor which now stands empty. However, when an Indian family of restaurateurs, led by redoubtable patriarch Papa Kaddam (Puri) has their sketchy rented van break down in the village, she is distressed to discover that Papa has taken an interest in the vacant property and means to put in a new Indian restaurant.

At first she isn’t too impressed; after all, presidents have dined in her classical French establishment and the village may not be ready for the exotic spices, smells and sounds of the new Mumbai Maison. However, she didn’t reckon on Papa’s son Hassan (Dayal) being a tremendously talented but untrained chef. She also didn’t reckon on her sous chef Marguerite (Le Bon) falling for Hassan and lending him some books on French technique and recipes.

When the house is vandalized by French nationalists, one of whom working in her own kitchen, her attitude begins to soften a little bit. Eventually she recognizes that in Hassan she has found an amazing talent, the sort that could win her restaurant a second Michelin star. However, if she woos him away from his family and if he is as successful with her as she suspects he will be, undoubtedly world class Parisian restaurants will come calling and will Hassan be able to survive everything that goes with being a rock star chef in Paris?

Halstrom has crafted a movie in many ways not unlike his 2000 similarly-set film Chocolat in that it is about culinary talents in a bucolic French village with a romance taking place between two young people from completely different worlds. On the surface it may seem that this movie is about the preparation of food – it actually isn’t and to underscore this, about a third of the way through the movie Hassan discusses with Marguerite the mastery of five basic French sauces including Hollandaise which he asserts is made with olive oil. The sauce is actually made with egg yolks, butter, a bit of lemon juice and white pepper. Although this is a detail only a foodie or food industry professional might know, it’s the kind of detail that a movie obsessed with the preparation of food would get right.

Instead, the movie – based on a novel by Richard C. Morais – uses food as a metaphor. Meals are memories, asserts Hassan, reminding us of places and times in our lives. Good food can take us back to childhood, to magical moments of our youth, to family meals long after the family has scattered to the four winds. He’s not wrong on that score.

But whereas the mercurial and rigid Madame Malory is stuck on the same cuisine and in doing so, stuck on that single Michelin star (she dreams of being awarded a second), it isn’t until the passionate Hassan enters the picture melding French techniques and recipes with Indian spices and techniques that the restaurant flowers and approaches that lofty mark.

And in Hassan’s case, his love for French technique and cuisine is symbolized by his love for the French sous chef, as his passion for his heritage cuisine is symbolized by his love for his father and family. Close to both of his inspirations – Marguerite and Papa – his imagination and creativity are inspired. Taken away from both, his passion is drained from him. His success becomes empty because his food has become hollow.

 

Mirren is one of the finest actresses in the world and any chance to see her should be taken without hesitation. However, American audiences may be less familiar with Puri who is as revered in his home country as Mirren is here, and he is one of those actors who fills every role he plays with humanity and gentle humor. He is truly a treasure.

Unlike the first two movies in our Films for Foodies series, you won’t necessarily be hungry for French or Indian food when you leave the theater, although I have to admit a nice samosa wouldn’t be a bad thing at all right about now. However, this is a movie with a great deal of heart and a story told with a gentle touch. This is a village you’ll want to live in and restaurants you’ll want to dine in and more importantly, people you’ll want to spend time with. As slices of life go, this is a particularly delectable morsel.

REASONS TO GO: Gently paced. Lots of heart. A place you’ll want to stay in and people you’ll want to hang out with. Mirren and Puri are treasures.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit less about food than the logline would lead you to believe. A bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of violence, a distressing scene involving a personal tragedy, mild language and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Dayal is of Indian descent, he was actually born in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Le Chef

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Into the Storm

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)


Jiro dreams of airplanes.

Jiro dreams of airplanes.

(2013) Animated Feature (Touchstone/Studio Ghibli) Starring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, Mae Whitman, Werner Hertzog, Jennifer Grey, William H. Macy, Zach Callison, Madeleine Rose Yen, Eva Bella, Edie Mirman, Elijah Wood, Darren Criss. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1922 “The wind is rising, we must try to live.” As with most symbolist poems, the concept can be taken in a lot of different ways.

Jiro Horikoshi (Gordon-Levitt) is a young man who has dreamed of airplanes ever since he was a schoolboy (Callison). He had dreams in which his idol, Italian aeronautical engineer Count Giovanni Caproni (Tucci) shows him fantastic creations filled with family and friends, floating above endless sunlit grassy plains and meadows. In this dream kingdom shared by Caproni and Jiro, the wind blows ceaselessly. In fact, that wind blows through Jiro’s life events both tragic and wonderful.

As Jiro is travelling to university in Tokyo from a visit back home, the train he is riding in is stopped short when the Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastates Tokyo. He meets a young girl named Naoko (Blunt) who is travelling with her maid. Her maid breaks her leg in the incident and Jiro carries her back to Naoko’s home, along with Naoko. He leaves without giving the grateful family his name. When he goes back to inquire about the two girls, he discovers their home has burned to the ground in the fiery aftermath of the earthquake.

After graduating, Jiro gets a job at Mitsubishi along with his close friend Honjo (Krasinski). They work on a design for a plane commissioned by the Japanese Navy. The project is overseen by Kurokawa (Short), an unpleasant and energetic height-challenged person who turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Overseeing Kurokawa is the more kindly-natured Hattori (Patinkin).

The project ends up in failure but his superiors recognize that Jiro is a budding innovator and sends him to Germany to study their impressive efforts. Jiro, accompanied by Honjo, is disturbed by the increasing militarism of Germany and frustrated by their unwillingness to share anything but the most basic information. Jiro recognizes some of the same militarism emerging in his own country.

Once back Jiro is given another Navy plane project but on its test flight the plane crashes. Disheartened and exhausted, Jiro is sent by his concerned employers to recover at a mountain resort. In a bit of serendipity, it turns out  that the hotel is owned by Satomi (Macy), the father of Naoko who Jiro falls deeply in love with. However, she has contracted tuberculosis, a disease that also killed her mother. The outlook for Naoko looks bleak but in an effort to fight off the disease and get healthy, she agrees to go to an alpine clinic to get better.

In the meantime Jiro has resumed working on a radical new design that will make his planes lighter, more maneuverable and faster. However, his conversations with a German pacifist (Herzog) at the resort have attracted the attention of Japan’s secret police who want to take Jiro away – so Mitsubishi hides him at the home of Kurokawa and his wife (Grey). Naoko realizes she’s not getting any better so she decides to go to Jiro and marry him, spending whatever time she has left with the man she loves. While Jiro is realizing his dream to create beautiful aircraft, he is troubled by the eventual use of his planes, knowing that this militarism will eventually destroy his own country. However, he labors on, trying to get the most of his time with Naoko who encourages him even as she weakens.

First of all, this is a gorgeous movie with beautiful curved lines nearly everywhere. The aircraft portrayed in the movie are largely fantastic. Adding a bit of whimsy to the proceedings, nearly all of the mechanical sounds are made by humans, from the roar of the earthquake to the sputter of engines turning over. It’s a marvelous touch that is delightful to both young and old.

Unlike Ponyo which was aimed squarely at the very young, this is most certainly a movie for older audiences. It moves at a stately, majestic pace which the younger crowd will be far too restless to tolerate. In fact, some older audiences may have the same problem – the middle third of the movie is almost glacial as it moves from the terrifying earthquake/fire sequence to the love story.

There are those who are criticizing Miyazaki and the film because Jiro is designing a fighter plane that would be used to take lives (I thought mistakenly that it was the Zero that he was working on and while he did eventually design that plane, the one shown in the film is its predecessor the A5M. The movie does to an extent gloss over the carnage Jiro’s creations unleashed on the Allied forces in World War II. Left-leaners have tended to opine that Miyazaki should have at least criticized the militaristic nationalist leanings of Japan and questioned whether someone who designed weapons should be glorified with a feature film. Ironically, conservatives in Japan have labeled the movie “anti-Japanese.” What’s a venerable animator to do?

I find the criticism to be invalid. Miyazaki damns the militarism by showing its affects on Japanese society without making comment on it. He allows people to draw their own conclusion – the success of which can be inferred by the many differing opinions about the movie’s message. I have to admit that as an American I was very aware that the “beautiful machines” that Jiro was designing would be used to take American lives and that felt a little strange to me. I also found myself able to put that part of me aside and take the movie as a whole without allowing my prejudices to influence my ultimate opinion. War is a terrible thing, as some of the images near the end of the movie show – but Miyazaki recognizes that it is also the catalyst for technological advance.

The imagery is gorgeous, flowing and sweeping across the screen. The early scenes of early 20th century Japan are bucolic and lovely, the earthquake sequence terrifying and beautiful and the scenes at the resort pastoral and also lovely. The colors are bright and harmonize beautifully together and the score enhances the movie subtly. It is not Miyazaki’s best – I still think The Princess Mononoke is and Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service are both superior to this, but it is definitely up in their category. While I did like Frozen when I saw it late last year, this should have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Period.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeously rendered. Innovative and clever. Wonderful love story at the center of the film; Jiro is an amazing character.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long. Drags in the middle third a bit. Somewhat low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images of fantasy and war.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 72-year-old Miyazaki initially announced that this would be his final animated feature but on December 31, 2013 he withdrew his retirement during an interview on a Japanese radio program. It is said he is considering a sequel to Ponyo as his next project.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aviator

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: 3 Days to Kill

Apocalypto


These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

(2006) Adventure (Touchstone) Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Lorena Hernandez, Itandehui Gutierrez, Sayuri Gutierrez, Hiram Soto, Jose Suarez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena. Directed by Mel Gibson

Hey, does anybody remember when Mel Gibson was one of the pre-eminent directors in Hollywood? When Braveheart won Oscars and he was the sexiest man alive and the darling of talk shows? I can’t think of a single actor who fell as far as Gibson did through mostly his own doing. Lindsay Lohan comes to mind but even her fall was less spectacular because she never achieved the heights that Gibson did in his heyday.

On the heels of his unexpected hit Passion of the Christ which was the first film to show Hollywood the box office power of the Christian audiences and essentially gave birth to a whole new subgenre – the Christian-funded and directed films which are largely promoted through churches and group sales, Gibson turned his attention to ancient Mesoamerica. This movie, with dialogue entirely in native languages (ancient Mayan although how accurate the language is can only be verified by scholars; I don’t remember any objecting at the time this came out) is supposedly taken from portions of the Popol Vuh, an 18th century collection of ancient Mayan myths and oral histories written down by a Spanish Dominican priest and was acted largely by a cast of locals.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lives in a quiet village on the modern Yucatan peninsula with his pregnant wife and child. He is young, handsome and as the son of the tribal chief already starting to gain the respect of the tribe. While on a hunting expedition he and his friends come upon an unfamiliar tribe who ask politely for passage through their territory; their own homeland was overrun by a vicious tribe of Mayans and they are refugees trying to find a new place to settle down.

Jaguar Paw is disquieted by this and his misgivings turn out to be merited; the same vicious tribe attacks his own tribe. Jaguar Paw, already a bit paranoid, manages to secret his wife and child in a deep pit where they can’t be seen by the invaders. The rest of the tribe are raped, gutted or captured to be taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw knows that he has to somehow get away and make his way back to the now-deserted village or else his wife and child will surely starve to death.

Gibson is no stranger to violence and cruelty in his movies. Even his more mainstream films can show some fairly extreme brutality and this film may be the most violent in his filmography. There are hearts ripped out of chests, jaguars ripping faces off, arrows protruding into basically anywhere on the body an arrow can protrude from, people eviscerated with dull blades…the list goes on. Some critics took issue with this at the time, pointing out that the Mayan culture was also responsible for advances in mathematics and astronomy. The American South also had some of the finest writers and musicians of the 19th century but oddly enough nobody bitched about 12 Years a Slave failing to portray that part of Southern culture nor did it need to. It always blows my mind when critics miss the point so badly. I certainly disagree with the critics who said that the final images gave them a sense of relief. From my take, it was more a sense of foreboding.

Then again, Gibson was already under fire about his drunken anti-Semitic remarks for the first time, an incident that occurred while the film was in production which undoubtedly soured a number of critics on the film. Not that I agree with Gibson’s point of view in that regard, but part of what we’re supposed to do as critics is separate the work from the worker, the art from the artist. My opinions of Mel Gibson the human being shouldn’t inform my opinions of the films he directs. Braveheart is still a terrific movie. The Lethal Weapon series is still entertaining.

This is a gorgeous looking film (if you overlook all the blood and gore) and Rudy Youngblood in the heroic lead is astonishing. I thought that he had all the screen charisma needed to become a huge star but sadly that didn’t happen, or at least not yet and not here. Looking at his performance now, he captures the feeling of a smart hunter, one who operates more on instinct than intellect and one who knows the jungle and its dangers intimately. He is out of place in the city of the Mayans and the escape sequence is nothing short of thrilling.

As someone who loves history I have to applaud Gibson’s willingness to tackle an era and a place not often explored in the movies. I wish that other films since then went back to the ancient Mayan civilization and looked at it from different perspectives but to date that hasn’t really happened much. Hopefully some filmmaker with little regard for Hollywood’s restraints will go that road someday.

I have mentioned the violence and the gore several times and I will admit that as time goes by in the film you get kind of numb to it and those who are sensitive (if they last that long) may find the blood and guts wearying after awhile. However, I have to also point out that these things are part of the story and necessary to the point Gibson is trying to make. It isn’t necessarily a pleasant one and the brutality certainly gets your attention.

I think that this is a brilliant, underrated film. If you can get past Gibson’s sins as a person and simply look at the movie as if it were directed by someone else, you may find yourself appreciating the artistry and the independence from the Hollywood mainstream. This isn’t like any movie the major studios have produced before or since and likely ever again. This is one of those movies that may take a little bit of getting used to but it is worth the investment.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Exhilarating action scenes. A look at a time and place rarely seen in American cinemas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence and sadism wears on you.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some very graphic violence as well as some pretty disturbing images; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital special effects crew playfully added a single frame of Waldo from Where’s Waldo? lying on the pile of dead bodies.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.7M on a $40M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Road to El Dorado

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Inside Llewyn Davis

Delivery Man


Chris Pratt needs a hug.

Chris Pratt needs a hug.

(2013) Comedy (Touchstone) Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Simon Delaney, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Patten, Adam Chanler-Berat, Britt Robertson, Jack Reynor, Amos VanderPoel, Matthew Daddario, Jessica Williams, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Leslie Ann Glossner, Derrick Arthur, Michael Olberholtzer, Kevin Hopkins, Jessica Abo, Kate Dalton. Directed by Ken Scott

There’s a difference between being a dad and being a father and sometimes the two get confused. Anybody with sperm can be a father; not everyone is cut out to be a dad.

David Wozniak (Vaughn) is a charming but incompetent slacker who delivers meat for his father’s (Blumenfeld) Brooklyn butcher shop. He often gets sidetracked, using the truck to take care of his personal business and essentially chauffeuring the meat around Brooklyn. He takes four times as long to deliver the same meat as other drivers and it seems likely that if his dad didn’t own the joint he would have been fired long ago. His brothers Victor (Delaney) and Aleksy (Moynihan) are exasperated with his aimlessness. David needs some focus, a reason to be responsible.

He might have one now that his girlfriend Emma (Smulders), a cop, tells him she’s pregnant. David is thrilled and looks forward to being a dad but Emma isn’t so sure she wants him to be around. She needs stability and security; she wants to know that David will be there when he says he’ll be there and won’t leave her holding the bag every time, something he has done to her many times in the past.

David is also $80K in debt to loan sharks who are threatening to drown him in his own bathtub. To make matters worse, he’s also been served with an injunction. It seems that 20 years earlier, he’d donated sperm to make some extra cash. A lot of it, in fact. Due to a clerical/systemic error at the sperm bank, an excess of his ejacula has been used to procreate – 533 times. Yes, David is the proud pappy of 533 kids and 142 of them have filed a lawsuit to discover the identity of their sperm donor father. David had signed an anonymity clause for every one of his donations and had used the name “Starbuck” as a code to determine the source of his sperm.

Realizing he needs a lawyer, David goes to his best friend Brett (Pratt), a single father of four who isn’t respected by his children, his mother – pretty much everyone else for that matter – who happens to have a law degree. Brett actually welcomes the opportunity – this is the kind of case that can become a landmark and establish a fella in the profession.

David is given for reasons that I dare not even guess a folder full of profiles of the 142 progeny who are involved in the lawsuit and given strict instructions not to open them. David being David, he opens one up and discovers that one of his sons (Hopkins) is a basketball star. Heartened, he decides to open other profiles and discovers that each of them are pretty decent kids, from the one who is a struggling actor (Reynor) to one who is struggling to get her life together after years of drug addiction (Robertson).  One of them, Viggo (Chanler-Berat) manages to figure out David’s identity and rather than disclose it moves in with him.

Becoming the guardian angel for his kids turns David’s life around, despite Brett’s protestations that he is potentially harming his own case. Will David’s past sins threaten everything or will his new attitude finally make him the man Emma thought he could always be?

This is an English-language remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck which played this year’s Florida Film Festival and had a brief theatrical run at the Enzian earlier this fall. The same director who did that does the remake and I’m not sure whether or not that was a good idea – this is virtually a shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake that differs only in minute details from the original.

Which is fine because I liked the first film so much but the remake doesn’t really add anything. Vaughn is as affable and as charming an actor as you’ll find in Hollywood and this is the sort of role that he has built his career on, albeit David is less of a fast talking con man than some of Vaughn’s other performances. In fact contrasting Vaughn with David Huard who played David in Starbuck I think if anything Vaughn is more laid-back than Huard was. Who would have predicted that?

The things that made the first film so enjoyable are present here as well – the heartwarming charm, the gentle humorous pokes at fatherhood. Although the subject matter of sperm donation has an inherent sexual component and it is alluded to in a couple of jokes, this is largely as family-friendly a comedy as you’re likely to find from a major studio release these days and it certainly lacks the raunch of Judd Apatow’s work or the Hangover series. Some might say that there’s not enough edge here but that’s entirely a matter of personal taste.

As pleasant comedies go this one is inoffensive and while I would certainly recommend Starbuck ahead of this, those who haven’t seen the former will certainly enjoy this one, quite possibly a lot. While the average movie critic and cynical indie-loving film buff might decry this as too manipulative, a little manipulation can be a good thing from time to time.

REASONS TO GO: Vaughn is as engaging as ever. Funny and heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks edge and energy. Doesn’t add anything to the original.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of sexual material, a bit of drug content, some foul language and brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pratt gained 60 pounds to play the out-of-shape lawyer Brett.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parenthood

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Book Thief