Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

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Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Druid Peak


This is the West.

This is the West.

(2014) Drama (One Small Thing) Spencer Treat Clark, Andrew Wilson, Rachel Korine, Damian Young, Nathaniel Brown, Armand Schultz, Lanna Joffrey, George Joe Smith, Bernadette Cuvalo, Ian Jan Campbell, Rebecca L. Baldwin.. Directed by Mami Zelnick

Florida Film Festival 2014

Nature versus nurture is an ongoing debate to explain why some kids turn out to be okay and others turn out to be monsters. Is it an environmental thing that turns kids into bullies, or is it some DNA misfire inside them that makes them predisposed to that sort of behavior?

Whatever the answer is, Owen (Clark) is a bully. He seems angry at everyone and everything. He’s intimidating to his fellow students and is known to get physical. He lives in the coal country of West Virginia in a town which doesn’t have a whole lot going on. When his actions lead to a tragic incident, his fed-up mother and stepfather put him on a plane to Wyoming where he will stay with his taciturn father Everett (Wilson), who monitors the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park.

At first this seems like a match made in Hell. Owen is angry and surly – one of his first actions when he arrives in Wyoming is to steal some of his dad’s money – and his dad doesn’t seem too interested in being the nurturing sort. With there being even less to do around his dad’s isolated cabin than in West Virginia, Owen decides to go for a walk.

There he encounters a wolf – and by encounters I mean up close and by a wolf I mean not a Doberman. The encounter piques Owen’s curiosity and he begins to seek out the wolves in the wild. Before long he has become adept at tracking them – “thinking like a wolf,” as his father puts it. The curiosity grows into a genuine affinity.

Before long, Owen begins to exhibit some real changes. He has found something to care about and a purpose to his life. However, the world of wolves isn’t all running in the woods and howling at the moon. Local ranchers, embodied by McGill (Young), have some real concerns about wolves from the park raiding their livestock for a free meal. Owen also develops a bit of a crush on Zoe (Korine), McGill’s daughter. When the wolves are removed from the endangered species list, freeing local hunters the opportunity to go after them, things may never be the same for Owen or his father.

Zelnick, who has been producing and writing films for several years, makes her debut as a director here although you’d never know it. Her work on Druid Peak is as assured and efficient as if directed by someone with decades of experience. Every shot here matters and while there are the occasional beauty shots of the landscape, even those help set the tone for the film.

She wrangles a terrific performance from Treat, who has been a child actor for some time (and in a number of excellent films) and most recently appeared in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. He makes a good impression here starting Owen off as surly, bad-tempered and outright mean. The bully though morphs into an advocate for the defenseless and while the change might seem extreme taking place as it does over a single summer, both Zelnick and Clark make it organic and believable.

Wilson is a presence as Everett and while he has a kind of hippie eco-fanatic vibe to him, there is a practical core underneath. While I do wonder not so much why Everett and Owen’s mom split up but how they got together in the first place (which is explained neatly in the film by the way), I can see how Everett ended up in Wyoming. My own Wyoming experience is in the Eastern portion of the state where it is miles and miles of miles and miles, but my Colorado-bred wife assures me that the area in the Tetons, where this was filmed (near Jackson Hole but not in Yellowstone itself) is just as breathtaking as any in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

While the story takes a little while to get going – mostly as it is established what a rotten egg Owen is, the scenes of which might be a bit traumatic for those who have been bullied before – once the plane touches down in Wyoming the magic really begins. This is a very solid first feature and one which bodes well for some really great filmmaking down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Nice performance by Clark.

REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to get going. Bullying scenes may be disturbing to watch for those with similar life experiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and some acts of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Wilson is the older brother of Luke and Owen Wilson.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Forev

Frozen (2010)


Frozen

Making this movie sucks!!!

(2010) Horror (Anchor Bay) Kevin Zegers, Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, Ed Ackerman, Rileah Vanderbilt, Kane Hodder, Adam Johnson, Chris York, Peder Mulhuse, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Wil Barratt, Dee Snider, Cody Blue Snider. Directed by Adam Green

It’s a nightmare we’d all prefer not to have – the no-win situation, in which nearly every option ends up in a particularly brutal or gruesome demise. What do we do in a situation like that? Wait patiently for death to take us? Or go down fighting and perhaps putting ourselves out of our own misery?

Dan (Zegers) and Lynch (Ashmore) are two buddies who have gone on an annual ski trip as long as they could remember. The dynamic is a little different this time out; Dan’s new girlfriend Parker (Bell) is along for the ride.

There is some tension between Parker and Lynch. While the latter has known Dan much longer, the former might just be “the one.” They don’t speak each other’s language and both of them are miserable; Lynch wants to enjoy the more “A” personality types of slopes which they can’t do because of Parker’s inexperience on a snowboard; Parker simply doesn’t want to be there at all.

Browbeaten by Lynch into one last run, they bribe a chairlift operator to allow them on one last run. A series of small errors snowballs (‘scuse the pun) into a really nasty situation when the resort crew shut down the lift and turn off the lights on the resort, unaware that there are three people stranded on the chairlift four stories above the mountain. You see, the people working at the resort are eager to get home with a bad storm on its way in.

At first the three young people are understandably angry and pissy about the situation, but those emotions turn to fear when they realize that there is nobody to rescue them and as bad as the frostbite and exposure is, there is something much worse below and nobody will be coming for them for at least five days.

Director Adam Green previously helmed the mighty satisfying slasher flick Hatchet and he does a pretty fine job here. From the moment when the ski lift stops, you’re on the edge of your seat. You would think that a movie about three people stuck on a chair lift would be kind of talky and to an extent it is, but the conversation is realistic and interesting – the characters depicted here are as real as people that you encounter every day for the most part.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a “stupid people doing stupid things” mentality. The chain of coincidences that strands the three mostly stems from the resort crew not following what I would expect to be standard safety procedures at any ski resort (i.e. making sure the lift chairs are all clear before shutting down the system) and yes, the three people sitting in that chair are prone to being stupid as well.

That said, the chemistry between Ashmore and Zegers is genuine and covers all the bases from “A” to “Z.” They bicker like good friends do and speak in shorthand like good friends do. These are guys that you’ve had a drink with at the local bar from time to time; they’re also the guys who have marathon PlayStation sessions and watch zombie movies while stoned. You know the sorts – the bachelors living in the godawful-messy apartments in nice complexes.

There are some disturbing images, particularly of people getting injured by falls or frostbite, as well as some death scenes you might not want the kids to see. Filmed on location in Utah, the actors were left on an actual ski lift 50 feet above the ground in the dead of night with temperatures hovering right around single digits. The expressions of cold you see on their faces are genuine from that standpoint.

I can’t really say this is a game-changer in terms of horror movies, but it is nonetheless well-crafted, solidly acted and expertly executed. I liked the concept a lot and I like the way Green realized it, but there is an awful lot of chatter and not just from the cold.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension level is ratcheted up to 11. Some pretty gruesome death scenes. Genuine chemistry between the leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stupid people acting stupidly syndrome. Necessarily talky, but talky nonetheless.

FAMILY VALUES: There are several disturbing images, plenty of foul language, and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every character in the film is named for a close friend of director Adam Green, who also cameos as a disgruntled patron on the chairlift.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the grueling conditions of making the movie on location; there’s also an Easter egg about a suicide on the same spot where the movie was eventually filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie might have broken even, but probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Swing Vote

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness

The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells

When you look into the woods, you never know what might be looking back at you.

(Gkids.com) Starring the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Evan Maguire, Chisten Mooney, Paul Young, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Paul Tyack. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the mundane so much so that we lose track of things that are less tangible but more important. That can happen more easily in times of stress.

At the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, times are certainly troubled. The Emerald Isle is under frequent attack from the vicious and cruel Vikings of the North, who come seeking gold and leave destruction and misery in their wake. The Abbott (Gleeson), a stern man, is constructing titanic walls around the Abbey to protect it and the village surrounding it. At the center is a tall tower, the top of which is the residence of the Abbott. From his window he can see anything – and anyone – coming to attack.

His nephew Brendan (Maguire) is a bit of a dreamer, longing to be one of the illuminators who draw the beautiful manuscripts the order is known for. However, the Abbott is more concerned with getting the wall built and often uses the illuminators – particularly Brendan, who has a tendency towards daydreaming – to help with the heavy labor.

That all changes when Brother Aidan (Lally) arrives, his cat in tow. Aidan is the greatest illuminator of the age and he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona, a tome that he has been illuminating most of his life, one which was started by a Saint no less. Brendan is struck by hero-worship, particularly when he sees the first few pages of the Book.

Aidan sends him into the woods surrounding the fortress for a particular berry that makes a delightfully green ink (and tends to explode in a noxious cloud of smoke for some reason) and meets Aisling (Mooney), a wild girl of the forest with flowing white hair who may not be exactly what she appears to be. Although at first suspicious of one another, she agrees to help Brendan on the condition that he never return to “her” forest. Brendan agrees and they strike up a fast friendship.

The rest of the plot is concerned about the conflict between Brendan’s idealism and the Abbot’s pragmatism, between Brendan’s independence and the Abbot’s authority. Yes, the inevitable invasion of the Vikings occurs and there are ramifications of it. There is also a heaping dosage of Irish mysticism. And then there is the Book, which will eventually become better known as the Book of Kells.

One of the things that disturb me about animated features is the need to talk down to juvenile audiences. If there’s something that Up teaches us is that you can respect the intelligence and wisdom of kids when it comes to an animated movies just as much as you can the adults. There’s simply no need to dumb it down, and yet this feature, made by some of the animators who worked on The Triplets of Belleville (a very adult animated feature) utilizes a gaggle of international monks (one Italian, one Caribbean, one Russian I think and so on) who serve no other purpose than for kids to laugh at ‘em.

Personally I could have done without the comic relief. What works here is the beautiful hand-drawn animation. The filmmakers wisely decided to create the look of an illuminated manuscript, so the scenes are awash in intricate detail. This is certainly two dimensional and a bit of a throwback, but it’s obvious a great deal of love and care went into the animation. It makes for a very stylized look, but it is so detailed that it bears multiple viewings nicely. You will be transported, as I was, by the intricately drawn geometric shapes with the delicate scrollwork and bright colors.

The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this past February, which was a bit of a surprise to many moviegoers who hadn’t heard of this movie. It beat out better-known releases such as Monsters vs. Aliens for the nomination. Those who are fortunate enough to find this playing in their town and give it a shot will see precisely why it was so honored; this is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking animated features I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO GO: The beautifully drawn backgrounds resemble an illuminated manuscript come to life. The animation is inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Like too many animated features, it dumbs itself down for younger audiences needlessly. Voice actors for Brendan and Aisling fall in and out of Irish accent.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A co-production of Belgium, France and Ireland.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely, this deserves to be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW:  Mid August Lunch