UFO: It Is Here (UFO: Es Ist Hier)


These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

(2016) Horror (Daredo) Laura Berlin, Dennis Mojen, Olga von Luckwald, Leonard Hohm, Jan Walter, Hacky Rumpel, Andreas Ladwig, Fabio Cimpeanu, Nika Cimpeanu. Directed by Daniele Grieco

 

If you’re gonna be a film student, you might as well be ambitious. It’s all well and good to film a documentary at the local zoo, but when an object appears in the sky above your heads, causing the animals in the zoo to universally freak out, that’s a whole other matter. Abandoning your original project to search out a crashed meteorite might just be the ticket not only to getting an “A” but perhaps getting your name out there in the industry.

That’s exactly the situation that confronts Melissa Stein (Berlin), Leo Best (Mojen), Paula Idem (von Luckwald), Erik Greven (Hohm) and André Selke (Walter). Afterwards, they take a vote among themselves to drive to the Northwest and find the crash site of the meteorite and the vote passes, with only sensible Paula voting to finish their Zoo assignment.

Paula is however overruled and off they go in their van into the woods of Germany/Luxembourg/Belgium (where the movie was filmed by the way) and find what amounts to a needle in the haystack. Wouldn’t you know it but they do; a plume of smoke signals that they’ve found what they were searching for.

The crash site is covered with a haze of smoke and is nothing like they expected. There are metal fragments everywhere; scattered all over the ground among scorched trees and embedded in the trunks of trees as well. It is nearly dusk by the time they get there and worried that the authorities will have cordoned off the area before they can get the footage they need, they elect to remain there overnight with once again Paula voting for going home. They should have listened to Paula.

One of their number turns up missing the next morning and when they eventually make a grisly discovery, it becomes clear they are being hunted. Eventually they find a cave where they have an encounter with the thing that’s stalking them and it is like nothing seen before on this Earth, at least for as long as humans have been here.

This is a found footage film which may turn some off to it immediately; for awhile there it seemed like every other horror movie utilized the technique until it became pretty much overused. These days it has become decidedly less so, which makes reviewing it a bit easier. Still, it’s hard not to compare it to the granddaddy of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project whose template is followed pretty closely by Grieco and to be fair if you’re going to follow a template, that’s a pretty good choice. There are also some nods to Alien, a movie Grieco professes much admiration for. The creature has some similarity to things encountered in the Ridley Scott film, although I think it’s more of an homage than a theft in this case.

Essentially what you have here is five good-looking young people making bad choices in the woods (and later, in a cave and even later in an abandoned farmhouse). That’s essentially the recipe for any horror film, but I was pleased that at least one of the characters seemed to be sensible; she just wasn’t listened to  There is a fair amount of gore here – it’s not for the squeamish by any standard – and mostly practical effects. The alien itself is pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t call it a state-of-the-art creation. We don’t see much of it except in one cave scene where one is found that appears to be in a slumber while digesting a recent meal. There is also plenty of shaky-cam going on which those who are sensitive to such things should be wary of.

I admit that for me to be wowed by a found footage film it has to be really innovative and bring something to the table that no other film in the genre has. This one does have a few things worth checking out but otherwise it really doesn’t add anything particularly new to the genre. It’s solidly made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the line he starts to get some mention with the young lions of the horror genre.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are primitive but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many found footage tropes here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, some disturbing images and plenty of horror violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second straight found footage film that Grieco has directed, having had a hit in her native Germany with The Presence in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Deepwater Horizon

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Life of Pi


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum at times.

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

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

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

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where the Wild Things Are

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

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Killing Them Softly

Zookeeper


Zookeeper

Kevin James talks to his target demographic.

(2011) Family (Columbia) Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Ken Jeong, Cher (voice), Nick Nolte (voice), Adam Sandler (voice), Sylvester Stallone (voice), Judd Apatow (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Maya Rudolph (voice), Faizon Love (voice), Don Rickles (voice). Directed by Frank Coraci

 

There’s a Hollywood platitude that a smart actor never works with kids or animals. Of course if a career is going to have any longevity, it is inevitable that one will someday have to work with either or both. If you’re going to do a movie set in a zoo…well, be prepared to be upstaged.

Griffin Keyes (James) is a zookeeper who really loves his job. He enjoys interacting with the animals in his charge and cares very much about them. He is a kindly, genial sort who is also quite shy and a bit clumsy. He is trying to get over the rejection given him by Stephanie (Bibb), his ex who turned down his elaborate marriage proposal five years earlier. It devastated his self-confidence and led him to an existence with virtually no social life.

He has earned the respect of the zoo’s veterinary zoologist Kate (Dawson) who sympathizes with his plight. Stephanie had dumped him because he was a zookeeper, someone with a limited income and limited possibilities. Of course Stephanie is a shallow materialistic individual that has no business with guy like Griffin anyway but Griffin doesn’t see that.

He has a chance to win her back, even though she’s seeing an ex-boyfriend named Gale (Rogan) who is as mean and as shallow as she is. The animals, thinking that Griffin will leave them unless he finds a girl in town who will keep him there, decide to give Griffin dating advice so that he can win the girl.

Of course, this unnerves Griffin more than a little bit. It turns out however that animals can in fact talk and just choose not to because it freaks out the humans when they do. Griffin particularly bonds with Bernie the Gorilla (Nolte) who is depressed. Griffin cheers him up (by taking him to a TGI Fridays of all places) and the two become best friends. No comment on being the best friend of a primate, please.

Of course Griffin must eventually make  a choice between Stephanie and a life as a successful car salesman and Kate and a life as a humble zookeeper. I’m sure you’ll be able to guess which way the wind blows on this one.

The movie got critically panned during its release last year and it made a few “Worst film of the year” lists which I think is a bit harsh. Certainly there are some misfires here.

Casting James isn’t one of them. He is one of the most likable actors working in Hollywood and it’s hard not to root for him, even if his romantic leads of Bibb and Dawson don’t seem to be the types who would fall for pudgy older men. Of course, as a pudgy older man I have some experience in this.

The problem here is mostly with the zoo animals. They were matched with celebrity stunt voice casting which might have pulled a few bodies into the theater at the time but the CG was a little bit rough and the voices don’t always go with the animals really well.

Worse still, I get the sense that this was a movie that wanted to pull in an adult audience but the studio was aiming for a family audience and we got jokes that fell somewhere in-between. Some of the jokes were probably a bit much for kids, and others a bit dumbed down for their parents. Try to please everybody and you wind up pleasing nobody, and that statement is never truer than it is here.

There is some heart and charm and it shows through at unexpected times. Dawson does a great job as being the girlfriend everyone wants to have – just like in Clerks 2. She reminds me a little bit of Meg Ryan in that regard; she has a big future in romantic comedies in my opinion. Kevin James is also pleasant to watch.

And that really sums up the movie in a nutshell. It’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. You won’t hate it while you’re watching it but you won’t love it either. It’s just kinda…there. Your kids might get a kick out of the talking animals but something tells me that it won’t be enough for them to put it on their regular viewing list.

WHY RENT THIS: James is plenty likable and Dawson is the girlfriend every guy wants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animals don’t quite work out so well and the humor is mostly either too over the heads of kids or too dumbed down for adults.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor, a little bit of innuendo and some mildly bad words. Still acceptable for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and an in-depth look at the creation of Bernie the Gorilla in physical effects. The Blu-Ray also contains a playable demo for a Sony Playstation 3 Game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $169.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie basically made back its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

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