BORN IN CHINA (2017, doc)

April 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. You’d be hard-pressed to name or find anything cuter than a baby Panda, and the folks at Disneynature don’t hesitate in taking full advantage of our affinity for such fuzzy black and white cuddliness. Am I upset with them after watching this documentary? Only because they periodically cut away to a herd of antelope.

This is the next in a line of Disneynature films dating back to 2007 (Oceans, Bears, African Cats) that usually hit theaters in close proximity to Earth Day. This particular screening was also affiliated with the inaugural year of EARTHxFilm, a Dallas-based festival dedicated to all things nature, natural and earthy. Acclaimed Chinese director Chuan Lu and his photography crew take us into some stunning wilderness areas and parts of China that we rarely, if ever, get to see … all to witness intimate wildlife moments in shockingly close proximity.

If what comes to mind are those charming Disney animal features from the 1960’s – the ones that featured the great Rex Allen as narrator, you’re in for a surprise. Hey, I loved Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and Yellowstone Cubs as much as the next kid, but rolling down a leaf-covered hill with a baby Panda that can’t walk yet is a whole new level of awe. Watching a mother Snow Leopard (what an incredible creature!) hunt so her two cubs can eat takes us to the highest standard of respect and admiration for this elusive species. Heck, even the rebellious Golden snub-nose Monkey teaches us about family and community within the monkey world … and how they don’t appreciate cold weather any more than I.

Director Lu provides a loose ancient Chinese structure to the film by explaining that every time a crane takes flight, it’s believed to be relocating the soul/spirit of one dying being into that of a newborn. The spectacle of watching these creatures majestically soar through the orange-sun soaked sky is merely one of the many breathtaking examples of spectacular photography during the film. We are bounced between mountains and forest and rocky vistas and are taken closer than you’ve ever been to a Great Panda scratching her baby, a Snow Leopard on the prowl, or a monkey rescuing his baby sister from an ominous winged predator. The only downside for grown-ups is the over-narration from John Krasinski, an admitted necessity for the youngsters in the audience who will appreciate the one-liners that go along with the cuteness. In Disney fashion, most of nature’s violence takes place off screen, but what we do see are parts of nature that will amaze.

Be sure to stay for the closing credits for a glimpse at how the photographers managed to get some of their shots – as well as how they sacrifice for their work.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE HOLLARS (2016)

September 8, 2016

the-hollars Greetings again from the darkness. John Krasinski’s second film as a director mines the all too familiar territory of dysfunctional family life … only the script from Jim Strouse takes it a step further by burdening each character with their own special form of advanced personal dysfunction. The saving grace here is the always dependable Margo Martindale who anchors the gaggle of struggling men in her life.

Richard Jenkins plays Margo’s husband – a husband quick to cry and slow to recognize most any situation. Sharlto Copley plays their oldest son who is living in their basement and going through life rudderless ever since his divorce. Lastly there is John Krasinski who relocated from their Midwest hometown to NYC pursuing his dream of making it as a graphic novelist.

One morning Margo collapses and is diagnosed with an advanced brain tumor. Krasinski rushes to her bedside to discover that Dad has recently fired the oldest son from the family business that is rapidly approaching bankruptcy. Additionally, big brother is super jealous of his ex-wife’s (Ashley Dyke) new relationship (Josh Groban) and takes to stalking and bad-mouthing. Of course, Krasinski is toting his own baggage. He is whiny and depressed about his job, and has cold feet towards marrying his 8 months pregnant girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The film is loaded with familiar faces and talented actors. Charlie Day shows up as Margo’s nurse and Krasinski’s insecure former high school nemesis who is now married to Mary Elizabeth Winstead … oh yes, she still has the hots for her high school sweetheart (Krasinski). Randall Park is Margot’s doctor, and Mary Kay Place has a (very) brief role as Jenkins’ sister and employee.

Unfortunately the familiarity extends beyond the faces and into the clichéd characters and story lines. Most of the conversations are predictable, though there are plenty of laughs throughout. It may be the only film to feature punchlines utilizing Jenny Craig, Rod Steiger and Indigo Girls. It’s also interesting to see how all three of the lead male characters are wandering aimlessly when the women aren’t guiding them. This is a theme that could have been better explored and helped set the film apart from so many similar type films.

Despite the negatives, any movie that offers up a few laughs to go along with Margo Martindale at its core, does have some value.

watch the trailer:

 

 


13 HOURS: THE SECRET SOLDIERS OF BENGHAZI (2016)

January 17, 2016

13 Hours Greetings again from the darkness. Given that his last “true” story movie was Pearl Harbor (2001), and he is best known for the endless stream of Transformers movies (yes, another one is on the way), it’s understandable how we could be apprehensive (to say the least) about director Michael Bay taking on the Benghazi story. A sigh of relief is in order as the film pays tribute to those who deserve it while still providing Bay the opportunity to blow stuff up, and display his always-annoying tendencies with a camera.

The incredibly courageous soldiers, who comprised the CIA security team (GRS) of contractors that saved many lives, are the heroes of the story and heroes in real life. Bay never loses focus on their bravery and dedication, and avoids the temptation of taking an obvious political stance in telling their story. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from making a weaslley CIA administrator type (played by David Constable) the face of bureaucratic incompetence.

The six man team is played in the movie by John Krasinski (as Jack Silva), James Badge Dale (beefed up from his “Pacific” days as Tyrone “Rone” Woods), Pablo Schreiber (as Kris “Tanto” Paronto), David Denman (as Dave “Boon” Benton), Dominic Fumusa (as John “Tig” Tiegen), and Max Martini (as Mark “Oz” Geist). All six actors are clearly proud to represent these men, and though wise-cracks abound, there is absolutely no Hollywood preening or posturing … these are gritty, well-trained, dedicated warriors.

So much as been written and debated about what happened during the 2012 siege that resulted in the tragic deaths of four Americans, including that of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. But given the reputations of those in the CIA and the State Department, it’s doubtful full disclosure will ever replace the holes of doubt that exist, so studying the action sequences makes sense … though we also get a Joseph Campbell reference. Chuck Hogan adapted Mitchell Zuckoff’s book for the film, and in between the rapid gun fire and missiles, that deafening silence you hear is Washington, D.C.

watch the trailer:

 

 


ALOHA (2015)

May 30, 2015

aloha Greetings again from the darkness. Since I can usually find something of interest, it’s rare that I feel cheated after watching a movie. Of course, feeling disappointed happens more often, but feeling cheated is something altogether different and, unfortunately writer/director Cameron Crowe’s latest is the perfect reminder of that difference.

Three outstanding lead actors (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams), a terrific and deep supporting cast, and a beautiful filming location of Hawaii mean that the fault lies with Mr. Crowe’s script and direction. The film plays like the broad strokes of a screenplay idea, rather than a finished product. It’s as if we are watching filmed rehearsals as a group of writers scramble to connect the story dots … still trying to determine if this is a drama or comedy.

It seems the film was cast with a full-out comedy in mind, but then somewhere along the line, a narrative shift occurred with the hope of making a statement on the privatization of the military and space exploration. There is also an undercurrent of the mistreatment of native Hawaiians, as we are teased with cultural myths, legends and the distrust of the military. Trying to balance these topics with a more traditional romantic-comedy-three-way involving the main characters, results in a disjointed viewing experience that provides only a few chuckles, and a half-baked story of redemption.

The gradual connection of Cooper and Stone (cast as a Navy Fighter Pilot) offers some initial verbal sparring that had potential for comedy gold, but inevitably spun off down a bunny trail of Hawaiian lore or the magic found in the sky. The re-connection of Cooper’s and McAdams’ characters seemed to have continuity holes that might have been left on the editing room floor.  John Krasinski plays McAdams’ husband, and his non-verbal exchanges are the highlight of the film, though the later subtitled version seems lifted from that drawing board straight comedy mentioned earlier.

Bill Murray is cast as the duplicitous billionaire at the core of Cooper’s mission and chance at redemption, though mostly he just acts like Bill Murray with little explanation for his motives. Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin and Bill Camp have their moments, but much more should have been devoted to McAdams’ kids played by Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Danelle Rose Russell.

Cameron Crowe seems to have a driving need to examine interpersonal relationships and what causes some to work, while others falter. His film classics Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are impressive, but also many years in the past. The last fifteen years have produced Crowe projects that teeter between optimism and outright sap. On the bright side, he always has a knack for music, and on that front, he comes through again … “Factory Girl” is blended with traditional Hawaiian songs and even Dylan and The Who. It’s because of this, that you won’t know for sure if your toe-tapping is due to the music or that gut feeling of being cheated.

watch the trailer:

 


PROMISED LAND (2012)

January 7, 2013

DISCLAIMER: This blog was set up to provide thoughts and commentary on movies through the eyes of someone who loves and appreciates the art of cinema. Most of the time, these comments focus on the positive aspects of each movie, while also mentioning any particular areas which, by opinion, seem to fall short of acceptable.  It is rare indeed when a movie is so annoying and lacking in merit that I find myself with mostly negative comments to make.   Typically I would just skip the commentary, however, I believe Promised Land deserves to be exposed for the fraud that it is.

promised Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, a story about a controversial environmental issue (fracking for natural gas) presented by a respected director (Gus Van Sant) and featuring a strong cast (Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook) would be a welcome cinematic contribution, despite an expected slant to the story-telling. Most of us enjoy, or at least accept, a well presented argument that brings light and substance to at least one side of the controversial issue. What no one appreciates is having their time wasted … which is exactly what this ridiculous movie does.

Fluff is fluff, regardless of the subject matter that acts as a backdrop. Matt Damon and John Krasinski combined to write the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. The screenplay is simple-minded, uninformed promised3and amateurish. Did they do any research? It seems more likely they got together a couple of times, sipped a few imports, and threw together an outline. If they had then turned that outline over to a REAL writer, the ensuing mess of a movie could have been avoided. Instead, they somehow tricked Gus Van Sant into becoming the director. This process worked just fine 15 years ago when Ben Affleck collaborated with Damon and Van Sant for the excellent Good Will Hunting. That film shouldn’t even be tarnished by mentioning it here.

There is no shortage of articles available with actual facts on the companies and process involved with natural gas fracking. In 2010, Josh Fox even put together GasLand, a very effective documentary on the subject. So, the idea of formulating a Hollywood dramatic version makes sense. Matt Damon’s name alone ensures better exposure in one week than Mr. Fox’ film has had in two plus years. What doesn’t make sense is a version that is so lightweight and lacking in details, that a convoluted, half-assed love triangle steals the spotlight off what should be the real story.

promised2 What is the real story? A fictional $9 billion company with the generic name Global Crosspower Solutions sends their crack closing team of Steve Butler (Damon) and Sue Thomason (McDormand) into rural Pennsylvania to buy up the land leases from the area’s struggling farmers. Somehow we are supposed to believe that Steve, this hotshot rising star, makes two blunders in the first couple of days – allowing the town to vote, and getting blackout drunk in the only town bar. Then, this brilliant executive totally loses his equilibrium when a small time environmentalist (Krasinski) shows up and starts charming the locals with his horror stories of fracking.

Steve walks around telling people “I’m not a bad guy“, McDormand shakes her head at him and says “It’s just a job“, and Krasinski buddies up with everyone … including local school teacher Rosemarie DeWitt, on whom Damon has a bit of a crush. One of the more ridiculous bits is that Damon’s character supposedly grew up in a farm community just like this and saw it shrivel up when the factory closed. He is probably the only guy to ever grow up on a farm who can’t drive a stickshift and has to be chauffeured around by McDormand. As if all of that isn’t ridiculous and lame enough, here comes the most absurd movie twist of all time. Since the first 2/3 of the movie promised4lacks any sense of realism, the twist is not surprising, but rather just plain ludicrous. It’s a cheap writing device.

As for positives, it’s always a joy to watch 88 year old Hal Holbrook on screen. More attention to his character could have saved the movie …he is far and away the most intelligent and interesting character. Also, Damon’s character goes on a heartfelt rant towards some drunken rednecks. It’s his only scene that works and ends, logically, with a punch to nose. Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy and Lucas Black all have moments of support that deserve a better movie. The same can’t be said for Damon, Krasinski and Van Sant … the blame and embarrassment falls at your feet, gentleman.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you shut your eyes and plug your ears for all except Hal Holbrook’s scenes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer not to reward a couple of Hollywood stars for their lackadaisical efforts

watch the trailer

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo