EATING ANIMALS (2018, doc)

June 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Our food supply and sources have become a deserved focal point of interest over the past few years, and director Christopher Quinn brings the 2009 best- selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer to the big screen to ensure we are paying attention. What began as a project looking at how animals were raised to fulfill the demand for edible meat, evolved into an analysis of traditional farming methods versus today’s prevalent factory/big corporation farming. We learn that the growing demand for affordable and convenient food in the 1970’s really kicked off the factory farming industry, and now it’s roughly 99% of the market. Only 1% of farmers resisted and survived (as farmers).

We eat meat not because of how it’s produced, but in spite of it.” Consumers demand delicious, affordable and convenient food, and the film looks at beef, chicken, turkey, pigs and dairy. We are told that factory farming began accidentally thanks to an overshipment of baby chicks several decades ago. Farming and our food supply haven’t been the same since. There is some rare behind-the-scenes footage from factory farms that is difficult to watch. Narrator and Producer (Oscar winning actress) Natalie Portman talks us through the disgusting “pink lagoons” of hog poop, as well as how the raising of animals for food is said to be responsible for up to half of climate change, and for having a significantly negative impact on air pollution and water quality.

Of course most people, when asked, are against animal abuse and geological degradation so what goes on “inside” the barns remains confidential and secure. Going behind the doors of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, we witness conditions and actions that we would prefer not to see. We are informed that 80% of the anti-biotics being produced go towards farm factory animals, and the goal is to modify normal growth size and speed by 4 times. With this approach comes increased risk of pandemics, superbugs, and flu viruses. That’s our tradeoff for the delicious, affordable and convenient demands.

The USDA comes under attack here as well. The agency is accused of silencing the whistleblowers who are doing the job the agency was created to do. They are now ‘protecting the fox, not the hen house’. This is all tracked back to politics and money from the big corporations affiliated with or benefitting from factory farming. Some old clips of Col Harland Sanders (of KFC fame) proves even he was concerned about this many years ago.

Emotion comes into play here as the connection of traditional farmers to their animals is contrasted to the mass production of farm factories. Industry secrecy and protection is presented as a red flag, and the independent farmers are shown as good guys while the giant corporations remain faceless and (mostly) nameless. Only towards the end of the film do we gain some insight into the research being conducted on meat replication through plant-based systems. It’s brilliantly compared to the early days of “gas light substitute” as a name for Edison’s electricity. We are told that India and China now combine to total almost 3 billion people, and their diets are trending towards that of the U.S. – leading to more pressure for faster and cheaper food. Traditional farming isn’t even taught in school these days, and the film barely touches on the always on-going debate between “humanely” raising animals for food vs. veganism. The film succeeds in showing us the problems, but doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions or even a better way … although it’s clear one is needed.

watch the trailer:

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JACKIE (2016)

December 10, 2016

jackie Greetings again from the darkness. There will be two distinct groups that erroneously presume this is a traditional biopic of the glamorous former first lady: those who wave it off as Lifetime Channel fare, and those who excitedly walk in thinking they are going to be swept away in the pink Chanel suit from that fateful day in November 1963. Instead, the first English language feature from director Pablo Larrain (No, 2012) offers up a what-might-have-been look behind the scenes and takes a stab at the psychological make-up of the often underestimated and complex woman known even today as simply Jackie.

The opening scene provides the first of countless close-ups of Natalie Portman as Jackie. Different than the usual movie close-ups, these are somehow closer – more intimate and more intrusive. The shots make us uncomfortable, as if we are intruding on her personal space. This is by design, as the film takes us to a surreal place where we see Jackie the person, rather than Jackie the icon. The framing device used is an interview she granted to Life Magazine reporter Thomas H White (Billy Crudup billed only as “the journalist”) at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, merely a week after the assassination.

To grasp the concept here from director Larrain and writer Noah Oppenheim (in a big stretch from The Maze Runner), it’s imperative to understand that, at the time, Jackie was the personification of a nation’s grief and the ultimate example of dignity and grace (yes, Seinfeld fans, she had grace). We quickly witness the power and control she wielded. “Don’t think for a second I’m going to allow you to publish that” … she states after exposing her most vulnerable and personal thoughts. Later, she puffs on a cigarette and tells the reporter, “I don’t smoke”. It’s in these moments that we begin to realize the point – Jackie was a master at generating the “proper” public perception from even the harshest personal realities (many of which the film politely ignores).

Much of the film deals with her dogged pursuit of creating a lasting legacy for her husband. The idea of Camelot was meant to provide hope and idealism to the public who so wanted to idolize and romanticize the first couple. The symmetry with Lincoln – the portrait, the bedroom and the meticulously planned elaborate funeral procession – were meant to establish heft and substance for an all-too-brief administration that even had brother Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) lamenting how little was accomplished. These were the calculated strategies of a woman who was much more than the charming and slightly nervous host who took America on a televised tour of The White House on CBS in 1962.

The film utilizes flashbacks to the Lincoln Continental with the Texas Schoolbook Depository in the background, as well as detailed recreations of The White House, Parkland Hospital, Air Force One, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and of course, the pink Chanel dress. That said, this is certainly not a movie designed to solve the case or disprove one of the conspiracy theories … it remains steadfast as a close-up of Jackie.

Others in supporting roles include a nearly unrecognizable (and minus her usual ticks) Greta Gerwig as Nancy Tuckerman (Jackie’s social secretary and friend), John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as LBJ and Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, stunning lookalike Caspar Phillipson as JFK, and a remarkable John Hurt as the Priest helping Jackie through her spiritual crisis. But of course this is Natalie Portman’s movie. She captures the breathy vocals and the contrasting strong directness when dealing with Bobby and Lyndon. Her movements mirror those from the actual footage of the White House tour … it’s really a performance to behold.

Many original images, videos, and clips are blended/spliced into the re-enactments to add a touch of sentimentality and prove how close to reality the film holds. One thing to brace for is the most unique score you’ll likely hear in a film this year. Mica Levi’s unusual sound brilliantly complements the many moods of Jackie, and even manages to remain strong around Richard Burton’s rousing rendition of “Camelot”. Ms. Portman’s performance and the behind-the-curtain approach work well in reminding us that these were real people … not just Kennedys.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (2016)

April 30, 2016

Dallas International Film Festival 2016

a tale of love and darkness Greetings again from the darkness. The establishment of the state of Israel and the memoir of Amos Oz are the foundation of the feature film directorial debut of Natalie Portman. First time directors don’t typically fight over such source material, but it has always seemed that Ms. Portman was headed towards bigger (and more important) things.

She was born in Jerusalem and this story opens in that city during 1945. The narrator is the elderly Amos and the story is told through the eyes of young Amos (a very effective Amir Tessler) … though the focus is on his mother Fania (played by Ms. Portman).

The tensions between Jews and Arabs are ever-present, but this is the mostly personal and intimate struggle of Fania and her family. She has survived the atrocities of the Holocaust, though many of her family and friends did not. In fact, her inability to overcome this past and adjust to the new world is what has the biggest impact on young Amos and his scholarly father Arieh (Gilad Kahana). Amos soon figures out that the litmus test for his mother’s mood is whether she is telling stories of the old days, or staring blankly into a void.

Watching someone fade away and experience death by depression/disappointment/unfulfilled dreams goes so against what we typically see on screen – the emotionally strong and heroic types. Portman’s performance makes it believable, but no less difficult to watch … for us or young Amos.

The film is well shot and well acted, and much more is conveyed through faces and movement than spoken words … somewhat unusual for the recollections of a writer. The color palette and the silence dominate many scenes, and it seems appropriate given the situation of this family. Expect to see many more projects from director Portman, as she obviously has much to say.

watch the trailer:

 


MR. GAGA (doc, 2016)

March 31, 2016

mr gaga Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t think for a second this has anything to do with the globally famous Lady Gaga; however, if the name recognition causes a few more people to watch this labor of love and respect from filmmaker Tomer Heymann (Paper Dolls, 2006), then so much the better. Creative geniuses make fascinating subjects for talented documentarians, and Israeli dancer and modern dance choreographer Ohad Naharin is certainly no exception.

The opening scene captures Ohad working with a female dancer on the proper way to fall down … over and over – even after she bangs her head on the floor. It’s our first of many glimpses behind the scenes of his style for rehearsals. His quiet intensity perhaps restrained for the cameras; he harps on dancers more about emotion than technique.

Ohad’s own words provide much of the film’s backdrop and structure. That combined with the stunning performance footage from numerous shows he choreographed, we begin to get a feel for this driven visionary. By the end, we have also been provided some insight into his childhood, his late arrival to formal dance training, the death of his first wife/co-creative partner, and the birth of his first child.

We see clips of his prowess as a young dancer who couldn’t find fulfillment in the dance companies of Martha Graham or Maurice Bejart, but who seemed destined to make his mark with modern dance … sometimes causing a bit of controversy along the way. His founding of Gaga – what he calls “movement language” is given a celebrity endorsement from Natalie Portman, who mentions that it allows her to find pleasure in dancing, which is more typically associated with pain. Ohad’s own description is that Gaga is designed for us to “listen to our body before we tell it what to do”. He proclaims that Gaga is accessible to the masses, and that dance has the power to heal.

Director Heymann’s film expertly captures many sides to Ohad Naharin, a man originally drawn to dancing not as a career, but rather as something he enjoyed. The talented dancers and the extensive rehearsal footage remind us of the physical and mental grind required to achieve greatness in dancing … a lesson that carries forward for most any endeavor.

watch the trailer:

 

 


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


THOR

May 18, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Upfront admission: I am not a Thor comic book expert. Many people are and I fully appreciate their take on this film will be much different from mine. I can only judge this movie on the basic background knowledge I have and the final product on the screen.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Chris Hemsworth makes a terrific Thor. If I had his looks and build, I would certainly consider myself a Nordic God. Heck, I might even carry around a giant hammer just for fun! Thor, son of Odin, is all set to be named King of Asgard until his quick temper and love of battle cause a break in the peace accord with the Frost Giants. His dad, Odin, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins is none too pleased with his hot-headed son. Not only does he renege on the promise to name him King, but he strips his power and casts him down to Earth … specifically New Mexico. For some reason, all alien portals lead to New Mexico. You can tell it’s a been a bad day for Thor because he lands in the middle of nowhere and is promptly run over by a science lab van driven by Natalie Portman.

 Other good stuff: Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper, is excellent; there is a cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye – a teaser for The Avengers movie next year; Jaimie Alexander shows some chops as Sif; Clark Gregg is back as Agent Coulson; some of the special effects are pretty cool … the Frost Giants are very detailed and The Destroyer looks like Iron Man on metallic steroids; and lastly, Kat Dennings has a couple of sharp lines as Portman’s assistant. Ms. Dennings was superb in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

 OK, the not so good stuff: I am beginning to despise 3-D (it adds nothing, while diminishing the brightness of colors); Jotunheim (land of the Frost Giants) is plain, gray and boring; Natalie Portman, fresh off an Oscar is just terrible as an astro-physicist with a teenager-style crush on Thor; Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of the weakest villains I have ever seen in a super-hero/comic book movie; Rene Russo must not have read the script prior to accepting her role – she has about 3 lines and is totally wasted.

Despite the weaknesses, I found the movie to be entertaining enough thanks to the scenes with Thor and Odin. The ambitious son being shown tough love by his father is a missing element in much of society today. Guess it takes a Nordic God to show us how. The scenes with Portman are painful to watch, but I believe there is enough to keep the comic book fans, and just about anyone else, entertained.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who is best known for his Shakespeare and stage work, the movie does have a little different look and feel from the average superhero movie. Still, I wouldn’t put it in the class of Batman, Spider-man, or Iron Man. We do get the expected Stan Lee cameo and the end-of-the-credits appearance of Samuel L Jackson. Up next, Captain America but for now, it’s Hammer time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Thor comic books OR you just want to see what a shirtless Nordic God would look like OR you want to see a challenge to Elisabeth Shue in The Saint as the most miscast scientist (Ms. Portman)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the dialogue and story to make sense OR you prefer to remember Natalie Portman as the fine actress she was in Black Swan.