Archive for the ‘Movie reviews’ Category

MOVIE: Virunga (2014)

November 27, 2014

virungaThis incredible documentary uses the story of a group of dedicated park rangers in charge of defending the land and wildlife — particularly the mountain gorillas — of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a way to illustrate the heinous costs, in both human and animal lives, wrought by ruthless resource exploitation from the West. (Wow, that was a really long sentence. Sorry about that. Stay with me here; I’ll try to do better.)

It opens with a brief history of that exploitation, starting with colonization and running through the present day, where greed, particularly corporate greed, continues to fuel countless wars within and without. The latest round involves a British oil company called SOCO and what they believe to be a major source of untapped oil underneath the park.

Virunga National Park is the last remaining home for the world’s mountain gorillas, a population of about 800. The movie introduces us to several of the park’s rangers, including one of the men who helps run a gorilla orphanage that, at the time of filming, was the home to four young gorillas whose parents had been killed by poachers.  Poaching remains a huge problem in Virunga — not just of gorillas, but also of elephants and other creatures — and is very tightly tied to war on all sides.  Rebel groups in particular have long used poaching, as well as illegal mining and drilling (especially of metals used in electronics), as a source of revenue for weapons and supplies.

For this reason, as well as the obvious environmental ones, DRC long ago prohibited any sort of resource exploration/gathering within its national parks.  This lock-down, however, has intensified the frustrations of those desperate to exploit the valuable ores and wildlife believed to be in those parks, especially in Virunga. Many of them apparently blame it on the gorillas themselves, as well, another thing that has fueled continued poaching in the park. If protecting the gorillas is why we can’t drill for oil, the theory would go, then obviously all we need to do is make it so there are no more gorillas to protect.

Woven together with the story of the gorillas and their protectors is the story of the latest round of war in the region, led by a rebel faction known as M23.  A reporter talking to an M23 leader learns the group is interested in partnering with SOCO — the suggestion is that M23 would be willing to combat the park rangers and secure access, however illegal, to the park, as long as SOCO promises to give them a share of any oil profits that come as a result.

Based on the reporter’s later (undercover) liaisons with a SOCO representative, it sounds as if SOCO is perfectly game, which might be the most horrifying part of this entire film.  The representative, as well as a British security contractor who works for the company, both suggest to the reporter that SOCO routinely pays contractors to work with local rebels, paying them off in order to keep going about their business without any trouble. In other words, SOCO is perfectly willing to break the law and help fund war, as long as they get to  grow ever richer.  As much as I struggle to believe a company as large and as Western as SOCO could get away with something like that, it gets depressingly a lot easier to do when it’s followed by the SOCO representatives talking about the locals, the rangers, and the gorillas themselves — expendable, all.

As the film progresses, M23 begins closing in on the region, and the documentary culminates with an incredibly tense final 20 minutes, in which we hear the bombs coming closer and closer, and then finally erupting in the park.  A young gorilla falls ill and a vet cannot be called in to help him. By the next night, the mountain gorilla population of DRC is 799 instead of 800.  (Watch the park ranger’s face as he describes this loss — see if you can keep your heart from breaking right along with his.)  The local villagers flee, but the park rangers grit their teeth, hoist their weapons, and prepare to defend to the death the land and the creatures they love — knowing full well that “to the death” is absolutely likely, because they will be both out-manned and outgunned by M23. Yet, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in any of them; it’s what they were put on Earth to do, one of them says. He was born to serve a purpose; he was born to protect those gorillas from his own species, and that is what he will do until he can’t do it any longer.

While I was watching this incredibly moving film, I kept thinking one thing over and over: that mankind is both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to Planet Earth.  I suppose it could be argued it is merely the worst — after all, the examples of the “bests” in this film all come from men fighting the destruction wrought by other men.  But I couldn’t help but think: what a tremendous gift good people are.  So tremendous. I want to be good like that too. And if everyone in the world could watch this film and come away feeling the same thing, my god, what a difference could be made.

Virunga recently became available on Netflix streaming; I’m not sure you can currently find it anywhere else. Seek it out, though, because it’s not only worth watching, it’s worth supporting. Very highly recommended!

[Netflix it]

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel


MOVIE: Veronica Mars (2014)

October 16, 2014

veronicamarsI’d been waiting to watch this movie until I could watch it with my mom, who was also a big fan of the series.  Neither one of us was sure what to expect from it, but we were both pretty happy about what we got, I’d say.  Not only was this a great movie for diehard fans of the show, but I think it works really well as a stand-alone mystery too.

As the story opens, Veronica is living in New York, having just gotten her law degree. She tell us she’s grown up, she’s changed, she has no interest in all that filthy snooping business she was into in her youth.  She is, in fact, about to land a high-powered job at a high-powered legal firm. . . when she gets a phone call from her old flame Logan.

Logan tells her he needs her help — he’s about to be put on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, a famous pop singer, and he didn’t do it.  Initially, Veronica, now living with the ever-charming but overly-“nice” Piz, plans to return home to Neptune just long enough to help Logan vet a few criminal attorneys.  But, of course, once she’s back in the world of private investigation, it turns out the lady had doth protested too much (that surely is not the proper way to conjugate that verb, but just roll with it); the lady’s no lawyer, she’s a class-A, snoop-lovin’ shamus.

The gang’s all here, from her dad (Enrico Colantoni, whom I was excited to see in The Mysteries of Laura until it became clear he wasn’t sticking around past the pilot, boo!) to her nerdy gal-pal Mac.  It’s great to see them all again, and the banter is as sharp as ever.  Additionally, the cameo from James Franco made me laugh out loud. TWICE. (Mom: “Who’s James Franco?” Me: “He’s like this super stoner dude who’s really, really smart. Except for the part where he tried to turn As I Lay Dying into a movie, which was really, really dumb.” Mom: “That does sound dumb.” Me: “I knew you’d understand.”)

Overall, they did a great job with this one, funded through a Kickstarter campaign.  And, they left it very clearly open to a sequel, which I’d definitely be on board for.  Recommended for fans of the show — big duh — but even if you never tuned in, you’ll find a lot to love here if you’re a fan of light, easy-going mysteries and solid writing.

[Netflix | Amazon]

Genre:  Drama, Comedy
Cast:  Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Percy Daggs III, Enrico Colantoni

MOVIE: Bound by Flesh (2012)

September 1, 2014

boundbyfleshThis fascinating documentary uses the true story of the Hilton Sisters, famous conjoined twins from the early 20th century, as the framework for a presentation on the history of “freak shows” in America.

Born in 1908, the sisters, Daisy and Violet, were immediately rejected by their mother, who, upon seeing them literally “joined at the hip,” decided they were a punishment from God and would have nothing to do with them.  Her boss at the time, a woman named Mary Hilton, had offered to buy the twins from her, surely seeing in them right away the potential to make a few bucks. The mom agreed, and the sisters were taken away.

Mary owned a pub and immediately set the infants up in a back room, charging admission to come and gawk at them.  The moment they were old enough to start learning how to be entertainers, she had them take lessons in singing, piano, saxophone, tap dancing, and more, and began making them perform on stages across England by the time they were about 3 years old.

Her husband, Myer Meyers, got custody of the girls when Mary died, and immediately began a campaign of physical and emotional abuse to keep them in line. He forced them to perform almost constantly, limiting their exposure to others who might cause them to question their experiences.  For years and years, the girls were stars — isolated, lonely stars — ultimately branching out into vaudeville (and later burlesque), where they performed with a huge range of giant stars, including Harry Houdini and Bob Hope.

When movies exploded onto the entertainment scene, the sisters managed to land a couple of roles — starring in the cult hit Freaks and also a film loosely based on their lives (Chained for Life).  But their acting career never took off, for understandable reasons, and by the early 1950s, as vaudeville jobs began to dry up, Daisy and Violet found themselves reduced to performing their by-then very outdated acts at drive-in theaters screening one of their films, where they were often at best ignored and at worst hooted from the stage.

Though medical advances had long ago made it possible for them to be separated, they had always refused, something I completely understand, being a twin myself (never conjoined, but I would find it difficult to sever by choice any element of the bond my sister and I have).  Their later years were filled with semi-sordid staged marriages for media attention, an unwanted pregnancy that led many to speculate openly and graphically about what sex with a conjoined twin would be like, and final careers as clerks at a small-town grocery store.

As the sisters rolled into their 40s, they suddenly found themselves essentially penniless — a succession of greedy managers had walked away with nearly all their income and they’d lived a party-hardy lifestyle for many years as well.  The last few years of their lives, they lived reclusively in a small town in North Carolina, where they depended largely on the kindness of their neighbors for subsistence.  They never made it to their 50s.

This engrossing film tries to present both sides of the sideshow/freak show coin — the nasty, exploitative side, and the side in which terribly disabled people were given the chance to attain a degree of autonomy they would likely never have seen if not for their willingness to turn themselves into exhibits for entertainment.

It’s hard to say what the lives of the Hilton sisters would have been like without Mary Hilton’s eye on their market potential — if they had been loved by their mother, would that have been enough to make a happy life for them?  Or would they have merely been seen as “freaks” and rejected by others anyway, with none of the upsides of celebrity and fame?  They certainly had happy years, as well as hard ones.

I suppose that’s the question the film ultimately leaves the viewer with, really — was it worth it?  I wonder how they would’ve answered, and I’m sorry we’ll never really know. The story of their death is certainly a heartbreaking one, as well as a testament, again, to the intensely powerful bond of being a twin. “At least they had each other” seems kind of trite, except, you know what? It sure makes a difference.

Very interesting documentary about two very interesting young women living in a very interesting time.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Leslie Zemeckis

MOVIE: The Calling (2014)

August 29, 2014

callingI had a bunch of brainless stuff to get done this weekend, including addressing about 150 letters asking for donations to a charity auction I’m working on and knitting a baby sweater for same, so, to keep myself entertained, I rented a ton of movies and made myself spend nearly two full days on the couch gettin’ shit done.

This one, out in theaters today, apparently, but also available on demand from various streaming platforms, was a fairly decent choice for the job.  I needed movies that would be engaging, but not require all that much in terms of steady concentration.  A murder mystery seemed like the perfect choice.

Set in Canada, it’s about a Detective Inspector, Hazel Micallef (Sarandon), who is nearing the end of her career both because of her age and her steadily worsening drinking problem. One morning, she’s sent to do a wellness check on an elderly neighbor, and finds the woman dead in her kitchen, her mouth frozen in a horrific grimace.

When the coroner tells her the woman’s face was not only posed, but that it would’ve taken hours for the killer to get it to freeze the way it was, Hazel starts to suspect this was more than a routine murder.  Sure enough, a little digging turns up several other bodies, their faces staged with similar expressions.

Those expressions end up being the key to figuring out who the killer is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  And while I admit that whole element was a bit on the far-fetched side, I definitely gotta give it props for being unique, which is kind of the case with this movie in general.  A lot of what happens in the story is pretty unbelievable, starting with a mother letting a complete stranger, who is incredibly creepy to boot, frankly, visit her sick daughter and give her a cup of tea made out of a bunch of weeds he keeps in his pocket. Yeah, right. At the same time, while the killer’s motive was hardly original, the path to its reveal had its moments.

Since this movie wasn’t out yet last weekend, renting it on demand ran me somewhere along the lines of $10.  I’d say it was probably worth about that much and no more, and it’s definitely not the kind of film you need to see on the big screen unless you feel strongly about patronizing movie theaters (which I do myself, but not strongly enough to want to pay two bucks more to see things like this in them — well, $12 bucks more, really, because: popcorn).  Waiting until it drops to more like $4 would be a reasonable move.

But it was nice to see Sarandon again, and man, does Ellen Burstyn ever look fantastic. (Why can’t I be Ellen Burstyn? Where have I gone wrong?)  Plus: Topher Grace, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and who does a decent job here as the newbie detective on the squad.

Recommended, though nothing to get too excited about.  If you have a big envelope-stuffing project to work on, you could do worse!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Rent/Buy]

Genre: Mystery, Drama
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn,Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Christopher Heyerdahl


Double Feature: “Rise” and “Dawn” of the Planet of the Apes (2011/2014)

August 23, 2014

rise_apesI had plans last Saturday to go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the afternoon with my bad-movie-watching buddies.  Since they’d both seen the first one in this series and I hadn’t, I spent the morning before our date watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes to prep.

I’d seen the original Charlton Heston film as a kid and hadn’t been that into it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from either of these.  While I’ve got a few bones to pick with both of them, though, I found them pretty entertaining on the whole.  Definitely Mom-watching material (hi, Mom!), and also way, way more fun to watch with my bad-movie-watching buddies than our last pick had been (the near-unbearable Godzilla).

These two films serve as prequels to the Heston one (and also the abominable 2001 remake by Tim Burton, which I also tried to watch last weekend — I didn’t last 20 minutes). In that one, Heston plays an astronaut whose ship crashes onto a strange planet populated by a bunch of talking apes, only to find out at the end (spoiler alert!) that he’s actually landed on Earth 2000 years in the future.  (In related news: soylent green is people!)

Rise and Dawn tell the story of how the talking apes came to be in the first place.  And, as you might expect, they came to be because of human hubris.  Oh, you humans. And your hubris, my god!

In Rise, scientist Will Rodman, wholly unbelievably played by a very sleepy-seeming James Franco, is working for a private biotech corporation in San Francisco, developing a virus he hopes will cure Alzheimer’s.  When one of the chimps he’s tested the virus on becomes outrageously smart, Will can’t wait to tell the board his work is a success.  Unfortunately, while he’s sharing the good news, that same ape goes berserk and ends up being shot and killed on the board room table.  Not exactly the intended ending to Will’s PowerPoint presentation [insert bad joke about bullet points here] [sorry].

The president of the company demands the other apes all be put down, but as the chimp handler is doing the terrible deed, he discovers the ape that had gone bananas (pun intended) had just given birth to a baby — that, rather than the virus, could have been the explanation for her sudden aggression.

Will sneaks the baby chimp home, intending to secret it away to a sanctuary.  But, of course, it has also been infected with the virus, and when Will realizes it too is incredibly intelligent, he ends up keeping the little guy instead.  His father, in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s himself, names the baby Caesar, and after Will sees the power the virus has had on Caesar, he begins to inject it into his dad as well — curing him almost immediately.

Of course, anyone who’s seen Project Nim knows this whole “raise a chimp like it’s a baby human” thing is not going to work out well for any of the parties involved, especially the chimp.  And, indeed, when Caesar hurts a neighbor trying to protect Will’s father during an altercation, he’s taken away by the courts and sent to an (abusive) primate center.  Bitter, Caesar turns his back on Will and his family — just as Will’s father’s immune system begins to reject the virus and his Alzheimer’s returns.

Will begins work on a new version of the virus — stronger, better, faster — and treats a second chimp with it. In the process, the human chimp handler dude is exposed as well. One night, Caesar manages to bust out of the primate center and breaks into Will’s house, stealing several canisters of the new improved virus, which he then uses to brainify all his new ape buddies.  Soon, a huge pack of infected, super-smart chimps, orangutans, and gorillas are racing through town, finally making their way to the redwood forest across the bridge, where they hide from humans and are not seen again.

Meanwhile, the chimp handler coughs on an airline pilot, and the first movie ends with the clear suggestion an epidemic is coming.

dawn_apesDawn of the Planet of the Apes starts out about ten years later, with the apes now in a fully-formed civilization and the humans utterly extinct. Or so they think.  That assumption is corrected when two chimps cross paths with a small party of men and women headed into the woods on a quest to reactivate the local dam and restore power to their settlement in the city. One of the humans, terrified of what he’s seeing (talking chimps will do that to a guy, especially if that guy is also an armed jackass), shoots and kills one of the chimps.

Though Caesar, the leader of the ape group, wants to try to maintain peace with the humans, and one of the humans feels similarly, a series of misunderstandings and lies inevitably leads to all-out war. Ain’t that always the way?

Dawn is a bit too rife with shooting and yelling for my tastes — though Caesar can speak English very well, he almost never uses his “inside voice,” and I started to get a little tired of all the shouting.  Additionally, of course, it makes no sense that any of the apes can speak English at all — the ability to speak isn’t related to intelligence in primates, it’s related to the structure of their mouths and throats. The talking ape thing makes way more in the original film because the apes in that one had had hundreds of generations to evolve.

There were some other aspects of both movies that didn’t make a whole lot of sense either, and neither movie had all that much to offer in terms of original ideas.  However, I was impressed by the special effects (the apes, barring a few situations in which they seemed to move a little weirdly, really looked like apes and not like the CGI creations they were — credit the great Andy Serkis (as Caesar) for a lot of that work).

Plus, the moral of the story sure seems timely.  I’d say it goes a little something like this: the smarter we get, the more like big dumb animals we become. (No offense to animals intended.)

Definitely a great choice for a summer popcorn flick.  Entertaining story, decent characters, and a whole lotta cute apes to boot (oh, Maurice! I have such a crush on you, you sweet orange thing!).


Genre: Science fiction
Cast: Rise: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Brian Cox
Dawn: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

[Netflix Rise | Amazon Rent/Buy Rise | Trailer for Dawn]

LEGO Double Feature: The LEGO Movie (2014) and Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary (2014)

August 14, 2014

legomovieI saw The LEGO Movie last February and loved it so thoroughly much I decided to hold off on reviewing it and make one of the characters a Boyfriend of the Week.  I wanted to tie the write-up and the review into one big metaphoric LEGO brick I then metaphorically pitched through your metaphoric windows with a gigantic, delightful metaphoric crash.

BUT, as these things do(n’t), that didn’t end up coming together.  Poor MetalBeard; loved and forgotten, all in a span of only about 5 months.  That just ain’t right. (Though, alas, it is all too common — I have 7 (!) unfinished write-ups right now and I can’t seem to focus my attention on any of them long enough to wrap them up!  So many Boyfriends, so little time for foolin’ around!)

Delaying the review, however, ended up being kind of lucky, because when the Seattle International Film Festival came around again this year, I got a chance to see a new LEGO documentary called Beyond the Brick, which was even BETTER than The LEGO Movie, making this pretty much the most perfect double-feature write-up of blissfulness ever.

These two films have two things in common (aside from the obvious theme): they both star a mini-fig, which is awesome because minifigs are my favorite part of LEGO (Beyond the Brick is narrated by Jason Bateman in LEGO form, which is just about the most delightful thing of all time, and The LEGO Movie’s stars are all mini-figs, of course), and both are incredibly funny and completely charming.

Okay, that’s three things. Stop checking my work, nitpickers!

The LEGO Movie was the film I saw first, so let’s start with that one.  It was a huge, delightful surprise!  I was expecting a full-on kid movie, and instead, what I got was a movie very obviously written by someone more or less my age.  The pop culture references were spot-on for my generation, and even the inside jokes about LEGO were things adults were much more likely to pick up on than kids.  Judging from the audience I saw it with, I’m not alone in this, either — the kids in the theater were giggling, but the adults were absolutely roaring.

The plot is nothing unique — it’s about an accidental hero and the buddies who make his heroism possible — but the plot isn’t the point; the characters and the humor are the point, and the point is an incredibly great way to spend 100 minutes of your time.  All the little details are fantastically fun, and the “moral” of the story, that being creative is awesome!, is a great reminder for movie watchers of all ages.  If you’re a fan of interlocking brick systems — or even if you were when you were a kid and you’ve never looked back since — dollars to LEGO croissants, you’re going to get a big kick out of this movie.  And that’s all I’m going to say about it, because I don’t think I need say anything more. IT IS GREAT.

beyondthebrickBeyond the Brick, on the other hand, is not only entertaining, but also utterly fascinating.  This documentary tells the story of the origins of The LEGO Group, which began as a toy company in Denmark in 1949, manufacturing toys made primarily out of wood (like, little wooden ducks on wheels, for example). Then one day, while at some kind of toy expo, the owner saw a demo of a plastic molding machine and got a really great idea.

Since the dawn of the basic 2×4 brick, these toys have been used for a variety of things completely unrelated to play. Engineers and architects use LEGO to build models of new structures, math professors use them to illustrate problems (how many unique configurations can you make with 3 2×4 bricks, e.g.), and they’re used by artists to create all kinds of amazing, creative works (you’ve probably seen Nathan Sawaya’s stuff before).

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we’re also introduced to a child psychologist who uses LEGO to help severely autistic children interact with each other and with their therapists.  Kids are put into groups and given a project to build together, each with a specific task.  By following such a direct, clearly defined plan, children who typically have an extraordinarily difficult time engaging with others are able to talk to each other, work together, and create something as a team.  This scene alone makes the film worth the price of admission, if you ask me — what a genius idea, and what an amazing tool for positive change.  TOYS!  They are the best.

The film also has an interesting focus on adult LEGO “play,” too.  It profiles a number of grown-ups famous in the Brick Con (LEGO convention) world for their fantastical creations and structures, as well as people who have created their own LEGO-based businesses, like the Washingtonian guy (a friend of my brother’s, coincidentally) who designs, presses, and sells historical guns and other weaponry (LEGO itself mostly only makes Old West and sci-fi guns).

After all these enterprising adults started to monkey around with the LEGO brand, making their own accessories and builds and even selling some of them for profit, LEGO was forced into a not-so-unusual dilemma in the corporate world: do they go after the people profiting off their brand and sue the pants off ’em?  Or do they embrace the creativity of their fans and try to find a way to work together?

Happily, they went in the latter direction, not only allowing those businesses to continue, but also launching a platform several years ago called “Cuusoo” (Japanese for a concept similar to the word “wish”), in which builders from all over the world design LEGO sets, fans vote on the ones they like the best, and LEGO picks a winner and then develops, markets, and sells the set.  I lack the words to fully express how much I love the whole Cuusoo concept (it’s now called “LEGO Ideas,” by the way).  It’s simply one of the coolest things a huge corporation has ever done for its fans, andpoking around on the site looking at everybody’s designs and voting on my favorites is one my favorite ways to unwind in the evenings (if you have a moment, by the way, register on the site and then vote for the LEGO Hubble telescope, because HOW COOL IS THAT?).

meglegoAll in all, LEGO is sure having a pretty great year on the big screen.  I highly, highly recommend both these movies, especially to all you adult fans out there.  Kids will love The LEGO Movie, to be sure, but you grown-ups will love it even more (unless you have hearts made of plastic). And nobody won’t love Beyond the Brick, because it’s pure perfection. That one isn’t available at the moment, but — best news of all — it’s been picked up by a distribution company  and should be more widely released in late 2014 or early 2015 (according to the producer, who was at the screening I attended answering questions)!  Woo!


[Netflix LEGO Movie | Buy/Rent it on Amazon | Beyond the Brick site]

Genre: Kids, Documentary, Comedy
Cast (LEGO Movie): Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman

MOVIE: Unforgiven (2013) (Japanese remake)

July 20, 2014

unforgivenFans of the Western genre will appreciate the symmetry of this film.  Back when Clint Eastwood was an actor instead of a director, he appeared in the film A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti Western based on the Japanese samurai movie Yojimbo.  And now, mumble-mumble years later (I could look that up, but I won’t) one of his films has been reverse-engineered into a samurai movie all its own.

The good news is that it’s very good.  The bad news is that it’s virtually a scene-for-scene remake, with few surprises.  The guns have been replaced with swords, and the outfits are (mostly) different, but aside from that, most of the characterizations and the action is the same.  Which is fine, really; it’s a remake, after all. It’s just that there was a lot of room in this story for newness based on the fairly dramatic cultural and historical differences, and that didn’t get as much consideration as I would’ve liked it to.  Maybe the grim business of killing is the same in every culture, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the lack of invention.

Fans of Ken Watanabe, future Boyfriend of the Week, should definitely catch this one — he makes an excellent Clint Eastwood.  But even better is his sidekick Akira Emoto, who not only plays Morgan Freeman’s character, but looks exactly like a Japanese Morgan Freeman.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, frankly.  It was amazing how much they resembled each other.

Definitely recommended to fans of the original, but this film stands alone just fine as well, so if you hate gunslingers but love samurai, you’ll find a lot to like here for sure.

[View trailer]

Genre: Western/Eastern, Foreign
Cast:  Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Jun KunimuraShiori Kutsuna, Yûya Yagira

MOVIE: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

July 17, 2014

brokencircleThis is the saddest, most beautiful film I have ever seen.  I kind of want to leave it at that, but I’m about to make a huge mess of everything instead by going on, because, you know . . . I’m in a mood. And it put me there. Apologies in advance.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play cowritten by the film’s hirsute star, Johan Heldenbergh, is about a Flemish man, Didier, who begins the story in love with American bluegrass music, and ends it in love with a tattoo artist named Elise.

They meet at a show he’s playing, and fall head over heels almost immediately. Initially, it’s largely a physical relationship — they want each other desperately, and there’s little time for anything else. But when Elise suddenly becomes pregnant, the relationship is turned upside down, shaken like a cup full of dice in a Yahtzee game. Finally, they manage to overcome their trepidation at making so immutable a commitment to each other, get married, and move in together, beginning the business of living.

One night, as Didier’s playing some of his favorite tunes for Elise, she begins to sing along, timidly at first, then, gauging his reaction, more boldly. He realizes her voice is exactly the thing his band has been missing, and she soon becomes an integral part of the group, bringing harmony both to his life and to his music.

Nine months later, they have their child.  Four or five years after that, they lose her.

And then they lose everything else.

This isn’t a spoiler, I wouldn’t say, by the way — the story is told in a series of flash-backs and -forwards, jumping back and forth through various stages of their relationship, so you know what’s coming, for the most part, long before you get there.

That’s why, in fact, it took me over 2 months to watch this movie all the way through. After the first 30 minutes or so, I had to stop every ten and wait another week before continuing. It was that difficult to watch, that difficult to feel, to experience.  I have never lost a child, and I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.  But I’ll tell you this, because I can’t seem not to right now: I’ve lost the chance at a child, the hope of a child, and the language of that grief seemed to me to share at least enough of the same roots as the language of the grief in this film that it was completely and painfully decipherable.

It’s not the same, obviously, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is, either. After all, Didier and Elise meet their baby girl, they watch her grow, they come to know her, they fall desperately in love with her face, her smiles, her laughs, her tears, her curiosity, her lust for living. And then she is taken from them, slowly and with no small amount of suffering. It is a terrible thing. It is, in fact, the most terrible of all things. It compares to nothing. It’s the kind of grief that swallows a person whole and never spits them back out, not all the way. In this film, you watch Didier and Elise be swallowed up just like that, right there on the screen, every tiny, terrible gulp.

At the risk of exposing way too much about the bedrock of my heart, though — or worse, making this beautiful film and all its tragedies all about me (yuck) — I will tell you this:  there is a baby that haunts my dreams. She never existed, not once, not for a single moment.  Yet, she is as mine as anything ever has been. In those dreams, she is as real as you are. As real as I am.  She has my eyes. She has his hair. She visits me all the time. And when I wake, she is gone.  Every time, she is gone. And so, while it’s not the same — not even a little bit — it is still, in all the ways relevant to this, the same enough to matter.

This is oversharing, which I try not to do here, because who cares, really? What you want to know is whether or not this is a good movie. So I’ll tell you: yes, this is a good movie. In fact, this is a beautiful movie; it is a beautifully written, beautifully wrought film that will throw your heart into a well and leave you stand standing there craning your ears for hours, listening for the splash that never comes. This is the kind of movie you put on and never fully take back off. It is that rich a thing. That good, that hard, that everything and more.

Beyond that, and as a bonus to all you bluegrass fans out there (or those of you who never knew bluegrass before but are about to), the soundtrack is as much a work of pure, perfect craft as the film itself.  At one point in the movie, Didier tells Elise the story of the origins of bluegrass — how it was started by immigrants from all over the world who were living in this great melting pot of cultures in the Appalachians, coming together with each of their own traditional instruments to make a new sound.  More so than any other music, bluegrass is the sound of the acceptance of “other,” the sound of cooperation, dizzy experimentation, pure love of tone.  It’s a combination so artful it practically hangs on the walls.   Even if you decide not to watch the film, you should definitely give the record a listen, because every single minute is a total masterpiece of rhythm, resonance, and racket.

I don’t really have the words to express how highly I recommend this incredible film. I recommend it very, very highly.  The problem is, asking you to watch it — if you have any heart at all — is like asking you to take a kebab skewer and shove it into your eye.  I can’t help but think, however, that  movie capable of hitting a human being this hard is the rarest gift of all.  It’s what movies are supposed to do — they are supposed to generate that same rhythm and resonance in our own lives, right there as we watch them.  A film that actually succeeds at doing that is a rare gift, and it’s the kind of experience you’ll never forget.  In my private life, I am fairly rigorously loathe to feel things. I don’t like it. Not one bit.  But when I’m forced to do it, as I obviously was by this film, the reward sometimes more than makes up for the journey.

In that regard, I don’t know what to tell you, really, other than this:  The Broken Circle Breakdown grabbed me by the ankles and flung me heart-first into a wall.  And I’ll never be able to thank it enough.

Do with that what you will.

[Rent on Amazon (free with Prime) | Netflix it]

Genre: Drama, Foreign
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster,Robbie Cleiren

MOVIE: Snowpiercer (2013)

July 15, 2014

snowpiercerIn 2014, we’re told during the opening frames of this post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, mankind finally figured out a way to stop the progression of global warming. A chemical, found to lower the temperature of the atmosphere by a few degrees, was released into the sky by dozens of countries at the same time, then everybody sat back and relaxed, anticipating the glorious need for socks and sweaters once again at last.

Great idea; one small problem:  Mother Nature rarely appreciates being monkeyed with, and instead of cooperating by chilling out ever so gently slightly, she opened up a can of Ice Age on their ass.

Cut to 17 years later and a train.  It’s called the Snowpiercer, and it’s the largest train ever built.  On board are the last survivors of the planet Earth. The train uses a perpetual motion engine, we’re told in an educational video, and travels along a huge, globe-spanning track, cycling once around the planet every year (try not to wonder how this magical track never needs repairs; it won’t do you any good).

When the Snowpiercer was first unveiled as the last stop for man, it was boarded using a class system — essentially to establish a class system, really, since the money was immediately useless the second it was spent. You either paid for a first- or second-class ticket, or you ended up jammed in the tail of the train with 1000 other poor people, where there was no food, no water, no windows, and no hope.  For 17 years, the tailies have struggled to survive, and while eventually, the owner/conductor of the train, “Wilford the Benevolent,” stepped in to provide them with just enough water and gelatinous “protein bars” to survive, the conditions began horrific and pretty much stayed that way.

As the story opens, a young tailie named Curtis (played by Captain America) and the tail’s elderly leader Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning a rebellion, the first in years. The conditions they’ve been forced to endure and the terrible abuses they’ve been increasingly subjected to have finally become intolerable, and the group intends to turn this train around once and for all, so to speak.

The plan?  To bust through the length of the Snowpiercer and get to the engine — the ultimate seat of control. Though they have almost no weapons whatsoever, and face a force of guards armed to the teeth (or are they? rumor has it they actually ran out of bullets years ago. . .), the proletariat is, as always, a class to be reckoned with, because the “have-nots” are fueled by something the “haves” simply ceased to  possess: the ardor of want.

As they make their way from car to car, through battle after battle, Curtis and his team (including the ever-wonderful Octavia Spencer) encounter one astonishing sight after the next, beginning with their first look out a window in 17 years, and followed quickly by cars filled with living, growing fruits and vegetables; frozen slabs of beef and whole chickens (try not to wonder where this magical meat comes from; it won’t do you any good); and a tunnel through a car surrounded on all sides by a glassed-in aquarium loaded to the gills (pun) with fish.

While the poor have been barely subsisting on those disgusting “protein bars,” the rich have been feasting on what appears to be an endless supply of sushi and steak. Every injustice fuels the tailies’ fervor further until, finally, the last survivors of the team break their way into the engine, finding there the biggest shock of all.

Now, there are a WHOLE HOST of things that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in this film, which is typically something that drives me pretty bananas.  Here, though, while I noted each one in turn, and rolled my eyes at more than a few (including everybody’s horror at finding out what the protein bars are made of, which: who cares? Plenty of people eat that right now by choice all over the world already, you wimps), the movie is so damned entertaining, being annoyed seemed like a waste of a perfectly good time. This is pure summer popcorn fun, with some extra-delightful elements on board as well, including and especially the magnificent Tilda Swinton, virtually unrecognizable as the cruel, bug-eyed, buck-toothed spokesperson for the Wilford of Oz, coincidentally wearing not only my haircut from the 3rd grade, but my glasses as well.

While Snowpiercer thinks itself more clever than it actually is (for all its earnest “analysis” of the ramifications of a class system where the rich have so MUCH more than the poor, it actually has nothing new or interesting to add), this is easily the most thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick I’ve seen all year. Great production values, good storytelling, engaging character dynamics. Plus, if you’re in the middle of a heat wave like we are in Seattle right now, spending two hours with a movie set in a world where your arm can freeze solid in 7 minutes makes for some pretty nice daydreaming.

Not that I’m complaining about the heat, Mother Nature. NOT ONE TINY BIT (please don’t hurt me).


[Rent on Amazon streaming | Prequeue at Netflix]

Genre: Science Fiction, Disaster
Cast: Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Kang-ho Song, Ewen Bremner

MOVIE: Godzilla (2014)

June 14, 2014

godzillaI saw this movie a few weeks ago. It . . . um . . .  let’s see.  What is there to say about it?  Well, okay, it had Ken Watanabe in it, which was nice because I’d just seen him the day before in another movie (review coming soon).  And it was about . . . um. . . a big dinosaur thing that came out of the ocean apparently to have a big fight with a giant bat thing. Or something? Because it likes humanity? Or it doesn’t care about humanity, it just doesn’t like the bat thing, or . . . I don’t know. Something. Oh my god, this movie was boring.

When I walked out of the theater with my two bad-movie-watching buddies, I exclaimed, “How do you make a creature feature THAT BORING?”  A silly question, of course, because this movie answers the very question it generates.  For example, one of the ways you can make a creature feature THAT BORING is to include at least 45 minutes of soldiers shooting at the creature with bullets from guns, without a single one of them thinking to themselves, “Hey, these bullets from these guns don’t appear to be doing anything — perhaps we ought to try something bigger?”

“Crap” consensus shared by both the ladies I saw this with, one of whom was a childhood fan of the original.    So there.


RAWR! The end.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Monsters, Horror, Crap
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn