Harpoon

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (limited) 

→Showtime 

Written by: Rob Grant; Mike Kovac

Directed by: Rob Grant

Harpoon is a horror-comedy set at sea that is bizarrely compelling considering what actually happens in 80 short minutes. It’s a vicious little social experiment concocted by writer/director Rob Grant, who quite brilliantly uses little more than the bare essentials of filmmaking — a couple of good actors, a camera and a smart script — to hook you in to a situation that gets increasingly wild and unpredictable.

As a movie founded upon twenty-somethings dealing with hurt feelings and betrayals Harpoon totally overachieves in the entertainment department. Of course, in this movie backstabbings are refreshingly literal, and I am also skirting around some meta-textual stuff lashed onto the sides — an allusion to a certain Biblical story about a man-eating fish, as well as to some “silly” sailing superstitions.

That’s stuff best left for Brett Gelman to explain though, who serves as our delightfully snarky narrator. He sets up the scene and observes it with a cool detachment and from what turns out to be a safe distance, citing Aristotle as he launches into a foreshadowing spiel about the different types of friendship, their benefits, and which kind best describes the one we are about to witness fall apart spectacularly.

Harpoon begins with a punch — a sucker punch, straight to the chops. This is supposed to be a fun weekend where three best friends, Richard (Christopher Gray), the puncher, Jonah (Munro Chambers), the punchee and Sasha (Emily Tyra), the reason behind the punch, are getting together to celebrate Richard’s birthday. Plans change when Richard badly misreads a text message, assaulting his own best friend and doing something even worse to his parents. To make amends he takes everyone out on his dad’s yacht to celebrate/commiserate. Apparently the mobster life pays handsomely. And also apparently, Richard is just a chip off the old block, prone to violently destructive outbursts.

So obviously it’s not ideal when the least stable person on the open water A) has his suspicions confirmed that his “long-term partner” and his buddy are sleeping together and B) is gifted a friggin’ harpoon for his birthday. Making matters worse, something goes wrong with the boat’s engine, stranding the trio with a breezy afternoon’s worth of critical supplies but plenty of enmity toward one another. As days bleed into each other (and I do emphasize the bleeding), more revelations come to light and everyone’s true nature comes bubbling to the surface.

The screenplay by Rob Grant and Mike Kovac crackles with intensity, especially in the dialogue. Their approach is thin on backstory and yet you never doubt that these people have a history, that what you’re seeing is the weight of that history bearing itself in some savage ways in the present day. The young cast are 100% game for the roles they are to play in this farce that becomes fatal, whether it’s Gray fully embracing his inner loose-cannon frat-boy hothead; Chambers, thrillingly deceptive as a sad sack pushover; or Tyra, switching gracefully and gleefully between peacemaker and manipulator.

Their chemistry is critical because in Harpoon the bad guys outnumber the good guys 3-0. These are not likable people and yet throughout, as events take one ridiculous turn after another, the movie has a knack for getting you to invest — perhaps more like a rubbernecker than an audience member — in what crazy, terrible thing happens next. Despite being shot under the blazing sun, Harpoon starts off as dark comedy and trends darker until it reaches a place of legitimate horror. It’s a whacky indie production perfectly content to fly under the radar or at most be a blip on it in terms of 2019 releases — a genre offering very much defined by its own uniquely crazy energy. I, for one, define my relationship with this movie as purely pleasurable.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but it is worth repeating. To get on this movie’s wavelength it helps to have a weird, possibly morbid sense of humor. For higher budget, more recognizable faces and more action, there’s Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire. More in its vein though is E.L. Katz’ supremely entertaining Cheap Thrills, low-budget and all indie and stuff. If your reaction was positive to either or both of those films, you’ve gotta check this one out. 

Rated: NR (but let’s call it R)

Running Time: 80 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, let’s make a deal. I grovel, and pamper you guys unconditionally, and you just try to remember a time before I went apesh*t.” 

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Photo credits: IMDb 

Moana

moana-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jared Bush

Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams

Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.

I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)

Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.

Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.

When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.

You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.

Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.

Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.

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4-0Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Shallows

'The Shallows' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony Jaswinski

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Blake Lively vs. Huge Shark: The Movie is a pretty sweet little thriller, a self-contained enterprise that seeks to unnerve rather than terrify by tapping into human’s innate fear of deepwater-dwelling beasts like great whites (not to mention horrifyingly large jellyfish).

Jaume Collet-Serra’s tropical-set horror/thriller is a refreshingly slight film set adrift in a sea of complex, bombastic . . . well, I’m not gonna name names or genres but we all know where I’m going with this. The premise is simple, the cast is engaged and the cinematography transports us to ‘Paradise’ with Lively’s big-wave-seeking, medical-school-abandoning Nancy Adams who has been having a rough time since the passing of her mother. Nancy has seemingly inherited her mom’s love for surfing as she finds herself now on the sands of a secluded, nameless cove — apparently the very place her mom claimed as her favorite surf spot.

This really is Lively’s movie — okay, and the shark’s, yes how could I forget — because her interactions with others, including the local with whom she hitches a ride to the beach, are limited to a flurry of brief exchanges, most of which are designed to prove that Nancy doesn’t speak very good Spanish and the locals don’t speak good English. That particular communication barrier doesn’t really matter because no one speaks Shark and that’ll come in handy more than anything later.

The Shallows is indeed an intimate experience, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival drama 127 Hours at least when it comes to the harrowing quasi-first person perspective. Serra’s vision is certainly fun and exciting, but it hardly effects the emotional and psychological involvement Boyle did when James Franco decided to throw down the performance of a lifetime. In fact, in spirit this shares more in common with the personal trials we endure with Reese Witherspoon as she attempts to reconnect with herself and her family by embarking on a bold solo hike in Wild.

As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s performance was informed by a mixture of guilt and bitterness as she continued along her journey, strong emotions that only fueled her to keep going. Lively’s Nancy isn’t so much bitter as she is guilt-ridden and still at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the past. We see it in the brief glimpses we get of her sister and father via FaceTime on her phone prior to her hitting the waves. She can barely hold a conversation with her father because the conversation about why she decided to drop out of med school inevitably surfaces.

It’s probably not worth delving into character development at any great depth since that’s pretty much the extent of it. Suffice it to say there’s enough here to actually make us feel something when Nancy finds herself, ironically much like Aron Ralston, stuck between (or in this case on) a rock and a hard place when the shark’s aggressive circling pins her to a small outcrop of rock that appears at low tide. She’s only 200 yards from shore but the shark is much too fast for that to be viable option. There’s a small metallic buoy about 15 yards from the rock she could swim to when high tide reclaims the rock.

Can Nancy out-smart her toothy predator?

Boobs. We’d love to find out the answer if the cameras weren’t constantly fixated on ogling Lively’s lovely beach bod. I had a lot of fun with The Shallows — the increasingly versatile Lively is certainly committed to the material and the movie looks glorious — but some part of me can’t shake the feeling this was kind of a pervy shoot. And that is a thought that somewhat diminishes the enjoyment I got out of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously.

blake lively in 'The Shallows'

Recommendation: More Deep Blue Sea than it is JawsThe Shallows manifests as a silly but ultimately fun bit of summer escapism, one shot confidently enough to ensure those who have a mortal fear of beaches will never go near one again. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

In the Heart of the Sea

big fish

Release: Friday, December 11, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Charles Leavitt; Rick Jaffa; Amanda Silver

Directed by: Ron Howard

From the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and into the heart of the sea Ron Howard has steered his cameras in an altogether new direction, facing the unenviable task of crafting a cinematic event based around the circumstances that inspired 19th Century writer Herman Melville’s most famous fiction.

Less an adherence to the motifs found in ‘Moby Dick’ and more a voyage of its own epic proportions, In the Heart of the Sea finds Howard massaging a much darker story involving the brave (or stubborn) seafaring captain, first mate and crew of the Essex who were destined for destruction when they set out in search of another payday in the form of whale oil, only to be thwarted by a deep sea-dwelling monster. It’s a film in which adjusted expectations will likely accommodate a more enjoyable experience, for this is more blockbuster than serious drama; more Greatest Hits than a standalone album.

In 1820 Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, an experienced whaler and affable, capable man, feels like he’s earned the right to become Captain of the Essex, but thanks to bureaucracy and George Pollard (Benjamin Walker)’s status as heir apparent to the family legacy, he’s relegated once more to First Mate despite being promised otherwise. So the journey starts off with a barely disguised undercurrent of tension and gradually destabilizes as what was already going to be a protracted trip eventuates into more than a year at sea, as the inexperienced Captain Pollard fails to find the goods. At the time, small communities like Nantucket were dependent upon whale oil for lighting and energy and returning to shore empty-handed was not an option.

After months scouring the Atlantic to little avail, Pollard decides to explore the Pacific in an attempt to change their fortunes. While resupplying in Ecuador, they learn of an undisturbed region of whales that apparently harbors a particularly hostile and large white whale. The crew of the Essex dismiss the story as a myth only later to discover both parts of the story to be true. And they are of course attacked, marooned on a remote island and finally left floating for days on end with scant water or food supplies. It gets to a point where the remaining survivors must resort to cannibalism. Indeed, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And when the going does get tough, Howard’s gritty epic truly gets going. Sea is less about showmanship — interpret that as either a reflection of character or performances from a recognizable cast — as it is about establishing atmosphere. Wisely he provides some semblance of humanity before rendering the participants steadily maddening creatures. The squabbles between Chase and Captain Pollard couldn’t seem more trivial after the whale attacks. There’s a tremendous sense of loss, of unrelenting despair in this nautical epic, qualities almost antithetical of Howard’s typically uplifting, inspirational fare. Morbidity and suffering suits him though.

A staunch believer in the power of storytelling, Howard this time surprisingly foregoes establishing memorable characters — don’t expect any Niki Lauda‘s or John Nash‘s here — in order to make room for a familiar but powerful framing device involving Brendan Gleeson’s aged Tom Nickerson, the last living survivor of that crew. In modern-day (well, Nantucket 30 years later), a thoroughly depressed and alcohol-dependent Tom reluctantly relays the tragedy to a curious Melville (Ben Whishaw) who in turn wants to recount the saga in his writing for to make a name for himself.

Regrettably, the sporadic jumps back to present-day tend to rudely interrupt our seafarers’ plight. Sea has a difficult time sustaining momentum and if it is to aspire to great heights as a blockbuster, as it clearly wishes with a mammal of this magnitude so convincingly rendered, it needs to more judiciously use these transitions. Points also deducted for the crowbarring in of a parallel to man’s contemporary dependence on land-locked crude oil. The topic certainly seems relevant, but the film almost certainly would have been better off without the mention.

Despite borrowing the narrative backbone of the 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick novel ‘In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,’ this is a Ron Howard picture through-and-through. It boasts breathtaking cinematography, wherein you’ll find the extent of its romantic tinges. There’s little room for romance in a story this dark, save for the way this beautiful whaling vessel is captured by two-time collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. It’s also a passionately crafted and seriously considered production that may not always fire on all cylinders as other entries have in Howard’s rich back catalog, yet there’s something undeniably classic about its mythical qualities.

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Recommendation: Powerful, moving, handsomely crafted epic with tremendous special effects to boot, In the Heart of the Sea is destined to satisfy more devout Ron Howard fans. It might be a more flawed creation than say Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind or last year’s Rush, but if we’re making those comparisons we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in the same way this ill-fated crew set themselves up for disappointment going for 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “They looked at us like we were aberrations. Phantoms.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Road Within

Release: Friday, April 17, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gren Wells

Directed by: Gren Wells

The Road Within is far from a realistic take on how mental illness affects one’s ability to socially interact but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t incredibly uplifting and heartwarming. Gren Wells has created a wonderful pick-me-up and that’s all you really need to know.

I suppose I could go into more detail, else this would be the shortest film review ever.

The schmaltzy-titled film follows a trio of teens who break out of a mental health facility and embark on a three-day expedition during which they bond, sharing in their anguish and collective suppressed emotions. The goal of the journey is for Vincent (the emerald-eyed Robert Sheehan), who has Tourette’s, to reach the ocean and scatter the ashes of his recently passed mother. He is joined by his roommate Alex (Dev Patel), a boy of similar age who is perpetually overwhelmed by his obsessive compulsive disorder, and a girl sporting purple-dyed hair played by Zoë Kravitz. Her name is Marie and she’s battling anorexia.

Vincent’s father (T-1000 Robert Patrick), unable to cope with his son’s turbulent behavior in the wake of the tragedy, sends him away to this facility run by Kyra Sedgwick’s Dr. Rose, a counselor who means well but is fairly incompetent. Given her hands-off approach and Vincent’s determination, the mechanism for the story’s development still feels a bit too clumsy: all it takes for Vincent’s wishes to come true is for Marie to stumble upon his room one day, flirt ever so slightly with him, and then steal doc’s car keys. It’s fairytale-esque how easily they are able to break from their shackles (and a tiny bit naughty — she stole car keys, thief . . . THIEF!)

The Road Within doesn’t play out as something that would happen in real life yet the adventure is too much fun to dismiss altogether. It features an incredible performance from the young Sheehan, who I was convinced actually had Tourette syndrome. His brown curly hair a perpetual mess and his face beset with worry, Sheehan’s Vincent is hugely empathetic despite his inability to control his temper when his tics have subsided. The 27-year-old actor masterfully steers his teenaged character through emotional turmoil that’s in addition to his literal knee-jerk reactions and spasms. That it becomes difficult to watch on occasion (and listen to — be prepared for a stream of profanities in the early going) is a credit to how committed Sheehan is to inhabiting this head space. It’s easily the crowning achievement of the film.

Less effective, but affecting nonetheless, are Patel’s Alex, whose crippling paranoias have him constantly wearing latex gloves and render him unable to slap his newfound friends a high-five in a brief celebratory moment, and Kravitz’s headstrong yet visibly physically unhealthy Marie. Over the course of their adventure, one which finds the actors juxtaposed against the breathtaking backdrop of Yosemite Valley, their precarious states begin to act as a galvanizing agent — “we’re all sick so we aren’t that different from each other” — though frequently the development rings hollow. I simply couldn’t buy into how quickly the characters moved past their severe illnesses, shedding symptoms as if they were layers of clothing.

The story isn’t completely lacking in validity. Vincent finds himself attracted to Marie (naturally), a development that only compounds Alex’s sense of loneliness and frustration over his condition. While romance is hinted at, it’s wisely handled with vulnerability and even an air of distrust. And while the melting of Vincent’s father’s icy exterior over the course of the story as he and the doctor set off in pursuit of her stolen car and the three renegades similarly sends up red flags, Robert Patrick has the acting pedigree to make the sudden shift somewhat legitimate.

One need look no further than The Road Within‘s emotional conclusion to find everything that’s wrong, and right, with Wells’ handling of the material. It tidies up much too quickly and leaves viewers with the impression that the hellish travails prior to the kids’ rebellion will no longer exist; this is a happily-ever-after for people who sadly do not travel down such a finite road. Mental illness, like an addiction, is permanent. It’s inescapable. It’s infuriating. However, none of these shortcomings are enough to drown the piece. It may be sentimental and unrealistic but The Road Within is immensely enjoyable. It’s optimistic and upbeat, easy to embrace. This is the kind of film you’ll want to reach for when you find yourself enduring a particularly rough stretch, even if you may not suffer from any kind of ailment at all.

Recommendation: The film has its flaws — and quite a few of them — but this is a winning road trip comedy that I recommend on the backs of an incredible performance from Robert Sheehan (as well as Dev Patel and Zoë Kravitz). Upbeat and entirely inoffensive (save for the litany of swear words in the opening third), The Road Within offers something for all but the most cynical of viewers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know, there’s a clown in my head and he shits in between my thoughts and he forces me to do the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate moment. So relaxing is pretty much the one thing I cannot do.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.shaanig.org

JCR Factor #2

Well here we are with a second edition of the John C. Reilly Factor — Thomas J’s latest character study. Find more like them here and here. Or just peruse the Features menu up top.

Last month we were talking about this and so now I’d like to switch out of that melodrama and move on to . . . well, I guess more melodrama. Melodrama upon the high seas. As always, spoilers ahoy!

John C. Reilly as Dale ‘Murph’ Murphy in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Adventure/drama

Character Profile: Good old ‘Murph’ is a fisherman with a strong work ethic, often spending long, long days on the open waters trying to bring home that “pay dirt.” He’s struggling to make ends meet, not unlike many a Gloucesterman, on the cusp of divorce while still trying to be around as much as possible for his son. Murph is headstrong and has a hard time adjusting when the crew of the Andrea Gail take on an extra hand, David ‘Sully’ Sullivan — a welder with a rather stand-offish personality and determination to do things his own way.

If you lose JCR, the film loses: firstly the tension between two of the Gail’s more interesting personalities — one brimming between Reilly’s Murph and William Fichtner’s Sully. These two men are at each other’s throats from the get-go and though the clashing doesn’t particularly boil down to much beyond your typical alpha-male antagonism, John C. Reilly makes his character so very believable. It wouldn’t be the same if another actor stepped into this predicament. Besides, the loss of the entire crew is made that much more painful once we’ve established Murph is very much a man trying to make good on his promises to his family back on shore. Reilly sells the tragedy with a soul-bruising sense of empathy for what the real life Murph might have felt in his last moments.

That’s what he said: “This is gonna be hard on my little boy. . .”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work): 


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Photo credits: http://www.cineplex.com

Watermark

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Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I’ve never had to pee so bad in a movie in all of my natural life. . . .

Not that I would miss much if I were to step out to find the bathroom. With hindsight, I could even take my time in my quest, perhaps stopping in to say hey to some people in an adjacent theater. I could mingle with other theatergoers, or distract and annoy them just for a few minutes — just enough time to allow me to forget what I myself had come to see.

This is the kind of light fare where I could be out goofing around like this for a solid 20 minutes and then be able to get right back to my seat, refocus, and get back into it without feeling the slightest bit confused or disoriented. I don’t want to call the subject matter on display trivial; it’s certainly anything but that. However, what documentaries lack — environmental documentaries, especially — in being able to take dramatic license, they tend to make up for with a strong human element, a perspective that engages from the get-go. It usually comes packaged in the form of interviews, a spoken narrative, a focus on groups of people changing over time, or any combination of all the above.

The problem with Watermark is that it lacks this human element. It quite literally and almost exclusively features dramatized shots of water captured in its many shapes, forms and quantities, with only but a few of these moments actually involving human interaction. The set-up makes for a pretty picture, but an emotionless story. In fact, the extensive opening shot, an admittedly powerful wide shot of a massive dam release in China, is a microcosm for the emotional journey about to be undertaken. If this one scene doesn’t catch interest, it’s likely that most of what comes next won’t, either. The question is posed — “how do we shape water, and how does water shape us?” — and this film from Jennifer Baichwal attempts to set out answering this by juxtaposing shots of bodies of water with mankind’s interaction with it. Too bad man doesn’t factor in more.

We are firstly introduced to a Mexican woman living near the Colorado River Delta, a harsh crop of land so dry it literally makes one regret the choice to buy popcorn (whoever buys popcorn for documentaries ought to be slapped, anyway); cracking slabs of brown plate-like dirt bemoan the likely many, many years of water’s absence. This scene is a beautiful contrast to the film’s deafening roar of an opening. In fact, there’s not a lot to disagree with relative to the film’s construction or the way it looks. Watermark is quite competent in both of those regards. But the face time we get with conflicted individuals such as the aforementioned woman feels all too brief and fleeting.

Beyond the arid delta plains, we travel far and wide to many a foreign and exotic location where relationships between humans and water are in varying degrees strained. Highlights include the windswept, almost alien world that is the Greenland Ice Sheet, where scientists are drilling kilometers deep into the ice to extract measurements. (Ice is really, really cool, by the way. I think ice is nice.) From there we visit India, and stop in during the annual Kumbh Mela bath in the Ganges River — a mass gathering of some 30 million people during which souls are cleansed and purified in the waters; we also visit one of the most massive structures on Earth — the Xiluodu Dam, a whopping 937-foot-tall arch dam, one piece in a larger project impacting the Jinsha River.

Watermark leads us away from these tense battlegrounds — where usually man wins and water loses — by trotting us out to the isolated regions of the Canadian Rocky watershed, a beautiful crop of North America where it’s feasible to go days without crossing another human being. Here, water is sparkling and looks drinkable. If you haven’t been on the verge of wetting yourself by now, this positively drool-worthy sequence probably will take care of you. Okay, so maybe it’s a lie that there’s no drama involved here. The drama stems from whether or not you can make it through this in one sitting. Whether you can clench those knees together for well over half an hour. Whether you can hold it. . . . .hold it. . .

. . . hold it. . .

You’ll have to forgive me for hardly taking a thing seriously at this point; Watermark disappointingly amounts to little more than a Discovery Channel special, and something seemingly more appropriately filed in the scientific record than packaged as a theatrical release. I blame my lack of focus on keeping things serious here because the film likewise did not seem enthused on talking about people; it seemed more interested in letting water do all of its talking. It wanted to dismiss me, so I feel compelled to dismiss it.

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2-5Recommendation: Jennifer Baichwal’s story and Edward Burtynsky’s cinematography combine to form a nature documentary that’s guilty of talking to itself and failing to leave an emotional impact. Its not intended to be a sensational movie nor is it meant to suggest that its time to panic about our lack of conservation of water just yet (though for some places it might be that time), and yet it’s difficult to believe that feeling as though you’re waking up from a nap come the end credits is the desired effect. It takes more than a lot of pretty pictures to tell a strong story.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 92 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Pacific Rim

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Release: Thursday, July 11, 2013

[Theater]

This has been the year for apocalyptic-themed movies. I wonder why that is? Something about us wandering around in “extra time” now since the end of the world was, according to the Mayans, last December. As our reward, we get an army of gigantic Iron Giant-esque robots, operated by highly skilled and rigorously trained pilots who will face danger at every turn as they take on humanity’s biggest threat: death at the hands of Kaiju (Japanese for “monsters”).

Pacific Rim is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and boy, is it full to the brim with special effects; so much so, that we more often than not overlook the fact that all of this chaos and fighting and sacrifice is for the good of mankind — and this is done quite accidentally, too. But what of humanity are we really supposed to latch onto with the Travis Beacham-penned script? Throwaway lines, the cliches and metaphors and cheesy one-liners are (occasionally) painfully placed throughout this film, and at times bring the excitement down a notch or two. Unspectacular acting from a relatively unknown cast is less of a problem than it is a byproduct of the cast being what it is. The biggest name has got to be Ron Perlman, as the ridiculous but humorous Hannibal Chau. He’s ultimately a side story that does have its place, but this winds up being more memorable than most of the leads.

Before I go too far with the nit-picking, it should be said that this is a very capable action film with some of the most capable CGI/special effects we’ve experienced since Transformers tore up the block. However, the refusal to deliver more than just the convenient alignment of every single possible miracle at all the right moments threatens to undermine del Toro’s efforts to stun the audience.

What we’re left with is a big chunk of shiny metal on our hands, which at first is nice, but then gets a little heavy and we would sooner drop it than carry it for another minute.

Raleigh Becker (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy are out on a patrol in the ocean to ward off an incoming Kaiju when they disobey direct orders to not waste time on a single fishing boat that happens to be falling as the latest victim to these behemoth predators. In the process of saving the doomed boat, the gigantic robot they use to combat the monsters — known as a Jaeger — suffers extensive damage, as do the two pilots operating it. When it’s all over, Raleigh must start over again.

He seeks employment in the construction industry, and because the division of “homeland security” he once worked for has since been declared an ineffective method of providing safety, he assumes that’s a thing of the past. That’s until a predictable albeit necessary visit from his former employer, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), puts Raleigh back where he belongs — as a pilot of a new Jaeger bot (the codename for which I have since forgotten). The old American one he piloted, which undergoes cosmetic surgery for re-use later, is named ‘Gypsy Danger.’ Yeah, go figure.

Pacific Rim dances in circles around themes of respect, courage and redemption, though it never really tackles these things head-on. Rather, it spends almost half the time convincing us via special effects and deafening explosions that the human race is pretty screwed. That our last hope for survival hinges on the chemistry between Raleigh and a new pilot, named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi). Well, message heard concerning the likelihood of our extinction. After several extended destruction sequences, even the massive Jaegers prove to be inadequate in killing off an endless supply of monsters. With good acting and a compelling storyline taking a backseat to the dramatic action (this is where the massive budget clearly was dedicated), its easy and even acceptable for us to drop our concerns for our species at the door and sit back and watch cities being leveled. If you thought Man of Steel had a ridiculous action sequence, here’s your gut-check.

In returning to the cast itself, it’s not terrible acting that’s on display — not by any stretch. Elba is convincingly stern as the Marshal over all other pilots. He has control and no one can or even wants to try and intervene there. The main leads of Raleigh and Mako, though, are pretty disposable. It’s Always Sunny‘s Charlie Day makes another giddy appearance as a brilliant scientist obsessed with finding out more about our 300-foot-tall attackers. For the most part he is funny, but his welcome becomes worn out with an insistence to yell every single line he has been given. Give this guy some time to warm up to the big screen though; I think one day he’ll be a class act.

Other than that, Perlman, as previously mentioned, is probably the best character here. He’s a greedy profiteer from the research gathered on the exotic beasts that have been slain. Backed with a physically intimidating presence, there is absolutely no way one can really take his last name (Chau) seriously in this film! But you can’t hate on the guy. He provides some good laughs, and the interactions he and the mad scientist Newton (Day) have are some of the actual snippets we get of honest human interaction.

The ostensible “plot” we are handed boils down to a last-ditch effort made by a dwindling supply of American, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Australian Jaegers. My hopes were that we’d be provided something actually profound on the subject of massive loss of life, of near-certain annihilation of our kind. Though they weren’t lived up to, there’s quite a lot of fun to be had in this film. The humans indeed stage an epic battle against the Kaiju in the water and on land. Also, in alternate dimensions. Yeah, del Toro indeed goes there.

The film’s direction is a little clumsy and raucous, but it’s an action film that does not fail in any way in delivering the visuals, the drama and the grand scale that we may have otherwise been missing so far this summer — or even this year. There are absolutely stunning visuals to cherish, and the overall experience is a decent one. Nothing profound. Mankind lives to see another day, even if it is the only logical result of an ultimately contrived journey that, in an attempt to explore deeper elements, winds up getting put together with nuts, bolts and hi-tech gizmos — as opposed to emotion and carefully-written scripture.

Perhaps it needs to be seen a second time for the “neural handshake” to actually be effective.

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3-5Recommendation: Pacific Rim is most everything you’d want in a CGI spectacular: exciting action, arresting visuals, big. . . things. (I still can’t get over how much these Jaegers resemble the more simplistic design of the animated The Iron Giant.) If you’re coming for the easy ride where the only challenge is sitting through a series of long action sequences, this is your flick.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Today. At the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone. Not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them! Today, we are CANCELING the apocalypse!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com