Aquaman

Release: Friday, December 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick; Will Beall

Directed by: James Wan

Four weeks on and the box office still hasn’t dried up for DC’s latest superhero origins story, the rise of one Arthur Curry, a.k.a. the Aquaman. Director James Wan has kinda done the unthinkable (not to mention given his bosses a nice Christmas present) by making a boatload of money — cracking the $1 billion mark this past weekend — with a movie that could not be more out of season. To me, a title like Aquaman screams summer blockbuster. Yet here we are in January, teeth chattering, talking about the highest-grossing DCEU film to date and the fifth-highest grossing film of 2018. Apparently, the fact that half the world still has months to go before they even start thinking about getting their beach bods back hasn’t been a factor.

Its release window isn’t the only thing whacky about Aquaman, a largely underwater-set action extravaganza starring Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa as the amphibious half-breed. Wan goes big on the special effects (as he always has, now just with more CGI pizzazz, and damn does this become a pretty thing to look at) but he goes pretty much all-out in trying to restore a little dignity to DC, proving his new employers aren’t nihilists obsessed with suffering. Aquaman embraces the absurdity inherent in its very existence, both in dialogue and in action, winking-and-nudging at the audience at every opportune moment — especially during those where bad guys are seen riding on souped-up seahorses, talking of uniting the Seven Seas and mounting an insurrection against those godless land-living creatures.

Aquaman certainly plays the part of a commercial-friendly summer winter blockbuster in terms of delivering big action spectacle, pounding the pavement immediately with an opening confrontation before moving on to successively bigger (and increasingly ridiculous) stand-offs that are as grand in scale as anything we have come across in the DCEU. If it isn’t Leviathan size, it’s the over-the-top masculinity of the combat scenes and the objects that are incorporated into them that make them larger than life — at one point I do believe the Fishboy can be seen conking an opponent on the noggin with the head of a missile. The fights are actually fairly clean — choreographically and just plain graphically — but what truly sets Aquaman apart in this regard is the exoticness of the locations, with half of the action taking place in ornate, gorgeously rendered submarine worlds where light refracts and splinters into shards of pale yellows and greens.

But (and here is the part where I expect to get laughed at) perhaps what is most unexpected from a DC film is the depth of the story, and I mean beyond the eyeball-popping pressures of the ocean bottom and gratuitous Amber Heard cleavage. (She plays Princess Mera, and aside from the predictably revealing outfits, this is probably her best role in years.) The thrust of the narrative concerns ideas of unity and cooperation and that works on scales both large and small. While the superhero thread follows the title character’s eventual acceptance of his status as a powerful leader, one who’s prophesied to bridge the two worlds (the land and the sea), the more human side finds Arthur struggling to come to terms with the consequences of his birth and the sacrifice his mother made in the interest of keeping her family safe.

As the mythology goes, Arthur is conceived out of a deep love between a human lighthouse keeper, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), the Queen of Atlantis, a once surface-level sovereignty now damned to the oceanic depths after a catastrophic meteor strike. As that opening fight scene reveals, Atlanna isn’t quite human. Her actions — falling in love with and marrying a human man with whom she conceives a child, who will possess the ability to communicate with all marine lifeforms — have made her a traitor to the people of Atlantis, and have earned the intense ire of Orm (Patrick Wilson), her other son and the current ruler of the aquatic civilization.

When Arthur comes of age and learns about his powers — fine-tuned with the guidance of trusted confidante Vulko (Willem Dafoe), also a ‘scientific advisor’ to King Orm — and what he represents to both sides, he of course does the very un-superheroic thing and hides away from the world, rejecting Atlantis and the very notion he can be a savior to all, including his own family. He isn’t entirely incapable of doing good deeds, as we observe in an early scene where he saves a gaggle of sailors from a Russian sub hijacking. In the process he also makes an enemy in David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose father Arthur mercilessly leaves to drown. Whoops.

Enter Princess Mera, who, despite this being the guy who actually defeated Steppenwolfe, begrudgingly convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis and face his half-brother, who has set his sights on the destruction of the surface world. Heard and Momoa share a playfully antagonistic chemistry that helps Aquaman stay afloat through its most silly moments. And while we’re on the subject, it is very awkward the way Wan crowbars in commentary on oceanic pollution in a film that really doesn’t want nor need to be taken seriously — that’s a reality that does need to be taken seriously, and inserting it here is more than corny, it’s disingenuous. As they embark on a globetrotting adventure to track down the Trident of Atlan, a powerful artifact that only the worthiest of Ocean Masters can wield, we endure the scorching heat of the Sahara Desert and then hop on over to the Italian isle of Sicily, experiencing setbacks (hello, Black Manta!) and personal revelations along the way.

Despite the patently absurd final battle and a few other sidebar items, at its core this is a family affair, with Arthur and Orm diametrically opposed in ideology yet almost one and the same in terms of conviction and what they are willing to sacrifice to win. Ultimately it is in Arthur’s longing for his parents to be together once more where Aquaman becomes arguably every bit the emotional journey as Diana Prince’s loss of innocence as depicted in Wonder Woman. His inner turmoil, expressed by a quite natural and earnest Momoa, help me more easily overlook the clunky narrative at-large, the predictable writing (who didn’t see that epic under-water kiss coming?) and cheesy dialogue: “Redheads, gotta love ’em!” [proceeds to throw self out of plane while a caged goat bleats in horror.]

Yes, Aquaman is conceptually whacky, narratively clunky and overly reliant on CGI on more than one occasion. But the numbers don’t lie. This movie is a crowd-pleasing good time that ticks the biggest Superhero Blockbuster box of all — prioritizing fun and escapist entertainment above all. Against many odds, Aquaman is a DCEU installment that swims far more than it sinks.

My trident is cooler than your trident.

Recommendation: This movie has been out for nearly five weeks as of this writing. You’ve either seen it or aren’t going to. Not much more I can really say here. (Oh, there is this: if you’ve wondered whatever happened to James Wan’s partner-in-heinous-crime from the Saw days, Leigh Whannell apparently appears as a cargo pilot in this film — which I find hilarious. The trajectories of these two filmmakers have been quite incomparable.)

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “What are we doing?”

“Hiding inside a whale. I got this from Pinocchio!”

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

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.”

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 

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.

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

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.”

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 

Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

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 

The Water Diviner

water-diviner-poster

Release: Friday, April 24, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Knight; Andrew Anastasios

Directed by: Russell Crowe

Guided more by passion than a need for coherence, Russell Crowe’s directorial debut is strong enough to ensure there will be projects forthcoming from the Academy Award-winning Aussie.

Crowe busies himself by taking on the lead of, funny enough, Australian farmer Joshua Connor who is adept at locating pockets of water deep underground on his sprawling property. The year is 1919 and the dust from World War I is still settling. Joshua and Liza (Jacqueline McKenzie)’s three sons have not returned from the fight in Gallipoli and each are presumed to have perished at this point. Liza, unable to cope with the loss, ends up taking her own life.

These terrible events set the wheels of Crowe’s historically-tinged sojourn in motion. Having to bury his wife in his backyard, Joshua vows to find their boys and provide them a proper burial beside her. To any other person the odds against finding them would be knowledge enough to shred any last fibers of hope, but as Joshua explains later, hope is a necessity where he comes from. His first stop is in Turkey, where he stays in an Istanbul hotel run by the beautiful Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), herself made a widower by the war. She has a young boy named Orhan (dangerously close to ‘orphan,’ wouldn’t you say?) with whom Joshua bonds during his brief stay in the hotel.

After warming to Joshua upon hearing his reason for his visit, Ayshe tips Joshua off to the possibility of talking his way onto a boat bound for the shores of Gallipoli, an island that is now more akin to a mass grave than a place anyone would dare visit. Of course, Joshua’s trip isn’t for pleasure. When he arrives there he encounters more resistance from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who are scouring the territory for remnants of the dead and have declared the grounds off-limits to civilians.

Much to his advantage a Turkish officer, Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdoğan), who had experienced the bloodbath on these grounds and happened to be in the company of Joshua’s three sons, permits him to stay after putting two and two together. Recalling the surname and citing that he’s the only father who came looking for his children, Hasan’s empathy can easily be read, at the peril of the film’s credibility, as an insincere, somewhat flippant reaction to justify The Water Diviner‘s most unlikely story as well as its attendant emotional manipulation.

It is upon these isles of hardscrabble and stubborn vegetation where some 7,000 Turks and thousands of non-Turkish soldiers were slaughtered before British forces were forced to retreat, this battle lost but the end game — the Allied powers’ ultimate victory over the Ottoman Empire — won. To that end, it seems odd that this personal story, adapted from screenwriter Andrew Anastasios’ book of the same name, should bear worth mentioning given the dramatic backdrop of so many left buried and scattered amongst the ruins but I guess that kind of argument becomes academic as soon as a man of Crowe’s stature takes an interest in the material.

However, skeptics are given more opportunity to question The Water Diviner‘s raison d’être as character development is sparser than water sources in the Outback. Crowe’s paralleling of Joshua’s prophetic abilities is pretty hokey. Seemingly he’s just as adept at finding water as he is finding the remains of those he sent off to war. While his character feels authentic given all he has lost, others are not as lucky. Kurylenko’s character flips the switch from cold as ice to becoming a potential future wife for Joshua in the span of a few scenes of saccharinity. (Hey, the sweeter your coffee, the more likely it is that your barista likes you, right?) The British government intervene in Joshua’s mission just to throw more wrenches in his plan, citing bureaucracy because of . . . well, reasons. Though none are painted in as broad a stroke as the nasty, brutish Greeks, who play a role that wouldn’t be so out of place in 300.

This all being said, The Water Diviner is not without its strengths. Crowe clearly — admirably — finds a striking contrast in the natural beauty and a haunting historical significance in the locales. These otherwise gorgeous places conceal horrendous occurrences that we bear witness to in shocking flashbacks, a great many involving Joshua’s sons. And despite a lack of development for his characters Crowe has attracted a cast that is more than capable of delivering the gravitas a war film requires. Tender moments between Joshua, Ayshe and Orhan have their charm. And Crowe himself is excellent in the lead.

He has ample room to grow as a director, certainly. After all, few people, if any, have perfected the art of the craft the moment they settle into the chair, and while it doesn’t do anyone much good in making excuses, it’s plain to see his acting pedigree has helped more often than it has hindered him here.

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3-0Recommendation: Those who embrace culturally and historically significant films ought to test out Russell Crowe’s first directorial effort. It does bear the markings of a first-timer in that capacity but as an actor he is as reliable as ever. Heartrending, inspiring, gruesome and beautiful in equal measure, The Water Diviner is going to satisfy anyone who has appreciated the Aussie’s contributions to film in the last few decades.

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “It was my job to steer my boys to manhood. And I failed them.”

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

TBT: Titanic (1997)

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Welcome boys, girls. . . . and all others, to another sappy, tear-filled romantic edition of Throwback Thursday. (I know, gross, right?) The whole idea behind today’s post is about being subtle. . . . . . as subtle as a 40-foot-tall iceberg protruding from the chilly North Atlantic water. As subtle as that scene where Jack paints a picture of Rose. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I know all of you are just chomping at the bit to read something mushy and heartrending. (I know I am!) Well, you certainly get it here in James Cameron’s preposterously successful, epically-imagined, prodigious smash-hit, a.k.a.

Today’s food for thought: Titanic.

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Getting that sinking feeling since: December 19, 1997

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Like an aftershock ripping through L.A. the power of James Cameron’s great water-bound tragedy strikes me today with a force seemingly laying dormant since my first viewing. When I was a wee lad and watching this gigantic mess unfold for the first time (‘mess,’ in this case being a huge compliment) I am pretty sure I hated Titanic for its prioritizing of love over visual spectacle. I wasn’t into critiquing movies of course but I already resented Cameron for turning what I saw as a simple disaster film into a needlessly saccharine romantic epic.

Ah, behold this wonderful thing called hindsight. I would never have described the whirlwind courtship between Jack Dawson (Leo) and Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) then as genuine, truly tragic, or even ‘good;’ before puberty hit me like a ton of bricks I was frequently annoyed by sappy stuff on TV and in films and would just as quickly dismiss the love angle as stupid and pointless as I would the overall experience as a waste of my time as well as of its own potential. Looking back, that’s just too dismissive. I realize now that the only valid argument I do have against this iconic work has everything to do with the movie running over three freaking hours long. It was one of the first films I was aware of actually having its own intermission. (There’s a throwback for you.)

Silly little Tom — Titanic wasn’t a movie; it was an experience. Accidentally or not, it burgeoned into an industry unto itself. Back in the day you couldn’t hold a conversation without being obligated to eventually talk Titanic. Those who were opposed, either ideologically or merely put off by its overwhelming popularity, seemingly had more on their minds than those who went with the explicit purpose of getting their Romeo and Juliet fix. Simultaneously one of the highest-grossing films of all time (adjusting for inflation, it ranks fifth behind cinematic trivialities like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars), and doing battle with William Wyler’s Ben Hur as one of the most Oscar-friendly films ever made, taking home 11 of its 14 potential golden statues, Titanic granted its Captain passage into the theretofore uncharted waters of the billion-dollar club in terms of worldwide gross. Statistics sort of speak for themselves though, so what about the emotional state it left us all in? (Now I can say ‘us’ because I too am a believer.)

I’m only now coming around to accepting that what the young starlets accomplished was indeed a good thing for this world, and I can’t imagine what it was like for the ’90s teens swept up in their own fantasies of being with the then-Hollywood heartthrob in those frigid North Atlantic waters. How they would gladly take his place in the water. Or at the very least, help him climb on to the door (come on, that thing is not going to go under with two small people on it). I can time and again look to Titanic for a number of examples that support the cliché how it may indeed be unhealthy to take one’s entertainment so seriously.

When you have Celine Dion belting out a tune at a wine glass-shattering pitch I guess I shouldn’t be taken aback by the phenomenon of entire blogs being devoted to Jack and Rose. Is there any more damning evidence of me softening in my late 20’s than the fact that her voice, those lyrics, rather than annoying me actually haunt me? There’s (and yes, I’m going to say it) something epic about her song, some part of it that has never quite left my body since I first heard it as that wee lad. I can’t recite much beyond the chorus, but seriously — why does that matter? It’s impressive that after all of this time passed, there are elements and aspects to Titanic that I’m finding more and more intriguing, and more crucial to the general health of romance in contemporary film.

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There’s a reason the passionate romance outweighs the sinking of the ship. Jack and Rose living on in cinematic infamy, their reward for being so damn good-looking and inseparable. Superglue fails to provide the kind of bond that these two were able to form and in such a short amount of time. I suppose jealousy and envy could apply to me as a youngster when I watched these two steam up a car window and proceeded to fast-forward though this bullshit, though I think it’d be more accurate to say I just didn’t appreciate the gravity of this blossoming romance. Now, I can’t see another duo encapsulating, at the very least, the sheer joy of being young and carefree out on the open waters. No two performers would be Jack and Rose like Leo and Kate were Jack and Rose.

I’m not sure what you call it when a ship pulls a total 180 in the water and heads back in the opposite direction, but that’s exactly what has happened with my outlook on this voyage. There’s style and beautiful cinematography to ogle over, but these things I’ve never had an issue with. Titanic looks and feels classy in every way it possibly can. But today Cameron’s decision to place the star-crossed lovers front-and-center has finally struck me as not only appropriate, but creative. It’s the only way to bring millions of viewers on board the ship, as well as into the lives of many a doomed seafarer who had plans of arriving in the Big Apple.

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4-0Recommendation: A tragedy of R.M.S. Titanic-proportions, James Cameron’s vision just has to be applauded. As if I need to endorse this thing. Seriously? Why is this the second film in a row here where I pretty much don’t need to write anything in this section? Actually, it’s kind of nice. I don’t have to do this extra work now. Cool.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 194 mins.

TBTrivia: After finding out that she had to be naked in front of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet decided to break the ice, and when they first met, she flashed him.

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

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

TBT: Hiking in the Cascades (2009)

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The first Thursday in September is here at our doorsteps and here I am with my hands in my pockets in terms of coming up with a new concept for TBT. Well, actually, I’m feeling a little itch to do something different. I’ve been toying with the notion of promoting this video that I made for a long time now and I feel like the timing’s right now. It’s been approximately five years since I was first taken out to Seattle, Washington with my dad (who now lives there) and shown an entirely new world of outdoors adventures I couldn’t have pictured in my head if I had tried. My trip was in August of 2009. . .so, this is a bit past the month-date itself but I feel it should still count. 🙂 There’s a second impetus for my posting this today. I unfortunately got wind of the passing of one of my English professors from the University of Tennessee today. Even more sadly the event had actually happened some time ago and I had not known until today. I consider Steve Sparks one of my mentors from the university, as well as incredible inspiration for me to keep up my pursuit of writing. He was also a gentle soul and widely-respected by his peers at the university. He was one of the first to give me feedback on this blog so I’d like to honor him by posting 

Today’s food for thought: Hiking in the Cascades

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The edit below features some footage I collected from the Seattle area from the five days I spent there with my dad. I had a very basic idea of just documenting the whole thing and waiting until getting back to Knoxville later to sort through what I had and see if there was anything worth doing, but I became too excited and threw something together while I was still there. (Please be kind, this is edited together with the experience of someone using iMovie and Garage Band. haha!)

We spent most of our time in the Cascade Mountain Range hiking and tiring ourselves out on some massive elevation gain, and when weather didn’t cooperate at times we sought to do other things. Like explore waterfalls that were in town. Because waterfalls indeed just pop up all over towns in the northern Seattle area (those who are familiar with Bothell at all know what’s up).

I also happened to be in the right place at the right time for a Sounders game, and that was just an absolutely crazy experience. You want to hear a passionate fan base? You don’t need to go to Europe. Fly to Seattle and cheer on their boys from the MLS, holy crap. I didn’t get too much media around that event as it was just nice to sip on some beers with dad and then force our way back into the mass exodus flooding the streets in neon greens and blues, all bound for one purpose, one place: Century Link Field.

On another rest day away from the jaggedness of the Cascades we ventured into the city and we checked out the incredible Paul Allen-funded Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum downtown. An overwhelming amount of music and film collections were to be discovered inside, and honestly there was just too much stuff to take in so my photo sessions had to be brief. They were also kinda blurry and dark, so I apologize but here are some of the things that stood out to me:

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The infamous Guitar Tower. Two stories tall.

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Probably one of the worst photos of Alien you’ll see. . . I was too afraid to get near it.

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

Photo credits: Tom Little

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.

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