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Le dernier loup (2015)
Amazing Portrait of Mongolians and Wolves
Moving and visually stunning autobiographical film involving Mongolians shepherds and wolves, both groups affected by encroaching settlements and bureaucratic regulations enforced by the Communist Party overseers, during the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1960s. A Beijing university student is sent to live with nomadic shepherds and learns their ways, including their interaction which wolves, which has a spiritual significance to them. When the ecological balance is altered by human greed, there are fatal consequences for both humans and animals.
While the photography captures the rugged majesty of the steppes in all its beauty and the action sequences are thrilling, this man versus nature drama portraits its characters with veracity never resorting to superhuman heroics or histrionics. Life is frail for both humans and wolves in their struggle for survival, wolves are not anthropomorphized, the Mongolian lifestyle is not romanticized, there are no easy solutions.
Perfectly acted with flawless cinematography, this a must-see films for nature lovers and those who are concerned about the environment. The rest of the viewers should also be rewarded by this poignant and compelling real life story.
Tom vs the R2D2s from Hell
I gave one start for the magnificent Iceland landscapes and the songs Ramble On by Led Zed and Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. The rest of this sorry movie is an overcooked pastiche of recycled science fiction ideas from 2001, Stars Wars, Logan's Run, Star Trek, and Moon among other movies.
Evil machines, checked. Hero's weird memories, checked. Noble human survivors in pastoral nature, checked. Clueless clones, checked. Ad nauseam.
Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise, the way he has been doing since Top Gun, this time fighting drones who look like evil R2D2s. Morgan Freeman as a freedom fighter in leather and a cape pocketing a nice paycheck for shooting a few rounds and talking a few cryptic sentences. What a waste.
Overlong, overblown, a failure despite all the good intentions and people involved
In 2000, I saw the excellent "You Can Count on Me" written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan starring a luminous Laura Linney and a dark Mark Ruffalo. That movie was a true to life minimalistic masterpiece about a dysfunctional family and brought great accolades. This created great expectations for Lonergan's next film which arrived in 2011 (after considerable release difficulties supposedly requiring the editorial assistance of no less than Martin Scorsese) However, this second film is the opposite of the first one: muddled, overlong, winding, with poor character development, poorly edited (sorry, Martin), poorly acted and full of false notes despite its striving for authenticity.
The first problem is Ana Paquin, who was in her late twenties during the filming and whose body and face are not only too mature but also reflect plenty of living to play a 17-year-old ingénue who wants to lose his virginity. Then every time she reiterates her opinion or emotes she yells. This is simple poor acting. Since she dominates the movie, soon it goes nowhere.
Then the plot of a New York teen coming to terms with being morally responsible for her involvement in a tragic accident and the ironies and ambiguities of life could have been told more succinctly not in almost three excruciatingly boring hours. This teen soap ain't Lawrence of Arabia.
So despite of small roles perfectly mastered by Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon, or larger roles convincingly played by Mark Ruffalo and Jeannie Berlin, and an authentic Manhattan's insider feeling showing opera performances at the Met or people's crammed apartments, the movie eventually fails by being disjointed and pointlessly long.
There are far better movies about NYC teenagers encountering mixed emotions and moral decisions such as the groundbreaking Kids and the more recent ones Precious and Rodger Dodger. This one is failure despite all its good intentions.
Last Summer (1969)
Sexually Frustrated Adolescents in the Late 1960s
This review may contain spoilers.
Three handsome teenagers, two boys and a girl, create a bond while spending the summer in Fire Island, NY. The two boys are virgins and lust after the more experienced girl who knows how to excite them, without allowing things to go too far, while manipulating them into an agenda of her own. They are joined by a homely-looking, inhibited and sensitive teen-age girl, which eventually will bring disastrous consequences.
Part of brilliance of the movie is how natural it portraits these four characters. The camera allows the teens to be themselves with their physicality and lust, their notions and experimentation, following their own rhythms and placing them in a world of their own. Also brilliant is how evil is presented, first appearing into their lives as a joke at someone's expense to later manifest as true crime.
Probably some viewers may object to the movie not being a morality tale presenting its characters without any redemption at all. But why should these characters learn from their actions? In real life not every young criminal has a morality crisis seeking atonement and this movie portraits its young subjects in a very realistic light.
Some things may be different for teens now and in some ways the movie may appear dated. However, as a portrait of teenage alienation, lust, experimentation, group behavior, and crossing moral boundaries, this movie stands the test of time. It is a classic in its genre.
My Dog Tulip (2009)
Delightful Acccount of Eccentric BBC Writer and High Strung German Sheperd
When English writer and BBC editor J. R. Ackerley brought home with him a German Shepherd bitch whose owner was in prison, little did he anticipate how difficult would be to care for her. However, despite the fact that Queenie (the original dog's name) was untrained and high strung demanding his full-time attention, he felt unconditionally loved for the first time in his life.
This is a delightful animated movie for adults and older children based on Ackerley's memoir of the same name. Each individual frame was digitally painted with broad brush strokes creating a minimalistic and naturalistic scenes. Tulip is shown acting like a dog when she is taken to the veterinarian, runs out of control in the park, or goes into heat. And life-long bachelor Ackerley used to his peace and quiet is challenged by each one of Tulip's behaviors or problems. This is a movie about unconditional love that dog and animal lovers, or for that matter anybody who has had real feelings for any creature, should treasure.
To understand the origin of Queenie, see the very good comedy drama "We Think the World of You" with Gary Oldman and Alan Bates, based on Ackerley's novel of the same name. It tells how an incarcerated burglar's dog becomes the object of class warfare between his working class wife and parents, who mistreat the dog, and a middle class former boyfriend.
Chico & Rita (2010)
Masterful Sexy and Sentimental Afro-Cuban Musical Tale
Here is a great animated film for adults, particularly for those who enjoy or are intrigued by Afro-Cuban music that after being extremely popular in the 1940s and 1950s faded once the Cuban revolution established a Marxism regime.
Inspired by stories of exile and the music left behind, this is an epic tale of star-crossed lovers, a singer and a pianist/songwriter, whose tempestuous relationship takes from Havana to NYC, from Europe to Vegas, from the 1950s to the 2000s, the film is meticulous in its recreation of streets, bars, apartments, hotels, cars, music halls, clubs, populated by its colorful characters. These lovers, friends, managers, and musicians are all too human flirting, smoking, dreaming, making love, getting drunk, having jealous fights, manipulating, betraying, trying for stardom, realizing their emptiness, or living in somber poverty. There is racism, sex, prostitution, murder, love, heartbreak, regret, and hope, along with piano jazz, big band numbers, small jazz groups, and Hollywood numbers.
All these scenes are presented in fluid, graphic, colorful detail, brilliantly animated, with an eye and hear for period, place, and character. A daytime scene in old Havana is full of color, the streets have people, buses, and advertisement everywhere. There is a blackout and neighbor voices are heard. A nightclub scene at midnight is deprived of colors other than blue hues. Rita's eyes blue eyes in the dark turn brown. This attention to detail make this animated feature true to life making the characters and their stories believable and real, unlike the silly cartoonish CGI of the Toy Story series and the contemporary deluge of animated crap polluting the screens.
Then there is the soundtrack: Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Woody Herman, among others along with the Afro Cuban piano of Bebo Valdes, etc. It should delight jazz and Afro Cuban music lovers and may convert those who are not familiar with this sensual music.
This is a first rate animated film for adults, unique even when compared to other realistic, adult-oriented animated films. It doesn't have the animal cuteness of "My Dog Tulip" and while being more akin to Jacques Tati's "The Illusionist," in presenting the stark reality of earning a living as a performing artist, it doesn't take a magical childlike view approach to the story. Chico and Rita is an erotic, musical, historical, emotional tale, unflinchingly real. Take their sentimental journey and you will be richly rewarded.
The Kitchen Toto (1987)
Insightful portrait of childhood, colonialism and bloody rebellion
A houseboy befriends his white master's son in 1950s Kenya while marauding rebels plan murder and mayhem.
The brilliance of this movie is how it manages to tell a story involving children whose innocence and purity will be compromised by the imploding colonial world, white colonialists living a comfortable yet deluded life by exploiting native Kenyans, and murderous rebels whose raging savagery will not spare innocent lives.
Poignant, deep, unflinching, well-acted, perfectly photographed, this is a minor masterpiece not to be easily forgotten. Its story may be a footnote yet it presents the elements that fueled African rebellion and shaped the future politics of sub-Saharan nations. A must see.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Flat, Boring, Pointless -- A Total Waste
A campy performance by J.Depp, a strong supporting cast, some cool and fun special effects here and there, and jokes about the early 70s popular trends cannot save this movie from being one of 2012's worst releases.
There are no thrills, there is very little action, there are very few funny moments, the pace is slow, there is no character development, the plot is thin and not clever. Even a performance by Alice Cooper is boring and goes nowhere.
The original soap opera -- despite the unintended campiness of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo story lines -- at least had some character development and a relentless tension making it ABC's most watched show during its heyday in the late 1960s. Of significance is the fact that the series had dream sequences, morphing, etc., all done with the limitations of being a daytime soap with one-shot takes that went straight from live to tape. Sadly, Tom Burton spent millions of dollars on 21st century digital technology for special effects and came up with a boring, pointless film which is neither a campy comedy nor a supernatural thriller.
There was a 1991 short-lived miniseries which had a compelling cast (Ben Cross, a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt), solid plot lines (for a supernatural story), and a taut, tense pace filled with action, sex, and horror. Watch that one and pass on this turkey.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
A Mesmerazing, Menacing and Twisted Portrait of the Banality of Crime
Animal Kingdom tells an unforgettable realistic story of an Australian crime family. Its tone is cool and minimalist, its characters are flawed and not particularly intelligent or charismatic, its scenes embody everyday mundanity, yet the film draws you into its story of a 17-year-old youth joining his criminal uncles.
The strength of the film rests on its avoidance of presenting ultra intelligent criminals, like in The Town or Takers, who perform superhuman feats outsmarting sophisticated digital systems, fighting martial artist cops, and escaping by driving against speeding traffic. On the contrary, everybody in Animal Kingdom is just too human, nobody is a perfect hero or a perfect criminal. There are no scenes of extreme machine and human noise like robbing a bank or partying at a night club. Instead, characters watch T.V. and fall sleep on the couch or shop at the supermarket. There are shootings, chases, murders, betrayals, heartbreaks, and paranoia but they occur without the histrionics or larger than life feelings so common in today's movies.
A sense of menace permeates almost each scene maintaining tension throughout the entire film. At times it appears as if its all in the protagonist's mind eye because the action occurs without sound, just electronic music. Then scenes have an almost abstract quality producing a feeling of seeing the story almost in its very essence.
The superb cast which includes brilliant actor Guy Pearce are perfect in their portrait of criminals and cops, none of them to be trusted. The criminal mentality in all its banality and psychosis is clearly depicted. This is an excellent film, fluid, engaging, clear-eyed, and sober. Highly recommended.
Alpha and Omega (2010)
A Wasted Opportunity to Teach About Wolves
Although the movie's plot and animation at times try to depict the wolves and their world realistically -- which is when it most entertaining -- most of it is silly, contrived, anthropomorphic nonsense.
It distorts facts such as there is one alpha couple who leads the pack and not two groups of alphas and omegas, the pack is actually an extended family, there is only one omega member, etc. But the worse aspects -- despite the plot's good idea of wolves being relocated by humans -- are the silly clichés, the characters acting like canines one minute and as humans the next one, and the animation that makes the animals look like stuffed toys.
The Omega male is an irresponsible immature slacker who uses large pieces of bark as boards to ride down the slopes. The Alpha female is responsible and mature, hunts for the pack and is ready to sacrifice herself for the sake of the pack. The alpha males of two feuding packs arrange a marriage of convenience between their offspring to unite the packs. The hero and heroine are saved by a duck and a Canadian geese who is an avid golfer. Wolves do R&B howling...
This movie does not come even close to a Disney or a Pixar. Instead, it makes Bambi look like Citizen Cane and The Fox and the Hound like Avatar. It is a pity the makers resorted to such a phony silliness instead of trying to teach children about wildlife with a truer sense of wonder.