Thursday, June 23, 2016

Finding Neverland

J.M. Barrie was a novelist and playwright who created Peter Pan.  He became strong friends with the Llewelyn Davies family at a time when his marriage was in decline.  He used to play with their boys and their time spent together became the inspiration for the Peter Pan story.  In this regard he seemed a little bit like an odd duck; the story about a boy who didn't want to grow up was written by a man who didn't want to grow up.

The movie Finding Neverland plays loose with the facts because it shows Barrie meeting Sylvia Llewelyn Davis after she was already widowed.  In fact, he had been friends with her husband and the entire family prior to that.  Later when Sylvia became ill and passed away, her will gave J.M. Barrie shared guardianship of her children.  It is not clear how close the relationship was between Barrie and Sylvia, but it is obvious that he had a close connection to the entire Llewelyn Davies family.

Where the movie shines is how it ties Barrie's life to the Peter Pan story.  In the film we see enough of the Peter Pan play to get a mild sense of wonderment.  One of the final scenes is surreal by intention.  The movie soars toward the end because it surprises us.  This is a film that tries to touch your heart and succeeds.  It certainly touched mine.  

However, the details of Barrie's life are just drab enough that you probably would not want to watch them a second time.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Son of Saul

Sonderkommando were Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi extermination camps.  Their primary duty was to dispose of the bodies.  In 1944, a group of Sonderkommando staged a violent revolt at Auschwitz that was put down by the Nazis.  The Hungarian film Son of Saul takes place during these events.

The movie opens with trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz and then being immediately sent to the extermination chambers. Against his will, Saul helps in every part of this process. The movie makes it clear that any Sonderkommando who does not do what he is told is immediately executed. Saul seems to have shut down all his emotions as a way of surviving the horror that surrounds him. Then he recognizes a boy who is killed as his illegitimate son. From this point he makes it his personal mission to get a proper Jewish burial for his son. He hides the body, and then searches desperately for a Rabbi to perform the ceremony.

This is a unique film that doesn't feel like anything I have seen before.  The movie tells a very personal story.  The camera almost never leaves Saul.  Much of the film seems to take place in real time.  We spend half of the film looking at the back of Saul's head as he moves from place to place.  As Saul moves around the camp, we witness one horror after another, most of which are in the periphery, or barely offscreen.  Things happen that are never explained.  There is a mild sense of chaos everywhere in this story.  

I find the subject matter depressing, but not the movie.  The story creates a kind of suspense as Saul tries to find a way to bury his son, and as the revolt builds to fruition.  The film gives us a different perspective on the Holocaust, and it is intensely personal.  Many people would not be able to watch Son of Saul because the Holocaust is too horrible to contemplate, but this feels like a story worth watching.

Rating:  * * * *

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Dory

It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Finding Nemo came out.  The long awaited sequel, Finding Dory, is a good way to spend 98 minutes of your life, about 6 of which will be spent watching the animated credits at the end of the movie.

The movie is preceded by the Pixar short Piper, which is about a baby bird who overcomes her fear.  As far as Pixar animation is concerned, this short film feels understated, but in a cute and charming way.  This is also how the ending of Finding Dory feels.  I expected a big emotional ending, but instead the movie finishes on a quiet moment.  It didn't feel right, but that is okay since the rest of the movie is a wild ride.  Finding Dory is essentially an action film with touches of sentimentality and humor.

I thought that the movie stretched believably more than the first film did.  Finding Dory exists in a universe where fish can read signs at Sea World, where predators are friends with their potential prey, where fish take more than a year to grow up and apparently can live for years, where an octopus can drive a truck, and where echolocation works better than X-rays.  In addition, we already know from Finding Nemo that the fish can talk to each other.

Some have stated that Finding Dory is a sequel better than the original, but I am unsure about that.  I will have to watch Finding Nemo again to compare them.  I thought that the sequel could have been a little more sentimental, because most of the emphasis is on action.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ice Age: Continental Drift

With a new Ice Age movie coming out in five weeks, I thought that I should finally watch the last one that came out four years ago.  This film only had a 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is why I was in no hurry to see it, and now I can see why.  Most of it I found entertaining, but there are parts of it I didn't like.

The story involves the break up of the Pangea super continent, notwithstanding the fact that the Pangea super continent broke up 175 million years before most of these animals existed.  This causes Manny, the woolly mammoth, to become separated from his wife and rebellious teenage daughter.  This is where I start to have a problem with the film, because the family story in this prehistoric animal tale is a little too 21st century.  I could have done without the family story altogether.  Manny and his friends end up doing battle with a primate pirate and his crew.  This particular plot element, along with the rest of the story, seems a little weak to me.

It is not a terrible story, but it is also not a particularly great one either.  It has plenty of action to make it watchable.  It is good enough to rent if you have nothing else to watch.  This film has too many pop cultural references, which to me is a sign that they knew the story was weak.  When you consider that this film made almost a billion dollars, you would think that they could have given us a better story.

The original Ice Age film paid close attention to details.  You had a sense of historical accuracy, because you saw the Woolly Mammoth exist at the same time as, and on the same continent with, Native Americans.  This also fits in well with the ice age theme.  The sequel films gave us continental breakups and dinosaurs, which means that any sense of historical accuracy is completely thrown out the window.

Speaking of details:   A woolly mammoth is at least as big as an elephant, if not bigger, and shouldn't have so much trouble fighting an ape.  The mammoth should win easy.  Here the ape looks almost as big as the mammoth, which is not realistic.

My one last observation is that the different Ice Age movies seem to be able to make a boat out of anything.  In one film it is a giant log.  In this film it is icebergs.

I enjoyed the first three Ice Age films, and I enjoyed this one barely enough to be glad that I rented it.  It is a little better than the third Madagascar film.  Both these film franchises seem to be running out of ideas, so I hope that the next Ice Age movie is a little better.

Rating:  * * 1/2

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Imagine enlisting in the Marines, going through one hell after another, to finally get deployed in Operation Desert Shield.  Once deployed, you fight boredom for months, until finally Operation Desert Storm begins.  Imagine you get shot at with no opportunity to shoot back.  Imagine going through hell again, until finally, after a long period of difficulty, you are finally looking at the enemy through the sight of a gun.  All the misery you have gone through comes down to what you do at that one critical moment.  That's what Jarhead is about.  What happens at that moment I can't reveal, but it is not what I expected.

The movie captures the difficulty, boredom and insanity of being at war.  It wouldn't make a good recruitment film, because none of this looks pleasant.

Rating: * * *

Django Unchained

I have been a little soured on Quentin Tarantino movies, not because they are bad, but because Quentin Tarantino always takes things to the extreme.  You could see that in Inglourious Basterds, where the movie would have some interesting dialogue followed by extreme violence, and then repeat the same pattern of interesting dialogue followed by extreme violence over and over.  But the movie that really soured me on Quentin Tarantino films was Kill Bill: Volume 1, with its over the top martial arts scenes, the movie makes no pretense of being remotely believable.  Apparently Quentin Tarantino doesn't care about believably, just so long as the movie is entertaining.  How does he make entertaining movies?   By taking things to ridiculous levels.  As long as you don't care about believability, his movies are a blast.  It is with this knowledge of how Quentin Tarantino movies work that I watched Django Unchained. 

 Django is a freed slave who joins Dr. King Schultz in the bounty hunter business.  Schultz has no qualms about killing anyone without mercy, and he tries to impart that attitude onto Django.  Together they scheme a plot to free Django's wife from a cruel plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie.  They go to the plantation owner on false pretenses, but naturally things get complicated.

Since it is a Quentin Tarantino film, it is a given that the movie is extremely violent and has an excessive amount of profanity for what would have likely been used in 1857.  One thing that bothered me is the excessive use of the N-word.  Someone estimated that the word is used 110 times in the movie.  It is the one thing that sticks out more than anything else.

Despite all the film's many excesses, it does manage to entertain.  Quentin Tarantino movies always do.

Rating:  * * *