Working as a writer, editor, producer, and director (oh my), when it comes to crafting tales of adventure that are suitable for the entire family, Richard Boddington is a veritable jack-of-all-trades.
Returning to the same Gary Paulsen-like premise of an unprepared child lost in nature that made his 2013 picture
), it's still sure to thrill young viewers graduating from animated adventures to live action stories with heroes their own age.
Grander in scope both in terms of its African setting as well as Boddington's decision to one-up the horse in
or dog in Disney classics by giving his young lead, Phoenix (Sam Ashe Arnold) an elephant friend, as
begins, the recently orphaned Phoenix moves from Texas to Africa to live with his sweet-natured Aunt Sarah (Elizabeth Hurley).
Eager to explore his new surroundings by accompanying his Uncle Jack (Tertius Meintjes) on safari the very next day, after he gets distracted by a small animal during a short break, Phoenix is panicked to find that the parade of vehicles has left him behind.
Lost in the wilderness just twenty-four hours after setting foot on a new continent, while it requires a pretty big suspension-of-belief to imagine that Jack would've let him out of his sight long enough to get lost, Boddington makes the confusion more believable as the frightened Phoenix wanders further into the bush rather than simply staying by the side of the road until his uncle returns.
And as his guardians work alongside local military search and rescue to retrace their steps, Phoenix settles in for his first long night in a new land, only to find an unexpected ally a day later after he frees a bull elephant from a trap.
Both guarding Phoenix and giving him someone to talk to, the boy’s bond with the elephant he dubs Indlovu (which means "The Unstoppable") strengthens even more when they come across a group of ruthless poachers and vow to rescue the animals held captive in their camp.
While his ability to train Indlovu with an orange well enough to ride him to the level of a circus act is probably only going to work on the youngest audience members, the majestic blend of beautiful scenery and large animals freely roaming the land make it an agreeable enough fantasy, at least initially.
Unsure just how far to take the villainous threat, especially when a predictable but inefficiently explained twist is revealed that makes the situation all the more personal for Phoenix, as
continues, it spirals off into four distinctly different strands of plot that never quite weave back together into one.
like coming-of-age tale, drama about a family trying to come together as one, and a thriller that doubles as a message movie about the evils of poaching and guns. And although together, the first three or last three storylines could've easily evolved into something stronger, in the end
suffers from the lack of a cohesive plot.
However, the film's dedication to sharing the truth about the vanishing African elephant population to young viewers who will be in a position to help save these amazing animals someday proves once again that, despite
's problems overall, much like Phoenix, Boddington's heart is in the right place.
Responsible for turning a silent black-and-white movie set in 1920s Tinseltown called The Artist
–which featured a trained dog and complex dance choreography – into perhaps the unlikeliest Best Picture winner in modern history, Academy Award winning director Michel Hazanavicius returns to the backdrop of cinema once again for his latest effort which zeroes in on one artist in particular.
Less a straightforward biopic than a portrait of French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard as a middle aged man, Godard Mon Amour
's success depends upon not only how much you know about the director – who along with his contemporaries helped usher in a whole new style of filmmaking – but his films themselves.
Paying homage to his subject throughout, unlike the way that Hazanavicius was able to consistently weave references to classic cinema into The Artist
's narrative (which has become the director's signature), Godard
's sequences all too frequently deviate from rather than enhance the film's overall storyline, which is centered on the thirty-seven year old filmmaker’s relationship with his nineteen-year-old wife, Anne Wiazemsky.
While some moments are undoubtedly amusing, far too often the unnatural segues feel like signposting and – by calling too much attention to themselves – feel more like a spoof reminiscent of Hazanavicius's breakthrough, zany box office smash OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies
. Thus while the experimental Godard Mon Amour
will appeal to Godard buffs, chances are it'll be lost on everyone else.
Skipping past his most iconic period helming such New Wave classics as Breathless
and A Woman is a Woman
(starring first muse and wife Anna Karina), Hazanavicius's film – based on second muse and wife Wiazemsky's novel Un an après
– opens in 1967 on the set of Godard's politically charged La Chinoise
where the couple fell in love.
A flop in its era (and perhaps a bad omen for the couple's inevitably doomed relationship), the film, which focused on a group of revolutionaries and was loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's book The Possessed
, was banned in China and panned in most reviews save for those penned by Godard's friends.
Signalling – along with the now revered Weekend
– a major change of pace, tone, and subject in Godard's filmography, Hazanavicius's Mon Amour
picks up where La Chinoise
Set in the filmmaker's most controversial period wherein he embraced New Left and Radical Maoist ideology, publicly disowned his earlier work, and – speaking in slogans as his wont – stated that "Godard is dead," Hazanavicius opts to lighten the mood in his adaptation of Wiazemsky's novel.
Knowing that spending more than twenty minutes in the company of the director at his most insufferable would be the cinematic equivalent of a root canal, Hazanavicius keeps things moving, vacillating in tone between mischievous slapstick (as in a recurring bit where Godard keeps breaking his glasses in street protests) to sardonic yet self aware drama.
Yet although understandably it'd be a mistake to play the entire thing straight, by diving in after both the start of their relationship and once the director's style of filmmaking and beliefs became more radicalized, Mon Amour
suffers from a lack of a strong foundation or jumping off point into the period of major political unrest in France that immediately follows.
Repeatedly we find ourselves looking at Godard more as a privileged, out-of-touch jerk and less as someone whose life we feel invested in… except for wanting Wiazemsky to get the hell away from him and for Godard to wake up and smell his hypocrisy.
While obviously a film isn't required to have a likable main character, we shouldn’t have to be a film buff to understand our leading man on more than a surface level.
And unfortunately, as hard as it is to connect to Mon Amour
's Godard, even though it's her story and point-of-view, it's ten times harder in the case of Wiazemsky because we know so little about her, aside from the fact that she's expected to be the sycophantic supportive wife and mirror him instead of having her own opinions about the world.
Gamely played by Stacy Martin who generates empathy and understanding with a knowing look – particularly when shared with the wife of a couple who used to socialize with the two before it became impossible to share a meal with Godard for fear he might start screaming obscenities at an elderly war veteran – the actress's performance helps bring the film back to Earth as needed.
Also anchoring Godard when possible, versatile actor Louis Garrel – whose breakthrough ironically came in Bernardo Bertolucci's New Wave and Godard inspired, Parisian 1968 set sexy coming-of-age picture The Dreamers
– brings the filmmaker to life through a variety of moods from romantic to insecure to argumentative.
Before he became an Academy Award winning filmmaker, Michel Hazanavicius was an art school grad turned TV adman and that training as well as his passion for cinematic homage shines through, not only when he spoofs A Woman is a Woman
's famous book title fight scene, for example but also in his commitment to the era, which he captures as if through the lens of a Godard film.
Featuring pops of red, stellar production design, and clever use of montage, the film never fails to compel us on an aesthetic level, even if its script and pacing leave much to be desired as – like a desperately long car ride from Cannes to Paris wherein Godard can't help but insult everyone – Mon Amour
's 107 minute running time feels much longer.
With a target audience largely limited to New Wave enthusiasts and Godard aficionados (and even then the latter is likely to be divided in their reaction), although it feels like a missed opportunity to chronicle the artist's life in a more three dimensional manner, Mon Amour
Vacations are always better when, as comedy screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel note, "you know who you're taking a trip with" and this is especially true when you're asking an audience of strangers around the world to come along.
Passionate about telling a character-driven story "even in a high-concept comedy" like City Slickers
, which was based on an idea Billy Crystal dreamed up while watching a TV show about fantasy vacations, Ganz and Mandel take the time to develop the characters beyond the recognizable men bringing them to life.
Centered on three lifelong friends comprised of Crystal's neurotic Mitch, Daniel Stern's mild-mannered pushover Phil, and Bruno Kirby's obligatory, macho alpha male Ed, Slickers
opens during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain which puts their lives and relationship to the test in what we discover is just the latest in a long line of wild excursions.
Though broadly comic at first glance, the sequence works well on another level beyond simply establishing who the leads are as we begin to foreshadow what conflicts the three might need to resolve over the course of what's been far too often dismissed as a midlife crisis comedy (when in truth taking inventory of one’s life can happen at any age).
"It's never enough for you," an injured Mitch tells Ed after conceding that not only are their "adventures becoming stupid" but, as his patient wife Barbara (Patricia Wettig) notes, perhaps these trips "are a desperate attempt to cling to" their youth.
Keeping his head down for a year until the annual depression of his birthday sets in, after a catastrophic start to his thirty-ninth year leads to problems at work, a breakdown at Career Day after his son tells classmates he's a submarine commander, and a major blow up between Phil and his domineering wife (which magnifies his recent malaise), Barbara practically pushes Mitch out the door.
A present from Phil and Ed, this time the destination takes the three to New Mexico. Hoping to fulfill his childhood dream to be cowboy "Mitchie the Kid," they set off to drive a herd of cattle up to Colorado alongside a father/son duo of dentists from Baltimore, a pair of brothers who run a bestselling ice cream company, and a beautiful woman whose friend bailed at the last minute.
And while this is when the action truly begins, from a narrative perspective it's important to realize that – by the time they've landed – nearly an entire act has gone by where we've formed a solid foundation with the characters, which doesn't often happen today in films that would instead prefer to start in the middle to cater to the shortest of attention spans.
Using Jack Palance's iconic performance in Shane
as the inspiration for his Academy award-winning role as Curly the intimidating Trail Boss who, as Mitch says "the toughest man I've ever seen in my life," the New Yorker's mile-a-minute one-liners and stampede causing portable coffee maker initially rubs Curly the wrong way.
Butting heads from the start, once Mitch stands up to him after apologizing for his earlier jokes, Palance's cowboy becomes a surprising source of enigmatic wisdom to Mitch and as such, helps the viewer take Slickers
more seriously as a western than spoof.
Comparing the "City Slickers" to Curly, as Ganz and Mandel opine in one of this Shout Select edition's many behind-the-scenes featurettes, one of their biggest challenges as screenwriters was that in reality, "these characters had no business being in his world."
Raising the stakes as well as decreasing the number of talented actors onscreen (including David Paymer and Helen Slater), the writers treated it like an Agatha Christie style murder mystery in order to drop the ensemble down from eleven people to our main three organically. And illustrating just how much has happened along the way, by the time it becomes another one of Mitch, Phil, and Ed's legitimate adventures, we realize that we aren't riding alongside the same three men we first met back in Spain.
In other words, all the time spent inviting us "to move in with the characters" ensured that rather than a mere gimmicky western comedy, midlife crisis movie, or fish-out-of-water story, we're watching a tale about three men who learn that rather than to try to recapture their youth, it's time to grow up into the men they really want to be.
Featuring terrific performances by its impressive cast including the many supporting players who each get the chance to steal at least one scene, in the end it's Palance, Crystal, Kirby, and especially Stern who do a great job of balancing out pathos and drama with the comedy as leads.
Inventively directed by Ron Underwood, who punctuates some of the jokes by reframing them in a western homage that makes them even funnier as in a memorable ode to Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
, the newly released 4K scanned print on Shout's Blu-ray showcases the film's beauty while also giving Underwood, Crystal, and Stern an audio commentary track.
And although some of the bonus featurettes get repetitive as they reuse interview clips under different headings – making you wonder if they should've just served up one long featurette – overall the quality of the bonus material on this disc is first rate.
Featuring two deleted scenes that would've changed the ending of the movie, with Underwood explaining why they were left on the cutting room floor in tandem with Ganz and Mandel's reflections on how to not only set up a character-driven storyline but also go against viewer expectations by shifting tone and emphasis, we're able to appreciate just how much work went into creating this contemporary classic.
That being said, admittedly it's a film I didn't connect with all that much upon its initial release mostly because as a child, I couldn't relate to much beyond Crystal's one-liners or moments of broad situational humor.
However, now that I'm roughly the same age as the film's characters, it proved to be an ideal time to revisit the work that inspired my favorite Academy Awards ceremony of all time, as Crystal started improvising jokes about his costar's strength and virility after Palance won his award.
Unlike too many generic contemporary comedies sure to be forgotten as soon as the credits roll, City Slickers
A mother desperately waiting for news about the safety of her son who's in harm's way overseas, Susan Sarandon has played this part before...or so I thought.
Of course with over a hundred and fifty credits to her name as an actress on IMDb, it’d be safe to assume that the Academy Award winner has played everyone before and – like most women over fifty – more than her fair share of mothers.
However, unlike her role as a distraught matriarch waiting to learn whether or not her son might have been killed in a war zone in director Robert Allan Ackerman's compelling if admittedly contrived adaptation of Ellyn Bache's novel Safe Passage
, Sarandon's performance in Viper Club
is – much like the film itself – quieter and more attuned to the struggles of daily life.
Attempting to illustrate the impact that our foreign policy decisions can have even on non-military personnel right here in the states, while Safe Passage
's lofty ambitions get lost in the theatricality of its translation, Viper Club
plays like an intimate docudrama as Sarandon tries to keep up a good front during the most harrowing of times.
Having lost touch with her son Andy (Julian Morris) roughly two months ago, hardworking emergency room nurse Helen Sterling (Sarandon) fears she's running out of time and options when she receives a twenty million dollar ransom demand for the freelance video journalist by the terrorists holding him hostage in a war zone overseas.
Overworked, over-stressed, and sworn to secrecy by the FBI and the state department – neither of whom speak to one another and instead ask Helen what the other agency had to say when she takes a long bus ride into New York City from Oneonta, New York to check in – as if reading her mind, they warn the determined single mother that it's against the law to pay the ransom.
Unable to provide her with any information since it's classified, she's urged to stall by negotiating the price down to an amount they never intend to pay. However, flooded by the roller-coaster of memories she's shared with her equally headstrong son (which come to life in flashback form throughout the film), Helen begins to take matters into her own hands.
And once her son's girlfriend (Sheila Vand) puts her in touch with friends of Andy's who belong to an international network of journalists, translators, contractors, and donors called the Viper Club – including fellow journalist Sam (Matt Bomer) and a wealthy socialite (played by Edie Falco) whose own son had been ransomed – they team up in an effort to bring her son home.
Shot in just twenty days, it's here where the film would've turned into a Taken
style thriller if it had been made inside the big budget studio system, complete with a rewrite to give Helen a husband and put him in charge of Andy's fate while she frets at home.
Thankfully, screenwriters Jonathan Mastro and Maryam Keshavarz (who also directed) resist the temptation to adhere to genre expectations or cheap theatrics, instead dedicating the film "to international conflict journalists who put themselves in harm's way," in order to bring us the news and made as a "tribute" to those who've lost their lives, as the film's opening credits read.
And with the way the current administration labels the media the enemy of the people, Viper
was timely even before the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the IEDs sent to CNN (and others) by a crazed bomber. But given this recent dangerous escalation both here and abroad for journalists (and even in cases that don't involve ransom), award-winning Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz's film has become that much more vital.
Made with both real sensitivity and a striking degree of authenticity to the point that it's generated criticism by the mother of murdered journalist James Foley who felt that Keshavarz "took" her story and labeled it fiction, while there are certainly enough parallels to be concerning, without knowing more about what went on behind-the-scenes it's hard to judge in that regard.
Shot using a handheld camera to put us in Helen's shoes and stay within her point-of-view, Keshavarz and cinematographer Drew Daniels (using softer 40mm lens often employed by Gordon Willis in the 1970s) keep Helen close to the center of the frame and seldom leave her side for more than a moment.
Giving us a window into a personal nightmare with far-reaching implications, the admittedly confusingly named Viper Club
is sure to cause debate about not only what you might do in a similar situation but also the need to protect journalists worldwide.
At a time in her career where Sarandon is frequently cast as the go-to mom from The Meddler
to A Bad Moms Christmas
, it's refreshing to see her given the opportunity to sing once again in more than one key opposite a talented cast of veterans and up-and-comers like scene-stealer Amir Malaklou as an uncertain new ER resident.
From first shot to last, Sarandon's deft ability to call up a wide range of emotion with a minimum of dialogue drives Keshavarz's haunting picture forward as she stands in for all mothers, holding her head up high while doing everything in her power to try and guarantee her son's safe passage home.
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