Savor This Weekend’s “Top Five” “Wild” “Pelican Dreams” (and Flee – Flee! – from “Exodus”)

Hard week at work (it’s exam time) = shorter reviews than normal combined into one loosely concocted post. Enjoy!

Top Five

Top Five (Chris Rock, 2014)

Let’s be clear: this is not a great movie, by any means. Though comedian Chris Rock (Grown Ups) has directed two previous features over the past 11 years (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife), he is still a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, and it shows. Scenes drag on for too long, reaction shots are not always timed well, and transitions are often clumsy. And yet . . . the movie is supremely enjoyable, and frequently very funny. Rock is a smart man who is much more than just a funny guy (see his recent Hollywood Reporter essay on race in the movie business as an example of his insightful thinking), and his jokes – when they hit their mark – are like little Trojan comedy missiles that hide their barbed social commentary inside a soft Nerf™ cover. It helps, also, that Rock has cast the perfect straight foil for the main character that he, himself, plays, in Rosario Dawson (Cesar Chavez), with whom he has terrific on-screen chemistry. Their banter is a delight to behold. So while the movie is flawed, it has enough going for it to be more than worth seeing.

Andre Allen (Rock) is a major Hollywood star known for playing “Hammy the Bear” in a series of crude Beverly Hills Cop send-ups who, in a career 180 reminiscent of that of Sullivan’s Travels, has decided to abandon comedy and make a film about an 18th-century Haitian slave uprising (like Sankofa, only without the artistry). One of the funnier running gags in the movie is how atrociously bad this movie-within-the-movie is and how no one, regardless of race, wants to see it. Allen is also about to get married to a narcissistic reality star played by Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too), and the stress of the upcoming nuptials and his failing movie may just drive him to drink again (he’s a recovering alcoholic). In walks a New York Times reporter (Dawson), hungry for the real scoop on the star, and after Allen agrees to spend the day walking around with her, most of the rest of the movie is about their conversations – often deep, frequently hilarious – about life and Allen’s career. Thanks to the two stars and some very witty dialogue, the movie almost always works in these blissful scenes. If it doesn’t quite work at other times, it’s still more hit than miss. It may be not make it into my own personal top five of the year (or top 10, or top 20), but it’s still a lot of fun.

Wild

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)

The worst that can be said about Wild, the new film by French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), is that it feels overdetermined. While it’s true that good drama often flows from the connections and causalities between various life events and the narrative threads that bind them, it is also true that one must be wary of coincidence and cliché. Wild has a strong story and structure (courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby), but also a lot of easily foreseeable outcomes. If that’s the worst of it, though, then not to worry, for the positives mostly outweigh those negatives. What Wild does beautifully is tell the moving tale of one woman’s journey of self-discovery after a moment of supreme crisis in her life. And while we can easily guess that this journey will end well (the movie is, after all, based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, the movie’s protagonist), that doesn’t mean that the journey is not, in and of itself, interesting. It helps that the cinematography is gorgeous and the performances sublime. It’s potent stuff, mostly well realized.

When the movie begins, Strayed – a very good Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) – a woman in her mid-20s, has just pulled herself out of a self-destructive downward spiral that saw her both engage in indiscriminate sex with strangers (despite being married to a man she loved) and abuse heroin, all the result of grief at her mother’s untimely death from cancer. She reinvents herself with a new last name after her divorce and decides to hike 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail as both penance and healing walkabout. We travel with her as she struggles up peaks for which she is woefully unprepared, flashing back to earlier moments in her life, including many scenes with her mother, the self-described “love of her life.” Played by a magnificent Laura Dern (the mother in The Fault in Our Stars, as well), Cheryl’s mom is a warm and nurturing presence to which Cheryl returns time and again during the cold nights of her hike, and thanks to Dern we can easily understand why her loss was so devastating to Cheryl. Eventually, as these stories go, Cheryl manages to pull herself up by her hiking bootstraps – after meeting many colorful characters along the way, and some mild danger, as well – and return to the world of the living, leaving us with a sense of genuine catharsis and redemption. And though we may have seen this kind of movie before, it’s rare that we see a movie where a woman solves her own problems, largely by herself, without requiring undue help from the men in her life. Redemption and, hopefully, inspiration to us all.

Pelican Dreams

Pelican Dreams (Judy Irving, 2014)

At a brisk 80 minutes, Pelican Dreams, the lovely new documentary film by Judy Irving ( The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) hardly overstays it welcome. With beautiful shots (especially the high-resolution slow-motion footage, both above and underwater) of wild pelicans at work and play, the film treats us to stunning scenes from the lives of these once-endangered birds (courtesy of DDT dumping in the 1950s and 1960s) who now face new environmental threats because of climate change. At times heartbreaking (especially when we meet injured birds in captivity), and at other times heartwarming (when those same birds fly away), the movie is a moving tribute not only to the birds but to the people who care for them. The film should appeal to all who care about about animal life on our planet.

That said, the movie is not perfect. I did not enjoy Judy Irving’s voiceover; in fact, I often found it irritating and completely unnecessary. Better to let the beauty of the birds and the voices of the experts tell the story, rather than interrupt our revery with musings on whether or not birds dream. I loved Irving’s Wild Parrots – in which she refrained from such excessive commentary – but as she announces at the start of her new film, she has always felt a personal connection with pelicans (unlike with parrots), and so we get what we get. I was also not a big of the film’s soundtrack, by Bruce Kaphan, which I found as similarly intrusive as the voiceover. So be it. Together they are a small price to pay for the joy of watching pelicans frolic.

Exodus - Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014)

What can I say . . . do not see this film. Flee from Exodus: Gods and Kings. It may well be the worst film I have seen all year. I overheard some people at the end of the screening I attended saying that while the story was bad, at least the effects were spectacular. They are wrong. The effects are terrible, too, and the 3D just makes them worse. Everything in this mess, from the performances to the production design to the visual effects and cinematography, is just misconceived and misbegotten. You want to watch a story about Moses and the return of Jews to their homeland? Rent Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments – a bloated mess in its own right, but a masterpiece of storytelling by comparison – instead. And that’s all I have to say in the subject. Or maybe not. Let’s let Mel Brooks have the last word, in this clip from History of the World: Part 1.

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