Movie Review: Ukraine’s long beef with Mother Russia gets an airing in “Bitter Harvest”


Telling the full story of Ukraine’s tortured history as a subservient state to Russia, then the U.S.S.R., and more recently Russia again would take a mini series. So “Bitter Harvest” zeroes in on the most infamous Evil Empire crime against Ukrainians.

It’s an historical drama set during Holodomor, the Stalin-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It was genocide, a crime against humanity.

Young Yuri (Max Irons) is a boy with an artistic bent growing up in a Ukrainian village between the World Wars. All he wants out of life is to draw or write, and to be with his childhood love, Natalka (Samantha Barks), and to leave his rural town for the big city of Kiev.

But Ukraine was and is “the breadbasket of Europe.” And Uncle Joe Stalin (Gary Oliver) has other plans. Collectivize, ship your grain, livestock, fruit and vegetables to Moscow, or starve.

A nervous adviser pleads that “this will mean the death of millions,” but Stalin is unmoved. “Who will know?”

Thus begins the Sovietization of the region. A ruthless regiment of the Red Army, led by the sadistic Commisar Sergei (Tamer Hassen) shows up, beats and bullies the large landowners whom everybody works for.

And Sergei’s Cossack grandfather (Terence Stamp) and father (Barry Pepper, in an elaborate Cossack haircut) take up arms.

“No one can ever take away your freedom,” Grandpa, a former general nicknamed “The Wold Boar,” intones. “Remember that.”


Yuri is an artsy disappointment to him. But as the slaughter to force compliance begins, the boy must choose between the artistic life and love he dreamed of and the reality of one of the worst genocides in history.

Writer-director George Mendeluk conjures up a pastoral idyll of harvest greens and golds, followed by the mayhem of mass murder and resistance. “Bitter Harvest” coasts along on a story arc so conventional — Natalka’s virtue threatened, Yuri’s decision to fight — that you’ll swear you’ve seen this before in dozens of Hollywood films set in Occupied Europe, or elsewhere.

And while Stamp always gives fair value and Hassen makes for a marvelous villain, young Irons (“The Woman in Gold”) never rises above bland, giving a colorless performance that rests on his good looks and his surname (he’s Jeremy’s son) and little else. There’s no spark, no heat or passion here.

It’s an important subject, and a timely one, given Russia’s designs on re-occupying Ukraine and a new U.S. president who doesn’t seem to mind that.

But “Bitter Harvest” never amounts to more than a colorful misfire, a picture with much of the pageant of the period, but little of the roiling passions that dominate politics in the Breadbasket of Europe, even today.




MPAA Rating: R for violence and disturbing images

Cast: Max Irons, Samatha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Tamer Hassan

Credits:Directed by George Mendeluk, script by  and George Menduluk,  A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Review: “Toni Erdmann


There’s a reason one hears little about the screen comedy of Germany, and it becomes obvious in the last two hours and forty minutes of “Toni Erdmann,” Germany’s contender for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

The first gag in it — showing the elderly practical joker Winnifred (Peter Simonischek) having one over on a  hapless delivery man , pretending the package “is for my brother…just out of prison…mail bomber,” then donning fake teeth to come to the door as that twin — is the funniest.

But there are riches in this meandering dramedy about an elderly father trying to find a bigger place in his workaholic daughter’s life, and to lighten her stress-load, by posing as a “life coach” to her superiors. That’s why Hollywood has snapped up the remake rights and supposedly lured Jack Nicholson out of retirement to take on the title role, with Kristen Wiig (on the nose) as the frazzled, overwhelmed daughter.

Hollywood will simplify it to that big concept, and trim writer-director Maren Ade’s flaccid storytelling and many aimless scenes into something tighter, funnier and almost certainly less German.

Winfried lives with his elderly dog and inspires wackiness at the Aachen middle school where he teaches music (and dresses the kids like zombies for an ironic “going away” party for another teacher). He’s divorced and rarely sees his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a consultant who jets between Shanghai and Bucharest, courting clients and telling them who to lay off from their companies.

Even when she shows up at a party at her mother’s house, she can’t tear herself away from the phone. She has no time to see granny? No worries, he’s hired an actress to play her and grandma cannot tell the difference.

“It’s a JOKE,” he bellows (in German), the mantra of failed jokers in any language. All she sees is an old man who lacks ambition now, and probably always has.

So Winfried drops in on her life in Bucharest, sees what’s she’s become, senses that she’s miserable, and after repeating the “hired somebody to play her” with her client (Micheal Wittenborn), resolves to inject some of his sort of fun into her stressed-out life.

toni1He dons a wig, fake teeth and a rumpled suit and crashes her parties, her restaurant meetings, passing himself off as Toni Erdmann, sometimes a life coach (and friend to tennis coach Ian Tiriac, one of the most famous Romanians), sometimes the German ambassador to Romania.

He sees Ines’s loneliness and shudders at the heartless line of work she’s in. He hurls her into a series of daft improvisations — lies on the fly. What brought him to Romania?

“I’m here for the famous dentist,” he improvs, flashing his grotesque choppers.

And she, taking up the challenge, drags him along, lets him see her using cocaine with her friends and the crippling pressure her boss (Thomas Loibl) hangs on her.

Ade treats us to the state of Ines’s psyche by putting us in her meetings, where she is but a yes-woman, careful to tell the client exactly what he wants to hear, and into the secret loveless love-affair she’s having with a colleague. Ade stages one of the most bizarre seduction scenes you’ll ever see, where Ines takes on a little of her father’s embrace of the surreal, manipulating that colleague (a subordinate) in a sexual sense.

Toni drags  her, calling her “my assistant,” into the real Romania, visits to the oil workers she will lay off, to a rural family gathering where he insists they gift their hostess with a song.

“Toni Erdmann,” in English and German with English subtitles, is a melancholy comedy about two lonely people that makes you wait for its laughs and special moments. But those moments, when they make their surprise arrival, are stunning in their emotional rawness and stark comic simplicity.

Still, that staggering running time and the leisure pacing of this, all the scenes that do little to further illuminate characters and do nothing to advance the plot, make one anxious, in this one case, to see “The Hollywood Version.” It will will probably be funnier and certainly be shorter, even if it is less German.


MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use

Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Ingrid Bisu

Credits:Written and directed by Maren Ade. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:42

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Movie Review: China throws a lot of money at “Rock Dog” lands not a single laugh


A sheep dog abandons the family business — protecting the flocks of his Tibetan village — to seek fame and power chords in the Big City in “Rock Dog,” a Chinese cartoon based on a Chinese comic book.

How do we know it’s Chinese? Bodi, the strumming/singing canine of the title, doesn’t quote the Dahli Lama or wear “Free Tibet” t-shirts.

It’s one of the most expensive movies ever made in China, wholly financed by one of the Chinese studios that also owns Chinese movie theaters. But those conditions, considered an anti-trust violation here in the States, and the fact that they threw a lot of money at a “Toy Story” director and International voice talent for the English language release, don’t save it.

Because there isn’t a laugh in it. Not one. And darned little charm, to boot.

Sam Elliott takes on the same role he played in “The Big Lebowkski,” as the drawling sage narrator, here named Fleetwood Yak (Haw!), telling us the story of Bodi (Luke Wilson), whose dad (J.K. Simmons) has figured out the best way to keep the wolves at bay — train the village of sheep to wear armored dog suits.

But the moment Bodi picks up a stringed instrument, he has other interests. The moment a portable radio drops into his life, he has his own dream. He wants to develop some chops, visit the city, go to Rock and Roll Park where the buskers play and form a band.

He wants to be just like his new hero, a cat named Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard).

“Find the passion, the fire inside,” Fleetwood Yak counsels. And Bodi has. He sets out to study under the master, Angus. But along the way, he runs afoul of a competitor guitarist (Matt Dillon) who owns him in a shredding contest, a fighting bear and the wolf mob boss (Lewis Black) who longs to get his paws on every thing Bodi holds dear, especially that village of sheep where the kid comes from.

rock2Director Ash Brannon (“Surf’s Up”) and a slew of credited co-writers could not uncover a laugh in this material. Not a one-liner, not one single sight gag that pays off. The animation is generic, but pretty enough. The music? Sort of a Chinese market research idea of “rock.”

You can’t really tell it’s Owen Wilson doing Bodi’s voice. Simmons sputters and fails to register. Kenan Thompson and Jorge Garcia do two sidekick voices, in the interest of diversifying the cast. Only Lewis Black, doing a few of his trademark meltdowns, comes close to finding a laugh.

And he’ll be a lot funnier telling the story, in stand-up routines or on talk shows, of how he took Chinese cash and giggled all the way to the bank making this made-by-a-committee-of-market-analysts disaster.


MPAA Rating: PG for action and language

Cast: The voices of Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, J.K. Simmons, Lewis Black, Mae Whitman, Jorge Garcia, Kenan Thompson, Sam Elliott, Matt Dillon

Credits:Directed by Ash Brannon, script by Ash Brannon, based on the comic book. A Summit release.

Running time: 1:20

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Movie Review: Arthur Miller’s masterpiece hits close to home for Tehran couple in “The Salesman”


“Culture clash” is an over-familiar trope of the movies, having fun with the differences between peoples. Culture connection is a rarer bird, showing how the timeless dramas and comedies of literature speak universal truths.

“The Salesman,” Iran’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, is a revealing culture-connection drama that gives the themes of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” a Persian twist. American audiences can appreciate it both for the transference of Miller’s big ideas to a Tehran setting, and the surprisingly candid look at life in the arts in the Islamic Republic today.

Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher by day, a member of an acting ensemble by night. His students — all boys — are a trial, pranksters straining under the weight of their circumscribed education and a society that isn’t keen on letting teenagers be teenagers. We get a hint of the paranoid culture that they all live in on an uncomfortable shared taxi ride where the mere whiff of a woman’s accusation chills teacher and one of his students.

In any event, it’s a job and little more to Emad.

But at night, he, his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are tackling a controversial American masterpiece. Emad is playing Willy Loman, American angst and shame at their 1950s peak, and Rana is Willy’s long-suffering but devoted wife Linda.

Whatever else Arthur Miller intended “Death of a Salesman” to be, Emad and Rana’s troupe must take to a stage playing up the lurid — city lights peppered with “Bar” and “Casino” and “Bowling Alley” signs. American decadence on display.

Offstage, Emad and Rana move into a new apartment run by their jack-of-many-trades castmate Babak (Babak Karimi). In the first echo of life imitating art, Babak is cagey about who the previous tenant was.

“The lady had…too many visitors.”

When Rana is assaulted in the shower, their relationship turns icy and quietly accusatory, just as in the play. Tenderness between them disappears. Endless reassurances that “nothing serious happened” from Rana and the neighbors — she was hospitalized, concussed and cut — and Rana’s reluctance to involve the police broadcast that this is a culture and a country ill-equipped to deal with anything sexual.

And Emad, frustrated and powerless, wants answers and revenge. What is Babak holding out, was the perpetrator a client and what clues did he leave behind?

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) beautifully obscures the connections between play and real life, and works fear and mistrust into this world with subtlety and care. A prank in the classroom could be a teacher’s undoing, nobody trusts or expects anything helpful out of the ever-absent police. There is no social structure for dealing with Rana’s trauma — either medical, religious or governmental.

The picture takes a fascinating but very conventional turn as Emad sets out to solve the crime and get justice on his own. And the play within the movie is given short shrift, with only the tart “Willy” cheated with (Mina Sadati) registering, mainly because the men in the cast cannot get past the character’s sexual nature.

Still, “The Salesman” makes for a gripping  drama of a relationship in crisis, and the powerlessness of men, across borders and through generations, to right the great wrongs of their lives, to not disappoint the women who lean on them.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and a brief bloody image

Cast:Shahab HosseiniTaraneh AlidoostiBabak KarimiMina Sadati

Credits:Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi  . An Amazon Studios release.

Running time: 2:05

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Movie Review: “Get Out” is horror with serious satiric bite


The warning is a just a joke between brothers. But since the “brothers”  aren’t actually siblings, it’s loaded with racial bite and edge.

“Don’t GO to a white girl’s parents’ house!”

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is successful NYC photographer, and Rod (LilRel Howery) is just his TSA Agent pal, but he means what he says. There’s peril in pursuing the Skinny White Princess Rose (Allison Williams), following her to her native habitat.

“Get Out” is a deeply disturbing satire of the racial minefield that is post-Obama/Black Lives Matter America. Sketch-comedy whiz Jordan Peele of  TV’s”Key and Peele” and “Keanu” has cooked up the smartest horror movie in ages, an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is entertaining and creepily enlightening at the same time.

Chris wonders if Rose has told her parents he’s black. And she’s not having it.

“They’re NOT racists.”

Warnings from Rod aside, Chris is as on guard as you would suspect as he enters what looks like a sylvan sanctuary of affluent liberals.

get2“We’re HUGGERS,” Rose’s neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) insists, even as he’s trying too hard with the “My mans” and letting slip opinions about genetics and “wiping out” the herd of deer that wreck Rose’s SUV on their trip. “Breeding like rats” is some seriously loaded language.

The family’s  black household staff (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson) seem like automatons, smiles pasted on faces beneath eyes filled with terror. There’s no black-on-black conviviality with these two, or any other black person they encounter in this enclave.

“I should get back to my work and mind my own business!”

Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) is a little too eager to talk sports, with an emphasis on mixed martial-arts.

And her mother (the great Catherine Keener) has that psychologist’s way of making you feel as if you’re being measured, studied under a microscope. You’re a smoker? Yeah, she’ll “cure” you with a simple session of hypnosis.

And when Keener’s shrink, at her most sinister, lures Chris into a “session” that reduces him to tears over his mother’s death, renders him helpless and yes — cures his cigarette craving  — we see Rod’s worst fears realized and “Get Out” takes off.

Peele gives us one of the most vivid and chilling renditions of hypnosis that the screen has ever seen.

“Get Out” suffers a little from the Achilles Hell of thrillers, a tendency to over-explain what’s going on in the later acts. Peele, as he and Keegan Michael Key demonstrated with “Keanu,” revels in the violence a bit more than you’d like in a satiric horror comedy.

But Howery’s paranoid comic relief delivers big laughs and hearty surprises. All the performances have an understated reality about them that adds to the horror. And the shocks and sense of “what America is like through OUR eyes” revelations are as tasty as they are testy.

It all combines to make “Get Out” a stunning debut picture, a satire as smart as Peele’s TV sketch show hinted it might be, but ambitious in ways that nothing he’s done before has managed, that rarest of the rare — a horror movie with frights, righteous rage and genius about it.

MPAA Rating:R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery

Credits:Written and directed by Jordan Peele. A Universal release.

Running time:

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Terrence Malick teases us again with “Song to Song”

I think of American auteur Terrence Malick as Lucy, holding that football in front of Charlie Brown (us). Over and over again. Since “Tree of Life,” I’ve given up on him. Even “Thin Red Line,” which I will check in on any time I see it on cable, only holds the interest for so long. Then he wanders off pointing the camera at leaves or insects or what not.

“Song to Song,” set in the middle of Austin’s music/festival scene, attracted top drawer talent — Gosling, Fassbender, Mara, Portman — and was filmed years ago. YEARS.

Anyway, the trailer is retro and promising and oblique and I don’t know…Limited release, March 17.

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Movie Review: Phillips remains comic also-ran in “Punching Henry”

The working title of “Punching Henry” was “Still Punching the Clown.” Because we’ve been down this bemused, bittersweet road with Henry Phillips before.

“Punching the Clown” (2010) was a semi-autobiographical riff on stand-up comedy’s “singer, songwriter, troubadour extraordinaire” Henry Phillips, an acquired taste who is grinding it out on the road, performing breathless ditties about wanting “a dog-type girl” and the like, finding laughs but getting in his own way when it comes to his “big break.”

“Punching Henry” is more of the same. He’s got the same inept manager (Ellen Ratner). He’s still living gig to gig, driving to each “Funny Bone” or “Laugh Factory” in a 2006 Suzuki, clinging to show business as fame eludes him.

In “Clown,” a record deal was dangled in front of him. Now, years later, viral video and Henry’s posed haplessness are catnip to a producer (J.K. Simmons) who is sure he can be “the loser who could make a loser feel like a hero” on TV.

Otherwise, “Clown” and “Henry” are the same movie. But if an artist is someone who “pounds the same nail over and over again,” give it up for Phillips.

Not everybody digs his satirical riffs on politics, tunes about getting over mistakes, from “losing a Malaysian airliner” to “crashing a cruise ship” to blundered love affairs with a simple, “Just say ‘Oops, and move on.” And many people — too many — never will.

Henry is summoned to LA for a meeting, where his car is promptly stolen,. Every Angelino he meets finds this hilarious. He is abused by hotel clerks, hecklers (Clifford Collins Jr.) and a taxi dispatcher. Life is a million little indignities, and Henry suffers and suffers for our sins.

Phillips is a soft-spoken Robert Palmer/Steve Lawrence look-alike with an act that leans on deadpan. That makes him a natural at delivering Henry-styled haplessness. He meets a woman in a party. She’s avoiding meat.

“Oh, are you a lesbian? I mean, vegetarian? Sorry.”

Simmons, playing the producer pitching the show to a viral-happy hipster-run TV network, gets to articulate the Phillips persona.

“He’s a road-weary Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the comedy hill…He’s Charlie Brown.”

henry3Yeah. That’s funny. That could sell.

A thread that ties the picture together is a long podcast interview with Sarah Silverman in which he rambles on about life in dingy hotels and thankless rural clubs after 40. It’s not that revealing, but as in “Clown,” Phillips sees the nobility in “failing, doing what I love.”

Comic Jim Jefferies and other funny folk have cameos, but mainly this is just Phillips, doing his act, showing real talent at the guitar and great timing as a wit.
But truthfully, if you saw “Punching the Clown” there’s no real need to see the sequel. Lots of Comedy Central bits in the intervening years aside, he’s still Henry and we, his not-quite-won-over-fans, are still “Punching Henry.”


MPAA Rating: unrated, pot-use,  sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Henry Phillips, Ellen Ratner, Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, J.K. Simmons

Credits:Directed by Gregori Viens, script by Henry Phillips and Gregori Viens. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:35

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Box Office: “LEGO” topples “Great Wall,” “Cure” is comatose


“The LEGO Batman Movie” and “Fifty Shades Darker” continue their late winter box office dominance, scooping up all the business that “The Great Wall,” “A Cure for Wellness” and “Fist Fight” were supposed to collect.

“LEGO” adds another $33 million, “Fifty Shades” another $22, and “Great Wall” has to be content with a mere $16 million opening, a bomb — at least at the U.S. box office.

But this is why you release a couple of movies a month. Universal’s “Shades” will clear $100 million in the U.S. by Tuesday, making “The Great Wall” more of a Chinese investor’s problem. The ethically awful “A Dog’s Purpose” (also Universal) will wind up making boatloads more cash than “The Great Wall” in the U.S. “Split” (also Universal) will further cover the bottom line, as it is still in the Top Ten.

Fox’s smart, dark and creepy but uneven Gore Verbinski horror pic “A Cure for Wellness” barely cracked the Top Ten ($4 million or so).

Warner’s comic dog “Fist Fight” will manage only $11 million this weekend, $14 million by President’s Day. It’s an R-rated bust.

“Hidden Figures” continues to draw, and “La La Land” enjoys an Oscar bounce.

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Movie Review: “Logan” ends the Wolverine’s run with guts and grace

They’ve never let James Bond age. Not really. Batman gets replaced almost constantly. Spider-Man? Don’t get me started.

But there is but one Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, and kudos to Fox and Marvel for letting the best of the X-Men make a dignified exit.

“Logan” is a bloody and noble finale to Jackman’s turn with the sideburns and metal claws. The movie and the character brood and growl, lash out and curse, and Jackman is magnificent at every one of those.

And its tale of “others” underground and on the run has extra resonance, considering the machinations of the current regime in Washington.

In 2029, Logan, the Wolverine, is laying low as a limo driver in the border country. About all that gets his dander up is messing with his Avanti-inspired stretch Chrysler, as a gang of car-stripping cholos learn.

The mutants are all gone, died out, though they’re still excoriated on right wing talk radio.

He’s still a wanted man.  Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) begs for his help taking her and a girl (Dafne Keen) north. Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a metal-handed mercenary, pays him a visit to let him know “they” can come get him at any moment.

And that screws up his plans to stay out of sight, feed and protect the aged and unstable Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and X’s caregiver, the empathic mutant Caliban. All Logan wants to do is get enough money to buy a boat and get away from it all with his mentor, for both of them to die in peace.

Not happening.

Events conspire to force Logan to take that ten year old girl, Laura, to some “Eden” — in North Dakota. And the bad guys, basically a multi-national pharmaceutical let run riot by a fascist government, with Richard Griffiths as the Mad Scientist in Charge, will spare no expense and no number of minions to stop that from happening.

logan1.jpgWith all the op-ed pieces on the new American Dystopia, science fiction is hard-pressed to improve on reality. But the screenwriters work in shots at the Agri-Industrial-Complex of Mega Farms, GMOs and the high fructose corn syrup they’re shoving into everything we drink and much of what we eat.

With all the digitally-enhanced action and violence — and it is graphic and delivered in large, gory doses here — it’s easy to lose track that there have been some fine performances in comic book movies over the years. It started with Christopher Reeve, but Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Famke Janssen and Christian Bale have all made a mark from behind a mask or in tights.

Jackman is in a whole other class, which is why, “First Class” to last, he and he alone is Logan.

It’s not a great movie, with generic “What a disappointment you are” dialogue, gratuitous, pitiless slaughter, far-fetched “How’d a child learn THAT?” moments, and a late second act introduction — one of Logan’s foes — that took me right out of the picture. And Hollywood’s idea of North Dakota has always shown a reluctance to actually visit that arid pancake, its ghost towns and oil wells.

But Jackman makes it  all work, bringing the tragic weariness, cynicism and reluctant nobility that are the hallmarks of this X-Man to the fore.

He is a modern “Shane,” a Western Logan and Laura glimpse in one scene while they’re on the run. “A man has to be what he is, Joey… It’s a brand. A brand sticks.”

Indeed. Thus, Logan and the man who branded him take their curtain call.

Until Marvel and Fox figure out a way to cash in again and screw that up.


MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Richard Griffiths, Stephen Merchant

Credits:Directed by James Mangold, script by Michael Green, Scott Frank and James Mangold, based on the Marvel Comic. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time:  2:15

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Movie Review: Wordless anime “The Red Turtle” loses something in, uh, translation


For “The Red Turtle,” Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit conjured up a romantic fantasy about a cast-away who angrily bludgeons and kills a red sea turtle, only to fall in love with the redheaded woman who pops out of the dead animal’s shell.

And the Japanese Studio Ghibli agreed to make it, because you have to be Japanese to find killing endangered sea life romantic.

That’s glib and culturally insensitive, sure. But this isn’t one of Ghibli’s better efforts, a lovely, wordless essay in silence and isolation with dream fugue sequences, almost no plot and a cryptic coda.

A fisherman is wrecked at sea during a gloriously animated storm. He washes up on a desert isle with only crabs, frogs and the occasional sea lion for company, and quickly resolves to turn the bamboo forest there into a raft. But every time he pushes off from shore, some unseen something thumps and thumps the raft to pieces.

He figures out it’s a sea turtle. And when she comes ashore he has his revenge. Sure, there’s remorse after he’s flipped her onto her back to let her die a slow, agonizing death. Too late, though.

Then the shell cracks open and speechless redhead emerges. They are meant to be and meant to mate. But where can this fairy tale go from there, and how will it end?

Ghibli’s animators render wind sweeping through bamboo in amazing detail. Crabs scuttle about, birds flock and soar and turtles wrestle themselves into and out of the water.The people, however, lack expressive “anime eyes” and are simply rendered.

Their watercolor palette begins with muted hue — fantastical dreams are rendered in black and white — and gains vibrancy as red characters show up and the film progresses.

Which it does. At a turtle’s pace.

There are incidents — near tragedies, a tsunami, family idylls. They’re spread sparingly over the 80 minute running time.

What’s missing is the magic, fantasy that feels fantastical, a moral to this parable.

Maybe that last element is there. Maybe not. The conclusion invites varying interpretations.

It’s all pretty enough, but this is lesser Ghibli, more a “Borrowers” than a “Ponyo,” an animated bauble as hollow as a turtle shell purse.


MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements and peril

Credits:Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, script by Michael Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran. A Sony Pictures Classics/Studio Ghibli release.

Running time: 1:21

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Movie Review: “Fist Fight” barely lands a punch


“Fist Fight” offers us Charlie Day in a leading role in all his screeching glory.

And who the hell wants to see that? Or hear it?

It’s “Bad Teacher” meets “Three O’Clock High,” an “edgy” comedy about an anarchically dysfunctional school where the kids run riot and the teachers are hapless bystanders.

Except for Mr. Strickland, played by Ice Cube in Full Scowl. Strickland’s a short-tempered tyrant who has had about enough of this chaos, where the last day of the year means “senior pranks” run amok and Atlanta school district layoffs.

So yeah, he snaps. Just a little. And at a punk who has it coming.

But he left an adult witness. That would be Mr. Campbell, played by “It’s Always Screechy in Philadelphia” star Day. And when push comes to shove and both their jobs are at stake, Campbell — a day with an indulged daughter and a baby on the way — isn’t going to take the fall for Strickland.

“Snitches get stitches,” growls Strickland. And it’s on. Or will be, when the bell rings at three. That’s when the beefy, bitter Strickland plans to give the scrawny screecher a serious beat-down.

As in “Three O’Clock High,” the movie is about the countdown to facing down a bully, and Campbell’s frantic efforts to defuse the situation, remove Strickland from the building and keep his job. He tries bargaining, trickery and treachery. Nothing works.

But there’s little tension or comic build-up, as we’re treated to advice from the scatter-brained PE coach (Tracy Morgan, trotting out who he’s going to get “pregnant” jokes…again), the meth addict/underage student craving math teacher (Jillian Bell of “The Night Before”), a French teacher who hates Campbell for all the wrong reasons (“Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks) and worthless clock-punching school security guard (Kumail Nanjiani of “Portlandia” and “Silicon Valley”) .

The kids? They carve images of penises on the football field, watch porn and masturbate in the bathrooms. Until word of the fight gets out, and then they’re all about making this coming beat-down viral.

Cube is very good at wearing a scowl, first scene to last, and Strickland — a techno-phobic, arrested development thug who sees himself as a last line of accountability to these unruly students, is almost believable. Campbell is not an unreasonable creation, either. Grown men don’t settle things with their fists.

But they do. Because that’s the title of the movie, and we know exactly where it’s headed and when we’ll get there.

The one saving grace in the flaccid direction of Richie Keen (Really?) is that fight. It’s the first time the movie comes to life.

But by that point, Charlie Day’s ensured all we have to offer that finale are deaf ears.


MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material

Cast: Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendicks

Credits:Directed by Richie Keen, script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:31

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