Born in China

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Born in China  (B-).  I don’t think I have seen one of these “Disneynature” Earth Day releases in a while.  This one focuses on several species indigenous to China.  Cranes and a certain kind of antelope get brief coverage, but the movie focuses on the giant panda, the snow leopard, and some kind of snub-nosed monkey I had never heard of before.  The photography is exceptionally good, as you would expect, but the narration (provided by John Krasinski, Leatherheads) is way too sentimentalized and occasionally downright goofy.  There’s very little gore, but there is still a death that might trouble the little ones and the exceptionally tenderhearted.  Personally, based on the previews, I’m hoping for more from Disneynature’s 2018 release Dolphins.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (B).  Happy MLK Day!  As a government employee, I had the day off, so I thought I’d check out this new documentary.  I presumed I would have the theater virtually to myself, but surprise!  There were probably 60 or 70 other moviegoers there for the 1:15 show.  Who’d have thunk it?  Anyhoo, I knew nothing about Peggy Guggenheim going in, so this documentary–biopic was very educational for me.  PG was born in 1898 and lived until 1979, and in between she became one of the most influential people in the art world, despite having no formal training.  Instead she had some money (being an heiress), a good eye, and some excellent advisers, as well as a personality that allowed her to meet and befriend (ahem) many of the artists who came to define the 20th century.  Jackson Pollock was apparently one of her discoveries.  Anyway, she lived an unconventional and seemingly pretty sad life, but it made for an interesting movie.  Among many other things, I learned that both parents of actor Robert De Niro (Stardust) were artists whose work was shown by Guggenheim back in the day.  Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing.

Best of Enemies

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

Best of Enemies  (B+).  This may be the first documentary I have seen this year.  It is about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968, and more particularly about ABC’s decision not to provide wall-to-wall, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, but rather to broadcast only selected highlights from the conventions, followed by “debates” between a well-known provocateur from each end of the political spectrum.  Those provocateurs were William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal.  The movie consists in large part of contemporaneous news footage about the conventions, as well as excerpts from the “debates” themselves.  I use scare quotes because, as far as I could tell, Buckley and Vidal used the occasion mainly to insult each other, and certainly not to discuss in depth any of the salient issues of the day.  As a long-time subscriber to National Review and admirer of Buckley, I winced when the movie finally got to the most famous exchange between the two, when Vidal called Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi,” Buckley lost his temper, called Vidal a “queer,” and threatened to punch him in the face.  The film-makers want to trace the shouting style of modern punditry to the Buckley–Vidal debates, but I can’t imagine things would be much different by now even if Buckley and Vidal had been more civil and actually made arguments.  Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting and well-made movie.

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar

New from The Movie Snob.

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar (B). I do enjoy a good IMAX nature documentary, and this was a pretty good one. Morgan Freeman (Evan Almighty) narrates this 40-minute overview of the lemurs of Madagascar. We also meet an American scientist Patricia Wright, who has devoted her life to studying the critters and, of course, trying to protect their habitat from human destruction. The lemurs are pretty interesting, especially the adorable little mouse lemur (but note the thick gloves worn by the lab tech handling the little guy. I bet he has sharp little teeth!) And the scenery of Madagascar is pretty gorgeous too, with lots of huge stone formations jutting up unexpectedly out of the forests. This one is good for all ages–there aren’t even any disturbing scenes of animals getting killed or eaten or anything.

 

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Life Itself

The Movie Snob sees a tribute to a colleague.

Life Itself  (B).  Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) brings us this movie about the life and times of world-famous movie critic Roger Ebert.  I thought it was very well done, going all the way back to his upbringing as an only child, his college years and his early years in journalism, and then his ascent to stardom after he became (and not at his own request) the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper.  Of course there’s a decent amount of material about his TV show and rocky relationship with fellow movie critic Gene Siskel, who predeceased him by several years.  There is also lots of footage of Ebert’s sadly debilitated final years, after two bouts of cancer in the area of his lower jaw.  Ultimately, his jawbone had to be removed, and he never spoke, or orally ate or drank, again.  Watching Ebert struggle with rehab and his declining health, and the suffering of his wife Chaz, really becomes rather hard to watch by the end.  But it’s a good movie and worth seeing–even if a little horrifying to those of us who are getting to be a certain age.

Particle Fever

The Movie Snob gets a fever for the flavor of a boson.

Particle Fever  (B).  The Dallas Morning News loved this new documentary about the construction of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and its “maiden voyage” just a few years ago.  I’ll give it two cheers.  I’m a lawyer, not a physicist, but I gathered from the movie that by the 1970s theoretical physics had gotten far ahead of experimental physics, meaning the theory guys had no way to test whether their outlandish theories were true.  To test the theories, physicists needed a huge and hugely expensive piece of machinery that would duplicate and record subatomic conditions that existed just after the Big Bang–and, they hoped, create the theorized particle known as the Higgs boson in the process.  A run was made at building the device near Waxahachie, Texas, but the government funding got pulled, and that was that.  So the European nuclear agency built it in Switzerland, at a cost of billions of dollars, and in 2011 and 2012, they actually got the thing up and running.  The film focuses on a few of the thousands of physicists involved, including a gal, apparently an American, who is doing her post-doctoral work right there at the LHC.  You already know that the thing worked and it didn’t create an Earth-destroying black hole like some people predicted.  The film gives only a minimal explanation of the significance of the LHC findings, but I was pretty much fine with that.  I just enjoyed the computer graphics and watching the nerds get all happy when their giant tinkertoy (eventually) worked without falling apart.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune (B+). This is quite an interesting documentary about an eccentric (if not totally bonkers) Chilean stage and film director who attempted to make a movie of the classic Frank Herbert science-fiction novel Dune. If I may briefly digress, I absolutely loved the novel Dune when I was a kid. Written in 1965, Dune is a space opera set in a far distant future in which humanity has settled into a quasi-feudal sort of imperial government, with various noble families jockeying for position and power within the Empire. The whole civilization runs on a spice called mélange, which gives its users longer lifespans and, more importantly, allows some gifted people to see the future (which is essential to space travel). The spice comes from only a single planet, a harsh desert world called Dune, whose main natural inhabitants are monstrous and voracious sandworms that grow to be a quarter-mile in length. The hero of the story is Paul Atreides, young heir to the throne of one of the noble houses, possessor of some unusual mental and physical abilities, and possibly a political revolutionary, religious messiah, or both. I read Dune several times as a kid, and I think I did an oral book report on it when I was in about the seventh grade.  My brother and I even had a board game based on the novel.

Anyway, David Lynch made a movie of Dune in the 1980s starring Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, and Sting, and it is generally considered to be pretty terrible. I saw it back at the time, and I know I didn’t think it was very good. What I never knew was that a Chilean stage and film director named Alejandro Jodorowsky had already tried to make a movie of Dune (without actually reading the book himself) back in the mid-1970s. He is still alive today, in his mid-80s, and this movie consists mostly of interviews with him and with various art guys that he enlisted to draw up the storyboards and other supporting artwork so he could try to get a Hollywood backer for the project. For example, H.R. Giger, whose designs would later be used to such great effect in Alien, was one of Jodorowsky’s artists.   Jodorowsky tells lots of stories about the people that he got to commit (informally) to appearing in the movie: Orson Welles supposedly said he would play the evil and bloated Baron Harkonnen, Mick Jagger supposedly said he would play the evil and sensuous Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and none other than Salvador Dali supposedly said he would play the Emperor of the Universe (for $100,000 an hour, and on condition that a burning giraffe appear in his scenes). I don’t know about all that stuff, but it is apparently true that Jodorowsky and his team spent a lot of time and money putting together an immense book of storyboards and artwork to use in shopping the film around in Hollywood, and we see a lot of that artwork during the course of the movie. Jodorowsky says he wanted to make a film that would have the same effect on the viewer as LSD, and if he had gotten the necessary funding he might have succeeded. But the studios all passed on the opportunity, and the French fellow who had backed all the pre-production pulled the plug on the project. It’s a crazy story, and a fun one if you’re a fan of movies or a fan of Dune.