REVIEW: A Sound of Thunder

And here we have a conundrum.

This movie isn’t good. It’s preposterous, sloppy, obvious and often stunningly amatuerish in it’s execution… featuring possibly the least convincing CGI effects of any live-action film you’ll see onscreen for years. It’s riddled with plot holes, unexplainable developments and more action/scifi cliche’s than I could name. It’s a mess.

But I liked it. It hit a dozen or more of my more primal cinematic fetish buttons, it made me smile (in one way or another) for the entirety of it’s running time.

So hence my conundrum: My “feelings” are analagous to those produced by a good movie, yet I’m fully aware that this is NOT, in fact, a good movie. So, then, what’s to be the review? Can “not good, but I had fun anyway” pass as an informed critical opinion?

Well, it’s going to have to because that’s really all I’m able to muster.

Retelling the landmark story by genre legend Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder” is a pulp scifi yarn set in 2055, where time travel is possible and exploited by a businessman (Ben Kingsley) who charges obscene fees to send wealthy clients on dinosaur-hunting “safaris” to the Cretaceous. They’re only allowed to shoot ONE Allosaurus, whom history records is about to die anyway in a tar pit, and only with special ice-bullets so as not to disturb the past and thus alter the future. The slightest change, we’re told, could change history (and biology) in ways we can’t imagine.

Guess what happens. Go on, guess.

“Something” goes wrong on an otherwise routine time trip, and suddenly 2055 Earth is getting whacked daily by “time storms” that rewrite the rules of evolution with each passing wave. Before long, our heroes are trying to “set things right” while warding off the killer plants, giant bats, sea serpents and other obstacles created by their meddling. The “star” monsters could be plausibly reffered to as “Babboonasauruses,” and look like the offspring of the successful mating of King Kong and Godzilla. Actually, they more immediately remind me of Ymir, and if you know what Ymir is you may also be the sort of person who would actually enjoy this.

If nothing else, it’s worth noting that this is an honest-to-goodness B-movie, as opposed to the B-movies with A-budgets that typically dabble in this kind of material. The film looks, though often charmingly so… very cheap. Most of it’s “futuristic” exteriors are accomplished using painfully obvious rear-projection and blue screen techniques, the monsters are typically rendered in a CGI that wouldn’t pass muster in an XBox cutscene. It’s been awhile sense a theatrical release has been ambitious so visibly beyond it’s means.

So… it’s not good, but I liked it. I really want to be a little harder on it, but the truth is… it has half-dinosaur-half-monkey monsters, which from my perspective makes it at LEAST worth reccomending against similarly un-good films that do NOT have half-dinosaur-half-monkey monsters. If you want rationale, that’s the best I can really offer.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: The Constant Gardner

Note: No matter how hard I try, some of this will be considered spoiler territory. Read at your own risk.

A few years back, Fernando Meirelles had the kind of big-time debut that every rising filmmaker dreams of with “City of God.” After knocking critics and audiences (myself included) on their asses with that Brazillian-set crime epic, he takes a different path here with a British-centric political thriller based on a novel by John L’Carre.

Well… not totally different. The story mostly unfolds in a series of ever-worsening Third World slums, terrain Meirlles certainly mastered the cinematic rendering of in “City.” And he’s still using that high-contrast film stock and stream-of-conciousness editing that fellow filmmaker Tony Scott has fallen so disasterously in love with.

The plot-proper must be related carefully in order to minimize spoilers: British High Council diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) learns that his globe-hopping activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been found murdered in Africa. More than a few details of the situation don’t add up to Justin’s meticulous sense of order (the title is literal, he gardens all the damn time) so he goes looking for answers. Instead, he finds a conspiracy involving the British government, “Big Pharma” (that’s “drug companies” to those of you not fluent in protest-ese,) African AIDS patients and assorted other interests too numerous to explain. Suffice it to say, the Big Bad Wolf of Western Capitalism is twirling it’s mustache in the direction of The Poor once again, and once again it’s up to guilt-ridden Western idealists to save the day (and cleanse their own consciences in the process, of course.)

Yes, here is another in the popular subgenre of political-intrigue stories which aim both to chide Western audiences for their “complacency” amid international tragedies while at the same time reassuring them that just a little pluck and determination on their part is all that will be needed to set things right again. It’s “arrogant” to imagine you’re the only people who can run the planet, but apparently not to imagine you’re the only people who can save it. This sort of fable was exaggerated to it’s most absurd point earlier this year in “The Interpreter,” which featured a heroine who fought passionately for “her homeland, Africa” who was played by… Nicole Kidman.

That, the “message” portion of the film, is the portion that is most problematic. The story is staged as the unraveling of a mystery, but the intended messages shove their way into view so early that too many of the still-to-come answers become too easy to guess. What’s going on, who’s behind it and even why are telegraphed much too early, and combined with the temporally-scattered editing style we’re often left too far ahead of Fiennes’ character who’s supposed to be our “leader” through the story.

To the good fortune of the movie and it’s audience, though, that problematic portion is largely a secondary concern of the overall work. Messages aside, the film is really about studying Fienne’s layered character transformation: His Justin Quayle had always loved Tessa but never fully “understood” her bleeding-heart passion for activism among the African poor, but in uncovering the conspiracy she’d been battling he comes to finally “get” her eccentricities in full and, yes, he finds himself more in love than ever. It’s an intriguing, if melodramatic, arc to follow; and Fiennes proves up to the challenge: Contented British stoicism hasn’t morphed into make-it-up-as-I-go heroic zeal this enjoyably since “Brazil’s” Sam Lowry.

Praise is also in order for Weisz, who has the tough job of inhabiting a character we “know” primarily through flashbacks and other characters’ memories. It goes without saying that the film is just a bit too in love with Tessa, affording her the eventual gloss of a martyred saint, (another activist character is actually crucified, just in case the point is lost on anyone,) credit goes to Weisz that we’re allowed to understand why her character was found to be so infuriating, puzzling and often downright obnoxious by a lot of the cast. We’re asked to admire Tessa’s zeal, but for the most part we’re not required to see her manner or methodology as entirely correct: When Justin is shown losing patience with her, the film never demands the audience “take a side.”

When the film’s character drama, with Quayle being led through the maze of intrigue by the “ghost” of Tessa’s memory, is allowed to control the direction the film flourishes. A pity, then, that it’s so often stopped or diverted by the bludgeoning hammer of it’s agenda…

or by it’s director’s troubling tendency to show off his skills at innapropriate junctures, for that matter: The back-and-forth narrative proves that Meirelles knows his way around a fractured outline, for sure, but it also ends up tipping too many “secrets” of the story too early. And one scene, set in a hospital and involving an African baby, uses a series of cuts to play a pointless (and slightly cruel) “gotcha” on the audience. Still, there’s no denying that he’s a striking talent. The grim but beautiful tableaus of blighted landscapes and teeming slums, presented in deceptively-naturalistic hand-held cinematography pratically turn the continent of Africa into a supporting character in the film.

Overall, the persisent flaws of ham-fisted political moralism and overly-broad directorial scope start to crop up as the film builds to it’s conclusion, but overall the film remains a very well-made and thoroughly ambitious bit of intrigue. This is a good movie, problems and all, featuring some stellar acting and a cracking-good sense of visual asthetic. In a period that’s been particularly blooming with message-movie thrillers about the plight of Africa, “Gardener” rises not quite to the level of “Hotel Rwanda” but FAR above “The Interpreter.” Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

Something ELSE I hope we can all agree on…

First things first. Click the link below to donate to the relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina:
https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp

Don’t worry, the blog WON’T be turning into wall-to-wall examples of this sort of thing, but I came upon this today and it fit too nicely with the previous post for me to ignore. (Tip of the hat to Andrew Sullivan, where I first found the link.)

I was wondering how long it would take for one of the Evangelical “Christian” groups that had made such sport in the past of attacking New Orleans for the “sinful” nature of the famous party destination to start declaring that the horrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina was a manifestation of God’s wrath. Today, I got my answer:

http://www.repentamerica.com/pr_hurricanekatrina.html

“Repent America” is a highly visible Evangelical Christian organization that primarily dedicates itself to filing legal actions designed to hurt civil rights for gays and abortion freedoms. The title of the above press release, issued 8/31/05, is: “Act of God Destroys New Orleans Days Before ‘Southern Decadence.'” (“Southern Decadence” being an annual gay-themed celebration in the city that had been scheduled for today.)

To put all my cards on the table as to exactly how much this infuriates me, let me state for the record that I have at least one family member among those who had to be evacuated from the New Orleans area, and multiple friends and aquaintances who live in the effected surrounding areas. They are all alive and safe, thankfully.

But many, many more are not safe. People have died, lives have been destroyed, an entire city and a good deal of it’s state have been all but wiped off the map. People have lost their homes, their businesses, their livelihoods, their mothers, their fathers, sons, daughters, friends, loved ones… GONE. This is senseless, horrible, unpreventable tragedy… the very kind of thing that humanity has cultivated it’s collection of religions and philosophies in order to psychologically and spiritually endure. But amid all the suffering, this “Christian” organization can only think to heap more suffering onto those who have lost:

“Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city,” stated Repent America director Michael Marcavage. “From ‘Girls Gone Wild’ to ‘Southern Decadence,’ New Orleans was a city that had its doors wide open to the public celebration of sin. From the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge,”

Coincidentally, “Repent America” isn’t even Biblically correct in this outrage. Apparently, while I’m sure they can name the “anti-gay” passages of the Good Book in their sleep, they’ve apparently overlooked the coda to the tale of Noah and the Flood:

11 “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” — Genesis 9:11

At the conclusion of the Flood recounting, God’s pact with Noah and his descendants (i.e. us) includes a bold vow by the Big Man himself to never again rain such havoc on mankind. But hey, easy mistake to make, right? I mean, it’s unreasonable to ask that a religious organization be intimately familiar with The Bible, right?

Ahem.

But that’s just what I think. My gut tells me a lot of you are thinking some things about “Repent America” right now. Am I right? Well, how about you let them know:
http://www.repentamerica.com/contactus.html

And here’s the Red Cross link again:
https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation-form.asp