DVD Picks: The Cove, The Boys Are Back, Bright Star

The Cove – Documentary
Synopsis: Using state-of-the-art equipment, a group of activists, led by renown dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taiji, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious threat to human health.

This doc was highly-recommended by a group of friends as we’re having dinner. I haven’t watched many documentaries, but I know that if done well, it can be as powerful and thrilling as any film. The Cove is definitely one that delivers suspense, thrill, and adrenaline rush, but most of all, emotional punch! Even in the first few minutes, one feels for the dolphins and the man who strives to save them. O’Barry is the man who started it all, and he told the cameras that he felt partly responsible for the public’s fascination with dolphins as he was the trainer for the TV show Flipper. The show’s popularity no doubt kicked off the multimillion-dollar seaquarium industry. “I spent 10 years building, and the next 35 trying to tear down,” he said. His change of heart happened right after Kathy, the lead dolphin of the show, died in his arms. He even called it a suicide as the mammal was so miserable living in that man-made water tank. Ever since that day, he put everything he had into the cause of freeing the dolphins.

The large part of this eco-documentary took place in a cove in Taiji where approximately 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered in the most heinous way every year. Filmmaker Louie Psihoyos (known for his photography work for National Geographic) – who’s also a licensed scuba diver – brought a group of daredevil volunteers that include a pair of world-class divers, tech experts and cameramen to help O’Barry’s cause. It’s fascinating watching them find clever ways to get some video footage of this secret ‘slaughter house,’ even enlisting Psihoyos’ friend from Industrial Light Magic! The documentary also delves deeper into mercury-poisoning, with research/analysis support from Japanese scientists. If you eat sushi and fish regularly, you definitely need to watch this!

There’s a reason this movie won a gazillion awards (there are at least 20 of them listed in Wikipedia). But even with all the tech gizmos and breathtaking underwater scenery, what makes this doc great is it never forgets the ‘heart’ of the story, which are O’Barry with his inspiring tenacity, and of course, the subject of his cause. The scenes of the dolphins swimming freely and happily in the ocean are so beautiful and moving, and an Aussie pro surfer told a touching tale of how these dolphins actually saved him from a shark attack. The way these friendly cetaceans are depicted here make the brutal slaying all the more devastating. Suffice to say, I won’t be going to Sea World ever again after this, and I’m certainly glad I don’t eat fish!

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The Boys Are Back
Synopsis: Set in South Australia, this memoir-based film tells the story of a sports-writer Joe Warr who’s suddenly faced with the task of raising his young son after the untimely death of his second wife.

Growing up without a father myself, I’m somewhat drawn to fatherhood-type of movies like this one and Dear Frankie with Gerard Butler. Perhaps I’m also curious how these typically bad-ass actors would fare in a soulful, quieter roles. Well, let me just say that Clive Owen pulls off the tricky role of a grieving husband and befuddled dad believably, which is a 180-degree change from his perpetually cool and confident action hero we’re used to seeing. This film no doubt tugs your heart strings but veers away from being too sentimental or schmaltzy. The credits goes to Owen’s affecting performance, but George MacKay (Harry) and Nicholas McAnulty (Artie) who play his kids are just as noteworthy.

There’s something deliberately unfussy about how the story is told, this is definitely a better and more poignant parenting-themed film from director Scott Hicks than No Reservations with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart. Joe’s journey and his struggle to cope with 6-year-old Artie – who doesn’t know how to express his own grief – feels genuinely real. There’s a particular scene when Artie throws tantrum during an arduous road trip, McAnulty’s wordless performance with his wide, evocative eyes is heart-wrenching. Refusing the help of his protective mother-in-law, Joe sets his own parenting rule, which no doubt make his house look like it’s been hit by a tornado. But somehow, the father and son muddle through the best they know how, and the way the story was handled make their eventual bond feel natural and unforced. I also like the fact that the movie doesn’t gloss over Joe’s past mistakes of abandoning his first wife and son for another woman, nor does it set an unrealistic turn of events as an excuse to ‘spice things up.’ I’m referring to the tentative ‘romance’ if you will, between Joe and a young, benevolent recent divorcee Laura, though it’s clear their attraction is mutual.

Things get more interesting as Joe’s angst-ridden teenage son comes to visit from England. I laughed when Joe explains of the his rules of ‘no cussing’ to Harry, as he himself repeatedly uses God’s name in vain. So blasphemy apparently doesn’t count as foul language? [shakes head] In any case, tension mounts between Joe and Harry, who feels abandoned by his father. At the same time, conflicts arise when the demand of his job requires him to travel. A series of events that follow make the three of them analyze and truly ponder what it means to be a family. As the voice-over says, “life is a journey to be traveled no matter how bad the road,” it really resonates with me, and how true that statement is. There’s really no such thing as a ‘perfect’ family, but we’re all called to make the best of what we have. The Boys Are Back is a satisfying ride, both emotionally and visually, boasting stunning scenery of South Australia countryside with its rolling hills, dusty roads. This easily rival Baz Luhrman’s Australia as a tourism-boasting flick for the land down under.

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Bright Star

Synopsis: Period drama based on the three-year romance between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which was cut short by Keats’ untimely death at age 25.

My girlfriends and I watched this on our monthly movie nite last month. I’m a sucker for period dramas, a mere mention of tragic/unrequited/slow-burn love stories and I’m there! Given the unanimous critical praise (97% on Rotten Tomatoes!), I was prepared to be dazzled. Alas, the movie doesn’t quite live up to its title. Such a pity because it seems to have a lot going for it and certainly John Keats’ story is worth-telling.

So what’s the problem?

Well, for one it’s the agonizing pace. Granted a measured pace is what one should expect from movies of this genre, but there’s s-l-o-w and there’s s…l…o..o..o..o…w… I mean it just trudges along far too long that our patience is wearing thin. It’s as if the director wants us to reflect meditate on all the lush photography (they are indeed stunning) and savor every little detail on a room, the wildflowers, a bonnet, pretty much everything the camera captures. The critics call this ‘understated’ but the word I’d use is tedious.

But the crucial reason this movie fail to captivate us is because we simply couldn’t connect with Fanny the way we did with other heroines of similar genres, i.e. Jane Austen’s Fannie Price, The Dashwoods, Lizzy Bennett, or most notably Margaret Hale from Elizabeth Gaskells’ North and South. It’s not so much as the actress’ fault as the way her character’s written. Fanny comes out like a whiny & spoiled brat at times, and certainly fits her reputation of being a frivolous fashionista. Yet despite her affinity for fashion, her costumes aren’t that fabulous. Yet Campion keeps hitting us over the head with all the details… yes, yes I get it, she’s a fashion designer, but if I want to see a movie about clothes, I might as well rent The September Issue! Then there’s John Keats himself. I’ve heard lots of good things about Ben Wishaw, but somehow his portrayal comes across as eternally glum and frail, sans the charismatic quality the real poet supposedly had. Worst of all, I don’t find him appealing at all, nor do I find that undeniable chemistry between the two.

Perhaps it’s due to those very reasons that the movie fail to engage on the crucial selling point: the romance. Despite all the flirtation, the poetic letters, the longing glances, I just don’t ‘feel the love,’ that burning passion so fierce and vigorous that a serene bloke like Keats can only express through his poems. I’m not dismissing Keat’s poems by any means, but I don’t think one need to be well-versed in poetry in order to empathize with people falling in love. But even by the end of this movie, I feel like I still don’t know what to make of the characters & their motivation.

Perhaps the one ‘bright’ thing about the movie is Abbie Cornish’s performance. Despite what I’ve said about her character, it’s undeniable that Cornish is a talented actress. She has a certain grace about her and her acting seems refreshingly authentic. I dare say she has a huge potential to follow in the footsteps of Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett because she really is that talented. The one scene where I shed a tear is when John’s death is announced, which caused Fanny to sob so forcefully she’s gasping for air. That performance alone merits an Oscar nomination! Paul Schneider as Keats’ best friend Charles Brown turn in a compelling performance as well. In fact, I could say that his character leaves more of an impression to everyone in our group than the poet himself.

To sum things up, Bright Star isn’t a terrible movie, it’s got its fine moments I suppose, but it’s definitely not great.

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So readers, have you seen or plan to see any of these flicks? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.