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Just chillin’: Disneynature’s Oceans.

Strange Universe

By Ann Morrow

Oceans

Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud

As a spaceship blasts through the atmosphere en route to another planet, sea iguanas look on from their primordial perch, comically unperturbed. In Oceans, an “ecological drama” presented (and repackaged) by Disneynature films, life far beneath the pulverizing (and rapturously photographed) power of the tides appears as vast and unknown as any distant world, a premise that’s amazingly set-up with a shot of the stars in the heavens dissolving into the pinpoint lights of glowing urchins. A follow-up of sorts to Earth (though writer-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud are the creators of 2001’s magnificent Winged Migration), Oceans is equally accomplished, astonishing, and lyrical. Horseshoe crabs land on a beachhead as otherworldly (and, in close-up), as menacing, as an alien invasion; a blanket octopus covers itself in a gorgeous, velvety mantle of oranges and reds; bulky sea lions elude a hungry orca with acrobatic suppleness.

Yet you don’t have to like nature films to be transported by Oceans. Enthrallingly edited from four years’ worth of underwater footage, shot with state-of-art equipment (that penetrates nighttime and deep-sea murk) by a dedicated crew (shown briefly during the don’t-miss closing credits), this exploration of unimaginable wonders ranges from the piquant (a shrimp and a crab engage in a miniature gladiatorial battle) to the exalted (the hurly-burly convergence of dolphins, kingfish, sharks, and whales while feasting on a mass of sardines) to the mind-boggling (a 120-ton blue whale, the largest animal in the history of the planet, passes beneath a camera as massively as the Empire mother-ship in Star Wars). Along with former land animals that returned to the sea, such as bovine manatees that graze the grasslands of the ocean floor, there are numerous newfound species that defy description; and some of the most interesting sequences are those that show the bizarrely resourceful ways in which these creatures interact with their environment.

Though not as strongly narrative (or cautionary) as Earth, which follows three mammal families through the devastation of consumerist impacts on their habitats, Oceans is a more mystical and illuminating experience. Narrated unobtrusively by Pierce Brosnan from a vaguely poetic script, and accompanied by a beautifully evocative score from Oscar-nominated composer Bruno Coulis, the film resonates on several levels. The synchronized breaching of a herd of humpback whales is as good an example of the divine in nature as any on film, while the split-second glimpse of another whale drowning in a gigantic tuna net needs no embellishment. And despite its inclusion of the food chain at its fiercest—such as frigate birds picking off baby sea turtles like crawling canapés—the most terrifying sight is that of a gargantuan garbage island turning a wondrous underworld into an all-too-familiar miasma of lifeless goo.

 

Product Placement

The Joneses

Directed by Derrick Borte

The poster for The Joneses—which depicts a stylish and handsome family, annotated with the price tags of their many high-end possessions—is as much of the movie as you really need to see. For that matter, the title itself does much of the heavy lifting: The Joneses, as in “keeping up with . . .”

OK, let’s guess: materialistic competition among the American consumer class is misguided and/or spiritually deadening?

You don’t say.

David Duchovny and Demi Moore, both inoffensive and even mildly charming, play Steve and Kate, salespeople hired by a marketing agency to infiltrate upscale neighborhoods and influence the residents’ purchasing decisions on behalf of the agency’s clients. With the aid of their two pretend children (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth), they are, essentially, a covert spokesfamily, surreptitiously pimping a lifestyle comprised of new Audis, Yves St. Lauren blouses, HTC smartphones, and so on, and so on.

The family is expected to aggressively move these luxury goods, and their sales numbers are tracked via some incredible, frankly nonsensical, system. There are rewards, both material and titular—Kate has long dreamed of attaining the status of sales “icon”—and punishments for failing to hit goals.

The set-up, a slapdash blend of multi-level marketing, Glengarry Glen Ross and Malcolm Gladwell-esque notions of consumer “influentials,” provides workable, if unoriginal, material for a satire. But writer-director Derrick Borte focuses more on the emotional dynamic between Steve and Kate, unfortunately.

The characters are presented largely without backstory, and this guts the seeming critique: The limited context in which they operate—crass, conscienceless commercialism, a context we’re made to understand can be lethal—seems to have no lasting, negative consequence on them. A little professional anxiety, a little romantic inconvenience, maybe, but no big deal.

Imagine a comedy about love between concentration-camp guards in which the guards just decide to quit and ride off happily into the sunset, leaving the still-running camp behind them. Would you find that believable, satisfying or funny?

It could be. But it’d take a much darker and daring director—Gilliam or Gondry, for example—to make it work (or to fail spectacularly).

As it is, the effect of The Joneses is much like what it pretends to criticize: a bit like having a well-prepared meal in the home of nice-enough (and well-dressed) people who won’t shut the fuck up about their new granite countertops.

—John Rodat

 

Warming up to fight: (l-r) Morgan and Saldana in The Losers.

Same Old, Same Old

The Losers

Directed by Sylvan White

Will no one rid me of these comic-book movies?

You know the deal: Superhero soldiers who survive savage beatings and shootings, then deal out death to the “bad guys.” Supervillians who kill, whimsically, just to make a point. Men and women who beat the living shit out of each other—as foreplay.

Gah.

All that said, the comic-book actioner The Losers is somewhat likeable. But not being the worst film in a tired genre is like being a bad fungal infection instead of leprosy.

“The losers” of the title are a crack commando squad burned by their CIA handlers in the jungles of Bolivia. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who could pass for Robert Downey, Jr.’s older, thicker brother, is the wisecracking leader. He’s OK. Idris Elba is the resident badass; Columbus Short is the driver; Oscar Jaenade is the crack shot; and Chris Evans is the tech geek. Yawn—oh, wait, there’s Zoe Saldana as the gorgeous killing machine! She’s OK, too. Surprisingly, Jason Patric—who has spent his entire career being deadly serious—is hilarious as the chief bad guy. He’s so good, most of the script’s tired shtick is unworthy of him.

I don’t have to tell you the plot. You could probably tell me the plot, without having seen the movie. There are double-crosses and triple-crosses on the long, bloody, jokey road to revenge. Except that the plot isn’t really resolved. With unbearable hubris, the filmmakers engineer a finale that’s a setup for a sequel. A sequel that, because The Losers is a box-office loser, will never be made.

The dudes behind this mess—and you know they’re dudes—somehow acquired the idea that they’re all little Quentin Tarantinos. So, The Losers is laden with movie references both offhand (Patric kills early on with a funny line borrowed from W.C. Fields) and elaborate (an entire sequence riffs on a key scene from The Matrix, as Evans goes looking for “Mr. Anderson”). But none of these lifts mean anything.

The biggest failure of this film—of this entire genre of comic-book movie—is the inability to use violence in a way that has resonance. One of the 1950s foreshocks of the ’60s earthquake in movie violence happened when director Robert Aldrich had a couple of mercenaries played by Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper bamboozle a Mexican general by threatening to have a large group of children shot to pieces. Every time I’ve watched Vera Cruz, the scene makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In The Losers, the fun begins with a massacre of 25 children. And not only does it not mean a Goddamned thing, it’s a plot twist you can see coming a mile away—“they’re gonna light up those kids, you betcha!”

Sheesh. What good is violence if you don’t know how to use it?

—Shawn Stone

 

Baby First, Love Second, Comedy Third

The Back-Up Plan

Directed by Alan Poul

JLo’s first venture in movies in a few years is the mildly likeable The Back-Up Plan, which does more to make one wish for a reissue of Pillow Talk than it does anything for its famous lead actress’ movie-star luster. Jennifer Lopez is Zoe, a successful pet shop owner who is at the point in life where the biological clock is ticking but there’s no worthy guy around to wind it up. Lopez is lovely to look at and eminently likeable, making you really, really wanna like this fluff, but The Back-Up Plan is more like an episode of Friends than it is an accomplished movie.

Soon into the movie, Zoe decides to go the artificial insemination route, this after a thoroughly disgusting scene in which her gynecologist (Robert Klein) refers to her “hoo-ha” as “one hot mess,” making me wonder whether Neicy Nash and her Clean House gang were about to do a redecoration of said offending property—and hoping to god nobody saw me enter the theatre. No wonder Zoe can’t find a baby daddy. But of course, no sooner has she undergone her treatment than she meets a real winner, a cheese maker named Stan (I can’t make this stuff up), played by Alex O’Loughlin. Their early courtship has the typical ups and downs—he spills wine all over her new dress, she bemoans the loss of her pre-pregnancy booty—but once Stan finds out about Zoe’s pregnancy, he commits to the long haul. There is a funny playground scene in which Anthony Anderson, credited simply as Playground Dad, shares the fatherhood experience. “It’s awful, awful, awful, awful, and then something small but wonderful happens.” At this point, Playground Dad’s son toddles over to hug his dad, revealing that he’s holding in his little hand a piece of dog poop.

Writer Kate Angelo tries to manufacture emotional conflict by having Zoe and Stan begin to wonder whether they’re moving too fast, or at least in the wrong order, but it’s pretty tepid stuff. Zoe and Stan are amiable enough, but where’s the conflict and sexy zing? Where’s the cool matching of wits as each seeks to dominate the other, or at least to get the other where he/she wants her/him. Thinking back to screwball comedies like His Girl Friday or the aforementioned Pillow Talk, there were much more intelligent and quick-witted sparring partners than modern films like The Back-Up Plan, and as sweet seeming as JLo is, I’d much rather watch Doris Day deliver a verbal spanking over the phone to Rock Hudson. At least those earlier films didn’t have words like “hoo-ha.”

—John Rodat


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