Tag Archives: 2010

Way late review: The Elephant in the Living Room

Everyone probably remembers their first pet. That first little komodo dragon, lion cub, spider monkey, puff adder. No? Me either, but there are far more people in the United States who know first hand what it is to own an exotic animal than should. In many states it is not illegal and in some regulations are near zero. The Elephant in the Living Room tackles this fascinating topic, educating on the problem while delving into the complicated issues that arise when people make pets out of wild animals.

Filmmaker, Michael Webber, takes us through the labyrinth that is exotic animals as pets. Our tour guide for most of the film is the confident yet understanding police officer, Tim Harrison. In southern Ohio, Harrison handles endless cases of wild animals turned pets going back to their roots. Owners who lose control of their dangerous friends or simply turn them loose after they realize what was once a cool little jungle cat, alligator, or other wild animal is no longer so cool when it can eat you and your family. There are reports of lions, cougars, bears, and more on the road terrorizing people in their cars. People call about non-indigenous venomous snakes slithering into their garages. One call is from a father who reports that his children have been playing with some sort of python. Harrison comes to the house and finds not a python but one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.

There are no shortage of amazing stories of fatal attacks, near fatal attacks, and close encounters with animals that should be anywhere but in residential neighborhoods. Harrison educates on the problem by browsing one of the popular publications that advertises exotic animals for sale. There he reads endless ads for all sorts of creatures, many of which are listed as free to a good home. The worst kept secret in this dangerous market is that large, dangerous animals can be had for nothing. While some may pay five hundred dollars or more for their pure bred puppy of choice, a lion is free of charge. Harrison and Webber show the insanity of these markets up close by sneaking in cameras to two large shows. One is a reptile show with endless tables packed with reptiles from all over the world, most venomous and in plastic containers you’d expect to purchase food in. The other show is in Amish country, where every type of large cat, primate, and other furry critters are sold to the highest bidder as if they were bidding on livestock. These are legal markets, yet both the sellers and buyers feel the need to keep the cameras away. Speaking of buyers, many of them at the reptile show were children. Mom and dad purchased Johnny an eight foot python that will easily grow to be twice that size or a baby alligator that will one day grow larger than any member of the family.

Once the problem of exotic pets is hammered home from numerous directions, Webber focuses on the story of Terry Brumfield, a man who got in a car accident and whose back and neck are severely damaged. Brumfield struggles with depression. His cure was procuring two lion cubs. The cubs, one male and one female, grow up and Terry finds himself very much attached to the big cats while also struggling to contain them. The male lion escapes one day and terrorizes motorists on the highway. Brumfield is threatened by the law but somehow keeps his lions. Harrison tries to help Brumfield, who feels as though he’s in a no win situation. He doesn’t want to the give the lions up but he doesn’t want them to get out and hurt people. In a surprising turn, Harrison and Brumfield develop a friendship. It is there that we see these two men sharing both a love for animals and conflicted consciences. Harrison knows these lions need to be in a sanctuary where they can run and not be in danger of harming themselves or others. Brumfield has raised the lions since they were cubs. They are his lifeline. Losing the lions means losing life to Brumfield. Their story develops and takes some twists along the way that are fascinating and heartbreaking.

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Meek’s Cutoff

If Meek’s Cutoff is close at all to portraying the life of those braving the conditions of the Oregon Trail in 1845 then it was incredibly brutal and, at the same time, a little boring to observe. Of course, no one was observing it. That’s what those of us in this century get to do – marvel at the courage of those who brave the barren land on little more than some livestock, fragile wooden wagons, and limited supplies while also wondering how director Kelly Reichardt managed to make even the tensest moments rather mundane.

This drama follows a group of people in the mid-1800’s led by a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who gets them off the Oregon Trail. The tension between the conditions, the settlers and their guide is hard to miss. Beautiful scenes of desolate lands fill the screen as these people walk alongside their belongings in relatively small wagons pulled by oxen. In the midst of this struggle are few words and little music or sound other than those generated by nature and the movement of the group. When words are spoken they are often faint or grunted out by Meek, whose beard seems to serve as a sort of force field for clear speech.

Along the way the group finds a Native American who they capture. Meek makes it clear he’s not fond of the idea of having this guy around. He’d just as well finish him off. The leader of the group disagrees and gets the final word. The Native American will help them find their way out of the mess Meek appears to have gotten them into. What seems like a setup for an interesting twist on the journey turns into not much more than some further heated debates between Meek and the others. The debates never happen in order to preach about tolerance nor do they heighten the drama much. Much like everything else in the movie, the debates are what they are. They happen and the group continues on.

I don’t expect a movie that is true to its realistic tone to ever raise the stakes through melodrama. Meek’s Cutoff portrays events as matter of fact and in that way it holds interest, capturing a period of history that feels authentic. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging and that is where the film falls short of fully capturing the story it aims to tell.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Candyman: The David Klein Story

Candy is for kids but the candy business is most definitely not. At least that is the impression I was left with after watching Candyman: The David Klein Story.

David Klein is the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans. His story is one of the eccentric entrepreneur who makes magic happen only to see the greatest fruits of his labor go to others. You see Klein sold Jelly Belly to his partners after he was strong armed into doing so. Sure, he made millions on the sale but that is a small consolation prize in comparison to the hundreds of millions made off the product ever since. Still, Klein never comes off as bitter in the documentary. He’s a hard worker with a gentle soul. More Woz than Jobs one might say.

Highly charismatic on camera, Klein makes for an interesting subject regardless of the bitter-sweet Jelly Belly story. His life is full of color and surrounded by no shortage of oddball characters. This is where the first and final acts of the movie excel. Those acts are focused on the man more than how that man lost out on many millions of dollars. It is in the middle that the movie loses its bounce as it bogs down on the intricate details of how Klein ended up selling his magic beans for a cow (as his son put it). The story is of great interest but the lack of getting to know these mostly faceless bad guys who swindled the good natured Jelly Belly inventor removes all the drama. There are probably good reasons these men weren’t portrayed in-depth. I’m sure they wouldn’t be thrilled with the prospects of being portrayed as poorly as their actions earned them. Then again, didn’t Billy Mitchell do just that in King of Kong? And didn’t Joyce McKinney open herself up to the same scrutiny in Errol Morris’ most recent doc Tabloid? I guess not everyone wants to be in a movie.

Even though we feel bad for Klein’s predicament with Jelly Belly there is a sense of joy that remains throughout. The man remains hopeful that not everyone is out to pull a fast one on him. Besides, he’s still making all sorts of candy and selling it to this day. It may not be millions of dollars worth but that doesn’t seem to bother the candyman. He keeps on doing what he does best.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Let Me In

For those looking for an exciting horror film, Let Me In is almost sure to disappoint. It’s not that there aren’t moments of suspense or gore, but it is a much quieter film. Almost meditative in its telling of the story of a lonely boy who finds solace in a young female vampire.

Some have questioned the need for Let Me In when the Swedish original, Let the Right One In, was a fine film released only two years earlier. I enjoyed the original quite a bit. Both films tell the same story well but I found this US version a more well crafted film overall.

Strange things are going on in Los Alamos, New Mexico. People are getting murdered and the motives aren’t clear. Meanwhile, a twelve year-old boy, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is struggling with a different kind of evil at school in the form of bullies who torment him in some viscous ways. There appears to be no justice in sight for Owen or the people of Los Alamos. Owen is left to fend for himself. His mother, who we see little of, is an almost Charlie Brown teacher like figure. She is there, we don’t see her much, we hear her some but nothing she says really registers.

Owen sits outside in the winter cold and fantasizes about one day getting revenge on his enemies. Much to his surprise, a new neighbor girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz) is sitting behind him, quietly observing Owen. She has no shoes on and doesn’t look the least bit cold. The two have an abrupt first exchange. Eventually they strike up a friendship. Owen observes that Abby is different but doesn’t seem to mind. He craves the attention and care. Along the way Abby gives Owen advice on how to best handle his adversaries at school – hit back harder. He flinches at first and gives reasons why this is easier said than done. Abby doesn’t budge and eventually Owen follows the advice. He strikes back at the main bully with a metal pole and slices the kid’s ear. Thus begins a journey down a dark path for Owen.

Smit-McPhee as Owen and Moretz as Abby do the heavy lifting in regards to the acting, never a small task for young performers. These two do an excellent job of making their individual characters believable and the relationship between the two even more so. They’re the center of attention and there is never a moment where it feels disingenuous or over played.

The killings in the town continue and we discover who is doing the killing. And we also know when a murder or something terrible is about to happen, as the soundtrack blatantly sends its cues without any nuance. It’s not unusual for horror or thrillers to use this technique to heighten suspense but it backfires in the case where it is overused.

Modern day vampire tales seem infatuated with romanticizing the idea of those who live forever off the blood of others but somehow remain good hearted loving beings who just need to find the right mate. Unfortunately, this take on vampires betrays the original lore. Let Me In returns to vampire lore of old and shows evil in all its different forms. The struggle for Owen isn’t so much about finding a friend in the midst of his pain but that of choosing good in the face of evil. One can’t help but feel this theme running throughout the film as it’s set in the 80’s and Ronald Reagan is heard from TVs playing in the background speaking about this very struggle. Whether the evil the former president speaks of was just that is irrelevant. The choices for Owen are cloudy at first but become painfully clear as he learns more about his so-called friend Abby. It is within this struggle that I found Let Me In to be fascinating. The film’s theme is much deeper than it would first appear.

Matt Reeves, the director, leaves a distinct fingerprint on his films. He directed Cloverfield, a movie I enjoyed quite a bit. The camera work there was that of found footage, shaky to the point of nausea inducing, here it is drastically different. Every shot is meticulous. There is heavy use of shooting through or around objects. Looking through a door’s peep hole. Owen spying on his neighbors with the camera taking Owen’s point of view through the telescope. The intense car scenes are made even more so by the shot selection. If Spielberg made a horror film I imagine it would look and feel a lot like Let Me In.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: A Little help

The independent dramedy. So full of cliches and quirkiness. And yet, I tend to have a soft spot for them. Enter A Little Help. A small film with some laughs and some tender moments.

Laura (Jenna Fischer) is not having her “best life now” as a famous (ahem) preacher in the states would probably put it. Far from it. She seems immature and desperately looking for something to numb the pain in her life. She drinks beer, lots of beer, when she’s not at work serving as a dental hygienist. Her son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) and her do not have a close relationship. In their first scene together, Laura picks up Dennis from summer camp. Her conversation screams desperation as she cops the attitude of “I want to be your best buddy” rather than being a mom. Dennis is having none of it. He wants his dad (Chris O’Donnell). The problem is that dad (Bob) has been working late a lot recently and is rarely around for his son or wife.

In order to save face with the family, Laura pleads with Bob to make it to a family BBQ to celebrate her sister’s teenage twins’ birthday. It’s apparent Bob hasn’t made many of these family gatherings and Laura can’t stand the thought of yet another without her husband present. Not that it matters much. Mom is overbearing and sister, Kathy (Brooke Smith), follows in mother’s footsteps.

There are a number of laughs watching these family dynamics take place during a forced gathering. It’s evident that no one wants to be at the birthday celebration, including the twins whose birthday is being celebrated. The acting is solid overall and makes a mostly unlikeable cast of characters at least bearable if not always laugh out loud funny.

Laura and Bob get into a loud argument in the kitchen which leads Laura to run out of the house with Bob in tow. Bob runs down his sister-in-law’s driveway only to fall to the ground clutching his chest. Bob goes to the hospital and the doctor tells him it’s likely a panic attack since this, according to Bob, is the first time this has happened during a physical activity. Later that evening Laura feels bad and tries to make it up to her husband only to have him have another attack and die. Yes, he dies. And, no, that’s not a spoiler.

Life without husband and father changes things for both widow and son. The humor becomes darker as Laura and her son do little to actually come to terms with their grief. In a sense, both were grieving just as much before so not much has changed for them. But the realities sink in for both. The sadness they felt before becomes greater as they realize just how much life is changing, whether they want to deal with it or not.

There is a revelation in the later half of the film that isn’t unbelievable but felt forced. And while the acting overall is solid, most of the characters tend to sway towards indie quirkiness for the sake of laughs. That is forgivable when the laughs come, but harder to accept when the dramedy wants to put emphasis on the drama.

I enjoyed A Little Help for what it is and respect it for not trying hard to be what it is not. It doesn’t make attempts to be a laugh fest nor does it try hard to delve deep into the psyches of its characters, taking itself too serious. The situations and people in them are sometimes funny (albeit in a sad/awkward manner) and sometimes not. Kind of like life can be at times.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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