Month: January 2016

The Road to El Dorado

road to el dorado

Somewhat like its main characters, The Road to El Dorado has designs for greatness but comes up short. The middling Dreamworks production boasts fine voice talent, a sterling music team, and a story rich with artistic potential but doesn’t coalesce around any strong creative vision. I watched with a constant yearning for something more majestic. Visually, the film should be stunning; El Dorado, after all, was a mythical city of gold, cradled in the mountains and forests of South America and lusted after by European explorers. With only the imagination as reference, this new world should be an animator’s dream. And musically, a collaboration between Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer all but promises a charged and award-winning soundtrack. Of John and Rice’s previous two projects, their Broadway hit Aida won an armful of Tonys and spawned numerous touring productions while The Lion King, and I’m not being hyperbolic, defined a generation.

But El Dorado doesn’t seize on any of these opportunities, and it’s surprising how uninspired the whole movie turns out. Besides its lifeless animation and forgettable music, the story settles for an average plot and characters that only go through the motions of a great adventure. It’s as if the filmmakers, sensing their lack of vision, dump the rogue explorers, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh, the fairest Spaniard of them all), into the fantastic, fabled city and continue on their merry way.

Tulio and Miguel’s friendship should guide the enterprise and does form the backbone of the plot. We are introduced to them as they con their way through the streets of 1500s Seville. Miguel, the daydreamer, scores a map to El Dorado, and before the practical-minded Tulio gets a chance to talk his friend out of the journey, they both accidentally find themselves Hernán Cortés’s (Jim Cummings) ship bound for the New World. After prematurely parting ways with the raging conquistador, they stumble upon the hidden city.

Since this is called The Road to El Dorado, you might think this was some sixteenth century version of a road trip movie, which is it for awhile. But the time Tulio and Miguel spend stranded on a boat or lost in the forest is neither formative nor very much related to what ends up being the main story. The two strange looking Europeans are mistaken for gods when they arrive and, conveniently for them, are honored with mountains of golden baubles. They meet the benevolent ruler (Edward James Olmos) who is depicted not unlike a genial Hawaiian surfer king, a raging pharisaic priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), with authoritarian ambitions, and Chel (a slightly less Brooklyn Rosie Perez), a spunky, shrewd woman who sees through Tulio and Miguel’s deception. It’s a trio almost as discordant as the voice casting.

El Dorado ends up sparking a change in both characters, but this is only explored superficially. Tulio falls for Chel and wants to make off with her in one hand and the loot in the other, but his most impassioned affections are reserved for inanimate objects. Even if he really is nothing more than a charming thief, he doesn’t have enough emotional gravity to pull the audience towards him. Miguel at least has the benefit of introspection, and my favorite scenes are when he begins falling under the spell of this breathtaking city. When he considers staying in El Dorado, you expect some weight in the conflict between the friends, but there is hardly any. Instead, there is a giant rock monster that comes to furious life, bringing the movie to a lively crash of an end.

“El Dorado” by Elton John:

“Someday Out of the Blue” by animated Elton John:

“Without Question” by Elton John:

“Friends Never Say Goodbye” by Elton John:

“The Trail We Blaze” by Elton John:

“16th Century Man” by Elton John:

“The Panic in Me” by Elton John:

“It’s Tough to be a God” by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh:

Released: 2000
Prod: Brook Breton, Bonne Radford
Dir: Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Jim Cummings, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos, Frank Welker
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

The Ridiculous 6

ridiculous 6

Netflix’s recent entry into the Hong Kong market was greeted with much delight, until people discovered the catalog resembled the bargain bin at Walmart. (Still trying to decide if it’s an Aloha or Jackass kind of night.) To be fair, there’s a choice documentary selection, and Ken Burns’s The West turns out to be the best cleanse if you’ve had the misfortune of imbibing The Ridiculous 6, the relentlessly promoted first installment of Netflix’s four picture deal with noted auteur Adam Sandler. It might be aiming for the smallest slice of Blazing Saddles glory, but the unamusing farce about a mismatched gang of robbers is an embarrassment to the western and comedy genres.

Already the subject of controversy during its filming, the finished product does nothing to redeem itself. Native American actors were right to storm off set and divorce themselves from characters with names like Never Wears Bra or Smoking Fox (Julia Jones). When they weren’t being mocked for their physical characteristics, however, they characters were transformed into noble savages, always on hand with a piece of abstract wisdom or a mystical remedy so that Tommy “White Knife” (Sandler), the adopted white son of a Native family and the film’s hero, could save the day. It also shouldn’t surprise that so few women appear in the movie, and those who do are mostly of the painted variety, merely there to be paraded atop men’s shoulders or so that a cowboy might dive headfirst first into her décolletage.

That’s about the sophistication of the humor, par for course for Sandler films. Unless you’re into extended jokes about horses pleasuring mentally challenged teens or equally prolonged decapitation scenes, then you’ll find little to laugh about here. I’m not even sure this plays that well to the frat house crowd. In fact, the antics are suited for a far younger audience, and stripped of its vulgarity, it might be a framework for a passable kids movie.

Like many G-rated adventures, this one revolves around an unlikely group of friends – Tommy, Ramon (Rob Schneider), Chico (Terry Crews), Lil’ Pete (a very un-Team-Jacob-like Taylor Lautner), Herm (Jorge Garcia), and Danny (Luke Wilson) – that embarks on a quest to save a kidnapped man. They soon discover that they are actually brothers and the man they are trying to save is their father (Nick Nolte), and that they must steal the ransom. The Ridiculous 6 is so packed with cameos, however, that not even the brothers turn out anything beyond a one-note performance. Even with its two hour running time, the film makes no room for introspection, leaving most of the main characters as faintly drawn as the minor roles. In fact, Abner Doubleday (John Turturro) shows more flare attempting to invent the game of baseball on the fly than the wordless, grunting Herm, and Vanilla Ice as a hip hop Mark Twain seems oddly appropriate in this age of Hamilton (though as a Hamilton fangirl, I am in no way equating the two). The pleasures are fleeting though, and nothing justifies such abuse of American scenery, the best and only thing going for this movie.

Released: 2015
Prod: Allen Covert, Adam Sandler
Dir: Frank Coraci
Writer: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
Cast: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Will Forte, Steve Zahn, Harvey Keitel, Jon Lovitz, Danny Trejo, Julia Jones, Blake Shelton…..and so many more damn cameos
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

All Aboard! The Canal Trip

all aboard the canal trip

Enough cannot be said about the virtues of slow TV, programming that forgoes traditional ideas of a narrative in favor of leisurely gazes at the ordinary. Unhurried and unassuming, these unconventional documentaries are an antidote to the cacophony that often fills our screens. The most notable of these programs is Norway’s firewood burning marathon, an hours long event that had bewitched viewers contemplating the minutiae of firewood. Most recently, BBC has latched onto the trend with its thus two-part All Aboard! series. The show invites those with an abundance of patience and an appreciation for natural beauty to experience unique and tranquil journeys, both familiar and far out.

I watched the recent Christmas special, The Sleigh Ride, about a pair of reindeer herders trekking across part of the Artic Circle, before I watched The Canal Trip, which aired half a year earlier. And while the tundra boasts captivating vistas, the recent cold snap in Hong Kong, where I live, left me wary of embarking on my own frosty, -40 degree adventure. The Canal Trip, however, offers a sunny alternative and worked like a tourism advert for the Kennet and Avon Canal in southern England. An uninterrupted two-hour ride, the movie takes you down a small section of the route, from Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct.

One distinguishing feature of slow TV is the lack of narration, and this show’s only soundtrack is a raw compilation of nature sounds – water gurgling beneath the boat, wind scrambling through reeds, birds chirping in mid-flight. In fact, the very aim is to approximate, as well as a television program can, the experience of floating down the canal on a quiet Saturday mid-morning, not with your best girlfriends or your college flatmates, but with a book, a desire to clear one’s mind, and maybe a significant other with whom you can share long bouts of silence.

Far from lazy programming – the show is ostensibly a single camera mounted atop a boat, I found The Canal Trip to be television in fine form. This is one where less indeed turns out to be more. Absent typical narrative intrusions, the canal and its environs become characters of their own. As the boat winds eastward, you see snatches of hidden life. The city park gives way to expansive fields and isolated farms. Every once in a while, a village comes into view, next to a picturesque stone bridge that stands steadily as cars flit across. And like a light aside, embedded graphics about the canal’s history and ecology fade in and out but always in the most unobtrusive way. It’s not a fantastic leap, if you watch this with a sense of purpose and not as white noise, to imagine yourself perched at the bow, absorbing the rustic beauty.

What I most appreciate about the All Aboard! series, and this show in particular, though is the way the visual and aural space sweeps past the television screen. If you needed permission to let your mind wander, this is it. Stillness leaves so much ripe for imagination. After an hour or so, I noticed that the water rippled out like a giant thumbprint and that the sound of mini waves hitting the boat was like that of wet batter being slapped around a mixing bowl. I peered curiously into the windows of certain houseboats; there was a beaten one with fraying tarps moored next to a gleaming one with a new blue paint job. Then I wondered why there was so little traffic and, when there was a backup on the waterway, how one might navigate it. Confident there were measures in place for this very issue, my eyes drifted back upwards towards the crisp sky, occasionally clouded over by an English grey. Surely I should start every weekend with a journey this subdued.

Released: 2015
Prod: Clare Patterson
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four
Reviewed: 2015