Friday, April 18, 2014


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

BearsFor parents, Bears may be the most suspenseful movie of the year. The Disneynature documentary follows a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs as they come out of hibernation and cross a vast expanse of the Katmai National Park in southern Alaska, heading for the salmon runs. Mom must not only keep her babies alive, but gorge herself on the fish sufficiently that her milk doesn’t run out in the middle of next winter’s snooze.

Like 2012’s Chimpanzee, this film has the feel of an old-school Disney nature movie, with folksy, jocular narration. In Chimpanzee this was provided by Tim Allen; in Bears it’s John C. Reilly, who mentions, near the beginning, that almost half of all bears don’t survive cubhood. And herein, of course, lies the parental suspense.

I watched this movie with my kid next to me. I was pretty sure that Disney wouldn’t have released it if neither cub had survived, but I was on the edge of my seat because I thought it was just possible, especially after the 50/50 chance noted in the narration, that they’d let kids and their folks tough it out through the loss of one. Don’t read any farther if you don’t want to know what happens.

OK, now I presume that I’m only writing to cowardly parents who want to keep their kids comfortably sheltered from the grim realities of life. Nice to be among kindred spirits. And to you I say: Bears is safe. It’s touch and go at times—the male cub keeps landing in peril—but at least for this season, cubs and Mom all make it.

It’s hard to know to what extent this footage had to be finessed in the editing to build a narrative. But, as with Chimpanzee, no amount of Disney corniness can obscure how astonishing are the scenes that the directors, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and their crew have captured here. Grizzlies snagging fish in mid-leap, male bears roaring and grappling, predators stalking, cubs romping—these are iconic nature-film tropes, and it’s possible that they’ve never been done better than in Bears, all to the accompaniment of a stirring score by George Fenton.

Be forewarned, however: The movie may leave you with a craving for salmon. On the other hand, it may put you off salmon for good.

JoeNicolas Cage plays the title character in this adaptation of Mississippi author Larry Brown’s 1991 novel. A Joe of the working-class variety, he spends his days leading a timber crew in the miserable and probably toxic work of killing junk trees by chopping into them with a poison-squirting hatchet.

He’s a shaky alcoholic and a brawler, with enemies and a stint in prison in his past, but we’re also meant to see that Joe is a hard-working, honest man, liked and respected by those who know him. He gives a job to a homeless teenager (Tye Sheridan) who squats in a nearby abandoned house with his family. Wreck though Joe is, he quickly proves a vastly better father figure to this kid than his actual father, a tyrannical, dangerously abusive drunk played by Gary Poulter, a homeless guy in real life who died in the streets of Austin, Texas, still homeless, shortly after Joe wrapped.

Directed by David Gordon Green, Joe is a southern-fried lower depths melodrama in the vein of Sling Blade and Mud. It’s more ferociously violent than either of those films—be forewarned, it includes animal violence—but it has the same agreeable streak of sentimentality, and it has terrific performances, especially by the bleak-eyed Cage. After many tours of movie star duty at the center of big-budget idiocies, you can almost feel Cage’s pleasure in creating a character again.

Happy Easter, Passover, etc. everybody. Check out my Topless Robot list, in honor of the redoubtable Easter Bunny, of badass pop-culture bunnies.

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