Saturday, March 10, 2018

Blade Runner 2049: As Dark, Dank, and Mystical as the Original

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to the 1982 scifi hit, Blade Runner, and takes place thirty years later. It is as dark, dank, and mystical as the original, but it is as equally imaginative and amazing to watch.

In today's version, original protagonist Rick Deckard (played once again by Harrison Ford) has gone missing for thirty years. Our new protagonist "K" (played by Ryan Gosling), is an enigmatic LAPD officer and blade runner with no human name gunning for rogue replicants with little apparent regard for life. He does, however, have a soft spot for a holographic heart throb named Joi (played by Ana de Armas), whom he upgrades from apartment mate to case partner in a heart beat. She helps K seek out Deckard, whom K finds is tied into a mysterious case involving an old corpse with indications of a replicant childbirth, which is both unheard of and troublesome for human-replicant relations. He finds himself opposed by a stealthy and dangerous replicant named Luv (played by Sylvia Hoeks), who is also in search of Deckard and the child they both find out still exists. Both think Deckard is the key to finding the child -- Luv for using the child to further research into replicant birthing, and K for killing. Deckard, hiding in deserted Las Vegas, hid the child thirty years ago and has no idea where it is, yet K and Luv battle it out for control of existing clues.

What is intriguing about Blade Runner 2049 is its breadth of vision and attention to detail. The director, set designer, and cinematographer went into great depth to tell this story. The constant fog and drip of water, the great wall protecting the city from the ocean and the powerful ocean waves on its opposing side, the gritty urban facade and the sleazy sexual debauchery of urban decay, the dank loneliness of the countryside. Every imaginative detail is there, lending authenticity to the story. The characters are made powerfully real by great acting performances. Yet true to the original Blade Runner, not much of that universe seems to have changed, visually.

What is mystical is the story line. But then, this is science fiction, a story of a future world in which we aren't totally familiar. The idea of replicants, the people who hunt them down if they get out of line, and a dystopian future existence unrelatable to us naturally makes this all confusing to us. Even though stories of dystopian futures is a popular genre today. That's really what made the original Blade Runner interesting before and now Blade Runner 2049 interesting now. They explore ideas that make us uncomfortable and themes that seem unfathomable yet potentially unavoidable.

Walking out of the theater, or if you're watching it on DVD walking away from the TV screen, and back into reality, you can feel a sense of relief in today's world, even as crazy at it sometimes seems. You can tell yourself, "Thank God this make-believe world is a long time away, and maybe there's still time to avoid it." But then, as of this writing, 2049 is only 31 years in the future. Can we see the Earth getting to this place by then? It is, after all, just science fiction -- right?

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Maze Runner: The Death Cure: Despite Its Discrepancies It's a Great Film

Movie Review: The Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018)
Version: Theater purchase

Finally, the third and final chapter of The Maze Runner series, The Death Cure, has illuminated the big screen. As with the earlier films, this movie doesn't track perfectly with the books on which it is based, but The Death Cure seems to go out of its way to tell a different story. That's its greatest weakness. For while Thomas, the main hero, survives the end of the story, the movie forgoes the uplifting ending of the book.

In this telling of the story, Thomas, Newt, and other Glade survivors of W.C.K.D.'s (WICKED's*) efforts to find a cure for the flame mount a rescue mission to save Minho, who was captured at the end of the second installment of the series (The Scorch Trials). Unlike in the book version, here W.C.K.D.'s research facility is in a city in the mountains, surrounded by a rebellious population looking to take down the organization responsible for spreading the infection. Gally, Thomas's foe from the beginning of The Maze Runner series, shows up again, despite being killed off early on to help the team get inside the well guarded city and into the research facility, where they face off against their arch enemy, Janson. Still working closely with Janson, the security arm of W.C.K.D., and Ava Paige, the lead scientist, is Teresa, whom Thomas has been close to romantically but opposed to in the search for freedom. And so, the battle is on to find and save Minho, whom W.C.K.D. has captured to torture for the much needed cure.

*In the book the organization is known as WICKED. In the movie it's been changed to W.C.K.D.

Now, keep in mind, in the book version Minho was just one of the test subjects. It was Thomas who was the hope of mankind for his blood's ability to fight off the infection. So the film reverses this idea, although they kind of bring it up again at the end of the film.

And in the book version, Thomas, Minho, and others visit the city in the mountains but leave it to return to WICKED headquarters along the ocean in the south, where they take their stand against WICKED. When the head of WICKED realizes how wrong it is that they have put the Gladers through so much to find a cure, they release them into a final paradise to live a better life, isolated from the destruction of the infection. In this film, the Gladers escape on their own, but we have no idea what their future will be.

Finally, we have the problem of the film's title. In the book's version, the title makes sense because WICKED wants to torture Thomas until death to find the ultimate cure. In the film's version, there is no reference to death in finding the cure -- in fact, there is no contextual relationship between the story and the title. To me, that is the ultimate sin to this film.

All that said, if you have never read the books you can enjoy this film. It is full of action. The special effects are great. The characters are just as compelling, played to the full by returning actors Dylan O'Brien as Thomas, Ki Hong Lee as Minho, Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt, and Aidan Gillen as the despicable Janson. The scene of Newt dying of the disease is just as haunting to see in the film as it was in reading it in the book, although the circumstances are a bit different. Without knowing the original story, The Death Cure caps the film trilogy well. It's worth seeing.

If you are a fan of the book series, you may have trouble with the freedom the filmmakers took in rewriting what was a wonderful story to suit their own creative needs. The first two films didn't vary as much, so this third film was a shock to me. Still, The Death Cure is a great film every Maze Runner fan should see.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Mechanic: Watch It at Your Own Risk

Movie Review: The Mechanic (2011)
Version: Library borrow

The Mechanic is a cheap-looking version of a modern-day hitman movie. It's not that it isn't a good film in its own right, it's just that we've seen so many good ones that The Mechanic fails to measure up to the better ones. But let's pretend for a moment that we haven't seen any of the good ones yet and measure The Mechanic on its own merits.

Jason Statham, who often plays the bad guy in other movies, is the good guy here. He's Arthur Bishop, an elite hitman who always works to professional perfection and with total detachment; it's nothing personal. It's just a job, but he does the job right. But then he is tricked into assassinating his mentor, Harry (played by Donald Sutherland), and when he discovers he was set up to make the hit, he goes after whoever set him up. So now it is personal. Coming along for the journey is Harry's grown up but impulsive son, Steve (played by Ben Foster), who also wants revenge. Steve doesn't realize at first that the hitman is Arthur, who mentors Steve into the ways of the hitman. Later, Steve  finds a clue that Arthur killed his father and once he helps Arthur go after the bad guys, he tries to enact revenge on Arthur.

Now the problem with this film is that Jason Statham isn't a strong lead for a film. He makes a great bad guy. He makes a great second as a good guy. But he lacks the acting chops to come off as the main character. In this case, he is so detached that you lack sympathy for him when he has to kill his mentor, you lack empathy for him when he tries to help his mentor's son who then turns on him, and you lack satisfaction for him at the end. It all becomes an exercise in rote storytelling. I like Statham for his swagger and his stunt work, but he isn't a list-A actor.

There is plenty of action in this film, so if you're after an action film, this could be a cheap thrill movie for you. Just don't expect to particularly like the hero or feel vindicated by his actions. Watch The Mechanic at your own risk.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Gifted: The Story, the Acting, the Writing, the Encouragement You Should See

Movie Review: Gifted (2017)
Version: HBO On-Demand

Our family watched a triple feature movie Saturday night. Gifted was by far the best of the three.

My daughter, who has a variety of disabilities, was drawn to this story about an intellectually gifted but socially awkward girl named Mary. She lives with her single uncle, Frank, who took over parenting of the six year old after his math-whiz sister stopped by unannounced and while he anxiously left on a date, committed suicide, leaving Mary behind. Frank and his sister had always had a difficult relationship with their smart but not-too-close mother, and it was clear his sister didn't want Mary left with her mother, despite her wealth. Frank decides despite having home taught Mary for some time it's best she attend public school now to help her develop social skills and friendships with others her own age. Neighbor Roberta, who has come to know and love Frank and Mary, knows this can only lead to complications down the road, discourages Frank, but he is insistent, and so a ball begins to roll downhill that Frank cannot stop. It is apparent to Mary's new teacher, Ms Stevenson, and school administrators, that the school cannot provide for Mary's intellectual needs and want to send her to a school for the gifted. Frank is stubborn about keeping her there. And so the grandmother is consulted, who tries to move heaven and earth to interfere on Mary's intellectual behalf, pitting mother against son -- once again.

Gifted is a fine story in and of itself. But what shines here is the acting. I always thought Chris Evans was kind of dorky as Captain America, but he shines here as Frank. Young Mckenna Grace is brilliant as Mary and reminds me a lot of Dakota Fanning in her younger roles. She carries the female lead with great emotional highs and lows like a seasoned actress. Lindsay Duncan is cold and plotting as the grandmother, Evelyn. What can I say about Octavia Spencer as the neighbor Roberta? She is magic in every role I have ever seen her play, and so she is here. There is a scene where Frank must confront Evelyn to reach Mary, and when Evelyn moves forward to resist Frank, Roberta steps between them like the knight in shining armor to stop Evelyn in her tracks, like, "No you don't!" Jenny Slate makes a wonderful Ms Stevenson, the teacher, and a forbidden love interest for Frank. I would watch this film just for the acting.

The writing was quite good, too. It can affect the whole rest of the movie, and in this case, the writing built a strong bulwark around which the whole story easily flowed. That means there were few plot holes or questionable scenes, and that means you can enjoy it without continually being jerked away from the narrative to ask, what the heck was that!

One other thing to consider. This is the story about a girl who is a math prodigy. We are at a turning point in American culture (and perhaps other cultures) where we are beginning to finally realize that girls are just as capable of handling math as boys. That was once not so. Gifted could be that film that encourages the gifted girl in your family to pursue math or science or some other area of interest she may have felt discouraged to study. Encourage her by watching Gifted with her.

To recap, Gifted is the story, the acting, the writing, the encouragement your family should see together.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Stronger: A Dreary Film with an Uplifting Ending

Movie Review: Stronger (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Remember the 2016 film, Patriot's Day, the retelling of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing? That was a well-told overview of the entire event and the amazing take down of the two terrorists behind the bombing. Stronger is the 2017 more personal story of Jeff Bauman, a Boston-area ne'er-do-well who lost both legs because stood by the finish line to cheer on a friend running in the marathon.

Both films are brutally honest retellings of this horrific event, but Stronger is a gritty, dreary, brooding tale of one man's pitiable journey through the hell of loss and rediscovering his self in trying to regain the use of his legs. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, the tragic Bostonian who has eyes for a young lady running in the Boston Marathon but who doesn't seem to be so interested in him. Tatiana Maslany plays Erin Hurley, who comes from a more well-to-do family and pushes away Bauman's affection until he loses his legs while showing up to watch her cross the finish line at the Marathon. And Miranda Richardson plays Bauman's troublesome single mother, Patty, who hangs on to her son for dear life, seeming to suck the life out of him as he struggles to recreate a life out of tragedy.

There isn't much uplifting to this film until the end, when Bauman finally rises above his circumstances to claim the woman he loves and the life he finally realizes he can salvage. He must dip into the lowest pit of despair before he can rebound and surge to the top. And so he does. But it's a long slog in the meantime. Based on a real story, we are at the mercy of one man's life history watching this drama unfold. However, we never lose hope as the title, Stronger, reminds us that from tragedy can come greatness.

For me, personally, the cinematography adds to the depressive quality of this film. Like most of the movies I see on topics about Boston, the dense graininess of the film gives a cheapness to the look and feel to the story. Too, the lower-class settings add a hopelessness. Since the story is biographical, this probably can't be helped, but when you add these together, they make for a dreary presentation, and perhaps that is partly by design. I noticed it also in Patriot's Day. This isn't a complaint as much as an observation and a warning to the potential viewer: This film may drag you down on a bad day.

The upshot is, the story is worth the telling and so, the film is worth seeing. Just watch it on a nice sunny, uplifting day. Then the uplifting end can shine through.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Goodbye Christopher Robins: How a Family Got Swallowed Up by a Hundred-Acre Woods

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robins (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Of all the good that came from A.A. Milne's writings about Winnie the Pooh, the one who got the least good from it was C.R. Milne, the son of the author, and the original, Christopher Robin. The sad story of the effects on the growing up of the child who was known by his parents as Billy Moon is told in the excellent British film, Goodbye Christopher Robins.

A.A. Milne (true name Alan Milne) suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences serving in the British Army during World War I. When he returned home after "the war to end all wars", the successful playwright decided to leave the excitement of London to live in the quiet countryside, where he would write a book against wars.

He was married to socialite Daphne, who preferred the exciting life of the big city, but she followed Alan to the country life, where they had a baby boy whom they named Christopher Robin. Only, planning ahead, Daphne decided they were going to have a girl (because if they had a boy he might end up going to war one day and she couldn't have that), and while they waited for the child's birth they nicknamed it Billy. After the baby was born they retained the nickname Billy and because of a fluke in pronunciation gave him the second name Moon.

Daphne wasn't happy with her birthing experience, and Alan needed quiet to write his book, so they hired a nanny named Olive, and off the mother and father would go to do their own thing, leaving Billy Moon in the care and raising of Olive. But Alan had writer's block and found it more interesting to spend time with Billy Moon as the young lad was growing up, so Daphne decided to leave for the big city until Alan started writing again.

Still, Alan had writer's block as he worked on his book promoting peace over war. Then Olive's mother became sick and she needed time away. With both Daphne and Olive away, it left Alan and Billy Moon on their own, giving their relationship time to grow naturally. They spent long hours together exploring the surrounding hundred acre wood, making up stories featuring the stuffed animals that filled Billy Moon's life and the nature of the woods. That gave Alan Milne an idea for a book. He invited an illustrator friend over to make some drawings. A poem emerged with a couple of drawings, which Alan sent to Daphne, and she sent it to a magazine, and because of the poem the magazine had its largest circulation ever. Alan wrote the book featuring a boy named Christopher Robins and a little bear named Winnie the Pooh and his friends of the Hundred Acre Woods. It was an instant success.

The world became enamored by the book, its characters, and the real Christopher Robins. The mother became excited by the publicity and success, and Billy Moon was swept up into the whirlwind of publicity stunts, reporters and photographers, book signings, and far less quality time with his father.

Goodbye Christopher Robins covers all this and more. It's the story of a boy who asks his father to write a story for him and finds his story, and his name, taken from him and given instead to the world. It's actually even more complex than that.

Olive sees all this happening and rather than participate any longer in the robbing of the boy's precious childhood, she leaves the family. Realizing his mistake, Alan Milne promises Billy Moon he will never write another Winnie the Pooh story, then he sends Billy Moon to a boarding school. But what he thinks will be a relief for the boy is really just the same, because there is nowhere that Christopher Robin can escape his formal name. Thus, at age 18, Christopher is ready to shed his identity by joining the British Army during World War II. Ready to leave for service on a departing train, his farewell to his father is an anguished rant about his lost childhood. Alan Milne is devastated, but there is nothing he can do. A more anonymous C.R. Milne leaves for war. Sometime later, Alan receives a telegraph message advising him that his son is missing in action and presumed dead. But that's not where the story ends. It actually ends happily ever after.

Goodbye Christopher Robins is a lavishly cinematographed film, which is shot entirely in England. Now, England will always be England, regardless of the period or era, and it gives itself to lush images. The characters are comely, with Domhnall Gleeson as a reticent A.A. Milne, Will Tilston as a cheerful 8-year-old Billy Moon, and Alex Lawther as a much anguished 18-year-old Christopher. Margot Robbie plays the self-centered Daphne, while Kelly Macdonald plays the care-giving Olive. It's a beautiful film reflecting on the ravages of war on society and the price paid by innocent youth for living with success.

This is a film most ages can watch and enjoy. Younger ages might need help understanding the complexities of relationships, however. But most will enjoy understanding the story behind Christopher Robins and Winnie the Pooh and how a family got swallowed up by a hundred-acre woods.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Arctic Event: A Good Choice!

Book Review: The Arctic Event by Robert Ludlum
Version: Library ebook borrow

I have a new Kindle Fire 7 to access cloudLibrary from my local library, and to test out this new ebook resource, I chose The Arctic Event. It's the seventh book of the Covert-One series by Robert Ludlum (best known for the Jason Bourne series) released in 2008. It was a good choice!

The 2008 world of The Arctic Event is much different than our world today. In it, the United States and the Russian Federation are cooperative. Russia is still reeling from the effects of its Soviet past and hasn't yet begun to try to influence elections in the U.S. and Europe. In this story, an old Soviet aircraft accidentally downed unnoticed in the remote Arctic during the Cold War is discovered by a Western scientific expedition, and a U.S. team of covert military assets, accompanied by a cooperating military officer from the Russian Federation, travel to the far northern Canadian frontier to investigate. Details slowly emerge that the downed aircraft was on a secret mission carrying a tank of anthrax to disperse over North America, and the question is, when the crew knew they were about to crash did they ditch the tank of anthrax or is it still on the plane? On the way to the crash site, the team's helicopter is attacked from the air, and as they finally make landfall and seek out the crash site by foot, they find the science lab has been attacked and now the team is under attack by hostile forces. Meanwhile, the Americans aren't sure they can trust the military officer from Russia. Someone else wants the tank of anthrax and suddenly the Russians don't want the world to know the truth about the mission of the downed airplane. It's up to the American team to thwart the enemies, whoever they are.

Ludlum is a great writer and his stories rarely fail to satisfy. In this instance, The Arctic Event is a well-crafted spy thriller with well-rounded characters and a nicely plotted story line. His descriptions are keenly written, as well, giving you a vivid scene of the setting and the action and making the story play out before your eyes. I wouldn't say you will be riveted to your seat, but you will be captured by the drama and the events and you will want to get to the end to find out how everything plays out.

Don't let this being a 2008 release or the almost quaint historical perspective of positive U.S.-Russia relations put you off. It's still a good story. And if you are put off by long waits at the library for a current Robert Ludlum book, I would think a 2008 book wouldn't have that problem.

So, do consider reading The Arctic Event. As a Robert Ludlum book it's a good read!