Sunday, May 21, 2017

Genius: A Deeply Emotional Film Well Worth Viewing

Movie Review: Genius (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Good books are usually a collaboration between the author and the editor. A relationship develops between the writer and the wordsmith, in which the one creates and the other molds. Based on the book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Max Berg, Genius sensitively taps the deep well that is this subject, which in this case is the all too-short time author Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins worked together.

This is a good film that didn't gross much at the box office,yet deserves an audience for its superb acting, it's great writing, and its well paced plot.

The story unfolds in depression-era 1929 as Max Perkins is sitting in his office editing a book by Steinbeck. A colleague walks in with a heavy sheath of typed pages and hands them to Perkins. "Is it any good?" he says. "No, but he's a genius." Perkins takes the tome home and on the way reads in on the train, and on the walk to the house, and in through the door, up the stairs, past the wife rehearsing for a play, daughters playing in the living room, office, bedrooms, and every other quiet room of the house. He finally settles in a closet. He is enraptured by the book. The next day, Wolfe walks flamboyantly into his office, sure that, like every other publisher in New York City, Scbriner & Sons won't think the book is any good. Perkins surprises him with a $500 advance and wants to get to work on it right away.

From there, Perkins guides Wolfe on decisions into making Look Homeward, Angel from 1100 pages into a more compact book. Elated at publishing his first work, Wolfe is eager and compliant at the hands of an experienced editor. Once the book is published and becomes a bestseller, Wolfe writes his second novel, some 5,000 pages long, delivered in handwritten pages. Wolfe is less pliant with what he sees as his masterpiece of visualizations, but Perkins helps him focus less on vibrant descriptions and more on impactful language that brings the story into focus. They work on the book for two years, wrestling back and forth over excessive language to publish Of Time and the River.

Subplots in the story include Wolfe's complex relationship with his patron and lover, Aline Bernstein, a theater set decorator with a waning marriage and a jealous attachment to Wolfe. Also Perkin's family, who can't get enough time with husband and father Perkins because of the time he spends on Wolfe's books. Intertwined are interactions with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The characters are rich and earthy, played to great depth by Colin Firth as Perkins, Jude Law as Wolfe, Nicole Kidman as Bernstein, Laura Linney as Perkin's wife Louise, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. If anything is out of the ordinary, it is the excess with which Law plays Wolfe's eccentricity. Perkin's hat may well have gotten a credit -- he wears it in every scene, till near the end. Was it a metaphor for the man who wore but one hat in life, that of extraordinary editor to great writers?

You don't have to be an author or editor to appreciate this film. It offers fine acting, great writing, elegant cinematography, and beautiful set decoration. You feel for the characters as they work through the plots and subplots. It is a deeply emotional film. Genius is well worth your viewing.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Persephone: Well Told Adventure With Something for Every Reader

Book Review: Persephone by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, advance copy

I'll be darned if Julian Stockwin hasn't done it again -- bested himself with his latest release in the Thomas Kydd series, Persephone. There's a little something for every reader in this volume: sea chase, age-of-sail battle, Napoleonic intrigue, imperial palace pomp, and romance. All nicely packaged in well-written historical fiction in around 400 pages.

Persephone is the name of Captain Sir Thomas Kydd's once spurned love interest of the past, and Kydd encounters her again while on station in Portugal trying to rescue the British from Lisbon and escort Portuguese royalty from the clutches of Napoleon and his Spanish allies. A spark of interest re-ignites between them, but they are forced apart by circumstances, only to be reintroduced once again on British soil. Kydd, the toast of England for his heroics in battle, has plenty of time to pursue her, but she appears to be out of reach. Meanwhile, Kydd inconsolable at his loss, returning to the sea and service of king and country, is sent to the site of his most recent conquest, Copenhagen, and then to follow a strange group of merchant ships protected by French sloops and a frigate, perhaps destined to invade the shores of Scotland or Ireland. They face uncertainty and dangers abound in pursuit, only to be surprised time and again -- including the final, biggest surprise of his life.

There is the romance of the sea and the romance between a couple, and Stockwin blends both seamlessly in this great tale of adventure. He deftly describes the relationship between Kydd and Persephone, their still stirring love interest yet the still unresolved conflicts from the past, setting up a hunt and seek chase that lasts through the book, almost as in a thriller. Packed in and around this theme flows the adventures of a naval hero doing his duty at sea and doing his duty on land, being paraded before the people as the hero of the hour and yet feeling the tug of life on board one his majesty's finest fighting frigates. There are battles aplenty, both at sea and on land, both military and political. And keep in mind, while many characters are fictional, others are based in history.

Stockwin's prose flows easily on the page, fluid with the magic of truth. You are transformed to the settings, knowing he has been there and seen that or gleaned parts from historical records. Dialogue is real, descriptions are vivid. The pacing is exciting. And having served in the Royal Navy, you know his battle narratives ring true. Many of Stockwin's characters recur from novel to novel, and one of my favorites is Stirk, who has been with Kydd from the beginning. One of those most stirring and realistic bits of dialogue is his near the end of the novel.

Persephone released as hardback in UK and as ebook and audio download in UK and the U.S. on May 18. It releases as hardback in U.S. in September. The link above is to the Book Depository, where hardback is available to order with free delivery worldwide. I think you will find it entertaining reading, wherever you are!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Hologram for the King: A Satisfying Movie Worth Watching at Least Once

Movie Review: A Hologram for the King (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Tom Hanks is always fun to watch, almost always a friendly face on the movie screen. It is equally so in A Hologram for the King, where he once again plays an underdog, one more than equal to the challenge.

Hanks plays Alan, a former powerful CEO who once sent jobs from Schwinn Bikes to China and now finds himself in a much reduced role at a different company as a simple salesman going to Saudi Arabia to sell American IT services to a powerful king. What he runs into are jet lag, cultural missteps, systemic roadblocks, and a health scare all that threaten to foil his efforts, but in the process introduces him to new friends and an unexpected love interest.

Alexander Black is smart as Yousef, a driver for hire who helps Alan over his many cultural and physical setbacks. Satira Choudury is brilliant as Zahra, a woman doctor who treats Alan's health malady; despite cultural taboos about unsupervised men and women sharing such intimate space, they become very close.

In a way, A Hologram for the King reminds me a lot of Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray in the leading role. In this instance, it's Tom Hanks lost in an Arabic and Islamic world trying to translate a world of language, religious, cultural, and feminine cues in the search for the big business score. Like Bill Murray, Hanks is all charm and character but succumbs to his human instincts in ways that both seem to bring relief to his frustrations yet also force him to the brink of failure. Hanks handles it with a familiar patina of humor and grace.

The script isn't as interesting as the visuals, with their  sweeping desert panoramas, seascapes, and busy cityscapes. What do words matter anyway, right? It's the situations and Hank's reactions that make this film. All come together to create a satisfying movie worth watching at least once.

I don't have a rating system as many review sites do, but if I did, I would give A Hologram for the King a solid 4. Honestly, I can't think of a bad Tom Hanks film, and this definitely wouldn't be one of them.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Sing: You'll Really Dig It

Movie Review: Sing (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

If you liked Zootopia, if you enjoy America's Got Talent, you'll really dig Sing, an amalgam of both, hits of worldwide cultural phenomena.

Sing is the animated story of Buster Moon, the koala whose lifelong dream is to resurrect the success of the live theater he grew up attending with his father. The problem is, he hasn't had a hit since taking over the theater and the bank is closing in on foreclosure. In desperation, Moon organizes a singing competition with a $1,000 prize that in error is promoted to be $100,000, attracting thousands of singers and giving Moon renewed hope. Moon reduces the thousands of applicants down to a few and we meet the unusual stars of this movie: Ash, a teen porcupine with self-concept issues; Mike, a tiny mouse with a giant ego; Johnny, a gorilla who would rather sing than join his gangster-father in the family business; Rosita, a mother pig with an overwhelmingly big family; and Meena, a young elephant who needs a confidence boost. Assisting Moon is his wobbly secretary and right-hand lizard, Mrs. Crawley, and Eddy, a sheep who lives in his wealthy parent's pool house. Together, this rich palette of characters bring this story to life in a bright canvas of colors and songs.

The animators and sound editors string together a wonderful collage of audition performances in a wild range of animals featuring amazing voices and comic performances. When we get to the final acts, we are given more strong animated and sound performances, from the rough starts to the improving rehearsals, to the final show, enough to entertain you all evening (or day). The next to last performance, with Mike the mouse, singing "I Did It My Way", is particularly stirring. And throughout the film, the animation sequences are exceptional. For example, after singing a duet, one couple can be seen breathing labored as in real life. as if they've had a real workout. And toward the end, a set reconstruction scene, done in fast motion, looks so real you could swear it was filmed on location. In the opening sequence, Moon rides a bicycle through an amazing visual kaleidoscope that's as real as anything in real life, except it's "peopled" with animals instead of humans.

The voice casting is wonderful, too, with Matthew McConaughey playing the lead as Buster Moon, Reese Witherspoon playing Rosita, Seth MacFarlane playing Mike, Scarlett Johansson playing Ash, John C. Reilly playing Eddy, Taron Edgerton playing Johnny, and Tori Kelly playing Meena. Mrs. Crawley is played brilliantly by Garth Jennings. Jennifer Hudson croons a tune as a young Nana, Eddy's grandmother, who Moon was thrilled to see perform in the theater when he was a young koala.

To say I enjoyed Sing is an understatement. I watched it twice with my daughter and my wife. If you're into animated films, if you liked Zootopia, if you enjoy America's Got Talent, you will be thrilled with Sing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Silence: A Powerful Story Well Told By a Master Storyteller

Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

For some time I had heard about the film Silence and how powerful a story it is. I have waited in anticipation of seeing what has been said to be a great film and have finally gotten to see it. I wasn't disappointed.

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who take on the mission of tracking down a fellow Jesuit lost in the turbulent cultural wiles of 17th century Japan. European Catholics have been rejected by the Buddhist Japanese government, pursued, prosecuted, tortured, and even killed to rid the island of what is deemed as a dangerous cult. The people of Japan who have converted to Christianity practice their faith in fear for their lives, praying in seclusion. Any one town is unaware whether there are other Christians in any other town, all pursued by Japan's Inquisitor, who seems to stamp out the religion through repression and apostasy (renunciation of faith). Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play the two priests who come in search of the last known priest in Japan, rumored to have renounced Christ and taken on a wife and children. They face personal hardship and danger, but worse still, they pose a danger to the Christians they encounter in their journey, who revel in the return of priests and hide them in their community.

Silence was directed by Martin Scorsese, a master storyteller in film. His passion for the story is apparent in the hard work taken to film difficult scenes of crucifixions in the sea, tortures on the land, the selfless sacrifices taken on by the priests who deny themselves to make this journey, and the deep fears of the simple people who live in the small fishing villages. The lighting is moody but integral to setting the heavy tone of the story. The scenery is simple but important to establishing the time in which the story takes place and difficulty of making this journey. The characters have great depth, from the two priests driven by their faith to seek truth, to the Inquisitor who is driven to eliminate the threat they pose to his land, to the fallen priest they seek to find.

It can be a difficult film to watch, as the Inquisitor seeks to expose Christians and force them to renounce their faith or suffer horrible punishments. In fact, it can be brutal to watch. Battling the will of the priests, the Inquisitor uses mind games, which can be equally brutal. But this is the truth of the story, and Scorsese doesn't shy away from it -- any of it.

I was expecting a different outcome. However, Scorsese treats that outcome with compassion, and that's the redeeming quality of Silence. This is a film about faith, the difficulty of living it in troubled times, and God's compassion when we sometimes fall short. It was a brilliant visual treatment of that journey.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor: Like a Good Spy Thriller? This Isn't One of Them.

Movie Review: Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Do you like a good spy thriller? I'm afraid Our Kind of Traitor isn't one of them. Instead, it's a slow-plodding mystery built around conspiracies between Russian oligarchs and their money handler on the one hand and British Intelligence and a rogue agent on the other hand. Caught in between is a British couple on holiday in Morocco.

Our Kind of Traitor features a decent cast. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play the British couple. He's an unsuspecting professor charmed by Russian money handler Dima, played by Stellan Skarsgard, and she is a skeptical attorney who does her best not to play into Dima's charms. Over time they are both won over, risking their lives to help Dima try to work out a deal to turn evidence against a field of oligarchs and a slew of British assets in exchange for the safety of Dima's family. But British Intelligence doesn't want to play along. There are the usual chase scenes, death scenes, drinking scenes, sex parties, and what not. This involves spies, after all. But that's it!

You might almost think this was a Tom Clancy novel come to the screen, except it doesn't have the panache, the accurate detail, and the pacing of a Tom Clancy novel. Our Kind of Traitor moves along at the pace of a sloth on Benadryl, and it relies on a host of cliched memes about Russian oligarchs and British Intelligence, not to mention British professors and skeptical attorneys, instead of the kind of authentic and out-of-today's-headlines kinds of detail of a Clancy novel. Maybe I was expecting too much.

Now, there were actually spies involved in the film. I'll give it that. The scenes in Morocco were interesting. But you can't build a movie around that. And the title? What does "Our Kind of Traitor" have to do with what this film provided the viewer? I don't get it.

It wasn't a totally wasted hour and 48 minutes, but I can't recommend Our Kind of Traitor to anyone I expect to talk to again.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: Yeah, Never Go Back

Movie Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The last time I watched a Jack Reacher film, it was a pretty good film. I can't say the same for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. There wasn't as much action, the plot wasn't as solid, and the acting wasn't as good.

Right from the get-go, this film seemed thin. It was like they brought along not even the B team and called in the C team to put this movie together, from writing, to filming, to editing, to the end. "We'll save a ton on spending and make a ton of money on the title!" they seemed to be betting. I think they lost the bet.

As usual, Hollywood big hitter Tom Cruise plays the title role, Jack Reacher. Cobie Smolders plays Major Susan Turner, his military liaison while he is in the field. Danika Yarosh plays 15 year old Samantha, named in a legal suit to be his father by a prostitute with whom Reacher had a short-term relationship. Reacher comes to Washington, D.C., to have dinner with Turner but when he gets there, Turner is in military jail, accused of espionage. Reacher takes on the mission to clear her (what else!) and runs into obstacles, both within the military and outside (what else!). Whoever is trying to stop him are also after Samantha, in an attempt to stop Reacher. Reacher breaks Turner out of jail (oh, sure!) and rescues Samantha from the bad guys (of course!) and the battle is on to learn the truth and clear everyone's name. In a ham-handed way. Oh! And it takes place in New Orleans, apparently during Mardi Gras, but there's no mention of or allusion made to it other than playing hide and seek with the bad guys through floats in a Mardis Gras parade!

I can't express deeply enough how disappointed I was in this film. There wasn't even any real gratuitous action, nor enough speeding cars nor any hang-by-your-fingernail stunts, to satisfy an action-film cult fan. There was no socially redeeming value, either.

OK, enough of the negative. The good news is, it was only one hour and 58 minutes long. And you got to visit New Orleans as a backdrop.

Honestly, if you're a Jack Reacher fan, I think you're better off watching an older film - Jack Reacher (2012) - and never go back to this one.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge: A Brutal War Film Honestly Honoring an American War Hero

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Steel yourself for one brutal movie in Hacksaw Ridge, the telling of the true story of World War II Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who insisted on serving his country in war but refused to carry a gun.

In doing so, Doss singlehandedly carried 75 wounded soldiers to safety one evening during the Battle of Okinawa. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his incredible bravery, putting his own life at risk during constant Japanese attack. In this case, the honest brutality of this film is earned and necessary to show what Doss and his fellow soldiers endured. I promise you, you will appreciate the thoroughness with which this story is shown and you will be amazed at Doss's singular bravery and unswerving courage.

In addition, the film explores Doss's earlier life to explain why he became a conscientious objector, as well as his treatment during basic training by his fellow soldiers and officers, who originally thought him a coward. He was even put in military jail and faced court martial for refusing to touch a weapon when ordered. However, Doss was persistent in wanting to serve his nation by saving lives instead of taking them.

Doss is played by Andrew Garfield, who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Rounding out the notables in the cast include Hugo Weaving, who played his father, Sam Worthington, who played his captain, and Vince Vaughn, who played his sergeant. Their work in this film was grueling and their portrayals masterful. In particular, this was a very different kind of role for Vince Vaughn, who usually plays comedic roles. In this film, he had to play the tough drill sergeant as well as the combat leader. Garfield was well-nominated for the Oscar.

Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson, who never holds nothing back in his depictions of gory battle scenes. So it was with this film. He was nominated for an Oscar for direction and Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for Best Picture. Alas, not one of these nominations won. The winners for this film were for technical achievements: Film Editing and Sound Mixing. Those are great awards and well earned, but in my estimation, the others deserved wins, too.

Who should see Hacksaw Ridge? Anyone who appreciates personal sacrifice, moral courage, valor, persistence, and love of humanity. But, of course, anyone who is squeamish about watching people shot, bloodied, bludgeoned, and blown to bits should probably skip this movie. It's graphic! The entire 2 hours and 19 minutes isn't all bloody hell, but a good half of it is. But this film honors the self-sacrifice of Desmond Doss and to do it, his story must show what that sacrifice meant, and that means being as honest to the truth as Doss was. There's no sugar coating in this film.

My recommendation is, see Hacksaw Ridge if you can take it. If for no other reason than to honor the selfless American war hero that was Desmond Doss.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Hell or High Water: It Could Have Been a Great Film

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I'm of two minds on the 2016 film Hell or High Water. First, this isn't just your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. Second, it seemed to be a passing of the baton from one Hollywood generation to the next. I'll explore both themes before rendering a verdict on whether I liked the movie.

Most bank robbery movies pit bad guys against good guys, the good guys winning, and the good guys are usually the cops and the banks they protect. In Hell or High Water, you have a hard time figuring out which are who. Well, clearly the banks are the bad guys, but in terms of the characters, there are no clear bad guys and there are no clear losers besides the banks. No one gets shot until near the end of the film, and even then it isn't done with malice until the very end. Even with characters depicted as good guys, there is no clarity. People who rob banks aren't usually shown as good guys, but as the story progresses you come to understand the robbers have noble reasons for doing it. And the Texas Ranger pursuing them - well, he's just a stereotyped Texas lawman out to get his man, which is sad because you really don't get to know the man outside of the stereotype.

The gist of the story is two brothers seeking revenge on a small banking group set to foreclose on their late mother's ranch after they set her up on two predatory loans. The brothers get back at the bank by robbing different locations, laundering the money through a casino, and then paying back the loans and setting up a trust in the name of the sons of one of the brothers, the trust handled by the bank to keep it in the bank's interest to protect the trust. A Texas Ranger and his partner take a keen interest in the case when federal law enforcement won't touch it and pursue the brothers with deep devotion. You feel for the brothers, who never really pocket any of the money for their own benefit.

So, as I say, other than the stereotyped Texas Rangers characters, this isn't your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. It's kind of fun seeing a predatory bank take the hit.

Playing the major characters are Chris Pine as Toby Howard and Ben Foster as his brother Tanner, along with Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Chris Pine continues to show great range in the characters he plays, from Captain Kirk of the star ship Enterprise in Star Trek to this role as a down-but-not-out-by-any-means son of a mother-taken-advantage-of by a bank and father of a son to whom he wants to pass on some kind of legacy. He plays all characters deftly and with heart. At the other end of the range is Jeff Bridges, who to me always comes off as the same character, with the same drawl, the same look, the same woodenness. To see him in one role is to see him in any other. It seems to me he had more range in years past. Perhaps that's just what happens to actors as they age, although that's not the case with J.K. Simmons, who seems to just get better with each role.

Watching Pine and Bridges together in this film seemed like a passing of a baton from one generation to the next. It was almost painful to compare their performances - one original, vibrant, compelling, the other tired and spent.

And so I get to the crux of my verdict. This could have been a great film. It was up for four Oscar nominations, including Best Performance for an Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges), but it won none. It had an excellent plot, going after predatory banks. The fact that it turned the bank robbery theme on its head was brilliant. The Howard brothers were eminently relatable and likable. There were enough action and plot twists and the grand vista of Western Texas to please anyone. But there was the impediment of that stereotyped Texas Ranger who stood up larger than life and shot it all to hell.

I won't say, don't see Hell or High Water. That's not the point. It's a good western. Just be prepared to be disappointed. Maybe I'll have just helped you figure out why you were disappointed after you've seen it. Maybe see it for Pine's and Foster's performances. They'll give you a good ride into the sunset.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Queen of Katwe: There Are So Many Reasons to See It!

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Queen of Katwe is a heartwarming story of a young Ugandan girl whose world dramatically changes after discovering the game of chess. There are so many reasons to see it!

It stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, who with her impoverished fatherless family lives in a barely wooden shack on a dirt street in Katwe, a neighborhood in the capital of Kampala, Uganda, sells corn on the streets to eek out a minimal living.

David Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, an engineer who takes on work in a Christian ministry while waiting for a much better paying job to support his wife and family, and he runs the children's chess club.

One day, Phiona looks in on the chess club while Robert is setting up the players and he invites her in. Phiona smells and the other children tease her. Robert makes the other children teach Phiona the basic moves of chess and she quickly learns the game. Phiona cleans up for her next visit to the club, and the other children accept her into the group - but not for long, for she quickly masters the game and wins the club championship.

We watch as Phiona moves from club champion to attend tournaments at other clubs, beating kids in big schools against educated children. Soon Robert himself can't beat her, and Phiona's inability to read makes it difficult for her to read the books he provides for her to learn from the masters. Robert's wife tutors her.

While Phiona is facing struggles learning, she has struggles at home. Her mother, facing the difficulties of raising two young sons and a defiant second daughter under poverty conditions, doesn't trust Robert to take Phiona under his wing. And losing Phiona to the rigors of learning and competing in chess means losing her help in selling the corn on the street to support the family financially. But Robert helps her understand what learning can mean for Phiona's opportunities for the future, and she relents.

Robert finagles schools and tournaments to allow his club, and particularly Phiona, to compete, despite their being unschooled and poor, and they do surprisingly well. But the competitions aren't without their difficulties, difficulties that provide Phiona with challenges and doubts about here abilities. She even competes in the Russian Chess Olympiad in Moscow, although with questionable results.

In the end, it is Phiona's spirit that triumphs and that is what is lovable about this film. Watching her master the game, out strategize better players and see her eyes light up in triumph, grow in confidence and sometimes over confidence, and become the hope for her people and ultimately the Queen of Katwe makes for wonderful film making.

Queen of Katwe is based on a true story, and those are often the best films. During the end credits, you are introduced to the real Phiona, Robert, and other characters of this film, alongside the actors who play them.

If you like playing chess, this is a must-watch film. If you like stories about people who overcome odds to become a success, this is a winner film. If you like movies with women as positive role models, this movie is definitely for you. If you like films that explore diverse cultures in all their depth and complexity, Queen of Katwe is that movie. See it!

Denial: An Undeniably Emotional Journey Into a Horrible World

Movie Review: Denial (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Denial is a movie for the times in which we live. It visits themes that play out in today's headlines, so it is relevant on many levels. There is denial of climate change, there is denial of racism, and in the case explored in this film, there is denial of the Holocaust, the killing of millions of Jews by German Nazis during World War II.

Professor, historian, and writer Deborah Lipstadt (played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz) is a seeker of truth. In her works, she has called "historian" David Irving (played by Cannes Award winner Timothy Spall) a Holocaust denier. He has sued her for libel, although she lives and works in the United States, in a British Court, where the burden of proof is on her. She is defended in court by barrister Richard Rampton (played by Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson), who with his team of solicitors and history students decide to prove that Irving not only is wrong about history, but he has purposely distorted history. Lipstadt wants to give voice to survivors of the Holocaust, letting them appear on the witness stand, but Rampton and his team want to deny Irving the opportunity to defame the survivors and turn the case into a stage for his deliberate denial agenda.

Rampton and his team take Lipstadt to Auschwitz to visit the famous Nazi concentration camp and gas chambers. It is a damp, dreary day. The scene is dark and ominous. Rampton visits the museum there, where the thousands of shoes and eyeglasses remained behind by the Jews killed by the Nazis are displayed. It is a grim reminder of what happened in that horrible place. We see scenes of the people of the nearby town who were forced after the war to see the camp and the horror on their faces of what happened nearby. It is a stark reminder to us, the viewers, as well.

These aren't scenes for the squeamish. The character portrayals are passionate, as they debate tactics, weighing what is at stake. It's a fine cast and the cinematography, editing, and sets blend to create a realism that takes you inside the action and drama as the story and the conflict unfold around you. Irving is portrayed as a diabolical, scheming rat, not unlike the rat-like character Spall played in the Harry Potter movie in which he appeared, perhaps why he was perfect to play this part.

As our world struggles to deal with denial of science and truth in this ever changing world, a movie like Denial is more relevant that ever. Denial becomes an important element in understanding the issues and the stakes in ensuring that truth wins out. If you haven't seen it, you should, and you should make sure everyone in your family sees it. You may just learn something while you're being entertained. If you're a denialist yourself, you may want to see Denial as a reality check.

Denial is undeniably an emotional journey into a horrible world we shouldn't have to revisit but demands we see to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Jungle Book: Third Time Around's a Charm

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

There have been three film versions of The Jungle Book, including the 1967 animated Disney original and a 1994 live action version, so you would think making another wouldn't be a good idea. You'd be wrong. This newest version, once again live action and by Disney, using the music from the original animated film, does justice to the original and tells the story in an exciting new way.

Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, the boy raised in the jungle and befriended by the panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and the bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray), who must now flee his "home" because of the threat of the angry tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba). There's nothing worse than a tiger with unresolved issues, and that's just what Shere Khan is, hunting down Mowgli through the thick and the thin of the jungle as he tries to find safe passage to the more secure yet uncertain world of humans. It's Rudyard Kipling at his best.

The Jungle Book story hasn't really changed in this version. It's still a coming of age story set in the jungle. It's still the story of friendships and conflicts and seeking your inner strength when confronted by overwhelming odds. Even the music is the same. What has changed, however, is the darkness of the imaging, the danger encountered in nature, and the humanness of the main character, Mowgli.

When the film first came out, some families said younger kids were afraid of the film and couldn't recommend it for younger viewers. Perhaps it was seeing it on the big screen. With that in mind, you might not want this film for your youngest children, although it might be different seen on the smaller screens of TV.

This version of The Jungle Book does provide an opportunity for older viewers, who may not enjoy animated films, or who may not want to see the animated version another time, to see the story updated for their age group. Gone are the sweetness of characters often depicted in cartoons. Present are the more realistic characteristics of animals and the jungle environment, not that Hollywood doesn't have the ability or desire to amp those up for dramatic effect. Easily, this is a more adult-oriented film, although young teens and older can easily enjoy it, too.

This film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects along with 21 other wins and 43 nominations from other industry and film-interest groups.

If you're looking for a movie to gather the family around over the weekend, I'd gladly suggest The Jungle Book. With younger family members, you might try watching it while there's still daylight rather than when it's darker. By all means, give this story one more watch.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings: You Can't Go Wrong with This One!

Movie ReviewKubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

My daughter and I are two very big fans of animation films. We especially loved Kubo and the Two Strings, which is a major feat in stop-action animation, taking five years to plan and film.

Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives in a small seaside village and tells amazing tales using magical origami figures that spring to life as he sings the stories to the tunes on his lute. The greatest of his tales is about a suit of samurai armor worn by his father to slay an evil spirit, and the evil spirit returns to upend Kubo's life. Kubo must seek out the suit of armor to end the conflict, as he is chased by a bevy of gods and monsters. Aiding Kubo is a fiercely loyal monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a large Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey). Other top voice talent include Ralph Fiennes as Moon King, Brenda Vaccaro as Kameyo, and George Takei as Hosato. Together, they all bring to life this tale of adventure and magic in a wonderful world of imagination.

The use of paper to create settings and other effects is amazing. The backgrounds and action are thrilling and the characters are full of life. You move through this landscape and the story line transfixed. It was one really incredible experience, well earning the film two Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe nomination, a BAFTA award, and multiple other nominations and awards. Although most animated movies are made for youngsters, Kubo and the Two Strings was even nominated for the AARP Movies for Grownups as Best Movie for Grownups Who Refuse to Grow Up. I'd say it's great for older children and above!

This is another movie to add to your must-see list, especially if you enjoy animated films. You can't go wrong seeing Kubo and the Two Strings.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rogue One: I Was Fully Won Over

Movie Review: Rogue One (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I was just about Star Warsed out. Then along came Rogue One, supposedly a one-off that fills in some blanks in the Star Wars canon, telling the story behind the building of the Empire's Death Star, how there came to be a weakness built into it, and what led to Princess Leia's now memorable message to Obi Wan Kenobi, "You're our last hope..."

Rogue One features some new charismatic characters set in a off-shoot corner of the Star Wars universe. All the suggestions of the regular Star Wars universe are there, so if you're a Star Wars fan, the mythology and magic remain, but Rogue One has the advantage of being a fresh new story. And it takes you back in the timeline to fill in blanks and you find yourself saying, "Oh, of course. Now that makes sense." "Oh, yes! Now I see."

It also features a great cast, devoid of the aw shucks reappearances of past characters that often get in the way of the narrative to pay tribute to the past. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the fiercely independent rogue set on destroying the Death Star. Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, the at first reluctant pilot who sees the necessity in Erso's mission and, despite the Rebellion's decision not to attack, gathers a rag-tag band of warriors to help Erso. Among them are Chirrut Imwe, a super-adept blind Jedi warrior played by Donnie Yen, and his protector Baz Malbus, played by Wen Jiang, along with a small host of others. Together, they set up the Death Star to fail so when the Rebellion finally comes to its senses they can attack its weakness.

Their mission seems hopeless, but as always, the Empire's military are inept and everything pretty much goes the way of the rogue band of warriors. Until the end.

The special effects are pretty spectacular, too. The battle scenes, the space effects, even some character recreations for some characters whose actors are lost to us: Princess Leia and Governor Tarkin. In particular, Guy Henry is a near dead ringer (no pun intended) for the original Governor Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing. Credits list Ingvild Delia as playing Princess Leia, who looks very much like her original character.

I won't go into more detail about the story line. Suffice it to say, this is a fine addition to the Star Wars saga. It's entertaining, it's full of drama and action, and while it veers away from the episodic narrative a bit, Rogue One still maintains the romantic notions that fans have come to love and expect in a Star Wars film. I was prepared not to like it but instead, I was fully won over. If you haven't seen Rogue One yet, do so. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods: Well Written, Even-Handed, Deeply Personal Biography

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel
Version: Library eBook Borrow

The full title of this book is The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It is, indeed, an extraordinary story. Whether the character in this true story is truly a hermit, as the character disputes, is padrt of what this story is about and which author Michael Finkel explores in part.

Christopher Knight disappeared at around the age of 20. He remained aloof from family and friends for approximately 25 years, living in the woods out of contact with others, although he could never fully escape the sounds of those who inhabited the nearby cabins and homes and a nearby camp. He, in turn, had an impact on them when he put off starving by invading their cabins, homes, and camp to steal food and clothing and other things he needed to survive. Yet Knight was disciplined in his thievery, never harming anyone and never damaging property. What he wanted - needed - was solitude, and so, he lived alone, surrounded really only by nature.

Knight was eventually caught and jailed, and journalist Michael Finkel contacted him, first by mail and then by visiting him several times in jail. What he found was a man unprepared to deal with others, who could not meet another's gaze, who while he attempted to interact with his jail mates ultimately failed to adequately socialize. Knight and Finkel formed not a friendship but an acquaintance as Finkel learned his story and tried to figure out what made Knight "tick", over seven months. Finkel lived in Montana so had to travel to Maine, leaving behind his wife and children to pursue this story. Throughout their interactions, Knight never really came to appreciate their interactions and after his case finally came to court and resolution, begged to be left alone.

Throughout this book, Finkel analyzes what makes for a true hermit and whether Knight fits that mold. He explores other explanations based on psychologist examinations and discussions with other psychologists. It may be that Knight was autistic or a schizoid or other diagnosis of a person who finds human interaction difficult to deal with. But entirely, this is a thoroughly humane look at a person who needed to step away from humanity for relief from continual bombardment of social cues and expectations that he couldn't understand or meet. At one point, Knight suggests what he wants is to wander off into the woods once again in the deep of winter and let Mother Nature take him, and Finkel panics, unsure whether to intervene in some way, breaking his bond with Knight, or stay silent, breaking a moral or ethical barrier.

The Stranger in the Woods is a well written, even-handed yet deeply personal biography of a troubled soul, someone who was possibly best left alone by society but best served by the telling of his story. You can be the judge by reading Knight's story. I think you will be touched by the pure honesty of the subject and the author in dealing with the details.

Moana: One More in a Long String of Disney Hits

Movie Review: Moana (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Moana is a larger than life ancient Polynesian-island adventure featuring a fearless heroine and a reluctant demigod at odds over rescuing the island's people from a natural disaster the demigod caused from long ago. It requires the chieftain's impetuous daughter to disobey her father's command to remain on the island, daring to escape the boundaries of safety to seek a resolution only the bravest soul may face.

This fine family film features the voices of Aul'l Cravalho as the heroine, Moana, and Dwayne Johnson as the demigod, Maui. Together, they take you on a fantastic race across the seas and battle terrible foes to finally return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti to its rightful place and bring life back to Moana's island and, thus, sustenance back to her people. You are immersed in a world of myth, magic, and music!

The animated characters are lovable, the action thrilling, the backgrounds and colors brilliant, and the story line intriguing. This is one more in a long string of Disney hits featuring adept female heroines that everyone in the family can enjoy. It well earned its two Oscar nominations (Best Animated Feature Film and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures [Original Song]) and another 11 wins and 67 nominations for other awards including Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Kick back with the family some evening or weekend and enjoy Moana, an entertaining bit of Polynesian mythology that's fun for all ages!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Assassin's Creed: There Is Much to Like!

Movie Review: Assassin's Creed (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I have always been intrigued by the Assassin's Creed video game series since it firsts emerged on the market in 2007. I've never played it, although we just got the original game from the library now that we have seen the movie. There is something interesting and invigorating about the concept of stealthy assassins, and these came into being during the Crusades.

But the film version of Assassin's Creed takes place in the present day when a corporation develops technology that can unlock someone's genetic past. Michael Fassbender plays Cal Lynch, a killer on death row, and his assassin ancestor, Aguilar. Lynch is given the lethal dose to take his life before witnesses, then is whisked away to a remote location, where he is brought back to awareness and hooked up to a machine and injected with chemicals that tap his genetic past.

Marion Cotillard plays Sofia, the scientist behind the technology, who wants to bring out the Saracen assassin Aguilar in Lynch. Jeremy Irons plays her father, Rikkin, who has ulterior motives and works on behalf of the Templars who seek a buried treasure they hope Lynch can help find through Aguilar's memories.

Through re-enacting Aguilar's battles and quests, Lynch learns new fighting and battle skills. And he learns that other subjects being held in the corporate facility are his allies. Their goal is to protect the object the modern day Templars seek, whether by helping Lynch against the corporation or by protecting the object from Lynch.

There is much to like about Assassin's Creed. Fassbender is great in the part, adept in the fight scenes and a keen adversary to Irons, who often plays a scheming villain. Cotillard is excellent as the focused scientist in search of the truth with a secret crush on her subject. The settings are well imagined, too, enveloping you into an extraordinary fantasy world of crusaders and assassins.

I would recommend this for family viewing, especially for young teens and older. There are lots of battle scenes. I'm not sure youngsters should be exposed to the corporal punishment scene at the beginning. But the rest of the film is great fun. Do buy, rent, or borrow Assassin's Creed soon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Zootopia: You May Want to See It More Than Once

Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Zootopia won the Academy Award for best animated film this year, and for good reason. Everything about this movie is well done, from the casting to the acting to the character development to the animation to the set design. And if you don't give a hoot about that kind of thing, you can still enjoy Zootopia, because it's a great story portrayed in a brilliant panorama of color and characters. How's that for an endorsement for your family's evening entertainment?

Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is a small town bunny who has always wanted to escape her family carrot farm and make it to the big city - Zootopia - to become a cop. Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, is a big city fox who was mistrusted as a child by the other animals in his urban neighborhood and grew up scratching out a living scamming the local ice cream shoppe for ice pops, which he melts and resells to easily scam-able lemmings. Judy gets her dream job as a cop but is forced to do parking meter duty and meets Nick during one of his scams. When animals mysteriously come up missing and the police force can't make progress on any of the cases, Judy gets her big break, talking her Sergeant into letting her track down just one of the cases. And Nick joins her in the pursuit.

Zootopia isn't just one large city environment. It takes in every possible world you can imagine, from the desert to the arctic to the underworld, and lots more besides. As Judy and Nick look for clues, they explore these multitude of environments and encounter a lively cast of interesting characters you might find in a zoo or in moor or out on the Serengeti or anywhere else in the wide world. In one particularly funny scene, Nick takes Judy to the Department of Motor Vehicles to search out a clue. The clerks are sloths, which are notoriously slow, and Nick forces Judy to go through a painfully sluggish question and answer session with one of the clerks that is hilarious, although I think the writers could have shortened this bit some.

Naturally, the characters are keyed to the stereotypical attributes of each animal, and these are played up for fun in the story line. In the case of the villain in the movie, it becomes a red herring, so you won't know who that is until the end.

Zootopia is a great family film and I highly recommend it. You may find you will want to watch it more than once to catch all the sight gags running in the background. But do see Zootopia at least once!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: A Drama Bigger Than Life About a Disaster That Was Bigger Than Life

Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Deepwater Horizon is a dramatic retelling of the 2010 oil drilling disaster offshore of Louisiana. It features a fine cast and awesome special effects to do right by the fateful events of that horrific day when BP (British Petroleum) let the bottom line put lives at stake and cost the lives of nearly a dozen hardworking men drilling for profits on a floating drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

The cast is led by Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams and Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell, who arrive by helicopter to take over their shift as BP executives rush to bring the rig online and finally pump oil and make some money. But on the shift before, BP had made the serious mistake of forgoing critical pressure tests. Mike and Jimmy force the issue on their shift, the BP executives allowing a minimal test that seems to show no problems. But things go horribly wrong and deep sea valves can't take the pressure, sending mud and then water and then gas up the pipes, blowing up the floating rig, starting a fire no one can squelch, killing 11. A nearby ship ordered by BP to standby to load oil is there to rescue men ordered to abandon the rig, who jump into the sea. Families back on land hear of the disaster at sea and are desperate to hear news, but are told little.

The drama focuses on the events on the platform at sea and then the eventual rescue and reuniting with family on land. There is a final scene of Mike and Jimmy giving evidence in court, but what you mostly witness is the foolishness of the BP executives and the bravery of the men on the rig. The scenes are cataclysmic. They don't leave much to the imagination. In the end, in every frame you can feel the trauma of those who suffered the disaster.

Deepwater Horizon is a first class disaster film done right. It touches on a moment in history we should all remember, and it gives us a glimpse into heroism, the consequences of foolishness, and results of refusing to give up when doing what's right is what is best. This drama is bigger than life because the disaster was bigger than life, at a time when lives were truly at risk.

I can say without a doubt, you should see this film. It honors those who died by telling in excruciating detail how they died. But this isn't gratuitous violence, this is truth.

Monday, April 24, 2017

American Pastoral: There Was Nothing There

Movie Review: American Pastoral (2017)
Version: Library Borrow

American Pastoral is the second strange movie I have seen lately. At least Captain Fantastic seemed to have some reason behind it. American Pastoral seemed senseless.

Here's the way IMDB describes it: "An All-American college star and his beauty queen wife watch their seemingly perfect life fall apart, as their daughter joins the turmoil of '60s America." The film opens as Nathan Zuckerman (played by David Strathairn) reluctantly attends a high school reunion. There, he runs into an old friend he hasn't seen in ages, Jerry Levov, brother to the great All-American legend Swede Levov, whose amazing sports achievements are displayed in the high school hallway. Zukerman finds out Jerry is only there because he is in town for Swede's funeral. From there, Zuckerman functions as the narrator into what turns out to be the turbulent life of a man whose life had been full of sweet promise.

Swede Levov (played by Ewan McGregor, who also directed the film) inherited the very successful glove manufacturing business from his father and turned it into an even greater success. He married a gorgeous beauty queen contestant, Dawn Levov (played by Jennifer Connelly), who made it all the way to the Miss New Jersey finals. They lived in the country with acreage, drove a fine car, and lacked nothing. He was the one man whose life Zuckerman thought was made of dreams. Then they had a daughter, Merry. Merry was beautiful, but developed a problem stuttering. She never grew out of stuttering and a counselor suggested it was a way of dealing with feeling insecure in the face of the beauty of her mother. At one point, Merry (played by Dakota Fanning) wants her father to kiss her. He kisses her on the cheek. She asks him to "really kiss" her. With a smile, he kisses her more firmly on the cheek. "No; kiss me like you kiss Mommy," she says. Swede says, "No!" and drives off furious. Merry is deeply hurt by his rejection. From there, Swede and Dawn's live goes horribly downhill.

Merry can't stand her mother. She rebels against both parents. This film takes place during the anti-war '60s and Merry latches on to the rebelliousness of the times. She leaves home. Swede and Dawn try to bring her home, but Merry leaves again, for good. The rest of the film finds Swede and Dawn drastically searching for her. It's years before Swede finds her, when another young woman shows up to torture him with teases about her whereabouts. It's a totally depressing encounter when he finds her. There is no hope between them

There is nothing socially redeeming about this film. It is a miasma of despair.

Zuckerman's conclusion at the end of the film is that we can be wrong about someone we think we know. And he was totally wrong about the man he thought had everything going for him. And I ask myself, is that really the point of this sad, sad, useless film? What are we to learn from it? Most films give you something to grasp from it, something to learn for the better. There was nothing there.

If this was a diss of the 1960's, it fails to make a cogent point about that era of discord. If it seeks to point out that money and success doesn't bring happiness, it slams the point like hitting a finishing nail with a sledge hammer, overpowering the message with its brutality. If it wants to show that not every happy tale has a happy ending, it slaps us in the face multiple times and shoves our face in the mire of life to make the point.

If you dare see this film, make it a double feature with something uplifting and fun as a followup. I can't recommend it as a standalone.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Doctor Strange: Holy Cow, I Love It!

Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Holy cow! I'm tired of Marvel Comics superhero movie conversions, but I loved Doctor Strange!

Benedict Cumberbatch, always larger than life in his character portrayals, is the perfect choice to play the lead in this futuristic fantasy superhero film that also delves into martial arts mysticism.

Dr. Stephen Strange is a world class surgeon with an extreme focus on his work. When he's more focused on his work than on driving, he gets into a horrible accident, the consequences of which are damage to the nerves and tendons in his talented hands. Seeking redemption through Eastern Mysticism, Dr. Strange heads to Nepal, where he is taken under the tutelage of The Ancient One, a sorcerer played by Tilda Swinton. Dr. Strange learns the ancient arts of defending the Earth from attack by other dimensions in the multiverse.

Dr. Strange is more than adept at learning the arts and becomes a top student, consuming knowledge from ancient books at a furious rate. It ultimately brings him into conflict with Dormammu, the lord of the Dark Dimension, who has been plotting to take over the Earth and foil The Ancient One. Being a genius, Dr. Strange uses his smarts to overcome Dormammu. As is usual in a Marvel Comics superhero story, the hero's mentor dies in defending the Earth and a colleague turns to the dark side after becoming disillusioned by the hero's actions.

I won't say more about the story line to ensure I don't spoil anything. (Wikipedia explains Dr. Strange (film).)

The film features lots of martial arts battles and cheeky dialog. The special effects are great, and the cast is a winner, too. I can't think of anyone in the family this film isn't great for, unless it's someone who doesn't like fight scenes, fantasy films, superhero movies, or fun. Our whole family loved it and I think your family will, too.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Captain Fantastic: Not So Fantastic

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

My wife and I are huge fans of Viggo Mortensen. Some of the movies he has appeared in have been a little strange, but he has also been in some great films  (Lord of the Ring trilogy, Hidalgo, Witness, to name just a few). Captain Fantastic falls in line with the former group, the strange ones. It says something about his strength as an actor that despite the subject matter he was Oscar nominated for the lead role, however.

Mortensen plays Ben, the father of a small group of kids estranged from their mother by illness. All their young lives they have lived off the grid, forced there by their parents' devotion to total honesty and living apart from the dangers of a society too hung up on technology, a divorce from nature, and the greed of capitalism. When the mother was forced into hospitalization by her illness, Ben had become the single parent to boys and girls -- one a teenager becoming ready to explore the world on his own terms -- teaching them how to live by nature's rules while schooling them in everything they might need to know in a modern world. When the mother dies, Ben and his family must cross a divide wider than the outback where they live to realize her last requests to reality, opposed by their mother's bitterly reluctant father. It becomes a mission to Ben and his children, but one they come to realize may cost them their safety and their family.

Most of the cast features minor actors. Only Viggo Mortensen and Frank Langella, who plays the difficult father-in-law, are recognizable talent. But the acting is well done. It's the plot and story line that are strange, making the film not so fantastic. The film opens with one of the younger boys leaping onto a deer and cutting its throat. He is rewarded in a coming-of-age ceremony by eating the deer's fresh heart. Ben explains sex to his youngest daughter as if she were a mature child. When Ben and his kids visit family on the way to the mother's funeral, Ben contradicts the host parents, giving the full details of his wife's health problems in front of the protective host family's children. Ben's family travels by a school bus converted into a travel home but they have limited money, so they fund their trip by stealing, which he excuses by turning it into a game of sticking it to capitalism. When one of the children runs away from their family to be with the grandparents, Ben sends his young daughter into physical danger to climb onto the slick clay-tile roof and enter the home to bring the boy back. While you have to admire the father for his devotion to honesty and search for living close to nature, the journey the family is on is dangerous, and that in the end becomes the reality that Ben and his family find they can't live with.

I like unusual stories, those involving complex and unusual characters played by great actors with deep range. But honestly, I found this film difficult to watch. It was "way out there" on many levels. I can kind of see why Mortensen was nominated for an Oscar, but I have found him more likable in other roles far more suitable for the nomination.

As I've said earlier, I don't like giving lackluster reviews for books or films, but I can't give my wholehearted support to Captain Fantastic. I can see it becoming a cult classic one day. But I can't see recommending it as a top pick of must-see films if you have a list. Let me know if you disagree.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Florence Foster Jenkins: Rich Characters, Great Actors, a Story Worth Telling

Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The Academy Awards recognized a full spectrum of very interesting movies this year, and Florence Foster Jenkins was one of them, its leading actress, Meryl Steep, the main reason to watch. However, the film included rave performances by Streep's leading man, Hugh Grant, and the grand supporting actor acknowledged with a nomination, Simon Helberg.

That said, what a strange bird this tale is. Streep plays the title character, Florence Foster Jenkins, a well-off turn-of-the-20th-century society woman who fashions herself not just an opera buff, but a talented singer. She is encouraged by her more realistic yet doting husband, St Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant, who is willing to spend plenty of Jenkins' money to keep her happy. In fact, he hires the city's renown orchestral conductor to tutor Jenkins and Helberg's character Cosme McMoon, a struggling professional concert pianist, to play for her. Bayfield also pays people to attend Jenkins' performances. She doesn't sing at all well.

Jenkins is oblivious to her failures while giving her all to her efforts. Helberg provides a wonderful performance as the epitome of the professional who recognizes the hopelessness of her dreams, giving fun facial expressions as Jenkins fails time after time to reach notes or carry tunes, yet is humane in his appreciation for her hopes and desire not to see her embarrassed.

Yet, this film isn't a comedy. And it isn't fiction. Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person and this story is real. It's actually a love story.

Without giving away too much of the story -- because I'd love for you to see this very human story -- it is safe to say that Jenkins was sick and her husband Bayfield, who you might have been tempted to think was trying to live comfortably off of her riches, was at least also trying to help her live comfortably in her final days. He deeply loved a woman he couldn't physically love. And so he provided for her by indulging the fantasy she held that she could sing the opera that she so loved. McMoon loved her spirit and her appreciation for the art. Together, they supported her in her last days.

If you are tempted to laugh at her in the beginning of the film, you will learn to admire her courage and love her verve. And you will join in the appreciation the crowds come to find in the gift Jenkins bestows on them by giving her all of herself.

Meryl Streep put herself out there professionally to play someone who couldn't sing worth a tin nickel. Streep is a fine singer and has sung in other performances. But she proved herself the ultimate professional playing this part. It's worth seeing this film just to see her play this part to deftly. It's also worth it to see Helberg react to her miss all of those notes.

This may not have seemed like the movie you were dying to see. But honestly, I urge you to see Florence Foster Jenkins at least once. See the story that great actors risk to take on because the characters are that rich and, in the end, the story is worth the telling.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Manchester by the Sea: Mostly Deep Valleys of Emotion

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Manchester by the Sea won Academy Award(R) Oscars for Casey Affleck as Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergran. That's the best I can say for it. Sorry.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a down and out maintenance man at an apartment building in the rougher side of Boston. He mostly plays opposite Lucas Hedges as teenager Patrick, Lee's orphaned nephew who is left without family when his father suddenly dies. Patrick is left with his father's home and professional fishing launch in Manchester By The Sea, an hour or so up the coast from Boston, and Patrick's father has left young Patrick's care to Lee in his will. Lee isn't prepared to take on that responsibility.

Lee is full on adult angst, Patrick is full of teen angst. You find out during the long slough that is this 2 hours and 17 minutes of film that there are deep holes in Lee's life and why he isn't prepared to take on the stewardship of Patrick's life. Patrick is ready to take on life on his own terms, but what he really wants is family love and to not be left behind.

I watched the entire film looking for a reason for Casey Affleck to win Oscar for this role, but to me his performance was wooden, his emotional journey was understated. Dozens of other actors could have played Lee Chandler better. Kenneth Lonergran also directed the film. It was long, dragging for most of the film time. I don't see how it was Oscar worthy. There really was no sentimentality to the story, at least as demonstrated in the movie. It was as bleak as the Boston neighborhood in which part of it was shot. There were few rises in the drama, few peaks in the action. It was mostly deep valleys of emotion, a dark and depressing film in my eyes.

I don't like writing reviews of poor performances. But to be true to my readers, I have to tell it like it is. Maybe seeing Manchester by the Sea you will disagree with me. Let me know. Maybe I missed something. As I see it, I can't recommend this movie.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Arrival: Good Science, Well Developed Theme, Top Notch Science Fiction

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Back in November 2016 I wrote a review of the short story on which the movie Arrival was based. I was disappointed in it. The film version is far better.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the United States government to break the language code of the aliens who arrive on Earth and park their oblong ship above a seemingly random open field out West. Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a physicist who is also recruited, his job to figure out the science behind the alien ship. Together, they are supposed to find out why the aliens are here -- what is their purpose? They have counterparts all over the world working to decipher the intentions of similar alien craft parked over similarly random parts of the globe. Everything is fine as the team works to communicate with the aliens, until the Russians and the Chinese think they've discovered something sinister in the aliens' intentions.

Global colleagues who have been collaborating suddenly break off communications. Anti-alien activists plant a device on the alien ship hovering over the U.S. Every advance that Banks and Donnelly have made suddenly begin to unravel just as they think they're making breakthroughs. The alien ships lift away. And our heroes - and we - are left hanging, wondering what do the aliens want and will this lead to war or to losing any chance at communication?

Arrival is top notch science fiction. It doesn't rely so much on special effects as good science and well developed theme. The acting is great and the plot line is solid. You move quickly through the hour and 56 minutes without feeling lost. And just when you feel all is crumbling around you, hope is revived.

Now, it doesn't seem perfect at first, the story line seeming to move around between time and space, which can be disorienting. But you find out later why the writers and director did this thematically. It's genius, actually. I won't spoil the film for you explaining it here, but suffice it to say, I loved how it dovetails with the big reveal toward the end.

I had been waiting to see this film from the first time I saw a movie trailer on TV. I wasn't disappointed. I don't think you will be disappointed watching it, either. Sorry, Ted Chiang (author), but I loved the movie much more than the short story on which it was based.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Passengers: If You Want a Good Time

Movie Review: Passengers (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I couldn't tell from the preview trailers what this movie was really about, and to be honest, the trailers didn't do the film justice. I'm glad that I ignored them because Passengers is a terrific film.

Jim Preston and Aurora Lane have booked a spaceflight to a world 120 years into their future, their flight time slowed through cryogenics. But there's a malfunction on this dreamy spaceship awakens them much too early, and they must try to fix the problem or learn how to deal with arriving at their destination dead of old age. Many cataclysms await them in the attempt, of course.

Chris Pratt is the irrepressible Jim Preston, a lowly mechanic booked on the cheap ticket. Jennifer Lawrence is the smart, indomitable writer booked on first class. Together, they navigate the uncertain future. But there's a secret held between them that threatens their collaboration and its efficacy is upheld only at the discretion of the seemingly trustworthy robotic waiter Arthur, played brilliantly by Michael Sheen. Just when all hell is breaking loose, another soul is awakened early, Gus Mancuso, a member of the crew, played deftly by Laurence Fishburne. Not everyone's future is bright and rosey, as you might surmise.

As a science fiction flick, Passengers is well done stylistically, with excellent special effects, and thematically, with a great story line. Even the science seems pretty well intact. As a drama, the film is full of plot twists and complex conflicts that keep you engaged in the one hour 56 minute run. As a romance story, it has it's great moments as well, as Preston and Lane fall in love over their roles as the sole couple run wild in this enormous ship hurtling through the glorious vastness of space with only themselves (and, well, mechanical Arthur) to answer to. But then, there's that secret between them.

In the end, the questions are, will they find a way to go back to sleep to survive the trip to their new world, or will they find a way to live their romance out together, or will some other calamity swallow their ship and their lives much too early? And then there's that damned secret.

From the movie trailers, I was prepared to not particularly like this film. But this is why I rarely give much credence to movie trailers. This is a great film. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are always fun to watch. Michael Sheen shines in his role, and Laurence Fishburne is elegant in his portrayal. And just when you think you know where the story is headed, up pops surprise after surprise, right up to the end.

If you want a good time, watch Passengers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Accountant: Part Slick Spy Novel, Part Skillful Detective Page Turner

Movie Review: The Accountant (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Christian Wolf is in the cross hairs of the Treasury Department, so this is a mystery. Bad guys are in Christian Wolf's cross hairs, so this is a thriller. But The Accountant is so much more than a mystery thriller. It's a deep exploration into Christian Wolf as a character that led up to these cross hairs in a complex plot line that switches back and forth over decades exploring his childhood growing up severe autism and his life as an accountant for average Americans but more importantly for gang lords and international money launderers.

Dana Cummings is the special agent for the Treasury department tasked by Director Ray King to track down Wolf. Cummings has a questionable past, which she lied about on her security application, but she turns out to be as good a field agent as the analyst she's been hiding as, and King blackmails her into pursuing Wolf to save her job. Part of the mystery is why.

Wolf is played deftly by Ben Affleck as a quiet, socially awkward accountant with amazing math and pattern-recognition skills. Anna Kendrick is excellent as Cummings, the unsure analyst thrown into field work with the threat of discovery hovering over her head. J.K. Simmons is the consummate brash lead investigator begging for a comeuppance. Then we are introduced to Lamar Blackburn, a billionaire prosthetics developer played by John Lithgow, who can play a bad guy as deliciously as a good guy, so you don't know till it's too late which his character is, and his brash body guard Brax, played by Jon Bernthal. And the plots thicken and twist.

What's remarkable about this film is the way it interplays between slick spy novel with tones of superhero mythos, skillful detective page turner with tones of urgent FBI manhunt, and caring romantic study of the life of an autistic child who is forced to grow into a productive life. Wolf's father is a military man who hires martial arts experts to train his sons in self defense because he fears they may be abused or taken advantage later in life, then encourages them to street fight bullies who have made fun of them in school. The result is that Christian Wolf is still autistic but he can handle the world but the world isn't ready for Christian Wolf.

There are lots of amazing scenes of Wolf's early years that demonstrate severe autism and its effects on children and their families. In one early scene, Wolf is working a jig saw puzzle with the picture side down and nearly completes it by pattern recognition alone, but one piece is missing and he goes ballistic. He must complete the puzzle! It takes another autistic child watching him to calm him down. This scene is key to later in the film as Wolf requires closure on the things he starts and deals with the people in his life. If you have ever wondered about people with autism, this film is an interesting exploration of their world.

This is one of Affleck's better movies. He doesn't come off wooden in it. It paces well for two hours and eight minutes. And the ending is full of surprises. I can highly recommend The Accountant for audiences teen and older. There are some scenes that may be a bit scary for kids, not to mention lots of martial arts and gun shots to the head.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

True Faith and Allegiance: Gets a Hearty "Pick it Up!" From Me

Book Review: Tom Clancy True Faith and Allegiance by Mark Greaney
Version: Library Hard Cover

True Faith and Allegiance is the fourth Tom Clancy novel (Jack Ryan series) by Mark Greaney, and maybe the best. It's certainly the longest. It follows Command Authority (written with the late Tom Clancy), Full Force and Effect, and Commander in Chief, involving the same set of characters. The previous four involved Russian intrigue; True Faith and Allegiance involves ISIS attacks on America through Romanian and Saudi Arabian subterfuge, and it's written with the same realism and backdrop of today's national security headlines.

In these series, Jack Ryan is a former CIA analyst (but often turned operative) who is now the president of the United States, and each of these stories could be pulled from today's news headlines. If you want to know what's going on inside Russia, read these stories. Much of the intrigue behind the 2016 presidential election could be explained in them. If you want to know what hackers could do with a breach of our national intelligence and how ISIS could profit from it, read True Faith and Allegiance. Greaney is a master of using research to bring detail to his work and build authenticity in his stories, making each book a riveting read. Although, I found the action didn't get really exciting until chapter 57. Still, building up to chapter 57 was an interesting and intriguing read!

While Jack Ryan is president, most of the stories involve his son, Jack Ryan, Jr., an intelligence analyst (but often turned operative) who works for a private consulting company that aids the CIA, State Department, FBI, and Homeland Security to keep the nation safe. Part of the tension comes from the worry the president has for the safety of his son. The other part comes from the pace and action throughout the novel, sandwiched between intel you receive as a reader between the good guys and the bad guys as plots play out, actions are taken and countered, and lives are endangered. You as a reader are brought along as a close observer, watching the whole affair unfold in vivid detail. And it's hard to put the novel down once you are engaged.

Jack Junior is accompanied by a host of likable supporting characters who keep him safe or help him solve puzzles and mysteries and the dangerous situations he inevitably gets himself into. And you're right there with him, in the thick of the fight.

I said I thought this was the best of them so far. Perhaps it's because the thick of the action actually takes place in America. It involves place we can all associate with, cities we know or have heard about. And if we've read the other books in the series, characters we've come to know and care about. In the end, the bad guys get what's coming to them, too, which is always satisfying.

A good spy novel is always worth a read, and Truth Faith and Allegiance gets a hearty "Pick it up!" from me.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Powder of Death: A Great Adventure

Book Review: Powder of Death by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, personal purchase

Historical novels can be a fun retelling of historic events fictionalized to fill in details when we don't know the whole story. Author Julian Stockwin has become a master at this craft, no more so than in Powder of Death (2016), the story of how gunpowder came to thirteenth century England through the Crusades and Europe to bring King Edward III victory against the brutal Scots.

Powder of Death is more than a simple retelling of the story, however. It's really a travel adventure, kind of a story of discovery in the exploration of strange new lands, which begins as an attempt at personal redemption but turns into a seeking of wealth wielding a seemingly magical concoction. Stockwin writes brilliantly, bringing wonderful characters to life in a wholly realistic setting exploring history and times in thoroughly researched detail, which is his habit.

The book can be perceived into two parts.

The first part is almost Tolkien-like, Fellowship of the Rings in tone, as the main character, Jared, sets off for the Crusades on a pilgrimage seeking redemption for a terrible deed. Perkyn, a sidekick and protector from Jared's small English village, joins him as they set off for parts unknown, wide eyed and innocent to the world. They fail to reach their goal, but they succeed in participating in the Crusades, where Jared uses his skills as a blacksmith to aid gallant knights in defending a Crusader stronghold far from Jerusalem against a devastating Muslim attack. In the end, Jared and Perkyn are captured and enslaved, but with his blacksmithing skills, he is retained to help the Muslims take the stronghold. It is here that Jared learns of a strange and magical powder that can take down mighty fortresses.

The second part brings Jared and Perkyn back to England. He has the secret of the powder, although not the details of its making, and his goal is to avenge the reason for his seeking redemption, using the powder. It becomes his mission in life, his obsession, and over the ensuing chapters Jared, with Perkyn's aid, tries to work out how to use this mysterious powder to bring down the high and mighty. It brings Jared back to his village, only to discover he has changed as has his village, and it isn't really where he wants to be. He moves to Coventry seeking to set up a business, but the guilds there won't allow him. So he seeks other avenues and meets up with the wife of his late cousin, who likes his vision for using the powder. Over months and years he tests the powder in various ways to use it as a weapon against a host of foes. Powers in Italy and Belgium show interest. But there is always an impediment to Jared's experiments. Ultimately, his quest brings him back to England and the Court of young Edward III.

The chapters are short but the story is long and captivating. The plan is cunning and the struggle is compelling. Your payoff is the life-changing journey.

I'm a big fan of Julian Stockwin novels. He doesn't disappoint. Powder of Death is a good example. Like The Silk Tree before it and his long-running Kydd Series novels that continue as I write, Stockwin is a master teller of grand historical fiction tales. Pick one, any one, and you will be highly entertained. Today, I suggest you read Powder of Death. It's a great adventure.

Update: Available April 20, 2017, in paperback (or now worldwide at

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Dying Art of Book Repair

Recommended Read: "He Fixes the Cracked Spines of Books..."

From The New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, an article about Donald Vass of Seattle, "who has spent the last 26 years mending and tending to books for the King County Public Library system" in the Seattle, Washington, area. "He believes he will be the last full-time traditional bookbinder ever to take up shears, brushes and needles here." Great article on a man dedicated to the love of books and the art of repairing them, both for the public library system and even some patrons who track him down and ask him to save a treasured volume.

What happens to worn out old books? Many, perhaps most, get tossed into the trash bin. Some are shelved in an archive or on a dusty old shelf. But some get mended to live a longer life, to be read another "day." With the surge in ebooks and the ease of finding used books on the Internet, there is less "need" to repair the old and worn out. Still, in some places with the right finances, the will remains to repair and maintain what may be saved.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Command Authority: Third Great Book Out of Three

Book Review: Command Authority by Tom Clancy with Mark Greaney
Version: Public Library

Command Authority is another great read and in times with today's headlines, published in 2014.

This is the third Jack Ryan character-driven book I've read, which dates before Full Force and Effect  (2015) and Commander in Chief (2016). The latter two were written by Mark Greany after the passing of Tom Clancy (2013). Command Authority was written by Tom Clancy with the assistance of Mark Greany.

This story takes place during a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Crimea, with Valerie Volodin as the prop character representing Vladimir Putin. It is as real as fiction gets, shadowing the actual Ukraine conflict of 2014. The Russian espionage set up in the story is totally believable when you consider the recent Russian hacking of U.S. political resources and disinformation campaign and a purported attempted Russian hacking of the U.S. electrical grid through a portal in Vermont. Tom Clancy and Mark Greany write with great authenticity, using everyday detail and current events to bring vivid clarity to their plot and settings.

Command Authority also takes us back to events during the Cold War and the break up of the Soviet Union, and how it led up to the creation of the Russian Oligarchs, who ostensibly run Russia now.

Along with accurate historical and current event details, Clancy creates likable characters in Jack Ryan, president in this and the other two books, and Ryan's son, Jack, Jr., and others with whom these main characters work. These all meld together to make the story readable and enjoyable, and propel the reader into a story line that is hard to put down once you become engaged. So it is with Command Authority. As with any story of substance, these characters face dangers and conflicts you can see vividly in your mind as you read, and you care that they succeed or whether they fail, taking you along their journey through to the end of the book not daring to leave the story lest you leave them hanging. It's well written and time well spent traveling along with the characters on their adventure.

Tom Clancy is a dominant writer in this field of suspense and thriller spy writers, and in this series of books you can see why. Mark Greaney ably picks up Clancy's baton and runs well with it, continuing the saga of these well-established characters. Well done, Greaney!

I would rate this and the other two novels five spy daggers out of five.

The next Tom Clancy novel by Mark Greaney is True Faith and Allegiance, out now.