Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul: New Cast Flop

Movie Review: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (2017)
Version: Library borrow

A Heffley family road trip to attend Meemaw's 90th birthday party goes hilariously off course thanks to Greg's newest scheme to get to a video gaming convention.

Jason Drucker as Greg
Alicia Silverstone as Susan (Mom)
Tom Everett Scott as Frank (Dad)
Charlie Wright as Rodrick (big brother)
Dylan and Wyatt Walters as Manny (little brother)

This is going to be short and -- well, not sweet. We've enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies as a family, in the way any family can. They've been fun. The characters have been interesting, the stories pitting everyone in one calamity after another and teaching young viewers a lesson by the end. And the actors playing the characters have been charismatic in their parts. We "grew up" with them in their roles. The Long Haul is da bomb, but as in a bomb. It screws with everything we grew to like in the series, changing the entire cast.

It's understandable to the extent that all the youngsters were growing too old to play Greg, Rowley, and gang. But why fool with Mom, Dad, and Rodrick, who were perfect as cast? I'll give credit to Jason Drucker as Greg, who comes the closest to being likable and emerging as a realistic replacement. And Alicia Silverstone isn't horrible as Mom, but she still just doesn't cut it with the persona. Tom Everett as Dad is so far off the mark as the frenetic Dad and Charlie Wright doesn't begin to play the sloth and evil that his predecessor did as Rodrick.

The gist of the story is Mom and Dad packing Greg, Manny, and Rodrick into the family van for a trip to visit "Meemaw" in celebration of her 90th birthday. Grey and Rodrick only give in to the trip with the hope of secretly visiting a gamer conference, changing the van's GPS to get them there without Mom and Dad knowing. There is, of course, the usual lame parental effort to make the trip fun and the kids doing everything they can to ignore it all, and there's the stopover at a less than one-star-rated motel plus an encounter with a less than friendly family to add conflict and humor.

So, while the scenarios are pure Diary, the cast is clueless and spoils it. We just couldn't get over the new cast enough to enjoy this movie. Sorry, guys, but you pulled the rug out from under us on this one and the movie ended up as a flop on our floor.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: The Good Writing Makes This Book

Book Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Version: Library ebook borrow

I saw the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children directed by Tim Burton, so I decided I should read the book. Usually, the book is full of greater insights into the tale and has more depth and you get to know the characters better. Not so here.

For well into the first three-quarters of the book the movie and the book track nearly identically. It's the story of the boy who has grown up being told the most fantastic stories by his grandfather, and when his grandfather dies a mysterious and horrific death and tells him he must seek out a teacher from earlier in his life, the boy goes to Wales with his father to seek her out. When he gets there, initially all he finds is an old ruin of a home for peculiar children. But upon further investigation he finds a portal to the past and visits both the teacher and the peculiar children, and in doing so he discovers the answer to the mystery of his grandfather's death and why his grandfather was insistent on his seeking out the teacher. We meet the wonderful teacher and the very interesting children. And we meet the beasts at whose hands the boy's grandfather meets his death, who want to kill the teacher, the peculiar children, and the boy.

It's the last quarter of the book where the story diverges from the movie. There is no gigantic battle scene at a seaside entertainment midway. And there is no emotional reunion with the grandfather at the end. But there is more to the romance with the grandfather's former peculiar love interest, which is this case is the girl who can light fire with her hands and not the girl who can fly. And the book includes all the peculiar photos which inspired the writing of the book in the first place. (Note: In creating an ebook out of an original book file, it isn't always easy to include images and graphics. It was integral to story, so bravo to Riggs for including them!)

I think we can blame the lack of additional depth to this series of stories being in the young adult or teen genre, which tend to be shorter, less complex stories. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, however, is well written, with wonderful descriptions and imaginative passages. It's worth the read just for that. There are sequels to this book. I'm not a fan of horror or peculiar stories, so I haven't decided whether to read them, but if you want to read good writing, I suggest you give this book and the others a try.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Shack: It's Not About Religion, It's About Healing

Movie Review: The Shack (2017)
Version: Library borrow

If you're turned off by religion-based films ... hold on, The Shack is different! This one doesn't try to convert you and, at least in my mind, this one isn't sickly sweet. It actually answers some pretty basic questions on a lot of peoples' minds about God and when bad things happen, and it addresses how we heel as wounded individuals. It ministers to a character but it doesn't preach to us. It's a story.

Mack Phillips has suffered some tragedies in his life, the most traumatic the recent loss of his youngest daughter Missy while under his care at a camp. Someone abducted her while he was rescuing his older daughter and son during a canoe incident on a lake, and while police find evidence of her abduction at a nearby shack, the body is never found. Mack feels a deep remorse that tears him apart, also pulling him apart from his other family relationships. Months later, still mourning, he receives a letter he assumes is a taunt from the abductor inviting him to encounter him back at the shack, and he goes to take on the killer of his daughter. But when we goes he finds an encounter of an entirely different kind. There, he meets God in three persons, who challenge his notions of loss, guilt, judgment, revenge, and forgiveness. As an audience, we may find ourselves challenged in our notions as well, including of who God is and how God works in our daily lives.

The Shack features a very good cast, including Sam Worthington as Mack and, very interestingly, Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer as Papa (God the nurturing "Father") as well as Native American Graham Greene as Papa (God the "Father" when you need strength). Avraham Aviv Alush plays Messia (God the Son) and Sumire Matsubara plays Sarayu (which means "the wind", God the Holy Spirit). It's a fine ensemble cast that plays heavenly intervention on a strictly human level -- casting no lightning bolts, no fire and brimstone, only serenity.

There is also an amazing garden filled with wild flowers, in which Sarayu asks Mack to help her prepare the area for a big event the next day. To say more than that would be to provide spoilers, but what follows the next day can be gut wrenching and beautiful at the same time.

This is a film that I warn you starts off kind of cheesy but soon becomes beautiful and then powerful. I challenge you to watch it all the way through. If by the end you decide I was wrong, I'll allow you to wag your finger at me and tell me I was wrong. But I think you'll find The Shack is much less about religion and way more about healing. 


Thursday, August 10, 2017

The LEGO Batman Movie: Not as Good as the Original But Still Fun-tastic

Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

What would happen if The Joker rounded up all of Batman's most sinister enemies and brought them together to battle the night crusader? Uh, the lone crusader? Uh, the LEGO version of the lone night crusader? That's sorta kinda the theme behind The LEGO Batman Movie, with the added twist that Batman has unwittingly adopted a teen who idolizes him and he can't shake the capable young crusader wannabe. Also add into the twist a lot of other familiar bad guys, like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings... oh, you have to see this fun-tastic stop-action animation film to believe it.

Now, my daughter and I agree this isn't as fun as the original LEGO movie, but it's still great entertainment for every age group. There are the usual sight gags, hilarious dialogue, generously quirky characters, and amazing LEGO land creations set to motion. You even have your choice of super duper bat machines to drool over. It's simply great fun. And this time, there are no human characters to get in the way of the story line. Well, there is the voice cast, featuring Will Arnett as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Cera as Dick Grayson/Robin, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred Pennyworth, Siri as 'Puter, and Zach Galifianakis as Joker, but the add, not intrude. Only thing missing is a catchy tune like "Everything's Awesome", as we had in the original. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

So, what would happen in this scenario? Well, everyone finds his or her right place in the Gotham City scheme of things, and that includes the audience. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and we think you will, too. Buy it, rent it, or borrow The LEGO Batman Movie from the library, but do see it, soon.


Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Boss Baby: We Can't Give This Movie Even a Grudging Thumbs Up

Movie Review: The Boss Baby (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Can you imagine Alec Baldwin as cute and cuddly little baby? Me, neither, but he pulls it off in the animated movie, The Boss Baby. It's with his voice, of course, playing a baby sent to a family to solve the big mystery behind the puppy-cute boom that threatens to replace babies among families.

His chief rival is seven-year-old Tim, Mom and Dad's favorite huggable until Baby Boss shows up, and who plots to overcome the competition. It's only when the two reach the conclusion that working together they can both solve their individual problems that the two team up and, as a result, realize they actually like each other.

Animation is often powered by its voice talent. In The Boss Baby, Alec Baldwin is just one of the powerhouses.Tim is well voiced by Miles Bakshi. Jimmy Kimmel plays Dad and Lisa Kudrow plays Mom. But really, Alec Baldwin drives this movie. All of it!

The animation itself is imaginative, but not spectacular. And I have reached the conclusion that without Baldwin to drive this film, The Boss Baby wouldn't have much going for it. OK, babies are cute, puppies are cute, but you can get those with a live action movie -- you can get them on social media any day. The plot is interesting, but the conflicts don't move you. And the art is nothing to draw home about.

As a family, we all agreed we were glad we didn't pay to see The Boss Baby at the theater. It was an "OK" DVD borrow, but we were sure we wouldn't want to pay for it on cable, on demand, or at a rental store, either. Sorry, guys, we can't give this movie even a grudging thumbs up.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Founder: A Phenomenal Story and a Commanding Performance

Movie Review: The Founder (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Sit back and be prepared to be floored by The Founder, the movie and the performance.

It's 1954 and drive-in restaurants -- what we would call junk food havens today -- were the "in" thing across America. The only problem was, they attracted a bad element: rebellious, unruly teens. And for the customers, they were slow and undependable on service. Ray Kroc was a salesman most of his life with a face and pitch most targets of his "charm" could remember, and he was crossing the Midwest selling five-spindle milkshake makers, with no one buying. And then, suddenly, he got an order for six, in San Bernadino, California. So Ray drove out to San Bernadino in his dusty, rusty DeSoto to check out this McDonald's drive-in restaurant and discovered a miracle of innovation and great food with speedy service. He wanted in! Dick and Mac McDonald were skeptical, but Ray put on the charm and with persistence, talked them into franchising their local successful business model across the country. And so the story of The Founder of McDonald's begins.

Michael Keaton puts on a command performance as the tired aging salesman who has tried just about every gimmick to find "the big one" that will make him rich, then nails it through blind ambition, dogged persistence, and sheer ruthlessness. The McDonald brothers, played by Nick Offerman as Dick and John Carroll Lynch as Mac, weren't prepared for the force of nature that was Ray Kroc, and he eats them up for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with Keaton playing all the parts with absolute brilliance. Why he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this role, I have no idea. As the tale starts out Kroc is a likable enough character, struggling to make a sale, disappointed in what life serves up to him. Mid-way through you begin to sense Kroc has become obsessed and is in over his head, and you feel for him. But by the end, he becomes a despicable fiend. The McDonald brothers, at first sticklers for staying true to their vision and intransigent to any change, become pawns to Kroc's mercenary schemes and in the end the victims. 

I don't know how much of this story is true and how much is screenwriter's license to make the film more interesting, but if it's half as true as in real life, unless you are a true dog-eat-dog capitalist at heart, I guarantee you will come away despising Ray Kroc after watching The Founder. I certainly wasn't prepared for the revelations. But you will be amazed at the original McDonalds' innovations and dogged faith to the genius of what they had created. 

There are other side plots to the story that I won't get into here that make the story equally intriguing, along with the actors who played them out. Together, they tell the story of the founding of McDonalds Corporation and the people who made it one of the most successful franchises in America -- in the world. 

I can say, without a doubt, you should see this film. For Keaton's commanding performance if not to learn the story behind bringing you your neighborhood McDonald's. It's a phenomenal story.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Saturn Run: Sound Science and Sound Writing

Book Review: Saturn Run by John Sanford and Ctein
Version: Hard cover library borrow

Interestingly, the first time I tried to read Saturn Run, I thought the first few pages were hog wash and I returned the book to the library. Low and behold, a few months later I looked for something interesting to read and didn't recognize the title and borrowed the book again. This time, I fell in love with the book. What's a reader to say?

What would you do if the president of the United States asked you to join a crew headed to a distant planet in our solar system to beat the rest of the world to tap into a suspected alien base? And what would you think if one of the other major powers jumped into the race to beat you there, and their crew was most likely filled with military personnel, while yours was filled with scientists, engineers, and just a few security personnel? And what if on the way your head of security had a good-odds suspicion that there was a spy on board your ship sabotaging your engines? That's part of the story line behind Saturn Run, about a U.S. rocket headed to Saturn attempting to beat the Chinese there to secure alien technological secrets before anyone else. The crew is made up of engineers, scientists, an anthropologist, a video photographer, a news reporter, a national security operative, and a handful of assorted others. On the China ship is a military crew hellbent on beating the Americans there. Along the way, the U.S. ship loses an engine and a chief engineer, slowing its progress, but not enough for the Chinese to beat them. But when the China ship arrives, it's apparent their ship is disabled and the U.S. ship must decide whether to give them aid. Along with the hard science in this space adventure, then, is also political intrigue. And who in the end wins the alien technology. And what about the aliens at the base?

Saturn Run is well thought out and plotted, and the authors put a lot of effort into making the engineering as accurate as possible so the space ships could reach Saturn in months instead of years. The characters are realistic, although I kept wondering, would the United States really send amateur space travelers or would it send seasoned astronauts who also trained in the other disciplines? The U.S. ship is a reworked International Space Station, and I have some doubts about the feasibility of that as well. Still, it doesn't get in the way of a good story. It includes a great surprise at the end, making the long slog through 486 pages worth the read.

Ever have one of those books it takes more than once to become vested in? That's the way it was for me with Saturn Run. I think you should give it a try. It's a great story and worth a read.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Fate of the Furious: A Swift Kick in the Gear Box

Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Fate of the Furious isn't your daddy's Fast and Furious, little buddy. The eighth movie in the franchise series starts off on the fast and furious streets of Havana, Cuba, with a street race, but that's where the hot-car thrills end. Dom (played as always by Vin Diesel) is recruited by a bad-ass fem antagonist to go after world-class weapons of mass destruction, even betraying his closest friends who go in hot pursuit. And no one can figure out what turned him from a good guy into a bad guy. It turns out bad-ass fem Cipher (played by Charlize Theron) has a couple of hostages in tow who are close to Dom's heart, and she won't release them until Dom helps her capture a Russian submarine along the coast of the frozen Barents Sea.

Back are Michelle Rodriguez as Letty, Dom's former love interest and now wife; Tyrese Gibson as Roman; Ludacris as Tej Parker; and Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, the new crew member rescued in episode 7. Also back are Dwayne Johnson as Federal Agent Hobbs and Jason Statham as Deckard, who were at each others' throats in episode 7 but now reunite to go after Dom to stop Cipher. Shepherding resources to support the crew is Mr Nobody (played by Kurt Russell), who now has an assistant, Little Nobody, played by Scott Eastwood. Helen Mirren gets a cameo role as Magdalene Shaw, Deckard's mother, whom Dom meets to enroll Deckard's help.

Now, even without the street races, there are still plenty of thrills in this film with lots of hot cars and military hardware to pump up the action, on the streets, in the air, and across the ice. And what would a Fast and Furious movie be without some male bravado and back talk? Yep, that's there, too.

As always, it's the action that makes this movie, but it wouldn't be the Fast and the Furious without the characters, with their sassy interplay. After seven episodes, the actors have the mojo down pat, and this ensemble cast is perfect in making everything work. You can even let the glaring plot holes pass because the action and the characters are so fun to watch. Mentioning the plot holes would require telling more of the plot, which would entail spoilers, so I won't go into detail, but I'm sure you won't have any trouble spotting the plot holes on your own. Anyway, you don't go to see a film like The Fate of the Furious for airtight plots, you go for the action.

The Blu-ray version of the movie includes a set of very interesting extras, including some insights into the Cipher character. If you can afford to buy or rent it instead of the standard DVD, I would do so. And by all means, for a fast and furious evening of fun without spending a lot of time thinking, pop in The Fate of the Furious and enjoy the show. It's a swift kick in the gear box!

Monday, July 24, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children: A Whimsical World Beset by Strangeness

Movie Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Version: HBO free preview

Think of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children as a peculiar alternative world to Harry Potter or X-Men. No one is a wizard but everyone has special powers. Even many of the adults. And main character Jabob is one of them, plucked from the world of unpeculiar people by unfortunate events surrounding a visit to his grandfather's former Cornwall village to discover the secrets unfolded to him over the years in tales told to him by his grandfather when Jacob visits the past through a portal. There he meets the characters of those tales he has seen in old photographs and the very proper Miss Peregrine, whose mission has always been to protect them. It turns out these peculiar children have very powerful enemies, and it's up to Jacob to protect them.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is directed by Tim Burton, so as expected you find a selection of strange, almost grotesque personifications of these peculiar children. One otherwise delightful young girl hides a sharp-toothed maw under long red curls at the nape of her neck. Twins wear gunnysacks over their entire bodies with strange eyes, noses, and mouths stitched where faces should appear, and when facing foes lifting the sacks turns the foes into cement. Monsters on the enemy side have no faces, just round alien heads with mouths full of sharp teeth and tall snake-like bodies. The main bad guy, Barron (played by Samuel L. Jackson) has whites for eyes and jagged teeth like a dinosaur. To keep their evil powers, the bad guys pluck out eye balls and eat them -- pretty grim!

The saving grace for the story are the really more innocent personalities of the peculiar children, who are really more childlike than their powers or some of their personifications might suggest. They are, after all, children. And they are protected by the brilliant, almost Holmsian Miss Peregrine. Every evening at exactly the same time she resets time to the same moment before the Home for Peculiar Children is bombed by German Nazi planes, preserving not only their lives but also their youth and their innocence.

Miss Peregrine is portrayed with exceptional exactness by Eva Green, smokes a pipe and breezes through a line of deductive reasoning that rivals Sherlock Holmes. Asa Butterfield plays Jacob, the youth wonder; Butterfield often plays these parts of the awkward youth who steps in to save the day. Terence Stamp is Abe, Jacob's grandfather, who is ably patient with young Jacob's many questions and, despite many of his more villainous roles of the past, makes a pretty good grandfather. Ella Purnell plays Emma, Jacob's love interest and his lifeline between his own world and the world of peculiars. Along with the other children, it's a fine ensemble cast that wins the film for the viewer.

I'm not a Tim Burton fan, but Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was one of his better efforts, in which he managed to create a whimsical world beset by strangeness. Well imagined and well done.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life: Predictable Teen Fare with an Unpredictable Ending

Movie Review: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016)
Version: Library borrow

James Patterson used to write mysteries. Now he also writes kids books. And one of them turned into a movie called Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.

Like The Wimpy Kid series, the Middle School series features the daily foibles of being a teen in the middle school or junior high school years of life. The young teens are the stars, with the main characters as the lovable, likable average American kids just trying to make it through the rough years of school, targeted by bullies, nervous at encounters with the opposite sex, and embarrassed by dorky parents. So it is in this film, in which Rafe (played by Griffin Gluck) and his best friend Leo (played by Thomas Barbusca) end up in the misfits class, his parent's last hope to find an educational home for their troubled son. The evil principal and his assistant principal are sticklers for rules -- there are something like 130 of them -- and every encounter Rafe has with them is because of a rules violation. Rafe is also a doodler who keeps a journal of sketches detailing his daily happenings in life, including his encounters with Principal Dwight (played by Andy Daly), and when the principal finds it he throws it into a bucket of acid, destroying Rafe's lifetime of creative effort. In retaliation, Rafe and his best bud Leo decide to defiantly break every rule in Principal Dwight's book. And so, mayhem breaks out, one broken rule at a time, making Dwight's life a misery and boosting Rafe's chops among his classmates. Rafe's mother is a single mom who has attracted an annoying suitor (played by Rob Riggle), who will do anything to get rid of Rafe and his sister Georgia (played by Alexa Nizenson), and a plot arises to send Rafe to military school, when Principal Dwight discovers who's behind all the rules breaking. But all is not what it seems as the kids get the best of the adults.

The kids are all adorable in this formula teen film, the adults are predictable, and the story line is mildly entertaining, but there's a surprise at the end, and the doodles in Rafe's journal occasionally come to life as animated characters, which adds an interesting dimension to the storytelling.

While I had fun watching this with my daughter, I'm not sure I would have chosen it over other films. Maybe if you have teens looking for something to keep them entertained on a rainy day this would be great for them. If you're an adult, you might find it mildly entertaining, too.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Live-Action Film Surpasses Expectations

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Version: Library borrow

It can be so difficult to translate an animated classic into a live-action film. Disney has proven itself up to the task with Jungle Book (2016) and now Beauty and the Beast.

With an all-star cast, a fantasy village set, an expanded mythology, and two new songs added to the original list of memorable tunes, this new version of "a tale as old as time" succeeds with ease in recasting one of Disney's most loved films. 

Emma Watson is incandescent as Belle, slightly re-envisioned as the tinkerer in the family and a self-reliant maiden who won't settle for just any man. Dan Stevens is a sturdy, turbulent Beast, vulnerable when he needs to be but irritable when inconvenienced and threatening when endangered. Luke Evans is wonderful as self-obsessed Gaston, putting on a commanding performance in the musical portions. Josh Gad pretty much steals the show as irascible LeFou, less bumbling and more comical than his animated version. Also putting in notable performances are Ewan McGregor as Lumiere the candlestick, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth the mantel clock, and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts the tea pot -- honestly, I didn't know it was them doing the voice work until their transformations into human form at the end. 

In case you don't know the story line, Belle is a smart maiden in a small French town pursued by Gaston, who has just returned to his home village from war looking for a wife -- and he's made up his mind to marry Belle, who simply isn't interested. They have nothing in common. LeFou is Gaston's aide de camp, returning with him. Maurice is Belle's father, an inventor and artist. The Beast was once a self-centered prince who was put under a spell by an enchantress when he failed to give her shelter during a storm, and she turned him into a beast and his servants into various pieces of furniture. The enchantress gave the prince a rose and when he refused it, she made it part of the spell: If the Beast didn't find true love by the time the last pedal fell from the rose, everyone in the castle would remain as they were in the spell for all time. If he does find true love, everyone would come back to human form and live happily ever after. Maurice comes to the castle after becoming lost in the woods, looking for shelter during a storm and is imprisoned by the Beast. When Belle comes looking for him, the Beast lets her exchange her life for her father's and becomes the Beast's and the servants' last hope to return to their lives.

There are parts of this film I liked much better than the original, and there are parts of the animated original you just can't replace. For instance, it's impossible to replace the magic of the ballroom scene in the animated film, hard though they tried. On the other hand, the dance sequence in the real ballroom was much lovelier. And the barroom musical scene had far more power to it with real actors than could be shown in the animated piece. So the transition to live-action film was a mixed blessing for me. It's also easier to make a village come to life in animated film, but the set decoration in the live-action film was simply amazing, built to exquisite detail on a stage lot.

The Blue-ray version of this film has extras, including the making of the film that explains the intricate detail the set decorators went into in creating the village. They also show the masterful effort the director and actors went into for the first reading of the script, including singing the music and dancing the scenes. These extras are well worth watching -- after seeing the film, of course. You will appreciate the magic of the film even more, I assure you.

While I originally wasn't convinced enough of the need to see a remake of Beauty and the Beast to see it in the theater (my wife and daughter were), I'm glad I finally saw it, on DVD. If you missed it in the theater, too, make a point to see it now. And as I said, it's worth getting the Blue-ray for the extras.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sully: Well Told Story of the "Miracle on the Hudson" Emergency Landing

Movie Review: Sully (2016)
Version: Library borrow

You may remember the "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of a passenger plane on the frigid Hudson River in New York City in January 2009. Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger became an instant hero for saving the lives of all 155 aboard his flight when the plane was disabled by a bird strike that took out both engines and required an emergency landing. That's the story depicted in great detail in the film Sully.

While the film shows as the dramatic events unfold in the flight, the real conflict is between Sully, played with excellence by Tom Hanks, co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) members, played by Jamey Sheridan, Mike O'Malley, and Anna Gunn. The NTSB was just doing its job investigating what happened in ditching a perfect good commercial aircraft into the Hudson River instead of returning to any of a few nearby airports, the investigation turns personal when the Board questions Sully's judgment and 30-some years of flight experience in making the decision. But it turns out not everything is as it seems in the investigation, and Sully and Skiles must defend their assumptions, their decisions, and their actions.

Laura Linney plays Sully's wife, following the drama on her own at home. She always seems to play a downer part, and in Sully it's no different.

Tom Hanks is humanly likable as Sully, a non-assuming professional pilot just doing his job to protect his passengers and crew. Eckhart is smart as the capable and loyal co-pilot, who doesn't for a second doubt decisions reached in the cockpit, despite the computer simulations and pilot simulated runs. And Sheridan and O'Malley are masterfully plotting as the Board members eager to show Sully and Skiles weren't heroes but endangered the crew and passengers and needlessly destroyed a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment. The acting is good and the script is well written to produce a fine drama that tells a wonderfully human drama.

The movie includes impressive film sequences of the bird strikes, the plane approach around skyscraper-infested New York City, and that final breathtaking landing into the Hudson River, not to mention the amazing escape from the plane and rescue by NYC ferries and police. You can't help but be moved by all that Sully and Skiles faced to bring all aboard that flight out of danger safely.

This is definitely a film everyone in the family can watch. Heroes aren't born easily, and Sully is a fine example of what one man, one team, went through to make the grade.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Rock Dog: Good Family Entertainment with a Good Message

Movie Review: Rock Dog (2016)
Version: Library borrow

It's not often you run into a Tibetan Mastiff who dreams of becoming a rock star. That's the plot behind the enjoyable animated film Rock Dog.

Bodi (played by Luke Wilson) lives in the snow capped mountains among his Tibetan brethren, when a radio falls from the sky, awakening his dream. He leaves for the big city in the lowlands below, where he meets a wily cast of urban characters, including a gang of hungry wolves, a disparate group of street musicians, and a reclusive rock star.

Bodi is working on getting his big break with the hope of getting a music lesson from rock star Angus Scattergood (played by Eddie Izzard), when he is hunted down by the gang of wolves, who want Bodi to lead them to his home with defenseless sheep. He is supported by four hapless street musicians played by Kenan Thompson as Riff, Mae Whitman as Darma, Jorge Garcia as Germur, and Matt Dillon as Trey. Bodi pursues a reluctant Scattergood, who is working on his next big release but is having a major creative block, when he hears Bodi playing a self-written tune he likes. Then the wolves find Bodi and mayhem breaks out as the everyone is out to get Bodi.

This isn't the best movie in the world, but it has a terrific ending, and who can resist the comedic voice talents of Eddie Izzard and Lewis Black as the bad guy, head wolf Linnux. Rock Dog makes good family entertainment for any age, and it has a good message.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Hole in the Wind: A Good Travelogue About a Climatologist's Journey Across America

Book Review: A Hole in the Wind by David Goodrich (2017)
Version: Hard cover borrowed from the library

It's hard to find a book about climate change that isn't either a book on science or a book on the debate. A Hole in the Wind by David Goodrich is a book by itself, which includes some science but is more about the effects of climate change seen firsthand from the seat of a bicycle along a 3,000-mile journey.

Goodrich has done bicycle journeys in his life across vast portions of America and in other parts of the world, but this journey in 2016 was his biggest. As a retired climate scientist, he took it as a challenge to see climate change from the ground as he crossed America from Delaware to Oregon, from the shores of the Atlantic to the shores of the Pacific. It took him more than 70 days to finish the trip, and along the way he witnessed the rise of the ocean that is washing away the channel islands on our East Coast, saw the ravages of the forests by increasing wildfires and infestations of beetles in the high country, the drying of the land and the aquifers in the Plains, and the eating away of the glaciers and the snow caps in the mountains. But that's just half of the story. He also met the people whose lives have been changed by climate change, some of whom acknowledged climate change and some of whom would rather not mention it.

A Hole in the Wind is a journey for the reader as well as for the writer. You will meet interesting people along the way, learn about the amazingly diverse dimensions of our country, and see for yourself how much bigger than individual places and individual weather events climate is. And you will come to see how even a 60-something retiree can master a demanding thousands-mile journey through heat and hills and hail to become a better, fitter person.

Goodrich tells a compelling story of his journey, not selling climate change but just explaining his observations and relating them to what he's learned as a climate scientist over the years. At the same time, he isn't judgmental of the people he meets nor the politics of climate science, whatever attitudes he has met along the way. His prose is well written and the pacing of his story is well organized, allowing you to visit the places and people and observations casually over his shoulder as if you, too, were on the journey. It's a nice read without the aches and pains of a long, hard pedal. His best prose comes with the elation of reaching the Pacific around page 206 to 208, almost poetic.

If you are at all curious about climate change, if you wonder about the real effects on human lives of climate change, if you want to know about it without the hype for it or against it, if you simply want a good travelogue about a journey across America, read A Hole in the Wind. It's a winner.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Cars 3: Pixar Has Kept the Magic Alive in This Second Sequel

Movie Review: Cars 3 (2017)
Version: In-theater 2-D

Finally made it to a cinema to see a movie again, and this time I took my daughter to see Cars 3. Pixar Animation Studios kept the magic alive in this second sequel to the original Cars, bringing back all the memorable characters from it and adding a few new ones.

The gist of Cars 3 is that as fast as Lightning McQueen was to win in his rookie year in Cars and his follow-up win in Cars 2, he can't keep up with the new generation of racers in this new episode. He turns back to the lessons he learned from old Doc Hudson, but there just isn't enough umph in the tank to get him to a win this time. He has a new sponsor and, with it, a new trainer. But things aren't working out at the top-of-the-line facilities, so they go old style, meeting a quirky crew of old timers who help McQueen seek out another big win. What he learns is that there is more to being a winner than crossing a finish line first. It's a great family film with lessons for everyone that don't smack you in the face with morality, just good life lessons learned watching fun characters given life through amazing digital animation.

Pixar retained the talents of Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen, Bonnie Hunt as Sally, Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, Larry the Cable Guy as Tow Mater, and others from Cars, then introduced us to a smattering of great new voice talent, including Cristela Alonzo as trainer Cruz, Chris Cooper as Smokey, and Armie Hammer as McQueen's new rival, Jackson Storm. There really are too many wonderful characters and voice talents to adequately recognize in this fun family film.

The animation is fantastic, as usual, loaded with color and motion and wonderful imagination, including the requisite visual and textual puns and sight gags. In fact, if you haven't seen Cars 3 yet, or if you go to see it again, make sure you stay through the closing credits and read the fake ad posters along the edges of the credits -- if you can read them quickly enough.

The animated short that plays before Cars 3, titled LOU, is a blast, too. It's about a playground bully who is taught an important lesson by a very active playground LOST AND FOUND box. It's great fun!

Beat the heat some mid-summer day or evening and treat yourself to Cars 3. It's family fun for everyone.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Add It To Your List of Other Films to Get To

Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
Version: Library borrow

We watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople after hearing Adam Savage (MythBusters) rave about it on a Tested podcast. Having watched it now, there are parts I can just hear him in my mind's eye laughing in surprise over. Like the part where Ricky watches Bella wrestle a wild boar to the ground and kill it barehanded with a knife. Or Psycho Sam appearing out of nowhere covered in wild bushes and Hec reacting with mild irritation. This is a comedy, so don't take its grizzlier side too seriously.

Hunt is a product of New Zealand, a tale of a young teen in the child protective services system given to the care of a couple living the sparse life on the edge of bush country. At first he doesn't want to be there, and half of the foster care couple doesn't want him there, either, but forced to flee into the wild by unfortunate circumstances, the two become a daring duo to save each others' lives. It's full of plot holes the size of an island, but it's good fun punctuated by a good sense of humor, interesting Kiwi dialog, and a decent local cast headed by a gruff Sam Neill playing Hec, the begrudging foster father who would rather just not be bothered. The aimless but means-well young teen Ricky is played by Julian Dennison, who plays his part against the more experienced Neill well. You might also recognize Psycho Sam from a long list of film and TV credits, played by Phys Darby, despite his wild whiskers and brush get-up. Paula, the Childhood Services Officer played by Rachel House, reminds me a lot of the mean and sinister principal in Matilda, although she isn't as good in the role.

There is much to like in his story. It's about a young boy without family who has lost faith in the foster care system and seems to finally have found his place. It's also about a man who feels out of place in society and having found his place just on the edge of the bush, doesn't want to be disturbed. The two have been brought together by Bella then forced closer together by her death and then the interference of the foster care system, which wants to tear them apart. They are pitted against the wilds of nature and the wilder side of humanity, both which now hunt them down. Through the experience, they finally form an unbreakable bond.

I won't recommend you quickly run out and buy or rent this film if you have other important films on your list, but I do suggest you add it to your list of other films to get to. It's fun, and some slow evening when summer TV displeases and the weather isn't co-operating with outdoor plans, watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Thursday, July 06, 2017

XXX: Return of Xander Cage: It's a Blast!

Movie Review: XXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Take the Fast and Furious franchise, strip it of all the fast cars, keep Vin Diesel but infuse it with some new team mates, and you have XXX: Return of Xander Cage. It's full of action and amazing stunts, just as in the Fast and Furious films.

I was surprised when we found the film on our Xfinity search screen to see that it had low ratings. It's a fun film! Vin Diesel (or his stunt double) starts out the story with some amazing stunt work, skiing down a communications tower and into a mountainous jungle then powering down winding hilly roads on a skateboard. There are other amazing stunts, including kick-ass kung fu fighting with a motor bike and then using it as jet ski through the ocean surf. Whoa!

The main story line involves Vin Diesel as Xander Cage, a government special teams agent who has disappeared but been found again to hunt down a piece of IT gear capable of bringing down satellites to decimate big cities. It turns out the guys who are using it are other members of the government special teams unit, who have deadly martial arts skills, and of course, only Xander Cage can hope to take them on. To help him out, Cage brings on a small team of specialists, who also have mad fighting skills.

Joining Diesel as team members are Ruby Rose as Adele, Kris Wu and Nicks, Tony Ja as Talon, and Rory McCann as Tennyson. They range from snipers, to martial artists, to distraction artists, to an older guy who can ram vehicles into opponents second to none. It's actually a great if quirky ensemble cast.

The bad guys are represented by Toni Collette as the head of the NSA, who more often than not gets in the team's way, although they work for her, Donnie Yang as the main bad guy who wants to keep the device out of the hands of governments, and Deepika Padikone as his accomplice. Then there are the assorted beefsteaks who act as military foils for just about everyone else.

The setting is the Dominican Republic, with its lush jungles, mountainous terrain, and exotic beaches, all which create a wonderful backdrop for stunts and mayhem.

Diesel displays his usual laid-back charm and humor. The others try to keep up. All around, it's a fun romp of good guys against bad guys, sometimes just trying to figure out which is which and which player has the "ball" in a continual game of misdirect. The pace is fast and the action furious -- go figure.

Don't expect any socially redeeming value, this film is just for fun. If you're having a tough day, or politics are just getting you down, or you're simply feeling lousy, put XXX: Return of Xander Cage in the DVD player and zone out! It's a blast.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Jackie: Will Reawaken Many Memories

Movie Review: Jackie (2016)
Version: Library borrow

For anyone who was alive and sentient near the end of 1963, the film Jackie will reawaken many memories. If you're among the many who weren't around then, this movie will bring into focus for you a time of great grief for the American people and the unimaginable struggles for American First Lady Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Directed by Pablo Larrain, the film has sought historical accuracy, using film from the events surrounding the events the film depicts to choreograph scenes and create sets. It features Natalie Portman in the lead as Jackie Kennedy in a close but not perfect rendition of the First Lady. Caspar Phillipson is a dead ringer for President Kennedy. Most others of the cast are unrecognizable, although Beth Grant is very believable as Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Vice President and then newly sworn-in President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Billy Crudup plays "the journalist" who interviews Jackie in between clips -- real and refilmed -- of Jackie's tour of the White House for CBS-TV, the fateful presidential visit to Dallas, Texas, the controversies surrounding the planning of President Kennedy's funeral, and the president's funeral itself. The interview serves as a sounding board for Jackie's disillusions with family, friends, and protocol and the goals the president wanted to accomplish but was destined never to achieve.

While Portman did a fine job trying to "be" Jackie, she had a certain edge I never experienced watching the real Jackie when I was a teen growing up at the time of these events, nor during her later years afterwards. I don't doubt Jackie went through what was portrayed in the film, but she was far more refined and quiet than Portman was able to assume for the character. And Portman's voice work bothered me, which is always a danger for an actor trying to take on too close a semblance of the real person. I can't really fault Portman for it, but still, it bothered me. The other thing that bothered me was that other than Vice President and Lady Bird Johnson, I had no idea who the other characters were -- there was no attempt to get actors who looked like their real counterparts. The only reason I knew who was portraying Bobby Kennedy was because Jackie called him Bobby. The film needed some kind of identifier for these other characters.

All that said, this film well captured the times, the events, and the struggles of this story. It was an intimate look into Jackie's very personal struggles living a very public life and very public demise. I highly recommend Jackie for history buffs and Americans interested in the Kennedy era once known as Camelot.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

A United Kingdom: The Power to Move You as a Human Being

Movie Review: A United Kingdom (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Occasionally there are stories that simply have the power to move you as a human being. A United Kingdom is one of those stories, told in film.

Seretse Khama is prince of Bechuanaland (Africa), studying in Britain before ascending to the throne in his native land. His country is under the temporary rule of his uncle, who assumed power at the death of Seretse's father. The uncle calls Seretse home to take his rightful place, but in the meantime, Seretse has met Ruth Williams, a common White British clerk, and fallen in love. They decide to marry, which sets off a firestorm of protests the couple are not prepared for, both in Britain and Bechuanaland. The story follows the couple's deep love and devotion, personally, and to the people of Bechunanaland, which will because of their loyalty become a free and democratic Botswana.

There is a huge contrast between the complex civilized yet manipulative society of late 1940's Britain and the simple yet honorable society of Bechunanaland. The characters of each are brought to life by David Oyelowo as Prince Seretse Khama, who while he may be naive is honest and loyal; Rosamund Pike as Ruth Williams, who while she may be overly trusting is not easily manipulated; Jack Davenport as Sir Alistair Canning, who while he may be cunning is not so clever; and Ton Felton as Rufus Lancaster, who while he may be in a position of colonial power ends up a sniveling coward. All are quality actors playing their parts exquisitely to tell this tale of bigotry and power overplayed and love and loyalty triumphantly celebrated.

The settings also provide a stark contrast between the two continents, Europe vastly mechanical and domesticated, Africa underdeveloped and ripe to be free of colonization. This imperfect couple was the perfect catalyst to make change happen and do it through a love two nations could not quell.

If you are offended by bi-racial marriage, don't watch this film. But if you are uplifted by the triumph of the spirit and right over wrong, right over might, by all means watch A United Kingdom. You will be moved by it.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2: Zounds! Practically Non-stop Action.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Zounds! There's more action in John Wick: Chapter 2 than in almost any other action movie I've ever seen, including the original John Wick! It's practically non-stop.

John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) returns from his last romp in the original movie, during which the love of his life, his car, was stolen. He retrieves it from the bad guys in a gigantic gun battle chase scene, then drinks a toast for peace to the head bad guy and returns home, where he buries his guns and his loot. From there, everything goes to toast.

Santino D'Antonio (played by Riccardo Scamarcia) visits Wick to call in a chip of service. Wick has retired from service as a hit man, but D'Antonio insists Wick must honor the chip. Wick says no. So D'Antonio blows up with Wick's home with Wick in it. Wick hunts him down in Rome to finally honor the chip, which it turns out is to kill D'Antonio's sister, who has claimed the family's seat at the world crime table, which D'Antonio wants. Wick still doesn't want the job, but it's his only way out. D'Antonio's sister is to be enshrined in the organization in the Colosseum in Rome that evening, so Wick goes on a shopping spree buying clothes, guns, knives, and the whole shot to take down D'Antonio's sister and her gang of protectors who will go after him afterwards.  What follows is another wild fight scene in, under, and around the Colosseum, going on in part of which is a full celebration with a rock concert. Wick is deft with a gun and hand-to-hand combat!

D'Antonio must, of course, revenge the death of his sister, so he puts out a $7 million worldwide bounty on Wick. That creates another rumpus gun battle chase scene as John Wick tries to get away, finally arriving in New York City, where he finds refuge at the hotel owned by Winston (played by Ian McShane). From there he leaves to hunt down D'Antonio, who is contemplating the lavish artworks of his late father at a monolithic art museum. To get to him, Wick seeks the help of the mastermind of the underground, the Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne). And once inside the museum, Wick chases after D'Antonio shooting his way through galleries and finally into a mirrored modern-art display that would be the pursuer's worst nightmare. Watching D'Antonio's back is the dangerous Ares (played by Ruby Rose), who can't ever quite keep up with Wick.

In the final scenes D'Antonio gets back to Winston's hotel of refuge for thieves and crime bosses, where rules are rules. But John Wick does the unthinkable, and finds himself once again the target of a worldwide bounty hunt.

I've told you a lot about the plot without spoiling anything of significance. I did so to show you how much action there is in this film. Reeves must have been worn out after a day, a week, a month of shooting this film. Pistols, semi-automatic rifles, shot guns, knives - pencils - all weapons in his all too capable hands. And nothing and no one can best him. He leaves bodies in the streets and alleyways like pigeons leave droppings on statues.

Some have suggested this is just a thin-plotted movie to serve the interests of gun play, but I disagree. The gun play very much serves a bigger, more interesting plot in very exciting settings. The gun play is choreographed beautifully and flawlessly like a dance ensemble. And the cast ensemble is delicious in its evil and its cunning.

If you like an action film, if you like a gun battle movie, if you like an movie with a super anti-hero who just can't be stopped despite all the odds being against him, then John Wick Chapter 2 should be perfect for you. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Fences: A Tour de Force on Film

Movie Review: Fences (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Based on his play of the same name, August Wilson creates a tour de force on film in Fences. Director Denzel Washington packs it with star power with himself in the lead role as Troy Maxson, Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Jovan Adepo as his son Cory, and Stephen Henderson as his best friend and neighbor Bono. A cast of fine supporting actors fills in around the central characters to make a memorable film. It was more than deserving of its Oscar nominations.

Fences is the story about Troy Maxson, a 1950's hard-nosed husband and father who takes nothing from anyone and expects only what he is due. After serving time in jail early in life for stealing, and then being cheated out of the opportunity as a Black man to make it as a professional baseball player, Troy settles into life as a garbage collector. He's learned his lessons in life, and what he has learned is to work hard, take what is rightly yours and give what is your duty to give, and then no more as he is faced with raising a family to avoid the same mistakes he has made. Troy has an edge harder than cast iron and a heart that seems to bleed little. At his side is Rose, a woman who gave up her dreams long ago to stand at her man's side out of love and devotion, even in times of heartbreak. And then there's Bono, who he met in jail and who now works at his side on the garbage truck, who serves as his conscience when Troy seems to stray from his path.

Derived from a play, Fences is heavy on dialog, but it's well delivered by Washington delivered at a fast clip as naturally as if it were coming straight from his heart. Henderson follows along just as naturally, as if he has known Washington all his life. Davis is always a strong performer and she pours her heart and soul into this performance with passionate dialog delivered with pain or with anger or with tears. Adepo doesn't get as much dialog, but his portrayal of the bullied son who finally won't take it any more is an excellent performance that builds over time into the climax of the drama. I am taken aback by the speed and force of the performances; so much dialog so well delivered.

There isn't much to the setting. Most of the film takes place in the Maxson's home or back yard. There are occasional shots elsewhere -- the garbage truck picking up trash on city streets, the neighborhood street out front of the house, the interior of city hall, a hospital interior, a tight shot inside a church -- but most of the story takes place in the back yard. It's a brutal place, where the fences are built and maintained: the physical fence Troy is building between houses, the psychological fences Troy is building between family. There is a baseball suspended from a tree and a bat that Troy and Cory swat as they take aim at each other. 

Sometimes the most complex stories are the most intriguing, forcing you to figure out all the pieces. Fences is one of those films. The many meanings behind the title. The many angles to the characters. The many convoluted relationships. The actual meaning or message of the film. It turns out Troy was far more complex than you first realized, and his relationships weren't simple, either.  

Fences is among the final Oscar-nominated films to make their way to us from the library. It was an amazing performance by a corps of great actors, and I'm glad I finally got to see it, a fine story well told. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Patriots Day: A No-Holds-Barred Retelling of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Movie Review: Patriots Day (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Patriots Day is a no-holds-barred re-telling of the April 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon and the community's heroic response in finding terrorits Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It features fine performances by Mark Wahlberg as a recovering injured police Sergeant Tommy Saunders on security duty at the finish line, John Goodman as Commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, and J.K. Simmons as Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, along with Jake Pickering as MIT Security Officer Sean Collier (who was assassinated by the Tsnaraev brothers) and Themo Melikodze as the older brother, Tamerlan, and Alex Wolf as is younger brother, Dzhokhar. Jimmy O. Yang is excellent as Dun Meng, the car-jacking victim, who heroically escapes the Tsnaraev brothers and runs for his life to alert police.

Parts of this film are brutal in showing the carnage from the bomb blasts, but it was the intent of the producers and director to be as honest as possible in depicting the destruction and mayhem of that infamous act. Near the end of the story, as police face off against the Tsnaraev brothers on a neighborhood street, there is a fierce shootout scene with amazing multiple pipe bomb explosions. In another scene, Wahlberg puts out an amazing emotional performance as the policeman who has seen it all in the aftermath of the event, bodies and limbs and death, breaking down before his wife. Much of this film is raw, edgy human reaction to terror, and every bit of it makes total sense. None of it is gratuitous or forced.

Patriots Day starts off by showing how key characters begin their day -- from the police, to runners, to innocent bystanders, to the car-jack victim, to the man who finally finds Dzhokhar Tsnaraev in his boat. The pace picks up as the event organizes and police set up security, then the marathon begins. The Tsnaraev brothers build the bombs, watch TV, interact with their family, pack up their backpacks, and go to the finish line. Dun Meng goes about his day, meets a young lady, goes on a dinner date, sits in his car and texts her. The explosions happen and chaos breaks out. People respond to each other with care. The FBI arrives and takes over the investigation. The search is on for who is responsible. The Tsnaraevs plot more action. And so the story continues to unfold to its ultimate conclusion, a city on edge but never going over that edge.

If you remember that event, you know the main story. But you don't know the whole story. Watching Patriots Day, you will relive the event and get to really know how a city came together over a tragedy and never let it take them down. You will witness their courage and feel their strength, even while you empathize with their anguish. The details here are vivid enough you may not want to let young children watch this film, but it's a good history lesson for the rest of us on the time "Boston Strong" became a national anthem and one well earned.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Monster Calls: A Good Film for Those Brave Enough to Face the Monster Staring Them Down

Movie Review: A Monster Calls (2016)
Version: Library borrow

In A Monster Calls, young Conor, who lives in a small village in England, is having trouble in school and issues at home. Some boys in class are bullying him and he has learned he may have to live with his grandmother while his single mother goes back to the hospital for treatment of a terminal illness. When his father visits from America, he isn't any help. Then the Monster arises from the roots of his mother's favorite large yew tree in the distance.

The Monster is larger than a house and damaging to the things around Conor, yet quite gentle toward him. But there is menace in his message. He will tell Conor three stories, and when he is done, Conor must tell him about his dream. The Monster tells Conor his stories after critical troublesome events, and it isn't until the final troubling occurrence that Conor is forced to reveal his terrible dream -- his nightmare, something that Conor is loathe to discuss. But perched atop a crumbling sinkhole in an old church graveyard, the Monster insists.

A Monster Calls is really a well told tale about a child forced to face his worst fears. And lead actor Lewis MacDougall as Conor plays the role with every bit of energy and emotion within him. There is no joy in this role, only fear, anger, sadness, and finally, relief. Sigourney Weaver plays his straight-laced but forbearing grandmother and Felicity Jones plays his sick but doting Mum. Liam Neeson is the voice of The Monster. But the real star and center of this film is Conor.

British films have a definitive quality that brings out the best in them, and A Monster Calls is all that. The quaint village setting, the eerie church graveyard, the staid grandmother's home, the cluttered public school and hospital -- all could have been lifted from a Harry Potter movie lot. The Monster reminds me of a very tall Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, except he actually speaks full, adult sentences. Perhaps there's a bit of the Ents in him from The Lord of the Rings, too

What may be troublesome for younger audiences is that A Monster Calls addresses the fear of death, and while it has a final good ending for Conor, it may be a bit much for children to face. It could be cathartic for teens and adults. My wife cried watching it, remembering the trauma of facing her father's death decades ago. Is this film for everyone? Possibly not. But it is a good film for those brave enough to face the monster staring them down.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Space Between Us: A Romance? Science Fiction? A Love Story? A Tech Story? It's All Four!

Movie Review: The Space Between Us (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The Space Between Us is a romance wrapped in science fiction. A love story wrapped in tech story. But not just any romance or love story nor just any science fiction or tech story. It is multi-dimensional in every aspect.

Gardner Elliot (played by Asa Butterfield) is inadvertently born on Mars on the first Mars colony. His mother dies giving birth to him and the private company running the colony and NASA keep his birth and life a secret, to protect the project. He is raised and educated by the crew, and like them, he is limited in his exposure to the world. But unlike them, he has never seen Earth -- the blue sky, the rivers, lakes, or oceans, the greenery of plant life, the cities or its overwhelming population, and never felt rain nor smelled flowers. And, of course, he's never had contact with his peers -- except one young lady in Colorado, with whom he has secretly been chatting with online: Tulsa (played by Britt Robertson). The decision is made to bring Gardner to Earth to see if he can physically withstand Earth's gravity and ecosystem so that he can live there and have more contact with others. When he arrives, he makes up his mind to find Tulsa and begins the adventure of a lifetime to seek out his father, whom he has never met. Only, Garner has a health problem. And his survival becomes a race against time.

Gary Oldman plays Natheniel Shepherd, the industrialist who has spearheaded the project and made the decision to keep Gardner's life a secret. He takes a particular interest in Gardner's life on Mars and his survival on Earth. When Gardner runs off, he is particularly vexed.

Asa Butterfield is particularly good as Gardner. He is tall and gawky as you might expect some who is born and raised on less massive Mars to be. He plays Gardner as awkward and naive as you would expect the character to be around an unfamiliar Earth. And he shows the raw wonder and emotion at the beauty of a colorful, sense-filled world the Earth is compared to the monochromatic, dry place that Mars is. In a sense, Gardner feels a romance for this amazing place called Earth, as he continually asks people he runs into, "What is your favorite thing about Earth?" He so wants to stay on Earth, and so, in a sense, there is a love story there, too.

Butterfield essentially plays opposite Britt Robertson, who becomes his human love interest. There was a space between them, literally, when he lived on Mars. They unite on Earth as she helps him run away, but his inexperience and his health problem create a new space between them. Still they have this bond that endures and this is the human romance/love story within The Space Between Us.

This film isn't so much about location. It isn't about cinematography. It isn't even about set design or costume design. What makes this film is character development and theme. The writing is great, although there are occasional awkwardnesses in how it is carried out. But if anything, The Space Between Us points out how beautiful our world is and the essential relationships between us.

There's a big red herring in the plot that carries out till the very end. But it's worth enduring for the surprise ending.

The Space Between Us would never be a blockbuster movie. But it would be a good family movie for a variety of tastes. It's worth a feel-good weekend gathering around the TV or a weekday evening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

La La Land: It's a Flawed Film as a Musical

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian
Emma Stone as Mia
J.K. Simmons as Bill
John Legend as Keith
Aimee Conn as "Famous Actress" (third)
Thom Shelton as "Coffee Spiller" (fifth)

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Mia, an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions and Sebastian, a jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail party gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.



If you didn't grow up watching the great musicals on film, either on the big screen or on television, you might have been wowed by La La Land. Maybe that's why it was nominated for Best Picture Oscar -- lack of memory. Having seen some of the greats over the decades, I have memory and I was underwhelmed. Sorry, Hollywood. 

The movie begins with a song and dance routine, even before it establishes a story line. Fade up on a highway on-ramp crammed with cars, drivers listening to music on their radios and bored waiting while in highway gridlock. Suddenly, they break out in song and then dance. As the song and dance routine wind down, we finally meet the hero, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), and heroine, Mia (played by Emma Stone), who are in conflict as Mia gets a phone call and doesn't move ahead with the traffic and Sebastian blasts his horn in frustration, pulling around her in anger. 

Hereafter for the next half to three-quarters of an hour, each change of scene becomes an excuse to break into song. La La Land looks here more like an excuse to break into song rather than a typical musical, in which the music blends into a narrative, the music telling part of the story instead of the story simply filling in around the music. It's almost predictable that when you are introduced into a new scene the characters will break into song, maybe along with a dance. It isn't until that first half to three-quarters of an hour that the music suddenly becomes part of the narrative.

La La Land is about a want-to-be actress and a dreamer jazz pianist who struggle to make it in Hollywood. Finally after that first half hour, Sebastian introduces Mia to jazz at a jazz bar, explaining what jazz is really about and why he is devoted to it, as the jazz musicians play from the bandstand. You sense his excitement. From then on, the music he plays as a pianist and singer folds into a story -- becomes the story. Similarly, Mia explains her love for acting and we discover she really wants to be a playwright. And suddenly the music she sings folds into her story. Their dreams of becoming stars in the City of Stars comes to life.

 "City of Stars" is the theme song of the film and you don't hear the lyrics until halfway through the film!

The music is good, which includes pieces by one of America's most sought-after musical talents, John Legend, who makes an appearance in the film. And Emma Stone shines in her role as Mia, although there is no apparent in-scene chemistry between her and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. I couldn't help catching a couple of plot holes right at the top of the film, too:  Why is there a skateboarder and a bicyclist on a busy highway on ramp? Why is there bumper-to-bumper traffic on the on ramp when in the distance you can see that the traffic on the highway onto which the on-ramp feeds is light and flowing freely?

But enough of the negatives. Let's talk about some positives. The color in the film is incandescent. The cinematography is beautiful. Also, there are plenty of interesting metaphors, such as toward the end of the film when Sebastian and Mia are having a meal together in Mia's apartment and Sebastian plays an LP album. They chat, catching up on their lives since his road trip with the band Sebastian in playing in has put them out of contact for a while. Then suddenly they break out into a disagreement. Cut to a close up of the spindle on the LP reaching the end of the cut. Mentally you say, "It's over." There is also some great use of lighting during musical scenes, house lights dimming on the surrounding crowds as a single spotlight remains focused on Sebastian or Mia so your focus is on their story and not the crowd.

A lot of these elements come right out of veteran musical cinema. From that perspective, you might be tempted to relive the good old days of hit Hollywood musicals. And likely, that's part of why La La Land was such a hit for the Oscars crowd. And certainly, once you get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, La La Land begins to look like a real musical. But I can't make myself get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, feeling like this was a movie about making a musical instead of a story told in the style of a musical. 

Don't mistake my meaning. La La Land has some great moments. It's worth seeing. It's just a flawed film as a musical, Oscars acclaim notwithstanding. I wish it had been better.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Lion: There Aren't Enough Adjectives to Describe This Remarkable Film

Movie Review: Lion (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Lion is a beautiful film, short changed during this year's Oscars. Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel were Oscar worthy in leading roles and the film was well worthy of Best Picture.

This is the true story about a young boy in India leaving home with his slightly older brother to find night work to support the family. He falls asleep on a train platform bench, so his brother leaves him there, promising to return. When the brother doesn't come back, young Saroo wanders around looking for older Guddu, and not finding him settles for another nap on an uninhabited train car. He wakes up in the morning in the car in motion, traveling for two days, his trip ending thousands of miles away from where his journey started. Lost and not speaking the language of his new surroundings, Saroo seeks help but can't get it. He faces multiple dangers from kidnappers and insincere strangers before ending up in a police-run orphanage, where he is finally given help, adopted by a couple in Australia, where he grows into adulthood. As an adult, Saroo finds it difficult to think of his brother and mother wondering what ever happened to him and struggles to discover his roots and the location of his original home, in the process alienating all the people in Australia who have become his friends and family.

There is much to love about this film adaptation of the book Little Boy Lost by Saroo Brierley. The story is heart wrenching, although the outcome is heart warming. The imagery of India and Australia is breathtaking, while the editing and pacing are measured. The acting performances by Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo and Dev Patel as the adult Saroo are wonderful, and Nicole Kidman as Saroo's Austrilian mother Sue Brierley is exceptional. Everything comes together perfectly in this film to tell this amazing story.

I have requested the book because I want to read the original story now, too. Saroo participated in the writing of the script, but I want to know this remarkable story in his own words. It's that good!

Every once in a while, there appears a movie spellbinding in its telling, in its showing, in its visual arts. And Lion is that film. Honestly, there aren't enough adjectives to describe this remarkable film. You should see it!

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Great Wall: Not the Finest Film, but a Fun Watch Worth Watching

Movie Review: The Great Wall (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

If you want action, if you want period costumes, if you want exotic locations, if you want creepy monsters, you really want to see The Great Wall.

This is the tale of two Europeans traveling ancient China looking for the secrets behind gunpowder. What they find instead is the secret behind The Great Wall of China: the defense of the united Chinese nation against the growing threat of dinosaur-like monsters who grow off human flesh fed to their queen. However, there seems to be nothing that can hold off these beasts, until William (played by Matt Damon) and Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal) give up their mercenary ways and join the huge Chinese army of elite warriors battling the nasty teethy enemy.

As with many films made in China these days, this story is presented in massive scale showcasing the skill and courage of Chinese warriors. The Westerner and Spaniard coming to their rescue seem both reluctant and timid in coming to their defense at first, so you might be forgiven for at first thinking this is one of those big-budget Chinese-focused films. But it is much more than that. The Great Wall is an interesting multi-dimensional film full of color and heroics and great stunt work, although, stunts nothing to the scale of a Jackie Chan or a Bruce Lee. Willam Defoe also makes an appearance as an Western warrior seeking to help stop the monsters. The star power, however, is Matt Damon, who gets to save the day, with a cast of thousands of fearless Chinese warriors.

The Great Wall isn't the finest film ever made, but it is a fun movie and worth a viewing. You can't go wrong when you're watching a mindless face full of razor-sharp teeth get pummeled, and this film is full of them. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Knife Edge (Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins): Fits Well Into the Holmes Genre

Book Review: Knife Edge (Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins) by Andrew Lane
Version: eBook library borrow

Always on the lookout for a good Sherlock Holmes story, I ran into Knife Edge by Andrew Lane. It's written for the young adult market, but anyone who is a Sherlock Holmes fan can enjoy it. Knife Edge in one of a series written by Lane, a Brit. It is only my opinion, but the best Sherlock Holmes stories are written by Brits.

So it is with Knife Edge, which is one of several books about the teen years of Sherlock Holmes life and thus, the subtitle, The Legend Begins.

In Knife Edge, Sherlock has returned to the British Isles from China, working his way back aboard a sailing ship after having been kidnapped. His journey is diverted from Southampton to Galway, Ireland, where he is greeted by his older brother, Mycroft. But all isn't cheery brotherhood as Mycroft has an ulterior motive in arranging for Sherlock's ship to meet him in Galway. A mystery awaits them at a castle nearby, where the two must decide whether the British government should bid against other continental powers for the services of a spiritualist. Does the spiritualist really have the power to connect with the dead, or is this just a scam? As Sherlock Holmes fans know, only he can solve the mystery.

The castle is owned by a sketchy gentleman landowner who is hosting a series of convincing seances given by a strange man claiming to wield the power to communicate with the dead. Mycroft represents the British government, but present also are representatives from Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Soon to arrive is a representative from America. All are bidding to tap these "miracle" services. There are many twists and turns in this tale along the western coast of Ireland, infamous for its shipwrecks and the scavengers who secreted the spoils into hidden caves. Danger lurks everywhere. Piecing together the shadowy clues, Sherlock unveils his talents for logic.

As with any young adult book, Knife Edge isn't terribly complicated. The plots and twists aren't overly sophisticated. But then, neither were the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story would actually fit well into the Doyle cannon. The cross-check rivalry between Sherlock and Mycroft are present as well. Doyle even delved into spiritualism at one point in his life. But this is good light reading for anyone who likes a breezy summer distraction with the early hints of the Holmes mind.

Give Lane's Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins stories a try, and I'd recommend Knife Edge as good as anywhere to begin.