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.