Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hidden Figures: An Entertaining, Emotional Journey With Important New Lessons

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Sometimes a film is good because it's entertaining. Sometimes because it strikes an emotional chord. And sometimes because it teaches us important new lessons. Some films are good for all those reasons, and Hidden Figures is one of them.

Hidden Figures is historical fiction based very closely on fact. It's the story of a group of Black women, who served as human computers at the dawn of the electric computer age, and who worked at NASA at the dawn of the manned space program. It focuses particularly on three women who would become heroes in helping America launch the first men into space during the race for space dominance against the Soviet Union.

The scientists at NASA were all White males. They were top physicists and engineers in their fields, self-assured, and like any group of prima donas, unappreciative of help checking their work. But their work wasn't successfully launching rockets. The Soviets were beating the Americans at meeting milestones launching rockets, and the pressure was growing for America meet their pace if not surpass it.

In another building quite far away from where the scientists worked was an office for "Colored" workers -- Black women. They were known as "computers", although not the kind we're used to thinking of today. The kind we think of today were just in the beginning stages of development. Humans did the computing, the data processing and math -- often higher mathematics -- required to solve NASA's complex science challenges. There weren't White workers with the skills and talents to solve NASA's computing problems, but NASA increasingly learned that there were Black workers who could. And despite the color barriers of the time -- this takes place in the early 1960's -- these three Black women rose to the occasion to help lift NASA rockets off the ground, into orbit, with men on board, and safely back to the ground.

Hidden Figures is the uplifting story of these women, especially Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), who struggled through bigotry, racism, and sexism, to crack the race and sex ceilings at NASA and help take America safely and successfully into space, finally to surpass the Soviets in the frontiers of space exploration. In the process, they would discover new math formulas, create new engineering solutions, and bring NASA into the modern computer age. This is an entertaining, emotional, life-lessons journey that will warm your heart and have you rooting for every underdog with a brilliant mind.

The acting performances are flawless, from Spencer, Henson, and Monae, who play not just smart women seeking the opportunity to fulfill their natural intellectual talents, but also as mothers and daughters and wives trying to live normal, everyday lives in 1960's America; to Kevin Costner, who plays the beleaguered NASA administrator under pressure to stave off the Soviet space threat and recognizes the equally damaging threat of bigotry and racism; to Kirsten Dunst, who plays the at first dismissive White talent-pool manager that comes to appreciate people for who they are, not who they appear to be; to Jim Parsons, far from his TV role as the brilliant but clueless Sheldon Cooper but now as a snobbish smart physicist who reluctantly turns his work over to a "Colored" woman to check his math and who is finally won over by Johnson's brilliance. Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge put in strong supporting performances as well.

There is much more about this film to admire as well. Set decoration is spot on for the era. Hair style and costume design are exemplary. The feel of the times fits perfectly, too, as anyone who lived in those times can attest. The script is well written and executed, bringing in humor not just to be funny but to make a point. The politics of the film isn't there to make a point but to make sense in the story line.

Hidden Figures was Oscar nominated for a reason. It is a well made film. Everything comes together with brilliance to finally tell the story of unsung American heroes of the space race, a race we could not have won without them. Bravo!

Monday, May 29, 2017

New Article on How to Write a Good Book Review

Just read a book and you would like to share your thoughts on it? Dudley Court Press has just published an article I guest authored on how to write a good book review.

During a discussion with Gail Woodard, the publisher at Dudley Court, it came to light that their readers have asked for tips on how to share their love of the books on review pages like you find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Good Reads, and other book-centric sites. Since I write both book and film reviews, I offered to write an article.

Most readers love to share their thoughts on the books they read. Some feel shy about doing so if they aren't professional writers, but they don't need to fear their inexperience, as I share tips both newcomers and experienced writers can use to write useful, well thought out reviews. If you would like to write reviews but have feared wading into that pool for some reason, or if you write them but would like ideas on how to improve them, please take a look at the article. Let me know what you think.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Logan: Did It Really Have To Be So Brutal?

Movie Review: Logan (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The action is brutal. The language is not for young viewers. But, man, Logan was one incredibly fascinating film.

We've been watching the X-Men franchise for some time, loving the characters and the plot lines. We grew up admiring the underdog Wolverine, who never wanted to be a mutant transformed into a deranged war machine. Logan takes that story line into its final step as Wolverine takes on his real name, Logan, to finally escape what he's become. Along the way, he takes Professor Xavier with him, a severely handicapped mutant with horrific seizures that disable the world around him. Logan's plan is to eventually buy a yacht and sail off with Xavier far away from civilization and the interference of corporate interests. Only, the corporate interests won't have it. And complicating his plans are Laura and a small band of newly minted mutants escaping the corporation to save their lives. It's up to a reluctant Logan to help them reach safety, despite the pursuit of a dogged Pierce and Dr. Rice and their gang of mercenary thugs.

The setting takes place in 2029 and has an apocalyptic feel to it. There isn't much joy to be found in this film, save the fine performances by Hugh Jackman reprising their roles as Logan (Wolverine) and Patrick Stewart as Charles (Professor Xavier), and the dynamite performance of Dafne Keen as mutant Laura, who can kick thug ass better than most adult actors. Watch out Jackie Chan, she's gunning for your martial arts chaps.

This is as dark a version of X-Men as you will ever find. Logan's frustration with life and circumstances come out most notably in his obsessive alcoholic consumption and continual swearing in the film. He is ready to die! Yet, he is also committed to preserving Professor Xavier, although that may also be to stave off the violent seizures that threaten all life around him. Xavier, meanwhile, plays the fool throughout most of this film, a far cry from the intelligent, purposeful leader of mutants of past. It represents a struggle from beginning to end, both for the characters and the actors, to finally put end to their roles in this popular franchise. Really, did it have to be so violent, so brutal, so visceral?

There isn't much more to say about or for this film. As a family, we agreed watching Logan once was quite enough. A day later, we are still dazed. Rent or borrow Logan once if you must, but then let it gather dust on the shelf forever after.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Miss You Already: It Takes Itself Seriously and Makes You Smile at the Same Time

Movie Review: Miss You Already (2015)
Version: Library Borrow

We watched Miss You Already as a family, my wife, my daughter, and I. It certainly had a lot of women's issues front and center: breast cancer, pregnancy, unsupportive husbands. But as I got to watching it, I realized it went well beyond that. This was about the bonds of friendship, the challenges of family, the responsibilities of marriage -- from both sides of the relationship, and the freedom to make choices. Everyone can relate to these issues.

Toni Collette is a strong lead in the role as Milly, a wild and crazy lover of life with all the responsibilities of a job and a family. Drew Barrymore is a strong second lead in the role as Jess, Milly's best friend since childhood, who has struggled to become pregnant with her husband. She shines less in the limelight but is no less important as a character, a tag-along in Milly's wild ride through life. Especially when Milly learns she has breast cancer. It's Jess who is there at her side through chemotherapy. And then when Milly goes through a mastectomy, it's Jess who's there for her. And when Jess finally becomes pregnant, she sets aside her good news to help Milly through more bad news. Milly seems to grab all the attention until the very end, when she finally comes to Jess's aid. The husbands and children? They're there to add conflict.

The supporting cast is pretty good, too. But who make this movie are Barrymore and Collette shining brightly on the screen. Many parts are just downright funny, despite the serious subject matter, owning to the fine script and contagious grins and laughter of the lead actresses. It's a film that both takes itself seriously and makes you smile at the same time. And who can't enjoy a film like that?

Guys, sit down and watch Miss You Already with your favorite ladies. Ladies, invite your guys over to watch it with you. It will be time worth spending together.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Genius: A Deeply Emotional Film Well Worth Viewing

Movie Review: Genius (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Persephone: Well Told Adventure With Something for Every Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Sing: You'll Really Dig It

Movie Review: Sing (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Silence: A Powerful Story Well Told By a Master Storyteller

Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 05, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 04, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial: An Undeniably Emotional Journey Into a Horrible World

Movie Review: Denial (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Jungle Book: Third Time Around's a Charm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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