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.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Love & Mercy: If You're a Beach Boys or '60's Rock Fanatic You Might Enjoy It

Movie Review: Love and Mercy (2014)
Version: Library Borrow

Paul Giamatti is great at playing bad guys. He excels in Love and Mercy as the shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy manipulating Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson in this bio pic of Wilson's struggles as the band's creative force with mental health issues. Equally good in his role is Paul Dano as a very young Wilson, who sings a good tune and performs well as the dominant leader of America's preeminent rock band creating the legend and beginning to show the signs of illness. John Cusack puts in a middling performance as the older, weaker Wilson under Landy's devious thumb. Elizabeth Banks is excellent as Melinda Ledbetter, the heroine who takes on Landy and saves Wilson's sanity and soul. Other characters come off as also-features in this sorry story.

That's the best that can be said for this film. You do get to enjoy the best of the Beach Boys classic music and watch it being created, albeit re-imagined in film, based on Wilson's autobiography. But the story is disjointed by the film's technique of jumping between the early days of the band and the "current" days of Wilson trying to stay afloat mentally. Nothing about the presentation seems real, until you get to the stills and news clips shown in the closing credits. The old fuzzy, graininess of the film is a put off in this age of HD clarity. There is a lot of conflict in the film to give it some teeth, but much of it arises from emotional drama, which can drain a film of movement. It simply doesn't work on its own.

If you are a Beach Boys or '60's rock fanatic, you might enjoy Love and Mercy for the music. In that case, sit back with the sound tuned up, close your eyes, and enjoy the ride. But for me, sorry to say, Love and Music was a bust. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.