Monday, January 29, 2018

The Book of Henry: The Critics Are Wrong; This Is an Endearing Film

Movie Review: The Book of Henry (2017)
Version: Cable on-demand rental

The Book of Henry is an endearing film about an 11 year old boy upon whom is heaped the woes and cares of a world barely within his control. He is beyond question a genius surrounded by misfits and underlings, and he does his best to use his talents to aid those in need in the time he has in life. The story takes a sad turn and you think he has failed, but then the misfits and underlings rise to Henry's hopes and dreams, and the story reaches its uplifting climax as we realize that the genius was in Henry's thoughtful trust in those for whom he cared.

In researching this admittedly quirky independent film, I saw a lot of emotional critical raw dislike. But let me be contrary to that notion in loving this movie. It could be depressing in places. SPOILER: Main character Henry dies in the middle of the film. His younger brother Peter is heart broken. His mother Susan flips out and loses it. But those don't turn out to be critical to the outcome of this story or the heart of the film itself.

Here is the gist of the story. Henry is a genius; he tells his mother's best friend, Sheila, he prefers "precocious". His mother Susan appears irresponsible, flighty, barely able to take care of two young boys let alone raise two who will grow into responsible young men. It is Henry who guides her own adult decisions, including looking after her finances and investments. While she is working at a restaurant, Henry and his brother keep an amazing "fort" in a treed back lot, where Henry does his thinking and where he builds amazing contraptions. They do for themselves while Mom plays video games in the living room after hours. Yet, she reads them bedtime stories -- she dreams of being a childrens book author and illustrator -- and has rituals which comfort the boys at bedtime. Clearly, she is a good mom. And next door, there is Henry's classmate Christina, a lovely and gentile 11 year old girl that Henry suspects is being abused by her stepfather and whom Henry seems obsessed with protecting. Part of the drama unfolds around Henry scheming to expose her father's abuse.

A good part of the film involves the intricate interplay between these key characters and it seems as if all depends on Henry's dominant smarts and willpower to overcome evil. But then all that falls apart when he dies. Key to our hope as viewers is Henry's red book, which he tells Peter to make sure he gives to his mother. And it's what that book provides Henry's mother that moves this movie and its positive energy forward. It's not quite what you think, if you've started this movie and didn't finish it, by the way. The conclusion is far different than you might have thought!

I'll give high marks to the actors in this feel-good drama. Naomi Watts is brilliant as the mother, at first ditzy as a scatter brained, clearly inept leader of the family, then slapped in the face to reality when she really needed it. It was quite a responsibility for Jaeden Lieberher as lead male in this role as Henry, but he played it well, hitting all the emotional notes when needed, yet also playing out the smart bits equally well. Maddie Ziegler is vulnerable and yet not obvious in her role as Christina. There's also a special bond between Henry and Susan's friend Sheila, played with precision by Sarah Silverman, who appear not to get along but in the end appreciate each other very much. Jacob Tremblay is very young as brother Peter, but he handles the tear-jerker scenes of losing his brother, who was his protector at school and in life.

As an indy film, The Book of Henry also enjoyed the freedom to be a beautifully filmed movie. The opening scenes were elegant. Settings were moody and defined the emotional impact of the story. The shots and lighting suited the moods as well, and the sequence timing and editing suited the storytelling rather than manipulating the marketing. This is a well crafted film. Kudos to the opening credits graphics as well.

The vast majority of the critics were wrong about The Book of Henry. If you are patient with this film and get your head out of the Hollywood blockbuster mode, you can and will appreciate this movie for the story and storytelling that it is. And that's what film ultimately is -- storytelling. If it's just about bringing in dollars to the box office, there's something wrong. This is a worthy film for most members of your family. See it!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The LEGO Ninjago Movie: Entertaining Mind Play on the Screen

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

Out of a possible five LEGO tiles, I'd give the third LEGO movie -- The LEGO Ninjago Movie -- a four. I liked the other two better. But only slightly. The problem is, they all seem to be developed out of the same formula, so I was kind of disappointed that this one wasn't a lot different: Boy with daddy issues fights off megalomaniac father figure who seeks to dominate the boy's culture. And there's a wise elder other-fatherlike figure nearby to guide the boy.

What I did like about The LEGO Ninjago Movie, indeed with all LEGO movies, is the playfulness of the script and the multiple sight gags and easter eggs you see throughout the film. And the characters are always fun, way fun!

The basic premise of the story is that Lloyd (Luh-loyd as his detached abandoned father calls him) is a teen at a typical high school shunned by his classmates for being the son of the local evil warlord. That's his "day job". "By night" he's a young ninja superhero, one of six, who battles that evil warlord to defend their island home against attack and conquer. The warlord brings along a gang of spirited generals to help him take on the island and the ninjas, and when things go awry, he jettisons them from their volcano home lair when they can't come up with new evil plots for their next attack. Lloyd is the leader of the ninjas, who has a chip on his shoulder because his father, Garmadon the evil warlord, left him when he was a baby, and as he confronts Garmadon in each attack, he gives him one more opportunity to explain why he abandoned him and redeem himself with his son. But things aren't quite as they seem and Lloyd and his ninjas go off on a journey of discovery with the aid of their wise mentor, Master Wu, to find The Ultimate Weapon, to take on Garmadon.

The Ninjago version of the franchise has the usual concoction of LEGO-tile built creations, from cityscapes to vehicles to outside environments to weapons and characters. It's an imaginative play word you would love to sit down on the floor and mess around with like a kid, only it's on your TV screen and it's animated. I can't imagine the work it takes to create a world like that in an animation studio. But this production studio has done it and made it highly watchable.

There are, of course, multiple voice talents, but the ones that matter in this story are Dave Franco as Lloyd, Justin Theroux as Garmadon, and Jackie Chan as Master Wu. The film actually begins with Jackie Chan in live action as a wise Chinese merchant who introduces a young boy to the story. These characters are the heart of the action and these actors rise to the occasion. (Interestingly, before I watched this DVD I watched a young Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx where he does some of his most amazing kung fu stunts -- in this movie, Chan looks much aged.)

The graphics for the end credits were interesting, too. They used what looked like paper LEGO schematics for building the LEGO Ninjago world to build the title graphics around. That's worth staying around for.

A LEGO movie is always fun family entertainment. They won't all be five out of fives, and it's unfair to compare one against another, really. The LEGO Ninjago Movie stands on its own as an interesting story with imaginative characters and entertaining mind play on the screen. Go for it!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dunkirk: Widely Misses the Mark

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Evacuation of Allied soldiers from the British Empire, and France, who were cut off and surrounded by the German army from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France, between May 26- June 04, 1940, during Battle of France in World War II.

Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard, James Bloor, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Kenneth Branagh

The massively award-nominated and occasionally awarded film Dunkirk (2017) has been lauded by multiple critics. Among its nominations are for direction, editing, and musical score. I've afraid I cannot agree. But who am I, just a film fan, to disagree?

Dunkirk is the story of Britain's effort to rescue nearly 400,000 troops from Dunkirk, France, in late-spring 1940 as they wilted under the superior military strength of the Germans. The scale of the film in showing the threat posed to the troops, the efforts and failures the Brits faced, and their struggle to survive a brutal and unethical and continual attack is massive.  Just the scope of the filming, the number of extras, and the logistics is amazing. The special effects and stunt work to demonstrate the damage to ships on which troops were loaded for their escape and sunk was pretty good. But that's where the thumbs up end for me.

Editing? The film jumps around between characters and settings and time frames, making you lose the narrative thread of the story line right from get go. We were well into a third of the movie before we realized what was going on as the scenes shifted from day to night to day to night to day to night, on and on. Characters suddenly started showing up in disjointed places in the story. We might be at the beginning of the story or in the middle of the story, at any one time we weren't sure.

Directing? The editor works closely with the director and while the editor makes choices based on the script, the director makes the final decisions. This confusing disjointedness of the story is more likely his problem. Sure, the overall vision of the film, the grand scheme of the story, is attributable to him, but so are the nits. So I'll give him kudos for the overall vision, but I'll also give him boos for the messy narrative thread, too.

Musical score? To be blunt, there was nothing memorable about it. It should be memorable. It should help drive the emotional elements of the story, build the tension and stimulate the elation, even touch the heart. You should be able to hum the musical score when the movie is over. There's no "there" there from this film.

And there are few magical moments for actors in this film, either. I don't think anyone has been nominated for an award yet -- Oscar nominations are yet to be announced as of this writing. This is an ensemble cast of un-notable performances, save Mark Rylance playing a fairly minor part as Mr Dawson, the owner of a small private boat on his way to rescue the soldiers, and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton, head of the British Naval Forces in charge of the evacuation, who stayed behind when all ships had finally left. There were good performances otherwise, but nothing exceptional. It was, basically, an ensemble cast of dozens. Ho-hum. Rylance is a memorable British character actor. Branagh is an accomplished international star. Neither was the star of the film, yet they shined.

Dunkirk was a story needing telling. Perhaps in Britain and Commonwealth markets it plays differently and the actors are better known and their performances better appreciated. So maybe I'm missing something. But the way this film was edited, the way the narrative thread was spliced together so haphazardly, I think it missed its mark. Sorry. My take is, this film widely misses the mark and is overrated.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Girl Gone: A Mystery Turned Thriller Turned Horror Turned Sour

Book Review: Girl Gone by Gillian Flynn
Version: Library Hardcover borrow

Working with an author who was writing his first short stories, I read a particularly interesting cross-genre story -- a mystery, thriller, and potential horror. When I said how much I liked it, he suggested I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. So recently, I found myself reading this stunner of a story from 2014 that amazingly begins as a mystery, midway through crosses over into a thriller, and near the end becomes sort of a horror. And it works!

The main characters are Amy and Nick, a love-struck couple from New York City who lose their metropolitan writing jobs and the luster of success. Nick's parents back in Missouri run into major health problems, leaving his sister Margo (called "Go") to handle the stress, so Nick uproots big-city Amy and moves her reluctantly to small-city Carthage, Missouri.

Amy comes from a wealthy family, who has left her a large endowment. Nick is from a broken family, with few resources. Arriving in Carthage with no jobs and only Amy's endowment to live on, Nick taps her endowment to buy a bar, which he co-owns with his sister Go. With everyone under stress, the marriage suffers. On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick goes home for something and discovers the home in a wreck and Amy mysteriously missing. Unleash the unfolding clues to the mystery, which seem to point to Nick as the killer of Amy!

We meet a host of other interesting side characters. Two police officers investigating Amy's disappearance. Potential other perps. Amy's worried parents. Nick's parents, one who has dementia and lives in a nursing home, the other who is dying from cancer. Amy's diary, telling her side of the story; Nick's narrative telling his side. Go, Nick's dogged supportive twin sister.

Halfway through the book, the story morphs into a thriller. No spoilers here -- suffice it to say, the story takes a sudden amazing turn as we find out the disappearance isn't what we thought it was. And a plot to nail Nick is underway. His very future and life are under threat. We meet new characters, some trying to help Nick, some that are direct threats to others.

And near the end, Girl Gone turns into kind of a horror story. There's an actual murder. Someone is an insidious mastermind at work, as a different kind of threat to Nick and his future continues. And then there's the story of what happened to Amy. Everyone in Nick's life is affected, and not for the good. If you're looking for a good outcome, there isn't one.

For me, there's the rub. After all the work building up the mystery and then the thriller, there's no decent end to the story. It's brilliantly written, well plotted and executed (no pun intended, considering that someone is murdered near the end). The characters are well defined and finely tuned. Descriptions and scenes are exceptional -- Gillian Flynn is a wonderful writer! I would have read it for the excellent writing alone. But I felt cheated at the end. For me, it turned sour.

Gone Girl has offers more twists and turns than a Disney theme park ride. This story was one wild ride. If Flynn had just written a more fulfilling end (face palm). My author friend thought it was a fitting end, considering the complexity and brilliance of the plotter behind Amy's missing and all the mystery and thrill and horror that person planned and executed. To me, it was like making it through a state fair fun house only to fall through a trap door at the end.

Should you read it? Definitely. It's damned fine writing. I enjoyed every paragraph. Just don't be surprised if you feel let down at the end. Let me know in the comments if you disagree.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Kingsmen: The Golden Circle: Brilliant but Unfortunately Not Suitable for All Audiences

Movie Review: Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The second movie in the Kingsmen franchise, The Golden Circle, is brilliant. But unfortunately it isn't for everyone. Certain language and a very explicit sexual scene make sure of that. Adult supervision is strongly advised during the music festival scene! If you're okay with strong language and you can keep the kids out of the room during the music festival scene, then teens might get through this otherwise fun, action-packed film unscathed.

Julianne Moore plays a drug lord who has tainted the world's supply of recreational drugs with a toxin that over time renders users first silly, then crazy, then paralyzed, then dead -- unless the United States gives in to her demands to legalize all drugs. Then she will release an antidote with immediate results to rescue the world's population of drug users. And it turns out, it affects people of all walks of life, including the president's chief of staff, a Kingsman's love interest, most of the world's population, and best of all, entertainer/song writer Elton John, who steals the show near the end.

The Kingsmen become involved when Moore's character, Poppy, blows up their headquarters in London and elsewhere. The only Kingsmen left are Eggsy (played once again by Taron Egerton) and Merlin (played again by Mark Strong). A clue leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky, where they discover a "cousin" organization called The Statesmen. They meet a group of very erstwhile American agents, including leader Champ (played by Jeff Bridges), Tequila (played by Channing Tatum), and Whiskey (played by Pedro Pascal), whom they enlist in the battle against Moore's drug empire known as The Golden Circle. The Statesman's version of Merlin is Ginger (played by Halle Berry). An added interesting twist, Poppy has enlisted the help of Charlie (played by Edward Holcroft), one of the Kingsmen enlistees who didn't make it in the last movie. Colin Firth returns as Harry, rescued and resuscitated by The Statesmen but not knowing who he was.

For every Kingsmen British skill and tool, there is a Statesmen American equivalent in this movie, making for an entertaining match up as the story plays out. Umbrellas and suitcases give way to whips and lassos, stylish bowlers give way to Stetsons, broughams give way to cowboy boots, and on and on. But what they all have in common is their flair for quick action and well honed technique. From the beginning to end of the film, there is action. And just for added fun, Elton John gets to throw in a high-air karate kick during a rescue-scene sequence at Poppy's Cambodian lair. It's worth watching the movie just to see that!

So much imagination went into the making of this film. Not just the sets in London and surrounding countryside, but also making the Kentucky distillery look amazing. And then Poppy's lair is just out of this world incredible! Add to that the CGI for robotics and the special effects for the car chase scenes! Then the attention to detail for the fight scenes. For an examination of all that, make sure you get the Blue-Ray version, which includes an Extras section that lasts well over an hour -- there is so much there to see and absorb in that section alone!

My uptake for this film is, if you can take the more than occasional f-bomb throughout this film, and if you aren't squeamish about the explicit sexual scene during the music festival, see Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It's really quite brilliant, as the Brits like to say.