Sunday, February 18, 2018

Gifted: The Story, the Acting, the Writing, the Encouragement You Should See

Movie Review: Gifted (2017)
Version: HBO On-Demand

Our family watched a triple feature movie Saturday night. Gifted was by far the best of the three.

My daughter, who has a variety of disabilities, was drawn to this story about an intellectually gifted but socially awkward girl named Mary. She lives with her single uncle, Frank, who took over parenting of the six year old after his math-whiz sister stopped by unannounced and while he anxiously left on a date, committed suicide, leaving Mary behind. Frank and his sister had always had a difficult relationship with their smart but not-too-close mother, and it was clear his sister didn't want Mary left with her mother, despite her wealth. Frank decides despite having home taught Mary for some time it's best she attend public school now to help her develop social skills and friendships with others her own age. Neighbor Roberta, who has come to know and love Frank and Mary, knows this can only lead to complications down the road, discourages Frank, but he is insistent, and so a ball begins to roll downhill that Frank cannot stop. It is apparent to Mary's new teacher, Ms Stevenson, and school administrators, that the school cannot provide for Mary's intellectual needs and want to send her to a school for the gifted. Frank is stubborn about keeping her there. And so the grandmother is consulted, who tries to move heaven and earth to interfere on Mary's intellectual behalf, pitting mother against son -- once again.

Gifted is a fine story in and of itself. But what shines here is the acting. I always thought Chris Evans was kind of dorky as Captain America, but he shines here as Frank. Young Mckenna Grace is brilliant as Mary and reminds me a lot of Dakota Fanning in her younger roles. She carries the female lead with great emotional highs and lows like a seasoned actress. Lindsay Duncan is cold and plotting as the grandmother, Evelyn. What can I say about Octavia Spencer as the neighbor Roberta? She is magic in every role I have ever seen her play, and so she is here. There is a scene where Frank must confront Evelyn to reach Mary, and when Evelyn moves forward to resist Frank, Roberta steps between them like the knight in shining armor to stop Evelyn in her tracks, like, "No you don't!" Jenny Slate makes a wonderful Ms Stevenson, the teacher, and a forbidden love interest for Frank. I would watch this film just for the acting.

The writing was quite good, too. It can affect the whole rest of the movie, and in this case, the writing built a strong bulwark around which the whole story easily flowed. That means there were few plot holes or questionable scenes, and that means you can enjoy it without continually being jerked away from the narrative to ask, what the heck was that!

One other thing to consider. This is the story about a girl who is a math prodigy. We are at a turning point in American culture (and perhaps other cultures) where we are beginning to finally realize that girls are just as capable of handling math as boys. That was once not so. Gifted could be that film that encourages the gifted girl in your family to pursue math or science or some other area of interest she may have felt discouraged to study. Encourage her by watching Gifted with her.

To recap, Gifted is the story, the acting, the writing, the encouragement your family should see together.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Stronger: A Dreary Film with an Uplifting Ending

Movie Review: Stronger (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Remember the 2016 film, Patriot's Day, the retelling of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing? That was a well-told overview of the entire event and the amazing take down of the two terrorists behind the bombing. Stronger is the 2017 more personal story of Jeff Bauman, a Boston-area ne'er-do-well who lost both legs because stood by the finish line to cheer on a friend running in the marathon.

Both films are brutally honest retellings of this horrific event, but Stronger is a gritty, dreary, brooding tale of one man's pitiable journey through the hell of loss and rediscovering his self in trying to regain the use of his legs. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, the tragic Bostonian who has eyes for a young lady running in the Boston Marathon but who doesn't seem to be so interested in him. Tatiana Maslany plays Erin Hurley, who comes from a more well-to-do family and pushes away Bauman's affection until he loses his legs while showing up to watch her cross the finish line at the Marathon. And Miranda Richardson plays Bauman's troublesome single mother, Patty, who hangs on to her son for dear life, seeming to suck the life out of him as he struggles to recreate a life out of tragedy.

There isn't much uplifting to this film until the end, when Bauman finally rises above his circumstances to claim the woman he loves and the life he finally realizes he can salvage. He must dip into the lowest pit of despair before he can rebound and surge to the top. And so he does. But it's a long slog in the meantime. Based on a real story, we are at the mercy of one man's life history watching this drama unfold. However, we never lose hope as the title, Stronger, reminds us that from tragedy can come greatness.

For me, personally, the cinematography adds to the depressive quality of this film. Like most of the movies I see on topics about Boston, the dense graininess of the film gives a cheapness to the look and feel to the story. Too, the lower-class settings add a hopelessness. Since the story is biographical, this probably can't be helped, but when you add these together, they make for a dreary presentation, and perhaps that is partly by design. I noticed it also in Patriot's Day. This isn't a complaint as much as an observation and a warning to the potential viewer: This film may drag you down on a bad day.

The upshot is, the story is worth the telling and so, the film is worth seeing. Just watch it on a nice sunny, uplifting day. Then the uplifting end can shine through.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Goodbye Christopher Robins: How a Family Got Swallowed Up by a Hundred-Acre Woods

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robins (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Of all the good that came from A.A. Milne's writings about Winnie the Pooh, the one who got the least good from it was C.R. Milne, the son of the author, and the original, Christopher Robin. The sad story of the effects on the growing up of the child who was known by his parents as Billy Moon is told in the excellent British film, Goodbye Christopher Robins.

A.A. Milne (true name Alan Milne) suffered from PTSD as a result of his experiences serving in the British Army during World War I. When he returned home after "the war to end all wars", the successful playwright decided to leave the excitement of London to live in the quiet countryside, where he would write a book against wars.

He was married to socialite Daphne, who preferred the exciting life of the big city, but she followed Alan to the country life, where they had a baby boy whom they named Christopher Robin. Only, planning ahead, Daphne decided they were going to have a girl (because if they had a boy he might end up going to war one day and she couldn't have that), and while they waited for the child's birth they nicknamed it Billy. After the baby was born they retained the nickname Billy and because of a fluke in pronunciation gave him the second name Moon.

Daphne wasn't happy with her birthing experience, and Alan needed quiet to write his book, so they hired a nanny named Olive, and off the mother and father would go to do their own thing, leaving Billy Moon in the care and raising of Olive. But Alan had writer's block and found it more interesting to spend time with Billy Moon as the young lad was growing up, so Daphne decided to leave for the big city until Alan started writing again.

Still, Alan had writer's block as he worked on his book promoting peace over war. Then Olive's mother became sick and she needed time away. With both Daphne and Olive away, it left Alan and Billy Moon on their own, giving their relationship time to grow naturally. They spent long hours together exploring the surrounding hundred acre wood, making up stories featuring the stuffed animals that filled Billy Moon's life and the nature of the woods. That gave Alan Milne an idea for a book. He invited an illustrator friend over to make some drawings. A poem emerged with a couple of drawings, which Alan sent to Daphne, and she sent it to a magazine, and because of the poem the magazine had its largest circulation ever. Alan wrote the book featuring a boy named Christopher Robins and a little bear named Winnie the Pooh and his friends of the Hundred Acre Woods. It was an instant success.

The world became enamored by the book, its characters, and the real Christopher Robins. The mother became excited by the publicity and success, and Billy Moon was swept up into the whirlwind of publicity stunts, reporters and photographers, book signings, and far less quality time with his father.

Goodbye Christopher Robins covers all this and more. It's the story of a boy who asks his father to write a story for him and finds his story, and his name, taken from him and given instead to the world. It's actually even more complex than that.

Olive sees all this happening and rather than participate any longer in the robbing of the boy's precious childhood, she leaves the family. Realizing his mistake, Alan Milne promises Billy Moon he will never write another Winnie the Pooh story, then he sends Billy Moon to a boarding school. But what he thinks will be a relief for the boy is really just the same, because there is nowhere that Christopher Robin can escape his formal name. Thus, at age 18, Christopher is ready to shed his identity by joining the British Army during World War II. Ready to leave for service on a departing train, his farewell to his father is an anguished rant about his lost childhood. Alan Milne is devastated, but there is nothing he can do. A more anonymous C.R. Milne leaves for war. Sometime later, Alan receives a telegraph message advising him that his son is missing in action and presumed dead. But that's not where the story ends. It actually ends happily ever after.

Goodbye Christopher Robins is a lavishly cinematographed film, which is shot entirely in England. Now, England will always be England, regardless of the period or era, and it gives itself to lush images. The characters are comely, with Domhnall Gleeson as a reticent A.A. Milne, Will Tilston as a cheerful 8-year-old Billy Moon, and Alex Lawther as a much anguished 18-year-old Christopher. Margot Robbie plays the self-centered Daphne, while Kelly Macdonald plays the care-giving Olive. It's a beautiful film reflecting on the ravages of war on society and the price paid by innocent youth for living with success.

This is a film most ages can watch and enjoy. Younger ages might need help understanding the complexities of relationships, however. But most will enjoy understanding the story behind Christopher Robins and Winnie the Pooh and how a family got swallowed up by a hundred-acre woods.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Arctic Event: A Good Choice!

Book Review: The Arctic Event by Robert Ludlum
Version: Library ebook borrow

I have a new Kindle Fire 7 to access cloudLibrary from my local library, and to test out this new ebook resource, I chose The Arctic Event. It's the seventh book of the Covert-One series by Robert Ludlum (best known for the Jason Bourne series) released in 2008. It was a good choice!

The 2008 world of The Arctic Event is much different than our world today. In it, the United States and the Russian Federation are cooperative. Russia is still reeling from the effects of its Soviet past and hasn't yet begun to try to influence elections in the U.S. and Europe. In this story, an old Soviet aircraft accidentally downed unnoticed in the remote Arctic during the Cold War is discovered by a Western scientific expedition, and a U.S. team of covert military assets, accompanied by a cooperating military officer from the Russian Federation, travel to the far northern Canadian frontier to investigate. Details slowly emerge that the downed aircraft was on a secret mission carrying a tank of anthrax to disperse over North America, and the question is, when the crew knew they were about to crash did they ditch the tank of anthrax or is it still on the plane? On the way to the crash site, the team's helicopter is attacked from the air, and as they finally make landfall and seek out the crash site by foot, they find the science lab has been attacked and now the team is under attack by hostile forces. Meanwhile, the Americans aren't sure they can trust the military officer from Russia. Someone else wants the tank of anthrax and suddenly the Russians don't want the world to know the truth about the mission of the downed airplane. It's up to the American team to thwart the enemies, whoever they are.

Ludlum is a great writer and his stories rarely fail to satisfy. In this instance, The Arctic Event is a well-crafted spy thriller with well-rounded characters and a nicely plotted story line. His descriptions are keenly written, as well, giving you a vivid scene of the setting and the action and making the story play out before your eyes. I wouldn't say you will be riveted to your seat, but you will be captured by the drama and the events and you will want to get to the end to find out how everything plays out.

Don't let this being a 2008 release or the almost quaint historical perspective of positive U.S.-Russia relations put you off. It's still a good story. And if you are put off by long waits at the library for a current Robert Ludlum book, I would think a 2008 book wouldn't have that problem.

So, do consider reading The Arctic Event. As a Robert Ludlum book it's a good read!

Friday, February 09, 2018

American Assassin: Great Actors Playing Character Chess

Movie Review: American Assassin (2017)
Version: Library borrow

American Assassin is less about being an assassin than it is about being a spy. True, Mitch Rapp intended to assassinate the man responsible for the killing of his fiancée at the beginning of the film. And he goes to the Middle East to accomplish that goal, although after having reached the man he is foiled by the CIA, who kills the man instead. Then Rapp is recruited to become a spy. And so, American Assassin is really a spy thriller. Do you like spy thrillers? Then you should be good to see American Assassin.

Thus, the story morphs from the story of a young man intent on revenge to a young man focused on seeing missions accomplished. He is given over to the mentoring of an experienced ex-SEAL operative, Stan Hurley (played with precision by Michael Keaton), who takes no crap from any snot-nosed kid with no skills. Only, Rapp (played with less skill but with tones of earnestness by Dylan O’Brien) has other, better talents, like passion and drive and self-confidence, which help him get a mission done when others fall back as things go wrong. And plenty of things do go wrong. This puts the two at odds through most of the story, until Hurley gets captured by the bad guys near the end and it’s Rapp who comes to his rescue, Hurley finally giving Rapp his due appreciation. Of course.

There are other characters in this movie, like Rapp’s competitor for the assignment, who is almost immediately killed. Who didn’t see that coming? Or the woman asset in Rome who it seems may be playing for the other side. (I have to admit the DVD froze at that point and advanced to a spot later in the movie, and it wouldn’t let us go back to see what happened in between.) But the heart of the film are the two disparate characters, Rapp and Hurley, forced to work together by their CIA boss. In the end, it’s their combined abilities that helps them save the day, locating a nuclear device that threatens the lives of millions of people (eye roll).

Frankly, I’ve seen more than my fair share of thrillers about terrorists who too easily get their hands on nuclear devices and the thrill comes down to the hero or heroes having just seconds to save the world from devastation. It’s in movies, it’s all over TV, it’s in books. Really, Hollywood, that’s all you’ve got? Really, New York publishers, that’s your best shot?

As a spy thriller, American Assassin has plenty of action. But the locations are just so-so -- they could have occurred in any urban setting and it would have been “seen that before”. The directing and editing are meh. It’s the characters and the actors who play them that drive this movie. O’Brien has been the driving force behind the success of The Maze Runner series and he makes an effort to up his game in this otherwise clichĂ© movie. Keaton is pure Keaton, always fun to watch, whether he’s a likable family man (Mr Mom), a robust hero (Batman and Batman Returns), a down-and-out man looking for his next big break (The Founder), or this ex-Navy SEAL professional struggling make it out alive while trying to save the world. Keaton can turn a facial expression on a dime, from reasonable dude to mean son of a bitch in a second, making his characters pop on the screen as is the case in this film. O’Brien is still learning his craft, but he easily plays a young man eager to take out the bad guys and win at all costs. It’s fun to watch just to see these two guys score the near disaster together.

So the deal here is, don’t watch American Assassin for the assassination, watch it to see O’Brien and Keaton play character chess on the screen. It’s a good watch.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Disappointment

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Version: Theater ticket purchase

I have had some challenges writing a review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Having enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, my wife and I had looked forward to this new release. Yet, sitting through the film, even in multiple short bursts of conversation afterwards, we kept coming to the same conclusion: The Last Jedi was a disappointment. It fell short of expectations.

As I wrote to a friend on Facebook, “Wish I could say we enjoyed it, but we were both unsettled with what we felt was a less than satisfying story and presentation. If this is as good as J.J. Abrams' crew can do, maybe The Last Jedi should be the last Star Wars. I've heard J.J. himself will direct the next episode to try to save the franchise. Maybe he will be our last hope.”

Let me explain.

Last Jedi is full of plot holes, inconsistencies, and flat out missed opportunities. It was a franchise sequel that sold its soul for a holiday blockbuster.

Here’s an example. There are multiple cameos for the sake of cameos. The appearance of C3PO and R2D2 serve no function except to hang a consistent thread through all the Star Wars films. In The Last Jedi, they never do anything that advances the story. But the appearances of Leia and Luke could have done the same thing, so there was no need for these useless droids.

Here’s another. Pilot Poe, a hit in The Force Awakens, makes his second appearance in The Last Jedi. Apparently he was so popular in the beta views of Awakens, when he was killed off in the early scenes they had to add scenes to revive him. So they brought him back in this film. But he is more intense here than he was in Awakens, bothersomely so, and there is no thematic justification for it. His role here seems like an odd justification to keep him in the film, because he’s just a pilot, yet they have him challenging the generals and disobeying orders, which wasn’t like him in Awakens.

Still another. The general who appears in the opening scenes of The Last Jedi is an embarrassingly parodic version of every evil general of every past Star Wars episode. Was this an attempt at humor? At what cost to the serious tone of the film? He’s bumbling and mumbling and inept in a cringely pathetic way. The other generals were scarily evil autocrats.

Yet another. Snoke, the Supreme Ruler, who usually towers above his students as a dark and menacing holographic phantom with unlimited telepathic Jedi powers, appears in person in The Last Jedi. Once individually before Kylo Ren and once before Rey in the company of Kylo Ren. In person he isn’t nearly so imposing, although apparently his imposing Jedi powers are intact. He manages to telepathically seize Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from Rey’s hand and set it at his side. After it’s apparent that Rey won’t turn to the dark side, Snoke confesses to the pair how he can read everyone’s mind and has been telepathically manipulating everyone. As he brags on, trying to telepathically force Kylo Ren to kill Rey, Ren uses his own Jedi skills to turn on Skywalker’s lightsaber and rotate it at Snoke’s side to slice through Snoke and kill him -- without Snoke-the-mind-reader noticing. You get how ridiculous this is, right?

One more. Kylo Ren comes off as a mentally ill manchild with daddy issues. This isn’t some evil dark lord pursuing the throne for the sake of power and glory, this is a kid who can’t get past some weakly implied -- never fully explored or explained -- disagreement with his father, certainly, and apparently also with his mother. And when Rey won’t go along with his need for revenge against mom and dad, he goes beserk. Throughout this film, Ren is a powder keg ready to explode. If Snoke was the father he always wanted, Snoke’s pointed verbal displeasure at his failures brings Ren’s daddy issues right back into focus. Where is the editorial justification for this explosive anger?

Plotus Holus Magnus. The resistance is running for their lives, chased by this enormous powerful dreadnought and a fleet of destroyers by The First Order. The resistance has a small fleet, led by a large ship, and one by one the dreadnought picks off ships. The weird, odd, unaccountable thing is, with all its power, the dreadnought can’t quite keep up with or get a speed advantage on any of the ships in the resistance fleet, even though they’re running low on fuel. The resistance ships are always just far enough out of reach that the dreadnought can only take pot shots at them and keep them running for their lives. Come on!

There are others. These are just the most egregious seeming.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, here is the gist of the story. The Republic survived The Empire but now The Empire has resurfaced as The First Order and it’s pummeled The Republic. The Rebel Alliance has become The Resistance, and they have been decimated by attacks from The First Order. The Jedi Order has also been decimated, and its final Jedi master, Luke Skywalker, has gone into hiding on a remote planet. As the film opens, picking up where The Force Awakens left off, Rey finds and confronts Luke Skywalker for help saving The Resistance. But Skywalker has gone into hiding after suffering a huge personal failure training a future Jedi, Kylo Ren, and Skywalker’s plans are simply to live out his days until death on the hidden planet. Rey asks him to train her but he refuses. Meanwhile, awaiting Rey’s return with Skywalker, leaders of The Resistance flee for their lives from attacks by The First Order, led by a nervous general in charge of a powerful dreadnought and a fleet of destroyers and Supreme Ruler’s (Snokes) highly emotional Jedi trainee, Kylo Ren. The Resistance makes its final stand on a deserted Rebel Alliance outpost, where The First Order will ram the front entrance to capture the remaining rebels and Kylo Ren will face his last remaining powerful foe, a recalcitrant Jedi Master Skywalker.

The story is full of half-baked Jedi mind tricks and overly sentimental references to past characters that don’t do them justice. Even the ending is an emotional cliche. The Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi just isn’t the Luke Skywalker of Star Wars lore (actor Mark Hamill has said as much) -- the J.J. Abrams crew seem to have a fetish for killing off canon characters, just as they did with Han Solo in The Force Awakens. Han Solo didn’t seem like the same Han Solo in that episode, either. The only character who seems like the same ol’ same ol’ is Chewbaca. How can you fake a wooky?

So the uptake is this. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a deeply flawed movie. We didn’t like it. The more we thought and talked about it, the more we couldn’t shake that indictment. And when we talked to others about it, we discovered that’s what they thought, too.

Should you see The Last Jedi? Sure. See it on the big screen on discount day. Or wait for it to come out on DVD/BlueRay and borrow it from the library. But just be warned: It has enough rough patches to wear the treads off a tire.