Monday, July 29, 2019

The Mountain Between Us: Redeeming Message and Sweeping Vistas, but Plodding Plot

Movie Review: The Mountain Between Us (2017)
Version: Library borrow

It was never going to be an award-wining film, but The Mountain Between Us gets points for having a socially redeeming message and sweeping vistas. The lead actors (Idris Elba and Kate Winslet) are pretty good, too. However, the writing isn't spectacular and the plotting is plodding.

Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is a heart surgeon trying to get back from a conference to do an emergency surgery. Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is a socialite photographer trying to get home for her pending marriage. A snow storm upends both their flights home so they arrange a private plane flown by aging pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) to take them over a mountain and homeward bound. Only, Walter suffers a debilitating stroke and crashes the plane high in the wilderness. From here on out, it's not a matter of will they get home in time for their important business but will they get home at all. It's them against nature and the cold of winter in the mountains.

Add to that dynamic are the cultural divides. He's a doctor and she's a socialite. He's been married that she senses is keeping a secret from his wife, she's about to be newly married. He's Black, she's White. Multiple conflicts arise as they try to stay alive and find rescue. What they come to find instead is a close relationship that threatens to upend their lives if they ever find a way out of the wilderness.

The Mountain Between Us isn't the most exciting movie ever filmed. It has great scenery, but some of the situations seem a bit contrived and, on many levels, too good to be true. And the ending is eye-roll silly. Die-hard romantics will likely eat it up, but if you're a diabetic, be sure to keep your insulin handy. Fair warning!

The only good thing I can say about this film is, they signed good talent. Ibis and Winslet are good to watch squirming through the dialog and scenes struggling through deep snow and cold water. Sorry to be so negative, but I just need to be honest. This was not a film I enjoyed watching.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Isle of Dogs: See It, Because It's a Good Film

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)
Version: Library borrow

Isle of Dogs is an imaginative work of stop-action animation, the story of which takes place in a dystopian future Japan. In it, an outbreak of dog flu forces the mayor of Megasaki to exile all dogs to an island of trash. The main character Atari dares to defy the mayor, his uncle, to seek out his best friend, his lost dog Spots. Crashing his small plane in the refuse, he is rescued by some canine heroes who agree to help him find Spots while overcoming a series of obstacles, including a robot dog sent by the mayor to find him.

The film is a bit dark and dank, but the story line hangs tough and has a lot of heart. It is supported by a superb voice cast, including Koyu Rankin as Atari and Bryan Cranston as Chief, a dog that tries to help from afar because he can't associate with humans. Other top voice talents include Edward Norton as Rex, Jeff Goldblum as Duke, and Bill Murray as Boss. Liev Schreiber is Spots. There are way more! Isle of Dogs has the look and feel of a quality indie film and it has attracted a lot of top talent.

This won't strike you as "up there" with a Disney or Dreamworks picture, and children won't likely be drawn to it with cute, cuddly, colorful characters, but younguns who like films with firm characters and well developed stories will enjoy it. And adults who still love animation will like it for its depth of plot and devotion to technique, story, and art. See Isle of Dogs, because it's a good film.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Dumbo: For Me It's a Flop

Movie Review: Dumbo (2019)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

Holt Farrier (played by Colin Farrell) returns from the war missing an arm and his hope of returning to his life of fame trick-riding horses in the circus. Meanwhile, the circus is running on fumes, selling off assets with its own hopes for a bright future riding on the purchase of a sick elephant and the baby it's carrying. But when it's finally born, Dumbo turns out to be an ugly little critter with huge ears circus goers are more enthralled in jeering than in cheering. And momma elephant has to be shut away to keep her from rampaging the crowds. The circus's only hope to save their show is banking on Dumbo's penchant for flying with its ears. In steps the owner of another circus, whose desire to join forces are suspicious.

This version of the animated original is a darker, less colorful and might I suggest less friendly version. Danny DeVito plays the circus ringleader, more a bumbling con artist than masterful showman. Michael Keaton plays the owner of the second circus, a conniver and evil plotter. Alan Arkin is his financier and enabler. Animation provides a far more fanciful circus world than the live action world with its rough edges and duller images. Real animals just aren't that cute. The world of real people and animals playing the characters adds an evil edge that isn't softened by software.

Add to that the poor joke telling and poorer acting in this version, and you have a dumbed down version of a Disney classic. Honestly, I didn't laugh until well over halfway through the film. I just don't see the reason to have made this film. Sorry, Disney, for me this Dumbo remake is a flop.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Persepolis Rising: Seventh Novel in the Series and it's Dynamite

Book Review: Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey
Version: Library eBook borrow

I cannot express adequately enough how much I am enjoying the James S.A. Corey series on which the sci-fi TV series The Expanse is based. I've just finished reading Persepolis Rising, the seventh full-length novel so far, and it's dynamite!

Persepolis Rising takes place thirty years after the ending of Babylon's Ashes ends, in which a charismatic leader of an insurgent revolutionary force trying to wrest control from the inner planets of our solar system fail in their conquest and high tail an escape through the protomolocule-related ring gate and are not heard from again. In this novel, they reappear with new technology ready to once again challenge Earth, Mars, and the outer worlds for power and domination of human space. At the center of the story line are the crew of the spaceship Rocinate: Holden, Naomi, Bobbie, Amos, Alex, and a host of others that we've grown to know and love from the last six novels. All key to understanding this future universe.

The invaders bring superior ancient technology from the creators of the protomolocules and a misplaced assurance and arrogance of rule. The Rocinate crew find themselves in league with the old Belters who refuse to be conquered fighting off the new "Laconians", bombing facilities and facing off greater forces in an effort to escape and fight for freedom another day.

By way of background, The Expanse is about human habitation of the solar system in the future, escaping the bounds of Earth to live on the Moon and Mars and mining the outer bodies, including the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and La Grange points. Earth and Mars are in competition for control of the solar system and supplying the Belters, often at war with one another. It's a fantastic but realistic visioning of our human future.

As with the past novels, Persepolis Rising is well written, well plotted, and fantastically imagined. The characters are the most amazing, each one written to incredible detail with consistent unique detail, which isn't always the case in lesser-written literature. This has always been so in this series of books and one of the things that makes me so admire the writers (James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym for two authors). Now, I don't think Persepolis Rising is the nadir of the series (I think that was Nemesis Games), but it is a great novel with a good story line and like the others well created -- a great read!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

First Man: A Deeply Introspective Look into Neil Armstrong's Life

Movie Review: First Man (2018)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first steps of man to the Moon in 1969, you might do well to see First Man. It's a look into the life of that first man to put a footprint on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. Claire Foy plays his beleaguered wife.

First Man is a deeply introspect look into a complex man, an engineer test pilot, who risked his life breaking personal barriers to move the U.S. space program forward. Facing many challenges like the loss of a young daughter, he fought depression and doubt to conquer internal deprecation while still contributing to the national effort to reach the Moon. But it was at a cost to his self, his family, and friends, distancing himself from them as he focused on science and engineering instead of working through his tragedies.

This isn't an easy film to watch. We're used to lionizing our heroes and First Man very much shows the struggling, human side to Armstrong. But in watching this more real side of the hero unfold, we learn of their sacrifices and strengths in becoming really greater than the superheroes we've come to know in lore and legend. Celebrate the triumph that was Apollo 11, yes, but also celebrate the man, the family, the endeavor, and the life that was the first man to step on the Moon in real terms. First man on the Moon was a man, with foibles and weaknesses that went along with the strengths, and both sides got him to the Moon and back.  You'll get plenty of the hype elsewhere.

Green Book: Enjoy the Ride Along the Way to Redemption

Movie Review: Green Book (2018)
Version: Library Blue-Ray borrow

Green Book isn't an easy journey, for characters or viewers. It places tough bar bouncer "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) and delicate classical pianist Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) on a long-winding road trip of self-discovery, mostly through the racist southern USA. You'll need thick skin to make it through, but it's worth the journey.

Tony is there because his work at a New York City bar is suspended for a while and it's good to stretch his legs on a long drive. Shirley is there to make a quiet statement. Neither is there for the other, initially, and the tension between the two is palpable as Tony struggles to protect and provide for the man he's signed on to serve, guided only by the Green Book guide for negroes who dare to travel in the segregated Deep South of the early 1960's United States. But as the two learn about each other's lives and the realities of appalling disparities of injustice, and their newfound respect for each other's talents and strengths, they take on the world together and finally become friends.

The picture painted is an ugly one. There is a gritty earthiness to this film that feeds into the reality of the times Green Book exposes. Be prepared for the long haul, because it takes till nearly the end of the film before there will be relief. And that's as it should be, because that's how long the struggle that is the theme of the film has taken.

Mortensen is an underrated actor who often takes on meaty roles, and Green Book is among his meatiest. Ali has been winning accolades for some time for his soulful portrayals in heavy-themed films, and this is among his most sensitive. Together, they make a powerful twosome on the long road to redemption an a subject desperately needing it. If we really pay attention, we enjoy the ride along the way.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Boy Erased: Sometimes Brutally Honest Film on an Important Topic

Movie Review: Boy Erased (2018)
Version: Library Blu-Ray borrow

Boy Erased features a fine cast (Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton) in a sometimes brutally honest memoir of a late-teen's experience with gay conversion therapy imposed by his willful dogmatic preacher-father. Includes a particularly savage rape scene, so this may not be a film for young viewers.

One of the positives about this film is that it doesn't resort to the typical gay stereotypes to portray the main character Jared's fellow therapy subjects. They come off as teens who happen to be gay and we can focus on their struggles instead of the often groan-able stereotypes. One of the negatives is that in not employing at least a couple of stereotypes is that the characters are one dimensional and in some ways seem unrealistic. Where the film may overplay its hand in use of stereotypes is in portraying the southern Baptist fundamentalists who run the therapy camp. In doing so, they risk making the characters look too dark, too evil, and too fit-to-form to be believable.

This is a memoir, so these characters may very well be as written, but all too often we get the feeling artist's license gives free rein to embellishment and the viewer's willful suspension of disbelief takes a hit. I got the feeling that was true here. Another nit was that most of the gay characters were male. There was one lesbian in the therapy class of a dozen or so boys. That seemed strange. Later, the lesbian was seen with a study group of other girls, presumably other lesbians at the center. None of this was addressed in the story. She seemed out place, didn't seem to have a real role.

It was a great story, well written and nicely paced. Definitely a social consciousness story that examined a lot of important sexual-orientation, parental-awareness, and religious-tolerance issues that didn't get bogged down in trying to play nice but focused on telling an important story.