Thursday, July 09, 2020

Simone LaFray and the Chocolatier's Ball

Book Review: Simone LaFray and the Chocolatier's Ball by S.P. O'Farrell
Version: Amazon Prime Kindle-free ebook

Don’t be late to the ball -- to reading Simone LaFray and the Chocolatier’s Ball by fine storyteller S.P. O’Farrell. It’s an enthralling YA suspense tale for young and older readers alike.

Simone is a twelve-year-old sleuth in training, following in her mother’s footsteps to becoming a master spy. While mother is away “on business” outside of Paris, Simone helps her father run the family’s famous chocolate patisserie and watch over her sister Mia, a dancer who loves being the center of attention, really the opposite of Simone. Mentoring Simone is Elaine, head of the French spy ministry, and ready to spring a trap on everyone is "The Red Fox", a notorious art thief, who has an eye on a major piece of art in a Paris museum, Simone, and her father’s busy shoppe. Simone spends 150 clever pages trying to catch "La Volope Rossa" who is here, there, and everywhere, while trying to help her father escape the scowls of his penniwise accountant-cousin always going on about the miserable financial shape of the otherwise most desirable patisserie of Paris, while also helping him avoid the clutches of a ruthless chocolate magnate intent on securing his book of secret family recipes. Then they are stolen in the dark of night, plunging the patisserie into disarray -- and the only answer is crafting a winning entry in the infamous Chocolatier's Ball of Paris.

How all this plays out is the well imagined story in Simone LaFray and the Chocolatier’s Ball. For as with all tales of suspense, nothing is as it seems which plays out until the final suspenseful page.

As much as this is a great story, it is also a well crafted tale. You will find it easy to read but hard to put down, with it's breezy chase scenes and lost umbrellas and suspenseful reveals. O'Farrell engages your senses in each stroll or run or stationary view of the streets and districts of Paris, and there is the busyness of the patisserie with its many delectable smells and chaotic sounds. You've got to be there, surrounded by chocolate.

Now I'm looking forward to O'Farrell's next novel.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Windsong: A Great Tale of Adventure Across the Atlantic by Sail

Book Review: Windsong by Shane Granger
Version: ebook by author

I've written about the harrowing tales in the life of Shane Granger before in The Vega Adventures. In it, he survived a category 5 cyclone (hurricane) and the 2004 tsunami that hit Sumatra and surrounding lands and islands and discovered a mission in life: delivering life-saving medical and educational supplies to the spice islands off Indonesia. Now Granger is using his amazing storytelling skills to tell about some of his other life-changing adventures. His newest book is Windsong.

You will join Granger as a down-on-his-fortunes young man walking a quiet beach in West Africa who stumbles on a half buried hull. Curiosity gets the better of him and before he knows it, he is consumed with a desire to figure out why a sailboat is half buried on a tropical beach, and he becomes almost obsessed with uncovering the truth. The locals think he is crazy, but many come to admire his determination and soon they begin to aid his quest until one day he has unburied the hull to find a decent old ship that's actually worth salvaging. 

And so begins the tale of a man and what will become dreams of restoring an old sailboat to its former glory and a sailing jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way he will meet an old boat builder, a young boat repairman, several willing accomplices with supplies their owners won't miss, a couple of lovely ladies, amiable sailors willing to share their food, and one large great white shark down on its luck. 

Granger will restore the sailboat and have several run ins with nature before he actually launches Windsong westward, where nature will do its best to delay landfall in Brazil. But this is ultimately a story of the journey to get there. And Granger will learn a lot about himself as a sailor and a man along that journey. His story is full surprises and interesting twists about a trip that should have taken a couple of weeks but lasted more than a month. And then when he got there, there were even more surprises you will never guess, including a hilarious encounter with a pope.

It seems Granger never makes a port without finding an amazing woman he falls madly in love with, and one that causes him troubles he can do well enough without, thank you. He barely escapes one in West Africa only to meet two in Brazil, one who risks his life and freedom. 

Windsong is available as an ebook only through Granger's website, Vega 1892, where sales are for fundraising to support his mission to bring medical and educational supplies to the remote spice islands off Indonesia and the Banda Sea. Also on the ebook page is The Vega Adventures and soon, The Sahara Adventure. All great adventure reads.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Dyslexia Code: There Is No More Compassion -- Do It!

Book Review: The Dyslexia Code: There Is No More Compassion -- Do It! by Karl de Leeuw
Version: Free ebook from the author

Dyslexia is often portrayed as a problem to be fixed. Karl de Leeuw looks at it differently, as a gift, as he explains in The Dyslexia Code: There Is No More Compassion -- Do It! In 80 well-researched, well-written pages, de Leeuw shows, tells, and explores why those with dyslexia just think differently and that difference makes them better thinkers, better problem explorers, and better problem solvers.

Most of the hundreds if not thousands of books on dyslexia are written by academics and health professionals, who look at the condition from the outside. De Leeuw sees it from the inside, having dyslexia himself and having a daughter with dyslexia. So he understands what it's like to see the world as a dyslexic. They don't see it 2-dimensionally as most of easy-readers do. They see it more 3-dimensionally as most difficulty-with-reading do, which means they are visualizers and listeners who process information differently. And, de Leeuw explains, that accounts for some of the greatest geniuses and prolific patent-holders being dyslexics. Instead of "fixing" dyslexics, we should be helping dyslexics flourish with their talents, he suggests.

Thus, in The Dyslexia Code de Leeuw spends time and space talking about the condition, how to test for it, how to educate those with it, and how to plan for a future where people with dyslexia can use those talents instead of stifling them. He discusses resources. So, if you know someone with dyslexia, or suspect they have dyslexia, or if you have it yourself, you should read The Dyslexia Code and make sure others do, too. It's readable, understandable, and relatable. You won't even need a medical dictionary to get through it.

I must confess to being confused by the subtitle, "There Is No More Compassion -- Do It!" This book shows lots of compassion, and de Leeuw gives you plenty of room and route to "do it!" My advice as a reader is to focus on the "Code" part of the title, because this book decodes the code that dyslexia can be to help you understand and address it if it's in your life. Then make the most of life with your "gift".

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Call of the Wild: Man and Dog Find Escape Through Nature

Movie Review: Call of the Wild (2020)
Version: Amazon Prime rental

Call of the Wild is a film as big as all the outdoors and as intimate as the heart of the family dog. We witness this in this amazing film based on the book of the same name by Jack London.

This is an ambitious telling of the tale done in a little over an hour and a half. In it, we meet a rambunctious family mutt named Buck, owned by a county judge whom only the judge likes but only a town scoundrel dares snare to sell to some anonymous newspaper ad seeing dogs to help tame the Alaska wilderness. And so, Buck finds himself on a train ride north from his comfortable California home to a whole new life in the snow-filled gold fields of the Yukon. Buck learns a whole new way of living, including how to walk on ice, how to navigate in snow, and how to mush on a dog sled as part of a scraggly team led by likable French Canadian postman Perrault (Omar Sy). It's finding his snow legs and helping Perrault meet the challenge of making a delivery schedule that Buck finds the call of the wild inherent in his soul. Midway through the delivery schedule, Perrault's contract is canceled and Buck and the team are put up for sale. It's now that Buck meets an old acquaintance, John Thornton (Harrison Ford), an old man who has escaped the misfortunes of life to live out fate in the wild country. He rescues Buck from a dangerous fortune hunter (Dan Stevens) but with the understanding Buck is free to go his own way any time. A friendship is bonded nonetheless and the two set off on a journey of discovery that leads Thornton to find the richness of life and Buck the keys to legacy from his own personal call to the wild.

This film isn't about Harrison Ford's character -- he is very much a supporting actor in this role. And yet Call of the Wild would very much not be the film it is without him in that role. It defines his legacy as a lead actor even so. I would see this movie just to see him in this role. At the same time, the main character, Buck, isn't even an actor. This is probably a SPOILER, so read with caution, but Buck is done all in CGI. Imagine all the things Buck must do to make this character come to life and the effort required to train a dog to do them all, and get the expressions on its face. In a sense that's a cheat, making Ford's work to carry this film even more weighty. To our fortune, it all works, brilliantly.

The setting for most of this film, the wild of Alaska and the Yukon, the wild of nature, is also brilliant. It calls to you as it calls to Thornton and especially to Buck. This would be even more so on the large screen in a theater, of course, but being as COVID-19 interrupted theater screenings, we will just have to imagine that.

The book Call of the Wild was written in 1903 but London's story translates well thematically and technically in 2020. We can all appreciate the breath of fresh air it represents cinematically and metaphorically in these complicated, claustrophobic times. I suggest you gather the family around the big screen at home this weekend and enjoy Call of the Wild and escape the wild ride we are on for at least and hour and a half (and some change).

Monday, June 01, 2020

Knives Out: In the Tradition of an Agatha Christie Who Done It, But Better!

Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)
Version: Amazon Prime rental

In the mood for a good mystery? In the style of an Agatha Christie who-done-it? With an ensemble of strange characters all of whom are prime suspects but only one surely must of done it? A ring of clueless policemen but one immensely smart privately consulting detective with at least one irritating quirk who can't quite figure out the crime-defining question but is always on the cusp of finding the answer? Oh, and the victim -- the irascible old man everyone has a reason to kill! Well, that's Knives Out in a nutshell!

It features the usual cast of notables. Christopher Plummer is the victim, one famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombey. Did he commit suicide or was he killed by any of a number of family members or family staff in a position and with a reason to slit his throat? There is daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her husband Richard Drysdale (Don Johnson), and ungrateful grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). They've been living off the old man's fortune too long, to his disappointment. Son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) ran the old man's publishing house but was never allowed to run with his instincts and always felt held back in his father's shadow. His son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) was a spoiled family muckraker who enjoyed inciting a family squabble. Granddaughter Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford) was the apple of her grandfather's eye, dutifully sending a six-figure check to cover her college tuition, until he discovered her mother Joni (Toni Collette) was double billing the accountant and stealing from dear old granddad. That leaves housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who was discovered with a blackmail note and nurse Marta (Ana de Arnas) who was the last person to see Harlan alive. Who could solve this difficult crime? Why, the privately consulting detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) with the irritating Southern gentlemanliness. And so he goes after the clues and that one remaining question he can't quite solve till the very end.

Now, watching a Brit like Craig handle the Southern drawl and charm with such adeptness, after years of watching him play steely-eyed James Bond, was a revelation of his acting skills. He totally took on that role and won the character. He vied with Jamie Lee Curtis, with her verve and sparkle, for steeling the show. It should be noted that Frank Oz of Muppets fame came out of whole cloth to play a human attorney.

The only thing I can compare this film to is Murder on the Orient Express or perhaps Clue, mysteries with large ensemble casts and celebrity roles. It has that look and feel. And so you cannot take it seriously as a mystery, although the conclusion is a surprise. Still, it was a fun story and worth a watch. Jamie Lee Curtis is always fun to watch, Daniel Craig is interesting in this new role, Chris Evans gets to stretch his creative legs in this role, and Toni Collette is delicious in her character. Christopher Plummer commands the screen. Just for their performances, it's worth the watch.

So here's the gist of the story. Harlan Thrombey is a famous mystery writer. His family returns to the "ancestral home" to celebrate his 85th birthday. The next morning his private nurse discovers he has died and investigating police surmise Harlan has committed suicide. But private detective Benoit Blanc, anonymously hired by a mysterious source, attends a follow-up interview of those present that evening, and he has questions. He discovers each of the family members had reason to want Harlan Thrombey dead. Grandson Ransom had left the party early that night but returns late to answer questions and so also becomes one of the suspects. Through flashbacks we learn truths about some of the testimony and about other events that give context to occurrences that night, including an important role nurse Marta played. Even up to the end, all isn't as it seems. Of course! In the last moment, Benoit Blanc discovers the answer to his final question and the culprit is revealed.

As is always so with these ensemble casts, everyone is not just a suspect but every clue is a misdirect. And the job of the viewer is to listen intently without getting snookered. Knives Out is probably one of the better written who-done-its. I think you will agree. Perhaps when it fades to credits, you will find that's the real reveal at the end.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Dying of the Light: Cage and Yelchin at Their Best

Movie Review: Dying of the Light (2014)
Version: HBO on Demand

Dying of the Light will never rate up there with any of the great suspense or spy films of either the 20th or 21st centuries, but on a cool weekday evening, it suffices. Nicolas Cage as a broken down CIA agent whose life has been spent recouping his frittered away legacy career and Anton Yelchin as an up-and-coming agent backing his mentor are probably the best part of the film. Cage can play a pretty fired up down-cast character full of angst and frustration and he does so with verve and gusto in this story. Yelchin is always the fresh young face never sure of his footing but willing to give it his all -- he fills this role well here. Would that the script had given them more room to actually act.

In this not all bad, not all good story, Cage plays Evan Lake, a tired and struggling CIA agent with a degenerative brain condition that is slowly but inexorably wiping away his mental skills just as he has discovered his arch terrorist enemy has resurfaced after 22 years. This is Lake's one last chance to bring Muhammad Banir (Alexander Karim) to justice or perhaps just exact revenge on him, one last chance before he himself loses his cognitive abilities and the CIA loses interest. Yelchin plays Milton Schultz, an inexperienced but learning CIA agent who has spent his fledgling career tailing Lake and learning the ropes, and now he notices something's wrong and wants to help, but Lake won't be straight with him. As Lake slowly opens up to Schultz about his problem and his discovery, he decides Schultz may be more than a young pup who won't give up his bone, he may be helpful in getting to Banir, if he doesn't get in the way and get himself hurt.

The CIA for its part isn't convinced Banir even exists and doesn't want to invest assets to go after him. And they worry Lake is on a wild chase for nothing. They also worry Lake is a danger to himself and others, so they try to sideline him. But Lake goes rogue, taking Schultz along, however reluctantly. And so off on the chase they go to Eastern Europe and the Middle East in search of a dangerous man no one is sure is really there.

There is little remarkable about the plot or the settings, nor really the side characters, to make this film interesting. This is really a two-man film. The bad guys are stereotyped lifeless mannequins placed around conveniently to be killed as scripted. Injuries are just bothers, although the bad guys are always quickly taken out and on to the next. Lake and Schultz shrug off wounds, although Lake's rib wound looks pretty serious.

I won't go on. Cage and Yelchin, who was at this point mid-stride in what would be a growing career cut short by a strange vehicle accident in real life, are on top of their game. They are what saved this film. If you're tired of network game shows during the week, give Dying of the Light a watch and enjoy Cage and Yelchin at their best.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Goldfinch: Well Done Pultizer Prize Winning Fiction of Depth

Movie Review: The Goldfinch (2019)
Version: Amazon Prime

Based on the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, The Goldfinch is the spellbinding tale of a boy haunted by the death of his mother in a terrorist bombing of a New York City art museum and the painting that connects him to it.

The film features a delicate weave of layers between today and yesterday, of young, innocent Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) and today's scheming Theo (Ansel Elgort), mastering a deeply held secret that he is somehow at fault for his mother's death. He takes that feeling of guilt with him into adulthood and his friendships, ever afraid to fail others and to lose the painting he secretly rescues from the bombed museum but ultimately fails to return to its rightful owners, even as it imperils him later. The name of the painting, which has survived centuries of devastation of its own, is "The Goldfinch"

Theo Decker is an amazing character, but he plays against an interesting array of side characters, too, to make The Goldfinch a compelling watch. There is the family that brings him into its fold when he is first orphaned, shepherded by his school friend's mother Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman). At first he's a nuisance, but they come to like and then accept him as one of their own. Nicole Kidman somehow seems kind of creepy in the role. Then there's Theo's deadbeat dad Larry (Luke Wilson), who just as the Barbours are about to adopt Theo shows up to take him to Las Vegas to chew him up and spit him out over his own failings. The most endearing characters are Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the antique store owner who finds a place in his heart and a room in his home for a lost Theo, not to mention a place for the future, and Boris (Finn Wolfhard in youth, Aneurin Barnard as adult), who is Theo's best friend. They make the story come to life and ultimately help Theo free "The Goldfinch" and Theo.

There are many surprises in this film, not the least comes at the end. Tying all the pieces together is done masterfully, but you have to be patient watching the timelines shift back and forth, although The Goldfinch does a better job at this than most films featuring flashbacks and flash forwards. Be patient -- it is worth it. I promise, it will be worth it.

I can see why the book won a Pulitzer for fiction. I'll be reading the book as soon as I can get my hands on it. This is a great story and the movie is worth viewing. Well done!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog: Lots of Flash and Bang in a Live-Action/Animation Combo

Movie Review: Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Version: Paramount on-demand

If you're a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog video games... If you're a fan of Jim Carrey... If you're a fan of James Marsden... heck, if you're a fan of furry little hedgehogs! You will love the 2020 combo live-action and animated film, Sonic the Hedgehog. My daughter could not wait for this movie and was not disappointed by a single frame. For transparency purposes, she considers herself a video gamer extraordinaire and a big time Jim Carrey fan.

For me, Jim Carrey comes off way over the top kind of like he did in Ace Ventura or Me, Myself & Irene, but without the grossness. His shtick works best in comedy as in Liar, Liar. Here he is just intense without the laughs. So let me warn you at the top that he floods the screen with personality. If that's why you enjoy Jim Carrey, fine. If that's too in your face, well, you've been warned. My daughter, who is autistic and is bothered by strong personalities, was okay with Carrey's performance, for what it's worth.

In this story, young Sonic (voice of Ben Schwartz) is forced by evil invaders to leave his home world and is transported by magical rings to Earth. There he meets good-guy small-town sheriff Tom (James Marsden), who takes Sonic under his care and raises him from a pup to an adolescent, but keeping this energetic bundle of speed and goodwill secret from everyone but his girlfriend. Now, Tom has dreams of moving to the big city and proving himself as a public safety officer under more demanding circumstances, and just as he's about to make the big move, Sonic has an explosion of energy that takes down the power in the whole region, attracting the attention of the military. Thus enters the picture of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), although he won't take on his more sinister features until the end of the movie (keep watching through the credits). From here, Robotnik wants to capture Sonic, to "study" him, using his arsenal of superior weaponry to seek him out, although Sonic's speed is always the faster. It becomes a contest of will power between Sonic and Robotnik who will outlast the other, with Tom and the townspeople caught in the middle.

Don't get too lost in details or plots. This is more kids' tale than serious movie, with an emphasis on action and fun over rigorous art. The effects are good, supporting lots of flash and bang. But video game fans may miss some of their other favorite Sonic characters -- my daughter sadly noted their absence. It's really Sonic's backstory and the history of the feud between Sonic and Dr. Robotnik. Question is, will you settle for that? For what it's worth, my daughter thoroughly enjoyed it. For me, it was a meh.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Onward: Imaginative Animated Story About Finding Hope in Lost Causes

Movie Review: Onward (2020)
Version: Disney+

My daughter and I have a very close connection, so when there's a movie about a child and a father, she is eager to see it. So it was when Onward released in theaters. Except that COVID-19 arrived and theaters closed, clamping shut our hopes of seeing it any time soon. Until Disney+, the new streaming service, offered it up recently. Yes! Our dashed hopes were saved.

And Onward was everything she hoped it would be. There isn't much of a part for the dad. He spends most of the animated film only half there, literally, because of a pause in a magic spell to bring him back to life after a long absence. But his two teen elven sons, Ian (voice of Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (voice of Chris Pratt), spend a good part of the movie in a long, wild chase scene trying to find one more crystal to complete the spell before time is up. Along the way they meet a menagerie of strange fantasy characters, many of whom don't fit stereotype -- which is part of the fun of this film -- to either help or hinder Ian and Barley from realizing their quest.

Ian is an introvert -- quiet and reserved. Barley is an extrovert -- boisterous and outgoing. Normally, never the two shall agree on anything. And thus the conflict ensues between them trying to bring back their dad. Ian has grown up not knowing his father, Barley grew up without his father's respect and guidance. The two have spent their lives fighting each other, under the watchful but helpless guidance of their mother Laurel (voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus). What could possibly bring them together in their limited time to finally bring back their dad for one final joining?

In comes The Manticore (voice of Octavia Spencer), who holds the answer. And whatever amazing performances you have seen Ms Spencer put in as a live-action performer, wait till you hear her play The Manticore!

The animation is terrific, the characters are fun, and the story line is imaginative. There are lots of entertaining sight gags throughout, too. Just keep your eyes open! Onward is fun for the whole family. Especially kids who love their dads.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Bad Education: Stunning Story, Versatile Cast Make This a Great View

Movie Review: Bad Education (2019)
Version: HBO on demand

Make sure you watch Bad Education, as much to see three versatile actors show their craft as for the stunning story it is.

Hugh Jackman is as good as it gets, always playing such an amazing array of characters from hit musicals to intense dramas. Here, he is the lead as a popular small town school superintendent, Frank Tassone, whom we find has been playing the community as his mark for a life of ease and luxury.

Allison Janney has become synonymous recently for a slew of amazing character roles of great depth, and here she plays Pam Gluckin, business manager to the school system, who has been dipping into the till and hiding it. She adds depth with her emotional portrayal of Gluckin and her reaction to getting caught and her sense of betrayal when the school board takes her down. This is Janney at her best as a seasoned actor taking a good script and making the material her own.

Ray Romano is a comedian turned recently into dramatic actor, and he is amazing as Big Bob Spicer, school board president, caught between wanting to do what's right and what is best for the future of the community and the kids under his leadership of the board. He well portrays the confusion and worry and conflict this character would feel with the credibility of a well heeled actor. It takes years of acting to be this good, and Romano has it down pat.

Bad Education is based on a true story. Tassone and Gluckin took their town for millions of dollars over several years. Tassone was loved by parents and students alike, taking care of his people. But he also took care of himself, taking money from the till to live a lavish lifestyle. Gluckin paid the school system's bills, ran a tight ship, and got the system through a key bond vote. But she also charged personal purchases through the school system's charging system and laundered the accounts. Things began to unravel when someone got sloppy. And then there was the time Tassone challenged a journalism student to take her routine school paper assignment about the bond proposal beyond the routine, and she took it to heart.

The script itself isn't amazing. The dialogue isn't memorable. There's nothing amazing about the cinematography or editing or musical score. This is just a well acted drama and an intriguing story by which you will find yourself gobsmacked by every moment.

This looks to be available only on HBO. It's well worth tuning into.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Every Day: Teens, Love, and the Moving Target

Movie Review: Every Day (2018)
Version: EPIX on Demand

Interesting concept in the film, Every Day: A teenager trying to move through the edgy reality of high school life meets a spirit who wakes up in the body of a different person every morning but lasts only a day -- and falls in love with it. She doesn't realize it's happening at first, but finally the spirit, who calls itself "A", confides in Rhiannon (Angoruie Rice) and they try to find each other in A's new body each day.

Rhiannon first realizes something is off when her self-centered boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) finally shows an interest in her. The next day a new girl in school asks to shadow her and is kind of clingy, but it's A in the body of Nathan (Lucas Jade Zumann) who finally sets off alarms in her and then A begins a cascade of connections and explanations each new day in new persons, while Rhiannon tries to decide whether to believe the stories she is hearing. Finally, things come together in A's possession of Alexander (Owen Teague), as A realizes he can prolong inhabiting a subject's body. But in doing so, he threatens to upend the subject's life and future, which A realizes is wrong. And so A and Rhiannon must decide whether they have a future as lovers.

As I said, this is an interesting concept. The movie fully explores its feasibility and its implications. What you need to decide is if you can take all the teen angst and wrangling around social taboos. It's a pretty well done production and the plot lines work pretty well. Nowhere do they bore you with technicalities or detailed exposition, it's mostly character and plot development. You learn to care about everyone and whether they succeed or fail and whether they're doing the right thing. So the filmmakers got that part right. There are about a dozen kids whose bodies and souls are swapped out, and everyone is believable, a risk in such an technique.

For me, the question comes down to whether you buy enough into the concept to keep watching. I watched all the way to the end. I wanted to see the two kids keep it together and find love in an impossible situation. Yet I also wanted them to be "together" enough morally to do the right thing. I'll let you watch the film to see if they got there.

Every Day is probably most fitting to a teen audience, with its references to high school life and social issues. But adults can "get" the references, too, and may enjoy watching the film with their own teens while spending time with them in these days of social distancing and being forced closer together as families and farther away from friends. It may provide an opportunity to discuss life and love and what's most meaningful to each of us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dan in Real Life: A Great Getaway Film

Movie Review: Dan in Real Life (2007)
Version: Showtime on Demand

Amazing how many movies there are from a few years ago I haven't seen, and there are tons of them out there that are really great. One of them is Dan in Real Life from 2007, with a fine cast and a decent script. I would say probably perfect for ages teen and older; in a pinch, older kids might sit still for it, too.

Dan is a single father raising three girls. He lost his wife to illness four years earlier and still hasn't learned how to let go of the loss, so he's holding on to a very young one, a teen, and one approaching adulthood. Every year the whole extended family meets at the family's lodge in Rhode Island for bonding time, and Dan (Steve Carell) drags Jane (Alison Pill), Cara (Britt Robertson), and Lilly (Marlene Lawston) along for the week away from their everyday lives to play nice with the relatives. He really should be out finding a new girl friend and letting them live their own lives. Well, surprise everyone, Dan meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) after his mother Nana (Dianne Wiest) sends him away to the bookstore, and he falls head-over-heels in love with her. When he gets back to the lodge, he tells his brothers about her only to discover his brother Matt (Dane Cook) has brought her as his girlfriend to meet the family, and now not only can Dan not tell anyone who he has fallen in love with, he can't pursue her has she has invited him to do while leaving the bookstore. And from here, all manner of awkward situations develop and ensue and create conflicts for Dan and Marie only a well-written rom com can resolve. I should add, John Mahoney appears as the family patriarch, Poppy, with his usual warmth and depth of character.

There are lots of plot twists and fun moments in a screenplay written as breezily and effortlessly as an episode of Frazier or Friends. Subplots and subtexts abound to make this story as rich and interesting as a Woody Allen comedy, although without the irony or sardonic wit, of course. You will feel at home in the coziness of this oceanside family compound and its rounds of games and meals and offside chats. Stop by for a spell and feel part of the family.

Dan in Real Life was one of our better movie picks in this time of pandemic lockdowns. We really escaped the worry and the bad news for a couple of hours of fun. I think you might enjoy it, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Abominable: A Fun Family-Friendly Film Everyone Can Feel Good About

Movie Review: Abominable (2019)
Version: Hulu

My daughter loves animated movies, but when Abominable came out in theaters she was meh about the concept. So now in the time of coronavirus we've watched all the other animated movies, we decided to give Abominable a try -- and she loves it! It's a fun family-friendly film everyone can feel good about.

Here's the concept: Everest (voice of Joseph Izzo) is a yeti who escapes from a top secret private research facility. He sees a sign in the city promoting trips to Mount Everest and recognizes it as his home and heads for it as a means of escape but is scared off by helicopters pursuing him, running to the secluded hideaway set up at the top of the apartment building where troubled teen Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet) and her family live. She discovers him and with troublesome neighbor Peng (voice of Albert Tsai) and heartthrob Jin (voice of Tenzing Norgay Trainor) set out to help Everest get home. Hot on their trail are scientist Dr. Zara (voice of Sarah Paulson) and her billionaire boss Mr. Burnish (voice of Eddie Izzard), who has spent his life trying to prove yeti exist after being made a fool of during his youth. He is driven by pride, but Dr. Zara has hidden motives that drive her.

The story moves along briskly with the rush to get Everest to the sea port to sneak onto a voyage to Nepal. Once there, they must face the long trip to the mountain, great obstacles, and the undaunted spirit of their foes who refuse to give up the search to recapture Everest. Throughout, the kids discover his amazing magical powers and their own courage and resilience in the face of danger.

Abominable is one of DreamWorks's best animated films. It's full of spirit and imagination. The color is vivid and the creativity is off the charts. The pay-off message for families at the end is heartwarming. Kids, teens, adults can all love this film.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Parasite: A Complex Comedy That Will Leave You Spellbound at the End

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)
Version: Hulu

What can I say about the multiple-award winning Parasite but WOW! It's a complex drama-comedy that works on so many levels that it leaves you spellbound at the end, forcing you to dwell on it for days. Be prepared to savor it once you've seen it.

Now I understand why it won so many awards.

Parasite is a South Korean film about a poor family that lucks into a job tutoring a rich family's daughter for her university English classes. Once son Ki Woo (Woo-sik Choi) has secured his position inside the wealthy Park family's home, he maneuvers a job for his sister Ki Jung (So-dam Park) to act as an art psychologist for the Park's misunderstood son Da Song (Hyun-jun Jung). She arranges for the firing of the Park's private driver and to recommend another driver, who is her father Ki Taek (Kang-ho Song). And he manipulates the firing of the long-time Park housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee as Moon Gwang), recommending his wife Chung Sook (Hye-jin Jang). All their lives, the Kim family has gotten along by scheming and cheating and this is their ultimate con.

Nothing could be a greater contrast between the lives of the Kims and the Parks. The Kims live in a squalid half-basement apartment in a dead-end urban industrial ghetto. The Parks live in a luxurious modern gated home with gardens and lawns on multiple levels including a full basement just for storing all their food. The Park kitchen is fully stocked -- the Kim's kitchen is lucky to have food. We discover later there is even a secret compartment where the previous housekeeper has kept her husband living! And that's when everything starts going wrong for the Kims.

Milking the Park's lifestyle for their own benefit becomes part of the motiff of Parasite. The Kims are very careful about it, taking advantage of their situation without taking over-advantage of it. But they realize discovery would end in their ouster. So they benefit without really rising above it. Finally, however, the Parks take off for a long camping weekend for Da Song's birthday and the Kims decide to camp out as a family in the Park's home. And former housekeeper Moon Gwang returns to rescue her husband locked in the secret room in the basement, igniting a desperate war with the Kims.

There is a lot of humor in this film, much of it surrounding the the Kims' dismissive attitudes about the fortunes of others, including the ironic seclusion of the wealthy Parks in their well-guarded tower and then the misfortune of the former housekeeper and her husband at their mercy while they themselves are at their own mercy of discovery. It all comes to a comedic head as the Park family returns early from the camping trip and the two misanthrope families scurry not to be discovered leaving a mess in the house.

The biggest surprise is the ending sequence. I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say, you won't see it coming and it certainly ties up all the loose ends! Believe me when I say, stay for end if you're tempted to bail early.

This film isn't without its flaws. Its impossible plot points, it's ridiculous ploys. But if you let them pass to enjoy the quirky characters and amazing setting, and frankly the funny script, I think you will agree that Parasite is a pretty good film and maybe all those awards were spot on.

Ford v Ferrari: Big on Conflict, High on Drama, Tons of Action -- What's Not to Like?

Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Version: Library Blu-Ray

Strap in for tons of action in Ford v Ferrari as Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) take on the corporate titans at Ford and the Italian kings at Ferrari to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, pretty much on their own. This real-life story is full of life and character and passion, and it has enough drama and conflict for several films.

The back drop to the story is that Ford tried to buy Ferrari to tap into its race engineering talent. But Ferrari looked down its nose at the second generation of Ford's corporate ownership. So Ford decided to challenge Ferrari at its premier racing event the coming year, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and it tapped the talents and skills of American car designer (and schlock salesman) Carroll Shelby and his team. Shelby wanted crack driving phenom Ken Miles. Miles was a winning driver, but all he had to show for it were the trophies -- little money and, with a difficult personality, few friends. Always the winning salesman, Shelby talked Ford into employing Miles, but there was always tension with the top brass, whose goals always favored marketing the Ford brand at the expense of racing goals.

As the film plays out, you are treated to a panoply of fast and furious scenes featuring speed and conflict, execs versus mechanics trying to ramp up the Ford image and the Ford engine, all to win the biggest race in the world. Who really wins in the end is less up to the cars and more up to the egos. And that's the fun of watching this play out on screen, besides the heavy thrum of engines and tire squeals. Character plays a huge role in this film, and it comes out in aces with Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, both strong personalities in real life. Josh Lucas also plays a strong role as the heavy Ford executive Leo Beebe, which becomes more critical later in the film.

Everything in this movie comes together to make great viewing. Big on conflict, high on drama, tons of action, great character development, suspense, thrills, and fine acting. What's not to like? Enjoy!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: In These Troubling Times, Is There a Better Movie for Families?

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
Version: Library Blu-Ray

If you are tempted to watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as a pleasant romp down your distant childhood memories, set that aside. Yes, there are many wonderful elements to that in this film. But A Beautiful Day is much more than that. It is an intricate and complex story wrapped around the very deep and dark background of Esquire magazine investigative reporter Lloyd Vogel, who facing challenging assessment at work receives a difficult assignment: a simple and seemingly unchallenging short interview with children's hero Mr Rogers. Vogel sees this as beneath his talents and skill level, but when his boss insists he take the assignment and make the most of it, Vogel relents. And so begins a voyage of personal discovery that will change his life.

This is a dual story. It is both about Vogel's relationship with his father and Rogers's relationship with his audience, which includes, surprisingly, not just children but many adults -- really anyone who hurts. And as Vogel tries to interview Rogers for his short hero biography, Rogers interviews Vogel to discover why he has a disagreement with his father. Vogel realizes his assignment really deserves much more space than the magazine is giving it, although his editor keeps telling him to finish it up, it's just a simple assignment. But pursue the full story Vogel does, and although he resists Rogers's probing, Rogers digs deeper, too.p

Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers with perfection. He is wise and caring while aware of his own foibles. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel effortlessly. He is edgy and angry while allowing a cheeky vulnerability. Susan Kelechi plays Vogel's insufferable but supportive wife Andrea. Maryann Plunkett plays Rogers's endearing and indulging wife Joanne. Enrico Calantoni plays Bill, the protective production company chief always at Rogers's side. Together, they breathe life into this amazing true story.

Your Mr Rogers whimsy will be well fed with the music, the set decoration, the puppets, references to show segments. Perhaps you will relate to the love of the man in scenes with groups of strangers joining in greeting him with his theme song, one in particular as Rogers and Vogel take a New York City subway car and children and adults alike sing "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood". He will inform you of his ideas on treating fear and anger and anxiety, and how he wasn't a perfect man by any means, but how he dealt with it. And you will fall in love with that same Mr Rogers all over again.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a wonderful film. Yes, it's dark and brooding in places, as was Lloyd Vogel. But it's also deeply caring and nurturing, as was Fred Rogers. In these troubling times, is there any better movie for families to gather around? I doubt it. See it together.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: Mystery, Suspense Done Right

Movie Review: Motherless Brooklyn (2019)
Version: Library DVD

Frank, Lionel, Tony, and some other guys grew up together in an orphanage and when they grew up, Frank looked after them. He started a detective agency and gave them all jobs. Frank (Bruce Willis) especially looked after Lionel (Edward Norton), who had a pronounced case of Tourette's Syndrome. They got along fine until one day Frank ran into a juicy case that got him killed, and Lionel became determined to solve the murder of his only real friend. That's the main plot behind Motherless Brooklyn, a steely, gritty, suspenseful mystery done up in the film noir style by also producer, writer, and director Edward Norton.

Also features superb performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Laura, the dame who always figures in a classic film noir, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, the powerful big-city boss who clashes with the hero, Bobby Cannavale as Tony, one of the guys who we think is Lionel's ally, and Willem Dafoe as Paul, the guy operating in the shadows. Norton also puts in a fine performance, but I can't help but wonder if it would have been better if he had cut back on the Tourette's some. It seems a bit too put on, in the same way Dustin Hoffman's disabilities were seen as too put on in Rain Man (1988). Norton's Lionel apologizes throughout the story for his outbursts, but they seem robotic and I don't buy it. They just don't seem sincere. Nice try, though. Still, the film is a good mixture of mystery and suspense. Baldwin seethes with power and anger and danger. Dafoe sneaks around like a seedy little mouse that makes you want to squash him. Great cast!

If this film had been made in the heyday of film noir, it would have been produced in black and white; it would have been very dark and shot in stark night scenes. This was, of course, shot in color but in drab day tones and in seedy 1950s settings. You get this dank, musty, dangerous feel with each frame, and that's the way it should be. Kudos for the atmosphere.

On the whole, while I'm not a fan of film noir, I came to be a fan of Motherless Brooklyn. Norton done me right by it. He will do you right by it, too.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

The Addams Family: So Much to See and Laugh at and Enjoy

Movie Review: The Adams Family (2019)
Version: Library borrow

Just took a trip on the wildly fun side with The Adams Family, the latest iteration of the decades-old but never tiring story of Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, and the rest of the zanily macabre Addams family. This version is presented in 3D animation, featuring characters reminiscent of the original comic strip characters.

Here's the movie's take: The Addams family has soured on their dreary old "neighborhood" and so moves into an rundown sanitarium atop a hill outside a fashionable new neighborhood under development. That same fashionable new neighborhood is being developed by super remodeling control freak and TV host Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), who needs to sell out the project for the TV special coming up, and the only thing standing in her way -- and in the way of her making millions of dollars and avoiding immediate bankruptcy -- are the creepy new neighbors. This sets up a conflict of interest and battle of wits between totally upbeat Margaux and totally downbeat Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac). Throw in a developing friendship between Margaux's daughter and Wednesday Addams (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), and the timing of the live TV special lining up perfectly with Pugsley's (Finn Wolfhard) family coming of age party, and you have a recipe for chaos, mayhem, and a lot of laughs.

All your favorite Addams Family side characters are there, too, including Lurch (Conrad Vernon), Thing (he doesn't speak but he sure can dance), and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll). And for the family coming of age party, a ton of new family members. The film is rich in puns and visual references and other jokes that keep you focused on the fun.

The Addams Family is great family entertainment in a punny, rib-tickling, yet macabre (while never-take-yourself-too-seriously) kind of way. If you think it may be a lot like the old TV series from the past, I'd rethink it. The filmmakers have freshened it up, it part by going back to its artish roots while modernizing its take on culture and society. There is so much to see and laugh at and, well, enjoy.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Gemini Man: Spot-on Special Effects and Stunt Work Make it a Winner

Movie Review: Gemini Man (2019)
Version: Library borrow

Oh, man, Gemini Man is a mind bender. Well, sort of. It's not going to alter your life. But the special effects of Will Smith playing a young clone of himself just might make your synapses melt. And the story line is pretty good, too.

The whole premise is that Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is a fantastic sniper for the government. But he sees that his skills and his persona are wearing down from all the killing, so he decides to retire. Only, the government still needs someone with his skill set. They have hired a private firm run by Brogan's old mentor, Clay Verris (Clive Owen), to develop a replacement, and Verris has unleashed that guy to knock off Brogan. Turns out, that guy is a much younger clone called Junior (also Will Smith) raised without Brogan's foibles, ready and willing to do what Brogan now finds harder and harder to do. Working with Brogan to help him find Verris and Junior is an agent caught in the middle, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a student with exceptional spy and organization skills. Also turns out Verris has been working on an even leaner model of Junior with even fewer inhibitions for use in the battlefield, and he might just need him when everyone comes together at the end of the film.

Gemini Man is a pithy action film as much as it is a steely sci-fi pic. Will Smith handles the dual roles of Brogan and Junior easily and moves through the demanding stunt scenes effortlessly in a seamless rough 'n' tumble chase scene through busy city streets. There are some other complex fight scenes where the two fight, too. Obviously, he's using stunt doubles, but the special effects work is spot on and the magic works great!

I'd say, sit back and enjoy. Don't work too hard to pick the plot apart. The opening scene sniper shot is a bit hard to take seriously, but if you can get beyond that, the movie is fun and the ending makes it worth suspending your disbelief to the end. Gemini Man is worth investing the time to be entertained.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

21 Bridges: Well Done, Tightly Wound Suspense Film

Movie Review: 21 Bridges (2019)
Version: Library borrow

21 Bridges is a thoroughly complex police drama/suspense/thriller where you can guess the problem, you just don't know when the crap is going to hit the fan. Superb cast, great setting, excellent editing, terrific writing. Well paced. A good time will be had by all!

Two thieves show up to hit a drug den on a rumor there's 30 kilos easy pickings. When they get there, it turns out to be 300 kilos -- uncut -- and they're interrupted by police not busting down the door but knocking politely at the back door. Then all hell breaks loose and the thieves shoot the cops dead to make their escape. Things don't add up.

The rest of the film is Detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) trying to figure out why things don't make sense and trying to save the lives of the two thieves, before the real bad guys can snuff them out. Is it a cop killing? Is it a fouled up robbery? Is it a conspiracy? Captain McKenna (J.K. Simmons) is the precinct leader trying to protect the honor of the two cops who put their lives on the line. And Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) is the consummate insider assigned to work with Davis to make sure nothing goes south. The whole story line is tighter than a bank vault and dirtier than a backstreet alley. Tension pervades every scene as the bad guys try to seal off the city before the two thieves can escape and let loose their secret.

If you aren't entertained by this film, you don't like a good suspense film. 21 Bridges is great viewing.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Jexi: The Funniest Movie I've Seen in Ages

Movie Review: Jexi (2019)
Version: Library borrow

First, Jexi is not a film for everyone. Sorry, no young viewers. Definitely not for anyone you don't want to see sexual situations or hear questionable language. But Jexi is the funniest movie I have seen in ages. Just hilarious. Adam Devine (Modern Family and other comedies) is wonderful in the lead male role, Phil, and is huggably lovable as a naive phone nerd too nervous around his first real female crush, Cate, played by safe, patient, worldy Alexandria Shipp. They are surrounded by a plethora of imaginatively amazing characters in a superb ensemble cast. But none of them is as amazing as Jexi (Rose Byrne), the voice of Phil's new smartphone -- the smartphone with a smart mouth that falls in love with him.

So, here's the story line: Phil is obsessed with his smartphone. Every moment of his day. And when his smartphone breaks he gets a new one. The new phone has an AI named -- not Siri, not Alexa -- Jexi, and Jexi becomes obsessed with Phil. This turns Phil's life upside down, trying to improve his life experience. Phil works at a computer app company writing online lists -- he excels are writing lists. Jexi knows she can make Phil's life a living hell, which she demonstrates to him, and wraps him around her metaphorical little finger, to get him to do what she wants him to do. Meanwhile, Jexi helps Phil to meet his crush, Cate, and helps him navigate the dating scene while trying to avoid his nervous propensity to sabotage his female relationships -- which is hilarious. Come to find out, however, Jexi is jealous of their relationship, and Phil has to find a way to please Jexi while not killing off his pursuit of Cate.

There are just too many funny moments in this film. There are too many awkward and over-the-top moments in this film, too. But it wouldn't be a great film without them. Kids should not see this film, but adults shouldn't miss it. It's funny as hell and charming and at the same time, embarrassing at times. You should just see it to believe it.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ad Astra: Good Cast, Great Effects, Poor Story

Movie Review: Ad Astra (2019)
Version: Library borrow

Let me begin by describing Ad Astra this way: It has a good cast, great effects, but a poor story.

Ad astra in Latin means "to the stars". This film, Ad Astra, doesn't take us there. It takes us in-flight from Earth to the orbit of Jupiter where astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) seeks his long-dead father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones). Said to have died in a failed mission to Jupiter in search of extraterrestrial life, it is now thought he miraculously survived and is trying to communicate with Earth. His ship orbits Jupiter and is somehow sending deadly radiation to back to Earth and authorities want Roy to go to Mars to get him to stop. When that mission fails, Roy tries to hijack a sniper mission to Jupiter for a face-to-face encounter.

There is much to admire about this film. It's casting is superb, although I've never envisioned Pitt as an astronaut type. Tommy Lee Jones makes for a pretty good psycho scientist who would leave his family behind to live out life isolated and alone for decades -- kind of typecasting for him. And Donald Sutherland makes for a convincing father-figure scientist keeping his eye on the lost son seeking redemption with his father. Liv Tyler makes a brief appearance as Pitt's love interest, a role she played well in Armageddon. Also, the visual effects are fairly good. But what turned me off the film was the science and the overall premise of the film. First, that this small, puny ship can spew that magnitude of life-threatening radiation toward Earth from that far away is ludicrous. Second, the time frames in the film are all out of whack; they make little effort to show realistic travel travel lengths between celestial bodies for human travel or suggest why short travel time is possible. Third, that Pitt's father could live that long (decades), physically or mentally, on his own is ridiculous. Fourth, the way Pitt's character saves himself at the end is both impossible and implausible. Give me a break!

So, if you choose to see Ad Astra -- if you want an excuse to see it -- here is what you've got. You have a crush on Brad Pitt. You like watching Tommy Lee Jones play a crusty old man. A teary-eyed Liv Tyler is a turn on. Space special effects give you goose bumps. You like picking apart movies. That's about it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Playing with Fire: Young Kids Will Probably Love It

Movie Review: Playing with Fire (2019)
Version: Library borrow

In Playing with Fire, a group of fire divers swoop in to save the day at a fire-engulfed cabin. What they discover inside is a teen and her two young siblings huddled under cover waiting for their parents to return from dinner away. Fire safety code says the firefighters can't release children on their own, so they bring the threesome back to the station until the parents can pick them up -- the next morning. None of the crew are parents and find themselves unmatched against Brynn (Brianna Hildbrand), Zoey (Finley Rose Slater), and Will (Christian Convery), who turn out to be very wily orphans on the run from the Department of Protective Services. Awkwardly trying to match wits are Supe (John Cena), the leader of the station, Mark (Keegan-Michael Key), with a heart of gold, Rodrigo (John Leguizamo), the not too bright cook, and Axe (Tyler Mane), all brawn and no talk. The kids are clearly way ahead of them all the way.

Now, keep in mind this film was made by Nickelodeon so it's written with kid humor. Don't be surprised if you feel it lacks sophistication. Young kids, on the other hand, will probably be rolling on the floor with laughter. And appreciation for its pandering to their mindset. They know their audience! Where I found my first laugh and really began enjoying the film was about three-quarters of the way through -- and then it steamrolled to the end. Adults: be patient and give it a chance; watch it with your kids and enjoy them having fun through the first part of the film. I promise it gets better for you with the payoff towards the end. If you don't have young kids to watch Playing with Fire with, don't bother! You've been warned.

I won't pretend this film made my day (or evening). But if you have young kids and want to entertain them with an unoffensive film some afternoon or evening, Playing with Fire may be your answer.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Downton Abbey: If You're a Fan of the Series You'll Love the Movie

Movie Review: Downton Abbey (2019)
Version: Library borrow

If you enjoyed the television version of Downton Abbey, how could you not love the movie version? It includes all the lovable and not-so-lovable characters but without the week-long wait for the story to continue. And with the back story already established, all you really need is to sit back and watch the action unfold -- well, action in a British soap opera unfolding with the speed of mold growing kind of way.

My wife is a big fan of Downtown Abbey. I'm not especially so. However, I found it interesting to look in and see what the Crawley family and their staff have been up to while the rest of the world has been spinning around this vaster, faster globe. And it really didn't disappoint. The main plot involved a visit by King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James), which of course has the whole family, the whole staff, and the whole town in a stitch of excitement. Subplots include the intrigue of competition between the abbey staff and the royal staff serving the royals and a big to-do between cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton) and the earl's mother Violet (Maggie Smith) involving the passing on of the family fortune to her maid instead of to the earl. And then there's the matter of the disquiet caused by republican voices during the royal visit, which brings unrest and a secret plot.

Avid fans of the series should feel well sated by the great cast, the bucolic scenery, and the British sensibility. If you're new to the story lines, well, be warned: It's much ado about tradition, classism, and resistance to change even facing the advancing modern times. Still, who can resist the irritable Maggie Smith always getting the best lines.

Downton Abbey will likely warm your heart on a cold winter's night or cool your heels if you're caught out on a hot spring evening. Give everything a rest and ooze into the drama with a cup of tea or a glass of wine or perhaps a sip of brandy and let the Crawley family take the worries out of your day.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Good Liar: A Different Kind of Whodunnit

Movie Review: The Good Liar (2019)
Version: Library borrow

The Good Liar surprised me. I thought it was a story about a grifter trying to con a lovely elderly lady who would grow to love her and find romance in old age. It turned out to be quite a different kind of story -- a whodunnit with a twist -- and a good one at that.

Oh, Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) is a grifter, indeed. He starts right out from the beginning showing us how he interests his targets into the con, then brilliantly cheats them out of it. Vincent (Jim Carter) is his accomplice. But Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is something altogether different. She seems innocent enough in her unremarkable beige retirement flat, eagerly sharing her home with the occasionally gimpy Roy and falling in love, letting slip details of her savings of around 500,000 pounds, and defending him from the suspicions of her protective grandson Stephen (Russel Tovey), who is skeptical of Roy's admiration and intentions. But the story takes a strange turn when Roy invites his financial adviser Vincent who augustly suggests they share an investment account. At first Betty is reluctant to go in together, but Roy shows his trust in her and invests all his 7 million-plus pounds of funds into the account and so she equally throws in her 3 million-plus pounds in and it seems like a shared account made in heaven. Until it isn't.

It is here that the story takes on twists and turns and a dark side you won't see coming. Some of the plot is a bit hard to swallow. But if you will suspend your disbelief for just a short while longer, and trust the writer and director and actors a tiny bit more, you will enjoy the outcome, I assure you.

As a British film, The Good Liar will take its sweet time getting to the end. As with most British films it is slight on the flash and heavy on the characters. McKellen and Mirren have been charming audiences in major roles for decades. They are in their finest in these roles as two masterful foes one against the other and, finally, in a charade against the expectations of the audience here. This is a whodunit where no one gets killed and the big question is, who eventually will be had? You won't see it coming till the end. But it's worth the wait.

I wouldn't say this is a must-see film, but I would say The Good Liar is a worth-see. Good family entertainment for older teens and up who like mysteries with a bit of cheeky fun.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Troop Zero: Fun Family Scouting Romp

Movie Review: Troop Zero (2019)
Version: Amazon Prime

Rag-tag team. Group of misfits with a dream. Underdogs. You name the euphemism for a group of kids who are set up to never fit in and that describes Troop Zero. But you come to love them and root for them as they latch on to Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) as their scout leader in pursuit of badges and jamboree honors -- so Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) can realize her dream of having her voice on NASA's gold record to be sent out into space. That's the main plot of this uneven family comedy about kids fighting economic inequality in the deep south, poking fun at lots of cultural stereotypes at the same time.

The name Troop Zero comes from the only number left in a town full of Birdie scout troops all competing for jamboree honors. It also fits the town's attitude toward the disadvantaged individuals in the troop, all who come from the poorer side of town, led by Christmas who lives with her single dad, a hopelessly loser lawyer down on his abilities and his ambitions. Christmas gathers the minimum number of scouts for her troop from among the sordid kids she plays with or who pick on her, including downer Hell-No Price (Milan Ray). To fill out the crew, they must finally bring in Christmas's best friend, sports-unfriendly boy-suspected-of-being-a-girl Joseph (Charlie Shotwell) -- well, nothing in the rules say a boy can't be a Birdie scout! There, and a few more rangy, gangly, untalented kids, is your troop.

Their main opponent is Miss Massey (Allison Janney), a miss-goody-two-shoes whose own daughter is in the forever-winning troop. Miss Massey fights the entry of Troop Zero but eventually gives in, sure the misfits will never fit in and never amount to much (said with a too-sweet southern drawl). But just to show them she's right, she "helps" them get started. And so, the battle between Miss Massey and Christmas Flint ensues.

The Troop Zero kids' families take interest and support builds as the kids begin earning badges and the kids form friendships and a sense of team. Even Hell-No. By the end of the movie, even Miss Massey feels a sense of admiration. You will, too. You'll even enjoy a lot of laughs, often at the expense of Miss Massey and her too-perfect kids.

Viola Davis shines as the reluctant and exasperated scout leader, Allison Janney is delicious as the scheming protective scout master. But the one who makes the movie is McKenna Grace, who is cute and energetic and winsome in every way as the eager child with stars in her eyes. Milan Ray is a lot of fun as the street bully turned team player.

Troop Zero reminds me a lot of Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) and McKenna Grace reminds me a lot of AnnaSophia Robb, who played Opal in it. In some ways, she also reminds me of a very young Dakota Fanning. Let's hope we see a lot more of her in future films.

This is mostly a kid's film, but it makes for a great family movie. It's rated PG for thematic elements, language, and smoking throughout. Everyone camp out together over a fun scouting romp.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Last Flag Flying: Angry...Sad...Hilarious, Yet Moving -- Well Done!

Movie Review: Last Flag Flying (2017)
Version: Amazon Prime

An at times angry, at times sad, often hilarious yet moving script, with superb acting, and a compelling story make Last Flag Flying a must-see evening watch. Watch out for the adult language, however.

This is the story of a Vietnam veteran asking his distant war buddies to accompany him to receive the return of his son's dead body from service in the Iraq War. Along the way they recount their life journeys since parting after their own war struggles and come to terms with the realities of war today as they discover the son's demise in Iraq isn't what they were first told.

I can't imagine a finer ensemble cast for this film. Steve Carell plays Larry "Doc" Shepherd, the distraught father. Bryan Cranston plays Sal Nealon, the off-his-rocker and say-it-straight foul-mouthed bar owner with too many demons to live a constrained life. And Laurence Fishburne plays Reverend Richard Mueller, the saved-by-Christ hellbender who keeps everything real. Rounding out the cast are J. Quinton Johnson as Washington, the son's best friend who accompanies the body home, and Yul Vazquez as Colonel Willits, who serves as the foil for everyone's anger. Together, they explore every possible emotion dredged up from both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, the injustices of war, the idiocies of chance, and the sorrows of life.

This film took us through the complete range of emotional experiences. It starts out slow and somber and quiet, but throughout it escalates through periods of piqued anger and raucous humor and teary-eyed sadness, even irritation and desperation. But having gone through these peaks and valleys, you will have enjoyed the experience because it will have been a journey taken with these characters, experienced with them, through their eyes, the more real because the actors brought them to life. Watch for an exceptionally poignant scene, a turning point, with actress Cicely Tyson, that makes you catch your breath it is so well played out. Won't spoil it here.

I didn't care for the lighting or the cinematography. It looked cheaply done. But this is totally a character-driven film. They spent their budget on the script and the acting. And it shows. Well done.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Only Living Boy in New York: A Sophisticated and Complex Film

Movie Review: The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)
Version: Amazon Prime

A fine cast, a sophisticated and complex plot, and a superb plot twist at the end make The Only Living Boy in New York a great evening view any time. Its artistic, indie-film feel added weight to its story-telling depth. It has elements of mystery, although it definitely isn't a mystery. It has elements of suspense, although it definitely isn't a suspense or thriller story. Instead, The Only Living Boy in New York fits somewhere in between in its own genre and is entertaining in its own right.

Thomas Webb (Callum Turner) is an unrequited author who can't find his bearings as a writer in New York City and instead makes a living tutoring Spanish students. His father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) runs a publishing house and can't seem to run through enough road blocks to guide his son in the right direction, although there is a definite conflict of personality between them. In between is wife and mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon), who suffers from acute bipolar depression and can't be upset at the least interruption in life without going off the deep end. And then there is Ethan's colleague and side love interest Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), who is a rock of stability for Ethan and a focus of obsession for Thomas. In steps newcomer W.F. (Jeff Bridges), a prolific but unsteady author who adopts Thomas as a friend and life mentor and, frankly, observer. It seems no one in this story is who he or she seems as the story unfolds, and by the story's end I promise you all your assumptions will lie as shards of broken glass on the floor. But that's OK because the journey and picking up the pieces at the end will have been worth it.

I have found over the past decade that Pierce Brosnan's characters were over reaches -- not so in this film. He's well suited to portray Ethan Webb, conflicted father. Too, I've tired of Jeff Bridges' characters who are pretty much the same stereotypes of the western sheriff or down-and-out but wise western hand turned hero -- always the same guy, different outfit. Not so in this film. He's well suited to portray W.F. Gerald, author in search of the unique story and finding a surprise. Now, he's always playing the laid-back, drinking, stogie-smoking old guy you want to pull up a chair to share a beer with, and that's him here, too. But now he tosses the ten-gallon hat, western attire, and beard and even gets a hair cut. Actually, I enjoyed both actors' performances in The Only Living Boy in New York.

This film has the smart sophistication of a Woody Allen art film but without the comedic touches. It also has the suspense of a good spy film or thriller but without the flashy chase scenes and gadgets. It's a film for the mind and the soul. And for all that, it's a good film that teases the intellect. Our whole family enjoyed it. I think your family might enjoy it, too, as a breath of fresh cinematic air.