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.