Sunday, May 30, 2021

Blue Miracle: Good theme, good cast, good family film

Movie Review: Blue Miracle (2021) on Netflix

Blue Miracle is a good summer-weather watching movie. Good theme, good cast, good family film.

Based on a true story. Omar and his wife run an orphanage in Cabos San Lucas, Mexico, where they care for street orphans no one else will take in. 

A hurricane has inundated their building and destroyed much of their food, and the bank is calling in their overdue loan--their only hope to retain a safe home for their kids is to join a crusty old boat captain to win the challenging tourist-town fishing competition. Omar suffers a fear of fishing from a devastating accident during childhood, and none of the orphans have ever done this kind of fishing, plus crusty old Captain Wade is really just in this for himself and wants nothing to do with the kids, so the odds of success start off pretty low. But Omar is known by the kids as Papa Omar because he is like a steadfast father figure to every one of them, and he teaches the youngest a lesson about nailing his hopes and dreams to the wall with a nail he finds on the floor, and that becomes an omen for good and the source of their Blue Miracle.

As hokey as some of this script can feel, much of it depends on your ability to suspend your disbelief long enough to build trust in the characters to carry their hopes to fruition. It's high on aspirations and if you can give them all the benefit of your patience and good will, they will reward you with good performances through an optimistic and upbeat storyline. Hey, it's based on a true story! And they signed Dennis Quaid as the crusty old captain, who gives a fine performance as a guy who'd rather not be bothered by a bunch of little kids yet who gets pulled into their humanity.

Now, this isn't Best Picture material. It isn't Best Script or Best Cinematography material, either. But it's a good story with a lot of heart, and dang it, I think in the end you'll like it if not love it. I'd rate Blue Miracle a B^ for Bright Spot of the Day. 

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Fierce: A great story and a lot of fun

Movie Review: Fierce (2020) on Netflix 

Take a ride on the wild entertainment side with Fierce, a movie from Poland airing on Netflix that you can listen to in its native Polish or access excellent English dubbing. We chose the English dubbing, which features some great acting voices. Music mixes well with original lyrics. This makes for great entertainment.

Fierce is also the name of the main character, a high school teen whose mother is the jilted girlfriend of the main host of Music Race, Poland's popular singing talent TV show. Turns out Olo is also Fierce's secret father, who left them when she was a baby, leaving the two destitute. The mother, daughter, and their single grandmother watch Olo's show talking him down and when it's announced the show is doing a remote episode from their town, Fierce hatches a plot to confront Olo, first to show him up for being a louse, then to compete for the show's big prize and show him up on national TV. But she can't even sing!

O.K., some of the side characters are kind of cheesy, making them self-centered and shallow, as celebrities are often depicted. But the main characters actually have some depth and the plotline works pretty well with them. So ignore the side characters and focus on Fierce, her mother, and Olo. Also Fierce's boyfriend, who tries desperately to support her.

Then watch this movie for fun. It isn't serious cultural commentary. More, it's a look at competition shows in other cultures and how fierce that competition can get and affect people unexpectedly who aren't prepared for it. 

This film was somewhat of a revelation for my wife and me. She is second-generation Polish and visited there in 1975 and was amazed at how much it has changed physically. The main setting beyond Fierce's small hometown is Warsaw, which my wife experienced during her visit and it's been transformed dramatically since then. Yet during a birthday scene they sang a traditional Polish birthday song my wife's parents and grandparents had brought with them to America after World War II, word for word and by tune unchanged. So there was a dichotomy there!

We enjoy watching films from other countries, other cultures. It's helpful if you understand the cultures but not necessary. In this case, we knew quite a bit about Poland and its culture, but there were still surprises, and whatever you may or may not know about it, with the elements of this competition you will recognize from watching talent competitions in your own country or elsewhere, much of this should be familiar to you. You should be able to choose captions and audio to aid in understanding of the dialog, depending on where you're reading this review. 

To recap, this girl and her mother's story crosses borders and cultures. Father leaves them, chance gives them an opportunity to address the issue, opportunity also gives them a chance to become something greater than they ever dreamed. It's a great story. I'd rate Fierce A for A Lot of Fun.

Friday, May 28, 2021

The Trial of the Chicago 7: The event and personas lost in the patina of time

Movie Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) on Netflix

If you're a Boomer, you remember the summer of '68 and the chaos surrounding the Democratic National Convention, and the resulting trial of "The Chicago 7", for good or ill. As each succeeding generation lives through its own moments of turmoil, that time and the turmoil it produced likely bring back the memories of "the sixties" and "the movement" that produced the clash of civilizations that led up to The Trial of the Chicago 7. So this bit of historical drama brings it back into focus for those of us who lived in that time and those who may only have heard about it--and especially for those who are barely aware of it.

First, it's important to be aware, this drama plays out almost like a documentary, written by one of the premier political-drama fiction screenwriters of our time: Aaron Sorkin, who also directed the film. It is, of course, foremost a drama, but the feel and attention to detail is documentary-like. That's not to say it doesn't borrow from dramatic license. 

Second, we all benefit from hindsight, or "hindsight is 20-20." So it is a story that lays out with the benefit of the end in mind and can connect dots and plan for conclusions that in real-time--documentary time--would not be possible, even with editing. So Sorkin has 51+ years of experience and context to work with here.

And finally, what a cast! This film is as much about the characters as it is about historical events, and Sorkin put together an amazing ensemble of players to portray the personalities of a movement who were as transformative as the changes they sought to bring about (again, for good or ill, whatever your perspective). They had to be who the characters had been in real life, and remembering those times, these actors exuded their being. Eddie Redmayne was Tom Hayden. Alex Sharp was Rennie Davis. Jeremy Strong was Jerry Rubin. And, especially, Sasha Baron Cohen was Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance was William Kunstler, their attorney. Even more minor characters were so on-target for their portrayal, although they were lesser known in their time. 

I guess the takeaway I'd suggest from seeing this film is how real this film seems, feels, looks, and presents itself of the events, the times, and personalities of the time. It has a point of view, of course--all films do. But it picks up an event and personas lost in the patina of time and presents them again with the advantage of time and context and perspective, with some drama.

I would rate The Trial of the Chicago 7 A^ for Above Average in storytelling, writing, and acting. Well worth a see.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

I Care a Lot: Great storytelling

Movie Review: I Care a Lot (2020) on Netflix

I Care a Lot is about a lot of things. Untwisting the plot entanglements and knots is half the fun. The other half is enjoying the actors playing the characters doing the tying and twisting (or untwisting) and knotting. And this is what makes I Care a Lot so darned watchable. 

Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, an attorney for an nearly invisible legal firm that sets herself up as legal guardian for unwitting elderly wards without family and swindles them out of their assets by setting them up in a posh nursing home. It's all legal, of course, if dubious. Dianne Wiest plays Jennifer Peterson, one of Grayson's dupes, who though she isn't the brightest bulb is aware something ain't right when she's taken to the nursing home without her consent. And she's a problem for Grayson, because she's connected to Roman Lunyov (played by Peter Dinklage), a member of the Russian Mafia, as one of his assets.

Now, neither Grayson nor Lunyov like to lose, and the story becomes not just a battle to save Peterson's assets (personal or the Mafia's), but a battle of wits between two driven achievers. Who will win? The legal eagle who dots her I's and crosses her T's and leaves no loose ends? Or the brutal strategist who isn't afraid to play rough and loose with the rules to get his way? That's why we sit through to the end of the film!

Did I mention Pike won a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy for this movie? Need I remind you Dinklage has made a career of playing lovable rogues, none so famous as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones? Together, they make a power couple on the screen. And Wiest is just amazing as the little ol' lady who should be out of her legal league but isn't to be trifled with or counted out. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Lunyov and his merry band of Mafia thugs don't sound like Russians. This might have been something the director should have picked up on? Still, it's a minor flaw when you take into consideration the brilliance of the writing and the main acting otherwise. 

If you haven't seen I Care a Lot, it's worth a view. I rate it A^ for Above Average for great storytelling.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The White Tiger: There is so much to love about this film

Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021) on Netflix

The White Tiger is a sleeper, a great movie with huge potential that's getting little attention. Don't let that stop you from seeing it.

The white tiger is the eager opportunist who knows when to spring into action and make the most of the right moment. Balram Halwai wants to be a white tiger and make something of himself, despite being a young male in his matriarchal family in small-town India. But things aren't panning out, until one day he comes up with a plan to impress a very rich man to become his personal driver. 

Balram packs up his few meager belongings and walks the long distance to the big city and imposes himself on the rich man. It appears to be a hopeless cause, until the man's son appears. He's just returned from America with his new wife and their modern western ideas, and they want to give Balram a chance. So Balram is hired--but, as their number-two driver. 

An eager achiever, Balram connives his way into the number-one spot, pleasing his bosses but also creating adversaries and enemies. His decisions and drive for success threaten to lead to his downfall, while his creativity and eagerness to overcome roadblocks offer to lead to his salvation. But this isn't just about one man's strive to succeed.

India is still a culture intrenched its aged caste system, and that is part of Balram's problem. He was born near the bottom of the system; he strives to rise above it. Those trying to help him can only help so far. It's by sheer determination, and a bit of underhandedness, that he moves beyond it, often at the disadvantage of others. Yet in the end, that's how he ultimately triumphs. Knowing what you come to know watching him struggle, you can't help root for him.

There is so much to love about this film. Its energy, its diverse settings, its characters, its cast, and in many ways, its simple and honest vision. The White Tiger buzzes with enthusiasm, due much to its lead actor, Adarsh Gourav who portrays Balram. And there is plenty of humor in this film to get you past the some of the depressing parts about his poverty and his place in the caste system. 

Likely, The White Tiger isn't for everyone. But it's worth a try. India has a bustling film industry that offers some amazing storytelling, and this is one of them. I rate it A^ for Above Average.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Tenet: Robust, well-plotted, intelligent thriller spy movie

Movie Review: Tenet (2020) on HBO

Ready to have your mind warped? Time warped. Watch the movie Tenet.

A secret agent called simply Protagonist must unravel the mystery of the secret global program called Tenet and stop a Russian oligarch from destroying the world with it. He must work without the help of his government, with no cool toys or tools and only with his wits and what he can learn through stealth and very great care.

Protagonist runs into a number of curious characters with whom he must work to learn the nature of Tenet. One of the closest is an agent named Neil (played by Robert Pattison), who is at his side most of the way. Another is the oligarch's wife, Kat (played by Elizabeth Debicki), whom Protagonist tries to use against him. And there is the oligarch Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh), who is evil personified and intense in his pursuit of the technology behind Tenet. Protagonist is played by John David Washington as this savvy, dedicated, relentless agent. 

This film also features some amazing settings and some unbelievable stunt work through some very complex chase scenes. What makes this so amazing is the mind-bending distortions of time they put the audience (and the characters) through to make this story work. 

Basically, the concept is that Tenet is a device that can reverse entropy, causing cause and effect to reverse by running time backwards. And for this movie to work, you have to be able to accept that and effect can happen before its cause, making it hard for characters to predict what another character might do and how it might affect actions around them. It really is brilliantly handled through the heart of this story. 

If you like robust, well-plotted suspense and an intelligent thriller spy movie, Tenet likely is your movie. I rate it A^ for Above Average. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Greenland: Good cast, good writing, and great effects.

Movie Review: Greenland (2020) on HBO

After what the world has been through with the pandemic, is this really the time to watch a movie like Greenland? Well, the circumstances are more dire. Maybe this is a good time, since many are finally emerging from the pandemic and this film paints a far grimmer picture for its characters.

In Greenland, the quintessential broken American family, struggling to mend its internal struggles, finds itself struggling even more for survival against the forces of nature as a comet bears down on Earth closer than any other in history, not one big ball of ice but a collection of interlopers threatening to strike the surface and plunge humanity into chaos and most life into extinction. Dad John (played by Gerard Butler) finds himself, a structural engineer, selected by secret government plan to survive the debacle, along with his wife Allison (played by Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (played by Roger Dale Floyd). But first, they have to leave behind their neighbors and friends, who haven't been chosen, and legions of others clogging the roads, looting stores, and basically getting in the Garrity family's way to finding safety. Also in the way is son Nathan's type-1 diabetes, which threatens the Garritys' spot on the plane out of insanity. And there are multiple opportunities to dodge comet strikes on every large city and rural roadway the Garritys find themselves. How will they survive?

As subtext in the storyline are John and Allison trying to patch their marriage, which has been on the rocks for a couple of years. It's tested even more severely when the family is separated during their trip and John must face Allison's father at his home, which is where the threesome has arranged to meet. Her father is played by Scott Glenn, who shows all the disdain for a reckless son-in-law you can imagine, until Butler pours on the sincerity and shows his honest determination to get his family through to safety. This is well played and some of the more believable of the acting and plotting of the movie.

This film reminds me a lot of 1998's Deep Impact, which also involved a comet colliding with Earth and families struggling to survive. Greenland has that same sense of doom and despair and heroics. Although, in this film, Earth gets hit a lot more often! So if you're wondering if you're prepared for watching this kind of movie now, think of how you might have felt watching Deep Impact and go from there.

Greenland has solid production values, a good cast, good writing, and great effects. I give it an A^ for Above Average. Are you ready to rise above the pandemic?

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Stowaway: Some of it is good, some is meh.

Movie Review: Stowaway (2021) on Netflix

Mixed bag to report on Stowaway. Some of this film is good. Some of it is meh.

Commander Marina, doctor Zoe, and scientist David are on their way to Mars. They're bringing along a biology experiment to filter carbon dioxide through plant life for later use when they arrive on Mars. Almost immediately, they discover a problem: blood droplets dripping from a ceiling panel of their newly launched ship. Opening the panel, a body drops down, one unconscious launch technician Michael Adams, who was unaccounted for 12 hours earlier because he was securing a part and knocked out during launch. Now he's committed to the mission with no way to return to Earth. And his bloody wound has shorted out the ship's one working carbon-dioxide filtering system. The backup emergency filter won't last the trip. What's a crew to do? 

The major conflict that will become apparent later in the film is that the company running the mission, Hyperion, had cut corners to ramp up the mission. The ship was planned for a crew of two and they stretched plans to fit a third on the assumption nothing would go wrong. Now that the carbon filtering system is waning, adding a fourth person threatens the lives of everyone. The longer the flight goes on, the worse things get. The original three keep the news from Adams, deciding they and Hyperion have 20 days before something drastic must be done and give themselves 10 days to find a solution before telling Adams and somehow killing him. They waste no energy on science on this film, it's all about the emotions of making the decision of who lives and who dies, and struggling to make the right decision.

Here's the rub: They don't do a very good job of explaining things to the audience. So, at first you don't know this ship is on its way to Mars rather than setting up on a space station. They also don't explain why the ship is spinning around a central axis, using centripetal force to create artificial gravity--there could be many logical reasons to do this but they don't give any; my suspicion is it provides logic for blood to dribble from the ceiling to the floor. Also, the gravity builds drama as the crew must use a tool to climb out of the artificial gravity well at each end of the axis to retrieve something, and the extremely long axis helps them make the movie longer. I suppose that's cynical of me, but that's all I can come up with. There are other things, too, but these are chief among them. I think this would have been much more interesting if Adams had been an evil guy sabotaging the mission and we'd spent the movie trying to figure that out. Didn't go there.

As I said, some of the film is good. There are decent effects. The cast is decent (Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Anna Kendrick, Shamier Anderson). And the mock-up spacecraft is great--this seems where they spent most of their money on this film! 

Stowaway was supposedly Netflix's top pick over its first weekend. There were a lot of viewing choices and possibly there were better ones. I'd rate Stowaway B for Better Luck Next Time.


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Mitchells vs The Machines: Total fun for the whole family

Movie Review: The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021) on Netflix

Netflix has a real hit on its hands with The Mitchells vs The Machines. It's total fun for the whole family.

It's animated sci-fi at its best. Well, humorous sci-fi. Satire. Cartoonish, poke-fun-at-society sci-fi. Parody sci-fi.

Dad and teen daughter aren't seeing things eye to eye just as daughter is set to leave home for college, likely for good. Son is about to lose his best friend in his big sister, who has always been there for him. And Mom, well, she just wants everyone to get along. And then then along comes the invasion of the rogue robots from the company that's made teen daughter's whole millennial life possible. And the family's totally oblivious to it, until Mom and Dad decide they can save the family dynamic by cancelling daughter's airline tickets and take a cross-country family drive together to her college, putting them smack dab right in the middle of the attack. Can they save themselves and the world?

There are loads of fun things to see in this near homage to MAD magazine art style animation, so stay alert for Easter eggs and just craziness to splash across your screen. Many in Michigan have noticed references to life at home, including shout outs to the state and the city of Kentwood, not to mention a phonebook (ask your grand parents what that is) with a West Michigan area code (keep your eyes peeled, it's quick). 

This isn't a film about cast or cinematography or effects, this is all about plot, character, and having fun. Watch this to have an entertaining evening together. I'd rate it A^ ^ for way Above Average.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Igby Goes Down: Entertaining but not uplifting

Movie Review: Igby Goes Down (2002) on Netflix

Igby tries to grow up under the horrors of a mentally ill father, a success-obsessed mother, and a resentful brother, none of whom can seem to cope with any of the others. As a result, he cascades from one intentional failure to another seeking escape from the pressures of his life. He loves his father who he can't seem to reach, hates his mother who won't let go of him, and barely tolerates his brother who is the only one responsible enough to take care of but dominates him. As Igby nears the zenith of his growth years and entry to young adulthood, he encounters an infusion of unusual characters while visiting the one city where he can easily blend in, New York City, and there is blindsided by one questionable relationship after another. 

This is a solid character-driven story with a solid cast to go with it. Kieran Culkin is Igby, Bill Pullman is his father, Susan Sarandon is his mother, and Ryan Phillipe is his brother. Then there is the cast of important side characters: Claire Daines and Amanda Peet as love interests and Jeff Goldblum and Jared Harris as role models. For all that, it's an interesting, complex narrative you really want to see resolved by the end. It is and it isn't. Therein is the rub. Everyone is accounted for but there is no real accountability and no consequences for any of the characters. None of them! You're left feeling let down. And maybe that's the point? Maybe you're meant to feel lost as Igby does? That's not how I'd want my audience to feel if I were a writer, a director, or a producer.  

I rate Igby Goes Down B˅ for Below Average. Entertaining but don't expect to feel uplifted.

(Side note: How many Culkin movie references can you spot in the film?)

Friday, May 07, 2021

Soul: Above average family film and Oscar winner

Movie Review: Soul (2020) on Disney+

Feeling a little lost? Feel glad you're not Joe.

Music teacher Joe finally lands his dream gig as a jazz pianist in a New York City bar. His head lost "in the clouds" with excitement, Joe steps into a manhole and finds his way onto a conveyor trip to the great beyond. But before the heavenly bean counter can ensure Joe doesn't get lost, he finds his way back to his old neighborhood, looking for a way to redeem his dream. And you'll find yourself rooting he succeeds.

Soul is Disney Pixar's 2020 superb animated musical hit. Sit back and let it all seep in: the soulful jazz, the elegant graphical presentation, the whimsical art, and the thoughtful story line. Inspiring voice cast with Jamie Foxx as Joe, supported by Tina Fey and a ton of other great talent, too. This film, in my mind (and soul), skews to an older audience despite being Disney Pixar fare, but kids can enjoy it, too.

Maybe by the end of Soul you'll actually wish you were Joe.

Won Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score). I rate Soul A^ for Above Average. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Judge: A Highly Watchable Character Study

Movie ReviewThe Judge (2014)
Version: Hulu

Through the vault of time we discovered a little gem called The Judge with Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in the leading roles. These fine actors played typical roles for their careers, so no ground breaking here. But it was a good film none the less made better by the steadfastness of their performances and backed up by Billy Bob Thornton as the main antagonist along with a few unsavory other characters.

The Judge is a story of suspense. Downey plays Chicago attorney Hank Palmer, who returns home to small-town Indiana to bury his mother. There he is confronted by his father, Joseph, played by Duvall, a down-the-fine-line judge who shows no favors and believes the rule of law strictly observed best serves the community. Old Dad doesn't see the world through the same lens as his expensive-criminal-defense-attorney son, and they battle it out through a good portion of the movie, sparring over what we don't know until the end. But things begin to smooth out over time as Hank devotes his expertise to defending his reluctant father after Joseph apparently hits a past defendant where there are no witnesses and few clues, and Joseph has a memory lapse due to the effects of chemotherapy. The suspense rides over whether the cranky old guy really did it and can Hank save his surly father -- his cancer-victim father -- from prison.

There is probably more to like in the characters than in the plotting or the pacing or the cinematography. Duval is likable as he always is as the venerable old gentleman with principles. Downey is lovable as the quick-witted scoundrel who owns all the knuckleheads. Billy Bob Thornton comes across as the scuzzy prosecuting attorney eager to convict Hank's Dad just to get even with Hank for past slights. So I would say this is more a character-driven story than anything. Even Hank's brothers, minor to the plot, add juice to this story. Vincent D'Onofrio plays older brother Glen, whose chance at sports stardom was nicked in a car accident in their youth and dad and brother have never gotten beyond it. Jeremy Strong plays youngest brother Dale, developmentally disabled and under Hank's parent's care and the family's history-caretaker through his obsession with film. There are an assortment of other lively characters to fill Hank's and Joseph's backstories, including Hank's high school girlfriend and her illegitimate daughter with deep questions of whether she might be Hank's daughter, too. A lot of resentments and misinterpretations fill in between a load of backstory mysteries.

What you have to look forward to, then, isn't just a mystery but an intense but highly watchable character study. And it's well worth watching unfold, right through the redemption scene at the end.