Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Patriots Day: A No-Holds-Barred Retelling of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Movie Review: Patriots Day (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Patriots Day is a no-holds-barred re-telling of the April 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon and the community's heroic response in finding terrorits Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It features fine performances by Mark Wahlberg as a recovering injured police Sergeant Tommy Saunders on security duty at the finish line, John Goodman as Commissioner Ed Davis, Kevin Bacon as FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, and J.K. Simmons as Watertown police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, along with Jake Pickering as MIT Security Officer Sean Collier (who was assassinated by the Tsnaraev brothers) and Themo Melikodze as the older brother, Tamerlan, and Alex Wolf as is younger brother, Dzhokhar. Jimmy O. Yang is excellent as Dun Meng, the car-jacking victim, who heroically escapes the Tsnaraev brothers and runs for his life to alert police.

Parts of this film are brutal in showing the carnage from the bomb blasts, but it was the intent of the producers and director to be as honest as possible in depicting the destruction and mayhem of that infamous act. Near the end of the story, as police face off against the Tsnaraev brothers on a neighborhood street, there is a fierce shootout scene with amazing multiple pipe bomb explosions. In another scene, Wahlberg puts out an amazing emotional performance as the policeman who has seen it all in the aftermath of the event, bodies and limbs and death, breaking down before his wife. Much of this film is raw, edgy human reaction to terror, and every bit of it makes total sense. None of it is gratuitous or forced.

Patriots Day starts off by showing how key characters begin their day -- from the police, to runners, to innocent bystanders, to the car-jack victim, to the man who finally finds Dzhokhar Tsnaraev in his boat. The pace picks up as the event organizes and police set up security, then the marathon begins. The Tsnaraev brothers build the bombs, watch TV, interact with their family, pack up their backpacks, and go to the finish line. Dun Meng goes about his day, meets a young lady, goes on a dinner date, sits in his car and texts her. The explosions happen and chaos breaks out. People respond to each other with care. The FBI arrives and takes over the investigation. The search is on for who is responsible. The Tsnaraevs plot more action. And so the story continues to unfold to its ultimate conclusion, a city on edge but never going over that edge.

If you remember that event, you know the main story. But you don't know the whole story. Watching Patriots Day, you will relive the event and get to really know how a city came together over a tragedy and never let it take them down. You will witness their courage and feel their strength, even while you empathize with their anguish. The details here are vivid enough you may not want to let young children watch this film, but it's a good history lesson for the rest of us on the time "Boston Strong" became a national anthem and one well earned.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Monster Calls: A Good Film for Those Brave Enough to Face the Monster Staring Them Down

Movie Review: A Monster Calls (2016)
Version: Library borrow

In A Monster Calls, young Conor, who lives in a small village in England, is having trouble in school and issues at home. Some boys in class are bullying him and he has learned he may have to live with his grandmother while his single mother goes back to the hospital for treatment of a terminal illness. When his father visits from America, he isn't any help. Then the Monster arises from the roots of his mother's favorite large yew tree in the distance.

The Monster is larger than a house and damaging to the things around Conor, yet quite gentle toward him. But there is menace in his message. He will tell Conor three stories, and when he is done, Conor must tell him about his dream. The Monster tells Conor his stories after critical troublesome events, and it isn't until the final troubling occurrence that Conor is forced to reveal his terrible dream -- his nightmare, something that Conor is loathe to discuss. But perched atop a crumbling sinkhole in an old church graveyard, the Monster insists.

A Monster Calls is really a well told tale about a child forced to face his worst fears. And lead actor Lewis MacDougall as Conor plays the role with every bit of energy and emotion within him. There is no joy in this role, only fear, anger, sadness, and finally, relief. Sigourney Weaver plays his straight-laced but forbearing grandmother and Felicity Jones plays his sick but doting Mum. Liam Neeson is the voice of The Monster. But the real star and center of this film is Conor.

British films have a definitive quality that brings out the best in them, and A Monster Calls is all that. The quaint village setting, the eerie church graveyard, the staid grandmother's home, the cluttered public school and hospital -- all could have been lifted from a Harry Potter movie lot. The Monster reminds me of a very tall Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, except he actually speaks full, adult sentences. Perhaps there's a bit of the Ents in him from The Lord of the Rings, too

What may be troublesome for younger audiences is that A Monster Calls addresses the fear of death, and while it has a final good ending for Conor, it may be a bit much for children to face. It could be cathartic for teens and adults. My wife cried watching it, remembering the trauma of facing her father's death decades ago. Is this film for everyone? Possibly not. But it is a good film for those brave enough to face the monster staring them down.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Space Between Us: A Romance? Science Fiction? A Love Story? A Tech Story? It's All Four!

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

The Space Between Us is a romance wrapped in science fiction. A love story wrapped in tech story. But not just any romance or love story nor just any science fiction or tech story. It is multi-dimensional in every aspect.

Gardner Elliot (played by Asa Butterfield) is inadvertently born on Mars on the first Mars colony. His mother dies giving birth to him and the private company running the colony and NASA keep his birth and life a secret, to protect the project. He is raised and educated by the crew, and like them, he is limited in his exposure to the world. But unlike them, he has never seen Earth -- the blue sky, the rivers, lakes, or oceans, the greenery of plant life, the cities or its overwhelming population, and never felt rain nor smelled flowers. And, of course, he's never had contact with his peers -- except one young lady in Colorado, with whom he has secretly been chatting with online: Tulsa (played by Britt Robertson). The decision is made to bring Gardner to Earth to see if he can physically withstand Earth's gravity and ecosystem so that he can live there and have more contact with others. When he arrives, he makes up his mind to find Tulsa and begins the adventure of a lifetime to seek out his father, whom he has never met. Only, Garner has a health problem. And his survival becomes a race against time.

Gary Oldman plays Natheniel Shepherd, the industrialist who has spearheaded the project and made the decision to keep Gardner's life a secret. He takes a particular interest in Gardner's life on Mars and his survival on Earth. When Gardner runs off, he is particularly vexed.

Asa Butterfield is particularly good as Gardner. He is tall and gawky as you might expect some who is born and raised on less massive Mars to be. He plays Gardner as awkward and naive as you would expect the character to be around an unfamiliar Earth. And he shows the raw wonder and emotion at the beauty of a colorful, sense-filled world the Earth is compared to the monochromatic, dry place that Mars is. In a sense, Gardner feels a romance for this amazing place called Earth, as he continually asks people he runs into, "What is your favorite thing about Earth?" He so wants to stay on Earth, and so, in a sense, there is a love story there, too.

Butterfield essentially plays opposite Britt Robertson, who becomes his human love interest. There was a space between them, literally, when he lived on Mars. They unite on Earth as she helps him run away, but his inexperience and his health problem create a new space between them. Still they have this bond that endures and this is the human romance/love story within The Space Between Us.

This film isn't so much about location. It isn't about cinematography. It isn't even about set design or costume design. What makes this film is character development and theme. The writing is great, although there are occasional awkwardnesses in how it is carried out. But if anything, The Space Between Us points out how beautiful our world is and the essential relationships between us.

There's a big red herring in the plot that carries out till the very end. But it's worth enduring for the surprise ending.

The Space Between Us would never be a blockbuster movie. But it would be a good family movie for a variety of tastes. It's worth a feel-good weekend gathering around the TV or a weekday evening.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

La La Land: It's a Flawed Film as a Musical

Movie Review: La La Land (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian
Emma Stone as Mia
J.K. Simmons as Bill
John Legend as Keith
Aimee Conn as "Famous Actress" (third)
Thom Shelton as "Coffee Spiller" (fifth)

A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Mia, an aspiring actress, serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions and Sebastian, a jazz musician, scrapes by playing cocktail party gigs in dingy bars, but as success mounts they are faced with decisions that begin to fray the fragile fabric of their love affair, and the dreams they worked so hard to maintain in each other threaten to rip them apart.

If you didn't grow up watching the great musicals on film, either on the big screen or on television, you might have been wowed by La La Land. Maybe that's why it was nominated for Best Picture Oscar -- lack of memory. Having seen some of the greats over the decades, I have memory and I was underwhelmed. Sorry, Hollywood. 

The movie begins with a song and dance routine, even before it establishes a story line. Fade up on a highway on-ramp crammed with cars, drivers listening to music on their radios and bored waiting while in highway gridlock. Suddenly, they break out in song and then dance. As the song and dance routine wind down, we finally meet the hero, Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling), and heroine, Mia (played by Emma Stone), who are in conflict as Mia gets a phone call and doesn't move ahead with the traffic and Sebastian blasts his horn in frustration, pulling around her in anger. 

Hereafter for the next half to three-quarters of an hour, each change of scene becomes an excuse to break into song. La La Land looks here more like an excuse to break into song rather than a typical musical, in which the music blends into a narrative, the music telling part of the story instead of the story simply filling in around the music. It's almost predictable that when you are introduced into a new scene the characters will break into song, maybe along with a dance. It isn't until that first half to three-quarters of an hour that the music suddenly becomes part of the narrative.

La La Land is about a want-to-be actress and a dreamer jazz pianist who struggle to make it in Hollywood. Finally after that first half hour, Sebastian introduces Mia to jazz at a jazz bar, explaining what jazz is really about and why he is devoted to it, as the jazz musicians play from the bandstand. You sense his excitement. From then on, the music he plays as a pianist and singer folds into a story -- becomes the story. Similarly, Mia explains her love for acting and we discover she really wants to be a playwright. And suddenly the music she sings folds into her story. Their dreams of becoming stars in the City of Stars comes to life.

 "City of Stars" is the theme song of the film and you don't hear the lyrics until halfway through the film!

The music is good, which includes pieces by one of America's most sought-after musical talents, John Legend, who makes an appearance in the film. And Emma Stone shines in her role as Mia, although there is no apparent in-scene chemistry between her and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. I couldn't help catching a couple of plot holes right at the top of the film, too:  Why is there a skateboarder and a bicyclist on a busy highway on ramp? Why is there bumper-to-bumper traffic on the on ramp when in the distance you can see that the traffic on the highway onto which the on-ramp feeds is light and flowing freely?

But enough of the negatives. Let's talk about some positives. The color in the film is incandescent. The cinematography is beautiful. Also, there are plenty of interesting metaphors, such as toward the end of the film when Sebastian and Mia are having a meal together in Mia's apartment and Sebastian plays an LP album. They chat, catching up on their lives since his road trip with the band Sebastian in playing in has put them out of contact for a while. Then suddenly they break out into a disagreement. Cut to a close up of the spindle on the LP reaching the end of the cut. Mentally you say, "It's over." There is also some great use of lighting during musical scenes, house lights dimming on the surrounding crowds as a single spotlight remains focused on Sebastian or Mia so your focus is on their story and not the crowd.

A lot of these elements come right out of veteran musical cinema. From that perspective, you might be tempted to relive the good old days of hit Hollywood musicals. And likely, that's part of why La La Land was such a hit for the Oscars crowd. And certainly, once you get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, La La Land begins to look like a real musical. But I can't make myself get past that first 30 to 45 minutes, feeling like this was a movie about making a musical instead of a story told in the style of a musical. 

Don't mistake my meaning. La La Land has some great moments. It's worth seeing. It's just a flawed film as a musical, Oscars acclaim notwithstanding. I wish it had been better.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Lion: There Aren't Enough Adjectives to Describe This Remarkable Film

Movie Review: Lion (2016)
Version: Library borrow

Lion is a beautiful film, short changed during this year's Oscars. Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel were Oscar worthy in leading roles and the film was well worthy of Best Picture.

This is the true story about a young boy in India leaving home with his slightly older brother to find night work to support the family. He falls asleep on a train platform bench, so his brother leaves him there, promising to return. When the brother doesn't come back, young Saroo wanders around looking for older Guddu, and not finding him settles for another nap on an uninhabited train car. He wakes up in the morning in the car in motion, traveling for two days, his trip ending thousands of miles away from where his journey started. Lost and not speaking the language of his new surroundings, Saroo seeks help but can't get it. He faces multiple dangers from kidnappers and insincere strangers before ending up in a police-run orphanage, where he is finally given help, adopted by a couple in Australia, where he grows into adulthood. As an adult, Saroo finds it difficult to think of his brother and mother wondering what ever happened to him and struggles to discover his roots and the location of his original home, in the process alienating all the people in Australia who have become his friends and family.

There is much to love about this film adaptation of the book Little Boy Lost by Saroo Brierley. The story is heart wrenching, although the outcome is heart warming. The imagery of India and Australia is breathtaking, while the editing and pacing are measured. The acting performances by Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo and Dev Patel as the adult Saroo are wonderful, and Nicole Kidman as Saroo's Austrilian mother Sue Brierley is exceptional. Everything comes together perfectly in this film to tell this amazing story.

I have requested the book because I want to read the original story now, too. Saroo participated in the writing of the script, but I want to know this remarkable story in his own words. It's that good!

Every once in a while, there appears a movie spellbinding in its telling, in its showing, in its visual arts. And Lion is that film. Honestly, there aren't enough adjectives to describe this remarkable film. You should see it!

Friday, June 09, 2017

The Great Wall: Not the Finest Film, but a Fun Watch Worth Watching

Movie Review: The Great Wall (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

If you want action, if you want period costumes, if you want exotic locations, if you want creepy monsters, you really want to see The Great Wall.

This is the tale of two Europeans traveling ancient China looking for the secrets behind gunpowder. What they find instead is the secret behind The Great Wall of China: the defense of the united Chinese nation against the growing threat of dinosaur-like monsters who grow off human flesh fed to their queen. However, there seems to be nothing that can hold off these beasts, until William (played by Matt Damon) and Tovar (played by Pedro Pascal) give up their mercenary ways and join the huge Chinese army of elite warriors battling the nasty teethy enemy.

As with many films made in China these days, this story is presented in massive scale showcasing the skill and courage of Chinese warriors. The Westerner and Spaniard coming to their rescue seem both reluctant and timid in coming to their defense at first, so you might be forgiven for at first thinking this is one of those big-budget Chinese-focused films. But it is much more than that. The Great Wall is an interesting multi-dimensional film full of color and heroics and great stunt work, although, stunts nothing to the scale of a Jackie Chan or a Bruce Lee. Willam Defoe also makes an appearance as an Western warrior seeking to help stop the monsters. The star power, however, is Matt Damon, who gets to save the day, with a cast of thousands of fearless Chinese warriors.

The Great Wall isn't the finest film ever made, but it is a fun movie and worth a viewing. You can't go wrong when you're watching a mindless face full of razor-sharp teeth get pummeled, and this film is full of them. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Knife Edge (Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins): Fits Well Into the Holmes Genre

Book Review: Knife Edge (Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins) by Andrew Lane
Version: eBook library borrow

Always on the lookout for a good Sherlock Holmes story, I ran into Knife Edge by Andrew Lane. It's written for the young adult market, but anyone who is a Sherlock Holmes fan can enjoy it. Knife Edge in one of a series written by Lane, a Brit. It is only my opinion, but the best Sherlock Holmes stories are written by Brits.

So it is with Knife Edge, which is one of several books about the teen years of Sherlock Holmes life and thus, the subtitle, The Legend Begins.

In Knife Edge, Sherlock has returned to the British Isles from China, working his way back aboard a sailing ship after having been kidnapped. His journey is diverted from Southampton to Galway, Ireland, where he is greeted by his older brother, Mycroft. But all isn't cheery brotherhood as Mycroft has an ulterior motive in arranging for Sherlock's ship to meet him in Galway. A mystery awaits them at a castle nearby, where the two must decide whether the British government should bid against other continental powers for the services of a spiritualist. Does the spiritualist really have the power to connect with the dead, or is this just a scam? As Sherlock Holmes fans know, only he can solve the mystery.

The castle is owned by a sketchy gentleman landowner who is hosting a series of convincing seances given by a strange man claiming to wield the power to communicate with the dead. Mycroft represents the British government, but present also are representatives from Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Soon to arrive is a representative from America. All are bidding to tap these "miracle" services. There are many twists and turns in this tale along the western coast of Ireland, infamous for its shipwrecks and the scavengers who secreted the spoils into hidden caves. Danger lurks everywhere. Piecing together the shadowy clues, Sherlock unveils his talents for logic.

As with any young adult book, Knife Edge isn't terribly complicated. The plots and twists aren't overly sophisticated. But then, neither were the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story would actually fit well into the Doyle cannon. The cross-check rivalry between Sherlock and Mycroft are present as well. Doyle even delved into spiritualism at one point in his life. But this is good light reading for anyone who likes a breezy summer distraction with the early hints of the Holmes mind.

Give Lane's Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins stories a try, and I'd recommend Knife Edge as good as anywhere to begin.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Love & Mercy: If You're a Beach Boys or '60's Rock Fanatic You Might Enjoy It

Movie Review: Love and Mercy (2014)
Version: Library Borrow

Paul Giamatti is great at playing bad guys. He excels in Love and Mercy as the shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy manipulating Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson in this bio pic of Wilson's struggles as the band's creative force with mental health issues. Equally good in his role is Paul Dano as a very young Wilson, who sings a good tune and performs well as the dominant leader of America's preeminent rock band creating the legend and beginning to show the signs of illness. John Cusack puts in a middling performance as the older, weaker Wilson under Landy's devious thumb. Elizabeth Banks is excellent as Melinda Ledbetter, the heroine who takes on Landy and saves Wilson's sanity and soul. Other characters come off as also-features in this sorry story.

That's the best that can be said for this film. You do get to enjoy the best of the Beach Boys classic music and watch it being created, albeit re-imagined in film, based on Wilson's autobiography. But the story is disjointed by the film's technique of jumping between the early days of the band and the "current" days of Wilson trying to stay afloat mentally. Nothing about the presentation seems real, until you get to the stills and news clips shown in the closing credits. The old fuzzy, graininess of the film is a put off in this age of HD clarity. There is a lot of conflict in the film to give it some teeth, but much of it arises from emotional drama, which can drain a film of movement. It simply doesn't work on its own.

If you are a Beach Boys or '60's rock fanatic, you might enjoy Love and Mercy for the music. In that case, sit back with the sound tuned up, close your eyes, and enjoy the ride. But for me, sorry to say, Love and Music was a bust. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hidden Figures: An Entertaining, Emotional Journey With Important New Lessons

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Sometimes a film is good because it's entertaining. Sometimes because it strikes an emotional chord. And sometimes because it teaches us important new lessons. Some films are good for all those reasons, and Hidden Figures is one of them.

Hidden Figures is historical fiction based very closely on fact. It's the story of a group of Black women, who served as human computers at the dawn of the electric computer age, and who worked at NASA at the dawn of the manned space program. It focuses particularly on three women who would become heroes in helping America launch the first men into space during the race for space dominance against the Soviet Union.

The scientists at NASA were all White males. They were top physicists and engineers in their fields, self-assured, and like any group of prima donas, unappreciative of help checking their work. But their work wasn't successfully launching rockets. The Soviets were beating the Americans at meeting milestones launching rockets, and the pressure was growing for America meet their pace if not surpass it.

In another building quite far away from where the scientists worked was an office for "Colored" workers -- Black women. They were known as "computers", although not the kind we're used to thinking of today. The kind we think of today were just in the beginning stages of development. Humans did the computing, the data processing and math -- often higher mathematics -- required to solve NASA's complex science challenges. There weren't White workers with the skills and talents to solve NASA's computing problems, but NASA increasingly learned that there were Black workers who could. And despite the color barriers of the time -- this takes place in the early 1960's -- these three Black women rose to the occasion to help lift NASA rockets off the ground, into orbit, with men on board, and safely back to the ground.

Hidden Figures is the uplifting story of these women, especially Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine G. Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), who struggled through bigotry, racism, and sexism, to crack the race and sex ceilings at NASA and help take America safely and successfully into space, finally to surpass the Soviets in the frontiers of space exploration. In the process, they would discover new math formulas, create new engineering solutions, and bring NASA into the modern computer age. This is an entertaining, emotional, life-lessons journey that will warm your heart and have you rooting for every underdog with a brilliant mind.

The acting performances are flawless, from Spencer, Henson, and Monae, who play not just smart women seeking the opportunity to fulfill their natural intellectual talents, but also as mothers and daughters and wives trying to live normal, everyday lives in 1960's America; to Kevin Costner, who plays the beleaguered NASA administrator under pressure to stave off the Soviet space threat and recognizes the equally damaging threat of bigotry and racism; to Kirsten Dunst, who plays the at first dismissive White talent-pool manager that comes to appreciate people for who they are, not who they appear to be; to Jim Parsons, far from his TV role as the brilliant but clueless Sheldon Cooper but now as a snobbish smart physicist who reluctantly turns his work over to a "Colored" woman to check his math and who is finally won over by Johnson's brilliance. Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge put in strong supporting performances as well.

There is much more about this film to admire as well. Set decoration is spot on for the era. Hair style and costume design are exemplary. The feel of the times fits perfectly, too, as anyone who lived in those times can attest. The script is well written and executed, bringing in humor not just to be funny but to make a point. The politics of the film isn't there to make a point but to make sense in the story line.

Hidden Figures was Oscar nominated for a reason. It is a well made film. Everything comes together with brilliance to finally tell the story of unsung American heroes of the space race, a race we could not have won without them. Bravo!

Monday, May 29, 2017

New Article on How to Write a Good Book Review

Just read a book and you would like to share your thoughts on it? Dudley Court Press has just published an article I guest authored on how to write a good book review.

During a discussion with Gail Woodard, the publisher at Dudley Court, it came to light that their readers have asked for tips on how to share their love of the books on review pages like you find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Good Reads, and other book-centric sites. Since I write both book and film reviews, I offered to write an article.

Most readers love to share their thoughts on the books they read. Some feel shy about doing so if they aren't professional writers, but they don't need to fear their inexperience, as I share tips both newcomers and experienced writers can use to write useful, well thought out reviews. If you would like to write reviews but have feared wading into that pool for some reason, or if you write them but would like ideas on how to improve them, please take a look at the article. Let me know what you think.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Logan: Did It Really Have To Be So Brutal?

Movie Review: Logan (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The action is brutal. The language is not for young viewers. But, man, Logan was one incredibly fascinating film.

We've been watching the X-Men franchise for some time, loving the characters and the plot lines. We grew up admiring the underdog Wolverine, who never wanted to be a mutant transformed into a deranged war machine. Logan takes that story line into its final step as Wolverine takes on his real name, Logan, to finally escape what he's become. Along the way, he takes Professor Xavier with him, a severely handicapped mutant with horrific seizures that disable the world around him. Logan's plan is to eventually buy a yacht and sail off with Xavier far away from civilization and the interference of corporate interests. Only, the corporate interests won't have it. And complicating his plans are Laura and a small band of newly minted mutants escaping the corporation to save their lives. It's up to a reluctant Logan to help them reach safety, despite the pursuit of a dogged Pierce and Dr. Rice and their gang of mercenary thugs.

The setting takes place in 2029 and has an apocalyptic feel to it. There isn't much joy to be found in this film, save the fine performances by Hugh Jackman reprising their roles as Logan (Wolverine) and Patrick Stewart as Charles (Professor Xavier), and the dynamite performance of Dafne Keen as mutant Laura, who can kick thug ass better than most adult actors. Watch out Jackie Chan, she's gunning for your martial arts chaps.

This is as dark a version of X-Men as you will ever find. Logan's frustration with life and circumstances come out most notably in his obsessive alcoholic consumption and continual swearing in the film. He is ready to die! Yet, he is also committed to preserving Professor Xavier, although that may also be to stave off the violent seizures that threaten all life around him. Xavier, meanwhile, plays the fool throughout most of this film, a far cry from the intelligent, purposeful leader of mutants of past. It represents a struggle from beginning to end, both for the characters and the actors, to finally put end to their roles in this popular franchise. Really, did it have to be so violent, so brutal, so visceral?

There isn't much more to say about or for this film. As a family, we agreed watching Logan once was quite enough. A day later, we are still dazed. Rent or borrow Logan once if you must, but then let it gather dust on the shelf forever after.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Miss You Already: It Takes Itself Seriously and Makes You Smile at the Same Time

Movie Review: Miss You Already (2015)
Version: Library Borrow

We watched Miss You Already as a family, my wife, my daughter, and I. It certainly had a lot of women's issues front and center: breast cancer, pregnancy, unsupportive husbands. But as I got to watching it, I realized it went well beyond that. This was about the bonds of friendship, the challenges of family, the responsibilities of marriage -- from both sides of the relationship, and the freedom to make choices. Everyone can relate to these issues.

Toni Collette is a strong lead in the role as Milly, a wild and crazy lover of life with all the responsibilities of a job and a family. Drew Barrymore is a strong second lead in the role as Jess, Milly's best friend since childhood, who has struggled to become pregnant with her husband. She shines less in the limelight but is no less important as a character, a tag-along in Milly's wild ride through life. Especially when Milly learns she has breast cancer. It's Jess who is there at her side through chemotherapy. And then when Milly goes through a mastectomy, it's Jess who's there for her. And when Jess finally becomes pregnant, she sets aside her good news to help Milly through more bad news. Milly seems to grab all the attention until the very end, when she finally comes to Jess's aid. The husbands and children? They're there to add conflict.

The supporting cast is pretty good, too. But who make this movie are Barrymore and Collette shining brightly on the screen. Many parts are just downright funny, despite the serious subject matter, owning to the fine script and contagious grins and laughter of the lead actresses. It's a film that both takes itself seriously and makes you smile at the same time. And who can't enjoy a film like that?

Guys, sit down and watch Miss You Already with your favorite ladies. Ladies, invite your guys over to watch it with you. It will be time worth spending together.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Genius: A Deeply Emotional Film Well Worth Viewing

Movie Review: Genius (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Good books are usually a collaboration between the author and the editor. A relationship develops between the writer and the wordsmith, in which the one creates and the other molds. Based on the book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Max Berg, Genius sensitively taps the deep well that is this subject, which in this case is the all too-short time author Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins worked together.

This is a good film that didn't gross much at the box office,yet deserves an audience for its superb acting, it's great writing, and its well paced plot.

The story unfolds in depression-era 1929 as Max Perkins is sitting in his office editing a book by Steinbeck. A colleague walks in with a heavy sheath of typed pages and hands them to Perkins. "Is it any good?" he says. "No, but he's a genius." Perkins takes the tome home and on the way reads in on the train, and on the walk to the house, and in through the door, up the stairs, past the wife rehearsing for a play, daughters playing in the living room, office, bedrooms, and every other quiet room of the house. He finally settles in a closet. He is enraptured by the book. The next day, Wolfe walks flamboyantly into his office, sure that, like every other publisher in New York City, Scbriner & Sons won't think the book is any good. Perkins surprises him with a $500 advance and wants to get to work on it right away.

From there, Perkins guides Wolfe on decisions into making Look Homeward, Angel from 1100 pages into a more compact book. Elated at publishing his first work, Wolfe is eager and compliant at the hands of an experienced editor. Once the book is published and becomes a bestseller, Wolfe writes his second novel, some 5,000 pages long, delivered in handwritten pages. Wolfe is less pliant with what he sees as his masterpiece of visualizations, but Perkins helps him focus less on vibrant descriptions and more on impactful language that brings the story into focus. They work on the book for two years, wrestling back and forth over excessive language to publish Of Time and the River.

Subplots in the story include Wolfe's complex relationship with his patron and lover, Aline Bernstein, a theater set decorator with a waning marriage and a jealous attachment to Wolfe. Also Perkin's family, who can't get enough time with husband and father Perkins because of the time he spends on Wolfe's books. Intertwined are interactions with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

The characters are rich and earthy, played to great depth by Colin Firth as Perkins, Jude Law as Wolfe, Nicole Kidman as Bernstein, Laura Linney as Perkin's wife Louise, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. If anything is out of the ordinary, it is the excess with which Law plays Wolfe's eccentricity. Perkin's hat may well have gotten a credit -- he wears it in every scene, till near the end. Was it a metaphor for the man who wore but one hat in life, that of extraordinary editor to great writers?

You don't have to be an author or editor to appreciate this film. It offers fine acting, great writing, elegant cinematography, and beautiful set decoration. You feel for the characters as they work through the plots and subplots. It is a deeply emotional film. Genius is well worth your viewing.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Persephone: Well Told Adventure With Something for Every Reader

Book Review: Persephone by Julian Stockwin
Version: hard cover, advance copy

I'll be darned if Julian Stockwin hasn't done it again -- bested himself with his latest release in the Thomas Kydd series, Persephone. There's a little something for every reader in this volume: sea chase, age-of-sail battle, Napoleonic intrigue, imperial palace pomp, and romance. All nicely packaged in well-written historical fiction in around 400 pages.

Persephone is the name of Captain Sir Thomas Kydd's once spurned love interest of the past, and Kydd encounters her again while on station in Portugal trying to rescue the British from Lisbon and escort Portuguese royalty from the clutches of Napoleon and his Spanish allies. A spark of interest re-ignites between them, but they are forced apart by circumstances, only to be reintroduced once again on British soil. Kydd, the toast of England for his heroics in battle, has plenty of time to pursue her, but she appears to be out of reach. Meanwhile, Kydd inconsolable at his loss, returning to the sea and service of king and country, is sent to the site of his most recent conquest, Copenhagen, and then to follow a strange group of merchant ships protected by French sloops and a frigate, perhaps destined to invade the shores of Scotland or Ireland. They face uncertainty and dangers abound in pursuit, only to be surprised time and again -- including the final, biggest surprise of his life.

There is the romance of the sea and the romance between a couple, and Stockwin blends both seamlessly in this great tale of adventure. He deftly describes the relationship between Kydd and Persephone, their still stirring love interest yet the still unresolved conflicts from the past, setting up a hunt and seek chase that lasts through the book, almost as in a thriller. Packed in and around this theme flows the adventures of a naval hero doing his duty at sea and doing his duty on land, being paraded before the people as the hero of the hour and yet feeling the tug of life on board one his majesty's finest fighting frigates. There are battles aplenty, both at sea and on land, both military and political. And keep in mind, while many characters are fictional, others are based in history.

Stockwin's prose flows easily on the page, fluid with the magic of truth. You are transformed to the settings, knowing he has been there and seen that or gleaned parts from historical records. Dialogue is real, descriptions are vivid. The pacing is exciting. And having served in the Royal Navy, you know his battle narratives ring true. Many of Stockwin's characters recur from novel to novel, and one of my favorites is Stirk, who has been with Kydd from the beginning. One of those most stirring and realistic bits of dialogue is his near the end of the novel.

Persephone released as hardback in UK and as ebook and audio download in UK and the U.S. on May 18. It releases as hardback in U.S. in September. The link above is to the Book Depository, where hardback is available to order with free delivery worldwide. I think you will find it entertaining reading, wherever you are!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Hologram for the King: A Satisfying Movie Worth Watching at Least Once

Movie Review: A Hologram for the King (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Tom Hanks is always fun to watch, almost always a friendly face on the movie screen. It is equally so in A Hologram for the King, where he once again plays an underdog, one more than equal to the challenge.

Hanks plays Alan, a former powerful CEO who once sent jobs from Schwinn Bikes to China and now finds himself in a much reduced role at a different company as a simple salesman going to Saudi Arabia to sell American IT services to a powerful king. What he runs into are jet lag, cultural missteps, systemic roadblocks, and a health scare all that threaten to foil his efforts, but in the process introduces him to new friends and an unexpected love interest.

Alexander Black is smart as Yousef, a driver for hire who helps Alan over his many cultural and physical setbacks. Satira Choudury is brilliant as Zahra, a woman doctor who treats Alan's health malady; despite cultural taboos about unsupervised men and women sharing such intimate space, they become very close.

In a way, A Hologram for the King reminds me a lot of Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray in the leading role. In this instance, it's Tom Hanks lost in an Arabic and Islamic world trying to translate a world of language, religious, cultural, and feminine cues in the search for the big business score. Like Bill Murray, Hanks is all charm and character but succumbs to his human instincts in ways that both seem to bring relief to his frustrations yet also force him to the brink of failure. Hanks handles it with a familiar patina of humor and grace.

The script isn't as interesting as the visuals, with their  sweeping desert panoramas, seascapes, and busy cityscapes. What do words matter anyway, right? It's the situations and Hank's reactions that make this film. All come together to create a satisfying movie worth watching at least once.

I don't have a rating system as many review sites do, but if I did, I would give A Hologram for the King a solid 4. Honestly, I can't think of a bad Tom Hanks film, and this definitely wouldn't be one of them.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Sing: You'll Really Dig It

Movie Review: Sing (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

If you liked Zootopia, if you enjoy America's Got Talent, you'll really dig Sing, an amalgam of both, hits of worldwide cultural phenomena.

Sing is the animated story of Buster Moon, the koala whose lifelong dream is to resurrect the success of the live theater he grew up attending with his father. The problem is, he hasn't had a hit since taking over the theater and the bank is closing in on foreclosure. In desperation, Moon organizes a singing competition with a $1,000 prize that in error is promoted to be $100,000, attracting thousands of singers and giving Moon renewed hope. Moon reduces the thousands of applicants down to a few and we meet the unusual stars of this movie: Ash, a teen porcupine with self-concept issues; Mike, a tiny mouse with a giant ego; Johnny, a gorilla who would rather sing than join his gangster-father in the family business; Rosita, a mother pig with an overwhelmingly big family; and Meena, a young elephant who needs a confidence boost. Assisting Moon is his wobbly secretary and right-hand lizard, Mrs. Crawley, and Eddy, a sheep who lives in his wealthy parent's pool house. Together, this rich palette of characters bring this story to life in a bright canvas of colors and songs.

The animators and sound editors string together a wonderful collage of audition performances in a wild range of animals featuring amazing voices and comic performances. When we get to the final acts, we are given more strong animated and sound performances, from the rough starts to the improving rehearsals, to the final show, enough to entertain you all evening (or day). The next to last performance, with Mike the mouse, singing "I Did It My Way", is particularly stirring. And throughout the film, the animation sequences are exceptional. For example, after singing a duet, one couple can be seen breathing labored as in real life. as if they've had a real workout. And toward the end, a set reconstruction scene, done in fast motion, looks so real you could swear it was filmed on location. In the opening sequence, Moon rides a bicycle through an amazing visual kaleidoscope that's as real as anything in real life, except it's "peopled" with animals instead of humans.

The voice casting is wonderful, too, with Matthew McConaughey playing the lead as Buster Moon, Reese Witherspoon playing Rosita, Seth MacFarlane playing Mike, Scarlett Johansson playing Ash, John C. Reilly playing Eddy, Taron Edgerton playing Johnny, and Tori Kelly playing Meena. Mrs. Crawley is played brilliantly by Garth Jennings. Jennifer Hudson croons a tune as a young Nana, Eddy's grandmother, who Moon was thrilled to see perform in the theater when he was a young koala.

To say I enjoyed Sing is an understatement. I watched it twice with my daughter and my wife. If you're into animated films, if you liked Zootopia, if you enjoy America's Got Talent, you will be thrilled with Sing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Silence: A Powerful Story Well Told By a Master Storyteller

Movie Review: Silence (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

For some time I had heard about the film Silence and how powerful a story it is. I have waited in anticipation of seeing what has been said to be a great film and have finally gotten to see it. I wasn't disappointed.

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who take on the mission of tracking down a fellow Jesuit lost in the turbulent cultural wiles of 17th century Japan. European Catholics have been rejected by the Buddhist Japanese government, pursued, prosecuted, tortured, and even killed to rid the island of what is deemed as a dangerous cult. The people of Japan who have converted to Christianity practice their faith in fear for their lives, praying in seclusion. Any one town is unaware whether there are other Christians in any other town, all pursued by Japan's Inquisitor, who seems to stamp out the religion through repression and apostasy (renunciation of faith). Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield play the two priests who come in search of the last known priest in Japan, rumored to have renounced Christ and taken on a wife and children. They face personal hardship and danger, but worse still, they pose a danger to the Christians they encounter in their journey, who revel in the return of priests and hide them in their community.

Silence was directed by Martin Scorsese, a master storyteller in film. His passion for the story is apparent in the hard work taken to film difficult scenes of crucifixions in the sea, tortures on the land, the selfless sacrifices taken on by the priests who deny themselves to make this journey, and the deep fears of the simple people who live in the small fishing villages. The lighting is moody but integral to setting the heavy tone of the story. The scenery is simple but important to establishing the time in which the story takes place and difficulty of making this journey. The characters have great depth, from the two priests driven by their faith to seek truth, to the Inquisitor who is driven to eliminate the threat they pose to his land, to the fallen priest they seek to find.

It can be a difficult film to watch, as the Inquisitor seeks to expose Christians and force them to renounce their faith or suffer horrible punishments. In fact, it can be brutal to watch. Battling the will of the priests, the Inquisitor uses mind games, which can be equally brutal. But this is the truth of the story, and Scorsese doesn't shy away from it -- any of it.

I was expecting a different outcome. However, Scorsese treats that outcome with compassion, and that's the redeeming quality of Silence. This is a film about faith, the difficulty of living it in troubled times, and God's compassion when we sometimes fall short. It was a brilliant visual treatment of that journey.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Our Kind of Traitor: Like a Good Spy Thriller? This Isn't One of Them.

Movie Review: Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Do you like a good spy thriller? I'm afraid Our Kind of Traitor isn't one of them. Instead, it's a slow-plodding mystery built around conspiracies between Russian oligarchs and their money handler on the one hand and British Intelligence and a rogue agent on the other hand. Caught in between is a British couple on holiday in Morocco.

Our Kind of Traitor features a decent cast. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play the British couple. He's an unsuspecting professor charmed by Russian money handler Dima, played by Stellan Skarsgard, and she is a skeptical attorney who does her best not to play into Dima's charms. Over time they are both won over, risking their lives to help Dima try to work out a deal to turn evidence against a field of oligarchs and a slew of British assets in exchange for the safety of Dima's family. But British Intelligence doesn't want to play along. There are the usual chase scenes, death scenes, drinking scenes, sex parties, and what not. This involves spies, after all. But that's it!

You might almost think this was a Tom Clancy novel come to the screen, except it doesn't have the panache, the accurate detail, and the pacing of a Tom Clancy novel. Our Kind of Traitor moves along at the pace of a sloth on Benadryl, and it relies on a host of cliched memes about Russian oligarchs and British Intelligence, not to mention British professors and skeptical attorneys, instead of the kind of authentic and out-of-today's-headlines kinds of detail of a Clancy novel. Maybe I was expecting too much.

Now, there were actually spies involved in the film. I'll give it that. The scenes in Morocco were interesting. But you can't build a movie around that. And the title? What does "Our Kind of Traitor" have to do with what this film provided the viewer? I don't get it.

It wasn't a totally wasted hour and 48 minutes, but I can't recommend Our Kind of Traitor to anyone I expect to talk to again.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: Yeah, Never Go Back

Movie Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

The last time I watched a Jack Reacher film, it was a pretty good film. I can't say the same for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. There wasn't as much action, the plot wasn't as solid, and the acting wasn't as good.

Right from the get-go, this film seemed thin. It was like they brought along not even the B team and called in the C team to put this movie together, from writing, to filming, to editing, to the end. "We'll save a ton on spending and make a ton of money on the title!" they seemed to be betting. I think they lost the bet.

As usual, Hollywood big hitter Tom Cruise plays the title role, Jack Reacher. Cobie Smolders plays Major Susan Turner, his military liaison while he is in the field. Danika Yarosh plays 15 year old Samantha, named in a legal suit to be his father by a prostitute with whom Reacher had a short-term relationship. Reacher comes to Washington, D.C., to have dinner with Turner but when he gets there, Turner is in military jail, accused of espionage. Reacher takes on the mission to clear her (what else!) and runs into obstacles, both within the military and outside (what else!). Whoever is trying to stop him are also after Samantha, in an attempt to stop Reacher. Reacher breaks Turner out of jail (oh, sure!) and rescues Samantha from the bad guys (of course!) and the battle is on to learn the truth and clear everyone's name. In a ham-handed way. Oh! And it takes place in New Orleans, apparently during Mardi Gras, but there's no mention of or allusion made to it other than playing hide and seek with the bad guys through floats in a Mardis Gras parade!

I can't express deeply enough how disappointed I was in this film. There wasn't even any real gratuitous action, nor enough speeding cars nor any hang-by-your-fingernail stunts, to satisfy an action-film cult fan. There was no socially redeeming value, either.

OK, enough of the negative. The good news is, it was only one hour and 58 minutes long. And you got to visit New Orleans as a backdrop.

Honestly, if you're a Jack Reacher fan, I think you're better off watching an older film - Jack Reacher (2012) - and never go back to this one.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge: A Brutal War Film Honestly Honoring an American War Hero

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Steel yourself for one brutal movie in Hacksaw Ridge, the telling of the true story of World War II Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who insisted on serving his country in war but refused to carry a gun.

In doing so, Doss singlehandedly carried 75 wounded soldiers to safety one evening during the Battle of Okinawa. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his incredible bravery, putting his own life at risk during constant Japanese attack. In this case, the honest brutality of this film is earned and necessary to show what Doss and his fellow soldiers endured. I promise you, you will appreciate the thoroughness with which this story is shown and you will be amazed at Doss's singular bravery and unswerving courage.

In addition, the film explores Doss's earlier life to explain why he became a conscientious objector, as well as his treatment during basic training by his fellow soldiers and officers, who originally thought him a coward. He was even put in military jail and faced court martial for refusing to touch a weapon when ordered. However, Doss was persistent in wanting to serve his nation by saving lives instead of taking them.

Doss is played by Andrew Garfield, who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Rounding out the notables in the cast include Hugo Weaving, who played his father, Sam Worthington, who played his captain, and Vince Vaughn, who played his sergeant. Their work in this film was grueling and their portrayals masterful. In particular, this was a very different kind of role for Vince Vaughn, who usually plays comedic roles. In this film, he had to play the tough drill sergeant as well as the combat leader. Garfield was well-nominated for the Oscar.

Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson, who never holds nothing back in his depictions of gory battle scenes. So it was with this film. He was nominated for an Oscar for direction and Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for Best Picture. Alas, not one of these nominations won. The winners for this film were for technical achievements: Film Editing and Sound Mixing. Those are great awards and well earned, but in my estimation, the others deserved wins, too.

Who should see Hacksaw Ridge? Anyone who appreciates personal sacrifice, moral courage, valor, persistence, and love of humanity. But, of course, anyone who is squeamish about watching people shot, bloodied, bludgeoned, and blown to bits should probably skip this movie. It's graphic! The entire 2 hours and 19 minutes isn't all bloody hell, but a good half of it is. But this film honors the self-sacrifice of Desmond Doss and to do it, his story must show what that sacrifice meant, and that means being as honest to the truth as Doss was. There's no sugar coating in this film.

My recommendation is, see Hacksaw Ridge if you can take it. If for no other reason than to honor the selfless American war hero that was Desmond Doss.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Hell or High Water: It Could Have Been a Great Film

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I'm of two minds on the 2016 film Hell or High Water. First, this isn't just your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. Second, it seemed to be a passing of the baton from one Hollywood generation to the next. I'll explore both themes before rendering a verdict on whether I liked the movie.

Most bank robbery movies pit bad guys against good guys, the good guys winning, and the good guys are usually the cops and the banks they protect. In Hell or High Water, you have a hard time figuring out which are who. Well, clearly the banks are the bad guys, but in terms of the characters, there are no clear bad guys and there are no clear losers besides the banks. No one gets shot until near the end of the film, and even then it isn't done with malice until the very end. Even with characters depicted as good guys, there is no clarity. People who rob banks aren't usually shown as good guys, but as the story progresses you come to understand the robbers have noble reasons for doing it. And the Texas Ranger pursuing them - well, he's just a stereotyped Texas lawman out to get his man, which is sad because you really don't get to know the man outside of the stereotype.

The gist of the story is two brothers seeking revenge on a small banking group set to foreclose on their late mother's ranch after they set her up on two predatory loans. The brothers get back at the bank by robbing different locations, laundering the money through a casino, and then paying back the loans and setting up a trust in the name of the sons of one of the brothers, the trust handled by the bank to keep it in the bank's interest to protect the trust. A Texas Ranger and his partner take a keen interest in the case when federal law enforcement won't touch it and pursue the brothers with deep devotion. You feel for the brothers, who never really pocket any of the money for their own benefit.

So, as I say, other than the stereotyped Texas Rangers characters, this isn't your usual Texas shoot-em-up bank robbery movie. It's kind of fun seeing a predatory bank take the hit.

Playing the major characters are Chris Pine as Toby Howard and Ben Foster as his brother Tanner, along with Jeff Bridges as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton. Chris Pine continues to show great range in the characters he plays, from Captain Kirk of the star ship Enterprise in Star Trek to this role as a down-but-not-out-by-any-means son of a mother-taken-advantage-of by a bank and father of a son to whom he wants to pass on some kind of legacy. He plays all characters deftly and with heart. At the other end of the range is Jeff Bridges, who to me always comes off as the same character, with the same drawl, the same look, the same woodenness. To see him in one role is to see him in any other. It seems to me he had more range in years past. Perhaps that's just what happens to actors as they age, although that's not the case with J.K. Simmons, who seems to just get better with each role.

Watching Pine and Bridges together in this film seemed like a passing of a baton from one generation to the next. It was almost painful to compare their performances - one original, vibrant, compelling, the other tired and spent.

And so I get to the crux of my verdict. This could have been a great film. It was up for four Oscar nominations, including Best Performance for an Actor in a Supporting Role (Jeff Bridges), but it won none. It had an excellent plot, going after predatory banks. The fact that it turned the bank robbery theme on its head was brilliant. The Howard brothers were eminently relatable and likable. There were enough action and plot twists and the grand vista of Western Texas to please anyone. But there was the impediment of that stereotyped Texas Ranger who stood up larger than life and shot it all to hell.

I won't say, don't see Hell or High Water. That's not the point. It's a good western. Just be prepared to be disappointed. Maybe I'll have just helped you figure out why you were disappointed after you've seen it. Maybe see it for Pine's and Foster's performances. They'll give you a good ride into the sunset.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Queen of Katwe: There Are So Many Reasons to See It!

Movie Review: Queen of Katwe (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Queen of Katwe is a heartwarming story of a young Ugandan girl whose world dramatically changes after discovering the game of chess. There are so many reasons to see it!

It stars Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, who with her impoverished fatherless family lives in a barely wooden shack on a dirt street in Katwe, a neighborhood in the capital of Kampala, Uganda, sells corn on the streets to eek out a minimal living.

David Oyelowo plays Robert Katende, an engineer who takes on work in a Christian ministry while waiting for a much better paying job to support his wife and family, and he runs the children's chess club.

One day, Phiona looks in on the chess club while Robert is setting up the players and he invites her in. Phiona smells and the other children tease her. Robert makes the other children teach Phiona the basic moves of chess and she quickly learns the game. Phiona cleans up for her next visit to the club, and the other children accept her into the group - but not for long, for she quickly masters the game and wins the club championship.

We watch as Phiona moves from club champion to attend tournaments at other clubs, beating kids in big schools against educated children. Soon Robert himself can't beat her, and Phiona's inability to read makes it difficult for her to read the books he provides for her to learn from the masters. Robert's wife tutors her.

While Phiona is facing struggles learning, she has struggles at home. Her mother, facing the difficulties of raising two young sons and a defiant second daughter under poverty conditions, doesn't trust Robert to take Phiona under his wing. And losing Phiona to the rigors of learning and competing in chess means losing her help in selling the corn on the street to support the family financially. But Robert helps her understand what learning can mean for Phiona's opportunities for the future, and she relents.

Robert finagles schools and tournaments to allow his club, and particularly Phiona, to compete, despite their being unschooled and poor, and they do surprisingly well. But the competitions aren't without their difficulties, difficulties that provide Phiona with challenges and doubts about here abilities. She even competes in the Russian Chess Olympiad in Moscow, although with questionable results.

In the end, it is Phiona's spirit that triumphs and that is what is lovable about this film. Watching her master the game, out strategize better players and see her eyes light up in triumph, grow in confidence and sometimes over confidence, and become the hope for her people and ultimately the Queen of Katwe makes for wonderful film making.

Queen of Katwe is based on a true story, and those are often the best films. During the end credits, you are introduced to the real Phiona, Robert, and other characters of this film, alongside the actors who play them.

If you like playing chess, this is a must-watch film. If you like stories about people who overcome odds to become a success, this is a winner film. If you like movies with women as positive role models, this movie is definitely for you. If you like films that explore diverse cultures in all their depth and complexity, Queen of Katwe is that movie. See it!

Denial: An Undeniably Emotional Journey Into a Horrible World

Movie Review: Denial (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Denial is a movie for the times in which we live. It visits themes that play out in today's headlines, so it is relevant on many levels. There is denial of climate change, there is denial of racism, and in the case explored in this film, there is denial of the Holocaust, the killing of millions of Jews by German Nazis during World War II.

Professor, historian, and writer Deborah Lipstadt (played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz) is a seeker of truth. In her works, she has called "historian" David Irving (played by Cannes Award winner Timothy Spall) a Holocaust denier. He has sued her for libel, although she lives and works in the United States, in a British Court, where the burden of proof is on her. She is defended in court by barrister Richard Rampton (played by Academy Award nominee Tom Wilkinson), who with his team of solicitors and history students decide to prove that Irving not only is wrong about history, but he has purposely distorted history. Lipstadt wants to give voice to survivors of the Holocaust, letting them appear on the witness stand, but Rampton and his team want to deny Irving the opportunity to defame the survivors and turn the case into a stage for his deliberate denial agenda.

Rampton and his team take Lipstadt to Auschwitz to visit the famous Nazi concentration camp and gas chambers. It is a damp, dreary day. The scene is dark and ominous. Rampton visits the museum there, where the thousands of shoes and eyeglasses remained behind by the Jews killed by the Nazis are displayed. It is a grim reminder of what happened in that horrible place. We see scenes of the people of the nearby town who were forced after the war to see the camp and the horror on their faces of what happened nearby. It is a stark reminder to us, the viewers, as well.

These aren't scenes for the squeamish. The character portrayals are passionate, as they debate tactics, weighing what is at stake. It's a fine cast and the cinematography, editing, and sets blend to create a realism that takes you inside the action and drama as the story and the conflict unfold around you. Irving is portrayed as a diabolical, scheming rat, not unlike the rat-like character Spall played in the Harry Potter movie in which he appeared, perhaps why he was perfect to play this part.

As our world struggles to deal with denial of science and truth in this ever changing world, a movie like Denial is more relevant that ever. Denial becomes an important element in understanding the issues and the stakes in ensuring that truth wins out. If you haven't seen it, you should, and you should make sure everyone in your family sees it. You may just learn something while you're being entertained. If you're a denialist yourself, you may want to see Denial as a reality check.

Denial is undeniably an emotional journey into a horrible world we shouldn't have to revisit but demands we see to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Jungle Book: Third Time Around's a Charm

Movie Review: The Jungle Book (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

There have been three film versions of The Jungle Book, including the 1967 animated Disney original and a 1994 live action version, so you would think making another wouldn't be a good idea. You'd be wrong. This newest version, once again live action and by Disney, using the music from the original animated film, does justice to the original and tells the story in an exciting new way.

Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, the boy raised in the jungle and befriended by the panther Bagheera (voice of Ben Kingsley) and the bear Baloo (voice of Bill Murray), who must now flee his "home" because of the threat of the angry tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba). There's nothing worse than a tiger with unresolved issues, and that's just what Shere Khan is, hunting down Mowgli through the thick and the thin of the jungle as he tries to find safe passage to the more secure yet uncertain world of humans. It's Rudyard Kipling at his best.

The Jungle Book story hasn't really changed in this version. It's still a coming of age story set in the jungle. It's still the story of friendships and conflicts and seeking your inner strength when confronted by overwhelming odds. Even the music is the same. What has changed, however, is the darkness of the imaging, the danger encountered in nature, and the humanness of the main character, Mowgli.

When the film first came out, some families said younger kids were afraid of the film and couldn't recommend it for younger viewers. Perhaps it was seeing it on the big screen. With that in mind, you might not want this film for your youngest children, although it might be different seen on the smaller screens of TV.

This version of The Jungle Book does provide an opportunity for older viewers, who may not enjoy animated films, or who may not want to see the animated version another time, to see the story updated for their age group. Gone are the sweetness of characters often depicted in cartoons. Present are the more realistic characteristics of animals and the jungle environment, not that Hollywood doesn't have the ability or desire to amp those up for dramatic effect. Easily, this is a more adult-oriented film, although young teens and older can easily enjoy it, too.

This film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects along with 21 other wins and 43 nominations from other industry and film-interest groups.

If you're looking for a movie to gather the family around over the weekend, I'd gladly suggest The Jungle Book. With younger family members, you might try watching it while there's still daylight rather than when it's darker. By all means, give this story one more watch.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings: You Can't Go Wrong with This One!

Movie ReviewKubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

My daughter and I are two very big fans of animation films. We especially loved Kubo and the Two Strings, which is a major feat in stop-action animation, taking five years to plan and film.

Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives in a small seaside village and tells amazing tales using magical origami figures that spring to life as he sings the stories to the tunes on his lute. The greatest of his tales is about a suit of samurai armor worn by his father to slay an evil spirit, and the evil spirit returns to upend Kubo's life. Kubo must seek out the suit of armor to end the conflict, as he is chased by a bevy of gods and monsters. Aiding Kubo is a fiercely loyal monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a large Beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey). Other top voice talent include Ralph Fiennes as Moon King, Brenda Vaccaro as Kameyo, and George Takei as Hosato. Together, they all bring to life this tale of adventure and magic in a wonderful world of imagination.

The use of paper to create settings and other effects is amazing. The backgrounds and action are thrilling and the characters are full of life. You move through this landscape and the story line transfixed. It was one really incredible experience, well earning the film two Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe nomination, a BAFTA award, and multiple other nominations and awards. Although most animated movies are made for youngsters, Kubo and the Two Strings was even nominated for the AARP Movies for Grownups as Best Movie for Grownups Who Refuse to Grow Up. I'd say it's great for older children and above!

This is another movie to add to your must-see list, especially if you enjoy animated films. You can't go wrong seeing Kubo and the Two Strings.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rogue One: I Was Fully Won Over

Movie Review: Rogue One (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I was just about Star Warsed out. Then along came Rogue One, supposedly a one-off that fills in some blanks in the Star Wars canon, telling the story behind the building of the Empire's Death Star, how there came to be a weakness built into it, and what led to Princess Leia's now memorable message to Obi Wan Kenobi, "You're our last hope..."

Rogue One features some new charismatic characters set in a off-shoot corner of the Star Wars universe. All the suggestions of the regular Star Wars universe are there, so if you're a Star Wars fan, the mythology and magic remain, but Rogue One has the advantage of being a fresh new story. And it takes you back in the timeline to fill in blanks and you find yourself saying, "Oh, of course. Now that makes sense." "Oh, yes! Now I see."

It also features a great cast, devoid of the aw shucks reappearances of past characters that often get in the way of the narrative to pay tribute to the past. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the fiercely independent rogue set on destroying the Death Star. Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, the at first reluctant pilot who sees the necessity in Erso's mission and, despite the Rebellion's decision not to attack, gathers a rag-tag band of warriors to help Erso. Among them are Chirrut Imwe, a super-adept blind Jedi warrior played by Donnie Yen, and his protector Baz Malbus, played by Wen Jiang, along with a small host of others. Together, they set up the Death Star to fail so when the Rebellion finally comes to its senses they can attack its weakness.

Their mission seems hopeless, but as always, the Empire's military are inept and everything pretty much goes the way of the rogue band of warriors. Until the end.

The special effects are pretty spectacular, too. The battle scenes, the space effects, even some character recreations for some characters whose actors are lost to us: Princess Leia and Governor Tarkin. In particular, Guy Henry is a near dead ringer (no pun intended) for the original Governor Tarkin, played by the late Peter Cushing. Credits list Ingvild Delia as playing Princess Leia, who looks very much like her original character.

I won't go into more detail about the story line. Suffice it to say, this is a fine addition to the Star Wars saga. It's entertaining, it's full of drama and action, and while it veers away from the episodic narrative a bit, Rogue One still maintains the romantic notions that fans have come to love and expect in a Star Wars film. I was prepared not to like it but instead, I was fully won over. If you haven't seen Rogue One yet, do so. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods: Well Written, Even-Handed, Deeply Personal Biography

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel
Version: Library eBook Borrow

The full title of this book is The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It is, indeed, an extraordinary story. Whether the character in this true story is truly a hermit, as the character disputes, is padrt of what this story is about and which author Michael Finkel explores in part.

Christopher Knight disappeared at around the age of 20. He remained aloof from family and friends for approximately 25 years, living in the woods out of contact with others, although he could never fully escape the sounds of those who inhabited the nearby cabins and homes and a nearby camp. He, in turn, had an impact on them when he put off starving by invading their cabins, homes, and camp to steal food and clothing and other things he needed to survive. Yet Knight was disciplined in his thievery, never harming anyone and never damaging property. What he wanted - needed - was solitude, and so, he lived alone, surrounded really only by nature.

Knight was eventually caught and jailed, and journalist Michael Finkel contacted him, first by mail and then by visiting him several times in jail. What he found was a man unprepared to deal with others, who could not meet another's gaze, who while he attempted to interact with his jail mates ultimately failed to adequately socialize. Knight and Finkel formed not a friendship but an acquaintance as Finkel learned his story and tried to figure out what made Knight "tick", over seven months. Finkel lived in Montana so had to travel to Maine, leaving behind his wife and children to pursue this story. Throughout their interactions, Knight never really came to appreciate their interactions and after his case finally came to court and resolution, begged to be left alone.

Throughout this book, Finkel analyzes what makes for a true hermit and whether Knight fits that mold. He explores other explanations based on psychologist examinations and discussions with other psychologists. It may be that Knight was autistic or a schizoid or other diagnosis of a person who finds human interaction difficult to deal with. But entirely, this is a thoroughly humane look at a person who needed to step away from humanity for relief from continual bombardment of social cues and expectations that he couldn't understand or meet. At one point, Knight suggests what he wants is to wander off into the woods once again in the deep of winter and let Mother Nature take him, and Finkel panics, unsure whether to intervene in some way, breaking his bond with Knight, or stay silent, breaking a moral or ethical barrier.

The Stranger in the Woods is a well written, even-handed yet deeply personal biography of a troubled soul, someone who was possibly best left alone by society but best served by the telling of his story. You can be the judge by reading Knight's story. I think you will be touched by the pure honesty of the subject and the author in dealing with the details.

Moana: One More in a Long String of Disney Hits

Movie Review: Moana (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Moana is a larger than life ancient Polynesian-island adventure featuring a fearless heroine and a reluctant demigod at odds over rescuing the island's people from a natural disaster the demigod caused from long ago. It requires the chieftain's impetuous daughter to disobey her father's command to remain on the island, daring to escape the boundaries of safety to seek a resolution only the bravest soul may face.

This fine family film features the voices of Aul'l Cravalho as the heroine, Moana, and Dwayne Johnson as the demigod, Maui. Together, they take you on a fantastic race across the seas and battle terrible foes to finally return the heart of the goddess Te Fiti to its rightful place and bring life back to Moana's island and, thus, sustenance back to her people. You are immersed in a world of myth, magic, and music!

The animated characters are lovable, the action thrilling, the backgrounds and colors brilliant, and the story line intriguing. This is one more in a long string of Disney hits featuring adept female heroines that everyone in the family can enjoy. It well earned its two Oscar nominations (Best Animated Feature Film and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures [Original Song]) and another 11 wins and 67 nominations for other awards including Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Kick back with the family some evening or weekend and enjoy Moana, an entertaining bit of Polynesian mythology that's fun for all ages!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Assassin's Creed: There Is Much to Like!

Movie Review: Assassin's Creed (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

I have always been intrigued by the Assassin's Creed video game series since it firsts emerged on the market in 2007. I've never played it, although we just got the original game from the library now that we have seen the movie. There is something interesting and invigorating about the concept of stealthy assassins, and these came into being during the Crusades.

But the film version of Assassin's Creed takes place in the present day when a corporation develops technology that can unlock someone's genetic past. Michael Fassbender plays Cal Lynch, a killer on death row, and his assassin ancestor, Aguilar. Lynch is given the lethal dose to take his life before witnesses, then is whisked away to a remote location, where he is brought back to awareness and hooked up to a machine and injected with chemicals that tap his genetic past.

Marion Cotillard plays Sofia, the scientist behind the technology, who wants to bring out the Saracen assassin Aguilar in Lynch. Jeremy Irons plays her father, Rikkin, who has ulterior motives and works on behalf of the Templars who seek a buried treasure they hope Lynch can help find through Aguilar's memories.

Through re-enacting Aguilar's battles and quests, Lynch learns new fighting and battle skills. And he learns that other subjects being held in the corporate facility are his allies. Their goal is to protect the object the modern day Templars seek, whether by helping Lynch against the corporation or by protecting the object from Lynch.

There is much to like about Assassin's Creed. Fassbender is great in the part, adept in the fight scenes and a keen adversary to Irons, who often plays a scheming villain. Cotillard is excellent as the focused scientist in search of the truth with a secret crush on her subject. The settings are well imagined, too, enveloping you into an extraordinary fantasy world of crusaders and assassins.

I would recommend this for family viewing, especially for young teens and older. There are lots of battle scenes. I'm not sure youngsters should be exposed to the corporal punishment scene at the beginning. But the rest of the film is great fun. Do buy, rent, or borrow Assassin's Creed soon.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Zootopia: You May Want to See It More Than Once

Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)
Version: Library Borrow

Zootopia won the Academy Award for best animated film this year, and for good reason. Everything about this movie is well done, from the casting to the acting to the character development to the animation to the set design. And if you don't give a hoot about that kind of thing, you can still enjoy Zootopia, because it's a great story portrayed in a brilliant panorama of color and characters. How's that for an endorsement for your family's evening entertainment?

Judy Hopps, voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin, is a small town bunny who has always wanted to escape her family carrot farm and make it to the big city - Zootopia - to become a cop. Nick Wilde, voiced by Jason Bateman, is a big city fox who was mistrusted as a child by the other animals in his urban neighborhood and grew up scratching out a living scamming the local ice cream shoppe for ice pops, which he melts and resells to easily scam-able lemmings. Judy gets her dream job as a cop but is forced to do parking meter duty and meets Nick during one of his scams. When animals mysteriously come up missing and the police force can't make progress on any of the cases, Judy gets her big break, talking her Sergeant into letting her track down just one of the cases. And Nick joins her in the pursuit.

Zootopia isn't just one large city environment. It takes in every possible world you can imagine, from the desert to the arctic to the underworld, and lots more besides. As Judy and Nick look for clues, they explore these multitude of environments and encounter a lively cast of interesting characters you might find in a zoo or in moor or out on the Serengeti or anywhere else in the wide world. In one particularly funny scene, Nick takes Judy to the Department of Motor Vehicles to search out a clue. The clerks are sloths, which are notoriously slow, and Nick forces Judy to go through a painfully sluggish question and answer session with one of the clerks that is hilarious, although I think the writers could have shortened this bit some.

Naturally, the characters are keyed to the stereotypical attributes of each animal, and these are played up for fun in the story line. In the case of the villain in the movie, it becomes a red herring, so you won't know who that is until the end.

Zootopia is a great family film and I highly recommend it. You may find you will want to watch it more than once to catch all the sight gags running in the background. But do see Zootopia at least once!