My Oscars Post

Well, today is special.  It’s my birthday, and it’s Oscar night.  And so, with that fateful hour for the movie industry, as well as millions of movie fans everywhere looming soon, and me feeling in an upbeat mood, here’s a few observations and a “my picks” list to have some fun with while you watch, or after you watch, etc.

HOW THE OSCARS ARE CHOSEN is quite a process.  “The Academy” is a group of over 6000 industry professionals representing all facets of the movie industry, from A-list stars, directors, and producers to “below-the-line” electricians, sound people, film editors, hair and make-up specialists, visual effects creators, and on and on.  Each gets to vote for all the films that are nominated in their particular area of specialization, as well as Best Picture.  Producers and studios who feel they have “Oscar-worthy” movies start “campaigning” (yes, very much like politicians do) months before the Oscars to draw attention of Academy members to their work, and once nominations are made, that can get pretty overwhelming to Academy members, even somewhat cutthroat.  In fact this year, one person nominated in one of the “best sound” categories was barred just yesterday from the competition for his last-minute campaigning activities which fell afoul of Academy rules (though the show itself can still win the Oscar).

In light of all this, one should understand that selecting the winners of the Oscars is about as subjective as can be, and, well, I guess that’s probably as it should be.  Art in any form is always subjective–each beholder has his or her own opinion of what is good, not so good, horrible, etc.  Nevertheless, winning an Oscar is usually considered the ultimate pinnacle of anyone’s career who’s involved in making movies–and it can also be considerably lucrative in a monetary sense as well.  While I have no doubt that this aspect of Oscar notoriety is the main motive for all the campaigning and whatnot by the various studios and financiers of movies, I think that, for the individual nominees themselves, winning an Oscar is more about being recognized by your peers as one of the best in your chosen art in that particular year.  I used to teach 6th graders, and for them, the best reward you could give them had nothing to do with “things” or trinkets or pencils or whatever; it was recognition that they’d done something at an outstanding level, even if it was just for a month, or for something like a well-done project, or just behaving appropriately.  Human nature doesn’t change that much with age.  Tonight’s winners, once announced, will be ecstatic not because of any monetary gain they might receive or seeing their name in the trades the next day or any other such thing, but because they were voted by their peers as the best in their profession for this one moment in time; an intangible, monumental achievement that can never, ever be taken away.

So, with that said, who would I vote for if I was an Academy member somehow able to vote for all nominees in all categories?  Well, here’s my list, though I must add (and I’m not sure how many people who spend their lives in Hollywood actually know this) that a good number of the films nominated have not been available for me to watch, at least not in a theater, at all.  Only in large cities are there enough theaters for films like “Loving” or “Manchester By the Sea” or “Moonlight” to get play, and frankly, some of them didn’t interest me at all.  I don’t got to movies just to “see art.”  I want to enjoy myself as well.  Therefore, I’ll recuse myself from considering those films that I didn’t see–and so sorry to all those who apparently did such fine work in them.  Like I said, the Oscars are subjective, and whether I actually liked a film is as much a consideration that I use as anyone.  So off we go down the list…

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT, BEST ANIMATED SHORT – Sorry, but as far as I know, I didn’t see any of them, so no favorites here.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – Nominees, “Deepwater Horizon,” “Doctor Strange,” “The Jungle Book,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Rogue One; A Star Wars Story.”  I saw all of these, and enjoyed each one save Dr. Strange, which became incomprehensible to me.  “Rogue One” was a wonderful adventure, but I have to say that the work done in “The Jungle Book” of bringing all those animal characters into live-action life without actually using real animals was simply miraculous.  My vote goes for THE JUNGLE BOOK.

BEST SOUND MIXING; “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Rogue One,” “13 Hours; The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”  This is a technical award given to how well sounds are mixed together to complete the visualization of the story being told; the sounds of footsteps, gunfire, people moving, etc.  Here, I like to pick some show which I feel is “Oscar worthy” but isn’t nominated in other categories.  With that in mind, “ROGUE ONE” and “HACKSAW RIDGE” are a toss-up for me because of each one’s ability to meticulously create battle scenes that sound so lifelike, whether in this world or “in a galaxy far, far away.”

BEST SOUND EDITING – “Arrival,” Deepwater Horizon,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Sully.”  Similar, yet different from Sound Mixing, I once again like HACKSAW RIDGE here, but it would be nice to see one of the best of the “snubbed” films this year, SULLY, get at least some Oscar recognition.

PRODUCTION DESIGN – “Arrival,” Fantastic Beasts and Where You Find Them,” “Hail Caesar,” “La La Land,” “Passengers,”  This award has to do with making the sets where the various stories take place, be they digital and/or real.  Though I really like the set creations of both La La Land and Fantastic Beasts, each depicting bygone eras in very interesting ways, I think I’ll go with PASSENGERS here because, once again, I thought it a film that had Oscar-worthy quality but won’t get any recognition in the bigger awards categories.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “THE FOOLS WHO DREAM” and “CITY OF STARS” from La La Land, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING” from “Trolls,” “THE EMPTY CHAIR” from “Jim, the James Foley Story,” “HOW FAR I’LL GO,” from “Moana”  I like a lot of these songs, and one (“City of Stars”) I didn’t really like at all, but the one song of these that brought tears to my eyes, literally, was Emma Stone’s “Audition,” THE FOOLS WHO DREAM.  Maybe it’s because I’m a fool who dreams too, and most of us are at some time in our lives.  It probably won’t win, but I think it should anyway.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – ‘Jackie,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Passengers.” Of the three of these that I did see, LA LA LAND wins hands down.  Great jazz, and some super dance numbers, along with all the songs.

BEST MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING – “A Man Called Ove”, “Star Trek, Beyond,” “Suicide Squad.”  I just saw two of these, and of those, the most Oscar-worthy movie of them by far is STAR TREK, BEYOND.

COSTUME DESIGN – of all the nominees, I only saw “Fantastic Beasts”, “La La Land” and “Florence Foster Jenkins”, and of those, I’d say that FANTASTIC BEASTS was the most impressive in this area.  Sorry “Florence…”

Sorry, I’m running out of time here, so here’s the rest of my picks…

FILM EDITING – Let’s go with HACKSAW RIDGE here, though this could get caught up in “La La Land” fever if it’s active.

CINEMATOGRAPHY – Definitely “LA LA LAND” here.  It’s been a long time since LA has looked so attractive :).

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – Sorry, I don’t do very well with subtitles.  Didn’t see any of them.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – I only saw O.J., MADE IN AMERICA, which was actually a TV mini-series, but it was so incredibly well done I’d still vote for it.

ANIMATED FEATURE – I saw three nominees here, and though “Kubo” and “Moana” were good, ZOOTOPIA transcended the genre and could legitimately have, like “Beauty and the Beast” did back in 1992, been a Best Picture nominee.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – I’d love to go with “Hell or High Water” here because it was so accessible and I think I could have written something like it myself, which means I have to give the nod to LA LA LAND because I have no idea how someone writes something that good and puts it in a musical format, etc.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – I only saw three of these, and HIDDEN FIGURES simply towers over the other two, though “Arrival” must have been quite an accomplishment as well.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Having seen only two nominees, I have to go with Octavia Spencer in HIDDEN FIGURES–way better than Nicole Kidman in “Lion.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Again, I only saw two of these performances, but Jeff Bridges in HELL OR HIGH WATER was both a kick and masterful at the same time.

BEST ACTRESS – I saw Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”).  Of those two, Meryl Streep definitely had the more challenging role, and played it to perfection.  But Meryl’s got Oscars and nominations galore, and EMMA STONE’S work so far has been outstanding in everything I’ve seen her in, so we go with her and LA LA LAND.

BEST ACTOR – Here also, I only saw two performances; Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” and Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.”  And the Oscar between those two unquestionably goes to ANDREW GARFIELD as the brave soldier who went to war without a weapon in HACKSAW RIDGE.

BEST DIRECTOR – Close here between Mel Gibson in “Hacksaw” and Damien Chazelle in “La La Land,” (I also saw “Arrival,” but just didn’t like it very much).  I’m going with DAMIEN CHAZELLE in LA LA LAND because I know something about directing musicals, and he gets both the drama and the musical parts right in this.

BEST PICTURE – I saw a total of 6 of the 9 nominees for this (amazing for me), and, though a number of the films impressed me within their genre in many ways, the most transcendent and inspirational of all was HIDDEN FIGURES about the beaten-down black women in the early days of NASA who wouldn’t sit down and shut up and ended up saving NASA and the US space program both with their intellectual brilliance and their grit.  A truly amazing story on so many levels.

Movie Shorts – December 2016

ROGUE ONE – A Star Wars Story ***1/2

About four years ago, an aging George Lucas finally decided to retire from filmmaking and cash in his life-long passion project; Lucasfilm Ltd.  Disney bought the company for a cool $4 billion, hired Kathleen Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s most revered producers of mass-audience “tentpole” films, to run it, and then went to work furthering Lucas’s signature gift to the world, his Star Wars saga.  Kennedy immediately hired fellow producer and director J.J. Abrams to begin work on the first of the final three chapters of Lucas’s original epic, and Christmas 2015 rocked with the release of Star Wars Episode VII; The Force Awakens, a wonderful (and immensely profitable) effort.

But Kennedy and the Disney people had much more in mind for the Star Wars brand.  Off-shoot stories based on the Star Wars galaxy had been highly successful in novels and animated TV shows.  Why not off-shoot, one-off movies as well?  And so was conceived this film, the first in an overall plan to give the world the gift of a new Star Wars-based movie every year at Christmas; an “off-shoot” film filling in the years between the release of the remaining main-story episodes.

Rogue One is a tie-in story that provides background into how the Rebel Alliance was first able to obtain the plans to the infamous Death Star that Princess Leia  delivered to them and enabled Luke Skywalker et al to eventually destroy it.  As with all the Star Wars stories, it’s a complex, multifaceted tale that takes place on multiple planets and involves a myriad of characters.  Chief of these is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso, a gifted engineer and rebel sympathizer, who has been forced by the new Galactic Empire to devise what will be its ultimate method of enforcing galactic order, a moon-sized, planet-killing space ship.  When Galen is first taken by the Empire, Jyn escapes (her mother dying to make that possible), and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who eventually abandons her.  On the run, fending for herself, Jyn, now a young adult, runs afoul of both the Empire and the rebels.  Captured by the rebels, they pry her for information about her father and what he’s up to, which, of course, she knows nothing of.  They then cut her a deal; she helps them find her father, and she gets her freedom.  She’s sent with a trusted pilot, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to accomplish this task, leading to many a harrowing adventure and the eventual formation of the rag-tag “Dirty Dozen” of sorts that call themselves “Rogue One,” who pull off the final heist of the precious plans.

Despite its complexities, which are at times dizzying, the story is dramatic, action-packed, and filled with characters that we instantly find interesting and learn to both love and love to hate.  This is particularly brought out by Jones and Luna, whose characters develop a fascinating chemistry, and Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the pragmatically heartless head of the Death Star project, who finds himself victimized by his even more heartless bosses, the pompous Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, eerily made into the spitting image of the late Peter Cushing, who originated the role in A New Hope), and his menacing “friend” Darth Vader.  The rest of the Rogue One crew are a similarly well-played menagerie of unlikely heroes.

Disney and Kennedy swear that Rogue One will not have a sequel, and indeed, that would seem to be the case in the end; the “sequel” is Star Wars: A New Hope. But if this is an example of what Ms. Kennedy has planned for off-shoot, one-off films based on the Star Wars galaxy, I say bring them on!  I already can’t wait for Christmas 2017.

** Special Note; As of this writing, “Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” is scheduled for release December 15, 2017.  The next “off-shoot” film, yet to be titled, will feature a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), and be released during the Christmas season, 2018.  It will also star Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, and Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones.”

 

MOANA ***

This is the second release in 2016 for the Walt Disney Animation Studios (along with Zootopia), but unfortunately not near as engaging or thematically rich as the other.  Still, with the consistent Disney mantra these days of portraying its “princesses” as bold, actiony heroes, winning voice performances, eye-popping animation, and songs that are both fun and uplifting, it is entertaining and fun, despite its lack of depth.

Moana is a young island princess (Auli’i Cravahlo) who longs for adventure and to follow her heart (yes, we’ve definitely heard that before), which, in this case, is to go beyond the island’s protective reef and see the sea.  And of course, her over-protective father forbids her from doing that.  But when a curse falls upon the island and Moana’s grandmother knows that’s it’s because of a mysterious green rock that has washed up on shore, she urges Moana to take a canoe and go, with the green rock, find the demigod Maui (who stole the rock eons ago from the “mother island” of the seas, then lost it, voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and together restore it to its rightful place on the “mother island.”  Moana tries once and fails, but then, when the island is truly threatened, she makes it.  Opposing her and the shape-shifting demigod are a dizzying  assortment of enemies that keep popping up for no particular reason, including some coconut-shell warriors that remind one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, a giant volcanic monster-island called Te Ka, and Maui himself–his enormous ego continually subverting the team’s efforts.  This culminates in a harrowing climax, or course, which I’ll let you discover on your own.

If that sounds convoluted and difficult to follow, though, welcome to the club.  Even after watching the film, then reading its synopsis later, the story is still so confusing to me that I lose interest.  Imagine what it must be like for a child!  And herein is this film’s chief flaw; a needlessly complicated story that (like all needlessly complicated stories) tends to bore the audience at some point.  Were it not for the action, the visuals, and some great chemistry between Maui and Moana, this could have been a real snoozer.  And then there’s the music too.  There’s lots of it; great, island-sounding background stuff punctuated with really cool songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mastermind who created, directed, and starred in this year’s smash Broadway hit Hamilton.  Just about the time you start to drift off, one of these pops up, and snaps you right back in.

In the end, this is certainly not the best of what the Disney Animation Studios has had to offer over the past few years, but it’s still a worthwhile afternoon of entertainment, or something to have in your video collection if you have younger kids in the house.

 

 

NOVEMBER MOVIE REVIEW SHORTS

DR. STRANGE **

Based on yet another Marvel Comic character, this takes that film universe in a decidedly hard sci-fi direction (as opposed to its more space opera/fantasy characters) with uneven results.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the arrogant, self-aggrandizing Doctor Steven Strange, a brilliant surgeon known for his successes where many others have failed.  He’s the rock star of surgeons and lives like one, shining on his on-again, off-again colleague and love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams), living fast and loose, driving fast cars, etc.  But his risky life gets the better of him when he crashes his sports car and is seriously injured; his hands, which used to perform surgery like a concert pianist performs a concerto, are now crumpled and shaky.  His entire reason for existence is gone.

Taking a dive to the depths of despair, he dumps Christine, then discovers a man, Jason Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who has miraculously recovered from partial paralysis.  Pangborn points Strange to Katmandu, Nepal, where he was made well by a holy person called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).  The desperate Strange makes the journey, meets the Ancient One, and things after that become, well, very strange indeed; the self-centered doctor learning of special gifts that he has to help others that involve everything from bending reality to time travel.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid it was a bit much for me.  Following all the bizarre ins and outs of Strange’s transformation is just a bit more mental muscle-building than I’m wanting to do while relaxing in a theater.  After a while, it all just became a blur, and I chose to simply enjoy the action, the special effects, and Cumberbatch, and forget about trying to make sense of the plot anymore.

It was a good choice for me.  For those who enjoy stories so convoluted that figuring them out requires at least one advanced degree in something, I’m sure you’ll be delighted with this film.  For Marvel Comic fans, you’d have to be a Strange fan to stick with it, but you would (of course) and enjoy it as well.  For the rest of us, this is a weird action movie with a great cast that is better to enjoy on that level (along with its mind-bending visuals) than anything else.

Or just save your money and stay home.

 

HACKSAW RIDGE ****

Mel Gibson, the American-born Australian wunder-actor who burst onto the American film scene  with action classics like Mad Max and the Lethal Weapon franchise in the 80s, then in the 90s as both actor and director in Braveheart (for which he won an Academy Award), and the 2000s with faith-based sensation The Passion of the Christ, has also had his troubles.  Over the last decade or so, he’s had a number of both social and criminal faux-pas that have been close to career-ending, including an inebriated anti-Semitic rant during a drunk-driving arrest that landed him in jail.

But Hollywood loves a good comeback story, and the faith-based folks tend to be very forgiving (especially when one of “their” films becomes a hit), and Mel accomplishes both in this surprisingly poignant film about Desmond Doss, the US Army’s first conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Doss’s family are 7th Day Adventists, who, among other things, worship on Saturday rather than Sunday (and consequently do no work that day) and, most importantly, are ardent pacifists; refusing to take up arms, or even handle guns, for any reason.  But when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and America goes to war, Doss, like so many others, is eager to sign up to help serve in the fight.  But rather than kill Japanese, Doss wants to serve by saving Americans as an Army corpsman, the military EMTs of WWII.  The film chronicles Doss’s battlefield heroics, but even more so plumbs the personal battle he is forced to fight with the US Army to even get through basic training.

It’s an inspiring and movingly-told tale using one of Gibson’s trademark techniques; causing the light of good to shine brightly by juxtaposing it with bloody, heinously violent evil shown in all its gut-spilling, flesh-frying, blood-splattering reality.  He also gets great performances from Andrew Garfield as Doss, Teresa Palmer as Doss’s wife-to-be Dorothy, Hugo Weaving as Doss’s alcoholic father, and Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn as a couple of the officers that oversee Doss at various times in his military career.

A war film about a peaceful man’s uncommon impact, don’t be surprised if this doesn’t show up in some significant awards program’s lists of nominees as those come out later in the year.

 

TROLLS **1/2

This is an unfortunately typical animated feature from Dreamworks Animation that features those long, frizzy-haired creatures that we all thought were so cute back in the 70s and 80s.  The story, such as it is, recounts the adventures of two Trolls, effervescent Poppy (Anna Kendrick), and Scrooge-like Branch (Justin Timberlake), who happen to be AWOL when a gang of Bergens (what most people usually think of when they think of trolls) round up the Trolls and haul them back to their own city in order to steal their happiness (yeah, you heard it right…).  Poppy convinces Branch that they need to rescue the Trolls (he couldn’t care less), and off they go.

It’s a film like this that makes you really appreciate just how much better Disney/Pixar does animated entertainment than all the rest.  Complex stories that challenge children (and adults as well) as opposed to simplistic fluff that patronizes them; original worlds and characters that become their own brands as opposed to using “previously published” toy brands from corporate giants like Mattel and Hasbro, thematic meat and heart embodied in plot lines  rather than preached from characters’ mouths as tack-ons to a bland story, and on and on.  Kendrick and Timberlake make some good music in this one, but that’s about all that distinguishes this from just an elongated Saturday morning cartoon show.

Fun for the under-9 set, bland for everyone else.  Ah well…

 

ARRIVAL ***

Here’s a film for anyone that’s into serious, cerebral, “hard” sci-fi (as opposed to Star Trek – Star Wars style space opera).  Amy Adams turns in a winning performance as a linguist called in to help humans to communicate with aliens who have landed in 12 different spots  around the globe.  Assisted by a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner, Adam’s character Louise goes about her pain-staking work, while more short-sighted people in other places, including a particularly intransigent commander in China, would rather give the aliens a boot.

As world-wide tensions rise, Louise and Ian (Renner) make a startling discovery about a mind-blowing special gift the aliens have and the real reason they came to Earth.

If you can hang with this kind of mentally challenging entertainment, you’ll love this show.  One friend who’s into this genre told me it was on par with iconic hard sci-fi films like 2001 – A Space Odyssey.  Well, I couldn’t make much sense of that one, and I had a hard time putting the pieces of this one together as well, but certainly, it’s a very well-done film with especially good work done by Adams and Renner.

For hard sci-fi fans, this will be a very rich treat, and for the rest of us who want to try, it’s probably money well-spent as well.

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM ***

Surely everyone at Warner Bros. is heaving huge sighs of relief.  Their big gamble seems to, at least for now, have paid off.

With the Harry Potter franchise now over, their new DC Comic Books Universe films sputtering and stuttering, and all the Tolkien books anyone’s every heard of also now made into movies, where could they turn for a new billions-in-box-office franchise to keep the lights on?

With the thought of seeking out and discovering new, original potential franchises apparently never crossing anyone’s mind, they turned to J.K. Rowling, the wizard behind the “boy who lived” money machine, to come up with a new blockbuster project even after she’d declared that her Harry Potter story was now over (with her successful Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and its companion book) and a successful career begun as an adult mystery writer.

Perhaps flattered, she went to work, choosing to base her new “franchise” on the “author” of a companion novella she wrote as part of the Potter series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, a textbook at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  The film series, for which she’d serve as screenwriter, would center on Scamander’s adventures discovering, studying, and protecting magical creatures and occur in the 1920s, some seventy years before the time of the Potter books.

This first adventure finds Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) laying over in New York for a few hours during his ocean-going cruise back to England after a successful magical beast hunt.  Almost immediately, though, trouble begins as one of the magical creatures that he carries around in his magic suitcase (a badger-like little guy who eats money) escapes in front of a bank.  Handing off a large egg he carries to a passer-by named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a wannabe baker who’s just been turned down for a loan, Newt takes off after the illusive creature.  This catches the eye of Tina (Katherine Waterston), a worker for MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA–think England’s Ministry of Magic).  She ends up helping Newt catch his beastie, then hauls him into the headquarters of the MACUSA (as Jacob tags along–with the now-hatching egg) under the serious charge of exposing no-majes (American for “muggles”) to magic.

She instantly regrets it, though, when MACUSA President Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and her right-hand man Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful Auror, take a hard line with Newt, threatening incarceration or even death for his crime.  Newt escapes with Tina’s and Jacob’s help, and the chase is on to bring him back in.  As the three hole up with Tina’s floozy sister Queenie (Alison Sodul) in the girls’ apartment, other, bigger intrigues are revealed, including a brewing scandal involving a right-wing religious activist who is promoting her movement to rid New York of all its magical folk, a sleazy family of New York power-brokers led by tycoon Henry Shaw Sr. (Jon Voight), and word that a Dark Wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, has fled to America from England, where he was once particularly close to renowned wizard Albus Dumbledore.  A suitably effects-ladened climax literally tears The City apart as these elements all come cataclysmically together, but all is magically put to right in the end as the entire populace is “obliviated” of its trauma.

Warner’s has wisely left much intact from the foundation of the Potter franchise to launch this one, including Producers David Heyman and Lionel Wigram, screenwriter Steven Kloves (now in a producer role, no doubt brought in to assist Rowling in the finer points of original screenwriting), and Director David Yates, who finished off the last four of the Potter movies.  With such solid underlying talent, it’s no surprise that Fantastic Beasts well lives up to the standards of the Harry Potter films, at least in terms of direction and production values.  Rowling, in her screenwriting debut, does fall into a not uncommon rookie mistake, though; that of making her supporting characters more exciting and interesting than her main hero and heroine.  While Fogler and Sodul are having a blast as Jacob and Queenie (and stealing every scene they’re in) and Ejogo and Farrell are strong and impressive as the might and muscle of the MACUSA, Redmayne’s Newt and Waterston’s Tina are so painfully reticent that they can scarcely manage to even look anyone in the eye, much less capture the heart of the audience.  Scamander’s actions, however, and Tina’s pluckiness do gradually take hold as the story moves along, though, and by the end, we’re given much more to like about these two than we’ve had through most of the movie.

So a promising start there definitely is to this new “wizarding world” adventure, and there’s ample reason to look forward to better in the future–IF things stay on track.  Let’s hope Warners sees the wisdom of consistency and allows the Potter team to continue to work its magic.

 

Movie Shorts – October, 2016

INFERNO ***

Well, I guess you can’t rush an author to write more books just to support his mega-million dollar movie franchise, or to write movie-worthy books at all, for that matter.  In the case of Author Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books (about a mild-mannered symbologist who’s called in to solve puzzles involving international artwork, etc. that usually have something to do with diabolical ne’r-do-wells plotting the end of the world), after The DaVinci Code became an international movie sensation in 2007, followed up quickly by its prequel Angels & Demons in 2009, his next book, The Lost Symbol, also published in 2009, hit bookstores with an unexpected thud, got mixed reviews, and was deemed un-movie-worthy by Sony, producers of the first two.  It wasn’t until Brown published a fourth Langdon book, Inferno, in 2013, that Sony decided to wake up the dormant franchise.  And then, of course, there’s the arduous, time-consuming process of actually making the movie.

And so now, finally, seven years after Angels & Demons, we have Inferno in theaters.  Too bad it took so long.  Though still an international hit overseas due to its artsy flavor, internationally-known cast, and vast number of exotic foreign locations, it’s become a big dud here in North America.  Apparently, America’s short attention span has already put this franchise out to pasture, and it doesn’t help that Tom Hanks, who plays Langdon, has now entered his 60s.

Irregardless, this is still a fine film, and perhaps even eerily timely.  Langdon  this time wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of what he’s been doing for the past few days.  A young doctor (Felicity Jones) treats him in the emergency room and ends up saving him from assassins before we’re ten minutes into the film.  The two then go on the run, painstakingly piecing together a plot that Langdon unwittingly was complicit in along the way.  It seems that a mad scientist named Zobrist has created a virus which will unleash a deadly plague upon the world that will “cleanse” it–of a huge percentage of its people–so that the Earth might be spared the ravages of overpopulation and humanity, ironically, will be saved…or at least what’s left of it.  The location of where the virus will be unleashed is cleverly hidden, and Italian artist Boticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno, along with other priceless pieces of art, hold the key to finding it.  This is important since Zobrist himself has committed suicide to prevent his secret from being revealed, and now both Langdon and the World Health Organization need to find it before Zobrist’s disciples do and unleash it on the world.

I personally love watching the non-stop intellectual sparring that’s thrown in with the action sequences, as well as the to-die-for settings at some of Eurasia’s most awe-inspiring locales.  Here, the adventure’s climax takes place in an underground grotto during a classical music concert within the iconic Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul.  Though Hanks is definitely showing his age, he’s still perfect for the Langdon role, and Jones is a worthy compatriot.  A host of international stars provide able support.

It may be a bit late to its own party, but Inferno in the end is a fine piece of Ron Howard filmmaking and holds up well with the other two films in the franchise.  A really fine piece of adult-orientated entertainment.

 

JACK REACHER – NEVER GO BACK ***

Hollywood has been doing a lot of head-scratching about Tom Cruise’s decision to put himself into what amounts to a B-level action genre franchise when he’s still doing Mission Impossible films and is unquestionably still near the top of anyone’s A-list when it comes to action stars with box-office draw.  When the first film, titled simply Jack Reacher (2012), about an ex-military policeman who’s now a drifter, came out, it was surprisingly well-reviewed, and so has led to this second installment based on the Lee Childs best-selling thrillers.  And the results, while nothing that’s going to somehow catapult Reacher into a blockbuster franchise, is a passable action film with enough kick-assing and snide one-liners to delight the pure action fans while also throwing in a touching soft side to put it on a higher plane for those of us who can appreciate that.

The plot is basically action-film simple; Reacher comes to the aid of an old friend (played gamely by spunky Cobie Smulders), still in the military, who’s been accused of crimes she didn’t commit, and in the process uncovers information that could clear his own sullied name–if he can just get it to the right people before he and his companion are killed.  Standard action stuff.  But throw in another bit of revelation from Reacher’s past in the person of a teenage runaway (Danika Yarosh), and everything goes up to another level.

Both Cruise and Smulders have a great time kicking the butts of bad guys and/or chasing after them or running away from them.  Some of those chases end up looking like “Battle of the Sexes” footraces where the 54 year-old Cruise, famously athletic and still doer of most of his own stunts, holds his own quite nicely with the twenty years younger Smulders, who’s obviously a very gifted athlete herself.  But the real revelation here is 18 year-old Danika Yarosh (TV’s Heroes Reborn), who’s character Samantha is not only endearing, but delightfully resourceful in a tight spot as well.  A real scene-stealer, this girl shows uncommon range for one so young, and we’ll be hoping to see a lot more of her in coming years.

I’ve got my own ideas about why Tom Cruise is lending A-list status to B-level material; maybe he knows that, in spite of himself, he just doesn’t have very many more M:I films left in his body; maybe he’s tired of doing big studio films and wants more control over what he does (the first credit at the opening of the Reacher films reads “A Tom Cruise Production”); maybe he’s a big fan of Lee Childs’ books.  Only he can say for sure, but I’ll tell you one thing; as an action fan, it’s just too cool to see a star of his stature in a straight-up action genre pic–and obviously loving every minute of it.

 

THE ACCOUNTANT ***1/2

I’m not sure how much Screenwriter Will Dubuque knows about autism, especially as it affects people in their adult life, but he’s certainly spun an interesting yarn from the various possibilities and scenarios that one might imagine in this new action/thriller from Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck stars as Christopher Wolff, an autistic adult accountant whose mind-bending gift for memorization and mathematical manipulation makes his ZZZ Accounting practice the go-to place for everyone from nice old farmers who are needing a few extra tax breaks to smarmy business men and lethal crooks who need a “master chef” to cook their crooked books.  You might worry that an adult savant like Wolff might be nefariously taken advantage of by such types, but fortunately (at least in the story’s logic), Wolff wasn’t raised in an institution, but by his hard-nosed military father who made sure that both Chris and his little brother Braxton got the best self-defense and lethal offense training a non-Navy SEAL could get.  Wolff may look like just another mild-mannered, numbers-obsessed nerd, but mess with him, or someone he cares about, and he becomes a cold, calculating killing machine with an arsenal of weapons that range from his bare hands all the way up his 50-caliber sniper rifle.

Both gifts come in handy when Chris is hired by Lamar Black (John Lithgow), the CEO of a robot technology firm, to go through its books and reconcile some suspicious discrepancies dredged up quite accidentally by Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), a lower-level bookkeeper for the company who “got into something she wasn’t supposed to.”  Apparently Black is not aware of how thorough Chris can be (he digests, memorizes, and analyzes 15 years of the company’s financial records in one night), and when Black comes in the next morning and finds his own vast money-laundering scheme diagnosed and exposed in red marker all over a conference room’s window and summarized on its white board, he fires Chris and hires a group of assassins to get rid of his partner and Dana before things get worse and they’re testifying before some judge.

Through all this, Dana’s become intrigued with Chris, striking up a sweetly distant “relationship” with him.  As frightening as this is emotionally for Chris, he dares to reveal small tidbits of himself to her, but the real scares come when he, in order to protect Dana, takes her to his secluded Airstream trailer inside a self-storage facility.  There is where he keeps the various tools of his trade; fake passports, foreign cash, and an arsenal of weapons more diverse than any SWAT team’s armory.  As he gears up, she freaks out, to which he calmly responds “We should go now.”  With no other choice, Dana complies; a wise decision, as her apartment soon comes under siege and Chris turns into a slightly more human version of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Universal Soldier,” picking off baddies with devastating efficiency in a deliciously drawn-out climax that features as many fascinating reveals as it does crowd-pleasing, kick-ass action.

Affleck and Kendrick have a sweet chemistry together that’s defined by their characters being opposites who are utterly fascinated by each other.  Even their heights reflect their complete dichotomy; she’s 5’2, he’s 6’4.  And yet they’re drawn irresistibly together in a uniquely romantic way that’s curious because it’s so platonic.  It all causes you to really fall hard for these two, and want, want, want for them to survive and thrive.  Great support is also provided by Jon Bernthal as all-grown-up little bro Braxton (who’s also discovered an interesting adult occupation), J.K. Simmons as a nearly-retired Treasury Department agent, and Cynthia Addia-Robinson as his under-the-gun protege.  The subplot that involves these three intertwines nicely with the “A” story, and leads to a lot of those “fascinating reveals” in the film’s climactic scenes.  You may find yourself with a little Sixth Sense deja vu as you’re leaving the theater, wishing you could go back and watch the film again, this time a little closer.

To be sure, there’s a number of plot holes here and there that I suppose could needle you a bit, and there’s a bit at the end where, in light of what we’ve just seen, we wonder just what the writer is really trying to say about autism in our society.  Be these as they are, they’re really nothing more than insignificant nigglings when it comes to the overall entertainment value of this wonderfully written and performed story.  This is action/thriller entertainment at its best, with some fascinating intellectual tidbits thrown in for those of us who like a bit more; a real winner!

 

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN ***1/2

This sounds like a Tim Burton movie,” mused Ella Purnell, budding Hollywood star, as she read.  She was referring to the script based on a book by Ransom Riggs called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a popular middle-grade/young adult novel.  Little did she know at the time that she’d be a star in the new film based on that book, and that yes, Burton would be her director.  I personally have not read the book, but if there was ever a movie which is classically a “Tim Burton movie,” it’s this one, filled with all the quirky oddness, light-hearted creepiness, and pseudo-horror that have been Burton hallmarks ever since Beetlejuice, his directorial debut back in 1988.  Sadly, there’s no Danny Elfman musical score this time (that in itself an oddity), but composers Michael Higham and Matthew Margeson prove to be worthy substitutes.

The film follows the adventures of teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield), who lives in Florida where his divorced and distant parents prefer to send him to a psychiatrist (Allison Janney) rather than personally help him deal with the rejections he’s felt throughout life because of his social awkwardness.  His sole consoler has been his grandfather (Terrance Stamp), but now, even he has taken an alarming turn towards dementia, raving about going to an island where a group of strange children live and protecting them from monsters.  But one night, when his grandfather is mysteriously attacked and killed, Jake determines to go to the island, off the coast of Wales in the UK, and fulfill the man’s dying wish for him.

And so off he goes, his estranged father (Chris O’Dowd) in tow, and finds, ironically, exactly what his “demented” grandfather said he would; an old Victorian house filled with children who have various oddities that make the powers of modern-day superheroes look boringly normal.  Taking care of the children is the equally peculiar Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), who makes sure that it always stays the same day in 1943 and loops time back to the day’s beginning just before a bomb dropped from a Nazi warplane that would destroy the house and everyone in it.  She also tells Jake that he too has a “peculiarity,” one that could save the children from their nemeses, horrific creatures called Hollowgasts, which are invisible and live off the eyes of others–the phrase “eye-popping” has never had such an “eww”-inducing connotation.  As the head Hollowgast makes his presence known in the form of a shape-shifting madman (Samuel L. Jackson) and moves in with his minions to devour the family,  Jake is faced with near-impossible choices, made even more so by the disarming kindness of the children, the possibility of seeing his grandfather alive again, and his budding relationship with Purnell’s character Emma, a beautiful young girl who’s lighter than air and thus has to wear lead boots or be tethered to something in order to not float away.  A climax of Burtonesque proportions does not disappoint, and leads to a suitably sweet, yet typically odd ending.

Realizing that not everyone is a fan of Burton’s peculiar brand of mind-bending entertainment, I still think there’s plenty to like here, particularly for families.  The story’s sheer originality is like a breath of fresh air, and its sincerity and lack of cynicism are refreshing.  Performances are uniformly fine, and it’s a pleasure to see such a nice mix of tried-and-true talent (Green, Jackson, Stamp, O’Dowd, Rupert Everett, all perfectly cast) alongside budding stars Butterfield, Purnell, and a bevy of up-and-coming child-actors as Miss Peregrine’s charges.  It’s great that Hollywood is once again finding value in telling stories that have young people in starring roles and are made for families to enjoy together.  For these reasons, even those who aren’t fans of Burton’s “peculiar” style can find lots to enjoy.

And, if you are a fan, prepare yourself for the film version of a feast!  This is Tim Burton doing a Tim Burton-style film to near-perfection!

 

DEEPWATER HORIZON ***

Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor) get together again for another action piece, this time in a “based on true events” extravaganza about the worst oil catastrophe in US history.

Presented using the same blue-print as classic disaster films from the 70s (most specifically, The Towering Inferno), we first get to know some of the key characters in their everyday lives, then they all come together on a large helicopter that wings them out from their Texas base to the Deepwater Horizon, a giant ocean-going oil exploration and drilling rig anchored 40 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.  Among those making the trip with Wahlberg’s character Mike Williams are several executives from British Petroleum, the multi-national energy corporation who has rented the Horizon to explore for oil and then drill a miles-deep well to extract it once discovered.  Led by a smarmy, Cajun-sounding know-it-all named Vidrine (John Malkovich), the company isn’t happy with the slow progress of the operation, despite the concerns of the rig’s skipper, Jim “Mista Jimmie” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and foreman Williams, who are concerned about excess pressure that shouldn’t be there and an inspection of the well’s concrete base that was never completed.  The battle lines between the “Big Bad Wolf” corporation, whose sole concern is profit, vs the wizened “everyman” veterans whose primary purpose is to do things right so no one gets hurt, could not be more clearly drawn.

Further following the blue-print, the battle plays out in lots of heated exchanges featuring withering streams of technical jargon and tense preliminary rumbles that foreshadow the impending doom.  The worst, of course, then happens (literally a “towering inferno”), and heroes and villains alike struggle with the fury of the fire and each other as the event is brought to its breath-taking climax and sobering end.

As disaster films go, I found this to be a pretty good one.  The heroes are heroic, the bad guys are bad, and the body count isn’t too heavy.  The staging of the actual event is awesomely filmed and horrific in its detail.  One wonders how so many survived.  Wahlberg, Russell, and Malkovich are perfectly cast and hit all the right notes in their performances.  It’s too bad that fine actresses like Kate Hudson and Gina Rodriguez are largely wasted playing characters created more for Wahlberg’s character to either rescue or come home to, but then again, I guess that’s one of the standards of the classic disaster film as well.  And the sobering reminder during the ending credits that this all really happened gives an added gravitas to what we’ve just seen, putting it a cut above other recent disaster flicks like San Andreas.

A stunning re-creation of one of the most tragic and damaging disasters of our time, this is a film well worth your time and money to see.

September Movie Review Shorts

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN ***

It’s great to see that Hollywood will still make Westerns every once in a while. This re-make of the 1960 classic of the same name that starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen will never be hailed as a landmark or “great” piece of film-making, but it is one fun couple hours of nostalgic entertainment that I found extremely enjoyable.

This time around, we have Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt filling in the Brynner/McQueen roles, and the western US stands in for Mexico, but the plot is still as simple as before, and as typical too.  A town filled with peaceful, plain folks comes under the foot of some greedy, diabolical scumbag and his hired army, so a brave resident or two reach out to a motley crew of professional gunslingers to help them avenge their dead and regain their town.  Variations of this storyline fill the annals of Hollywood Westerns from the original “Seven” to just about all of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti Westerns,  John Wayne’s True Grit, and all the way up to more modern fare like Kurt Russell’s Tombstone and Kevin Costner’s Open Range. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Well, it certainly ain’t broke here, and Director Antoine Fuqua does only a minimal amount of “fixing” to bring this up to 21st century style and sensibilities.  Haley Bennet (yeah, the same one that made her big-screen debut as a spaced out pop star opposite Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore in the 2007 rom-com Music and Lyrics) plays the plucky but grief-stricken widow who heads out to find gunmen who can avenge the death of her husband and help her townspeople after a murderous mining baron and his henchman-army assert their “right” to rule her peaceful town and rape it of its resources.  She finds Sam Chisholm (Washington), a sort of quasi-lawman, who, once approached, takes a particular interest in her proposition and heads out with her to collect a contingent of n’er-do-wells to train the town’s citizens to be fighters.  These include a highly diverse crew; Pratt’s “gambler,” an old mountain man, a Civil War sharpshooter who suffers from PTSD, a Native American warrior, a Mexican gunslinger, and a knife-wielding Asian assassin.  They come to town, start a ruckus with the baron (played with delicious ruthlessness by Peter Skarsgard), and you can fill in the rest of the David v Goliath plot, including a mostly happy ending.

Fuqua, in interviews, claimed that such diversity in his cast was not intentional (“we just wanted the best actors for the job”), but with Hollywood on-notice to broaden the racial, ethnic, and even age range of its casts, you’ve got to wonder.  Regardless, Vincent D’Onofrio (the old guy), Ethan Hawke (the traumatized vet), Martin Sensmeier (the Native–he’s half Alaskan Native American), Manuel Garcia-Ruflo (the Mexican), and Byung-hun Lee (the Asian), all are perfectly cast and have great chemistry that really drives the entertainment.  And don’t forget Pratt (the white guy), and the ageless Denzel (the African-American), who, at 61, carries on with action roles as if he’s still in his 30s.  Each provides his own unique leadership style that is the glue that binds the group and inspires the town’s citizens.

In this day and age, Westerns are hard to come by–especially good ones.  Don’t miss this excellent throw-back, with its uniquely modern take and look.

 

SNOWDEN ***1/2

In a month which features some of the most anticipated biopic/true event films of the year, this one does not disappoint.  Oliver Stone’s adaptation of two books (Anatoly Kucherena’s “The Time of the Octopus” and Luke Harding’s “The Snowden Files”) about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (or treasonous scumbag, depending on your political leanings) is an unusually quiet, thoughtful piece, and yet, like a volcano about to blow or an earthquake about to happen, underneath its serene surface is a tempest of tense, turbulent emotion and raw passion that slowly builds until its climactic explosion.

Edward Snowden, of course, is the guy that was all over the news back in June of 2013 for turning over to the press thousands of documents that proved that the NSA (National Security Agency) had been for years surveilling millions of ordinary Americans for no better reason than “they could.”  The depth and breadth of the breaches into people’s private lives was breath-taking, and Snowden, an NSA contractor and former CIA analyst, eventually went with his conscience, stole hundreds of top-secret computer files, and over a couple nights in a Hong Kong hotel, gave it all and told it all to a news crew from respected British newspaper The Guardian.  To liberals, he became an instant hero; to conservatives, a pariah.  Charged under the Federal Espionage Act, Snowden became a man forever wanted by the US for multiple felonious and treasonous charges that apparently will never be dropped.  He was made–and continues to be–a man without a country, currently living in Moscow at the behest of the Russian government.

How Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) came to the point where he’d trash a “perfect” middle-class life in Hawaii with beautiful and infinitely loyal partner Lindsey Mills (Shailene Woodley) for the sake of doing what he thought was right, though, is the real story here,

From the forest trails of the Army’s boot camp in Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the flaming-red conservative Snowden runs on his spindly, 150 pound frame under 80 pound packs so much that he shatters both his legs, to the halls of the CIA’s training facility for cyber warriors where he creates solutions in minutes that takes most recruits hours, we find that Edward is always, always an all-in guy.  Compromise and “gray areas” don’t exist for him.  This makes for some interesting banter when he meets Lindsey, every bit as sharp of a tack as he is, but one of the bluest of Barack Obama’s young, liberal voting base in 2008  And yet it’s not Lindsey, but Snowden’s work, first for the CIA, then the NSA, and the bosses that he serves that cause the uncompromising young analyst to wonder who he’s really gotten “all-in” with and whether his choice was a good one.

Gordon-Levitt is flawless in his portrayal of Snowden; even his look and mannerisms are eerily identical to the real guy (who we see near the end), and Woodley, an accomplished actress long before she shouldered the Divergent dystopian action/adventure franchise, brings real chemistry and emotion to the painfully conflicted Lindsey.  And a pleasantly surprising line-up of “guest stars,” if you will, in the supporting cast really put some dramatic punch into those around Snowden; Rhys Ifans, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Joely Richardson, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, and others are a lot of fun to see pop up in just the right role at just the right time.  So fun to see so many lend their considerable talents to produce a film of such quality and power.

Oliver Stone has directed many movies, many of them biopics like this, but virtually all of those, from Alexander to Nixon to W., have been made after-the-fact (to be sure, W. was released while George W. Bush was still President, though two weeks later his successor, Barack Obama, was elected and everything in the film became water under the bridge).  Not this one.  Edward Snowden’s story still goes on, his fate and his legacy still uncertain.  And that’s at least one reason why Snowden will not only be known as another superb Oliver Stone film, but perhaps his most important one as well.

 

SULLY ****

Dramas that actually draw a large audience are rarities in Hollywood these days.  When they happen, they are usually based on accounts of extraordinary true events that made headline news.  Such films live or die on the strength of how the story is adapted, and the performances of the actors.  Regardless of what really happened, writers and directors still must create a compelling story filled with heroes, villains, action, tension, empathy, and a satisfying ending, and actors must bring that story unforgettably to life.  Otherwise, only the niche audiences will show up.   Sully, thankfully, is so well done that it would be a shame if anyone missed it.

There’s certainly no need to jazz up this “true event that made headline news.”  Anyone who was alive and not comatose on January 15, 2009 not only heard about this story, but saw its incredible climax and aftermath played out endlessly on every TV network that had a news department.  Yes, that really was an Airbus 320 jetliner filled with 155 passengers and crew swooping down towards the Hudson River next to downtown Manhattan and landing as gracefully as a gargantuan swan on its surface that frosty January morning.  Yes, those were real people, not movie actors, who were shivering on its wings and boarding ferry boats that rushed to the rescue.  And yes, there was a real pilot and co-pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles, who somehow managed to crash a plane in such a way that everyone survived (sorry, that’s “water landed” a plane–you’re right, Sully…).  No shortage of drama or heroes there.

But what about villains?  How can you find villains in a situation so cosmically heroic?  Sadly, they were there too, every bit as real, and, as Todd Komarnicki’s script (based on Sully’s book “Highest Duty”) tells it, they are circling Sully like sharks almost before he can get some dry clothes on.  “They” are the National Transportation Safety Board investigative team, whose job it is to find out what went wrong to create such a traumatic situation in the first place, then assign blame where it is warranted.  Egging them on, it is not-so-subtly pointed out, are US Airways, Sully’s employer and owners of the plane, and their insurers, each of whom face large financial losses unless it can be shown that Sully, for whatever reason, panicked in the moment and ditched his plane in the drink when he actually could have landed it safely at a nearby airport.  With simulations showing just that, and his reputation on the line (not to mention his retirement pension), Sully is thrown into a tailspin of PTSD where he continually conjures visions of “what might have been.”  Since he can’t sleep, he fills his nights with jogging in the bitter cold while the NTSB investigators grill him during the days that seem to turn into weeks.  This all leads to a climax that, while likely the culmination of an artificially compressed timeline, is no less stunning or dramatic than the “true” event must have been.

Technically, this film is a triumph from the top all the way down.  Tom Hanks’s performance as Sully is amazing in how subtle and reserved, yet rock-like steady it is.  Though he speaks from a script, the essence of his demeanor is the real Sully Sullenberger; the guy who never forgot what his first job as a pilot was–to fly the plane.  Aaron Eckhart provides solid back-up as Skiles.  Laura Linney, as Sully’s traumatized wife Lorraine, is perhaps underused by Komarnicki’s script, but when all is said and done, Director Clint Eastwood made the right call (as he almost always does), when he kept his film in focus–on Sully and his struggle–and resisted what must have been the considerable temptation to delve into what would have been a totally different story.  The end result is his shortest film–just 95 minutes–that packs a heavyweight champion’s punch-full of emotion, tension, drama, and heroism.  This is true-life storytelling at its very, very best.

Movie Shorts – August 2016

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS ***

This film is the latest effort from stop-motion animation-meister Travis Knight and his friends at Laika Studios in Portland, Oregon (Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls, etc.).  It’s a shining example of both magnificent story-telling and the breath-taking animation that can now be done by mixing the pain-staking work of stop-motion with a bit of CGI, as well as being another advertisement of why Laika probably will never become a subsidiary of Disney like Pixar or Marvel (and that’s not really a bad thing).

Briefly, the story is set in ancient Japan, where Kubo, a young boy (Art Parkinson; Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones), ekes out a living for he and his adle-minded mother by telling stories in the nearby town square with the help of his magical shamisen, a 3-stringed traditional Japanese “guitar.”  But, in an effort to make contact with his long-dead father, Kubo does the one thing that his mother, in her more lucid moments, tells him not to do; he stays out after dark.  This act conjures up the evil spirits of his dead aunts and grandfather, who go in pursuit of him in an effort to drag him into their netherland.  Kubo discovers that the only way to put things to right is to find a magical suit of armor that will help him vanquish his ghoulish relatives and save his family (both in this world and the next).  Assisting him along the way are Mr. Monkey (Charlize Therron), his good luck charm come to life, and a life-sized samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey).  It’s a traditional “hero’s journey” story with enough twists and humor to be both delightful, thrilling, and chilling at the same time.

But it’s also much more.  The thematic elements in this tale, which comes from ancient Japanese folklore, are deep, thought-provoking, and at times even disturbing.  For an adult movie-goer, there’s a lot to talk about over your after-the-movie drink or dinner, and everyone’s not going to be in agreement.  Most of this will probably go right over the heads of younger viewers (and that’s a good thing), yet there’s enough cute characters, slick one-liners, and eye-popping action sequences to keep them entertained even if they can’t make sense of the tale’s complicated story line.

And this, in case you haven’t guessed yet, is probably why Disney’s in no hurry to scoop up Laika Studios like they have other competing animation competitors.  Both Disney and Laika tell compelling stories (to varying degrees) along with unmatched excellence in story-writing and animation.  But Laika’s efforts, while enormously entertaining, don’t always follow the Disney brand’s beats; they leave room for a certain amount of controversy and head-scratching afterwards.  And somehow, I think Travis Knight is just fine with that, even if his movies aren’t raking in billions at the box-office.  Highly recommended viewing for the whole family (save the under 9’s), and that includes you too, Mom and Dad.

 

PETE’S DRAGON ***

In Walt Disney Studios current macro-plan of remaking their vast animated library into live-action re-imaginings, the choice to make one of the first five roll-outs a remake of Pete’s Dragon seemed to many in Hollywood curious at best, and potentially disastrous to the brand in a worst-case scenario.

Originally released in 1977, the live-action/animation musical was based on an original story rather than a beloved fairy tale, was one of the studio’s least honored films (just two Academy Award nominations–for music–and one Golden Globe, of which it won none), and virtually anonymous to the Millennial generation (and their kids) since it was part of a long string of what might be called “dumb Disney duds;” movies like the animated version of Robin Hood, The Shaggy D.A., The Apple Dumpling Gang, A Tale of Two Critters, Candleshoe, at least three Herbie movies (you know, the living VW bug), The Rescuers, the original Witch Mountain movies, and other forgettable films released in the mid-70s that most agree were the doldrums of the vaunted studio’s history where it (obviously) lacked a clear direction.  Hardly a fertile ground to find remakes to continue a current string of live-action, re-imagined hits like Cinderella, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland.  

And yet, this film, deftly reworked from the original 1977 screenplay (it’s even set in the 70s) and inserted with a CGI dragon that is as warm and cuddly as he is frightfully ferocious (thank you, Weta Digital…), turns out to be a surprisingly engaging and typically touching family-friendly tale that, despite flaws, should end up another winner for Disney.

Bryce Dallas Howard, who was last seen running from giant CGI beasts in 2015’s Jurassic World, is doing it once again here, but in a considerably more subdued fashion as a Pacific Northwest forest ranger named Grace who finds an orphaned, feral child in the wilderness named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who claims that he’s survived there for years with the help of his friend Eliot, a big green monster similar to the subject of local “Bigfoot” style legends about dragons living in the local hinterlands.  Predictably, Pete is taken in by Grace, her husband Jack (Wes Bentley), and daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), who eventually meet Eliot, with appropriate OMG moments thrown in.  Conflict arises, though, when Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl “Dr. “Bones” McCoy” Urban), a local lumberjack, and his buddies also find Eliot, capture him with the idea of getting rich exhibiting him around the country, and the kids set out to free him.

A well-done effort overall, with fine performances by all (including a nice turn by Robert Redford as Grace’s father) and a story with both humor, adventure, and the requisite heart-tugging moments, this still lacks an edge that could have made it really great.  In deference to its intended audience, I’m sure, the producers pull their punches where the story’s natural progression would have led into deeper emotional–and edgy–territory and instead default to inexplicable (but safe) escapes where reality checks out and plot holes filled with emotional pablum (or just plain empty space) are inserted instead.  Kids probably won’t know the difference, but adults definitely will.

Thus Pete’s Dragon, while being a very likable film in many ways, especially for children, is not the kind of all-family film which fully engages all ages as its edgier predecessors mentioned above do.  And who knows; maybe that’s by design.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a live-action movie out there that’s safe even for the youngest of one’s tribe while still cool enough that parents and older kids may find fun in it for them as well.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS *** (** if you’re not a classical music fan, or a fan of Meryl Streep)

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest of Meryl Streep’s seemingly endless string of biopics, and once again she is spot-on, literally becoming the eccentric socialite who became just as “famous” for her screeching, off-key renditions of operatic arias as she was for her passionate patronage of the arts in early 20th century New York.  A gifted pianist who had, in her youth, played a recital for no less than President Rutherford B. Hayes at the White House, the real Foster Jenkins had her dreams of becoming a professional performer dashed early on due to an arm injury and instead became a piano teacher.  Inheriting a considerable fortune from both parents, she became a member of New York “high society” and used her funds to support numerous musical artists of the day (Conductor Arturo Toscanini and tenor Caruso among them) and establish her own musical club, the Verdi.

Loving music though, particularly opera, doesn’t make one an opera singer.  By the time she was in her 70s, Jenkins was virtually tone-deaf and had no sense of rhythm either (perhaps side-effects both of syphilis, which she contracted during her brief marriage to a Dr. Jenkins of Philadelphia as a teenager, and the treatments for it, which included regular doses of mercury and arsenic), yet insisted on taking voice lessons and giving private recitals at hotels and social clubs.  Little did she suspect that the accolades heaped upon her at such events were for the amusement that her patrons got from her freakish warbling or out of deference to her very real love of music and generous financial support of it.  This was all thanks to tightly-controlled guest lists, and the exclusion of any media arts critics that weren’t part of New York’s musical elite.

In the film’s touchingly hysterical rendition of the story, this tight control is the result of careful–and expensive–manipulations by her manager and “common law” husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant).  Musical cover is provided by her beloved accompanist Comse McMoon (Simon Helberg), whose deft abilities as a pianist smooth over many of Jenkins’s arrhythmic blunders and makes her squawkish singing a bit less ear-jarring .  But even they can’t save Florence from her own eccentric vanity and determined philanthropy.  When she makes a recording that becomes a huge “hit” with soldiers fighting in World War II, she books herself for a concert at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for veterans, and Bayfield and McMoon prepare themselves for the inevitable anti-climax.

As stated, Streep’s portrayal is typically inimitable.  A formidable singer in her own right (remember “Checkin’ Out” at the end of Postcards From the Edge or her work in the film versions of Mama Mia and Into the Woods?), Streep had to accomplish what many good singers find impossible–singing awful–and in this case, awful like another real person.  The result is some of the most hilariously terrible renditions of popular arias ever performed.  She and Helberg were asked by Director Stephen Frears to perform all their musical numbers live during shooting, and a comparison to an actual recording of Foster Jenkins played during the closing credits shows just how “awfully” perfect their portrayals are (yup, the bowl-cut nerd Howard Wolowitz from TV’s The Big Bang Theory–Helberg’s signature Hollywood role to date–is a crazy-good classical pianist as well).

While the music is gratingly funny, though, the true heart of this film is in the relationships between Streep’s Foster Jenkins and Hugh Grant’s Bayfield, and their combined love both for each other and for the arts.  This is a love story on many levels, peerlessly portrayed by two of Hollywood’s finest.  They also get great assists from Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress Kathleen and Nina Arianda as an aspiring socialite struggling to reconcile working-class brashness with the refinements of high society.

Florence Foster Jenkins certainly is not a broad audience film and would understandably bore many, but for those in its intended genre audience, this is a touchingly goofy delight featuring another stellar turn for the incomparable Meryl Streep.

SUICIDE SQUAD  **

So far, Warner Bros. Studio’s attempt to create a cohesive and crowd-pleasing comic-book based franchise using DC Comics characters has sputtered like a cheap firework, and it unfortunately doesn’t get any  bigger bang from this new offering.  Like Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman before, Suicide Squad shows some early promise, but quickly dissolves into a dark, depressing dirge that makes it impossible to both watch and have fun at the same time.

The plot is simple enough.  Superman has apparently left town (smart guy), Batman has gone dark (no surprise there), and thus Midway City (think Chicago…) has no defense against meta-human maniacs who might pop up and cause mayhem.  Intelligence Officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an interesting, if not dangerous, solution; create a special task force of imprisoned meta-humans to “fight fire with fire,” controlling them by leveraging their loved ones and their weaknesses.  When a bizarre, ancient entity called The Witch (the evil alter-ego of June Moon, sweet girlfriend of the Squad’s SEAL team commander Rick Flag, played by Joel Kinnaman) unites with a long-dormant “brother,” they become empowered and go on a killing spree to once again become worshipped as gods.  Skeptical military and police types have no choice but to implement Waller’s plan.

A motley crew of misfits is released from various hell-holes; Deadshot (Will Smith), an assassin who pines for his 12 year-old daughter, Diablo (Jay Hernandez), who accidentally fried his family in a fit of rage using the fire that emanates from his hands, Boomerang (Jai Courtney), he of the all seeing Aussie weapon, a lug called Killer Croc who, well, looks like a man in a crocodile suit, Katana, who swings a mean samurai sword ala a hero with the same name from NBC’s sputtered “Heroes Reborn” TV series,  and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a cute psychiatrist who  was seduced by the infamous Joker (Jared Leto) into becoming a kick-ass psycho who plays the innocent airhead while swinging a mean bat and possibly consorting with the enemy.  To the film’s credit, considerable time is spent in its opening 20 minutes briefing us briefly on who these people are so we can perhaps, somehow, see them as “heroes” that we may just want to root for later on.

From there, though, it’s all downhill, literally, as the team descends into the city’s depths to root out evil while trying to survive attacks by faceless black minions of the evil siblings, and their own proclivities towards insecurity and violence.  And, as Warner’s DC movies are becoming increasingly infamous for, any hope of enjoyment is drowned in dark sets and the even darker characters, of whom none are inherently good, and only a few are even trying to do right.  Robbie’s Harley Quinn does her best to pump some life into the morose proceedings, but of course her comments are so sick and twisted that you choke just about the time you thought you might laugh.  Backstories aside, I never found a single character likable and barely any even sympathetic.

And so, an audience egged on by trailers that played Suicide Squad up as a fun romp ala Guardians of the Galaxy flocked to theaters on Thursday night and Friday, then flooded social media with the bad news on Saturday, leading to a huge 41% attendance drop-off for the weekend.  That’s even worse than Batman vs Superman’s thud back in March, whose box-office numbers continued to plummet to where, after just two weeks, its take had suffered a staggering 86% dive from its opening weekend.  It looks like Suicide Squad is headed over the same cliff.  See it if you wish, but be aware; Suicide Squad doesn’t deliver the promised goods, and I’m definitely not the only one who’s saying that.

Movie Shorts – July Updates

Since I no longer have the time to write full-length reviews anymore, I decided that this might be a way for those of you who check in here for a thumbs up or down on a current movie to get a quick snapshot of what I’m thinking about what’s in theaters, and I can work on being succinct (LOL).  It’s actually an important skill which eludes me too often when I need it, so I’ll appreciate the opportunity to practice as much as hopefully you will the info.

JASON BOURNE  ** (perhaps *** for pure action fans)

Fans of pure action/thrillers are cheering (at least if opening-week box office numbers are any indication) at the return of Jason Bourne to the cinema, with Matt Damon once again playing the iconic role that he created when Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Trilogy (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum) was made into movies back in the early 2000s.  Universal Studios is probably happy too, since Damon’s Bourne films were some of its most profitable action films, yet once they ran out of Ludlum books and wanted to reboot the franchise with Jeremy Renner (2012’s The Bourne Legacy), the box office returns were ho-hum at best.  I’m not sure whose idea it was to bring Damon back in a new, “original” Bourne film, but whoever it was is heaving big sighs of relief–this one’s a winner, at least for the hard-core genre fans (males over 34).

That’s not to say that this is some great piece of filmmaking, or even good for that matter.  Robert Ludlum has died, after all, so therefore it’s up to Director Paul Greengrass and the producers to come up with the story, which they do, mostly by dressing up the old stories with new locations and characters.  Jason Bourne is looking for the truth about his past, just like in the other films.  Clues appear to be wrapped up in some off-the-books CIA black op that no one is supposed to know about (good-bye “Treadstone,” hello “Iron Hand”).  If anyone does find out, heads will roll in the CIA (Tommy Lee Jones’s is on the block here), but Bourne might finally find the missing clue to who he really is if he exposes it, just like in the other films.  He’s assisted, like it or not, by some beautiful woman who may or may not die and/or betray him (Alicia Vikander gets the nod this time), just like in the other films.  And in between periods of brooding over computers in deserted buildings and stalking rapidly like a monosyllabic robot through crowds in foreign cities, Bourne is kicking ass in lightning fast and startlingly violent close-combat scenes and/or dashing or driving through sensationally impossible chases, just like in the other films.  The title has the name Bourne in it, just like in the other films, except in this case, apparently exhausted from coming up with all the afore-mentioned “originality” and bereft of Ludlum’s keen vocabulary, the producers just attach Bourne’s first name to his last and say to hell with it.

What is sorely missing, of course, is Ludlum’s finesse in weaving the various story elements into a narrative with high emotional stakes and heart (which the other films did have), and, though a flickering attempt to work in a thematic conscience is made through a Mark Zuckerberg sort of character (played well by Riz Ahmed), that element ultimately comes across as just an afterthought.  This is an action film, period.

But hey, for many, that’s all that matters, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.  If that’s you, go and enjoy!  If you’re needing something more, don’t waste your time.

STAR TREK; BEYOND  ***

I came out of the theater after seeing this third installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise feeling like I’d just watched a really expensive, big-screen version of one of the old Star Trek TV episodes from back in the 60’s-70’s.  That has good and bad consequences: the good being that it’s highly entertaining and fun; bad because it has very limited appeal for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember those good ole days, or the original movie franchise from the 80s-90s.  75% of its opening-week audience were over 25; not such a good thing for an expensive, big-screen “TV episode” trying to make a profit on its $160 million budget.  Irregardless, though, this was a lot-of-fun experience for me.

The same stars are back for this wild ride into a distant nebula where peril awaits our heroes and their venerable Starship Enterprise.  Those would be Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg (who also wrote the screenplay), John Cho, Karl Urban, and the late Anton Yelchin (whose shocking death recently from an unfortunate encounter with his own car still has me shaking my head in disbelief).  That peril is dished out by a vengeful demagogue named Krall (Idris Elba) and his myriad of mechanical locusts, along with some requisite thugs.

All performances are solid, and the chemistry particularly between Kirk (Pine), Spock (Quinto), McCoy (Urban), and Uhura (Saldana) just gets better with each new film in this franchise.  And there’s a cool “guest star,” Sofia Boutella, who does a fine turn as an orphaned rebel and gives Scottie (Pegg) someone to hang out with.   If the film has a downer, it’s in its villain.  It’s too bad that a fine actor like Elba is wasted in what ends up being a very one-note role, especially when compared to Benedict Cumberbatch’s dazzling coming-out party as the iconic Khan in the franchise’s last installment (Star Trek; Into Darkness).

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS  **1/2

I had read from other critics that this new film from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment (he of Gru, Despicable Me, and creator of Minions) had a lot of over-arching appeal for both young and old because of how it explored the bond between humans and their pets.  Unfortunately, with the possible exception of its first five minutes and maybe its last, The Secret Life of Pets is nothing more than your standard talking-animal romp, with all the depth of a puddle in the street after a modest rainstorm.

Here we have all the usual trappings; a fun, funny, feisty hero surrounded by all sorts of other cuties and weirdoes on some simply-plotted and occasionally harrowing journey that keeps the kids enthralled while the adults get to snicker and giggle at the more-than-occasional off-color and more “mature” situations and jokes spouted by the characters that (they hope) go right over their children’s heads.  It’s not that it’s not funny, or fun, or cute.  This movie is all that by the barrel-full.  But if you’re looking for something more (like thematic issues explored in Zootopia for example) or something with more “depth” (as in Finding Dory), or even something more heart-tugging (like in Melendari’s original Despicable Me), you won’t find that here.  This is animated entertainment on the strictly “typical” level.

THE BFG  **1/2

Stephen Spielberg is a Hollywood legend, and deservedly so.  The man’s work is not only some of the most honored in modern film history (through historical dramas like Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, etc.), but he, in the 1980s and 90s, virtually created the movie genre that now dominates studio filmmaking; the all-ages action/adventure blockbuster franchise, now more properly called the “4-quadrant” film (young and old, male and female).  Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Men in Black, even Transformers all bear his creative genius at some level and laid the foundation for countless other (mostly pale) imitations and movie-making trends.  And those don’t even count what is considered by audiences and critics alike to be among the finest films ever made; his family-friendly E.T. – The Extraterrestrial.  Not surprisingly, it’s also one of Hollywood’s most profitable films of all time, its $10 million budget fetching a cool $435 million in worldwide box-office sales.  That’s a 4350% profit, not counting for inflation!

It was that kind of magic that Spielberg was hoping to recreate in this new film, The BFG, based on a book by oddball children’s author Roald Dahl, whose more well-known efforts include James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.    A favorite of his that he’d often read to his children, Spielberg finally felt that the technology existed to make this story, about a girl who gets kidnapped by a Big Friendly Giant, look and feel real to the audience.  He even assembled many of his original band of creatives from back in the E.T. days to help him.  It was going to be a great, nostalgic effort that would bring the magic of the simple children’s story back to a new generation, and of course, they’d all flock to it, along with their nostalgic parents.

But one thing you learn right off in screenwriting is that success is all about choices that you make before you even start to write; chiefly the choice of story or what we call concept.  And after that come other choices; characters, location, plot, etc.  Good choices make for a marketable, hopefully profitable screenplay.  Not so good ones lead to months of largely wasted effort.

The BFG, unfortunately, is a textbook example of bad choices.  Spielberg may have loved to read this book to his kids, but that was a long time ago, and kids’ tastes have changed dramatically with the current obsession with technology, the ubiquitous presence of “screens” to plop down in front of (instead of making the effort to read), and the constant demand this puts into a child’s mind for action, titillation, loud noises, and wowie-zowie visual entertainment.  This film, while masterfully made, is the antithesis of that.  It’s quiet, quirky, set in the 80’s (we even have Queen Elizabeth making a call to “Ronnie” Reagan), and above all, sweet, with much of its humor derived from (of all things) silly wordplay ala Dr. Seuss.  Regardless of how unfortunate it might be, kids just don’t “get” this kind of film anymore–at least not on a massive scale–and neither do their parents.

So the bad choice of story was then compounded by the bad choice of when to “bow” (or open) the movie.  A date right in the midst of the summer “blockbuster” season was chosen, where this masterfully made, quaint, quirky film would somehow have to find an audience among children already clamoring to see films like Finding Dory and The Legend of Tarzan, Warcraft (based on a video game, no less), and the new Independence Day film.

The result is a wonderfully made, quiet, quirky, quaint film about a Big Friendly Giant (played so sweetly by British theater star Mark Rylance) who kidnaps a little girl (Ruby Barnhill–a suitably fiesty find) and ends up saving her and England from the Big, Bad giants, that nobody wanted to go see.  Even I, who am in Spielberg’s age echelon and has spent a lifetime working with children trying to put magic back into reading and help them discover their imaginations again, found the story so dated that much of it just seemed boring.

I feel bad for Mr. Spielberg, who must feel awful somewhere inside that his dream project has turned into one of the biggest box-office bombs of 2016.  I guess even the very best in the biz isn’t immune to the consequences of poor choices.  And, in a way, I wish kids, and society in general, haven’t sped up so much that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy this kind of film anymore.  But in the end,  I doubt that this is the film that will define Mr. Spielberg’s legacy, though it may provide a poignant cautionary tale for all of us who seek success in the various strains of the entertainment business.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN  ***

So far, this summer of sequels, reboots, and “beloved” book adaptations has proven largely a bust, at least for me.  This reboot, though, is a happy exception.  David Yates, doing his first film in literally a decade whose title doesn’t begin with “Harry Potter and…” broadens his scope and delivers his first big-budget action/adventure without the creative genius of author J.K. Rowling behind it in a way that’s just as magically engaging as his epic Potter adaptations.

I was hooked from the film’s opening scenes, which take place in post-Victorian England.  We see John Clayton, 5th Lord of Greystoke and Peer of the British House of Lords (Alexander Skarsgard), in deep discussion with other politicians about recent actions by King Leopold of Belgium that seem to suggest that a wanton military operation is about to take place in areas of central Africa that will have dire consequences both for the realm and the free natives of the region.  As all this goes on, we see Clayton’s wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s anything but a simpering Victorian gentlewoman, spending time with her children and making sure that the house is ship-shape.  Back in the meeting, John Clayton asks the inevitable “why me” question, and one of the group, a black American marksman named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), pulls out an old dime novel with a familiar title on it.  Yup, I’m hooked…

From there, it’s quickly to Africa and non-stop adventure as John “me Tarzan,” Jane “you Jane,” and George seek out the nefarious Belgian expedition, led by King Leopold’s heartless henchman Leon Rom (a deliciously devilish Christoph Waltz).  With the help of Tarzan’s minions of old friends (both two and four-footed), the trio fight to protect a matchless treasure and save the duped natives from imminent destruction.

While this is certainly no “great” movie, it is very good in that it exploits its premise to the fullest and accomplishes its purpose, to be a highly entertaining adventure, to the max.  John, Jane, George, and Rom are all characters drawn with uncommon finesse by the screenwriters and played with enthusiastic verve by the cast.  Skarsgard and Robbie breathe enthusiastic life and joy into their roles, something that’s been sorely missed in earlier Tarzan adaptations, and Jackson and Waltz are at their quirky and diabolical best (respectively) as George and bad-guy Rom.  Action sequences are as eye-popping as any in the Potter films, and the African cinematography is constantly breath-taking.

Here’s one to catch in a theater if you still can, or definitely put on your Blu-Ray/VOD wish list if you can’t, while you wait for Yates’s next effort this Christmas; Fantastic Beasts, and Where to Find Them, story and screenplay by (of course) J.K. Rowling.

INDEPENDENCE DAY; RESURGENCE  **

Despite the appearance of virtually everyone from the original cast of Roland Emmerich’s ground-breaking (and ground-shaking) first Independence Day film, which hit theaters exactly twenty years ago, the weird, uneven, even parody-like story and script here pretty much rendered this new sequel a sputtering space-wreck well before its final climactic implosion.

Much as I enjoyed seeing the old gang (Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, et al) face the alien invaders again along with a promising bunch of newcomers (Liam Hemsworth, Jesse T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Joey King, and more), I’m not sure any of them knew exactly what kind of movie they were in or how they were supposed to act.  I mean, what does Judd Hirsch, Joey King, and a busload of other kids do in a scene where their wayward school bus is being pursued by a giant alien machine in the middle of a battle-royale between humans and aliens; scream bloody murder (like the kids did), or drive obliviously along like Grandpa on a Sunday spin (like Judd Hirsch did)?  And what am I supposed to do in the audience; be terrified and on the edge of my seat, or laugh my head off at the utter absurdity of how it was played?

Unfortunately, there were many more such corny moments than there were genuinely thrilling sci-fi action/adventure moments here, and the resulting confusion, along with plot holes the size of moon craters, really dampened down the fun I had hoped to have with this film.

The special effects, of course, were jaw-dropping, but millions spent on giant space-ship battles, etc. don’t mean a whole lot if the story is so rickety and uneven.  Perhaps you’ll think different (I hope you do), but for me, this Independence Day fire-cracker turned out to be a disappointing dud.

A Quick Update…

Hi all!

Just thought I’d put up this brief post to let you all know what’s up in my writing life currently (as of July, 2016).  I don’t get to this site very often these days it seems, but it’s not that I don’t care.  Time’s just crunched.  So here’s a brief overview…

  • My new little writing diversion that I hope to make some occasional money at, travel writing, has already produced some fruit, both of the “getting published” and monetary variety.  I’ve written two articles, and both have been published, and one of them I even got paid for!  You can find them at the links below.

My article about the highly unique (and only) commuter airline to serve my area of Central CA, Boutique Air, was published in regional mag 209 Magazine.  Here’s the link, http://www.209magazine.com/yes-you-can-fly-from-209-to-lax-with-boutique-air/ , and, if you’d like to read it in the print edition of the mag, just to to http://www.209magazine.com and scroll down on the right-hand side to find “print editions” and look it up in the June/July edition, Pages 82-85.

My article about a little-known Native American tribal park which serves as a most unique way to cool down in the hot town of Palm Springs, CA was published by Travel Post Monthly in their July Edition.  The pics in this one are mine as well.

Next up, an article about a virtually private beach that sits in the middle of a National Seashore just north of San Francisco, and a photo essay on why I work so hard to stay in shape–and yes, that is a travel piece as much as a push for people to keep themselves physically fit.

  • I find myself doing more and more work for fledgling production company Spectrum Film Group, and their producer Ricci Moore and Director Kevin Reem.  Ricci and Kevin are on the verge of securing major funding to produce their first film, a “modern western” style, female-driven action piece.  I’ve assisted by investing a small amount of money to send their fund-finder to meetings with financiers in Dubai, and also doing a complete “polish” rewrite of the script for them.  Considerable financial compensation and a film credit will follow once funding is secured.  Ricci and Kevin have optioned my script Slayer – The Chosen based on my optioned property The Amish Bloodsuckers Trilogy by Author Barbara Ellen Brink, and that script will be a part of their next slate of scripts to be presented for financing once their first project is “in the can,” so I figure anything I can do to hasten that project’s completion will move my project closer to reality.

Funding a project is often frustrating and filled with “hurry up and wait” situations, but Ricci and Kevin are relentless, and I don’t know just when, but I feel that their venture will eventually become a reality and both I and my work will benefit from being in on the ground floor of it all.

  • I spent several months over the past year doing a collaborative rewrite with fellow MSC 2 writer David Gwinn of his script, which is a sci-fi re-imagining of the classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  David is currently polishing that up and will soon be marketing it to various connections that he has.  He and I will both receive credit and compensations once this project comes to fruition.
  • I’ve spent time this spring marketing my family sci-fi action/adventure Chase for the Q-Bit at the Great American Pitch Fest, with several producers and a potential representative showing interest in the project and/or me as a writer.  As always, these people are inundated with projects from dozens of eager writers at this event, and finding out if you’ve made someone’s “cut” takes a long time afterwards, but I’m hopeful.

Going forward, I’m hoping to complete all the scripts for the Amish Bloodsuckers project so that it’s completely ready to go once it comes up for funding, perhaps update my Princess Reborn project to give it more international appeal (and thus facilitate funding, studio interest, etc.), and definitely get started on a new, original project that I can market next year.   And who knows what else might come my way as I go along and continually work to create opportunities for my work to get exposure.

As always, there’s never a dull moment for this screenwriter.

 

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 *** A magically inspiring sequel to its predecessor

From years of watching NBC’s America’s Got Talent, I’ve learned at least two things about magic and magicians.  One, I never really look forward to their acts, and two, once they’ve begun their acts, I can’t take my eyes off the screen.  It seems that, in spite of myself, I’m a total sucker for well-done magic acts.

No surprise, then, that back in 2013 when the film Now You See Me, about a troupe of Robin Hood-like magicians called The Horsemen, came out, I kind of dragged myself to it, but was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  This year’s follow-up, Now You See Me 2, made me similarly skeptical, given that it’s a sequel (which are almost universally a disappointment compared to the original), but once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

In this outing, the Horsemen (returning stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan) once again are about taking down, in very public fashion, a nefarious ner-do-well.  This time he’s a diabolical young genius (Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe in a delightfully nasty turn) who is out to rip off all the personal information that anyone in the world has ever put on the Internet and sell it to the highest bidder.  There is, apparently, a super-computer in China powered by a next-generation quantum chip which can crash through any encryption system currently in use, a chip that has been stolen by Radcliffe’s character.  The job is to steal the chip back and expose the baddie, who supposedly died the year before.

As in the first edition, the Ocean’s Eleven-like Horsemen each use their particular illusionary specialities to pull off the caper in some of the slickest magic routines you’ll see outside of a Vegas casino show.  It’s fascinating, never-ending, and keeps you guessing quite literally to the last frames of the film.  The screenwriters have provided an intricate story that not only deepens and expands the relationships between the franchise’s characters (antagonists Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also back this time…), but also delves into the universal mystique of magic and the dedication that magicians around the world have for preserving it.  Performances are solid all around from the cast, with special kudos for newcomer Caplan, whose Lula may not be as slick or sexy as Isla Fisher’s Henley Reed, but more than makes up for it with heart and humor, and Radcliffe, who makes a marvelous and honestly scary bad guy in his first such role in a major studio film.

To be sure, you’re going to get a lot more out of this show if you’ve seen (recently even) the first installment, but if you haven’t, don’t let that put you off.  You’ll still find this immensely entertaining, and don’t be surprised if the first thing you want to do as you’re walking out of the theater is to find some way to see the original.  They’re both magically satisfying movie fun.

WARCRAFT ** (for us non-MMORPGer types)

So if you DON’T know what the above acronym stands for, this review will be for you.  If you DO know what it stands for, you’re probably sniggering already and can definitely add a star to my above rating.  In other words, for you, the initiated, you will undoubtedly see an entirely different (and much better) movie than the rest of us poor ingrates who might stumble into it looking for an interesting fantasy-action pic (as I did).

Oh, and if you’re a pre-teen guy (or female of the same ilk, or adult who’s still stuck in prepubescence), it won’t matter whether you “get it” or not.  You’ll just revel in it because of its virtually non-stop slashing, dashing, bone-crunching action.

Alas, though, my pre-teen days are long gone and I’ve barely heard of the acronym, so Warcraft to me was little more than gobs of Lord of the Rings-style violence (though the Orcs here make even LOTR‘s Uruk-kai look like midgets) interrupted now and then with enough character interactions to give the mayhem something approximating a story and some character development.  This may actually get you rooting for a couple of the creatures and/or trying to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are, which I found mildly engaging, as well as trying (mostly unsuccessfully), to figure out the structure of the fantasy world that I was living in for those couple of hours that I watched the show.

Otherwise, Warcraft was little more than a Michael Bay-style over-the-top fantasy action flick (think Transformers) except set in a world so foreign that it may as well have been in another universe, which, btw, most Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are.  So enjoy if you’re one of the 100 million or so initiates (who have at one time or other played the game from its inception in 2004 until now) or “of that certain age” mentioned above.  For the rest of us, save your bucks, dig out Pacific Rim or Transformers whichever, and order a pizza.