Movies: Hacksaw Ridge and Dr. Strange worth seeing

 

Dr. Strange

The perfect antidote to Tuesday’s election was to rush out on Wednesday and see Dr. Strange – a Superhero movie full of special effects that stretched out over a non-depressing, non-thinking, fast-paced two hours. I knew nothing of Dr. Strange going in other than it stars Benedict Cumberbatch who can pretty much do no wrong in my book. Unfortunately, the show I went to was in 3D which made it a bit trippy but nonetheless, I sat back and was entertained for a couple of hours on a difficult day.

Dr. Strange is an egotistical surgeon who has an accident that renders him unable to operate. He seeks healing help from a guru in Nepal (the Ancient One) played by Tilda Swinton. Through his studies, he gains magical powers and confronts the film’s villain played by Max Mikkelsen with mind boggling fight scenes. Also playing one of Dr. Strange’s new associates is Chiwetel Ejiofor who was great as was Rachel McAdams who played the love interest. I enjoyed all of the actors in this film immensely and thought they did a perfectly fine job in what were generally non-demanding roles.

The special effects were amazing and a bit like “Inception” meets an Escher painting – lots of fun with really beautiful geometric shapes floating through time and space. I was truly entertained from the beginning to the end of the film. This movie does not require any knowledge of the comics but will probably not be that interesting to those who don’t like the better Marvel movies (e.g. Ironman or Avengers) or at least good Sci Fy. For me, it was a perfect way to spend a couple of hours being transported to a different reality.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a good movie. I haven’t seen may Mel Gibson films but the ones I have seen revel in violence and gore with a strong “good guy v bad guy” theme. Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The first half of the movie is the story of Desmond Doss, a boy from Lynchburg, VA who grows up with an abusive alcoholic father. When Pearl Harbor is attacked, he and his brother enlist along with all of their friends. Desmond is a 7th Day Adventist and refuses to touch a gun in basic training, which gets him a court martial. His Sargent played by Vince Vaughn (with a strange comedic smirk throughout the film) tries to make his life miserable, as do those in his unit in order to force him to quit. Doss remains in the army through a somewhat suspicious resolution of his case and becomes a hero in the end by rescuing 75 soldiers at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa becoming only one of three Conscientious Objectors to win the Medal of Honor.

The acting is fine in this film. Andrew Garfield is believable as Doss and does a perfectly decent job as the doe-eyed Desmond. Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s father is really good and the soldiers in Doss’s unit are all well cast with perhaps the exception of Vince Vaughn who I just found sort of strange and not at all the type of Sargent that I would expect in the Army.

If you are looking for subtlety or grey areas in this film, you won’t find them. It’s not Gibson’s style. Also, in Gibson fashion, the movie seems to be unduly violent and gruesome surpassing even Saving Private Ryan in my opinion. There are times when he slows down the motion while building up the music to create an over the top scene. There are also some “bleeding over” of Gibson’s religious beliefs at the end where we see a couple of scenes suggesting a “Baptism” and an ascendency to heaven. With all that being said, we can thank Mr. Gibson for bringing this story to millions of Americans who will now know who Desmond Doss is. It is an important story that is well told by Mr. Gibson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movies: Certain Women and Captain Fantastic

 

Certain Women

Whenever you have an almost 40% difference between the Critics Score and the Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes, you know there is a big problem with the movie being reviewed. That is definitely the case with Certain Women, which has a 90%, Critics Score and a 53% Audience Score. The Critics obviously found much more than the audience in this art-house film starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristin Stewart.  I really admire the work of these three actresses and they were quite good in this film but it wasn’t enough to cause audiences to enjoy this slow burning Indy. Some of disparity in scores might be attributed to the fact that this is a chick flick and RT is dominated by males but even the “chicks” I know who have seen the movie didn’t care for it.

The film is adapted from a series of short stories. It has a couple of very loose connections between a couple of characters but basically the stories stand-alone. All three take place around Livingston Montana as winter closes in on this small town. The first stars Laura Dern as an attorney unable to help a client with a workplace injury because he had already signed away his rights. He becomes violent and she deals with it in a compassionate but distant way. The second story is about Gina (Michelle Williams) and her husband who are building a house outside the town and their teenage daughter. This is the least flushed out plot of the three as we learn virtually nothing about the source of her flawed family relationships or why this causes Gina to pursue getting a pile of sandstone for her house. The final story is the best and depicts Kristin Stewart as an attorney (Beth) who takes a gig teaching school law to some teachers in a town four hours away. She meets a young woman played by Lily Gladstone who is mesmerizing in her role as a caretaker for farm horses that becomes enamored by Beth and seeks a relationship with her.

The power of this movie is showing uncertain women going about their daily lives in quiet desperation without achieving the respect they should from their families and business relationships. The Director gives us just a quick glance into these lives without providing any kind of history or resolution to their stories. The first story is ok with Laura Dern lovely to watch as she struggles with her existence. The second story is the weakest but the third story about unrequited love is moving due primarily to the understated acting of Gladstone in a breakthrough performance. Stewart plays her role perfectly and again reminds us how far she has come since Twilight. The cinematography is fantastic as it captures the bleakness of winter descending on this bleak Montana town. Kelly Reichardt , the Director, has created a quiet, subtle film with beautiful scenery, wonderful acting and a plot that will cause most people to go running away from the theater in pain.

Captain Fantastic

I missed this terrific film this summer due to my schedule but it is now available on Video on Demand through all the regular services. This is a movie, unlike Certain Women, that the critics and the audience completely agree on and they all like it. It is the story of Ben, played by Viggo Mortensen who is bringing up his children in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. They hunt, read whatever they can and eschew traditional religions, modern society and Corporate America. Ben’s wife has been institutionalized for mental illness and subsequently commits suicide, which sets the story in motion. He takes his kids to their mother’s funeral in New Mexico and his wife’s family is not particular welcoming of his alternative lifestyle and threaten to take the children away.

Ben has to deal with his uncompromising personality when it becomes clear that his lifestyle choices have a negative impact on at least some of his children and his wife. Mortensen is superb in this role which he displays the conflicting emotions of tenderness, fierceness and an unyielding dedication to his philosophy. Also great is George MacKay who plays his eldest son Bo. You may remember him as Billy in Pride. The rest of the kids are also quite good. Of course the supporting cast of Frank Langella, Ann Dowd, Kathryn Hahn and others are all heavy hitters who nail their small but important parts. The ending of the film doesn’t quite hold together as there is no reason to believe that Ben’s wife’s family isn’t going to further pursue him but other than that, Captain Fantastic is a great little film that just about everyone should enjoy.

 

Movies: A Man Called Ove, Birth of a Nation and USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

 

A Man Called Ove

This really nice little film from Sweden has a number of things going for it but it is not particularly unique nor will it be a foreign film Oscar contender. It is the story of Ove, an old curmudgeon who lives by himself and is the self appointed policeman for his Swedish neighborhood. He is fired from his job after 43 years, seemingly has no friends and it quickly becomes clear that he is a widow who is trying to commit suicide in order to join his  beloved wife. Things are not going well for Ove and even his suicide attempts fail.

A new family moves in next door and slowly Ove becomes friends with the extroverted Persian wife played by Bahar Pars. He teaches her to drive and is slowly integrated into her family. Ove (Rolf Lassgard) and Pars are the stars of the movie. Their back and forth dialogue and meaningful glances to each other are great and ultimately culminate in a sequence where Ove actually laughs. It takes a bit of time to get into this movie but flashbacks fill in the gaps of Ove’s life including his marriage to Sonja as well as his childhood as we gain an understanding of the events that make Ove the man he is.

In a predictable ending, Ove is loved and admired by many and a few tissues will be needed for the last scenes. The book has been a staple of many a book club and the movie hits a soft spot for all. It is well done, has some nice moments of humor despite the generally dark satire nature of the film and should be a hit with US audiences despite the sub titles. 

Birth of a Nation

When Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance last February, it immediately generated Oscar buzz as well as being advertised as the answer to the “Oscar so White “controversy. There was so much hype it sold for an extraordinary $17.5M and then the roof fell in this spring, as decades old rape charge against the Director/Actor/Writer Nate Parker became widely known. The director has addressed charges that he and Jean McGianni Celestin, who share a “story by” credit with Parker, sexually assaulted a classmate in 1999, when all three were students at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted while Celestin spent time in jail before his conviction was overturned. The accuser took her own life in 2012.

Birth of a Nation was likely a bit overhyped as Sundance winners often are. Without the controversy surrounding the Director, it probably would have faded as an Oscar contender over the course of year as the general consensus is that this is a very good albeit not great film. There are many questionable decisions by the director – especially where historical records are involved. The Nat Turner that was projected in the film seems strangely laid back. This doesn’t jive with other historical representations of a fiery preacher. There are other flaws with it which should be expected with a first time Director including transitions, a bizarre angel and slaves hanging from trees in what was likely meant to be an “art” shot.   In short, it isn’t 12 Years a Slave but it is hard to expect that level with a first movie.

Despite these issues, the film represents a period of history that people should be aware of. I doubt many viewers out there are familiar with William Styron’s the Confessions of Nat Turner written over 40 years ago so they may well not be knowledgeable of the violent rebellion led by Nat Turner. There is plenty of brutality in this film and a disturbing couple of rape scenes that were used as plot devices to help change Nat from a mild mannered preacher to a revengeful mass murderer. Much has been written lately about using rape as such a device in numerous TV shows and the questionable need for it. I’m not sure the use of violence against the female characters worked effectively in this film and was particularly uncomfortable due to the rape allegations against Parker.

This film won’t be for everyone as the subject matter is tough and the violence difficult to watch but it is a well-done movie that is a promising start for Nate Parker.  

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

I have been waiting for this movie to come out for a while. It is about the Indianapolis, the ship that delivered a portion of the Atomic Bomb to Tinian during WWII and then on its way home was sunk by a Japanese sub. You may remember the story being told by Quint to Brody in Jaws. The Indianapolis is very important to our family as my husband’s uncle died in the tragedy and it has been a source of many a school report by my son. The men in our family have read every book on the sinking of the Indianapolis.

The movie, starring Nicholas Cage, was supposed to be released on Memorial Day but was postponed even though it was done. All of a sudden, it showed up on VOD so we rented it. It still might be distributed to theaters this fall with a rumored premier on Veteran’s Day. Even though it is never a good sign that a movie goes straight to VOD, I was hopeful that it wasn’t that horrible. My husband bailed after 15 minutes, cursing it out. I stuck through the 130 minutes despite the fact that it is really dreadful. After all, I paid $10 on ITunes for this travesty so was determined to see it through to the end.

The movie starts out with a special effect sequence that looks like a teenager on his IPhone could have filmed it. There couldn’t have been any kind of a budget for the film. And don’t even get me started on the sharks. I would have thought that they be able to do better than what was in Jaws forty years ago but I could have been watching a Sharknado movie. But even worse is the screenplay. There is a ridiculous love story, contrived racial issues, sailors spitting into their captain’s food for no reason and just a bunch of gibberish that makes no sense. And that’s in the first 25 minutes. It was even hard to tell that the Japanese soldiers were in a cramped sub rather than a spacious hotel. In addition to the special effects and the screenplay, the acting is pretty bad as well. Nicholas Cage is dreadful. Did we ever think he could act?

The men of the Indianapolis and their families deserve a lot better than this. Do not waste your time or money if it comes to a theater near you and certainly don’t shell out $9.99 to see it on demand.

 

 

 

Movies: Two new films that deliver a message about life and love

 

Little Men

A well-known movie critic said about this movie (rated 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) “the most remarkable thing about Ira Sach’s richly textured new film “Little Men” is how it manages to be about so much, and yet so little”.   I think this sums up the movie perfectly. On the surface, it is about the collateral damage of gentrification but simmering below is a story about  love, friendship, coming of age and the complexity of life where decisions bring difficult outcomes for everyone involved.

Jake Jardine’s grandfather dies and his family inherits a Brooklyn apartment located in an area of escalating property values and containing a small dress shop on the first floor.   They move in to the apartment above the shop and Jake (Theo Taplitz), a very introverted child with artistic abilities, becomes friends with the extroverted Tony (Michael Barbieri), the son of the dressmaker. There are beautiful scenes between the two as their friendship deepens and becomes the focus of their adolescent lives. The Director does a wonderful job of filming them travelling around Brooklyn, Tony on a scooter and Jake on roller blades, or playing video games with not a word passing between them.

Things take a turn for the worse when it turns out that the dressmaker has been charged very low rent by the grandfather and Jacob’s father (a strong performance by Greg Kinnear), a struggling actor, and his sister who have inherited the property need money.   They go after a more market rent for the property, which creates serious tension between the two families. The boys are not allowed to go to each other’s homes and as a result, Jake and Tony give the silent treatment to their parents with unintended consequences.

I won’t give away the end but suffice it to say that this movie represents a slice of real life and the emotions of all involved are realistic as is the film’s ending. Life is a series of tough events for most of us and certainly is for the families in this film.   If you get a chance to see this movie, take it. The acting is first rate, particularly the work of the boys, and journey the Director takes you from the first scenes until the final one is wonderful. It may be a story about “so little” but it gives us so much.

 

The Hollars

There is nothing new in this predictable story about a completely dysfunctional family (some with quirks that will irritate you) but it tugs at your heart and there is some great acting. The critics weren’t kind to it (48% on Rotten Tomatoes) but the audience score is almost double that which goes to show that regular people like this movie.

John Krasinski directs and acts in the film. He plays “John” son of “Don” brother of “Ron” (really?) who is a mid-thirtyish graphic artist living in NYC in a relationship with a pet clothes designer played by Anna Kendrick. They are about to become parents but John isn’t really ready to commit. John also appears to have some unresolved feeling towards his hometown girlfriend. For a guy in his thirties, John appears to be overwhelmed by his entry-level job, his girlfriend, impending fatherhood and life in general. When John’s mother becomes seriously ill in any town USA, his girlfriend puts him on a plane and he returns home.

Turns out John is the cream of the crop among the males of the family. His older brother Ron is unemployed, stalks his ex-wife and is generally pretty creepy. His father, played by the wonderful Richard Jenkins, is facing bankruptcy and cries about everything – Jenkins may be accused of being a little over the top here. The star of the family (and the movie) is Margo Martindale who plays the mom who keeps them all together. Her acting is suberb and makes every one in a scene with her better for it. She makes this movie worthwhile and worth seeing.

As I said, there isn’t anything original in this movie and you will leave with a couple of characters that you never want to see again but it is a solid “B” movie with some real feel good moments and you will likely enjoy it. Don’t go in to it thinking it is a comedy. It is a drama with some comedic moments (more at the beginning than the end) that delivers a strong message about family and relationships that will resonate with most.

A Great Book; Very Good TV Series and a Fun Movie

I don’t usually post this way but I had a book, a movie and one TV show this week (the end of August is really a TV dead period!) so here goes!

Books:

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defection Story by Hyeonseo Lee

I get emails every day from BookBub letting me know e-book sales on Amazon. I don’t look at them all the time because it takes some doing going through the books and researching what might be worth grabbing for a cost of $0 to $1.99. I should do it more often because you can really find a gem that you otherwise would have no idea existed. That is how I came upon this wonderful non-fiction story of Ms. Lee’s unbelievable escape from North Korea.

It is unusual to gain a glimpse of life in this secret society but Hyeonseo takes us through her first 18 years growing up in North Korea and what being a citizen of this repressive communist regime entails. As fascinating as this is, it is the story of her escape that is the highlight of the book for me. It provides a riveting chronology of first getting to China then living in multiple places there and then on to South Korea in a series of moves precipitated by her being discovered. If that weren’t enough, the story then follows an even more perilous journey to get her family out of North Korea. The prose is straightforward (she had a collaborator) and simple but extremely compelling as Ms. Lee navigates life in these countries so different than her birth nation.

Hyeonseo Lee is clearly an extraordinary young woman, intelligent, beautiful and determined. How she was able to figure out survival skills, including languages in China and North Korea is remarkable. It has to be incredibly difficult to break the bonds of indoctrination and leave everything she knew behind. I was in awe of this woman at every point in her journey. I have often wondered why more North Koreans don’t leave and I now have a better understanding of the brainwashing that occurs in a country that controls by fear and intimidation. It is also fascinating to explore just how different the cultures in China, South Korea and North Korea are.

This book has a 4.4 rating on Goodreads, which is extremely high. Although I doubt it is still available on Amazon for $1.99, it is worth picking up at the library or paying full price to read this wonderful autobiography.

TV:

Finales: The Night Of (HBO)

The Night Of completed it’s run last night. The first show in this 8 episode miniseries was one of the best premiers I have ever seen. It followed Naz’s ill-fated “borrowing” of his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan through his waking up the next morning to find that a stranger he went home with was dead in her bed and he had no idea what happened. It was riveting. From there, the series stalled somewhat. It seemed to take forever in the next couple of episodes to get Naz situated and charged but then it picked up again.

Not everything worked in this series. The biggest issue on Twitter seemed to be the continual focus on John Stone’s eczema but Stone was clearly the best character in the show. Not only was did the writers give us a great persona but he was brilliantly acted by John Turturro. The character of Chandra, the inexperienced lawyer was not good (although the actress was fine). She made many questionable decisions, particularly in the last episode that just didn’t make any sense given what had occurred up to that point. Also, the ending with the probably identification of the killer was not well constructed. There really wasn’t any reason to even guess that this minor character might have had anything to do with the crime.

This is not an upbeat series. It delivers a dark indictment of the legal system and the effect on all involved from judges, to attorneys to those accused of crimes. None of the participants in this process came out ok in this show – except maybe a cat. The system did them all in. I did think the finale did a nice job of wrapping everything thing up and showing how this crime had impacted all involved. I hope that if there is a sequel to this that they do another case and don’t continue with these characters – I think the way the writers resolved the case was good and they should leave it as is.

This series gives us a little more hope that HBO can still deliver a very good drama. It was a nice summer surprise.

Movies:

Star Trek

I am probably the last person on earth (at least among those who plan to see the movie) to see Star Trek as it opened shortly before I left on vacation and I just didn’t have time to see it until now. As a Star Trek fan, it was worth the wait. I have really enjoyed the first two JJ Abrams Star Trek reboots. This latest film in the franchise has a new Director, Justin Lin, (JJ was doing Star Wars) and has some of Lin’s “Fast and Furious” trademarks. The movie is non-stop action with extraordinary special effects that are in many cases quite stunning. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company are fun to be around again even if the plot is pretty over the top at times. Even with different actors and much better technology,it has the same heart as the Star Trek that premiered 50 years ago and that I would rush home from Friday night Dancing School class to watch.

In short, don’t look for a stellar plot or even one that makes sense. It’s a fun bunch of characters in outer space in situations that are often pretty ridiculous and the good guys always win. It was really sad to see Anton Yelchin’s final performance after his tragic death and unfortunately Idris Elba was totally wasted as Krall. If you are a Trekkie, you’ll enjoy this movie and if SyFy is not your thing, there are other films out there.

 

Movies: Hell or High Water

 

Hell or High Water

I’m not a fan of Westerns – either classic or the neo Western genre of which Hell or High Water is the latest addition. However, this film has received rave reviews and is considered the best film so far in 2016 by a number of critics so I decided to see it and I’m glad I did. It is excellent – from the writing to the acting to the directing as well as the cinematography and the music which compliments the serious and difficult subject matter. Warning – there is some violence in this “R” rated movie (not unexpected given the subject matter) in this timely social commentary.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers living in rural West Texas who take up robbing branches of the Texas Midland Bank in order to obtain enough money to save the family ranch for Toby’ s children. We are led to believe that the Bank has not only unfairly treated the Howards but is instrumental in the depressed state of the local economy.  Jeff Bridges plays a crusty old Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who is chasing down the bank robbers while continually spitting out racist jokes to his part Mexican/ part Comanche partner played by Gil Birmingham. Jeff Bridges could have just rolled out of True Grit into this role – same character and he plays it like the pro he is. All of the actors are great in this movie but the huge surprise for me is Chris Pine who shows that he has depth far beyond Captain Kirk and his Brad Pitt -like looks match up with Pitt’s acting chops.

The script is by Taylor Sheridan who also wrote Scario and the intensity of emotion and non-stop action in both films is similar. I loved the cinematography – the rich landscapes of West Texas combined with the stark reality of dying ranches and boarded up towns. The score by Nick Cave is perfectly matched to the serious plot it supports and is as haunting as the film. Reminded me of his tract “Oh Children” which was so effectively used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 as the song Hermione and Harry dance to as their futures looked desperately bleak – the moods being similar.

The movie is difficult to watch and there are compelling moral dilemmas. For example, how can you support the brothers with their actions having the expected unintended consequences – but you do.   The concealed weapon proponents will feel their case is made as will the anti-gun contingent as the final bank robbery plays out. The issue of the impact of the economic downturn, particularly in areas like rural Texas makes the rise of both the Trump and Sanders platforms seem more understandable. There are so many layers of this film to revel in and think about. It is one that I will see again even though I tend to cringe with the violence in movies like this. See this movie – it is worth it.

Back from vacation and back to the movies: Florence Foster Jenkins

 

Florence Foster Jenkins is yet another triumph for the spectacular Meryl Streep but more intriguingly for Hugh Grant. Streep plays the lead character, a wealthy patron of the NYC musical scene in the 30s and 40s who loves to sing complicated arias and give small private concerts. Hugh Grant plays her common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield, who encourages her pursuit of singing while hiding the truth about her terrible voice from her through bribery and clever maneuvering. There is a comedic element of the movie mostly focused on Simon Helberg who is hired as her accompanist despite being horrified at the notes coming from Florence’s mouth. He is wonderful. Nina Arianda who gains strength through the movie as a wealthy man’s “hussy” second wife also is quite funny. She leaves her first “Florence” concert in uncontrollable laughter but by the end is one of her biggest supporters.

The movie itself can be tough to listen to at times with Streep (who has a beautiful voice) hitting all of those horrific notes but the tender love story between Florence, her husband, friends and the broader public makes up for it. Hugh Grant’s performance is surprisingly good as he sells us on his aristocratic character and the compassion he has for his wife. St. Clair and Jenkins never consummated their marriage due to her syphilis from her first husband yet maintained a true (albeit unusual) love affair. St. Clair had a separate apartment with his lover (unbeknownst to Jenkins) but his first devotion was to his wife. Who knew he had it in him to play this “kept” man who spent each day totally focused on Florence’s happiness with such deftness and complexity. We get a quick glance into Grant’s prior roles in an enjoyable dance sequence but that is the only reminder of this Rom Com king.

I have a couple of minor quibbles with the film like what is with the thick book that is Jenkins’s will and why with all her money did St. Claire lived out the rest of his life modestly according to the footnotes at the end of the film. I never quite understood why people outside the NYC music community embraced her with such passion – in the film it just magically happened.  The movie drags occasionally and could have been a bit shorter and Streep’s singing can be tough to take (at least we didn’t have to hear it for the first 30 minutes of the film) but I think most people will enjoy this movie and appreciate how difficult it must have been for Streep to hit those notes. She apparently had to have a vocal coach “unteach” her to be so flat. One also has to appreciate the film’s hair and make-up artist who does a masterful job in converting Streep into a dowdy, plump heiress. Florence Foster Jenkins once said something to the effect that “I may not be able to sing but people have heard me sing” and after this movie, we can add a few million to the original number.