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A docudrama that gives you more than history. Well done.
"Boston is the cream of the crop of the marathon world. It has such history that you feel such honor just being a part of it. All the other races have pacers to get you to a Boston qualifying time." Summer Sanders
For those of us who have attended the Boston Marathon, the 15 April 2013 bombing was a personal matter about a public but humane event characterized by a warm communal vibe tethered to a strong competitive event. Director David Gordon Green's intimately-told Stronger depicts the ordeal of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost two legs to the bombs but not his will to rise above the tragedy.
The strength of this docudrama is the mercurial relationship between Jeff and his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Avoiding the clichéd story of overcoming all obstacles, Stronger takes time with the smaller things of life, like family and going to the bathroom.
Gyllenhaal, a producer of this film, relays his torment about connecting permanently with her while he retains the sense of humor that lets him joke about his lost legs right after gaining consciousness in the hospital (Forrest Gump, Lt. Dan joke).
A most personal and humane story, Stronger evidences the heroic possibilities even in the most common of men. Specifically, as a chicken processor at COTCO, Jeff holds not much promise for such a prospect as Erin. Yet he's a good person, a smart person, and brighter than his Chelmsford buds and his boozy mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson). All of these characters are so believably "Boston," I thought I was back working in Dorchester.
Alas, no docudrama is perfect, and this one suffers from shots and scenes too slow, and eventually the almost two-hour film is too long by about 15 minutes. However, just maybe the filmmakers wanted us to feel the numbing effect of a long marathon that couldn't have foreseen it would become iconic.
"Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint." Angela Duckworth
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
Fun, Raunch,Glamour, CGI. Amusing.
"My name is Poppy Adams, CEO of the Golden Circle. We engage in an aggressive business strategy, invest in the latest technology and take strict, disciplinary action. . . .Our world leaders have let us all down, so we are coming out of the shadows and taking over."Poppy (Julianne Moore)
This installment of the Kingsman spy spoof, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is absurd beyond even prevailing satires of the spy genre. It is rife with the usual outrageous car chases and equipment, no doubt homage to the much less mechanically-intricate James Bond series. Yet, something else is afoot in this delightful comedy, something that makes a message where one usually never exists, say in Jason Bourne or Bond for that matter.
The odd turn of the screw is the denigration of drugs and the rapacious pharmaceutical industry. I know I have your interest, but I may not disclose too much, given that a fluffy film like this trades mostly on surface charms and enhanced CGI. Ultimately, the set pieces and wacky characters come together like a tight Savile Row suit.
Poppy's mega company controls world-wide drugs and forces the president of the US to sign legislation that would legalize drugs so the pharms could expand markets. It's almost counter intuitive to our usual notion that drugs must be busted except for medicinal purposes.
Along the way millions of users have been infected by Poppy's Golden Circle so that her industry can provide the antidote as soon as the president orders the legalization. Splendid that the film shows the effects of addiction, to such an extent of physical and mental breakdown that a message may go forth to the young audience about the suffering of abuse.
Meanwhile Brit agents Harry (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) confront US booze company Statesman, a cover for spy work itself, and eventually both move on Poppy. Along the way are small roles by Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, and lo and behold, Elton John (You have to see him to believe him, though maybe not so much . . .).
(Also, a tacky moment of placing a tracking device in a babe's underpants is just too far with the odd. Director Matthew Vaughan and writers stretched here and lost.) In a light hearted and funny satire, those cameos are welcome amid the tropes, loud music, and absurdity. The cooperation of the Brit and US agencies with one of the locations, a Bondian Swiss Alps ski resort, is a stew of laughs and gimmicks, Just as James Bond would approve.
Now, successful director Matthew Vaughan should work on reducing the over two hour time. Under two does it better.
Marjorie Prime (2017)
Solid sci-fi coming to terms with flawed memory.
"The future will be here soon enough, you might as well be friendly with it." Marjorie (Lois Smith)
Of my many blessings, memory is not the precise gift of most of my friends. I do excel at giving my impressions rather than facts, a talent itself not always impressive. The slow-moving but serious sci-fi drama, Marjorie Prime, treats a time in the near future when holograms can be created to simulate the presence of loved ones who have died.
As in Spike Jonze's Her, technology is friend and foe at the same time. Such a hologram re-creation is fraught with problems, not the least of which is supplying the creation with accurate memories. Those are as imperfect as William James predicted in his repetitive-copying description, where memories leave accuracy behind with each re-recollection.
This film, an adaptation of Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer nominee, starring Lois Smith in the titular role of an 85 year old calling forth her former husband as a middle-aged man, gently makes that point with the hologram, Walter (Jon Hamm). It asks for information or clarification, moments that break the intimacy spell to remind the living that their loving creations are just that: "I'll remember that now," says stoic, affectless Walter.
Director/writer Michael Almereyda takes the Walter hologram into a static interpretation that belies the humanity and emphasizes the robotic nature of the creation. Emotion is missing, that ineffable element of loving so more important than the physical. In that regard the film succeeds in showing the second-rate nature of remembering facts when juxtaposed with emotion. As an imperfect memorist, I feel much better.
The placid sea-side setting, shot in muted color on Long Island, with the water as emblem of the fluid nature of memory, is effective for relaying the elusive nature of that faculty: "The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures." William James
Although Marjorie interacts with more than one hologram (certainly most lives have layers of past loved ones to be recalled if needed), the film accomplishes making us aware of the complex business of remembering, its imperfection, and its reflection of our own uncertain place in the memory of humanity.
One of the best drama-horror films of recent times.
"I know what it's like when you're just starting out, and you think you have all the time in the world, and... you know, you're not going to be so young forever. Have kids! Then you'll be creating something together! This is all just... setting." Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
What a phantasmagorical setting it is! Darren Aronofsky is mad about motherhood or rather the process of giving birth either physical or metaphorical. In his mother! he directs and writes a horror potboiler with unsurprising scary tropes but an allegorical heft not seen yet this year. Poe would have approved.
Having characters with no names, only generics like woman or poet, allows the writer/director immediately to plunge into the figurative with our approval. The poet (Javier Bardem)) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) occupy a mansion that could serve well any such Gothic setting from Frankenstein to Psycho except that it is being rebuilt from a ruinous fire, a phoenix rebirth helped by the construction skills of the wife and the spirit of her youth.
Her being pregnant helps the allegory of the artist's creating and complements their apparent devotion to each other in the creation process. The film seems also to be commenting on the dangers of the January-May marriage. He can't write or make love in this sterile time of his career and marriage.
Not to worry, for they receive visitors, starting with an ill doctor (Ed Harris) and his stone-cold wife, Woman, who begin to upend the couple's life with fan adoration and frank comments about their marriage. A splendid home-invasion thriller this turns out to be as their loony family and countless fans appear. Aranofsky's Grand- Guignol ending is over the top but effective translating a fearful anxiety the couple has over home invasion.
What happens is a mash up of Rosemary's Baby, Black Swan, and Carrie with any other invasion film that becomes more than home busting. Indeed, this tense black comedy is largely a commentary on the challenges of art and partly about troubled marriage. The narcissism of creation and the obsession of the writer to be loved are important motifs of the film as it graphically paints the fall of the house of art.
Some audience might grow tired of the Lawrence close ups, which draw us in but also cause us the pain of identifying with her, caring about her more than the artist can. Yet, caring is what art does, close or from afar, writing or filmmaking.
Viceroy's House (2017)
It's history worth knowing in a pleasing Masterpiece style.
"Our time frame for leaving won't work!" Lady Mountbatten (Gillian Anderson)
Some would say the final partition of India creating Pakistan never worked, albeit a solution to the violence between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs was needed with the pending quitting of Britain from rule in 1947. The historical and humane Viceroy's House takes us nimbly yet sometimes brutally through the Solomon-like assignment of Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) to bring peace and partition.
Although this fascinating film could be accused of being more Masterpiece Theater than history, it brings home in the best period-piece fashion the almost insoluble task of stopping the fighting among factions and fairly apportioning the sub-continent. Mahatma Gandhi's (Neeraj Kabi) opposition, as he favored a unified continent, was the counterbalance to the raw pain of partition but unrealistic given the prevailing hostilities. The film does not oppressively dwell on the philosophy or the brutality: They are just there as if they always were.
Helping the transition is A. R. Rahman's musical score appropriately classical and grave at times and then lightly Indian as the time draws near. Viceroy's House has a workman-like period piece feel to it. It also has a soap-opera like romance between Muslim Aalia (Huma Qureshi) and Hindu Jeet (Manish Dayal), an attempt to provide a figurative representation of the cultural clashes borne of tradition and the impending upending with Britain's leaving.
The spiritual presence of Churchill, who ended up being the actual architect of the partition, left an independent Mountbatten to come to Churchill's solution without even knowing about it. The various bloody factions are well-perceived as unavoidable given the massive population and the complex challenges of partition.
The oil and coastal-protecting motives are there in muted acknowledgment of the inevitable political background of the largest mass movement of human beings in history. Here is a history worth knowing if only to clarify the prevailing hostility between India and Pakistan and the allure Pakistan has for trouble-prone world powers.
If for nothing else, enjoy the period costumes and settings. Downton Abbey would approve.
The Trip to Spain (2017)
Put this trip on your bucket list.
"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love." Ernest Hemingway
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have done this drill before from reviewing restaurants in the UK, Italy, and now Spain in The Trip to Spain. As always the two for the road, buddy adventure is more entertaining than the meals, though the meals play even less of a role in this iteration.
The two incomparable improvisers, guided for the third time by director Michael Winterbottom, travel by Range Rover to some of Spain's finest restaurants, with mouth-watering tapas casually served while they serve you personal barbs and impersonations so spot on you could close your eyes and swear the original was having dinner.
Especially notable are their riffs on James Bond, emphasizing the eccentric voices of Sean Connery and Roger Moore. The sequence involving Moore's Bond and an enemy having dinner together is especially amusing. In any case, both actors are world class imitators culminating in a memorable take on "Tony Hopkins."
The road trip has numerous high angle, helicopter and drone shots capturing the rolling Spanish countryside, mountain top restaurants, and Western-like landscapes enjoyable enough but downright fulfilling when accompanied by the wickedly funny banter between the old buddies. They both are not shy about picking on the conceits and foibles of their friend, and both give as well as they can take.
For some dramatic heft, Coogan is vulnerable at reaching 50 without a girlfriend or agent, and so distanced from his son as to be painful,. Even writing about his teenage years in Spain can't shake the melancholy. Enter the shot of the two buddies dressed as Quixote and Panza, no better choice to represent Coogan's drifting and Brydon's middle-aged responsibilities.
All this is to say that the lives of these two gifted actors and improvisers are not as superficial as the grand food and sights would lead us to believe. And after all, we need to be prepared for the hilarious and provocative last shot.
What is it? you ask. Take the trip and find out. It will be one of the best tours of your cinematic life, and you'll run to Netflix to see the other two. I guarantee it.
"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whose Streets? (2017)
Powerful doc dedicated to the power of the people.
"A riot is the language of the unheard." chapter heading
Having never participated in a protest, much less a riot, I felt I had done both after experiencing directors Sabaah Folay and Damon Davis's Whose Streets? Their documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Mike Brown in 2014 is an unremittingly real and passionate participant point of view that celebrates the will of an oppressed people to be heard.
Whose Streets? documents the thoughts and actions of the largely black population as they experience the white-cop brutality of Ferguson and St. Louis police forces, culminating in Mike Brown's being shot 8 times by an officer who justifies the assassination with his fear. The grand jury believed he was faultless, leading to disbelief and riots reminiscent of the reaction to Rodney King's killers' exoneration.
The doc is especially effective bringing home the pain with portraits of such sufferers as Brittany Ferrell, a comely and articulate young lesbian who is not afraid to speak her outrage. We see her at home with her children and on the street with the microphone chanting the will to fight to be free, an anthem echoed by virtually everyone facing down the daunting police and national guard forces.
The street's-eye view happens largely because cell phones recorded the abuse with a probing expertise heretofore only the province of professional filmmakers. But not today, when those little devices are adjuncts to the spirit of justice, albeit not always enough to bring convictions. David Whitt, a Copwatch citizen videographer, meticulously records and publishes images that damn the militaristic response, for the film's expert doc makers put them together to devastatingly powerful effect.
Although white cop Darren Wilson, 28, had Brown in his sights after Brown allegedly robbed a convenience store, Brown should not have died for the crime nor should his body have lain in the street for hours while the community and security reacted. However, most of the forensic evidence and testimony proved that Wilson acted in self defense.
If there can be a criticism of this doc, it would be that the evidence finally exonerating Wilson is not presented; he remains guilty in the spirit of the film if not the reality. Although the filmmakers could claim an interest only in the people's plight and reactions, full disclosure for me requires that I also see where the police can be at least partially exonerated.
Justice both civil and spiritual is elusive. Whose Streets? is an estimable rendition of a disadvantaged populace struggling to be heard.
Romance among striking modernist buildings. True art house fare.
"Meth and modernism are really big here." Casey (Haley Lu Richardson)
If you need an example of a modern art film, look no further than the Columbus film of Korean director Kogonada. It's a minimalist treatment of familial interaction and non-sexual intimacy worthy of Richard Linklater in his early Sunrise franchise. Its greatest achievement is bonding architecture with humanity so that the former becomes a character itself.
As for the light tone of the opening quote, Columbus the film, in an act of humane tenderness, never makes fun of the people or the city.
Korean Jin (John Cho) meets Casey in small town Columbus, Indiana. Although it feels a bit like a clichéd cow town, contrarily it has some of the best modernist architecture in the USA just as the couple deal with modern challenges as they blend their millennial dysfunctions with the seriousness of love and death. He is visiting his comatose architect father while she is fighting with herself to stay at home and tend to addicted mother while a university offering her fulfillment for her architectural enthusiasm is trying to tear her away.
Although the two are developing love that is chaste and from afar, their conversation gradually takes on depth mirrored in the growing presence of buildings from the likes of Deborah Berke, Eero Saarinen, and James Stewart Polshek, a conjunction of the real and almost ethereal, as several of the stunningly stark, simple and transparent buildings reflect. That the director chooses to shoot a whole scene in a mirror, and others briefly is a tribute to the interest he has in appearance and reality and the importance of place.
This intensely and immaculately filmed indie is a fitting declaration of the melancholy unity between living lovers and dynamic architecture. Enjoy the view and dialogue; movie-making doesn't need to offer more.
How being scared can be so much fun!
"I'm sorry. WHO invited Molly Ringwald?"
Although It is not the comedy that quote would suggest, the film adaptation of Stephen King's story is rich with horror tropes and allegorical clichés; it is also a darn good horror flick. Now it might not scare the bejesus out of you, but it will satisfy your need to see what lies at the bottom of the well, and it's not pretty. Also, it will make you laugh.
This hodgepodge of early teens calling themselves The Losers Club, all males except for a cute girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis, who could pass for Ron Howard 's daughter), are caught up in a 1989 Reagan-era search for a mad clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who lives in the sewer and eats children. While that premise is rich enough with jump scares and telegraphing deaths, the more important themes of overcoming fears and working together to defeat evil are well presented if sometimes only through metaphor.
For instance, the sequence with sheep being led to slaughter emphasizes the need to break away and express individuality. At the same time, some sheep-like following is necessary as only the group can defeat the evil. We all know what happens when in horror films someone leaves the protection of the fold.
Nothing more expressed the angst of early teens than adults who don't listen to their kids or adults who prey on them, and not just a deranged clown because some dads here are downright bad in the way they treat their offspring. It does a great job showing the disturbing challenges of adolescence, not the least of which are their messy pubescent thoughts and pursuits. The film is, therefore, a mess, but a good one, because their lives are a mess of anxieties.
Fear is the dominant motif, of clowns who seduce kids into the sewers to dads who stalk their daughters. No 13 year old is exempt, and even the male hero, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), has a stutter. Yet, if one is willing to overcome evil by banding with others, as the nerdy kids do against over-the-top bullies and rabid clowns, life can be tolerable and offer 27 peaceful years until the clown reappears and eats some more kids.
By then our heroes will be adults, eaten buy life itself. Who says Pennywise is pound foolish?
City of Ghosts (2017)
You want real reality? Watch these citizen journalists sacrifice all.
Having won a national award for journalism, I was feeling really pumped about me until I saw the journalists in City of Ghosts. Here are heroes who leave me breathless in awe of their courage fighting Isis in its home, Raqqa. A formerly docile town, it changed with the emergence of ISIS tanks in 2014 after the remarkable Arab Spring of 2012.
The citizen journalists, RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), begin fighting in earnest when they realize ISIS has taken control because of the vacuum of power after that Spring. This doc is almost exclusively a chronicle of their struggle to remain viable after ISIS zeroed in on them and began torturing and beheading relatives and friends.
So the heroism is much more personal than fighting ISIS; it is about good people combating an implacable foe at the expense of their families and themselves. When the doc shows a fighter watching a video of his father being assassinated and when at the end of the film a fighter shakes in guilt and fear over having survived and his friends didn't because he escaped from Raqqa, the audience is witnessing a reality show like no other our poor commercial fluff gives us in that name.
The depressing element of this is how successful ISIS has been because of the Hollywood production type elements in these gruesome and seductive promos. Assassinations are edited with the expertise of your garden-variety super-hero blockbuster.
City of Ghosts features fighters who are ghosts of their former happy lives, but they are heroes the likes of which we have long forgotten.