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Wonderful! Just wonderful.
21 April 2019
Among the big African animals, giraffes were always my favorite. Hugely tall, beautiful coats, practically the definition of deliberate grace in their movement. And like animals all over the world, we humans are gradually driving them into extinction by the simple method of taking over their natural environment. No species can survive without its living space.

So that's one message this well-done documentary carries. It's familiar enough, but it's no less true and no less a tragedy. The other big theme is the story of the title character, Canadian naturalist Anne Innis Dagg. As a graduate student she went to South Africa to study these magnificent creatures in the wild in the early 1950's, and wrote what was then the definitive book on giraffe behavior and ecology. Shockingly, it remained the definitive book for literally decades after. It's a surprise to realize that Anne, a determined and resourceful young woman, went to do this on her own years BEFORE other more famous naturalists like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. The film shows a good deal of original camera footage from her first major visit there (along with some well done re-enactments to fill in necessary bits of the storyline), and splices those sections in with filming from the present consisting of interviews with Anne Dagg, her daughter Mary, some colleagues both new and old, and Anne's return to South Africa to the same place where she worked 60 years ago.

After her research work in Africa, Anne Innis (as she was then) married physicist Ian Dagg and took a faculty position at the University of Guelph while her husband was at the nearby University of Waterloo. They started a family. But Anne's professional career came to a screeching, grinding, permanent halt when she was denied tenure for reasons that half a century later can be seen as yet another case of papered-over misogyny. Appeals to the Ontario Human Rights Commission met the same fate. Her brief and promising career was over. To make things worse, husband Ian died just at retirement age. In recent years, she has experienced something of a professional resurrection by the international community of giraffe biologists -- a relatively small but engagingly nice bunch of people who we get to meet. A few of them actively sought out this rather mysterious woman who literally wrote the book in their discipline and then faded away.

My wife and I saw this at one of our local art cinemas, who ran a special series of showings of the film this month. Anne Dagg herself was there to do Q&A afterward with the audience (which by the way was full and enthusiastic). She's a gracious and matter-of-fact lady. Yes it's a different era now, things are genuinely better for women researchers, but as she would agree, the worst of it is that the numbers of giraffes are still going down. There are too many of us, and we aren't doing enough to save our fellow creatures on Earth.
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Woman at War (2018)
A total pleasure to watch: engaging, serious, eccentric, and fun.
21 April 2019
Halla (played by Halldora Geirhardsdottir), a middle-aged Icelandic woman leading a seemingly ordinary life, is secretly a fierce eco-warrior. Staying completely off the radar, she conducts lone daring missions of sabotage against a big industrial plant that is endangering the environment of her region and her entire country. Her weapons of choice are small-scale explosives, and bow and arrows. The bare bones of this plot sound like just the sort of thing for a Hollywood action film, but Woman at War is stylistically so different, so NOT Hollywood that it inhabits practically a different universe. And it's all the better for that. We care about what's going on on the screen, and about the protagonist Halla, far more here than we ever would for things like Mission Impossible or Fast and Furious or the Bond films or a dozen other franchises like them which are basically just eye candy.

There actually aren't that many true 'action' scenes: most of the screen time is devoted to interactions among the relatively small cast of characters, and some slow-burn suspense. Will Halla keep successfully evading the authorities who are ramping up their search for the saboteur? After all, Iceland is a pretty small country. Her motivation for what she's doing also would not cut very deep unless we had a well rounded picture of her life and the deep connection of her fellow Icelanders with their own land. Her sister Asa (played by the same actress -- and the scenes where Asa and Halla are both on screen are seamlessly done) comes in and out of the story, as does cousin Sveinbjorn (Johann Sigurdarson), a farmer who helps Halla at critical moments. Halla is thrown a major curve when her hoped-for chance to adopt a little orphan girl from Eastern Europe come up suddenly: does she change the course of her life to take it, or let it go and continue her profoundly risky guerilla war? There are also genuinely surprising twists -- essentially bits of luck and timing -- that make us realize that every bit of the backstory and setup in the first half of the movie was put there for a reason.

There are loads of engaging details from beginning to end. In one scene Halla is being hunted by a police drone seeking for her in the countryside near the industrial plant. She shoots it down with her bow and arrow and then stomps it to pieces. (Who wouldn't like to do that with those annoying things, just once?) The most oddest touch of all, though, has to do with the music. The edgy background music is played by a small band of musicians who are sometimes actually on screen, standing just to the side of the action -- on roadsides, on city streets, by airport parking lots. Their onscreen presence usually takes place at critical junction points in the story. This eccentric touch takes a further step into the truly surreal when at times Halla actually notices them (!) as if she has stepped outside her own role.

All in all, it's very much worth seeing. A whole lot of Hollywood studio suits who are only after your money could learn from far more genuine films like this one.
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Unicorn Store (2017)
This little movie does pretty well at what it's aiming for
21 April 2019
The basics of the storyline are pretty simple: twentysomething Kit (Brie Larson) has just flunked out of art school and now lives aimlessly in her parents' basement. As an artist she's fond of abstract swathes of color, with glitter, just like when she was 3 years old. As a person she's kind of a space cadet, or a flowerchild who missed her decade. She wears rainbow-pastel pyjamas with little stars all ove, and dreams about unicorns. Enter the Salesman (Samuel Jackson) who mails her a mysterious invitation and may, or may not, be able to get a real live unicorn for her. Is he playing an elaborate con or is he for real? We don't really know till the end.

The story underneath the story is of course Kit's emotional growth and slow transformation into a functioning adult. The real Message, as I take it, is that you don't entirely have to give up on your childhood dreams to become one. Fair enough. It's a small-budget film with limited goals, and within that context it does pretty well. Worth mentioning are 4 big supporting roles that carry a lot of the interest: Kit's mom and dad (the reliable Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) play cloyingly awkward parents who eventually reveal a lot more than is first apparent. Handyman Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), who Kit cajoles into building a unicorn hut in her backyard, grows into a supporter and friend. And lastly there's Gary (Hamish Linklater), Kit's nominal boss at the office where she works as a temp. There's a great little scene where Kit asks him if he ever missed out on doing something he wanted and chose a different path, and we see his face slowly and wordlessly crumple from his standard "vapid office" expression into a mask of despair. It's too late for him, but fortunately not for Kit. Nice work by all these actors.

What about Larson and Jackson? Larson (who is also the director) is fine. This kind of acting I have to say fundamentally suits her better than big superhero roles ... But I wonder if finally Jackson has taken a role that is a bit beyond his peculiar skills: he does it, but he doesn't seem to be putting his heart into it.

None of which gets across the low-key vibe of eccentricity that runs through the whole thing. It's got a cuteness factor that's consistently fun, along with unpredictable dialog that veers this way and that. As a Netflix offering it's one of the better choices.
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Shazam! (2019)
Wildly inconsistent tone across the various plot elements, but yes, it's a lot of fun.
6 April 2019
I saw Shazam! (= "The Superhero Formerly Known as Captain Marvel") last night on opening weekend -- theater pretty full, with lots of kids in attendance with their parents. And I think by and large they got what they came for, namely a fun ride with lots of thrills and tongue-in-cheek comedy. The best Worlds-of-DC movie is still Wonder Woman hands-down, but Shazam! is a good addition. I actually liked that the characters and story are put squarely in the DC universe, post-Justice League, and that other main characters like Superman and Batman are mentioned frequently as background elements even if they don't appear. (A contrast with last year's Aquaman, which is certainly in the same world but never made the slightest mention any of his JL pals). And before I forget to mention it, the end-credit illustrations are GREAT -- the kinds of wish-fulfillment fantasy cartoons that Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman would draw for themselves. They're a delight.

So is Zach Levi, in the title role. As Shazam, a cheerfully superpowered and good-hearted lug with the mind and outlook of a 15-year-old boy, he gets to act more like a kid than his alter ego Billy can. Levi sells it in a winning performance. If there's a superhero, there must be a villain, and Mark Strong fills the role as Dr. Sivana, who's a superpowered avatar of the Seven Deadly Sins (! pretty weird, and also a pretty big departure from the comics), much older and more experienced than our hero, and also one-dimensionally evil. We get to see his backstory too, but it's rather simplistic. Young Asher Angel, as Billy, has a somewhat tougher role to play: an orphan who lost his mother at a very early age, and has been forlornly searching for her ever since, but also growing the thick skin of a street kid. His life takes a major upturn when he's taken in to a group home by the Vasquez couple (nice roles by Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews) and their five other foster children, notably Freddy (done convincingly by even younger Jack Dylan Grazer) who's a superhero-lore nerd. The trailers for Shazam didn't hint at the big collective role that the foster kids turn out to have, and it was a nice surprise to see that develop.

There are times, though, where the movie doesn't seem to be able to decide just what it wants to be. There's loads of superhero fun that is deliberately simple and direct, refreshingly different from any of Superman, Batman, WW, or the others, but the former "grimdark" DC tonal world keeps intruding. The opening sequence with the boy Sivana and his father is one example that we're faced with right off the bat. The resolution of Billy with his mother is something that might have been hard to see coming and that a child viewer might find rather deeply disturbing. And for small children, I would guess that the monsters personifying the Deadly Sins might also be rather frightening; they're like something out of the bottom-feeding Suicide Squad (2016). The overall feel is a big inconsistency of tone. I also agree with some reviewers that the whole thing is a bit too long, mainly because there are a few too many back-and-forth encounters between Shazam and Sivana (btw, say those rapidly and repeatedly and try to avoid getting tongue-tied) that are all inconclusive till the end. Nevertheless, on the whole it works. Congrats to director David Sandberg and the good cast for pulling it off.

The windup to the final action sequences also holds a big, fun surprise that I'm not going to give away, as well as a great little cameo. Shazam isn't one of the better known comics characters, but he and his supporting cast of characters actually do have a pretty extensive history in the comics, and let's just say that if I'd done my homework digging through that history I'd have seen the result coming. That even includes the post-credits teaser, which follows the usual rule that good villains never quite go away.
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Stunning scenery, of course, but also a look into the lives of some very unusual people.
31 March 2019
I had the good luck to see this a couple of weeks ahead of its general release at one of our local art cinema theaters. I went in naturally expecting to be treated to stunning mountain scenery from one of the finest such areas in the whole world (western British Columbia). It delivers. The photography is superb and you can spend the whole 1:20 run time just letting those breathtaking vistas soak in one after the other. What I didn't quite anticipate though was the time spent on some storylines about a few unusual people who have gone beyond just looking at scenery and moved all the way out to inhabit it and embrace the isolation. (Although it's hard to decide which is the better way to say it: are they moving "out" away from so-called civilization, or "in" to the deep, vast world of pure nature?)

The central spine of the narrative is a mother and (adult) daughter who spend an astonishing 6 months hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing along the coastal mountains from north Vancouver to Skagway, a journey of 1400 km (almost a thousand miles, and that's just the straight-line distance. If you add up along the winding path they had to follow to avoid rivers, peaks, and other geographical barriers, it was a lot more.). Except for an occasional food drop, they were completely on their own and out of contact with the rest of the world. We also get to drop in on (among others) an eccentric old sculptor who with his very tolerant wife lives a hermit-like existence to concentrate on his art. And the very first section of the film shows us a "snow artist" at work on an immense snow-covered mountain slope. What he does is so amazing that I'm not going to take away any of the surprise -- just go and see it.

By the way, for a fictional version of this type of person -- individuals who are far more at home in the most extreme isolation than in the crowding and relentless clamor of urban life -- see "Leave No Trace", which is also a lovely and deeply personal exploration of what drives such rare people.

When This Mountain Life was showing the mother and daughter, I did however keep wondering "who's filming them??" They obviously did some of their own photography, but there are several long shots where we see them travelling along across glaciers, rivers, snowfields and so on. I guess they got some filming done here and there by a pilot/photographer/whoever. Whoever that was should have been highlighted better in the credits. Anyway, go and enjoy!
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Deep Impact (1998)
Here's a surprise - a disaster movie that is gently paced and reflective.
19 March 2019
Deep Impact, and Armageddon, both came out in 1998, and both were built on the theme of a comet (Deep Impact) or asteroid (Armageddon) on a collision course with the Earth. How to save all life on Earth with the clock ticking? Armageddon got the bigger profits and press (perhaps inevitable with Bruce Willis starring), but it was practically the definition of a sci-fi plot based on painfully bad junk science. It will be justifiably forgotten.

Deep Impact was so much better. Director Mimi Leder decided to take a very different direction: the story resolutely concentrates on its interesting cast of people, and on one very big question. What, really, would you do if you are actually facing the end of the world and if you know exactly when it's going to happen? There's just one slim chance for salvation, which is if the crew of the 'Messiah' spacecraft can successfully rendezvous with the comet and explosively deflect it from its path. BTW, this approach isn't that far from actual discussions going on in recent years about just how to handle real Earth-crossing asteroids, though there are thankfully none known as large as the things used in these movies. The individuals in the story that we get to see a good deal of are the astronauts and their families, the US President and his cabinet, the staff of a TV newsroom and the parents of the main reporter, and the teenager who discovered the comet with his girlfriend and their families, among others. It's a wide cast of characters and they are generally quite well handled and balanced out. Though everyone is racing against the clock, there is a pretty rich vein of character development that is totally unlike most "global catastrophe" movies.

The music score, by James Horner, constantly reinforces this reflective approach and creates an almost elegiac feel, as if the main characters are already looking back on their own lives with a mix of sadness, quietness, and some pride. There are just two places where the special effects take center stage: one is the sequence at the comet itself. The second -- and the big payoff -- is the comet fragment finally striking. It's a doozy, and it still (20 years later) has the power to impress, all the more because it's done completely without background music. The video does it all.

It's an amazing cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, Robert Duvall, James Cromwell, Morgan Freeman are tops. Secondary names include Tea Leoni (who's workmanlike but doesn't quite command the lead-role load she's been given), Elijah Wood (seen here just before moving on to the Lord of the Rings trilogy), a very young Leelee Sobieski, and a wonderfully warm Mary McCormack as the spacecraft pilot (she's someone who richly deserves more and bigger film roles). As movies go, this one is an absorbing two hours with a convincing, satisfying story arc from beginning to end.
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Apollo 11 (2019)
Meticulously crafted from the launch to final return: history as it happened.
11 March 2019
I was in university when the Apollo missions were going on, and I loved it all when it was happening, so this new doc (for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11) was a chance to revisit some big history as it happened. This film is clearly a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller: the story of the mission and the first humans to set foot on the moon is told in a calm, linear, unhurried style yet fits nicely into the standard hour-and-a-half run time. Miller decides on two rather surprising stylistic choices: First, there is no voice-over narration at all, except for some clips from Walter Cronkite's TV coverage at judicious times. To keep us up with where we are on the mission timeline, all we get are some small, tastefully displayed subtitles (countdown clocks and the like) whenever needed. The only "narration" consists of the actual conversations and messages back and forth between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins and the mission control staff.

Second, unlike just about any other documentary I can recall seeing, there are no interview sessions with any of the principal players reflecing back on their experiences -- the astronauts, control room staff, admin people, family members, or politicians. None. We simply see the events as they happened going past on the screen in a spare, austere style. And it's fascinating. This is utterly unvarnished, uninterpreted history subjected only to some necessary film editing choices to get all the important steps in.

The big impression I had after leaving the theater was this: Apollo 11 was a mission where Everything Worked. This was no accident, but think back to the state of technology in 1969 and realize how much cooperation, careful engineering, years of patient systems testing, and political commitment was needed to make this happen -- then as now. Doing this was, and is, hard and risky and dangerous. The Saturn V booster rocket was truly a monster (there's one on full display at the Space Flight Center at Cape Canaveral, and it's jaw-droppingly awesome if you haven't had the chance to visit it). It's only now, 50 years later, that new booster engines with similar thrust capacities are being built once again.

The opposite side of that coin is equally important. I'd say the most important message to take away from this film is simply this: look what we can do if we have the collective will, and if we work together. It was a great era to have lived through.
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Yes! The Marvel universe has a Superwoman!! plus: thoughts on Troll-Free Ratings (TFRs)..
8 March 2019
I've seen this movie twice now. The first time through it felt a little disjointed, but I'm happy to say that the second time through the various pieces fell together better. The whole storyline is essentially one uninterrupted sequence beginning with Carol on the Kree home planet Hala, through the guerilla mission against the Skrulls, and on to Earth where she meets Nick Fury and pieces out her true identity. There are really no side plots. My thoughts overall:

  • First and most basic, this is a new Marvel Studios movie to have fun with. It's another chance to sit back and absorb yourself in a gratifying fantasy world with superheros doing their thing. What's not to like? The usual great production values, and a stacked cast including Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Ben Mendelsohn, Gemma Chan -- and of course the scene-stealing cat Goose (whose character poster has just been voted the fan favorite).

  • Before I forget to mention this: the end credits are beautifully done. They have the same style and feel as the credits from Wonder Woman (2017), which were also beautiful. Kudos!

  • I'm pretty sure most of us in the theater were waiting for the second half where Carol finally goes full Binary mode (as briefly shown in the second trailer) and sure enough this carries a great Wow! factor. We haven't seen this kind of mid-air (or mid-space) heavyweight fight sequence since Man of Steel, which qualifies her for the MCU's Superwoman. I'm *never* going to get tired of watching that section and have my fingers crossed that we'll get more in Avengers Endgame. Also, I was wondering how they were going to do the costume transition from the rather cold green/blue tones of the Kree into the warmer, much more appealing classic red/blue design. The way it's done is really clever.

  • But I'll probably just have to get used to Brie Larson's fairly light-textured voice. Like some others who've commented on this, I would have preferred it to have more weight (compare the voices of Bening or Chan in this movie). But my daughter assures me that it's all OK. if it's fine with younger viewers in the audience (particularly girls) who are seeing themselves represented on screen, then I won't complain.

  • On the other hand, the most important bit of dialog in the movie comes very near the end where Carol pronounces "I have nothing to prove to you" to one of the key characters in a way that takes the classic stereotypical "final confrontation of hero with villain" scene and stands it on its head. Right on!! There are a number of feminist-flavor statements or setups throughout the film, but that one scene is where it really does hit home.

  • From the trailers I think a lot of us figured that this "origin story" was going to depart significantly from the comic-book origins of CM (which the MCU has done with a number of other important characters). But ... yes and no. First, half the scenes in the trailers never appeared in the movie. But second, the story ended up hewing surprisingly close to the line in the CM comics, with just a couple of character switches. It's ingeniously done. There is just one MAJOR change from the comics storyline vis-a-vis the Kree and Skrulls, which I won't give away, and which works well enough and also retroactively ties in with certain plot elements of the the Agents of Shield TV series.

  • The well publicized motion-capture and de-aging of Fury and Coulson is pretty good, but the technique is still not seamless (Coulson particularly looked somewhat artificial). It would just make more sense to me, if something is set well in the past, not to spend a lot of screen time on familiar characters de-aged.

Bottom line for me is that this is a good movie, without being the MCU's best. It does however fill a necessary step in the extended Avengers/Thanos/etc. storyline that has been building up for so long. Yes CM does push social boundaries, but not as much as Black Panther did. What I mean is that for BP, virtually the entire cast were black. To be equally radical for women, the MCU needs to make a movie where almost all the superheros are female ... and to point out the obvious, they've already made a bunch where they're almost all male, so why not? Let's have it, Marvel!

OK: now for the trolls, who sadly but predictably jumped on the ratings for CM just like they said in their ludicrous flame-wars before its release. I REALLY wish the rest of us didn't have to waste our time with these hypersensitive misogynists whose only aim is to destroy. However, what's new about their pathetically nasty reactions to CM is that finally these have become outrageous enough that they have provoked collective counterattacks at the institutional level, not just from individuals. The Rotten Tomatoes site has taken steps to purge them, and the entire Disney corporation has actually stepped in with its own response. Not that I'm automatically in favor of what Disney does (e.g. their gutless firing of director James Gunn from Guardians of the Galaxy), but in this case I think they are doing the right thing. Society has to work out a better way to prevent the damages that trolling, hate speech, and misogyny can wreak. And a necessary step is just what's happening now -- to expose them for what they are in the cold light of day.

However, in the meantime we need to have some tools to get Troll-Free Ratings (TFRs) for the movies we care about. Fortunately, IMdB provides the material to do that, because unlike other sites it actually supplies full breakdowns of the viewer voting. Here's how to use the IMdB scores easily and conveniently to get a TFR:

  • First look at the bar graph of the voters' ratings (which you get by clicking on the number of voters just below the mean score). For CM you'll see a pile of votes in the 1/10 bin. Those are the trolls. Eliminate that bin from the average, and you'll get a much more accurate score. Even quicker, look at the "median" rating which does better than the average at de-weighting extremely low or high votes. (Just for fun, look at how CM rates with "females under 18" versus "males over 45".)

  • Better yet, just look at the shape of the bar graph and it's obvious where the true center is. For CM, it's about 7.5, and I think that's fairly much on the mark. This center is technically called the mode of the distribution, and there is a useful statistical rule of thumb to calculate it, which is this: mode = 3 (median) - 2 (mean). For example, at the time when I'm writing this, CM has 86,475 votes with a mean of 6.8 (heavily dragged down by more than 11,000 trolls) and a median of 7. The mode is then 7.4. The "mode" is a terrific way to get the TFR.

  • BUT: (and this is important): the great majority of IMdB voters are male, whereas the moviegoing public is pretty much half-and-half male and female. So a still better thing to do, after you've cut out the trolls, is to take the men's rating and average it *equally* with the women's rating. Thanks to IMdb showing these details broken down by age and gender, you can do that. Women do rate CM higher, but once you eliminate the troll votes it's actually not much higher. than the men.

  • As a final thought, you'll see a pileup of votes in the 10/10 bin too. So are these people "anti-trolls"? Not necessarily. I would argue that a 10/10 vote here is a lot more likely to be sincere and representative of the movie's impact on that viewer than a 1/10 vote is. The aim of an absurdly low vote is to destroy, whereas the aim of an only-slightly-high vote is to promote. Here I'll side with the promoters.
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A really nice movie, though the animation is SO strong that it overshadows the storyline.
2 March 2019
As a zillion other viewers have already said, the animation work here is amazing -- the quality of rendition of the dragons themselves, the clouds, the sea and waterfall, luminous caves, villages, ships, every kind of scenery -- has all reached new levels. And the 3D is good too. You can spend your whole time during this movie just marvelling at what you're seeing on the screen.

And that is where the whole problem lies! I went out of the theater having had fun, but also wondering where the actual story went. In the first HTTYD (2010 -- surprisingly, almost a decade ago), we were treated to a refreshingly original story setup with thoroughly engaging characters we were meeting for the first time (including Toothless, the Night Fury of course), whip-smart dialog, spot-on comic timing, and a masterfully paced storyline that kept me involved from beginning to end. The animation there was very good too, but the point is that it was *exactly* as good as it needed to be, always serving the story.

In HTTYD3 The Hidden World, the emphasis has flipped: animation first, story second. To me, this is wrong. People are storytellers by nature, and that's ultimately what we read, get together, and go to the theater to do -- tell stories, listen to stories, let our curiosity and sense of wonder have free rein. In this second sequel, the characters are all the same and we're happy to see them back, but they all play out the roles we've seen before with the same foibles and flaws; the dialog and the plot are now pretty simple; the humor often falls a little flat; and the "new" villain seems to have nothing fundamentally new to offer, no motivation, and no backstory. Don't get me wrong: it all works fine, but I put HTTYD (#1) up with the best animated films EVER made. This, the second sequel, doesn't quite rise to that level. Bottom line? See it and enjoy. But then, go back and watch the first one again. That's where the real magic is.

** Spoiler here: see the movie before reading on.**

Oddly, my favorite section of this movie came at the very, very end: the utterly engaging little coda where Hiccup, Astrid, and their two new little children (who are absolute charmers!) seek out their former dragon friends (along with *their* new kids/dragonlings) for a brief re-encounter. That was magic. If only the rest of the film could have carried that through.
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Room (I) (2015)
Brie Larson in a searing, troubling, and ultimately uplifting story: big message in a small bottle
2 March 2019
I didn't see Room (2015) when it first hit the theaters because I knew it would be something of a downer (or worse) and I tend not to opt for those. But that, of course, is pretty short-sighted. My wife thought I should watch it even if just to see Brie Larson in her Oscar-winning role before I went to see her as a big-budget superhero in Captain Marvel (2019), so we watched Room on Netflix this week. And of course she was right -- this is a carefully thought out and crafted film that sticks in the mind afterward. Although it's fictional, sadly it's not all that fictional. We read in the news all the time about kidnapping and abduction of young women for sex-trade purposes or worse.

I'm not going to worry too much about "spoilers" in my review, coming 4 years after the fact -- the IMdB synopsis itself gives away the bare bones of the whole plot -- so I'll just go ahead with my reactions. Larson plays Joy Newsome ("Ma"), abducted on the street at age 17 by an unnamed predator (Sean Bridgers) who keeps her locked in his backyard shed as a sex slave (no other way to put it). 7 years later she now has a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who has no knowledge of the world outside their Room except for what appears on TV. The first half of the movie shows them in their tiny, gruelling world day by day. Joy takes advantage of a temporary power outage to concoct an escape, which beyond all hope actually works. The second half of the movie is their adjustment after re-entry to the world outside (or in Jack's case, first-time entry).

But no plot summary gets across the emotional impact and at-times surprising turns of the story. Though Jack is utterly bewildered at first by the reality of the larger world, as young children are very good at doing he adjusts, learns, adapts and accepts over the course of the next few weeks: meeting his grandparents, finally dressing and eating well, just being outside, making a neighborhood friend, delighting in the family dog. It's Joy who has much deeper trouble. After the Great Escape, dealing with the police and the doctors, and making the transition back to her own family home, things are not all rosy. She's unpredictably short-tempered; impatient; aimless; unhappy. She doesn't know what's wrong, experiences a physical breakdown. Shouldn't she be happy and fine? The obvious answer staring us in the face, of course, is that she's exhausted: flat-out, bone-deep exhausted, after 7 unrelenting years of captivity and five years looking out for her son every minute of every day -- protecting, feeding, training, teaching. Healing happens, but it takes far longer. This is a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a very ordinary person pushed far beyond ordinary limits, and Larson delivers every bit of it.

Which brings me to the stylistic part of the movie. Everyone here is an ordinary person and acts that way. When abducted, Joy was an average high-school girl with no more personal resources or courage than average, pushed into an impossible situation. She has no particular training in dealing with motherhood, or sexual predators, or isolation and deprivation. Jack is what he is -- a kid with a kid's typical mix of behavior that is variously affectionate, obedient, self-centered, kind, shy, peevish, frightened. Their captor ("Old Nick") is menacing but also banal -- a social loser who can't hold a job and has minimal competence. Joy's escape bears no resemblance to the kind of McGyver scheme that a normal action thriller hero would come up with; her plan is not really a very good one, is also extremely risky, but it is just bold enough to work. The police officers and doctors who find them and care for them are unspectacular in turn, but they are seen to do their jobs sympathetically and well. Finally, Joy's parents Nancy and Robert (played by major actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy, in strong supporting performances) are ordinary suburban dwellers who had been forced to presume their long-lost daughter was dead. In the intervening years they have separated, and Nancy has a new partner Leo (played very effectively indeed by Tom McCamus). Both Nancy and Leo turn out to be the strengths of their newly rebuilt family: Nancy takes over Jack when Joy cannot, and Leo succeeds in making friends with him while Robert finds that he cannot.

The media feeding frenzy that usually accompanies sensational news stories like this "Woman Held Captive for Seven Years Escapes! News at 8.") is shown too, but not all that much time is spent on it. What little we get, though, does not cast reporters in a very good light. We see one very telling scene where Joy consents to do a TV interview, and the interviewer (Wendy Crewson) sideswipes her with appallingly self-righteous, judgmental questions about what she did with her son.

Lastly, a shout-out to young Jacob Tremblay. He was age 9 when making the film, playing a 5-year-old, and breathtakingly convincing at it. It never occurred to me while watching that he was that much older in reality. He's just as major a figure as Larson at carrying the movie and in certain sections has to effectively carry it alone. We know how Brie Larson's career has taken off (literally, in Captain Marvel!) but it's nice to see that Tremblay is beginning to make his mark as well in other features.
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Shoplifters (2018)
Thoughtful insight into eccentric lives, in a refreshingly non-Hollywood style
26 February 2019
I'm putting down 8/10 for a "rating", but basically I have no idea how to put a movie like this numerically in comparison with just about any Hollywood effort. It really belongs on a different scale entirely. My wife and I are just back from seeing it at our local art-cinema theater and we liked it very much. Stylistically, for other recent movies it's close to "Roma" and also the American indie film "Leave No Trace" as bittersweet, unhurried explorations of quite real human beings working hard to survive.

"Shoplifters" follows the lives of a makeshift "family" living in the underside of an unnamed Japanese city (the particular place isn't important). The adults scrape by with low-security, low-paid jobs, the grandma has a small pension income, and the kids are vagabonds. They get by in a crowded, ramshackle tenement and the two kids are busy picking up the techniques of petty shoplifting from the adults. We slowly learn that almost none of them are actually related; they've haphazardly chosen each other to live with in a framework a little outside the margins of normal society. All of them, in some way, have left or been taken out of abusive or dangerous previous relationships. Throughout their exploits, told by a long series of short vignette scenes, is that they indeed feel close bonds but that their "family" is built, not by blood, but by the constant kindness they show towards each other. They survive on the margins, but they love and are loved.

The second and much more subliminal big message I took away from this film was its ambience: it's quiet. Scenes that would -- in a Hollywood film -- predictably lead to shouting matches or displays of anger or confrontations with authority, *never* take that cheap overdramatized route here. When confronted with tough questions, the main characters answer reflectively and with spare honesty. Even out on the streets with traffic and lots of people around, it's quiet. What a change.

Toward the end of the film, the main characters are being patiently interviewed by social services staff in a series of magnetically powerful scenes. The "family" members' answers are often startling: "Why were you teaching your son to shoplift?" "I ... didn't know anything else to teach him." or: "Didn't you take your grandma and threw her away?" "No. Someone else threw her away; we took her in." or: "The child belongs with her mother." "No. Giving birth doesn't make her a mother." From small glimpses like this, a window opens into an entire world of human nature.
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We may never get closer to the lived experience of WWI than this film
20 February 2019
As director Peter Jackson explains in the fascinating "making-of" follow-up after the end of the main film, he and his crew had to make a choice from the start about how to focus the storyline. Their simple choice was to build an end-to-end picture of living through WWI from the viewpoint of the average soldier in the trenches. A lot of other possibilities didn't get covered (such as seeing the war from the viewpoint of pilots, or generals, or the politicians back home), but it gains in depth what it might lose in breadth. From Jackson's description, there's clearly a LOT more old footage left to be restored that could be used to build later films.

WWI may not have been the first war documented photographically (e.g the Civil War) but it was the first that left this sheer amount of raw photographic material to work with. A lot has been said about the digital restoration work, which comes across as little short of magic -- I'm not sure this quality of recovery could have been done even 10 years ago. This is the real thing, and narrated by the real voices of surviving soldiers. Look carefully at the expressions captured on the faces of the soldiers from this on-the-spot footage: the hope and enthusiasm during training camp evolved into grim and somewhat dull everyday routine in the trenches, punctuated by determination and outright fear as they are about to go "over the top" into an attack. It is chilling to realize how many of them in a given scene were about to die.

Bravo to Jackson and his entire team. This is history we cannot afford to forget.
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RBG (2018)
A terrific bio of a singular figure in American history
18 February 2019
Somewhat coincidentally my wife and I saw this shortly after going to see "On the Basis of Sex", the semi-fictional biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We enjoyed both of them thoroughly but "RBG" gives the real, unvarnished documentary of Ginsburg's life as a powerful legal advocate for women's rights and later Supreme Court justice. As a film, RBG is both compelling and easy to watch. As a practicing lawyer and law-school professor, she was responsible for getting case after case about women's rights under the law successfully through the courts. It's hard not to feel that her astonishing persistence and effective style have left a legacy that has done nothing less than transform society, for women and men both.

And it's also sad to realize that the reactionary right-turn of the federal Powers wants to turn a lot of this back. When Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court she was only a bit left-of-center. Now, many years later, her stance on these kinds of issues has not changed, but the rest of the Court has, and she now finds herself a far-left dissenter. Progress is fragile and humanity still has far to go.

On a more immediate note, it's disappointing to see that the internet trolls want to kill this movie too -- see the votes of 1/10 in the bar chart of the IMdB ratings that make up almost 5% of the total (this is much larger than average for any movie, and this is the ratings bin where the trolls live). And if you look at the breakdown by gender you'll see that almost all the trolls are male -- not surprising, but still rather saddening that they want to tear down a truly inspirational figure. The real center of the ratings chart for RBG is near the median vote of 8/10, and I think that's pretty accurate.

(Let me detour just a bit here. Trolls have always been with us but oddly it's taken the internet age to assign them an appropriate group name. Someone who seems to have understood their psychology was the playwright George Bernard Shaw. In his greatest play, Saint Joan, there is a scene towards the end where Joan, being burned at the stake, is surrounded by a crowd many of whom are laughing and jeering. One of the main characters who is witnessing this utterly appalling behavior cries later, "They would have laughed at Christ!" Just so. Someone else who had an idea of how to deal with such people was Dante -- but that's an analysis for another time.)
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A worthy addition to the fantasy-adventure genre - dazzling and fun
18 February 2019
Bottom line is, I enjoyed this film, and from a technical perspective it's practically flawless. In the landscape of fantasy/adventure movies this one lies somewhere between the outright techno-fantasy of Tron or Ready Player One, and a Marvel live-action superhero film. I liked the unhurried pacing of the scenes and linear storytelling. Stylistically, lots of scenes look like they've been lifted right out of the manga graphic novels that Alita is adapted from. Wide-angle establishing shots zoom in to extreme closeups; odd camera angles look at characters either from below or far above. It reminded me a lot of the "Sin City" pair of films with their ultra-faithful renditions of noir graphic novels. I assume that's no coincidence, since Alita's masterful director Robert Rodriguez was a co-director with Frank Miller on those two films as well. In spirit though, Alita is closest to the Blade Runner films, though mostly in sunlight rather than gloom.

A lot has been made of how the central character, the young/old warrior girl Alita, has been rendered through CGI -- she's "played" by Rosa Salazar in the same motion-capture sense that Andy Serkis played Gollum in LOTR. But Alita is probably the most utterly convincing version of this technique that we've yet seen. Her luminous honey-gold eyes are big, but not TOO big. She has a terrific flashing smile but with a little overbite that's quite endearing. Her expressive face and voice are nuanced, natural, and convincing. Her cyborg body moves just like it should including the quicker-than-human pace that is crucial at many points in the action. And she has some real personality that the script takes at least a little time to explore. A key feature is that from the moment she first wakes up, with no memories of her past life and in a newly built artificial body, she acts with confidence and fearlessness (kind of like Wonder Woman ... but that's a comparison for another time). At heart she's an uncomplicated teenager but is instinctively drawn to action and conflict, befitting the warrior heritage that she gradually (re)discovers. Her unflinching moral stance ("I do not stand by in the presence of evil") is refreshing. The whole plot motors along in a satisfying way, finishing up on a path that is an obvious setup for sequels.

So why do I rate this only 7/10? This isn't intended to be a bad rating, it's just because -
  • The plot and message aren't exactly deep or new; we've had this kind of storyline many times before. A hero (in this case a partly-human one who rather incidentally happens to be a girl; her gender is not the point) comes to terms with her immense inbuilt capabilities, takes on a series of villains with emerging confidence, grows as a person with accompanying pain and loss. The technical rendition is in a sense the driving purpose of the movie, and that's OK. It just doesn't cut any deeper.
  • How many future-dystopian cities do we have to sit through? Iron City is not too much different from Blade Runner or a dozen other descendants. Can't we have a setting that's some sort of balance between ugly dystopia and fantasy utopia?
  • Many plot elements just happen with little continuity or logic (there is a sensible overarching plot arc, but I'm talking here about scene-to-scene details). This is actually a problem borrowed, but not fixed, from comics and anime, which have that issue as well.
  • Similarly, a fair bit of background goes unexplained. How did Alita's brain survive intact for 300 years? Why was the Martian-colony alliance attacking Earth? How did Earth society get organized around those levitating cities in the first place? And so forth. But all of this is easy to ignore as we go along for the ride.

Finally, I enjoyed the sly little lead-in -- the "20th Century Fox" logo morphs into a dark, eroding "26th Century Fox" version of itself as the action starts in the dystopian Iron City where everything plays out.
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Roma (2018)
Simplicity and vision: A remarkable film by Alfonso Cuaron.
18 January 2019
The only other Alfonso Cuaron film I've seen was Gravity (2013) which I thought was absolutely stunning, but in quite a different way than Roma, which is almost its polar opposite in subject matter and style. If there's any common factor, I'd put it down to simplicity and vision. Everyday life in and around Mexico city in the 1970's lives and breathes in Roma, portrayed in a very methodical, unhurried way, but the whole thing has a kind of cumulative power that is rather hard to define. It's all in the way it's done.

Cleo (played by Yalitza Aparicio) is at the heart and soul of this story, as one of two domestic workers (the second one is the cook) in the household of an upper-class family with 4 young-ish children. The parents, and others in their upper social class, basically do what they like and it's left to their hired staff to pick up all the pieces at home to keep things running. In Cleo's family the parents are out at their work much of the day and it seems to be expected of Cleo to do just about everything around the house: constantly look after the children, fetch and carry, laundry by hand, errands --- she's on her feet all day long. But far from being a 'slave' she's a loving and loved member of the household: she and the children have strong bonds. Apparently, Roma is an homage to Cuaron's own childhood nanny, so it's a very personal accomplishment.

Everything about this - the settings, the street life, the household, the close ties between Cleo and the kids -- is all utterly realistic. My wife and I both travelled a fair bit to Chile (Santiago, Concepcion, La Serena) for work purposes in the 1970's and 80's and it all looked and felt like that. Any well-to-do household had someone like Cleo working for them: the family would typically be of white/hispanic stock and the hired workers were aboriginal, sometimes (like Cleo in this story) from small hardscrabble villages. Life in the town happened on the street, not inside the houses. The streets are always filled with people going every which way in and out of small shops, chatting, and ducking fast-moving ramshackle old cars. There are always dogs roaming free -- lots of dogs. Random marching bands playing badly go by on the street for no apparent reason. Soccer fields where young men gather are just dirt and dust. "Roma" sets up this ambience without making any particular point about it -- it's just there.

None of this background gets across the peculiar effect of Cuaron's direction. The strength of human love and community devotion shine through here, but also the resilience, love, and self-reliance of average people. We see everything from Cleo's point of view -- not just her family but also occasional major events "out there" that just happen around them and that she simply witnesses: an earthquake in the city, a brush fire, a student demonstration and subsequent deadly riot. None of these necessarily fit into any coherent plotline, but I take it as just Cuaron's building of a comprehensive picture of life then and there.

Through most of the film there's also no musical score, which was a clever choice that I thought drew us in closer to the characters. Like other viewers I was really struck by Cuaron's camera technique here. Often it simply sits steady as a rock while the scene develops. Equally often it pans, very slowly and very steadily, to give a broader perspective. The culmination of all this comes at the end, when Cleo, the mother, and the kids are all at the beach for a picnic. Cleo, who can't swim, ultimately has to wade very far out into the gathering surf to try to pull back two of the kids who've gone too far. The camera simply follows her slowly out, farther and farther into higher and higher waves, with absolutely nothing else on the screen to look at. Without giving away how it ends, I'll just say that the simplicity and raw power of this scene make it, somehow, one of the most remarkable I've ever seen in a movie. Any director who could envisage this and pull it off has my admiration. That scene is worth the whole price of admission, but you need to see everything that comes before it to get its full meaning.
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Passengers (I) (2016)
This is a deeper film than most people realized -- it's more than just a glossy sci-fi ride.
1 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The interstellar starship is one of the major science-fiction tropes. If, as "Passengers" does, you decide to go with the laws of physics and accept sub-light-speed, then it means taking decades or centuries to go between stars. So then, either you put your crew and passengers into hibernation and completely automate the ship; or else build a ship that people can live in for generations -- so that most of the passengers will live out their whole lives on it and never see the final destination. "Passengers" effectively invites us to see what both possibilities would be like.

In either case the ship has to be BIG, and the one designed for this film is a beauty. It gets lots of screen time too, and for me it was almost the star of the show. (It's fun comparing it with the nicely done interPLANETARY ships for other space movies like "The Martian", "2010", or the iconic "2001" -- interstellar is a whole different category of complexity.) In general, the sets for both interiors and exterior are well worked out.

(Caution: some spoilers ahead. My comments will make more sense if you've already seen the film.)

By contrast with the ship, the storyline and the cast of characters are pared down to an absolute minimum while it confronts us with some challenging moral issues. Some years into the voyage to a new colony, Something Goes Wrong -- the ship passes through a cloud of meteroids that partially damage the ship's systems. (Science detour here -- deep interstellar space isn't like an asteroid belt and it shouldn't have much more than sparse gas and dust, not big hunks of rock. They might have found another plot device to get the same result.) A single random passenger, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally woken from hibernation. The voyage still has 88 years to go. The crew, who might be able to fix tings, are also in hibernation and inaccessible within a sealed area, so he's facing the rest of his life being completely alone (not counting the robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), who's not exactly a substitute for human companionship). More than a year goes by. After agonizing with himself for a very long time, he awakens Aurora Lane, a journalist (Jennifer Lawrence), who then goes through her own cycle of denial/rage/bargaining/acceptance, and of course eventually finds out what he did. Their relationship, which up to that point was starting to go well, predictably breaks down. This is where things might stick, except that the ship's systems are getting gradually worse and clearly something needs to be done. Jumping to the end, the obligatory final action scenes lead them to the ship being restored (with some crucial and unexpected help) and bring the plot to a satisfying, though not completely expected, finish.

Jim's decision to awaken Aurora, which is the critical point of the plot, sparked some real controversy around this film. Is his action morally equivalent to murder? Not really. Or rape? Not exactly. Maybe something like abduction??? Yes, it was a personal violation that prevents Aurora from having the life she planned for. Is Jim's decision inexcusable, as many viewers felt? Is it inexcusable but yet understandable? Probably most people would agree that he'd have been justified in awakening some of the crew, because the lives of all the thousands of people on board are in jeopardy. But that's what he (correctly) tried first and was unable to do. What would the audience reaction have been if the tables were turned such that she awoke first and then brought him out? Are the situations equivalent? I think the film is inviting us to visualize ourselves in their places: Jim knows this step is somehow wrong, but otherwise he's facing decades of utter loneliness, maybe madness, or suicide. What would we do? It's an extraordinary situation that no one in today's world has actually had to deal with. There are echos here of the archetypal Adam and Eve story, but there's no God and no Satan, just impersonal forces represented by the ship and the universe outside.

However, I think that a discussion over the morality of all this must also include the ending. Almost beyond hope the chance comes to at least partially recover. With the ship back to full functionality, they find that it will be possible to use the auto-doc to restart hibernation -- but for just one of them, because the other one has to set it running. Jim offers to do it for Aurora, and now she has a free choice: shall she opt to get her original life plan back again, or to stay with him? So in a nice bit of symmetry, each of them has to confront a moral decision for which there is no completely convincing answer.

The ultimate message, if there is one, seems to be that if you don't get the life you planned, then live the life you get. That's not too bad.

What helps is that the actors do a good job of selling it. Chris Pratt is versatile and likable, and the equally versatile Jennifer Lawrence is excellent; she's got a rare screen presence. She is also not simply playing a 'victim' -- in other words, she has agency of her own. The supporting players (all two of them!) do fine as well, but it's the central pair that counts above all -- and, of course, the ship itself.
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This is a practically perfect movie, and an instant classic!
31 December 2018
After several years' interval I watched this movie again on our DVD copy and, just like the first time around, I loved this. I rank it along with Inside Out, Up, Wall-E, and Toy Story as one of the best animated movies ever made. What do these have in common? It's the combination of a good story to tell; engaging characters to root for; a clever script; and maybe most important, human heart and passion. HTTYD has the advantage of a truly original concept -- I couldn't remember seeing anything like it before. And as far as the story goes, there really isn't a single character in the list that we don't actually like. No villains! Just a conflict between a Viking village and the neighboring dragon population that turns out, in the end, to be all a mistake.

Jay Baruchel perfectly captures the adolescent voice of young Hiccup, the misfit son of village chief Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). Hiccup is an apprentice to blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and thus (importantly to the plot) knows how to make and build things. Like his friends, he's trying to fit into the standard mold of a rough dragon-killer Viking, but he's not really cut out for it. He is, however, smart and curious, and that leads him onto a much more important path. His peer group of teens includes pseudo-macho Snotlout (Jonah Hill), fat kid Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut and Tuffnut (T.J.Miller, Kristin Wiig) who'd rather fight with each other than anything else, and of course the fierce Astrid (America Ferrara), who Hiccup would do anything to impress. The hilarious series of training sessions for dragon fighting that they go through are among the best scenes in the movie.

The best scenes of all, though, are with Hiccup and Toothless, the Night Fury dragon he accidentally netted during the very first scene. Unknown to everyone else in the village, Hiccup sneaks off to the woods every day to train with Toothless so that they gradually bond together into a seamless dragon and rider team. The many flying scenes that go along with this are wonderfully rendered with animation that is exactly as good as it needs to be. The 2014 sequel (How to Train Your Dragon 2) is more lifelike and detailed, but that does NOT mean it's more effective. The essential thing is that the animation in the sequel leaves less to the imagination -- and engaging our imagination is what a film like this should be all about. The only thing that leaves us sort of scratching our heads is that the "Vikings" all have Scots accents (but only the adults! The teens speak in Standard American.) Nevertheless, it's so charming that it's easy to give that a pass.

There are two other things that put this movie over the top for me. One is John Powell's music score, with evocative and versatile Celtic-style themes that actually stick in the mind. The other has to do with all the attention to detail that make the dragons more real and personable -- for example, the lovable way Toothless cocks his ears asymmetrically, or the way he scorches a little circle in the grass before settling down for a nap (a fun homage to the way dogs turn round and round before doing the same). Toothless has the full range of expressions and body language to turn him into a full-fledged personality. All of these add to the richness of texture of the whole story.

There's hardly a single scene without perfectly timed humor, and the 98-minute run time goes by like the wind with not a single wasted moment. Kudos to directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders and to the whole crew for making a tightly constructed masterpiece. The one big advantage of seeing it first in the theater was the 3D rendering, which actually had real added value.
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The Favourite (2018)
Offbeat tale of palace intrigue, but the three lead actresses are great.
31 December 2018
The reign of Queen Anne in the early 1700's must be one of the least well-known segments of British history. We have loads of movies to choose from about Elizabeth I, Victoria, the Henrys, Richard III, and so on. But Queen Anne? I went into this movie knowing about as much as anyone else about her era -- in other words, nothing. At first, I thought this one was more in the line of a historical fantasy, but it turns out (relying on Wikipedia) that it's largely historically correct. Anne (played by Olivia Colman) did indeed have Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) as a politically influential confidante, they did have a serious falling-out, and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) replaced her, not too long before Anne's death. The story of the film is how that happened.

That's the bare bones of it. The substance of the film, despite the offbeat humor that most of the scenes have, is the deadly serious tug-of-war between Lady M and Abigail, with the ultimate prize being the Queen's favor and the inside track to status and influence. The three lead actresses are all top-notch and they carry the whole film -- all others in the cast (pointedly including all the male roles of course!) are secondary. Emma Stone especially has real screen presence -- she's building up quite a resume of outstandingly varied roles in her still-young career. Colman plays the Queen as a sort of petulant dimbulb (which may NOT be historically correct, though. It seems that Anne in fact had a lot more agency than originally given credit for). She has a bad case of gout that renders her barely able to walk, but won't do anything to modify her diet or exercise accordingly. She gets browbeaten by all her advisors personal and political. who treat her as just a necessary pawn. Ultimately, however, she learns that she can exert the real power she had in her hands all along, and the subversive message of the plot is that both Sarah and Abigail, who've been infighting for power all this time, both get the rug pulled out from under them by the very person they are trying to "capture".

Part of the fun of watching these historical costume dramas is seeing how people dressed and carried out daily things (300 years ago in this case), and this one is meticulously researched and executed. Well done! The only thing that holds me back from giving a higher rating is that it's hard to know at times what to make of it: it's as if the actors are simultaneously telling the story and also standing outside it all watching it happen. But the bottom line is -- go see this to watch three actresses at the top of their game.
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A pyrotechnical must-see for Marvel fans
30 December 2018
This is a fun, dazzling ride, no doubt at all. It's a Superhero Origin Story (young Miles Morales gets the radioactive-spider bite, but with some different results than we were expecting), an alternate-universes story (several Spideys from different universes all piled together), and a warm-hearted family drama (Miles learns his favorite uncle isn't to be admired after all, and snaps back to realizing how good his parents are after all). And it's an ultra-dazzling CGI display with style to burn. I came out of the theater with the feeling that I'd been immersed in an actual comic book for 2 hours. There's clever use of visible word balloons and sound effects (e.g. 'Thwip!" appears on the screen as Spidey shoots his webbing) and lots of split-screen action as if you're seeing several panels on a comics page at once.

It's dazzling and innovative by playing to the strength of its chosen medium (animation rather than live-action). The most fun for me was the interaction of the multiple heros. The Spider-Man from the first alternate universe is a middle-aged Peter B. Parker who still has his moves, but who is now overweight, divorced, and jaundiced. Spider-Gwen has a cool black-and-white suit and in action is elegant and balletic. Spider-Man Noir is a hard-boiled PI with a black trench coat (always tossing artistically in a breeze) who talks like he's straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Peni Parker, a young anime Japanese girl, has kept HER radioactive spider to help run her robotic Spider-armor. And looniest of all we have Spider-Ham from a kids' cartoon universe (who walks onto camera just as Peter B. Parker finishes saying ("this could literally not get any weirder"). They all have to combine to beat the villains led by the evil Kingpin, who's about the size of an elephant with a piggish head below his shoulders and seems to be about as strong as the Hulk. Although the Spidey comics traditionally had lots of weird villains, unfortunately I thought Kingpin and his crew were kind of overdone even in the context of this movie.

The jokes and situational humor, complete with self-referential in-jokes about Spider-Man's comic book history, come thick and fast. Add to this the riot of special effects and explosions of color during the final scenes and we get something that starts to collapse of its own weight. I had a great time watching it, but in the end it seemed like this movie couldn't quite decide what it wanted to be below its dazzling surface. (Not that this doesn't make it worth seeing, though. Yes, it's sheer fun living inside a superhero comic for that two hours.) As for the musical score -- kind of heavy-handed, I thought; we were being pushed into sensory overload.

One thing that I particularly liked was the first-rate cast of actors doing the voices. Shameik Moore has the youthful Miles voice and style down pat, and Hailee Steinfeld is a perfect Gwen (I wanted more). Jake Johnson nails the soft-spoken, world-weary Peter B. Parker persona, Nic Cage pulls off Spider-Man Noir (I wanted more of him too), and the best surprise of all was Lily Tomlin as the best-sounding Aunt Mae I've ever heard (and we've have good ones in the previous live-action Spidey films).
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Aquaman (2018)
"Worlds of DC" has discovered color!
21 December 2018
Aquaman has loads of spectacle and loads of color -- all the way down to Mera's ultra-red hair. In that one way it's the polar opposite of the dark and glum Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. Director James Wan has decided to throw the kitchen sink at us, with giant armored sharks, supergiant weaponized crabs, fleets of manta rays, armies of mermen, magic tridents, and even wilder fantasy flights of imagination. What makes this work, which it pretty much does, is that it has the big advantage of being new: we haven't seen this before, by comparison with any other action-driven movies that are usually on the "surface world", as the Atlanteans refer to it.

But as writer Ursula LeGuin once said, if the only thing happening is unrelenting physical action then it's a sure sign that there is no story being told. And that's where Aquaman teeters on the edge. It's got a storyline, which is actually quite simple and barely adequate to support all the action, but in a sense the real center of interest is the spectacle itself largely because of its new and unfamiliar setting. The overall feeling I got was that I was watching some kind of stylistic combination of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pacific Rim, Star Wars, and King Arthur all piled together. My (adult) daughter says it's like a cross between Tron and Little Mermaid.

About the acting: Jason Momoa is -- OK. Maybe a promise for better things to come. He and all the rest suffer from having to deliver a pretty simplistic script with stereotype dialog. I was generally pleased with Amber Heard as Mera; she got more to do than I was expecting and they gave her a distinctive water-control superpower that was fun to see and came in handy at certain points. Patrick Wilson and Willem Dafoe stood clearly above all the rest, however, just for their quality of diction; i.e. they didn't mumble. Why has slurring your words become a 'style'?? As a last comment, I thought Rupert Gregson-Williams' musical score was kind of a disappointment. It was workmanlike and did the job needed for an epic like this (essentially telling us how to feel at every moment) but it was nowhere near the standout work he did for Wonder Woman.

Bottom line is that you'll get your money's worth for an evening's entertainment. For Worlds of DC it's a step up in production values. Now let's just add some serious storytelling to go with it.
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Vividly colorful, great imagery -- but that's about it.
26 November 2018
I'd kind of like to rate this higher than 5/10, given that it's based on a beloved classic YA novel by Madeleine L'Engle, but the problem is that even though there are lots of interesting details, the parts don't add up to a coherent whole. Looking at the overall IMdB ratings more closely, I see that women voters rate it a full point higher than men do, but even for them the median is 5/10 even after you cut out the trolls who rate anything they see as 1/10.

The level this movie seems aimed at, given the simplistic nature of the dialog, seems to be pre-teen, not YA. But the intense, vivid nature of the visuals is such that it might well give nightmares to kids under about 6 -- there are a few quite intense and scary scenes concerning The It (who is, essentially, Satan). There are many good actors in the cast, but they don't have a lot to work with, and the three magic Mrs. (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling) are kind of wasted, as is Chris Pine. However, two characters I liked were Storm Reid as the young heroine Meg, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as her mother. They come across well.

There's so much here that doesn't make sense even at a first look. The three kids (Meg, Calvin, Charles Wallace) are strictly told by the three "Mrs." to STAY TOGETHER as they set off on their adventure into mystical lands. What's the first thing they do? You guessed it. Why can't Happy Medium (an entertaining Zach Gallifianakis) say more than a few cryptic hints? Why for that matter can't anyone be more specific? And I actually worry about Meg's situation at school. She's a bullied outcast because her father disappeared and she's fallen into deep depression. Kids who are bullied by mean girls at school shouldn't expect their problems to be solved by three demigods who suddenly appear and whisk them off into the cosmos. They need more than just sympathy: they need to know what to *do* about their problem. This movie doesn't, in the end, give much guidance.
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Green Book (2018)
Mahershali Ali is good, and Viggo Mortensen is great. Oscar material!
26 November 2018
The basic storyline for this movie, a very personal look at the state of race relations in America in 1962, is all set up for penetrating drama, but one thing I didn't expect going in to the the theater last night is how funny it is. It's an Odd Couple buddy movie, and the script gives lots of chances for driver/bouncer/jack-of-all-trades Tony (played by Viggo Mortensen) to bounce off pianist virtuoso Don (Mahershala Ali) as they gradually come to understand each other's very different worlds during a two-month road trip.

Ali plays a rather restrained role this time out as a famed classically trained pianist who has learned to keep his temper and maintain his dignity in the face of constant, daily insults, slights, and (at times) physically dangerous attacks simply because he's black. On concert tours we see that he keeps to himself, drinks pretty heavily at night, and is flat-out lonely. But this movie really belongs to Mortensen, who has to be the best actor around never (yet) to win an Oscar. As he has done with all of his movie roles, he completely and utterly vanishes into his character, down to the smallest gesture, details of accent, and even weight gain (to match Tony's habit of constantly eating mediocre food accompanied by chain smoking). He's an actor's actor, and I sure hope his work gets recognized this time out.

The script has a pretty big cast overall, because Tony and Don meet a lot of other people on their extended tour (in addition to very entertaining occasional cuts back to Tony's extended Italo-American family in the Bronx as Tony's wife (Linda Cardeliini) reads out his letters from the road). They're all excellent. Go see this movie, you won't regret it.
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Clara (III) (2018)
Nicely executed work from a young indie-film director with vision. And decent science!
23 November 2018
I got to see this film at an advance screening ahead of general cineplex release, in a small but dedicated audience who came out on a windy subzero Thursday night. I happily recommend it. The storyline is built on the modern search for Earth-like planets and evidence for life elsewhere in the universe, and the most important thing I want to say is that the science (the astronomy part especially) is real, credible, and gripping. The storyline is clever, the acting is good, and it's engaging from start to finish. We know from the start that a 'discovery' is going to come along, one way or another, and the way it emerges is really nice -- a quite clever twist on what we might have expected. No spoilers, because it's worth seeing for the way it resolves. The director and writer, Akash Sherman, had the basics for the story in place right from the start, but he also had the sense to hire a couple of legitimate science consultants to nail it all down. So the script (mostly) isn't built on "junk science" like most scifi films do (although the use of ideas from "quantum entanglement", which is increasingly popular these days, also has an important role but turns out to be a bit of a stretch).

The way this kind of science is done is also on the money, even if understandably overdramatized just a little. The plot develops just like most real science does: it's both competitive (who's going to "get there" first?? are our heroes going to get scooped by someone else?) and cooperative (many people have to combine their expertise and resources to finish the project). The leading pair are Isaac (Patrick J. Adams) and Clara (Troian Bellisario) but as things develop they get help from Isaac's professional friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer), his former wife and colleague Rebecca (Kristen Hager), and eventually the senior director of TESS, Dr. Rickman (R. H. Thomson). Though Isaac is the leader, all of them quite properly share the credit at the end. The facilities that are part of the proceedings including the Kepler and TESS telescopes, CalTech, U.Toronto, and SETI, are also quite real.

Even in big-budget market-driven Hollywood there are a few good movies based on real astrophysics -- think Contact (1997), Interstellar (2014), or Arrival (2016) for example. They used the right consultants too. The difference between those films and "Clara" is more a matter of tone and scale -- in an indie film it's less necessary to jack up the tension, drama, and big effects and so it can feel more realistic. And it does. The whole process of research, of following a key idea step by step through getting more and better measurements, interpreting them, and moving on to the next stage, are a little oversimplified but they look and feel real, and they don't tax the audience's patience. The actual Discovery Moments aren't big screen-melting "Eureka!!!" deals either; they're lower-key "hmm, that's odd --" kinds of events that are actually just as dramatic but far more real.

Another important thing: scientists like the protagonist, Isaac Bruno, do research because they are flat-out curiosity driven. They're not doing this for glory or riches. They're doing this because that's who they are. This movie shows that curiosity is a fundamental human driver that can actually compete successfully (as we see) against other basic human drivers like food, sleep, sex, shelter -- you name it. Of the big-budget films that follow the same lines I'd place this one closest to Contact.

The cast is just fine and the two young lead actors Adams and Bellisario are quite good. I'd be happy to see them again in other things. Though the planet-hunting is the scaffolding for the storyline, it's really supposed to be a love story with a very human cycle of awkward engagement, joy, regret, and commitment with no fairy-tale ending. Once again, all of this steers away from Hollywood-style Big Moments. Isaac needs to get fully beyond his recent past history of pain and loss, and Clara has to come to terms with being an unwitting (and probably unwilling) conduit for a Message. My thought is that Clara isn't given a last name because of her somewhat mythic place in the plot, but see what you think when you watch it.
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I hope this isn't really Redford's last movie.
10 November 2018
Watching a Robert Redford movie is like sitting back in your favorite chair with a drink by your hand. He's just so totally *watchable* and has such an engaging, easy screen presence. His character, Forrest Tucker, robs banks -- but in a gentlemanly way, and never with violence. We gradually realize as the film goes on that Tucker didn't end up that way because he took the wrong path or messed up at other jobs; robbing banks is just what he does. He doesn't really want to go straight, and pulling off the occasional escape from prison is just part of the job.

Sissy Spacek plays a kindly, self-reliant widow whom Forrest meets by accident and strikes up with. Their scenes together are maybe the best thing about the film: their lined, leathery, old-person faces are marvellously expressive. They just aren't young anymore, and they behave like the experienced, worldly wise adults that they are. Compare the way Redford smiles here with any of his smiles way back when he played Sundance Kid. As the gunslinger Sundance, he'd smile at you but there was always a bit of menace behind it. Here, his smile contains a deep, genuine warmth -- it's a small change but oh so important.

Casey Affleck plays John Hunt, the police officer trying to track down Tucker and his "Over the Hill Gang" cronies (Danny Glover, Tom Waits). Affleck speaks in a monotone with a delivery that sounds half-asleep, so it's even hard to understand what he's saying.

Overall very enjoyable. I just thought it was a bit too slow-moving, and the plot was a bit too thin to support the run time. I really hope that there's a more substantial movie in the future that Redford will sign onto. As a movie icon he deserves it.
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The real thing
10 November 2018
It's well known that Fred Rogers was the genuine article -- a thoroughly decent guy who had a genius for communicating with young children. This documentary shows us how he did it, starting with the 'new' medium of television in the 1950's. and he did it for 33 straight years on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers knew that "kids TV" didn't have to be stupid, or cartoonish, or noisy and frenetic. He communicated with kids by listening to them, quietly addressing their worries and fears and hopes that he knew were just as vivid as adults have. In a nutshell he treated kids as people, not people-in-training.

His show appealed strongly to a certain age group. My own kids found his show totally absorbing when they were ages 4-5, and after that they kind of moved on to a bit older fare. But that's an important age range. On this film, one of his colleagues says that Fred took all the standard wisdom of how to produce a kids' show and just did exactly the opposite.

Sadly, youngsters' TV now has snapped right back to being filled with anti-Rogers styles. I can't help feeling that they don't help. We're left to wonder why, if people can (mostly) get along quite well one-on-one, just like Fred believed and taught, why is society in general so torn apart? The few bad actors have disproportionate influence. Fred Rogers' message never reached a certain President ...

The only reason I don't rate this a bit higher is more or less one of direction: we see a lot of vignettes of him at work and (very) short interview snippets with his relatives and colleagues, but they don't entirely stich together into a coherent narrative. No worries though.
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