Monday, January 16, 2017

A Monster Calls

It's January, so I'm ready for my annual dose of Liam Neeson kicking someone's ass. So today we saw this and he did it, the only problem is that it was my ass he kicked. This is a sad story about the worst thing that can happen to a kid. As it builds up to the climax, I became more and more effected by it. At first I thought I was withstanding the story pretty well but then I turn around and there is Mr. Neeson's voice, ready to help knock me down and remind me that I am a human being who is a big cupcake.

This is a story that seems like it should be familiar but it is told in a very unique way. As I mentioned, the arc of the narrative concerns the loss of a loved one and the young man that has to face this truth is struggling with a way to confront it. The Monster that comes is not friendly but in a strange way is very supportive. The story is direct but there are three specific moments when the monster tells a tale to young Conor. Much like A Christmas Carol, Conor is visited on separate occasions and each time he a story is shared with him. Buried inside of each tale is a lesson, but it is never a clear lesson and Conor finds the stories increasingly confounding to the task he has of finding a cure for his mother.

A third of the way into the film, Conor's Grandmother appears. She is played by Sigourney Weaver, using the slight British accent that she probably picked up in "The Year of Living Dangerously" or "Half Moon Street". The Grandmother is stern and foreboding in young Conors life. He sees the future that he despairs of in her and does not sense the warmth that he and his own mother have. Part of the story will have to manage that relationship more delicately. His father is an expatriate living in Los Angeles. He does not appear to be a practical lifeline even though he wants what is best for his son. Mom is played by Felicity Jones  and she is suitably beautiful and haggard as the path of her disease progresses. Louis MacDougal plays Connor and his most affecting scenes are with his Father, the bully who abuses him, and ultimately the two women who have and will dominate his life.

The real story here is a child trying desperately to reconcile himself with the loss of the most important person in his life. The Monster represents the turmoil and the tragedy that he is facing, but it never acts exactly the way you expect the story to go. Ultimately there is a turning point, and we can see that coming, but the path there is torturous and may leave some audience members a bit slack jawed. One of my favorite things about the film is that it contains some beautifully animated sequences that illustrate the tales being told. I suspect the water color paintings are based on the illustrations used in the book from which this film derives. Although containing some fairy tale elements, they are not really Disney friendly. Conor has to try to make sense of them and it is a final turn in the story that helps bring it all together.

Neeson is the voice of the Monster but his image does appear in a photograph that suggests Conor's Mother in her childhood with her own father. Neeson has done voice work before. As Aslan (or God if you like) in the Chronicles of Narnia he was suitably ponderous. His two faced cop in the Lego Movie was just the right touch of sardonic indifference. In this film his voice is ferocious and soothing and sometimes harsh. In the end it is a comforting voice, maybe like all of our fathers, a bit scary at times but also a voice that we feel we can trust. Grief and guilt need to be met with a purposeful and supportive figure. Until Conor can find that in the adults around him, he has a Monster to call upon. This is a sad story that may be tough for children to endure as well as soft hearted adults. It is however a worthy drama and ultimately redemptive, but in a painful way.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Singin' in the Rain: Fathom/TCM 52 Essentials

This event was scheduled prior to the death of Debbie Reynolds. The host Ben Mankiewicz, did not mention her passing in the intro or the conclusion of the presentation, so that material was already in the queue, but there was a dedication card before the movie began. It is certainly a deserving tribute because you can clearly see in every scene she appears in, Debbie Reynolds was special. It's interesting that at one point in the story, R.F. the studio head takes notice of Reynold's Kathy Seldon. He calls her out of the chorus line for having that something special and unique. That is exactly what you can see in Reynolds. Her smile is effervescent, her face just glows, even when buried in a crowd of other actresses, and her line delivery is spunky and confident.

This movie does not need any defending. Mankiewicz suggested it might be one of the greatest musicals of all time, he qualifies that by pointing out that many would say it is "The" greatest musical of all time, present company believes that to be the case. For almost two hours I sat with a smile on my face, a laugh in my heat or a tear in my eye. Evey time you turn around there is another great number. As far as I can tell, other than the compilation film "That's Entertainment", this is the only movie where Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly worked together. That is almost incredible to believe when you watch the "Fit as a Fiddle" or "Moses Supposes" sequences in this film. They perform with such synchronicity, you would believe they'd been working together for years.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont is a hoot and a half. The opening segment where Kelly as Don Lockwood tells the background of their Hollywood "Romance" is so great because they hold her voice until the perfect moment. She still plays a bitchy star with her silent performance up to that part, but once she starts speaking, the laughs become bigger. Last year the whole scene with Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Casar! was cribbed from Lina's diction lesson. Hell it was funny sixty-four years earlier, it should be funny again. Both films are tributes to old Hollywood and they make us aware of some of the foibles that the star system presented to the studios.

There were more than a hundred and fifty people at the afternoon screening today and I am happy to say they were not all of retirement age. I saw a Mom with her two little girls, maybe six and eight. There were four kids who came in together in their late teens, an couples of every age throughout the theater. "Singin' in the Rain" is a national treasure to be taken out and shared on a regular basis. In fact the last time I saw it on the big screen was a Fathom Screening from five years ago for the 60th Anniversary. 

My Daughter and I are working up a project for this year where we will be posting on the 52 films from the TCM Essential Book we purchased last year. Instead of working through the films in order of the year they came out like the book did, we are going to try to do screenings of the movies as much as possible and let that dictate some of the order. "Singin' in the Rain" was  up this weekend, an we just thought of doing this project last week, so this is a natural to start. I Think most of our posts will be Vlogs on Youtube, but I will link them here and put up a page to list all of the links as well. The loss of Debbie Reynolds is a sad way to begin the project, but the joyous film she starred in will live forever and she and it should be celebrated.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hidden Figures

I am a sucker for movies based on historical events. I don't mean those that are just inspired by true events, I mean stories about history. All narratives are subjective so I recognize that the emphasis of some stories is going to change from one story teller to another, but the key events , they stay the same. A battle is won, a President is Elected or killed, or a human achievement is accomplished. You don't have to make those things up. It is one of the reasons that I look forward to "Dunkirk" next summer. It is a key incident in the outcome of WWII, and even though the story may be dramatized, the events are real. "Hidden Figures" is exactly that type of movie.

For kids of my generation, the American Astronauts were the biggest heroes we could imagine. As a child, I never much paid attention to the technicians I'd see on television,  at their stations, monitoring all that could go wrong. I did however come to recognize them from mission to mission. This movie tells the story behind the scenes of the behind the scenes of the early space missions. The fact that it is an empowering women's film and an important achievement in civil rights is what helps make it so much more interesting and worth telling. A movie about people sitting at desks doing math, sounds almost like the equivalent of watching paint dry. It may be important but it is only going to be of interest to someone who knows the numbers. The people who put those numbers together here are what the story is all about.

Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are three bright math whizzes, working at doing computations for NASA, and facing two strikes. In 1961, women were largely excluded from the military and science community at NASA and these women happen to be black. They are not however, shrinking violets, they are empowered by their talents and more importantly their mission. Although there is a civil rights story here, it is largely powered by the exigencies of trying to build the math and engineering required for Americans to gain a foothold in the space race. There are a few of the traditional symbols of the movement, MLK speaking on television, violence in the south, and protests about segregation. The two obvious illustrations in this story are not however overtly about a struggle to achieve equal rights but to build an effective team. Henson's character Katherine, has difficulty doing her job because of the bathroom situation. She is excluded in an overtly racist manner by a coffee pot. When Kevin Costner's program director confronts these injustices, it is for building meritocracy, not to correct a social injustice. All of the women characters certainly want social justice, but first they want to be allowed to do their jobs and do them to the best of their ability. That is the most ennobling part of the story that I saw.

This is a film that could easily be a prism viewpoint of the space race as told in "The Right Stuff". Many of the events and characters repeat in the time periods covered. Just as the movie focusing on the Mercury astronauts rightly pointed out, this film amplifies why the recently deceased John Glenn was a national hero. As the three women represent the hidden struggles of the space program and America's self defeating institutional racism, Glenn represents the best in all of us. We want the talented and professionals to do their jobs so everyone else ca. These women showed that there were barriers preventing that from happening, and those barriers shackled our potential. We may not be completely out of the woods on these problems, but thank goodness we don't have the same attitudes with the same prevalence today.

The film manages to be highly entertaining and accessible to all groups. There may be a few small children who would not enjoy it much but everyone else should be happy to see this. There is humor, tension, and heroic drama throughout the film. The few characters that might be seen as villains of the piece are mostly just trapped in the mindset of the time and need some opportunities to grow, just as the oppressed women did. Americans of all races should be proud of the accomplishments of the space program in the sixties. It should be a unifying experience to take the steps to the stars, and this movie reminds us that it would not have been possible if we did not all move forward together.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


This is a tale of two tales. The first half of this movie is compelling and emotionally engaging. It has a fantastic child performance and it says so many things about what is wrong with some aspects of the world that you will want to act after seeing some of it. The second half is anti-climactic for the most part. The extended story of our hero does not play out completely and it raises different issues that seem to be only tangentially related to what we started with. There is another solid performance as well, but it is overshadowed by the legacy of the younger version of our lead character. 

Young Sunny Pawar plays the hero of the story, a kid named Saroo, who gets separated from his family in one of the biggest and most populated countries in the world. The circumstances of his "disappearance" are accidental, but much of the trauma that follows is deliberate and frightening. He is a child of maybe five, several hundred miles from home, in which direction he has no idea, and the only name he knows his Mother by is Mum. The family was scratching out a living doing manual labor and pilfering small amounts of commodities that are unwatched. He ends up in Calcutta, a city teeming with people, many of whom are looking to exploit a child.

We want authority figures and government agencies to be reliable, but as they appear here, it seems they are as much a part of the problem as some of the criminal element. There are some competent people who do finally end up helping Saroo connect with a different family in a country even further away. When Sunny Pawar is playing the character of Saroo, everything seems real and the stakes are so high as to keep us enthralled. When a twenty year period goes by with a single title card, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, the stakes seem so much lower and the emotions feel like they are straining for significance. Saroo's identity crisis might have been a solid film if the movie had worked backwards. Instead it plays out like some psychological drama that would make an interesting hour on TV.

The complicated relationship the adult Saroo has with his adopted family is told in the most bare bones way possible. There are cryptic references to his adopted brother's drug use and emotional damage. Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother spends a lot of her time weeping for the problems of Mantosh, her second adopted child but Saroo never reaches out to either his mother or father for help in his crisis. They are the two most supportive parents you can imagine, and he is so wound up about his memories of his real brother and mother, that he can't bother to ask for help. This section of the movie is so frustrating because we can't figure out why he feels that way. Even when he has a supportive girlfriend to exchange exposition with.

I know this is based on a true story. When the film ends and we get some clips and a scroll of the truth, it is very compelling. If the film had been a documentary, or the story structure were different, I think I'd have been really more impressed. As it is, I liked the movie a lot, but it depended on the resolution of the search to redeem a dull passage that takes up a big chunk of the film. I've heard award talk about Patel and Kidman, but if anyone in this movie deserves to be honored for their performance, it is a little boy from India who made us care in the first place.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Films of the Year 2016



  Jump to the next page to see my top ten list.


I saw a headline a couple of weeks ago that declared the movie star dead. That proclamation was based on the disappointing box office opening of this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have had great success in films in the last few years. Lawrence has arguably been the most bankable star, man or woman, since the start of the Hunger Games series, and Pratt starred in the colossus "Jurassic World" and "Guardians of the Galaxy". Their pairing may have been the reason this film finally got a greenlight after years in development hell. The lower than expected returns are supposedly an indicator that star power can"t save a movie. The truth is, a movie succeeds or fails for many reasons, and while the star may be one of those reasons, there are usually others. The weakness of this films performance should not be unjustly laid at the feet of the two leads.

"Passengers" is sold to us as a love story in space. The trailers make the film look like an adventure with the star crossed lovers battling to save themselves and the ship they are traveling on. I'm going to avoid spoilers as usual, but I will say that there is a twist in this story that is much darker and deeper than the film clips suggest. Maybe this is not a great movie, but it was better than I expected and the production values are top notch so I think I can recommend it to people who like science fiction and a lot of drama thrown in.

The provocative part of the story occurs for reasons that audiences will understand but may be horrified by. There is an interesting "what would you do? question at the heart of the film. The follow up question of how to handle the choice that is made is less complex because the story takes a very traditional turn into action tension and drama. The second act of the film is where all of the real emotion is and when the story veers back to the usual plot points, there is less that is interesting about it. For the vast majority of the movie, the two leads are the sole human characters on the ship. Michael Sheen, who is great, does have a side part to play, but he essentially is a tool for exposition and philosophy to be engorged in out loud. Lawrence and Pratt have to sell the human elements. I thought their chemistry was solid and that they made a somewhat believable couple under the circumstances.

 The failure of this movie to connect with audiences may have more to do with marketing than anything else. The trailers and ads ignore the real conflict of the film entirely and focus on the romance and adventure. There is a hint of a secret plot but that is a red herring, every shot with Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia in it is misleading to the audience. Garcia must have a fantastic agent to get billing and paid for his contribution to the film. I suspect there may have been more of the story that got trimmed, and in the long run that is probably best.

The appearance of  Fishburne in the film, signals the start of the last section of the movie and a return to standard action adventure activity.  The idea that a solo engineer and a well read but not expert passenger, can handle the issues that crop up is a little hard to swallow, but since the whole idea of the film is hard to swallow to begin with I guess I can live with it. The action beats are not surprising but the special effects work is solid and there is one final twist that does pay off from the earlier section. In essence it helps redeem the film and make it a bit more worthy.  "Passengers" is not an essential film but it is entertaining and it should make for a good date night film for all those future "Netflix and Chill" evenings ahead.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Classic Movies- Revisits of Past Films During 2016

Several old favorites were in my list of older films that I saw again on the big screen at some point this year. Every film you see listed here has a post if you are interested. Just check the archive list for 2016.