THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) – Extraordinary Tale Told in an Ordinary Way

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lost_city_of_z_poster

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann and tells the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who dedicated much of his life to expeditions into the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city.

The main reason I wanted to see THE LOST CITY OF Z was that it starred Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett.  Hunnam, of course, starred as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014), and I really enjoyed his work on that show.

In terms of Hunnam’s performance, THE LOST CITY OF Z does not disappoint. Hunnam is excellent. However, the same can’t be said for the movie as a whole.

The film opens in Ireland in 1906 where we are introduced to young British soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) scoring big on a deer hunt, bagging the top prize of the day. Later, as he celebrates with his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his fellow hunters at an elegant dance reception, we witness British dignitaries discussing who landed the prize deer, commenting that Percy is a fine man but is hindered  by his unfortunate heredity. And thus we learn early on that the deck is stacked against Percy, as the sins of his father, a man he didn’t even know, are held against him.  Percy knows, for right or wrong, he has to work harder than others to advance in life.

Later, he is disappointed to learn from his superiors that rather than being sent to the battlefield, he is being dispatched to the Amazon to help settle a border dispute in Brazil. Still, he believes if he succeeds on this mission, it will better his chances for advancement which will ultimately help him support his family.  While on the expedition, he hears about a lost city which no white man had ever seen, and as he catches glimpses of possible evidence of this city, his focus on the expedition changes.

In fact, upon returning home, he receives financial backing to return to the Amazon with the express purpose of searching for the city, which he does, in spite of multiple obstacles, including World War I, where Percy finally sees the military action for which he had trained all his life.

THE LOST CITY OF Z is beautiful to look at with its fine atmospheric cinematography of the Brazilian rain forests, as well as period piece costumes and set designs of early 20th century Great Britain.  The brief forays onto the desolate World War I battlefields are also impressive.

It also features fine acting performances from everyone involved.  I’m a big fan of Charlie Hunnam, especially from his SONS OF ANARCHY days.  His films have been less memorable.  He played second fiddle to giant monsters in PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he was okay in the period piece horror movie by Guillermo del Toro, CRIMSON PEAK (2015), which also starred Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston.

I enjoyed Hunnam a lot here as Percy Fawcett, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give so far aside from SONS OF ANARCHY.  He gives Percy the required drive he needs to push on into the Amazon against all odds.  He’s doing it for his family because he knows that without going the extra mile he’s not going to advance.  He also keeps Percy from being too insanely dedicated.  While men do perish on the expeditions, it’s not from Percy’s carelessness.  Although he does put the mission first, he does not put his men in harm’s way.

Robert Pattinson (Edward in the TWILIGHT movies) does a nice job as Henry Costin, the man who accompanies Percy on these expeditions and becomes his most trusted friend. Sienna Miller also is memorable as Percy’s wife Nina, making her a strong independent woman, and she has to be, raising her family pretty much on her own because Percy is gone for years at a time.  Yet, she remains supportive of her husband’s work, in spite of the toll it takes on her and her children who grow up without a father figure around.

Tom Holland, the most recent movie Spider-Man, shows up in the final third of the movie as Percy’s adult son Jack, and STAR WARS enthusiasts will recognize Ian McDiarmid, who played Chancellor Palpatine/aka the evil Emperor in the second STAR WARS trilogy, as Sir George Goldie, the man who sends Percy on his merry way to the Amazon.

Angus Macfadyen delivers a scene-stealing performance as James Murray, a veteran of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic, who joins Percy’s second attempt to find the Lost City.  Murray’s prior experience with Shackleton proves to be of little value, as his cowardly and selfish behavior turns out to be more of a hindrance than a help.

In spite of a strong cast and impressive cinematography, THE LOST CITY OF Z is hampered by poor pacing and a rather flat script.  The film runs for two hours and twenty-one minutes, and it actually felt longer.  Not that I expected this to be a Hollywood style production, but there’s no build-up here.  There’s no sense of adventure, and there’s certainly no climax.  The film just meanders along at its own pace, allowing Percy Fawcett’s story to unfold with no sense of urgency.

Percy embarks into the dangerous jungles of the Amazon, and for a brief time, things are somewhat intriguing.  For example, there are several encounters with hostile cannibal tribes, but none of these meetings are all that frightening.

And the expeditions end abruptly.  In the blink of an eye, Percy is back home in England, and after a brief interlude which includes some rather dull dialogue, Percy and his friends return to the Amazon for another go at it.  Until they come home again.  And so on and so on.  Even a brief venture onto the battlefields of World War I doesn’t heighten the emotion.

Director James Gray presents this story as if it’s a film you’d watch at a museum exhibit.  It tells its story but in about as non dramatic a way as you can imagine.  Very little effort seems to have been spent at making this tale a cinematic experience.

Likewise, the screenplay by Gray based on David Grann’s book is also plain and drab.  The dialogue is sufficient but ordinary.  In short, neither the script nor the direction do much to bring this tale to life, in spite of the above-average cinematography and solid acting performances.

THE LOST CITY OF Z is an extraordinary tale presented in an ordinary way.  As such, while I enjoyed watching Charlie Hunnam and the rest of the cast bringing their characters to life, I just never got all that excited about the movie as a whole.  I felt as if I were sitting in a museum watching a movie about the exploits of one Percy Fawcett.

As such, I found myself yearning to get out of my seat to view the rest of the exhibit.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017) – Supernatural Drama More Interested in Questions Than Answers

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PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017), the second collaboration between French director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart, is the type of movie that gives me fits.

It’s complex and artistic, and its story is purposely left unclear, and for a story guy like me, that drives me crazy.  It’s like reading a well-written poem.  You appreciate its artistry and spend hours pouring over its words looking for meaning, trying to find out just what it is the poet is trying to say, and on those occasions when you fail to reach a satisfying conclusion, you have to ask yourself:  was there anything there to begin with?  Which is why when all is said and done, I prefer to read novels.

That’s how I felt while watching PERSONAL SHOPPER, a ghost story that plays out like a supernatural drama as opposed to a horror movie or thriller, and that’s okay.  I loved the style of this movie.  But the wheels inside my head are still spinning over its content.

Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) is an American living in Paris working as a personal shopper to a celebrity who due to her fame cannot shop unencumbered.  But the real reason Maureen is there, and the reason she is so somber and haunted, is her twin brother died there a month earlier.  And Maureen isn’t just mourning.  She’s looking for a sign.

Her brother was a medium, as is Maureen, and he had promised her that if he died he would send her a sign from the other side.  And so she spends dark nights inside the house where her brother had lived, waiting for his message.  In fact, at one point in the movie, when asked what she is doing in Paris, she actually says she is waiting.  Her search isn’t restricted to her brother’s house, but pretty much everywhere she goes in Paris, she is on the lookout for some sign from her brother, and when she is contacted, whether through strange noises in the dark or haunting apparitions or mysterious text messages, it sets off a myriad of questions.  Is it her brother?  Is it someone else? If it is someone else, is it a spirit or a real person?  Or are there multiple spirits/persons trying to contact her?  Do they pose a threat?

These are all fascinating questions, and I enjoyed following Maureen on her search for answers.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really provide satisfying responses to these questions, as it remains vague about most of them.  Perhaps this is the point, that when seeking out those things that haunt us, there aren’t always clear definitive answers. Either way, PERSONAL SHOPPER is definitely a movie more about questions than answers.

Director Olivier Assayas drew me in immediately with his gloomy and somber cinematography as the film opens with Maureen arriving at her deceased brother’s home, which sets up a very creepy scene early on:  Maureen’s first night alone in the house. She’s there in the dark, and she hears a noise, and unlike heroines in traditional horror movies who call out “Hello?” loudly and hyperventilate, Maureen silently and slowly makes her way through the pitch black corridors.  Of course, at this point in the movie, the audience isn’t aware of what she is doing there or who she is looking for, which only adds to the weirdness of the sequence.

And this is pretty much how director Assayas’ screenplay  unfolds.  He doesn’t really tell the story in a straight narrative.  For instance, the film nearly reaches its halfway mark before it’s revealed clearly what Maureen’s job is, that she works as a personal shopper.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is one very moody and somber film, and as such, is driven by Kristen Stewart’s subtle yet dominating performance.  She’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the film doesn’t suffer for it.  She is captivating to watch, and in spite of the purposely vague narrative, she held my interest throughout.  Her performance here reminded me a bit of Casey Affleck’s performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Like Affleck, she’s haunted and pained throughout, as if she is suffering from a permanent migraine. Her intense search for answers becomes almost palpable.

It’s interesting thematically that while on the one hand Maureen is dealing with spirits while she searches for a sign from her brother, on the other hand, her job keeps her in contact with a celebrity who also seems more dead than alive, who treats people horribly and is oblivious to everyone around her, as if she, like a spirit, is living in some other world. Likewise, even though she has a boyfriend back home who she communicates with via Skype, Maureen struggles with human relationships.  She seems to enjoy being alone. It’s almost as if she too is living in another world,  and there are certainly parallels between her story and her brother’s.

For example, they’re twins.  They’re both mediums.  They both share the same cardiovascular defect which caused her brother to suffer a heart attack and die while only in his twenties.  Her brother is literally dead, and she seems to be figuratively dead.  The film shows two different worlds intertwined, so that it’s difficult to know which one is which and who is in which one.  It’s fascinating to think about, and the film throws out hints and suggestions that come close to turning the entire plot on its head.

The film doesn’t skimp on the suspense either.  There’s the aforementioned opening scene in the dark house which is as creepy as they get.  There are scenes of spectral appearances, and one of the most suspenseful sequences involves Maureen receiving a series of strange text messages which she at first hopes are from her brother, but then she has doubts and fears that perhaps someone- a spirit or a very real person – might be stalking her.

The best part of PERSONAL SHOPPER is it’s about as far from a by-the-numbers thriller as you can get.  It’s a much more complex movie than most, and for that alone, it’s worth watching.

It’s a haunting film, empowered by Kristen Stewart’s mesmerizing performance, and by Olivier Assayas’ artistic direction.    The camera gets in real close during the suspense scenes, and it takes its time with the spectral sequences, allowing for full impact when apparitions appear.

Other scenes end in mid-dialogue, often giving the distinct notion that what we are seeing, especially in terms of Maureen, is only part of what is going on.  Indeed, this is a movie where the missing parts seem to be more prominent and powerful than the parts we are shown.

Assayas’ cryptic screenplay is like a puzzle, and as such, for a moviegoer like myself who enjoys a good story, it’s frustrating.  The ending in particular leaves its audience with one big question mark.

Yet, this doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the movie.  Its somber mood and unsettling eeriness perfectly permeate the tale of Maureen’s heartfelt and painful search for her deceased brother.

PERSONAL SHOPPER is a movie more interested in questions than answers.  Maureen spends the whole movie asking questions, looking for answers, and by the end of the movie, she seems to have found them, but just what they are and what they mean for her and for the audience, remains unknown.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

Little Boy Lost In LION (2016)

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lion-poster

LION (2016) tells the incredible true story of a five year-old boy named Saroo who became lost on the streets of Calcutta in 1986 and found himself alone thousand of miles from home.

The movie opens with little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) enjoying a simple life with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and baby sister.  When Guddu allows Saroo to join him on a long trip to go to work, it proves too much for Saroo, and the young boy falls asleep.  Guddu leaves Saroo at the train station and tells him to stay and wait for him to return.

When Saroo awakes, the train station is empty and Guddu is gone.  In search of his older brother, Saroo enters a stationary train where he again falls asleep.  When he awakes, the train is moving, whisking him miles away from his home.  When Saroo finally gets off the train, he finds himself on the dangerous streets of Calcutta, lost and alone.  He meets other homeless children, but their time together is cut short as a group of men descend upon them, rounding them up, but Saroo escapes.

Eventually Saroo is taken in by an orphanage.  He doesn’t speak the same language as the people in Calcutta, and he doesn’t know where he lives, and so the officials have no way of knowing where he came from or how to bring him back home.

Saroo is later adopted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman).  He moves to Australia where he learns English and grows up.

The movie then jumps ahead to 2010, where we meet the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) who eventually makes it his mission to finally find out where he came from and to return back home to India to find the family he left behind.

LION is an agreeable movie that draws you in right away with its vibrant and colorful shots of India as seen through the innocent eyes of young Saroo.  The story grows more compelling when Saroo is lost on the streets of Calcutta,and this first half of the movie is definitely its best part.  The latter half which follows the adult Saroo’s quest to find his home is a tad slow and far less interesting. But it does set up the film’s emotional and very satisfying conclusion.  You’d better keep those tissues handy.

While I liked LION a lot, I didn’t love it.

I really enjoyed young Sunny Pawar as the five year-old Saroo and almost wish the entire movie had been about him.  The young actor pretty much steals the movie.

Not to take anything away from Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, but his storyline is never as interesting as the story told through the eyes of the five year-old Saroo.  That being said, Dev Patel is still very good and has some effective scenes in this one.  Patel of course starred in the Oscar-winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), as well as the recent THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2015).

Patel enjoys some nice chemistry with Rooney Mara who plays Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy.  He also shares a moving scene with Nicole Kidman, where the adopted son and mother open up about their relationship, and she tells Saroo of a dream she once had, and why it was that she and her husband, even though they could have children, decided it would be better to adopt instead.  It’s Kidman’s best moment in the film.

Under Garth Davis’ direction, the film moves at a deliberate pace.  It’s well-photographed, especially the first half of the movie, which captures a world as seen through the eyes of a five year-old.

The screenplay by the real Saroo Brierley and Luke Davies, based on Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home” is excellent.

LION has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and while I liked it very much, I did enjoy some of the other Oscar contenders more, films like LA LA LAND, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and HIDDEN FIGURES.

That being said, LION is still worth a trip to the theater.

By the way, the film gets its title from Saroo’s name.  Saroo learns when he returns home that he had been mispronouncing and misspelling his name.  It was not Saroo but Sheru, which means “Lion.”

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

Persistence Pays Off in THE FOUNDER (2017)

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It’s all about persistence.

That’s the central theme of THE FOUNDER (2017), the new bio pic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.

It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman in Chicago who is shocked when a restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders eight of his milkshake machines.  Nobody ever orders that many machines, and so, curious and perhaps a bit inspired, Kroc drives across the country to California to see the restaurant for himself.

What he finds is McDonalds, an eatery that he at first mistakes for the typical drive-in restaurant of its day.  However, he observes that rather than wait in his car for his order to be taken, he has to walk up to a window in the front of the restaurant.  He is then amazed to have his food given to him before he even leaves the order window.

Kroc introduces himself to the two brothers who run McDonalds, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch).  The brothers give him a tour of the restaurant, including their custom-made kitchen which enables them to cook their burgers uniformly and quickly.

Impressed by the concept, Kroc approaches the brothers with a proposition:  he wants to franchise the restaurant across the nation.  He thinks their model is so superior to what everyone else is doing, it’s bound to be a success.  The brothers hesitate to agree at first, explaining that they already tried to expand but failed, as they couldn’t keep the quality of the other restaurants up to the level of their original eatery.

Bur Kroc persists, explaining that the brothers should leave everything to him, that he will be in charge of the expansion and he will be successful.  Eventually, the brothers agree.  What follows is the story of how Kroc relentlessly worked to build a McDonalds empire, which eventually put him at odds with the McDonalds brothers who were never as interested as he was in going national, and of course, eventually global.

THE FOUNDER is a fascinating story, a movie that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model, because he worked for it and the McDonald brothers did not.  It’s certainly a take which is more sympathetic towards Kroc than the McDonald brothers.  I’d wager to guess that in real life Kroc was a bit nastier than he was portrayed in this movie, and the McDonald brothers a bit more victimized.

I’ve always been a Michael Keaton fan, and it’s been great seeing him back in major movie roles once again.  I loved him in BIRDMAN (2014) and in SPOTLIGHT (2015).  He’s equally as good here as Ray Kroc. He makes Kroc a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  And that’s why he works so hard.  That’s why he puts everything into the franchise, because he knows this is his one big shot.  He has to take it.

The film’s theme of persistence is a good one.  Regardless of what the real life Ray Kroc may have been like, in this movie, he’s portrayed as a man who is so focused on his goal, it’s difficult not to like him, even when later he does take a darker turn.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it.

In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had  the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Nearly as good as Keaton are Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald  and John Carroll Lynch as his brother Mac McDonald. Offerman and Carroll Lynch portray the quirky brothers as two rather innocent men who were more than happy just to have their one restaurant.  When Kroc begins to take over, they are slow to react, and eventually they lose nearly everything because they were not prepared to stand their ground against Kroc’s ambition.

Nick Offerman recently starred in the TV series FARGO (2015), while John Carroll Lynch seems to show up everywhere these days.  He just played Lyndon Johnson in JACKIE (2016).  Among other things, he’s been in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, and he was memorable in the small release horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).

Laura Dern looks worn and weathered as Kroc’s longtime suffering wife, alone most of her life as he is off building a fast food empire.  Even when she attempts to lend a helping hand and offer her support, it does her little good, as eventually Kroc leaves her for another woman.  The other woman is Joan Smith, the wife of one of his McDonalds managers, played effectively by Linda Cardellini.

Smith’s husband, Rollie Smith, is played by Patrick Wilson from THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS movies.  B.J. Novak is memorable in a small role as Kroc’s business partner Harry J. Sonneborn, the man who advised Kroc to buy the land on which the McDonalds restaurants would be built, as a way to break free of the control of the McDonald brothers.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  It’s just not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants.

The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics.

Ray Kroc is portrayed in a positive light, and the message of success from persistence resonates because it is true.  Most people succeed because they do not give up.  The Ray Kroc in this movie is an admirable character, while the McDonald brothers, while certainly portrayed as two decent gentlemen, are shown to be passive and unimaginative when it comes to seeing how far their business could go.  Kroc doesn’t so much as steal their business as he grows their business, and in this movie, they aren’t interested in going along for the ride, and so he takes the journey without them.

I really enjoyed THE FOUNDER.  Michael Keaton is excellent, and both the script by Robert D. Siegel and direction by John Lee Hancock are equally as good.

The end result is an entertaining bio pic that tells a rather fascinating story behind the origins of the McDonalds empire.

I’ll have a cheeseburger and medium fries, please. 

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

HIDDEN FIGURES (2017) – Powerful Movie Has A lot To Say About Race Relations, Gender Roles, NASA.

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hidden-figures

I finished 2016 with two terrific movies, LA LA LAND (2016) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Now, to begin 2017, I’ve seen a movie equally as good as those two.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an exceptional movie, even better than some critics are giving it credit for.

HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1960s and were instrumental in launching the space campaign, specifically the first orbiting flight by astronaut John Glenn.

It’s  the early 1960s, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as “human computers,” toiling in the background, working nonstop to verify the math for their white male superiors.

Katherine’s big break comes when she goes to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who’s leading a frustrated group of NASA scientists and mathematicians, fighting a losing battle against a Soviet space program which seems to celebrate one success after another, while NASA is stuck in failure.

At one point in the film, Harrison says he refuses to believe that the Soviets are smarter and better than his people, and he interprets this to mean they’re not working hard enough, and so he puts his team on notice that they will work nonstop and through weekends until they get the job done.

Katherine’s math skills soon become noticeable not only to Harrison but also to astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who after meeting her is so impressed he later personally requests her expertise to validate the math before he makes his historic flight into space.

Katherine’s achievements are all the more impressive because she has to overcome both racial and gender prejudices to accomplish them.  For instance, she has to suffer through the indignity of having a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” which no one will even touch.  There’s also no “colored” bathrooms in the building, so in order to use the bathroom she has to run nearly six blocks in her heels and back, something that is not noticed until Harrison chews her out for being missing from her desk for so long.  When he asks her where she goes, she tells him the bathroom, to which he snaps at her about what the heck takes her so long.  Which sets up one of the best scenes in the movie where she lets loose in an emotional tirade where she finally explains the whole bathroom situation.

An equally powerful scene follows where we see Harrison take a sledge-hammer to the “colored” bathroom sign, declaring “No more segregated bathrooms.  We all pee the same color at NASA.”

Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself working as a supervisor to the “computers” but without the title or the pay which the position warrants.  Later, when an IBM computer is installed at NASA, with plans on replacing the human computers, Dorothy takes the initiative to read up on the device, and she self-teaches herself to the point where she can operate the machine better than the IBM technicians.  She use this new knowledge to keep her “girls” employed, as she trains them how to operate the IBM computers.

And Mary Jackson, inspired by her superior, a  Jewish man who tells her not to give up, that twenty years earlier he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and now he’s sending rockets to the moon, attempts to earn a college degree so she can join her fellow mathematicians and not simply be a human computer.  But to do so she will need to attend an all white school, which means she needs a judge to give her special permission.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an inspiring movie that works on multiple levels.  It has a lot to say about race relations and overcoming prejudices, as well as what it took to make NASA’s early space flights a success.  It’s SELMA (2014) meets APOLLO 13 (1995).

The acting is wonderful.

Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine G. Johnson.  Henson makes Katherine a strong-willed woman who is both a single mother and a brilliant mathematician.  She also shows off the character’s vulnerabilities, and we get to see her softer side in a romance subplot where she becomes involved with a handsome military man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).  She also makes Katherine, in spite of her nerdiness, adorable and sexy .

Henson currently stars in the TV show EMPIRE, and she previously starred in the show PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2015).  I last saw her in the movie NO GOOD DEED (2014), a thriller in which she co-starred with Idris Elba, a film that I didn’t like very much.  She didn’t wow me at all in that movie, but here in HIDDEN FIGURES she’s brilliant.

Octavia Spencer is nearly as good as Dorothy Vaughan, who is probably the strongest of the three women and is seen as the glue which holds them together.  Spencer won an Oscar for her supporting role in THE HELP (2011), and while she probably won’t win an Oscar here, she’s still very good.

Equally as powerful as Henson and Spencer is Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson.  As Jackson, Monae gets some of the best lines in the movie.  Her scene in court as she attempts to convince a white judge to rule in her favor, to allow her to attend class at an all-white school, is also one of the more powerful scenes in the film.

Kevin Costner adds strong support as hard-nosed NASA man Al Harrison. He’s abrupt, no-nonsense, and heartless, and so later when even he is won over by Katherine, it’s all the more impressive.

Jim Parson, Sheldon on the TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY, plays it straight here as Paul Stafford, a white mathematician working for Al Harrison who feels jealous and threatened by Katherine.  He does a nice job in the role. Glen Powell also enjoys some fine moments as young astronaut John Glenn, a performance made even more touching since Glenn just passed away on December 8, 2016.

And Mahershala Ali who seems to be popping up everywhere these days also adds distinguished support as Colonel Jim Johnson, the man who falls in love with Katherine. Ali has been equally impressive on the TV shows HOUSE OF CARDS as Remy Danton, and as the villain “Cottonmouth” on the stylish Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE.  Of course, Ali is also starring in the highly touted and critically acclaimed movie MOONLIGHT (2016) a film which is expected to compete for Best Picture this year.  It’s a film I missed, because sadly, it did not play near me for very long.

Kirsten Dunst also shows up as Vivien Mitchell, the woman who Dorothy and her “human computers” have to report to, and she’s not too sympathetic to their plight, at least not at first.  Dunst is in her thirties now.  It seems like only yesterday she was Mary Jane in the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies. Time flies.

Theodore Melfi does a fine job directing this one.  It looks good as a 1960s period piece, and Melfi makes full use of some vivid colors here.  He also does a nice job balancing the stories of the three women. Melfi’s previous film was ST. VINCENT (2014), a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, a film I liked a lot.  I enjoyed HIDDEN FIGURES even more.

Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay to HIDDEN FIGURES, along with Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It’s a strong script which strikes a nice balance between a story about race relations, prejudice, against both race and gender, and an exciting tale about the early space program. It also works as a character study of the three women in the story, as we really get to know and like these women a lot.

Some critics have complained that this movie doesn’t get dark enough, that the race issues are glossed over and sugar-coated to earn the film’s PG rating.  I disagree.  The sequence, for example, involving Katherine’s having to use a “colored” bathroom in a building located six blocks from where she works is powerful as is.  You don’t need bloodshed and strong language to get the point.

As such, with a PG rating, the important message that HIDDEN FIGURES presents can also be viewed by those younger than 13 years old.

HIDDEN FIGURES is a powerful movie, with a lot to say about race relations.  It also delivers a positive and much-needed message to the world today,  a world where race still divides rather than unites.

2017 has just begun.  There are a lot more movies to go, but HIDDEN FIGURES was the first movie I saw this year, and it’s instantly one of my favorites.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) – Powerfully Moving Drama As Good As Advertised

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) is steeped in so much New England flavor, it’s like having fish and chips and beer, the scent of fried batter and hops so vivid your mouth will water.

However, this meal is not a celebration, but a funeral, the story of a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation, piled on top of a traumatic event that had already crushed the life out of him.  Lee is a walking coma.  His body goes through the motions of life, but his mind, heart, and soul are dead.

When we first meet Lee, he’s working as a janitor at a low-income apartment complex in Boston. He also lives there, in a tiny one room apartment.  His life is lonely and sad. One day he receives a phone call and learns that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, his heart having given out, several years after having been diagnosed with congestive heart disease.

Lee travels north to the ocean side Massachusetts town of Manchester to make arrangements for his brother’s funeral and to temporarily watch his brother’s 16 year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  However, Lee learns that in his will, his brother Joe left Lee custody of his son Patrick, and of course Lee realizes this is something he cannot handle.

But the sad reality is there is no one else.  Joe’s wife, Patrick’s mother, is estranged from the family and no one really knows where she is.  Plus she’s an alcoholic and suffers from psychological problems.  Joe and Lee’s parents have both passed away.  There is an aunt and uncle who, according to Lee, were originally slated to care for Patrick, but they have since moved across the country and really aren’t viable options for Patrick.  And Lee is on his own, as he has long been divorced from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

Lee knows that he is not up to the task of being responsible for a 16 year-old boy, but he also doesn’t want to let his brother or his nephew down, so he temporarily agrees, while trying to figure out a long-term plan to make sure his nephew is taken care of.  Not an easy task for a man whose own life is in shambles, nor is it any easier for 16 year-old Patrick, whose life is entrenched in his home town with school, hockey, girlfriends, and playing in a band.  Plus Lee and Patrick get along as well as oil and water.

I really, really liked MANCHESTER BY THE SEA.  Much has been made about the performance by Casey Affleck, and we’ll get to him in a moment, but first, in spite of the excellent acting performances in the film, my favorite part of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the screenplay by director Kenneth Lonergan.  I really enjoyed how it tells its story.

The action does not unfold chronologically, but jumps around in time.  So, we are often watching scenes with characters that we know are dead, and yet this works amazingly well here because often these scenes occur when they should naturally.  Lee thinks about how his brother first got sick, and suddenly we’re there in the hospital room at the exact moment when Joe was first diagnosed, and we watch the entire scene play out.

I really enjoy this kind of storytelling.  It makes for an optimal storytelling experience.

The acting is as good as advertised, perhaps even better.  I really liked Casey Affleck here as Lee Chandler.  The best thing I can say about his performance, and this holds true for the entire movie, for the other acting performances and for the writing and direction, is that it all comes off as true.  I believed everything that happened in this movie.

In Affleck’s case, for example, he has survived a traumatic life event which has shaped his current personality.  He is pretty much devoid of happiness, as he has shut himself out of life because he cannot bear the pain.  Even if he wanted to, he cannot break out of this pattern.  It’s as if a part of him died with the event and there’s simply no way he can get it back.  There’s a line near the end of the movie, which pretty much sums up his situation, when Lee admits, “I can’t beat this.”

I’ve enjoyed Affleck in other movies, but his performance here in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is my favorite so far.

Michelle Williams is also excellent as Lee’s ex-wife Randi.  She’s not in the movie as much as Affleck, but she’s spot-on in all of her scenes, and she’s in some of the most potent scenes in the movie.  The one near the end, where she finally opens up to Lee about the things she said to him after their marriage ended, is one of the most powerful moments in the film.

Kyle Chandler is very good as Lee’s older brother Joe, so much so that he makes you forget that his character is dead before we ever see him on-screen.  Joe’s scenes are particularly potent for that reason, because we know his fate.  They are also moving because when we witness the horrifying event which scars Lee’s life, it’s Joe and his young son Patrick who are there to help Lee pick up the pieces.  But of course, Joe isn’t around much longer. These scenes also show the deep committment Lee feels towards Joe and Patrick, because they were there for him when he needed them.

C.J. Wilson also delivers a strong performance as family friend George, the one person who Lee can turn to for help.  George worked with Joe and knows the whole family, and he’s constantly there offering to help Lee.  It’s a performance that makes us all long for a friend like George.

And Lucas Hedges is also very good as Patrick.  The best part of Hedges’ performance is he is not some sweet innocent boy who we feel so bad for.  He’s a real pain in the ass, a typical 16 year-old boy, dealing with school, sports, friends, and juggling more than one girlfriend at a time.

I absolutely loved the dynamic between Lee and Patrick.  Patrick’s life, from the way he is constantly on his phone, to having more than one girlfriend, to sleeping with them in his bedroom in father’s house, is completely foreign to Lee.  They do not get along, and yet, there is nothing cliché about this relationship.  We don’t see Lee explode at his nephew and engage in out-of-character lectures and speeches.  He deals with his nephew on his own terms, like when Patrick asks if it’s okay if one of his girlfriends spends the night, and  Lee tells him no, simply saying, “I don’t like her.”

Yet, Lee is always there for his nephew, even silently and without complaint driving him everywhere he needs to go.  The dynamic between Lee and Patrick drives this movie, and like the rest of the film, it comes off as honest and true.

But this is really Lee’s story.  We see in a gut-wrenching  flashback the horrifying event which scarred his life and ended his marriage, we watch him witness his brother’s illness, we see him struggle to take care of his teenage nephew after his brother’s death, a job that returns him to his home town, resurrecting haunting memories, and putting him back into close proximity with his ex-wife Randi.

Director Kenneth Lonergan has made a brooding, emotionally-charged drama that held my interest throughout.  I wanted to know what Lee was ultimately going to do about Patrick just as much as I wanted to learn what caused Lee to become such an unhappy man.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a powerfully moving drama about a family where things have continually gone wrong, which is true for a lot of families, and it’s a story about one man in particular who in spite of the enormous hurdles thrown his way, has to keep it together long enough to help his sixteen year-old nephew stabilize a life of his own.

—END–

 

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

—END—