FIRST MAN (2018) – Serious, Somber Look at Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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FIRST MAN (2018) tells the story of astronaut Neil  Armstrong, following his personal journey as he becomes the first human to step on the moon. It’s a journey that is as focused as it is somber, and the film does an outstanding job capturing this mood.

The film also presents a raw and honest look at NASA. Don’t expect the crowd-pleasing heroics of Ed Harris and company in Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 (1995). NASA here is more often portrayed as a group of scientists so caught up in the speed of the space race that they often pushed ahead without fully knowing what they were doing, at a great cost, as human lives were lost.

Regardless, Neil Armstrong is shown here, in spite of his own personal demons, believing the space mission was indeed worth the cost. FIRST MAN is not a knock on NASA. It’s simply an honest look at the space program in the 1960s.

When FIRST MAN opens, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the failing health of their very young daughter, who has developed a tumor. She dies shortly thereafter, and it’s a loss that stays with Armstrong throughout the course of this story. His somber mood sets the tone for the entire film. He cannot get over the loss of his daughter, and he struggles to deal with it. He sees her in his mind’s eye constantly. Yet, we learn as the story moves forward, that Armstrong keeps his daughter’s memory close to his heart and uses it as a focal point to drive him forward on his quest to reach the moon. It makes for some very effective storytelling.

Which is pretty much the plot of the entire movie, the quest for NASA to reach the moon before the Soviet Union does, as experienced by both Neil Armstrong and his wife Janet, who throughout the whole process is the rock which keeps her family together.

As such, FIRST MAN works on a much more personal level than a broad history lesson on the moon mission.

FIRST MAN was directed by Damien Chazelle, his first film since he won the Best Director Oscar for LA LA LAND (2016), a film I liked a lot, so much so that it was my favorite movie from 2016.

With FIRST MAN., Chazelle is as focused on Neil Armstrong as Armstrong is on the mission. At times, this focus proves to be almost claustrophobic, as sometimes I wished Chazelle would just pull back a bit and look at the space mission through a broader lens, but that clearly wasn’t his purpose here.

This is Armstrong’s story from beginning to end, one he shares with his wife Janet, who is every bit as important to the story as her husband. Indeed, the strongest scene in the movie doesn’t take place in space at all but inside the Armstrong home. It’s the night before Neil is leaving for the moon mission, and Janet confronts him about wanting to leave without saying goodbye to his sons. The scene at the table where he has to admit to his young sons that he may not be coming back is by far the most powerful scene in the movie.

The film also does well with its moon mission scenes. The most cinematic scene in the film is the lunar module’s approach to the moon’s surface. It’s a magnificent scene and an example of movie-making at its finest. It truly captures the moment of what it must have been like for human beings to actually see the moon up close and then actually set foot upon it.

It’s no surprise that the somber screenplay of FIRST MAN, based on the book by James R. Hansen, was written by Josh Singer, the man who wrote SPOTLIGHT (2015). That screenplay won Singer an Oscar.

Singer’s screenplay here for FIRST MAN reminded me a lot of his screenplay for SPOTLIGHT. Whereas it was the subject matter in SPOTLIGHT that was bleak, here in FIRST MAN it’s Neil Armstrong’s broken heart. He is devastated over the loss of his daughter, and he refuses to forget her. He uses her memory to drive himself forward towards the moon. It is not a happy journey. Of course, we know from history that the end of this journey is a happy one, as Armstrong made it to the moon and did indeed become the first man to step onto the moon’s surface. And in this movie, the moment also allows him to find closure with his daughter.

The screenplay also does an excellent job showing NASA as a human organization rather than one occupied by superhuman scientists and engineers. There are nonstop flaws and setbacks, and astronauts lose their lives in the process. In another of the film’s best scenes, NASA scientist Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) tries to assure Janet that Neil is going to be fine, that they have things under control. She quickly lashes out at him, saying, You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!  It’s a painfully poignant moment.

And yet as I said, this is not a movie that bashes the space program. The tone is prevalent throughout that the entire mission to the moon was worth the cost. FIRST MAN is simply an honest look at these costs.

Ryan Gosling is one of my favorite actors working today, and as expected, he does a fine job here as Neil Armstrong. He nails Armstrong’s focus throughout, and plays him like a grieving introvert who oftentimes shuns away both his family and friends. He needs to deal with his grief alone. Yet, Gosling is careful never to paint Armstrong as a jerk. For instance, he does not come off like a jackass when he ignores his family but rather like one who is truly struggling with a personal lost, and when he is pressed by his wife to step up for his family, he doesn’t lash out at her. He quietly acquiesces.

Some may think this is a one note performance by Gosling, as he seems to be stuck in this sad mood throughout, and while this may be true, he does effectively capture Armstrong’s pain and resolve.

That being said, Claire Foye I think gives the best performance in the film as Janet Armstrong. She certainly displays the most range, from loving caring wife, to frustrated mother, to the incredibly strong woman who has to go above and beyond to not only keep her husband focused but NASA honest about what they are doing with her husband. Foye is more than up to the task. Better yet, she shares almost the same amount of screen time as Gosling. She’s no supporting love interest. Janet is a prominent character here.

I haven’t seen much of Foye. She’s done a lot of TV work, and she was the best part of the weak thriller UNSANE (2018) earlier this year. She played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s silly thriller, notable because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.

The supporting cast is excellent.  Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, and Ciaran Hinds all make solid contributions, as do a bunch of others. It’s well-acted throughout.

There’s also a powerful music score by Justin Hurwitz, which is no surprise, since he also composed the music for LA LA LAND and WHIPLASH (2014).

I didn’t absolutely love FIRST MAN. First of all, by design, it’s not a happy movie. In fact, it’s so downright mournful that I almost had a headache by the time it was over.

There are also times when the pace slows a bit. I wouldn’t call the film uneven because these moments are few and far between, but they are they nonetheless.

The film does end on a strong note, with the successful moon landing. In fact, the phrase “The Eagle has landed” has never sounded better, not since Armstrong said it for real.

History remembers that Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the moon, and it’s easy to accept that moment as it was captured in the grainy TV footage from 1969.

FIRST MAN fleshes out Armstrong’s story, presents it not as a black and white image but in high-definition clarity, and by doing so reveals that the human side to Armstrong’s story is every bit as important and relevant as the scientific side.

In short, Neil Armstrong was a real person with real fears, problems, and pains, and in spite of these things which we humans all face, he didn’t let them get the best of him but instead in his own quiet way used them to propel him to the moon.

—END—

 

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Necon 38 – The Con That Has Become An Extended Family

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The following re-cap of Necon 38 will be appearing in the September issue of the HWA Newsletter:

Necon 38

July 19-22, 2018

Baypoint Inn & Conference Center

Necon has been described as a con unlike any other, and as a place that is both so tight-knit and welcoming of new folks that it’s like family. Both of these descriptions are true.

The best part about Necon is that everyone is friendly and accessible. So, in addition to informative writer panels all weekend long that are chock full of knowledgable information about the genre and writing in general, you’ll find yourself socializing with authors and like-minded individuals the entire weekend. The bottom line is regardless of where you are in your writing career or if you’re simply a reader you will be welcomed, and you will not be alone.

The worst part about Necon is time doesn’t stop while you’re there. The weekend flies by fast.

Necon was begun by Bob and Mary Booth back in 1980, and following Bob’s passing in 2013, is now run by their adult children, Sara Booth, our current fearless chairperson, and Dan Booth.  They do a fabulous job, year in and year out.

I’ve been going to Necon since 2001, and I haven’t missed one since I started. That’s eighteen Necons for me. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that. I feel as if I should be so much further along in my writing career, and that having gone to so many, I should be much more in the thick of things, but that’s not my style. I tend to hang back at cons and take everything in.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy and appreciate everything there is about Necon as much as the extroverts do.

It’s been a run ride, and it continued this year with Necon 38.

Necon 38 had it all.  Heck, in the true tradition of being a family, we even had a wedding this year!  How cool is that?

Anyway, Necon traditionally opens up on Thursday afternoons, and this year was no exception, as the con started on Thursday, July 19.

Now, a lot happens at Necon, much more than I’ve recorded here. For example, I did not attend evey panel, and there were events that I missed. So, the following is admittedly a recap from my perspective only. It’s not meant to be all-encompasing, and I apologize to anyone in attendance whose name I didn’t mention because either our paths didn’t cross this year or our conversation was all too brief.

Thursday, July 19, 2018.

This year’s guests of honor included writers Helen Marshall, David Wellington, and Dana Cameron, artist Jason Eckhardt, Toastmaster Errick A. Nunnally, and Legends Brian Keene and Carole Whitney.

Registration opened at 2:00, and judging by all the Facebook posts I read, lots of folks arrived right around then,

I did not. Each year driving down from New Hampshire to Bristol, RI, I get stuck in dreadful traffic in and around Boston, which extends my normal two-hour drive to an elongated four-hour drive, usually stuck in traffic in hot sun. This year I decided to skip all that and travel after rush hour, so this year, I arrived much later, around 9:00 pm.

The first official Necon event this year was the Welcome to Necon, Newbies!: Kaffeeklatsch hosted by Errick A. Nunnally & Laura J. Hickman. This programming is another example of how Necon strives to make everyone feel welcome. First timers who attend this meeting receive a nice introduction to the con.

10:00 was the famous Saugy Roast, where those yummy saugies, that flavorful hot dog found only in Rhode Island, are grilled to they’re deliciously charred and blackened. From there, you can stay out in the quad socializing as long as you like.

Friday July 20, 2018

8:00 it was time for breakfast, and I enjoyed a good meal of eggs, home fries, and fruit as I caught up with my roommate for the past several years and master of the dealer’s room, Scott Goudsward.

At 9:00, lots of campers headed out for the first Necon Olympic Event, Mini-Golf. I did not attend as I was on the movie Kaffeeklatsch this morning.

While I try to go to as many panels as possible, I can’t go to all of them, and so I skipped the 9:00 panel to do some writing (it’s a writer’s convention, after all!) and I worked on my movie review of SKYSCRAPER (2018) starring Dwayne Johnson. My reviews are posted on—time for my shameless plug!—my blog, THIS IS MY CREATION: THE BLOG OF MICHAEL ARRUDA, at marruda33.wordpress.com, where you’ll find all my movie reviews and columns on horror movies, all for free, I might add.

At 10:00, I attended the Read Any Good Books Lately?: The Year’s Best Books Kaffeeklatsch, a look back at some of the best books of the year. This Kaffeeklatsch featured Barry Lee Dejasu, Jaime Levine, Erin Underwood, and Hank Wagner. There were lots of book recommendations, most of them offbeat, since this is Necon. Included were nods to A Tale of Two Kitties by Sofie Kell, and to the works of author Neal Shusterman.

At 11:00 it was time for the And the Oscar Goes to: The Year’s Best Films Kaffeeklatsch, featuring Michael Arruda (yours truly!), Scott Goudsward, Matt Schwartz, Craig Shaw Gardner, and L.L. Soares, with lots of input from fellow movie lover Bill Carl.  I started things off by saying that for me it’s been a tremendous year for Marvel, and I cited BLACK PANTHER as my favorite film of the year so far. Other nods went to the horror movies HEREDITARY and A QUIET PLACE. 

Other titles mentioned included the Netflix original THE BABYSITTER, ANNIHILATION, ISLE OF DOGS, THE RITUAL, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID, HOTEL ARTEMIS, THE CYNIC THE RAT AND THE FIST, THE DEATH OF STALIN, and the Netflix original GERALD’S GAME, to name just a few.

At noon it was time for lunch, and a chance to catch up with more friends.

This year I joined the “Skeleton Crew,” that awesome group of volunteers led by P.D. (Trish) Cacek. I manned the seat by the dealer’s room entrance for a while, making sure folks didn’t bring beverages into the room, an effort to keep coffee and the like from being spilled on the merchandise. It was fun chatting with everyone who came in and out.

At 2:00 I attended the panel, The Spark: What Inspires a Great Short Story? moderated by Nick Kaufmann. Also on the panel were Meghan Arcuri-Moran, Christa Carmen, Toni L.P. Kelner, Ed Kurtz, and Helen Marshall. There were lots of interesting and insightful tidbits to come out of this panel. Highlights included the notion that not all short stories need to have a beginning, middle, and end, that some need only capture a moment in a character’s life. Another concise definition of a short story: it’s the most important thing to happen in the main character’s life.

At 3:00 I attended the panel, Invasion of the Pod People: Creating Your Own Podcast, moderated by Armand Rosamilla and featuring Amber Fallon, Chris Golden, Brian Keene, James Moore, and Mary SanGiovanni. Discussed were the ins and outs of doing a podcast, and for most folks on the panel, it’s a labor of love. Few people do podcasts to make money. However, it certainly can help book sales as people who listen to the podcasts often will check out your books.

At 4:00 I was back on duty by the Dealer’s Room, and at 5:00 we all assembled outside for the newest Necon tradition, the group photo. This started last year when we had to evacuate the building due to a fire alarm and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. This year we didn’t need a fire alarm for the picture. That being said, the fire alarm had different ideas.  More on that later.

At 7:00 it was time for the Official Necon 38 Toast by Toastmaster Errick A. Nunnally, followed by the comical Necon Update with Mike Myers, followed by the Necon Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. This year’s inductee was celebrated horror author and podcast host Brian Keene.

At 8:00 it was time for the Meet the Authors Party, that event where if you’re a reader, you get the opportunity to meet and greet your favorite authors and purchase signed copies of their books. It’s also the opportunity for the authors to set up shop and make their books available.

I was fortunate enough to share a table with some of my fellow New England Horror Authors, including my Cinema Knife Fight buddy L.L. Soares, Pete Dudar, Scott Goudsward, Trisha Wooldridge, and others. For me, if I can sell one book, I’ll count that as a successful evening. So, in that regard, I had a very successful evening in that I sold four of my books, including three copies of my short story collection For The Love of Horror.

I also purchased the highly touted first novel by Tony Tremblay, entitled THE MOORE HOUSE.  I can’t wait to read it. A book I really wanted to buy and will at some point is the brand new short story collection, her first, by Dougjai Gam Bepko, Glass Slipper Dreams, Shattered. I heard plenty of wonderful things about her debut collection this weekend. I also still haven’t bought Matt Bechtel’s highly praised debut collection from last year, Monochromes: And Other Stories.  The downside of living on a budget.

And there’s many, many more. That’s always the most difficult part of Necon. There are so many books to buy, way more than I can afford.

And after that, it was time for socializing on the quad, that time when you get to chat with friends, old and new, long into the wee hours of the morning.  This year I caught up with, among others, L.L. Soares, Pete Dudar, Paul McNally, Kelly Winn, John Harvey, Kevin Lewis, David Price, and Patrick Freivald, to name just a few.

 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

I attended the 10:00 panel, BOO!: Modern Ghost Stories, moderated by P.D. Cacek and featuring Tom Deady, John Foster, Michael Rowe, Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel, Tony Tremblay, and Dan Waters, which discussed, among other things, the differences between ghosts of yesteryear and ghosts of today. It was also suggested that ghosts are the easiest tropes to believe in, since most people believe in ghosts, as opposed to vampires, werewolves, and zombies, and so the ghost story author has that advantage in that its subject is one that people want to believe in.

Next up for me was the all important 11:00 panel, Closing Time: Remembering the Life and Work of Jack Ketchum, moderated by Doug Winter, and featuring Linda Addison, Jill Bauman, Ginjer Buchanan, Sephera Giron, Gordon Linzner, and Bracken MacLeod. This was both a somber and celebratory event as the panel looked back on the life of author Jack Ketchum, who passed away earlier this year, known here at Necon by his real name Dallas Mayr. The overwhelming sentiment, which for those of us who attend Necon regularly already know, was how kind and generous Dallas was, and that for those who read him first and met him later, that was a something of a shock, since he wrote brutally dark fiction.

There were also plenty of fun stories and anecdotes, and as Sephera Giron prepared to tell one, a fire alarm— our second in two years— went off. Sephera quipped, “Dallas, it’s not that story!”

After lunch, I found myself working at the door to the dealer’s room once again.  While there, Frank Raymond Michaels and I had our annual Necon discussion of Universal Horror vs. Hammer Horror. I also found some time to relax out in the quad on a beautiful sunny afternoon and chat with friends.

I attended the 3:30 panel, When Your Book Has A Soundtrack: The Influence of Music on Your Writing, moderated by Matt Bechtel, and featuring Doungjai Gam Bepko, Rachel Autumn Deering, Gary Frank, Bracken MacLeod, Rio Youers, and Doug Winter. The panel discussed listening to music when writing, and the majority of the authors in the room acknowledged that they do indeed listen to music when they write. Some authors ignore the song lyrics and view the vocals as just another instrument making music. Other authors are inspired by lyrics, writing stories or even entire novels based on them.

At 4:30, I attended the panel It’s Kind of a Long Story: The Art of the Novel, moderated by Kristin Dearborn, and featuring William Carl, James Chambers, Nate Kenyon, David Wellington, Mercedes M. Yardley, Rio Youers, and Dyer Wilk.  This panel covered exactly what its title said, the nuts and bolts of writing a novel. A bunch of topics were discussed, including the use of outlines and the differences between writing a novel and a short story.

After dinner, I joined my fellow Skeleton Crew members including P.D. Cacek (our fearless leader!), Morven Westfield, Scott Goudsward, Scott Wooldridge, and James Chambers, among others, as we helped set up for the Artists Reception, that time where the attention turns to the artists and their fine works on display in the dealer’s room, as well as to delicious desserts and hot coffee.

At 7:30 it was time for That Damned Game Show featuring Craig Shaw Gardner & Doug Winter.  The “controversial” game show had been missing from Necon for several years now, but I for one was happy to see its return. It’s controversial because it tends to go on a tad too long.  I happen to love the game show. I think the running gag of the confusing overlong rules is hilarious, and it’s fun to see the “contestants” struggle with both the answers and the rules. That being said, it is too long, and going forward, if it’s cut in half, it would make for a very satisfying event.

Another reason I enjoy the game show is that when the contestants miss the answers, the questions go to the audience, and if you answer right you win one of Necon’s “valuable prizes.” I won two prizes this year, as I answered two obscure questions on the films of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.  And I love these valuable little joke prizes because I use them in my middle school classroom throughout the year. I have a wind-up walking brain, for instance, that my middle schoolers adore.

After the game show, it was time for The Infamous Necon Roast. This year’s “victim,” was Matt Bechtel. Hilarious as always, but no details here, because “what happens at Necon, stays at Necon.”

Afterwards it was more socializing on the quad, and more saugies!  Once again I joined my fellow Skeleton Crew members and helped set up the food tables.

And since Necon is a family, tonight we had something extraordinarily special: a wedding! Yes, James Moore married Tessa (Cullie) Seppala in a ceremony presided over by Bracken MacLeod. It was a beautiful ceremony, witnessed by the 200 Necon campers who were all assembled on the quad.

Sunday July 22, 2018

While there were two panels this morning, I missed them after a late night in which I was up to about 2:30 am.

I attended the 11:00 Necon Town Meeting, where all the Necon Olympic medals were handed out for events such as mini golfdarts, foosball, High-Low Jack, and ping pong, as well as various other awards, such as the FEZ’S, those famous Necon caps given out to folks at the con who were deemed “FEZ-worthy.”

The Town Meeting is also the time to look back and say what folks liked and disliked. As usual, there were plenty of likes and pretty much no dislikes.

The hardest part of Necon is saying goodbye to everyone. I tried to say farewell to as many people as I could find, but ultimately, with people leaving various times, it’s impossible to catch everyone.

The good news is that next year is another Necon, another opportunity to spend time with like-minded folks who are more than just good friends. They really are members of an extended family.

Until next year—.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! 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.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. 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- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017) – More a Love Story than a Survival Adventure

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Mountain_Between_Us-poster

Idris Elba is one of my favorite actors working today, but he just can’t seem to find that movie to catapult his career to the next level.

Sure, he was in the THOR movies, as well as PROMETHEUS (2012) and PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he played the villain in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), and co-starred with Matthew McConaughey in this year’s misfire, THE DARK TOWER (2017).  He played Nelson Mandela in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013), and some years back he lent his talents to such horror movies as the remake of PROM NIGHT (2008) and THE UNBORN (2009).  He also supplied the voice for the evil Tiger Shere Khan in the remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).

But none of these movies have allowed Elba to fully utilize his acting chops, and they don’t come close to displaying his talents.  If you want to see Elba at his best, you need to check out the BBC TV series LUTHER (2010-2018), which is a great show, and Elba is phenomenal in it.

Today’s movie, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017), is also not that movie for Idris Elba, but on the other hand, it’s nowhere near as bad as critics are making it out to be.  In fact, it’s rather entertaining, thanks to amiable performances by both its leads, Elba and Kate Winslet.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US opens at a crowded airport, where surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) learns that his flight has been canceled due to a storm, which he finds particularly upsetting because he is trying to get to a surgery to save a young boy. Likewise, journalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) receives the same news, and she’s in a rush because she’s on her way to her wedding.  When Alex overhears Ben’s situation, she approaches him with the suggestion that they charter a small plane together so they can both get to where they are going on time.

Critics have complained that this one is simply not believable, and up to a point, I agree. For example, would Alex really approach a total stranger to charter a plane together? And why?  I assume it’s to save on the cost, but that’s not really explained.  And wouldn’t the small plane still have to deal with the storm?  You’d think, right?

Anyway, they do charter a small plane, flown by a pilot named Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog.  Well, the dog doesn’t fly the plane, but he does make the trip.  The first thing I thought when I laid eyes on Walter was, “Gee, that guy doesn’t look very healthy.  I’m not sure I’d want to get inside a plane flown by him.”  And I would have been right. Moments into their flight, Walter suffers a heart attack, and the plane slams down onto a snowy mountaintop.

Walter dies, but Ben and Alex survive, as does the dog, and they find themselves stranded on top of this snowy mountain in the wilderness, miles away from civilization. Worse yet, Walter did not submit a flight plan, and neither Ben nor Alex had let anyone know they were taking a charter plane.  In short, no one knows where they are.  There will be no rescue team looking for them.

To survive, they’re going to have to rely on each other.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much more a love story than a survival adventure, and that’s why it works. This is not an R-rated survival movie, filled with gritty scenes of bloody injuries and life-threatening encounters.  No, it’s a PG-13 romance about two people trying to survive in a situation where when push comes to shove, they both admit they believe they are going to die, and as such, they do not want to die alone.  Hence, the bond between them grows, and as it grows, their will to survive grows as well.

But the main reason THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US works is the acting of the two leads, Elba and Winslet.  They create two likable real characters, who at the end of the day, you want to see survive, and you don’t mind joining them on their plight through the mountains to find their way back to civilization.

Elba’s Dr. Ben Bass is the cautious, caring man who sees it as his job to ensure that they survive long enough to be rescued.  After the crash, he awakes first, and he immediately sees that Alex has suffered a broken leg. If he were a selfish man, he could have easily left Alex behind and gone off to save himself.

Winslet’s Alex Martin is the feisty journalist.  She believes sitting in the wreckage waiting to be rescued is a dumb idea, and that they need to get moving so they can save themselves.  Ben completely disagrees, and he reminds her that she would not get far in the snow with her broken leg.  But she’s not so easily deterred.  At one point, Ben laments, “Is it so difficult for you just to keep still?”

Since Elba and Winslet are pretty much the entire movie, other than the dog, the film relies heavily on their performances, and they do not disappoint.  I always enjoy Elba, and I also really enjoyed Winslet here, much more than the previous time I saw her, as a shallow Russian villain in the flawed thriller TRIPLE 9 (2016).

I also bought their romance.  Some have complained that it was not realistic, and that with a broken leg, and Ben’s cracked rib, and the fact that Alex was about to get married, and that they were starving and most likely filthy, the idea of a romance should have been the last thing on their minds.  But it worked for me because again, these are two characters who really believed they were not going to make it, and that they were going to die.  It comes down to their not wanting to die alone, and when they fall in love, it’s because they are in the moment, and they want to die in the presence and embrace of another human being.

I enjoyed the way Hany Abu-Assad directed this one.  The pacing is decent, the crash scene jarring enough, and the later sequences of peril just harrowing enough to make them satisfying.  There’s a scary encounter with a mountain lion, a slip by Ben that sends him on a dizzying slide towards a frightening precipice, and a sequence involving some thin thawing ice. And you can’t beat the mountain scenery.

Nothing that happens here is all that intense, but that’s not the emphasis of this movie. It’s about the connection that Ben and Alex make and share.  As such, the lack of intensity is easily forgiven.  The film is less about surviving the elements and more about the need for human contact in the face of death.

What I liked least about THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is it tends to go on a bit near the end.  I would have preferred a tighter conclusion.

J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Charles Martin.  It succeeds in that it creates two amiable characters and gives them realistic dialogue throughout.  Weitz is one of the writers who worked on the screenplay for ROGUE ONE (2016).

While it’s not going to win any awards or shatter box office records, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much better than critics are saying it is, and as such, makes for an enjoyable visit to the movies.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

Travel through time with TIME FRAME, my Debut Science Fiction Novel

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If you like time travel stories and exciting science fiction adventures, you might enjoy my novel TIME FRAME.

It’s my debut science fiction novel and it’s still available both as an EBook from NeconEbooks at http://www.neconebooks.com., and as a print paperback edition at https://www.createspace.com/5487293, or at Amazon.com.

I wrote TIME FRAME with the spirit of time travel movies and TV shows in mind, films like THE TIME MACHINE (1960), TIME AFTER TIME (1979), and any number of STAR TREK episodes.  If you enjoy time travel adventures, chance are you’ll enjoy TIME FRAME.

Writing TIME FRAME was a challenge because it’s a story with multiple timelines and I had to make sure that by the story’s end that they all made sense.  I think they do.  I also wanted to take things as far as possible, to write a story where I took those traditional time travel tropes and blew them out of the water.  Not sure if I succeeded, but the story does include a large explosion on the high seas.

I also didn’t want my science fiction tale to be cold and stoic.  I wanted heated and emotional, which is why I wrote as my main characters a close family, with the thought in mind:  how far would you go to protect your family?  Would you break the rules of time travel to save your loved ones?

This one also started with a single idea. I had recently lost my own grandfather, who I was very close to, and I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that I just wanted to see him one more time.  And so I came up with the single scene of a young man opening his front door and finding his grandfather standing there looking perfectly normal, which the man knew had to be impossible because his grandfather was dead.  This scene was the genesis for TIME FRAME, and I built the story around that, as I thought about possible scenarios that could make this scene true.  What could account for a man who had been dead for several years returning to his loved ones looking happy and healthy again?  The answer became the novel TIME FRAME.

TIME FRAME remains available as an Ebook and can be ordered for $2.99 at www.neconebooks.com.

You can also order a print paperback edition for $14.99 at https://www.createspace.com/5487293, or at Amazon.com, or you can order it directly through me by sending me an email at mjarruda33@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

WHAT I’M READING: SHADOW MAN by Cody McFadyen

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shadow-manWhat I’m Reading – Shadow Man by Cody McFadyen

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

 

One of the benefits of attending NECon every summer is the goody-bag you receive.  What’s a goody bag?  Oh, it’s just a bag filled with books. Free books.

 

Anyway, I’ve been attending NECon since 2001, so as you might imagine, I’ve built up quite a collection from these bags.  I read in too many genres to read all the goody bag books, and so they accumulate, and every once in a while, I snag something off the shelf, most of the time years later, and read it.  This experience always feels like Christmas.

Recently, the book I snagged was Shadow Man (2006) by Cody McFadyen.  I knew nothing about Shadow Man before reading it, nor did I know anything about the author, but I was instantly interested in it because of its main character Smoky Barrett, an FBI agent who hunts serial killers.  McFadyen would go on to write an entire series featuring Smoky Barrett. I was instantly interested because I’ve been working on a novel the past year or so where the main character is also a female FBI Agent.

I enjoyed Shadow Man a lot, especially the lead character of Smoky Barrett.  It’s no surprise that McFadyen wrote an entire series for this character.

 

Smoky Barrett is an FBI agent who specializes in tracking down serial killers, and she’s the best the Bureau’s got.  However, when Shadow Man opens, Barrett is on leave as she recuperates from a devastating traumatic event.  One of the serial killers she had been hunting had broken into her home and in a vicious attack killed her husband and teen daughter, and nearly killed Smoky.

As Smoky returns to work, we meet her brilliant team, who are all experts at what they do. McFadyen does a tremendous job fleshing out these characters, presenting them as fully confident hot shots who are all veterans in the field and have seen it all, and then he goes about terrorizing the living daylight out of them.  The madman in Shadow Man sets his sights on Smoky’s squad and in a relentless onslaught brutalizes them and their loved ones, shaking them to the core.  This makes the novel quite scary, because as a reader, you’re thinking, if these guys are afraid—.

This new serial killer reaches out to Smoky personally and invites her to be the lead investigator on the case.  He grabs her attention by raping, torturing, and murdering her best friend.  He also claims to be a descendant of Jack the Ripper, and as such boldly taunts Smoky and her team, daring them to catch him, in effect saying that like the original Ripper he cannot be caught.

Shadow Man is a gripping novel that stays strong and fresh throughout.  I’m not really a fan of the serial killer story, but I liked this one.  What I liked best about the novel is McFadyen succeeds in making it very scary, and he does this by creating confident top-of-the-food chain FBI investigators, the type of folks who never lose a case, and then he puts them through hell as his serial killer methodically preys on them.  McFadyen excels at describing their fear.  It makes for a very unsettling novel.

Some of the crimes which occur in the story are downright brutal.  A pet dog is dismembered, a teenage girl watches her mother raped, tortured, and gutted, and then is tied to her mother’s mutilated corpse for several days until the police arrive.  As I said, it’s the type of stuff that shakes even the most hardened FBI investigators.  It’s not easy material to read.

McFadyen also does an outstanding job entering the mind of a female lead character.  Smoky’s thoughts and feelings come off as so genuine you’ll swear a woman wrote this novel.

If there’s one drawback to Shadow Man it’s that the identity of the killer, once made known, wasn’t a complete surprise, nor was it anything that made the novel better.

Shadow Man also suffers from a problem I find with lots of stories like this.  So much care goes into writing a formidable villain that it reaches the point where as a reader you almost can’t believe the guy is going to get caught, and when he does get caught, it’s a disappointment.  It seems too easy.

McFadyen is a victim of his own good writing here.  He created such a clever villain I had difficulty wrapping my head around his demise.

That being said, McFadyen does cover all the bases, and everything in the conclusion to this story makes sense.  It’s just a little on the predictable side.

Nitpicking?  Perhaps.

Then again, a different more sinister ending might have made the book too scary.

Nah!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

MISSING REELS By Farran Smith Nehme Is Lighthearted Cinematic Fun

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What I’m Reading – Missing Reels  By Farran Smith Nehme

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDAMissing-Reels - cover

 

I don’t usually read romances, even of the screwball comedy variety, but being a film buff, I decided to check out Missing Reels  by Farran Smith Nehme, a lighthearted story about a young woman living in New York City who happens to be a huge fan of silent films.  She discovers that she’s living next door to a former silent film actress who starred in a now lost silent movie directed by a controversial German director.

It’s New York City in the late 1980s, and young Ceinwein (pronounced KINE-wen) lives in an apartment with her two gay roommates, Jim and Talmadge and works a minimum wage job at a vintage clothes shop.  There she meets Matthew, an Englishman who’s a postdoc working with a Math professor at NYU.  He’s at the store shopping with his Italian girlfriend, but when Matthew shows an interest in Ceinwein, romance blooms.

Around the same time, Ceinwein engages her elderly neighbor Miriam in a conversation and learns that she once starred in a long lost silent movie.  As a silent film fanatic, Ceinwein takes it upon herself to search for this long lost movie, thinking that if she can discover a copy, Miriam would be thrilled to see it again, but this is a misplaced assumption since Miriam’s feelings toward the film and the man who directed it are much more complicated than Ceinwein ever imagined.

The search for this elusive silent movie serves as a backdrop for the romance, as Ceinwein enlists Matthew’s aid in tracking down the missing film.  The deeper Ceinwein looks, the more complicated her relationships become with both Matthew and Miriam.

I really enjoyed Missing Reels, mostly because the story centers more on Ceinwein’s quest to find the missing film than on her romance with Matthew.  I found the whole search for the movie, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, fascinating and enjoyed the story the most whenever Ceinwein was actively looking for it.  It made for a satisfying detective story.

The numerous conversations throughout the novel about movies, old movies in particular, were engaging and thoroughly entertaining.

One of the reasons I wasn’t crazy about the love story is that I didn’t particularly like Matthew’s character.  When we first meet him, he’s with his Italian girlfriend, yet he’s romancing Ceinwein almost immediately after, with no mention to Ceinwein that his other relationship is over.  I thought he gave off a bad vibe from the get-go, and frankly I had a difficult time understanding what Ceinwein saw in him.

Likewise, the elderly Miriam is continuously rude to Ceinwein and is not supportive in her search for the missing movie in the least.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Ceinwein was so interested in finding the movie for this lady.  It seems to me she was more interested in finding the film for herself.

Unlike Matthew and Miriam, Ceinwein is an affable character, and I enjoyed reading about her.   She’s witty and funny, and she’s confident yet vulnerable, traits that make her very attractive.

I also liked her roommates, Jim and Talmadge, and whenever they’re in the story, the book livens up quite a bit.

The story takes place in the 1980s presumably to include an aging silent film star as one of its main characters.  Plus, others who worked on THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO are still alive in the story, making them available for Ceinwein to interview.  This would not have been the case if the story had a contemporary 2015 setting.  Other than this, the 1980s time period adds little value to the tale, nor does the novel do much to recapture the feeling of that decade.

Missing Reels is an enjoyable light read, especially for fans of old movies.  Ceinwein’s search for the missing silent film and the discussions that go along with it provide satisfying material for the hardcore movie enthusiast.  Plus, a lot of the snappy dialogue between Ceinwein and Matthew is reminiscent of the dialogue in the old black and white comedies, films featuring the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and William Powell and Myrna Loye.

And for those of you who like love stories, Missing Reels satisfies as well, as Ceinwein is head over heels in love with Matthew, a man who by his own admission is not interested in leaving his Italian girlfriend, but as is the case with so many classic movie romances, the strong-willed heroine will not be denied.

A novel that hearkens back to the romantic comedies of yesteryear, Missing Reels provides both a lighthearted love story and a compelling account of one film buff’s quest to locate a long lost silent movie in one tightly written package that doesn’t miss a beat.

—Michael