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Wonder is Everyone’s Extraordinary Life

“Wonder” is a movie which should appeal to everyone – young and old – movie lovers and sometimes movie goers – and it is perfect for the holidays because it tells a universal tale of hope and good will.  Only a curmudgeon would take issue with this film.

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) stars as  a 10-year-old science genius and Star Wars fanatic who has endured dozens of operations that still can’t disguise the facial abnormalities that call for unavoidable stares from anyone who sees him.  You’ve been there; your mother tells you not to stare at the odd-looking or strange-acting person who shares an elevator with you.  But you can’t help yourself.

That’s how it is when people see Auggie.  His face is pocked and puffed up in places where it should not be – and he has these little tags where his ears belong.  To his mother Isabel’s credit (played by Julia Roberts), he has been home-schooled from the beginning and is probably more intellectually ready for fifth grade than most seventh graders.  For the first time in his life, Auggie is going to attend public school – granted it is a private academy – but what other school could adequately serve a budding science guru?

Auggie spends a lot of time hiding under his astronaut helmet and his fantasies tend to run to antics in a spacesuit.  We love him for that.  But when he finally takes off the helmet, the school is not quite ready for Auggie – even though the principal has selected a trio of classmates whose job it is to make Auggie feel normal in a not so normal environment.

The loneliness, isolation, and disassociation are things most school kids have endured, but for Auggie it is accelerated.  Auggie’s teen sister Via “Olivia”(Izabela Vidovic), has spent her own, supposedly “normal” life living in the shadow of a brother who pulls her parents’ focus so completely that Via feels invisible.  To her credit and incredible sense of maturity, she still adores her little brother and is the better grown up for it.  It takes a special courage for Auggie’s classmates to decide to join Auggie at the cafeteria table.  And part of their doing so is attributed to their own awakening to a sense of self and empowerment not dependent on the flock.

Auggie’s dad, Nate (Owen Wilson) is a steady and calming voice of reason for his son and his family.  His gentle sense of humor and his insistence that he and his son are look-alike handsome dudes is both heartwarming and a stroke of brilliance.  What would any of us have given to discover in middle school that it was a blessing to stand out from the crowd?  Could we have ever imagined that?

This is clearly a three handkerchief movie.  But that is not a failing.  I think it is so powerful because it strikes so close to home.  We have all been there and can identify with almost every character in the movie.   But what sets this film apart from other films which touch the heart is the casting.  This is perhaps the best cast movie of the season.  It is truly a marvel and we viewers are so lucky to have seen it.  It clearly warrants more than one viewing.

Murder on the Orient Express – a Slow Death for the Viewer – 2 Stars

Murder On The Orient Express

Basically, this film was less about the sudden murder of a passenger and more about the slow and painful death of the viewer.  I was looking forward to this movie because, even though I knew the solution to the mystery, I wanted to see a contemporary Hollywood presentation of this well-known Agatha Christie book (1934).

Before railing about the movie’s shortcomings, however, let me start on a positive note.  The scenery and the cinematography are positively stunning.  In the many scenes showing the old steam engine painting a trail of smoke atop a breath-taking, snowy countryside, it made me want to be on the train and share the wonderful adventure along those mountainous precipices.  Then, too, the authentic costumes brought us dead-center in the middle of this post-Lindbergh era.  The back story of the book and film are loosely based on the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh’s 20 month-old son, Charles, Jr.

Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as the enigmatic Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot, the film spent entirely too much time on Poirot who positively talked too much – way more than Christie’s pensive and eternally pondering Poirot.  The Poirot of old was much more subtle in his self-aggrandizement than the long winded Branagh.  As a consequence, we missed out on the development of the other characters on the journey – which is shameful considering it was such an impressive cast:  Jonny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Tom Bateman.  But, Branagh chose to make this a film more about himself than any of the other characters.  As a result, we never really get to hate, love, like or even identify with the rest of the passengers on this monumental trip.  

There is simply no way to get around comparing this film with the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot and Richard Widmark as the hateful financier Ratchett – the victim whose murder Poirot must solve.  That British film, directed by Sidney Lumet, brought together an all-star cast: Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Ingrid Bergman – which earned Bergman an Oscar for her performance.  But the beauty of the 1974 version was that these stars were given latitude to grow and show who they were in the characters portrayed and their position in this intricate plot.  Surely, there is no award winning performance remotely possible in this 2017 offering when most of the cast had mere cameo-like appearances (although, who knows how sterile this film season might be?).

Jonny Depp did an admirable job of playing the unscrupulous gangster Ratchett, but he died rather quickly and Branagh was center-stage for the rest of the film.  I confess, that I may have drifted off for a bit in the middle of this too-long film – frankly, it is hard to remember as the scenes droned on and on with quick flash-backs to the kidnapping at the core of the mystery.

While this film is visually most appreciated on the big screen, I would save it for the DVD version, where you can put it on “pause” while you refresh your popcorn and beverages.

Thor: Ragnarok is Passing Entertainment Hey, It’s Comic Book Stuff – not Gone with the Wind

3 Stars

As successful franchise movies go,   there have been over 25 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies – a few animated, but the ones I have relished have been with live performers.  The latest offering by Marvel is “Thor: Ragnarok,” a semi-engaging film with a new villain.

Chris Hemsworth plays the absurdly handsome Thor, the God of Thunder.  But his family tree has sprung an annihilating fruit:  sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who has been imprisoned and secreted away by Daddy, Odin (Anthony Hopkins).

A little Norse mythology is needed to understand at least the title of this film.  Ragnarok is a series of natural disasters which will lead to the death of several Norse gods, extensive floods and general mayhem and the ultimate renewal of the world as a much better and more hopeful place.

In the current Thor movie (number 3), Thor’s long-lost sister Hela is Hela-bent on bringing about the destruction of Asgard.  Her long seclusion has resulted in a powerful culmination of her extraordinary powers – one of which is to crumble with her bare hands her brother Thor’s magical hammer.   Odin is in self-imposed exile somewhere, having left his beloved Asgard to the hedonistic rule of his son Loci (Tom Hiddleston).  Odin is not coming back, but Hela certainly is.  In a series of misadventures, Thor finds himself on some other planet, a captive of the sinister Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who entertains himself with gladiator battles.  Perhaps you’ve seen in the movie clips the scene where Thor rejoices when he finds he is to face his old pal The Incredible Hulk – who, alas, has no recollection of the former relationship.

There are a few Marvel superstars who make cameo appearances in the often witty movie:  Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – the counter to the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), and Surtur (Clancy Brown) to name a few.  Others from Thor movies past are also rejuvenated: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson).

The film is not electric and not always fast paced.  But it is witty with the punchlines delivered deadpan at sometimes lightning speed.  There are some great new characters which add to the mix.  Tessa Thompson plays a splendid Valkyrie with lots of sass.  While not exactly new to the Marvel family, Korg is a fabulously funny rock man (as in stones and bolders) voiced by director Taika Waititi.  Waititi is a very funny man himself and we are so glad he gave Korg so much space in this movie.

It’s a Marvel film (we’re talking comic books here) – so don’t analyze, just enjoy.

The Meyerowitz Stories – a Worthy Netflix Offering

3 ½ Stars

This Netflix-made film was a revelation to me.  First, I had never knowingly watched a Netflix film, although I knew they existed.  My resistance to watching them is that I figured they were probably not as good as those from the major Hollywood studios.  But “The Meyerowitz Stories” was my initiation into a very promising world of film.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding” – 2007), the spirit of the film is a little reminiscent of Woody Allen.  A Manhattan Jewish sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), has not achieved the notoriety that he feels he is entitled to from the art world.  He has been a terrible father to his three children – having abandoned son Danny (Adam Sandler) and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) to move onto his next wife Julia (Candice Bergen) with whom he sired son Matthew (Ben Stiller).  Although Matthew had the physical proximity of his father, he never had his approval – so self-absorbed has been Harold’s focus.

Daddy’s need for adulation and affirmation has never been satisfied.  Throughout the lives of his children he has shortchanged them by demeaning their aspirations in favor of his own, such that son Danny abandoned what may have been a promising career in music in favor of being a stay-at-home dad.  In that regard, Danny is clearly the dad his own father never was – he is nurturing and very connected to his only daughter Eliza (Grace Van Pattten) who is about to enter Bard College in up-state New York, where her grandfather taught art before his retirement.

Harold is now married to his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who is arguably the world’s worst cook, although she is enamored with haute cuisine.  A simple meatloaf may, at least, be edible.  But a bouillabaisse where the clams are sealed shut and the swordfish raw, just doesn’t hack it.

Son Matthew is in New York on business – he is a successful Los Angeles business manager with an impressive client list.  But we never get to hear about Matthew’s success, because dad manages to turn all conversations to focus on himself.   When Harold does speak to his children it is always in a prominent passive aggressive manner – thereby continuing to undermine his children even in their middle age.  A true narcissist cannot champion the accomplishments of another – even his own children.

The animosity Harold feels at the success of his colleague L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch) at the latter’s exhibition is palpable.  Only grand-daughter Eliza has escaped the scars of the Meyerowicz curse.  Oddly, we meet one of Harold’s former students who has nothing but high praise for Harold whom she credits with shaping her life.

There are plenty of laughs in this film and a great deal of irony that is all too familiar.  Consider that the attending physician Dr. Soni (Sakina Jaffrey) is about to put Harold into a chemically induced coma just before leaving for a 4 month vacation.  Of course, the only medical personnel with any knowledge of Harold’s case history is nurse Pam (Gayle Rankin) who is summarily transferred to another floor.

But it is in adversity that mercy triumphs.  Circumstances ultimately drive Harold’s three children to form a bond which they never had in childhood and which promises to shape their future as family.  It is this final bond which promises triumph in the end – even though the past can never be healed – merely understood.

Only the Brave – A Stunning True Story

Only the Brave

With thousands of acres of trees and underbrush succumbing to raging wildfires, particularly in the northwestern United States today, the film “Only the Brave” is both timely and enlightening.  Now, rather than see these out of control blazes ravaging our countryside as a moment captured on TV news, we gain a new perspective into the perils they pose to wildlife, property and human – but especially to the men who fight them.

“Only the Brave” relates the incredible story of a real life band of 20 Arizona firefighters known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “Hotshots” is the name given to the qualified teams of firefighters who man the front lines of forest fires, who travel the country trying to control these monsters that consume everything in their path at terrific and often incalculable speed.  One minute a blaze is on the far off horizon with a wind clearly blowing in the opposite direction, and in the next moment people are fleeing their homes, grateful to be escaping with their lives.

In real time, it is somewhere around 2005 when we first see meet this rag-tag band of firefighters who would later make dark history.  The team began as a smallish crew of firefighters within the city fire department of Prescott (pronounced “Pres-kitt), Arizona. When it reached full certification to fight wildfires anywhere in the U.S., it was the only municipal hotshot crew in the country. Most crews are run by larger agencies such as the Forest Service.  My understanding is that the film stays mostly true to the actual facts – particularly in the climactic depiction.

Director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON:Legacy”) does a masterful job of leading up to the climax of the film at the Yarnell Hill fire of 2013.  Along the way, the movie mainly focuses on the fellowship of the Granite Mountain crew – their high jinx, family barbecues, their families, and their unwavering sense of duty when it calls in the wee hours of the morning or the middle of the night.

Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the superintendent (“Supe”) of the crew.  Marsh has a special sense of the ways of wildfires, clearly gained as a result of his years of experience, but also an almost intuitive understanding of the dark and unpredictable heart of a wildfire.  He is a recovering substance abuser and takes a chance on a young recovering addict, nicknamed “Donut” (Miles Teller) who is determined to turn his life around facing a new future as a father.

Under Marsh’s guidance and with the assistance of Fire Chief Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) Marsh’s crew passes the practical test at an actual fire to become certified as a hotshot crew.  Behind these men are the wives and women who wait at home – Jennifer Connelly plays Marsh’s wife who runs a ranch for rescued horses.  But the difficult and lonely lives of the women are only touched upon – because this is a story about the men.  Each of the original 20-man Prescott team is represent in this film – which makes the film even more compelling.  Brolin is masterful in his role as the brooding and often violent Eric Marsh.  Of all the characters, he seems the most compelling.  How did he get to be this man?  What depth of reserves does he reach into to make battle with these willful fires?

Credit must go to cinematographer Claude Miranda (“Life of Pi”) whose portrayal of the devastating power of wildfires is masterful.  No doubt, computer generated imagery (CGI) was used, but it is hard to believe that the terrifying fires we witness on screen are not actual footage of these all-consuming monsters.

Although the ending of the film may not represent Hollywood at its most satisfying, the movie will leave you with a sense of awe and reverence for an occupation that few of us knew much about, nor would we dare to choose for it ourselves or our loved ones.  This is one of the best films I have seen this season.

 

MARSHALL – the Man; the Movie – Bigger than Life

 

Marshall Movie Poster

4 Stars

If the real Thurgood Marshall was as cocky, handsome, driven, talented and intelligent as the man Chadwick Boseman portrays in “Marshall,” he was clearly bigger than life.  Rather than focus on Marshall’s landmark US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which brought desegregation to public schools, Director Reginald Hudlin choses a lesser known case to showcase Marshall’s legal prowess and an incredibly talented cast.

In a very white Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941, a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), is accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white Greenwich society woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).  Marshall was then a New York City lawyer working for the NAACP – in fact, he was practically the only lawyer working for the organization and was shunted across the map of America fighting for the rights of blacks who were often on trial simply because they were black.  Nowhere was the racial hostility more apparent than in that dusty Connecticut courtroom as the self-righteous and socially connected sitting judge (James Cromwell) refused to allow some uppity black lawyer from New York to argue before his bench – decreeing that only attorneys licensed to practice in the State of Connecticut could appear before this self-important body.  As a consequence, Co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance defense lawyer who had never tried a criminal case before, was forced to argue the case.

The slow evolution of a potent relationship is forged between the unlikely co-counsels.  Where Marshall is confident and self-assured, Friedman is frightened and halting, and justly so since Friedman is in way over his head.  It is a masterful case, as so many court dramas are that make it to the screen.  But this was real life.  The parallel between the “nigger” lawyer and the “kike” lawyer is not over played.  Both men were maligned, curse, threatened, beaten and condemned because of their minority status and that they dared to take on the white establishment.  The year is 1941, and Hitler was annihilating German Jews with impunity.  As a consequence of this case, Friedman went on to become an advocate and voice for civil rights causes.  Of course, Marshall went on to become the first African-American justice of the United States Supreme Court when he was appointed to that post by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.  Prior to his tenure in the high court, Thurgood Marshall represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.

This is a feel good movie.  It’s the sort of film where people applaud the screen while credits are rolling at the end.  As a period piece it is very well done – right down to Marshall’s two-toned shoes and silk pocket square. It is also a remarkable slice of life representing a dark time in our country’s history but with a hint of a promise of a better tomorrow.  I guess it is this promise that audiences applaud.

 

Blade Runner 2049 – Better than original 3 1/2 Stars

It’s safe to say that the updated version of “Blade Runner” over the 1982 original, and its several iterations thereafter, is a total triumph.  The story is more nuanced; the action is fiercer; the sets are brighter (even in the persistent rain); and the acting overall is just better.

The original story is simple enough.  The year is 2019 (yes, a mere two years hence). In this future, the powerful Tyrell Corporation has bioengineered synthetic humans known as replicants to work in off-Earth colonies.  Well, the Earth is a mess: pollution hides the sun and there is constant rain.  When a fugitive group of replicants escape back to Earth, burnt-out Los Angeles cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) accepts one last assignment to hunt them down. During his investigations, Deckard meets Rachael (Sean Young), a stunning advanced replicant who causes him to question his mission.  Needless to say, Deckard takes out the runaway replicants, but he then disappears with Rachael – hence, the sequence.

It is now 2049 and Los Angeles is worse than ever.  Trees and other living remnants of fruitful life have long since died and snowplows are used to keep the streets clean.  Mostly it rains.  But now, the city is using replicants to act as police, since they have been engineered to be more obedient.  Ryan Gossling plays the replicant LAPD cop (simply known as K) whose job is to round up outdated replicant models and do away with them.  In his search, he discovers the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth – the ID shows it is Deckard’s replicant lover Rachael.  This could be a new horror for the Earth – replicants that reproduce.  K’s boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) assigns him to track down the offspring and annihilate it.  Also seeking the secrets of the replicant offspring is industrialist Wallace (Jared Leto) who assigns his replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track the tracker.

In a great side story, K is haunted by some troubling images.  He is unsure what may be true memory or simply memory implants.  Seeking the missing child and his own “identity” K visits a Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory designer who lives in sealed bubble.  She tells K that his recollection of childhood actually occurred.  This leads K to suspect that he might be Rachael’s son.  K is finally led to the secret lair of ex-cop Rick Deckard – a plush, empty Las Vegas casino.  Once discovered, both Deckard and K are sought out by conflicting forces.

Here I leave you.  Is K the missing child of Deckard and Rachael?  You will want to see this stunning movie to find out.