I finally saw “Moonlight,” and although it is a significant film, I am not sure that it deserves the hyper-accolades it has received.  The subject alone makes it noteworthy: an African-American boy growing up in the ghetto of Miami, living with a drug-addicted mother who turns tricks to feed her habit.  If this were not enough to bring compassion to the mix, the boy discovers he is gay.

We see Chiron through two stages of his youth and his emergence into adulthood.  To my mind, the first part of the story is the most compelling.  An eight year-old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) – called Little – is constantly picked upon by his peers – they chase him, beat him up when they can catch him, and constantly sling threats and slurs at him.  Chiron is not safe in his own home where his mother (Naomi Harris) screams at him and often ejects him from the apartment so she can entertain customers, or in school where his fellow students torture him, or on the streets where the neighborhood boys stalk him.   He is befriended by his mother’s drug supplier, Juan (Mahershala Ali) – an African-American from Cuba – and his compassionate girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae).   It is an odd alliance, and we are grateful that some adult has taken an interest in Chiron.

In the second part of the film, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is in high school and the same kids who abused him as a little kid are still taking it out on him in the halls and playgrounds.  By this time Juan is dead – we don’t know how.  But Theresa still keeps a room for Chiron at her place and sees that he has a little spending money.  Alas, when Chiron finally tires of being beaten to a pulp by the thugs at school, he turns on his primary assailant and is carted off to juvenile hall.  The injustice continues.  By this point in his life, Chiron has figured out his sexual identity and has one liaison with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

We next see Chiron (Trivante Rhodes) – now called Black – as a pumped up twenty-something who has worked his way up in the drug trade and living in Atlanta, where his mother has now kicked her habit and is keeping straight by working in a drug rehab facility.

The theme of this film is an old one – it is about loneliness and isolation – and hopelessness in a world where there is little cause for rejoicing and not a lot to look forward to.  It’s about a lifestyle few of us can recognize – and those who recognize it, wish to forget.  Is there redemption?  Kevin (Andre Holland) comes back into Chiron’s life and seems to be the only real human contact Chiron has made.  Finally, there is someone in the world who can identify with his aloneness and can comfort him.  Small grace for a life of isolation, torture and despair.

The acting is excellent all around.  The script pretty much tells the story without any dishonesty.   This is not a pretty story where things work out in the end.  Frankly, we don’t know where the end is in this script.

The discomfort in the film is not just the subject matter but the long, awful pauses in dialog and action.  In this film, the most poignant dialogue is uttered by the drug dealer and his girlfriend.  They have the only clean and tidy apartment and are the only people we see eating regular meals together.  They are the family.  They are the people who are our role models.  How can this be?

The single aspect of the film that bothered me most was the photography and the breaks between the three segments of the movie.  The screen simply goes black; then a new segment begins.  This is followed by a notice that we are moving into another part of Chiron’s life:  Chiron i; Chiron ii; etc.  We can get all of that without the notice, and we recognize that Chiron has gotten older.  We don’t need a dark screen to comprehend it, or a marquee to hit us over the head.

This is an interesting movie and worth seeing, especially now that it is on DVD and streaming.  But, except for the acting and the theme, to me it is a bit disappointing.  I wish they had a better cameraman, a better script, and a slicker way of segueing into the three distinct parts.  If they had, it could have really been a “Best Motion Picture” for which it was nominated.

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There is simply no way to avoid comparing the film “Life” with its iconic 1979 predecessor “Alien.”  This is unfortunate because “Life” should be able to stand on its own merit, but it lacks the shear horrific freshness of “Alien.” The cast of “Life” is less iconic than its predecessor (think, Sigourney Weaver) with a script that at first renders the viewer a bit comatose.  It takes a while for the film to warm up to its promise to scare us.

The story takes place on an international space station where a six-member crew successfully snags a space probe returning from Mars with a soil sample aboard.   Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the chief biologist who is charged with seeing if this sample has any potential for life.  Using the proven scientific method of trial and error, Derry manages to bring a small sample of the material to life by adjusting the temperature and the gas elements – all suggested by the rest of the crew and not by the noted biologist.  It’s a kind of round table discussion of what might work.  Frankly, I expected more from the biologist.

The small organism clearly shows signs of life – but not in the ordinary way presupposed.   Each cell of the organism contains a myocyteneuron and photoreceptor, all at the same time. The British Quarantine Officer, Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), describes the organism as “all muscle, all brain and all eye.”  Therein lay the problem.  The tiny organism may be smarter and stronger than anyone anticipated.  But this is an incredible find – the first sign of any extraterrestrial life.  What a possible boon to mankind.  Everyone on earth is so excited about the discovery that some American school children have named the tiny organism Calvin.

Alas, due to a lab atmospheric failure, Calvin suddenly seems to go dormant.  Biologist Derry has taken a keen interest in Calvin, identifying with it almost as his own personal creation.  He is, in fact, afraid that Calvin may be dying.  So he proposes probing Calvin with a small jolt of electricity.  To everyone’s delight, Calvin responds and comes to life.  Unfortunately, Calvin has now turned both aggressive and hostile.  It latches onto Derry’s hand, crushing it in the process.  By its own stunning intelligence, Calvin escapes the lab where it was isolated and there is a mad dash for safety by the crew.  There are casualties which are somewhat graphic.

By now everyone is fully aware of just how dangerous Calvin has become.  With each death, Calvin is growing in size, strength and intelligence.  Calvin thinks quickly and can easily identify the kinks in the space station’s armor.  Through a medical fluke, the team left in the space station is actually able to track Calvin’s movements both inside and outside the station and they must think at least as quickly as this lethal organism.  Following the little blip on the screen which is Calvin, the crew can observe the horrible thinking of Calvin, even when it is outside the space station.  Just when we are anticipating a rescue by a Soyuz capsule sent by Earth Command, the station is deliberately bumped into outer space.  Apparently, Earth has comprehended the horror of this organism and wants to keep it in outer space.

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have tried to create characters with unique personalities and foibles with some success.  Biologist Derry has no use of his legs which is not a factor in space.  But his flaw is that he is so enamored with his beloved creature that he failed to grasp its inherent danger.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the chief medical doctor David Jordan who has been at the space station for so long that he has no real desire to return to the painful trials of life on earth.  Throughout the film, he wanders around in a dream-like state, coming alive only when in imminent danger.  Olga Dihovichnaya plays Katerina Golovkina, the Russian commander of the space station, but we never get a real sense of who she is or what she is all about.   Hiroyuki Sanada is the Japanese systems engineer whose wife delivers a baby while the new daddy plays in space.  He seems like a nice guy, but there is really not much life in him – no pun intended, as he is an early victim.  Ryan Reynolds really can’t be faulted for the way he played the part of American pilot Roy Adams because there was little substance to the character.  I would have liked it if I had more empathy for any of these characters – all of whom were self-sacrificing, noble people.

To the writers’ credit, there is an interesting turn of events at the end of the film – and I have no intention of spoiling what, for me, was the best part of the film.  As classic space horror movies go, this film seems about average, and I like pondering how Swedish director Daniel Espinosa (2012 “Safe House”) got all of his characters to float throughout the film – they are all floating around in stocking feet.  The film is worth a look, not because of the acting or the script, but because of the adventure the film suggests.




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“Beauty and the Beast” is a delightful, fresh take on an old story.  This is a story as old as time, or certainly as old as 1740, when French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve first published the epic fairy tale.  Since then, the tale has been retold in opera, musicals, ballet and, yes, cartoon (see Disney’s classic animated 1991 version).

For these reasons it is hard to imagine how anyone could create a new version of an old narrative.  But that is precisely what Disney has accomplished in this film. Only Disney Studios could meld live performance and animation so seamlessly that the animated characters seem as real as the live characters and intersperse marvelous music that advances the story rather than impedes it.  The cast is excellent, with Emma Watson (Belle) and Dan Stevens (Prince/Beast) playing the title roles with grace, spirit, heart, and an interaction that is captured on screen as never before – so much of their poignant exchanges can be seen in their eyes and facial expressions – something not easily captured in animation.  Looking into the piercing blue eyes of Stevens, even as the Beast, could easily melt a romantic’s heart.

As a reminder, the story involves a spell cast by a sorceress upon a pompous and self-indulgent prince, turning him into a beast, and exiling him and some of his entourage to a grim castle hidden in a forest of endless winter.  Naturally, only the true love of a woman can break the spell and return the prince within – and time is running out.  Belle is an unconventional independent girl living in a thoroughly provincial village with her father Maurice, superbly played by Kevin Kline, and she is relentlessly stalked by the boorish and narcissistic Gaston (Luke Evans) who fancies her as his wife.  Comic relief is provided by Gaston’s sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) who encourages Gaston’s delusions of grandeur.  Maurice gets lost in his travels and is taken captive by the Beast.  Belle rescues her father and, in the process, becomes a prisoner herself.  The rest of the tale is about redemption through love – with a lot of wonderful music and dancing thrown in.

What sets this film apart from other versions of the story is the delightful collection of animated characters whose antics and interactions with each other and the live cast make them pop off the screen.  Emma Thompson is the nurturing teapot, Mrs. Potts, with Ewan McGregor as the dexterous candelabra, Stanley Tucci as the harpsichord, Audra McDonald as the operatic wardrobe, Ian McKellen as the brave mantel clock, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the feather duster and Nathan Mack as Chip, Mrs. Potts’s teacup son.  All these household items have fallen under the enchantment of the sorceress and wish to return to their human form.  Luckily for the audience, they get to act out a lot before anything like that is imminent.

The music is both energetic and enchanting.  “Be Our Guest” in the opening scene is a choreographic masterpiece, as is the final dance sequence.  The Beast’s plaintive song “Evermore” is particularly poignant, as he sings from the precipice of his castle.  Of course, the title song “Beauty and the Beast” as song by Thompson and “How Does a Moment Last Forever”, sung by Watson, are classically beautiful.  As with most Disney films, the settings are so much a fabric of the film that they easily transport us to those foreign, mysterious and sometimes terrible places.  Simply put, the film is beautiful.

Tribute must be paid to director Bill Condon and writers Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos for this refreshing version of an old song.  Speaking of songs, the original music was composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman with lyrics by Tim Rice.  However, rather than reviving all the music of the Broadway show, Menken created four new songs for this film.

Although this is a film ostensibly targeted for children, it is a classic that any movie-goer would relish.  I found my audience of mostly children a bit restless in the beginning, but when attention was focused on the Beast, they seemed to settle down.  For adults, I recommend seeing this in the theater at a later hour, perhaps during a weekday, when you can immerse yourself in the magic and enchantment of this Disney masterpiece and perhaps shed an unabashed tear or two.  A word of advice:  stay for the credits at the end of the movie where the animated characters are identified with the live actors who contributed the voices in a fashion that is pure Disney.




A United Kingdom showtimes and tickets

“A United Kingdom” is an epic story.  What makes it both shocking and engaging is that it based on facts that few Americans can probably remember and most Brits might choose to forget.   When the king of England abdicated his throne to be with Wallace Simpson, the woman he loved, the couple faded into oblivion.  But when the lovers in “A Kingdom United” stood together, their union had far-reaching appeal and material consequences.  Their love was so powerful that it birthed a nation.

When the film opens, Prince Seretse Khama  (David Oyelowo) is completing his schooling in London in 1947.  He is also the native heir apparent to the British protectorate Bechuanaland in southern Africa.  When he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamond Pike), a white London office worker, at a church social, the attraction between the two jumps off the screen and only intensifies as the film progresses.   It never diminishes throughout the film, which is a good thing because this love bond is the glue that holds the couple and a burgeoning nation together.

Against the advice of Ruth’s racist parents, Seretse’s racist uncle who is running Bechuanaland, and both the British and South African governments, the couple wed.   Once back in Africa, the union between the two lovers is a hard sell to everyone.  The countrymen and women are dubious of having a white queen.  Seretse’s sister and aunt are both unwelcoming and rude to Ruth.  Uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) does not want to confirm kingship on Seretse unless he divorces Ruth.  But Seretse decides to put the vote to the people who support his monarchy and their white queen.  Rather than cause overt fighting between the two factions of the family, the uncle moves off with his followers, leaving Seretse and Ruth to work matters out.

But this union is very unsettling to the British.  They make covert and overt threats to both Seretse and Ruth.  To add intrigue, it seems that a mining company has come to this African country in the hope of finding diamonds or other precious minerals as were discovered in its neighboring South Africa.  There is a question as to who will own the minerals if the king does not rule.  The Brits devise a plan to get the couple back to London in order to ban Ruth from her newly adopted country.  But Ruth and Seretse see through this transparent plan and determine that Seretse will go to London alone and Ruth will stay in Africa.  By this time, Seretse’s supporters and his sister have warmed to Ruth and vow to protect her.

The British government has other plans once Seretse gets to London.  They exile him from his homeland for a term of five years.  This, they say, is at the behest of Uncle Tshekedi, although one wonders.  There is much maneuvering of policies and politics, and it is all very gripping and appalling at the same time.  Even Winston Churchill weighs in on the issue – and I will not tell you the extent of his betrayal.

This is a powerful film with incredibly fine acting on the parts of all players, but especially the Oscar-worthy performances of Oyelowo and Pike.  Their love relationship is palpable and totally convincing – since it is either the stuff that will tear a nation apart or the glue that will hold it together.  It is that compelling.

The intrigue and the arrogance of the British government during the age of its waning world dominance adds a great deal to the success of the script – ostensibly based in reality.  To the south of the republic that would become Botswana, apartheid is a novel and persuasive concept.  All of these factions weigh in on this couple and their people.  You don’t need to brush up on your history to relate to this film.  It is about the promise of a more egalitarian future for all people and a break from paternalism in every form.  But mostly, it is about the power of love.  We can all understand that.

The photography is extraordinary.  The costuming is excellent.  You are there in mid century London and some other century Botswana.


“Sing Street” is sweet, energetic, nostalgic and entertaining.  If you like 80’s music, it is a must see.  If you still believe in teen love, you need to see it.  If you love Irish films, you will enjoy this.

“Sing Street” was released in April 2016 and probably breezed through the theaters for several reasons: it is not USA made, so had little hype; it is about teens and a band (not thematically universal); it has original music; you never heard of the cast.

“Sing Street” is about a 16 year old boy we’ll call Cosmo – that’s what his girlfriend calls him.  Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) lives at home in Dublin with his parents who are constantly bickering, his sister who dreams of being an architect and his older brother Brendan, who is a college and life drop-out, but a fount of wisdom.

Financial circumstances force Cosmo from his wonderful and costly Jesuit school to move to a scabby religious school run by the Christian Brothers and a priest (a guy in a dress) who is cruel and unimaginative.  Cosmo decides to form a band for which talent is not a requirement.  His brother Brendan (Jack Raynor) is a contemporary music aficionado with volumes of LP’s to prove it and a real sense of what is au currant.

Cosmo meets 16 year old Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and is determined to impress her.  So he gathers a group of other boys and forms a band.  He writes music and sings songs that are mostly about his love of Raphina and he encourages her to film a few videos of the music.  Raphina has dreams of being a model and moving to London.

There is a lot of 80’s music, which is pretty good.  And the filming of this DVD is quite good.  I love the easy way these kids have of relating to each other, when they are not being bullied by the clergy and the juvenile delinquents.

This is an uplifting film, and you will enjoy both the getting there as well as the arrival.  Save it for a night when you need a lift and still remember how to grove when you dance.  There are some really good dance sequences in this film.  Leave it to the Irish!





Groundhog Day – How to be a better Person

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Of all the movies I have seen over the years – and the many I have seen several times over – my absolute favorite of all time is “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.  It is a totally hilarious comedy, but the underlying theme is both ambitious and monstrously positive – no matter how big a jerk you are, and no matter how untalented and pedestrian your life, you have a chance to be a lot better – given enough time and resources.

Murray plays Phil Collins, a Pittsburgh TV-meteorologist, whose ego is so enormous that he is unable to have empathy for anyone (other than himself) and is clueless regarding his pitiful state.  His ambitions far exceed his talent and he has the impression that he is somehow misplaced in this western Pennsylvania boondock.  In fact, Phil can’t wait to escape the small town mentality of this or any other backwater hamlet.  So when he is given the assignment to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the fourth year in a row, he is less than enthusiastic and hopes his sojourn lasts no more than a single night.  Alas, through some act of divine circumstance, Phil gets to spend many, many nights in this hamlet – more nights than anyone can imagine – as Phil repeatedly gets to live the same day over and over again.

Here’s the aspect about this movie that I absolutely love.  If I got to live the same day over and over again, how long would it take me to get it right?  I love to ponder this question.

Phil and his new producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) set off for Punxsutawney on February first, the day before Groundhog Day, with cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), and the team is ready to cover the festivities of the historic day.  Legend has it that if Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, there will be six extra weeks of winter.  Although a storm is threatened when the new crew leaves Pittsburgh, Phil predicts that the storm will miss the area.  Instead, blizzard-like conditions cause road closures and Phil is forced to spend another night in the groundhog’s hamlet.  Alas, he awakes in the morning, not to snow and mayhem, but to the same Groundhog Day exactly as it happened the day before, complete with the same cast of characters and events.

Stuck in the same day over and over, Phil first tries to capitalize on his fortune by turning to crime and other misdeeds, bedding a local gal, gorging on diner breakfast food, and pretty much wasting his life.  When he can no longer stand his existence, he tries to end it all – he drives a truck to a firey crash, falls from a tall building, and tries every way he can imagine to terminate this endless day of indulgence and repetition.

Along the way, Phil sets out to woo his producer Rita.  But he has a lot to learn if he wants to impress a woman as smart and sensitive as Rita.  Aside from outlining all of her likes and dislikes, Rita confides to Phil what she wants in a man.  Phil is none of these things.  So Phil sets out on a self-improvement campaign, which includes reading French poetry, getting intimately acquainted with all the personalities in the town, rescuing various people, and learning to play the piano.  He even learns to ice sculpture.  It takes a very long time, but eventually Phil does become a better man.  Until he makes this transition, he is doomed to stay in the same day, in the same town, with nothing to look forward to.

I like ponder how long it actually took Phil to make those changes.  I mean, how many days does it take to become a great jazz pianist?  I spent more than four years taking piano lessons and faithfully practicing an hour or more a day, and I never got past mediocre.

If you haven’t seen this film, you should treat yourself to a viewing.  It is wildly funny, romantic, and highly imaginative.  Murray is magnificent in this role – I think it is his very best, and I am a fan of “Caddy Shack,” “Meatballs,” and “Ghost Busters.”  And like Phil in the movie, I have completely lost track of how many times I have watched this movie.  My best days are February 2nd when I watch a marathon showing of this movie from 9:00 in the morning until almost midnight.  This year it was on AMC.  What a day.  So wonderfully predictable.

GET OUT – Unusual Racial Statement

I prefer to watch films without previews or expectations.  This is exactly how I approached the horror film “Get Out” starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, a black photographer of some notoriety, and Allison Williams as Rose Armitage, a stunning white girl who seems very comfortable crossing racial barriers.  The name of the writer/director, Jordan Peele, was vaguely familiar but I never made the connection with Comedy Central and Key and Peele.   All I knew about the film was from a few preview clips at the theater and an understanding of the genre as “horror.”  So I was definitely not prepared for what turned out to be a statement about racial relations and racial stereotypes.

The opening scene shows a black man talking on his cell phone on a tree-lined middle-class street searching for an address.  A car stops, turns and follows the man.  This is not good.  Out of no-where, the man is abducted.  Scary.  What happened to the man?

Abrupt shift.  Chris and Rose are planning a “meet the parents” weekend with Rose’s parents somewhere in the secluded countryside.  Chris and Rose have been a couple for five months and, although Rose has told her folks nothing about Chris being a person of color, she assures Chris that her parents are very liberal-minded,  and she swears that her dad would have voted for Obama for a third term if Obama had been able to run.  So, right there, if we are Chris, we may be thinking – so somehow voting for Obama is a measure of non-racism?  Humm…

Sure enough, mom and dad (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are all hugs and kisses and welcome Chris with open arms.  But these are not the Cleavers.  Dad Dean is a neurosurgeon (stay tuned) and mom Missy is a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotism (OMG).  Red flag: there are two African-American “family retainers” at the family domicile, Georgina, a uniformed domestic who looks cloyingly affable, and Walter, the muscled handyman who is also uncomfortably polite (very “Stepford Wives”).

Enter Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), whose scary looks are enough to give you pause, and he makes no sweet overtures to poor Chris.  During the evening mom hypnotizes Chris, ostensibly to cause him to stop smoking, but judging from Chris’s loss of control in a free-falling, out-of-body experience, we know this does not bode well for Chris.  What more can happen to cause Chris to feel so “other” with these people?  Well, it could be the annual gathering of family friends.

The next day they all arrive in black sedans – really.  With the exception of one black dude, the guests are over-the- top liberal white people.  Unnervingly, they prod and physically probe Chris, taking his measure as a stereotypical black man – does he play sports, is he a sexual super-star, how do his muscles feel?  There is one guest who knows and admires Chris’s photography; he is a well- respected owner of an art gallery, who just happens to be blind (wha…?).  As for the black dude (think Stepford), Chris snaps his picture causing a melt-down in an otherwise cultivated guy, which causes Chris to email the photo to his buddy Walter (Marcus Henderson).  Walter is no slouch since he is a TSA agent and knows subterfuge when he hears and sees it.  He discovers that the lone other back guest is a man who was reported missing months earlier.  Walter is convinced that the Armitages are selling blacks into sexual slavery.  We are finding this suggestion less humorous than we did in the opening moments of the film.

While Chris and Rose are off roaming the countryside, a curious silent auction is taking place among Rose’s parents and their guests, with Chris as the object of the auction.  What is going on here?

Before we know it, Chris is held hostage in the basement rec room – strapped to a chair and positioned in front of a massive vintage TV console, complete with fuzzy picture, alongside a pool table and foosball table.

Now all Chris has to do is “get out.”

Only a black writer/director would have dared to pull off a scary movie that focuses on racial stereotypes and tensions and racist themes.  While there are moments of humor in this film, it is extreme only as a contrast to the other parts of the film that convey a sense of alienation and an almost pedestrian quality of racial compartmentalization.  While the film did not live up to its promising opening scenes, it is still a scary movie and we want to find out what these lovable and “liberal” Armitages are doing.