THE AERONAUTS (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ‘Up, up, and away, in my beautiful balloon.’ That song says nothing about a lack of oxygen (hypoxemia), a malfunctioning valve, or frost bite … all of which come into play in this story inspired by real life events of 1862 in London. Tom Harper directed the excellent WILD ROSE earlier this year, and for this one, he and his co-writer Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017) base the story on both the real life record-breaking flight of scientist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Henry Coxwell, and Richard Holmes’ book “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air.’

Reuniting from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014) where they played Stephen Hawking and wife Jane, are Eddie Redmayne (as scientist-with-a-chip James Glaisher) and Felicity Jones (as fictional balloon pilot Amelia Wren/Rennes … yes, naming your female pilot Amelia is so very creative). Courageous real life balloon pilot Henry Coxwell gets nary a mention here, as new world cinema must require a female lead or co-lead for every filmmaker not named Martin Scorsese. So, to heck with history, Amelia Wren is now the hero of this adventure!

As it turns out, Ms. Jones’ character is the more interesting of the two. Amelia’s initial showmanship catches nerdy Glaisher off-guard, though in fact, both are over-compensating. He, for his inferiority complex and the ridicule he endures from his fellow brainiacs at the Royal Society of London, and she for the tragic loss of her beloved husband in a balloon mishap. The mismatched pair are on a mission to fly higher than any human has previously flown, and in the process, allow Glaisher to record all the atmospheric readings possible in order to prove to the skeptics that meteorology is legitimate, and the weather can be predicted (although almost 160 years later, most weather reporters still haven’t quite gotten the hang of it).

It’s a tricky thing filming two characters who spend most of the movie floating tens of thousands of feet above ground in a wicker basket. The banter between the two should be crisp and the connection or disconnect should add intrigue. Here, the two characters are dwarfed by the giant balloon and the challenges that brings. What begins as an adventure morphs into a tale of survival. Storms, frostbite and technical issues provide the conflict. We do have flashbacks to background on both Amelia and Glaisher. Himesh Patel (star of this year’s YESTERDAY) plays Glaisher’s best friend, while Tom Courtenay and Anne Reid are Glaisher’s parents. Vincent Perez appears as Amelia’s husband Pierre.

I was fortunate enough to see this in a theatre and the big screen allows for the balloon effects to have full impact. There is no doubt that streaming this on your TV will not be as impressive … although anyone suffering from acrophobia will likely still experience some discomfort. The scenes in the balloon are thrilling, and Amelia’s rescue mission up the ropes is stunning and beautifully filmed by cinematographer George Steel; however, the flashback scenes are quick to deflate the excitement. The upside here is that the English really did break the French record on the flight … even if the filmmaker had to bend history so Amelia could get credit.

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018)

December 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, the documentary RBG (co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) was a film festival and box office hit, helping turn 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a celebrity and cult icon, complete with best-selling “Notorious RBG” t-shirts and her own action figure. That documentary allowed us the rare opportunity to hear directly from a currently sitting Justice, and just about every viewer came away in awe – regardless of one’s political affiliations. Now, a few months later, we get the story of her younger years in a (loving) script written by Ms. Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Steipleman.

The film opens with a lone woman in a dress engulfed by a sea of young men in conservative business suits marching up the steps on day one of Harvard Law School in 1956. Inside the oak paneled hall, the school’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) discusses what it means to be a ‘Harvard man’ and how this is only the sixth year women have been admitted. As he speaks, young Ruth (Felicity Jones) glances around the room at the (only) 8 other female students. At a later reception for the females, Dean Griswold asks each to stand and explain why they are worthy of taking a man’s spot in the class. It’s our first (not last) example of the sexism obstacles of the time – much different than those of today, where women procure more higher education slots than men.

By this time, Ruth and Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) are both Columbia graduates, have been married for a couple of years, and are raising their first child, Jane. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth covers his classes and hers, is mother to young Jane, and also caregiver to a recovering Marty. Of course, her husband recovers and goes on to be a highly successful tax attorney on Wall Street, and their marriage continues until his death in 2010.

But this is Ruth’s story, and her strength is on display. As uplifting as it is to see that Marty was an immensely supportive husband, it’s deflating to see how a brilliant woman – number one in her class – is so disrespected during this era that she can’t even find a job at a law firm. For one committed to doing, Ruth accepts a job teaching instead. Her time as a professor at Columbia is spent encouraging students to explore the inequities of the law when it comes to men and women. In fact, it’s 1970 when Ruth and Marty work their only case together. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), is denied a tax deduction for the caregiver expenses in caring for his sick mother. By law, the deduction is only allowed for female caregivers, and this gives Ruth her first taste of ‘doing’.

It’s at this point, where Kathy Bates appears as civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU Legal Director. Adding spice to Ruth’s and Marty’s life is their teenage daughter Jane (a very good Cailee Spaeny) who is quite headstrong in her own beliefs. The scenes in the Appellate Court are the film’s best, as is the Moot Court sequence – though we do wish more time had been devoted to the prep work and details for the court arguments.

Director Mimi Leder is known mostly for her TV work, and she delivers the story of an amazing woman in an easily accessible manner for mass audiences. It’s an approach that will hopefully allow many young people (yes, especially women) to gain a better understanding of what this woman went through and fought for during the decades before she became the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.  Two takeaways here are that Ruth Ginsburg is a superhero and pioneer of social change, and also that a marriage of equal partners carries great power. Her cameo as the film’s final shot, leaves no doubt that RBG is no longer concerned about which dress will make her look like a “Harvard man”.

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

January 5, 2017

a-monster-calls Greetings again from the darkness. “From ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-legged beasties/ And things that go bump in the night,/ Good Lord, deliver us”. It’s an old Scottish poem that doesn’t take into account what movies like Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, The BFG, and now this latest from director JA Bayona have intimated this year … not all those ‘bumps’ are necessarily evil.

Lewis MacDougal delivers an incredibly nuanced performance displaying a wide array of emotions as “a boy too young to be a man, and too old to be a child”. His beloved mother (the always terrific Felicity Jones) is bedridden with a terminal illness, and Conor faces relentless pressure for a kid: bullies at school, a dying mom, a strict grandmother, and some rough and vivid dreams/nightmares. As his clock flips to 12:07 am, he watches as a Groot-like giant sprouts from a nearby Yew tree. It’s an intimidating and magnificent beast who, through the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson, informs Conor that he will tell the boy three stories … after which Conor must tell his own.

The meaning behind the three stories (Prince/Queen, Apothecary/Parson, Invisible Man) is not immediately obvious to Conor, but the stories are animated through beautiful watercolors providing depth to the dreams and the lessons. This fascinating film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness who completed the idea of Siobhan Dowd after she passed away from the terminal illness that inspired the story.

I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be a kid’s movie in the style of another featuring the voice work of Mr. Neeson (as Aslan) – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005). Instead, it’s a heavy drama, filled with emotions beyond what most kids experience. Conor is trying to come to grips with living with his stuffy grandmother (a solid Sigourney Weaver) while his mother slowly fades (but not without first introducing her son to the original misunderstood beast in King Kong), and already having a mostly absentee Dad (Toby Kebbell).

As with most tearjerkers (and this certainly is that!), there will be those who describe it as manipulative and obvious, but it’s likely most will find it to be a touching, well-written, superbly acted film with standout special effects utilized for the advancement of the story. Young Mr. MacDougal carries most of the movie and seamlessly bounds from anger to sadness to hopeful. Director Bayona proved in The Impossible and The Orphanage that he has an eye for kid actors, and when combined with the voice of Liam and the other fine actors it makes for a powerful experience … and a reminder that dealing with death is difficult for both kids and parents, and we all need a little help letting go (displayed literally here).

**NOTE: sharp-eyed viewers will spot a photograph of Liam Neeson as Conor’s grandfather on a shelf in the house.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUE STORY (2015)

April 17, 2015

true story Greetings again from the darkness. “Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true”. These words are spoken by Christian Longo, the man accused of brutally murdering his wife and 3 kids in 2001. The line between truth and lies is at the core of this real life story directed by Rupert Goold and based on journalist Michael Finkel’s memoir and recollections of his conversations with Longo.

The New York Times investigative reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is introduced to us as he is researching the story which ultimately leads to his dismissal, after it’s discovered he played fast and loose with details in order to present a more impactful story. Soon he receives an odd phone call from an Oregon writer (Ethan Suplee) who informs Finkel that his name is being used by Longo (James Franco), the suspected murderer who was recently captured in Mexico. As a disgraced journalist, Finkel seizes the opportunity to connect with Longo, and soon enough the two morally-compromised men are locked in psychological warfare, where we as viewers aren’t sure just who is using who in this oddball “friendship”.

Hill and Franco are best known for their raunchy and raucous comedies, and both deliver much “quieter” performances than what we have come to expect from them. While it’s a bit of stretch to buy Jonah Hill as a renowned writer, Franco is absolutely chilling as a manipulative psychopath. Franco is so good in the role that he overpowers Hill, which undermines what was supposed to be an intricate game of cat and mouse.

Franco is a frightening figure on the courtroom witness stand as he tells his version of that fateful night, and he is equally unnerving to watch in general conversation with Finkel. However, the single best scene in the film comes when Felicity Jones unleashes the wrath of truth on Franco’s Longo. Ms. Jones is otherwise underutilized for most of the film, as her relationship with Finkel is never really explored.

Rather than provide any substantive background on what makes either Finkel or Longo tick, we are instead left to make our own assumptions based on the framed magazine covers and the spurts of flashbacks. And thus the film’s biggest flaw is cheating us out of the backstory that might help explain the otherwise fascinating conversations/showdowns between these two flawed gents … one significantly more flawed than the other.

It’s impossible not to compare this to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and the subsequent films based on his writing experience: Capote (2005), and Infamous (2006). Stretching and bending the truth are common themes, as are intriguing and disturbing insights from the writers and the accused.

There are times True Story comes off as little more than a made for TV movie, but the best moments more than make up for it, and Franco’s portrayal will stick with you long after Finkel finally understands who and what he is dealing with. It’s also a reminder that there are people who “want the truth so badly” they “will lie to get it”. Try saying that with a wink.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

November 18, 2014

theory of everything Greetings again from the darkness. Stephen Hawking would most certainly make anyone’s list of the most fascinating people to have overcome severe obstacles in life to achieve greatness. Even today, at age 72, Hawking remains one of the foremost physicists and cosmologists. His extraordinary mind now 50+ years trapped inside a body that failed him, and as we learn, should have killed him by the time he was 23.

Director James Marsh is known for his work on two documentaries: Project Nim, and Man On Wire. His flair with reality in those two films is mostly kept in check with this conventional biopic. Based on Jane Hawking‘s book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, the film does a nice job of showing us the stages of his motor neuron disease, while never digging too deep into the resulting hardships for Stephen or Jane (his wife).

Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserable, My Week with Marilyn) delivers the type of performance that often results in awards. His physical contortions capture the Hawking we have all seen, yet he also emotes the charm and wry humor that accompanies his genius. Jane is played by Felicity Jones (so terrific in Like Crazy) and since it’s based on Jane’s book, we are provided a glimpse into her strength and tenacity as she refuses to give up on Hawking or their relationship.

Some basic science is touched upon here – mostly through beer foam on a table or the glowing embers from a fireplace, but it’s highly recommended that you read Hawking’s best selling book “A Brief History of Time” if you have not already done so. It’s written using language so clear and concise, that even I almost understood it! Much more than science, this film is about the tenacity of Jane and her ability to keep Stephen moving forward while still pursuing her own studies and raising their three kids.

The evolution of their relationship is deftly handled, even as they each drift away towards others. When the break eventually occurs, it is the one moment in the film where heartfelt emotion is on full display. Oddly enough, it’s more relief for both parties than disappointment. In light of the doctor’s original estimate of two years to live, this moment is quite poignant.

Excellent support work comes courtesy of David Thewlis as Hawking’s professor and mentor, Emily Watson as Jane’s mother, Simon McBurney as Stephen’s dad, Charlie Cox as Jonathan (Jane’s second husband), and Maxine Peake as Elaine (Stephen’s second wife). Also of note, Harry Lloyd plays Stephen’s classmate and friend Brian. Mr. Lloyd is the great, great, great grandson of Charles Dickens.

You can see this one without being intimidated by the science, and instead get a glimpse at Hawking’s challenges and the strength of Jane.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the personal relationship and struggles of Hawking and his wife are of interest to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some in-depth analysis of Hawking’s genius

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

May 11, 2014

spider 2 Greetings again from the darkness. This follow-up to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) seems to have the mission of throwing as much onto the screen as possible. There are not one, but three key villains, a teenage love story, a deathbed scene, numerous moments of soul-searching, a stream of wise cracks and puns, the most outrageous laboratory setting, a cartoonish evil doctor accent, the constantly furrowed brow of Aunt Mary (Sally Field), flashbacks and video of the mysterious father, teasers for future movies, and of course, enough action and special effects to ward off any thoughts of peace.

Personally, I find Andrew Garfield to be a nice fit as Spidey, but I just can’t buy him as ultimate science geek Peter Parker. He bumbles about and bats his eyes too much for my tastes, and can’t stand toe to toe with Gwen Stacy (real life squeeze Emma Stone) in scientific banter. Still, the original story is interesting enough that any minor issues are easily overlooked.

At its core, this entry is a story of revenge. The foundation for Peter Parket’s troubles all stem from Oscorp, so we are treated to some behind the facade sets that will keep viewers on their toes. After an initial face-off with bad guy Aleksei Sytsevich (a maniacal Paul Giamatti), we see the transformation of goofy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) into the shocking (get it?) Electro. If that’s not enough, childhood buddies Peter Parker and Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) are reunited to set the stage for more good vs evil.

The story would have benefited from more concentration on any of these three stories, while dropping one altogether. The viewer would have benefited from a slower jolt (one more!) in the transformation of Max to Electro. We needed to find the humanity, rather than just desperation. The same goes for Peter and Harry. The dots are a bit too far apart for connection, though DeHaan (so good in Lawless and Chronicle) is a striking contrast to the doe-eyed, beautifully coiffed Garfield.

It’s nice to see Stone’s Gwen portrayed as a smart, ambitious young woman who also understands how demanding a relationship is, and the responsibility that goes with dating a superhero. Speaking of responsibility, the lack of Uncle Ben’s influence here is disturbing, though probably necessary given the exploration of backstory on Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz).

When Paul Giamatti reappears near the end as Rhino, it’s a bit difficult to not think “enough is enough”. And oddly, this fight sequence ends abruptly, evidently setting the stage for future Spidey. And speaking of the future, the end credits scene plays as nothing more than a teaser trailer for the next X-Men movie, while robbing us of any details to the Sinister Six.

Admittedly, I feel somewhat overdosed on Superhero and Comic book adaptations, yet the action and effects are still quite fun to watch, even if director Marc Webb (Ok, that pun is just too easy) seems to jumble up too many story lines.

***NOTE: I find humor in the fact that both lead actors from Sideways (2004) have now played villains in Spider-Man movies. Paul Giamatti in this one and Thomas Haden Church in Spider-Man 3 (2007)

***NOTE: fans of The Matrix will experience deja vu as Peter Parker discovers his father’s laboratory

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LIKE CRAZY

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Sundance Film Festival got it right when it awarded this film its Grand Jury award. This is wonderful independent filmmaking – the kind that draws in our own emotions and makes us feel what the characters feel, while also forcing us to deal with our own memories. If you enjoy fluffy Hollywodd rom-coms, you may not have what it takes to watch this raw “first” love story. I felt tightness in my chest and an aching in my bones … and I am a grumpy old man! 

I have been on the bandwagon for Elizabeth Olsen‘s breakout performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Without hesitation, I will say that Felicity Jones deserves the same accolades. It’s her first US film, but she is flat out spectacular in conveying deep emotional swings. I will see this one again just to watch her every blink and nod. She comes across as a fantastical blend of the Mara sisters – some of Kate’s radiance mixed with Rooney’s deep soul. It is always exciting to see such dramatic new talent at the early stages of their career.

 Writer/director Drake Doremus clearly has a bond to this story as the long term relationship and themes of separation, patience and true love are played with a cutting edge reality that we rarely see on screen. Anna (Jones) falls for classmate Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and we experience the clumsiness and hopeful flirtations of their early dates. The kicker is that Anna’s student visa expires at the end of the semester and she makes the foolish decision to stay in bed with Jacob for the summer. This keeps her from re-entering the US when she tries to return to him.

To really connect with this film, you need to put yourself back in the first love moment or more so, at a time when you experienced a long distance relationship. That excruciating feeling that every moment apart would never end. What had me scratching my head a bit was the fact that Jacob never packed up and headed to London to be with Anna for good. He is a furniture designer who works in a loft in Santa Monica. Thanks to the internet and the fact that people all over the world buy furniture, it seems like the perfect business to run from anywhere … say, London with your soul mate! Made me believe that possibly Jacob wasn’t as gaga as Anna.

 Both of them take on close companions. Jacob’s is played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence (Winters Bone). She is very sweet and clearly loves Jacob, which raised another question for me. What to think of those who can fall deeply for one who is not “all in” for them? Anna moves in with Charlie Bewley who also misreads the buy-in and makes the biggest mistake a guy can make … don’t ask the question if you don’t know the answer.

There are some terrific scenes with Anna’s parents played by Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston, both whom you will recognize. Also, Anna’s publisher is played by Finola Hughes and there are a couple of odd scenes between the two so that we understand just how talented Anna is as a writer. The ending is absolutely perfect and the two future mega stars (Jones and Yelchin) capture the moment with precision and heartfelt doubt and wonderment. It’s not the clean ending we Americans have come to expect, but it’s one that loudly announces the arrival of Felicity Jones, Anton Yelchin and director Drake Doremus.

 I was lucky enough to attend the opening night in Dallas, and Mr. Doremus (pictured, left) was in attendance for a Q&A. Fully expecting a brooding, beret-wearing film school reject, I was shocked when Doremus proved to be charming, energetic, thoughtful and downright appreciative of comments from the audience. He explained that much of the dialogue was improvised between the actors, and that the film was made for $250,000. If you are unfamiliar with filmmaking, $250,000 is roughly what Tom Cruise gets for a breakfast budget on his films. These points just made me more of a fan of the director and the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of independent filmmaking OR really talented young actors OR non-traditional love stories OR you understand “smudgeness” as used by Anna in a poem to describe their love

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your romantic movies to follow the fluffy, feel good formula OR your skepticism for soul mates is beyond hope

watch the trailer: