NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

October 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Bond 25 is here, and it’s quite a curtain call for actor Daniel Craig. The film’s release has been postponed numerous times since September 2019, which has caused expectations and anxiety to build amongst Bond fans. It’s been almost six years since SPECTRE (2015), and this is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007. This production faced challenges even before the pandemic hit. Cary Joji Fukunaga (best known for “True Detective” and BEASTS OF NO NATION, 2015) was hired to direct after Danny Boyle stepped down (or whatever happened), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to spice up the dialogue on the script from Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade (the latter two having been involved in writing all five Bond movies for Craig). Of course, it’s Ian Fleming to whom we stand eternally grateful for the original characters.

For those accustomed to the James Bond cinematic formula, you’ll notice quite a few differences – beginning with the opening scenes. Traditionally, breathtaking action kicks off the film; but this time a shift in tone and style serves up a tension-filled opening that occurs a few years prior to the rest of the story. It takes a few minutes before we get the first true action sequence. Of course, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with a “retired” James Bond (don’t worry, it’s not like “fat Thor”) … in fact, there’s already a replacement 007 and she (Lashana Lynch, CAPTAIN MARVEL, 2019) packs quite an attitude and skill set.

It’s his old CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who draws Bond back into the espionage game, and of course, the reason is to save the world (what else could it be?). This year’s world-domination-seeking villain is the cleverly named Lyutsifer Safin, and he’s played by Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018). Safin is a low-key baddie whose weapon is a DNA-altering chemical that’s probably a bit overly complex for a Bond movie, and it’s also a bit strange that Safin/Malek only has a few substantive scenes. For those who saw SPECTRE, you’ll recognize many of the faces, including Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Rory Kinnear as Tanner, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Also back for a terrific scene is Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Blofield. The new faces include the aforementioned Lashana Lynch as Nomi, Billy Magnusson as Logan Ash, and Craig’s KNIVES OUT co-star Ana de Armas as Paloma. Ms. de Armas brings a jolt of energy and some smiles to the proceedings, and it’s a shame her appearance is so short.

It’s unusual for a Bond song to win its Grammy before the movie is ever released, but that’s exactly what happened for Billie Eilish’s achingly somber title song. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (THE LION KIING) delivers a wonderful score in his first Bond outing (you’ll hear how he incorporates the Eilish song), and the cinematography from Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND) is everything we could hope for in the action sequences (there is no shortage of bombs), as well as the quiet moments.

Speaking of the quiet moments, this is undoubtedly the most sentimental and emotional of all Bond films. Sure, we get the amazing set pieces, the crazy stunts, the awesome Aston Martin (until it isn’t), the cool gadgets, the wisecracks, and the shootouts – but we also get Bond at his most reflective and personal. There is a line in the film, “Letting go is hard.” And it is … both for Bond and for us. So welcome back and adieu, Mr. Bond. Craig. Daniel Craig.

The film opens in U.S. theaters on October 8, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


WONDER WOMAN 1984

December 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the key elements that make Wonder Woman appealing is that she’s smart, she’s nice, she’s dedicated to doing good, she’s grounded in her history, and her use of her powers makes sense (in a comic book kind of way). Most of that holds true in filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 blockbuster WONDER WOMAN. So why did that one work so well, while this one falls short? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it could be as simple as having the wrong target.

Gal Gadot returns as Diana Prince, and this time she’s plopped into 1984 (the year, not the novel). This creates a cornucopia of opportunity for social commentary and satire from Ms. Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. After all, it was the era of atrocious popular music, outlandish fashion, and a relentless pursuit of greed by the “me” generation. The film pounces on each of these by using the return of Diana’s main squeeze, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), as a device for highlighting the absurdity of belly bags and pastel tank tops for men. In the first movie, the WWI pilot wakes up in Themyscira, and this time, he just kind of materializes in the year of GHOSTBUSTERS, shopping malls, and President Ronald Reagan. While this certainly qualifies as extreme culture shock, the parade of outfits and Steve’s wide-eyed tour through the city are over-the-top, even for their attempted comedic effect.

Over-the-top also describes the film’s two main villains. Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”) plays TV hypester and con man Maxwell Lord. He’s a greedy, self-centered man willing to do anything to get “more”. Kristen Wiig is Barbara Minerva, a bumbling, forgettable klutz who works at the same museum as Diana. She simply wants to be cool like Diana and have people acknowledge her existence. Things shift quickly thanks to the Dreamstone sitting in Barbara’s in-box waiting for research. What follows is more than two hours of seeing the fallout of people having their wishes come true. If you’ve learned anything about human nature during this pandemic year, then you won’t be surprised at how people react to gaining power.

Maxwell Lord is not dissimilar to Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978), as his goal is ultimate power and control – though to what end, he’s not sure. Barbara Minerva was never really power hungry, but a taste of it was much to her liking, and she transitions to The Cheetah for Wonder Woman’s biggest fight scene. There is also a message about what one sacrifices to have their wishes come true. This aspect of the film could be psychoanalyzed were one so inclined. Lord’s relationship with his son is convoluted, and the early Barbara is a mess … making their “sacrifices” a bit less obvious than that of Diana.

The opening sequence is the one this viewer most enjoyed. Spectacular camera work takes us to a competition on Themyscira, as a very young Diana (Lilly Aspell returns) goes against the grown warriors, while Antiope (Robin Wright) and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) look on and teach hard life lessons. Not only do these actors return, but most of Ms. Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN crew is back, including cinematographer Matthew Jensen. The changes include Film Editor Richard Pearson and Hans Zimmer provides the new score. Some of the dialogue is tough to take. As an example, Diana says “I don’t know what to think, Steve. I only hope I’m wrong.” And later, Steve explains, “Flying is easy. It’s only wind and air.” Dialogue like this makes us want to renounce our own wishes. It may be one film later than it should have been, but Ms. Jenkins does deliver a much-appreciated cameo at film’s end, and if nothing else, it leaves us wondering, ‘what would you give up for a wish?’

watch the trailer

 


THE LION KING (2019)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is at times so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded of a National Geographic program with ultra-High Definition photography. So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-animated/generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains. The look of the film is as revolutionary as when the first TOY STORY stunned us in 1995. We had never seen animation like that then, and we’ve never before seen computer effects like this. What is familiar are two early songs, “The Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago. Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s US), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble. James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodard voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa the warthog and Timba the meerkat. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple. Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as IRON MAN 2 (2010), IRON MAN (2008), and ELF (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (BRAVE, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version. Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

The beloved 1994 version didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature film because the award didn’t exist until 2002; however, it did spawn the 1997 Broadway smash musical. This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago. The story and characters, while familiar to those age 30 and up, will be a whole new viewing experience for today’s kids. So while we may prefer the 1994 animated version, kids today will likely be enthralled by this updated look. And we all better get used to it, because Disney has 18 more “live action” remakes in the works (some of which will actually be “live” action).

watch the trailer:


BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

watch the trailer:

 


DUNKIRK (2017)

July 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even for us frequent movie-goers, a truly great film is a rare and emotional experience. Leave it to Christopher Nolan, one of the finest film makers working today, to deliver a World War II masterpiece centered on a remarkable and historic evacuation, rather than one of the epic battles that more directly led to an Allied victory. The result is a spectacular, stunning and relentlessly intense assault on our eyes, ears and emotions … it’s a horrific thing of artistic beauty.

Mr. Nolan chooses a triptych approach to tell the May/June 1940 Dunkirk story from three distinctly different perspectives: The Mole, The Sea, and The Air. The Mole (term for protective sea walls) is the “by land” segment, and it shows nearly 400,000 soldiers lined up on the beach – nervously waiting to be either rescued or massacred. The Sea puts us not on the deck of the Navy destroyers, but rather alongside the citizen volunteers who answered the call to ferry men off the beach with own pleasure vessels. The Air plops us inside the Spitfire cockpits of two Royal Air Force pilots battling low fuel as they attempt to protect their fellow soldiers below. This 3-part film harmony expertly captures the disorientation of war by shuffling between the three segments, and varying the timelines and sequence of each.

This all happened pretty early in the war, as Winston Churchill had only become Prime Minister a few weeks prior. It should be noted that Mr. Nolan purposefully avoids the usual war room blustery (we see neither Churchill nor Hitler, and there is little mention of the infamous Halt Order) and allows the action to tell the story. Instead, his focus on the (very) young men being sent to battle makes a clear political statement on the absurdity of war. One of “The Sea” volunteers (an excellent Mark Rylance) delivers the message when he states it’s the old men running the war, so he can’t be expected to just sit back as young sons are sent to fight and die.

Despite the epic look, feel and sound of the film and the massive scale of the event, this film is surprisingly at its best in the small moments of heroism and the dogged determination of individuals to survive. Minimal dialogue allows the horrors of war to take center screen. Danger and death are at every turn – bombings, torpedoes, drowning, gunfire, and most any imaginable peril is ever-present. We witness PTSD (shell-shock) in the form of Cillian Murphy’s shivering rescued soldier, and are reminded that every young man present will be either dead or scarred for life. No one escapes war unscathed.

The opening sequence finds young Fionn Whitehead and his squad being targeted with gunfire as German leaflets fall from the sky. The leaflets are maps outlining the hopelessness as German forces have them surrounded. The film is meticulously researched and historically based, though the few characters we get to know are fictionalized accounts. The practical effects throughout are breath-taking and much of it was filmed on location at the Dunkirk beach. There will likely be some complaints regarding the scarcity of female characters and those of color, but the technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach – although the French might have preferred their military receive a bit more attention. Hans Zimmer’s score is unique and searing as it perfectly captures the intensity of the film. His use of a ticking watch only perpetuates the constant feeling of running out of time. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and Editor Lee Smith prove why they are among the best at their profession.

Given the spectacle of the action (if possible, see it in IMAX or 70mm), it’s remarkable how we still manage to get to know some of the characters. From The Mole segment, Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles represent the young soldiers, while Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy play officers. Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden are piloting the Spitfires, while Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Cillian Murphy are aboard the rescue yacht. Nolan regular and good luck charm Michael Caine can be recognized as the voice on Air Force radio. There is a 1958 film with the same title, and it stars John Mills and Richard Attenborough. The connection (other than the Dunkirk title) is Sir Attenborough’s grandson Will appears in this current film.

The horrors and impact of World War II continue to be an abundant garden – ripe for the picking when it comes to movies. Over the past 70 years there have been numerous approaches to telling part of the story that redefined the world: Judgment at Nuremberg (legal aftermath), Casablanca (romance), I Was a Male War Bride (comedy), Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity (Pearl Harbor), Shoah (documentary), Schindler’s List and Son of Saul (holocaust), Downfall (Hitler), The Great Escape (entertainment), Patton (bio), The Pianist (personal), Saving Private Ryan (Normandy), Das Boot (U-boat), The Thin Red Line (Guadalcanal), and Letter From Iwo Jima (two opposing perspectives). Each of these, and many others, have their place in War movie history, and now Christopher Nolan’s film belongs among the best.

watch the trailer:

 

 


HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

December 21, 2016

hidden-figures Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.

Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program

We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.

Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.

There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.

The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.

The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!). It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


BATKID BEGINS (2015, doc)

July 10, 2015

batkid Greetings again from the darkness. Our world is filled with anger and frustration and evil, and should we ever doubt this, a simple click over to the local or national news will prove it so. Even the non-terrorist majority are simply too busy or self-absorbed to show kindness or respect. Subways are jammed with people glued to their smart phones, oblivious to the sea of real humans. Highways are real world video games of dodging the closest road rager. A trip to the shopping mall reveals those too self-centered to simply hold open a door or allow a pedestrian to calmly cross the parking lot. What we need is a Superhero … and in November 2013, we got just that.

Director Dana Nachman chronicles the story of young Miles Scott from Tulelake, California. As a toddler, Miles was diagnosed with Leukemia and went through chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. By age 5, he was on the road to recovery and that’s when the Make-A-Wish foundation became involved. It turns out Miles’ greatest wish was to be Batman for a day. And this is where the documentary takes an unexpected turn.

Nachman chooses not to focus on Miles’ illness, but rather on the heroic efforts of Make-A-Wish director Patricia Wilson and her team to make this wish come true for him. This is not the story of gravely ill little boy, but rather it’s the piecing together of a global phenomenon. A challenging wish transformed into a worldwide viral event constructed by countless volunteers, the San Francisco Chief of Police, the Mayor of San Francisco, 25,000 people lining the streets, and millions more watching via social media.

Ms. Wilson’s incredible “can-do” attitude and boundless positive energy are complimented by Eric Johnston, an inventor and stuntman, who dives headfirst into his role as Batman and mentor to Miles the Batkid. Others key to the event were Mike Jutan who stepped into the role of The Penguin, Oscar winning composer Hans Zimmer, and even “Lou Seal”, the mascot of the San Francisco Giants. Are you starting to get the idea? See, it’s the masses that made this happen … the San Francisco Opera contributed costume work, and even a young boy donated the Batsuit for Batkid – it was homemade!  So many offers of help came in that a portion of San Francisco was turned into Gotham City for a day so that Batman and Batkid could fight crime together. Words fail me as it’s an emotional stunner to see this unfold.

Of course the power of social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) is on full display here – even President Obama tweeted about Batkid! However, what is most awe-inspiring is the massive display of kindness and generosity from so many strangers from so many various backgrounds.  As with everything these days, there were critics. A few wailed about the cost to the city, while others expressed outright disgust that such hoopla was for one kid, rather than hundreds. A generous donor made the city whole by stroking a check, thereby shutting up the first group of complainers. As for the second group, they simply miss the point. It was a-dream-come-true for one boy robbed of childhood years by a cruel disease, and beyond that, it provided a respite from “bad news” and allowed the reporting of “good news”. It was also a much needed reminder that the human spirit is alive and that being kind and courteous is contagious, and creates a virus of feel good and do good.

Some may describe this as a promotional film for the Make A Wish foundation, but it might better be described as a film that promotes the positive impact people can have when they unite for a worthy cause. This wasn’t about politics, race relations, or financial turmoil … it was about people doing something nice for others, and discovering the payback is pure joy. Batkid was the hero we deserved and the one we needed.

watch the trailer:

 

 


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodard, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk


MAN OF STEEL (2013)

June 19, 2013

MOS1 Greetings again from the darkness. 75 years ago, the first Superman comic book was published. It would be quite challenging to find very many kids who have not imagined themselves as Superman at some point during that time. Numerous Superman re-boots have occurred in various media: comics, TV, movies, video games, toys, etc.; and the bigger the fan, the more etched in mind what the Man of Steel should look and act like. Woe to the filmmaker who doesn’t share that fan’s vision.

Enter director Zack Snyder, writer David S Goyer, and writer/producer Christopher Nolan. This cinematic triumvirate has been responsible for such comic based movie material as The Dark Knight franchise, 300, Watchmen, and Blade. Some of the criticisms of this most recent Superman presentation include a lack of fun, the absence of humor, no love story, too much backstory, an overabundance of action and CGI, and a hero that is much too MOS2serious … and that’s a list ignoring the outcry over the redesigned suit sans red briefs! As with anything, the closer to the heart, the less amenable to change folks become. At least no one is complaining about the lack of phone booths!

This movie has quite the balance of visual effects and backstory. It’s clearly designed to be the first in a series, and because of that, we get the foundation of Superman: the rare natural born baby on the planet Krypton – a planet speeding towards destruction. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) executes his plan to save his newborn son Kal-El by rocketing him off to Earth. While that’s happening, General Zod (a raging, wide-eyed Michael Shannon) stages one of the most ill-timed coups ever … he tries to seize control of the dying planet. This opening sequence is filled with some of the biggest, loudest effects MOS3of the whole movie. It’s a jolting start that I wasn’t particularly fond of, but it’s obviously well done and with purpose.

Kal-El lands on earth and becomes known as Clark Kent, adopted son of Kansas farmers played by Diane Lane and Kevin Costner. Most of Clark’s childhood is glimpsed through flashbacks of specific events, and serves the purpose of giving us a taste, while not delaying the appearance of Superman … though that name is only heard once (maybe twice). In an attempt to hide his powers, Clark becomes a drifter. However, it’s impossible to keep your superhero powers secret when you rescue a group of oil rig workers by walking through fire and using your super strength.

MOS5 Enter “Daily Planet” super-reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). She’s good at her job and easily figures out the big secret. But rather than contact TMZ for a giant pay day, Lois understands that this may be something the world just isn’t ready to learn. Wise lady. The relationship between Lois and Clark is rudely interrupted by the reappearance of General Zod and his right hand lady-warrior (Antje Traue). See, Zod thinks he can takeover Earth and re-establish his Krypton roots … and Superman holds the key to his plan.

If you are a Superman fan, all of this makes perfect sense. If not, I suspect this movie will not hold much interest for you. If you are a fan of the 1978 version with the late, great Christopher Reeve, I would encourage you to keep an open mind. While that version flashed frivolous whimsy, this one is darker and more philosophical … more in line with what you might expect from an alien with super powers. Still, the subtle humor abounds here if you keep your eyes open. LexCorp references appear along with little touches that can bring a smile (12th ranked Kansas Jayhawks football??).

MOS4 The acting is superb throughout. Henry Cavill was the runner-up to Daniel Craig for the James Bond role, but he immediately stakes his claim to the Man of Steel. His overall look and amazing physique leave little doubt that he is Superman, and as a bonus, he is plenty of reason for the ladies to purchase a ticket. Hans Zimmer makes no attempt to one-up John Williams’ iconic score from the 1978 film, yet he makes his mark, especially during the action sequences. Be prepared as this one is heavy on the Sci-Fi angle, and there is also an interesting Jesus comparison that can be made (he is 33 years on Earth).

Doing the right thing has always been the recurring theme for Superman and this movie version helps us understand where the moral fiber was born … the hint is in the Royals shirt Clark wears. In addition to a terrific Smallville set, we get Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, a role which will surely be expanded in the sequel. It’s very interesting to see the Snyder, Goyer, Nolan vision, and if you are still clinging to 1978, you might find yourself asking … Why so serious?

**EDITORIAL NOTE: There has been much movie talk recently about the superhero overload and the over-the-top CGI onslaught.  “Too many explosions“.  “Too many special effects“. “No focus on the story“.  “Enough with the superheroes“.   While I certainly can understand that movie preferences may run 180 degrees from The Avengers, Iron Man, and Man of Steel, my response to these voices is two-fold.  First, movies are considered an art form, but never forget that it’s also a business.  The goal of a business is to turn a profit. When you look at the financial returns of the above mentioned movies, as well as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, one might allow a bit of leeway to Hollywood studios and producers. There are only so many legal ways to earn a half billion dollars, and superhero movies are on the short list.  My second response is to encourage the haters to accept the role of these blockbuster films, while continuing to seek out the more personal and intimate independent films that gain distribution. My personal taste in movies runs the gamut from Iron Man to Mud to Toy Story to the most recent documentaries. I am in awe of the wide variances and multi-talented people involved in movie making.  So while I may avoid the latest Kate Hudson rom-com, I do understand there exists a group of people who are giddy in anticipation.  Rather than expend negative engergy towards the blockbuster explosions, know that the billion dollar box office hit keeps a multitude of artists working.  And that’s a good thing.


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

watch the trailer: