Third Time’s The Charm

I’ve often lamented that in a movie trilogy, the first one’s often good, the second’s better, and then the third turns out to be a load of crap. Superheroes are particularly at risk of this. After two decent films, the Christopher Reeve Superman series added Richard Pryor to the third movie and jumped the shark bigtime. Val Kilmer’s turn as Batman was a step down, with Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones not just chewing the scenery but ripping it apart with their teeth. Tobey Maguire in Spider-man 3 actually made me cringe – twice! And then there’s X-Men: The Last Stand. It almost was for the series.

But the Wolverine movies have flipped the script. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was awful, though it did serve a purpose by so badly mauling Deadpool’s character that Ryan Reynolds had to make his own movie. 2013’s The Wolverine was better, though the ending was a mess. But now with Logan, the series has its strongest outing with Hugh Jackman’s last turn in the title role. It’s not the best superhero movie ever, but it’s really good, and Jackman gets to go out with a bang.

By 2029, the world of the X-Men has collapsed with most of the mutants gone after years without new mutant births. Those left hide in the substrata of society. Logan (Jackman) works as a limo driver, ferrying drunk bachelorette parties and rude businessmen around El Paso, Texas. He lives on the Mexican side of the border in a deserted factory with an enfeebled Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose once-all-powerful mind is breaking down, and the albino Caliban (Stephan Merchant), who nurses Charles while Logan works.

On a funeral job, Logan is approached by Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), seeking his help for a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen). Gabriela wants to get Laura to North Dakota near the Canadian border, to a fabled sanctuary for mutants called Eden. She tells Logan that Laura is just like him, a description that’s soon confirmed. But Logan’s also approached by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a smooth-talking mercenary with a mechanical left forearm and hand. Pierce works for Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and has been tasked with cleaning up a mess. Part of the mess is Laura.

As with The Wolverine, James Mangold directs. He also came up with the story and co-wrote the script with Michael Green, who’s currently bringing Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” to Starz, and Scott Frank, who’d scripted The Wolverine and who also did Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Minority Report. They keep the film tightly focused while the action flows like waves throughout the movie, building to the climax. One interesting aspect to the story is they’ve incorporated the comic book world into the plot, as if the comics were inspired by the real characters. It actually works.

Over the course of 17 years and 9 movies, Jackman’s Wolverine has become the iconic character in the X-Men series – an evaluation with which Deadpool would definitely agree. He’s always exciting to watch, even with his one-profane-line cameo in X-Men: First Class. Here though he plays a much more human and humane version of the character, facing mortality for the first time. Likewise, Patrick Stewart gets to play Professor Xavier as King Lear, betrayed not by family but by his own mind. As Laura, Dafne Keen is a fitting foil for Jackman. She’s the daughter of Will Keen, who’s mostly appeared on British TV series such as “Wolf Hall” (as Thomas Cranmer) and the recent Netflix hit “The Crown.” Laura is a key role to make the film work, and Keen owns it.

The production benefited by following in Deadpool’s wake, since that movie proved that a superhero film didn’t have to be constrained to fit a PG-13 rating. Logan earns its R rating with hard-edged action beyond what’s been seen in the X-Men franchise thus far. It’s not gratuitous but fits with the life-or-death stakes in the story.

Wolverine was Jackman’s first role outside of Australia, and it was only a scheduling conflict for the actor originally cast in the role, Dougray Scott, that allowed Jackman’s casting 3 weeks after shooting began. Now he’s conquered stage and screen (and Deadpool’s heart) and is a major star. It’s fitting that he gets to give a farewell performance in the role.

I’ve mentioned Deadpool several times during this review, partly because in a number of venues a teaser trailer for his next film is attached to Logan. It’s also on YouTube and can be viewed here. Minor spoiler: the scroll at the end is a book report on “The Old Man and the Sea” as written by Deadpool. Enjoy.

Google It

“Based on a True Story” can be a warning that the filmmakers have taken so many liberties the “true” of the story has been lost. On the other side of the equation, it can instead tell the audience that an unbelievable story actually did happen. Lion is an example of the latter.

In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in a village in western India with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. It’s a hard life – Saroo assists his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in stealing coal off a moving train to barter for milk – but they are a loving, close family. When Guddu heads for a job in a nearby town, Saroo talks his brother into taking him along to work. But when they arrive Saroo is too tired and only wants to sleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench at the town’s train station, with the admonition not to go anywhere.

Saroo awakens to find the station completely deserted. A group of railway passenger cars have been left on a siding, and Saroo enters a car to find a better place to sleep. When he awakens, the cars have been locked and hooked to a train headed to the main railroad yards in Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Saroo manages to survive in the city, though not without several close calls, in particular from people who exploit the city’s street children. Through good fortune he’s adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Hobart, Tasmania.

Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), is still close to his adoptive mother and father, John & Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), and has a romance blooming with Lucy (Rooney Mara) whom he met at hotel management school. At a party with others students of Indian descent, a plate of food releases memories of his lost life. He only knew his mother as “mama” – no proper name – and what he remembered as the name of his home village didn’t match anything on the maps. About all he remembers as a landmark are water towers by the train station. One of the party goers suggests using a new computer program to backtrack his route. The program: Google Earth. (Google assisted the production, including providing images from the time frame of the film.)

This is the first feature for Garth Davis, an internationally acclaimed director of commercials. The screenplay by Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, splits the movie into two almost equal pieces between the young Saroo and his later quest to find his family. Davis, assisted by cinematographer Greg Fraser, captures both India and Tasmania in a rich, intimate way. While Davis and Davies hadn’t done much feature film work before Lion, Fraser is one of the preeminent directors of photography in Australia. In the last decade his films include Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher and Let Me In.

This is a more mature performance from Dev Patel, who became a star with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures as well as appearing in HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He gets top billing, though he doesn’t appear until the last half of the film. However, he makes the most of his time and deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he’s received, as well as the win in that category at the BAFTA awards. While he’s tended toward gawky characters in previous projects, this could be the beginning of beefcake roles for Patel who shows smoldering good looks and a buff physique.

Nicole Kidman is also nominated (Best Supporting Actress) for her restrained but deeply felt performance. At the end of the film we see real footage of the real Sue Brierley and realize Kidman nailed the embodiment. But the major delight is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The camera reads his emotions like a book. In his first role he holds together the first half of the movie, and hold it he does.

I don’t know if this Sunday night will bring any golden statues for Lion. Along with Patel and Kidman, Davies and Fraser are nominated along with the film’s score, plus a Best Picture nod. The picture, though, has aimed to have an effect long after the lights go up in the theater. In India, 80,000 children go missing each year. It’s the equivalent of losing the population of Indianapolis each year. There are also 11 million children on the streets of India, roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Los Angeles. The film’s production companies, See Saw Productions and the Weinstein Company, have launched the LionHeart foundation with the Charity Network to help India’s street children.

I do suggest you bring along a tissue or two when you see Lion.

The Rule On Gold

I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.

The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.

When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.

The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.

Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.

As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.

The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.

Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.

A Life In Three Pieces

On the face of it, the award-winning film Moonlight fits into that most stalwart of literary genres, the coming-of-age story. Whether it’s Great Expectations, The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird, or A Separate Peace, the form deals with the passage from childhood to adulthood, and all the snares and traps along the way. It has also chronicled the Black experience with I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings, Black Boy, and Native Son. Moonlight, though, turns this into a coming-to-peace story, overcoming prejudice and hate.

It’s a story in three pieces, with three different actors portraying the central character. The movie’s poster beautifully conveys this – take a close look at it. Highlighting the trilogy, the main character’s name changes with each segment. Little (Alex Hibbert) is a painfully quiet boy living in the Daly City area of Miami. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and Little is constantly bullied by neighborhood boys. He finds an unusual mentor in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer in the area. In High School, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still faces the bullying. He finds one moment of peace and acceptance with another boy in his school, only to have it destroyed. As an adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes) has followed a path that has him acting out the role of his mentor, Juan. Then a late-night call offers the chance for restoration.

Director Barry Jenkins had done short films and one micro-budgeted feature before, but Moonlight received support from production companies A24 and Plan B to the tune of $5 Million. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s company, and Pitt serves as an executive producer. That’s a long shoestring, but still a shoestring budget these days. Jenkins also wrote the screenplay based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s a movie where silence speaks eloquently. Hibbert as Little has maybe one paragraph’s worth of dialogue during his section of the movie, but his body language speaks volumes.

Harris is the only actor who appears in all three sections. Most people know her as Moneypenny in Skyfall, though I remember her from 28 Days Later. Here she steps it up several notches to offer a searing portrait that’s been rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar after also receiving nominations for the Golden Globes and the SAG awards. It’s an extremely talented category this year with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams, but Harris is deserving of consideration. Mahershala Ali is also Oscar-nominated, and after his surprise win at the SAG awards he has momentum going for him. While physically imposing, he gives a restrained, even tender performance as Juan. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes combine for an indelible performance that blends perfectly. At the end of the film when Black takes center stage, you still feel Little and Chiron inside him, which makes it all the more emotionally impacting.

Along with the acting nominations, Jenkins has nominations for best director and adapted screenplay. The movie also received nods for cinematography, original score, editing, along with best picture of the year, for a total of 8. James Laxton’s cinematography is excellent, making you feel the heat of the sun-drenched days, though at night the world becomes rich and beautiful in the moonlight. Jenkins remembered when he was growing up in the Miami area how people’s skin glowed in the sun. Most movie makeup for Caucasian skin involves powder to dampen shine, but for Moonlight Jenkins used oil to capture the sheen he remembered.

The power of film is to put the audience into situations – and into skins – that are on the surface different from their own experiences. In doing so it makes those situations and people understandable and relatable. When it does its work right, those feelings persist so the understanding remains long after the lights in the theater come up. Moonlight accomplishes that with devastating power, but also in the end with hope.

Gotta Sing. Gotta Dance.

Last night I watched one of the best musical films ever made: Singing in the Rain. The switch from silent films to talkies, the focus of the movie, made musicals possible. To date ten musicals have won the Best Picture Oscar. Now, with La La Land there’s a chance it will become eleven.

La La Land works both as a neo-musical as well as an homage to the genre. In Singing in the Rain, you have the meet-cute device of Gene Kelly jumping into Debbie Reynolds’ car, then Debbie jumping out of a cake in front of Kelly. La La Land gives these a decidedly modern-day twist – Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) first sort-of meet during a minor moment of road rage, and it takes two more incidents before they finally get together.

Mia and Sebastian have both come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, though the closest she’s gotten to the business is working as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who’s reduced to playing background music at a restaurant. When he slips in some of his original compositions, the owner (J.K. Simmons in a sparkling cameo) fires him on the spot. His dream is to open his own club where he and others can play jazz, the most American of all musical styles. Fate brings the two dreamers together as they pursue their dreams, but can the relationship survive success?

La La Land was a passion project for writer/director Damien Chazelle, who also explored the dedication necessary to succeed as a musician in his 2014 film Whiplash. In the era of Singing in the Rain studios turned out dozens of Hollywood-style musicals every year, but now if you eliminate animated films you might get one or two a year, most of them adaptations of Broadway shows. Since 2010 you have Les Miserables, Rock of Ages, Annie, and Into the Woods, with the middle two being rightly forgettable. La La Land embraces the break-into-song-or-dance motif of the classics, while grafting it into the modern world. The opening production number is staged during a traffic jam. Chazelle lets his camera follow the action in long, flowing takes.

The score by Justin Hurwitz, with song lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, is gorgeous, and accounts for three of the film’s 14 Oscar nominations: Best Score and two Best Song noms (“City of Stars” and “Audition,” which becomes the climax of the film). It’s also an excellent argument for the place of jazz in music today, as well as a real introduction to the genre for people these days who casually say they don’t like jazz.

A personal kudo to Ryan Gosling for learning the proper fingering for the music he plays. I don’t know if he actually plays the piano or if he just fakes it incredibly well, but Chazelle doesn’t cheat as many movies do by not showing the keyboard. That’s a pet peeve for me, kind of like Neil DeGrasse Tyson being upset when a film shows the incorrect alignment of stars in the sky. It’s not something most people will notice, but if you are one of those people it becomes a major factor. Gosling, though, nails it.

I don’t know what will happen Oscar night. Both Stone and Gosling have been nominated for their roles, and deservedly so. They have a definite chemistry on screen. This is now the third time they’ve been paired, along with Crazy. Stupid. Love. and Gangster Squad. Could they be the next Hepburn/Tracy? I wouldn’t mind that. But their categories have strong competition with Denzel Washington, Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Natalie Portman, Ruth Negga, and living legend Meryl Streep all in the running.

If people want the Hollywood ending, Gosling and Stone would walk away with their golden statues. But you don’t always get a Hollywood ending, and real life is more complex, messier, and usually more satisfying.

Thankfully La La Land has both options covered.

Hidden No More

I’m a history buff, and I love to discover history that has been lost or missed for decades. It often makes a good movie, as we’ve recently seen with Louis Zamperini (Unbroken) and Desmond Doss (Hacksaw Ridge). Now we can add the names Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson to that list, the triumvirate at the center of Hidden Figures. I’d been looking forward to this film from the first time I saw a trailer; I was not disappointed.

Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) was a child prodigy in mathematics who grew up to work for NASA during the early days of the space race. She was a human computer, checking calculations made by scientists. This was at a time when prejudice held that science wasn’t suitable for either blacks or women. There was a full contingent of black women working at the main NASA facility at Langley, Virginia, before its later move to Houston. They were segregated into the West Building – the only place where there were “colored” bathrooms – under the de facto supervision of Dorothy (Octavia Spencer). It was de facto since the bureaucracy, embodied in the character of Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst), refused to give her the designation and the commensurate pay raise. Mary (Janelle Monae) was permanently assigned to the engineering group, a discipline in which she had distinct talent.

The movie chronicles the racism they faced even as they sought to help the country make the leap into space. It could be systemic, like the roadblocks in Mary’s way to prevent her from getting the education credit to be recognized as an engineer. It could be personal, like the engineer played by Jim Parsons who redacts much of his work before turning it over to Katherine, even though the redactions make proper checking impossible. Or it could be technological advancement like the IBM computer that stands to replace the West Building group, if the computer engineers can get it to work.

What makes the movie a winner is the wit and determination the women utilize to overcome the obstacles. In particular Henson knows how to deliver a devastating comeback with the sweetest smile, though she does also have one scene where Katherine’s frustrations explode in volcanic fury. Sitting in the audience, I wanted to cry out “You go, girl!”

Octavia Spencer is fantastic as always, especially in her scenes with Dunst that are a masterclass for actors. Next month she’ll be back on the screen in The Shack, playing God. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Almighty lobbied for her to be cast. A delightful surprise is singer Janelle Monae, who’d only done a couple of voice acting jobs before a double debut with Figures and Moonlight. She’s perfect as the sassy and smart Mary, holding her own with both Spencer and Henson like an experienced pro. The film also features Kevin Costner as NASA administrator Al Harrison. Costner has developed into a fine character actor, proving there is life after stardom.

Director/Producer/Screenwriter Theodore Melfi was known mostly for the Bill Murray film from 2014, St. Vincent. He collaborated with Allison Schroeder on adapting Margot Lee Shetterly’s book for the screen, and they did a stellar job of it. The dialog crackles, but this is also a movie where silent looks speak paragraphs. Particular kudos to Production Designer Wynn Thomas, Set Decorator Missy Parker, and Costume Designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, who nail the look of the early sixties.

It’s wonderful timing that Hidden Figures is being released now. It gives a very strong reminder that the “good old days” were not good for everyone, and lets us see not only how far we’ve come but how necessary it was that we made those changes. The movie ends with footage of the real Katherine Johnson, now in her 90s, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

These figures should never be hidden again.

Powerful as a Monster

English author Siobhan Dowd was an award-winning writer of four children’s books, but she fell ill with cancer while planning her fifth book and passed away in 2007. Her editor, with whom she’d discussed the book, asked another of her writers, Patrick Ness, if he’d write the book based on Dowd’s idea. Ness agreed, though he had the freedom to take the story wherever he felt it had to go. Jim Kay was recruited to illustrate the story. After its 2011 publication, “A Monster Calls” won the Carnegie and Greenway Medals for the best children’s book and the best illustrations, a rare double win. Now Ness has adapted A Monster Calls to the screen

“The story begins, as many stories do, with a boy and a nightmare.” Twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has a lot to deal with: he’s bullied every day by three lugheads at his school, his father left him and his mother and moved from England to California, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) doesn’t know how to relate to him, and his mother (Felicity Jones) with whom he has his deepest personal connection is chronically sick. Then at 12:07 am, after awaking from a recurring nightmare, a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to call on Conor. The monster informs Conor that he will tell him three stories. After that, Conor will need to tell him about his nightmare. The stories the monster tells, though, are like nothing Conor expects, filled with ambiguity and frustrating twists.

Twelve is an awkward age, the point of transition between childhood and adulthood. It’s also a time for a new awareness of the world around them, and A Monster Calls does an incredible job of portraying that change in Conor. The simplistic system of bad behavior followed by punishment breaks down, leaving him bewildered. When Conor eventually acts out at school but doesn’t receive the punishment he expects. It’s left to his school’s principal (Geraldine Chaplin in a poignant cameo role) to explain the change in a simple, devastating sentence.

The performances are incredible. Liam Neeson could read a grocery list and keep you spellbound, and Felicity Jones is having a stellar fall between this movie and Rogue One. But it’s a veteran and a novice that steal the movie. Sigourney Weaver takes the role of the grandmother that could have been a complete stereotype – at one point she actually tells Conor not to touch anything in her house – and invests the role with grace and humanity. The movie, though, belongs to MacDougall in his second film and his first lead role. He’s blessed with eyes that speak volumes even when he’s sitting still.

Director J.A. Bayona has worked mostly in his native Spain whose only other English film was the powerful story of the Boxing Day Tsunami, The Impossible, which consequentially also had a coming of age element to the story. He’ll likely be much better known soon as he’s been tabbed to direct the Jurassic World sequel due in 2018. Bayona blends the fantastic with the everyday and lets the story play out with heartrending power. Especially beautiful are the animation sequences that illustrate the monster’s stories. Led by Juan Ramon Pou, the water color style of the images are magical and capture the feel of children’s books.

We’re now well into award season and the theaters are filled with worthy films. It would be easy to overlook A Monster Calls, but that would be a crime. This is not just a story for tweens but one for everyone who once was a child and remembers the confusion and pain of the transition to adulthood. It also is a chance for those of us who have seen many years pass by to reconnect with the wonder of childhood.

Pack a couple of tissues when you see it; you’ll need them.