All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

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A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)


Daniela Vega delivers an intense performance in A Fantastic Woman.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Catellana, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Roberto Farias, Christian Chaparro, Diana Cassis, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

It is hard enough to mourn the loss of a loved one. When we lose someone close to us, we want to be surrounded by others grieving that person. We need the comfort of the company of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to reach out and comfort us in our time of need.

Marina Vidal (Vega) finds herself in that situation. She has just moved into her boyfriend’s house. Orlando Ortillo (Reyes) owns a textile mill in Santiago. He left his wife Sonia (Kuppenheim) to be with Marina who is a waitress and a part-time lounge singer who specializes in salsa and other Latin dance music. After Orlando takes Marina out for a night on the town, he wakes up in the middle of the night complaining of a headache and feeling ill. Concerned, she means to take him to the hospital but he falls down a flight of stairs on the way to the car. The doctors determine he has suffered an aneurysm but he dies on the operating table.

But that’s just the beginning of the pain. Suspicious of the bruises and wounds on his body, the police question Marina about the incident. Eventually they assign a sex crimes detective (Noguera) to investigate, forcing Marina to submit to a humiliating interview and medical exam. Worse yet is Orlando’s family.

Sophia’s initial civility is quickly stripped away as she becomes a vicious, vengeful harpy who forbids Marina from attending the funeral and services for Orlando. Worse yet is her son Bruno (Saavedra) who sneers at and degrades Marina and wants her out of the apartment so he can move in. Marina doesn’t have any legal standing, but to make matters worse, she’s a transgender. In Latin America, that is no easy thing to live with. Through all the humiliations both petty and major, Marina tries to keep her calm, cool demeanor and if she plays things close to the vest, who can blame her?

Finally enough is enough – all she wants to do is mourn her dead lover so she can move on. She sees him, a kindly ghost haunting her wherever she goes. The more she is discriminated against however, the more her blood boils. The time is coming when she will stand up for herself against those who persecute her. What form will that take though?

This is a movie that tackles what is a controversial subject even here in the States – transgenders. Although our legislators seem to take a great interest in which bathrooms they use, there is little interest in dealing with the treatment they receive and the way they are perceived. They are often confused with cross-dressers and are often the targets of violence. It is especially more brutal in Latin America where the culture of machismo flourishes. That Lelio would even take on the subject is to be seriously commended.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the performance of Vega. At times she seems pensive, like all her thoughts are turned inward. She seems brittle and fragile and even a little bit intellectual. Then she is hot and passionate, her anger manifesting in a propensity for punching inanimate objects. Her frustration and grief are mostly kept to herself, even when her tormentors take her beloved dog Diabla from her. It’s only when she gets tired of being treated as a non-person that she finally shows her defiance and yes, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There are elements of fantasy here – sightings of the ghost of Orlando, strange winds that force Marina to bend nearly parallel to the ground, a trip to a disco in which individuals dancing turns into a choreographed chorus line with Marina in an amazing glittery outfit. Is this all in Marina’s imagination or are they hallucinations? Lelio doesn’t explain, leaving it up to the audience to decide which.

The disco scene actually went on for way too long unfortunately – because I liked what Lelio was trying to do. However the strobe lights became so intrusive, so overwhelming that my vertigo was triggered. Anyone who has epilepsy should be well-advised to take a bathroom break once the disco scene begins. I do like the color palate that Lelio uses; every scene is full of bright greens, reds and blues that suffuse the film in a kind of neon glow.

Da Queen and I checked this out the night before it would win the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Given the subject matter, this isn’t a movie that is going to pull in crowds of people at the box office; I suspect that we as a nation are still too intolerant for that to happen although one lives in hope that we will grow up eventually and realize that love is love, no matter what the genders are of the two people involved. This is a movie that is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring and while it makes its case for the drum it is beating, it doesn’t necessarily hit you in the face with bromides and broadsides. Strictly put, this is a film that is deceptively quiet and small-budgeted but it nonetheless packs an emotional wallop and gives voice to those who rarely get to use theirs. Definitely one to see when you get the chance.

REASONS TO GO: The film confronts dead-on the issues faced by transgenders not only in Latin America but globally. Vega gives an intense performance that should make her an instant international star.
REASONS TO STAY: The disco scene with the strobe light went on way too long and actually provoked a vertigo attack in this viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some violence, plenty of profanity and lots of adult thematic material
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vega was the first transgender to present at the Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laurence Anyways
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Mom and Dad

War for the Planet of the Apes


Caesar can be a little grumpy sometimes.

(2017) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karen Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer, Sara Canning, Devyn Dalton, Aleks Paunovic, Alessandro Juliani, Max Lloyd-Jones, Timothy Webber, Lauro Chartrand, Shaun Omaid, Roger Cross, Mercedes de la Zerda. Directed by Matt Reeves

 

This past summer was largely disappointing when it came to quality blockbusters. Sure, there were the usual suspects; loud sci-fi action, crude comedies, big superhero epics and so on. Mostly all of the high expectations for some of these wannabe billion dollar franchises fizzled out of the gate with only a few exceptions.

War for the Planet of the Apes however was one of the best-reviewed films of the entire summer. That rarely translates to big box office bucks – it didn’t recoup its $150 million production budget at the domestic box office and it finished with under $500 million at the worldwide box office, a decent enough number but surely not to the expectations of the suits at Fox.

The movie was curiously light on action despite the title; what it turned out to be was an ape character study of Caesar (Serkis), leader of the intelligent apes and the Colonel (Harrelson), the militaristic dictator of the remnants of humankind. You see the virus that made the apes smart is making humans dumb as rocks. Few thinking, rational human beings remain. The Colonel thinks all of the apes should be wiped off the face of the Earth so that humans can survive; in his mind, Homo sapiens won’t go gently into that good night.

Serkis delivers the best performance of his diverse career. Caesar is extremely conflicted; he wants peace but there is no reasoning with a fanatic. When struck by a personal tragedy, Caesar feels despair and fury but he is still tempered by the basically decent simian that he is. Of course, he’s an inspiring leader of his tribe who look to him as their savior while to the Colonel he’s a different kind of symbol. Zahn provides comic relief (and pathos) as Bad Ape.

There is a subplot involving a mute human child that ties into the ape movies of the 60s and 70s which aficionados of those films will appreciate; I surely did. There aren’t a ton of action sequences but the ones there are Reeves pretty much nails.

The CGI is surprisingly substandard for a film of this importance; there are some sequences in which it is painfully obviously computer-generated. Good CGI is seamless and fits into “reality” like a glove. That doesn’t happen here and it takes the viewer right out of the film from time to time.

I wasn’t among the critics singing the praises of this film. To my eye, it isn’t as good as the first two films in the series. I’m not sure the studio initially had faith in it either as  the movie could easily end the franchise right here; however with a fourth film already approved by Fox and a strong overseas box office chances are the franchise will continue, hopefully with films better than this one. However it is still a better than average summer movie and despite its flaws one of the best to come out this past summer which isn’t saying much.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis does some of his best work ever here. The Nova subplot is truly captivating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is sadly uneven and isn’t up to the high standards of the franchise. Some of the CGI looked too much like CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, plenty of sci-fi violence and battle scenes as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Serkis in interviews promoting the film indicated that this won’t be the conclusion of the series which may come in the fourth or fifth film of the series; in fact, Fox has already greenlit a fourth film in the franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starship Troopers
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mother, I Love You

Max Rose


September of his years.

September of his years.

(2015) Drama (Paladin) Jerry Lewis, Kerry Bishé, Kevin Pollak, Claire Bloom, Rance Howard, Lee Weaver, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Dean Stockwell, Illeana Douglas, Fred Willard, Stephanie Katherine Grant, Mort Sahl, Valerie Hurt, Jodie Mann, Joe Frank, Oliver Max, Jonathan Downs, Sarah Waisman. Directed by Daniel Noah

 

From the moment we are born, we begin our (hopefully) long journey down the road to old age and mortality. For those who are closer to the end of that road, the perspective can change and often with it comes bitterness, regret and remorse.

Max Rose (Lewis) is in mourning. His wife of 65 years, Eva (Bloom) has passed away, leaving him lost and empty. However, there is also a rage in him; shortly before her death, Max glanced inside her compact only to find a romantic inscription to his wife, written on November 5, 1959 when the former jazz pianist was in New York recording his one and only record while she remained in Los Angeles. It was a bitter revelation for Max, who now wonders if the only thing in his life he can be proud of – his marriage – was a complete failure like so much else in his life.

His bitterness seems mainly directed at his son Chris (Pollak) whom Max considers to have wasted his life, having gone through one divorce and is beginning a second. The only person Max seems to have any regard for is his granddaughter Annie (Bishé) and who has a relationship with her grandfather that is almost fatherly. Annie’s boyfriend Scott is in Chicago playing with the Philharmonic but Annie is reluctant to join him and Max counsels her to go. Annie for her part finds excuses not to – her job, her father’s health and so on.

After Max has a heart issue, Chris and Annie realize that they need to put him somewhere he can get the medical care he needs and the house is put up on the market much to Max’s contempt. It proves the excuse for Max and Chris to have one confrontation, but there are no fireworks; just surrender. Even Annie thinks Max is being harsh.

But the thing sticking in Max’s craw is the identity of the man who may have been having an affair with his wife. Was it a one-time occurrence or a long-term relationship? Was Max the love of Eva’s life, or the ball and chain that kept her from her one true love? And how was Max going to carry on without the love of his life?

I was looking forward to this film to see Lewis in a rare dramatic role, and the nonagenarian delivers with a frail but forceful performance that shows that the man who has been in show biz for 70 years has the ability to show his teeth once in awhile. There are times that Lewis literally looks lost in the role, which isn’t a bad thing. There are also times where he just seems lost, which is a bad thing. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a capable cast that performs admirably here.

Sadly, the script isn’t worthy of its cast. The dialogue sounds written rather than spoken and overly dramatic more often than not. There is a kind of flat tone to the film that gives me the sense that the filmmakers thought they would attract a much older demographic and is talking down to them like they all have ear horns sticking out of their skulls and have not a square inch of unwrinkled skin. It is painful to see a film so obviously aimed at a specific demographic that is so contemptuous of it.

What the film does get right is the dynamics between Chris, Max and Annie. This feels like real relationship issues and not just a bunch of people reading from a script. The filmmakers understand very well that the dynamics of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within. They don’t explain what the source of the conflict is between Max and his son, and they don’t even try to; the important thing is that the dynamic of a family can be difficult to comprehend even from within it.

The ending features a confrontation between Max and his wife’s potential lover (Stockwell) but what should have been an emotionally charged scene comes off bland and proceeds directly into an ending that will leave you shaking your head if not your fist. I will admit that seeing Lewis onscreen was worth it for me specifically, and that Bishé and Pollak both deliver strong performances, as does Bloom in flashbacks where she injects some needed life into the film. Too bad she couldn’t resurrect as a zombie; even a zombie would have more life than most of this disappointing film.

REASONS TO GO: The family dynamics feel authentic. Some fine acting from the leads in the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: A schmaltzy ending that sabotages any good will the movie had to begin with. Noah tries too hard to make the movie feel heartwarming.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (oh, those French sure love Jerry Lewis) but it wasn’t until this year at the New York Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of Lewis on the occasion of his 90th birthday that the movie was first seen in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?

Mission to Mars


Mission to Mars

A little romantic skydancing never hurts a relationship.

(2000) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Gary Sinese, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O’Connell, Peter Outerbridge Kavan Smith, Jill Teed, Elise Neal, Kim Delaney, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Robert Bailey Jr., Patricia Harras, Lynda Boyd, Jody Thompson, Lucia Walters Pamela Diaz. Directed by Brian De Palma

The human nature is to explore, to find out what lies beyond where we have already been; to ask questions and then find answers. We explore without; the world around us, and someday, the worlds beyond our own. We also explore within; who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Hey, it keeps us busy.

Mission to Mars looks at that aspect of ourselves. Set in 2020, it posits the first manned mission to the Red Planet. Tragedy dogs the mission even before it leaves; its commander, Jim McConnell (Sinese), withdraws following the death of his wife and co-commander of the mission.

At first, the mission seems fairly routine; to discover the feasibility of colonization. However, the new mission commander, Luke Graham (Cheadle) discovers an anomaly, one which quickly turns deadly. When it becomes clear to mission control that something has gone wrong at Mars Base, a rescue mission is mounted, led by Woody Blake (Robbins), his wife Terri (Nielsen) and mission specialist Phil Ohlmyer (O’Connell). Blake insists that McConnell accompany the team, as he is the one who wrote the mission plan for the original expedition, including a possible rescue situation, and knows more about Mars than any other astronaut. It takes some convincing of the still-grieving McConnell but he eventually realizes that he could save lives so he assents.

The rescue mission also meets with unexpected tragedy after a micrometeorite shower holes the ship. The rescue party has to use all their resourcefulness in order to make it to the planet. There, they find the object of their mission … and a puzzle for them to solve. It explains why the first mission had to die … and a whole lot more. Think of this as a junior 2001: A Space Odyssey with better special effects and a director who is more of a storyteller. That, perhaps, is the biggest problem with M2M; rather than leave the mystery pretty much unsolved, letting the audience come to its own conclusions as Stanley Kubrick did with his film, director Brian de Palma makes sure that everything is explained in nice, neat little packages. That takes away from the grandeur of the mystery, and leaves us feeling like Peggy Lee; is that all there is?

Visually, there are some stunning moments, particularly late in the movie during the Martian Head scene, and during a cataclysmic accident. Sinese and Robbins are solid actors who never disappoint; Sinese is particularly excellent, playing an astronaut for the first time since Apollo 13 and comporting himself as a complex man, switching between mourning his wife and achieving the dream they both shared. Cheadle is an actor whose stock in Hollywood was on the rise when this was made; for me it cemented his standing as an actor whose every role was worth seeking out, a place he occupies to this day.

It makes for an odd switch; I’m usually more forgiving of the excesses of sci-fi flicks than Da Queen, but she liked this movie better than I did. That it got a one-hanky recommendation from Da Queen is telling enough; that she found it thought-provoking should be recommendation enough for anyone. For my part, I give it a mild recommendation; certainly, it’s worth seeing for the scope of its vision as well as the performances of its solid cast. I also give the writers props for avoiding cliché characterization and action for its own sake.

Still, I’ve seen 2001, I’ve enjoyed 2001 (although I didn’t love 2001), but this ain’t 2001.

WHY RENT THIS: Some spectacular effects sequences. Solid performances from Sinese, Cheadle and Robbins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Explains too much – a little more mystery would have gone a long way. Could have used more depth in characterization.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a bit of violence, some bad language and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: There is a “hidden Mickey,” seen here when the Mars Explorer lines up with Mars, the rotating circular hub of the spacecraft and antenna dish form the iconic image of Mickey Mouse. Of course, Touchstone is a division of Disney, and “hidden Mickeys” are notoriously placed throughout all of the Disney theme parks as easter eggs for their guests.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an animatics to finished scene comparison that is fairly interesting. The making of featurette also shows the input of NASA into the finished film making it a little more interesting than most.

BOX OFICE PERFORMANCE: $111.0M on a $100M production budget; the movie’s ambitious budget outpaced it’s decent box office and so it was unprofitable during its theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in case I didn’t make it clear in the review)

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Skyfall

Super 8


Super 8

Elle Fanning can't believer her eyes. Neither can we.

(2011) Sci-Fi Adventure (Paramount) Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noel Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Ryan Griffiths, Zach Mills, AJ Michalka, Glynn Turman, Bruce Greenwood, Michael Giacchino, Dan Castellaneta. Directed by J.J. Abrams

There is an age that is magic, when the possibilities of life are endless and unimaginable. At that age, summer stretches out like a magic carpet, taking us anywhere and everywhere. Some of those places are places we might not necessarily want to be.

Young Joe Lamb (Courtney) is mourning the death of his mother in a steel mill accident. His father, Deputy Jackson Lamb (Chandler) has some anger issues, blaming town drunk Louis Dainard (Eldard) for his wife’s demise.

Joe’s best friend is Charles Kaznyk (Griffiths), a movie made husky kid who is making a zombie movie for a film festival, on Super 8 stock. Oh, did I mention that this is 1979? It is. Anyway, they want to shoot at the train station and Charlie has decided to add a love interest for his lead actor Martin (Basso) and into the picture comes Alice Dainard (Fanning), the daughter of Louis. She is drawn to Joe, who does the make-up and sound, whose melancholy draws her like a moth to a flame. Neither of them realizes the issue between their fathers, or what Louis’ role in the death of Joe’s mom is.

While filming at the train station, they witness what appears to be an intentional derailment of the freight train by a pickup truck which, to their shock, is driven by their science teacher (Turman) who warns them to tell nobody. When military types led by the hardnosed Colonel Nelec (Emmerich) swoop in, they believe their teacher may have been right.

Soon it becomes apparent that there was something aboard the freight train that wasn’t supposed to be there, something terrifying and angry. People disappear, dogs disappear and property is damaged. The military is covering it up. It has something to do with a creature that was captured on the young filmmaker’s camera, and some strange cubes. When the military insists on evacuating the town, the kids – including pyromaniac cameraman Cary (Lee) will find out the truth, and risk everything to rescue one of their own.

Director Abrams has crafted a loving homage to Steven Spielberg’s early works (and Spielberg produced this under his Amblin banner) especially E.T. and maybe Poltergeist with a heaping helping of The Goonies for good measure. Setting this in 1979 was a good move; it places it squarely in Spielberg’s golden era and adds that nostalgic sheen to the movie.

The juvenile actors in this movie do a really whiz-bang job. Fanning, who up to now has been overshadowed by her sister Dakota, pulls her best performance yet as the lovely but shy Alice, who is the object of affection for Joe. She is both kind and sweet but with a tormented side which shows from time to time. It’s a bravura performance that is nearly matched by Courtney, who is the hero here and a boy who is coping with overwhelming grief and a father who is distant from him and was so even before his wife died.

Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not big on the “kids saving the day” types of movies. They tend to be insulting to the intelligence of both kids and adults. Still, this one is better than most, harkening back to some of the best movies of the 70s and 80s with 21st century flair and awesome creature effects. What’s not to like?

REASONS TO GO: A really great creature feature, E.T. meets Cloverfield.  Some fine juvenile performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Kids saving the day syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: The creature can be terrifying and there are some scenes that might be disturbing for the very young. There’s also some language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the town, Lillian, is named for director J.J. Abrams’ grandmother.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely big screen. This is a popcorn movie all the way.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Frozen

Departures (Okuribito)


Departures (Okuribito)

A symphony for an appreciatively silent audience.

(Regent) Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasato, Taro Ishida, Yukiko Tachibano, Genjitsu Shu, Sanae Miyata, Toru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto. Directed by Yojiro Takita.

Death is a part of life that is completely inevitable. We all die. You will die. I will die. Someone we love will die. As a far different sort of movie once opined, how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.

Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) is a cellist in a symphony orchestra that plays before half-empty houses in Tokyo. His perky wife Mika (Hirosue) thinks he’s a genius but then again she’s kind of a live action Hello Kitty figure. That’s when the bad news hits – the orchestra is being disbanded. Daigo is going to have to find a new job and he comes to the realization that as a cellist, he is second rate.

He decides to go back to the town he originally came from and live in the house he inherited from his recently deceased mother, whose funeral he missed because he was touring with the orchestra. She had used the ground floor of the house as a café, a holdover from the time before his father abandoned them when he was six years old. Daigo has lived the rest of his life resenting his father for his actions. His hatred for his father is the simple, straightforward emotion of a child who can’t understand why his parent doesn’t love him enough.

Needing to find work, Daigo answers an ad in a newspaper that is headlined “Departures.” Thinking that this is a travel agency, he answers the ad only to find out, to his horror, that the company is more concerned with the final departure. In the Japanese tradition, families at one time prepared the bodies of loved ones for the undertaker to cremate but that responsibility had been passed on to the undertakers who, in turn, had subcontracted the job out to other businesses. The process, called encoffinment, is considered very low on the Japanese totem pole and those who practice it are regarded with contempt.

However, the job pays well and Daigo is drawn to the business owner, Mr. Sasaki (Yamazaki), a bit of a throwback to the wise sage and mentor known primarily in the United States as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He hides the nature of the job from his trusting wife who is overjoyed at the salary her husband is making, especially as they are being paid in cash.

Daigo has some problems acclimating. His first job is to pose as a corpse in an instructional video, and his first actual job concerns a corpse that had not been discovered until two weeks after the death of the deceased. However, as he sees the care and almost loving respect shown the bodies by Sasaki and the effect of that concern on the families, he comes to realize the importance of the ritual in the process of grieving. Although his wife is angered and ashamed at his newly chosen profession when she eventually finds out and in fact leaves him, he still continues with what has clearly become a calling to him. It is a calling that will enable him to confront his own feelings of loss when the time comes in which Daigo is forced to deal with them.

This was the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, in a bit of an upset over much higher-regarded and better-distributed films. Although I haven’t seen all of the other nominees yet, I can tell you this is a movie clearly deserving of the honor. Director Takita and writer Kundo Koyama take no stance as to what happens after death – that is left for other forums. This is about the effect of death on the living, and how we deal with it. There is some humor here – this isn’t a downer at all, despite the subject matter. However, there are some moments of genuine pathos, as when a taciturn husband, who berates Sasaki and Daigo for arriving five minutes late, breaks down at the sight of his wife, beautifully made up by Sasaki.

The film is well-cast. Hirosue is elfin and beautiful, but also maternal and loving. She is the ultimate Japanese wife – respectful and submissive but with a mind of her own as well. Yamazaki is expressive with his concern and care, yet capable of a sly sense of humor. Motoki plays Daigo as conflicted at times but with a good heart. The characters all have hidden compartments of pain that serve to elevate them from stereotypes into human beings.

This is a quiet movie, meant to move the viewer to contemplation of difficult subjects. The cello dominates the soundtrack, giving it a mournful edge but the movie itself isn’t mournful. It is more of a celebration of life and the role that death plays in it. I wouldn’t say it is a heart-warming, uplifting movie – there are far too many tears for that – but it does have moments that are joyful.

The northern Japan landscapes are beautifully photographed, and the glimpses into Japanese culture are engrossing. This is a movie that stays with you long after the end credits roll. You are forced to confront the losses in your own life so be aware of that before renting.

In some ways this isn’t an easy movie to sit through. Anyone who has lost someone dear to them is going to be taken right back to those emotions but in a good way. Death is definitely the elephant in every room. We know it is with us always, and we are aware that sooner or later we are all going to make our own departure. Movies like this one may help to make those moments a little less frightening, particularly for those left behind. After all, death is more a concept for the living; the dead aren’t really concerned with it all that much.

WHY RENT THIS: A beautiful movie that offers a glimpse into Japanese culture, as well as giving an insight into grieving and loss. Well acted with characters that are more human than stereotype.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The subject matter makes this a difficult movie to watch at times, particularly for those who have lost someone dear to them recently. It is subtitled, which is a deal breaker for some moviegoers.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too much for less mature children, but some parents may wish to use the movie as a place to start discussions about death, especially in terms of making it less terrifying.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese title is translated as “the sending away people” but the word “okuribito” is rarely used in Japan.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Sherlock Holmes