Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Most Hated Woman in America

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The Accountant (2016)


Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

Ben Affleck sets his sights on those who criticized his casting as Batman.

(2016) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, John Lithgow, Jean Smart, Andy Umberger, Alison Wright, Jason Davis, Robert C. Treveiler, Mary Kraft, Seth Lee, Jake Presley, Izzy French, Ron Prather, Susan Williams, Gary Basaraba, Fernando Chien, Alex Collins, Sheila Maddox. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

 

Most people have an idea of autism that is decidedly out of step with reality. The truth is that there all sorts of different types of autism and all sorts of different types of autistics. Some are low functioning, unable to take care of themselves and who are requiring of supervision. These are generally the types of autism that we tend to picture when we think about autism at all. Others are high functioning, some to the point where you wouldn’t know they were autistic if they didn’t tell you. The myth about autism that is most pervasive and most untrue is that autism goes hand in hand with mental retardation. Some autistics can be brilliant. Some can even be deadly.

Christian Wolff (Affleck) was born with a gift – a genius at problem solving. He’s a math whiz and able to ferret out patterns you and I could never see. He is also autistic, unable to interact well socially although he’d like to. He has rigid habits that govern his life; his breakfast is the same, every day, arranged on the plate in the very same way. He has his silverware in a drawer, arranged exactly the way he wants them – with no extraneous flatware to clog up his drawers. He likes things simple in his life.

Perhaps that’s because his job is so complex. You see, he’s an accountant and not just for anyone; he uncooks the books for some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, ranging from drug kingpins to assassins to terrorists to warlords. This has attracted the attention of the Treasury Department and it’s lead agent, Ray King (Simmons) who is getting ready to retire but who has been chasing the accountant for years. He wants to get him as a crowning achievement to his career so he enlists agent Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) who is even more brilliant than he.

In the meantime, Wolff has been brought in by a biomedical robotics firm called Living Robotics to investigate some irregularities in their accounting, irregularities unearthed by a junior accountant – the chirpy Dana Cummings (Kendrick). CEO Lamar Black (Lithgow) wants these irregularities cleared up before he takes the company public. Wolff begins his investigation and turns up something – something that puts he and Dana in mortal danger, as a killer named Braxton (Bernthal) shows up to clean house at Living Robotics.

I like the concept here a lot; a high-functioning autistic action hero and Affleck is the perfect choice to play him. Affleck can play closed-off as well as anybody in the business and he shows that skill here. Christian is socially awkward and a little bit wary of social interactions. When Dana starts flirting with him, he’s attracted but he doesn’t know how to react. The scenes between the two are some of the best in the film. The other supporting roles are solid here as well, although Lithgow may have left a few too many tooth marks on the scenery for comfort.

One of the issues I have with the film is that I don’t think O’Connor and screenwriter Bill Dubuque were quite sure whether they wanted to make a thriller or an action film. Perhaps they wanted to make a hybrid of both but the pendulum kept swinging in one direction or the other and it ended up being unsatisfying in that regard. Worse yet, there are several plot twists, including one regarding the Braxton character which may as well have neon arrows pointing to them and blinking graphics screaming “HERE! PLOT TWIST! YOU’LL NEVER GET THIS ONE!!!!!” and of course anyone with a reasonable amount of experience at the movies should figure it out early on.

I like Affleck a lot as an actor; always have, even when his career was in a slump. Heck, I even liked him in Gigli which is saying something. He does elevate this somewhat, as does Kendrick and to a lesser extent, Addai-Robinson and Tambor (whose scenes are all too brief as Wolff’s mentor). It’s enough for me to give this flawed film a mild recommendation. It’s not a movie to write home about but neither is it one to troll Internet forums over. It’s a solidly made bit of entertaining fluff that will keep you occupied and be promptly forgotten. That may be enough in a lot of ways, especially in these stressful times, but it could have been a whole lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is terrific here and his chemistry with Kendrick is authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: Most of the plot twists are telegraphed and the movie falls apart towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as regular occurrences of profanity
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in Plainfield, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) it was shot in Atlanta where the production company got much better tax incentives than Illinois offered.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Keeping Up with the Joneses

The Lobster


Sharing a moment.

Sharing a moment.

(2015) Romance (A24) Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Ashley Jensen, Jessica Barden, Roland Ferrandi, Imelda Nagle Ryan, Emma O’Shea, Olivia Colman, Garry Mountaine, Michael Smiley, Patrick Malone, Sandra Mason, Anthony Moriarty, Judi King Murphy, Laoise Murphy, Nancy Onu, Rosanna Hoult. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Florida Film Festival 2016

Love is certainly not what it used to be. Our choices, with the advent of the Internet and its dating services, have grown but in some ways, our understanding of love has narrowed. Once upon a time, we were limited to people we knew and saw every day in the places that we lived. These days, we can choose from all over the world but rather than make our love lives easier in many ways it just makes finding the right one harder.

David (Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife (Hoult). Seeing as this is a dystopian version of the Ireland of the quite-near future that means he must surrender himself to the authorities where he will be taken to the Hotel, along with other single men and women of a certain age. There, as he is informed by the hotel director (Colman) that he, like all the others who have come in that day, must find themselves a new mate within 45 days or surrender their humanity – literally. Guests, as they are called, can extend their stays by going into the woods and hitting loners – those who were unable to find a mate and managed to escape the conversion process – with tranquilizer darts with each tranquilized loner adding a day to their stay. After 45 days, those who are still single will be turned into an animal of their choosing. David chooses a lobster because of its long life span, its virility throughout its entire life and as an additional bonus feature that it literally has blue blood. I don’t think David thought that entirely true – lobsters do get eaten.

David makes a couple of new friends – one with a limp (Whishaw) and one with a lisp (Reilly) – other than David, none of the other characters in the film are given names, only affectations. The limping fellow finds himself a girl prone to bloody noses (Barden) which he is not but he fakes it in order to get the all-important move from the singles tables to the couples tables. Couples are also given a month to get to know each other, then they are put aboard a yacht for two weeks. If all goes well, they are given marriage certificates and sent back into the world. If not, they are given a child to help distract them from their problems. If that fails, they are returned to the singles area to start again.

David is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog – his brother, who failed the process and became man’s best friend. Knowing what happened to his brother imbues him with a kind of desperation, and he begins to cast about desperately for anyone who might possibly be a match, even a heartless woman (Papoulia) who clearly is not suitable for anybody.

Things unfortunately don’t work out for David and with the help of a friendly maid (Labed) he escapes into the woods and meets up with the Loner Leader (Seydoux) who says any relationships are forbidden in the woods and that each Loner must dig their own grave first. There David meets a short-sighted woman (Weisz) – what we in the States call near-sighted – and the two find that there is something between them after all. But now love is forbidden and the couple must find a way to escape everything and everyone and begin a life of their own without the Loner Leader finding out.

This was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival and pretty much the verdict I heard was people either ended up loving or hating this movie, depending on how immersed they became in this somewhat bizarre world, and how willing they were to just let themselves get swept up in it. I have to admit that I can see why people hated it but I ended up loving it just the same. This is a smartly written satire on the importance we place on relationships, with emphasis on grey tones in the cinematography that make the world seem a chilly place which nicely compliments the cold emotional tone.

Nearly all the dialogue is read in clipped, stilted tones like a high school English class reading a play aloud. That got a little tiresome as the movie went on. Most of the rest of the cast were made to keep their emotions strictly at bay, with the exception of Weisz who shows her emotions subtly but recognizably. It’s a very understated performance that reminds us of how gifted an actress this Oscar-winner is.

Animal lovers be warned, there are a couple of scenes that are hard to watch – I almost walked out on the film during one intense scene involving the Heartless Woman but I chose to stick with it which was a good thing. Most of the movie’s emotional resonance comes in the second half.

The movie is divided into two distinct sections – the first at the hotel, the second in the Loner’s woods. The hotel sequence is in many ways the most surreal, the sequence in the woods are the most rewarding. For a movie that takes such great pains to come off as emotion-free, the final scenes in which David is forced to make a decision will trigger a variety of strong emotions in the viewer. In fact, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that hit more powerfully because the rest of the movie is so cold from an emotional standpoint.

This isn’t for everybody. Some people are going to find it too quirky, too cold, too smart, too different. That’s all right. Again, there isn’t a lot of middle ground with this movie; people tend to love it or hate it. As for whether or not you should see it, you will likely fall into one camp or the other and there’s no way of knowing which until you see it. My advice is to take a chance and decide for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: A smartly written film. Utilizes barren, cold landscapes to reflect barren, cold emotions. Different than anything you’re familiar with – you’ll either like it or hate it.
REASONS TO STAY: May be excessively quirky for the taste of some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a small amount of violence but mostly there are sexual concepts including some dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The song that David and the short-sighted woman synchronize on their CD players and dance to in the woods is “Where the Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds featuring Kylie Minogue. David also sings the same song towards the end of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Her
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Nice Guys

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

A Walk in the Woods


Lost in the woods.

Lost in the woods.

(2015) Dramedy (Broad Green) Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Randall Newsome, Linda Edwards, Susan McPhail, Andrew Vogel, Derek Krantz, Gaia Wise, Tucker Meek, Chandler Head, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, John Schmedes, Valentin Armendariz, Danny Vinson, Valerie Payton, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Directed by Ken Kwapis

All of us have a connection to the natural world. Deep down, we pine for it; while most of us will profess to loving the civilized life of home and hearth, every so often we get a yen to go out into the woods and pitch a tent. It reminds us of our connection to this planet, that we are born of it and part of it and that it is conversely part of us. Nothing clears one’s head quite so much as a walk in the woods.

Bill Bryson (Redford) is a semi-retired travel writer who has written some fine books but is about as socially awkward as a 13 year old at a state dinner. He says the wrong things at funerals, cracks incomprehensible jokes that nobody gets and grumps to his saintly patient wife Catherine (Thompson) that talking to people is just something he doesn’t do.

After being upbraided by a smarmy talk show host (Newsome) about having written nothing about his own native country, he chances upon a leg of the Appalachian trail near his New Hampshire home and struck by inspiration. Bryson hits on the idea of walking the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. Catherine takes about as kindly to the idea as she would about having a hole drilled in her noggin. When she sees she can’t dissuade her husband out of the scheme, she insists that he take someone with him.

The trouble is, nobody he knows is willing to go with him. That is until he gets a call out of the blue from Stephen Katz (Nolte), an old friend he had a falling out with a decade or so ago. He’s not choice A for the trip but beggars can’t be choosers so Bill gets himself equipped at the local REI (with Offerman making a cameo as a clerk) and before long Katz and Bryson are putting on their hiking boots.

Katz is, contrary to his self-description, woefully out of shape and is huffing and puffing away like a walrus before he’s gone ten feet. Still, the two manage to make progress although not as much as they probably should. They have to put up with rain, snow, never-ending hills, burying their dookie in the woods, annoying know-it-all hikers (Schaal) and bears. But most of all, they’ll have to put up with each other – and themselves.

Kwapis has a history of creating films that are audience pleasers more so than critical darlings and judging from the scores below has done the same this time out. And what’s not to love? A strong, well-known cast in beautiful settings, that’s for sure. The Appalachian Trail passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet and Kwapis takes full advantage of it.

Redford and Nolte have only been in the same film together once before, that being the 2012 drama The Company You Keep and then they only shared a couple of scenes together. It’s a shame they haven’t done more together because they have amazing chemistry together; they banter like an old married couple and play off of each other like the two old pros they are. Their relationship holds the film together.

Nolte, in particular, is noteworthy; gasping like an asthmatic bear and growling in that gravelly smoker’s voice of his. He’s essentially the comic relief, making of Katz a kind of charming womanizing rogue gone to seed, cheerfully evading his responsibilities. Redford by contrast does what Redford does best; being likable even when he’s supposed to be a curmudgeon.

Which brings up a point. Both of these distinguished actors are in their 70s – in fact, Redford is 79 – but the real Bill Bryson was in his mid-40s when he hiked the Trail and so much of the book’s focus had to be changed. The movie spends much more time dwelling on the decrepitude of the leads than the book did on the inexperience of its leads. Lovers of the book (and there are many) might not be too pleased with that. They’ll be pleased that much of Bryson’s comic tone was retained. I haven’t read the book probably in 15 years or so, but my guess is that it was extensively re-written for the screen, so be warned on that score.

Da Queen really loved this movie; the bonding with nature and the friendship between Redford and Nolte really spoke to her; she proclaimed it her favorite movie of the Summer (I didn’t have the heart to point out that it wasn’t released until September 2nd, after the official summer release season had ended) which considering how delighted she was with Jurassic World is quite an accomplishment. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the film but found it to be genuinely entertaining, sentimental and only occasionally descending into schmaltz and cinematically beautiful.

In short, this is solid entertainment which will likely appeal strongly to an older demographic but those who appreciate movies with a heart will also enjoy  it. I do like an occasional nature walk although my condition prevents long hikes like this one but still it inspired in me a desire to walk the Trail myself. It won’t happen, but it’s nice to imagine that it could. If these two can do it, so can I, right?

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful scenery. Wonderful chemistry between Redford and Nolte. Some genuine laughs.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally clunky. Too many codger jokes.
FAMILY VALUES: A few mild expletives and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, this was meant to be the third team-up between Redford and Paul Newman when the film was optioned in 2007; however, Newman’s declining health and eventual passing prevented that from occurring. Newman would have been cast in the role that Nick Nolte eventually filled.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Wild
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle Begins!

The Imitation Game


Beauty and the Beastly

Beauty and the Beastly

(2014) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Ilan Goodman, Jack Tarlton, Alex Lawther, Jack Bannon, Tuppence Middleton, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Morten Tyldum

During World War II, one of the crucial technological breakthroughs made by Nazi Germany was the development of Enigma, a virtually unbreakable code using an ingenious machine whose code key changed daily. The Germans did virtually all their communicating with it and were able for that day to relay orders from command to the fronts quickly and efficiently. The Allies found that breaking that code would be the key to winning the war – and the code was considered unbreakable.

British Intelligence, in the person of Commander Denniston (Dance) and the mysterious Stuart Menzies (Strong) of the nascent MI-6 are looking for the best and the brightest cryptographers to break the code. Currently their team based in Bletchley Park is led by Hugh Alexander (Goode) has had no success and at midnight each day all their work comes to naught as the Germans change the code key.

Into this mix they bring Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) , a brilliant mathematician and cryptographer. He is also arrogant and a social misfit, unable to communicate with even the barest cordiality with his team. He dreams up a machine that can calculate combinations of letters and numbers faster than even the human brain, one that can go through an infinite number of calculations without stopping in the course of a day. Unfortunately, it proves expensive and cumbersome and is yielding no results. Denniston is eager to shut the project down but Alexander surprisingly stands up for Turing with whom he has butted heads endlessly.

Turing needs more help and he gets it in a comely young woman named Joan Clarke (Knightley). Brilliant in her own right and intellectually Turing’s equal in many ways, she is held back because she’s got breasts and apparently those cumbersome things prevent her from thinking clearly and concisely because….well, I don’t get it but it has to do with hormones and…I don’t know, because men have been idiots for a very long time?

In any case the team has to weather the frustration of knowing that every day they don’t solve the code that thousands of Allied soldiers die. Denniston is completely out of patience and has given the team a hard deadline to get results. Menzies also lets Turing know that someone on his team is funneling information to the Soviets. Finally there’s the awful realization that even if they do solve the code, they have to make sure the Germans don’t guess that they’ve broken it – otherwise they’ll just improve their machine and then the Allies will be back to square one, which means they’ll have to decide which information to act on – which also means letting people die when they might possibly have saved them, which leads to tragic consequences for one member of the team.

Beyond that Alan has a secret of his own – he likes boys and not just in a fraternal way. Homosexuality is illegal in Britain and if word got out that Turing is one it will be all the ammunition Denniston needs to get rid of Turing. Actually, there is one thing Turing likes more than boys – that’s Christopher, the creation he has built to crack the code and Christopher is, in a very large part, the forerunner of modern computers.

The real Turing would be credited by no less than Winston Churchill for winning the war, but nobody knew the extent of his involvement until just 20 years ago when some wartime secrets were declassified. In fact that Enigma had been broken at all was a very closely guarded secret that Turing himself didn’t even take credit for and when asked, he would say he worked in a radio factory during the war. But far from being grateful for his service in saving millions of British lives, he was convicted of being a homosexual and disgraced, forced to take chemical castration treatments. A year after his treatments were completed, he died of cyanide poisoning, ruled a suicide although there are those who think that the poisoning may have been accidental.

This is the first English-language film for Norwegian director Tyldum (Headhunters) and it’s already netted him praise and award nominations including the DGA award. He shows a very good eye, juxtaposing scenes in the bucolic Bletchley Park campus with the spartan lab facilities filled with all sorts of electrical gear.

Tyldum is fortunate in his casting as well, with Cumberbatch turning in a performance that has already garnered major award recognition and is likely to be bringing in an Oscar nomination later this week. It is certainly one of the most outstanding performances of the year. Turing portrayed here is awkward and unlikable, honest and blunt to the point of rudeness. He is supreme in his knowledge that he is right and doesn’t like to waste time arguing the point. He knows he has a momentous task ahead of him and while outwardly at times he may seem to look at it as a game, a kind of brain teaser, there are moments when he lets slip that he is fully aware it is anything but. He is tormented and dreadfully unhappy, brilliant but alone in his brilliance. He also has a tender heart which breaks easily. The only person he can truly confide in is Joan and even in her case he can’t tell her everything.

Cumberbatch isn’t alone. Knightley turns in another sterling performance as the brilliant but repressed Joan, whose parents discourage even the hint of impropriety but she yearns to do something that makes a difference and has the intellect to do it, but is unable to exercise it because of attitudes towards women at the time. Only Turing gives her the opportunity to flower and she is extremely grateful – to the point when he asks her to marry him she says yes even though he only does it to keep her at Bletchley. Joan in Knightley’s capable hands is a thoroughly modern woman in a very snazzy wartime suit.

In fact the film manages to capture the period nicely, although this is definitely a movie with modern sensibilities. Tyldum parallels the attitude towards women hampering Joan’s career with the attitude towards homosexuality being a constant fear for Turing although one gets the sense that he felt that due to the indispensable nature of his war contributions that the government would turn a blind eye and maybe they did but that attitude certainly caught up to him.

What happened to Alan Turing was disgraceful and a waste of human potential. However, the movie made about his work does honor him and that’s very important to remember – not all film biographies are this respectful. Many who knew Turing have commented that the movie was fair in its depiction of Turing who was at turns arrogant, brilliant and sweet. One of the great performances of the year is reason enough to go see this, but there are many others as well.

REASONS TO GO:
Cumberbatch gives an award-worthy performance, and receives ample support from the rest of the cast. Does honor the memory of Turing well.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have cut down on the repetitious scenes of the cryptographers failing to solve Enigma.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cumberbatch, who is distantly related to Turing, wore dentures based on Turing’s actual dental imprints as did Lawther who played Turing as a young boy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Gambler

Make Believe


Make Believe

Voguing, teen magician style.

(2010) Documentary (Crowd Starter) Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Burton, Krystyn Lambert, Bill Koch, Hiroki Hara, Derek McKee, Siphiwe Fangase, Nkumbozo Nkonyana, Gay Blackstone, Joan Caesar, Joe Diamond, Kyle Eschen, Ben Proudfoot. Directed by J. Clay Tweel

Magic is meant to look effortless;  a wave of the hand, a gesture, a subtle movement and the impossible becomes real. Getting that sort of effortlessness takes hours of practice and unbelievable discipline. For teenagers, that kind of commitment is rare indeed, particularly when it comes to something so ephemeral and let’s face it, something with bleak career prospects.

The World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas is perhaps the most prestigious gathering of magicians, conjurers and illusionists in the world. Each year they present a Teen Magician competition for up and coming talents ages 13-18. This is the real deal; there is some pretty decent prize money not to mention an opportunity to be noticed by people who can help you along in a potential career.

They come from all over the world; a magic duo from South Africa (Fangase, Nkonyana) who work their own culture and the allure of the World Cup (which was held in their country the year after this particular Seminar) to tell a story; a young man from rural Japan (Hara) who practices his craft obsessively in remote places, lonely and misunderstood by those who live in his village.

They also come from the United States as well; a beautiful blonde from Malibu (Lambert) with ambition and drive, one who understands the difficulties faced by a female magician and already armed with membership in the prestigious Magic Castle and mentorship from an established magician; a youngster from Colorado (McKee) who has tremendous potential but may or may not be ready for the competition; a veteran participant (Koch) who is entering his last year of eligibility and wants to go out in a blaze of glory.

For all their dedication and determination, these are all still teenagers with all the social awkwardness and angst that it implies. Their self-discipline and sacrifice is to be admired as it would be in a gymnast or a figure skater going for Olympic gold. Most kids have no more ambition than to have their parents buy them the latest videogame, or to hang out at the mall with their friends – or even more likely, in Internet chat rooms.

I liked the way first-time director Tweel got us to know and care about these kids. Not all of them are people you’ll want to be best friends with, but you’ll at least want to spend some time with them and hope they find the success they’re looking for. While Lambert’s single-mindedness has been off-putting to some critics, I found that she was no different than some of the student council members I’ve known. She is a young woman who knows what she wants and is determined to go after it; far from being off-putting, I found that commendable as most women are discouraged from those sorts of things as being non-feminine. Trust me, she’s very feminine, quite pretty and if she continues her pursuit will undoubtedly go far, whether that pursuit is magic or something else.

I found myself enchanted with Hara’s approach to magic which is quite visual and blends the subtle and the showmanship quite nicely. Also the South African duo, who came from a background of poverty the American contingent might have been surprised at, was charming and guileless. To some extent, the American kids all had an eye on their own career and were somewhat guarded on-camera; it was when they let their guards down that I felt that the movie was at its most compelling.

This might be a bit hard to find in video stores but you can order the DVD from the movie’s website. This isn’t the kind of hard-hitting documentary that tackles issues that affect us all, but it is a slice of American pie that comes straight from the heart (even if not all the participants are American). There’s enough warmth and charm here to make it worth viewing; whether or not it bears repeated viewing is truly a matter of personal taste but for my money if you get an opportunity to check it out by all means do so.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at young people dedicated to their craft and some beautifully staged magic tricks. Makes you care about the participants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat scattered in its approach. Somewhat disposable subject as documentaries go.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words scattered here and there but otherwise fine for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon were previously responsible for the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a how-to tutorial on how to perform some of the magic tricks shown in the movie, as well as some that are not.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,141 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie broke even at best but probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel