Movie Reviews

Two Movie Reviews: Coco and The Man Who Invented Christmas

I took my nine-year-old granddaughter to see Coco last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised. I went in not expecting too much (from what I had seen of the trailer), and was treated to a richly and beautifully animated film with extraordinary depth. Happily, it is devoid of the potty jokes that have become  the staple in recent animated films. Instead, it explores family loyalties, personal identity, ambition, and betrayal in a thoroughly engaging way, and yes, mush that I am, I was pretty choked up by the end. This movie has Oscar written all over it. That said, my only disappointment was the animated short that preceded it. We’ve come to expect little gems from Pixar–smart, quirky shorts that burst with creativity. Instead, we get an Olaf the Snowman (yes, from Frozen) cartoon that was dull and unimaginative. But don’t walk out! Stay for the feature! It’s more than worth the price of admission. I’ll be going to see it again.

Then I took my daughter to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. This is a delightful Christmas confection, purporting to be the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. I’m quite sure they played loose with the facts, but for any fan of Dickens, the film is pure pleasure. Dan Stevens as Dickens and Christopher Plummer as Scrooge could not have been better cast. We see Dickens haunted by his characters, who refuse to behave as Dickens would have them. As a writer, I especially liked the way Dickens is portrayed as “trolling” for ideas, paying attention to the people and conversations around him, writing down names that he likes in his notebook, jotting down turns of phrase to use later. Reading A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition for me, along with watching an assortment of Christmas films. (How can it be Christmas without Chevy Chase and Ralphie and the Muppets?) Anyway, I’m sure I will add this film to my collection for viewing again next Christmas.

Music and Mayhem: A review of the movie Baby Driver

If you’ve had any doubts about seeing the new action film Baby Driver, leave them all behind. This movie delivers in spades. No, the trailer didn’t contain all the good parts. This is a thrilling film from start to finish. The casting of Ansel Elgort as the driver was inspired–yes, he has a truly baby face, and to see him drive like a bat out of hell is a delight. Kevin Spacey is a menacing puppet master, and both Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx are deliciously evil bad guys. And did I mention the killer sound track? All of the delirious action is driven by the tunes that play in Baby’s ears, music he listens to in order to drown out his tinnitus. Just when you thought the movie was exciting, it careens toward a climactic battle that will leave you gasping for breath and thoroughly satisfied. Sick and tired of your stupid boss? Kids driving you crazy? Demoralized by your impotent road rage in your wimpy Toyota? Check in to your local cineplex for the ultimate catharsis. Just make sure to fasten your seatbelt.

Movie Review: Alien Covenant

First a confession: I’m a bit of a romantic and long for the days of yore when the alien was simply a bad-ass space dragon hell-bent for leather. We know, since Prometheus, that it’s really a weaponized life-form genetically engineered to annihilate planets. Oh, well, the blush is off the rose. That said, Ridley Scott has demonstrated that there’s still (alien)life left in the franchise.

Alien Covenant is closer to the original Alien than to the rather tepid Prometheus, and for my money, a far better film. Set ten years after the conclusion of Prometheus, it focuses on the crew of the starship Covenant, with its cryosleep pods full of earthlings eager to colonize another world. Alas, an emergency awakens the crew, who then succumb to that old alien trope of responding to a signal they intercept from another planet. This planet is much like earth and is also far closer than their original destination. Why not go down and check it out? Of course, this is akin to the plot device in slasher films, when the audience is screaming to the scantily-clad teenagers not to go down into the darkened basement. But adolescents never learn, nor do starship flight crews.

Michael Fassbender, scene-stealer that he is, reprises his Prometheus role of David, perhaps the creepiest android in cinema. He is joined by his technically superior upgrade Walter, a match made in hell.

Overall, the movie is quite stunning to watch, with its intricate sets and superb computer graphics. Scott includes some winks at the earlier films: the perpetual-motion drinking bird from Alien makes a cameo appearance, and Fassbender, using a recorder-like flute, plays the theme from Prometheus. But make no mistake about it–this is a horror movie and a pretty bloody one at that. Definitely not for the squeamish. Would you like to increase your heart rate and respirations without a boring workout at the gym? Alien Covenant will have your heart pounding and adrenaline pumping with its dizzying action sequences and its sometimes terrifying encounters with the creature that refuses to die. Add a plot twist or two and you have a recipe for a welcome escape from the heat of summer into the air-conditioned multiplex. I’ll give it four out of five stars–well worth the price of admission. I may take my sons and go see it again.

Movie Review: Netflix Series “13 Reasons Why”

Seventy-five years ago, the French philosopher Albert Camus wrote, “Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. . . . in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.” (The Myth of Sisyphus).

When 13 Reasons Why begins, Hannah has already taken her life. Before doing so, however, she made 13 audio tapes, each addressed to a person who contributed to her untimely demise, through acts of omission or commission, neglect or bullying. Each of those people must listen to all the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list. What unfolds is a gripping mystery, unraveling the sometimes casual insensitivity, sometimes brutal crime that is the stuff of relationships. It is a journey into everyday darkness, a descent into a world without redemption. And it all takes place in a high school.

It seems that the older we get, the easier it can be to dismiss the upheavals of adolescence. We belittle the pain by calling it “teenage angst” or “drama.” We’ll say things like, “How bad can it be? Their parents pay all the bills, put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food in their bellies.” This series is the antidote to such inane sentiments.

Over the course of 13 insightful episodes, we meet a group of adolescents who range from the shy and decent, to the bold and criminal. If you are a high school teacher or guidance counselor, you should watch this series. Your students are already talking about it. If you are a mental health therapist, you owe it to yourself and your patients to see it. But it is not a program for the squeamish. The graphic scenes of rape and suicide (without the slightest bit of prurience) may cause you to turn your eyes away. That said, it is a masterwork. The writing and dialogue are crisp, the production values high, the youthful actors uniformly excellent. It may be the most heartbreaking show I have ever watched and I am still haunted by it. You have been warned.

Book Signing and Movie Review: The Fate of the Furious

I wanted to let my friends know that I will be reading from my short stories and my latest novel and signing copies at Santiam Wine & Bistro on Saturday, May 13, from noon  to 3:00. The shop is located at 1555 12th Street SE in Salem. The owner, Debbie Rios, will have some yummy selections for tasting. What better way to start a weekend than a sip of wine and a good book? I hope to see you there.

That said, what about The Fate of the Furious? OK. If you didn’t enjoy any of the previous films in the franchise, then don’t go to see this one. If you did enjoy them, then run out and buy a ticket today. But let’s be clear. This isn’t rocket science, nor is it War and Peace. It’s a testosterone-fueled, car-chase-and-explosion-packed film probably aimed at an audience of adolescent boys. But what’s wrong with that? You were young once, weren’t you? So park your brain at the door and ramp up your willing suspension of disbelief to astronomic proportions. Then take out a personal loan so you can afford the popcorn and bask in the cinematic mayhem. But by all means, fasten your seat belt!

A Free Book and a Review of Beauty and the Beast

Starting today and until March 29, the Kindle version of my novel Seal of Secrets will be free on Amazon. If it’s already in your library, consider gifting a copy to a friend. I thought it would be fun to offer it during spring break week, when people may be traveling and enjoying some well-earned vacation time. Just click on the title to go to the book’s page on Amazon.

That said, let’s talk about Beauty and the Beast. I confess it wasn’t really on my “must-see” list, but my eight-year-old granddaughter was home from school yesterday, and I thought she might enjoy it. As we left the theater, the first words out of her mouth were, “That was awesome!” And it truly was. I haven’t seen the animated version in many years, so I can’t contrast the two, but I was surprised by how BIG this movie is. It is truly a spectacle of epic proportions, well worth seeing in the theater before it’s available on disc. The music and choreography are exciting, and the CGI in the “Be Our Guest” sequence is breathtaking. Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame among other films) and Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey and, more recently, Legion on FX) lead the stellar cast, while Luke Evans (remember him killing Smaug in The Hobbit?) is a wonderfully over-the-top Gaston. Humor, action, heartbreak–the film has it all in spades. There are far worse ways to spend a rainy spring afternoon!

Movie Reviews: Logan and The Shack

I have it on good authority (my son, son-in-law, and adult grandson) that The Wolverine in Logan is truer to the original character in Marvel Comics than in his previous theatrical outings. Apparently, he was a fairly nasty, hard-to-like kind of guy. He is indeed that in this movie, spouting f-bombs like the bullets from an automatic weapon, severing heads and limbs with reckless abandon. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 93% from the critics and a 94% from the people who actually went and saw it. Is it a good movie? A qualified yes. It has complex characters, a compelling plot, and it is hard to take your eyes from the screen. My reservation shows my age: I like my superhero movies to be fun. Logan is anything but that. It is a grim, humorless paean to intense violence and dystopia. That said, if you’re a fan of the John Wick movies, you’ll love it. But please don’t bring your kids.

The Shack was a revelation to me. I went in not expecting much. I admit I was suspicious about the Rotten Tomatoes ratings: the critics gave it 16% and the people who went to the theater gave it 88%. That kind of discrepancy is a dead giveaway of pre-formed opinions: I think Rotten Tomatoes critics just don’t like Christian movies. I worried the film might be a sentimental, watered-down version of the book, but it is not. It confronts head-on parents’ absolutely worst nightmare: the murder of their young daughter by a vicious serial killer. The girl’s father, played wonderfully by Sam Worthington of Avatar fame, is consumed by grief, guilt, and bitterness. He rages against God for allowing such a heinous crime. And God invites him to the shack where the murder was committed to talk about it. What follows is a profound exploration of grief, love, and the presence of evil in the world. I saw the film with a friend who describes himself as being “spiritual” but denies being a Christian. He liked the film also. Be prepared for a heart-wrenching journey of faith and redemption. And bring Kleenex.