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Maud (Sally Hawkins) is afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis and has been since she was a child. Her fingers are twisted, her legs misshapen, and she has a hunchback. When her parents died, her brother sold their home and put Maud up to live with her overbearing aunt. Nobody takes her seriously.

Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) is a local fish peddler in a village in Nova Scotia. He is a socially challenged, extremely reclusive, and verbally and physically abusive. When he puts up an ad for a housemaid, Maud sees it and applies for the job. She comes to live with him in his very small house out in the country.

Maud starts cleaning up around the place and decorating it with her own little paintings. By chance, one of Everett’s customers sees the artwork and starts commissioning works from her. Over time, Maud’s work gets the attention of the folk art scene in New York City.

Gradually the unlikely couple develops a bond of love.

Maudie is based on the life story of painter Maud Lewis, who lived in Nova Scotia with her husband Everett Lewis. They lived in poverty for most of their lives in a famously small house. You can google “Paintings by Maud Lewis” and find many of her paintings, her house, herself and her husband.

Maudie is a movie of unusual circumstances and deep emotions. It’s a story about life, its simplicity, and its cruel reality. Watching it made my eyes tear from time to time, and most of all, it made me go home and pick up my paint brushes again, which have been lying idle for too long lately.

Maudie is a celebration of the human spirit and life. In one of the scenes, when asked what painting means to her, she looks out the window and says:

The Whole of Life, Already Framed, Right There!

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Rose (Allison Williams) thinks it’s time to take her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to meet her parents and family upstate over the weekend. “Do they know I’m black” Chris asks her when they pack. “No. But don’t worry. My father would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could have” she responds.

When they arrive, her parents, Missy and Dean Armitage, seem almost overly accommodating. There isn’t a moment of hesitation, an “oh” reflex of any type. It’s as if it was the most normal thing ever. But it turns out to be an unusual family. Dean is a neurosurgeon, Missy a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. Soon she offers to break Chris’ habit of smoking by administering a ten-minute hypnosis session. But he declines.

Chris is well adjusted and secure, and he deals with the complicated and stressful situation remarkably well. Soon, however, small discoveries reveal that all is not quite what it seems. The black servants of the Armitages are exhibiting slightly “off” behavior, which he finds puzzling. And telltale signs of something not quite right start escalating when party guests arrive.

Get Out is not a movie about racism or race relations at all, even though it looks that way. Get Out is a thriller and its objective is not to educate us, or make us think. It’s to entertain. There is very little more I can say without spoiling things, so I won’t.

The critics on the Tomatometer gave this a 99, the audience an 88. This is a high rating for a movie where I recognized none of the actors, a movie which I watched not because I was interested about the subject, but because of the rating, and because it was highly recommended to me.

I was thoroughly entertained. I enjoyed the suspense. I appreciated the plot and its crescendo. And when it was done, I said “oh well” and knew I would soon forget all about it.

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Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a blue-collar single man in a coastal town in Florida. He fixes boats at the local marina, and lives in a small apartment – with his 7-year-old nice Mary (Mckenna Grace). The little girl’s mother, Frank’s sister, committed suicide when her daughter was an infant, and with the child’s father nowhere to be found, she made sure that Frank would raise her.

Mary turned out to be a child prodigy in mathematics, just like her mother was. Frank is trying hard to make sure the girl has a normal life, goes to a normal school and grows up as a normal child. That is difficult in their family background, and when Frank’s mother Evelyn steps into the picture, things get acrimonious. Evelyn wants Mary to be what her mother was not, and she plans to take her away from Frank.

Gifted is a study of character. It explores the morality of raising children as we want to raise them, rather than how the children want to grow up. Anyone with a child prodigy, whether that be an Olympian, a chess master, a world-class musician or an academic superstar faces this problem: Should we sponsor the talent, or should we let the child decide and live her life?

One thing is for sure, Mckenna Grace, the little girl, does a remarkable and marvelous job of acting in this film. She is completely convincing, all the way through, when posing as a smart-aleck mathematical genius in school, when dealing with the adults around her, and when – in the course of the plot – she is hurt to the core, and the deep pain and utter feeling of abandonment oozes out of her.

There is a bit of tearjerker in Gifted, just enough to get us thoroughly involved, and at the end, I asked myself whether this was a true story — it felt like it was.

It wasn’t.

But it was a rewarding movie to watch.

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A movie review by my reader and occasional guest blogger, Jean Claude Volgo:

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

United Artists, 1950, B & W, 112 minutes

Directed by Michael Gordon

Stanley Kramer Productions

This film adaptation of a celebrated French play features the inimitable José Ferrer in the leading role as the swashbuckling hero. His brilliant performance as Cyrano garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor. The plot, largely fictional, draws freely on anecdotes loosely based on a real historical figure: a 17th century French nobleman, Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, who dabbled in drama and science fiction, and eventually fell out of favor with the French authorities on account of his satirical jibes at the clergy and politicians. Cyrano’s fierce independence (jealously guarded with his dreaded épée) was legendary.   His swordsmanship, his poetic gift and (need we mention?) his notorious nose are reported attributes which are immortalized in the play. But what about Cyrano’s love interest, Roxanne? She was indeed his cousin in real life, but the romantic story line of unrequited love is dramatized fiction.

What sets this production apart from “costume dramas” of the same Hollywood era is the highly polished diction of the protagonist. The dialogue liberally borrows from the blank verse of Brian Hooker’s translation (1923), which strives to capture the cadence of the original French, composed in heroic hexameter by Edmond Rostand (1897). Rostand himself set out to emulate the poetic style of an earlier era, the Classical Age (1600’s).

The digitally-restored print of this artistic tour-de-force (which has fallen into undeserved neglect) is a crisp copy that projects the look of a newly released film in black-&-white.

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Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) is the zookeeper’s wife. With her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) they run the Warsaw zoo in the late 1930s. The story starts in the summer of 1939. The zoo is very successful, due to the loving care of the Żabińskis.

Then, in September 1939, Hitler invades Poland and overruns the country within just a few days. The zoo is bombed. Many animals are shot by soldiers. The Żabińskis do whatever they can to keep the zoo and  the animals safe.

In the process of saving some Jewish friends by hiding them in their basement, they discover that they can help many others.  Pretty soon there is a veritable “underground railroad” passing through the Warsaw zoo. But eventually, the Nazis close in.

The Nazis made it a crime, punishable by death, to help another human being out of misery, if that human being was of a category they had arbitrarily and unilaterally labeled undesirable. We all know how that all ended.

Yet, in our country, we are starting to do the very same thing today. We choose a religion we don’t like, and we start harassing members of that religion. We try to ban them from our country. Hooligans attack them on the street, knowing that the government tacitly backs them up.

Folks, there are movies about this kind of thing! Like the Zookeeper’s Wife! Don’t we ever learn?

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A reader, and now guest blogger, submitted a movie review of Barry Lyndon, a favorite movie of mine and an ageless classic. Here is his review:

BARRY LYNDON

British-American, 1975, 3 hours

Produced & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Few (if any) productions of costume dramas rival Kubrick’s film, Barry Lyndon, adapted from William Thackeray’s classic novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Thackeray designed his story as a picaresque novel, a genre that recounts the fortunes and misfortunes of a charming rogue who relies solely on his native wits to navigate through the vicissitudes of life. The novel was inspired by the actual exploits of Andrew Stoney, an Anglo-Irish fortune-hunter. Born into poverty in an Irish village, Barry Lyndon aspires to become a British aristocrat. He is first and foremost a survivor coping with events that are beyond his control. Again and again, the Irish rogue succumbs to the hurdles of blind fate, but overcomes old obstacles only to face new challenges. Barry’s precarious prospects are altered after a serendipitous encounter with the beautiful Countess Bullingdon: finally his chance to rise from pauper to aristocrat! But can an inveterate rogue ever settle for a life of domestic tranquility? Or will good fortune slip once more through his careless fingers?

The picaresque genre imitates life more closely than the conventional romantic novel: it eschews neat plots with predictable endings. The picaresque style of story-telling does not demarcate clear turning points in an overarching plot. Rather, episodes are connected through fortuitous events as well as unforeseeable consequences of human actions. The hero (or antihero) in Thackeray’s tale is no paragon of virtue. Yet, for that very reason, his human flaws make him a more endearing figure.

The film features Ryan O’Neal in the title role, with Marisa Berenson as the Countess. The famed Irish actor, Patrick McGee, puts on a strong performance in a supporting role as the Chevalier du Balibari, an Irish spy who befriends a beleaguered Barry. As partners in crime, the co-patriots join forces to fleece the nobility in the gambling houses of Europe.

Although Kubrick remains close to the original plot, his primary ambition was to recreate scrupulously the authentic atmosphere of aristocratic circles in 18th century Europe. His artistic deftness is reflected in the tapestry of mansions and landscapes, costumes and wigs. Kubrick received special praise for his elaborate design of interior scenes (inspired by paintings) using only candle light. The music, seamlessly woven into the narrative, is replete with generous excerpts from Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart and Schubert.

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Movie Review: Lion

lion

In the mid-1980s in a small town somewhere in India, the five-year old boy Saroo is on a night outing with this older brother he adores. When Saroo gets tired, his brother leaves him to sleep on a bench in the train station and tells him to wait for him. Saroo, groggy, wakes up in the night, tries to find his brother, wanders onto an empty passenger train, and eventually falls asleep on one of  the seats. When he wakes up the next day, he is a thousand miles from home. He has no idea where he is, what town he is from, even the full name of his mother.

He is completely lost and left to his own devices alone in Kolkata. After being brought to an orphanage, he eventually gets adopted by an Australian couple.

Twenty-five years later he goes on a quest using Google Earth to find his home.

This is a true story, told in vivid details. We know, going into the movie, how it ends. Against all odds, he finds his home, and that’s not a spoiler.

According to the credits, there are many thousands of children that get lost in India every year, and most of them, I am sure, do not have a happy ending. The movie examines the human journey. As I walked out, wiping the tears off my cheeks, I knew I had just experienced a very simple human story, one of culture clashes, and one of emotional triumph. Good food for the soul.

Why is the title Lion you might ask?

You just have to go and watch the movie to find out.

Rating - Three Stars

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hidden-figures

In the early 1960s, the Russians had a little head start in the race to space. NASA was still young, and its engineers used slide rules, pencils and vellum to do its designs. And humans were the “computers” who had to figure out the math.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA. Each one of them with her own special skill, each with her own drive and motivation. But in those days, blacks were not allowed to use the same toilets or coffee pots as whites. The odds were against them.

This movie tells the story of what it was like behind the scenes at NASA. We all know that it was John Glenn who was the first American to orbit the earth. What we didn’t know was that up to a few days before his launch they didn’t really know how to calculate the trajectory to get him back safely to earth.

In a time when racism seems to be back on the rise and gender equality is questioned again, Hidden Figures shows us what it was like to live under such conditions. But the human spirit rises, like the rockets of old rose.

As I walked out of the theater I could not think of a single thing wrong with this film. It just felt really good.

Rating - Three Stars

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rogue-one-1

The first Star Wars movie, Episode IV, came out in May 1977, almost 40 years ago now. Star Wars permeates our entire popular culture. Rogue One plays just before Episode IV starts. The rebels steal the plans for the Death Star with the help of the daughter of the chief designer. Epic space battles, laser gun battles in the jungle, and, of course, at least one light saber fight with the one and only Darth Vader. None of the original actors participated here, of course. Their story starts about five minutes after Rogue One’s credits begin to roll. Except for two: Grand Moff Tarkin, the Commander of the Death Star, and Princess Leia, both of which had to be digitally recreated, since both are now no longer alive.

A short scene featuring Princess Leia, receiving the disk with the plans for the Death Star at the very end, was digitally recreated. It was eerie, since Carrie Fisher had died just a few days before we saw this movie, yet, here she was in a very short scene, looking the 19 years old she was when she appeared in Episode IV.

One of my friends (JCV) commented that he can’t stand to watch silly science fiction movies with the stilted and inane dialog. I laughed at him. Nobody watches Star Wars for the dialog. Star Wars does not need dialog. You don’t have to listen to a word being said, and you can still enjoy Star Wars.

I love the bar or bazaar scenes where the crowd is full of grungy humans and exotic aliens, all enjoying themselves. I love the views of planets with rings, as they are seen realistically from the ground through the mist and the clouds as they seem to disintegrate in the distance. I love how small spaceships drift close to giant space ships. I love how all the ships seem to be made out of massive battle ship steel hulls, unlike the flimsy aluminum we actually use for space ships, like the shuttle or the Soyuz. And I always laugh that the fighters fly in space just like they fly in the atmosphere, banking into curves, accelerating and decelerating and completely defying all laws of orbital dynamics. Of course, after being conditioned for 40 years that space fighters behave a certain way, whether it makes any sense or not, we can’t change now, and Star Wars remains – well – Star Wars.

Rating - Three Stars

 

 

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fences

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. He has life figured out and he rules as the king over his family, including his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his two sons Lyons and Cory, and his brother Gabriel. He is a bitter man who believes he was shortchanged as a baseball player with aspirations to the major leagues before blacks were able to play. But times are changing, and his 16-year-old son wants to play football in high school. Troy does not agree. His son won’t succeed where he could not succeed.

But there are secrets that are about to blow Troy’s little world wide open, possibly destroy his family and knock him off his pedestal.

We went to see this movie not knowing much about it, and within a minute or two realized: It’s a play. The majority of the movie is comprised of dialog that takes place in the grungy backyard of Troy’s house. It’s all language. There is no music. There is no score. There is very little action. It’s all dialog, and, not surprisingly, it’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. It all made sense afterwards.

Fences is not easy to watch. It’s a story about the lousy cards some people are dealt in life, some lousier than others, and it’s a story about the human spirit in the working man and woman of this country.

Denzel and Viola do an amazing job in Fences. It will get recognition.

Rating - Three Stars

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manchester-by-the-sea

After this brother Joe’s sudden death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds out that he has appointed him as sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is a janitor in Quincy, south of Boston, about an hour and a half’s drive from Manchester, his home town. When he returns to take care of his brother’s funeral and will, the is thrown back into his former life, with all the vengeance and violence that former life can muster.

The movie tells the story of the Chandler family’s misfortunes in frequent flashbacks, and gradually we come to understand why Lee is so stoic and void of emotion in his pathetic life as a bachelor in a one-room basement apartment, unclogging other people’s drains.

His nephew Patrick is 16 years old, has two girlfriends at the same time, plays hockey, basketball and is part of a teenage band. His life is full, and Lee’s life has no room for him.

This film is rated with 97% on the Tomatometer, so I expected that it would blow me away. I found Affleck’s acting intense and as I walked out I thought he’d get an Oscar for it. But Trisha, who watched it with me, didn’t agree at all. She pointed out the he had one face throughout the entire movie, the one in the photograph above, and that set the mood. No Oscar. Thinking more about it, I must agree. His mood was as gray at the winter in Manchester, Massachusetts, and the entire movie was gray and drab.

But then again, that’s what Lee’s life was like after his brother died, and perhaps that’s the story. I’ll let you be the judge, since despite my low two and a half star rating, I recommend you watch it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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infiltrator

U.S. Customs agent Robert “Bob” Mazur (Bryan Cranston) goes undercover to infiltrate Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel by posing as a business man out to launder money. He is joined by a fellow agent (Diane Kruger) who acts as his fiancé to make the situation credible. The two get deeply involved in the cartel and gain their trust. Everyone is invited to their wedding.

This is based on a true story that took place in 1985. Watching the movie, I cannot imagine that an agent would take such enormous risks, where the slightest mistake could cost him his life, just to bust a bunch of criminals.

Bryan Cranston, whom we all got to know and love as Walter White in Breaking Bad, does an excellent job acting as Bob Mazur.

Rating - Two Stars

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hell-or-high-water

Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers from a farm in Texas. Their mom passed away, and the farm is being foreclosed on. Toby is terribly behind on child support payments to his ex-wife. Tanner is the black sheep of the family. Both are impulsive and combative.

In a frantic effort to save the farm they decide to rob various branches of the bank that is foreclosing on them. They intend to steal just enough to pay off the mortgage. But things go sideways quickly when a Texas Ranger by the name of Marcus (Jeff Bridges) gets on the case. With this partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), he pursues the robbers with relentless energy and insight and eventually brings about a final showdown.

Hell or High Water plays in West Texas, where it’s hot and dry and flat, and the men all carry guns and drive large trucks. The movie does a nice job depicting life in that environment. It received a surprising 98% on the Tomatometer, and while I enjoyed the story, it wasn’t good enough to satisfy my self-imposed requirement for more than two stars.

Rating - Two Stars

 

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arrival

 
Twelve giant mysterious alien space craft the shape of avocado halves land in different areas of the globe. Mankind, as you would expect, goes crazy and in the frenzy escalates itself to the edge of global war. The American landing takes place in Montana. American Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the makeshift tent army base at the ship. Since communications with the aliens is crucial, he recruits Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a world-famous physicist, as the team leaders in their fields. Backed by a team of military specialists, they enter the vessel. They learn quickly that physics as we know it does not hold true. For instance, as soon as they are inside the ship and make contact with its surface, artificial gravity allows them to walk up vertical walls.

And then they meet the aliens.

This is my kind of movie. When it was advertised at 100% on the Tomatometer, we went to see it on opening night. It has meanwhile been downgraded to 93%.

There are a lot of things about this movie that I liked, and a few things that I want to criticize.

I loved the soundtrack. It is a perfect match for the movie and its ambiance. I also loved the fact that the aliens are not little green men, or greys, or humanoids at all. The aliens are very, very different from us, which is what I would expect aliens to be like. I also enjoyed that the movie’s central plot relates to the relativity of time, something I am also inherently interested in. It portrays those concepts well and effectively by using them as central drivers of the story.

Here is what I had trouble with, and it’s also related to the central plot of the movie: Communications with aliens. I have written much about alien linguistics over the years. One review titled  Dolphins, Myths & Transformation – by Ryan DeMares is an example.

The fact is: We have aliens right here on our planet: dolphins. They are as intelligent was humans are, as far as we can tell, they have language, and our genomes are basically the same. We have lived with dolphins around us since antiquity. Roman writers talk about dolphins: the Latin word delphinus is the origin of our word for dolphins. And yet, in all these centuries of trying, and in recent decades with powerful computer technology, including the application of neural networks, we have not yet broken the code. We cannot even communicate with dolphins in a rudimentary way. We don’t understand them, and they don’t understand us. We don’t have a dolphin dictionary yet – even though there are many teams working on one now.

Yet, Louise Banks, in a few weeks, figures out a dictionary of rudimentary terms and even a sentence structure that allows her to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is not based on symbols like ours, but concepts projected in inkblot-type rings that are seemingly formed out of an ink-like material. You can see some of the alien “sentences” in the picture at the top of this post, represented by the circular structures pasted on the wall behind Ian and Louise. Not only do the Americans figure out the language, but the Russians, Chinese and a few other countries independently do also. And all of them, within a short time, come to the conclusion that the aliens mean us harm because they’re talking about “weapons.” How the humans figured out a translation between an alien ink cloud and the word weapon, among many other words, is not explained.

The central plot about Arrival is how we communicate, and how our communications affects our lives – and times. Perhaps I know too much about the subject, and therefore it didn’t seem real and believable to me. Perhaps I am overly critical. It just didn’t work.

However, if you simply accept that we’re going to be able to communicate with aliens, while everything else about them remains completely and utterly mysterious – ahem – alien, then you might enjoy this film very much.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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queen-of-katwe

The Queen of Katwe is a true story. In 2007, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl in Katwe, a small rural town in Uganda, whose job it is to sell corn in the markets to support her family. Her mother lost her husband and was raising four children on her own. By coincidence, Phiona was introduced to the game of chess. Within a short time it became obvious that she had the talent of a prodigy, and she was lucky enough that her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) recognized it and dedicated himself to promoting her. Her life changed rapidly as she developed her skills. Would she be able to muster the confidence and strength of character to achieve her dream of becoming an international chess champion?

Queen of Katwe plays mostly in the slums of Uganda. The people live in hovels and piles of rubble. They obtain water from a running spout that comes out of a hill of mud. People are exposed to the weather. It is never clear where the next meal comes from. Nobody is safe. Everyone claws for survival. Yet, the people seem happy.

Sitting in an air-conditioned theater in Southern California, I was as far away as possible from the heat, dust, bugs, sweat, noise, and stink of Africa. Yet, the artist in me was overwhelmed with the colors of the buildings, the clothes, and the spark in the eyes of the people. The story drew me in immediately and never let me go.

I play chess just well enough to know its challenges and the pain and elation it can produce in a person’s heart. There isn’t a villain in this story. The challenges just come from the incredible hardships of everyday life in extreme poverty.

It’s a feel-good story, and there were tears rolling down my cheeks pretty much all through the movie, from the beginning to the very end, when the credits rolled, and the characters stood next to the living characters of the true story of the Queen of Katwe.

It was a four-star experience all the way.

Rating - Four Stars

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