Bridget Jones’s Baby (**1/2) Just a little further…

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Bridget Jones’s Baby – 2016

Director Sharon Maguire
Screenplay Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, Emma Thompson
Starring  Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Emma Thompson

What the third film in the Bridget Jones saga has to accomplish is too much, and nothing at all. To shake the foundations of a cast of characters that was perfect in the first film, then just kind of there for the second film would be a betrayal to all that is holy in the world of romantic comedies.

What does one do when Hugh Grant doesn’t like the script for the third film? Replace him with a generic nice guy like poor Patrick Dempsey. Give him a moment or two to color outside of the lines, make him upstanding the rest of the time. Voila. The script writes itself…poorly.

The third film opens with a twist on the typical “alone and single” for her birthday theme. We get a rewind, find she’s not really miserable. She’s kind of thin and she’s got some new friends to go along with the old. The new friends are single and her age. The old are coupled up and are moving toward parenthood.

Bridget’s (Zellweger) successful, having a relatively good time drinking, carousing and hooking up with a random rich guy (Dempsey) at a weekend concert festival. She heads out before he can bring her breakfast and moves on with life…for a week. Then a tipsy hook up with Darcy (Firth) leads to…her leaving him a note in the morning.

Three months later. She’s pregnant. She finds a reason to tell each guy and not tell them about the other. Why is this? Wacky hijinks is why. And when they find out, more hijinks.

In many ways, the series has harkened back to romantic comedies of the ’50’s. If you add a bunch of foul language and change the morals to be in line with the liberal media of today, you’d have a perfect match. Sadly, this means it’s not that good either. The damn thing about it is the first film was perfect with most of the same players. Two important omissions, Richard Curtis and Andrew Davies, lead one to wonder how little import they had on story this time around.

It’s sad, because Bridget and Darcy deserve much better than to be flitting around in their 40’s trying to find themselves in each other’s arms. It could have been done better than the two films that followed that first classic. Audiences weren’t complaining much though. The film still made a metric ton of money. That each film has made less than the last should say something, but it didn’t say enough.

That there are some significantly funny moments in the film make it worth the watch, especially one has maintained an arms length fondness for the characters without being desirous of something more substantial. It is similarly refreshing to see a film where a child is talked to and about while still in the womb. You know, like a person should be considered.

Those moments aside, there are plenty more awkward moments that are supposed to play better than they do. Dempsey, poor Dempsey. He deserves better than to be a fill in. Thank goodness they are making Enchanted 2.

Ultimately this is the story about Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy. In that respect, it feels more stilted than ever. Someone took happily ever after and broke it up only so they could make a couple of sequels. If it were only possible to make a happily ever after sequel that didn’t involve the split ups.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Arrival (****1/2) is learning to accept a different language.

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Arrival – 2016

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

For those of us who are interested in good sci-fi, Arrival hits the mark pretty solidly on the head. Approaching the concept of first contact from a practicality rarely seen in films, it asks questions few movies dare to ask. One that kept coming to mind for me, Prometheus, loses its lustre just a smidgen.

One always knew that the Ridley Scott attempt at an opus took short cuts that undercut the grander vision for which it’s aimed. When seeing the courage Arrival has in breaking down tasks to the most basic level, it’s easy to understand they will lose some people. For those who want to give up and say it’s too hard, know this, my 10 year old daughter figured it out before they even entered the ship.

This is not to say the film is predictable. It is not entirely. There are so many wider questions that the story asks us to ponder, it is easy to understand why this film has not become the blockbuster it deserves to be. There are very few explosions, the firefights take place mainly offscreen. The bluster is as much philosophical in nature as anything.

The thing that catches the willing viewer in this story is the obsession with language and communication. Arrival takes our preconceptions on the tenets of communication and adds another dimension that may or may not be intuitive, depending on your learning style. The process of seeing smart people work out hard challenges is fascinating. Making it something we all can decipher with a little work is even more amazing.

Much of this is due to the writer and director. Villeneuve has cut a swath through the world of cinema that hasn’t been seen by this reviewer since David Fincher. His style is only matched by his ability to find and nurture great material. Heisserer is at his best here, showing much growth from horror remakes to something truly visionary.

The best thing about Arrival is Amy Adams. In a performance sympathetic and not at all maudlin, she gives a multi-layered performance that gives the viewer depth and keeps us wondering what she knows and, importantly, when she knows it. This role should net her a nomination, if not a win. She is a true acting force, on par with the best work that Jodie Foster ever did.

The story is very tight through the first 3 acts and starts to unravel a bit too quickly towards the end. We get to spend the last 15 minutes knowing what happened and just waiting for it to finish. This is not as much a betrayal to the viewer as a concession that some people may need a breather.

See this film. It will give you something to talk about and definitely fill your life with wonder.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Loving (*****) brick by brick

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Loving – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Bill Camp

The thing about Jeff Nichols movies is that one can feel them as well as viewing them. Richard and Mildred Loving are not brilliant people. They are just ironically named lovers who become married on the verge of a good and necessary change. Yes, they are interracial and that makes them part of that change. Thing is, they still have to work, pay bills and carry on. There are not a series of grandstand moments and brilliantly phrased quotes. The line that sticks with me is the last one quoted before the end credits.

He took care of me.

This hit me because the actions that the Loving’s take with each other are always the small things, right down to handing a glass of water and a gentle massage when the other comes out of the heat. This is stuff people do for one another when they are in love. At least this its my experience. It’s defiance of gravity. It’s working around it.

Richard (Edgerton) is a laborer who becomes a brick layer by trade. Throughout the years with everything that happens, we always see him out there, laying bricks down. Just as importantly, we get to see the bonding agent applied to every layer. They don’t forget the little things. This movie is all about the stuff that fills in the cracks.

Mildred (Negga) is smiling, uncomplaining and always at work herself. Making sure that the house is kept in order and the children are grateful and ever learning. The children are described as bastards in the eyes of the law.  We get to see the obvious pain this causes the parents. Not by words, but by enduring.

Edgerton and Negga present nomination worthy performances in an divisive age. No matter what side of the political coin, we’ve seen race used as a political gimmick that puts steps forward like those endured by the Lovings in jeopardy. No one today suffers like they did back then. On the other hand, those times were not augmented by “protesters” paid to wreak havoc and spread fear of “others.”

Daniels, Edgerton and Negga show love happens regardless of politics and differences. We see their experiences and are allowed to judge for ourselves. The people presented are not all bad and good. Rather, they are working within an oppressive system and leading people in the way they best know how, while still maintaining their homes and jobs.

If you haven’t figured it out, Jeff Nichols is one of the best filmmakers today. After so many years of enjoying his style and his incredible depth, I had an intake of breath when I found he would be covering the story of the Lovings vs. The State of Virginia. If he had make any false step, I would have been in a well of misery. Thankfully, he stays true to the subject, not making any false political comparisons to events and politics of today. There are no false equivalents. There is just Richard and Mildred. And I am loving the way they took care of one another.

(***** out of *****)

War Dogs (***1/2) Laughing is Crying

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War Dogs – 2016

Director Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack

It’s hard to make a comedy about sensitive subjects. At some point, you’ve got to just go for it, with no apologies. When it comes for barging through sensitive subjects, Phillips is a good choice. The story of people swindling the powers that be in a time of war is old as war itself. Fortunately Phillips decided to forge ahead and treat the subject as a swindle of governments instead of some form of protest. Done right, people will be able to form their own opinions. This story will never be a flower in the barrel.

Teller and Hill are David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two high school friends who have nothing better going in their lives…so they start selling arms to the U.S. government for their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Early in the war it was discovered that Cheney/Bush cornered the market on arms, and there was a fiat issued to start opening up the bidding process. Here is where Packouz and Diveroli come into the story.

If one is to assume it’s as easy as it shows Packouz and Diveroli are able to manipulate the system, it is surprising we didn’t have a gold rush of hucksters heading towards the Middle-East with contracts in hand. Honestly I would be surprised if there weren’t a bunch more that we never discovered.

The first half of the film is fun and somewhat thrilling, all the way to the point of the first trip to Albania. By the time things start breaking down, things move so fast that it’s hard to come to grips on exactly when the double crossings happened and why in the world anyone would go cheap on $100,000.

In all War Dogs is a funny and sad film. To imagine a Guildenstern and Rosencrantz existence in the midst of George Bush’s Hamlet with Dick Cheney playing Uncle Claudius is an image to behold. Phillips sympathies lie only with Packouz, and rely quite heavily on making Diveroli a monster. There is probably some truth in this. Fortunately the film doesn’t end on a cliched note. The last scene fading into Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen may be the only thing remembered about it in 20 years.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Hell or High Water (****1/2) is a bummer, well played

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Hell or High Water – 2016

Director David Mackenzie
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Marin Ireland

“The things we do for our kids, huh?”

Two brothers seeking vengeance on a bank that tried to take everything from their mother. A Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement out for one last adventure with their partner. One wonders, not too hard, where this will end up. The first half of the film is replete with images of West Texas citizens buckling under a debt that seems insurmountable. Why is this? Don’t worry, you get plenty of chances to see.

Toby Howard (Pine) is living on his mother’s property after she has passed away. His ex-wife (Ireland) and two boys live near by, toiling in poverty for his inability to provide since he lost his job as a natural gas driller. The property is about to be reverted to the Midland Bank after a reverse mortgage and other shady dealings I could not explain to you even if I worked in the finance industry.

Toby’s brother, Tanner (Foster) has been out of prison for a year. This doesn’t dissuade him from following his brother’s plan of robbing sever Midland Bank branches to get the money they owe, pay the debt and leave it to Toby’s kids. Tanner is not the most patient person, but he’s not dumb. It’s important to know why he went to prison.

Bridges is Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He dreads the idea of retirement, if for no other reason than it will take him out of the game and away from his half-breed partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham). The interactions between the two is worth the price of admission. It’s also quite interesting to see how they piece together the evidence into an educated guess as to where the robbers may strike next.

Sheridan – whose previous work on Sicario shows that he is on a higher plane – shows similar ability here. Mackenzie is best when he lets off the gas a bit and allows the viewer to come to the point instead of being thrust into it. The story is a tad heavy handed in the first act. Eventually the sentiment is dripped out in small enough doses as not to drown the viewer with good intentions. Mackenzie frames Foster and Pine a little too much like poster boys for GQ Old West. This is remedied by the time we see a wonderful sibling moment at a gas station when stopping in for a Dr. Pepper.

Toby goes in to get his brother the drink. Inexplicably, a musclehead arrives in a muscle car. The musclehead starts something from literally nothing and before Tanner lifts a finger in reaction, Toby decimates the jerk completely.

Toby’s reaction when he opens the bag is priceless.

There is not one bad move in the last two acts. Birmingham and Bridges especially make a subtly remarkable team. It’s obvious these two have shared many miles together and it would be nice to have seen more.

The end of the film goes from absolute bummer, to fist pumper to a remarkably tense stand off of a kind not seen since the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing.

If you don’t like Sicario, this may not appeal to you either. It is arid and somewhat hopeless, depending on what you feed off of in a story. There are not many winners and losing is leavened only with the prospect of a future showdown.

(****1/2)

Dr. Strange (****) cuts a few corners but is no less enjoyable

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Dr. Strange – 2016

Director Scott Derrickson
Screenplay by John Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

We may be reaching a breaking point on guest stars in Marvel films. The talent in Dr. Strange is at once invigorating and frustrating. To find that Ejiofor plays Mordo gives a feeling of exhilaration for all of the possibility it represents. Then we find he’s limited in both personality and exposition to the point where it’s amazing that he could be considered the good Dr.’s primary nemesis throughout the series. It’s one thing to be parenthetical to future growth. It’s something else to be an afterthought.

Making Derrickson the choice to bring Dr. Strange to the screen was a gamble. He’s been up (Sinister) and mixed (nearly everything else) but never clearly gifted to the point of being a can’t miss. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn and even Peyton Reed show that Feige has the midas touch so far. The biggest problem for all of the Marvel films is that which affects all superhero films. Rinsed and repeatable plots and bad guys. The difference for the studio is that they have made Easter Egg plot devices an art form.

The penchant for future payoff is likely what they had in mind with Mordo. Even if that is the case, does it hurt the plot to make him more than a rule follower, or at least interesting at some level beyond right hand man to the Swinton’s Ancient One?

In all fairness, kudos to Feige for not bowing to public pressure in the casting choices of the director. The whitewashing anger movement in Hollywood makes about as much sense as complaining about the lack of diversity in Bollywood or within K Drama. Swinton is not my favorite actor, but her choice as the old wizened leader of Marvel’s mystic arts makes sense. Age, color, nationality, culture…how much of this stuff is rooted in magical mysticism? Once your soul departs your body, what does it matter the color?

For those who don’t know the story, Dr. Strange tells the story of an incredibly gifted surgeon who stupidly throws it all away while trying to look at x-rays in his car while passing on a two lane ocean road. The accident leaves his hands useless, but he refuses to acknowledge that his faith in Western Medicine can’t bring him back to his former glory.

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This eventually leads Strange to Kathmandu and to Mordo, Wong (Wong) and the Ancient One. The story makes it’s more interesting assumptions here. All time we take getting Strange from Tony Stark mode to “teach me” is 30 minutes, or about 1/3 into the running time. From here, Strange needs to train fast enough to get back to Sanctum Sanctorum and then find out about the bad guy Kaecilius (Mikkelson) and then fight him.

Whether or not it could be done efficiently, Derrickson is all over the map here.  The strangest aspect to this section is the loose comparison of Strange to the Ancient One’s other great student, Kaecilius. Strange is breezing through books with his photographic memory and soon enough, he’s Hermione Granger.

In the midst of his training, Strange wanders right past the regular magic books and grabs one of the Ancient One special editions. Strange learns that while no knowledge is forbidden, Kaecilius thought it juicy enough to steal a couple of pages out of one of the texts. Guess what Strange is going to go for next? Not before we see he has problems mastering the teleportation spell. One lesson at Everest cures him. Very soon thereafter, his training ends abruptly and we’re thrust into the last act of the film.

Kaecilius is an amalgam of bad guys from Marvel. In short strokes, he thinks that Ancient One is a hypocrite because it has access to something that is forbidden to others. The logic seems flawed, as there is a lot of information available and no one tending the library during crucial moments.

Mads is not here to have an original character. He’s here to put his original twist to a character we all know. It’s Mikkelson’s charisma that makes more than a match to Cumberbatch. The first matchup between the two is made more interesting for the apparent lack of preparation and sheer luck involved. Things happen that we don’t expect, yet they make sense while being beautifully timed. That it happens so soon in the arc of the hero’s’ journey adds to the freshness, even if it doesn’t make that much sense.

The way that confrontation ends should be the end to the story, but frustratingly and stupidly they allow for more exposition until…well, you’ll see.

Cumberbatch plays the titular character with less real nuance than one would expect. It doesn’t exactly hurt the character, because, come on, it’s about the magic at this point. We need to see him move from egotist, to coward to master magician. There should be learning with no hugging, and Cumberbatch can do this with plenty to spare. He’s more likable while being just as much of an ass. It will be fun to find out how far he takes strange in future installments.

The overwhelming feeling while watching Dr. Strange is that of fun. The effects, the tone and the frenetic pace astounds. There are no moments where the exposition outweighs forward story movement. It’s good on first viewing, better with second viewing.

If it can be considered a fault, we see too many characters that could be considered major for one installment. The lack of character development is more pronounced than it would be if it were a bunch of stormtroopers being dispatched. It’s not like Marvel has only one chance to get each of these sub-franchises right by this point. Okay, well, the Hulk doesn’t count. Maybe it’s representative of having the less established directors.  We know Feige’s been here before, though. Let the foot off the gas a bit.

(**** out of *****)

Forgotten Gems: Did anyone forget the original Poltergeist (****)?

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Poltergeist – 1982

Director Tobe Hooper (Steven Spielberg)
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor
Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein

The mind’s eye gives one emotional impressions that sometimes pervades one’s memory. My memory tells me that Poltergeist is a classic. It’s a film I remember fondly, even after my most recent viewing. Several scenes still stand out for their pacing, script and acting. Time passing and this reviewer just getting older has given a different perspective of the film overall, though.

First, let’s talk about what hasn’t changed. The best things in Poltergeist are still the same:

  1.  The clown. My kids, 10 and 13 called it from the first moment. The 10 year old was sent away long before it happened, but my oldest daughter screamed during the payoff. She knew it was going to happen and still it got her. The crowning moment for this film may be in the whole sequence, which took over an hour to complete. Robins knows there’s something up with that clown, but he is sidetracked by the tree. Later on, he still knows something’s up. By the time he realizes it, though, it’s bedtime…again.
  2. Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina Barrons. This character is the ace in the hole. By the time we see her, we’ve already invested 2/3 of the film in a ratcheting of the tension. Her dialogue matches the severity of the moment, but also provides a “are you serious” chuckle for those of us who still can’t believe her. Rubenstein created a character that has been duplicated many times, even to the point where the person her Tangina was modeled after (The Conjuring‘s Elaine Warren) feels like a copy. This culminates in her debate with JoBeth Williams’ Diane over who should go after the missing…
  3. Carol Anne (O’Rourke). So many times kids are precocious to the point of nausea. Spielberg had a real knack for making kids believable and helpless early on. The kids in this story are great, and it’s a shame we didn’t see much more of them after this film. Nothing is more memorable than little Carol Anne as the little vessel who’s open to the world. Of course she can see and communicate with the other side. Wisely the script doesn’t make her a genius though. She has no idea what the hell they want, and she’s really not keen on taking their side of things. None of the other films were able to completely capture the magic of her character, perhaps because they gave her too much more to do.
  4. Nelson and Williams as Steven and Diane Freeling. As a parent with a wife in the same age range as Steve and Diane, I find much to identify with. Neither of the parents are any sort of genius, but it’s obvious that they are in love and love their kids. This doesn’t preclude them from mistakes. They stay too long, for one. When you see how well they work together, it is a comfort, primarily because they are not wasting precious dialogue in the arguing stage.
  5. The script. It’s about as lean a script as I have ever experienced covering such a complex range of possibilities. They could have filled several more spots with tons of hocus pocus. That we are spared these detailed answers leaves room for imagination in a good way. The two sequels killed that feeling. The bare bones script has become the model for all haunted house possession films but most of these films don’t ever feel too close because of the flexibility allowed in it’s being so spare.

There are things that have detracted from the film with the passage of time. If I spent a long time believing Tobe Hooper is truly the director of the film, experience tells me the truth is otherwise. There are many clues to this being the case:

  1. Advertising. Nothing says Spielberg quite like product placement. This is grounding in a way. Watching Poltergeist, I can fondly remember that 60 Minutes was popular in 1982 as it is today. Conversely, kids born after Generation X would need to consult the internet to figure out what That’s Incredible! was. Pizza Hut is still popular. So are Coke, Cheetos and Star Wars. I could go on, but I will leave it at this: I was always envious of all of the “stuff” that Spielberg movie kids had, even when they were supposedly part of families with limited means. That feeling was front and center here.
  2. PG? If this film were really a Tobe Hooper film, there are two scenes that would have to have been left on the cutting room floor in order to pass the ratings bar. The overwhelmingly inappropriate moment when Martin Casella’s Marty tears his face off in the bathroom. (For those wondering, my 10 year old was sent away before this scene.) The other horrific sequences are anything involving the skeletons coming out of the pool in caskets or outside of them. Yes, we are in the age of The Walking Dead. That show isn’t PG though.  Spielberg got away with a lot back in this time. There was the melting faces of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the ripping out the heart of a living being in that series’ second film. The director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre just didn’t have that kind of sway.
  3. Goofy crap. Why oh why do we have to have those caskets pop up at the end of the movie? One would have been enough, but geez, he pulls that cheap stint too many times to be scary, much less effective. And when in your life have you ever seen a grown man trying to hold onto a 24 pack of drinks in order to bring them to the big game? When someone needs to have that box of beverages fall all over hell, that’s when. More examples are available, I just don’t want to encourage Spielberg to feel like they were memorable.

All in all, it’s a good and nearly great film. It’s taken years for me to add it to my collection, though. I finally needed a somewhat safe movie for my kids to watch this Halloween, and that’s really what we have here. I am sure they’ll watch it in the future. Not sure if they’ll ever know what the fuss was about. I think they’ll appreciate it though.

(**** out of *****)

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (****)

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Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – 2016

Director Tim Burton
Screenplay by Jane Goldman based on the book by Ransom Riggs
Starring Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Green, Dame Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Lauren McCrostie, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney

When we look upon this time 50 years from now, will we remember that it was Samuel L. Jackson who provided at least 30% of all entertainment we ever got from movies? Miss Peregrine…is a good movie. It’s even better when you consider Tim Burton applied most of his best sensibilities with almost none of his worst. The think that helps the story border on greatness though, is our man Sam right in the middle of it all.

The backbone of the story is not all that original. Anyone who’s seen anything from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer through Harry Potter will recognize the aimless seemingly untalented youth that finds his place among a bevy of similarly disaffected. The execution and casting helps set this one apart from others.

Jake (Butterfield) is a young man who recently lost his Grandfather Abe. Abe told his Grandson many stories about a wonderful place where he spent his youth. He had pictures of the place, including headmistress Miss Peregrine (Green). Even so, his recollections always stood outside the realm of believability. Eventually Jake is ashamed to even think he believed in them.

The most convoluted part of the plot is getting Jake to this place. We have psychoanalysis for no particular reason, and a trip to an English Isle to get Jake over the hump. All the while, as a parent I realize my kid’s emotional well being will never be resolved through air miles.

No matter how we get there, we get to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. We find it miraculous and caught in a perpetual time loop. Reliving the same day since the day before the Luftwaffe raid in WWII. They do not age, but are able to retain their memories. These loops have allowed Miss Peregrine and her children to hide from the outside world. I will leave the rest for the viewer. Suffice to say, the best parts of the film are finding out how all of this is possible, what the children all can do and why they would need to hide.

That reason is in the form of Samuel L. Jackson, as Mr. Barron. He has vested interests that involve procuring the children and we spend much of the second half of the film finding out why. The story unfolds very comfortably, though. So interested was I in the gifts of these children, the little bits that were doled out, the fact that they are being pursued doesn’t even occur to me until it’s right on shore.

Burton’s instincts are tempered here. He’s allowed the weirdness we normally get from him, but without any of the routine “no one understands how weird I want to be” normally pushed to the forefront. Having Green in the role normally reserved for Helena Bonham Carter infests certainly helps. Ultimately we get all of the benefits of the imagination of the creators with very few of the indulgences of a director who hasn’t heard “no” when it comes to a budget since Superman Lives.

Butterfield is an extremely graceful talent. His ability to seem normal while commanding one’s attention is remarkable. I can’t recall the time I have seen him onscreen and not at least enjoyed what he was doing.

Green is good when it comes to Miss Peregrine. She exudes peculiarity as well as safety. If this were a normal Burton film, Bonham Carter would have added a touch of danger for the children. It would have thrown everything off, so I am happy Burton selected her for the role.

This is not to say there was no danger present for our protagonist and his friends. The people that are snatched off of the screen come at surprising times and for this viewer and his 10 year old daughter, the food of choice for the antagonists is excruciating to ponder.

Burton’s choice of Bruno Delbonnel for cinematography is a winner. His palette exudes a warmth and refreshing greens and yellows to contrast with the colder colors of Jake’s reality outside of the Home. Big Eyes notwithstanding, Burton should continue working with Delbonnel in the future.

For those looking for an effective story to share with their children, you will find it here. My daughter Ellie hates sitting through movies. She didn’t move a whit through this one. It had her attention throughout. As a parent, I felt comfortable with the messages and the tone. You want your kids to know that there is danger in the world. This film is wise enough to let the adults duck out just in time for the kids to solve the dangerous riddles together.

(**** out of *****)

Ouija: Origin of Evil (***1/2) improves upon the model

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Oulja: Origin of Evil – 2016

Director Mike Flanagan
Writers Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Starring  Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson

The 2nd installment of the board game movie series Ouija involves a scam with good intentions. An older man (Anderson) is attending a seance with his daughter (Siegel). The conductor of the seance (Reiser) has some help formulating what communication the father and child will receive from the beyond. The message is a clear one to the old man: focus on the good, but hold onto your money. Seeing the easy tears that come to Anderson’s eyes as he believes what he’s being told, one gets the feeling that they’ve done a good job at least in casting this second film. This man is in grief, but hopeful. How could they do that in a B movie?  Why would they even push for that kind of detail?

The first story was kind of a throwaway. Kids get hooked into a board game that is tied to a house with a past. The past is kind of interesting though, and they wisely decide to mine that fertile territory for this episode.

It’s rare the horror movie sequel that makes the first one better. Most just kind of dine on the remnants of the first story. Paranormal Activity pulled it off and so, now has Ouija. The way they do it is a simple, solid story and good acting by everyone involved. Reaser and Thomas are a big improvement over anyone outside of Cooke from the first film. Basso and Wilson are solid as the two children who help their single mother Alice run her pseudo-seance operation.

Things begin to go sideways when eldest daughter Lina (Basso) gets caught sneaking out to a party involving drinking and games. Well, one game. She confides in her mother on the way home and Alice decides it might be a good idea to try it out as an additional gimmick. As she is setting it up, she unwittingly opens a door to the dead within the house to speak through her youngest, Doris (Wilson).

Things go well at first, as Doris seems to be a conduit to the same type of gentle spirits that Alice would hope they could communicate, like that of her dead husband and father to their children. He’s there, to be sure, but he’s not the dominating presence in the house.

Suffice to say this film will break the three rules of Ouija:

  • Never Play Alone
  • Never Play in a Graveyard
  • Always say Goodbye

Those broken rules do have a checklist effect on the plot. None of what results should be all that surprising.

There are some genuinely good moments though. It’s easy to appreciate Henry Thomas as the ever calm Father Tom, who sees all of the signs and doesn’t suffer the immediate decimation that most wearing the collar suffer at the hands of malevolent forces. It is also very neat to see someone show that demons will lie and it will not always be explained in an agonizing fashion later in the story. Some good decisions are made by those struggling to overcome the demons. Leaving the ending ambiguous is also a treat.

It’s not a great film, but it is a good one. If they can just leave it here. But then there is that origin before the origin…

(***1/2 out of *****)

Sully (****1/2) provides a perfect landing

sully-2016-movie-poster

Sully – 2016

Director Clint Eastwood
Written by Todd Komarnicki based on The Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger
and Jeffrey Zaslow
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany, Jamey Sheridan, Jerry Ferrara

There is a scene in the midst of Sully where we see a flight attendant telling one of the passengers near the front of the airplane to jump out of the just landed plane while she is trying to corral the rest of the passengers to line up in an orderly fashion. He looks at her, confused, as he has no life jacket and this exit does not have a landing pad for upon which to land. She is following protocol and really doesn’t comprehend what the passenger’s face is trying to express. She is trying to keep everyone else moving and calm. She prods him to action and he jumps. After swimming around in water that has a chill factor of -5, he makes his way back to the nearest flotilla. This is but one way something could have lead to a death. Somehow it was avoided. Every action is completely understandable in this highly charged environment filled with such tension. This is what happens when humans are a factor.

There is no harder story to tell in Hollywood than a true one. The meat and potatoes grist of a story may be there, but everything that accompanies the meal is usually the same. Take any biopic about a singer or actor and you see drug abuse and its subsequent recovery. Take any story about a miracle and you get the little guy having to overcome obstacles applied by external forces (most often government) that is there just for the sake of telling us what rules they broke.

The National Transportation Safety Board serves as the bogeyman in this take on the heroic actions of Chelsey Sullenberger (Hanks) and Jeff Skiles (Eckhart). If for no other reason than serving as filler, the board picks every opportunity to act as the antagonist in an event where antagonism never surfaces. The unit, consisting of members whose individual names were removed from the script at the request of Sullenberger, gives the already reeling pilot fresh doses of antagonism immediately following the landing. So aggressive is the group that we get the distinct impression that Sullenberger and his co-pilot are not able to see their families for several days after the event. In essence, he is held hostage until they finish their review.

Any reasonable assessment of this film can discount this whole subplot from the start. There has to be a reason for us to want to watch the film beyond the amazing feat the two pilots pulled off, along with the subsequent rescue by several New York ferry and rescue operations, right? Well…no. I could have handled more of those heroes that helped Sully save 155 souls from pending doom.

As it stands, Sully is still a fantastic movie. Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood have mastered the art of restraint. We see every ounce of doubt in Hanks’ eyes in the simple act of running along the water before dawn. The conversations between his Sully and Linney’s Lorraine Sullenberger bring immediate tears to one’s eyes when we realize that the things that weigh us down in life often get in the way of us just being grateful for life and love itself. We notice when she says she loves him after a particularly tough conversation and he neglects to respond in kind. And we feel closure when this omission is very quietly rectified in a later phone call.

Sully is the kind of movie America will always need to remind itself of the quality of its citizens. We can even extend this to humanity itself. We have countless examples of life being difficult. We are indeed living outside the garden of Eden. What Eastwood has done, though, is to bring us a vision of God’s grace that is so hard to comprehend that the one who provided it even doubts his role within said vision. So many people are thankful to a man who has difficulty accepting that he should receive thanks.

It is for this reason that the NTSB role is acceptable in Sully. They provide a touch of the grist of doubt that Sully feels. If it is a little exaggerated, it is only because we feel so much sympathy for the protagonist. The board is only doing its job looking at all of the factors. We just want to be happy he’s alive.

A good film leaves you wanting more, but knowing you’ve seen enough. Eastwood shows glimpses of Sully’s past when they apply to how it made the hero with whom we’re presented. His doubt is resistant to every indication that he deserves praise. It makes a remarkably satisfying result when we finally see the tide is turned in his own self-analysis. Hanks does all of this with a dry poignancy that is matched by Eastwood’s spare presentation. If ever two talents were meant to work together, it is these two.

Every supporting actor falls perfectly into place, with Eckhart in particular providing excellent counterbalance. The predominant mood is one of cooperation here and that is hard to pull off in long form. There is but one awkward moment between the two of them, which is made all the sweeter when one realizes that’s just the way things happen when you are human.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Humans at their best doing what they do imperfectly, but still brilliantly. How do they do it?  Eastwood and Hanks come closest to showing you how these humans play a factor.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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