Friday, March 31, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife

The Zookeeper's Wife is a true story about an ordinary woman who did extraordinary things to save countless Jews during the Holocaust.  Historical dramas, particularly those set during World War II, are very appealing to me so I was definitely predisposed to love this film as I walked into the theater last night.  I didn't love it by the time I walked out of the theater.  Antonina Zabinska (Chastain) and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) run the Warsaw Zoo on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939.  During the bombing of Warsaw, many of the animals are killed but the Zabinskis do their best to save as many as they can.  The director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), arrives because he wants to save some of the best stock for breeding purposes.  After Antonina reluctantly agrees, Heck transfers the animals he selects but ruthlessly kills the rest, mirroring certain aspects of the Holocaust.  The Zabinskis propose that they keep the zoo open to raise pigs as a food supply and receive permission to collect scraps from the Warsaw ghetto to feed them.  They decide to hide one of their Jewish friends in an underground cage and then decide to help other Jews escape from the ghetto in the garbage truck as they collect the scraps.  They eventually fill the underground cages with as many Jews as they can right under the nose of Lutz as he uses the zoo for his breeding program.  Jan joins the resistance and is wounded and captured during the Warsaw Uprising so when Lutz realizes what has been going on, Antonina evacuates all of the Jews to face him alone.  This movie does so many things very well: it has a compelling story, beautiful production design, and an outstanding performance by Chastain.  However, the action left me feeling somewhat flat.  There is no tension because there is never a sense of peril for the Jews.  The German officers are portrayed as either benign, especially Lutz because he is enamored with Antonina until he turns on her in the final scenes (and even then he takes pity on her), or downright clueless, especially the guards at the ghetto who always seem to be looking away as the Jews climb into the garbage truck.  In fact, I felt more emotionally connected to the animals and the scenes that affected me the most were when they were in peril.  It is a good period drama but I was expecting so much more.    

Thursday, March 30, 2017

District Champion (Again)

I know that I am slightly biased but I think that my niece Tashena is absolutely amazing!  The Davis District Track & Field Championships have been held the past few days and, once again, Tashena was the champion in discus.  This is a huge accomplishment because she is only a sophomore!  Her best throw was 115'!  I am so proud of her and I can't wait to see what she does at the State Championship (she qualified at the first meet of the season).

Note:  Tashena was the champion in discus all three years in Jr. High (go here and here).

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A United Kingdom

Last night I went to see A United Kingdom and it was such a lovely and inspiring film!  It tells the true story of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the King of Bechuanaland when it was a British protectorate in the 1940s, and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), the woman he met in London while studying law.  Not only is this a touching romance (they fell in love over a shared passion for jazz) but it is also a story of political intrigue.  At first the British government tries to prevent their marriage because South Africa, an important member of the Commonwealth due to their valuable resources needed by Britain, opposes it because of their policy of apartheid.  Later the government tries to remove Seretse as king in a stunning betrayal.  However, the strength of their love wins over Seretse's people as well as Ruth's family and eventually leads to the independence of present-day Botswana.  It is a film which will leave you cheering (and will make you hate the perfidy of Britain's colonial policies).  To be sure, the film is predictable (scenes with Ruth's parents disowning her and British bureaucrats plotting behind closed doors) but I was completely drawn into the love story between Seretse and Ruth.  Oyelowo and Pike give incredibly affecting performances and I had tears in my eyes several times, particularly when the women of Seretse's village sing to Ruth and when Seretse, with tears streaming down his face, gives a powerful speech about unifying Africa.  This film is visually stunning with scenes in London shrouded in fog and scenes in Africa suffused with an orange glow.  It has flaws but the love story is riveting and the message is powerful.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

King Charles III at PTC

Imagine that Queen Elizabeth II has died and that, upon his ascension to the throne, King Charles III has plunged the monarchy into a constitutional crisis.  Imagine that William Shakespeare is still alive to write a modern tragedy about the current Royal Family.  Such is the premise of Mike Bartlett's play King Charles III, the current production at PTC.  I was able to see it last night and I think it is a brilliant examination of the role of monarchy in the modern world.  Charles (John Hutton) is a tragic figure, much like King Lear, who is out of touch and easily manipulated by the Prime Minister (Larry Bull) and the opposition leader (J. Todd Adams).  Believing that he should have more than just a ceremonial role in government, Charles refuses to sign the Privacy Act which eventually leads to his dissolution of Parliament.  Prince Harry (John Ford-Dunker), like Prince Hal, yearns for a different life other than the restrictive one as a royal and spends his time clubbing with inappropriate companions.  He is ultimately forced to choose duty over a girlfriend.  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (Samantha Eggers) is perhaps the most interesting character, as a sort of Lady Macbeth, who uses the crisis to further her ambition for Prince William (Grant Goodman).  She has a very powerful soliloquy where she bemoans her role as an ornament to the monarchy and vows to wield power when she wears the crown.  Another incredibly powerful scene is when William confronts Charles over his treatment of his mother, Diana (who makes an appearance as a ghost).  The staging is fantastic with a final scene that I still can't get out of my mind.  It is a riveting production and I highly recommend it!  King Charles III runs at PTC until April 8 and tickets may be purchased here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Life

Last night I went to see the movie Alien Life.  Like the 1979 classic by Ridley Scott, this movie features six crew members who must battle an alien life form in a confined space as it hunts down and kills them one by one.  In the near future, the crew of the International Space Station, including Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), CDC representative Miranda North (Rebecca Furgason), engineer Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), pilot Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and captain Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), intercepts a probe from Mars and discovers a single cell organism which is proof of life on Mars.  Of course, the organism grows rapidly and turns malevolent and, in a breach of quarantine (never go in and rescue a crew member who is being attacked by an alien!), it gets loose in the space station and begins attacking crew members until there is one left to escape back to Earth.  Sound familiar?  This movie is unbelievably predictable and the only thing that kept me engaged was trying to determine the order in which the crew members would be killed (I was actually surprised by which crew member was killed first).  There is a bit of a twist at the end but I predicted it well before it was revealed.  The scenes with the alien are intense and incredibly graphic.  That is not necessarily a good thing because, if you are least bit squeamish, you may need to turn away.  I think zero-gravity is depicted very well and I like how the claustrophobia of the space station is emphasized.  The characters are pretty well developed, although I felt like Ryan Reynolds was playing an astronaut version of Wade Wilson (lots of swearing).  Overall, it is a pretty good sci-fi thriller but if you want a great one I would recommend watching Alien instead.

Note: I like to be genuinely scared rather than shocked.  Alien scared me while Life shocked me with the manner in which each crew member was killed.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

An Evening of Bach

I spontaneously decided to get a ticket to last night's Utah Symphony concert featuring the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and I am so glad that I did because it was wonderful.  Guest conductor Richard Egarr was charm personified as he spoke to the audience about the various pieces.  He not only conducted the orchestra, but he also played the piano which was amazing and so much fun to watch.  The concert began with Suite No. 3 and the price of admission was entirely worth it for the second movement of this piece alone!  It was so beautiful and evocative and, as Egarr mentioned in his commentary, instantly recognizable to me.  I was completely undone by it!  I also really enjoyed the theme played by the trumpets in the third movement, which Egarr described as angelic rather than militaristic.  Next, the orchestra played Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with Egarr on piano, Madeline Adkins on violin, and Mercedes Smith on flute.  All three of them were amazing, especially in the second movement where they were featured without the rest of the orchestra.  After the intermission, the orchestra played Concerto No. 1 and I really enjoyed the "pyrotechnics," as Egarr described it, on the piano.  Once again, I especially liked the second movement (what is it, structurally, that appeals to me about the second movement in most pieces?) because it was very moody and atmospheric.  The concert concluded with Suite No. 4 and this piece was so pleasant.  I kept picturing couples twirling on the dance floor in an opulent palace.  It was such a lovely evening and I highly recommend that you get a ticket (go here) to tonight's concert which will feature the same program.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Sense of an Ending

Last summer I read the best-selling novel A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and in my review I wrote that people would either love it or hate it.  I loved it and so I have been eagerly anticipating the film adaptation.  After seeing it last night, I have the same assessment of the film as I did of the novel.  It is definitely not for everyone but it is a poignant exploration of one man's life as he is forced to reexamine the past after receiving an unexpected letter.  Jim Broadbent is Tony Webster and Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica Ford, Tony's girlfriend at university.  Their story, as Tony remembers it, is told through a series of flashbacks, with Billy Howle and Freya Mavor playing the younger characters, as Tony recounts the story to his ex-wife (an amusing Harriet Walter).  Then their story, as it really happened, is revealed as Tony arranges a series of meetings with Veronica.  As he sheds his delusions about the kind of person he was and is, he begins to make amends with the people in his life, namely his ex-wife and pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery).  I really enjoyed this character study because I think that we all view our pasts the way we need to in order to validate our opinions of ourselves.  Jim Broadbent is marvelous (I think that his portrayal of Tony is much more sympathetic than the character is written on the page) and Charlotte Rampling, once again, gives a haunting performance.  I highly recommend this film but, because the mystery unfolds very slowly, I recognize that many might find it to be tedious.

Note:  My favorite line in the film comes when the young Tony goes home with Veronica to meet her parents.  Her mother asks him what he hopes to do with an undergraduate degree in English literature.  I laughed out loud...

Thursday, March 23, 2017

My Life as a Zucchini

My Life as a Zucchini is a French stop-motion animation movie about a boy, nicknamed Zucchini, who is sent to a foster home after his alcoholic mother dies where he learns the true meaning of friendship.  This movie was screened at Sundance this year and several of my friends recommended it to me so I saw it last night.  Even though I had an almost visceral reaction to this movie I loved it so much!  It just might be my favorite movie of the year so far!  The subject is one that is very close to my heart.  Both my niece and nephew are adopted and they were both in foster homes before they came to my family so many of the scenes depicted in this film brought tears to my eyes, especially when one of the children says that there is no one left to love them and when another child runs out to see if her mother has come back for her every time someone visits.  It was difficult for me to see children in such distressing situations but I admire the filmmakers for tackling these issues in a way that feels authentic.  They are all wise beyond their years and they have been exposed to things that no child should ever have to deal with but they are, nevertheless, still children so their explanations for things, such as sex, are hilarious.  Despite the grim subject, there is quite a bit of humor in this film.  I absolutely loved the children and I thought they were all fully realized characters with distinct personalities (something to be commended as the film has such a short run time).  I was particularly touched by Simon, who initially comes across as a bully but has a few vulnerable moments.  I really enjoyed the relationships between the children and the love story between Zucchini and Camille is very sweet.  Finally, I really loved the quirky look of all of the characters.  They have oversize heads with large expressive eyes and red noses as if they are all perpetually suffering from a cold and this makes them incredibly sympathetic, in my opinion.  I cannot recommend this film enough!

Note:  I saw it in French with English subtitles but there is a dubbed version, as well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pink Martini

Pink Martini has been to Salt Lake City several times to perform with the Utah Symphony but I have always had a conflict whenever they have been in town.  When I saw that they were included in the 2016-2017 lineup, I made sure to get a ticket and have eagerly been anticipating last night's concert for months.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  In fact, it was probably more fun than should be allowed in SLC on a Tuesday!  Pink Martini is a self-described "little orchestra" with 12 members, plus the incredible China Forbes on vocals, created by Thomas Lauderdale, a classically trained pianist with political aspirations, who was dismayed by the bland Muzak he heard at political functions and thought he could improve upon what he heard.  The group he put together is anything but bland!  Their repertoire includes classical, Latin, jazz, pop, and world music and their eclectic mixture was a hit!  They began with "Amado Mio," with a performance by Forbes which gave me goosebumps, and they ended with "Brazil," which featured the American Fork High School marching band and basically turned Abravanel Hall into Carnival in Rio!  In between, they played songs in Spanish, German, Turkish, Armenian, and Japanese along with several in French and, at one point, had the audience singing along in French!  Before each number, Lauderdale, an enthusiastic master of ceremonies, would ask for members in the audience who spoke the language of the song to come to the stage to sing back-up.  The Armenian group even gave an impromptu performance of another folk song.  The highlight of the concert, for me, was when Forbes sang "Song to the Moon" from the opera Rusalka.  This just about blew my mind because it was so beautiful!  Even though I did not know the words to this aria, I had tears in my eyes!  Rusalka just went to the top of my list of operas that I want to see!  Another favorite moment came when Forbes did the traditional introduction of the band members after which they literally introduced every member of the Utah Symphony!  I thought that was hilarious.  I had so much fun at this concert and I will definitely make sure I get a ticket every time Pink Martini comes to town.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Weekend in Fillmore

For the past several years Marilyn and I have spent opening weekend at the KOA in Fillmore.  Opening weekend was actually last week but Marilyn was busy and I, as you know, had lots of Spirit Week nonsense going on so we postponed our trip one week.  We have both been anticipating it for so long.  It was incredibly relaxing and, boy, was it needed.  We both drove down on Friday afternoon (Fillmore is about 150 miles south of Salt Lake) and settled in to our cabin.  We spent every day sitting on the porch reading, which I absolutely loved because I haven't had much time for reading lately.  We spent every evening sitting by the fire, which is my very favorite part of camping.  We stayed up late every night talking until the wee hours and Marilyn may or may not have thought there was a wild animal lurking underneath our cabin ready to attack us as we slept (we found out later that it was a tiny jackrabbit)!  One night we drove into Fillmore to have dinner at our favorite hole in the wall cafe called the Garden of Eat'n.  For some reason we both think that name is hilarious and we always eat there.  The waitress recognized us from last year and told us how cool it was that we could have a girls weekend every year.  I loved every minute of this trip and I'm so glad that Marilyn and I are able to do this every year.  I hope that this is the first of many camping trips this year.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Spirit Week 2017

Last year, my officers took Spirit Week to a whole new level so, of course, the current officers were determined to outdo it this year!  Each class chose a different video game (the seniors were Mario, the juniors were Pokemon, the sophomores were Pac Man, and the freshmen were Sonic) as their theme and each class was assigned a hall to decorate around their theme.  The officers started making the decorations over a month ago and we have had many long nights at school (and even a Saturday).  I can't believe how elaborate their decorations were this year because it looked like you were in the middle of the game as you walked down each hall.  I definitely have some very talented artists in my group!  The reaction from the faculty and student body was very enthusiastic!  I especially loved the giant ghosts from Pac Man that we made with balloons and fabric and hung through the hall.  Our assembly was yesterday and it was one of our best!  The SBOs and each of the class officers had different games and the classes competed against each other.  I loved the freshmen game which was a giant version of Tic Tac Toe using hula hoops as the game board.  It was so fun to watch all of the contestants running back and forth.  The SBOs rented these giant plastic Zorbs and each player raced across the gym inside of one.  It was a riot!  We ended the assembly with our traditional Tug-O-War (there is bad blood between the juniors and sophomores after last year) and this year the Seniors won.  I loved it because the teams have been talking about it all week!  I have been putting in really long hours and I have been so stressed out so I am glad that it was a success but, more than that, I am glad that it is over!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Late last night I went to an early screening of Beauty and the Beast, the live action version of the 1991 Disney animated classic, and I loved so much about it (and didn't like a few things).  Emma Watson plays Belle, a smart and independent girl stuck in a provincial town, and Dan Stevens plays the Beast, a prince who has been cursed by an enchantress because there is no love in his heart.  This adaptation follows the familiar story of Belle being taken prisoner in the Beast's castle as a substitute for her father (Kevin Kline), who unknowingly wanders in, and then learning to look past the Beast's gruff exterior with the help of some enchanted objects in the castle:  Ian McKellen as the uptight Cogsworth, Ewan McGregor as the rakish Lumiere, and Emma Thompson as the motherly Mrs. Potts.  Meanwhile, the local war hero Gaston (Luke Evans), with the help his buffoonish sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad), pursues Belle and then sets his sights on killing the Beast.  I loved the big production numbers, especially "Belle," "Gaston," "Be Our Guest," and "Beauty and the Beast," and I actually thought they were pretty magical because the production design is simply gorgeous.  This movie is just visually stunning!  I liked all of the performances (I even thought that Emma Watson sounded fine in her songs) but my favorites are Evans as Gaston and Gad as LeFou because they are absolutely hilarious and Stevens as the Beast because his voice is unexpectedly amazing in the song "Evermore."  I really enjoyed watching this movie, particularly with the rowdy crowd who cheered during several scenes, and I laughed out loud many times.  However, there were a few weak spots for me.  I didn't really like the CGI of the enchanted objects because they didn't seem to be "real."  I was hoping that the objects would actually resemble the actors portraying them (I remember being so excited when I heard that Ewan McGregor was going to play Lumiere) so that was a little bit disappointing.  I also didn't especially like most of the new songs (I had the same problem with the new song in Les Miserables) but that might be because I am so used to the original movie and the Broadway musical so I might grow to like them more (I did, however, like the aforementioned "Evermore").  Finally, I thought Belle's backstory where she and the Beast visit Paris was weird and unnecessary; in fact, I wasn't really sure what was even going on and my mind started to wander (this movie is quite long).  However, for me, the positives outweighed the negatives and I really enjoyed it.  I predict that I will be seeing it again soon (especially since Spring break is coming up).

Note:  About that "explicitly gay" scene?  If you blink, you will miss it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Before I Fall

I saw Before I Fall at Sundance this year and it received a bit of a lukewarm reception at my screening and, recently, a few of my friends have panned it.  I decided to see this film again last night because I have very strong opinions about it and, for some reason, I feel the need to defend it.  Based on the best-selling novel by Lauren Oliver, Sam Kingston (Zoey Deutch) is a popular high school student who is forced to live the same day over and over again until she realizes what is most important in her life beyond her superficial happiness.  She has a trio of best friends, Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu), and Elody (Medalion Rahimi), who all behave badly, particularly to a classmate whom they bully mercilessly.  All Sam cares about is receiving the most roses during the school's annual "Cupid Day" (I always say that you haven't really lived unless you have spent Valentine's Day in a high school) and losing her virginity to the most popular boy in school.  Each time she relives the day she attempts to change her behavior in the hopes of changing her fate and I really enjoyed her journey as a character.  Every iteration of the day seams fresh and unique based on the choices she makes.  Obviously, I view this film through a much different filter than most people I know because I have worked with this age group for many years as a high school teacher.  The situations ring true and the dialogue is incredibly authentic (however much we might wish for the light and effervescent teen comedies we are used to).  Just yesterday I had to deal with a horrible case of bullying within the group of student leaders I work with.  Lindsay, the ringleader of the group of friends, is especially brutal in her treatment of Juliet (Elena Kampouris) but the film does a good job, in my opinion, of showing her motivation.  The two girls were once friends but Lindsay lashes out at her to cover up her own insecurities.  It has been my experience that the student who exhibits the worst behavior in class is often the one who most needs my attention and understanding.  I really liked the fact that Sam is able to find redemption after all of her bad behavior (I don't think the film glorifies this behavior at all) because I like to think that no teenager is beyond hope, no matter how unlikable they may appear to be.  She is a very different girl at the end of the movie from the one we meet at the beginning.  Just my two cents.

Note:  I really think that this film will appeal more to the demographic for which it was intended.  This second screening was filled with teenage girls and they seemed to really enjoy it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Utah Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

Last night I went to see Utah Opera's production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The libretto is based on The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott and the incredible music is composed by Gaetano Donizetti.  I loved it!  In fact, I loved it so much that I wondered why I had never seen it before!  In seventeenth century Scotland, Enrico (James Westman) is in financial ruin and the only way to save his honor is to have is sister Lucia (Abigail Rethwisch) marry Arturo (Tyson Miller).  However, Lucia is in love with Edgardo (Mackenzie Whitney), a man who is her brother's mortal enemy.  During a secret rendezvous, Edgardo tells Lucia that he must leave for France but they make solemn vows to each other and he gives her a ring.  They end this touching scene with Edgardo promising to write.  Enrico discovers this relationship and intercepts all of Edgardo's letters.  In his desperation he begs to Lucia to marry Arturo for the good of the family and she finally consents, thinking that Edgardo has forsaken her.  As she signs the marriage contract, Edgardo returns and, in a rage, violently removes the ring from Lucia's finger.  As guests celebrate at the wedding, it is discovered that Lucia has killed Arturo and has descended into madness.  As she lays dying, Enrico is filled with remorse and pity.  When Edgardo learns of Lucia's death, he stabs himself in order to be reunited with her in Heaven.  What could be better than murder, betrayal, insanity, and death?  I really loved every single number, especially Lucia's aria before meeting Edgardo (there is a ghost!), the beautiful duet between Lucia and Edgardo where they declare their vows to each other, and Edgardo's emotional final aria.  However, nothing compares to the famous "mad scene" where Lucia, wearing a white nightgown covered in Arturo's blood, sings of her love for Edgardo while her horrified wedding guests look on.  This aria is in the Bel Canto style and is filled with a dazzling vocal display.  Rethwisch's performance is absolutely visceral and her collapse at the end of it was met with thunderous applause!   I could hardly breathe!  The entire cast is amazing and, in addition to Rethwisch, I was also particularly impressed with Derrick Parker (who recently performed Mozart's Requiem with the Utah Symphony) as a cleric who tries to defend Lucia.  The production is visually stunning with a set that includes a Gothic castle, a haunted fountain, and a snow-filled graveyard as well as beautiful period costumes.  I loved everything about this opera and I highly recommend getting a ticket (go here) to a remaining performance.

Note:  Lucia di Lammermoor would be perfect for those who have never been to an opera before.  It is easy to follow and my attention never wavered once during the three-hour run time.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Chess at PTC

A few years ago PTC created a series featuring rarely performed musicals in concert format.  The actors use scripts and there are minimal costumes, sets, and props in order to let the music take center stage.  They began with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was so popular that PTC presented it two years in a row) and this year they continued with Chess, the musical that Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba wrote before Mamma Mia.  Even though I only knew one song from the show, the wildly popular radio hit "One Night in Bangkok" by Murray Head (Freddie from the original West End production), I have always wanted to see it.  I am so glad I had the chance last night because it pretty much blew me away.  Against the backdrop of an international chess tournament between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, a member of the U.S. delegation and the Soviet champion fall in love but become pawns (pun intended) in the political intrigue of their respective governments.  This tension makes for a fantastic rock opera filled with anthemic (I couldn't resist) pop songs which I absolutely loved, especially the aforementioned "One Night in Bangkok," "Where I Want to Be," "Someone Else's Story," "Nobody's Side," "Anthem," "Heaven Help My Heart," and "I Know Him so Well."   The three main leads, Matthew Hydzik as Freddie, Coleen Sexton as Florence, and Michael Halling as Anatoly, are absolutely incredible!  I was particularly blown away by Hydzik because he has the type of voice that I find to be very appealing, what I like to call a powerful rock and roll tenor.  In fact, he reminded me so much of Adam Pascal (I bet Hydzik would be phenomenal as Roger in Rent or Radames in Aida) who, incidentally once played Freddie in a concert version of Chess at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, but I digress.  My favorite moment of the show was Hydzik's rendition of "Pity the Child."  All I can say is, "Wow!"  I highly recommend this concert but there are only two more performances so get your tickets quickly (go here).

Note:  Next year's concert musical was announced last night and it will be In the Heights.  I will get to see two Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals in 2018!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Late last night (early this morning?) I saw an early screening of Apocalypse Now Kong: Skull Island and it was quite the spectacle.  At the end of the Vietnam War, a team of scientists (John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) armed with satellite images mount an expedition to an uncharted island to prove the existence of heretofore unknown monsters.  Along for the ride is a military escort led by an officer bitter that the war is over who may or may not be insane (Samuel L. Jackson), a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).  Helicopters, with speakers blaring music (not the only reference to Apocalypse Now), begin dropping explosives on the island in order to draw out the monsters and are immediately attacked by a giant primate known as Kong.  These scenes are absolutely relentless, with unbelievable effects, and I was holding my breath as Kong swatted helicopters out of the air, broke them in two, and stomped on soldiers as they fled.  Several scattered groups survive and one of them encounters a pilot who has been marooned on the island since World War II (a hilarious John C. Reilly who provides much comic relief).  As Jackson's character vows revenge on Kong for killing his men, Reilly's character informs them that there are other monsters (in the form of these strange lizard-like creatures) on the island and Kong is their only protection which leads to conflict and then to an epic battle.  I have to admit that, while these scenes are also pretty exhilarating, I was less engaged because they seem to go on forever.  Just when I think Kong has finally gotten the better of the lizard, it crawls back for more.  Also, I really had to suspend a lot of disbelief to buy that Kong could tell the difference between those who meant to harm him and those who who wanted his help.  Having said that, I thought this movie was a lot of fun which is something that I didn't necessarily expect (I despised Peter Jackson's version).  Reilly and Jackson are great (although Hiddleston's and Larson's characters are a bit one-dimensional) and the action scenes are spectacular (I saw it in IMAX 3D).  I loved the music, especially "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath as the helicopters storm the island and "Run Through the Jungle" by Creedence Clearwater Revival as the soldiers, well, run though the jungle.  I liked it and I am sure that fans of monster movies will love it (the group of twenty-something guys that I walked out of the theater with discussed their plans to see it several more times over the weekend).

Note:  There is an end of credits scene setting up the sequel in the so-called MonsterVerse.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Victoria

I have become obsessed with the PBS series Victoria.  This is probably no surprise to anyone who knows me because I am a bit of an Anglophile and I love historical dramas (I recently finished watching all four seasons of The Tudors and I watched the entire season of The Crown in two days).  The series begins on the day that an eighteen year old Victoria (Jenna Coleman), who has been sheltered by her mother at Kensington Palace her whole life, becomes queen.  It continues with her desire to free herself from her mother and her mother's adviser, Sir John Conroy, her relationship with and dependence on her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), her courtship and marriage to Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and the birth of her first child.  As with The Crown, I really enjoyed getting to see the real girl behind the myth.  She is so passionate, exuberant, headstrong, and impulsive (I always think of her as the grief-stricken widow) and I think Coleman does an outstanding job of bringing her to life.  I also love Hughes' portrayal of Albert and I really enjoyed the love story between Victoria and Albert (I love the way he says her name).  Queen Victoria is an ideal subject for a series because she lived and ruled during such an interesting time in history with the advent of the Industrial Revolution (I am hoping that this will be explored more in future seasons; it is hinted at in one episode when Albert becomes fascinated by the locomotive).  The writing feels very authentic because it is informed by Victoria's own diaries.  The writers actually know how Victoria felt, for example, after seeing the opera Lucia di Lammermoor and they use her own words to describe that experience.  Of course, as with most PBS historical dramas, the production design is incredible with opulent sets and costumes (the coronation and wedding scenes are amazing).  There are some subplots involving the palace staff that seem a bit superfluous (they are trying too hard to be like Downton Abbey) but that is a minor criticism.  I loved it!  Now that the final episode has aired, I am in withdrawal and eagerly awaiting the next season.

Note:  I have found myself watching more and more TV lately.  I used to have a life.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Logan

Well, I did it.  After deciding that I didn't really want to see Logan and turning down an opportunity to see an advance screening on Thursday night, I went to see it last night (in IMAX, no less) because it got such great reviews.  I didn't expect to love it but I did!  Let me say at the outset that it is not your typical stylized superhero movie with sanitized violence.  It is laden with profanity and the violence is shocking and bloody (Logan uses those adamantium claws to decapitate someone).  But, in a way, it is a real and very raw portrayal of a tortured man living with regrets who, ultimately, finds redemption.  In 2029 mutants have all but been destroyed.  A grizzled and weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) is holed up in an abandoned silo in Mexico with Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart).  He is still pretty lethal in a fight but it takes him much longer to recover.  There has definitely been a cost.  He eventually meets a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who also has adamantium implants.  She was genetically engineered (using Logan's DNA) as a weapon by the Transigen Project but she escaped and is now on the run from Transigen's cybernetically enhanced mercenaries.  Logan reluctantly agrees to take her on a cross-country journey to find an elusive safe haven for mutants in Canada.  This eventually leads to an epic showdown with Logan, Laura, and all of the other surviving genetically engineered children against the mercenaries.  What I liked most about this movie is that it is very character-driven.  Logan is flawed, to be sure, and he is broken and angry but he is unbelievably sympathetic, especially in his interactions with Charles.  Jackman's portrayal is highly nuanced and more affecting than in any of the other X-Men movies and Keen is remarkable as the newest mutant in the franchise (could we see her again?).  While the tone is somber, the message, in my opinion, is incredibly hopeful and the ending is so moving that I had tears in my eyes.  I am surprised by how much I liked this movie but it is definitely not for everyone.

Note:  There is no end of credits scene (so don't wait like almost everyone in my theater did) but there is a hilarious Deadpool teaser before the movie which made me laugh out loud.
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