Monday, July 31, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde is a sleek and stylish thriller with Cold War intrigue and a kick-ass female spy.  What could be better on a Saturday night?  Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is an MI6 agent sent to Berlin just before the fall of the wall to retrieve a list, stolen by the KGB, of every British agent under cover in the Soviet Union and to discover and assassinate a double agent named Satchel.  She is aided by the Berlin Chief of Station (James McAvoy) who may or may not be her ally.  I found it to be an interesting, if sometimes convoluted, story with one twist after another but what makes this movie so much fun to watch is the action.  The set pieces are pretty violent (Lorraine does get pretty battered and bloody) but, as I mentioned, they are extremely stylish with incredibly complex choreography and camera work with multiple angles.  There is a fantastic sequence involving a stiletto heel in a moving car, another one involving a garden hose over a balcony, and yet another in a stairway (which goes on for at least ten minutes without any discernible cuts).  Charlize Theron does most of her own stunts and it is impossible to take your eyes off of her as she punches, shoots, and kicks her way out of trouble in one fabulous outfit after another.   James McAvoy looks like he is having so much fun with a "disastrous Sinead O'Connor haircut" and a knowing smirk.  As a child of the 80s, I really loved the soundtrack which features at least a dozen pop songs from that decade.  I think I giggled out loud when I heard the opening notes to "Der Kommissar."  My only complaint with this movie is that we see Lorraine naked multiple times (she takes an ice bath, not once but, twice and she has quite the sex scene with another female agent) for no reason beyond titillation.  Can we please have a strong female character without resorting to objectifying her?  However, this is a fun movie and I recommend it to fans of the spy genre.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a film that just about blew my mind at Sundance this year.  It stayed with me for quite a while and I eagerly anticipated its wide release so I could see it again.  I have to say that I found it to be even more profound upon a second viewing on Friday night and I was not alone in my reaction.  The entire audience stayed seated in absolute silence long after the credits had rolled and the lights had come back on.  The narrative revolves around a man (Casey Affleck) who dies in a car accident and returns, shrouded in a sheet, to the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara).  He stays and watches her as she grieves and then eventually moves away.  He continues to haunt the house for decades as it is occupied by various people, is demolished, and is replaced by a high-rise building until he is finally able to let go of his attachment.  There is another ghost haunting the house next door until he is able to leave behind a person he is waiting for.  The ghost is one of the most sympathetic characters I've ever seen on film, even completely shrouded as he is, and the long, sustained shots with very little action are strangely compelling.  The score is very evocative and greatly enhances the otherworldly mood.  As previously mentioned, I found many of the themes to be so moving.  I've always believed that the spiritual aspect of humanity is more important than the physical which is, indeed, impermanent.  We must ultimately leave behind our attachment to people, places, and things to progress on our journey.  It is enchanting to believe that we leave behind a piece of ourselves and that we will be remembered but our time here is temporary and time inevitably and inexorably moves on.  We don't really belong here in this physical plane.  I know I will be thinking about these ideas for a long time to come and I suspect that this beautiful film will provide even more philosophical musings each time I watch it.  I must admit that A Ghost Story might not appeal to everyone.  It is a high-concept film and you must commit to this concept fully in order to appreciate it but, if you can, you will be forever changed by its powerful message.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Maudie

Thursday I spent the afternoon in a darkened theater full of senior citizens (seriously, I was the youngest person there by decades) watching Maudie, the real-life love story between Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins) and her husband Everett (Ethan Hawke).  Maud suffers from a debilitating form of arthritis (although we don't learn the nature of her ailment until almost the end of the film) and her brother and aunt consider her to be a tremendous burden.  One day she answers an advertisement to be a maid for a curmudgeonly and reclusive fishmonger, mostly to get away from her aunt.  Everett lives in a dilapidated one room shack in rural Nova Scotia and he treats Maud very cruelly, even telling her that his dogs are more important than she is.  She begins painting simple flowers, trees, and birds on the walls to brighten her grim existence.  She eventually worms her way into Everett's heart and they marry, although he is still very gruff with her.  She paints cards to deliver to all of Everett's customers and attracts the attention of a wealthy New Yorker on vacation who commissions a painting which brings her national exposure.  She spends the rest of her life selling her paintings outside of her tiny shack and when she dies Everett realizes how much he loved her.  While the film tells the story of Maud's life and career as an artist, the narrative focuses on the relationship between the two lonely outsiders and it is such a poignant story.  My favorite line is when Maud says that they are like two mismatched socks!  Sally Hawkins gives an incredible performance that is sure to be remembered during awards season and this is an Ethan Hawke like you've never seen before.  I feel that I have unjustly pigeon-holed him as the goofy deadbeat dad that he has portrayed lately (see here, here, and here) but he surprised me because he is marvelous in this multi-layered role.  After a while I didn't even notice that I was watching Ethan Hawke.  In addition, there are some stunning shots of the surrounding landscape (Canada is a beautiful country) and I really enjoyed the score by Michael Timmins (of the Cowboy Junkies, a favorite band from my youth).  I highly recommend this lovely film.

Note:  I am not very familiar with Sally Hawkins but she seems to be everywhere at the moment.  This performance captivated me and I am really looking forward her next film, The Shape of Water.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Reading: Eligible

The next selection on my summer reading list was Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. I was really looking forward to this novel because it is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, one of my favorite novels of all time. I absolutely hated it and, before you accuse me of being a purist, I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame Smith because I thought it was so clever. Eligible is not clever; it is absolute rubbish. Liz Bennett is a writer for a gossip magazine and Jane Bennett is a yoga instructor, both of whom live in New York.  Liz is in a long term relationship with a married man named Jasper Wick and Jane, concerned about her biological clock, is inseminated by a donor. The two of them are called back to their home in Cincinnati when their father suffers a heart attack. They end up staying for the summer to sort things out because the family's rambling Tudor home is in a state of disrepair and the Bennetts are living well beyond their means because Mrs. Bennett is addicted to shopping and the three younger girls are sponging off their parents. The family is invited to a Fourth of July barbecue hosted by the Lucases where they meet Chip Bingley, a contestant on a popular TV program (like The Bachelor), and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, a Harvard educated brain surgeon. Mrs. Bennett is a fan of the TV show and encourages Jane's relationship with Chip while Liz takes an immediate dislike to the snobby Darcy (although that doesn't stop them from having casual sex with each other). Chip and Jane eventually break up when Jane discovers that the IUI has been successful and that she is pregnant while Liz spurns Darcy's proposal (for no discernible reason). The rest of the novel is about getting the two couples back together (in a trashy televised ceremony for Chip's TV show). Ugh! I hated so many things about this novel. It is almost as if Sittenfeld was trying replace every plot point in the original novel with the most salacious details possible. I hated what she did to all of the characters: Liz is a cynical woman involved with a married man, Jane is a passive woman who lives off of the kindness of others, Mary may or may not be a lesbian simply because she is intelligent, Kitty and Lydia are crass and vulgar young women, Mrs. Bennett is racist and homophobic, Mr. Bennett is nasty to everyone, Mr. Bingley is a simpering weakling, Mr. Darcy is bland and unappealing, Miss Lucas is unmarried because she is overweight, Mr. Collins frequents prostitutes, and Miss Darcy is anorexic. I didn't care about any of them by the time I reached the bewildering end. It took a long time to reach the end because the story is bloated with so many useless details such as the names of every single street Liz passes as she runs in the morning, a disgusting spider infestation, and an interview with a feminist named Kathy De Bourgh that does nothing to advance the plot. Ugh! The original novel is a brilliant comedy of manners but this novel has reduced the beloved characters to people without any manners to speak of. Avoid this novel at all costs.

Have you read Eligible? What did you think?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dunkirk

Last night I went to see Dunkirk and it was probably the most immersive movie I have ever seen.  The evacuation of hundreds of Allied soldiers from the seaside town of Dunkirk after the German invasion of France is told from three different perspectives: land, sea, and air.  On land we follow a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to evacuate from the beach on one ship after another over the course of a week.  On sea we follow a civilian (Mark Rylance) who takes his boat across the Channel to rescue as many soldiers as he can in one day.  In the air we follow an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) as he provides air support for one intense hour.  The events are portrayed in a non-linear manner and we see some of the same events happen multiple times but the three timelines eventually converge for a dramatic conclusion.  The audience is dropped in the middle of the action with very little exposition or character development and I've heard many people criticize the movie for not having a plot but in my opinion the story is survival.  I loved all of the small acts of heroism that are portrayed and Christopher Nolan lets these events unfold without a lot of dialogue or manipulative music cues (more about that later).  The cinematography is brilliant (I wish I could have seen it in 70mm) and I felt like I was in the middle of the fighting, especially the aerial dogfights.  I frequently found myself holding my breath and, at one point when the cockpit of a downed plane was filling with water, I realized that I was lifting my head up to avoid drowning myself!  The action is unrelenting from the opening scene until the final credits and much of it involved practical stunts rather than CGI.  Hans Zimmer's remarkable score, which includes a synthesized ticking clock, is incredibly ominous with a sense of urgency that adds greatly to the tension.  The large cast does a great job but there are a few standouts for me:  Kenneth Branagh has a very poignant scene as a naval commander coordinating the evacuation, Harry Styles is much better than anticipated as a soldier on the beach (his character is a bit of a jerk but he plays him well), and Cillian Murphy is quite convincing as a shell-shocked soldier rescued from the water.  This film just blew me away!  In my opinion, it is a masterpiece and it definitely needs to be seen on the big screen!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Studio Ghibli Fest: Kiki's Delivery Service

Last night I saw Kiki's Delivery Service, the next film in the Studio Ghibli Fest.  I enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro so much that I decided to see the rest of the films in the series.  This film is about a 13-year-old witch in training named Kiki who must leave her home and travel to a new place to discover her destiny.  Believing that her talent is for flying, she begins delivering items using her broomstick and we follow her on her adventures.  Eventually self-doubt causes Kiki to lose her ability to fly and her friends must help her to regain her confidence.  I loved this movie so much!  I think I loved it even more than My Neighbor Totoro because I related to much to the character of Kiki.  She is incredibly resourceful in finding her way in a hostile world, including finding a place to live and a way of earning money all on her own.  She encounters many obstacles in her delivery service but she uses her ingenuity to solve every problem and I found her to be such an empowering character.  However, the characteristic that I enjoyed the most in Kiki is her kindness.  She is kind to everyone around her and it is that kindness that eventually brings her rewards in the end.  I loved that message!  I also liked the fact that Kiki is a real 13-year-old girl with typical teenage problems, especially in her relationships with other teenagers.  She is so authentic!  Jiji, Kiki's black cat, is also a really fun character and the source of much laughter at my screening.  The setting is a beautiful, almost European, seaside city and the animation is so colorful and vibrant.  This movie is just delightful and I highly recommend it!  Go here for more information about the Studio Ghibli Festival.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Howard Jones at Red Butte Garden

Last night I went to the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre to see Howard Jones in concert and I had so much fun!  I absolutely love Howard Jones!  I've seen him at least five times in concert and I've enjoyed every single one because he always puts on such a great show!  The opening band was Men Without Hats and they began with their biggest hit, "The Safety Dance."  That got the crowd up and dancing because you can dance if you want to!  They played their other big hit, "Pop Goes the World," and then a cover of Abba's "SOS" followed by a song from their new album Love in the Age of War called "Head Above Water."  They ended their set with an extended version of "The Safety Dance" which got another big cheer from the audience.  They sounded exactly like they did in their heyday and I enjoyed their set.  The next act was the English Beat and they brought back lots of memories of my high school days with "Tears of a Clown," "Too Nice to Talk To," "Tenderness," and "I Confess."  I was thrilled when they played one of my favorite songs, "Save It For Later," and they joked about it being included on the soundtrack for Spider-Man: Homecoming (I may or may not have squealed when the song played while Peter got ready for the dance because I hadn't heard it for a long time).  They ended their set with "Mirror in the Bathroom" to the delight of the crowd.  Finally, Howard Jones took the stage and my inner fifteen year old was absolutely thrilled!  He began with "Conditioning," "Equality," and "The Human Touch."  Every time I go to a concert there is always one obscure song that I hope the band will play and I hoped Howard Jones would play "The Prisoner."  I was so excited when he played it early in his set!  Then he played all of his biggest hits: "Like to Get to Know You Well," "You Know I Love You...Don't You?," "Hide and Seek" (the crowd sang the chorus just like they did at Live Aid in 1985), an acoustic version of "No One Is to Blame," "What Is Love?," "Everlasting Love," "Life In One Day," and "New Song." For the encore he sang "Things Can Only Get Better" accompanied by the crowd in an exuberant and extended chorus!  So much fun!  It was the perfect summer concert because, while it was extremely hot while standing in line, the temperature dropped quite a bit in time for the music and Red Butte Garden is such a great venue.

Note:  I went to this concert with my friend Cyndi.  We became friends on Facebook because we have a lot of friends in common but we haven't ever done anything together until last night.  We had such a great time and I hope we can get together again soon.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian

Last night I went to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and, despite what many critics have said, I really enjoyed it.  The spectacle opens with a montage of the history of space travel and the establishment of Alpha, the titular city where representatives of a thousand planets live and cooperate with each other, with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" underneath it.  My attention was completely drawn in and it never wavered as one dazzling sequence after another filled the screen (it is one of the rare films I recommend seeing in IMAX 3D).  The narrative focuses on the destruction of a planet which federal agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delivigne) must investigate with the help of a few strange and magical creatures, including Bubble (Rihanna) a shape-shifting performer, and a few wild adventures, in multiple dimensions, before they solve the mystery.  If you have seen the trailers you know that the visual effects are absolutely incredible.  I was most impressed with the world-building and the character design, especially a sequence at a market that takes place in multiple dimensions at the same time (mind blown).  Unlike many, I thought the campy performances of DeHaan and Delivigne really worked and I laughed out loud at Ethan Hawke's turn as a pimp.  I even liked Rihanna who has an unexpectedly poignant scene.  In my opinion this film is funny, quirky, and wildly entertaining.  It never takes itself too seriously so I think it is destined to become a cult classic.  I highly recommend it for a really good time.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Utah Shakespeare Festival 2017

On Thursday I spontaneously decided to take a road trip to Cedar City (about four hours south of SLC) to see a few Utah Shakespeare Festival productions and I had a great time!  I saw a matinee performance of Guys and Dolls, a musical I have seen countless times, and, for the most part, I really enjoyed it.  The story, which is a bit dated but a lot of fun, revolves around the romantic struggles between Nathan Detroit (Quinn Mattfeld), who runs the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York, and Miss Adelaide (Melinda Parrett), his fiancee of fourteen years, as well as Sky Masterson (Brian Vaughn), a gambler, and Sarah Brown (Alexander Zorn), a sergeant with the Save-a-Soul Mission trying to reform him.  All four of the lead actors give wonderful performances and I especially enjoyed Zorn's over-the-top antics in "Havana" and Parrett's hilarious rendition of "Adelaide's Lament." I also laughed out loud at the comedic turns by Leslie Brott as General Cartright and James Newcomb as Big Jule.  The big song and dance numbers "Luck Be a Lady," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" featured fantastic choreography.  My only complaint with this show was the set, which didn't seem to me to be up to Utah Shakespeare Festival standards.  The set for the Save-a-Soul Mission, specifically, was rotated multiple times so that the seemingly unfinished back faced the audience.  I don't know if this was done intentionally for artistic reasons but it looked rather shabby.  It reminded me of something you would see in an amateur production (Hunter High has better sets and they are performing Guys and Dolls in the fall).  In the evening I saw Romeo and Juliet in the wonderful Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre and I absolutely loved it!  Everyone is familiar with the story of star-crossed lovers and their feuding families but this production was very fresh.  While Shakespeare's language is retained, I felt that the actors delivered their lines with a very modern sensibility making the play more accessible to everyone, including the young people sitting near me who were enthralled.  I was particularly struck by the juxtaposition between the almost light-hearted first half with the weighty and tragic second half.  The contrast worked very well.  Shane Kenyon and Betsy Mugavaro are perfect as Romeo and Juliet with very passionate performances but, in my opinion, Jeb Burris steals the show as Mercutio.  He is incredibly appealing in his early scenes and his death scene was most affecting.  I also really enjoyed Leslie Brott's performance as the nurse, which made me laugh out loud at times and cry at others.  It is an intense production which will surprise audience members who think they know the story.  I was able to have a few of the signature tarts in between shows so my day was a success.  Go here for more information about the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Reading: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

The next selection on my summer reading list was All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood. The story revolves around a young girl named Wavy and her incredibly dysfunctional childhood. Her father is a drug dealer and her mother is completely delusional with a compulsion for cleanliness that she uses to brainwash Wavy into thinking that anything she eats is contaminated. Wavy is basically responsible for raising her baby brother, Donal, and she is bounced between her negligent parents and an uptight aunt whenever her parents are in prison. She rarely speaks and refuses to eat in front of anyone. The only person who pays any attention to Wavy is an older man named Kellen who occasionally works as a drug-runner for her father. He is rough, anti-social, and quick to get into fights at the local bar but he takes responsibility for Wavy and she grows more and more attached to him. Eventually, the two of them begin an inappropriate relationship. When a tragedy strikes, Wavy is sent to live permanently with her aunt, who disapproves of this relationship and has Kellen charged with statutory rape. Wavy spends all of her energy, for the next six years, trying to reunite with the only person who has ever cared about her. I had a very difficult time with this novel.  On the one hand, it is beautifully written and Wavy's story about triumphing despite overwhelming odds is very compelling. In fact, I couldn't put it down and I confess that the story has stayed with me for quite a while. However, I just couldn't get past the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. I know that they are both profoundly damaged and turn to each other for the only comfort they can find in horrific circumstances but, to me, it is not a love story. No matter what they are going through, it is wrong for a 12 year old girl to be sexually involved with a 26 year old man. No matter how neglected, abused, or unhappy the protagonist is, she is still a child and there are just some boundaries that should not be crossed. I didn't view Kellen as Wavy's savior; rather, I feel that Wavy had so many opportunities in college that she threw away in pursuing a relationship with him. This is not a romance and I did not view the ending as a happy one. I don't think I can recommend this book but the very things that made me so uncomfortable might make this a compelling read for someone else.

Have you read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things? What did you think?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Camping in Hanna

I have spent the past five days camping in Hanna (with a little interlude in Park City) and it has been wonderful.
Kristine and Trent were camping in Hanna the week of July 4 and they will camp there again all of next week so they decided to leave their camper there.  They asked me if I wanted to go up while their camper was just sitting empty and I immediately said yes!  Always say yes to an adventure!  I took three books with me (I finished two of them) and spent most of my time sitting outside and reading.  The campsite was ringed with pine trees and it seemed like there was always a breeze blowing through the trees.  It was so nice to be up in the mountains out of the heat in the valley.  Every afternoon it would rain for a little while so I would go inside the trailer and listen.  I love the sound of rain.
I loved looking at the sky as it would start to rain.  In the evenings I would go back outside and make dinner and then make a big fire.  I would spend the rest of the night sitting by the fire until it went out and the stars came out.
After the fire went out I would go inside the trailer and read late into the night.  It was so peaceful.  I thought that I would be a little bit freaked out to be up there by myself but I actually enjoyed it once I realized that the strange noises I head in the middle of the night were just the boughs of the trees hitting the trailer!  I also had a lot of squirrels to keep me company and one afternoon a deer came quite close to me.  It was such a great few days!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Leslie Odom, Jr. at Deer Valley

Last night I went to Deer Valley to see Leslie Odom, Jr. in concert and it was fabulous!  I really love seeing performances outside, especially in the mountains where the temperature is much cooler than in the city, and if the concert features the Utah Symphony and a member of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, you know it is going to be a wonderful evening.  Odom, Jr. (who played Aaron Burr) began with "Wait For It" from Hamilton and talk about goosebumps!  It gave me such a thrill because it reminded me of seeing him perform it on Broadway.  There was an enormous crowd and he joked that he didn't know there were so many fans of Law & Order: SVU (he had a small recurring role).  He told the crowd that he would perform some more songs from Hamilton but he was going to wait until the end so people wouldn't leave!  He continued with quite a few songs from his self-titled album including "Look for the Silver Lining," "Brazil," "I Know That You Know," "Joey, Joey, Joey," and "Autumn Leaves," which is my favorite song from the album.  Then he sang a medley of Nat King Cole songs which just about blew my mind: "Mona Lisa," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "Unforgettable."  I must say that his version of "Unforgettable" brought a tear to my eye!  He had his wife, Nicolette Robinson, come on stage to sing a song called "What Are We Waiting For?" which was beautiful.  His wife can definitely sing, as well!  I'm surprised that I didn't know this but Odom, Jr. was also in the musical RENT, which is another favorite of mine.  He said that when he was young, RENT was his Hamilton and he had every song memorized!  He auditioned without ever imagining that he would get the role!  He sang an incredible version of "Without You" which I absolutely loved.  His voice is so smooth and he makes it look so effortless!  As promised, he ended the concert with "Dear Theodosia" and "The Room Where It Happens" from Hamilton which brought the crowd to their feet!  So fun!  Odom, Jr. came back to sing "Forever Young" as an encore and I sincerely wished that he could have kept going for several more hours.  This was an amazing concert and I'm so glad that I got to go!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer Reading: Lily and the Octopus

I started reading Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, the next selection on my summer reading list, early in the afternoon and I finished it in the wee hours of the next morning (even canceling my plans for that evening to continue). I couldn't put it down! I laughed and cried and I think anyone who has ever had a dog in their life will have the same reaction. Ted is a lonely, middle-aged, gay man who is suffering from writer's block and a recent heartbreak. Lily is the beloved dachshund he has had for all of her 12 years. Lily is Ted's whole life and he often eschews going out in favor of game night, movie night, or pizza night with her. Ted has actual conversations with Lily and she answers. I have to admit that one of my favorite aspects of this novel is Lily's dialogue. It is exactly what a dog would say. One day an octopus appears on Lily's head, which is how Ted views her tumor. He always refers to the tumor as an octopus, as a coping mechanism because he cannot face what it really is, and tries every way he can think of to make the octopus leave on its own. Then things take a strange turn into the realm of magical realism as Ted takes a metaphorical journey to kill the octopus. I have to admit that this part of the story didn't work as much for me but it is a small criticism. Rowley describes Lily's final hours with so much emotion and anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a pet will probably be shattered. As sad as this novel is it does end on a hopeful note. When Ted does finally acknowledge the tumor, he faces his own mortality and reevaluates his life. It is such a poignant story about the love and grief experienced as a pet owner and I highly recommend it.

Have you read Lily and the Octopus?  What did you think?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Planet of the Apes Triple Feature

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see a triple feature of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes.  It was a long afternoon and evening but I definitely enjoyed myself (and bonded with the people around me).  It is one of the best trilogies I've ever seen, one, rather unusually, in which the films get better and better.  All three of them feature compelling and thought-provoking stories, powerful performances, and dazzling special effects.  In Rise, my sympathies are entirely with the apes.  Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should, especially regarding the ethics of animal testing.  In Dawn, the stakes are considerably higher and the heroes and villains aren't quite as black and white for me.  There are good humans and bad humans just as there are good apes and bad apes.  I was very intrigued by the difficulties involved in diplomacy, how easy it is for an extremist to undermine the work of many.  In War, after fighting for two years, Caesar (Andy Serkis) offers the humans peace if the apes can be left alone in the woods.  However, a mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) arrives and kills Caesar's wife and son prompting him to vow revenge.   As the rest of the apes try to escape, Caesar goes on a journey with a few apes to locate the Colonel at his compound in the North and then learns that his apes have been taken prisoner.  The way that the prisoners are treated is extremely difficult to watch (much like the Jews in concentration camps) but the prison-break scenes provide a bit of levity.  While there is an epic show-down between the apes and humans, the titular war, in my opinion, is within Caesar himself as he battles his hatred.  Of the three, I think this film is the most complex in its storytelling because of the themes of vengeance and redemption.  Andy Serkis is, once again, brilliant in a motion-capture performance that is incredibly powerful.  I have always enjoyed Maurice (Karin Konoval) as a character but I loved his role as Caesar's conscience in this film.  Woody Harrelson is menacing as a military leader gone rogue and I enjoyed the addition of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) for a bit of comic relief to offset the bleakness.  Finally, I was so impressed by the CGI which I thought was incredibly realistic, almost to the point that you forget that you are not watching apes but actors in motion-capture suits.  This is a very fitting end to the trilogy and I loved it.  Actually, I loved watching all three of these films together, so much so, that I spent about forty-five minutes discussing them in the parking lot with my fellow audience members!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Exception

As a student of history I hadn't really thought much about what happened to Kaiser Wilhelm II when he exited the stage after World War I.  After seeing a preview of The Exception, I was intrigued about his post-war life and very eager to see a film about his involvement, albeit fictionalized, in events at the beginning of World War II.  I am a sucker for films about World War I and World War II!  I saw The Exception last night and I wish that it had focused more on Wilhelm (Christopher Plummer) rather than on the romance between a German officer (Jai Courtney) and a Jewish housemaid who may or may not be a British operative (Lily James).  Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) is sent to the Netherlands, presumably as punishment for an incident in Poland (there are lots of flashbacks), to be the head of security for the exiled Wilhelm.  In reality, he is sent there to spy on Wilhelm.  He immediately, if abruptly, begins a passionate affair with the new maid Mieke (James), who reveals to him that she is Jewish.  When Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan) visits Wilhelm, who hopes for news that the Nazis want to restore the monarchy, Brandt suspects that Mieke might be a spy.  Will he choose love or duty?  I loved Christopher Plummer in this role as a mercurial king-in-exile who longs for the past (he loves showing guests his collection of military uniforms) yet rails against his generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff for losing the war.  He insists on receiving military briefings from his aide de camp (Ben Daniels) in one moment and in the next he chops wood and feeds the ducks.  I also enjoyed Janet McTier's performance as Wilhelm's wife, Hermine, who works behind the scenes to restore the monarchy so she can order new clothes and refuse her sisters entrance at court.  Their story is incredibly compelling;  Brandt and Mieke's is less so.  Lily James does a good job in the scenes where espionage is the focus but I didn't buy the romance at all.  Why on earth does she get involved with a German soldier when she wants revenge against them for killing her father and brother?  Why does she tell him that she is Jewish when she doesn't know him well enough to trust him?  There is no motivation for their affair at all (beyond lust) and I didn't really care for Courtney's stilted performance as Brandt.  There is no tension at the climax because we already know that Brandt is troubled by the brutality of the Nazis so his decision isn't that surprising.  I found Wilhelm's decision to be much more interesting.  Bottom line:  I liked this movie but it would have been better with more Plummer and less Courtney.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Hero

Last night I went to see The Hero, a film I saw at Sundance and really enjoyed.  To be sure, it is a cliched character study about a man with regrets who must come to term with his own mortality but it has an incredible central performance by Sam Elliott which makes it worth watching, even twice.  Lee Hayden (Elliott) is a former Western film star well past his prime who who spends his days drinking, smoking marijuana, and recording ads for a barbecue sauce when he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  At the same time he meets a much younger woman (Laura Prepon) and begins a relationship with her and, after a drug-fueled speech at an awards ceremony goes viral, gets a big movie offer.  In the midst of all of this, he tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter) and decide what to do about his diagnosis.  He has recurring dreams about being on the set of his most popular movie, in his current state, where he metaphorically fights his cancer.  Even though Elliott is essentially playing a version of himself, he is absolutely shines in this role (I have heard mention of a possible Academy Award nomination).  He is in almost every shot and I found him to be captivating.  He is able to convey more emotion with just a lift of a bushy eyebrow than most actors working today do with pages of dialogue.  While all of the supporting characters are pretty thinly drawn I found a scene with Nick Offerman, who plays a former cast member who is now Lee's drug dealer, to be hilarious and I enjoyed seeing Katharine Ross, Elliott's real-life wife, as Lee's ex-wife.   This film is a little gem that I recommend, especially if you are a fan of Sam Elliott.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Big Sick

I'm just going to put something out there.  I am not a big fan of romantic comedies (and I despise it when people refer to them as rom-coms).  I rarely see them and I am almost always underwhelmed by the ones I do see.  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back.  Blah, blah, blah.  However, I decided to see The Big Sick on Friday night because it generated a lot of buzz at Sundance this year (and receieved one of the biggest distribution deals from the festival) and I saw a preview last week which made me laugh out loud.  It is a true story which adds a bit of a twist to the standard formula: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl is put into a coma, and boy gets girl back.  Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani playing a fictionalized version of himself) is a Pakistani comic who gets heckled one night by a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan).  They immediately hit it off but eventually break up because Kumail's traditional parents want an arranged marriage for him.  Emily ends up in the emergency room one night and a friend asks Kumail to check up on her.  Her condition worsens so it is decided that she should be put in a medically induced coma and Kumail must inform her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).  As the days go by, he bonds with her parents and realizes how much he loves Emily.  It is so funny!  I laughed out loud through the whole thing!  I almost couldn't breathe in the scene where Terry and Kumail talk about 9/11 because I was laughing so hard.  All of the scenes with Kumail's potential brides, who just happen to drop by, are also hilarious ("The truth is out there!")  There are also some very heartwarming scenes, especially when Kumail tells his parents that they can't kick him out of the family.  Kumail is so endearing and both he and Kazan have great chemistry.  Both Hunter and Romano are also great together and Kumail's fellow comics (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler) are a lot of fun.  I should mention that there is quite a bit of profanity but I absolutely loved this hilarious movie and I highly recommend it.

Note:  I saw this at the Broadway Theater and there was not an empty seat in sight.  That has only happened for two other movies that I've seen there:  The Grand Budapest Hotel and La La Land.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

On Thursday night I saw an early screening of Spider-Man: Homecoming and I absolutely loved it!  What made it so much fun is that Peter Parker is finally portrayed by an age-appropriate actor as a wisecracking and nerdy high school student dealing with both his superpowers and the everyday problems of a 15-year-old, like who to take to the Homecoming dance.  Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) owns a salvage company tasked with cleaning up after the Battle of New York until Stark Industries and the federal government create the Department of Damage Control and take over.  Bitter about losing so much revenue, Toomes keeps pieces of the Chitauri technology to create weapons to sell on the black market.  Eight years later, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still on a high after his experiences with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and is finding it hard to settle down to real life in high school.  He wants to be an Avenger but Stark wants him to start slow as a friendly neighborhood superhero (in some really amusing scenes).  Meanwhile, Toomes has become the Vulture with a crew who rob the D.O.D.C. for more alien technology to keep up their supply and Spider-Man attempts to stop him, often needing to be rescued by Iron Man (with some fun action sequences involving Peter's Decathlon team in Washington, D.C. and a fight with the Vulture on the Staten Island ferry).  Tony Stark takes away his Stark Industries-enhanced suit so Spider-Man must go it alone in an epic confrontation with the Vulture.  I thought Michael Keaton's Vulture was a very ordinary villain but I absolutely loved Holland's performance because of his impetuosity and awkwardness.  His interactions with his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon), Flash (Tony Revolori), Michelle (Zendaya), and Liz (Laura Harrier) are incredibly amusing.  I laughed out loud when Peter and Ned talked about building the Death Star out of legos!  I also think the mentor relationships with Tony and Happy (Jon Favreau), who is his minder, are great.  The action sequences are fine (although I wish the final confrontation hadn't been at night because it was so dark that I sometimes had a hard time seeing what was going on) but I had a lot more fun with the character development and dialogue.  It is such a fun and lighthearted movie and I highly recommend it.

Note:  The Captain America (Chris Evans) PSAs used at the school are hilarious.  I also loved it when Peter's Decathlon teacher (Martin Starr) is interviewed after the events in Washington, D.C. and says, "I would hate to lose a student on a school trip.  Not again."  I think I was the only person in the theater who laughed at that.  I once left a student at Kingsbury Hall...

Friday, July 7, 2017

Summer Reading: Nutshell

I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan! I've read and enjoyed many of his books (Enduring Love and Atonement are my favorites) so I was quite eager to start Nutshell, the next selection on my summer reading list. This novel is a contemporary retelling of Hamlet which, of course, made me even more excited.  Rather unusually, the first-person narrator is the unborn fetus (a rather loquacious fetus) of a woman named Trudy who, with her lover Claude, is plotting the murder of her husband and Claude's brother, John. The fetus hears all of their discussions and tries, unsuccessfully, to foil their plan and save his father. The action builds and builds into an ingenious conclusion (half of the fun for me was trying to figure out how the fetus could affect the outcome and it didn't disappoint). I loved the fetus' description of being inside the womb and his account of what it was like for him when Trudy and Claude have sex is highly amusing. I also really enjoyed all of the fetus' philosophical musings about the state of the world, such as global warming, over population, religious extremism, and identity theft (Trudy listens to a lot of public radio when she can't sleep), and his worries about being born into such a world with an unreliable mother, a despicable uncle, and an absent father. All of the sly references to Hamlet, including the title, are such fun and I suspect that I will have to read this again to find all of them. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Trudy is absolutely complicit in the murder of John because I always go back and forth in how I feel about Gertrude's involvement in the death of King Hamlet. McEwan's prose is so beautiful and I found myself going back to reread certain passages. While I was sometimes exasperated with Cline's hyperbolic descriptions in The Girls, I think the removal of even a single word in this novel would result in diminishment. I highly recommend this clever and captivating novel.

Have you read Nutshell? What did you think?

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Anne With An "E"

I love Anne of Green Gables!  As a Canadian girl myself, I have always considered Anne to be a kindred spirit.  I have read the entire series by L.M. Montgomery more times than I can count and I regularly watch my copy of the 1985 miniseries starring Megan Follows.  When I learned about a new adaptation on Netflix called Anne With An "E" I was intrigued but I heard some negative reviews so I didn't watch it immediately.  I decided to watch it this week and, while it is much darker in tone than the books and the miniseries, I really enjoyed it.  This new version has everything that die-hard fans would expect:  the dramatic apology to Mrs. Lynde, the missing brooch, the slate on Gilbert's head, the raspberry cordial mix-up, puffed sleeves, Minnie May's croup, and Aunt Josephine's guest room.  However, there are some changes to the source material which emphasize the subtext, most notably sending Anne back to the orphanage in Charlottetown,  Anne's negative reception in the town of Avonlea and at school, the death of Gilbert's father, and the financial problems of the Cuthberts.  These changes and the dark tone are what most people criticize about this version but I thought they made the story more realistic and they made me empathize more with the characters.  I especially appreciated the story line of Anne's comments about Prissy Andrews and Mr. Phillips, the Avonlea teacher.  Because of her rough background, Anne had been exposed to many things that girls her age would not have been and she didn't understand that talking about certain things would be considered inappropriate.  She was just commenting on something she observed with the Hammonds.  This really struck a chord with me because my niece, who spent time in foster care, was definitely wise beyond her years when she became a part of my family.  I also liked the relationship that was forged between Anne and Marilla as a result of Anne's struggles to fit in.  Through all of her trials, Anne still uses her incredible imagination to cope which is why I like the novels so much.  Next, Amybeth McNulty gives a bewitching performance as Anne and I also enjoyed Geraldine James as Marilla and R. H. Thomson as Matthew.  I will admit that I do prefer Jonathan Crombie (from the 1985 miniseries) as Gilbert Blythe but Lucas Jade Zumann eventually won me over  Finally, I loved the beautiful cinematography with sweeping shots of Prince Edward Island (it is on my bucket list to visit P.E.I.) and the atmospheric score.  I think people without any familiarity with the story will enjoy this series more than die-hard fans (but I do think it is possible for fans to appreciate it for what it is) and I definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

4th of July

To celebrate Independence Day I went back up to Hanna with Kristine to spend the day with Sean and Trent.  The campground where they are staying is so beautiful and it was incredibly relaxing to listen to the river while reading.  Every once in a while a lovely breeze would blow through the trees and I was perfectly content.  Trent made the best breakfast ever on the grill: bacon, eggs, sausage, and waffles.  It was so delicious.  I always make my famous flag cake every year and this time I had a little helper who served it to everyone with great solemnity.  Once again, we had a big fire and I laughed and laughed at Sean's antics!
On the drive home we had spectacular views of the fireworks in Park City and at Sugarhouse Park.  We saw both shows without having to deal with all of the hassle!
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