Friday, August 18, 2017

Wind River

Last night I went to a Thursday preview of Wind River, a psychological thriller with an ending that I am still thinking about.  Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner, in one of his best performances to date) is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officer who is called out to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming to track a mountain lion who is killing cattle.  He finds, instead, the body of a young woman.  The cause of death is exposure but, because it is clear that she has been assaulted and raped, the FBI sends rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, also excellent) to investigate.  She is laughably unprepared for the elements and doesn't understand the complex dynamic of the people on the reservation so she asks Lambert to help her.  The story is, on the surface, a typical murder mystery but dig a little deeper and it becomes a powerful commentary about life on a reservation in an environment where people live with silence and snow and little else and either survive or succumb.  It is also a story about grief with an incredibly poignant scene between two fathers who have lost daughters.  The scenery is starkly beautiful but always menacing, the dialogue is sparse, and the tension is almost unbearable.  The mystery unravels in a scene of shocking violence, which caught me by surprise, and the resolution is an interesting exploration of justice that I found to be strangely satisfying (the people at my screening cheered out loud) much like my reaction to another film by Taylor Sheridan.  All of the performances are compelling (I always enjoy Graham Greene) and the score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is suitably atmospheric.  If you enjoy tense thrillers with something to say about people who live on the margins of society, go see this film!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Step Is Life

My friend saw the documentary Step at Sundance this year and she has been raving about it ever since.  It will hit select theaters nationwide this Friday but my friend invited me to a special screening last night at the Broadway and I'm so glad that she did.  Yesterday was my first day back to school to prepare for the upcoming academic year and I don't think I could have watched a more inspirational film to get me energized to help my students achieve success.  The film is set against the racially charged backdrop of inner-city Baltimore and follows a group of African-American girls selected by lottery in the sixth grade to attend the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they become the first graduating class.  The narrative emphasizes the struggles the girls face as they apply to college and find financial aid and the obstacles they overcome as the step team competes at a prestigious competition.  Blessin is the founder and captain of the step team but she struggles academically because of her attendance and lack of focus.  At the beginning of her senior year her GPA is too low for college acceptance but she vows to do whatever it takes to succeed despite her mother's depression and anger issues.  I have to admit that Blessin's story made me quite emotional because so many of my students get to their senior year having made many mistakes and struggle to overcome deficits.  Cori is a stellar student, set to become the valedictorian, who dreams of going to Johns Hopkins University so that she will never have the financial struggle that her blended family faces with six children.  While she has the grades and test scores to attend a prestigious university, she will need a full-ride scholarship to do so.  I also cried when she mentioned that the power was currently turned off at home and vowed that this would not be her life.  Tayla provides a bit of comic relief ("I'm a notch down from Beyonce because I still do mess up") with a helicopter mom who attends every practice and tells her to stay away from boys because they have cooties.  What I loved most about this film is that you cheer just as much as they achieve their academic goals as you do when they give the performance of their lives at the step competition (the audience in this screening literally cheered out loud and applauded at every milestone).  My favorite moment in the whole film is when the team gets new warm-ups and they swagger down the hall in their best Reservoir Dogs impersonation.  It made me laugh through my tears!  I cannot recommend this documentary enough!  Please go see this heart-warming celebration of hard work, dedication, and perseverance!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Sundance

School will be starting for me very soon so I am definitely trying to cross items off my summer bucket list.  Last night I got to cross off seeing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Sundance Mountain Resort.  As you may remember, I am suffering from a bit of Joseph fatigue because I have seen it so many times but I always love being up in the mountains for some cooler temperatures than in the valley.  Actually, this production turned out to be a lot of fun because it incorporated a Western theme that worked really well.  The setting was the Jacob & Sons Ranch and the brothers and their wives were cowboys and cowgirls.  The Ishmaelites were cattle rustlers and the song "One More Angel in Heaven" featured a hoedown with fabulous choreography, including rope tricks.  Potiphar was a saloon owner which was a lot of fun with Mrs. Potiphar and her saloon girls.  When Joseph sang his signature song "Close Every Door" in jail he was wearing red long johns and the chorus held lanterns around him which was a cool effect.  The song "Go, Go, Go Joseph" featured saloon girls dancing a rousing can-can.  The Pharaoh was a railroad magnate and he made quite the impressive entrance on the engine of a locomotive with real steam.  "Those Canaan Days" featured a flamenco dancer and the brothers sang "The Benjamin Calypso" wearing giant sombreros.  I enjoyed all of the performances and Preston Taylor was an amazing Joseph.  Emily Rose Lyons, as the Narrator, had more of a country and western twang to her voice but it really worked with the theme.  I certainly wasn't expecting to enjoy the show as much as I did but it was a fun night.  I especially loved the fact that I had to put my hoodie on during intermission.  There is only one more performance of Joseph left and, unfortunately, it is completely sold out.  However, I heard a rumor that Sundance will be performing Oklahoma! next summer.  I definitely recommend making plans to see it!

Note:  I sat by some seriously cool people who bought me popcorn!  Here's a shout-out to them!

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Glass Castle

Last night I went to see The Glass Castle, the film adaptation of the best-selling memoir of the same name by Jeannette Walls.  It is the story of Jeannette's childhood of extreme poverty with a brilliant but alcoholic father and a self-absorbed mother who cares more about her art than her children as they move from place to place, often just one step ahead of the bill collectors or law enforcement.  We meet Jeannette (Brie Larson) in 1989 sitting in a taxi as she sees her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) digging through a garbage dumpster which embarrasses her.  Then we go back and forth between flashbacks to Jeannette's (played at various ages by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson) childhood experiences and her attempts in 1989 to leave her childhood behind with her job as a gossip columnist and her relationship with a wealthy banker (Max Greenfield), both of which clearly do not bring her any happiness.  Jeannette must ultimately come to terms with her past and make peace with her parents before she can movie forward with her life.  Most of what happens to the children is very difficult to watch but I found the story to be very compelling and authentic, particularly the scenes with Anderson who is brilliant as the young Jeannette.  The performances of Larson, Watts, and, especially, Harrelson are also outstanding.  I was impressed with how Harrelson is able to portray Rex as both dangerous and captivating, someone who is both feared and fiercely loved.  Many alcoholics have incredibly charismatic personalities and know how to manipulate the people around them which makes it difficult to completely abandon them even though they do despicable things and Harrelson nails it.  Some people might have a problem with the content but I didn't because I really loved the themes of resilience and forgiveness.  Just because Jeannette ultimately forgives her father for the horrific things he does to her and her siblings doesn't mean that he is absolved and I don't think the film glorifies his behavior.  Forgiveness is less about the person being forgiven and more about the one doing the forgiving.  Jeannette must reconcile with her father for her own sake rather than his and she can only live an authentic life if she acknowledges her past and the impact that her parents have had, for good or ill, on the person she has become.  However, I had several problems with this adaptation.  It is overly sentimental, in stark contrast to the memoir, with a very manipulative score that tells the audience what it should be feeling and it sometimes feels like a Lifetime original movie as a consequence.  I also didn't like the conclusion because it is too easy and abrupt, almost as if Cretton (who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film) wanted to give us all a happy ending that is not earned.   I think the memoir is better at telling the story objectively but this film is ultimately worth seeing for the dynamic performances.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Incubus at Usana

It was a windy and rainy night at the Usana Amphitheatre last night but it didn't really matter at all because Incubus!  Incubus is a band that is extremely nostalgic for me and I have been anticipating this concert for a long time.  It was my second concert of the week and it was another great show.  Brandon Boyd was as comfortable and relaxed as Billie Joe Armstrong was frenetic, rarely speaking to the crowd, but he sounded great!  Quite honestly, I could watch him all night long no matter what he did!  They got the night started with "Quicksand" and "A Kiss to Send Us Off."  I really like their latest album, 8, and they played quite a few songs from it including the hit "Nimble Bastard," along with "State of the Art," "Love in a Time of Surveillance," "Loneliest," and "Throw Out the Map."  As much as I enjoyed the new songs, I was really happy that they played my very favorites because they brought back so many memories for me.  "Love Hurts" pretty much got me through a very difficult time and I loved their rendition of it last night.  They combined another favorite, "Wish You Were Here," with Pink Floyd's song of the same name and the crowd just about went crazy!  I also enjoyed "Drive" and "Stellar" but I think my favorite moment of the night was an incredibly passionate rendition of "Here in My Room."  I loved the piano!  They rounded out their setlist with "Anna Molly," "Megalomaniac," "Pardon Me," "Dig," "Pantomime," "Sick Sad Little World," "Pistola," and they ended with "Nice to Know You."  For the encore, they came back with a mesmerizing version of "Aqueous Transmission."  It was a great evening, definitely worth sitting through lots of wind and rain!

Note:  The opening acts were Judah and the Lion and Jimmy Eat World.  I only knew one song by Judah and the Lion, "Take It All Back," but they put on an energetic show which included frontman Judah Akers running through the crowd.  Of course Jimmy Eat World played their two biggest hits, "Sweetness" and "The Middle," but I also really liked one of their new songs called "Pass the Baby."

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Detroit

Last night I went to see Detroit, one of the most powerful films about brutality and injustice that I have ever seen.  It is set against the backdrop of the riots that happened in Detroit in 1967.  As the city burns out of control the local police, along with the state police and National Guard, are asked to do the impossible and keep the peace.  We meet a trigger-happy young white officer named Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) who has been reprimanded for shooting a looter in the back, an aspiring black singer named Larry Reed (Algee Smith), and a black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega).  They all converge at the Algiers Motel, where Reed has taken refuge for the night when he can't get home, after a resident foolishly fires a starter pistol at the National Guard who mistake it for a sniper attack and fire back.  What follows is a long and protracted sequence where Krauss and two other white officers brutalize Reed and the other black residents in order to get them to confess, ultimately killing three of the young men, despite Dismukes' attempts to intervene.  These scenes affected me on a visceral level but I was even more upset when the young men seek justice.  In my opinion, they faced more discrimination in the courtroom than they did while being beaten in the motel.  I was very moved by Boyega's performance, especially in the scenes where he is interrogated unjustly as a suspect just because of his race.  Poulter also gives an incredible performance because I hated him and, frankly, I am going to have a hard time watching him in any other movie from now on because he is so menacing in this role.  This film was incredibly difficult for me to watch because in my mind I pictured my nephew in that motel and I cried through most of it (and for hours after it was over).  However, this is a film that I think everyone should watch because, as much as we would like to think that we as a society have moved on from 1967, I don't think we have.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Green Day at Usana

Last night I saw Green Day at the Usana Amphitheatre and it was a great concert.  As you may know, I love attending outdoor performances and it was certainly a perfect summer evening.  Green Day got the crowd on their feet by starting out with one of their biggest hits: "Know Your Enemy." They played quite a few songs from their latest album, Revolution Radio, including "Bang Bang," "Revolution Radio," "Youngblood," "Still Breathing" and "Forever Now."  In between the new songs, they proceeded to play their hits for over two hours starting with a rousing rendition of "Holiday" and then "Letterbomb," a poignant performance of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Longview," "2000 Light Years Away," "Hitchin' A Ride," "When I Come Around," "Welcome to Paradise," "Minority," "Are We the Waiting," "St. Jimmy," "Knowledge," "Basket Case," "She," and "King for a Day."  For the first encore they played "American Idiot" and an epic version of "Jesus of Suburbia."  For the second encore Billie Joe came out on stage alone for an amazing acoustic performance of "21 Guns" and "Good Riddance."  Just as the second encore began it started raining and not one person left.  Everyone just started swaying in unison and singing every word.  It was really cool!  Green Day puts on an incredibly entertaining show and I think my favorite moment of the night was "Are We the Waiting" because it is my favorite song from the musical American Idiot!  Billie Joe suffers a bit from Lead Singer Syndrome and sometimes his antics overshadow the performance but I can't deny that he is fun to watch.  He strutted across the stage, rolled around on the stage, and conducted an extended chorus of "Hey Jude" from a prone position on stage.  He mugged for the cameras and, at one point, he sat down on the stage waiting for the crowd to yell loud enough for him to continue.  All through the night he exhorted the audience to get on their feet, put their hands in the air, clap, and sing along to every chorus (I think the audience sang more than he did).  He even pulled members of the audience up to the stage to sing during two different songs and one lucky girl got to keep the guitar she came on stage to play during "Knowledge."  He got in a few political rants (but they were pretty mild) and I lost track of how many times he mentioned Utah.  Billie Joe's antics aside, Green Day can definitely rock and this concert felt like one big party!  

Note:  The opening act was Catfish and the Bottlemen, a band handpicked by Green Day to open for them on this tour.  I really like them and, one day during the last few minutes of class I told the students that I had the song "Seven" stuck in my head.  They wanted me to play it for them, so I did.  After class, one student came up to me and asked me who sang the song because he really liked it.  About a week later he came up to me again and told me that he had downloaded the album because he liked them so much (It's a little service I provide, introducing my students to new music!).  I wonder if he was at the concert?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mt. Rushmore with Sean

Last summer Marilyn and I took Sean on a road trip to the Four Corners Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park.  Apparently, summer road trips are now a tradition so we asked Sean where he wanted to go this year and he picked Mt. Rushmore.  We went last weekend and, aside from a very long drive, we had so much fun!  Sean said that the view was worth the drive!
At the entrance to the monument.
Sean in front of a sculpture of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created Mt. Rushmore.
The plaza leading up to the monument.
It is quite impressive!
Sean and I walked along the Presidential Trail to get a few different perspectives of the presidents.  We ate lunch at the cafeteria and, of course, we had to get some of the famous ice cream.
As we drove away from the monument there was a turnout to get a really good view of Washington's profile.  It is pretty spectacular.
Sean posing in front of the sign in his new Mt. Rushmore hoodie!
In the late afternoon we decided to visit the Crazy Horse Monument.  So far only the head has been completed and they have started working on the horse.  It doesn't seem like much has been done when you look at what the completed monument is supposed to look like but it is quite different from what I remember seeing as a kid.  Sean really liked the Native American museum.  In the evening we went back to Mt. Rushmore for the evening patriotic program and to see the monument illuminated.  It was a great day.  Marilyn and I had so much fun with Sean and it seemed like we were laughing all of the time at everything he said.  He means so much to both of us and I am so happy that we could take him on this road trip.  He is already thinking of where he wants to go next year!

Note:  It was the beginning of the Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis so we saw lots and lots of motorcycles which was really cool.  The street in front of our hotel was lined with parked motorcycles.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Dark Tower

I have read all eight books in Stephen King's Dark Tower series and I absolutely love them so, as you can imagine, I have been anticipating the movie adaptation with both excitement and apprehension.  I was so excited when I heard that Idris Elba had been cast as Roland Deschain because, in my opinion, he is the Gunslinger.  But I was also apprehensive because I really wanted this movie to be good.  It is always bad to walk into a screening with such high expectations because they are rarely met and they certainly weren't met in this case.  The Dark Tower is such a disappointment.  I knew going in that it had received appalling reviews and the theater was nearly empty, which is very unusual for a Thursday night preview, so I should have known better.  I still hoped it would be good and I was disappointed.  This film has both too much and too little exposition.  Way too much time is squandered on Earth introducing Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) and describing his visions of the Gunslinger (Elba) and his quest to stop the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) from destroying the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together.  Then, when we get to Mid-World, the story becomes incomprehensible.  I had only the vaguest notion of what was going on (and I've read the books so I understand the mythology).  I also was quite bewildered by the cuts back and forth between Mid-World and Earth and the tone in the Earth scenes is inappropriate.  The fish-out-of-water trope is very tedious here.  The books are full of action but the action sequences here are not only few and far between but they are not very good (The only scene that really held my attention was when Roland shoots his way into a portal to Mid-World).  The special effects are pretty shoddy for a summer blockbuster.  The only character that is really explored in depth is Jake and he is played rather blandly by Taylor.  McConaughey is an absolute disaster as the Man in Black, playing him as a caricature of a villain rather than someone to be feared, and we never learn enough about him or the Gunslinger because we don't get enough time with them.  They are supporting players to Jake which is a huge mistake.  The only bright spot in this movie is Elba.  Imagine what he could have done with a decent script and a proper budget for effects.  Ugh.  Definitely give this a miss!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Summer Reading: Commonwealth

The final selection on my summer reading list (the summer has gone by so fast!) was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. My former book club read Truth and Beauty, a memoir about Patchett's friendship with the author Lucy Grealy which was quite moving, but I had never read any of her fiction until now. I will definitely read some of her other works because I loved Commonwealth. This novel spans fifty years in the lives of the blended family of Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating, including Bert's children Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie, and Beverly's daughters Caroline and Franny. The six children spend their summers together with their parents in Virginia, mostly left to their own devices as the adults try to deal with the situation they have created, until a tragedy strikes. The events are told in a nonlinear narrative from multiple perspectives as the children become adults and deal, each in their own way, with the trauma of their childhood. All of the events are set in motion when Bert attends the christening party, to which he has not been invited, of the daughter of a man with whom he has a passing acquaintance and then shares an illicit kiss with his wife, Beverly. Thus begins a chain-reaction of events which have far flung consequences. All of the children, at various points, wonder what their lives would have been like had that kiss not happened. There is a sub-plot involving Franny and her relationship with a famous author who uses her childhood stories as the basis for a best-selling novel, and later movie, and her siblings' negative reaction to something which makes them confront their past. This is an interesting device because Patchett's own childhood informed much of this story and one has to wonder if her siblings had a similar reaction as the fictional ones. What I liked most about this novel is the use of time. Whole decades are skipped in the lives of the characters in favor of a series of vignettes but you still feel like you know them intimately and they are all incredibly compelling. The time span allows the theme of learning how to forgive family members, even ex-spouses, to emerge very powerfully. The writing is absolutely exquisite and I enjoyed reading this novel so much, which I did well into the night so I could finish it. I think anyone who has ever been a part of a blended family will find it very authentic and I highly recommend it.

Have you read Commonwealth or any of the other selections on my summer reading list?  What did you think?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Lady Macbeth

Sunday night I went to the Broadway, as I often do on a Sunday night, to see Lady Macbeth.  My friend saw this film at Sundance and gave it a very unfavorable review (even going so far as to call it "indie rubbish" which has become a bit of an inside joke with us) while another friend loved it, hailing it as a masterpiece.  After viewing this film myself, my reaction falls somewhere in between.  Katherine (a mesmerizing Florence Pugh) is forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton), who shows very little interest in her.  Alexander's father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), continually reminds her of her marital duty which is, namely, to provide them with a legitimate heir, and he also mistreats her.  She is kept to a very rigid schedule and is never allowed outside of the house.  When both Alexander and Boris are called away, she takes advantage of the opportunity and roams the countryside.  She also begins a passionate affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a groomsman on the estate.  When Boris returns, he hears about the affair, which has been conducted very openly, and has Sebastian beaten and locked up.  Katherine poisons Boris so she can be with Sebastian, showing very little remorse.  As is often the case, they are forced to commit several more murders (including a particularly egregious one) in order to keep up pretenses and Sebastian begins to feel more and more guilty.  There are a few things I really liked about this film but there are definitely some aspects that I didn't enjoy.  I was quite impressed by Florence Pugh's performance as a woman who will go to any lengths to keep her newfound freedom and her journey is very compelling, at least in the beginning.  I was on the edge of my seat most of the time and the eerie silence on screen added greatly to my unease.  I also think that William Oldroyd made some very interesting choices; for example, highly composed shots of Katherine sitting on a couch wearing a buttoned up dress and corset with her hair tightly coiled juxtaposed with beautiful shots of her roaming the moor unbound with her hair blowing in the wind are highly effective at establishing her motivation.  However, some of his choices are less effective.  I found the scenes involving a cat to be completely bewildering.  I am sure that these scenes are meant to be artistic but the symbolism was lost on me because the cat disappears after a few early scenes never to be seen again.  Why?  Another problem I had was that, while I sympathized with Katherine in the first half of the film because of her ill-treatment, I found many of her actions in the latter half to be completely reprehensible.  She ends up being more ruthless than her oppressors, particularly to her maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie).  I had to look away during a scene involving a horse and the final murder (which went on for so long) of an innocent child was especially brutal.  The ambiguous ending did not hold her to account for her actions in a way that brought me satisfaction.  Finally, I don't know if it is just me but I thought there was a racist undertone to this film.  There is absolutely no discussion of race but all of the characters portrayed by black actors end up as victims and it left a bad taste in my mouth.  Hmmm.  Have you seen this film?  What did you think?

Note:  This film is not based on William Shakespeare's Scottish play (as I originally thought) but, rather, on the novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov.
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