Reel Opinions


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.

After his new movie drew a negative response at the Toronto Film Festival, writer-director Dan Gilroy (2014's Nightcrawler) made a valiant attempt to save the film by trimming 13 minutes off the run time, and re-editing it so that certain plot events happened sooner in the film.  I have not seen the original cut of Roman J. Israel, Esq., so I cannot judge how different the film was then compared to what is on screens right now.  What I can say is that the final film comes across as lifeless, with a lead performance by Denzel Washington that can only be described as "off".

With his wild hair and his face hidden behind an extra large pair of glasses, Denzel Washington looks uncannily like one of Eddie Murphy's comic characters.  Watching him up on the screen, I kept on waiting for Washington to slip on a fat suit, and start making fart jokes.  Regardless, his titular role sees him as some kind of Rain Man-like savant lawyer.  He's socially awkward, brilliant, and has never quite gotten the recognition he deserves.  As the film opens, he works for a two-man criminal defense team.  His boss has always served as the "face" of the firm, attending trials and meeting with clients, while Roman has stayed in the background, doing the research and telling his boss how to go about the legal cases they handle.  But now, his boss has suffered a heart attack that eventually is fatal, and Roman must go out into the open for the first time in years.

Roman does not do too well in the outside world.  He may be good at memorizing legal facts and making a case, but he's terrible at dealing with people.  When he has to represent his client in a courtroom, he causes such a scene over a tiny detail with the Judge that he is found in contempt.  And in a later scene, he will tell off a district attorney, which puts the law firm he works for in jeopardy.  Okay, so Roman is supposed to be kind of an awkward genius, the sort who is brilliant, but just doesn't do well with people or in social situations.  The problem is, Gilroy's script never makes him out to be as brilliant as he's presented.  He actually comes across as a bad lawyer.  And when he tries to speak to some women at a preparation for a protest rally, he ends up offending them and not realizing why.  Maybe some humor could have been drawn from these situations, but the movie never finds it.  And while I know that the character he is playing is supposed to be socially awkward, the way Washington plays him, he never comes across as a real person or a character.  It's a performance, and a rare bad one from him at that.  We're watching him act awkward, rather than creating a genuine performance.

In order to tell us how brilliant Roman is supposed to be, we have the film's love interest, Maya (Carmen Ejogo), who practically hangs on his every word and constantly tells him how wonderful he is.  The audience does not get to share in her opinion, because it never comes close to making Roman into somebody worth caring about.  They go on a dinner date together, and she is practically in tears over how inspiring he is to her.  Again, we don't see it, so the character comes across as someone who was inserted into the script to tell us how we're supposed to feel about the main character.  Yes, instead of letting us make our own opinions about him, the movie provides us with a character who does nothing but fawn over him.  This is kind of how the movie goes.  Roman acts awkward in some kind of situation, and people react, either positively or negatively.  This portion of the movie is merely lifeless.  But when it starts to try to be a thriller, it becomes laughable.

At some point in the film, Roman makes a shady deal with some people that nets him some serious money. (For the sake of spoilers, I'm trying to be vague here.) With the dirty money, he starts living the good life, taking a vacation, buying nice clothes, and moving to a luxury apartment.  Naturally, it all goes sour quickly, and Roman becomes paranoid.  There's an unintentionally comical scene where Roman is driving a U-Haul truck, and he thinks every car on the road is tailing him.  Washington overacts here and tries to create a sense of dread, but all he does is make you wish you were watching one of his better performances, such as in Fences just one year ago.  But nothing can compare to the film's final moments, which try to be tragic and uplifting all at once, and fail at both.

Perhaps Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a lost cause from the start, and no amount of editing or tampering could have saved the film.  After all, the character never grabs our attention, and its star is having a rare off-day here.  Regardless, what we have here is another prestige project that went seriously awry somewhere, or maybe it was rotten from the word go.  This is the kind of movie that makes you want to take the director and its star aside, and ask them what they thought they were doing.

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Coco

In terms of cinema, 2017 will be remembered by me as one of the worst years for animated films.  Of the 10 animated features I've seen so far this year, only two traditional Hollywood attempts (The Lego Batman Movie and Captain Underpants) were able to earn a positive response from me.  The other two that I enjoyed were foreign films that I had to go out of my way to see, as they did not earn a wide release. (Those would be Your Name from Japan and The Breadwinner from Ireland.) There's one more animated film on the way (Ferdinand in December), but honestly, how can a year that brought us The Emoji Movie not be seen as a disappointment for the artform?

Having Coco come along at the end of such a string of disappointments not only restores my hope, but serves as a reminder of what other major studios should be attempting.  With its cast of skeletons and somewhat gentle macabre tone, this may be one of the riskiest and certainly the strangest film Pixar has ever done.  This represents the studio doing something that they have never done before, and doing so in a way that is certain to delight just about anyone who watches it.  It's not just the most visually stylish film that they have attempted, but it's also quite frequently funny and highly emotional, as all the best films to come out of Pixar are.  Even if this year had been a high watermark for the animation industry, Coco would still stand out as one of the best of the year.

What the directing team of Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina have done is given us a story that starts out being simple and effective, but gradually grows in complexity, and even tackles some fairly heavy and dark themes that I will have to be careful not to spoil.  The film introduces us to Miguel Rivera (voice by Anthony Gonzales), a 12-year-old boy living in the small Mexican village of Santa Cecilia, whose main ambition in life is to play the guitar.  Unfortunately, Miguel comes from a family of shoemakers who have banished all forms of music from their family.  The reason for this lies in Miguel's distant family history.  Years ago, his great-great grandfather left his family behind in order to make it as a musician.  This act broke his wife's heart, and ever since then, the Rivera clan has pounded it into each family member's brain that music is forbidden and only causes pain.  The daughter of that musician from long ago, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), is still alive, but she is mostly catatonic in her old age, lost in her own memories.

Miguel, however, has not given up hope on his dream.  He frequently sneaks away to his secret place where he can listen to and play the music of his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a singer from long ago who starred in a string of movies and had multiple hit songs until he left the land of the living when during one of his concerts, a giant prop (a bell) crushed him.  Miguel is certain that there is a personal connection between him and Ernesto, and even becomes convinced that the singer just might be the ancestor that no one in his family will talk about.  Due to plot details too complicated to recap here, Miguel eventually finds himself sneaking into a mausoleum where Ernesto's guitar is on display and stealing it.  This somehow curses him, and leads the boy to crossing a bridge made of a magical marigold petals and slipping into the Underworld on the holiday Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead).  Here, he meets his ancestors who are all skeletons, and can only cross the bridge back to the land of the living on that one special day.

It turns out that Miguel has little time for reuniting with his long-gone family members, as the longer he stays in the Underworld, he slowly starts to become a skeleton himself, and will not be able to return to where he belongs.  But little Miguel just has to track down his hero, Ernesto, and find out the truth about what happened long ago.  His friends on his journey include a loyal but stupid street dog named Dante, and eventually a scam artist skeleton named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), who claims to know Ernesto.  Where the story goes from here, I will not say, but the movie obviously tackles a lot of heavy themes such as family regret, being forgotten over time, and of course, unresolved pain of the past.  The movie starts out fairly lighthearted and joyous in tone, but gradually turns more serious as we learn more about the history in Miguel's family.

Beyond the story, however, Coco is simply a joy to watch.  This is easily the most colorful and complex looking film to come out of Pixar, and just about every scene is awash in color, detail and imagination.  As soon as Miguel enters the World of the Dead, the movie never stops coming up with images that we have never seen before.  Naturally, there is the city itself where the dead reside, which looks like a neon-colored blast of imagination just about anywhere you look on the screen.  And then there are the inhabitants of the city, and I don't just mean the large cast of skeletons that make up a majority of the characters.  There are a number of Spirit Animals that vary in size from small to the enormous, and each not only glow with the same imaginative colors as the city itself, but are some of the better designed fantasy creatures I've seen in a movie in a while.  This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.  Watching it at home or (Heaven forbid) on a tiny portable screen would rob the film of most of its visual power.  This is something worth paying theater price to witness.

Whenever a movie looks this good, it can be all too easy for the characters and story to get lost amongst the spectacle, but that never happens here.  Little Miguel makes for a likable child hero who never once comes across as annoying, and first-time actor Anthony Gonzales delivers a fine voice over performance.  Speaking of the voices, the cast is almost entirely Latino, and is obviously better for it.  There are perhaps a few too many characters to fit into one movie.  Of Miguel's departed family members who reside in the World of the Dead, only his Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach) develops a real personality.  It's the sole flaw in an otherwise outstanding film, and it does nothing to diminish any of its emotional power.  But the real vocal stand outs are both Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal.  Bratt, in particular, impresses when he sings the film's signature tune, "Remember Me", which was written by the musical team of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (they wrote the songs for Frozen).

Speaking of Frozen, Coco is accompanied by a 20 minute short film that plays before it called Olaf's Frozen Adventure, which features the titular snowman (voice by Josh Gad) going on his own adventure in order to find a Christmas tradition for his friends Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell).  This was originally planned as a TV special, but for whatever reason, it was upgraded to a theatrical release.  And while it is certainly entertaining enough, at a full 20 minutes, it does go on quite long, and may find some viewers getting restless for the actual movie to start.  I usually have no problem with an animated short playing before the main feature, but this really should have stayed as the TV special it was planned to be, as its somewhat stiff animation really is shown off on the big screen.

Despite this, Coco has all the humor, heart and emotion that we have come to expect from Pixar, and seldom get from some of their recent efforts like the Cars sequels.  It's a lush and lavish love letter to Mexican culture, but it's also a genuinely involving and at times powerful experience.  This is the kind of animated feature that adults should seek out even if they don't have kids to go with them.  But this is more than just a great animated film.  It's simply a great movie in general, and one of the best of the year.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas

The Man Who Invented Christmas is not a biofilm about Charles Dickens, as it is being advertised.  It's much more gimmicky than that.  It wants us to believe that Dickens got the idea for A Christmas Carol (and all of his stories, apparently) by having imaginary conversations with his characters, who frequently pop out of nowhere to talk or argue with him when no one is around.  I suppose it's a cute concept that might have worked, but the way it plays out here, the imaginary fictional characters hijack the movie to the point that we learn nothing about Dickens, the people in his life, or even much of the writing process, which is what the movie really wants to be about.

As the film opens, it's 1843, and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is in a writing slump after his last three books have flopped.  The money from the success of Oliver Twist is starting to run out, and with four kids, his wife Catherine (Morfydd Clark) pregnant with a fifth, and an expensive home renovation going on, he needs a hit.  He finds inspiration from a young Irish maid (Anna Murphy) who works in his house, and tells his children folk tales from her country about how ghosts enter the land of the living around Christmas.  This is enough to inspire Dickens to write again, and he begins laying out the groundwork for the story.  The only problem?  Christmas is only six weeks away, and if he wants to release the book on time, not only will he have to work fast, but he will have to hire people himself who can illustrate and publish his story by the deadline.

Dickens faces a lot of obstacles while he tries to work, especially his crowded house of family, workers, hired help, and his father (Jonathan Pryce), who has decided to pay a visit, as he frequently does when he has no money, and has decided to bring a very destructive and ill-mannered bird to entertain the children.  Luckily, it would seem that everywhere Dickens goes in London, he finds inspiration for his story.  There's a bony old waiter who works at a restaurant he frequently eats at named Marley, his brother brings to Dickens' house his crippled son who is optimistic despite always being ill and having to use crutches to get around, and while wandering the streets, he happens upon a funeral for a businessman where the only person attending is the man's miserly and cold business partner, who just so happens to walk up to Dickens and say "humbug".  As Dickens frantically works out the story in his study, the characters come to life around him and start talking to him.  Mostly, he is haunted by the vision of Scrooge himself, who is portrayed by Christopher Plummer, giving an inspired performance that makes you wish it was in a better movie.  The vision of Scrooge enjoys taunting Dickens while he works, particularly over the fact that he can't work out the ending. (Dickens wants Tiny Tim to die at the end, which is not a popular choice with the people who read his manuscript.)

All of this is mixed in with Dickens' conflicted feelings about his father, whom he blames for a particularly hard part of his childhood, and leads to some of the film's more potentially emotional moments.  Unfortunately, these moments never have the impact that we expect or that the filmmakers want, because the movie is far too busy being cute, and having fictional characters pop up around Dickens to talk to him, give him inspiration, or insult and criticize him.  I understand that the process of writing is not exactly the easiest thing to depict cinematically, but there had to be a way to present it where it doesn't come across so forced and overly cute.  I think what bothered me is how broad the movie decides to play this material.  Dan Stevens as Dickens is frequently yelling to the rafters, racing about, and generally playing him as larger than life.  Also, the way the film goes out of its way to show inspiration literally falling into his lap wherever he goes kind of cheapens the creative process, and makes it seem like Dickens stole from everyone and everything around him to come up with his ideas.

The one aspect of the film that does ring true is Plummer's portrayal of Scrooge.  While the role of the famous miser is usually played quite broadly, Plummer finds a certain quiet pathos and humor to the character that the movie could have used much more of.  While everyone else is playing their characters to the hilt, he manages to find subtle nuances to the character that I have not really seen before in any previous interpretation.  He also delivers the film's only laughs as he trades a few one liners and barbs with the author while he is trying to work.  Watching his performance here, I started to think that I would be willing to sit through one more screen version of A Christmas Carol if Plummer were cast in the lead role. 

The Man Who Invented Christmas is pleasant enough, and may find a small family audience, but I doubt it will be remembered much when the holidays role around next year.  This is a movie that needed to be more honest and sure in order to work.  The way it plays out, it's a bit of a live action cartoon, mixed with moments of drama that don't work like they should.  It's watchable, sure, but that's just not enough.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wonder

Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways, and yet it finds so many ways to go right.  From the trailers, I feared that Wonder was going to be a sappy and preachy story about a little boy with a facial deformity who deals with bullies and rises above it all with the patience and knowledge of a Saint.  But co-writer and director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) avoids sentimentality, and instead gives us something that is genuinely uplifting, cheerful, and even surprising in some regards.

What surprised me the most is that the movie is not just about little August "Auggie" Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), but also about the people around him.  The movie is divided into chapters, where we get to see things from the point of view of the different people around him.  We see how his older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) often feels invisible because of all the attention Auggie gets because of his medical condition that causes his deformity.  We also learn that Via is dealing with the fact that her best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) is no longer speaking to her for reasons she is not sure of.  And then, later on in the film, we get to see things from Miranda's point of view, and we learn what has happened.  I can understand how this approach might sound kind of ungainly and gimmicky, and I'm sure the approach is borrowed from the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio.  But it works here, and it's certainly refreshing that the movie never once tries to victimize its main character, and opens us to the opinions and thoughts of the people around him.

Aside from Auggie's face, he's a pretty standard 10-year-old kid.  He loves Star Wars, video games, Halloween, and dreams of going to outer space one day. (His favorite piece of clothing is an astronaut's helmet that he wears as much as possible.)  He's been homeschooled his whole life by his mother Isabel (Julia Roberts), who gave up on her own dreams so that she could look after him.  Now that he's starting 5th grade, she thinks it's time he goes to a public school with other children.  She figures that everyone is starting Middle School at the same time as Auggie, so he won't be the only kid who's scared about being in a new place.  His father Nate (Owen Wilson) is not so sure, and is worried how others will react to him, but goes along with the plan.  The film follows Auggie's first full year at a public school, how he makes friends, and how he deals with those who will not accept him.  He knows that his face will never allow him to be seen as "normal", so he does his best to handle his own situation.  He has a sense of humor, too.  When a kid asks him why he's never had plastic surgery done, Auggie answers that his face is after plastic surgery. (Which is the truth.  He's needed several surgeries in order to keep him alive, and help him see and hear better.)

Auggie is not a saintly little movie kid who has all the answers, or is wise beyond his years.  He misbehaves, and he can be selfish sometimes.  Sometimes his parents even have to raise their voices at him.  He also has to be reminded that the world does not revolve around him, just because of his problems.  At home, he is usually the center of attention.  This is where his sister Via comes into the plot.  Their grandmother (who has since passed away) was the main one in the family who would spend time alone with her, so she's still dealing with that.  She also starts a relationship with a student at her school named Justin (Nadji Jeter), who inspires her to try out for the drama club.  She initially tells him she's an only child, not to spite her younger brother, but maybe because she likes having someone who is truly interested in her and her alone.

For the most part, Wonder avoids the sentimental trappings that movies like these tend to revel in.  We do get the scene where Auggie hears a boy whom we thought was his friend talking behind his back, and Auggie refuses to speak to the boy for a while.  But again, the movie gives us the friend's point of view as well, and we learn what truly happened.  That's really why the movie works as well as it does.  It's not about jerking tears from the audience or making this boy at the center of the film come across as larger than life.  It's humble, and it opens up its story to multiple points of view.  We get to see Auggie from all angles.  In a way, the film is somewhat similar to the recently released Lady Bird.  Both are simple coming of age stories that take place during the year in the life of a kid, and their individual discoveries.  There are no artificial crises, and no manufactured plot contortions and conveniences to get in the way.

This is not just a movie that earns its sentiment naturally, but it also treats the audience as intelligent individuals.  It never talks down, and it never condescends or has its main kid act "cute" for the sake of getting laughs.  It's simple and pure, and it's all the better for this.  The real wonder here is how great this film turned out.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice League

I spent the past week in New York on vacation, surrounding myself with fine films and Broadway theater.  Coming home to watch Justice League is like a cold, hard slap in the face.  This is a big, dumb lumbering dinosaur of a movie that is as soulless as a blockbuster can get.  Nobody wanted to make this, outside of contractual obligations.  It's a lifeless, dreary experience designed to trick bored teenagers into thinking they're watching something worthwhile.  If the comics that inspired this movie were as bad as this, characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman wouldn't have lasted nearly 70 or 80 years.

It's hard to know where to start when talking about a movie this awful, but I think the visual style is a good place as any.  To put it bluntly, this movie is hideous.  It's drab, out of focus, and filled with so much quick CG action, the mind often cannot keep up with what it is looking at.  The movie unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and then gives them nothing to do but fight an army of CG bug people for almost 2 hours.  You don't put heroes like these, and stick them in a nothing plot like this.  Not even the return of Superman (Henry Cavill), who comes back from the dead for this, can muster any excitement.  That's because the movie doesn't give a damn about these heroes, or their histories in the comics.  They are just generic action types here with little personality to show.  When you consider the shared histories these characters have had over the decades in the pages of comic books, and the best thing this movie can think of having them say to each other is "booyah", you know something is wrong.

There is a slight resemblance of a plot to fool audiences into thinking this actually means something.  It involves an alien named Steppenwolf (voice by Ciaran Hinds), who has come back to Earth after being gone for centuries.  He comes with an army of the previously mentioned CG bug people, who look and act like targets in a video game, and seem spectacularly easy to kill.  His goal is to find three Mother Boxes, which apparently will give him the power to (say it with me) Rule the World.  I'm kind of murky on the details, because the movie provides as little as possible.  All you need to know is that he's the bad guy, and he's gotta be stopped.  Batman and Wonder Woman travel the globe, looking for others to join their fight.  The Flash joins up immediately, so there's really no tension there.  Aquaman doesn't seem interested, until Steppenwolf attacks his aquatic kingdom.  As for Cyborg, he's in the brooding "why have I been cursed with these powers" phase of his superhero career, and needs a lot of coaxing.  His story is that he used to be a college football star, until he got in an accident, and his genius scientist father gave him a robotic body to save his life.  For reasons unexplained, the father gave his son rocket boots and hidden arm cannons to go with the new robot body.  I guess dear old dad knew in advance that his son was going to be called to join a superhero team one day.

Anyone who has dreamed of seeing these characters sharing the screen will be sorely disappointed to learn that they spend little time interacting with each other.  Sure, they occasionally team up to smack down one of the bug monsters, but that's about it.  There's a nice scene where Batman and Wonder Woman share a drink together that hints at what the movie was supposed to be - Seeing these heroes as individuals, rather than just faceless inhabitants of endless and chaotic CG battles.  There's also a good scene where Lois Lane (a sorely underused Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, also underused), Superman's adopted Earth mom, have a conversation.  It was these rare moments that made me sit up and take notice of just what a misfire this movie was.  Here is a movie that calls out for emotion, wonder and adventure.  And all it mostly supplies us with is a total and incoherent assault on the senses, with common sense being the main victim.  It's nonstop noise and gimmicks, and you eventually want it to stop and, I don't know, maybe throw in a scene where the heroes wonder if they could be doing more with their lives.


Justice League has been plagued with reports of a troubled production and massive reshoots, and it really shows.  You have scenes where the characters talk about things that never happened, because it's clearly been edited out of the final cut.  You have a plot that is barely there, character interactions that are largely missing, and an overall sense that a majority of the film wound up on the cutting room floor.  Not that I wanted more of this movie, mind you.  It's just so blatantly obvious, you wonder if director Zack Snyder (who was replaced during the post-production process by writer Joss Whedon due to a family emergency) even cared in the first place.  This is a production that has been micromanaged within an inch of its life by Hollywood executives who were obviously frightened by the dismal response to the dark and gloomy Batman v. Superman last year, and so they tried to throw in as much action as possible here.  By doing so, they have cost the movie any sense of coherency.

After seeing Justice League, I wonder if the DC Cinematic Universe should even continue.  Even if I enjoyed Wonder Woman, that is starting to look more and more like a lucky fluke for the studio.  Anyone who thinks Marvel Studios has something to fear from what's being offered by DC is kidding themselves.  Even the slight but still fun Thor: Ragnarok was better than this, and that was pretty inconsequential as far as superhero movies go.  I know these movies will go on, and I truly wish them the best of luck.  They can only go up from here.

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The Breadwinner

More than any other film I've seen recently, The Breadwinner is a reminder of just how powerful an artform animation can be.  It saddens me that when most people think of "adult animation", the first thing that pops to mind are projects that are raunchy and push the envelope, such as TV's South Park or last year's Sausage Party.  Animation can tell human and tragic stories, but it seldom does, which is why I applaud the filmmakers here for what they have accomplished.

But maybe it's not so surprising when you realize that the director behind this film is Nora Twomey, who is one of the founders of the Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon, and was a key player in the group's pair of Oscar-nominated features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.  Instead of Ireland, this film is set in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, taking place during the last days of Taliban rule.  However, just like their previous works, this film shares a love of the culture of where the story is set, as well as love of storytelling and striking images.  The movie uses a combination of vivid and realistic images to recreate the dusty streets of Kabul, while also entertaining flights of fancy when its young heroine tells stories, usually to quiet her baby brother when he is fussy.  When she is telling a story, the movie switches to vibrant, fantastic and dream-like images, usually employing stop motion or cut out animation to give it a more fantasy appearance.  Both styles are graceful, and equally compelling.

Taking inspiration from a young adult novel, the film tells the story of an 11-year-old Afghani girl named Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry), who is seen sitting on the ground with her father, Nurullah (Ali Badshah), when we first meet her.  They are in front of a small space in the Kabul bazaar where they are selling some of their few remaining possessions so that their family can buy food.  Nurullah is a former teacher and gifted storyteller, and is trying to pass his love of stories down to his daughter, as he believes that stories must always remain in the hearts of people.  Parvana is skeptical of her father's words, but will later understand what he means when stories are the only way she can comfort other people or sometimes herself in times of crisis and pain.  While at the marketplace, the two are confronted by two members of the Taliban, who only back off when Nurullah shows them the physical price he paid when he served in a war in his younger years.

Back home, mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) are left to worry about the future of the family if they cannot make any money to live.  Just then, those same Taliban soldiers have tracked Nurullah back to his home and immediately arrest him, even though he has done nothing wrong.  He is sent to a distant prison where he will likely die.  Fattema tries to make the journey to the prison to get her husband free, but she is stopped by another man and is beaten severely because of the oppressive rule that a woman should not be out on the streets alone.  Parvana lives in a world where women must be accompanied by men, and there is no one in her family who can help them.  Yes, they do have cousins who live in a distant city, but it is unknown if they would be able to help the family out of their situation.  Seeing no other choice, Parvana cuts her hair off and disguises herself as a young boy, so that she can go out into the marketplace by herself to buy food for her family, and also sell personal belongings in the marketplace, in the hope that she can get enough money to bribe a guard at the prison her father is being kept so that she can see him.

The Breadwinner is often a harrowing story of survival, but it is also one of hope.  The hope comes from the sequences where Parvana tells a story to her baby brother about a young boy who attempts to save his village from a greedy Elephant King who has stolen most of the village's food.  The stories are not just an escape from the reality around them, but to also give them strength in real life.  As a boy, Parvana can go to places that she couldn't normally as a girl.  She finds a girl from school named Shauzia (Soma Chhaya) has made the same choice that she has, and together they look for work.  Parvana wants to help her family and free her father, while Shauzia wants to save up enough money to escape her current life and visit the ocean.  When Shauzia talks about her family and her father, she often becomes sad, as her parents can be cruel to her.  So, she is working to save herself.

What I admired most about the film is despite the fact that it is animated, it never backs away from the harsh cruelty of the Taliban, and the cultural injustices that Parvana and other women face everyday.  There are some scenes of violence that can be surprisingly brutal, but are never flashy.  We are witnessing cruelty, and the movie never lets us forget it.  These strong images are what have given the film a PG-13 rating, and while they can be startling, the film never dwells or lingers on them.  It shows us just enough.  I do think older children would get a lot out of the film, and it may also introduce them to the idea that animation can be so much more than talking animals and Minions.  I also hope that some Hollywood executives would watch this, and reach the same conclusion.

The Breadwinner is powerful both in its story and in the artwork.  Accompanied by a lush Afghan-themed music score by Mychael and Jeff Danna, this movie is truly transporting, and shows us a part of the world many seldom see.  The story itself is about bravery, but the movie itself is pretty brave as well.  I applaud Twomey and her team of artists for tackling a story like this, and I truly hope audiences will seek it out as it slowly expands across the US during the coming weeks.  It's currently only playing in New York and L.A. at the moment, but it will open further during the coming holiday weeks.  Don't let this one pass by.

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Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors, but I found his last film, Everybody Wants Some!, to be rather tedious and aimless.  He finds himself on much stronger footing with his latest, Last Flag Flying.  This is a familiar, but nonetheless still effective, story of three former war buddies who are reunited by a tragedy.  This is not a movie rich in surprises like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but it's kind of powerful in its own quiet way, and the three lead performances alone make it worth watching.

As the movie opens, a sad-faced man named Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into a bar run by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston).  He has come a long way, as Larry and Sal were friends when they served in the Marines together back in Vietnam.  (The movie is set in 2003, which explains how Carell, who was born in 1962, and Cranston, born in 56, are playing Vietnam Veterans.) The two men instantly reconnect, though it at first seems a bit odd that they could be friends in the first place.  Larry comes across as calm and reserved, while Sal is brash, boorish and is never afraid to speak his mind.  After spending the night talking, Larry tells Sal that he wants to drive him somewhere.  They drive for a while, until they arrive at a church where the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is speaking.  He's another friend of Larry and Sal's from the War, and much is made of how Mueller has found God, considering the way he acted in the Marines.  When the three friends are reunited, Larry finally reveals the reason for tracking both of them down.

We learn that in the past year, Larry has lost his wife, and even more recently his adult son, who was fighting in the Middle East and was killed in an ambush attack.  Larry is headed to the military camp to view his son's body before it is sent to Arlington Cemetery, and wants his friends with him.  He also wants to bury his son in his hometown cemetery next to where his wife is.  The three travel to Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base to pick up the body and begin transporting it, despite the objections of the colonel who is handling the transfer of the body.  They are joined in their journey by a young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson), who is instructed to accompany them and assist them however necessary.  He befriends the men during the journey, and eventually begins to share some of his personal experiences and memories of Larry's son, whom he was friends with, which leads to some of the more heartbreaking moments of the film.

Last Flag Flying is centrally focused on the aftermath of war and what it can do to people, but it does so in a subtle way.  There is no flowing, dramatic music, and while it can often be angry and sad, it is quiet and does not overact its emotions.  It also can be tremendously funny at times.  Much of the humor comes from the relationship between Bryan Cranston's Sal and Fishburne's Richard.  Sal is a steadfast atheist, and enjoys not just poking fun at Richard for his beliefs, but also poking holes in the things he believes in.  They have a friendly antagonistic relationship, and both are engaging in a lot of their scenes.  Carell has the more dramatic and less showy role.  He is contemplating the war that has killed his son, as well as the reason why he died, when he discovers how it happened from the young Marine accompanying them.  The movie is set in December 2003, and there are reports on the TV News about Saddam Hussein's capture.  Larry is obviously conflicted about what his son went to war for, and what he ultimately achieved.

Linklater's approach to the story is laid back, but nonetheless powerful.  There are painful memories brought up between the men about their time in the War, and some of the things they did, or the people they lost.  It follows the negotiations and logistics required to transport the coffin to its final resting place with a simple focus on three days in three lives.  As a filmmaker, Linklater has specialized in small, human stories, and he shows his gift by making the men relatable.  These three men are not close, and have not seen each other in decades.  So while there is a definite bond, they also have clearly gone different ways in life.  Larry became the family man, Sal is an outspoken alcoholic, and Richard turned to God.  All of these paths were obviously chosen to get as far away from their pasts as possible.  When they are brought back together, they find themselves sometimes incapable of dealing with each other, as well as their shared past.  In these roles, Carell, Cranston and Fishburne are able to find the aspects that bond their characters, as well as emphasize what keeps them apart.

Last Flag Flying is an assured film.  It's not heavy handed and melodramatic, and it allows the personalities of the three men to grow realistically, and not through plot convenience.  It has a certain small vibe that works for this kind of film.  It's not big or glamorous, and despite the three big names headlining the film, it's not a flashy drama.  It feels like the kind of story that could have come from anyone, and that's probably the highest praise I can pay it.

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Lady Bird

In a recent interview with New York Magazine, the writer and director of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, talked about the detailed journal she kept as a high school student in the early 2000s.  She talked about how she looked back as an adult to read what she wrote back then recently, and was amazed at the intensity and honesty of her journal entries. 

Lady Bird is a coming of age story that perfectly captures that intensity and honesty of teenage years.  It remembers the time when everything is just so important and all-consuming.  Every crush, every heartbreak, every betrayal - It all just feels so massive when you are at a certain age.  Gerwig is an actress who has worked behind the camera before, but this is her solo directing debut, and it shows her as a filmmaker who is able to not just be able to capture a voice from a certain period of life, but also a specific time and place. (The film is set around 2002 and 2003.) This is not a plot heavy film.  The heroine at the center of the film does not go on an amazing adventure, and there's really no manufactured elements or contrived crises to drive the story.  It's simply about a young girl experiencing high school and family.

The girl in question is Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior who gave herself her nick name of Lady Bird, not so much out of rebellion, but more out of her free spirited nature.  She has dyed red hair, a passion for school theater, a weakness for boys that she finds smart, and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Alanis Morissette.  All she wants out of life is to leave her hometown of Sacramento, California, which she views as a dead end.  She sees herself going to New York for college.  There are a couple problems standing in her way.  One is her grades, which may not be good enough to get into some of the big name East Coast schools she dreams of.  The other is her family's financial situation.  Her father (Tracy Letts) is unemployed, and finds himself competing with much younger people at job interviews. 


But the main obstacle in Lady Bird's way is her well-meaning but frequently short-tempered mom (Laurie Metcalf).  Much of the film's emotional weight hangs solely on the relationship that they share, and her mother's struggle to understand her daughter.  Both obviously have love for one another, but they have a hard time expressing it.  In the film's opening scene, they are driving home from a college campus visit, listening to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath together.  It's one of the few times we seem them sharing happiness in the film.  Not long after this brief, happy moment, they are arguing with one another.  Lady Bird becomes so desperate to escape from the conversation that she literally throws herself out the open car door, and spends a majority of the film wearing a cast on her arm because of it.

The movie is careful not to make the mother out to be a villain.  She has her reasons to be frustrated with her daughter.  Lady Bird plays pranks on teachers, and is kicked out of school after she mouths off to a Pro Life speaker at a school assembly.  She can be exasperating and difficult, as all teenagers can be.  But even when she is trying to do good, the mother cannot connect with her.  The moments between the two characters, as well as Lady Bird's personal thoughts and actions, are genuine.  So genuine, in fact, that I figured they had to be somewhat autobiographical for Greta Gerwig.  I was surprised to learn that although she did grow up in Sacramento, she did not base much of the film on her own life.  But still, there are moments here that ring too true not to be based on some kind of personal reflection.  The way that the main character reacts to teenage heartbreak and angst are just too natural not to be.

Lady Bird really is a movie made up out of small moments.  Yes, we do get some scenes that are typical in the teenage film genre, such as when Lady Bird ditches her geeky best friend for some much cooler kids.  But that's really not what the film is about.  It is about her individual discoveries, her desires (she plots out exactly how and when she will lose her virginity), and how those can change at a drop of a hat.  She lives in a time when she writes the name of a boy she likes in magic marker on the wall, only to cross it off, and replace it with a different one.  She is trying out different identities in order to find herself, and is really just trying to escape from her current life.  Saoirse Ronan is excellent at portraying all of these angles of her character, and making her seem not so much like a written character, but rather a fleshed out girl that you have probably known or met before at some point.

Lady Bird is a small, independent film, but I think it has all the makings of a huge crowd pleaser.  Girls the same age as the main character will see someone they can relate to, and adults will find a lot of honesty and reflection in the film of their own past.  Gerwig proves herself here of not just being a great filmmaker, but also one who knows how to speak to audiences.  This is the kind of movie where everyone who watches it will walk away recognizing something in themselves.

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