Penguins

penguins movie

Penguins are my favorite non-human animal. I never get tired of watching penguins. So, yes, I love this movie. I would love Penguins even if it sucked but, happily, it does not suck.

Disney has, for decades, told animal stories by constructing narratives around the filmed actions of nature’s creatures. This storytelling involves giving certain animals names and relating some of their actions to human behavior. This format was a staple of the old Disney TV shows and now is reprised in Disneynature films.

In Penguins, the central figure is a penguin named Steve. He migrates across Antarctica to breeding grounds where he builds a nest out of rocks and finds a female partner named Adeline. They incubate eggs, birth chicks, feed the youngsters and introduce them to the world and its dangers.

Penguins is filled with glorious shots of penguins on land, on ice and in the water. The way they pop up out of water always tickles me whether I see it at Sea World, the St. Louis Zoo or in this film. Their almost circular leaps as they move through water (similar to those of dolphins) are also fascinating and something not observed when they are in captivity.

Ed Helms of The Office and The Hangover movies is the film’s narrator. Along with his straight reading of the script he provides several ad-libbed reaction sounds to on-screen events.

How did the filmmakers get so close to obtain this footage? Action shots of the crew run alongside the movie’s closing credits, showing the men and women and their equipment as they record the activities of the penguins and their predators.

Like many of the best movies for young kids, Penguins has a short run time: just under 80 minutes. It is a film that makes me happy.

Now if Disneynature would just make a film about my second favorite non-human animal, manatees, I would be even happier.

 

 

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Pet Sematary

Pet-Sematary-1

That delicious discomfort that drives us to watch scary movies! Hey, it’s a Stephen King story. Which means Pet Sematary has plenty of creepy elements to make an audience tingle with uneasiness.

Weird noises. Flickering lights. Doors that shouldn’t be opened but are opened anyway. Haunting flashbacks. A gory injury. A mysterious neighbor. And the discovery that a new home is nearby to a pet cemetery with a misspelled sign.

As with the recent film Us, a family unit of mom, dad, daughter and son pulls into a new house where all seems idyllic. Also, as in Us, the mom has dark memories of a frightening episode of her life.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) are parents to Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and Gage (Hugo and Louie Lavoie). The crusty neighbor is Jud (John Lithgow).

The new home is on the edge of the woods, on the edge of a small town in Maine. In short order, Ellie takes a walk into the woods to check out the pet cemetery and the strange wall of tree branches where she has her first encounter with Jud.

When the family’s cat dies, Jud leads Louis to a burial ground beyond that wall. The cat’s interment sets off the events that lead to some grisly outcomes.

Does Pet Sematary break new ground in filmmaking? No. But co-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer have constructed an entertaining 100 or so minutes of scary, suspenseful storytelling. And it’s always fun to see John Lithgow onscreen.

Don’t expect a revelation. Or a classic. But the newest version of this Pet Sematary, sourced from Stephen King’s book, is good, creepy fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Us

us-movie-poster

Weird things can happen on vacation. Many of us have stories we could tell.

None as weird though as the tale of the Wilsons, a typical American family on a typical getaway to a cabin in the woods. Their vacation is interrupted by an odd quartet of dead ringers for each of them, in red jumpsuits. These menacing dopplegangers unleash a night of terror and violence.

Writer/director Jordan Peele has crafted another winning film. Us is a suspense thriller with plot elements that will have you thinking and rethinking about the story well after you leave the theater.

Us has laughs as well. Nothing as gutbustingly funny as the best Key and Peele bits on Comedy Central, but enough to take a bit of the edge off at timely intervals.

The mom, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), has a backstory which is told in the film’s opening segment. Her memory of a scary time in a funhouse from childhood causes her to have qualms about going to Santa Cruz beach with the family. But her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cajoles her and the kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) into a day at the shore.

At the beach, they hang with family friends the Tylers (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker and Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The dads have a cordial visit, but Adelaide’s nervousness inhibits any meaningful mom talk with Mrs. Tyler. When Jason briefly disappears, Adelaide freaks out until he is found. Then when the Wilsons get home that the real horror begins.

Nyong’o is the key player among the talented cast. As Adelaide’s doppleganger, she is the only one among that crew who can speak coherently, although in an unpleasant, distorted voice.

The Us soundtrack features the haunting opening song “Anthem” from composer Michael Abels as well as several tunes by pop artists ranging from Janelle Monae to the Beach Boys.

Yes, the film’s title is the name of our country: U.S. And when asked “who are you” Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans!” So you may impose whatever political message you wish. Or you can just choose to be entertained by a well-made film!

Interestingly, among those receiving special on-screen thanks at the end of the movie is Steven Spielberg. In a way, Us recalls stories Spielberg told in films like E.T. (director) and Poltergeist (story/script) of normal families facing extraordinary occurrences.

A recommendation: see this film sooner rather than later when spoilers are more likely to be freely shared online and in conversations with friends and family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They Shall Not Grow Old

theyshallnot

World War I is not exactly a forgotten war. But it has been eclipsed by WWII, Korea, Vietnam and recent Mideast action in popular U.S. memory. Even the long ago Civil War is more familiar to most Americans than WWI, thanks to Gone With The Wind, Ken Burns and recent statue controversies

They Shall Not Grow Old may elevate WWI’s profile just a bit. The film focuses on British troops from their enlistment through their return home from battle with the German enemy.

The technical achievements used to make archival film footage from a century ago appear realistic are impressive. But it is the faces and the voices of the young men who endure the horror of war that make this documentary a must-see.

Director Peter Jackson of Lord Of The Rings fame and his team have added color, speed correction and ambient sound to take the viewer into the trenches and onto the battlefield. The actual hand-to-hand combat is presented via illustrations, but the damages of battle—dead and injured soldiers—are impossible to miss.

Over a hundred men who fought in the war narrate the film. Their recollections, recorded in mid-century, are edited into brief soundbites to tell the story. Some of the British accents are harder to decipher than others. A captioned version of the film would be welcome.

They Shall Not Grow Old reveals the stereotype of bad teeth among Brits to have been a particularly acute problem back then. The few men shown wearing kilts and knee socks to the frontline seems odd. The pleasantries between British troops and some of the Germans they have captured are surprising.

“Man’s Inhumanity To Man” is timeless and unending. To see it up close and personal with real people, not actors, arouses multiple emotions. Among them, empathy for the young men in this film, as well as every other soldier who has seen combat action in every war.

Because of its graphic depictions, They Shall Not Grow Old is rated R.

 

 

 

 

Vice

Vice

Bale. Christian Bale. He’s the reason to see Vice.

The chameleon/actor portrays former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, although Bale doesn’t really resemble the ex-veep, his transformation is pretty amazing. Not just Bale’s weight gain but also his accurate mimicry of Cheney’s speech patterns and Cheney’s penchant for talking out of the side of his mouth.

Cheney’s story as told in Vice is not a flattering one. Though not quite “gonzo journalism” a la Hunter S. Thompson, this “sort of” biopic has a lot of what David Letterman used to call “writer’s embellishment.” Yes, there is a framework of true facts here but parts of this narrative are bent to poke holes in Cheney’s legacy and deliver laughs. And, yes, Vice is funny!

Writer/director Adam McKay presents Cheney as a guy with little direction until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) sets him straight. He’s a bit of a bumbling conniver when he gets to Washington and soon goes to work to establish his own sphere of influence.

(Cheney’s career included tenures as a White House Chief of Staff, a U.S. Representative, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President, so he must have demonstrated at least a modicum of competence.)

As with The Big Short, his previous comedy rooted in fact, McKay tries to simplify a complicated story that has many nooks and crannies. Should America blame Cheney for everything that has gone wrong with our nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics this century? McKay would have you believe that Cheney should shoulder much of the blame.

Admirably, Cheney is shown to be sympathetic and loving when his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out to her parents as gay. (Lynne is not so understanding.)

Other key players in the film include Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). They are sources of some of the funnier moments.

I called The Big Short a failure in my review of the film in 2015. Click HERE to read it. Like Vice it was wickedly funny but as an explainer for what happened to cause the financial crisis, it fell short. Vice, on the other hand, is focused and proceeds in a linear manner with few course changes. It tells its tale well, however with a liberal bent (which McKay acknowledges in a hilarious coda).

See it. Enjoy it. Don’t take it as gospel.

 

 

Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns

You need this movie. Mary Poppins Returns will make you smile. It will make you happy.

Unless you’re a hard-edged grouch. Or a person who thinks nothing could ever capture the magic of the original Mary Poppins. Hey, the new version brings some new and different magic.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Well, not often. Director Rob Marshall successfully brought Chicago and Into The Woods to the screen in this century, but the big movie musical is a rare bird these days. He was a natural choice to bring Mary back.

Mary Poppins Returns has trippy visuals, catchy songs and a pair of lead actors who are perfect. Emily Blunt in the title role blends the prim and proper Poppins temperament with a touch of whimsy. Lin-Manuel Miranda as lamplighter Jack delivers a thousand-watt smile and big time charisma.

Set in early 20th century London, the Banks kids from the original Mary Poppins are grown now. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a widower with three kids. (“Dead mom,” you know, has become a Disney trademark.) The children are cute but not sickeningly so. Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer), Michael’s sister, is unmarried and provides a vague romantic possibility for Jack.

The family is about to lose their house during an economic “slump” because Michael took out a loan and failed to pay it back. Banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is foreclosing on as many homes as he can. Something has to be done to save the home! Of course, the nanny who mysteriously reappears plays a big role in getting the mission accomplished.

The film’s highlights are the fantasy segments and the songs. Blunt’s “Can You Imagine That” is an earworm. Miranda’s performance (with a company of dancers) of “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” is a showstopper. It’s the song that will likely lead into intermission when the inevitable stage version appears. (Although the sight of all the lamplighters marching down the street carrying lit torches triggered a Charlottesville flashback for a brief second.)

The film has just enough of Dick Van Dyke to satisfy fans of the 1964 original Poppins film. Julie Andrews chose not to do a cameo. Her spot was taken by Angela Lansbury. Nonagenarians rock!

Meryl Streep’s turn as Mary’s cousin Topsy and the song she shares with the cast are less than great but her wacky upside down curiosity shop has strong possibilities as a future attraction at Disney parks. Topsy’s over-the-top Russian accent elicits a comment from Jack which may be an inside joke about Meryl’s proclivity to employ accents in her many roles.

Mary Poppins Returns is an upbeat film for the whole family. (Rated PG.) If you can stand a little bit of goodness and light and joy and fun in your life, don’t miss it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

canyoueverforgiveme

Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) is not an easy person to like. She lacks the social graces. She drinks to excess. She is a bit of a slob.

She does have writing talent. She’s a published author. When her career hits the skids, she turns to another kind of writing.

One might be prone to feel sorry for her. However, as her agent (Jane Curtin) and her ex-partner (Anna Deavere Smith) point out, her off-putting behavior is of her own doing. Isreal even admits she like cats more than she likes people.

Isreal’s scheme is to produce notes and letters she claims were written by now deceased literary figures. “Can you ever forgive me?” is the tagline on a note she crafts and presents as having come from Dorothy Parker. She sells these letters to bookstores who sell them to collectors.

[Sidebar: I went to my first baseball card show in Willow Grove PA in 1981 and saw autographed photos of big league ballplayers for sale. I noticed the signatures all looked alike. In 1998, Mark McGwire went into card shops around the US and found items alleged to have been autographed by him. He said they were not authentic. Two conclusions, which Isreal also reached: People are suckers and there is a lot of fake stuff out there.]

Isreal buys vintage typewriters and consults old printed matter to crib material for these letters. But she and her drinking buddy Jack (Richard Grant) make a couple of errors that lead to her getting caught by the feds for her fraudulent practice.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? features a different Melissa McCarthy. She’s not completely unfunny. Her character has a nasty sense of humor. But the energetic, vibrant, fearless McCarthy from her comedy roles is dialed way, way down. Her look is muted, plain. And her character is, as mentioned, a sad sack of a human. Is this a role that can net McCarthy an awards nomination? Stay tuned.

There’s a flash of the more familiar Melissa McCarthy when Isreal makes a statement to the judge during a court proceeding.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crowd-pleaser type of film. But for all who have appreciated Melissa McCarthy’s comedic work in movies and TV, this movie reveals that she definitely can handle a wider range of roles.

 

 

 

Mid 90s

mid90s

Jonah Hill is a good actor. Two Oscar nominations! His directorial debut Mid 90s, however, is a tedious slog. Run time is a mere 80 minutes; it just seems longer.

Mid 90s is a coming of age story centered on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old who is physically abused by his older brother (Lucas Hedges) and mostly ignored by his single mom (Katherine Waterston).

Stevie is small and shy. He finds acceptance by a group of older teens who hang out at a skateboard shop. They become a sort of surrogate family for Steve. Stevie becomes a more skillful skateboarder. The older boys introduce Stevie to tobacco, weed, booze, sex and other temptations.

The aftermath of a climactic event reveals the gang’s true feelings for their younger friend. And that’s about it.

For some reason the film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Narrow screen. Like certain old TV clips look on Youtube. Original music is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Jonah Hill also wrote the script. A meatier story line might’ve made Mid 90s a more memorable movie. The characters Hill has created are good. They deserve a better narrative.

Here’s hoping Jonah Hill polishes his directing talent and his next effort achieves some of the heights he’s reached with his acting ability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Man

Firstman

Can the landing of the first man on the moon be… anticlimactic? In First Man, it almost is.

For a couple of reasons. We know how it turns out. The video is iconic. The “small step/giant leap” quote is ingrained into our beings.

But mainly, First Man delivers tension, suspense and the threat of peril in the life and career of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) well before the moon landing. By the time Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are ready to moonwalk, the film has already presented the stoic Armstrong in situations that put him through intense physical and emotional challenges.

Yes, the moon landing is First Man’s money shot. And, yes, there’s a tingle that comes when the lunar vehicle is looking for a landing spot. But what precedes that event is what makes the movie another winner from director Damien Chazelle of La La Land and Whiplash fame.

The real life Armstrong was not as outgoing as other U.S. astronauts. Shepard, Glenn, Aldrin, Cooper and others were more visible via media. Armstrong, though not a recluse, did not seem to savor the limelight.

Gosling is excellent in his portrayal of a man who generally keeps his emotions in check. I’d argue that it’s harder to portray this kind of individual convincingly than to play more flamboyant types.

First Man shows Armstrong as a family man dealing with crises at home as well as a space pioneer applying his knowledge and talents to his job. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) provides needed support but also confronts him just before the moon mission, demanding he talk to his sons about the danger and risk ahead.

As other space films have shown, there is friendly competition among astronauts but a special camaraderie also exists. Armstrong’s grief when fellow spacemen-to-be suffer bad fates is deeply felt.

The soundtrack by Justin Hurwitz complements the visuals and the action beautifully.

The story of the Neil Armstrong you never knew (unless you read the book that First Man is based on) adds meaningful context to recollections of the space race and that singular accomplishment America achieved one Sunday evening in July 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

The Old Man And The Gun

Redford

The Old Man And The Gun has all those classic indy film elements: quirky characters, quirky plot, a few slow periods where little happens, a mediocre song and a general low budget look.

But this one also has Robert Redford! He may have lost some speed on his fastball, but he still cuts an impressive figure on a movie screen. And he is fun to watch in this one. (Redford just turned 82 in August, FYI.)

Forrest Tucker (Redford) was a real life bank robber. (Not to be confused with the “F Troop” actor.) For Tucker, robbing banks is a bit of a sport. He’s polite to bank staff (and to the authorities who arrest him), not like the fearsome trigger-happy criminals often seen in films and on TV.

As he flees the film’s opening heist, Tucker stops to help a woman whose truck is broken down on the side of the road. He invites her to join him for a bite. So begins his relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She is charmed and they begin to get together often for apparently non-carnal reasons.

Casey Affleck mumbles his way through his role as Dallas police detective John Hunt. After the feds take over the pursuit of Tucker, Hunt sniffs out Tucker’s backstory, which features a life of crime and incarceration. Also in the cast are Tucker’s sometime accomplices played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

For a movie about a bank robber, with car chases and other tense situations, The Old Man And The Gun is relatively light entertainment. Redford’s smiles and chuckles play a big part in softening the feel of the film.

David Lowery is the movie’s writer/director. He did an interesting crime drama I enjoyed (also featuring Affleck’s mumbles) in 2013 with the puzzling title Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Supposedly this is to be Redford’s last movie. But, as with many music acts who’ve had farewell tours and then later reappeared on stage, there’s a Bond title that applies here: Never Say Never Again. Whether he returns to the screen again or doesn’t, it’s good to have one of one of filmdom’s greats back in a starring role right now.