Monday, February 20, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Last night I saw Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is a simple country boy from Virginia in the mid 1940s. He's fallen in love with a local girl and asked for her hand in marriage. She's agreed to be his bride, anxious to marry him on his first leave home from the service.

He's a dedicated soldier, but a tortured one. His religious beliefs prevent him from taking human life, therefore he is labeled as a Conscientious Objector. He won't operate a rifle, but he will attempt to save lives as a medic in combat.

And that combat becomes very real as Doss, along with his Sargent (Vaughn) and company, are sent to Okinawa, Japan to battle on Hacksaw Ridge. The soldiers before them didn't come out so well in the same location, and they are their replacements.

After his peers resented him for not having to participate in all the drills and training they did, they soon see his dedication to helping them in their most dire moments.

Garfield is inspiring as the humble Doss. The kindness glows from him as he defends his mother from his abusive father, falls head-over-heels for the town nurse and aims to calm his fellow injured soldiers. Any accolades he gets from playing this real-life hero are well-earned.

Director Mel Gibson should also be commended for his painfully real combat scenes and the excellent job he does creating a believable world in 1940s Virginia.

I was surprised by how much I liked this brutal war film.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

Thursday night I saw Fifty Shades Darker, starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson.

Life hasn't been the same for Christian (Dornan) since Anastasia (Johnson) left him. His intense need for sexual domination and tendency to "punish" his partners was too much for her to take. Ever since she gave him up, he's been trying to win her back.

Anastasia's moved on to focus on her career. She's now a personal assistant in the publishing industry, doing her best to learn the business.

When Christian tells Anastasia that he would rather give up his extreme sexual practices than live without her, they begin taking the steps (and showers, and romps) toward reconciliation.

There are aviation accidents, jackass bosses, psychopathic ex-girlfriends, domineering former sexual teachers, fancy boats, birthday parties and pleasure devices sprinkled amongst gorgeous money shots of Seattle.

But above all else, there's sex. If it's not in every scene, it's being talked about or imagined. The dialog is predictably laughable (but still better than the book) and the actors are incredibly appealing to watch, smirking as if they're in on the joke, laughing all the way to the bank.

You may not leave the film thinking you saw anything remotely cinematic, but you are bound to be ... satisfied.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Live Action Short Nominees (Oscars 2017)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.


The year is 1991 and a young girl moves to a new school in Hungary. There she joins the award-winning choir, but is told not to sing loudly like her new friend. Soon the students learn there are several children being "silenced" by their instructor, so they have to make a decision: respect the authority of their corrupt leader or resist. The results are delightful.


A young Danish woman is a worker in a homeless shelter when she comes upon a black man from Ghana being beaten in the park. She chases off his attackers and nurses him back to health, falling in love with him in the process. It seems like a match made in heaven until his secret is revealed, which changes everything. A selfless story about what true love looks like in a world coated in racism.


Luna and Diego are security guards at a public parking garage in Spain. When the supervisor asks Luna to check the surveillance footage for a possible incident with one of the parked cars, she obeys and discovers something extraordinary. What she does next will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has even the tiniest sense of humor. A refreshing comedy.


When an Algerian man who has lived in France his whole life applies for French citizenship in the 1990s, the interview quickly becomes an interrogation. Asked to give up the names of potential terrorists who have become friends to the man, he is faced with a terrible decision if he wants to continue life as he knows it. A frustrating, tense watch because the topic is so unfortunately timely.

LA FEMME ET LE TGV (Switzerland)

A lonely old baker finds joy each day at waving at the trains that pass by her house, as she's done since her now-grown son was a boy. One day as she's cutting grass, she finds a note in her yard that had been tossed out of one of the trains. It was written by a conductor that wanted her to know how happy it made him to see her wave as he went by on his lonely journeys. She responds and the two become pen pals, sending notes and gifts back and forth. I smiled throughout this entire film and found it especially wonderful that it was based upon true events. My favorite of the nominees this year.



This afternoon I saw Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Troy (Washington) and Rose (Davis) are a working-class Pittsburgh couple raising their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) one day at a time. Troy was once a brilliant baseball player, but those dreams passed him by so now he's a garbage man, fighting the white man for the right to be a garbage truck driver.

To say that Troy has a chip on his shoulder would be an understatement. His older son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is a gifted musician who he won't make time to see perform; his younger son Cory is a star football player, but he's hell bent on preventing him from playing at the college level. He wants his sons to do better than he did, but resents them when they excel.

Rose is the ideal 1950s housewife—she cooks, she cleans, she loves. Loyal to a fault, she looks past Troy's fondness for gin and stays by his side while he rants his way through life. She's convinced the world is changing and has hope for the future; his glass isn't just half full: it may as well be empty.

The film acts as a soliloquy showcase for both Washington and Davis, and they both deliver perfection and then some. They both deserve their wins if they take home the Oscars later this month. The trouble is, Fences feels more like the play it once was than a film.

And it's long.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 19 minutes, it feels like 3. We're so tired of Troy's menacing, arrogant attitude by act 2 that when 3 and 4 are more of the same we just want Rose to leave him already. We get that the fence he persists in building is a metaphor for his relationship with God. It doesn't need to be spelled out over and over.

I won't deny the story affected me; I cried along with my theater seat mates during Rose's revelation and the final sequence. But it could have accomplished just as much with a few less speeches and a lot less minutes.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Documentary Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2017)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Documentary Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.


Joseph Feingold survived the horrors of the Holocaust (though some of his family didn't). When he came to the United States after the war to begin a new life, he went to a flea market and bought a violin. It cost him only a carton of cigarettes and became his constant companion for over 70 years. When he heard an announcement that there was an instrument drive for local schools, he decided to finally part with it, and it landed at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. There, 12-year-old Brianna Perez was chosen to borrow it during her time at the school. When she learned of the instrument's history, she invited Feingold to a performance. He went, and it was magical. This film is less than a half an hour long and I cried through at least half of it. Beautiful story, beautiful people, beautiful music.


Highland Hospital in Oakland, California treats patients of all walks of life in their Intensive Care Unit. This film showcases the work of Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care specialist, and her team as they navigate their way through heartbreak after heartbreak, helping families make the toughest decisions of their lives. Their care, stress, compassion, intelligence and warmth are on raw display day after day, week after week. This short glimpse only captures a fraction of it, but reminds us who the real heroes are in this world.


Life as a Greek Coast Guard on the quiet island of Lesbos used to be stress-free for Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos. That is, until the refugee crises began. Now his days are filled acting as a ferry between Turkey and his town as thousands risk their lives to cross the Aegean for a chance at a better life. He has no CPR or medical training, but continues to rescue and attempt to resuscitate those in need. Sometimes he succeeds; sometimes it's too late by the time the bodies float to his boat. Thinking of the times I splashed in that same Sea as a little girl, carefree and safe with my family in Greece, this film hit me especially hard. To see the terror in the eyes of parents not knowing if their children would live, or the fear in the children who were scarred by the horrors of war was borderline unbearable.


A Syrian couple tried to have children for eight years before conceiving, and then, God blessed them with four. Now their one son and three daughters dodge bullets and hide when shells come flying into their formerly peaceful neighborhood as their father, a Free Syrian Commander, dedicates his life to the revolution. Mom gives them cough syrup to relax, but they insist on staying by their father's side ... until their father is captured by ISIS. Unable to continue living in a constant state of chaos, the family seeks asylum in the small German town of Goslar. There they receive a clean home, a monthly salary and the warm welcome they so rightly deserve. They're grateful to their new hosts, but miss their family and homeland. The most in-depth look I've seen into the lives affected by the conflict, and one that will stay with me indefinitely.


As bombs fall onto their neighborhoods and explosions light up their Syrian skies, members of The White Helmets run toward the danger to rescue whomever survived or recover the bodies of those who did not. Members are former builders, former blacksmith—good, kind blue collar men that simply want to do the right thing in the midst of the most grim humanitarian conditions they'll ever face. Civilian volunteers with limited (or no) training who have saved over 58,000 lives to date. But those good deeds don't come without sacrifice. Each day they venture into the rubble is a day they may never come home. Many White Helmet lives have been lost "on the job." Despite this, they support each other like brothers (some even learn of their own deceased family members while being filmed for this documentary), crying, hugging and taking well-earned emotional breaks when they just can't keep going. Films like this should be mandatory in schools, in homes, in governments.


Saturday, February 04, 2017

20th Century Women

Today I saw 20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann.

Though the title leads one to believe this is a story about women, it's more accurately the tale of bringing up one young man—Jamie (Zumann) in the late 1970s. His mother, Dorothea (Bening), had him late in life and his father isn't around, so she fills in the parenting blanks with others. She does this by directly asking for their help in his development.

First on the list is Abbie (Greta Garwig), a cancer-fighting girl who is renting a room in her house. She's out of her teen years, but still young enough to be cool in the eyes of Jamie, and they enjoy a warm, brother-sister dynamic.

Next on the list is Julie (Elle Fanning), a girl Jamie is pining for who stops by almost nightly to sleep with him (but they don't have sex). She doesn't want to sacrifice him as a best friend and therefore refuses to be his girlfriend. Their intimacy is sweet and real and raw.

The consequence of three strong women mobilizing to guide a young man into adulthood? He runs the risk of becoming a rampant feminist, and therefore suffering the consequences of behaving like one.

The film is a humorous, albeit sometimes painful, exploration of that scenario and becomes even more powerful when we realize the story is based on the screenwriter's actual childhood.

Bening's performance is so good, I had to double-check the Oscar nominations when I got home because I was sure she received one (she didn't; total travesty). Dorothea is a loving, confused, misguided, sassy, intelligent, flawed mother ... and you feel everything she feels thanks to Bening.

The supporting players are also strong and well cast. Gerwig is a standout for playing an understated, tragic character.

The backdrop of Santa Barbara provides the tranquil, slow reality of this coastal family's existence.

I'm quite surprised this film isn't making more of a splash.