“Wonder”: a film about lookism, and more about the rest of the family and school rather than the boy himself

Wonder” (like “Stronger”) is another film that addresses lookism and the challenges that someone with a visible deformity will face socially in life. I was reluctant to see it out of what I feared would be sugary moralizing.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based on the 2012 children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, it presents us with a fifth grader August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) with a genetic facial deformity called mandibulofacial dysotosis, and we’re told that he has had over twenty surgeries as child. The actual physical appearance is toned down;  it is not particularly abnormal, and all you notice is a couple scars.  (I could mention neurofibromatosis, the subject of David Lynch’s 1980bw  film “The Elephant Man” about Joseph Merrick in 19th Century London, which gets around to modeled stagecraft.)

But, much to is credit, the film gradually becomes a story about the rest of the family members and others at his private prep school, rather than just about him.

But the film opens almost as if it were to be animated, with a shot of a spacesuit helmet, as we gradually see a little boy lying on his back in bed with it on, and with a bedspread that continues the space suit image.

His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and father Nate (Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him. We’ve been shown a flashback of the birth, with a “teenage” obstetrician (Shaun Murphy?) and the nurses carry him away in horror when the see his face, almost like he was “Rosemary’s Baby”.

But now its time for middle school, and he’s sent to a fancy prep near Lincoln Center.  So, yes, he and the family have to deal with bullying as (in the previous film yesterday) does the school. Why would kids bully him?  Because they want to be affiliated with the “best” and want to come out on top of a survival of the fittest game?  I’m reminded of the WB show “Gossip Girl” with the rogue blogger Serena turns wealthy teens into proto-Apprentice candidates (like Penn Badgley’s character Dan).  But there, these are younger, middle school kids.  There is a nasty incident of a passed note saying “Freddie Kruger”.  I recall when I was substitute teaching at a middle school in 2005 a kid passed an anti-semetic note to another and got into trouble, as did I, for not preventing something I could not possibly see.  I’m also reminded of an incident in my own Ninth Grade (p. 21 in the DADT 1 book) where I spread rumors and even taunted a student who had experienced an epileptic fit in algebra class (I called it “all those convulsions”), something that sounds like throwing up in class  Well, that happened to me in second grade and was particularly traumatic.

That theme comes up in the movie a few times.  The family dog gets it, and has to be put down, but she is old. In the meantime, a number of the older kids try out to play in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.  Big sister Via is an understudy, and when the lead girl says she fears she will throw up on stage, Via gets to shine.  (That would be a real horror if it happened;  it never happens on Broadway.)   A little bit of the play gets performed in the movie (the play itself has been filmed several times).

At the end, the tone changes, as August gets a science fair award.  I was reminded of Jack Andraka’s award in 2013 at age 16 for an inexpensive pancreatic cancer test he had invented (as detailed in his book “Breakthrough”). Maybe the allusion is intentional.

The film has some interesting brief scenes on Coney Island (near my favorite “Seaside Courts”) and also upstate, in a lake area (Adirondacks?)  According to imdb, except for establishing shots in NYC, most of the film was shot in British Columbia.

Here’s an ABCNews story about another real life case.

Picture: an arts school near Lincoln Center, my photo, Feb. 2013.

Name:  “Wonder”
Director, writer:  Stephen Chobsky, R. J. Palacio (novel)
Released:  2017/12
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/9, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, January 9, 2018 at 10:30 PM EST)

“Stronger”: the Boston Marathon aftermath from an author who lost both legs

Stronger”, directed by David Gordon Green and based on the autobiographical book by Jeff Bauman, with Bret Witter and Josh Haner, who lost both legs to a pressure cooker bomb placed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the first of two) at the Boston Marathon Bombings on Monday, April 15, 2013, is the fourth major film that I have seen on this terror attack.  Bauman was waiting for his girlfriend Erin Hurley to finish the face.  After a stormy and challenging relationship pictured in the film, but leading to a child, he would marry Erin and throw out the fist pitch for the Boston Red Sox season in 2014.  Bauman’s description of Tamerlan helped narrow down the suspect list and lead to his eventually being cornered three days later, when Tamerlan died in a shootout with police. The fact that the bomb was placed so close to Bauman raises disturbing questions as to whether he or some other nearby person could have attracted Tamerlan’s sights as an individual target in the crowd.  The film doesn’t show the physical carnage of the victims until a flashback near the very end.

I approached this film with a little personal moral trepidation, which I’ll come back to.  But I can recall similar comments by other moviegoers before “128 Hours” came out, about the hiker who had to amputate his own arm to free himself.

Bauman is played by the versatile and peripatetic Jake Gyllenhaal.  I have no idea how they managed to set up the scenes with the stumps for his thighs, and the eventual prosthetics.  (An apt comparison could come from the 1993 film “Boxing Helena”.) The film is shot in full anamorphic wide screen, when a standard aspect might have contributed to making the closeups even more brutal to watch (Hitchcock’s theory).   Gyllenhaal’s chest is shaved for scenes like the bathtub tantrums, but that might have happened from all the hospital gear.  Gyllenhaal is unusually willing to loan his body to special effects, as I have noted here before. Erin is played by Tatiana Maslaney.

Bauman starts out the film as a working class “prole” working for Cosco. The company is later shown as fully behind supporting his health insurance needs and keeping his job, Wikipedia lists Bauman now as an “author” as if there will be more books.  The early scenes show some stereotyped working class bar banter (including some mention of gay people and lesbianism).

The film also shows Bauman’s road to recovery as difficult and sometimes ugly.  The film, admirably, avoids overplaying the idea of Bauman as a national hero to be pimped as a symbol of national resilience, the Red Sox notwithstanding. There is a scene near the end in a miniature Fenway Park, before the final home opener climax for “Boston Strong” with the Green Monster covered with an American flag.  I guess it was removed for the actual game.  I’ll add that I’ve had one serious injury my own life, an acetabular hip fracture from a convenience store fall in Minneapolis in 1998.  I was back to work in three weeks. But I had a week in rehab, and I saw a man with a leg prosthesis (the loss was to bone cancer, I think) take his first steps on parallel bars in the gym rehab room, literally overlooking the Mississippi River.

Now I come to the more personal part.  I’ve never seen victimhood as particularly honorable, and recovery from a violent or perpetrated by another, perhaps a politically motivated enemy (terrorist), starts with the “victim”.  But the film stays with that viewpoint.  I’ve been particularly sensitive sometimes about being expected to sell the idea of disability as somehow pretty.  I have internally resisted the idea of continuing an intimate relationship with someone who become disfigured by a violent incident or illness – yet I know intellectually that family resilience depends on this openness (in the film, Erin is indeed open to sex and pregnancy, and Jeff’s attitude is transformed by prospective fatherhood).  I can remember back in graduate school, before facing my own conscription, saying myself and hearing other students say they would not come back from a war maimed and disfigured, as if thet had a real choice.  (The 2008 film “Fighting for Life” about war injuries from Iraq gets into this.) Right now, at age 74, it seems as thought that sort of event is pretty unlikely. I thought about the EKG I had a few days ago in a doctor’s office, when he put the pad on my leg, bald with age to the extent that wearing shorts seems indecent.  Body shame has always been potentially important to me. But shame-retention can become a very personal target for terrorists.

I suppose this kind of film will come out of the Pulse attack in Orlando.  And I could imagine working on making it.   Would I ever do something like a special Olympics?  I’ve never wanted to make something like that my own cause.

But there are many examples of people making athletic accomplishments after amputation, such as Andrew Montgomery in Las Vegas as in this CNN story.  Another example is Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, an accomplished runner but convicted In a tragic shooting.

Wiki of area of first bombing.

Wiki of Jeff Bauman and Jake Gyllenhaal (with gams).

Name:  “Stronger”
Director, writer:  David Gordon Green, Jeff Bauman
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/9/23, small audience
Length:  118
Rating:  R
Companies:  Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Bold, Mandeville
Link:  official 

(Posted: Saturday, September 23, 2017, at 10 PM EDT)

Dylan O’Brien plays super-hero in Vince Flynn’s “American Assassin”, and the subject matter is very grave in the world of Trump

On the evening of September 11, 2001 I attended a screening of Michael Cuesta’s “L.I.E. ” (Long Island Expressway) at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.  I won’t dawdle on the theme right now (a teen’s relationship with an older man played by Brian Cox), but I want to recall that I met Cuesta in a hotel bar after the show – because he couldn’t fly back to New York in the wake of the 9/11 groundings (No, the bar wasn’t the Saloon or the Nineties.)

I met author Vince Flynn at a booksigning party at a Barnes and Noble in Edina, for his self-published “Term Limits” (them it was Cloak and Dagger Press. before Pocket Books gave him a contract), in the fall of 1997, just after I had moved to Minneapolis myself.  We had a discussion about the whole process, which I had just executed with my own first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

Vince Flynn beat me to the movies.  He also died in 2013 at age 47 of unusually aggressive prostate cancer.

Flynn’s genre of techno-thrillers, sometimes compared to Tom Clancy,  adapted quickly to the end of the old Cold War and the new world of terrorism and rogue and failed states

Mike Cuesta’s latest film  comes from Flynn’s “American Assassin” (2010) which turns out to be eerily prescient with the concern over a rogue state using nuclear weapons.  This time, the state is Iran, rather than North Korea.

But the movie is also part of the Mitch Rapp series.  This time, Rapp is played by 26-year-old Dylan O’Brien (“Rhe Maze”).  In the opening scene, Mitch is with his fiancée (Charlotte Vega) on a Florida beach when a gruesome radical Islamist terror attack mows down everyone on the beach with automatic weapons.  Mitch loses his love despite surviving himself with minor injuries. He swears personal revenge.  Back in his Rhode Island apartment, having flunked out of college, he finds his calling. He pretends to be a Muslim and gets recruited by ISIS on Twitter (an activity Trump says he wants to shut down despite his own use of the platform) and goes into the Dark Web.  Soon he is in Libya.  But he has already made arrangements with other mercenaries to become a saboteur, even as he fools his ISIS “trainers” at first.

Fast forward and he is being interviewed by the CIA (director played by Sanaa Lathan, convincing in a minority-cast role as sufficiently authoritative) and trained by a former seal (Michael Keaton) in various virtual reality settings.  The “ghost” arms dealer (Taylor Kitsch) hardly looks like one.

The film moves around the world, from London to Poland, to Turkey, Romania, and Italy, as Mitch tracks down a parts of a bomb intended for Tel Aviv.  Yes, an underwater nuke can produce a mushroom cloud and destroy a lot of ships in the area.

The real problem right now is that North Korea has more than one nuke, to be sure.  I wonder if any of Flynn’s novels deal with the EMP threat (E1 and E3 are different parts).

Dylan O’Brien’s performance merits note.  Yes, he rather comes across as superman, verging on a comic book hero.  He usually looks clean cut and boyish, with a little wad of chest hair on the beach that survives.  When he tries to look like an ISIS fighter in disguise, he isn’t convincing. In most scenes, despite all the mayhem, his pretty physicality remains intact, very slender, very muscular, as if prepared not for “Dancing with the Stars” but for a big gay disco with all the dirty dancing.  Milo Yiannopoulos would find him admirable (because “thin” is “in”).  Flynn’s writing manages to keep romance and family as a kind of “afterthought” behind the real super-hero, even given Rapp’s earnestness.  But, didn’t that perspective come from James Bond — what it means to be a man.

The film was shot in Thailand. Istanbul, Rome, Malta, and London.

Name:  “American Assassin”
Director, writer:  Michael Cuesta, Vince Flynn
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, weekday PM, small audience
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  CBS Films, Lionsgate
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“The Big Sick”: romantic comedy about caregiving covers Muslim assimilation

The Big Sick”, directed by Michael Showalter, written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, does, even as a romantic medical comedy (if there is such a thing) lay out the issue of assimilation for religious minorities, especially Muslims.

Kumali, playing himself as having come with his parents as a little boy from Pakistan, does comedy gigs at Chicago nightclubs, more or less on Rush Street. His more conservative but well assimilated Muslim parents urge him to go to law school and become respectable.

Kumali falls in love with a (Gentile) girl Emily (Zoe Kazan), and they start sleeping together.  One day Emily twists her ankle in a supermarket, and a few days later is in a medical coma with what looks like a life-threatening opportunistic pneumonia.  Kumali is the only one present until family arrives and pretends to be the husband.  The doctor asks if she has HIV, which could mean that Kumali has been exposed to AIDS himself. (Yes, heterosexuals can spread it.)

But it turns out that Emily has an unusual automimmune disorder, related to genetics (and probably an earlier infection like mono).  Eventually she pulls through, and the end of the film will deal with whether they still have a relationship.

The film presents a few social issue confrontations. Early in the film, when Emily shouts out at him, he scolds her for harassing a  comedian, which is considered rude behavior in comedy clubs.  (Ask Kate Clinton, whom I have watched on Netflix.)  Nevertheless, that helps start the relationship.

While Emily is in the hospital, a caricature of a while nationalist and “Trump supporter” harasses Kmali in the club as a recruiter for “ISIS”.  The boorish troll gets tossed by security, but not before he is told he is  “bad person”, part of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”.

Then there is the scene where Kumali is confronted by his parents.  Why doesn’t he think about his family instead of himself, they say.  Why is an arranged marriage to a Muslim girl not god enough for him?  Why won’t he grow his beard?  (He looks quite handsome and charismatic as he is, clean-shaven but with his hairy body;  most middle Eastern people are actually “white”, a fact that gets lost on a lot of people.)  Why won’t he kneel and pray five times a day facing Mecca?  Kumali does not such formality is necessary to have the personal faith.

I worked in I.T. or 30 years, and I always encountered software people from India and Pakistan. Until 9/11, nobody thought about religion in the office.  Everyone was assimilated. The parents are shown as well off, with beautiful Islamic interior decorations and art work in the house, and well assimilated into American capitalism and business.

At the end, Kumali moves to New York to start in a new club, and Emily has to make a choice.

Chicago picture (wiki).

There was a short film called “Murphy” about a boy, a dog and an animation in the pre-show (M2M).

Name: The Big Sick
Director, writer:  Michael Showalter, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/9/10
Length:  120
Rating:  R
Companies:  Amazon Studios, Lionsgate, Apatow
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, September 11, 2017m at 12:30 PM EDT)

“The Glass Castle” based on a memoir of white poverty

Is “The Glass Castle” a film about rebellion and living outside the system (and trying to get your kids to do so) and almost off the grid, or is it about the moral politics of poverty, especially for less well-off whites in southern West Virginia – specifically near Welch, very much in Trump’s coal country.

The dramedy, overlong at 127 minutes, directed by Dustin Daniel Cretton and somewhat freely adapted from the memoir of Jeannette Walls (not quite a “manifesto”), tells its story in two time layers.

In 1989, the young adult Jeannette (Brie Larsen) has escaped into the good life in NYC as a reporter and gossip columnist with a Wall Street fiancée David (Max Greenfield). When her alcoholic, derelict dad Rex (Woody Harrelson) barges back into her life, the movie goes mostly into flashback mode. We learn that at 3, Jeannette was left to cook on a gas stove and was scarred for life from the resulting fire, although it gets covered by clothes (something a fiancée would have to deal with).

Most of the narrative concerns Rex’s taking the family to a ramshackle clapboard house near Welch, and promising to build his fantasy “Glass Castle” with solar panels. In the meantime, the family goes hungry. Mom, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) does her thing as a painter. She thinks there will be little competition in coal country. The kids turn out all right. Brian becomes a police officer but looks pretty sharp in the film (Josh Caras, from “Bugcrush”).

People in that part of the world, in the mountain hollows, are quite self-reliant, as they demonstrated after the 2016 floods. They hardly used the volunteers churches tried to sent them.

The film does some travel in the desert and in New Mexico (the early road-movie scenes) but it doesn’t take advantage of a chance to mention the mountaintop removal in the area.

The Washington Post ran an article in the Outlook Section P. 2 today by Stephen Pimpare that talks aout this film a lot. The print title is “What movies tell us about poverty.” Online the title is more challenging, “Where do we learn that poverty is shameful and dangerous? At the movies.” This film echoes that view. You don’t want to walk in their shoes unless you’re coerced to.

Jeffrey Tucker of FEE reviews the film in an article, “Does Society Have Room for Brilliant Eccentrics?” Well, Rex is irresponsible enough that Jeannette tells him she never wants to see him again (that’s much worse than being blocked in today’s social media) but she does go back to West Virginia for his deathbed.


Name:  “The Glass Castle”
Director, writer: Dustin Daniel Cretton, Jeanette Walls
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/8/27 fair crowd
Length: 207
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug, 27, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

ABC airs remake of “Dirty Dancing” as a musical

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 ABC aired a 3-hour (including commercials) remake by Lionsgate of the 1987 low-budget hit “Dirty Dancing”, originally directed by Emile Ardolino and released by Vestron and Artisan (which Lionsgate bought), the new version by Wayne Blair.  The remake was probably facilitated legally by Lionsgate’s ownership of some of the original materials.

The original low-budget film had been a surprise hit. The new version is set up as a musical, of sorts, with all the popular songs  (like “The Time of My Life”) played, providing some of the lilt of 80s disco music.

The plot is actually rather intricate.  The film is set in 1963 at a resort, the Sheldrake, in the Catskills (the new film was shot largely in North Carolina and Virginia, especially near Blacksburg). “Baby” (Abigail Breslin), son of a doctor (Bruce Greenwood) visits the resort and gradually falls in love with the working class dance instructor Johnny Castle (Cold Prattes).  There are tensions between Johnny and some of the other Ivy League young men at the resort (this is pre-assassination, pre-Vietnam Kennedy era). There are some racial tensions with an African American dancer. And there are a couple of long subplots involving Baby’s borrowing money from her dad for a friend Penny (Nicole Scherzinger) to have an abortion when Colt’s rival Robbie (Shane Harper) knocks Penny up; the abortion is botched (as often happened in those days, when “the abortionist” would be portrayed as a common criminal on the TV show “The D.A.’s Man”).  Later Colt gets falsely accused of petty theft.

The “dirty dancing” style is perhaps more curious in gay discos, where gradual unmasking happens. In the movie, Colt is usually attired with a completely open shirt, with only a little chest hair, rather derivative of  John Travolta in “Staying Alive” (1985).

Author Ryan Field has a gay novel from Riverdale Publishing based on the title.

Patrock Swayze had played Colt in the 1987 film.  Swayze would die after a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer, a much more resilient survival than for most.   Jack Andraka’s book “Breakthrough” describes had a teen discovered a possible early detection test for pancreatic cancer.

I recall visiting a similar resort in the Adirondacks, at Lake Placid, as a child on a summer trip with my parents, where dinner was announced with a gong.

Name: “Dirty Dancing”
Director, writer:  Wayne Blair
Released:  2017, remake of 1987
Format:  1.85:1  TV
When and how viewed:  ABC Network 2017/5/24
Length:  150 approx
Rating:  PG-13 probably
Companies:  Lionsgate, ABC Studios
Link:  ABC

(Posted: Friday, May 25, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

“Sundown”: the kind of spring-break comedy I get emails about (asking me if I want to write another one)

Sundown” (directed Fernando Lebrija) is another stereotyped teen spring break comedy, the kind that I get emails about asking if I a screenplay to submit in this genre. It offers the novelty of a setting in the Mexican coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta, for rich people.

Logan (a handsome Devon Werkheiser) and his best friend Blake (Sean Marquette) will be the tag team. Blake seems like a younger Seth Rogen, as if the producers wanted another comedy that would see if they could anger North Korea into another hack (which apparently just happened).

Logan’s dad (John Michael Higgins), having raised him in some LA Valley suburb, often pesters Logan during Logan’s home disco mixing sessions, as Logan seems to aspire to be a disco electronics music composer. That’s not bad. Dad wants Logan to take care of the house while parents go away, and gives him grandfather’s metal Rolex watch, worth thousands.

One cardinal rule, it seems to me, is that you don’t give a teen boy a metal band wrist watch before he gets through puberty, should his wrists become hairy and the watch grabby. In these days of DuoSkin maybe that won’t matter.

Logan and Blake sneak out by airliner (no electronics ban yet) to Puerto Vallarta for heterosexual circuit parties. That’s not before they get some weed from Eugene (Reid Ewing, who gets more of a part in the closing credits). Once there, the taxi driver (quite reckless on a two-lane road) almost takes the watch for barter. Logan gets involved with a call girl Gaby (Camilla Belle), and wakes up from the drugs to find the watch gone. I know the feeling. That’s not until a scene where she vomits into his mouth trying to kiss him.

The rest of the comedy is about getting the watch back, sort of (the viewer’s hook for the screenwriter), and dealing with the Mexican mafia, which is hardly of MS-13 caliber, but it does play to the hustling mentality of the poor when dealing with guest rich white people. Logan will wind up rescuing Gaby from a pimp (remember “Hustle and Flow”: indeed, it’s hard our here for a pimp). Then Logan has to return and make up with his dad.

The film has been criticized for the casting of Gaby, as if an affront to Mexico. The film seems especially deadpan given the current political debates over immigration and asylum.

Logan and Blake endure a lot, including some drag paintball makeup on their bodies, maybe simulating the DuoSkin.

In the film’s “middle”, there is a rather offensive cock fight, which Logan has to get himself out of.  It seems rather cruel to animals. But a backstory chapter in my novel draft “Tribunal and Rapture” (later morphed into “Angel’s Brother”) depicts a cock fight in Florida in giving the background of one of the characters (a “retired” FBI agent). It was good for me to be reminded of that scene.

Somehow this film reminds me of the little 2001 comedy “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt about a cursed gun. It has no connection to “Hurry Sundown” (1967), a film, which because of reference to the draft, I probably need to see.

Wikipedia picture of Puerto Vallarta beach (not as pretty as San Sebastian, Spain, for my money.)

Name:  “Sundown”
Director, writer:  Fernando Lebrija
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Amazon Instant $3.99 (also on Netflix Instant)
Length:  104
Rating:  R
Companies:  Lionsgate, Pantelion, Netflix
Link:  Indiewire

(Posted: Friday, May 19, at 12:30 AM EDT)

“The Shack”: Christian film with a sci-fi plot line and charismatic messiah figure

The Shack”, directed by Stuart Hazeldine, is a Christian film set up as a road science fiction adventure, so to speak.  It also has a slow, expansive, narrative style.

The film is based on the self-published best seller Christian novel by William P. Young   I guess the novel provides a lesson in how self-published authors can make themselves popular and actually sell books.

The film has an extensive prologue about the abusive father or central character Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington), before settling on present day, where Mack has adjusted in life and is raising a good family with three kids near Portland, OR (much of the actual filming was in British Columbia – but  the film has outdoor scenes near Multnomah Falls and Mount Hood).

He takes the family on a camping trip.  In a boating accident, his son Josh (Gage Munroe) almost drowns but is brought back quickly by CPR.  But in the meantime, his daughter Missy disappears.  Soon there is overwhelming evidence that she was murdered by an unapprehended pedophile in an abandoned shack near the camp.  Mack goes into grief and his ability to function interpersonally or carry on his marriage stumbles.  He wants justice.  The film doesn’t mention John Walsh and America’s Most Wanted, but it would fit.

One snowy day he finds a bizarre handwritten note in his mailbox inviting him to go back to the shack. He arranges to do so, taking a gun and a friend’s pickup.  A bizarre series of events ensues:  a near miss with a crash with a rig, and then, in the frozen shack, he stumbles and falls.  He first sees a deer, and then seems to recover.  When he goes out into the woods, the weather suddenly warms and the snow disappears, and he meets a charismatic stranger “Jesus” played by Israeli actor Avraham Aviv Alush.

He returns to the shack, which is now suddenly repaired and furnished, with other comforting people, especially “Papa” (Octavia Spencer) and later Male Papa or “God” (Graham Greene).  In the ensuing sequence (about 45 minutes), Jesus takes him through miracles, like walking on the water.  He is also placed in a position of playing “judge”.  There is a climatic scene in a field where the departed are depicted as columns of light, as a view of a hollow heaven or the afterlife.

“Jesus” is slender and attractive (maybe about 40), and would be viewed as desirable, for example by old fashioned gay male values.   There is an inherent problem in asking a major character (and the audience) to believe that a charismatic young man is actually Jesus, or some sort of supernatural entity, or maybe a kindly extraterrestrial alien.   It’s more believable when the protagonist has gone on some sort of unusual pilgrimage (or “Way”) to reach the destination.  Is “Jesus” different from other charismatic young adult male characters in other sci-fi (such as young Clark Kent in “Smallville” or Will in “The Dark Place”, which presents this sort of character in a gay drama).  I mentioned this in my review of “A Cure for Wellness” on Feb. 20, comparing it to my own story, “Ocelot”.

The “return” to the “real world” is a bit corny and not that satisfying, unless you want a merely religious explanation for what has happened, and for the repair of Mack’s soul.  I would like to see more.

Bonus music: Franz Liszt: “St. Francis Walking on the Water”, second of the “Two Legends” for piano solo.

Multnomah Falls. Multnomah Falls, Oregon (I visited in 1996).


Name: The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
Director, writer:  Stuart Hazeldine, William P. Young (novel)
Released:  2017/3/3
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Common, 2017/3/3, afternoon, small audience
Length:  132
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Summit, Windblown Media
Link:  movie, book

(Posted: Friday, March 3, 2017 at 10 PM ESY)

(Picture: Near Tioga Pass, CA, mine, 2012)

“Patriots Day” re-enacts the Boston Marathon terror attack in 2013

Patriots Day” (2016), directed by Peter Berg, is a studio (Lionsgate) dramatic reenactment of the Boston Marathon bombing and terror attack that started April 15, 2015 and concluded four days later.  The film would complement the studious documentary  “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” (reviewed Oct. 18).

Marky Mark Wahlberg plays Boston cop Tommy Saunders, and gives a lot of attention to his bad knee.  John Goodman is police commissioner Ed Davis. A wrinkled Kevin Bacon plays FBI agent Richard DesLauriers.

But Themo Melikidze, the Georgian (former Soviet Union) born actor with model-like looks, comes across as absolutely chilling as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as when he lectures Dun Meng (Jimmy Yang) on why American civilians are bargaining chips against Muslims and also claims that Martin Luther King was a fornicator. (We later learn that the brothers liked porn.)  Alex Wolff looks like Dzhokhar, who usually plays the part of baby brother, incredibly dependent on Tamerlan and summing up aggression like a robot.

The film explores the chilling diffidence of Katherine Russell (Melissa Benoist) when questioned, as well as the lax attitudes of Jahar’s pot-smoking roommates (story), who wound up with minor prosecutions.  The film could have done more with Jahar’s Twitter trail.

The explosions are overwhelming, and take longer to unfold than one expects. Later the shootout in Watertown streets plays out like a military battle.  The execution of MIT police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) and the kidnapping of Dun are chilling, making me wonder if I would even want to survive something like this.

The film is somewhat considerate on showing the horrific wounds and amputations, but one young couple is shown as pulling through, with a strong marriage.

Name:  “Patriot’s Day
Director, writer:  Peter Berg
Released: 2016
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic 2017/1/13
Length: 133
Rating:  R
Companies:  Lionsgate, CBS Films
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 13, 2017 at 8:45 PM EST)

“La La Land”: two artists both rebel against the system to get their dream careers going, and sort-of fall in love


Name: La La Land
Director, writer: Damien Chavelle
Released: 2016/12
Format: 2.55:1, full Cinemascope (see in a large theater)
When and how viewed: 2016/12/17, Angelika Mosaic
Length 128
Rating PG-13
Link: official site

La La Land” bills itself as a Technicolor Cinemascope musical paying homage to the great musicals of the 50s. Well, many of those were from Fox in Deluxe color. This film comes from young director Damien Chazelle, and is also written by him, with a much more subtle plot than is common in many musicals. It also comes from Summit Entertainment (and apparently some French funding), a subsidiary of Lionsgate. The film opens with the Summit mountain in black and white, in the old aspect ratio, resembling the Paramount mountain “too much”. The screen opens up on the word “Cinemascope”. I don’t know if 70mm was used (as in “The Hateful Eight”), but the film has a grand look and crisp, deep cinematography throughout. The color palette is a little garish, as was common with Technicolor in the early 50s.

The film opens with a “traffic jam” on an LA Freeway (maybe the notorious 405), and a music and dance number on top of mustangs and vintage cars. Yet the movie will later have cell phones and modern stuff. Still, this is a “Café Society” plot.

The plot concerns two artists who come together in a workmanlike romance. (The story could have worked well with a same-sex couple, especially female.) Canadian star Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian (sounds like the name of a cat), a night club pianist having some hard knocks, and taking reckless chances (like driving the freeways without insurance). One evening he embellishes a supposed Christmas show with a pianistic cadenza sounding like it belongs in a Ravel piano concerto. (Impressionistic, and not quite in the Scriabin “Black Mass” world, but close.) The movie has set up this scene by showing Sebastian practicing piano at home, inspired by a vinyl record. The boss Bill, played by J. K. Simmons determined to repeat his performance in “Whiplash” (as if Miles Teller were playing Sebastian) fires him. Along the way, he meets Mia (Emma Stone), who has trouble holding down a “real job”, a minimum wager in a sandwich shop, and who keeps getting rejected in auditions. But she has written a one-woman play, “So Long, Boulder City”, referring to her home town in Nevada. The film shows the deprecation of the theater where she will perform over the time (it’s last film is “Rebel Without a Cause”). Oh, yes, Mia had an altercation, of sorts, with Sebastian in the traffic jam.

The film, set up in the four seasons start in winter (in sunny Los Angeles this doesn’t mean much), with an epilogue in winter 5 years later, with an outcome that will remind me of the ending of “Splendor in the Grass”. Sebastian and Mia never get physical except in Mia’s post marital fantasy. It is indeed a “real” relationship of a different sort.

But the most interesting idea, for me, in the plot was how Mia gets an audition, with a chance to get her play made into a movie (in France, of course). This happens even after her play doesn’t sell enough tickets to pay the theater rental — invoking the idea that creative works should pay their own freight — because the right person attended. Her audition will be to improvise (like a jazz pianist) and tell her life story. Could I get a chance to pitch my “Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany” that way? Maybe this movie is a game change for me. (One of my other screenplays, “Make the A-List” (2002) starts out with a retrospective audition.) An irony is that Sebastian gets her to the audition but didn’t have time to come to her play because his own career was finally picking up.

Although the film starts out with a lot of music, not as much of the middle part is sung as is usual in musicals. The original songs are by Justin Hurwitz, but many of them will sound familiar. They have the slightly impressionistic harmonies suggestive of Debussy and Ravel in places.

One point about jazz is indeed the improvisation. It may not “take a long time to become a good composer” as it does with more formal classical music.

I’ll also include “Traffic Jam”, short film video by Reid Ewing and Allison Jayne. I visited LA in 2012, and a lot of the specific scenery around the 405 and 101 looked familiar. I stayed at the Angelino and had a view of much of LA from the hotel room.

The pre-show at Angelica included a short about “Cats on a High Wire” (I missed the title). Cats can be trained after all.

(Posted: Saturday, December 17, 2016 at 11:30 PM EST)