Category Archives: movie review

I’d Like to Share Something Really Special…

I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.

I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.

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Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.

I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.

But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.

I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.

So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.

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Rewired for the Future

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Last night the Princess and I went to the Dollar Movie in Plano to see the new Spielberg epic, Ready Player One.  (Yes, I know the movie cost $2.70 apiece, but it is still called the Dollar Movie.)  We were blown away with unbridled enthusiasm.  (Enthusiasm takes the place of wind, right?)  For me, the story brought back everything I loved about the 80’s and early 90’s.  The movie is filled with cultural references to things like the Iron Giant,  Mortal Combat, Mobile Suit Gundam, and even the Ninja Turtles.  For the Princess it brought the gaming world and its online possibilities to a sort of fantasy reality that gamers are already beginning to step into.  She wants to be a maker of anime, a game designer, or an animator, and is already well on her way to becoming that.

 

The story is about a future dystopia where life as it actually is is so much worse than the life you can live inside the virtual game world, where life is what you want it to be in your wildest fantasies.

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And the plot revolves around gambling on your fantasy game skills to overcome the corporate cleptocracy with a magnificent all-or-nothing gamble to find the three keys and win the world.

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And in many ways, this techno-virtual-fantasy story is absolutely relevant to the lives we are living at this very moment.  Trump’s cleptocracy is determined to take everything away from us, healthcare, clean drinking water, freedom of speech, and many other things, so that he and his corporate villain-friends can squeeze more profits out of our decline and suffering.  We are living in a real world that will soon resemble the mundane real world of the movie.  And we need to be prepared to fight back in a world as foreign to the world of the 1950’s as the world inside a video game is to the world inside a Shirley Temple movie.  Things have changed.  And we need to change too to survive and thrive in the future.

readyplayerone-tributeposter-highres-breakfastclub-1520373880 There’s probably little hope left for me to make the massive adaptations facing the people of the near future.  I try to get rewired and ready.  I bought a new mouse today make the writing of this post possible.  But I have little doubt that my children will be up to the task.

This is a movie review.  And I think it is clear that I am suggesting you should see it.  I never write reviews on movies I don’t like.  And I liked this one immensely.  But don’t let my opinion sway you.  This is a movie you really have to experience for yourself.

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P.T. Barnum

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Last night my wife and my daughter the Princess went with me to the movie musical The Greatest Showman at the dollar movie.  I was enchanted.  My wife laughed at me for how much the movie made me cry.  But it was a very touching and timely movie for me because it was about pursuing dreams in spite of economic hardships.  The award-winning songs promote with energy and stunning beauty the notion that you should follow your passion no matter the risk, and that choosing to do so will produce rewards as long as family and love are with you and along for the ride.

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Of course, one has to remember that the whole story is based on the life and work of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a man who is a lot more like Donald Trump than he is Hugh Jackman.  I really doubt he could sing and dance the way the movie portrays him.  And words like “humbug”, “fraud”, and “exploiter” apply to him in a very real way.

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Barnum was actually one of those wheeler dealers who wants to control the story.  He actively found ways to alter the public narrative about himself and used criticism to help promote his money-making shows.  The idea of bad publicity being just as good if not better than good publicity actually makes its presence felt in at least one scene in the movie.  There is ample evidence that more than a little of Barnum’s efforts were aimed at making himself a star.

And although the movie sentimentalizes his exploitation of freaks and special individuals, giving him credit for giving them self esteem and a means to make a good living, that was really only the fictional Barnum created by Barnum’s own media efforts.

The truth of the matter, though far more fascinating than the movie version of Barnum, does not make for a good musical libretto.  In the movie the theme of special people outcast from the society because of their uniqueness coming together to support each other in a circus is strongly woven into both the story and the music.  The song “This is Me” performed by Keala Settle playing the part of bearded lady Lettie Lutz is a powerful anthem for everyone who feels smaller than they really are because of prejudice, bullying, racism, sexism, or any of the other forms of moronic stupidity that humans are so often guilty of.  I have to admit, the song made me cry even as it filled me with joy.  The musical score of this movie is one that I intend to listen to again and again and again.  It makes the circus seem like an answer to life’s problems.  It is the same feeling that I got the first time, and every time, I ever saw the circus with all its clowns and jugglers, acrobats and lion tamers, bare-back riders and elephants.  And I knew it was all illusion.  All humbug.  But it was pure joy worth the price of the ticket never-the-less.

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The movie was only rated 56% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  But I rarely pay attention to things like that.  This musical goes into the category with The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Oklahoma!, and Mary Poppins of musicals I can’t live without.  Never mind the greedy little man that it is based on.  This movie is about big dreams and even bigger achievements.  And it is well worth the price.

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Only One Star?

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There are certain books that simply have to exist in order for me to be me.  I couldn’t be the person I am without The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  These are all books that have an allegorical element, a trans-formative effect, that shapes how you think and how you live after reading them. Some of these books have not been made into a movie.  Some probably still can’t be.  Others have not been made into an effective movie.  But, then, Disney in 2018 makes a movie version of A Wrinkle in Time that makes me relive the primary experience of the book all over again.

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I was disappointed to see the critics being harsh about the movie.  I had high hopes before going to see it.  Yet, you couldn’t miss the one star rating on the box office rating system of the ticket and show time site I was using.  But my daughter and I went to see it yesterday anyway.  It was far above my highest expectations.

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You see, the novel itself is magical.  The essential characters of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which have to be witch-like, super-real incarnations of inter-dimensional beings.  It is the view of them with open-minded childlike eyes that makes the complex relationships of this story to reality apparent to anyone who thinks clearly like a child.  It is the reason why this book is a young adult novel, written primarily for children, even though the concept of a tesseract is wholly mind-bending in a Stephen Hawking sort of way.  It is the wonder with which the director of this movie lensed the dimension-tessering time witches that makes this movie the best version.  Not like that failed attempt in 2003.  That was almost there, but not quite by half.

MV5BMjEyNjc0NDgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjYwMjcyMQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_ Strangely enough, the things that the critics seem to hate about this version of the movie are precisely the things that I think make it miraculous.

Critics don’t like some of the special effects and the color schemes of some scenes.  Many things about the final battle with evil are seen by them as inexplicably bizarre.  They don’t like the over-use of extreme close-ups on the faces of characters.  And they think the performances of some of the child actors are too wooden and unreal to carry off the story.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

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This is a story that takes place in the heads of the people involved, including the viewer of the movie.  The extreme close-ups pull you into the personal feelings and struggles of the main characters.  Particularly Storm Reid as Meg.  The story is about her struggle as an adolescent to be at peace with her own flaws and self-image while at the same time being responsible for finding and saving her father, as he has completely lost his way on his quest to “shake hands with the universe”.  Meg undergoes a challenge to her self image as she is cruelly bullied by another girl in school.  She has to come to terms with loving her super-genius little brother Charles Wallace.  And she has to weather the changes that occur when she encounters a potential first love in Calvin.  It is a coming of age story that really smart kids can relate to directly from their own personal experience.

This one-star movie with only a 40% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a far better movie than the critics would have you believe.  It is doing quite well at the box office.  Kids seem to love it.  And in my wacky opinion, it is the best movie version of the book to date.  I love this movie.

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A Mr. Holland Moment

Life is making music.  We hum, we sing to ourselves, movie music plays in our head as the soundtrack to our daily life. At least, it does if we stop for a moment and dare to listen.   We make music in many different ways.  Some play guitar.  Some are piano players.  And some of us are only player pianos.  Some of us make music by writing a themed paragraph like this one.  Others make an engine sing in the automotive shop.  Still others plant gardens and make flowers or tomatoes grow.  I chose teaching kids to read and write.  The music still swells in my ears four years after retiring.

The 1995 movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, is about a musician who thinks he is going to write a magnificent classical orchestra opus while teaching music at a public high school to bring in money and allow him time to compose and be with his young wife as they start a new family.

But teaching is not, of course, what he thought it was.  He has to learn the hard way that it is not an easy thing to open up the closed little clam shells that are the minds of students and put music in.  You have to learn who they are as people first.  You have to learn to care about what goes on in their lives, and how the world around them makes them feel… and react to what you have to teach.  Mr. Holland has to learn to pull them into music appreciation using rock and roll and music they like to listen to, teaching them to understand the sparkles and beats and elements that make it up and can be found in all music throughout their lives.  They can even begin to find those things in classical music, and appreciate why it has taken hold of our attention for centuries.

And teaching is not easy.  You have to make sacrifices.  Big dreams, such as a magnum opus called “An American Symphony”, have to be put on the shelf until later.  You have children, and you find that parenting isn’t easy either.  Mr. Holland’s son is deaf and can never actually hear the music that his father writes from the center of his soul.  And the issue of the importance of what you have to teach becomes something you have to fight for.  Budget cuts and lack of funding cripples teachers in every field, especially if you teach the arts.  Principals don’t often appreciate the value of the life lessons you have to give.  Being in high school band doesn’t get you a high paying job later.

But in the end, at the climax of the movie, the students all come back to honor Mr. Holland.  They provide a public performance of his magnum opus, his life’s work.  And the movie ends with a feeling that it was all worth it, because what he built was eternal, and will be there long after the last note of his music is completely forgotten.  It is in the lives and loves and memories of his students, and they will pass it on.

But this post isn’t a movie review.  This post is about my movie, my music.  I was a teacher in the same way Mr. Holland was.  I learned the same lessons about being a teacher as he did.  I had the same struggles to learn to reach kids.  And my Mr. Holland moment wasn’t anywhere near as big and as loud as Mr. Holland’s.  His was performed on a stage in front of the whole school and alumni.  His won Richard Dreyfus an Academy Award for Best Actor.  But his was only fictional.

Mine was real.  It happened in a portable building on the Naaman Forest High School campus.  The students and the teacher in the classroom next door threw a surprise party for me.  They made a lot of food to share, almost all of which I couldn’t eat because of diabetes.  And they told me how much they would miss me, and that they would never forget me.  And I had promised myself I would never cry about having to retire.  But I broke my promise.  In fact, I am crying now four years later.  But they are not tears of sadness.  My masterwork has now reached its last, bitter-sweet notes.  The crescendos have all faded.  But the music of our lives will still keep playing.  And not even death can silence it completely.

 

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Black Panther

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I have been a comic book lover for practically all of my life.  In childhood in the 1960’s I became a Black Panther fan in the barbershop in Rowan, Iowa.  While waiting for the inevitable butch haircut which I didn’t actually want, I picked up the issue of the Avengers comic book that featured the original encounter with the Vision.  And at that point, the Panther was already a member of the Avengers, battling against the threat of Ultron.  He had previously entered the Marvel Comics world in an issue of the Fantastic Four which I had never read, and I hadn’t ever encountered the character in my comic book reading before that barbershop reading session.  I spent an hour waiting for farmer haircuts reading and rereading that comic book.

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I was thrilled to have Marvel make a movie about one of my all-time favorite Avengers.  I would’ve loved the movie even if Wesley Snipes had succeeded in making it in the 1990’s.  I was predestined, as the uncritical critic, to love this movie no matter what.

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But then they made a movie that was so far beyond my expectations that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the hero all over again.  It was simply the best movie Marvel has made so far in the Super Hero genre.  I know I said this about other movies they have made, but they keep doing better and better.  It was the best example of character development and powerful story-telling that they have done so far.

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The villain Killmonger is the most finely developed villain Marvel has created to date.  The portrayal was sensitive, sympathetic, and totally gut-twisting while you grudgingly had to condemn the villain because he was obviously threatening to destroy everything that was good as a reaction to the wrong that was done to him.

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Of course, you expect a total love-gush of a movie review from an uncritical movie critic like me.  I don’t review movies I didn’t love.  But there are definitely people out there who don’t like this movie (in spite of a 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes).  Some point out that the government of Wakanda has no banks or colleges or research centers (other than the king’s sister’s own) to support the science they are supposedly using.  The science is portrayed as being just as miraculous and magical as that in Dr. Strange.  Some rather wrong-headed people have criticized the movie for being racially charged and political.  But how is an overwhelmingly black cast and production racially charged if both heroes and villains in the story are the same race?  Surely Bilbo Baggins and Gollum don’t turn the tide against this movie.  Not only are they in the minority, but they are balanced.  One good, one evil.  So I am willing to summarily dismiss any objections others have to this wonderful movie.  I don’t even need to think about that.

I saw the Black Panther movie this weekend.  I loved it.  I knew I would since the moment they first announced they would make it.  Now I can’t wait for the next one.

 

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The Last Jedi – An Uncritical Review

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There is controversy about this movie.  Fanboys were disappointed that they were so far wrong about what is really important in this movie.  Fan theories were all way off base.  And that was a good thing.  The movie was the best Star Wars movie they have ever made.

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I took my family to see this movie at a Thursday matinee a week ago on a regular screen so I could actually afford it, and we watched good battle evil once again.  And all the usual things were set up to be a replay of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  But this smashed all expectations.  The evil side very nearly won.  And the good side lost almost everything.  So, in many ways, this whole movie reflected reality in America.  Except, of course, for the fact that Emperor Snoke is actually quite smart and crafty.

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But the thing that makes this such a flaw-filled perfect Star Wars movie is how the story builds on everything that came before to make a coherent and very wise theme.  Threads of ideas that exist in all of the previous movies (except the Christmas specials) are drawn together and woven into a whole thematic cloth.  The Jedi tried to bring balance to the Force, and they failed because they thought balance was the same as the Light Side winning out over Dark.  Anakin Skywalker brought balance to the force by bringing back the Dark Side, and then Luke came along to bring the Light Side into balance.  Of course, the rise and fall of Light and Dark will occur over and over again.

This movie isn’t just another hero’s journey where Rey finds a master and learns what it will take to defeat evil.  Master Skywalker does not actually take her on as a student.  He is dealing with his own demons and refuses.  So the hero must learn the lessons on her own.  But she falls into the pattern naturally that Luke recognizes.  And Luke’s hero journey has not yet concluded either.  Luke recognizes his own past in Rey.  Master Yoda reappears and still teaches him something he needed to know.  “Failure is the greatest teacher.”

Rey shows signs in this movie of becoming the hero that win it all in the end.  But this is Luke Skywalker’s moment.  He learns from his personal failure with Ben Solo.  He steps into his old role as the light that guides the rebellion.  He creates a final duel with Kylo that calls upon him to use greater powers of the Force than we have ever before seen from a Jedi of the Light Side.  And he doesn’t win the battle.  He only delays Kylo and the First Order long enough to save Rey and the Resistance.  It will be up to others to fight on in the next movie.  But Luke has finally proved that the Jedi don’t always fail when the next power surge rolls through the Dark Side.  Metaphorical victories count too.  Surviving is a victory in itself.  No movie has ever been so relevant to my own life and struggles.  I have to fail so I can learn too how to win.

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So, yes.  I am a completely uncritical critic.  I only report on the things I love about movies.  I never quibble over how it should have been done differently, or how it disappointed me.  I actually loved the prequels, and Jar Jar Binks was one of my favorite characters.  But I loved this Star Wars movie more than any of the ones I have seen so far.  And the next one may surpass it.  Miracles do happen.  But this movie was the perfect thing at the perfect time in my life to accomplish everything I want a movie to do for me.  I loved it.  I wouldn’t change a  thing, even if I had the power in the Force to do it.

 

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