Category Archives: movie review

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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The Last Night of the Leave

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On the last night of my son’s 14-day leave from the Marine Corps for the holidays, we took him out to eat and then saw a family movie together.  It was the Pixar movie Coco.  And what a perfect movie it was!  First of all, it is about family.  It is about the connections we have to those who’ve come before us.  Grandparents and Great Grandparents and Great Great Grandparents… the greatness just keeps flowing back into the past.  And this movie connected living family members to those who came before.

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We spent a lot of our time over the holiday visit talking about the past and those who came before us.  My kids didn’t really get much of a chance to know great grandparents in real life, and great great grandparents were long gone.  My son only knows about Great Great Grandpa Raymond through my stories about Sunday afternoon baseball, listening to Harmon Killebrew and the Twins playing on the radio with Grandpa Raymond.  Great Grandma Beyer got to hold Number One Son and Number Two Son, but only Number One was old enough to remember her at all, and that only in the vaguest possible ways.  I try to keep them alive with family stories and anecdotes.  Much in the same fashion the movie did, although the main character Miguel (ironically the Spanish version of Michael) actually visits the land of the dead.  I haven’t personally gone quite that far.

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The movie also expresses a deep genetic love of music, especially guitar music.  My kids are all musical, and both of my sons play guitar.  Number Two Son is particularly gifted in a Spanish-style ability to pick out complex tunes by ear and by sheet music.  The movie’s music is without question the thing that makes it the best movie we have seen this year.

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And the movie is filled to the brim with bright and appealing artwork, being an animated movie filled with Mexican art, even having a guest cameo appearance by the incomparable Frida Kahlo.  This is easily the best movie she has been in since she died in 1954.  The comedy of this whole extended skeleton dance of a movie is laugh-out-loud gorgeous.    And artwork is also something I share a love for with my three children.

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So I put him on an airplane in DFW today, and he is now back at his base.  But I had him here for a precious little while and we capped it off with a precious little movie. Now, I have to admit, this post is not entirely a movie review.  It is more about how my family made use of it and interacted with it.  It is more of a family story that I needed to tell to keep the goodness of it alive and vibrant, painted in bright colors.  But if you really want to know what I think of the movie, then I will shout at you, “YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE!!!”  With three exclamation marks and everything.  It is simply that good.

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An Unexpected Gift 

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This post is a movie review for Thor : Ragnarok , though I don’t really plan on talking about the movie very much.   It was an excellent comic book movie in the same tongue-in-cheek comedy tradition as Guardians of the Galaxy.   It made me laugh and made me cheer.   It was the best of that kind of movie.  But it wasn’t the most important thing that happened that night.

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You see, I spent the weekend in the hospital thinking I had suffered a heart attack during the Thanksgiving holiday. I thought I was facing surgery at the very least.   I knew I might have had an appointment to play chess with the Grim Reaper.   It is a lot to worry about and drain all the fun out of life.

Well, one of the things that happened that day, Tuesday, my first full day out of the hospital and, hopefully, out of the woods over heart attacks, was that I received my new replacement bank card because my old one had a worn out, malfunctioning chip in it.  So, I took my three kids to the movie at the cheapest place we could find.  I tried to run my bank card for the payment, and it was summarily declined.  I had activated it previously during the day, and there was plenty of money in the account compared to the price, but it just wouldn’t take.  So I had to call Wells Fargo to find out whatever the new reason was for them to hate me.  It turned out that it had already been activated, but a glitch had caused it to decline the charge.  While I was talking to the girl from the Wells Fargo help desk, the lady who had gotten her and her husband’s tickets right before us put four tickets to the movie in my hand.

The middle-aged black couple had lingered by the ticket stand before going in to their movie just long enough to see a sad-looking old man with raggedy author’s beard and long Gandalf hair get turned down by the cheap-cinema ticket-taking teenager because the old coot’s one and only bank card was declined. They were moved to take matters into their own hands and paid for our tickets themselves.

That, you see, was the gift from my title.  Not so much that we got our movie tickets for free, but that the world still works that way.  There are still good people with empathetic and golden hearts willing to step in and do things to make the world a little bit better place.  The gift they gave me was the reassurance that, as bad and black as the world full of fascists that we have come to live in has become, it still has goodness and fellow feeling in it. People are still moved to pay things forward and make good on the promise to “love one another”.  I did not have a chance to thank them properly.  I was on the phone with Wells Fargo girl when it happened.  The only thing that couple got out of their good deed was thank-yous from my children and the knowledge that they had done something wonderful.  I plan to pay it forward as soon as I have the opportunity.  Not out of guilt or obligation, but because I need to be able to feel that feeling too at some point.

I do have one further gift to offer the world.

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After we got home from the movie, I opened an email that contained the cover proof for my novel, Magical Miss Morgan.  Soon I will have that in print also if I can keep Page Publishing from messing it up at the last moments before printing.  It is a novel about what a good teacher is and does.  It is the second best thing I have ever written.

Sometimes the gifts that you most desperately need come in unexpected fashion.

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Sequel + Mania = Sequelania

I hate to spring another portmanteau word on you so soon after the atrocity that was “Hypocrasisyphus”, but I have been seriously putting things together that do not belong together.  For example, I have been binge-watching two Netflix series; Stranger Things 2 and The Punisher.   Stranger Things 2 is the sequel to the Duffer Brothers’ hit last year, Stranger Things, and The Punisher is the return of a surprise breakout role for Jon Bernthal as the violent vigilante anti-hero, Punisher, from Daredevil, Season 2.   ST2-Final_poster

I love the 80’s monster movie thing that is called Stranger Things mostly because of the kids.  I mean, the most important protagonists in the story are the gang of Dragon’s Lair-playing kids that are so like the gang of kids I taught and played games with in the 80’s.  They have the same cohesion and feel as the kids gangs in Steven Spielberg movies like the Goonies and E.T.   They are the real heroes of the story who actually do the most to defeat the monsters they face from a looming evil dimension on the verge of taking over our world after taking over the body and soul of my relative, Will Byers, one of the gang.

 

I won’t spend much more effort describing that one, since I wrote about Stranger Things 2 in a previous post.  Instead, I want to connect it to my most recent binge, The Punisher.  As I said before, these two series have absolutely no relationship to each other beyond one nutty retired school teacher bingeing on and loving them both.

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The Punisher is about war, violence, the trauma that those things create, and putting the shattered pieces of lives, families, and psyches back together again in a way that resembles making scrambled eggs from Humpty Dumpty.

The main character, Frank Castle, has been a special forces soldier with a talent for violence and a reasonable code of honor developed to combat unreasonable malevolence.

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He has come home from war after having been a part of a covert, CIA assassination squad that has done terrible things, in fact, things more terrible than even the soldiers themselves realize.

The result being, somewhere along the way, a toxic secret has gotten out.  Castle’s wife and two children are targeted and killed while Castle himself survives.  He seeks to put himself back together like the King’s men attempt to do with Humpty Dumpty, through revenge, and killing the people who killed his family, and the people who were part of the plot behind it.  Through two series he murders, assassinates, and otherwise exterminates bad guys, drug dealers, rogue agents, and others who have betrayed him in multiple ways.

But as mind-numbing and stomach-turning as the violence is, the story is about family.  The family that Castle lost.  And the family of the Edward Snowden-like character, Micro, who are still alive, but only because the NSA spook Micro is thought to be dead when he actually is alive and working against the same villains who killed Castle’s family.

And there are just enough scenes with family and guitar-playing moments of insight to convince us that Castle would’ve been a pretty great dad, if only he had been given the chance, thus amplifying the tragedy a hundred fold.  Aha!  There’s the unlikely link.  The two things are both about the struggle to raise kids in a dark and dangerous world.  I knew if I just twisted the puzzle pieces hard enough, I could make them fit together.

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