‘Loving’ an incredible story of love, courage and justice

loving

BY ROGER THOMAS

     I felt like I knew the story of “Loving” before I saw the whole film. The trailer has been out for several months and there are an abundance of poignant moments in that trailer. I kept hoping that there was more to the story that was equally strong as the early glimpses.

     I am happy to report that there are a great many more powerful moments throughout this extraordinary story. 

     “Loving” depicts the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. In 1958, the couple drove from their home state of Virginia to the District of Columbia so that they could be legally married. They could not receive a marriage license in Virginia because Richard was a Caucasian and Mildred was an African-American. Shortly after their wedding, both of them were arrested and charged with a crime. Their sentence stated the couple could never be in Virginia at the same time for the next twenty-five years. If they violated this rule, they would be sent to prison.

     “Loving” is an important story. One that eventually ends up in the United States Supreme Court.

     Is this a film about prejudice? Yes, among other things. There are many troubling scenes in the film and many people who act hatefully. As I watched these moments two thoughts kept running through my head. “Weren’t those suppose to be the good ole days?” and “Is 1958 one of times of greatness to which we are heading back?” We are not a “perfect union” but “Loving” is a striking reminder that our nation is better, healthier in many ways, when compared to nearly sixty years ago.

     The film, however, is not just about prejudice and hatred. It is also, as the title would offer, about love. Richard and Mildred want to be married not to make a statement, or create a conflict, or to rebel. In fact, these two people, at least as they are depicted in the film, are calm, quiet, kind individuals who only want what all persons should have, the opportunity to be with the one they love.

     Beyond the love between the two leads, there are other examples of love. Mildred’s family embraces Richard and likewise with Richard’s mother’s love for Mildred. One of the best lines spoken by Mildred in the film is this: “I know we have some enemies, but we have some friends too.” Most of the people we interact with each day are not persecuted the way this couple was over fifty years ago, but we do understand the power of friendship. The Lovings had an abundance of love in their lives which more than likely fueled their quest for justice.

     The film is filled with great artistry. The two leads deserve the attention of the Academy. There is also buzz for several other potential nominees in production design, costumes and make-up, all of which sets the mood in the South in the fifties and sixties.

     The screenplay is one of the finest this year. I quoted a line above and here are two more samples from the script: Mildred tells a reporter, “We may lose the small battles, but win the big war.” And when their lawyer asked Richard if there is anything Richard wants him to tell the justices Richard responds this way, “Tell the judge, I love my wife.”   

     Director Jeff Nichols has directed five films. I have not seen his directorial debut, “Shotgun Stories.” His second film, “Take Shelter” was one of my favorite films of 2011. I also liked “Mud,” from 2012, a great deal. “Midnight Special” from earlier this year received a mixed review from me. 

     Now there is “Loving.” May Oscar award this film with many nominations. It is an important story, well-told, well-presented, and one of the best films of the year. 

Advertisements

‘Bleed for This’ is another boxing movie that works well

bleed-for-this

BY ROGER THOMAS

   I have written often in my reviews that I think we have had enough boxing films. Two Oscar-winning “Best Pictures” are about a boxer: “Rocky” and “Million Dollar Baby.” At least three more boxing films were nominated for “Best Picture” in their respective years: 1932’s “The Champ,” “Raging Bull” and “The Fighter.” Beyond these five, there are many more boxing films, which causes me to question whether we need any more.

     I went into “Bleed for This” with a chip on my shoulder. Once again, I was challenging the filmmakers: “Give me something that warrants yet another film about a boxer.” Unexpectedly, “Bleed for This” is an incredibly captivating film.

     This is a the true story of World Champion Boxer Vinny Pazienza. When Pazienza was at the top of his sport, he was involved in a serious car crash. His neck was broken and he was advised by his doctor that he may never walk again. Pazienza rejected this diagnosis and declared that he would fight in the ring once more.

     The film offers a very inspirational story. Having lived through a serious car accident, I related personally to many of the issues of recovery Vinny endured. I also found myself remembering the importance of the people around me, those who visited me, encouraged me, prayed for me, and kept the faith that I would recover. The film offers a clear example of the importance of having love around you in dark times of struggle. Those scenes of struggle, recovery and setbacks depict an authentic experience that probably mirrors the lives of many.

     The film also reminds the viewers that a positive attitude is half the battle. Though Vinny was surrounded by people who loved and encouraged him, most of them did not believe, as Vinney did, that he would ever box again. Vinny never gave up, and that  is what makes this such an inspirational story.

     The film has other strengths. There is a large ensemble cast and all of them do great work. Miles Teller plays Vinny.  Teller was the lead in “Whiplash,” a member of the cast in the “Divergent” series, and earlier this year he was half of the duo in “War Dogs.” This young actor is almost always impressive. The other stand-out cast member is Aaron Eckhart who is unrecognizable in the role of Vinny’s trainer Kevin Rooney. Rooney is the  heart of the story. He believes in Vinny before the accident whole-heartedly. After the accident, he is the first, besides Vinny, to believe. The encouraging belief of another  should never be underestimated.

     The film looks great, especially in the fighting scenes. Even though I am tired  of the boxing genre, I found myself on the edge of the seat waiting to see what was going to happen to Vinny, before his wreck, and after it.

     I would offer one word of caution. This is an “R” rated film. This is not the boxing movie that is appropriate for the whole family. That film would be “Rocky.” There is a lot language and content in this film that is not family friendly. You have been warned.

     So here is the conclusion. I can be wrong and admit it. Maybe there is room for more boxing films. I may not be eager to see them in the beginning, but if there are done as well as “Bleed for This,” then I will welcome them to the cinema. This story left me feeling positive and encouraged. Good things do happen for those who persevere. If you do not believe that fact, see the film and pay special attention to the glimpses of the “real” Vinny at the end of the film.

‘Moana’ lags behind simply gorgeous visuals

moana

BY ROGER THOMAS

   Disney continues to score with their films. This year alone has brought us “The Jungle Book” “Zootopia” and “Finding Dory,” three of top five worldwide-grossing films of the year. Then when you add in the Marvel movies also owned by Disney, “Captain America” and “Dr. Strange,” the studio owns five of the top ten films of 2016.

     Then comes “Moana.” It opened with a fifty-five million weekend even though this film was not based on a superhero nor is it a sequel or a remake. “Moana” is something original and different; the uniqueness of the film is both its strength and its weakness. 

     First, let’s consider the strengths. The film is visually stunning. From the open shots to the end credits, the film is striking. The colors, the animation, the characters, are all bold and exciting. The way the visuals present water is especially striking. One could watch “Moana” with the sound turned off and the experience would still be something special because there is so much visual artistry on the screen.

     A completely different strength of the film is Moana. Many things have already been written about this, but allow me to be one more voice of admiration. I commend the filmmakers for creating Moana as a strong female lead who is bold, and confidant, at least most of the time, and she is a great role model for girls of any age. She is not the only strong female Disney has created; Belle, Cinderella, Pocahontas, and almost all the Disney princesses have had their own strengths, but as a father of a daughter, I want all the strong confidant role models Hollywood can offer. 

     However, the film is far from perfect. First, I am not a fan of Dwayne Johnson and I was not often amused by his character Maui. I suppose Moana needed a sidekick besides the scrawny rooster that accompanies her on her adventure. In my opinion the rooster was more interesting and more amusing that anything Maui does or says.

      I can excuse Maui though because there were other things that troubled me more. I wish the filmmakers had rethought the villains of the film. Moana, Maui and the rooster face several threats to their existence, yet none of them seem to offer much peril. I especially detested the community of coconuts. Those nuts simply did not seem logical. I know the film is a fantasy and I suppose the filmmakers designed them to be cute so down the road Disney can market the coconuts; but for me, those nuts were the low point of the film. There were other threats Moana had to face and none of them offered any real thrills; they left me wishing the film’s plot was as artistic as the visuals.

     Two other characters could have been used more. I found Moana’s grandmother, Gramma Tala, to be very insightful. I wish there was more of her in the film. There is also a pig who seems to be Moana’s pet early on in the film. The pig should have gone on the journey along with Moana and the rooster. That would added another element to the journey.

     In the end, once again Moana is a beautiful film and an impressive visual achievement. However, when I compare this film to the best works of Pixar Studios, I found it lacking. Pixar would have embedded the heart of the film deeper. Not all of the Pixar films are created equal, but the best of the bunch, are truly emotional. “Moana”, as beautiful as the film is, does not quite reach the emotional heights of the best Pixar has to offer. Good thing for Disney that they own Pixar too.

‘Allied’ great looking history with a story that gets better as it goes

allied

BY ROGER THOMAS

     Robert Zemeckis is one of  the finest directors among the current filmmakers. He has given us wonderful works that include the three “Back to the Future” films, “Forrest Gump,” “The Polar Express,” “Contact,” “Cast Away” and last year’s under-rated film “The Walk.” If you have not seen “The Walk,” you should rent that instead of going to “Allied.”

    I would not put “Allied” among his best, but nor is it his worst film.

   Zemekis and the other creators of “Allied” are probably hoping that this film will run throughout the “Holiday Season. It has all the elements. There is a love story, a war story, big stars, high production values, a somewhat captivating mystery and a strong conclusion. With all these elements, the film is still one of the lesser productions during a time when the cinema is offering  many truly distinctive works. “Allied” opened the week of Thanksgiving, and it did not have a very successful opening week.

     “Allied” stars Brad Pitt and Oscar-Winning Marion Cotillard. Those two alone are enough to get some people into theatre seats. Pitt plays an intelligence officer in Casablanca who begins to work with Cotillard’s character who is a French Resistance fighter. In the beginning the two are only pretending to be a couple, but as they get to know one another, they fall in love. Or at least one of them does.

     During this time in the film, some parts are better than others. Several moments seem repetitive or insignificant to the overall story. Most can predict that a romance is coming and the film does improve as Pitt and Cotillard become more intimately involved. Eventually the couple marry and have a child.

     However, the true catalyst of the film comes about halfway through the story, when Pitt’s character Max is given information by his superiors. This revelation is presented in the trailer, but I want share it here. I will only say that the film is altered once the information is shared with Max. The film transforms from something that was plodding to something sprinting once Max has the conversation. Needless to say, I liked the second act of the story far more than the first half.

     The film has some several strengths. Visually it is truly epic. Zemekis knows how to use visual effects and impressive scenery. So many of his films have been truly works of visual art. “Allied” has some truly artistic settings. There are moments of the couple sitting on sand dunes, dining in restaurants, having conversations on the roof of their residence; all these settings are inspired and give the film a special feel of a time gone by.

     The chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard also works. These are two fine actors and it is fun to watch them developing these characters. 

     There are also some well-choreographed action sequences. Though the film drags in the first hour, there are moments that are filled with excitement and potential danger which lift the film up after the slower section.  

     However, the best parts of the film are not the action sequences nor do the best moments focus on the sets, effects or many of the other artistic elements. Ultimately, the best parts of the film are the ones presenting the emotional struggle Max in undergoing. The film feels like an epic, it wants to be grand, along the tradition of “The English Patient,” but “Allied” is at its best, when it is focused on one character’s struggle. 

     In the end, “Allied” is not a bad film or a great one. It looks outstanding and the second half is intriguing with both ideas and performances. The first half could have been stronger, but one good half is better than none. 

‘Manchester by the Sea’ a quaint title and destination hiding enormous pain

manchester-by-the-sea

BY ROGER THOMAS

“Manchester by the Sea” sounds like a picturesque vacation destination. And from the cinematography of this film, I am fairly confident Manchester is all of that and much more. I certainly would like to visit this beautiful place.

However, like every real community across our nation, there are beautiful settings and happiness, friendship, struggles, and heartache. As beautiful as a setting can be, the residents and former residents of any community more than likely have memories of pure joy and recollections that still harbor acute pain that heals slowly if it all.

“Manchester” has been touted for some time as one of the best films of 2016. Recently the film was chosen by the National Board of Review as the top film of the year. So here is the question, is the film one of the best?

“Manchester” has a somewhat simple premise: Lee Chandler, played to perfection by Casey Affleck, has to travel to his former home of Manchester to settle his brother’s estate. Joe, the deceased brother, has a sixteen-year-old son and has left Lee in charge of his estate and his teenager. Lee is neither ready nor interested in becoming the guardian of his nephew.

I admit that the beginning of the film left me questioning the brilliance. Could all of those raves just been misguided rantings? The opening story is told with many flashbacks between the current plot and past, neither of which was drawing me into the story. The film literally created in me two independent feelings about the film. First, this film is creeping along heading no where. Secondly I thought I am not sure I want to know or care for these characters.

Then it happened. Something unexpected and changed every moment as the film moved forward. I was stunned by the brilliance and I was absolutely captivated until the final credits rolled. How can a film change in such an extreme way? Actually it did not change. It was there the whole time. The early scenes and the many flashbacks were necessary in order for the emotions that lay ahead to make an impact. Needless to say, I loved every moment of the film following the shift in the story, and actually, I loved it all entirely.

There are many talented people who made “Manchester” succeed so grandly. First, Kenneth Lonegrin wrote and directed the film. His direction is great, but few films this year have come close to the brilliance of his screenplay. He has only written and directed three scripts; hopefully he will do more in the coming days.

Casting Casey Affleck was a grand decision. His character Lee is the heart and soul of the film and it is through Lee’s experiences that we understand the heartache that fills this story. Both Affleck and Michelle Williams may get Oscar nominations, and Casey is the current frontrunner. Young Lucas Hedges is also getting buzz in the role of the nephew Casey’s character inherits.

Beyond the cast and the director-writer, there are many other elements of the film that strong. The cinematography and the set design especially enhance the film.

But in the end, as it almost always does, the story matters. I heard someone say once about films something like this: “When you cry during a movie, you are not crying for the fake character on the screen who you will never meet. However, you are allowing the film to move you to release some of the pent-up emotion you have been carrying.”

I found that release several times during the story of “Manchester on the Sea.” As I said at the beginning of the review, all communities and families have times of grief. Sharing that experience, when we can, makes us less alone.

‘Rogue One’: I could get used to a ‘Star Wars’ film every year

rogue-one

BY ROGER THOMAS

     “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” That is a line from a speech given by Mon Mothma, a leader of the Rebel Alliance, before the beginning of the Battle of Endor in “Return of the Jedi.” I do not know about Bothans and their demise, but I can tell you, there are more death scenes in this new “Star Wars Story” than we have ever seen in a story from a ‘galaxy far, far away.”

     There are several other differences in this new film that caught my attention. There are no Jedi Knights or Jedi lightsabers in this film, though there is a reference to the weapon. There is also a man among the many heroes who has skills with “the force” but he carries a staff as his only weapon.

     Another difference in this film is that the lead character is a young woman. When we first meet Jyn Erso she is a very young girl; years later she is a strikingly beautiful young woman played by Felicity Jones. Jyn is very passionate about her cause and she is the heart of this film.

     From the beginning shots of the film, everything looks good. The natural environments are perfect. The scenes in villages, cities and empire military bases, among other settings where the story plays out, are all captivating.

     Then there is the cast of characters. I am sure I could not name them all. In the previous films we mainly focused on three heroes and two droids. In this story, there is one main droid, K-250, and I think he may be my new favorite droid of the whole series. He is as smart as C-3PO but much more clever with his responses. Then there are four men who assist Jyn on her plan to stop the Empire. To be honest, there were times when all these characters seemed a little too much, but in the end, it is hard to deny any of the roles of this band of struggling heroes. 

     As many already know, there is a character from the original films in “Rogue One.” Actually there are several. Mon Mothma has an appearance. So does Grand Moth Tarkin who was played by Peter Cushing in the original “Star Wars” film. Cushing passed away 1994 but through great effects his Tarkin character lives on. Bail Organa, Leia’s adopted father, also makes a couple of appearances in the story. There are four more popular characters who have brief moments on screen, and one of them welds the only lightsaber seen in the film.

     There is much homage to the films of the past. Simple lines of dialogue spoken such as “I have a bad feeling about this.” The filmmakers masterfully insert clever reminders of the past even as they create something new.

     My conclusion is that this film belongs in the saga. There are a few things that trouble me, but most were resolved by the end. And going back to my earlier thoughts, I think it was a bold decision to have multiple major characters die. I did not expect that, but it made the film better.

     The big debate is always how do you rate the “Star Wars” films. Most people agree that “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best, followed by “A New Hope.” What comes in third is anyone’s choice. The first question I received after seeing the film was simply this, “Is it better than “Return of the Jedi?” I am still pondering my answer. I know I need to see “Rogue” again because I have never seen a “Star Wars” movie only once in the theatre. Maybe a second viewing will give me some clarity.

     To anyone who has ever liked  “Star Wars,” you will find enough here to satisfy you, and probably much more.