‘Patriots Day’ a true story of terrorism, heroes, and heart



Last September, director Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” opened in theaters across the country. I have liked some of Berg’s films; “Friday Night Lights” being my favorite. I also liked the television series that followed the film. When “Horizon” came out I had a conversation after the screening with two other critics. Both of them were very enthusiastic, calling “Horizon” one of the best films of the year. I liked the film, but I knew there were better films from the first eight months of 2016 and that there would be better films in the last four months of the year. I just did not know that one of those films would also come from Peter Berg.

Make no mistake, Peter Berg’s best film of 2016 is “Patriots Day.”

“Patriots Day” tells the story of the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. The film offers glimpses of some of those who are getting ready to run in the marathon and eventually do. The film also depicts some individuals who planned to be spectators for the big event. Then there are those who sought to secure the event and make it a safe environment. The stories of the two men, or really one man and one boy, are also shown. Then there are the many, many people who helped apprehend those two, who brought terror to what should have been a celebratory sporting event. That is a lot of characters in a two hour and thirteen minute movie, but the gifted screenwriters, Berg, Matt Cook, and Joshua Zetumer,  succeed in telling this complex story completely.

There are many technical accomplishments in this film. Creating the scene of the race depended on a great many technicians. But that is just one example in a film that impresses often. The temporary headquarters for the agents of “Home Land Security” is quite a setting. But the most profound moment has to be when Boston locks down, no traffic allowed, and the city looks like a ghost town. There are many more than these three locations create a feeling of all that happened in a few short days when a city was on high alert.

Then there are the cast members. All the actors are distinguishable which is important with the wealth of characters in “Patriots Day.” Much is learned by the audience as we eavesdrop on conversations, all that is needed to be known and understood. Also the positions and desires of the major players come into very clear focus. Both the actions and the words clarify so much for the audience.

Among all the occurrences in this film, two things shine brightest to me. Near the end of the film Mark Wahlberg’s character, Tommy Saunders, has an eloquent speech about hate. In these times of terrorism there is a lot of hate in our world. Saunders does not excuse the evil acts of those who choose violence, but he does hope that love and compassion will one day eclipse hate and violence. That is the most powerful moment in the film.

Then right before the end credits roll, the director makes a smart decision. He shows some of the real survivors of the marathon attack. Hearing their own words of the events they survived is very powerful.

On a personal note, there was one survivor who lost her leg in the explosion aftermath. As an amputee from car accident, I was moved by her words. She said, “I miss my leg every day, but I have a life to live.” I, for one, knows what she means.

“Deepwater Horizon” is a fine film that tells an important story. On the other hand, “Patriots Day” tells an important story in a most powerful way.  I am hoping that Peter Berg has two more in him for 2017.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.


‘Hidden Figures’ a story  of brilliance needed to be told and remembered



“Hidden Figures” tells a remarkable story. The trailer tells some of the tale, perhaps a little too much, but there are still great revelations throughout that offer commentary on racism, sexism, exclusion, inclusion and a whole host of other issues.

“Figures” tells the story of three African-American women who work for NASA during the sixties. These women are smart, smarter than many of the white men who hold higher positions, and yet they struggle to get promotions or even a simple minimum raise.They are not even allowed to drink from the same coffee pot or use a bathroom in the same building where they work with their collegues.

This film tells of many tragedies, but one of the things that impressed me the most in the film is the humor. I laughed often and outloud throughout the screening. The three leads, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, have powerful moments with serious emotions, but they are at their best when they using sarcasm and wit to offer a light in the darkness of their situation. As the old saying goes, “Sometimes one has to laugh to keep from crying.” The trio of the leading actresses do make us laugh and cry as they teach a history lesson that needed desperately to be told.

So why have we not heard of these three remarkable ladies sooner?” Their stories should inspire anyone, espeically young women and people of color to reach for the stars, figuratively or literally.

Those who have seen “The Right Stuff” will remember the story of John Glenn, the first man in space. This version of the same events is told quite differently as “Figures” includes the prominent role Katherine Johnson played in bringing Glen safely home. Johnson is played by Taraji P. Henson. Our nation recently lost John Glenn but we may have lost this heroic figure much sooner without the work of Katherine Johnson.

Conflicts in race relations in our nation have not ended. There are still people who would like to go back to a more primitive time. Similar to another film from this year, “Loving,” “Hidden Figures” is one more light shining on a past that harbored much sin. In spite of the hate, many women served our space program, our nation, and ultimately our world. The story of three of these ladies needed to be told because their actions were “great” even when their situations were far from “great or easy.”

Another strength of the film is that there is almost no objectionable language, violence or other material that would hinder children and teenagers from seeing the film. I would encourage all families to take their children over ten to the film so that can learn the history of a bygone time. As that old saying attributed to George Santayana goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” May we never be doomed to repeat the mistakes depicted in “Hidden Figures.”

One other strength of the film is the supporting cast members that play prominant roles. Kevin Costner plays a leader of NASA who has several revelations throughout the film. Jim Parsons, famous for  “The Big Bang Theory” is great as a fellow mathmitician who cannot keep up with Henson’s character. Glen Powell does a fine job as John Glenn. Kirsten Dunst also shines in an unkind role.

“Hidden Figures” offers an exciting history lesson, a talented cast, humor, constant reminders that we are at a better place in race relations than we used to be, even though we still have a great distance to go, and finally, “Hidden Figures” is simply one of the best films of 2016. Seek it out because like all great films, it deserves an audience.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘Sing’ an animated menagerie of songs at least



I am not a fan of the “Despicable Me” films nor am I impressed with the “Minions.” Therefore, when I heard that the same people were creating a new animated feature about singing animals, I was not overly excited. However, I have to admit, I like “Sing!” more than I expected and certainly more than any of the aforementioned films above.

“Sing!’ tells a simple story of an manager who is trying to make money to keep his theatre in business. He decides to do a music competition, somewhat like all the talent contests that fill our television networks so frequently. If one is a fan of “American Idol,” “The Voice,” or even “Dancing with the Stars,” that person would probably find the film even more appealing than I did. But again, I liked it more than I thought I would and I watch none of those shows with any regularity.

At the first of the film I was trying to figure out why the characters had to be animals. I understand that animals are probably more amusing and appealing for children, the target audience of the film, but I thought while watching it, this could have used animated humans just as well. However, as the film progresses, and I witnessed the specific natures of the various characters, I found the various creatures more appealing. Before the film was over, I could not imagine it being made without the well-chosen cast of characters that belong in a zoo.

One of the films greatest strengths is the backstories for each of the characters. There is a mother pig who is trying to raise a large litter of piglets when she is not rehearsing for the contest. There is a young Gorilla who hopes music and the music competition can save him from his father’s path, which leads to a life of crime. These stories and the ones of the other characters are sweet and sentimental for the most part.

Visually, “Sing!” has a special look about it. I personally did not care for the quick rushing  moments when the film is going from one character to another. The backgrounds, the city settings and all the characters are well created and will especially appeal to children with the collection of bright colors used by the filmmakers.

“Sing!” also offers quite a selection of stars who voice the characters. Matthew McConaughey plays a Koala Bear which seems to be a slight stretch for him. Reese Witherspoon, Seth Macfarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Hudson and John C. Reilly also play different various species as the story develops. Lots of talent throughout the cast.

One of the other attributes that elevates “Sing!” is the songs chosen for the film. There are many popular and also some original pieces. Overall my toes were tapping frequently which is always a good sign while watching a musical.

The film’s ending is predictable, but I have to admit, I did not know what would happen before the climax. Three quarters into the film, there is something that surprised me and from which I was not sure the story could survive, yet it did. The filmmakers made the right choice even though I was not sure while watching the twist happen on screen.

So “Sing!” has several strengths that make it was worthwhile viewing endeavor. It certainly is better than the “Despicable” films. “Sing!” tries hard to be moving and succeeds on some level at least half of the time.

I guess I am just spoiled by Pixar. Every time “Sing!” sought to move the audience, I thought, “Pixar” would have done this differently or that would have been more emotional. However, every animated feature cannot be a masterpiece, but thank goodness they are not all “Despicable Me” either.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

Reviews of the Past: ‘London’ nothing but another big mess



I vaguely remember “Olympus Has Fallen.”
I watched it. I guess I remember enough about it that when I saw a television ad for “London Has Fallen,” I knew immediately that it was a sequel to “Olympus.” I concluded that based on the three lead actors: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman. Other than those three actors together in an action film, and the fact that the story took place at the White House, there is little good or bad about “Olympus Has Fallen” that I can recall.
In fact, while I was watching “London Has Fallen” I was reminded about elements of the first film. The President, played by Eckhart, mentions his son several times and I remembered his son was in the first film. The son never appears in this sequel. I also seem to recall the First Lady dies at the beginning of the original, therefore there is no president’s wife in this film. Those are about the only two things I could recall about the first film as I watched the second.
Fortunately for me, I can go back and look at my thoughts of “Olympus Has Fallen.” This is some of what I wrote in 2013 about the first “Fallen” movie: “This film is a by-the-numbers action thriller. The opening scenes with the attack on D.C. and the capturing of the White House are done well. But the first 10 minutes, which takes place a year before the attack, are more engaging than anything that happens in the rest of the film.
“Great effects amount to little when the story is so predictable. While we are on the subject of predictability, I wonder if anyone who sees this film believes the hero will not win in the end.”
That exact thought was there again the second time: Is there anyone in this theater who thinks there is a chance the hero will lose and the President will not survive? I will not reveal here if my prediction turns out to be accurate. But you can probably guess.
Beyond the predictability of “London Has Fallen,” there are other elements that troubled me. I do not remember all the carnage that happens to Washington D.C. in the first film, but as I watched all those grand historic structures in London, I found it troubling.
I know it is just effects and no buildings were harmed during the filming of “London Has Fallen.” However, as I watched these truly amazing structures being destroyed, I questioned how that could be entertaining for anyone. The point is moot.
For many years of cinema, aliens, terrorists and a whole host of other entities have destroyed precious monuments to excite audiences in the cinema. I suppose some were troubled by the devastated Statue of Liberty in the final scene of “Planet of the Apes.” These things have not troubled me before, but they did with this film.
Beyond the destruction of historical buildings, there is plenty of loss of life, though for an R-rated film, it was not as bloody as I expected it to be.
The three leads, Butler, Eckhart, and Freeman, do a fine job in their roles. However, Freeman and Eckhart have made so many extraordinary films it seems almost shameful for them to be a part of now two films that are simply messes. As for Butler, he has now starred in two of my least favorite films of 2016: “Gods of Egypt” and “London Has Fallen” and it is only March. He may have a few more flops before the year ends.
In conclusion, I hope nothing else “falls.” I am hoping this series ends with two films. If not, perhaps there can be less destruction on screen and more construction in the screenwriters’ office.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

Reviews of the Past: ‘Zootopia’ another fun animation



Earlier this year, I praised the first animated film released in 2016: “Kung Fu Panda 3.” I wrote then about the beautiful animation, clever humor and appealing characters.
The second animated release of 2016 has many of the same qualities. First and foremost, “Zootopia” is a colorful world that unites the city life of the animals with some of their natural environments. The characters and their clothing also add to the tapestry of brilliant shades.
As with “Panda” the screenplay for “Zootopia” offers many humorous moments that work well. The familiar scene with the sloths is one of the best bits, but there are others almost as delightful. There is also a very clever parody of “The Godfather” which will mean nothing to the children in the audience, but for fans of that great film, it is quite amusing. Even without the knowledge of the classic, the scene still works well to advance the plot of the crime mystery that drives the film.
Then there are the characters. I would love to know the exact count of the animated animals created for this film. Especially in the bustling city scenes, this is a crowded motion picture. There are main characters that drive the story such as Judy Hopps, Nick Wilde, Bellwether, Mayor Lionheart and Chief Bogo. Then there are many more minor characters like Flash the Sloth, and a swarm of animated extras that create this amazing environment.
Another strength of the film is the abundance of actors who give voice to the many species on screen. Ginnifer Goodwin, of television’s “Once Upon a Time” speaks for Judy Hopps. Film and television star Jason Bateman offers the dialogue for Nick Wilde. Recent SAG award winner Idris Elba, Oscar winners J. K Simmons and Octavia Spencer and actress Bonnie Hunt voice other characters.
With all of this, beautiful animation, quick humor, fun characters and celebrity voices, the film would not succeed without a compelling script. “Zootopia” is a mystery. The film moves in several directions, sometimes exposing the plot and at other times offering a twist.
Sometimes the answers to the mystery are easier to solve than at other times. One pivotal revelation seemed obvious very early, yet it did not distract too much on the whole. Ultimately, the plot works as a story. It engages the viewers enough that one wants to know what will happen.
Beyond the mystery plot, the film also has a moral. It is not heavy-handed, at least not for this reviewer, but the film does offer a message about stereotyping and prejudice. Again, the film is not overtly aggressive in selling this moral. In fact, the key audience, children between 4-10, will probably never grasp the concepts the filmmakers are offering.
Years from now, when those children see the film again, possibly with their own children, they will realize that there is a special message amidst the colors, actions, humor and all the other elements that define “Zootopia.”
Thus far, 2016 has given us two animated features which are quite charming and deserve to be seen by many audiences of all ages. I am not sure that either of these will be the best animated feature of 2016. I am holding out for “Finding Dory,” the sequel to Pixar’s masterpiece, “Finding Nemo.”
But until “Nemo” opens later this year, there are at least two animated films that have many strong elements.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

Reviews of the Past: First look at fall’s best, rest of ’15



When I first started contemplating a list of films for the fall and the rest of 2015 that I am most anticipating, I immediately thought of “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” After all, this film opens on Dec. 18, three days before the beginning of winter. Then I realized there are so many compelling titles opening soon, I probably need to do two articles, one for September and October now, and one for November and December. So here are the top ten films to which I am most looking forward in the next two months. I’ll have November and December later in the year. Some will disappoint and others take their place, but it seems like it is going to be a good early autumn.


“The Visit” (Opens Sept. 11): Yes, the trailer seems to be over the top, but this is the first scary work of M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” and “Unbreakable”) in quite a while. It may turn out to be nothing, but I, for one, am hoping this will be the comeback film for a director that deserves many more hits.
“Black Mass” (Sept. 18): Gangster films are like boxing movies, it sometimes seems we have had our quota for two lifetimes. But the trailer is captivating both because of the make-up that almost makes Johnny Depp unrecognizable and the amazing performance that trumps even the make-up artists’ work.
“Everest” (Sept. 18): There are many things I have concluded that I will never do. Climbing a snow-capped mountain is one of those, or really any mountain at this point. As I watched the trailer for this film, it drew me into the story and created an excitement within me. I hope the film is as good as the trailer.
“99 Homes” (Sept. 25): Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield are two actors who have not yet received the attention they deserve. Garfield’s work in “The Social Network” and Shannon’s work in “Take Shelter” says it all.

“The Walk” (Sept. 30): Joseph Gordon- Levitt stars in the true story of a street performer, Philippe Petit, who stretched a wire between the World Trade Center buildings while they were under construction and then he tried to walk the wire. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has given us “Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future,” “The Polar Express” and “Cast Away,” just to name a few.



“The Martian” (Oct. 2): Ridley Scott directs Matt Damon, who plays an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. The trailer is incredibly emotional. Hopefully, it will not feel like a replay of “Gravity” but something unique and touching.


“Pan” (Oct. 9): A few years ago I heard a film critic pose the question: “Has there ever been a really good ‘Peter Pan’ film?” I actually enjoy the 2003 version with Jeremy Sumpter in the title role. Just judging from the trailer, this new version with intriguing twists on the original just might become my favorite. It’s directed by Joe Wright, who gave us “Atonement”, the best film of 2007 in my humble opinion.
“Steve Jobs” (Oct. 9): You know the name and much of the story. There has already been one bio-film. But the trailer makes this one seem to be much more aggressive in telling the story. Plus, the film is directed by Danny Boyle, who directed “Millions,” “127 Hours” and his Best Picture-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“Bridge of Spies” (Oct. 16): This is probably the one film I am most anticipating. Director Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks in a historical legal drama with American and Russian spies. It’s Spielberg’s first film in three years and it opens in less than two months. I am excited!
“Suffragette” (Oct. 23): Three reasons this film is on the list: Carey Mulligan, who will hopefully score another Oscar nomination since she did not win for “An Education” in 2009; Meryl Streep, who gets to redeem herself for “Ricki and the Flash” and the plot about the equality of women, a fight that is still sadly being fought around our world.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.