AFI FEST: ‘Where to Invade Next?’

Although Michael Moore’s new documentary is out of Dog Eat Dog Films, it isn’t a dog eat dog story. Moore’s mellowed and his approach here is more humorous than angry. In “Where to Invade Next?” Moore becomes the invader, storming into different countries and looking at a particular aspect and claiming it in the name of the United States.

The countries include: Norway, Finland, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Tunisia, Iceland, Slovenia and France. The aspects he looks at our mainly education and industrial work life.

Some of this won’t apply to your life now, but the next generations and how we approach schooling. Do you remember the kind of mushy, nondescript meals served at your school cafeteria? That’s not what happens. The French are justifiably proud of their cuisine and their approach to lunch in schools is educational: The children learn about manners, balanced diets and to have high expectations in what they choose to eat.

There’s also Finland where the government turned around the school system. For the poor and working class,  Slovenia will seem like a dream come true. College is free and some American students are taking advantage of that system.

In German and Italy, Moore looks into improving working life of adults. In Italy, vacations are guaranteed by law and people take time to eat. The same seems true in Germany. The topic of maternity leave, stress relief through spa vacations will make you understand that the rest of the world doesn’t work in our rat race.

Even when you’ve done wrong, the need to punishment doesn’t have to take away your humanity as it illustrated by the Norway penal system. Instead of cells that look like modern dungeons, the inmates live in houses or house-like environments.

Tunisia may surprise many. The rise of women and the policy toward women will break some notions about North Africa and predominately Muslim countries.

Moore’s documentary shows that learning can be fun. You’ll laugh out loud at some of Moore’s preposterous posturing as the conquering invader, claiming ideas for America, some of which may have even originated in the United States. Others have learned from us; why can’t we learn from others?

“Where to Invade Next” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and will open in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 23, 2015.

‘Legend’ is a stylish look at the Kray Brothers

Unless you’ve a particular interest in organized crime in Great Britain or a Spandau Ballet fan, you might not have heard about the Kray Brothers.  “Legend” takes a look at the other side of the 1960s pop culture, one that has the gritty glamour of bad boys making it in the club scene and the dissonance of brutal murders.

Brothers Gary Kamp and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet starred in the 1990 biopic “The Krays.”  There are actually three films out in 2015 on the Krays, but you will likely only see “Legend.”

Directed by Brian Helgeland, “Legend” is based on the John Pearson book “The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins” and stars Tom Hardy as both Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald “Reggie” Kray. The movie is told from the point of view of Reggie Kray’s girlfriend, Frances Shea (Emily Browning) who eventually became his wife.

“It took a lot of love in me to hate him the way I do,”  she confesses that there are a lot of lies about the Krays because everyone has a story about the Krays, but she’s not easy with the truth.

The movie details how this tale of terror should have never happened because Ronnie had been incarcerated for three years for causing “grievous bodily harm” and declared mentally unsound so was institutionalized. Yet Ronnie’s brother and friends find a doctor willing to declare Ronnie sane but that doctor informs Reggie that Ronnie is “arbitrary, violent and psychopathic” as well as “probably schizophrenic” and “so desperately in need of reassurance.”

Reggie, then will spend much of his life looking after his mentally unstable brother. This is life on the East End, the poorer, working class side of London where the police are not welcomed, but the gangsters are heroes. The Krays dressed well, they didn’t swear in front of women and they eventually had worked their way into night club ownership. The guests would include the rich and famous and they, too, would become celebrities. Their rivals, the Torture Gang, involve them in a turf war until the head of the gang goes to jail on various charges. Police work should have also put the Krays behind bars, but politics comes into play.

Frances meets Reggie through her brother Frank (Colin Morgan) who is his driver.  Reggie is already under surveillance by the police, with the lead man being Leonard “Nipper” Read (Christopher Eccleston). At the time, cars were so scarce that the police car is easily identified, there’s nothing secret.  Yet to give the police their due, the surveillance did eventually uncover things about Ronnie.


Ronnie is homosexual in this movie, but in reality, was likely bisexual (Ronnie would marry a woman). Ronnie is out of the closet but not all of London was. He proclivities will at one point save the Krays and make them untouchable: Some surveillance photos could have toppled both sides of the government. Ronnie’s tendencies aren’t portrayed as simply misunderstood as with Alan Turning in “The Imitation Game.” As Ronnie admits quite frankly, he once had a Haitian whom he twisted up like a pretzel and really hurt him. His sexual appetites were more than just love or lust; cruelty was involved.

The police at the time weren’t concerned with that and even the mafia boss(Chazz Palminteri plays the head of a Philadelphia crime family, Angelo Bruno) they make deals with will not appear bothered by Ronnie’s homosexuality. Over his gayness, Ronnie’s madness becomes an increasingly hard to ignore problem. They were brothers and they were twins. As his mother Violet says, “Whatever he’s done, he’s your brother.”

Reggie enjoys being a gangster; he enjoys being a celebrity. To a certain extent, like his brother, he enjoys violence, but his is more contained. Their celebrity would also bring them at odds with their international partners, the American branch of the mafia .  If Ronnie Kray’s appetites saves them once, his insanity would eventually break them apart and bring them down.

“Legend” is one of three movies out about the Kray Brothers this year, but the other two (“The Rise of the Kray Brothers” and “The Fall of the Kray Brothers”) are not being widely distributed. While the violence is distasteful, “Legend” has a certain glamour, a style that might help the give the Krays the glow of a well-told myth. Even the ugly parts aren’t grotesquely portrayed. There’s a certain neatness to the violence and the soundtrack is too soothing. Yet Frances is the narrator and she was an East Ender who was according to this movie, seduced by the glamour of rubbing shoulders with the famous. The rich and famous liked the excitement and danger of being with gangsters. The gangster lifestyle blurred the lines of class and being a gangster or a gangster’s girl were perhaps the only ticket for the modestly talented to rise in the world.

AFI FEST: ‘Macbeth’ is a moody adaptation

The Scottish play has a long tradition of superstition. While traditionally one isn’t supposed to mention it within a theater where the play might be staged, apparently that also holds true for movie theaters. This cinematic version of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” is written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, directed by Justin Kurzel and stars Michael Fassbender in the title role. Fassbender’s “Macbeth” follows a sold-out 2013 stage performance  by Kenneth Branagh as the doomed Scottish king that was also broadcast internationally.

Like Kenneth Branagh’s recent National Theatre Life adaptation, Lady Macbeth is given proper motivation. She lost a child. In the days where women were political tools, love took second place to political concerns. Children were vital to a woman’s role and perhaps a mother-child love is the only real love there was.

Yet while Branagh’s theatrical presentation was in a deconsecrated church, intimate even in its muddy battle sequences and made more so with the live performance tendency for close ups, this movie explores the vast distance between castles at a time when horses were the fastest form of transportation. The mists and rain of Scotland give a brooding background where one can easily imagine visions of ghosts, but remember in Shakespeare’s day, ghosts and witches were real.

In Fassbender’s “Macbeth,” children are a recurring motif in this version of Shakespeare. We see a dead child being mourned by Lady Macbeth. The weird sisters are not three (Kayla Fallon, Lynn Kennedy and Seylan Baxter), but at times have children with them (Amber Rissmann as child witch). On the battlefields, we see children watch and we see children die.

The plot is about how Macbeth comes king and how he is dethroned. As played by Michael Fassbender, Macbeth doesn’t have the angry passion of Branagh’s. He’s more thoughtful, pensive opportunist. He grieves for his lost child. He has gone to war, supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis). He leads an army into a muddy cruel war and sees many boy soldiers die. This disturbs him.

The battle is being watched the the witches with a girl and an infant who then hail Macbeth and his companion Banquo (Paddy Considine). The women predict that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and king but that Banquo will be the father of kings. Before the men can learn more, the women disappear into the white mists.

In another part of Scotland, Duncan hears news of Macbeth’s victory and orders the execution of the Thane of Cawdor. He declares that Macbeth will be granted that title. News reaches Macbeth and he is astounded. He sends news to his wife and informs her of the predictions of the witches. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is already in a dark place and at a church she asks not for God’s help, but for other more sinister forces to aid her path. When they greet Duncan as their guest, it is not in a castle, but in tents.  These lords are just barely above the rabble.

Macbeth’s ambition is wetted, but Duncan announces that Malcolm will be his heir. Macbeth and his wife confer and the decision is made. What must be, must be and anything that can set them on that path must be or can be justified.  They will murder Duncan and place the blame on others. When Macbeth takes the knife , it is from the image of one of the dead boy soldiers (Scot Greenan). Is it his imagination or have the dark forces come to aid the two?

The ghosts come back to haunt Macbeth:  Banquo whom Macbeth ordered assassinated appears at a banquet. When the witches predict that Macbeth will remain kind until the Birnam Wood come to the king’s castle Dunsinane and that he cannot be killed by a man born of woman, slain soldiers appear and warn him to beware of Macduff (Sean Harris).

In a divergence from the original, it is the burning of Birnam Wood and the drifting ashes that brings the woods to Dunsinane Castle. While some Macbeth adaptations have Macbeth vanquished by skill, here he is defeated by his own fears. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography gives this adaptation a moody atmosphere. You can almost feel the cold of the mists and mud and isolation in the countryside and castles of Scotland.

“Macbeth” made its world premiere at Cannes and played at AFI FEST. The official release date for the U.S. is December 4, 2015.

AFI Fest 2015: ‘The Big Short’

In the film that closed AFI Fest 2015, “The Big Short,” someone did the math. Then other people checked the numbers and eventually found to their surprise and disgust that not only was that person right, but the system was corrupt. That might sound boring, but as written and directed by Adam McKay, the movie is a darkly funny account about the credit and housing financial crisis of 2007-2010 and how different groups of people made money off of the dishonesty and misery of others.

That housing and credit crisis also sparked a global financial crisis which some say was worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. This is history by the numbers in a good way and based on a  book by Michael Lewis. Lewis also wrote “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” that was made into an award-winning film with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin under the direction of Bennett Miller.

“The Big Short” is based on Lewis’ 2010 book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” The movie actually begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That should be fair warning–humor and sarcasm will be involved. As both writer and director, McKay doesn’t rely upon realism here–that would be too boring. Instead we are guided through the world of finance by an unreliable narrator who is telling the truth, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Vennett is based on a real person (Greg Lippmann) and breaks the fourth wall as do many of the other characters, even informing us what is convenient Hollywood contrivances and explaining to us what the reality was.

The man who began crunching the numbers was a brilliant, but socially awkward man with a glass eye, Michael Burry, an American hedge fund manager. For a little background Burry is, like myself, a UCLA alum. He was an undergrad, studying economics with a pre-med focus and then went on to graduate from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He did his residency at Stanford, but quit medicine to start Scion Capital. At Scion Capital, he had his people do the research and he comes to the conclusion that the American housing is built on a bubble that is ready to burst. The title refers to Wall Street slang for going short, betting that the stocks you buy will fail. In this case, the investment is the securitized subprime home mortgages.

Burry’s investments come to Vennett’s attention but no one at his work place believes him. As a result of a mistake, Vennett brings this financial opportunity to the attention of Mark Baum (Steve Carell) in a presentation with Jenga blocks that will visually simplify the problem for most viewers. “They call me Chicken Little. They call me Bubble Boy,” Vennett explains, but adds, “I’m standing in front of a burning house and I’m offering you fire insurance.”

Baum is a man suffering from an inability to speak about a personal tragedy for which he’s in therapy. He has an anger at a system that takes advantage of regular folks. His wife complains to him, “You’re running around like you have to right every wrong.”  And there’s a lot wrong on Wall Street and in U.S. banks. Baum (based on Steve Eisman of FrontPoint Partners), takes his group which includes Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong) to Orlando, Florida to investigate Vennett’s assertions.

The movie also follows  Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), small time investors who stumble upon Burry’s write-up on his investment strategy while in New York and get a former major Wall Street trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt),  to help them get in on the action. At one point, the groups converge, but don’t actually meet in Las Vegas.

The problem with this investment strategy is that it can take too longer for the bubble to burst than the investors can remain solvent. Burry’s impatient investors are screaming mad and ready to sue. Baum holds on, perhaps longer than is wise.  All the Big Short investors profit from this ploy, but it also affects their consciences.

McKay and his editor give us a lot of information via montages, on-screen text, flashback history lessons, and pop culture cameos with  Margot Robbie (“When you hear ‘subprime,’ think shit.”) and Selena Gomez to explain financial concepts. Yet at the end of the movie, when we find out what happened to all the groups concerned, the lasting impression should be one of outrage that the banks were bailed out by taxpayers and only one person went to jail.

At a Q&A that followed a special screening, Plan B Entertainment’s co-president, Jeremy Kleiner (“12 Years a Slave”) commented that Plan B likes stories that question prevailing wisdom. That was true of “Moneyball” and Kleiner said, “‘The Big Short’ had that element…and the main characters are not your typical heroes.” He continued, “There’s an ambiguity, a complexity as to where these characters are and how they act.”

As you might imagine, McKay was worried about “how we could illustrate the financial concepts.” Before reading the book, he knew that “some weird shit had happened in 2008” and he read Lewis’ book in one night and he loved it. “It got me excited” about “the gestalt of the moment” even though “I knew we had a not so great ending, a really upsetting ending.”

Strong, who plays Vinny Daniel commented that “We all felt a great responsibility to represent the people we were playing in a real way…My character and Steve’s character shared a pessimism. We tried to be true to them, distilling their essence.” He felt his character was not unlike “DeNiro’s character in ‘Casino,'” a degenerate gambler with “a profound mistrust of the world.”

Christian Bale got some tactile input from the Burry who was on the set and appears briefly in the movie. “He sent me clothes because he’s very particular. He only wears a certain kind of shorts, a certain kind of shirt and a certain kind of sandals.” Bale admitted that as an actor “you do feel like a creepy stalker, but one he kind of ‘enjoys.'” He continued, “As you saw, he’s a very unusual character. He does things his way,” but he also noted that one breakthrough to his portrayal was noticing that Burry had “a very unique breathing pattern.” To be fair, Burry believes that like his son, he has Asperger’s syndrome.

Gosling commented that being an actual person in the movie yet also serving as the narrator and the tour guide was tricky and compared it to “being Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.” Lewis explained, “He’s an unreliable narrator who is telling the truth. He’s telling the truth but everyone thinks he’s a liar.” What Gosling did enjoy was breaking the fourth wall. “I grew up watching ‘Saved by the Bell,’ but was shamed for even looking a little bit” at the camera. So being able to look directly at the camera felt good.

McKay explained that one of his concepts was that in a world where people are more attuned to pop culture he thought what if “the white noise of pop culture was actually telling us informative things.” As a fan of Anthony Bourdain, he remember his fish stew. Besides Bourdain in the kitchen, financial terms are explained by Margo Robbie in a bubble bath and Selena Gomez in a casino. In the book, McKay also felt that Lewis a broke walls in book when he makes comments in the footnotes.

McKay also admitted there is a problem with the movie’s main characters. It is hard for audience members to fully support any of them. “In a world where everything is compromised, where everything has been compromised, who are the heroes?” McKay asked. For that reason, the heroes in “The Big Short” are “not pure heroes–that’s how debased this world became.”

Lewis does wonder if the movie will “have an effect on the system.”  He added, “It’s very frustrating that more hasn’t happened since the financial crisis,” yet he feels there is a movement and this movie is part of that movement. For that reason, he feels “The Big Short” is “a really important movie. A book can only do so much.”

Walking away from the screening, my husband and I agreed that “The Big Short” is a movie that everyone should see. The financial crisis affected home owners and renters. I wonder how long tax payers will be paying for the big bank bail out.

Of the five gala movies at AFI FEST, three were based on true stories and one was a documentary. These movies, “The 33,” “Where to Invade Next,” “Concussion” and “The Big Short” ask us to question the status quo. “The 33” and “The Big Short” illustrate that the managers of the world might not have the interests of the common person in mind while wheeling and dealing. “Concussion” shows how one man fought the system (NFL) and was eventually vindicated. “Where to Invade Next” and “The Big Short” seem like calls to action.

Take the call.  Watch “The Big Short” (and “Where to Invade Next”).  “The Big Short” is one of the more entertaining lessons in contemporary  history and math you’ll see.


AFI FEST: ‘Concussion’

Like Monday night’s gala movie, “The 33,” Tuesday night’s gala movie, “Concussion,” at AFI FEST was also based on a true story. Both movies were about men having faith to survive the trials of life, but “Concussion” is the more satisfying of the two although both brought me to tears.

As the title suggests, “Concussion,” which stars Will Smith, is about the medical condition of concussions and begins by introducing us to the world of football via disembodied voices talking about sports and then introduces us to Mike Webster (David Morse). For the American football illiterate like myself, Webster’s importance is explained in the movie by showing him giving his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech in 1997 where he states  it is “the greatest thing to have the opportunity to work with people with a common goal, a single purpose” who are willing to make sacrifices.

For those that need more background, Webster played  first for thePittsburgh Steelers (1974-1988) and then for the Kansas City Chiefs (1989-1990). On retirement, he had played for four Super Bowl winning teams. Before his death, according to the movie, he sold those rings and was living in a truck, huffing Super Glue. Upon his death in 2002, his corpse landed by chance on the table of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.

Here the Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith, becomes a prince of Nigeria. Although he’s eventually accused of pulling a scam, Omalu is a man of great curiosity and intelligence. We first see him on the witness stand where when asked about his credentials, he rattles off an awe-inspiring list of eight advanced degrees and certifications. Like the “NCIS” medical examiner Ducky, Omalu speaks to the dead, asking “Please help me find out how this happened to you.” When he meets the corpse that had been Webster, he’s puzzled as to why the city’s favorite son who is only 50 should turn to self-mutilation and be diagnosed with premature Alzheimer’s. “I can tell something is wrong, but I need some help to tell the world what happened to you,” he explains.

The CT scans show nothing and so he orders extensive expensive tests and pays for them himself (eventually to the tune of $40,000), suspecting that Webster suffered from a dementia resulting from repeated blows to the head in a similar manner to the already recognized condition of dementia pugilistica, a disease that is seen in professional and amateur boxers. With his studies of Webster, Omalu publishes his findings in the journal “Neurosurgery” with  his boss, chief medical examiner, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht (Albert Brooks), and an esteemed colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Steven T. DeKosky,  in 2005 ( the victims of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) begin to pile up (Omalu DeKosky and Wecht authored a follow up study in 2006: Eventually a former NFL doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) joins team Omalu, providing strategic knowledge and inside information about the NFL.

Omalu idealistically believes that the NFL will embrace his studies. Instead men like Dr. Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser), the New York Jets doctor and chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, begin a smear campaign even though Pellman’s actual specialty is arthritis and joint pain, not neurology.

By this time, Omalu is married, to a Kenyan national, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). They are both threatened and harassed, leading them to leave Pittsburgh for Lodi, California. Prema helps Omalu stay on course, supporting him until his final vindication. She reminds him that Omalu’s full last name Onyemalukwubew means “if you know, come forth and speak.” Omalu did speak up, at great personal and financial cost.

Peter Landesman’s script was based on Jeanne Marie Laskas “Game Brain” article which the real Omalu felt was the first article that humanized him. “That article was a game-changer. Suddenly, people started opening their hearts and minds to me.” Landesman, who also directs, attempts to give a feeling of place. While football may be important to some people, in the city of Pittsburgh it is a major cultural force.

Listening to an actual video of the real Omalu speaking in recent years, Will Smith might overplay his Nigerian accent, but he does give Omalu a sense of dignity and innocence that comes under pressure when the business of football attempts to crush him. If you are a whistleblower, if you’ve followed the various TV series that feature forensic science, if you have a soft spot for David versus Goliath stories, “Concussion” is just your type of movie.  “Concussion” opens on Christmas day.

AFI Fest 2015: ‘The Lady in the Van’

According to a 2013 Allianz study, 49 percent of the 2,213 women feared they would become homeless. The so-called “Bag Lady Syndrome” is very real in the United States. Articles are written about how to avoid such a fate in venues such as Forbes, and books are written to advise women. The 2015 British drama “The Lady in the Van” is about one such lady who’s given a sense of regal despair by Maggie Smith.

Gently humorous with an air of poignancy, the film was adapted by Alan Bennett from his 1999 Olivier Award-nominated West End play by the same name and based on his book. Smith originated the role on the West End. The movie premiered a the Toronto International Film Festival in September was released in the U.K. in November. It will be released in the United States in January 2016.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner (“The Madness of King George”), the movie is about how Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) made the acquaintance of the titular character and how she came to park her van in his driveway for 15 years. In the beginning, we see a young woman driving a van and fleeing an accident. That accident would result in a fearfulness and distrust that haunted the woman until her last days.

Known as Miss Mary Shepherd by the residents of the London borough of Camden, she is treated like a pesky stray dog who wanders from house to house, imposing upon the well-to-do who tolerate her as a sort of private charity case. She’s a bag lady who stores her bags in a van, usually one provided as charity. Each neighbor takes a turn, having her park in front of their home, sighing with relief as she departs for another patch of curb. Yet in Bennett, Miss Shepherd finds someone who is not a kindred spirit but a weak-willed landlord. When she in danger of losing her van, he allows her to park in his driveway for what is supposed to be a few months but ends up being 15 years.

Jennings plays two different Alan Bennetts–one is the brave and almost ruthless writer and the other is the wimpy neighbor/landlord. Miss Shepherd never meets the writer, but he’s there commenting on the other Alan and his interactions with Miss Shepherd. When Miss Shepherd dies, the two Bennetts learn that she was actually Margaret Fairchild, a gifted pianist who once played Chopin at a promenade concert. She had a brother, but he had her committed to an institution. Through flashbacks we learn about these things and Bennett provides a fanciful ending.

The flights from fact are clearly marked. There’s mention of feces and Bennett’s friendships with men. As one can imagine, having a social life or a romantic relationship with such a troublesome person at your front door can be challenging.  Bennett apparently picked up after Miss Shepherd/Fairchild as if she was a stray dog that came to stay. Because of socialized medicine, Miss Shepherd did have healthcare, although she seemed to fear it.

Maggie Smith gives her character a strong sense of determination and moments of regal indignation. Jennings gets to be both sensible and hopelessly humble and the device provides us sort of an adult, simplified version of “Inside Out,”–we are privy to the conflicting thoughts of one man acted out as if they were two.

One is left with a sadness that Miss Fairchild’s gift for music was denied and that she was so mistakenly haunted by something that wasn’t her fault.  Through his friendship with this cantankerous character, Bennett shows us one way of caring for the mentally ill and an insight into two lives.

‘The Good Dinosaur’ not good Pixar

As dinosaur fans, we’ve been looking forward to Disney and Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” and while it had plenty of feel-good moments, the movie itself was too familiar and at its center was a disappointingly unlikable character: Arlo.

“The Good Dinosaur” was conceived by Bob Peterson who was originally slated to direct and is credited as one of five writers that include the director who replaced him, Peter Sohn, as well as Erik Benson, Meg LeFauve and Kelsey Mann. At its most basic, the movie is about a boy and his dog except in this case the boy is a young Apatosaurus named Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa ) and the dog is a young grunting human boy who Arlo calls Spot (Jack Bright). The six-to-seven-year-old boy Spot has no spots which must be part of the joke.

“The Good Dinosaur” imagines what if the Earth was never hit by an asteroid? The dinosaurs never became extinct and now rule the world. Rule might be a bit misleading because we see no evidence of a larger government body at work or larger social groups than a nuclear family in this American Northwest (below the Canadian border if Canada existed) setting.

On a farm at the foot of Claw Mountain, Arlo and his brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and his sister Libby (Maleah Padilla) are born from the same clutch of eggs, with Arlo being from the unusually big egg, but ending up being not only the runt of this litter, but most fearful. He doesn’t want to leave the safety of his egg. Once out,  he’s afraid of everything. He’s afraid of feeding the chickens. These chickens aren’t like any of the chickens at Old McDonald’s Farm or anything that KFC uses. They are a bit bigger and tougher and they scare Arlo whose chore is to feed them.

Arlo is scared of bugs, too–even tiny bugs, but his father, Henry (Jeffrey Wright),  shows him that sometimes bugs can be quite glorious. His father hows him how to make glow worms fly and illuminate the night. That’s a beautiful image that’s repeated later between Arlo and the boy. While Libby and Buck do well enough with their farm chores and earn the right to put their foot print on the rock silo where they store their corn, Arlo fails. Finally, Henry tells  Arlo he might earn his right if he captures the rascally vermin that keeps breaking into the silo and eating their corn.

Arlo almost does, but he’s supposed to club the critter to death and that’s where the problem lies. The vermin is a boy and Arlo allows the boy to escape only to be forced by his father to hunt the critter down. Arlo and his father Henry follow the critter’s tracks to the river, but as it starts to rain the tracks begin to disappear. Henry urges Arlo to hurry down the rocky paths cut over the centuries by the river. If you’ve been in the desert and are familiar with canyons and gullies carved out from hard rock, then you’ll know there’s a danger of flash floods. Just this last September, there was a flash flood in Utah that swept away and killed 16 people. While Apatosaurs are pretty big, the Utah flash flood swept away cars. Scientists calculate that an adult Apatosaur could weigh as much as 25 tons. A car like the 2013 Hyundai Accent weights a little more than a ton (2,000 pounds) at 2,396 pounds. A 2013 BMW 740i sedan weighs a little over two tons (4,344 pounds). I’m not sure if I’m convinced that a full-grown Apatosaur  be swept away and drowned. Here, I also can’t help but think of another scene where a father pushes a son to safety but dies: “The Lion King.”

In “The Lion King,” Simba waits in the gorge for his father, Mufasa, misled by his uncle Scar. Scar’s henchmen the hyenas help start a stampede and Mufasa gets Simba to safety, but through Scar’s treachery, ends up being trampled to death by the wildebeest.

Like Simba, Arlo survives, but with a lot of guilt. Eventually, Arlo ends up in the river, and,  lost miles away from home. He, predictably, must depend upon Spot to help him find food. Spot is more together than your average six-year-old human. He can sniff out danger. He’s more at home on all fours than going bipedal. He has no fear and he saves Arlo more than once. Together Arlo and Spot struggle to find their way home by searching for the Claw Mountain and the river which flows around it.

Along the way, they meet a few colorful characters such as the pet collecting Styracosaurus (Sohn) whose horned frill is home to a variety of pets including his beloved Debbie and Dreamkiller who protects him “from having unrealistic goals.” He wants Spot and competes with Arlo to name the feral child. One wishes more was made of this character who is  potentially funnier than Arlo.

Arlo then helps a gang of vulture-like Pterodactyls whose leader, Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), is like an opportunistic backwoods preacher who believes “the storm will provide.” Although Thunderclap initially sounds like a search-and-rescue leader, we soon learn he’s a search-and-eat opportunist. That horrifies the herbivore Arlo, especially when Thunderclap wants to liberate Spot to be his lunch.

Arlo and Spot are rescued from the Pterodactyls by a group of Tyrannosaurus cowboys. The cowboys headed by Butch (Sam Elliott) also threaten to eat him and Spot, unless Arlo and Spot help them. Butch and his  rambunctious daughter (Anna Paquin) and fun-loving son (A.J. Buckley) are searching for their herd of longhorns. Spot sniffs them out and Arlo, with the help of Spot, help Butch find the rustlers (Velociraptors).  This adventure gives Arlo a new-found confidence that aids him on the final part of his journey home when the Pterodactyls return. (For Pixar fans, John Ratzenberger voices Earl, a Velociraptor.)

The animation varies between the more cartoony dinosaurs and the gorgeously realistic Western backgrounds, water and vegetation. It’s almost like the attempts of introducing animation into real background, but it doesn’t always work–mostly because Arlo as a character isn’t particularly appealing. Will any kid be able to relate to Arlo? Perhaps a few, but they will be too frightened to venture out into strange world and express an opinion. For the rest of the world, one filled with adults and boisterous girls and boys, Arlo is the kind of person one either pities or picks on.

One wishes the story had been set around the Tyrannosaurus family with more than a cameo appearance by the Styracosaurus. It’s a nice change that the Apatosaurus are not represented as fainting and helpless as in the recent “Jurassic World,” but the world isn’t fully imagined. How do the carnivores and the herbivores function together in this alternative reality? How do herbivores meet other herbivores?  Or just why is the Apatosaurus family so isolated?

“The Good Dinosaur” opens on Nov. 25. The animated short, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” precedes “The Good Dinosaur.” Directed by Sanjay Patel, the short displays more interesting possibilities than “The Good Dinosaur.”



‘The 33’ has great visual impact but suffers from poor scripting

You can’t complain about the casting of “The 33,” the tale about the 2010 Copiapó mining accident which trapped 33 gold and copper miners  2,300 feet below the surface of the Atacama Desert for 69 days. Led by Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips, this international cast is predominately Latino, but the main problem here is the script.

Based on the official account, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar, formerly with the Los Angeles Times, this movie’s screen  story is credited to Oscar-nominee José Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) with the actual screen play written by Mikko Alanne, Oscar nominee Craig Borten (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and Michael Thomas.

When you know the ending of the story, the movie is then about the journey. How to tell the story of the 69 days these miners survived below while their family waited  and what became an international crew of rescuers worked above is a problem this script didn’t successfully resolve.

The opening sequence introduces us to the natural beauty of the Atacama Desert and the isolated area of the San José mine before giving us some rock and roll. Music is an important part of place, but in this case, the song “Jailhouse Rock,” introduces us to one of the miners, Elvis impersonator, Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas), and brings us into a retirement party for Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita),  who has been working in the mine for 45 years and will soon retire. Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) asks  shift supervisor Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips) for some extra hours and gets them. Young mechanic Mario Casas (Alex Vega) has been offered a job as a mechanic, but his wife Jessica (Cote de Pablo) is six months pregnant and the pay is low compared to what can be earned as a gold miner.

On the morning of the accident, the miners catch a rusted, faded green bus. The bus waits as Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez) leaves the house of his mistress as his wife comes with his lunch packed and the women squabble.  Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba) pretends to sleep on a bench when his sister, Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche) comes by selling her empanadas. She leaves two for Dario, but he doesn’t touch them, preferring to drink alcohol for his breakfast, before joining the men on the bus.

Before entering the mine Don Lucho warns the management that a mirror has been found broken. Mirrors are fixed to areas of the tunnels so that when the ground shifts, the mirror breaks. For his concern, Don Lucho and his men are punished: their daily quota is increased. Don Lucho rejoins the men, but says nothing about his concerns. A new member, Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), is the only Bolivian on the crew.

When you heard about the accident, you might have imagined the mine as a hole in the ground where men travel down via a narrow rail instead of a bus. The movie was filmed not far from the site of the mine collapse in another mine. The mine itself is wide and spacious, but dark and dusty. The actual sequence of the mine collapse is handled well by director Patricia Riggen.

The management’s lack of concern for the miners goes beyond mirrors. When the 33 make it to the refuge they soon realize that the first aid kit has not been re-stocked for years and the stock of food is not enough for them to survive even three days. Above ground the management has quickly given the men up for dead and it is the federal government represented by the young and new-to-the-job Minister of Mining,  Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), and the families that put enough pressure on the government under the vocal leadership of Maria Segovia that make plans for a rescue. Yet there are disappointments along the way until the effort goes international.

The feeling of place is the best part of this movie which soon becomes mired in movie conceits that you can see coming early on and other twists that feel contrived. You have to wonder about the kind of group that would select their official biographer and poet as well as decide to tell their story together and I wish we had seen more of this group dynamics, even if it meant listening to bad poetry. Could it have possibly been worse than Super Mario’s line describing the massive boulder that blocks their exit as “That’s not a rock. That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”

Despite the international cast, “The 33” is in English. “The 33” was released in Chile and other Latin American countries in August and was the Monday night gala at AFI FEST. It opens in the U.S. on November 13.



Benedict Cumberbatch as ‘Hamlet’ amuses

What English-speaker doesn’t know the famous first line, “To be or not to be”? That soliloquy comes from the nunnery scene in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The London National Theatre’s Hamlet has the blues but he also has a major case of Peter Pan syndrome in this Barbican  that stars Benedict Cumberbatch. The production was broadcast live to theaters in the U.S. last month (Oct. 15) as part of the National Theatre Live (see for details about encore broadcasts in your area). The stage production close at the end of October.  There are scheduled performances for Nov. 10 (Tuesday).

Director Lydnsey Turner’s staging of this tragedy has changed things around. We begin, not with the watchmen seeing a ghost, but it our titular character. We first see this Hamlet sitting on the floor, dressed casually in dark vaguely contemporary clothes while listening to a record (not a CD) of Nat King Cole singing “Nature Boy.” He will be joined by a friend , Horatio (Leo Bill), who carries a rucksack on his back. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the two sentinels, Barnardo and Francisco later.

The dark room breaks apart to reveal a larger two-level set—a palace with a stairway to an upper level, nicely decorated with an ornate guardrail (designed by Es Devlin) Hamlet sulkily joins his mother, Gertrude (Anastasia Hille),  and his new father, the man who had been his uncle, Claudius (Ciarán Hinds) for dinner . The marriage seems to have come with unseemly haste, but then again, maybe the kingdom needs a man of action. Hamlet is decidedly not this. The blue walls of the stylish art deco mansion offset the white and off-white clothes of the court as they sit at the long table with Gertrude and Claudius at its head.  The women are in semi-formal dress with Gertrude wearing a crown-like hair ornament and the men are in white uniform. Hamlet suddenly is a dark and common bird amongst these showy men and women.

From the blue walls of the mansion above the diners, portraits of ancestors in their military best alongside the antique arms they once wielded look down with disapproval.

Also at the table are Ophelia (Sian Brooke), her brother Laertes ( Kobna Holdbrook-Smith)  and their father Polonius (Jim Norton). The casting is color-blind, but that is the least of the problems here. Ophelia and Polonius bid Laertes good-bye.

The basic plot skeleton remains. Hamlet meets his father’s ghost. His father, Hamlet senior, reveals he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet hesitates to exact his revenge. While he’s brooding, Gertrude and Claudius worry. Hamlet now rejects Ophelia who he had previously fervently courted. Polonius suggests that Hamlet has been driven made by love. Hamlet has a theatrical troupe stage a play that parallels the murder of Hamlet senior by Claudius, convincing him of his uncle’s guilt.

Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius and is sent away. He will return, but it will be after the funeral of Polonius and during the funeral of Ophelia. Laertes has returned and seeks revenge, but is seduced into helping Claudius with his evil scheme.

In this production, Hamlet does eventually dress up in a soldier’s uniform, one that matches the life-sized toy soldiers and he is playing in the castle when his friends, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz find him. Visually this is clever and establishes the Hamlet as a man-child. Other choices, such as the David Bowie T-shirt under a tux jacket with the word “king” written on it as Hamlet plays the king during the meta-lay are more questionable.

The foreboding news of Fortinbras in the distant, marching to reclaim his father’s lands, is made more threatening in the second half as the mansion is blasted open and dark debris comes tumbling in. The floors become covered with rock and debris. War is here at Elsinore, inside the court and outside from Fortinbras.

“Hamlet” is about three sons—the hesitant overly intellectual Hamlet, the rashly brave Laertes and the man of both thought and action, Fortinbras. All three act to honor their fathers, but only Fortinbras gets it right. While visually stunning, this “Hamlet” doesn’t quite work. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is a man who has remained a child overlong and is pulled unwillingly into adulthood. He doesn’t rage like Kenneth Branagh in his 1996 242-minute-long movie adaptation of “Hamlet,” nor does he verbally attack Polonius with a rapier sharp anger. This Hamlet sulks and whines. One feels he’s be perfectly happy to play soldier in his toy castle with is toy soldiers for a bit longer if daddy where still alive. That gives too little for Laertes to work against. Instead they are both childish before the noble Fortinbras.

Still this is a production worth seeing and was to date the most popular NT Live broadcast. Cumberbatch has a better on-stage match in the NT Live production of “Frankenstein,” which can also be seen in encore performances.

In defense of ‘By the Sea’

Film and theater critics are not commonly known for kindness, but saying that a film about a couple’s trauma over the (spoiler alert) the loss of a child “has no reason for being” is beyond unkind. Set in the 1970s, an era when women’s liberation was still struggling to break the chains of the social role of wife and mother from the prison known as the stay-at-home wife suburban fantasy of the 1950s, “By the Sea” is, while indulgent, a sensitive at look at love, loss and grief among the well-to-do.

There is good reason for setting this film among the upper classes. The stereotype of the stay-at-home wife was not a luxury that the poor could well afford. And certainly wives of farmers and ranchers were stay-at-home, but they, too, were farmers and ranchers, working alongside their spouses and significant others. In Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “By the Sea,” we are asked to imagine the angst of a woman who has married well, but been unable to fulfill her duties as mother. Far worse, during the couple’s attempt to have children, the wife, Vanessa, played by Jolie Pitt, has suffered two miscarriages.

Miscarriages are not something that the Western world seems to handle well. While watching the movie, I thought of how my aunt in Osaka referred to her lost child, openly, when we first met. She had a small home shrine and made offerings and prayers daily. The child would have been college-age at the time I first met this aunt in Japan. Yet even after two decades and two living children (a daughter and a son), my aunt thought of this lost child.

This is something that Japan does well: Acknowledging the pain of loss that parents feel when a fetus dies. There is, I later learned, a specific temple in the Tokyo area for women who have spontaneously aborted fetuses or, in today’s modern society, had an abortion.  In the United States, however, there seems to be no social contract, no etiquette to handle the deaths of unborn children. The result is silence. But sometimes the grief needs to be acknowledged and spoken about.

“By the Sea” was written, directed and stars Angelina Jolie Pitt, who said prior to the screening at AFI FEST, that the movie isn’t meant to be commercial. It is meant to be artistic and deal with grief, love and loss. Jolie Pitt plays a former stage dancer. Brad Pitt plays a novelist. They are chic and sophisticated, even as Americans in a French-speaking country–they can and do speak French. Yet they have problems. She pops pills. He drinks too much. He is supposed to be writing, but he writes nothing. They do not rage at each other, but they have retreated away, living together in isolation. At first, we aren’t aware of the nature of this trauma.

What we do know, is that the incident, made her frigid. The audience then has to wonder what happened. Was she beaten by her husband in a drunken rage? Was she raped? We see nondescript flashes of her memories and feelings. In doing so, Jolie Pitt is equating her character’s miscarriages with physical trauma that a contemporary audience will readily accept.

Now on this beautiful retreat at an isolated luxury hotel, what is at stake is Vanessa and Roland’s marriage. While getting an alcoholic’s breakfast, Roland gets some patient advice from the local bar owner, local bartender (Niels Arestrup). The barkeep is friends with the owner of the hotel (Richard Bohringer).  Yet the bartender is a widower and is the voice of experience.

Into this couple’s periphery comes a young couple–just married and on their honeymoon. They,Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), are beautiful although the woman is a different type of beauty than Jolie Pitt and her Vanessa character. She is slender and less informal. She doesn’t not wear excessive makeup and false eyelashes as does glamour puss Vanessa. At first Vanessa hears the couple fornicating in the adjacent hotel room. Then, she finds a disconnected pipe that has been partially hidden beneath a small table. Vanessa begins to watch the couple in their attempts to get pregnant and eventually, her husband Roland joins her. This is where the R-rating comes in. Sexual acts are tastefully simulated and the European attitude toward naked female breasts is apparent. One expects that eventually snippets of these will end up on some website dedicated to the partial and full nudity of the well-known.

Vanessa and Roland have been married for 14 years. Once, surely, they were as hopeful and lustful as this couple. Their shared secret viewings of the newlyweds work as sexual therapy and they mend that part of their marriage, but then jealousy pushes  the well-endowed Vanessa to seduce François. As a writer, Jolie Pitt is looking for a happy ending, not Disney happy, but at least one filled with possibilities of a future together between Vanessa and Roland as well as the newlyweds.

Online, I have read suggestions that this film is a remake of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That film began as a play and became a vehicle for Richard Burton and his-then wife Elizabeth Taylor. While “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” does deal with a married couple who play horrific games, at the center of the play is the dual disappointments: The wife hasn’t had children and the husband hasn’t become important in academia.  Failure hangs over this couple’s 1950s suburban dream. And they play make believe; they pretend they have a son.

In “By the Sea,” Vanessa and Roland were successful and hopeful in their youth. At the juncture where we first meet them, they seem on the road to becoming the 1970s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. The husband’s novels still sell well enough for them to afford a luxurious hotel, but his own emotional angst over the death of his children and his wife’s withdrawal has stymied his creative abilities. He is not impotent in his work and his professional sphere as is the husband in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the end, Roland draws on the real grief and struggles of his wife as inspiration. The indications are upbeat for them and the novel their losses have inspired.

“By the Sea” could use better editing to sharpen the focus and improve the rhythm of the piece.  At times, the logic of Vanessa’s makeup also could have used some sharper delineation.  Taylor in “Virginia Woolf” tossed out the glamour and got emotionally ugly. Jolie Pitt as Vanessa, even with the mascara-running scene, does not. Yet like Jolie Pitt’s previous effort with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption” and “No Country for Old Men“) on “Unbroken,” as director, Jolie Pitt displays great visual style with cinematographer Christian Berger (“The Notebook” and “The Piano Teacher“).  Jolie Pitt does give us a full appreciation for the Malta locale. Who wouldn’t want to go there for a cozy retreat after seeing this film. What “By the Sea” also does well is exposing the isolation of grief and the rhythms of speech in a troubled marriage.

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