RachelCarson

From a very young age Rachel Carson liked to write.  At age 10, she became a published writer, her mother sold off the family possessions so Rachel could go to college. After college, she landed a research position in Woodhole Massachusetts.  It was there where she fell in love with biology.    Tragedy in her personal life forced her to get a job in the US Bureau of Fisheries, she sells some articles based on her work to local newspapers, omitting her first name at times to avoid sexism.  Then Simon and Shuster offered her an opportunity to write a book.  The book was Under The Sea Wind.  However, World War II interfered with the sale of the book.  At the same time, science was growing by leaps and bounds, a chemical called DDT was used in large quantities to end the scourge of malaria. Rachel Carson was skeptical of the effects of DDT on wildlife, but no one was interested in her point of view.

Five years after the end of WWII, Carson got the itch to write another book, she did this by synthesizing research papers into from the Fish and Wildlife Department into a book called The Sea Around Us .  The New Yorker Magazine serialized the book.  Three weeks after it went on sale, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list, by September 1951 it as number 1 on the bestseller list, it spent 32 weeks at number one. At the same time, science is exploding, literally. In 1954, America did a hydrogen bomb test, and DDT type pesticides were proliferating.  After a extensive period of writer’s block, In 1955, Carson finished, her third book, The Edge of The Sea , another book about marine biology.

In 1957, the pesticide companies had found a new pest to eradicate, the fire ant.  Planes sprayed insecticides through wide swatches of the Southern portions of America.  Not only ants died, fish and birds also perished. The widespread use of pesticides and the death of wildlife is a call to action for Rachel Carson. In 1958, Carson was already deeply into researching her future book against pesticides.  In 1960, her mother died shortly after having a stroke. Also in 1960, Carson discovered lumps in her body, her doctor told her not to worry, by the time Carson checked her body again, she did indeed have cancer and it had metastasized all over her body.  Now it was a race against the clock, would she finish her new book before she succumbed to cancer?

This is an incredible documentary about an incredible woman.  First of all, I know nothing about Rachel Carson, so it was an educational experience for me.  Just the story of her life, the fact that she was a woman in the 1950’s, writing about the ocean in a knowledgeable way was really intriguing.  The 40’s and 50’s in America are known as an era of conformity, and Carson was anything but a conformist.  The issue of pesticides was always a subject of interest for Carson, but only came to the forefront after the government tried to eradicate the fire ant.  After that point, she became a woman on a mission.

The documentary also delved deeply into Carson’s personal life, her relationship with her mother, her difficulties with other members of her family, her relationship with a neighbor, and most importantly, her struggles with cancer.  The story then becomes a race against time and that adds urgency to the story.

This documentary provides an interesting contrast between the total faith that government, and corporate America had in science in the 1940’s 50’s, and 60’s and the total lack of faith in science in today’s American government.  Rachel Carson was a voice of healthy skepticism, but now our government seems filled to the brim with science deniers.

Rachel Carson, a pest to the insecticide industry.

indignation

In 1951, after a strife filled life in Newark New Jersey, living with his Jewish parents and working in his dad’s butcher shop Marcus Messner  (Logan Lerman) goes away to a Christian college in Ohio.  His parents want him to join a Jewish fraternity, but he steadfastly refuses.  He moves in with two Jewish roommates and works in the college library.  It is there that he meets and falls for Olivia Hutton. (Sarah Gadon)  Soon thereafter, he goes out on a date with her.  Inexplicably, near the end of the date, Olivia pleasures Marcus sexually in the car.  This puts a strain on the relationship, because Marcus isn’t sure why she did what she did.  Olivia writes Marcus a letter, explaining that before she came to Ohio, she was an alcoholic, who tried to commit suicide.   While trying to digest that information, Marcus also finds himself at odds with the school dean, Dean Caudwell, (Tracy Letts) who has a problem with Marcus’ atheism.  After an argument with the dean, Marcus vomits and faints, he has appendicitis.  In the hospital, Olivia visits Marcus again, and starts pleasuring him again in the hospital bed, a nurse sees Olivia, but seemingly does not report her behavior.

As Marcus gets ready to leave the hospital, his mother, Esther (Linda Emond) comes to visit. She has shocking news, she wants a divorce from Marcus’ father Max. (Danny Burstein)  Esther also meets Oliva and implores Marcus to break up with her.  Marcus goes back to college only to find Olivia is gone.  What happened to her?  Does Marcus ever find her?

This is a semi-autobiographical look at author Phillip Roth’s college life.  While sexual repression and religious conformity was commonplace in the 1950’s, I doubt that those issues exist today to the extent that they did in 1951, anti-Semitism will always exist, and this movie doesn’t make a specifically Jewish appeal, it’s more a agnostic’s appeal for freedom from religion.  Marcus in fact is disliked by Jews in the college, and dislikes Jews in the college, what he’s experiencing is not anti-Semitism as much as Christian religious conformity. At a time when atheists probably outnumber Christians in this country, I didn’t find anything in this movie particularly relevant to today’s society.  Actually, Olivia’s storyline was much more interesting than Marcus’ but Marcus was the main character, so he got most of the attention. The movie seems much too overwrought, the confrontations between Marcus and the dean seem stilted and staged, everything is much too serious, and I don’t think Marcus ever loved Olivia, so it wasn’t much of a romance.

Logan Lerman is a good young actor, but the character he plays isn’t very likeable, so it’s a difficult role for him to play.  Similarly, Sarah Godon plays a woman searching for love and acceptance, and replacing that with sexual gratification, but there is no explanation of who or what damaged her psyche, so she remains a one dimensional character.  Tracy Letts plays an unlikeable character in a likeable manner, which added to my confusion about this film.

The director is also the writer, in this case that’s a bad thing, because the director won’t edit his own words, and that makes the pacing drag. The performances didn’t stand out, and there were no visual flourishes to speak of.

Indignation:  I didn’t dig it.

arrival

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is living a life of quiet anonymity as a linguistics professor in a small college.  She is also mourning the loss of her daughter Hannah (Abigail Pniowsky, Jadyn Malone, Julia Scarlet Dan) who died of cancer.  The silence of her quiet life is shattered by the arrival of the Heptopods, aliens from far beyond our own galaxy.  After listening to a snippet of the aliens’ language on a tape, Louise  is tasked by the American military, specifically Colonel Weber (Forrest Whittaker) to translate the Heptopods language, find out why they came to earth and what they want with us.  Louise works diligently with Theoretical Physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to translate the Heptopds language, he tries to decode it mathematically, she with words. She suggests it’s easier to communicate with the aliens using words and not sounds, she writes human on a whiteboard, the Heptopods, separated from the humans by a glass wall, respond with a splash of ink, like an octopus, the ink turns into a symbol and, Louise starts to study the symbol and translate it into English.  Louise and Ian’s mission becomes more urgent, because the arrival of the Heptopods is a worldwide phenomenon, and the Chinese are starting to act more bellicose towards the Heptopods on their territory, and other nations are starting to act on their own as well.  What began as a cooperative effort is rapidly falling apart.  Can Louise and Ian translate this language before another nation acts rashly?

At first glance, Arrival seems like a mash-up of two older stories of alien invasion , Independence Day, with Will Smith  for its non-humanoid aliens, and worldwide presence of the alien landing and an episode of the classic show Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” in which aliens present humans with a book which the humans try to translate.  But Arrival is a much quieter, more contemplative story than these.  There are lots of scenes where Louise is thinking, or reflecting on her daughter’s life and death.  All of the elements of Louise’s life and her daughter’s life are important, and play a role in the final outcome.  The story even manages to ask a big philosophical question, which adds to the intellectual nature of the film.  The use of flashbacks is very effective in this film, the flashbacks tell a story in themselves and pack an emotional wallop.  But then the film tries too hard to wrap everything neatly in a bow and the ending went too far in that regard. There were some elements that weren’t very logical, like how giant 7 legged aliens could navigate a spaceship, but Arrival was a pretty ambitious film, and it hit the mark on almost all its lofty goals.

The acting is good, but Amy Adams is great.  She should have been nominated for an Oscar for sure.  She had a complex role, where she was emotionally torn by her daughter’s death, yet intellectually sharp in her professional capacity.  She carried this movie and was always believable as both mother and linguist.  Jeremy Renner, on the other hand, has all the personality of a wet dishrag, he and Adams should have had great chemistry, but had none.  Forrest Whittaker has an ersatz authority figure look, the casting director could have gotten someone like JK Simmons, and he would have been much better.

The direction is no great visual extravaganza, there are some decent exterior shots of what is supposed to be Montana, but this is not a special effects movie, and that works to its advantage.  It’s a contemplative movie, not one filled with explosions or photon torpedoes.  The pacing is good, and he gets at least one good performance.  Not a big fan of Denis Villeneuve’s earlier work.  Prisoners and Sicario are among his work, but I like the work he does here.

Arrival:  Take me to your linguist?

manchester by the sea

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman in Boston.  Lee hears that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a heart attack. He drives to Manchester by the Sea Massachusetts, to see Joe, but by the time Lee gets there, Joe is dead.  Lee thinks he will pay his respects to Joe, attend the funeral and go back to Boston, but he’s surprised to learn that Joe has made Lee the guardian to his son Patrick. (Ben O’Brien, Lucas Hedges)  Joe also has a commercial fishing boat, which needs a new motor.  Lee thinks he can sell the boat, and take Patrick back to Boston, but Patrick has other ideas, he plays hockey in school, plays guitar in a band and has multiple girlfriends, so he has no intention of moving.  In fact, Patrick thinks he might move in with his alcoholic, drug addicted mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol) who is now clean and sober, but Lee doesn’t think that’s such a good idea.  What does Lee do, does he take Patrick with him to Boston or stay in Manchester by The Sea?

Manchester By the Sea is a character study of a sullen, taciturn handyman, who is living by himself when the audience first sees him and wants to keep it that way.  With the use of flashbacks the audience learns why Lee is so angry, and distraught.  The flashbacks focus on Lee’s shortcomings and his inability to cope with his shortcomings and also his inability to mourn properly for his dead brother.  There is some humor thankfully, but not enough.  The flashbacks were ineffective, because they were longer than the usual flashback and actually interfered with the story moving forward.  The story does not have enough material, and soon becomes redundant.  There are unnecessary flourishes like Patrick’s two girlfriends, and every random woman that Lee meets being attracted to him, these plot points didn’t really add anything to the movie, and should have been left out.  At two hours and 15 minutes a lot should have been left on the editing room floor.  At least there is no Hollywood ending and the story just ends.

The acting was ok.  I really didn’t think that Casey Affleck deserved an Oscar for this performance, he didn’t seem that tortured and his whiny voice, and character’s indecisiveness add to the annoyance factor. If you like a performance featuring a passive aggressive character who mumbles a lot, this is the performance for you. His performance did not affect me emotionally, as it should have, and that must have something to do with his acting.  He has given better performances in Gone Baby Gone, for example, but this was just an ordinary performance.  Michelle Williams, on the other hand gave an incredible multifaceted performance, she was tough as nails in the first half of the movie, and by the second half she was completely a broken woman.  The emotional range Williams gives this character is incredible.  She definitely deserved her Oscar nomination. Lucas Hedges is good at playing a bratty teenage kid, but did he deserve an Oscar nomination?  I don’t think so.

The direction is so-so as well, the movie begins with long, languorous, views of the water, to remind the viewer that yes it is Manchester by The Sea, the director Kenneth Lonergan then tries to get arthouse on the audience, and focus on seagulls after an especially dramatic scene.  The thing that struck me most about this movie was the very slow pacing.  Lonergan, who also wrote the movie, seems unwilling to cut anything from this film, and so the pacing suffers.  He only gets one really good performance out of three, so he doesn’t seem  like an actor’s director.

Manchester By The Sea: Don’t See it.

 

birth of a nation

Nat Turner (Tony Espinosa, Nate Parker) was a slave born in 1800, in Virginia.  Nat developed an affinity for reading early on, helped along on his road to literacy by the widow of his first master, Elizabeth Turner, (Penelope Ann Miller)who teaches Nat to read the Bible.    When Elizabeth’s husband dies,  his brother, Samuel (Griffin Freeman, Armie Hammer) takes over ownership of Nat, by this time Nat has gained some renown as a preacher.  As Nat’s fame spreads, the Reverend Wallthall (Mark Boone Jr.) and Samuel hatch a plan to use Nat’s religious fervor to calm slaves’ thoughts of rebellion.  It works for a time, Nat is happy with his new wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and his daughter.  After Nat witnesses the brutal force-feeding of a slave, and hearing of his wife’s rape, and his friend Hark’s (Coleman Domingo) wife Esther (Gabrielle Union) also being raped. Nat is at a crossroads, what does he do to end his enslavement?

The story of Nat Turner is a powerful one, a young boy with a fondness of reading, which becomes a religious fervor, he seems like the modern day Moses, leading his people out of bondage, but Nate Parker rewrites history, and turns Nat Turner’s story into more of a personal vendetta, instead of a moral crusade.  What is the relevance of Nat Turner’s story today?  The relevance of his story to someone watching it today should be about self-sufficiency, only an individual can save himself from whatever circumstance he faces.  Nat Turner exhibited such self-sufficiency by learning to read, and preach, but I fear that the lesson that what most young people will glean from this movie is violence is an acceptable way to achieve a goal, but violence only begets more violence.  Vengeance might feel good, but vengeance is ultimately up to God.  Leaving aside the Bible, look at history, John Brown led an armed slave insurrection just before the Civil War, and died trying to end slavery.  The Civil War itself resulted in tens of thousands of dead, and still black people were treated like second class citizens.  It was only after the non-violent civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King seized the high moral ground again, and America saw the brutality with which black people were treated. Nat Turner had the high moral ground, he lost it the minute he picked up a weapon in anger. Parker tends to gloss over the self-sufficiency and dwell on the violence, and that’s where this movie goes wrong.

The acting is only so-so.  Nate Parker is not a convincing enough actor to make the transition that is required to make Nat Turner into what he ended up being.   Armie Hammer is not Michael Fassbender, as hard as he may try.  The women are better in their roles.  Aja Naomi King imbues Cherry with a nurturing, tender spirit, her character is not treated well, and deserved better.  Penelope Ann Miller is also good, but her role diminishes as the movie moves on. Gabrielle Union is almost invisible in this film, blink and you’ll miss her, but her character is treated savagely, despite the lack of screen time. Better acting, especially from the male leads would have made the story more compelling.

The direction is ok, while some of the landscapes are visually appealing, the pacing is very slow, and that doesn’t help the storytelling.  Parker, doesn’t get good performances from himself or Armie Hammer, there is a scene near the end of the movie where Turner is visually likened to the Passion of Jesus, and while that is effective, it’s one of the few scenes that grabs the viewer.

The Birth of a Nation:  A Turn-ing Point In History.

 

 

 

kubo-and-the-two-strings

Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a Japanese boy who lives in a cave near a small village in Japan with his sickly and forlorn mother, his father has passed on to the next world.  Kubo makes what little money they have by telling stories of the exploits of a great warrior, Hanzo, who fought the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) with his armor made up of The Sword Unbreakable, The Breastplate Impenetrable and the Helmet Invulnerable. The villagers all enjoy Kubo’s tales.

One day, while at the Obon Festival, Kubo tries to summon the spirit of his dead father, but he stays after sunset, and he is attacked by his evil aunts, known as The Sisters. (Rooney Mara) Kubo’s mother holds off her sisters with a powerful spell that knocks Kubo unconscious.  By the time Kubo wakes up his mother is gone, and his monkey charm has come to life. Monkey (Charlize Theron) Kubo, and Little Hanzo, the origami figure that came to life in Kubo’s tales, find Beetle, (Matthew McConaughey ) a samurai warrior who fought with Hanzo, and was turned into a beetle as a curse for his bravery. Kubo must now find the Sword Unbreakable, the Breastplate Impenetrable, and the Helmet Invulnerable with the help of Monkey, Beetle and Little Hanzo, before The Sisters find him and turn him over to the Moon King. Will he find the armor and be prepared to fight the Moon King?

I love this movie, not only is it an epic adventure in the spirit of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it is also a love story, and a family reunification story.  It blends these three complex storylines with humor, heartache, some scares and some Eastern religious teachings about life and death.  To top it off, the animation is spellbinding, beautiful artistic scenery, and flights of fancy, like Fantasia, Words do this film no justice, it must be viewed to be enjoyed. This is the same studio that did Coroline and The Boxtrolls, if you liked those movies, you will love this one.

The acting is superb.  Charlize Theron is as good as I’ve seen her in anything.  She expresses her love for Kubo by being a protective shield over him, and her love for him is as intense and heartfelt as anything I’ve seen on film.  She also expresses her love for Kubo’s father in a pure, uncomplicated way.  Matthew McConaughey also gives an amazing performance as a simpleton Beetle who must protect Kubo above all, he infuses Beetle with a kind of down-home Texas delivery, that is charming and disarming.  Rooney Mara is intriguingly creepy as The Sisters,  I wish there were more Asian people in lead roles to give the story more authenticity, the Asian actors seem like bystanders in their own story.  Having said that, the acting could not have been better, there was a real emotional connection made between the viewers and these actors.

I know nothing about how to direct an animated film, but however it’s done, the director did what he needed to do, the pacing is good, the performances are very good, and the visuals are good. This is Travis Knight’s first directorial job, but he’s had jobs as an animator in movies like ParaNorman, Coraline, and The Boxtrolls.  He also did animation for Kubo.  The results of his work are beautiful.

Kubo and The Two Strings:  Zing Went The Strings of My Heart

my-cousin-vinny

Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) are college friends driving through Alabama when they are arrested for murdering a store clerk.  Bill and Stan give confusing statements to the police and realize they need a lawyer.  A good lawyer costs 50-100 thousand dollars, but Bill’s mother knows of a lawyer in the family, Bill’s cousin Vinny. (Joe Pesci) Vinny brings his fiancé Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) along for the ride. But Vinny’s defense of Bill and Stan gets off to a bumpy start, he gets held in contempt of court twice, by Judge Chamberlain Haller, (Fred Gwynne)  and asks no questions at the pre-trial hearing, so Bill and Stan consider using the public defender, John Gibbons (Austin Pendleton) but they decide to retain Vinny after he gets some concessions from the first eyewitness.  Vinny continues to punch holes in the prosecution case, but then the prosecution calls George Wilbur (James Rebhorn) an FBI expert on tire treads who says the tire treads on Bill and Stan’s car is the only car that can make the tire tracks at the murder scene. Can anyone counter this damning testimony?  Will Bill and Stan be convicted of murder?

This is a classic fish out of water story, a culture clash between East Coast Italians and Southern Baptists.  Stereotypes abound, especially Italian American stereotypes, but Hollywood seems to revel in stereotypes.  The saving grace of this movie is that it’s laugh-out-loud funny, for example there is a running gag in this movie, and an actual payoff to the running gag. Also, Vinny and Mona Lisa actually evolve beyond their stereotypes, and watching these characters grow and evolve is what makes this film a classic.

The acting is very good.  Pesci shows great comedic timing which should be no surprise to anyone who has seen Goodfellas.  Tomei is laugh out loud funny as Lisa Vito, she won an Oscar for her performance, and deservedly so, although she does lay the Italian New York accent on a bit too thickly.  Fred Gwynne plays it straight most of the time, but there are moments when I see that Herman Munster twinkle in his eye.  He is perfect in this role.  “What is a yoot?” he asks Pesci. This is one of many classic lines in this movie. Ralph Macchio has very little to do in this movie, well after his success in the Karate Kid movies.

Johnathan Lynn is the director here.  He’s a British director, who’s done The Whole 9 Yards, but little else of note.  He doesn’t really do anything visual in this film, a couple of low angle shots and that’s it.  But he keeps the pacing going along quickly, and gets good performances from Tomei, Pesci, and Gwynne, and ties up the loose ends nicely.

My Cousin Vinny:  Pesci bellies up to the bar.