Fly Away

Fly Away PictureWritten and directed by Emmy Award winner Janet Grillo, this 2011 low-budget independent film, shot in a mere 14 days is full of emotional punch and great characters brought to life by a bright and talented cast. 

The film opens with a close-up of hands winding a circular music box and placing two wooden ladybug figures on top. As the music plays, the two figures move in circles around the top and this works as a perfect metaphor for the relationship that drives this movie. Jeanne (Beth Broderick) is a single mother raising an autistic daughter Mandy (Ashley Rickards) who is 15 years old and having great difficulty coping with her special school. The girl has anxiety attacks in the middle of the night and is prone to violence in her classes. Jeanne is trying to make a living by doing business consulting from her home. Mandy’s father, Peter (J. R. Bourne), tries to take some of the pressure off of Jeanne by taking Mandy for an afternoon, but he is unable to cope with the daughter he so obviously loves.

As these problems develop, Jeanne meets a very nice guy, Tom (Greg Germann), a neighbor who walks his dog in the same park where Jeanne and Mandy walk their dog. He makes an effort to get close to Jeanne, who accuses him of getting close to her from pity. When Jeanne and her partner lose a very important client, the situation with Mandy becomes increasingly difficult and Jeanne must make a difficult decision to either try to continue their life or to enroll Mandy in a residential therapeutic clinic.

Broderick and Rickards both give amazing performances, so real and down-to-earth that they are completely believable in the roles. All of the supporting actors are also terrific. The script is 100% organic and on point throughout the film, developing the themes to a finely honed story. The ending is perfect for both mother and daughter.

I admit that I am an easy target for this kind of script, easily sucked in, and emotionally involved. However, I truly believe that this movie really hits absolutely every note spot-on, so well written, developed, and edited that you cannot fail to be impressed by it on almost any level. There should have been multiple Academy Award nominations and once again the Academy missed the boat.

At a mere 80 minutes, it is perfect in terms of time and development. I highly recommend this movie!

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Frozen River

frozen-river-pic-melissa-leoThere are a lot of great movies that somehow never make it into the public eye and Frozen River is one of those films. It deserves to be seen–and probably deserved a lot more national attention than what it actually got.

The film is set in the fictional town Massena, New York, the Akwesasne St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, and–believe it or not–the St. Lawrence River that marks the Canadian border. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is raising two sons, age 5 and 15, with a husband who is addicted to gambling. When the film opens, he has just run off to Atlantic City with their savings, intended as the balloon payment on a new double wide trailer home. The opening shot shows Ray as she sits in her car smoking and crying, the glove box where the money was kept sitting empty. The camera pans up her body to her face, the extreme close-up showing vividly how life has torn this woman apart.

She works in a discount store part time and the family is now in a desperate situation, with practically no money to survive. Dinner consists of popcorn and Tang and the film unrolls with the threat of having their TV repossessed.

When a Mohawk girl, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) steals the car Ray’s husband had left at the bus station, she chases the girl down. Lila tells her that she knows someone on the rez who will buy the car for $2,000, so they set off across the frozen river to the Canadian side of the Mohawk reservation. But instead of selling the car, they are passed $1200 and asked to pop the trunk. When they do, two illegal aliens jump in.

This new source of income intrigues Ray and she returns to Lila to do another transfer. And so, the two become embroiled in a life of illegal gains that make both of their lives better. And over time, an unlikely friendship develops between them.

Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, this wonderful film stars Melissa Leo a haunting, true-to-life performance that won her multiple awards. Although she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, she did not win. Courtney Hunt was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and also did not win. Throughout the world, the film was nominated for an won a great many awards. Besides great acting and directing, the cinematography in the film is truly outstanding, presenting us with a realistic winter life on the very edge of survival.

At 93 minutes, it is nearly the perfect length. I highly recommend this movie for all to see.

The English Patient

Feel free to disagree with me on this one!  🙂

The English Patient is a highly overblown World War II romance. Based on the novel by Michael English PatientOndaatje, the movie was adapted and directed by Anthony Minghella. It tells a rather choppy story that uses lots of flashbacks to flesh out (literally) the illicit romance between cartographer Count László de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and the wife of his benefactor, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The main story deals with Canadian nurse Hana (Juliette Binoche) tending to the badly burned body of de Almásy in an abandoned Italian monostary.   Supposedly, he doesn’t remember who he is and since he speaks English as his first language, they refer to him simply as “the English patient” and there is the title of the film. To little purpose, Hana has a relationship with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a Sikh who serves in the British Army sweeping mines, while David Carravagio (Willem Defoe) hangs around hoping to pin de Almásy as the third man responsible for his thumbs being cut off (he’s already killed the first two).

The back story is revealed through de Almásy’s memories. He was on an archeological and cartographic expedition in Egypt prior to World War II and they discover the “Cave of Swimmers” in the desert. The expedition’s benefactors, Katherine and Geoffrey Clifton (Colin Firth) join them and while Geoffrey goes off to spy, de Almásy and Katherine begin an affair that Geoffrey ultimately finds out about. As one might discern from the plot described above, everything is doomed to end badly.

The first major problem with the movie is that it is at least an hour too long. As I began to hope and pray that this overblown romantic drama might end, it continued to linger on and on and on. By the time the movie finally ended, I was perfectly content and happy that everyone but Juliet Binoche was dead.

The second major problem of the film is that both Fiennes and Thomas are terribly cold fish. The movie hinges on the viewer being able to understand and relate to their torrid affair, but they were both so unemotional that I just couldn’t get involved. Most of the other performances are okay. If the movie had been trimmed to a sleek 90 minutes I probably could have been able to tolerate the lousy romance more, but as it dragged on and on, I simply began to resent the filmmakers wasting my time with this tawdry and unbelievable little potboiler.

It is difficult to understand how it won so many Academy Awards. Hollywood loves long, overblown, beautifully photographed love stories. If you look back over the history of the awards, a huge number of undeserving films have been honored and this is certainly in that category. The Golden Globe Awards are usually a much better measuring stick of a film’s real values, but even they gave it two out of the seven nominations (the Academy generously gave it a whopping nine awards out of twelve nominations).

Another thing that Hollywood loves is steamy romances where either a husband or a wife is unfaithful. I have always failed to see the romance in betrayal. There are a great many times during the movie where Katherine could–and should–have revealed her affair to her husband. Rather, she prefers to go on hurting him, eventually driving him to suicide. I just don’t see any way that this behavior could be deemed as admirable or romantic. It is possessed of its own unique evil and yet Hollywood seems to love it. Perhaps it’s because this is somewhat a way of life in Hollywood and actors and actresses can relate to it. I find it impossible to see the betrayers as heroes or heroines.

I can’t honestly recommend this film. It takes nearly three hours (2:42 to be exact) to spin its tedious, tawdry tale and there is no return on your investment of time. Pass.

Lovelace

Amanda Seyfriend as Linda LovelaceThis film is a 2013 biographical picture about the life of Linda Boreman, beginning at the age of 20 and going through her marriage to Chuck Traynor and the release of her biography, . Under the trade name of Linda Lovelace, she starred in the 1972 pornographic breakthrough movie Deep Throat and that is her lone claim to fame aside from her biography, Ordeal.

When Linda (Amanda Seyfriend) and her friend Patsy (Juno Temple) dance at the bowling alley on a lark, they are spotted by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), a young man into drugs and pornography. Although he treats her like a gentleman at first, Linda is having serious trouble at home with her repressive parents John (Robert Patrick) and Dorothy (Sharon Stone). After an incident with her mother, Linda moves in with Chuck and eventually marries him.

Although the film doesn’t show us any kind of abuse throughout the beginning, later flashbacks show us that he raped her over and over and forced her into prostitution against her will, essentially using her sexuality as a way to make money. He takes it to the ultimate level when he forces her to appear in a porno movie, Deep Throat.

While Chuck intended to make a great deal of money from her, the scheme backfires in several ways. In the first place, she was only paid $1,250 for her performance, which made the movie somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million dollars worldwide. The second problem created by the success of the movie was that Linda Lovelace became an overnight celebrity and it became more difficult to control her. But control her he did, forcing her to use her name on blow-up dolls, dildos, and other paraphernalia while holding out for a bigger film deal.

At one point in the movie, Linda tells Phil Donohue that she was only in the porn industry for 17 days, yet it was the one thing she was always remembered for.

Desperate for money, Traynor sells her to five men. He locks her in a motel room with them so they can beat and sodomize her for hours. At her wits end, she finally runs away and makes a new life for herself.

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the movie achieves a very high level of filmmaking and it is not hyperbole to say that is a very powerful movie. Amanda Seyfriend is truly outstanding as Linda Lovelace, bringing just the right level of belief in her husband to keep forgiving him until things got so far out of hand that she had to escape. Sharon Stone gives perhaps her best performance ever as her mother Dorothy. Sarsgaard is good as Traynor, but the role is pretty one-note so it’s difficult to give him much more credit.

If the movie suffers from any problem, it is in the way the story is laid out. I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do by showing the story in two different takes. In the first part, they were attempting to show us what people saw at the time—the history we know—then in the second part, they show us what really happened. While I understand the device, I’ve got to say that it wasn’t entirely successful. I think a straight, chronological story line might have worked better or even a retelling beginning with the book Ordeal showing what really happened. I just don’t know. These aesthetic questions are really splitting hairs, but even if you consider this a potential problem, it doesn’t take away any of the power of the movie at all.

 As one might suspect, this is an Adults Only film, for mature audiences, not only because of nudity and simulated sex, but because the subject of domestic rape and psychological control requires a certain amount of maturity to understand and deal with.

A very good film. I highly recommend it.

Shakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.

Viola and Shakespeare in bedUsing the premise that Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s breakthrough drama, the movie begins with Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as a poor player in Lord Chamberlain’s Men struggling to write a comedy for Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), owner of the Rose Theater, to be called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. As was the custom in those days, they began to cast the play before it was completed–or in this case–even started. Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, disguises herself as a man so she can audition. When Shakespeare sees her, he chases after her and follows her back to her palatial home, remaining to watch the ball, hoping to get a glance at the boy who had impressed him. When he sees Viola dancing, he insinuates himself into it and falls hopelessly in love with her. Viola, however, is slated to marry Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and go off with him to the new world where he plans to run a successful tobacco plantation. Shakespeare, now deeply in love, changes his play from a comedy to a drama and renames his heroine Juliet.

The film won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Gwyneth Paltrow won Best Actress and Judi Densch won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. The cinematography is terrific, as are the costumes, and the set, which was built specially for the movie. The direction by John Madden is tight, with terrific editing.

But the star of the movie is the script, which incorporates hilarious scenes, counterbalanced by wonderful romantic scenes. It is extremely witty, incorporating quotes and references to Shakespeare’s life and inspirations throughout, and liberally sprinkled with quotations. Although Norman had the original idea, it was Stoppard’s masterful rewrite that makes the movie work. The marvelous parallel of Romeo and Juliet with the tragedy of Will and Viola works like a charm, as many of the scenes between the young couple actually make it into the play. The final and most wonderful element is the substitution of Viola as Juliet, performing before Queen Elizabeth, in a time when all women’s roles were played by men. Equally powerful is the idea at the very end that Viola inspired Shakespeare to write Twelfth Night in her honor. Although most this story is completely made up–and abounds in historical inaccuracies–it remains a wonderful movie and it inspired me to go back and reread some of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry.

I highly recommend this movie to everyone!

The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt

Spoiler Alert! This review contains detailed information on the plot and resolution of the novel The Engines of God. It is recommended that you read the book before you read this review.BlackstoneAudioEnginesOfGod

In the realm between hard science fiction and space opera there is a zone where some of the rules of science may be broken very carefully, but the author may still make his or her universe look and feel realistic.

The works of Jack McDevitt certainly belong in that zone and none more squarely than The Engines of God, the first of six novels in what has come to be called “the Academy series”. The novels begin in 2197 and continue deep into the 23rd century.

The Academy of the title is the space exploration arm of the North American Union (NAU), with the primary purpose of charting the star systems of our neighborhood along the Orion spiral arm of the galaxy. Each mission clock runs from about a month to a year. Recent discoveries of both a living, alien pre-atomic population on one planet, Inokademeri (Nok) and archeological ruins on two others (Pinnacle and Quraqua) have led to bigger ships, designed to ferry massive equipment and archeologists to study these planets.

Along with faster than light space travel, humans now have air cars (similar to the skimmers of the Alex Benedict novels), three-dimensional interactive simulations called simmies (replacing movies) and force fields that may be used in hostile environments (replacing space suits).

The protagonist is a pilot named Priscilla Hutchins (everyone calls her Hutch), a diminutive, black-haired beauty imbued with her own particular hang-ups and fears. Hutch is a well-realized character from the beginning. She’s not terribly complicated, but then no one is in this existence nearly 200 years ahead of us and that is part of what gives the novel an edge of realism. Let’s face it, we aren’t very complicated, much as we’d prefer to think otherwise. But there is something in her struggle simply to have a life that we eagerly identify with and we instinctively support her throughout the novel.

She is close friends with Dr. Richard Wald, a archeologist and author, who prefers to have her as pilot on his explorations. The archeologists of the future have discovered gigantic sculptures scattered here and there along the Orion rim. Perhaps the most fascinating is an alien’s self-portrait left on the snow-covered surface of Iapetus, the third largest of Saturn’s moons, that is nearly 24,000 years old.

It is at this point, on February 12, 2197, that The Engines of God begins. Hutch has piloted Dr. Wald to view the Iapetus sculpture and the opening words of the novel paint a chilling picture:

“The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual… stamped on its icy features was a look she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.”

The Prologue is soulful writing, as Hutch and Dr. Wald view the sculpture on Iapetus, walk around it and meditate on who the Monument Makers might have been. It is eerie and introduces a mood of almost spiritual reverence for time and space.

As an introduction, it sets up the central question of the book: Why did the Monument Makers create their sculptures? Although the novel is divided into five sections, each advances the story significantly and brings us a little closer to answering the question.

Part One: Moonrise jumps us ahead in the timeline over five years to April 29, 2202. On the mission to extract the scientists at Quraqua, Hutch and Dr. Wald stop to inspect a Monument on Oz, one of Quraqua’s moons. This sculpture is as large as a city – and in fact looks like a city, though pocked and scarred from some sort of catastrophe. Although the city is almost complete made of right angles, there are two round towers, one at each end of the sculpture and each with a roof sloping away from the Monument. On one of the towers, there is an inscription, unreadable to the scientists, but containing figures from an ancient Quraquan language that has been named Casumel Linear C.

An important character is introduced in Part One in the form of Frank Carson, the administrator of the Quraqua project. An ex-Army man, who works for the Academy, Frank meets Hutch and Dr. Wald at Oz and shows them the inscription.

In Part Two: Temple of the Winds, nearly the entire scientific team is imperiled attempting to remove print chase that might contain enough Casumel letters to reconstruct the language enough so that translations can be made. Dr. Wald gives his life attempting to save this artifact which might contain the key to understanding the inscription on Oz. Although an exciting part of the novel, Part Two does not actually advance the plot that much, except to emphasize the importance of cracking the language.

Understanding the language occurs in Part Three: Beta Pac when the exophilologist, Maggie Tufu, manages to translate the inscription on Oz. It is a message from the Monument Makers to the Quraqua to “seek us by the Horgon’s eye.” The Horgon was a mythical Quraquan beast, who was also represented in a constellation.

Figuring this out, Frank and Hutch manage to calculate star movements over the thousands of years between times and narrow down the possibilities as to which one it might actually be. Training massive radio telescopes on these celestial objects, they discover a transmission which might confirm that they have found the Horgon’s eye – the home of the Monument Makers.

A mission is mounted, but the results are not satisfactory. Perhaps the best part of this section is the period of time when their ship is disabled and they watch their oxygen disappear with little hope of rescue. It is tight and very intense – quite well written. But it doesn’t really advance the story. Once they are rescued, however, they discover that the period of intelligence for the Monument Makers has past and that the race has disappeared, their planet left barren. There is another successful action sequence as the group is attacked by crab-like creatures on the planet, but this also does not advance the story.

What does move it forward is evidence that this world has also suffered multiple catastrophes – and at almost precise intervals of 8,000 years. There is a connection between disasters on Quraqua, Nok, and the Monument Makers’ home world – and there may even be a connection with Earth.

At last, we arrive at Part Four: The Engines of God

Hutch is once again the impetus for hurling the plot forward. She discovers that there is a connection between disasters on Quraqua, Nok, and Beta Pacifica III, each separated by 8,000 years – and there may even be a connection with Earth. It is Hutch who makes a further intuitive leap by associating these catastrophes with the Monuments. She hypothesizes that the Makers created the monuments as a diversion – an attempt to lure these catastrophes that love right angles away from planets with civilizations.

By calculating light year distances, elapsed time and the periods between appearances of whatever phenomenon has created these disasters (they are now calling them dragons), Hutch and Frank are able to accurately predict about where the catastrophe would be due to happen in their time frame. Their mission is detoured from Beta Pac to a system known as LCO4418, where they hope to encounter a catastrophe.

Since there are no right angles in the LCO4418 system, Frank and Hutch decide to emulate the Monument Makers by creating their own diversion. They set about cutting right angles into some existing mesas on a moon covered in ice, hoping to lure a dragon. As if on cue, two ominous clouds are sighted moving into the system and one of them changes direction to approach the icy moon. The phenomena are eventually called Omega clouds and they, more than anything else, form the basis for the entire series of Academy novels.

The Omega cloud unleashes a violent attack on the moon and even chases down the box-like form of Hutch’s lander and destroys it, as well. This confirms Hutch’s suspicion that someone or something is sending out a force every 8,000 years with the intention of destroying civilizations. The Monument Makers, having figured this out thousands of years before, had attempted to divert the Omegas from destroying intelligent life and then had apparently fled the galaxy to avoid them.

The final assumption of the novel is that in about 1,000 years, an Omega will find its way into the solar system and mankind had better be ready. It begins an architectural revolution as all man’s structures are redesigned into circular or ovoid shapes.

Of course, the greater question is left hanging: why would anyone deliberately plot the destruction of sentience and create gigantic machines to accomplish the purpose? That question will have to hang until much later in the Academy series for an answer.

The title of this novel is taken from a Quraquan poem, which is in itself a fine example of Jack McDevitt’s writing. One can imagine a Quraquan poet contemplating an Omega cloud as he or she set down the words:

In the streets of Hau-kai, we wait
Night comes, winter descends
The lights of the world grow cold
And, in this three-hundredth year
From the ascendency of Bilat
He will come who treads the dawn
Tramples the sun beneath his feet
And judges the souls of men
He will stride across the rooftops,
And he will fire the engines of God.