Monthly Archives: April 2017

Math Moppet

Chris Evans hangs up he superhero spandex for heartwarming tale 

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Gifted
Starring Chris Evans, McKenna Grace, Jenny Slate & Lindsay Duncan
Directed by Marc Bell
PG-13
Wide release April 21

Best known as Captain America, actor Chris Evans puts aside the superhero tights for Gifted. But he’s still got a battle to fight.

He plays Frank, a Florida boat repairman who’s also been the guardian of his 7-year-old niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), since the suicide of her mother, Diane, when Mary was a baby. It’s clear that Mary is a phenomenon, if not an outright genius—while other students in her first-grade class are learning to add two plus two, Mary is calculating square roots in her head, much to the astonishment of her teacher, Miss Bonnie (Jenny Slate).

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Mary’s first-grade teacher (Jenny Slate) is amazed at her mathematical skills. 

Bonnie and the principal (Elizabeth Marvel from TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Homeland) tell Frank that Mary is “gifted” and offer to place her in a special school that can raise her to “the level of scholarship that she deserves.” But Frank declines. He wants Mary to grow up like a “normal” kid, in a normal school, not in an place where she’s pegged as an oddity.

Cue the back story: Frank’s sister (Mary’s mother) was also a math genius, a number-crunching, headline-making superstar. And her suicide had something to do with the unbearable pressure she felt to solve an “unsolvable” mathematical enigma—and the pressure from her overbearing iceberg of a mother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, who plays Lady Smallwood on TV’s Sherlock), a British-born Boston blueblood who now wants custody of little Mary.

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Lindsay Duncan of TV’s ‘Sherlock’ plays Mary’s grandmother.

And guess what? Evelyn has a bit of math in her bones as well. Maybe that’s got something to do with why she’s now so interested in her granddaughter…

Director Marc Webb, whose previous films include 500 Days of Summer and two Spider-Man flicks, gets nuanced, naturalistic performances from his cast, especially young McKenna Grace. At her young age, she’s already a TV and movie veteran of nearly 40 roles, including playing Penny Kirkman on TV’s Designated Survivor and young Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time. Missing her two front teeth and with a bandage on her scuffed-up knee, spouting complex calculus one minute and watching Spongebob Squarepants the next, she’s very believable as a child who’s bestowed with unfathomable super smarts, but very much still a kid.

Evans proves he’s got chops beyond Captain America’s spandex—even though Gifted can’t resist playing off his buff, hunkish charms. “He’s the quiet, damaged, hot guy,” is how one of Bonnie’s female coworkers dreamily describes Frank. Not surprisingly, Bonnie and Frank find a charming romantic connection, which leads to a Kramer vs. Kramer-style morning-after interruption—and possibly the movie’s funniest one-liner.

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Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer plays Frank’s warm-hearted next-door neighbor, Roberta, who provides the movie’s real conscience and backbone. She gets to shake it down with Mary in a fun karaoke rendition of “Shame, Shame, Shame,” and Spencer’s very presence in a child-genius math-themed movie gives things a sort of half-pint Hidden Figures vibe.

There’s a beautiful beach scene with a parable-like discussion of cats, sandpipers friends and idiots. Another lovely sunset moment has a conversation about God, Jesus and the afterlife, and ends with Frank telling Mary to “use your head, but don’t be afraid to believe in things, either.”

There’s a one-eyed cat named Fred, a contentious courtroom showdown, a tearful separation, an equally tearful reunion, and the running theme about just how much smart, talented “exceptional” kids should be pushed to excel at the expense of experiencing “real life.”

At one point, Mary’s grandmother tells her that immortality lies in the kind of mathematical accomplishments that her mother died trying to achieve. “If you succeed,” Evelyn tells her, “your name will live forever.”

Perhaps, but what good is “living forever” as a math megamind if you can’t snuggle with your one-eyed cat—or frolic on the playground—with your friends today?

Gifted likely won’t win any major awards, and it won’t live forever in anyone’s movie memory. But this heart-warming tale about a pint-size prodigy will leave you with a smile.

 

 

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Brawny Bald Lads

No matter how fast & furious, they can’t outrun the fate of their follicles

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Vin Diesel stars as Dom.

The Fate of the Furious
Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham & Charlize Theron
Directed by F. Gary Grey
PG-13
In theaters April 14, 2017

Dodge a gigantic, swinging wrecking ball? Gear-jam a souped-up jalopy, on fire, in reverse, through the streets of Havana? Parachute—into an airplane?

No problem! For the Fast & Furious crew, it’s all in a day’s work.

The Fate of the Furious, the eighth movie in the F&F franchise, which began back in 2001, reunites the films’ core crew of Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, and later additions Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) knows what fans want, and he serves it up: heaping helpings of heavy metal thunder, brawny brawls and ridiculously over-the-top vehicular mayhem, all wrapped around themes of brotherhood, loyalty and “family.”

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Dwayne Johnson

With Diesel, Johnson, Statham and Gibson’s characters, premature hair loss must run in this family. No matter how fast they drive, they can’t outrun the retreating follicles.

Anyway, Kurt Russell reprises his role, introduced in Furious 7, as government operative Mr. Nobody, now with a sidekick (Scott Eastwood). Kristofer Hivju, who plays Tormund Giantsbane on the HBO series Game of Thrones, makes for a nasty henchman—and makes up for some of his castmates’ absence of hair.

Oscar winning Charlize Theron is newly on board as an icy villainess known as Cipher, with a dastardly plan to hack into the international power grid, start World War III—and rope in ringleader Dom (Diesel) by blackmailing him, forcing him to betray his team. She runs her entire rig from a “ghost” airplane high above the Earth.

And another Oscar winner, Helen Mirren, makes a cameo.

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Charlize Theron plays the villainess Cipher.

As the F&F movies got bigger, boomier and more Furious-er, audiences came to expect ever more outlandish stunts and setups. So plots, plausibility and physics took backseats to more imaginative scenarios unbound by laws of gravity, continuity or even common sense—which is why, here, you can have a cascade of empty cars spilling onto a busy city street from a parking garage, apparently without a casualty or even injury to a single pedestrian below. Or how, as a matter of fact, with all the explosions, flying debris and high-velocity steel on the streets and elsewhere, very few people ever seem to be injured, or even get their wardrobe or hair mussed.

A lengthy climatic pursuit across a frozen lake, involving a prolonged hail of gunfire, tracer missiles and a series of massive explosions, ends with a shot of all of the F&F crew looking like the actors just stepped out of their trailers, beside vehicles fresh off a showroom floor.

And no one ever seems to die—at least for long. It would be a spoiler to say much more.

Speaking of that, the franchise is still feeling the loss of Paul Walker, who played Brian O’Connor. His death in 2013, in a real-world car crash, left a hole in the hearts of F&F fans that the movies continued to address, in various ways—although they pretended that his character simply drove off, into the sunset. Brian—and Walker—get another salute in The Fate of the Furious, but you’ll have to wait until the very end to find out how.

Film Title: The Fate of the Furious

Director Gray knows that the high octane needs to be balanced with humor, and he brings plenty of that, too. There’s a lot of levity in the script—by screenwriter Chris Morgan, who penned four previous outings—especially in the banter, chatter and riffing between characters. The movie really comes to life when it swivels over to the meaty love-hate bromance between Johnson and Statham’s characters. Bridges and Gibson get laughs when they rib each other or spar over the attention of the sexy computer hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays Missandei on Game of Thrones).

It’s all good, gear-jamming, blast-’em, blow-it-up fun, mainly for fans who’ve been faithful to the franchise all along. Everyone else might feel a bit lost, especially with the cameo appearances by folks who pop in from previous films.

In TV terms, “jumping the shark” is when a series does something so ridiculous, so attention-grabbing and gimmicky, it marks a low point—a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest. It’s rooted in a 1977 episode of Happy Days, when Fonzie went waterskiing in Hawaii and—literally—jumped over a shark.

In The Fate of the Furious, Dom doesn’t jump a shark, but a nuclear submarine—then it explodes, and he gets up and kisses his wife.

All in a day’s work.

ScarJo the Robo

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Ghost in the Shell
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Binoche, Pilou Asbaek & Michael Carmen Pitt
Directed by Rupert Sanders
PG-13
In theaters March 31, 2017

News flash: The robots are coming!

Well, they’re already here. Actually, they’ve been here for a long time—at least in the movies, where they date back more than 100 years. But they always come back again and again, especially as special effects improve—and Hollywood recycles ideas.

The big “news” about Ghost in the Shell, though, is that it’s the long-awaited live-action remake—recycle—of a groundbreaking, classic 1995 Japanese animated film, or anime, of the same name. The original Ghost in the Shell, based on a series of popular Japanese “manga” comics, spawned a television series, several video spinoffs and a 2004 sequel that became the first animated film ever to compete for the grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

But very few mainstream, shopping-mall moviegoers in America saw the original Ghost in the Shell.

That likely won’t be the case with the new Ghost, with Scarlett Johansson starring as Major, a sexy, futuristic fembot who’s basically a human brain with cyber body parts. She’s been salvaged from a horrific incident and recommissioned by a robotics corporation in cahoots with the government and the military.

New Port City, the punk-goth future world in which the movie is set, has all sorts of people walking around with all sorts of no-big-deal cyber enhancements. But ScarJo the ro-bo is touted as the first of her kind, a successfully transplanted human brain inside a 100 percent robotic casing—her “ghost” identity in a humanoid, high-tech, super-duper “shell” of hydraulics, wires, circuitry, gridwork and tubing.

Her motherly surgeon (French actress Juliette Binoche) is thrilled, but the head of the robotics program (Peter Ferdinando) is a bit more pragmatic and bottom-line: “She’s a weapon, and the future of my company.”

So Major is assigned to a team of cyber-warfare operatives (including Danish rising star Pilou Asbaek, who plays Eruon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones), and you can guess what happens next—a lot of run, run, bang, bang, boom, boom. Major’s mission is a bit murky—there’s someone out there named Kuze (Michael Carmen Pitt) who’s got to be stopped before he…oh, whatever.

But man, everything sure does look amazing.

GHOST IN THE SHELLSome of the sequences are eye-popping, even gorgeous—like the geisha robot assassin that turns into a wall-crawling “spider,” and the stunning backgrounds that seem almost alive. New Port City is a spectacular, sky-high, computer-animated neon playground teeming with gargantuan, 3-D holograms of people, fish and bubbles—it looks like Manhattan, Tokyo and Las Vegas all went out, got drunk, dreamed of being at the bottom of a big aquarium and woke up inside a videogame arcade.

The movie brings up issues of consciousness, artificial intelligence, memory, mutations and just how far corporations (or governments) could, should or would go into the lives of people who can’t stop them. If it seems kind of familiar, it’s because we’ve been there before in Blade Runner, The Matrix, RobocopEx Machina, A.I. and Minority Report. Remember TV’s The Six Billion Dollar Man? And more recently, even HBO’s Westworld beat this remake, and a lot of its ideas, to the draw.

Johansson—or her voice—played a disembodied computer operating system in Her (2013). In the haunting art-film Under the Skin (2013) she portrayed a space-alien succubus stalking Scotland for men to kill. She was a super-powered warrior, juiced up by an accidental overdose of drugs, in Lucy (2014). In Marvel’s Avengers franchise, her character of the Black Widow has a backstory that includes biotechnological and psycho-technological enhancement.

So she’s got some experience with characters who are modified, amplified, not all here or not all there. She’s suitably “blank” and super-charged as Major, haunted by blips and glitches of memories from her mostly erased past. But I suspect most fanboys who flock to Ghost will be far more interested in her shell—the slinky-dinky, sculpted, almost nude-looking bodysuit that passes for fashionable female cyber-wear in New Port City.

GHOST IN THE SHELLGhost in the Shell gets in some nice, more subtle touches, however. In a movie full of far-out sights and explosive action, a quiet, subdued scene when Major goes to the apartment of a grieving mother is filled with understated sorrow—and loaded with deeper clues. Veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano gets a laugh when he scolds a would-be attacker, “Don’t send a rabbit to kill a fox.” A scene where Major gently engages a prostitute just to remember the feel of human flesh is heartbreaking—and makes you wonder what was perhaps cut for the movie to get a PG-13 rating.

But overall, this Ghost seems a bit late in the game—after all, it’s a movie based on a movie based on a comic book that came out more than 25 years ago. It’s got a shiny, great-looking shell, to be sure, but the ghost inside isn’t really anything new.

Sorry, ScarJo—cool bodysuit, though.