Tuesday, August 29, 2017

My Blog

Thanks for viewing my blog.  I hope to resume my blogging more frequently in the weeks to come.

My Spinal Fusion

Below is an X-Ray of my lower back, including titanium plates, screws, and spacers.

I met with the surgeon's assistant today, who informed me that everything looks good and I can slightly increase my activity level.  It will still be another month before I can swim, bathe, or engage in physical therapy, but my recovery is on track.

I can't say that it doesn't hurt at times, because it does.  But I'm almost completely clear of medication (except Tylenol), I'm walking often, and I even drove today.  I'm also back at work, which mostly involves sitting and typing (like I'm doing right now).

Thanks to all of you for your support, encouragement, prayers, and occasional food (although my appetite has diminished and I'm seizing on that occurrence to try to lose weight).

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Best Movies of 2016

2016 had some good movies early in the year, and a bunch that were released at the end of the year, or not to the general public until 2017.  Because of my time constraints this year, I have not yet seen several films, including (alphabetically): "Captain Fantastic," "Elle," "Fences," "The Founder," "Jackie," "Paterson," "Queen of Katwe," "Silence," "Southside With You," "Toni Erdmann," and "20th Century Women,"   Any of those movies might still make the list, once I get to see them.

If you know me and/or have read my list before, you probably know a few things about my movie preferences:

·         My favorite movies have both a good plot and well-developed characters.

·         I don’t like movies about nasty people doing awful things to each other.

·         I enjoy movies that either entertain me and/or in some way uplift me.

·         I don’t watch a lot of animated films, although occasionally, one might make the list.

·         I don’t include documentaries on my list.

·         I tend to like films where the script is fresh and interesting.

·         I’m not invited to free movie screenings, nor do I get to meet the casts or directors.

·         I am not a film "critic," and as such, I don’t write negative reviews.  I respect most filmmakers for trying to produce their art, so if a well-known or well-regarded film is not listed above or below, it’s quite possible that I saw it but did not like it enough to recommend it.

So, with that, below is my list of the Best Movies of 2016, in inverse order.  Also, at the end, I’ll provide a few awards that you won’t see at the Oscars.

20.     "The Magnificent Seven"

OK, so I'm a sucker for this story.  I reveled at Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954),  loved "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), and enjoyed "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" (1969).  So, when this version, directed by Antoine Fuqua, came out, I had to see it.  While not so noble and more violent than the earlier versions, there is still something magical about this story about a bunch of brave souls willing to risk their lives to help the oppressed residents of a small town.  In addition, it stars some of my favorite actors: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Peter Sarsgaard.  With a screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato, this film continues the legacy of Kurosawa's masterpiece.

19.     "Bridget Jones's Baby"

You might be thinking, "Oh, this is just another sequel in the tired, old Bridget Jones series, but it actually puts a fresh spin on that series.  With Renée Zellweger (post plastic surgery) and Colin Firth reprising their roles, the plot adds Patrick Dempsey to create a romantic triangle that is generally amusing and occasionally extremely funny, along the lines of "Nine Months." Written by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson, this film from director Sharon Maguire is one of this year's few, truly funny comedies.

18.     "The Infiltrator"

It seems like every year, there's one good movie about drug-smuggling, and this year, it is directed by Brad Furman and stars Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Kathy Ertz, Olympia Dukakis, and Jason Isaacs.  In it Cranston's character works undercover to bring down members of the Pablo Escobar operation.  Written by Ellen Brown Furman based on the book by Robert Mazur, it succeeds in creating a palpable tension, with several uncomfortable moments that only an actor of Cranston's caliber can pull off.

17.     "Ghostbusters"

Yes, it's a remake, but this one has an interesting slant…the Ghostbusters are women, played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones.  Directed by Paul Feig from a screenplay by Feig and Kate Dippold, this film pays homage to the original while creating a different story.  But the reason to see it is the performances of its stars, particularly Kate McKinnon, who takes every scene to another level of comic weirdness. 

16.     "Hidden Figures"

This film tells an important, true story that has never before been told on film, about a group of black women, referred to as "computers," who, in the 1960s, were instrumental in the early NASA missions.  It's a behind-the-scenes version of "The Right Stuff," but in this case, that stuff consisted of personal grit and mathematical genius.  The main character is Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), who is now recognized as a pivotal force in the early space program.  She is supported by friends played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe (who jumped from music to film in two, excellent movies this year).  Directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, this film features strong supporting performances by Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali.

15.     "Lion"

Directed by Garth Davis and written by Luke Davies from a book by Saroo Brierly, the movie tells the true story of Brierly's life, getting separated from his family at a young age and being raised by parents in Australia (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).  As a young adult (played by Dev Patel), Brierly spent years trying to track down the family from which he had been separated.  Also starring Rooney Mara, Priyanka Bose, and Sunny Pawar (outstanding as young Saroo), it is a heartwarming story of strength, character, and redemption.

14.     "Green Room"

This is the year's most suspenseful film, about members of a rock band who somehow get involved with a group of neo-Nazis, and end up in a fight for their lives.  Technically released in 2015 but not in theaters until this year, the film is written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, and features outstanding performances by Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, and Patrick Stewart as the skinhead leader.  This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, often squirming but completely riveted.

13.     "The Nice Guys"

The best of the three comedies to make my list, this film is directed by Shane Black and written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi.  It is a buddy movie, in some ways similar to "Lethal Weapon," which was also written by Black, in which two unlikely buddies, played by Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, team up to find a missing woman.  In the process, they bungle their way through Hollywood, which the film delightfully ridicules.  While the comic tension between the two leads is surprisingly effective, the real star of this film is the script, which is insightfully funny.

12.     "Deepwater Horizon"

We all remember the explosion and humongous oil spill in 2010 by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico, and this film effectively and tensely tells the story of that event, what caused it, the efforts to quell it, and the lives of those who were lost on the oil rig.  Directed by Peter Berg, and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, the film stars Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson.  It's an action film with heart.

11.     "Birth of a Nation

In 1915, D.W. Griffith directed a classic, silent movie that was technically brilliant, but obnoxiously paid tribute to the Ku Klux Klan.  101 years later, Nate Parker's excellent film is a rebuke of the movie which shares its name.  Written by, directed by, and starring Parker, it tells the true story of Nat Turner, the slave preacher who, in 1831, led a rebellion that terrified white America and fueled the movement to abolish slavery.  The movie illustrates the devastating events that changed Turner from a man of God to a leader of violence.  With superb supporting performances by Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Colman Domingo, this is a powerful and disturbing film.

10.     "Free State of Jones"

I almost combined the reviews of this film and "Birth of a Nation," because they both tell stories of rebellions in the slavery-dominated South.  However, this is a very different story—the true tale of Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), who deserted his Confederate battalion after realizing that his poor, white friends and family were dying to protect wealthy slaveholders.  He returned to his home in Jones County, Mississippi to lead a mixed-race rebellion against the Confederate government.  Written and directed by Gary Ross, this film features excellent supporting performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, and Mahershala Ali (in 3 movies on this list).

9.       "Manchester by the Sea"

Set in the North Shore area of my home state of Massachusetts, this is a subtle, quiet film about characters suffering from different types of anguish.  Expertly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it features pitch-perfect performances by Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, and Gretchen Mol.  This is an absorbing, character-driven movie that leaves you feeling like you were hit by a truck.

8.       "Midnight Special"

Michael Shannon plays tense, uncomfortable roles as well as anyone in Hollywood, and he is excellent in this story of the father of a boy with special abilities who is trying to protect his son from groups that would use those abilities in different ways.  Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the film also benefits from supporting performances by Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, and Jaeden Lieberher as Alton—the boy.  The film culminates in an unexpected, visually stunning conclusion.

7.       "Moonlight"

Told in three parts with different actors playing the lead role at various stages of the character's life, this film was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  It follows the life of a boy, named Chiron, from a difficult situation, growing into manhood while struggling to find his identity and appreciate his sexuality.  While the three actors playing the lead are very good, Chiron is most impacted by the characters around him, played by Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, and Janelle Monáe.  This film is very intimate and feels more like a stage play than a movie, and Jenkins definitely has a knack for bringing out the depth in each of his memorable characters.

6.       "Sully"

If you haven't seen this movie, you're probably thinking, "Why bother? I already saw the real-life scenes of Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger landing a passenger jet on the Hudson River."  But that's not what this film is about.  Instead, it chronicles the events that happened after the now-famous landing, as the FAA investigated Sully for failing to return to the airport after the plane's engines were disabled by a flock of birds.  No one plays noble anguish better than Tom Hanks, and in this film, he delivers another stellar performance, under the direction of Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki.  Featuring excellent performances by Aaron Eckhart, Jamey Sheridan, and Laura Linney, this is a surprisingly interesting movie.

5.       "Hell or High Water"

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers implementing a plan to get revenge on the bank that cheated their family, and Jeff Bridges plays the lawman who is out to identify and stop them.  Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David MacKenzie, this film combines an interesting plot with outstanding character development.  Through MacKenzie's deft direction, the most powerful scenes are the small, dialog-driven interchanges, rather than the larger action sequences that advance the story, and the best scene, near the end, simply features two men talking on a front porch.

4.       "Patriot's Day"

Joni and I had just ordered Thai food in a small restaurant in Wayland, MA, as we watched the Boston Marathon on a TV in the corner.  She had wanted to go to the finish line, but she was recovering from surgery, so we had stayed away.  Just then, there were two explosions, a few seconds apart, that were heard throughout the Boston area as loudly as the shots in Lexington and Concord in 1775 around which the Patriot's Day celebration is built.  It felt like we were reliving 9/11, and we spent the next few days glued to the news, wondering who perpetrated this crime and if/when they would be caught.  This movie accurately and effectively retells the incidents leading up to the bombing and those harrowing days afterward as it interweaves the personal stories of some of those involved.  It is the year's second collaboration between star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, who shares writing credits with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer, and it features performances by an outstanding cast including John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Beach, Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Wolf, and J.K. Simmons.  The chronology is accurate, the emotions are real, and you don't want to miss a minute of this riveting film.

3.       "Sing Street"

I love this little movie about a 15-year-old boy who forms a rock band to impress a seemingly worldly 16-year-old girl.  Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it was written and directed by John Carney (who also made "Once" and "Begin Again") and feels a little like "The Commitments," which is funny because the mother in Sing Street is played by Maria Doyle Kennedy, who also had a large role as a singer in "The Commitments."  It stars Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, both of whom demonstrate the odd juxtaposition between exuberance and discomfort that often accompanies adolescence.  Enabling viewers to revisit 80s classic songs, this film is excellent for the joy it expresses about and through music.

2.       "Arrival"

The last few years have offered many good films about Aliens and space travel, but this one is different because rather than being about those subjects, it uses a possible alien invasion as the impetus for a story about communication, the beauty of it, and the need for it.  Instead of an astronaut, the lead character, played by Amy Adams, is a linguistics professor who is brought on board to try to ascertain what the aliens want and why they are here.  It also doesn't portray the military as war-mongering idiots, as so many movies do, but rather as individuals trying to figure out the best way to defend their country.  Written by Eric Heisserer from a story by Ted Chiang and directed by Dennis Villeneuve, it also features Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker in roles that are suitably nuanced.  The thought-inducing ending has to do with the sequence of time and how events along a continuum are interdependent.  Forgetting for a minute the science behind it, this is an outstandingly well-crafted film.

1.       "La La Land"

This isn't a traditional musical.  Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, it is an homage to classic films that would be excellent without any music but is further enhanced by the occasional song (by Justin Hurwitz).  As a fan of old movies, I was consistently picking up on more or less obvious references to "Casablanca" and other celluloid stories.  As a reviewer of modern movies, I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic storyline about following your dreams wherever they take you.  As a music lover, I appreciated the excellent songwriting on "City of Stars" and "The Fools Who Dream," as well as the importance of maintaining jazz as a vital art form.  And as a fan of Emma Stone's work, I was glad to see her get to play such a well-developed role (as opposed to "Aloha") opposite another fine actor—Ryan Gosling.  I have to admit that I enjoyed this movie from the opening song-and-dance scene on the highway ("Another Day of Sun") to the what-if "Epilogue."  I left the theater hoping that maybe the success of "La La Land" would encourage producers to make more movies like this.

So, that’s my list today.  It may change tomorrow, which is the beauty of posting it on a blog.  Please let me know if there are other movies you feel belong on this list.

The Reid Awards

And now, for the second time, I will present awards based entirely on criteria that only I understand:

·         Breakout Actor of the Year: I first noticed Mahershala Ali for his role as a lobbyist on "House of Cards" on Netflix, but this year, he was in three outstanding movies—"Moonlight," "Free State of Jones," and "Hidden Figures."  His work in all three films was good, but he deserves an Oscar for his role as Juan in Moonlight.  Given the political climate, it would be nice to see that award go to a Muslim actor.

·         The Future Meryl Streep Award for Best Young Actress: Last year, I gave this award to Brie Larson, who the won the Oscar for "Room."  This year, it goes to Emma Stone, whom I first noticed in "Superbad" and whose alluringly wide eyes convey a Chaplinesque level of expression.  May she continue to get good roles.

·         Best Child Actors: There are a lot of cute kids in the movies, but every now and then, you recognize real talent behind their young faces.  This award goes to Sunny Pawar, who was wonderful in "Lion," and Jaeden Lieberher, who was Michael Shannon's acting equal in "Midnight Special."

·         The Boomers Who Keep Going Award:  As a baby-boomer, I feel a certain kinship with over-60 actors who keep making good movies, year after year, and made my list this year (listed alphabetically): Jeff Bridges, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Denzel Washington.

·         Best Transition from Pop Star to Movie Star:  As someone who perennially earned a spot on my Best Albums list, Janelle Monáe has long been a favorite.  This year, her strong supporting roles in "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" only enhances my appreciation for her.

·         Weirdest Movie of the Year:  It didn't make the "Best of" list because it is so weird, but if you want to see something completely out of the box, watch "The Lobster."  Directed by Yorgos Lathimos and starring Colin Farrel and Rachel Weisz, it is set in the future, and the plot is as follows: If you are not married by a certain age, you are sent to a hotel, where you have 45 days to find a spouse.  If you are unable to do so, you are changed into the animal of your choice and released into the wild.  In the woods around the hotel, there are a bunch of "singles" who have escaped and are hunted—forbidden by their peers from finding spouses.  That doesn't even describe the oddness of this film, so if you are bored one night, try it out.