The OTHER Potter England is famous for: Miss Potter

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There are two vitally important attributes that great artists in any form must have. First is an imagination, the tool to picture the art and all that it encompasses. The second is the ability and talent to tangibly produce it through a medium, be it words or watercolors. Beatrix Potter certainly had both of these, and more. The Victorian era children’s author, conservationist and biologist is most well known for the beautifully illustrated set of stories starring animals. Peter Rabbit, Peter Cottontail, Samuel Whiskers and Jemima Puddleduck are just a handful of the characters that she brought life to not only with words on a page but beautiful pictures that drove the imagination of the reader. Miss Potter takes on the difficult task of summing up the life and major events surrounding Beatrix Potter by showcasing her loves, losses and triumphs.

 

The primary focus of the film is set squarely on the imagination of its titular character. From the get-go we watch as a young Beatrix interacts with her drawings as though they were her friends. We listen as she creates stories out of nothing to tell to her younger brother before bed. What is not anticipated by her mother or father is that this desire to paint and create stories should become anything more than a hobby. However, Beatrix persists and manages to convince a publishing house to print the story of Peter Rabbit. The owners of the publishing house give the book to their youngest brother, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) to guide through the publishing process. They fully expect the book to fail, but had promised to allow him to help. As Beatrix and Norman take on what becomes a wildly successful franchise of books, the two fall in love and must navigate the difficulties associated with a stringent class system. While the last bit of the movie focuses on Beatrix’ natural conservation efforts, it never strays from the heart of what made Potter so well known, and that was her incredible imagination and ability to breath life into it.

 

Beatrix Potter is an absolutely fascinating individual. Just reading through the wikipedia page on her is entertaining and points out that, while ambitious, this movie didn’t give her story the justice it deserved. Now you can’t expect an entire autobiography out of a 92 minute movie, and I wouldn’t want something from this light and almost whimsical telling of her life. What I would have liked, however, was for her not to be made out to be absolutely insane. She treated her drawings and paintings as her friends in the film, something she didn’t do in real life. Fine, artistic license. The truly jarring bit was when she would argue with and talk to her drawings in front of people. Renee Zellweger did a fine job portraying Potter, despite being 20 years older than the character, but when given a script that has you arguing with inanimate paper while others are around does little to cause me to sympathise with her situation. The movie, without that would have been a better film. The characters were portrayed in a believable way and were, for the most part likeable. Ewan McGregor in particular did a fantastic job as Mr. Warne. The soundtrack was appropriate and the nostalgia for those familiar with Beatrix Potter is a major draw.

 

The movie could have been better with some simple omissions. The above mentioned weirdness of having your main character argue with drawings was the biggest problem. Other minor offenses were few and far between, but there was a tendency to bring up oppressive social themes of the time and kind of just drop them. Again, I wasn’t expecting a ton from a 92 minute movie, but some follow through would have been nice. For all it’s flaws, it was enjoyable. This movie saw very little time in theaters (if any) and I stumbled across it on Amazon Prime and gave it a shot. I was glad to have done so. As a family film it’s well rounded and will potentially introduce the uninitiated to one of the greatest children’s authors of all time.

 

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How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a Terribly Long Name For Such A Good Movie.

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Animators have it rough. The amount of detail that goes into every frame of a modern animated film is astonishing, absolutely amazing. Often times that detail only exists for seconds, if that. With the misconception that animated films with low MPAA ratings are mostly for children, that level of detail can be lost. I’ll be the first to admit, I often times overlook animated films when deciding what to pay money to see in theaters. While on vacation, I went to a local discount theater and caught a showing of how To Train Your Dragon 2 and coincidentally watched one of my favorite movies of the year.

 

I need to rewatch How To Train your Dragon because when I rented it I wasn’t blown away. I know this franchise is loved by many, and it’s even revered above certain Pixar offerings. It was fun, but something that I was ok just watching once and calling it good. Not so with the sequel. How To Train Your Dragon 2 shows the inhabitants of Berk in a whole new light. Their entire society now revolves around dragons rather than fears them. Hiccup is reluctantly being primed to take over responsibility as the new chieftain, when he discovers a group of dragon catchers that are supplying a mad man with forces for his army of dragons that will be used as weapons to conquer the world. You can guess what the remainder of the film is about from there.

 

First off, the movie looks incredible. I don’t think I’ve had a movie appeal to my primal sense of adventure this way in years. The scenes of Toothless and hiccup flying over pristine landscapes, crystal oceans and through open sky were all it took to get me caught up in the movie. Add to that a heavy dose of accurate emotional weight and a hefty dose of dragons and you’ve got HTTYD2. Everything about the movie looked like familiar in the sense that we’ve been seeing dragons on film for decades, but it built on the uniqueness of the first film in just how different someone could interpret the beasts. It was fun just seeing how many variations of the fire breathing reptiles the animators could present. The environment only added to the aesthetic appeal and sense of adventure. Berk is a fairly wild city, but it pales in comparison to the harshness beyond it’s borders.

 

While a movie can be pretty to look at, if it falls flat it the story telling or in the character department then you’ve got a major problem. Fortunately this was not the case. Dreamworks hit a homerun with how they advanced their characters. We’re not dealing with the same set of problems or issues already dealt with in the first film, we’re dealing with new challenges, harder ones that carry more consequences and change the franchise in bolder ways than I anticipated. It was more than I had anticipated, and I found myself far more emotionally involved with the humans and dragons alike.


How To Train Your Dragon 2 manages to take the audience on a ride to another world filled with adventure, danger and unexpected beauty. The characters are flawed and believable, it packs an emotional wallop while still being appropriate and entertaining for a young audience. Despite the many offerings this year, I would rank this among the top in terms of just sheer fun adventure. Also, Toothless is still adorable.

 

Warming the Bench with the Battered Bastards of Baseball

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“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.” this one line stuck with me after watching 2011s Moneyball. It stuck because it was wrapped in a universal truth. Baseball has been responsible for a good number of emotionally charged films. Sports movies in general are easy targets for that feel good camaraderie loving demographic that contains the vast majority of people in America. While I personally don’t follow any sports teams actively, I completely get why it’s such a universal phenomenon. Especially with an underdog story where the team in question ends up coming out on top. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a documentary with as much heart as Miracle, Moneyball and Angels in the Outfield combined, offering a look into a lesser known chapter of sports history.

 

The Netflix Original documentary tells, from beginning to end, the unusual tale of the Portland Mavericks. The foul mouthed, irreverent minor league ball team was thrown together by former ball player and hollywood veteran Bing Russell. The film is primarily about the Mavericks, but uses Bing as a constant focal point. Starting with his love for baseball at a young age all the way to his running of the Maverick’s franchise. Bing Russell used the Mavericks to bring privately owned clubs back to baseball. Whereas most minor league teams were simply farms for the major leagues, Bing wanted the Mavericks to be the best they could be offering a chance for both players and fans to experience a minor league game that went to it’s full potential. What that meant was offering open tryouts to anyone that showed up; essentially the rejects of the baseball world. The documentary highlights the short career of the team. It seeks to showcase the heart of the team by interviewing players, fans and sports writers. Through this process we glean a good picture of what made them an anomaly in the sports world. They weren’t just the underdogs, they were rebels, they fought against the norm and were both rewarded and punished for it.

 

The film is short and energetic, it uses the power of nostalgia to fuel the interviews and thought process of each participant. Bing’s son, Kurt Russell, (Wyatt Earp himself) who played for the Mavericks, knew Bing as a father as well as the owner offers an inside look into what home life was like and what drove the man behind the Mav’s. The film utilizes an electrifyingly charged score that’s as simple as it is effective. The runtime is relatively short, at under 90 minutes, but it’s enough. The story is small and personal, so much so that it probably couldn’t have sustained a longer screen time. It’s an interesting look into the business of baseball and what happens when the stars align enough to create something truly unique.

Reading at the Movies: World War Z

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Their presence in fiction mirrors the reality in which we reside; a reality that reflects the fact that zombies are everywhere. In fiction they’re a world wide threat bent on nothing in particular except eating people. In reality we just have an over saturated amount of TV shows, books, comic books and concept art that caters our cultures insatiable and weird appetite for these cannibalistic corpses. I’m part of the problem too, I love a good zombie movie and can appreciate the moral and logistical quandaries that they present to those attempting to survive in their world. World War Z is the best zombie story I have ever consumed. Let me be clear, I am currently talking about the novel by Max Brooks in which an unnamed (and certainly not Brad Pitt) UN worker travels around the world AFTER the big Zombie war interviewing survivors. Like anything that becomes remotely popular it demanded a cinematic representation! And so we got a film with the same title….and that’s about it.

 

World War Z (film) stars Brad Pitt as a UN worker by the name of Gerry Lane whose task it is to finds himself thrust into the center of a massive scale zombie epidemic. He is tasked with finding the origin of the disease with the hope of figuring out just what can be done to stop the spread of the infection. This takes him all around the world, where he observes a few different temporary solutions that various cultures have enacted to help protect themselves…all of which end up failing. It’s a sort of follow-the-bread-crumbs adventure in which Brad Pitt straps magazines to his forearms as a type of makeshift armor to prevent being bit. Honestly that was my favorite part.

 

World War Z (novel) is narrated by an unnamed UN worker that is tasked with traveling around the world to interview survivors of the zombie war. The novel starts out with the war being over. Humanity won the fight against the zombie threat, but just barely. Each chapter is an oral report of how a different culture or people group witnessed and consequently survived their particular encounter. The accounts range from a colony yuppie campers attempting to flee north in their caravan of luxury motorhomes to a Japanese teenage gamer who must figure out a way to escape from his skyscraper home. Major battles are discussed in great detail and the entire course of the fight is laid out in different styles and flavors for the reader to savor.

 

Brad Pitt’s starring vehicle hovered around the 200 million dollar mark to make. It was ok. It was an honest to goodness zombie fest in which millions of zombies ran very quickly towards the protagonist at almost every turn. The film managed to gloss over the intricate details laid out in the novel and replace them with faster enemies and bigger explosions. It was a visual effects feast that practically begged you to just switch off the part of your mind that yearns for a plot within a story. Sure there was a goal Gerry was trying to attain, and it had to be done quickly, but it is nestled safely under an enumerable amount of human corpses. It had it’s merits, and while the large scale attacks were impressive to look at, they had little effect on my emotional reaction to the film. It was the tight, claustrophobic scenes that amped up the suspense.

 

The Novel offered a large series of individual stories that, when combined painted a picture of the full scale that the fictional zombie plague had on a vast number of cultures and individuals. Each account has it’s own protagonist and their own setting. Some read like a pulp adventure novel while others are absolutely chilling in their dissection of human nature. While the zombie threat is ever present and the main focus of the novel, it isn’t the sole enemy. Some accounts take into account the psychological damage associated with seeing your loved ones turned into monsters, it looks at the depravity of humanity, at times allowing for very little room to distinguish between the real horrors of humanity and the fictional horror of the zombies. Unlike the film, the book uses the traditional “slow zombies” and manages to make them terrifying. The narrator of the book takes a back seat to the survivors, the everyday people that did what it took to survive.


The World War Z novel was so good it ought to have it’s own movie. As it stands it does not have that. Aside from a few, almost coincidental similarities, the novel and film that share a name are worlds apart (within the scope of the zombie genre). Where the film was your run-of-the-mill action film with a massive budget, the novel presents you with a great number of individual stories, each interesting and unique, but working together to form the most compelling Zombie story I’ve ever experienced.

Reading at the Movies: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Hayao Miyazaki is arguably the greatest animator alive today. He has created some of the most intricately beautiful scenes and characters known to the art, and he makes it look effortless. He attends each of his films with masterful detail, placing each from under an artistic microscope and attending to the seemingly mundane details that he thinks are true to the nature of the characters he bestows life. Howl’s Moving Castle, while not my favorite Studio Ghibli production, boasts his signature animation, lovable and broken characters, and a soundtrack that is capable of sweeping the most dedicated realist into a land overflowing with wonder and magic. While it’s a very unique film, like many movies these days, it was first a book.

 

Diana Wynne Jones was an author of fantasy novels, and in the case of Howl’s Moving Castle possessed a dry wit that translated spectacularly on the page, but seems to have been watered down for the screen. The novel version of Howl is wrought with play-on-words, twists, this was something not entirely lost in the film, but was a much larger tone. Her usage of words was to the plot like the perfect amount of spices to your favorite dish. Jones’ craft shines through at each turn of the page, not as a heavy handed fantasy that pervades the market today, nor as a light and substanceless young adult novel. Rather she finds a happy medium where magic is neither silly nor cataclysmic. It is an element that is neither rare nor extremely prevalent

 

The novel boasted a whimsical, albeit odd, tone with memorable characters and something that made the fantastical workings of an eccentric young wizard feel almost ordinary and apart of everyday life. Miyazaki has proven to excel at portraying the whimsical on screen, but he’s also proven to be exceptional at finding the beauty in the ordinary. Howl was the perfect fit for an adaptation. The truest bond to the book that the animated feature has is in the two main protagonists. Sophie, a teenaged girl that finds herself cursed so she looks and feels like an old woman. And the titular wizard Howl; a young wizard feared by the locals as a ruthless evil warlock, but in actuality is no more than an adolescent teenager himself. The two characters in both novel and movie bring out the best and worst in each other. The two artifacts of literature and film stay amazingly true to each other until about halfway through. The book focuses on the witch of the waste as the main villain, while the film focuses on a war between kingdoms and the destructive power of Howl’s powers. This was a mistake. While I love the movie, the direction that the book takes is more fun, it’s more interesting and it’s far less confusing.

 

You’ve probably seen Howl’s Moving Castle, and if you haven’t you should. It’s beautiful and one of the best animated films to come out in the last 10 years. That being said, the source that it gleans it’s inspiration is an even tastier morsel to consume. My friend and fellow writer, Paul Boyne, creates posts in which he compares and contrasts two films into a “double feature” his most recent also focused on my favorite Miyazaki film : Spirited Away

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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While recently discussing emotionally devastating movies to watch (I know, right?), a number of titles got tossed around, but I finally settled on a documentary feature on Netflix entitled Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally taxing films I have ever seen. I was told to watch the movie without looking at any synopsis for the film, and I didn’t. I went into it blind and would strongly encourage anyone else that wants to watch it to do so as well. That being said, stop reading this right now and go watch it. Once your eyes have dried come back here and we can discuss it further. If you prefer, you can just keep reading, as I anticipate some of you will do. I won’t give away much in the rest of my review, so if you decide to keep reading I won’t blame you.

 

The movie is about Dr. Andrew Bagby. Bagby was a man that was loved by just about everyone that he that had the pleasure to know him, he was kind, witty and smart. The film seeks to memorialize him by talking with everyone that he knew. The filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, was one of Bagby’s best friends growing up. That’s why, when the news of Andrew’s untimely murder reaches him, he sets out to preserve his friend’s memory. Yes, Andrew Bagby was murdered. While the initial intent of the film was to record numerous people talking about who Bagby was to them, it turns into a fascinating and absolutely heart wrenching look into the faults that face the legal system. As the film progresses, details about the incident that left Bagby dead. Slowly Andre’s parents become the focal point as Andrew’s former girlfriend and accused murderer comes forward with the news that she is carrying Andrew’s child. Andrew’s parents then proceed a long legal battle for custody of their grandson.

 

The pure emotional energy is overwhelming. Those interviewed for the film express a great deal of joy in reminiscing about Andrew Bagby, and then instantly crumble into to tears. The movie is a case study on injustice, and pain and hatred and anger and loss and devastation, so much so that the weight of it is shared with the viewer. I normally am turned off from films with a political agenda, whether I agree with it or not. But I have to recommend this movie based solely for it’s genuine emotional value. Very few movies have had the effect that Dear Zachary had on me. It highlights both the evil in the world as well as the hope. When people grieve they find the darkest parts of themselves seeping out, and this film is all about grief in the most horrendous of circumstances. It is, however about hope and determination. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but one I would recommend.

 

I don’t thinkg it’s going to happen; Waking Ned Devine

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Cosmic irony is a very important comedic element in regards to film. One can’t help but laugh, despite how painful it may be to a character when something good is expected and something bad is given. For the most part, comedy relies on reversals of expectations. For instance, what would think that your entire life would just be starting had you won the lottery. The possibilities are completely endless, you’ve got a fortune at your hands and no one to tell you how to spend it. So, it would be truly ironic if, after having played the lottery your whole life, you died from the shock of finally winning it. And so goes the story of Waking Ned Divine.

In the small Irish town of Tully More there resides only 52 people. It’s a close knit community consisting of mostly older folk. Some of the residents play the lottery and dream of the riches it could bring them, among these are Jack O’Shea (Ian Bannen) and Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly) two lifelong friends that make it their business to find who in the town was the sole winner of the last lottery. The news papers have announced that the winner comes from Tully More, but none of the residence fess up. It isn’t until Jack makes a house call to his last suspect that he realizes the winner, one Ned Devine, has passed away from the shock of victory. The rest of the movie the two friends come up attempt to claim the prize money, fooling the representative from the National Lottery Association, a feat that will take the cooperation of all of Tully More.

Ned Devine is similar to the town of Tully More, in that it is quaint, kind and darkly humorous. Death is a strong theme in this film, obviously, but it’s displayed in a way, not lightly, but unflinching. We all die, there is no backing away from that fact, and the residents of Tully More make the best of a bad situation, which sometimes results in funny, albeit morbid situations. For instance, Jack and Michael attempt to change the expression on poor deceased Ned’s face, and in doing so knock out his dentures and are forced to comically put them back in. The characters are the backbone of the story. Within the small confines of the town are numerous stories, a few of which are explored in depth. Life, love and death fill the screen for a genuinely feel good movie with plenty of charm. The cast is superb, particularly the two old friends, they completely encompass the roles in a seamless transition from actor to character.

I had heard of Waking Ned Devine but had never taken the time to sit down and watch it. For whatever reason, I am often times reluctant to watch movies with small stories and small characters. The events are not world altering, they affect only a small group of people in Ireland. It’s not necessarily exciting or thrilling, but it is genuine and heart warming. I make the mistake of assuming something with a small story will have a small heart, whereas this is showed me quite the opposite.