What’s the first thing you do when confronted with an unknown alien threat? Try to communicate with the aliens, of course. Arrival is this year’s science fiction entrant in the Oscar race stars Amy Adams as the nation’s top linguist charged with the mission of communicating with an alien race.

Release Date: November 11, 2016
Writer: Eric Heisserer, Ted Chiang
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Arrival starts with the arrival of 12 large alien pods scattered throughout the world. The US pod is located in Montana, while others are found in Russia, China, England, et al. The film’s main storyline follows Louise Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they interact with the seven-legged aliens they call “heptapods.”

The most fascinating part of Arrival is the process of deciphering language. Each pod has an access hatch where Banks and Donnelly can interact with the heptapods. The heptapod language is a unintelligible sounds of some sort, but their language consists of complicated circular symbols. Banks uses her name as a starting point. The heptapods respond in kind and now they are off to the races trying to find words and phrases that can be translated, such as eat and walk.

As fascinating as linguistics are, there’s a bigger picture. Why are the aliens here and what do they want? Are they a threat or are they friendly? The entire operation is lead by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) representing the military and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlberg) representing the US government. At the same time, all of the other countries with pods are also trying to communicate with the heptapods and coming to different conclusions about the aliens’ intent.

Here you have the typical military tale of staying ahead of the possible alien threat and the lack of time the team needs to answer questions. Let’s also note that the world is falling apart wondering if these is the start of an alien invasion.

The story though is about Louise. Flashbacks abound as we look into the loner lifestyle of this college professor. We see that she is divorced and the parent of a child who recently passed from a terminal illness.

It’s hard not to liken Arrival with an episode of Star Trek. As with most alien films, there’s a lesson that we need to learn about ourselves individually and as a member of the global family of humans. The film also manages to tie the story of Louise, her past and future, together in a way that intertwines her life with the current mission.

Arrival has your riveted from beginning to end. You’ll marvel at the science of language and you’ll feel the sense of discovery as the alien language is slowly revealed. There is also the sense of urgency and frustration as our heroes must appease and outmaneuver the government with very little patience.

The best part of Arrival is its ending that sneaks up on you out of nowhere and begins to answer the question, you’re asking from the very beginning. Arrival is a complex story that never gets confusing and ends in a nice tidy package. The ending is so strong, you’ll almost instantly need to see the movie again to catch things you missed.

10 out of 10 stars


Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley and tells the story of a young 5-year-old, who gets lost and must survive in the streets of Malaysia and find a way to reunite with his family

Release Date: November 25, 2016
Writer: Saroo Brierley, Luke Davies
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, David Wenham

At five years old, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) venture to the railyard, looking for work to support his family. One night, Guddu looks for work during the graveyard shift and Saroo insists on going with his brother. After a long days travel, Saroo falls asleep and wakes on an empty train taking Saroo 1,200 kilometers from home in faraway Calcutta, India.

Lost on the streets of Calcutta, Saroo is unable to speak Malaysian, unable to pronounce the name of his town and only knows the name of his mother as “mum.” Alone, Saroo must survive on the streets, runs from human traffickers and find his way home. Moments of hope turn into dangerous pathways, on his last leg, Saroo is found by a kind stranger who brings him to the local orphanage.

After several months, Indian social services is unable to locate Saroo’s family. Saroo is then adopted by a Tasmanian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). The Brierley’s bring Saroo to Australia where he becomes an adult with this adopted brother, Shonedeep.

The second act of Lion features Dev Patel as adult Saroo. It is now that we find Saroo as an adult attending hotel management classes. He quickly falls for his fellow student, Lucy (Rooney Mara). Soon life hits Saroo. He is confronted with the fact that he has a family that has no idea if he is still alive and a brother, who feels guilty for losing his brother. Using Google Earth, Saroo attempts to find his village and his family.

In general, Lion is one of those movies that can push a parent of small children over the edge. We like movies that grab you by the heart and make you feel. Only a fantastic story and great acting can this be accomplished. Any film is lucky to find a child who can act. Sunny Pawar plays Young Saroo and immediately you fall in love with this small child, who loves his family. He makes you feel his isolation of loneliness and root for this ability to survive homelessness and the threat of the Indian street gangs.

As the older Saroo, Dev Patel now plays an adult in deep conflict. He makes you feel the anguish of an adult hiding the guilt of living a privileged life as an upper-class citizen. Saroo is incredibly empathic. He feels deeply about the sense of loss and guilt of his mother and brother feel. He is also hyper-aware of the love, he has received from his adoptive mother, Sue and his girlfriend, Lucy, with whom he creates a complicated relationship all by himself.

There is another aspect to Lion and it is Sue played by Nicole Kidman. Kidman may not have a lot of screen time, but every moment she has, she makes an impact. In just one scene, Kidman explains clearly and deeply why Saroo and Shonedeep are a treasured part of her life.

From beginning to end, Lion grabs you by the neck and drags you through the emotional journey of Saroo. The skilled director Garth Davis masterfully maintains the emotional tone necessary to tell this story effectively.

10 out of 10 stars

Disney’s Newsies Live

Fathom Events, known for bringing national wide access to special events, does it again with the theatrical broadcast of Disney’s Newsies. Disney Theatrical Productions presents Disney’s Newsies based on the Disney musical film, Newsies, based on the events of the “Newsboy Strike of 1899” against publishing titans, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolf Hearst.

Release Date: February 16, 2017
Writer: Harvey Fiersten
Composer: Alan Menken and Jack Feldman
Director: Jeff Calhoun
Cast: Jeremy Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fanhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger

There are two elements to address with the screening: the play and the film. Let’s start with the play. Full disclosure: I have never seen the Newsies film or the play on stage, so I’m coming in fresh with a fresh viewpoint.

The musical, Newsies, follows the lead character Jack Kelly (Jeremy Jordan), who is the reluctant leader and in many cases father figure to the newsboys of Brooklyn. He lives on the street with Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and survives with the money he earns selling newspapers to the fine people of Brooklyn. Every morning newsboys buy papers from the newspapers company at wholesale and sells them for twice the money. Newsboys keep the profits.

Concerned with the lowering readership and the increase in expense, news titan Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) raises the wholesale price the newsies have to pay, thus making it harder for them to make a profit. Angered by the rise in price, Jack attempts to rally the newsboys to go on strike and encourage the other boroughs of New York to do the same.

Faced with the certain beatings of the paper’s strikebreakers, the uncertainty of survival without income and competition from paid scabs, Jack must find it within himself to inspire not only the boys around him but inspire himself at the same time. Jack and the boys are aided by an entertainment columnist, Katherine Plummer (Kara Lindsay) to cover the plight of the young boys. Of course, all of this is set to music and dance.

Other elements of the story include the Refuge, a juvenile detention center for delinquent boys. The living conditions are bleak with little food, sunlight and three-to-a-bed sleeping situation. The real refuge is found in a vaudeville-style theatre owned by Medda Larken (Aisha de Haas), who allows the boys to hold their first union meeting there. Then there is Davey (Ben Fankhauser) and his young brother Les, who become the providers of their family due to an on-the-job accident that disables their father. It is Davey that understands the inner working of unions and provides wise counsel to Jack.

At the end, Newsies is a fantastic, but not perfect musical. The set pieces are large and impressive. It’s tall scaffolding and projection system makes you feel like you’re on a New York set. The actors are good. Jeremy Jordon is charismatic as Jack Kelley and he makes you feel the broad range of emotions of Jack as the inspiration of the movement along with the heavyweight he bears for the safety and welfare of his crew. The choreography is fun and whimsical. I’m not much of a dance expert so I’ll end there.

The music is the highlight of Newsies. Disney Hall of Famer Alan Menken does no wrong. Often a musical greatness is a collaboration of music, lyrics, staging and acting, but the music shines above the production. Celebration, dreaming, love and determination is felt throughout the entire score. The only downfall of the music is lyrics. It is plan hard to understand what is being sung, specifically in the group number. It appears when everything sings together at the same time, you lose clarity. For example, the big opener, “Carrying the Banner” is a great song to watch. It has fantastic choreography and the music is hummable, but I could not understand a single line being sung. “King of New York” is a fantastic song with an even better hook, yet, I can hardly repeat any line from the song, except “King of New York”

It’s the quite moments that brought me back to enjoying the visual feast of Newsies, “Something to Believe In” is the love song and works to bring the Jack and Katherine together.

I walked away from Newsies feeling inspired by this post-modern turn-of-the-century David and Goliath story. It takes you back to a time, when Americans had to fight for real things, like survival.

Let’s talk about the movie. When you film a staged musical, the goal is to capture the quintessential performance of its run. Filmed in 2016, this film brought back most of the original cast from its Broadway opening night. The performances are clean and flawless and the veteran cast performs as a veteran cast should. It’s clear that the film blends footage from its live performance with a pack audience with a separate performance for close-up cameras.

Newsies Live manages to give us the feel of the stage production, especially during the big dance numbers. Although, sometimes the overuse of close-ups can pull you out of the theater and drop you in a live broadcast on television. The theater audience has the opportunity to look around the stage for the action, but then the close-up cameras force you to see what the film director wants you to see. This is just a small criticism, with what otherwise is the quintessential capture of the Broadway show.

The last small annoying thing about Newsies Live is the audience. Clearly, they are there because they are theater geeks, who are a little too over-enthusiastic about the experience. But fortunately, the performance itself is able to stand on its own and garner the admiration it deserves.

If you love big Broadway musicals, Disney musicals and a good ole feel-good show, Newsies Live is worth checking out.

8 out of 10 stars

John Wick: Chapter 2

There’s an old saying about honor among thieves. Apparently, that saying applies to assassins too. The world and code of assassins expands in the world of John Wick, Chapter 2. Let’s face it, the movie is a car chase, gun play, hand-to-hand kill fest. But it helps to have a compelling story to link the action together and Chapter 2 is an excellent sequel to the first.

Release Date: February 10, 2017
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Common, Ruby Rose, Riccardo Scamarcio

Shortly after the events of John Wick, Chapter 1, John (Keanu Reeves) thinks he’s finally out of the assassination game, until he is visited by an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Santino has come to call in a marker, a blood oath, from when Wick needed Santino to help him with the impossible task. Wick refuses to honor the marker and Santino blows up Wick home and he loses everything.

While seeking refuge at the Continental, the assassin’s safehaven, Wick is informed by manager Winston (Ian McShane) that he is honor-bound to fulfill the marker. There is nothing the society can do to release him from this contract. Agreeing to fulfill this final oath, Wick must assassinate Santino’s sister, Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini), the current leader of the D’Antonio crime family. Of course, with Gianna’s removal, Santino can now takeover the family.

Wick decides to murder Gianna at her installation ceremony in Italy. As with any good crime story, things go horribly wrong. Wick is confronted by Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common), who appears to be the athletic equal of Wick. Santino, you guessed it, turns on Wick and is now being hunted by hearing-impaired body guard of Santino, Ares (Ruby Rose).

First, John Wick: Chapter 2 is an action film. Its starts with a clever car fight, not a car chase. It’s an actual fight with cars. But then the movies becomes one fight sequence after another. Each sequence is a combination of hand-to-hand and gun fights. Watch closely the fights with Cassian, where Wick is pushed to the edge fighting an opponents that is as good as he is. Near the end though the sequences can feel quite labored.

Second, John Wick is a fantasy film. Just like Chapter 1, the real fun of the film is the world of assassin’s and the Continental society. From a story standpoint, Chapter 2 is less about John Wick and his desire to return to normal life. The real movie is about the secret society and its rules that bind one to blood oaths, membership benefits and what happens when a members break its most cardinal rule—“never conduct business on Continental property.”

Third, John Wick is a sequel and just as good a movie as the first. Sequels give filmmakers time because there is no need to introduce the main characters. So, the world of the Continental gets to be expanded with the cool and obligatory weapons and armor store demos. We also get to see the consequences of challenging this elite society. And like a good sequel, it ends is an intriguing cliffhanger, which demands the story to continue.

John Wick: Chapter 2 succeeds as a sequel because it captures the flavor and spirit of the first film and tells a good story. The only negative is it leaves audiences a little frazzled by repetitive fight sequences. One also has to wonder with such a high body count, are there any people left in the world to kill?

7 out of 10 stars

NCT Headshots

Thanks to my friend, Gordon Fitzgerald, I have new headshots for the lobby and website of the National Comedy Theatre in San Diego. Love the update, but I have really small eyes.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a faith-based film that tells a predictable but fun story of a washed-up child actor who must confront his Hollywood past, while at the same time playing Jesus in order to impress a girl. Thanks to the financial and talent backing of WWE Studios, this low-budget story of salvation is transformed into a professional touching and funny movie.

Release Date: January 20, 2017
Writer: Andrea Gyertson Nasfell
Director: Dallas Jenkins
Cast: Brett Dalton

Gavin Stone (Brett Dalton) is a former child actor, who lost his way as a young adult. After trashing a hotel room, Gavin finds himself needing to complete 80 hours of community service or jail. Inconvenienced by this pause in his career, Gavin is forced to return to his hometown near Chicago and work at the local church.

The church’s pastor, Allen Richardson (D.B. Sweeney) is a good honest pastor, who sees behind Stone’s desire to simply fulfill his hours. Seeing that Stone needs to keep his high-profile persona low profile, Richardson puts Stone on janitorial duty. While cleaning the women’s bathroom, Stone meets Kelly (Anjelah Johnson-Reyes), who runs the children’s ministry and also happens to be the director of the church’s passion play.

Seizing the opportunity to act instead of cleaning bathrooms, Stone immediately auditions for the role of Jesus. Since only Christians can audition for the play, Stone quickly searches Google to help put his Christian “testimony” together. Stone manages to impress the crowd with his testimony, except for Kelly, who is quickly revealed as the pastor’s daughter and remains skeptical of Stone’s motives.

Returning to his hometown, Stone also has demons to face and Stone’s demon is his estranged father, Waylon (Neil Flynn). Gavin and his father have not spoken since the death of Gavin’s mother/Waylon’s wife. Having no money, Gavin is forced to ask his father if he can live in his childhood home for the duration of his community service.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a sweet, funny story of faith. It is by no means groundbreaking, but the script is solid and extremely predictable. Everything ends as it should and lives are changed. Predictability is not bad provided the journey to the end is entertaining.

For a faith movie to have the backing of the sport entertainment company, WWE Studios and the horror film studio Blumhouse, means that the film has a bigger budget and access to actors, who would not otherwise appear in a faith film. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone benefits from its star power to provide amazing performances. Let’s put it this way, good actors reduce the number of “eye-roll” moments commonly associated with faith films.

As the lead character Gavin Stone, Brett Dalton seems to be born to play this role. He brings the range necessary as the conflicted actor, which many in the faith film genre would have a hard time pulling off. Stand-up comedian, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes is also great as the pastor’s daughter but stern leader.

As with all movies about churches, there are the goofy church members and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone has plenty. Funny are Tim Franks, who plays the nerdy John Mark and Patrick Gagnon as the no-it-all Anthony. Of course, the reason I went to see this movie was to see one of my favorite wrestlers, Shawn Michaels as the former con, Doug.

If you’re a fan of faith-based movies, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a fun movie and worth seeing. It’s safe for the whole family. The church scenes are real and somewhat eye-opening when you see church through the eyes of the unchurched Gavin Stone. It does what all feel good movies should do…make you feel good.

7 out of 10 stars