Gifted could have arisen from the sentimental slough of Hollywood films. That it does not, that it has moments of sterling silver among the nods to craven consumerism are testaments to the reins of its writer, Tom Flynn, and director, Marc Webb, who also directed 500 Days of Summer.

Gifted is not just the glory story of a child lifted out of the ordinary. It is, instead, a debate over providing a real childhood to a math genius, who, at 7, has a mouth on her as well as a brain. Mary Adler is the daughter and the granddaughter of math geniuses, who suffered for their intellect. Grandmother Evelyn gave up success when she married; mother Diane could not take the pressure from her mother, gave up study of a Millennial Problem known by Navier-Stokes and took her life.

She left her child to her brother Frank, who gave up his life as a philosophy professor to raise this child as normally as possible, including moving to Florida and accommodating palmetto bugs. The film opens as Mary moves from being home-schooled to being public-schooled. She is not one bit happy about that. She is less happy when her grandmother Evelyn re-enters the picture and sues for custody.

Much of Gifted takes place in a courtroom, off-shoot of the subplot concerning Mother v. Son. One scene with them highlights Flynn's good writing. Here's a hint: Evelyn's corporate second husband left her to ride horses in Montana, and Evelyn says, "He's the man who shot Liberty Mutual."

Chris Evans, his muscles barely shirted, models Frank, and the estimable Lindsay Duncan plays the British grandmother. Jenny Slate is the understanding first-grade teacher, and Octavia Spencer well plays the stereotyped wise black woman. Gifted depends on the skill of Mckenna Grace to perform as the little math genius with sass. She and the film succeed admirably.

 

The voice-over intones, "Life was good. Life was perfect." Life for this voice of a seven-year-old will change the minute the baby arrives. This baby shows up, not in a onesie, but in a suit and carrying a briefcase. Suddenly, life is not so good.

Well, not for a boy named Tim, a boy with a wildly wonderful imagination, a boy used to being an only child, loved all over by his mom and dad. And then the new baby arrives to boss the family with demands to be fed and changed and entertained. Sibling rivalry is common, yes, but siblings where the baby is more grown up than the big brother? Where the baby has a mission? 

The babe in the suit has been sent to deal with the dastardly actions of the Puppy Co. CEO, out to steal the hearts and minds of the innocent in the age-old popularity battle between puppies and babies. 

The wondrously silly plot is based on a book by Marla Frazee in a script by Michael McCullers, with credits on Austin Powers films. The writers are responsible for the dialogue between the baby and his brother, lines that play on the old reversal of babies demanding decent sushi in a very adult, even Mafia-like bossy voice.

That's the real voice of Alec Baldwin, the actor who used his gravel to animate the boss on 30 Rock. Playing the enemy voice to perfection is Steve Buscemi. Included in the voice cast are also Jimmy Kimmel as Tim's dad and Lisa Kudrow as his mom. Tobey McGuire is the voice of adult Tim, and the boy Tim is voiced by Miles Bakshi, the grandson of animator Ralph Bakshi.

The admirable animation is by DreamWorks Animation. The Boss Baby dandily delights kiddo's and adulties alike.

 

 

 

Silent films do not receive the praise they deserve, primarily because they don't get the exposure they merit. Each year, when they do screen, they inevitably confirm that, with all our technical expertise, we've never surpassed the stunning aesthetic compositions, the superb acting, and the compelling narratives on display in the best silent films. 

Fortunately, April 14, the magnificent Wings (1927) will be shown with live musical interpretation provided by France's Prima Vista Quartet, featuring a violist, two violinists, and a cellist plus, for this special occasion, trumpet and percussion musicians. Director William Wellman drew on his own WWI French Foreign Legion aviator combat experience, including being shot down by anti-aircraft fire, to dramatize this story of two American fighter pilots, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, engaged in air battles against the Germans. Both men also compete for the love of Sylvia Lewis while Mary Preston, who becomes an Allied ambulance driver, truly loves Jack.

William Wellman, nicknamed "Wild Bill" for his wartime bravado, insisted the aerial footage be perfect, from completely realistic skirmishes to beautiful cloud formations for which he'd wait days, shooting on location in San Antonio. This perfectionism almost got Wellman fired more than once, plus 
Wings 
cost over $2 million and took seven months to shoot. It did prove immensely popular, noted especially for the concluding aerial Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Still ranked among the greatest films, it received the first Best Picture Academy Award.

Wings helped launch the career of Gary Cooper, who appears in the small role of Cadet White, and reinforced the appeal of the '20s "It Girl," Clara Bow as Mary. Charles "Buddy" Rogers stars as Jack Powell, Richard Arlen as David Armstrong, and Wellman plays a German pilot who rolls his plane. 

Wings screens with live musical accompaniment by France's Prima Vista Quartet at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one time only, Friday, April 14, at 7:30. 

 

Writer/director Werner Herzog has amassed an impressive body of fiction and nonfiction work stretching back to the 1960s. Just released, his 2015 Queen of the Desert will not rank among his best biographical profiles, though, as usual, he's drawn to an individual challenging conventional morés. In this case, it's Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary, late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century woman.

An accomplished writer and linguist who traveled extensively through what we'd now call the Arab world and the Middle East, Bell also showed expertise in archeology and cartography, influencing some troubled borders that still exist today. She knew T.E. Lawrence and important representatives of the British Empire to whom she was political advisor during and after WWI, including Winston Churchill. From encounters with Bedouins and Druse tribal leaders, among others, she brought unique insight and analysis.

However, Queen of the Desert fails to do her justice. Typical of films focused on women, it dwells too much on her romantic involvements rather than the complexity and significance of her intellectual and emotional achievements. Her striking photographs flash much too quickly, with time spent on spurious threats that build and dissipate. With a surprising lack of unity, Bell's point of view is abandoned in a late scene though she's anchored the film until then. More annoying, swelling music, which often hearkens back to "Lawrence of Arabia," accompanies numerous scenes. Salvaging some of its two hours and characteristic of Herzog, time lapse shots (of clouds, in particular) and footage of the Nefud Desert environment are breathtaking.  

Herzog also scores points for casting Arabs in those roles. But as much as I like Nicole Kidman, as Bell she's too delicately presented and Damian Lewis looks a bit at loose ends as love interest Charles Doughty-Wylie. James Franco as Henry Cadogan and Robert Pattinson as Colonel T.E. Lawrence are acceptable without impressing. There's a great film waiting to be made about Gertrude Bell, a unique, multitalented individual not adequately captured in Queen of the Desert. Primarily in English with some Arabic with English subtitles. Check local cinema listings.

 

 

Director Eddie Rosenstein's documentary Freedom to Marry chronicles the history of the same-sex marriage movement and profiles prime strategists Evan Wolfson and Mary Banauto, among other leaders. Beginning with one hundred two days before the Supreme Court arguments and counting down as that crucial day approaches, the film jumps back to 1986 to explain the changes over thirty-two years.

Though small steps forward were sometimes met with reactionary backlash, those for legalization persevered with an understanding of the ways universal values, notably love and marriage, move people to change in important ways. The personal is political and respectful dialogue triumphs. Along the way, the political decisions offer a road map of the evolution of this, and potentially many other, social issues.  

Opponents speak and argue, news clips register changes over time and from state to state, individuals express their perspectives, and the joy of the same-sex couples comes through powerfully and movingly. So do Wolfson's mother Joan and his father Jerry, as they describe Evan's commitment to fairness. The documentary doesn't break new ground for those of us who have followed events from Hawaii in 1990 to the first 2004 legal marriage to Supreme Court argument day, August 28, 2015. It does select well from the myriad of issues, including the need for legal marriages in one state to be recognized in states denying legality.    

Rosenstein moves the 86-minute film along efficiently with plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case and those opposed presenting arguments in candid as well as public arenas. Even knowing the Court's ruling, suspense builds since the principals didn't know and register their anxiety along with their determination. The decision not to use a voiceover narrator works well here since the advocates are articulate as well as passionate.  

Freedom to Marry screens at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium Saturday, April 15 and Sunday, April 16, at 7:30 each evening.

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