Thursday, November 26, 2015

Romancing the Stone Movie Review

The movies you loved as a kid sometimes turn out to be classics (i.e. Back to the Future and Star Wars) while others, it turns out, were really just not very good. Ah, the undiscerning view from a child’s perspective. When you’re a kid, a movie is good or not because it has excitement, adventures, romance, and comedy. For some adults I guess that never changes. Before Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future, he had a big commercial success in Romancing the Stone, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark knock-off starring Kathleen Turner as a dowdy romance novelist and Michael Douglas as a roughneck who saves her in the jungles of Colombia.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Southpaw Movie Review

Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw is a little chaotically scripted by Kurt Sutter with plot points that are occasionally unbelievable, nonsensical, or irrelevant, but it is Fuqua’s most restrained directing effort I can recall and contains enough moral uplift that it just crosses the line of what’s worth watching as a minor diversion.

Jake Gyllenhaal is impressive as Billy Hope, the light heavyweight champion of the world. Hope (and Gyllenhaal by extension) is physically imposing with a ripped torso and biceps. He has an anger control problem that remains mostly confined to the ring. So that he garners our sympathies, he’s got a beautiful wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), and daughter, both of whom he adores and dotes on. Maureen doesn’t want him to keep fighting because his style allows him to endure punch after punch until he’s angry enough to pummel his opponent. His manager (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) wants him to sign a three fight deal.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Full Monty Movie Review

I wanted to revisit The Full Monty because in my memory, it resides in a place where thruway, but well-made popular entertainments go to die. Every time I’ve considered its pace among five Oscar Best Picture nominees (competing against L.A. Confidential, Titanic, Good Will Hunting, and As Good as It Gets, it was the definition of “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”) Was it also a stroke of incredible good fortune to be nominated? Was it really that good or did it just tickle audiences the right way and have the right wards marketing team to help it fill a niche spot in the category often reserved for light quirky comedies that make a lot of money and get people talking? C.f. Four Weddings and a Funeral and Chocolat.

Election Movie Review

Alexander Payne’s second film was a brilliant little gem called Election, a satirical look at electoral process through the prism of a high school student council election. The screenplay was adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel by Payne and Jim Taylor and is as true to high school life and character as it is cynically observant of political ambition.

Reese Witherspoon achieved major breakout success playing Tracy Flick, the little bundle of gumption and up-start attitude that comes across as admirable in a teenager, but which has the potential to transition into an adulthood of stepping on everyone to achieve her goals. Matthew Broderick plays the popular history teacher, Jim McAllister, who oversees student government elections. He teaches the students civics and about the difference between morals and ethics – a line he would do well to consider later in the film when he manipulates the election results and cheats on his wife. Mr. McAllister is one of those teachers that students remember their whole lives. He is dedicated and enthusiastic and truly a stand-up guy, even standing beside his friend and colleague Dave Novotni after it’s discovered he’s been having an affair with sixteen-year old Tracy (the one detail I find sort of unbelievable in an otherwise perfect movie because girls like Tracy are not typically sexually ambitious and aren’t targeted by men like Dave.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

From My Collection: Shakespeare in Love Movie Review

I just recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love and it was a s good, if not better than I remember it. John Madden’s film of the fictional and comic fantasy of how the greatest romantic tragedy in literary history came to be was my favorite film of 1998. I saw it Christmas Day, part of a moviegoing tradition I diligently maintained from 1997 through 2005, and then again a few weeks after. I bought the DVD in 1999 and have watched it a few times over the years and now I have the Blu-Ray (yes, I’m a dinosaur) so I can enjoy it in HD whenever I please. I was one of few people to accurately predict its victory in the Best Picture Oscar contest. In the Oscar pool I used to manage, only three people out of about thirty made that pick over Saving Private Ryan.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Movie Review

The whole plot of the latest Mission: Impossible film, subtitled Rogue Nation, and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote the screenplay and is involved in one way or another in just about everything Tom Cruise stars in these days, hinges on the usual MacGuffin device. In this case it’s a cache of data that will give financial support to an international crime organization known as The Syndicate. They are essentially the anti-Impossible Mission force, comprised of agents from all over the world who disappeared, presumed dead, over the last several years. The thing is, the data can be accessed using fingerprint and voice ID of only one person – the Prime Minister of Britain! I mean, there’s security and then there’s just plain stupid and ineffective. What happens if the PM suddenly dies? What if he resigns? What if he’s revealed to be greater than Nixon levels of corrupt? Anyway, this is just a minor logical inconvenience o the way to a cleverly-crafted sequence that results in the kidnapping of the Prime Minister. And clever set pieces are the stock in trade of the Mission: Impossible series.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Phoenix Movie Review

There’s a current movement in German cinema. I’m not sure if it’s acquired a catchy name yet. “The Berlin School” is the closest I can find, but that’s not descriptive in the way that “film noir, “French New Wave,” or “Italian neo-realism” were. From my own observations it’s something like neo-German historical realism. But that’s a little clunky. At any rate, the movies, which tend to focus on post-war Germany or Communist Bloc East Germany, have been making their way stateside, illuminating the ways in which a new generation of German filmmakers and their audiences are responding to the important historical markers that shaped Gemany and its people today.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Irrational Man Movie Review: Woody Allen's 45th Feature

Correction 10 August 2016 - I originally labeled this as Allen's 50th feature. I think I pulled that number from a crude count of his IMDb credits which include TV work and one of the three vignettes in New York Stories. This was actually his 45th theatrically released feature film as a director, including What's Up, Tiger Lily?

Abe and Jill accidentally overhear a troubling story in a diner.
I’ve thought Woody Allen was washed up and done as a filmmaker for almost twenty years, but then every now and then he throws a curve ball of Vicky Christina Barcelona or Midnight in Paris, so I’m not about to make any big pronouncements, but Irrational Man is one that makes me desperately hope he doesn’t close out his career now lest the stink linger forever. That’s not really fair, I guess. No matter how bad an artist’s latter-day sins might be, the great stuff will always maintain a redemptive quality. Just look at Stevie Wonder.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Blackhat Movie Review

I have found myself over the years consistently enthralled by Michael Mann’s movies. He creates stories of men entirely dedicated to their professions, seemingly without limits. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro faced off as detective and thief, two men who would stop at nothing (including the loss of a relationship) in completing the mission in Heat. Daniel Day-Lewis was a frontiersman trying to save the woman he loved in The Last of the Mohicans. Tom Cruise was a fiercely professional hitman toying with Jamie Foxx’s cab driver in Collateral. And Foxx and Colin Farrell lived the lives of undercover narcotics detectives in Miami Vice. Mann sets these stories amid the allure of gorgeous cinematography, often making well-known cities look like brand new tailored playgrounds for men with fast cars and guns, whether it’s L.A., Miami, or Hong Kong in his latest, Blackhat.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ex Machina Movie Review

It’s worth admiring a movie that attempts to tell a story of big ideas and deal with philosophical challenges, even if the execution isn’t what one might consider perfect. If there’s at least a modicum of kill and effort put into the craft of the storytelling and filmmaking, any missteps are easy to gloss over. Alex Garand’s Ex Machina, a science-fiction thriller takes the issue of artificial intelligence and cuts to the core of meaning behind consciousness and, by extension, humanity.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service Movie Review

I continue to fall victim to these early-in-the-year releases that get good reviews, forgetting every year that for the most part, these films are not very good. It’s just that critics are desperate to grasp at something remotely interesting in the early months on the calendar. Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of these movies. It’s all flash and panache, giving the illusion of something stylish and innovative. This is Matthew Vaughn’s second film adapted from a Mark Millar comic. Kick Ass was the first and, truth be told, violence is treated equally in both films, which tells me that Millar and Vaughn see no difference between violence committed by and against a twelve-year old girl and English gentlemen.

Wild Tales Movie Review (Relatos salvajes)

Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales is a package film comprised of six short films united by the common theme of human nature’s propensity to resort to animal instincts of violence and moral turpitude at the slightest hint of transgression. The original Spanish title of this Argentine film (which was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar this year) is Relatos salvajes which is more aptly translated as “Savage Tales.” These six stories are not just wild, as in a little crazy and beyond the pale. They are savage and occasionally brutal in the way wild animals have no regard for the violence they inflict on each other.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It Follows Movie Review

It’s long been a sort of tradition in the slasher sub-genre of horror films that those who choose to have sex are doomed to succumb to a horrific death. It was enough of a trope that Wes Craven’s post-modern slasher film Scream listed it as a surefire way for any of its characters to seal their fate. It’s no coincidence then, that It Follows, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, uses sex as the precise mechanism by which its characters attract the attention of the slow-moving, but undeterred creature that wants to take their lives.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Inside Out Movie Review

Pixar’s latest execution of brilliance is Inside Out. It’s getting more than its fair share of praise and accolades, most of which is justified. Is it their best film since Up, as many have deemed it? Probably, but then we’re really only talking about a stretch of two films in that time, both of which were very good even if they aren’t up to the excellent standard Pixar is renowned for. This feat of genuine creativity and acrobatic storytelling concerns the machinations (both literal and figurative) of Riley, who winds up being a secondary character in the story of her own mind. She is subordinate to, and to some extent controlled by the anthropomorphic representations of emotions in her head.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

American Sniper Movie Review

A Navy SEAL sniper sits on the roof of a building in Iraq. In the street below is an American military convoy. His job is to shepherd those soldiers to safety by keeping a lookout for potential threats. In the city war zone that has been evacuated, any military-age male must be regarded as a threat. First he scopes a man talking on a cell phone. The man steps inside, not knowing how close he came to losing his life. Next a woman and a boy, not more than eleven or twelve years old, arrive on the street. She hands the boy a rocket-propelled grenade. The voice on the other end of the soldier’s com can’t confirm visually. The call is entirely his. Men who engage in war are fair targets. What do you do about a child who is about to kill your comrades?

Everything I Saw in the First Half of 2015

In the first six months of 2015 I managed to watch 82 feature films, but only
79 different ones because three were repeated within the six month period.
I saw eighteen of those features in the cinema, but since February 10 I've
seen only five in the cinema.
Including the three repeats within the six month period, twenty-two of the
features films I watched were films I'd seen before.
I also watched twenty-five short films, seventeen of which I saw in the
cinema, most of those as part of the Oscar-nominated short films programs.
There were also nineteen TV episodes.

As for the writing part of all this, I posted only 32 new reviews in that time,
which is way down from last year. I do, however, have seventeen written for
larger projects coming in the future.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Four Brothers Movie Review

Maybe it’s my love of westerns that made me fall so hard for John Singleton’s Four Brothers, his 2005 Detroit-set revenge film and his best work since Boyz N the Hood. I didn’t realize it then, or even the second time I watched it, that it’s essentially a modern urban western. The lawlessness of the open land and small towns has been replaced by the gutted and run down Motor City. Instead of some evil landowner there’s a crime boss (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor early in his Hollywood career and long before his star turn in 12 Years a Slave). Replacing the heroic gunslinger is a criminal and his three brothers, in town for their mother Evelyn’s (Fionnula Flanagan) funeral and to exact revenge for her murder in what appears to be a convenience store robbery. Many of the western tropes are there. There are gunfights. There are shots establishing the landscape, in this cast derelict buildings and snow-swept (as opposed to wind) open spaces of frozen lakes.

Fat City Movie Review

From the annals of long since forgotten films comes Fat City from 1972. Every calendar year is overloaded with movie releases that, even if modestly successful at the time, are destined to recede into memory as the years pass. The status of classic or cult classic is reserved fro only a handful of films each year. You need only go back eighteen years to find a Best Picture nominee called The Full Monty, for example. It was a small British film that found great success in the United States. But how many people think of it now? How highly regarded is it by those who do recall it? Now consider that film’s status with another twenty-five years of age. So The Full Monty is no Fat City, of course, if for no other reason than the latter was directed by John Huston, a Hollywood legend. But even his fame never elevated the film above the level of New Wave Hollywood footnote.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cult Classic Movie Review: Horror of Dracula

In honor of the late Christopher Lee, whose June 7 death was reported yesterday, I took a first look at the first of his series of iconic career-defining roles as Dracula. Lee is best known to modern audiences as the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies or as the Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. But in the 50s and 60s, he starred in many of Hammer Films’ British horror films.

His first turn as the vampire was in Dracula, which was re-titled Horror of Dracula in the United States to avoid confusion with the Tod Browning-directed version from 1931 starring Bela Lugosi. The Hammer Films series was the second big iteration of attempts to bring Bram Stoker’s novel to the screen. Universal had made the Lugosi film and a few follow-ups, but Lee became a new generation’s face of Count Dracula for several years. Since the late 70s pop culture has been inundated with vampire stories ranging from the grotesqueries of John Carpenter and Stephen King to the comedy of Once Bitten starring Jim Carrey and then finally landing at teenage soap opera thanks to Stephanie Meyer by way of Anne Rice.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Selma Movie Review

Upon a second viewing of last year’s Selma, Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King and his leading the protests in Selma, Alabama, that would ultimately lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I have warmed up to it more than when I first saw it. There was some outspoken backlash bout the Academy’s failure to nominate DuVernay for an Oscar. The same for David Oyelowo, who portrays King and carries the movie through most of its emotional highs and lows. The paltry number of nominations (a Best Picture nod and one for Best Song for which it won) was attributed by some to Hollywood’s refusal to accept black stories or to afford them the same status as stories about white people. These were rich arguments coming the year after 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar. That film was about a challenging as they come. No, I think Selma was little recognized in the awards season because it simply wasn’t as good as other movies last year. Unless people believe in affirmative action for movie awards, I see no reason Selma and its director should have bumped other worthy nominees from their recognition.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review

Does it really matter what anyone thinks of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron? These kinds of movies don’t live and die by either critical or popular opinion. They are guaranteed to rake in huge revenue not only at the box office, but through merchandising tie-ins. The hype and excitement, the feeling of its being a cultural event THE movie you must see this summer (or early spring as it opened in early May) ensure that hordes of people will go to see it. And those multitudes have been programmed from decades of action-packed, effects-laden event movies to believe that all they have to do is stimulate the physical senses. As long as lots of stuff blows up, implodes, collapses, cracks, breaks, splinters, and crunches accompanied, of course, by appropriately deafening sound effects, then the movie has accomplished its primary goal.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Maps to the Stars Movie Review

David Cronenberg’s films have always been a bit of an acquired taste. If you can bear sitting through stories about emotionally and (often) physically scarred people who continue to be tortured by and torture themselves over their trauma, and you like it all presented in the harsh cold of the distance the filmmaker puts between his audience and the film’s subjects, then you might keep returning to his work. His films are rarely short of intriguing and boundary-pushing. At least it was through his first two decades or so. It’s getting harder and harder to shock people. Once you’ve done exploding heads, nude bathhouse knife fights, and people whose sexual fetish involves car crashes, where is there room for turning stomachs? His recent spate of work resides in a heightened glossy reality. He had a mainstream renaissance with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. Those two are among the most accessible pieces in his body of work, but they still require a suspension of conventional expectations.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

While We're Young Movie Review

Whatever stage in life he’s at, Noah Baumbach has not stopped writing characters who fret about their own lives, where they’ve been, and where they’re headed. I get the feeling he’s a man who is always in tune with some level of dissatisfaction with his life. One shouldn’t confuse that with unhappiness. I think it’s probably natural to wonder about what you’ve done, the choices you’ve made, and whether you could be doing something better or more important. What separates Baumbach from most other people is that he’s attuned to those feelings probably in everyone around him. That’s why he’s so good at writing dialogue and characters that so precisely and concisely sum up complex emotions.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Danny Collins Movie Review

There’s hardly a more heartbreaking story of a once great acting talent becoming a washed-up caricature of bombast and overacting than Al Pacino. He was such a marvel in the 70’s. He was good-looking with the most expressive eyes of any actor of his generation. His delivery was subtle and always perfect. When I look at him now, I don’t even see the same man. His sad hangdog face obscures the depths that used to reside within. Every now and then, as in Donnie Brasco, he has flashes of greatness once again. Some have been giving similar accolades for his latest, a heartfelt story of redemption called Danny Collins, written and directed by Dan Fogelman.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I Movie Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I has an unwieldy title thanks to the decision long ago to divide the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy into two movies. Let’s face it, this is a business decision much more than an artistic choice. It’s a means o doubling revenue for a single story. I feel no discussion of this series can be complete without considering that decision.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Judge Movie Review

The Judge, directed by David Dobkin from a screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, is a perfect example of soft, flat, non-challenging, placating material that is made to appeal to a demographic of people who watch movie as a means of sedation. Because it stars two very fine actors in Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr., and because it’s a courtroom drama, it is easily digestible to the broadest possible audience.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2018 World Cup Qualifying: Day 2

Today were the second legs of several home-and-away playoffs between the very lowest ranked teams in the Asian Confederation. The big news is that Bhutan, ranked lowest at 209th according to FIFA, defeated Sri Lanka to advance to Round 2.

India, Timor-Leste, Chinese Taipei, and Cambodia also advanced thus making Mongolia, Nepal, Macau, Brunei, and Sri Lanka the first teams officially eliminated from Russia 2018.

The second leg of the Yemen-Pakistan matchup has been postponed, to be played in a neutral location, following violence in Lahore where the match was to be played today. The first leg was also played in neutral territory due to security concerns in Yemen, who currently lead 3-1.

The six winners will be drawn into 8 groups of 5 teams each for home-and-away group play starting on 11 June.

Next up: CONCACAF begins first round play on 22 March with Barbados at home against U.S. Virgin Islands.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Qualifying for World Cup 2018 Started Today

Over in Asia, the 12 lowest ranked teams (according to the FIFA world rankings) played the first tie in a home-and-away playoff. The second legs will be played on the 17th, thus eliminating the first six teams from WC 2018.

The 12 matchups are:
India - Nepal
Yemen - Pakistan
Timor-Leste - Mongolia
Cambodia - Macau
Chinese Taipei - Brunei
Sri Lanka - Bhutan

Bhutan is the lowest-ranked team in the world at 209 and they defeated Sri Lanka away 1-0 in front of 3,500 stunned fans. 21-year old Tshering Dorji scored in the 84th minute to give his nation their first ever World Cup qualification win.

Macau and Mongolia will have challenging three-goal deficits to overcome in their second legs. The other teams are all still very much alive.

CONCACAF qualifying will begin on 23 March.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

St. Vincent Movie Review

Bill Murray has had a late stage career renaissance playing curmudgeonly irritated men whose bitterness and sarcasm masks some deep loss within. It started with Rushmore and found one of its greatest expressions in Lost in Translation. It reaches a nadir in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent which has Murray playing the title character who is anything but a saint.

Vincent is a rude misanthropic angry man with a ramshackle house that’s falling apart, a car that isn’t doing much better, a healthy drinking problem, and a penchant for gambling as a means of increasing his debs and chances of getting broken kneecaps from his loan shark Zucko (Terrence Howard). Oh, and his best friend is Daka, a pregnant prostitute stripper (Naomi Watts, sporting a cartoonish Russian accent) whose employment options are limited to men who find her belly a turn-on.

A Walk Among the Tombstones Movie Review

Played in all earnestness as a tribute to the private investigator sub-genre of crime fiction, Scott Frank’s adaptation (which he also directed) of Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones is about as grim and nihilistic a treatment as you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie. The character Matt Scudder featured in more than a dozen of Block’s books and some of those have been adapted to the screen before. But Frank, who is no stranger to pulp fiction and mystery stories involving a tough PI (Frank wrote the screenplay adaptations of both Get Shorty and Out of Sight), doesn’t bother trying to reinvent the genre or to put a new spin on it. A Walk Among the Tombstones is effective classic mystery storytelling. It’s more hard-edged and just plain evil than any adaptation of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade ever was, but the hallmarks are there.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Lady and the Tramp

One of the Disney animated classics that I fondly remember from childhood is Lady and the Tramp. It ws re-released to theaters when I was a kid (before widespread home video releases and before Disney put them out on VHS). It felt more monumental to me then than it does now. At only 76 minutes, it is briskly paced and spare. There’s really not much story to tell and the big romance between Lady (voiced by Barbara Luddy) and the street mutt Tramp (Larry Roberts) is developed in one brief sequence when Lady is lost away from home and Tramp saves her from some unsavory dogs and takes her on a date to an Italian restaurant for the iconic spaghetti-eating scene, which is now one of the most indelibly romantic moments in cinema history.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

87th Academy Awards: Oscar Predictions

Here we go with my quick rundown of what I think will win tomorrow night. As usual, I expect to get all 24 categories correct.

A genuinely tough call this year. It's a tight race between Boyhood and Birdman, with American Sniper perhaps a not-too-distant third given its popular success. But really it will be one of the first two. I feel almost like it's a toss-up even as to whether they will split Director and Picture or sweep.

My final answer is...

Birdman. (I actually typed Boyhood first and changed my mind, that's how indecisive I am). Ultimately perhaps it comes down to the fact that Birdman is about a tortured actor who sees himself as a true artist looking for critical approval. And actors make up the largest contingent of the Academy.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tangerines Movie Review

Update 21 April 2015: This film was released commercially in the United States on 17 April 2015.

This film has not yet been released commercially in the United States.

Anti-war movies so often fail at being effectively anti-war because any depiction of fighting, violence, brutality, or death inherently glorifies it by making it sensational. One of the best anti-war movies I can recall is Danis Tanovic’s Oscar-winning No Man’s Land which featured virtually no fighting at all but was about two wounded soldiers from opposing sides in the Bosnian War stuck in the tract of land between the lines. It was about the absurdity and ineffectiveness of war and the need for human understanding in conflict. No Man’s Land was the movie I thought of most often during Tangerines, one of this year’s nominees for the award that Tanovic’s film won.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Top Ten of 2014

I guess I'm just about ready to call my best movies of 2014. It's far beyond the end of last year, but I'm only just now in a place where I feel comfortable enough that I've seen most of the movies that would be likely to make my list.
This is one of the strangest top ten lists I've ever made. I don't think I've ever had two documentaries on the list. And as you get into the second half of my list, it's populated by films that I am less enthusiastic about than I am in admiration of. In years past it was a struggle to not leave a movie I really enjoyed off my list. This year it was about struggling to include something worthy. 2014 left me feeling chilly. There wasn't much I really went wild for.

10. The Babadook - directed by Jennifer Kent - Certainly not one of the absolute best of the year and not even one of the greatest scary films or thrillers of all time, but supremely effective and left me chilled to the bone about the psychological horrors of parenting and losing your mind.

We Are the Best! Movie Review

Swedish director Lukas Moodysson went a little dark after his light and free-wheeling feature debut Together, one of my favorite movies from 2001. He came back last year with We Are the Best, another film similar in tone and just as light on its feet. It’s amazing to see a director as comfortable dealing with high energy electrifying characters as he is with moody depression. In his latest he tells an adorable story, adapted from his wife Coco’s comic book about three young girls in Stockholm in the early eighties trying to stand out as punks. The punk movement was on its way out by then and of course girls weren’t supposed to care. But Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin) are the school’s outliers, two kids who spike their short hair and dress alternatively. And they catch hell for it from their peers.

Timbuktu Movie Review

The global fight against implementation of Sharia law and the struggle against Islamofascism is given a very different perspective in Abderrah Sissako’s striking and thoughtful Timbuktu. In 2012, militants took over the city in Mali and laid down new laws regarding dress codes for men and women, music performance, smoking, and adultery. They also make clear what some punishments might be.

The city of Timbuktu is cosmopolitan. It is made up of people from many different places and cultures, they speak several different languages. The absurdity of foreigners walking into town and trying to create a new uniform culture is certainly on Sissako’s mind. There is no shortage of absurdity in Timbuktu including the hypocrisy of those who are meant to enforce the new laws. Football is not permitted but three soldiers fiercely debate whether Barcelona or Madrid have the better team. And the kids play a gorgeous game of soccer with no ball. They rely on their imaginations and ingenuity to have a good time. It is one of the film’s most sublime moments. Then as if to call to attention to just how ridiculous it is, a donkey wanders across the pitch. This was one of the greatest sequences in a film full of them.

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

The Oscar-nominated documentary short program is an interesting crop of selections this year. Four of the five nominees are simply documents of a particular subject, be it place, character, or family. Only one has what could be construed as having an agenda, or attempting to call attention to an issue and even that example is a restrained portrait of the subject matter.

In White Earth, Christian Jensen goes to a small town in North Dakota where the population has swollen due to recent oil drilling. People are showing up from all over the country hoping for a better life for their families through more work. Rather than focus on the nefariousness of oil companies, or the blight on the land that the drills cause, Jensen talks to the children of oil workers about how they feel about the work, their town, and their future. It’s only twenty minutes, so it doesn’t go deep. The film presents a snapshot of a town and some of its people. The images are occasionally beautiful, scattered though they are throughout. The result is a simple document of family life, parenting, and the desire to see your children have a better life.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Still Alice Movie Review

For movies about terminally or debilitatingly ill characters, you could do a lot worse than Still Alice. Adapted and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from the book by Lisa Genova, it’s about a woman diagnosed with and then suffering the consequences of early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s only fifty, still working as a university lecturer, giving talks around the world on linguistics and language development. She’s still physically active as a runner and involved in her children’s lives. They are at that precarious age in between childhood and having families of their own, chronologically adults, but still in need of mother’s care.

Unbroken Movie Review

I was afraid Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second outing behind the camera, would be tacky, maudlin, and sentimental hokum. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. The story of Louis Zamperini was bought by Universal many years ago and finally put into production after Laura Hillenbrand’s book on the subject became a best seller. Zamperini was an American Olympic runner who competed in the 5,000 meter run at the 1936 Berlin games and then flew bombing missions over Japan during WWII. He was shot down over the Pacific, survived for an astounding 45 days adrift on a raft with two other crew from his plane, was picked up by a Japanese ship and placed in a prison camp where he endured brutal conditions and regular beatings at the hands of a pettily jealous guard.

CT Governor Malloy has his Jed Bartlett Moment

Governor Dan Malloy went on 95.9 The Fox to announce his new liquor laws. The big one is that there will no longer be a mandatory price minimum on a bottle. As it is now, the liquor stores have to set their prices at a certain level above wholesale. Malloy's new plan calls for liquor stores being permitted to sell a bottle for $5.01 if they pay $5 for it, if they so choose.

You can watch his announcement on the radio here.

I caught the segment right after this video ends, at the point when they take a call. I can't find the transcript, but I'll paraphrase:

A man calls in and complains that this law will only serve to put the "Mom and Pops" out of business because they won't be able to afford to either buy in large enough quantities at lower prices (lack of storage space prohibits smaller stores from this practice) or to mark down their bottles enough to compete with the chain retailers who have more cash flow to do it. The caller works in the business as a liquor delivery driver and said that the new laws would eventually mean fewer liquor stores, which means fewer delivery stops, which means fewer drivers.

The governor's response, again this is a paraphrased quote: "Let me see if I understand your argument correctly. You want people to pay more for alcohol so you can be happy?"

At the moment he said that, I thought, "I want to vote for this man."

And then I instantly thought of this moment from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, "The West Wing"

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Important Anniversaries Marked in 2015

* The Oscar winners noted were released in the previous year, but given the award in the year noted.

10 Years Ago (2005)

Pierce Brosnan resigned at James Bond after four films and later in the year Daniel Craig was named as his successor.

Number of films I've seen: 87
My average rating: 6.89 / 10
My best of the year: Cache dir. Michael Haneke
My worst of the year: Fantastic Four dir. Tim Story

directing debuts 
Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin)
Lee Daniels+ (Shadowboxer)
Rian Johnson (Brick)
Joss Whedon* (Serenity)

* past Oscar nominee NOT for directing +future Oscar nominee

notable deaths
Playwright and screenwriter Arthur Miller (89)
Director Robert Wise (91)
Actor and comedian Richard Pryor (65)

Top grossing film for the year (domestic): Revenge of the Sith ($380.3  million)
(worldwide): Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($896.9 million)

Academy Award Best Picture winner*: Million Dollar Baby dir. Clint Eastwood
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner: L'Enfant dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Movies from my collection
The 40-Year Old Virgin
Brokeback Mountain
A History of Violence
Match Point
Wedding Crashers

Non-movie related
- Iraq had its first free Parliamentary elections since 1958 on 30 January
- Pope John Paul II died on 2 April
- Pope Benedict XVI elected 265th Pope on 19 April
- Variety revealed the identity of Deep Throat to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt on 31 May
- Four coordinated bombing attacks in London killed 52 people on 7 July, the day after the city was announced as host of the 2012 Summer Olympics
- Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on 29 August

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Movie Review

For the third and final installment in Peter Jackson’s bloated trilogy, The Hobbit, I couldn’t bear to sit through An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug to refresh my memory before trudging through the morass of The Battle of the Five Armies. The predictable result is that I had completely forgotten who some secondary characters were, what they had done previously, and why I should care about them at all.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love Is Strange Movie Review

What a beautiful little movie Ira Sachs made with Love Is Strange. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, a same sex couple who get married (thanks to a change in New York law) after almost forty years together as partners. George, who works as a music educator in a private Catholic school, is fired for not upholding the values of the Church. Essentially, his marriage stands in conflict with the public image of the Church. The decision is not unlike any company firing someone for publicly engaging in a behavior that reflects poorly on company values. However, his colleagues and most of his students and their parents knew he was gay and lived with Ben.

Last Days in Vietnam Movie Review

Though it’s not the most exciting or ground-breaking documentary you’ll see, Rory Kennedy has made one of the more solid, interesting, and important entries in the 2014 crop of award-winning documentaries. Last Days in Vietnam focuses on the final days of the war between North and South Vietnam, long after the U.S. had pulled all troops off the ground and the Paris Peace Accords had been signed. After President Nixon resigned, the North Vietnamese army began advancing in violation of the agreement. This documentary is about the effort to evacuate the American Embassy in Saigon including all Americans on the ground. A lot of Americans also had Vietnamese wives and children to evacuate. Then a simple evacuation turned into a massive humanitarian effort to extract tens of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who might end up imprisoned or executed if left behind.

Virunga Movie Review

Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary Virunga has a special way of pulling you into one story and then ripping the rug right from under you and slamming you with a story you weren’t expecting. He begins with a prologue detailing, very briefly, the torrid history of the Congo, its struggles to free itself from colonialism, and then to embrace democracy. The next half hour or so introduces the UNESCO World Heritage site Virunga National Park, a stunning paradise and bio-diverse nature preserve that is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas, which happen to be the emotional lynchpin of the film.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Most Violent Year Movie Review

Abel Morales is a Latin American immigrant in New York City in 1981. He owns and operates his own heating oil business amid a social and business landscape that is in decay. Corruption in his industry is rampant to the point that the Assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is lumping him in with all oil companies in an investigation. The city itself is witnessing its most violent time ever. The radio news is constantly recounting the previous day’s tally of violent crimes, a heavy load weighing the city down along with the cold wintry mood set by director J.C. Chandor and his production designer John Goldsmith and cinematographer Bradford Young.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Foxcatcher Movie Review

One of the lesser known footnotes to modern Olympic history is the relationship of John Du Pont to the Olympic wrestling gold medalist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. It’s a funny thing that no one pays much attention to the sport of wrestling outside of the quadrennial Olympic cycle, but there’s something so quintessentially American about the sport Of course it’s been around since the ancient games of Greece and eastern Europeans often excel at it, but the American ideal is intrinsically bound to it. It’s a sport based on physical confrontation one-on-one. You succeed based on your own abilities. It is a total make-it-or-break-it scenario. It’s about a fiercely intense combination of brute strength and cunning strategic skills. You have to be tough and strong, but also to outwit your opponent.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Imitation Game Movie Review

Maybe I’m just not easily impressed anymore. Maybe it’s because I rarely see any of the really bad movies anymore and so by comparison, the stuff that is really good seems so ordinary. The Imitation Game is supposed to be one of the year’s best movies, but it is so utterly conventional, I just found it sort of dull. This is the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped decode the messages churned out by Enigma, the Nazis’ communication device, which should be a ripe subject for a fascinating story. The machine Turing developed to break the code laid the foundation for modern computing.

Citizenfour Movie Review

It’s not very often I get turned around on an issue from a documentary film. I didn’t think much about Edward Snowden when his name was big in the news for revealing that the NSA was collecting data on everyone’s phone calls and emails. It struck me as suspicious that, of all places, he wound up in Russia, after first spending significant time in China. Was some foreign government supporting him? And why? I thought, at the very least, he had committed a crime by leaking classified documents. Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour allows us to spend lots of time with him, giving us the sense of really getting to know the man and make a decision for ourselves about him.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

How Did I Do (2015 Edition): Or My Results on the Oscar Nomination Predictions

One prediction I got right was that my predictions would not be very good. I don't have records going all the way back, but I'm pretty sure this is close to my worst prediction year. I got a perfect score for only one category - Original Screenplay - and missed on all five (!) in the Sound Mixing category. That's the first time I've ever gone 0/5 in any category. Pretty bad. Anyway, getting 4/5 in a major category is not really a significant accomplishment. Most of the time there's a pretty solid selection of four actors or actresses, four directors, four screenplays. It's the fifth spot that's the hardest to nail down.

In the top eight categories I went 34/43 for a 79%, a full ten percentage points below last year. I should give myself an extra point for correctly predicting there would be only eight Best Picture nominees.

Across all categories that I predicted (so excluding the three short film categories) I scored 72/106 for 68%. Ouch!

So here are the nominees and how I fared...Nominees marked with an asterisk were the ones I missed.

Picture 7/8
Pretty surprised that Whiplash made the cut and Foxcatcher didn't. I wasn't wild about either movie, but that Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director is quite an accomplishment considering his film isn't even one of the best eight of the year.

American Sniper
The Imitation Game

predicted but not nominated: Foxcatcher

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

87th Academy Awards Nomination Predictions

Let me just start by saying that I will not do better on my predictions than last year, when I scored my best prediction rate ever with close to 90% in the top eight categories and better than 75% across all categories.

One of the biggest factors affecting my abilities this year is that I still have a pretty long list of things to see. My predictions are based on a combination of seeing the films and evaluating them, thinking about Hollywood politics, thinking about what other people are likely to respond to emotionally, and also a kind of gut instinct which is really just about bringing the former factors together.

I don't think 2014 was a very good year for film. A lot of what is likely to get a nomination for Best Picture is pretty mediocre. And that follows on down the line through all the technical categories and a lot of acting performances that just failed to blow me away.

The major things still on my list to see are Into the Woods; Unbroken; American Sniper; Selma; The Hobbit; and A Most Violent Year in addition to a bunch of lesser films that could score technical nominations.

My prediction lists are all in order of likelihood. So in most categories, at least the first three spots are dead locks.

Best Picture
I'm calling only eight nominees this year. Since they went to a range of 5 - 10 nominees, there have always been nine nominees, but I just feel like 2014 was a bit weak.

The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Foxcatcher
7. The Theory of Everything
8. American Sniper

If there are more than eight:
9. Into the Woods
10. Whiplash

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Citizen Koch Movie Review

My personal politics are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating a movie. At least I do my best to make it so. Of course sometimes you can’t help it. Doing my best to look objectively at Citizen Koch, the documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on American politics, I would say this is a film that fails to thoroughly examine the very issue it claims to be about.

The Citizens United case, as you may or may not know, was the 5-4 split decision that essentially ruled that, when it comes to campaign contributions, corporations are individuals protected by the First Amendment. The result of that decision has been the funneling of enormous amount of corporate money into political actions.

The Trip to Italy Movie Review

In The Trip to Italy, comedian Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan re-team with director Michael Winterbottom for a sequel to The Trip. This time, instead of a food tour of the north of England, they are following in the footsteps of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron from Piedmont to Capri.

The two are slightly older now and in their advancing age and settling careers they have become more melancholy. Though they still laugh and smile and enjoy the beauty around them, there is a wistful quality beneath that reveals their dissatisfaction. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Steve has a teenage son who lives with his ex-wife. Rob has a wife and young daughter. His wife never seems to have time for him and Rob falls into a little dalliance with a woman he meets.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Theory of Everything Movie Review

There are two central characters in The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic directed by James Marsh and adapted by Anthony McCarten from the memoir by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane. Stephen and Jane are equal partners in screen time and emotional heft in the story. This is less a biopic that gets into the inner workings of a genius mind and his struggle to continue working during a debilitating illness than it is a love story about two people overcoming the terrible weight of that illness on their lives.