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Fern (Frances McDormand) is woman in her sixties. She spent her entire life with her husband, who was happy working in a sheetrock factory in northern Nevada. She was never able to realize her own dreams, because she was accommodating her – dreamless – husband. Then he died abruptly. When the sheetrock factory, pretty much the only employer in town, closed, the town died. Even the zip code was retired (true story).

Fern abandoned her house and life, and moved into her van, cruising the American west, including Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota, California and Arizona.

This movie is carried by McDormand’s acting. Nothing happens. There are countless shots of desert with the sun setting in the distance among the stark mountain ranges that characterize the west. Fern keeps standing around, and walking around, in one encampment after another, with really nothing else going on. We are witnessing a nomad and we can’t really tell if she is happy.

McDormand won an Oscar for this performance. When she received it, she issued a howl, and many people didn’t know why. It turns out it was a tribute to the film’s sound mixer Michael Wolf Snyder who had passed only about a month earlier.

Another bit of trivia is that with Nomadland, McDormand now has more lead actress Oscars than Meryl Streep. Pretty impressive.

Nomadland is a boring movie, a depressing movie, where nothing really happens, but it makes you think about your own life nevertheless.

 

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Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are a young and loving couple in Boston, awaiting their first baby. The room is ready. The expecting mother is radiant. Sean works in heavy construction, currently building a large bridge. When he comes home he becomes a doting husband and excited father to be. They are planning on a birth at their home, assisted by a midwife.

During the birth, things go unexpectedly wrong, and the baby dies minutes after birth. Their lives change as they are each independently trying to cope with the terrible loss. Her own mother, a domineering and challenging woman, meddles and makes Martha’s life even more impossible. Everything comes to the breaking point.

This movie is challenging to watch. The extensive birth section at a the beginning sets the stage. It is, by far, the most graphic and realistic birth scene I have ever watched. You’re right in the room with them, especially when the baby’s heartbeat starts slowing down.

I am not sure if I would recommend to young couples who are expecting childbirth to watch this, or not. I can say for sure, they’ll learn a lot.

The story is about the human spirit, and how it eventually transcends challenges. But it’s not a happy movie at all.

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Kodachrome is the brand name for a color reversal film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. It was one of the first successful color materials and was used for both cinematography and still photography. Kodachrome film sales were discontinued in 2009 after nearly 75 years in use due to plunging sales and to the rise of digital cameras. There was one lab left in Kansas in 2010, and it was closing its doors.
This movie is based on A.G. Sulzberger’s 2010 New York Times article “For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas.”
Famed photographer Ben Ryder (Ed Harris) is dying of cancer. He has a full-time nurse and assistant named Zooey Kern (Elizabeth Olsen) who takes care of his health needs, but he knows he only has a few months to live. He is completely estranged from his only son, Matt (Jason Sudeikis). They have not seen each other in many years, when Zooey appears at Matt’s job and tries to convince him to go on a road trip to Kansas with his father, so they can develop the last few rolls of film Ben has stashed away.
Ben is a cantankerous old man, crass, inappropriate and self-absorbed. He has neglected his family – and his son – all his life so he can advance his career. Father and son do not appear to be reconcilable, until Zooey pulls some strings. The three of them hop into Ben’s old convertible Saab in New York and head for Kansas.
Kodachrome is a road trip movie about an old dying guy who has one last wish. We have seen many of those before, and this one is as predictable as most of them. But we love our road trips, and we love to reminisce about them. Kodachrome touches that nerve, and it offers a tiny glimpse into the world and soul of an artist, whose profession drives him to be away from those he loves.

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Ben and Leslie Cash live somewhere in the mountains in the State of Washington, off the grid, in cabin in the woods, with their six children. They gave each of the children a made-up name so they would be unique in the world. Their names are Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai.

The children are homeschooled and unregistered. Even though they have no academic record whatsoever, the 8-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights and give an interpretation. The oldest, Bodevan, has been accepted at Harvard, Stanford and another 10 top universities. Ben is a survivalist and socialist. He teaches his children how to survive in the wild, by hunting, identifying edible plants, and growing their own food. The children have taken it all in and are remarkable each in their own way.

Leslie was a lawyer who gave up her practice to raise the children with their ideals. But she is bi-polar, and her illness starts escalating after giving birth to her first son. Even though he does not believe in modern medicine, Ben sends his wife to get treatment in a hospital near where her sister lives.

While at the hospital, Leslie commits suicide.

The family that can survive anything is almost broken by the loss of their mother. That’s when their battle with the “real world” starts.

In today’s gross-national-product-world, Captain Fantastic depicts a family that tossed it all away in favor of a simpler, yet much harder and harsher world. The elaborate idealism of facing the truth, no matter how adverse, how inconvenient, and how disturbing it might be, will work to some degree, but in the end the children all try to find their own balance and their own way. The question is, can Ben face that reality?

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Ove (Rolf Lassgård) is 59 years old and lives alone in a housing development somewhere in Sweden. He loses his job by a forced retirement program. His wife passed away from cancer six months before. He grieves badly and visits her grave every day. He has no relatives or children. He is the self-appointed master of the condominium association of his little community, even when he was ousted a few years before and his friend Rune was made president instead. He does not care about the official roles, and he rules with an iron fist. Daily rounds include checking for garage doors being locked, gates remaining closed. Driving of any type in the community is forbidden, and leaving a bicycle out is a serious infraction. He is a true curmudgeon and the essence of a grumpy old man.

Parvaneh and her family are refugees from somewhere in the Middle East. She has two children, one of them already school-age, and is pregnant with her next. Her husband is not quite handy with driving, cars, and anything mechanical. Ove has them in his sights immediately. They are very different from the Swedish bourgeoise society, and Ove does not like “different.”

Ove is ready to die and he attempts suicide, only to be interrupted by Parvaneh and her family. An unlikely friendship develops, and gradually he gets drawn back into a semblance of purpose.

This is a Swedish film with English subtitles, but it’s easy to follow along. The Swedish village, the gloomy weather, the way the communities are arranged, elicited eerie memories of my childhood in Germany. Things looked just like it. I also could not help but notice that Ove is 59 years old and I thought of him as an old man. Then I realized that I am five years older than Ove and it was a bit frightening. Please, let me not be like Ove.

A Man Called Ove is a well-crafted film about an ordinary man’s life from childhood to retirement. The film starts at the current time, and frequent flashbacks tell the story of how he became the Ove he is today. It’s a comedy of sorts, but it’s full of life’s truths and realities, and it’s an ode to the human spirit, to friendship, to kindness and to the circle of life.

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Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) is a Hispanic girl in Oakland, California. She is a young single mother of a school-age girl, and she lives and works with her father. They work incredibly hard, both in several different jobs, just to make ends meet. She wakes up her daughter at 4:00am and gets her ready to school before she goes and prepares fruit for the fruit cart she runs. Her daughter sleeps in the car until she gets dropped off at school. Thugs with guns on the streets rob her of the few dollars she earned and beat her. In her other jobs she cleans offices (and toilets), washes cars, and she has lots of experience as a cook in Mexican restaurants.

When see sees no way out, she notices a help-wanted sign outside an upscale sushi restaurant. She applies for an entry-level kitchen position and gets it. Culture shock engulfs her and her daughter and father when it becomes obvious that Japanese cuisine is completely alien to them. But Juana works hard, learns fast, and quickly becomes noticed in the restaurant by the lead sushi chef. When she aspires to become a chef, she hits several glass ceilings at once. She is a woman. She is not Japanese or at least Asian. She is not authentic.

East-Side Sushi is a predictable story where the heroine lifts herself and her family up against all odds. What I found most rewarding in watching this movie was the depiction of the life of Hispanics in Californian society. We see them as vendors at street corners. We see them in the parks. We see them working in the fields and yards, we see them working in restaurants and in childcare. They are everywhere. They work incredibly hard. They are diligent. This movie gives us a glimpse behind the scenes of what we see in public, and I may think differently next time I see a street vendor selling fruit cups.

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In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, there is turmoil all over the world. The American military in in Vietnam, in search of morale boosters for the men, is looking for performance acts to tour the country and play music for the troops.

In Australia, Aboriginals had just secured the right to vote. We in America are focused on American injustice through the centuries, particularly in the genocidal crimes against Native Americans, and then, of course, on slavery and racial injustice that reaches into today. But most of us do not know or realize the suppression, humiliation and subjugation other indigenous peoples have suffered and are still suffering. And that brings us to the injustices against the Australian Aboriginals, one of the oldest cultures in the world.

The Sapphires introduces us to an Aboriginal Family in Australia in modern times – well, in 1968. “Coloreds” are not taken seriously. But there are four sisters, Cynthia, Gail, Julie and Kay, who love to sing, and through a coincidence, are discovered by Dave, a hapless musician and talent scout. He takes them under his somewhat less than impressive wing and signs them up to travel to Vietnam to sing for the American soldiers.

While it was not obvious to the girls what they were getting into, a trip to the bush in Vietnam was nothing like a normal music tour. Events take on their own life when bullets fly and bombs hit all around you without warning.

This movie is based on a true story. It celebrates the human spirit, family bonds, and music, and it portrays the lives of modern Aboriginals in Australia.

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Five years ago I read and reviewed the book Endurance by Alfred Lansing. It’s a documentary about Ernest Shackleton, the English explorer who, in 1914, wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot, whose ship Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice, leaving the entire crew stranded on the ice in the Antarctic winter.

Shackleton’s Captain tells the same story, through the eyes of Captain Frank Worsley, who signed up to Shackleton’s expedition to sail the ship. As it turned out, his navigation skills and seamanship was what eventually saved the crew.

The book was graphic and captivating. The movie is a documentary with dramatization, sprinkled with actual film footage and still photographs of the voyage. After watching the film, I must say that while the visual story is strong and powerful, I got more out of it having read the book and being familiar with all the details, which can never be shown in a movie.

I highly recommend both.

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Bella and Hector are a reclusive couple who live at a remote farm in the mountains of New Zealand at the end of a dirt road. Bella is a cheery, upbeat person in whose world nobody can do wrong. Hector is a curmudgeon who almost never speaks. He just growls and frowns, and occasionally goes out to hunt a wild boar in the jungle.

Ricky is a foster boy in care of the government child services in the city. His child services officer and a policeman bring him to live with Bella and Hector. Ricky wants nothing to do with them at first, but quickly gets into the rhythm of country life and enjoys the simple routines and respect he gets from them.

When Bella passes away unexpectedly, Ricky and Hector, an impossible pair, have to make things work. Hector does not want to release Ricky back to child services and to an orphanage, and the two flee into the woods.

Soon they are the object of a national manhunt.

I got a kick out of the woods and mountains of New Zealand. I know that Lord of the Rings was filmed there. The woods are entirely different, both in fauna and flora, from what I am used to here in the west of the United States. We have great mountains, wild woods, but they look and feel very different here. New Zealand has no dangerous predators, except wild boars, and after watching a wild boar charge in this movie, I think I’ll deal with a mountain lion instead anytime – well maybe.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople does not even try to be realistic. It’s a comedy, and it’s hilarious to watch. Ricky, played expertly by Julian Dennison, is a crack-up character, and eventually becomes a mini-Hector. Once I realized it would be a quirky movie, I enjoyed it immensely. I gave it an extra star just for the fact that the movie does not take itself very seriously.

Just sit back and enjoy. You won’t regret it. And while you’re there, enjoy cool New Zealand with its Wilderpeople.

 

 

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There is mud everywhere in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. The Jackson family is black and works the land. Their oldest son, Ronsel, is called into the service when America joins World War II. The McAllan family is white and they also farm the same land as the Jacksons. Pappy McAllan, the patriarch, is a racist through and through. The younger son of the McAllans, Jamie, is also called into the war. He is a pilot in Europe, while Ronsel is a sergeant and tank commander. While the two families struggle at home in Mississippi and try to survive in abject poverty, the two sons fight the demons of war in Europe.

Eventually, in 1945, they both return home to a place that does not understand them anymore. While they can’t connect to life at home, the two men form an unlikely friendship, bridging the vast gap of race and culture, while they sink into the self-sabotage of alcoholism. But in Mississippi, the people are not ready for human relations across the races, and especially not Pappy McAllan. While the two young men are trying to put the horrors of war behind them, they are not prepared for the horrible fate that confronts them right at home.

Mudbound came out in 2017, and watching it in 2021 when racism in America is as alive as ever, and white supremacy is once again celebrated in too many corners of the country, it reminds me that not much has changed in America in the last 50 years. We have had a black president, but the intrinsic hatred in the people appears to have been buried only in a shallow grave in the last few decades, and new fires have been lit.

Pappy McAllan is played expertly by Jonathan Banks, who we all know as Mike in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Pappy is pure evil, hateful to the core, and proud of it. He is a frightening caricature of the American racist and he inflicts endless damage on his fellow men by outright hurting them, as well as on his family by corrupting their ability to grow up and think for themselves.

The plight of black people in America is in the forefront of this movie. We understand why so many black soldiers returned to Europe after the war, where they were treated as equals and were allowed to have normal lives.

Watching Mudbound made me afraid it might take centuries for America to overcome its bloody and oppressive history. Watching Mudbound will leave you depressed and hopeless, but watch it you must nonetheless.

 

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Duke (Morgan Freeman) is the manager of the Villa Capri, an upscale resort community for senior citizens in Palm Springs. He loves to be the king of the castle. He is freewheeling, his staff loves and supports him, the women residents adore him, and he is surrounded by a court of friends. Things are good in Duke’s kingdom as he prepares for Christmas with live camels in the nativity scene.

When Leo (Tommy Lee Jones) moves into unit 71, things change quickly. The women call him “new food on the buffet” and Duke finds out quickly that Leo is a better poker player and golfer. When his ladies start fawning over Leo, Duke realizes he’ll be trouble.

Then Suzie (Rene Russo) shows up in town and both mean are smitten. As it turns out, though, she is from the corporate office of the Villa Capri, essentially Duke’s boss, and sent to clean house – starting with firing him.

Before long, everyone is after Duke. Leo steals the show, Suzie is getting him fired, and somebody else is apparently trying to kill him.

Just Getting Started is a light comedy that makes us all laugh. It’s a silly little story with some unexpected twists, but is is carried by the star power of a  strong cast of veteran actors. And that makes it an enjoyable movie to watch and get away for a little while.

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I had to google to figure out why the movie was called Bullet Head. It turns out a Bullet Head is a name for the dog breed Presa Canario. Here is a picture of one:

A few thugs, after a heist, crash their getaway car near an abandoned warehouse or factory. The driver dies, and the other three hapless robbers get out of the car and hide out in the warehouse. When I say “abandoned” I mean long abandoned, completely dilapidated, with broken roofs and jagged concrete.

The trio of of robbers are Stacy (Adrien Brody), Walker (John Malkovich) and Gage (Rory Culkin). What they don’t know when they enter the facility to hide out is that it’s also being used by a gang to stage dogfights. While Gage scours a locker room to service his heroin addiction, he makes a gruesome discovery. There is an injured dog on the loose. And that’s all I have to say about the story.

The movie is gruesome, gory, and due to the horrible environment and the despicable characters, extremely depressing. There is nothing good about this story, just bad luck becoming worse luck by the minute.

Of course, John Makovich does a phenomenal job as a crook, as one might expect, not to be upstaged by his two partners in crime, except for Bullet Head. The dog scenes are amazing, frightening and disturbing. It must have been a very difficult job for the director to get the dogs to do what they needed to do. There is no question, the hero, the protagonist of this movie is the dog named DeNiro.

The movie made me think about the cruelty and insanity of dog fighting, and I have a hard time imagining what kind of man it takes to be a participant in such an activity.

In the credit it states:

A portion of the proceeds of this movie will go toward eliminating dog fighting, rehabilitating its canine victims, and promoting awareness and education about the humane treatment of man’s best friend.

Thank goodness.

This was difficult to watch.

 

 

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Al Hart (Chevy Chase) is a retired talent manager who doesn’t know what to do with his life. His granddaughter talks him into moving into a retirement home. There he meets his old friend and very first client from 50 years ago, Buddy Green (Richard Dreyfuss). The two are not happy, and they convince each other to “go on tour.” Al books comedy gigs for Buddy on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York, where Buddy wants to perform at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Along the way in Kansas, at a poetry reading, they pick up Doris Lovejoy (Andy MacDowell), an artist and ex hippie who joins them along the way.

Being a San Diegan, I couldn’t help but notice that on their way from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico, they showed a freeway sign for San Diego via I-5 North. Obviously, they would be going on I-5 South to Tijuana. Also, the scenery on the way to Tucson, Arizona was very much reminiscent of the red rocks of Sedona, which would be many hours out of the way when going to Tucson on I-8. Not that these minor goofs matter, I just know my Southwestern geography and can’t help but notice.

The Last Laugh is a predictable movie of the bucket list theme, of which we have seen too many. It’s reminiscent of the classic Grumpy Old Men with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, cute enough, but sufficiently uninspired to get us to laugh here and there. It deals with illness, aging and the realities of life in a typical Hollywood fashion – superficially with stale humor.

Europeans generally do a better job with this kind of movie, and watching The Last Laugh, I realized I haven’t seen enough of those in a while.

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To raise funds for a local cancer hospital, a few enterprising ladies within a Woman’s Institute in an English town decide to pose nude for a calendar. Since all the ladies are over 50, it takes some convincing for some of them. The club, their husbands, the town, all have their own doubts, and the young local man they choose to be the photographer has a particular challenge in front of them: Photograph 12 village ladies naked, make them look good, and make the calendar a work of art. But in the end, all is good, and the calendar is a worldwide hit.

This 2003 movie is based on a true story that took place in a tiny town in Yorkshire, England. Along with the challenges the making of the calendar poses, the story also tells some subplots of the lives of some of the women and the conflicts they endure.

Calendar Girls is a comedy, without any great lessons, and I didn’t actually plan on watching it. I just couldn’t make myself walk away as the story unfolded. Uncomplicated, lighthearted and cheery, I just kept watching and enjoying it until the credits rolled.

This was an English movie. Hollywood would not make one like this, and that alone is a reason why you’d want to watch it.

 

 

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Somewhere in the countryside in Texas, far away from civilization where you need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, there is a mysterious cave. Professor Hopper, an archeologist, is on the trail of his parents who disappeared decades ago, and he ends up finding their hippie van outside a cave. He looks inside, and behind a shimmering, liquid-looking wall, he sees a cowboy, seemingly frozen in mid-step. He ventures beyond the shimmering barrier and the cowboy comes to life and walks away from him into the cave. Hopper freaks out, and quickly backs away out of the cave. He walks back to his vehicle and finds it overgrown with shrubs, covered with dust, and the battery completely dead. He was in the cave for only a few seconds, but it looks like years have passed for his vehicle outside. It takes him a while to figure out that time passes very slowly inside the cave. Then he goes back in.

Meanwhile, a few of his students know where he went and they come after him to help him when he is reported missing. They find his vehicle and the rope he used to lower himself into the cave. But the rope was cut. Since they brought their own climbing gear, they decided to go in after him. Of course, they quickly find out that something is very wrong with the cave.

This is an interesting time-dilation story and it has a few good plot twists and special effects. But it unravels quickly, and with every minute it goes on, the plot becomes weirder and less credible, until the film is just a special effects calamity at the end. The dialog is mostly inane, and the acting stilted and not fitting the situation. This story has a lot of potential, but it was not realized and I feel that the film was, in the end, pretty much a waste of time. You don’t need to bother with this one at all.

 

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