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Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

A young Marine gets killed in 2003 in Iraq. His father, Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), himself a Vietnam Veteran, has to go and meet the plane that brings his son’s casket before he is buried at Arlington Cemetery. But Doc can’t do it alone. He travels and seeks out two buddies from his time in Vietnam, the former Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston), who now runs a bar, and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is a minister. He convinces the two of them to accompany him on his trip.

Along the way, they decide they don’t want the son to be buried at Arlington, but rather in his hometown in New Hampshire. Being forced to be together, they reminisce about shared memories of the war. Each has to confront his own demons of the past, of an experience that has shaped their lives, obviously for the rest of their lives.

The insanity of America that keeps sending its sons and daughters to far-away lands to fight for a cause that means nothing to them, and to die for their country in the name of freedom, which is obviously a sham, came out strong as I watched Last Flag Flying. Don’t we ever learn?

In a time when our leaders seems to have less scruples than ever, when they don’t hesitate to send other people’s sons and daughters into harm’s way for political convenience – and money – it is ever more important for all of us to see deep into the souls of those hapless soldiers when they come back, broken, damaged, or dead.

That’s what Last Flag Standing made me think about.

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Quan (Jackie Chan) is a London restaurant owner and British citizen of Chinese descent. His only family left is his teenage daughter. She gets killed in a terrorist attack, presumably by the Northern Ireland resistance movement, when she simply finds herself at the wrong place at the wrong time. When Quan seeks revenge, he comes head to head with a British government official (Pierce Brosnan). Quan, with a history of special forces training and memories of cruelty against him and his family, launches a one-man-army-like attack against a corrupt and complex establishment.

This movie brings to the forefront the complexities of British history as it relates to Northern Ireland and illustrates the senselessness and brutality of terrorism motivated by religion and government.

The story is confusing and the plot difficult to follow, but that may be due to the complexity of the subject matter itself. The best part about the movie is the uncharacteristically subdued performance of Chan, who portrays a humble man who has set his mind to getting justice.

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In May of 1940, more than 300,000 British soldiers were surrounded by the Nazis on the French beaches near Dunkirk. There was no way out, and the British Navy didn’t have the ships to come to their rescue. A backstory to this is provided by the movie The Darkest Hour.

In Dunkirk, we follow the frantic lives of just a few men, on the sea, in the air, and trapped on the beach. Through their eyes we see the horror of senseless war and the agony it brings to so many people.

There is little dialog, just a lot of graphic cinematography to tell the story. The haunting score of Hans Zimmer accentuates the relentless action and keeps the heart pounding.

The story at Dunkirk happened almost 80 years ago in World War II, yet now, these images are more important than ever.

Today we have pudgy, entitled men with inherited status and wealth, men who have never served a day in the military in their lives, “lead” us. We allow them to send the sons and daughters of other fathers into “conflicts” overseas to fight for what? For the right of other rich men to plunder the oil, and to support their own self-aggrandized notions of worth and value.

Watch Dunkirk and then ask yourself: How do they expect us to treat them with any respect?


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Winston Churchill was a pivotal figure in the 20th century, and, had it not been for his presence and dogged perseverance, the world might have turned out quite differently.

If Hitler had not lost the war, my parents would never have met, and I would not have been born. I would not be here to write this review.

The Germans could have been stopped before they took over Austria and made their first forays into France. Their military was not ready for a major war. But the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, didn’t put pressure on Hitler when he could, and we all know the outcome.

Winston Churchill came to power when the Germans had encircled the entire British army of about 300,000 men near Dunkirk in France. (There is a separate movie of the same name about this backstory, that I have not seen yet, but must now go and see).

In the face of severe pressure to negotiate with Hitler and save the British army, Churchill steadfastly believed that this was the wrong approach.

The Darkest Hour chronicles those weeks in British history. When I walked out, I had learned more about who Churchill was than I had from all the history books I had ever laid eyes on. A very rewarding film.

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Vincent van Gogh picked up a paintbrush for the first time when he was 28 years old. He died less than nine years later at the age of 37, and left us some 800 paintings. Van Gogh changed art, yet he sold only one painting ever, and that to his own brother.

He died under mysterious circumstances, and like many deaths of famous people (for example JFK) there are many theories that speculate about what really might have happened, versus what is common knowledge on the record.

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is a film that explores the life of Vincent van Gogh and some of the speculations about his death.

What is unique about this film is that it is an animation based on painted images. Every frame of this movie is a painting, and thousands of them have been stitched together to make the film. Nothing like this has ever been done before, and it may well never be done again. Van Gogh’s painting style, using bold colors and rough, thick brush strokes, lends itself to this approach and I applaud the filmmakers for the unique, risky and ultimately very successful idea. Many scenes in the movie are based on actual van Gogh paintings.

One of them has special meaning to me: Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background. Sometimes it’s called “the blue cart.” The original is in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam. Here is an image:

In the movie, Vincent is pulled past this scene in a cart on the road in the foreground.

When I was a child, some 11 or 12 years old, our German professor (now my friend Wolfgang referenced in this blog from time to time in the Latin Corner) assigned this painting as the subject for the essay form of “Bildbeschreibung” or image description. I remember struggling with this assignment, but doing a good job of it in the end. It stayed with me for life, and this painting represents the first exposure for me to van Gogh. I had tears welling up when this image went by in one of the scenes in Loving Vincent.

I am a painter. Van Gogh has always been my favorite artist. I have seen many original van Gogh paintings over the years. How could I possibly not love this movie?


 

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Marshall is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman).

As a young lawyer Marshall traveled around the country in pursuit of cases against African-Americans who were unjustly accused of crimes. In Connecticut, the defended a black chauffeur who was charged with sexual assault of his rich, white employer (Kate Hudson). The court was segregationist and didn’t allow him to argue the case. He had to join forces with Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), a reluctant Jewish lawyer, who did not initially want to take on this responsibility. Eventually they prevailed in a very racist and anti-Semitic environment and the case contributed to Marshall’s fame and the eventual creation of the NAACP legal defense fund.

The movie introduces the character and legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, appointed by President Johnson in 1967. While I roughly knew who Marshall was, I had never shown much interest in any of the details of his life, until I watched this movie. This is one of the most valuable and enriching facts about good movies: They introduce us to topics we sometimes know nothing about, only to get fired up and motivated to read up more about the subject.

Marshall did that for me.


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Ebbing, Missouri is a town in rural America where everybody knows everyone else and their business. The people revere their chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) loses her daughter in a tragic murder and rape case. When, after six months, there is no progress with the investigation, she decides to take matters in her own hands and puts up three billboards in a bold move to attract attention. And attention she gets, seemingly be everyone in town. Officer Dixon, who works for Chief Willoughby, takes matters in his own hands and starts a chain of violence, and a war between a lonely but very determined woman, and Ebbing’s entire law enforcement contingent.

This movie tells a story, and we like our stories. It is very well-acted, it makes us think about justice and about life – which often brings us much adversity – sometimes seemingly too much to bear. There are no bad guys in this movie, only bad circumstances. And the ending is surprisingly satisfying.


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Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely spinster, a mute, who works as a janitor at a “black” government installation in the Cold War era circa 1962.

She discovers a “fishman” creature in a secret laboratory that is being abused by its keepers, headed by a sadistic government agent. She falls in love with the creature. When she finds out that they intend to kill it, she decides to launch a rescue effort.

Sally Hawkins plays an “odd” woman in the Elisa role, somewhat reminiscent of Maudie from last year, where she played a crippled artist.

The Shape of Water got very high reviews by the community. To me, it was a letdown. First, I don’t understand the title. I am not sure what the shape of water is supposed to mean, other than there is an amphibian man in the leading role.

Spoilers following:

The amphibian man is a human in a fish costume, who makes odd sounds, and supposedly can breathe air with lungs and water with gills. The movie makes no effort to explain if the creature is supposed to be an alien or an evolved human swamp creature. Through the course of the movie Elisa ends up in a sexual relationship with the amphibian man, so I assume he’s supposed to be human. But then, why are the government agents so stupid and act like they are not expecting the creature to be intelligent, or have feelings, like a human does. He sure looks like a human in a fish suit! The whole plot, and many of its components, just didn’t make sense to me, to a degree where I found it distracting.

But then, perhaps the whole story was meant to be a fairytale and I was not supposed to reason about it? Maybe I was supposed to just enjoy it?

I am not sure if The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, a science fiction thriller, or a mystery romance story. It has components of all of those.

In the end, I walked out of the movie somewhat unsatisfied.


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Starting in the 1960s, and going forward through the decades, a serial killer, who picked seemingly random victims, raged in the San Francisco area. He wrote messages to the media in advance to “prove” he was the killer and took tokens of evidence at the crime scene.

This inspired an intense manhunt.

Zodiac is an intense crime thriller and includes great, talented performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo.


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As I have done for pretty much all my life, when a new Star Wars movie comes out, I go see it within the first few days. It is a ritual, a rite, something I do, and I know it’s the same for many of my contemporaries.

As usual with Star Wars, I can’t really follow the plot. There are always people who are on far-away planets who are needed for help with some impossible task and emissaries go to find those people. Then there are the mysterious telepathic connections between the Jedi and his disciples, which transcend time and space. Luke, who is the protagonist of this movie, is not very satisfying as a character. He is the last Jedi, but a burned-out one, a reluctant one, and a lot of the movie’s energy is spent on making Luke just do the right thing. To me, that is not much of a plot.

My favorite and repeated complaint with Star Wars is about its disregard for physics. Spaceships don’t fly, they just wink in and out of ordinary space when they go into lightspeed seemingly without acceleration. Except when it’s the old Millennium Falcon, which seems to have superpowers and always flies like a fighter plane in the atmosphere, pulling tight curves, whether it’s in space or not. Fighters continue to fly like there is air, and orbital dynamics is completely ignored.

My most enjoyable experience with Star Wars is usually its depiction of aliens in ordinary settings. I can think of the classic bar scenes that seem to be customary in all episodes. This time, there is only a short sequence in a casino, where there are a few aliens, but they are all humanoids. It seems the entire Star Wars galaxy has devolved into humans with head masks. I am sure that’s to make production cheap, but it’s trite and uninspiring to me. Why isn’t there ever a real alien that is part of the mainline plot? No, I don’t mean another Jar Jar Binks, who himself was nothing but a human in an amphibious suit.

This episode does not tell much of a story and seems to exist only to set the stage for the sunsetting of the two characters most intimately associated with Star Wars: Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, of course) and Princess Lea (played for the last time by the late Carrie Fisher). We say our good byes to both of them, amid a story of fireballs of exploding ships, spaceships racing in tight spaces, comical droids, rubber-mask aliens, desert rust-bucket floater-ship races and a Wookie.

There is nothing new in this episode. The franchise has run out of original ideas and every movie is just a collection of old concepts and special effects, rendered on a new stage, in a slightly different story between good and evil.

True to Star Wars legacy, every conflict in the galaxy is eventually resolved by a swordfight between two humans. All the action stops, high-tech weaponry goes silent, armies of star troopers vanish, spaceships float inactively, the crescendo of the music rises, and the light sabers zap out of their handles. Plot resolved. Deus ex machina.

Will I go see the next episode in a year or so?

Probably.

 

 

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The Disaster Artist is a pretty good movie about the making of the worst movie in the history of  the world, The Room, which I reviewed here.

I found it hilariously funny, and I must admit that I laughed more out loud than I remember laughing in a movie in a long time. Maybe it was because of the infectious laughs of my son, daughter and son-in-law who took me, maybe it’s because the rest of the theater was laughing, or, just maybe it’s because The Disaster Artist is just a great comedy by itself.

To understand The Disaster Artist, and to really enjoy it, I think you have to have watched The Room. I am not sure if the movie would be funny without knowing the background, the true story of the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, a crackpot goof-ball who spent over six million dollars of his own money to make a vanity movie of epic badness.

Be that as it may, The Room is forever a cult classic, and The Disaster Artist may well generate some Oscars.

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Movie Review: Lady Bird

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior in high school in Sacramento, California in 2002.  She does not like her name and gave herself the name Lady Bird. She signs as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is a strong-willed person but not very good at being a mother. She routinely and methodically puts down her daughter, denigrates her, and shows her with actions and words that she does not respect her. Yet, as mothers are wont to do, she loves her, and Lady Bird desperately needs her approval. Her father (Tracy Letts) is a computer programmer who lost his job. He is passive, beaten down but he loves his children and wants their best, yet, he knows he can’t help them. He suffers from depression. There is also her brother and his girlfriend who live with the family in the little three-bedroom house that the parents bought 25 years ago and never dreamed they would be stuck in all their lives.

Lady Bird copes with coming of age in a depressed family, during an economic downturn, desperately trying to have good friends, first love, and a future at a college in New York that will cost much more than her mother can afford working double shifts as a nurse. But life does not cooperate, at least most of the time.

The movie Lady Bird plays in Sacramento, California. I have, through my work, visited Sacramento often over the last two decades, and there are many scenes where I recognized the background down to the camera angle, particularly at the airport, and by the Tower Bride near Old Town. Sacramento looks romantically beautiful in this movie, much more so than it ever did to me in the real world. I enjoyed how the cinematographers pulled out the beauty and mood.

This film is the debut of director Greta Gerwig. It reminded me a bit of the 2008 movie Juno, another story of a young girl who asserts herself in an adversarial world.

With a score of 100% on the Tomatometer, you probably should not miss this film. It makes you think, it makes you remember your own youth and how hard it was to be accepted, to go your own way, and to overcome your own family and the yoke it can put on you.

Lady Bird is a really good movie.

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Here we are, cashing in one of our Activity wedding presents from our friend Sheryl, aided by a compatriot friend and prop man, John. It was a mystery gift. She had us reserve the afternoon of Sunday, October 15, 2017 over three months ago and we did not know what to expect.

The instructions for us were: Trisha to show up wearing a long dress, and I should wear all black.

When we arrived at the AMC 20-plex in Mission Valley, she said we were going to start the Adventure by watching a movie.

As we turned into the theater door I saw the marquee say The Princess Bride. I gave a blank look, and Trisha gave a blank look, and Sheryl broke out into a joyful exclamation: “You’re Princes Bride Virgins!”

And so we were. We had no idea what this was all about.

Beers in hand, we found our seats, only to sit down next to a guy in the dark who said those seats were taken. It was our friend John, the prop accomplice.

This was the 30th anniversary showing of the movie, complete with an interview with Rob Reiner before the movie and an epilogue afterwards.

Directed by Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride is an enchanting, romantic, modern fairy tale, as corny as it gets. It’s the story of a princes named Buttercup (Robin Wright) and her farm boy lover and gallant hero Westley (Cary Elwes), where the dominant theme is True Love, the villains are mean and treacherous, and the good guys very smart and courageous.

The cast, of course, is amazing. There is Robin Wright, who broke through to stardom as Buttercup, went on to play Jenny in Forrest Gump, and today is Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Of course, I knew none of this when I watched Buttercup. I just figured it out in my research for this review.

Then there is Inigo Montoya with the notorious line “you killed my father, prepare to die!” who was played by Mandy Patinkin, whom I know as Saul Berenson in Homeland. There is also Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, whom people still heckle today by asking him to say “inconceivable!”

To round things out, the movie is presented by a frame story, where a grandfather, played by Peter Falk, reads to his sick grandson in bed, played by Fred Savage of the Wonder Years.

Finally, every fairy tale must have a giant, and Andre the Giant serves quite well for that.

Rob Reiner created a cult classic with The Princess Bride.

Forty years ago I remember going to see the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few times, and I was always amazed how people would dress up to go to a movie, bring rice to throw in the theater during the wedding scene, and recite the lines as they occurred.

Yet here I was, dressed all in black, with a mask and a black bandana on my head sporting skull and crossbones, watching The Princess Bride. During the famous chocolate candy scene John doled out yummy chocolate balls. When the six-fingered scene came up, he held up his right hand and showed six fingers. The two ladies wore tiaras; after all, they were the princesses. When the rodents of unusual size attacked, John threw a large plastic rat at us. When we walked out of the theater we asked somebody to take our picture and she said: “As you wish…”

And that is how we spent Sunday afternoon.

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A movie review by my reader and occasional guest blogger, Jean Claude Volgo:

The film Agora deals with the life and times of Hypatia of Alexandria, arguably the most illustrious woman in the history of Greek science.  The scant historical accounts of her life dwell on the gruesome death she is reported to have suffered in the hands of a Christian mob.  Yet this part of her story (tragic as it is) is less compelling than her reputation as a leading mathematician and astronomer at the twilight of ancient pagan culture.

A beacon of the Hellenistic Age, Alexandria in the late C4th was becoming the epicenter of escalating social tensions between various religious factions vying for political power. The authority of an impartial Roman governor was under constant challenge by Jews and Christians.  Yet in spite of the political turmoil, Greek science flourished in the Library of Alexandria under the mathematician, Theon.  Hypatia, his daughter, would have been well versed in Geometry and Astronomy under her father’s tutelage.  To understand how she became memorialized as a Martyr of Science, we need to step back to an earlier period.

Greek Astronomy was based on a geostatic and geocentric cosmology.  A complex system of interlocking circles had been proposed by Ptolemy (c. 150 AD) to explain what seemed to be erratic planetary orbits.  The system was designed to preserve the Greek geometric ideal of  uniform circular motion.  Although generally accepted, this astronomical model was weighed down by its unwieldy complexity.  Could Hypatia have raised doubts about the Ptolemaic system?  This is the intriguing question underlying a pivotal theme in Agora. The film speculates that Hypatia toyed with a simpler heliocentric model and may have even proposed elliptic orbits for the planets (a theory in keeping with her own publicized study on conic sections).  Furthermore, we know that she was schooled in Neoplatonism, which assigned a prominent role to the Sun in a universe guided by intelligent design.  In short,  could Hypatia — an avowed Neoplatonist — have been perplexed by the incongruity between Ptolemy’s inelegant theory and her own ideal image of a heliocentric system?

Agora is a courageous film: intellectually, for its bold imaginative leap; visually, for the meticulous depiction of ancient multicultural Alexandria with its famed Library.  Rachel Weisz is an intrepid Hypatia, unmoved by ardent suitors, and defying a superstitious mob. The film dramatizes the clash between pagans, Christians, and Jews.  Amenábar deserves credit for his unapologetic exposure of the savage horde that brought down the Library of Alexandria and extinguished the life of one of its most celebrated luminaries.

Agora broke box office records in Spain, but failed to get wide distribution in the USA.

 

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The name Al Gore is synonymous with Climate Change (capitalized on purpose). Gore started a popular uprising more than ten years ago with the movie An Inconvenient Truth and with this sequel he continues his fight.

He has been vilified by deniers and the far right lobby in the United States, and he has suffered setback after setback in his mission to get the message out.

Living in the United States in the age of Trump and the dumbing down of America, we tend to forget that we are pretty unique in the world. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, and the far right is a small, albeit powerful slice of that 5%, but they seem to be the loudest criers. Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord. This makes no sense. 95% percent of the people of the world are scratching their heads.

I know people all over the world, Europeans, South Africans, Japanese, Brazilians, Indians, to name just a few. And I could not name a single one of them who would be what we call in the United States a climate denier. Denying climate change seems to be a uniquely American malaise.

Al Gore has the work cut out for himself in this country, and I am grateful for his leadership and tenacity.

You don’t have to “believe” in climate change to watch An Inconvenient Sequel and learn from it. The movie is full of facts and astonishing imagery about how our world has been changing and is continuing to change.

The most important experience for me, however, was as I walked out of the movie, stunned, but inspired. We have got this. There is no stopping that movement. People have turned their backs on coal and oil, no matter what the coal and oil lobby, and our own government, that is supposed to protect us, tells us. People are installing solar energy systems at an ever escalating pace. Solar will be cheaper and easier to use. Coal and oil will be inconvenient, and the planet will heal.

This didn’t happen by accident. This happened because of the tireless leadership of thousands of people, one of which is Al Gore.

Oh, no, we’re not done yet with the fight, far from it. But oh, yes, we will choose to take the baton so we can march toward a better world.

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