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There isn’t an American alive who has not heard the name Chappaquiddick, an odd name that nobody before 1969 would have known how to even pronounce.

With both of his famous brothers assassinated, Senator Ted Kennedy was the star of the Democratic party and well on his way to the White House. One fateful night, he had too much to drink and went for a drive with a young woman who was an aide to his brother before and whom he tried to recruit. He loses control of his car as he drives off a bridge. The car flips over and end up wheels up in the water.

He comes to in the water outside of the car, but the car is closed, and the woman is still insight, fighting to get out. He tries to free her but is not successful and eventually walks away. It’s not clear to the viewer how this was even possible. But that’s his story.

As the night progresses, he makes a number of mistakes, and by morning, the Kennedy spin machine is in full swing. We witness political power gone unchecked, when his aides start fabricating the reality they need for their wonder boy to continue to have a political future.

Ted didn’t run for president for 1972, like he had planned. American history may have been forever changed that night in Chappaquiddick. Ted ran for president in 1980 but did not succeed. However, he did continue to serve in the United States Senate until his death in 2009. As a senator for 47 years, he was the fourth-longest-continuously-serving senator in U.S. history.

The movie Chappaquiddick tells this mystery story for those of us that never really studied the details, and it gives an inside glimpse into one of America’s most powerful families of the 1960s.

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Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who tracks down missing girls. He is a veteran of the Special Forces and a former FBI agent. Haunted by violent flashbacks to his own childhood under the boot of an abusive father, and traumatized by his experiences as a soldier, he has more demons in his own head than the real world could ever hurl at him.

It’s not clear what drives such a man to a career where he would encounter brutal violence by the real scum of humanity, those that think it’s right to drug young girls so they can use them as prostitutes and sex slaves. Joe’s favorite weapon in his fight seems to be a hammer.

That should give you an idea that this is not shoot me up gangster movie. This is a film where you sometimes end up closing your eyes because you really don’t want to see what’s going to happen next.

He lovingly cares for his elderly mother in his New York City home. When she gets killed while somebody is trying to get to him, he realizes that the case he is working on may not be as simple as he thought. And that is the start of his one-man war against some very powerful people.

The plot is mysterious and riveting at the same time. I have to admit, to fully understand it, I had to look it up on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in some of the blanks.

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John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) was a 21-year-old alcoholic when he went out bar hopping with his friend Dexter (Jack Black) in his VW bug. Late at night, Dexter passed out and drove the bug into a pole at 90 miles per hour. He walked away with hardly a scratch. John was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

But that didn’t stop him from drinking. He kept at it for another six years before he found himself in a group of Alcoholics Anonymous sponsored by Donny (Jonah Hill).

As he came to terms with his situation he discovered that he had a knack for dark humor and he started drawing cartoons. Eventually he was able to publish them in the local paper in Portland and, while many people were offended due to the nature of his subjects, he found an international following and fame.

The movie is based on the real life story of John Callahan. Adapted by Gus Van Sant from Callaghan’s autobiography, it is a powerful treatment of addiction and alcoholism, and it illustrates vigorously what it does to a person’s dignity and well-being. Obviously most people do not have Callahan’s zest for life and humor, and his luck and skill to pull off a successful career, partly based on his experiences in life.

A couple of observations: Joaquin Phoenix does a remarkable job with this role. Jack Black looks like he gained an incredible amount of weight. I hardly recognized him. And – this is the most remarkable fact – I didn’t even realize that Donny was played by Jonah Hill (see the person on the right in the photo above). He looks so different from his usual roles, he is so much slimmer, it never even crossed my mind that it was Jonah Hill. Now I want to watch the movie again just to observe his performance.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a powerful movie that is NOT a comedy, as the trailer might make you believe.

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Oh, how the Tomatometer can be right on for me, and then completely off. Yesterday I reviewed Leave No Trace with a score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I have it 4 stars.

In contrast, Blockers has a score of 83% and it gets half a star from me.

It starts out well enough, when three girls walk up the sidewalk to their elementary school on the first day of school. Three parents stand there, slightly teary eyed, seeing them off. The girls hold hands and gingerly walk up the steps of the school into their new lives. The parents realize that they may see more of each other in the years to come.

Roll forward to the “end” of school – prom night. The girls have become fast friends, and so have the parents. Spying on a chat log one of the girls leaves on in her room, the parents realize their daughters have made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. They freak out and make their own dubious pact to block this from happening.

The entire movie is a string of contrived situations, trite prom scenes that have been used in every movie about proms since movies have been made, with accents like unrealistic vomiting in the limo. I have a disdain for all movies with graphic and explicit projectile vomiting. Inexplicably, they had to add a couple of flashes of close-ups of hairy dad testicles being squeezed for no reason in the plot other than to be, well, gross. It’s hard to un-see those images once you were subjected to them. Yuck.

I watched the movie because it was late, I was too tired to read, and I kept thinking it would get better. I chuckled and laughed at times, not because it was funny, but mostly because the movie was so bad, it was a laugh of embarrassment.

83% on the Tomatometer, go figure!

Do not waste your time or money.

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Will (Ben Foster) is a young homeless veteran haunted by demons most of us can’t even imagine. He lives completely off the grid in the woods outside of Portland, Oregon with his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie). By off the grid I mean under a tarp deep in the forest, hiding their footprints on the way in so nobody knows they are there. Tom’s mother died, we don’t know how, before she can remember. Will teaches his daughter survival skills as well as the laws of homelessness. She is surprisingly educated and well-adjusted.

But then they get caught, and social services closes in on them, trying to integrate them into society one step at a time. Tom takes well to her new environment, but Will cannot function in the normal world. Again and again he walks away with nothing but a set of boots, a backpack and his teenage daughter in tow.

Leave No Trace is an intense drama accentuated by brilliant cinematography and a poignant musical score. It gives us a view into the desperate world of homelessness and has us guessing about the horrible trauma a man must have gone through to end up like Will in the wilderness. And yet, the support system is not demonized in this story, the social workers are caring and giving and really trying to help. The friends they meet along their journey are a motley group of aged hippies, beaten veterans and country folks trying to find their way. We see a corner of Americana that is as real as Starbucks and freeways and iPhones, but just a few miles off into the hinterland, past a few stop lights at the edge of town. That is where life happens, accompanied by a guitar in calloused hands, stringy long hair tied in a ponytail by a scrunchy, in the shelters of beat-up trailers under giant trees.

Leave No Trace received a perfect 100% by Rotten Tomatoes and it deserves every bit of it.

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Four young men hatch up a plan for a heist – stealing some of the most valuable books in the world, like one by Darwin, another by Audubon, all locked up securely in a local library/museum.

When you think of a heist, you think of Oceans 11, where a group of experts in various disciplines with nerves of steel get together, draw up detailed plans of every possible angle and contingency, and then execute the plan.

But the most well-rehearsed plan can go wrong, or very wrong. These young men are about to find out.

American Animals is a true story in the truest sense. It is actually narrated by the four real protagonists in real-life. Then, as they introduce section after section, the movie switches back to the actors who play out the plot.

This is extremely well done. The story is utterly entertaining. The sound track is superb. The cadence of the movie brings you along for the ride, all the way into the intense pressure of executing the heist itself, or rather, screwing it up.

American Animals is about four men who decide to do something extraordinary with their lives – and that’s exactly what they end up doing – albeit in a way, and with an outcome, that they didn’t expect themselves.

Definitely – go and see American Animals.

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Tami (Shailene Woodley) is a 19-year-old girl who drifted to Tahiti to get away from her childhood and youth of neglect and abuse in a broken family in San Diego. Richard (Sam Claflin) is an English young sailor who worked in a shipyard and built himself a sailboat. As he enters the port in Tahiti he sees Tami working on the docks and is smitten. The two fall in love. Friends of Richard show up in Tahiti and tell him they have to fly back to Europe for an emergency. Would he do them a favor and sail their boat back to San Diego?

Tami and Richard set sail across the Pacific and eventually head straight into a catastrophic hurricane. Changing course too late, they soon face an impossible sea. Richard gets swept off the boat by a giant wave braking over the bow, and Tami gets knocked out down in the cabin. The boat loses its masts and is severely damaged, but continues to float.

Tami awakens and quickly realizes that there is no hope for rescue.

This movie is based on a true story. It’s a bit disjointed to watch. How do you make a movie that is interesting and suspenseful about sitting in a boat adrift in an endless ocean alone for a month and a half?

When I was in my teen years, sailing the world was also my number one dream. Of course, I never even set foot in a sailboat in the ocean until decades later when I realized that there were risks and dangers associated with sailing on the high seas, and tremendous sacrifices. Adrift reminded me of that. But it did rekindle some of those old dreams.

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Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a hapless silver miner in 1898 in the California desert. One day, completely alone, he falls down a shaft and breaks his leg. By pure chance, he happens upon oil. Relentlessly, he learns the oil business. He raises his infant son, whose mother died in childbirth, by taking him with him to the places where he works. The boy grows up learning the business from his father.

To get the rights to the land where he wants to drill, the sweet-talks the owners to give him permission to drill their land, or to sell the land to him outright. As the years go by, he builds an oil empire, and gradually, power and money consume him.

Over time he makes enemies of all the people around him, and at the height of his wealth and power, he starts battling with his own son.

There Will Be Blood plays in the California desert. After living in California for well more than half of my life, I consider myself a native, and I recognized the natural landscape. Outsiders think of California covered with palm trees. California is mostly desert, completely dry, dusty, rocky, with few shrubs or trees. This movie shows California as it looked a hundred years ago, before suburbs and urban sprawl took over. The hardness and harshness of life comes through, and the frantic search for a way to make a living is in everyone’s eyes.

I found this movie very hard to watch, depressing most of the time, and way too long at 158 minutes. But Daniel Day-Lewis is a master actor, and he carries the film.

I warn you, this is not relaxing or enjoyable, but it is educational.

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Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the most formidable lobbyists in Washington. She is creative, but ruthless, and her reputation and success record indicates that she is ready to do whatever necessary to win. Along comes the NRA. They approach her firm and want her to take a case bolstering the NRA by attracting female voters for the cause. Since she does not agree with this message but rather has the opposite ideological view, she turns them down, and in the process ends up losing her job with her firm. She defects and takes half of her team with her.

Now the battle of her life is underway, where the opponent is the NRA, one of the most powerful special interests in Washington, represented by her old firm. The odds are impossible. But Miss Sloane always wins.

I watched Miss Sloane right after watching Molly’s Game and writing this review just yesterday. The two movies almost overlapped in my head, since Jessica Chastain plays a very similar person in both movies, a very bright, self-assured, articulate, determined maverick woman.

Miss Sloane was released in 2016, but it is a very timely film to watch now as its subject deals with gun control, the power of the NRA lobby, corruption in government as it relates to the Second Amendment. The movement the Florida high school kids set in motion after the most recent school massacre there relates perfectly to the topics Miss Sloane deals with.

Of course, I am not sure if Washington really works the way it is portrayed in this movie, but if it is, it’s frightening. It seemed very realistic to me, except for the remote-controlled cockroaches. You’ll just have to watch to find out what those are about!

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Molly’s Game is a documentary-style movie with large narrated portions portraying the life and “career” of real-life Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). During her youth, driven by aggressive parents (her father is played by Kevin Costner), she was an Olympic-class skier. After a serious accident she had to drop out of competitive skiing and eventually stumbled upon poker games. She put on games, got tips for her services, while she watched the elite gamble, and sometimes destroy each other’s lives. Like in most gambling environments, corruption and the mob was not far away, and things got complicated very quickly. Eventually she was arrested by the FBI, and large sections of the movie illustrate her interactions with her lawyer.

There isn’t that much going on in Molly’s Game, and while it kept my attention sufficiently to keep watching to see what happened next, I found it quite uninspiring. This is the kind of movie you can watch while doing other things to keep your attention. I played Sudoko on my smartphone to keep my mind busy while Molly’s Game ambled along.

Forgettable.

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In the mid-1960ies, the “Pentagon Papers” were thousands of pages of highly classified documents that proved that four presidential administrations knew that the Vietnam War could not be won, yet they continuously and repeatedly lied to the American public.

Thousands of young American men died in Vietnam for this war that was based on a lie.

When the New York Times got a hold of the papers and started publishing them, the Nixon Administration shut them down.

The Washington Post, at that time, was a struggling family business that tried to break out of the stigma of being a local paper. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) was  the “owner” of the paper. She had inherited it from her late husband. Being one of very few women in executive positions in the business, she was not always taken seriously. The paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), pushed hard to get the Pentagon Papers published in order to establish a name for the Post and to uphold the freedom of the press as well as its responsibility to the public.

The stress of making the final decision at midnight before going to print was enormous. Katharine Graham bet the company, her livelihood, and that of everyone who worked there and had shares in the company, all in the name of journalistic responsibility and duty to the country.

Ironically, after I saw The Post, just a few hours later, as I was browsing Reddit, I came across this cigarette lighter, presumably from the Vietnam era. While I have no way to attest that it is authentic, and while there is an entire tourist trap industry of such “interesting” trinkets in Vietnam, the message stands.

 

[click for photo credit on Reddit]

In our current days, more than 50 years after those thousands of American boys died in Vietnam for a lie, and for the callousness of the presidents that sent them there, we are still facing the same old reality.

We still have presidents in the White House who think it’s ok to send American boys (and now girls) to strange countries across the ocean to do our dirty deeds and our dying, while the rest of us sit at home, watch MSNBC or Fox on TV, and pretend it’s all about our safety and our freedom.

The Post is about journalistic freedom, responsibility for integrity, honesty and truth. We now have a president who systematically undermines “the press” in front of the public, calls it dishonest, crooked, bought, biased and treasonous. “The press” are dozens, hundreds of newspapers, thousands of TV stations, thousands of radio stations, thousands of websites, and our president wants us to believe that all of a sudden, during the summer of 2016, when the election went into full swing, they all suddenly went rogue, and dishonest, just so they could all discredit him, all except a few far-right media channels?

I am not buying it.

The Post is about this responsibility and integrity of the press. It is a movie that could not be playing at a better time in history. Watch The Post, and then tell me who you trust: The media? Or Donald Trump?

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Two brothers live together in their boring, unsatisfying lives. One day a package arrives in the mail which contains a video message that eventually inspires them to go back to a cult where they were born and raised many years ago. They drive down to San Diego – I can tell because they pass the San Onofre nuclear power plant in our neighborhood – and then up into the hills in the Julian area. The entire movie plays in a camp in the highlands in eastern San Diego County – an area that I call home and where I have spent much time hiking. There are also a few scenes that were shot in the Borrego Springs area.

In the camp there are a couple of dozen goofy characters living odd lives. Strange things happen. Slowly, ever so subtly, the brothers are pulled back into the community. They stay an extra day, then another one, and soon it becomes clear they might not leave at all.

The Endless is an impossibly boring movie with no plot whatsoever, that goes on – well – endlessly. It’s also a very low-budget movie. They needed one car, access to a mountain camp, some twenty actors, most of them without any speaking roles, and very few props or costumes of any type. Even the special effects are cheesy and cheap. The story makes no sense. There really isn’t an end, and the moral is supposed to be that we’re all trapped in our lives, in endless loops, longer or shorter, repeating day after day, or week after week, or minute after minute.

Good grief! How this got 96% on the Tomatometer is beyond me!

Save yourself the endless, pointless, listless agony and don’t bother with this movie.

Half a star for the movie, and another half a one for the soundtrack – typical horror-suspense but at least somewhat enjoyable.


 

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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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