Movie Review: Breaking (2022)

Our nation has been sending young men and women into endless wars in faraway continents for many decades. We supposedly revere our military, we thank them for their service when we see them in airports or in the lines at stores. They go overseas and many of them come home broken. Some never come home. Some come home with limbs missing. Some come home with terrible diseases due to exposure to poisons. Some come home with broken spirits. When they come home, we owe them.

But we don’t seem to pay our debts.

We have the Veterans Administration, or short the VA, whose mission it is to “take care” of our veterans. I am sure sometimes they do. But, as we all know from anecdotes of people we know, from the stories in the media in general, and from the crazy political machinations we watch on TV, all too often our veterans are not taken care of.

Sometimes they end up homeless, begging on street corners, rejected, abused and  addicted to drugs.

According to a study completed in 2021, 30,177 American active duty military and veterans after 9/11 have died by suicide. During that same 20-year period, 7,057 service members were killed in combat. Suicide kills four times as many service members as combat does.

Breaking is based on a true story of the soldier Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine whose disability check gets diverted due to no fault of his own. In a crazy scheme, to get public attention to his plight, he holds up a bank – not to rob money, but to get his $850 check that he says the VA owes him. That’s all he wants.

As he finds out quickly, holding up a bank to get on TV does not work, and he tries to somehow exit the situation with honor and alive.

After the movie, on the way home, I was not really able to talk. The images of the deep pain and despair haunted me. The pictures of the waiting room at the VA kept flashing through my mind, where seemingly hundreds of dejected men and women were languishing in endless lines, their dignity taken, their spirits broken, almost like cattle at the trough, just to collect what is due them, what we, as a country, owe them for their service: To care for their wounds – that’s all.

Breaking puts a spotlight on their blight.

Thank you for your service.

Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)

 

At the beginning of World War II, the British were desperate for information, and the traditional methods of espionage didn’t seem to work sufficiently.

In an age were women in war were not a common occurrence, Churchill requested that the spy agency, the SOE or Special Operations Executive, recruit women to work behind enemy lines and pass information back home via wireless Morse code transmitters.

Using those transmitters was a very dangerous activity. The units were bulky, the size of a suitcase, had to be set up in secret locations and could only be used for a short time. The problem was that they were easily traceable, so the users had to be on the move all the time. And if a “wireless operator” was intercepted by the enemy, the team that depended on him or her were left stranded without a connection home and had to operate “in the dark.”

Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was the head of the spy department at the SOE. Among many other men and women, she recruited two very unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) was an American woman who had been turned down in her quest to become a diplomat because she had a wooden leg. She was very capable and ambitious, and took on the challenge. The other was a Muslim woman named Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a pacifist, but a soldier nonetheless, because she believed in defending her and her people’s rights. Noor was the wireless operator, and Virginia the relentless spy and operative.

Together they helped to undermine the Nazi regime in France. Albeit at a terrible cost, they left a powerful legacy in their wake.

A Call to Spy was inspired by true stories and the credits at the end listing the fates of the players left me inspired about the heroism of that generation and the tremendous sacrifices they made – so we all could live in this world we built for ourselves after the war.

Movie Review: Elvis (2022)

I was never an Elvis fan. I certainly didn’t know much of his life story other than the stereotypes we all know.

Watching this movie, I learned so much about the person behind the legend and the idol that I didn’t know before, so I really appreciated it. I had prejudices about Elvis, the star, and some of those got squashed as I watched how he grew up, obviously very talented, how he became an icon and a star, and how life caught up with him very quickly.

Of course, it’s a film about music, and the sound track is – as you’d expect – incredible.

Tom Hanks does an incredible job playing Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker. I also never knew that Parker basically abused and exploited Elvis throughout his career.

My recommendation is simple: Watch the movie! You’ll like it.

Movie Review: Operation Mincemeat (2021)

In World War II, the British need to deceive the Germans that they are about to attack Greece, turning German attention away from Sicily, their actual target.

To do that, they float a corpse of a British officer in the ocean to be found by the Germans. The officer holds a briefcase of classified material, fabricated to support the story. The problem is, how to make it convincing and foolproof. The Germans are smart and the whole plot turns into a game of “do they know that we know that they know that we know?” Thousands of lives of the soldiers attacking Sicily on the fateful day depend on the Germans falling for the ruse. If they don’t, it will be a bloodbath on the beaches of Sicily.

Operation Mincemeat shows the shadow warriors behind the scenes, who do their work from desks. It’s a spy thriller, based on a true story.

Movie Review: Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)

I read the book when it first came out in 2019 and I gave it four stars in my review.

Having read the book gave me a much better understanding of the movie, and I believe I benefitted from that. I don’t know how much a viewer would understand only from the content of the movie alone.

Kya is a little girl when the story starts in 1953. The family lives in a ramshackle house in the coastal swamps of North Carolina. The father is a drunk and he regularly beats his children and his wife for minor reasons. One morning, Kya’s mother walks out and never comes back. In the coming months, all her older siblings disappear, until only she is left living with her father. Then one day, he too does not return. Kya is left fending for herself. She avoids interaction with people, dodges Social Services and maintains herself by selling fresh mussels early in the morning to a friendly local storekeeper. She grows up illiterate, but has an intense love of nature and great artistic ability. She catalogues the ecosystem of the swamp world around her.

Two local boys attract her attention. Tate is a true friend, teaches her to read and write and eventually love. When Tate goes off to college, Chase, another boy from town, courts her. His motives are not as pure as Tate’s and soon Kya’s trust is broken.

Where the Crawdads sing is a wonderful movie that stays quite true to the book, but of course leaves out a lot of detail. As I said above, I think viewers who read the book first will get more out of the experience. The characters and the feeling of the location the movie portrays matched very closely those in my head and rounded out my view of the story.

Movie Review: Hustle (2022)

Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) is a pro basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers. The life on the road for a scout is brutal. His daughter is a teenager, and he has missed all of her birthdays. While his family is loving and understanding, the stress on him is enormous. The owner of the team and his mentor suddenly dies, and when his son takes over the management, Stanley soon finds himself fired.

He goes on a scouting mission in Madrid, Spain and accidentally discovers Bo Cruz, an amateur player who plays hustle basketball on the streets for money. When he sees a possible superstar, the convinces Bo to let him coach and train him for the NBA.

There is a bit of Rocky in Hustle, and the training scenes, even though they are somewhat drawn out, are very reminiscent of Rocky Balboa running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the steps that have become known as the Rocky Steps. Bo also trains in the early morning hours in Philadelphia. Hustle is a predictable underdog movie. If you like pro basketball, you’ll enjoy some of the legends who appear and play themselves.

Movie Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is an unemployed oil worker in Texas. After his mother passed away, he is about to lose the family ranch due to the foreclosure by the Texas Midland Bank. He is divorced and his two sons live with his ex-wife.

His brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is released from prison. To get even with the bank, the two brothers start a string of bank robberies, always targeting Texas Midland Bank branches.

Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is just before retirement, when he is intrigued by this case and decides to solve it. He gets into the heads of the robbers, tries to find their motive and expect their next move.

Hell or High Water is a story about despair and hopelessness in rural Texas. It’s an adventure story where the heroes don’t have superpowers and gun shots kill. Jeff Bridges does a great job playing a crotchety old ranger with a lot of experience who uses his brain to outfox the thugs.

Movie Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a wacky movie that works exceedingly well. Remember when John Malkovich starred as himself in Being John Malkovich? 

Well, here is Nicholas Cage playing himself: Nick Cage. He is an actor, and when his accountant tells him that his finances are disastrous, he is at a loss as to what to do. Then there is this obscure gig to appear at a billionaire’s birthday party on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. Apparently, the playboy is a huge fan of Nick. After turning it down outright, he later comes to his senses and ends up going.

When he finally meets his fan, Javi Gutierrez, the two quickly become friends. That is, until the CIA approaches him, tells him that Javi is a drug lord and crime boss, and forces him to become an informant.

The action quickly gets out of control, and Nick and Javi are drawn in to a cat and mouse game that could end up deadly for both them and their families.

The film supposedly plays on the island of Mallorca, but it was mostly filmed in Croatia over a period of 15 days in October 2020. Croatia Weekly stated that several scenes were shot in and around “Dubrovnik at Villa Sheherezade, as well as in Konavle, Cavtat, Popovica, Trsteno, and Čilipi Airport.”

Reading this meant more to me than it would have otherwise, since I just came back from a two-week vacation in Croatia, with a stop in – yes – Dubrovnik. While there we saw extensive evidence that many episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed there. We actually saw a number of the locations. This has spawned an entire industry of paraphernalia and tourist attractions related to Game of Thrones. Yet nobody talked about Nick Cage that I remember.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a delightful action comedy that you will enjoy, unless you absolutely hate Nicholas Cage – which is unlikely. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other actor pulling this off – well, maybe John Malkovich could.

Movie Review: The Rose Maker (2021)

Eve Vernet is one of France’s pre-eminent horticulturalist. She creates and cultivates roses. It’s been the family business for generations.

Now, however, the business is on the verge on bankruptcy. While she knows how to create roses, she does not have much business sense. The only employee she has left is her secretary and helper Véra, who shows more loyalty to Eve and the business than is probably warranted. To help out, Véra contracts with a rehabilitation agency and signs up three ex-convicts as employees to get the business back on its feet. However, none of them have any gardening experience, let alone know about roses.

Through creativity, hard work, and a little bending of the rules, they come up with a plan to rescue the farm.

The Rose Maker is a French comedy with subtitles. Due to that, I am sure I missed a lot of subtleties in the culture and the language that probably diminished my experience of the film. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about roses, and I have looked at my own roses in front of my house with new appreciation. The Rose Maker is a fun movie, and so non-Hollywood it’s refreshing.

Movie Review: CODA (2021)

Alright, before I get into the movie itself, it’s important to note that CODA is a “highly decorated movie” with three Oscars.

First, it won Best Picture of the Year, and by doing so it became the first movie produced by a streaming service to win Best Picture. This is an Apple Original Film, which by itself boggles my mind. I still remember when Apple became a company in 1976. Who would have thought that the company would eventually become the most valuable company on the planet – and, as a computer company, it would produce Oscar-winning movies?

Second, it won Best Adapted Screenplay by Sian Heder.

And finally, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for Troy Kotsur, who is also the first ever deaf actor to win an Oscar.

And boy did he win that Oscar, alone for the “my balls are on fire” scene at the doctor’s office.

I watched this movie on the airplane from London to New York, starting about two hours into the flight. The windows were all darkened, I sat in a window seat in the exit row, headphones on, and I was outright crying during the ending scene, when Ruby, the lead, sang Clouds From Both Sides Now in the ending scene. The man next to me was into his own movie and so I had my privacy. After wiping my eyes dry when it was over, I pulled up the window shades and looked down on the clouds of Greenland – from above.

I didn’t know what CODA was all about when I picked the movie, I just knew it had won awards. I also didn’t know what CODA even meant, until I actually did the research to write this review now. It means “Child of Deaf Adults.”

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her family. Both her parents and her brother are completely deaf. They operate a fishing boat. Ruby goes out with them early in the morning, they bring in their catch, they take it to the market, where Ruby leads a key role as the family’s communicator and negotiator, all before she gets ready to go to high school.

While life as a fishing family is hard, not only brutally hard and dangerous work on a boat, but also hard to make ends meet in a fickle market, the Rossi family is happy. The parents are madly in love and can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. They have wild sex in their bedroom with no thought to the fact that Ruby can hear the ruckus all over the house.

But what could Ruby possibly be interested in for her own life that is about as far removed from the appreciation of her family as it can get? Ruby has a passion and great talent for singing. Her parents need her on the boat and for the family business, and Ruby wants to pursue a life, passion and career that they can’t even comprehend, let alone appreciate?

So here you have it all, a powerful story, an emotional subject, a clash of cultures, and world-class acting – yes, a deaf man acting as a deaf man. It does not get any better than that.

I have seen clouds from both sides now….

Movie Review: Top Gun – Maverick (2022)

Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is one of the Navy’s most decorated and skilled aviators after thirty years of flying fighter planes. Most of his companions from his years at the Top Gun school outrank him by two or three stars. He has purposely dodged being promoted to admiral so he could remain in flying status.

As one of the most skilled test pilots, he is called in to lead a mission in the Middle East that is nearly impossible. He trains a group of pilots half his age, but he uses his maverick instincts, much to the dismay and disapproval of his superiors.

Top Gun is a well-crafted sequel to the original 1986 movie. It’s full of tense flying scenes and I am sure any aspiring or actual pilot will very much enjoy it. I have to admit that the movie far exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed the story, the cinematography, the sound track and the acting. Even the plot made sense and tied very well back to the 1986 edition, with some of the key characters woven into it now.

Of course, I had to disregard a number of impossibilities, one of which I’ll describe here without it being a spoiler. At the beginning of the movie, Maverick makes a record-breaking flight on a new concept aircraft similar to the famed SR-71, only with today’s technology. To advance in the contract, the plane has to meet a milestone of flying Mach 10 – which is ten times the speed of sound. For comparison, the SR-71 holds the aircraft speed record of Mach 3.3 at an altitude of 85,000 feet. At that speed, the aircraft heats up the 450 degrees F near the back of the aircraft. When fired upon, it can simply outrun the missiles shot at it. Well, Maverick reaches Mach 10.3 when the aircraft breaks up. In the next scene, he is walking into a restaurant in the desert, a little battered up, helmet in hand, asking for a glass of water.

Needless to say, the human body would be torn apart by the g-forces and then burned to a crisp flying near space at Mach 10 without the protection of an aircraft around it. There is no way Maverick could have survived the fall from that altitude and speed to see another day. But it’s Top Gun, right, and we like our heroes.

Once I discounted all the crazy impossible stuff, what’s left was a very enjoyable movie that kept me at the edge of my seat.

You gotta go!

Movie Review: The Adam Project (2022)

In 2050, time travel exists, and fighter jets can travel in time. Adam Reed is a pilot, trying to get to 2018, to save the future, but he crash-lands in 2022, conveniently in the backyard of his childhood home, where he meets his 12-year-old self. The two set out to fix a complicated future.

None of this makes much sense. The movie is an excuse for lots of Matrix-like action and video game scenes. There are even storm troopers who are wearing silver suits instead of white ones, but who are also just expendable ray gun fodder.

I was tempted to turn it off and leave it, but when I was half-way through, since it was, after all, a time travel flick, I stayed and watched it to the end.

Guess what, Adam fixed the future by fixing the past.

Movie Review: Death on the Nile

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is a Belgian veteran of World War I. He is on vacation in Egypt in the company of an elite group of travelers. When a murder takes place on their boat, he makes it his mission to investigate the case and hopefully solve it. It was not clear to me why a fellow traveler can just appoint himself to law enforcement, but that’s just a fine point. It’s a movie, right?

Of course, the cinematography is amazing. Who is not impressed with the backdrop of the pyramids of Giza? There are even some pictures of people climbing the pyramids. Everyone is always impeccably dressed in white suits and colorful, elaborate dresses and hats. If I traveled in Egypt, I’d be wearing a T-shirt, khakis and sandals or hiking boots. The movie makes a strong impression of the period which is sometime after WW I.

While the story is sometimes cheesy and stilted, the glamor makes up for it, and the plot is very carefully constructed, as is almost always the case with a murder mystery. We have seen hundreds of whodunnit movies, and this is just another one. It follows all the tricks and the playbook.

Still, it’s a great movie and an adventure to watch.

 

 

 

 

3.5 stars

Movie Review: Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River is an old masterpiece. I had watched it when it first came out, and while I remembered it “was a good movie,” I had forgotten what it was about.

Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role, and Tim Robbins for best actor in a supporting role.

The story is about three friends from a rough neighborhood in Boston who were best friends as boys. Jimmy Marcus (Sean Penn) was an ex-convict when his daughter Katie was murdered. His friend Dave (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar worker, saw Katie last, making a fool of herself late at night, dancing on the bar in a local watering hole. His other friend was Sean (Kevin Bacon), who happened to be a homicide detective, and he was put on the case. As the three childhood friends deal with this tragedy each in their own way, events unfold that pit them against each other.

There is a backstory, which is woven into the main plot. It turns out that Dave was abducted by child molesters one afternoon in the summer of 1975, when the three boys played in the streets. After days of sexual abuse he escaped and returned, but things were never quite the same for the three friends. The demons of the summer of 1975 come to haunt all three of them when Jimmy’s daughter was killed.

Movie Review: Cry Macho (2001)

It’s 1979. Mike Milo (Clint Eastwood) is a former rodeo star and horseman who has obviously aged beyond his prime. His former boss and rancher Howard (Dwight Yoakam) has a 13-year-old son named Rafael or “Rafo” who lives with his estranged ex-wife in Mexico City. He thinks he is being abused and wants to bring him home to Texas to live with him. But Howard has legal issues and cannot travel to Mexico himself.

Mike owes Howard a favor. Howard coerces Mike to go to Mexico in his stead and essentially kidnap his son. Mike drives his beat-up Suburban to Mexico City and promptly finds the ex-wife. She is completely self-absorbed and surrounded by dangerous thugs. Rafo is a wayward kid who has gotten into cockfighting, and it appears that the only thing in life he loves is his rooster Macho.

On their way home via the backroads of Mexico, the two face a number of challenges, which bring the unlikely pair together and each is forced to face his own demons.

Cry Macho is a feel-good movie, with a little of an unrealistic bent.

Based on the 1975 novel by N. Richard Nash of the same name, Cry Macho is another Eastwood attempt to make a movie similar to Gran Torino, which I thought was a masterpiece. But Cry Macho didn’t quite work the same way for me. Eastwood was 90 in 2021 when he made the movie and starred in it. I just couldn’t be convinced that the rancher would send such an old man to do his dirty work, and when Mike, during a stop on the way home, started breaking wild horses on behalf of a Mexican rancher, none of that seemed realistic. It could been a better movie if someone else had played that role.

Some of those flaws notwithstanding, I enjoyed watching Cry Macho. It was a good movie to watch with headphones on whiling away the hours during a long flight back from Europe.