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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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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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