Movie Review: Pig (2021)

Robin Feld (Nicholas Cage), who goes by Rob, is a truffle forager who lives alone, off the grid, in the wilderness in Oregon. He is a recluse. His only companion is a foraging pig, which helps him find the truffles. He obviously loves the pig, kind of like most people love their dogs. I know that pigs are very smart, but of course that’s something I have no direct evidence for.

In the middle of the night someone attacks him with a gun, shoots him, and steals the pig. Rob survives the attack, but is devastated and he embarks on a journey to find and recover the pig.

To do that, he has to face his former life and his demons. As it turns out, he used to be a renowned chef in Portland. Everyone in the culinary community looked up to chef Feld. But that was 15 years before. It all came crashing down when his wife died prematurely. He abandoned his life and career, and walked away into the woods.

Nicholas Cage is almost unrecognizable in this film. If I hadn’t known it was him from the advertisements for the movie, I would not have recognized him.

Pig is a dark movie and it takes an effort to watch, but the story is intriguing, and the unusual love of the man for the pig comes through strong.

I definitely recommend this. It’s one of the better movies of 2021.

Movie Review: Rollerball (1975)

Why would I possibly bother to review a movie that came out in 1975?

Because my commitment to myself is to review every movie I watch. Fortunately, I don’t watch too many, so I can keep this up.

In 1975, I was 18. I didn’t want to watch Rollerball then because it had a reputation of being a crappy movie. So I passed.

Over the years, it seems to have become a cult classic.

The other day it was my wife’s turn to pick the movie for the night. Not sure why she picked Rollerball, but “she made me watch it” even though I got sidetracked here and there by my iPhone.

It’s about a utopian culture in the future (of 1975) when all the power lies with corporations and executives are revered. Rollerball is an extremely violent sport, but it seems to rule the world. Teams are sponsored by big business and controlled by big business. Jonathan (James Caan) is the ultimate superhero of the sport. The chairman of the company wants him to retire from the sport, but Jonathan, ever the maverick, does not cooperate.

To get him out, they keep changing the rules of the game, making it ever more difficult to play (and survive). But Jonathan has plans for them.

The story is pretty simple, and the acting seemed horrible to me. But I am not sure if it was due to the fact that this was vintage 1975, and that’s just what they did then. I did get a kick out of what they thought the future would look like. This was before the first personal computers were even conceptualized. The computers they showed were DEC-like machines with big old RP06 drive cartridges we used in the late 1970ies.

I stayed with the movie – as a good husband will when the wife chooses and here is my rating. Please note that it’s half a star better than one of the worst movies I can ever remember watching: The Room (see review here).

Enjoy – at your own risk!

Movie Review: Don’t Look Up (2021)

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a doctoral student in astronomy. One night, when working with a telescope, she discovers a new comet. Researching the details with her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), they come to the conclusion that the comet is larger than that of the Chicxulub impact event (see details here) that wiped out 75% of all flora and fauna on earth 65 million years ago. The problem is that the new comet is on its way to hit earth head-on in 6 months and 15 days.

The two understand that they have discovered a planet-killing catastrophe, and that mankind only has a little over 6 months to do something about it. They manage an audience at the White House with the help of the president’s chief science advisor, Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). But when they arrive, President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is completely indifferent. Her political ambitions don’t allow the distraction of an imminent extinction event. Jason (Jonah Hill), the Chief of Staff who is also her son, even ridicules the astronomers and eventually they are sent away. Nothing will be done.

Thunderstruck, the scientists decide to turn the the media instead. They are invited to the popular morning show The Daily Rip, where they are also received as curious, cute scientists and not taken seriously. They are trying to make the  world just “Look Up” and see what’s coming.

Don’t Look Up is a satire, of course, and it is extremely timely. It portrays a White House full of sycophants, staffed by nepotism, with a President who is completely self-absorbed and clueless. Facing a catastrophic event coming up, nobody wants to bother with it. The negative message it creates in social media is simply inconvenient. The industrial complex quickly figures out how they could possibly get very rich off of this, the danger and risk to the world be damned. Nobody takes the scientists seriously. They become the villains.

And that, my friends, is the state of our world today.

Enjoy a good laugh while you’re watching, and don’t worry that it will make you want to cry because of the insanity of it all.

Movie Review: Oldboy (2013)

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is a failing advertising executive and miserable drunk. His wife calls him because he is missing his only daughter’s third birthday. He claims it’s because of work.

One raining night in 1993, he passes out in the rain on the sidewalk in front of this favorite bar after they locked him out. He wakes up and finds himself imprisoned in a nondescript, shabby motel room. His captors feed him mostly Chinese food along with a daily bottle of vodka to nurse his addiction. He stays locked up for 20 years, never learning why. Eventually he figures out he has to keep alive and healthy. He works out, practices martial arts he sees on TV, and plans his escape.

Then, suddenly, one day, he wakes up “free” in a trunk in the middle of a field in the country.

*** Spoiler Alert *** after this point, there are spoilers, but since I strongly recommend you do not bother to watch this movie, I am not sure it matters much.

As Joe awakes in the field, the viewer thinks this will be a Count of Monte Cristo story. A poor victim gets wrongfully imprisoned for decades, and then, when free, seeks revenge. Joe seeks revenge alright.

However, the story is so contrived, and the plot so complicated and outright silly, it’s hard to take this movie seriously. For instance, at one point he walks into the den of his captors pretending to be a food delivery man (for the Chinese food he had been fed for 20 years). He has no trouble walking into the facility where apparently many people are kept prisoner, under surveillance. He kills the few guards in reaches the inner sanctum, where he starts torturing the chief security guard. Nobody gets in his way. Then, suddenly, a dozen goons with fists. knives and clubs descend on him. With unbelievable superhero skills he either kills or beats all of them with just a hammer. When done, as he makes his way out, suddenly there is another dozen or more goons. Same thing once more. And then again.

Really?

There are also plot holes as big as a barndoor. For instance, the entire plot is based on a billionaire getting even with him, as he thought he did his family an injustice when they were both in college. So the billionaire has a motive to lock him up all these years and torture him. After all, there is a plan.

However, why are there all these other prisoners being monitored and held? Surely, they didn’t all harass him back in the day. The whole scheme just doesn’t add up.

After watching this all the way through, and wondering how I could possibly stay with it, I learned that this was a remake of a Korean movie of the same name from the year 2003. It actually got better reviews and maybe it was even halfway decent.

Oldboy was directed by Spike Lee. It was a box office bomb and one of the worst performances of Spike Lee’s career.

Why make a remake?

It is a horrible movie, with absolutely brutal violence so graphic that I had to look away. I didn’t want these images in my head.

And why the title Oldboy?

Absolutely, do not bother!

Movie Review: Nightmare Alley

 

We like to go to a movie on Christmas Day in the afternoon. What were we thinking when we chose a movie titled Nightmare Alley to give us Christmas cheer?

Nightmare Alley plays in the late 1930s somewhere in America. Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a hapless young man who hates his father enough to make him freeze to death before he burns down his house with his body in it in the opening scene. As he escapes from the law, he ends up at a carnival by coincidence. Out of sheer desperation, he hires on and becomes a “carny.”

He learns quickly from his boss Clem (Willem Dafoe) and several other characters. The mystic Zeena lures him in, and her older and alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) teaches him mentalism – appearing clairvoyant, revealing secrets about random people in the audience by verbal clues from an accomplice. He makes a name for himself in the carnival and is quite successful. Eventually he is put to he test by the female psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchett) in the audience, who eventually becomes his accomplice and partner in crime in a series of ever more daring pursuits.

Watching Nightmare Alley is a nightmare. It is based on the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. In 1947, it was turned into a movie of the same name the same name starring Tyrone Power. So this is another remake. It’s over two and a half hours long, which is easily 45 minutes more than would have been necessary. It moves very slowly, and you never know where the story is going. For the longest time, there really does not seem to be a plot. It portrays the times in a moody and depressing light.

I learned what a “geek” is. Geek was originally an early 20th-century term for a carnival worker who was so unskilled that the only thing he could do at the carnival to entice an audience was to bite off the heads of live animals. Essentially, a geek was a socially undesirable person who lacked any skill or ability. Obviously, the term has morphed into something entirely different in the last three or four decades from those gruesome beginnings. But the geek in the carnival is more important than meets the eye at the beginning of the story.

This is a very well-done movie with an intricate plot and powerful cinematography which makes the experience depressing. It was too long. Too crazy.

Movie Review: Belfast (2021)

Belfast plays in 1969. Yes, those years when those of us old enough remember there were nightly headlines in the news about Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland.

Some Catholics and Protestants have been hating and killing each other in England for almost 500 years. When Henry VIII wanted to have his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled, pope Clement VII refused to consent. This angered Henry VIII sufficiently to decide to separate the entire country of England from the Catholic Church.

Religious unrest has plagued the country ever since. Just read some of Ken Follett’s books to get firsthand accounts. A Place Called Freedom is one of those books.

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical account from the childhood of the director, Kenneth Branaugh.

Buddy is a 10-year-old boy from whose viewpoint the story is told. In the photograph above he is next to his grandfather and father, both caring men who do their best to keep their families happy and safe, but can’t overcome the epic battles taking place right outside their front doors.

The entire film is in black and white, except for explosions and when the characters watch movies or stage shows. Those are in color. This creates an odd mood.

The story starts slowly, almost boring, but it builds in intensity. While the subject matter is about extreme violence, there is no actual blood and gore shown. We just see people ransacking property, setting cars on fire and throwing firebombs, nobody is ever actually shown hurt. As we get to know the characters in this family, we get drawn in, and we can’t help but walk out in the end and call it a solid movie, a superb performance by the young boy Jude Hill as Buddy, and a film that will likely attract some Oscars this year.

Movie Review: The Nightingale (2018)

The Nightingale is one of the most difficult movies to watch that I can remember. There are several brutal and humiliating rape scenes, as graphic as they can get. Depiction of human depravity and lawlessness is so overwhelming, it took a lot out of me just watching this film.

The story plays in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia, in 1825, just before the infamous Australian Black War. Race tensions between the Aboriginals and the Whites are at the breaking point. They are outright killing each other. Prejudice is rampant. Many of the white Australians are convicts from England serving their sentences. The idea was that once the sentences are served, they are freed, albeit on the other side of the world in a nightmarish wilderness. In those years in England, you could get arrested for stealing an apple in a market, and convicted and shipped off to Australia for a sentence of many years.

The British class system, which separated the officers, the “highborn,” from the rest of humanity which had pretty much no rights at all, allowed abuse of power on an institutionalized scale. If you were a convict in Australia in those ages, you were at the very bottom of humanity.

Clare is a 21-year-old Irish convict woman. She has a loving husband and an infant child. She works as a servant at a military outpost in Southern Tasmania, and her assignment is under a British lieutenant named Hawkins. She has served her sentence, but he won’t let her go. Hawkins is a sadist and ruthlessly abuses everyone around him of lower rank. He rapes Clare in front of her husband. Then he has the husband and her baby killed as she lay bleeding. Hawkins and his cohorts leave for the north where he believes a Captaincy awaits him in the town of Launceston.

With nothing left to lose, Clare enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy to follow Hawkins. Along the way, Clare and Billy slowly come to trust each other as they overcome their mutual prejudices and racial hate, and as they learn about each other’s traumatic past.

Claire seeks revenge without a plan. Billy wants to be left alone and live with his family and ancestors in his homeland. But their path is on a collision course with utter disaster.

Movie Review: The Bounty (1984) – by Jean Claude Volgo

The Bounty

Orion Pictures Corp. 1984, 2 hours

Starring Anthony Hopkins & Mel Gibson

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis

The year 1787 marks a milestone in American history: the Constitutional Convention.  In December of that same year, the HMS Bounty, a frigate of the British Navy, left England for Tahiti.  Its mission was to collect breadfruit seedlings for transport to the West Indies. A milestone in British history unfolded when the Bounty set sail for the West Indies with its cargo from Tahiti.  Led by Fletcher Christian, the midshipman, a group of disgruntled sailors mutinied against the harsh commander: Captain Bligh was forced into a boat with a few loyal seamen, and set adrift on the open sea with no land in sight.

Yet more newsworthy than the mutiny itself  was its aftermath.  Captain Bligh, a seasoned navigator, was able to steer the longboat and its crew through the treacherous waters of the South Pacific.  Relying on his compass, the intrepid Bligh managed to keep the boat on course for 3,600 miles, until the starving survivors reached the island of Timor in the Dutch Indies.  Bligh’s detailed account of the month-long ordeal is preserved in his diary.

Meanwhile, the Bounty had returned to Tahiti. Soon after the mutineers were reunited with the women with whom they had bonded during their earlier visit, the ship departed from Tahiti sailing into uncharted waters.  To avoid future contact with the British navy, Fletcher Christian steered the Bounty towards a remote uninhabited island (unmarked on contemporary maps) about 1,000 miles from Tahiti.  Pitcairn Island, the final destination of the Bounty, is still inhabited by descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian wives.

The story of the Bounty has been told and retold usually from a perspective that is critical of  Captain Bligh. Four out of the five adaptations for the screen reflect this popular bias. However, the fifth version adopts a historically more balanced account of the notorious mutiny.  The plot of  The Bounty unfolds as a series of flashbacks in the course of a court-martial of William Bligh for the loss of a frigate of the British Navy.  We first meet Bligh, played by Anthony Hopkins, as an affable officer, before we learn about his darker side: an arrogant commander prone to bouts of irrepressible anger.  No less surprising is Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian as a long-time friend of the irascible Bligh.  But the arduous voyage to Tahiti would test their bonds of friendship to the breaking point.

A digitally re-mastered copy of the original film was released as a Blu-ray disc in 2019.

Movie Review: The White Tiger (2021)

Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is a young man in a poor village in India. With poverty and corruption all around him, he decides to make a better life for himself. I manages to become the chauffeur of the son of a rich man, who just returned to India after living in the United States, with his American girlfriend by his side.

As the servant class is trained to do, he makes himself indispensable to his master. When trouble arises, however, the rich family betrays him and sets him up to be the fall guy to save themselves. He realizes that the class system is rigged against him, and corruption is keeping him low. Eventually he rebels and becomes his own kind of master.

The irony is that in order to escape poverty, overt oppression, and a corrupt system, he has to become corrupt himself.

And so he does.

Movie Review: Oliver (1968) – by Jean Claude Volgo

Oliver!

Columbia Pictures, 1968, 2 hours

Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart

Directed by Carol Reed

Starring Ron Moody and Oliver Reed

 

Among English novelists of the 19th century, Charles Dickens indisputably ranks as the most astute social satirist of his age.  The appalling living conditions of the lower classes in Victorian England had resulted from the rapid economic transformation of society in the Industrial Age.  The most vulnerable were the poor and, in particular, young orphans whose plight Dickens depicts in several of his writings in realistic and unsanitized detail. The scathing satire flowing from his pen would target the class of powerful industrialists and snobbish élite who were mercilessly exploiting the less fortunate members of society.

Oliver Twist would advance the literary career of Charles Dickens not only as the most popular novelist of his day but also as a relentless critic of his contemporaries.  His appeal to readers across cultures is due to his deft portrayal of memorable characters: Oliver, the pitiable orphan; Fagin, the conniving swindler; Nancy, the kind wench; Bill, the ruthless criminal.   These archetypal players in a Dickensian drama breathe life into a convoluted maze of subplots, leaving readers to wonder how an orphan’s journey through life, starting in despair, may yet conclude in hope.

The novel evolved from serialized monthly installments published in a popular magazine. It finally appeared in book form, after two years, in three volumes! Its length was due to subplots that are usually left out in most film adaptations (except for a recent miniseries). The central storyline is compressed even more in the musical Oliver! and its film version, entertaining audiences with delightful song-and-dance numbers which have become part of the repertoire of  tunes from modern musicals.

The film would garner an Academy Award for Best Picture, and five other awards from a total of eleven nominations.  It is worth noting that the spotlight of this musical drama has always fallen on the British actor, Ron Moody, who would go on to win multiple awards as Best Actor for his flawless portrayal of the cunning Fagin (his signature role in a long acting career, on stage and on screen).  The demanding portrayal of the brutal Bill Sikes, the arch villain of  Dickens’ novel, falls upon the matchless British actor, Oliver Reed.

Movie Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)

It’s 1927 in Chicago. The legendary “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is recording two songs at a music studio. While everyone waits for Ma to arrive (as she is usually late), the director and the producer are nervous. The band is trying to rehearse, but arguments arise quickly. One after the other, the band members get to tell the stories of their lives.

I didn’t know what to expect from this movie, but I felt like I was watching a play. Sure enough, it was based on a play as I read later. The dialog, the structure, all were taken from the play.

The racial tensions of the 1920s come out loud and clear, and Ma Rainey knows that she has power over “white folks” only because she is a star and “they need her.”

This movie won two Oscars, one for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling, and the other in Best Achievement in Costume Design. It was nominated for three others, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role and Best Achievement in Production Design. Needless to say, it is highly acclaimed.

While I appreciated the illustration of racial discrimination and the subject matter in general, I found it was a hard movie to watch and I had to work at staying engaged and interested. It didn’t do too much for me as a movie.

Movie Review: Nomadland (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Movie Review: Pieces of a Woman

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: Kodachrome (2017)

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

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic (2016)

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

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

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

While at the hospital, Leslie commits suicide.

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

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