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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category


I usually don’t like musicals. When the actors in the beginning of Rocketman all of a sudden stopped talking and started singing, it had me pause. But Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John, who is one of the great singers and songwriters of pop music history. A little musical extravaganza with actors singing and dancing to make their point provides just the right mood.

Elton John burst onto the music scene in 1969 and his career exploded in the early 1970ies. In those years he was the best-selling musician in the world, rivaled only by Stevie Wonder.

Rocketman tells the story Elton John’s life, his childhood dominated by inept and emotionally abusive parents, and the discovery of his talent of being able to listen to a melody and instantly playing it back on the piano. When he crossed paths with Bernie Taupin, who would become a lifetime friend, their collaboration made creative sparks fly and changed pop music history. Most singer and songwriters write their music and then compose lyrics to fit them. Elton and Bernie worked the other way around. Bernie wrote poetry, gave the lyrics to Elton, who pondered the words, built the music around it, and sang it with his characteristic voice. The outcome was true pop music magic.

I was just entering my teenage years, and I remember clearly New Year’s Eve 1973 when I was with my friends, we were awaiting the New Year while with were playing cards, and Crocodile Rock was playing in the background. In the years that followed, Elton John and his music had a huge influence on me and my coming of age.

I remember as an 18-year-old, lying on the carpet next to the stereo with the headphones on listening to the Madman Across the Water and Captain Fantastic albums.

Rocketman brought back all of those memories and feelings.

What I didn’t know was how bad Elton John’s substance abuse was at that time, how destructive it was for all those around him, and how much he suffered from it. This movie, which celebrates his life and musical genius, also serves as one “hell of a warning” to everyone about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

The actor Taron Egerton, portraying Elton, sings all his own songs in Rocketman. I was skeptical about this approach before I went to see the movie. After all, how do you imitate the voice of a legend who is a legend partly because of his voice? It seemed impossible, but it worked. Elton John’s music powers through the movie and keeps a relentless pace. For those of us that grew up with that music it is a joy to watch. I don’t know if it has the same impact on the younger generation.

 

 

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Instant Family is about a middle-class couple with no children, who are re-evaluating their lives. He (Mark Wahlberg) is a contractor who buys and flips houses. When they investigate adoption, they find out that the first step is becoming foster parents. They go through the training and eventually, at a big meet-up picnic, find a 15-year-old girl who comes with two smaller siblings. And thus starts the adventure of a white working class couple picking up an instant family of three Latino kids.

The foster parent community is a special one, and it has its challenges. Natural parents can show up all of a sudden, and the kids you have just gotten used to could be taken away from you overnight.

Instant Family is a better movie than I expected it to be. There is some slapstick like humor that is a bit over the top, but it’s tastefully done. It puts a spotlight on the plight of children who either have no parents, or whose parents are so unreliable that the kids need to take care of themselves. It’s a part of our society that we don’t really think too much about unless we’re in the middle of it.

The human drama comes through, and it brought out a few tears as the story progressed. I am glad I watched Instant Family. It entertained me, I learned, and it pulled me in emotionally. At the end, it was wonderfully, if predictably, satisfying.

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We all know Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel as the kings of Hollywood comedy in the 1940s and 1950s. Everyone knows them as Stan and Ollie, or Laurel and Hardy, or, as I knew them as a young boy in Germany in the 1960s, “Dick und Doof.” Their comedy is timeless. It worked for me in this biographical movie today as it worked for me when I was a child.

Stan & Ollie plays in 1953, when the duo went on a tour in Britain. They were older, and carrying their own suitcases was starting to be a challenge. The tour was depressingly slow at first but gradually built into a success. However, Ollie’s health was failing, and their partnership began to show the cracks of age.

What I didn’t know until now was that Stan, who played the feeble-minded of the duo, was actually the creative genius behind their comedy, and the business man, driving them forward to comedy success and financial reward. I enjoyed seeing Stan transform himself from a thoughtful, caring, clever and hardworking showman to a doofus klutz the moment he walked onto the stage, time and again.

Stan & Ollie tells the story or Laurel and Hardy as they come to terms at the twilight of their long and successful career.

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Vice is a biopic about Dick Cheney’s life. Cheney is played by Christian Bale, and his wife by Amy Adams.

How did a quiet man from Wyoming of humble beginnings become arguably the most powerful man in the world during the George W. Bush presidency?

Cheney reshaped our world. First, he made sure that he and Bush won the election in 2000. Bush won against Gore by less than 600 votes in Florida, as far as the world knows. What would have happened if Gore had won just his own home state and therefore the presidency? We will never know. Because Cheney was in charge.

After the terrible events of September 11, 2001, Cheney took the reins and shaped the world to his liking. What he did affected all of us, all over the world.

This movie guides us through Cheney’s life, and gives us a glimpse of his reasoning and motives. The likeness Christian Bale achieves at times is eerie. There is also a very powerful performance by Steve Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld and a hilarious one by Sam Rockwell, playing George W. Bush. Rockwell does not quite look enough like Bush to be convincing, but when you close your eyes and listen to him talk, he really comes to life.

I enjoyed the film, and I didn’t like Cheney any better when it was over than I did when I walked in. I just had more insight.

We live in a frightening world, where men with immense power can do horrific things to thousands, no, millions of others.

 

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Tesla has changed the landscape of the automotive industry. Musk, through sheer vision and will, made that happen. Other people certainly could also have done it, but it would have taken longer. The large automotive firms, like Toyota, Daimler-Benz, BMW, GM, Ford, Nissan, all could have started the revolution, but they didn’t. Just like Checker Cabs could have become the Uber, but didn’t. It takes vision and grit to make a revolution happen. Musk had both, the started something unique, he started something big. In the the end, Tesla might not succeed, but the movement will certainly survive and there will be electric vehicles everywhere.

In Insane Mode, McKenzie guides us through that revolution and gives us the back story. He also shares some of his own thoughts and vision on just what an impactful revolution the electrification of automobiles actually brings, and how much it will change the way we live, work and play.

Insane Mode will change the way you think about electric vehicles. If you have an enterprising mind, it will make you ponder where you might apply your own ingenuity in the tremendous opportunities the near future offers.

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Bobby showed up for his first day at Sullivan Community College in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. As he crossed the campus, checked in for college and went to his dorm, girls came up and kissed him, guys slapped him on the back, and everyone seemed to welcome him. Finally, a friend figured it out. “Were you adopted?” he asked? “You have a twin brother.”

Together they called that brother, Eddie, who had dropped out of Sullivan CC the year before. Bobby and Eddie met soon after and were stunned when they looked at each other. The story made it into the newspapers and the national media. Soon, a third boy in New York recognized himself in the pictures and contacted the paper. Now there were all three of them, David, Bobby and Eddie, with three different surnames, all born on July 12, 1961, separated and adopted by three different families.

The boys and the families didn’t know they were part of a larger experiment. Only slowly did they find out. The debate of nature vs. nurture is central to this documentary.

Three Identical Strangers is a heartwarming documentary about human nature, raising children, and what upbringing can effect in a person’s life. It is a story well told. Initially a feel-good story, it eventually unravels into a dark tale of deception, where the innocent subjects find their entire lives upset, confused and shocked.

In Three Identical Strangers they tell their story to all of us.

Here is an article that provides more background you might read after you watch the film.

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Moondust came out in 2006 when Andrew Smith had set out to interview the twelve men who had walked on the moon. At the time, there were only nine alive. Three had already passed away.

Smith has an easy-to-read, colloquial style, and he weaves background stories about the astronauts in with the core interviews and tries to get answers to the most fundamental question we all have: What was it like to be on the moon?

We learn trivia about the intense competition in the early astronaut corps, and what their families went through during those years. We also get to know the men themselves, from the taciturn and almost reclusive Neil Armstrong to the gregarious and visionary Buzz Aldrin, and all the other astronauts that followed them on their journey.

Smith juxtaposes the moon landing over his own life as a boy in Orinda, California, and what he remembers happened to him on that historic day.

Moondust is at times a bit hard to follow. Its structure and the jumps back and forth and from one astronaut to the other sometimes left me guessing and mildly confused, but I was able to get past that. The tidbits of information, the insight, and the obvious awe the author has for the adventure of the 1960s came through and made it a worthwhile read.

Sadly, as I write this, of the twelve men who walked on the moon, only four are alive anymore. That includes  88-year-old Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), 85-year-old David Scott (Apollo 15), 82-year-old Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and 82-year-old Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).

In addition to the missions that landed on the moon, there were a total of nine Apollo missions that left earth orbit and went to orbit the moon: Apollo 8, Apollo 10 and Apollo 13.

The total number of men who left earth orbit is 24 and 12 of those are still alive today.

Only 12 people are with us today in the history of mankind who have seen the earth as a pale blue marble in the black of space, and only four of those have walked on a body other than the earth. All of them are now well into their eighties or older.

I was a 12-year-old boy when I watched the first moon landing. I was sure I would be traveling to the moon as a tourist and spending time in a moon hotel by the time my retirement age came around. I was dreaming big, and I was inspired.

Yet, at this time, humanity has not sent anyone to the moon in over 46 years. The United States does not even have the capability to launch humans into space, not even to low-earth orbit. The only two nations that can do that now are Russia and China. The lack of vision and engagement by our people and our government has starved us out of adventures we took for granted 50 years ago.

Moondust by Andrew Smith made me marvel about all this and it fired up my imagination.

 

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First Man follows Neil Armstrong from 1961 to 1969 on his journey to be the first man to step on the moon.

We are in the space capsule with Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as they are launched, and we are in the homes and at backyard BBQs of the men and women in the early space program.

In the media, and in our nostalgic memories, we think of going into space as a romantic endeavor. Watching First Man changes this, as we witness the tremendous forces acting on the fragile human body as it is strapped into a couch on top of a gigantic rocket. We see the fear and the emotional and physical stress in the eyes of the astronauts as they embark on missions where a million moving parts have to hold together, and a million sequences of events have to work perfectly, over a period of many days, and where any failure of any type results in catastrophe – and death of the astronauts.

Armstrong was a cool dude who did not get rattled, either by a crash during a test flight of his experimental craft from which he bailed out literally a fraction of a second before it exploded, nor by the fury and agony of his wife who chastises him when he does not want to face his boys before leaving on his historic journey. History has shown that Armstrong’s steel nerves and calm under pressure made the mission successful.

I was a twelve-year-old boy who was allowed to stay up all night on July 20, 1969. Armstrong stepped onto the moon in the wee hours of the morning local time in Germany. And I remember being in awe, and being inspired, and looking forward to a life where I knew I would eventually be able to travel to the moon as tourist and visit the Apollo-11 landing site as a historic museum exhibit. It is now over 49 years later, and I realize that I had no idea that the Apollo landings would not just be the first landings on the moon, but  possibly also the last ones – in my lifetime.

I enjoyed First Man a lot. I have come criticisms. This is a movie review, after all:

I liked the flying and technical scenes, and I didn’t care too much about all the stuff at home and in the back yard. The acting was okay, but didn’t blow me away.

We saw a lot of footage of shake, rattle and roll, first in 1961 when Armstrong did a test flight in an X-15 where he literally skipped outside of the atmosphere by accident, then during the Gemini launch, then when the capsule went into an uncontrolled roll, and finally, when Apollo-11 launched. There was too much footage of launches from the point of view of the astronauts, but no re-entries, no landings, no recovery on the water, all the good stuff. The missions jumped forward days at a time skipping sequences that would have been interesting to me. There wasn’t a single shot of the large, looming moon during the journey there, nor any expression of awe by the journeyers. The real action that I was there to see went by too fast.

We caught glimpses of the life of Neil Armstrong and his family, but we didn’t get a good enough look at the space program, and that’s what I went to see when I bought the ticket for First Man. It was a long movie, at 138 minutes, and those minutes could have been used more effectively.

That being said, I am glad I went.

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Set in the last ice age in Europe, a tribe of Cro-Magnon men goes on a hunting trip. Keda, the chief’s son, comes along for the first time. His proud father is teaching him how to hunt, and how to be a man. But during the hunt things go horribly wrong, a buffalo charges Keda and throws him off a steep cliff. The hunting party can only assume he is dead and eventually they leave, the distraught father almost being dragged away by his friends.

Miraculously, the boy survives and must now fend for himself, fight off predators, and somehow find his way home, before winter comes and makes travel impossible. When a pack of wolves attack him,  he barely escapes into a tree, but he injures one of them. The wolf and the boy reluctantly form a bond and protect each other as they try to journey home. He calls the wolf Alpha.

Alpha is a survival movie. We see and feel how prehistoric people lived and survived. The landscape didn’t look like Europe 20,000 years ago to me, but rather more like South Dakota, but that is a minor point. I liked the fact that the tribe didn’t speak English. That would have been too easy and too distracting. They spoke their own language, accompanied by easy to read subtitles. This helped make the film more realistic.

I marvel about prehistory, and how unlikely it was that men survived at all, and how amazing it is that we’re all here today, descendants of these very Cro-Magnon men. If you have ever speculated how humans first started domesticating dogs, this is the movie to watch.

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I didn’t grow up as a boy in America, so I didn’t actually know the story of Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals, including the iconic Winnie the Pooh, the donkey Eeyore and of course, the piglet.

Watching this movie has caught me up. It’s a story about the boy Christopher who grew up in the Hundred Acre Wood, access to which is through a magical tree.

The movie is portrayed to be “not just for children” and so The Woman talked me into going to see it with her. Ok, yes, it was heartwarming, not even as corny as I expected it to be, and the acting was actually pretty good.

But I have to say – this is a movie for children – really. It’s about important lessons in life.

Take your kids!

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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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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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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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Christoph Wilder is an airline captain licensed to fly the huge double-decker Airbus A380. On a trip from New York to Europe, the plane flies through a volcanic ash cloud that air traffic control didn’t know was there. All four engines die, and the huge plane becomes a glider over the icy North Atlantic. By sheer steel nerves and drawing on deep experience, he manages an emergency landing in the U.K. Everyone is saved, except for one elderlyt man who dies of cardiac arrest during the commotion.

But the airline is worried about negative publicity and grounds him. In order to continue flying, he takes on a job with a top-secret German government research project, flying an A380 built out to be a time machine. During the maiden voyage, when they are just planning on testing the equipment, things go horribly wrong and they end up in Germany in 1939, the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler in Munich.

Very quickly their time travel adventure turns into an apocalyptic nightmare with seemingly no way out, where the future of humanity is at stake.

Peterson is a German writer, and the locales and the characters are all German, which I actually found refreshing, since pretty much all science fiction I read is American. The German backdrop and story line was a nice change.

I was critical of the book, because the trip through the volcanic ash cloud and the aftermath took a full 25% of the book, before the interesting story even started. I made a note of that to mention it in my review, since I felt the whole thing could have been left out completely without affecting the plot in any way. So it was a slow start, but the story kept getting more and more interesting, and I kept reading. I forgave the author for the rookie start and let it go.

But then there was the ending, which surprised me completely and tied it all together. In fact, the ending was so good that I changed my expected rating of the book from two to two and a half stars.

A quick read, and a good addition to my time travel library.

 

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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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