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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

Jack Campbell (Nicolas Cage) is a single man who lives the life of the rich and famous on Wall Street. It’s just before Christmas, and he rushes to put together a billion-dollar merger the night of Christmas Eve, when he hears that his former girlfriend, Kate (Téa Leoni), has tried to call him after many years. On the way home he has a strange encounter in a convenience store, and eventually he goes to sleep in his penthouse apartment.

The next morning is Christmas Morning. He wakes up in the New Jersey suburbs with his wife Kate, two little children, and a life apparently very different from the one he knows. He rushes back to the city to go to work and finish the deal, but nobody recognizes him. He gradually figures out he is in an alternate universe, where he has a lesson to learn: How to be a family man.

But he can’t help himself, and he muscles his way back to the business world, while playing husband and father at home. Will it change him?

The Family Man first came out in 2000, but it is just as valid and amusing now in 2020. I enjoyed watching it. Nicolas Cage is a very versatile actor and along with Téa Leoni, he tells an entertaining story with a happy ending.

 

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General McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a four-star general in the U.S. Army. He is a badass, he has the reputation of a tough soldier, his men admire him, and his country sends him to Afghanistan with a mission to …. do exactly what?

He is supposed to clean up the mess left after eight years of war and no strategic plan to win. But he can do it! There is no political will or support at any level to help him get the job done. His soldiers are tired and disillusioned. None of them believe in the mission they were sent to accomplish.

But yes, if they want him to liberate the country, he is going to liberate the shit out of the country, no matter what. So he forges ahead.

War Machine is a comedy, albeit a tragic one. It tells the story we have seen since 2001 on TV, night after night, starting with Bush, continuing with Obama, and on with Trump. We’re building a nation in Afghanistan, right!

I chuckled, I laughed, and I was sad and disheartened, because what I watched was satire.

Satire as real as life itself.

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It’s 1975 in Rhode Island. Small-time thugs Deuce (Theo Rossi) and Chucky (Clive Standen) are holding up pawn shops and jewelry stores, when they get the idea to rob two banks in the same day. But for that, they need help. They join forces with Gerry Ouimette (Don Johnson), also called “The Frenchman” in mob circles. Deuce and Chucky quickly get sucked into the New England mob underworld, where bosses run their empires out of prison cells.

Rather than robbing banks, Gerry has bigger plans, like stealing thirty million dollars directly from the mob by taking down a private vault hidden in a Providence fur storage business. This eventually turns out to be one of the largest heists in U.S. history.

Based on a true story, Vault is a view into the world of the mob in the 1970ies, and the life and times of the people getting sucked up by that world, including the women that somehow find it desirable to get involved with these guys. Vault is entertaining, at times comical and definitely thought-provoking.

After watching this movie, I was glad to go to bed in my middle-class house in my middle-class world.

Whew.

 

 

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I didn’t know what The Old Guard was about when I started watching it. For the first half hour I was completely confused and I was not able to follow the plot. I was close to turning it off when it finally came around.

Andy (Charlize Theron) leads a group of highly trained fighters and mercenaries who have obviously worked together for a long time. They only take on jobs that are for the good of mankind, or so it seems. What is odd about them is that they are immortal. They get shot or stabbed, and literally, within minutes they start healing rapidly, get up and fight right on. They are the ultimate weapon. Nobody knows how and why they have this gift and why it works. They also have a telepathic connection, where they sometimes can feel and see each other’s dreams.

When a pharma tycoon finds out about them, he sets a trap to capture them in order to study them and hopefully extract the secret of immortality. Suddenly their mission is not to save someone else, but it’s to get themselves out of the clutches of the murderous scientist who will stop at nothing to get his will.

The Old Guard has a slow start and is characterized by extreme violence and brutality. At times it feels like a video game rather than a movie. The plot is complex and confusing. When I was done watching, I felt like watching it again to appreciate it more and fill in the many blanks. The end sets it up nicely for a sequel.

 

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Just three days ago I finished reading and reviewed The ’86 Fix. It’s a time travel story, and I gave it a pretty dismal review and only one and a half stars. The story was “okay” but the ending was so bad, it really disappointed me. That’s when I realized I was simply set up for a sequel. When I wrote that review, I stated that I wasn’t going to read any more books by this author, let alone the sequel.

But since I was interested in what might happen to Craig Pelling next, just for kicks, I downloaded the preview anyway. After reading about five percent of the book, I changed my mind. Beyond Broadhall is the sequel to The ’86 Fix.

I just finished it, and it’s a better book. It’s getting 2.5 stars.

The story picks up right where the first book stops. It’s now 2017. Craig is in a mental hospital, basically imprisoned, for eleven months, while counselors and psychiatrists try to figure out what’s wrong with him and set him on a course to release him into society.

As soon as Craig is free, he starts researching, trying to find his parents, his wife Megan, his coworkers, and his nemesis Marcus. He realizes that rather than “fixing” things during his visit to 1986, he did far more damage to many innocent people’s lives than he could ever have dreamed. As revelation after revelation comes to him, he gets more and more disturbed – and wiser. When he finds his father, who is now a very decent man, and very helpful to his cause, he figures out that he didn’t really need to go to the past to “fix” things. He has the power right here and now.

Here is the problem with The ’86 Fix and Beyond Broadhall. They are not really two books. They are one book. The author should have put them together back to back, making them twice as long. Then he should have edited out about 25% of the fluff and boring stuff that wasn’t necessary, and it would have been a surprisingly entertaining and complete story. The total letdown of the first book, the terrible ending, would have just been one setback to the protagonist in the middle of the story, and it would not have been that bothersome. It would have also saved the author some awkward “backfilling” he had to do to give the reader of the second book enough knowledge for it to stand on its own. But then, I do not believe that anyone would read the second book without having read the first one.

I don’t have a problem with series of books. Some are done quite well. For instance, the Harry Potter books are a good example, or the “Pillars” series by Ken Follett. Each book can stand on its own. You don’t have to read the first one to enjoy the second one, even though in most cases, people will read them in sequence.

The ’86 Fix and Beyond Broadhall are not two separate books. They are one longer book with some boring passages, but a pretty entertaining story.

My advice to the author would have been to repackage the two into one.

So, if you want to read a low-tech time travel story that provides some lessons about what life is all about and how the decisions we make affect us and all those around us, buy both of those books, and read them back to back, without skipping a beat between the two. And you’ll have yourself a comfortable read.

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DuPont is one of the world’s largest corporations, and apparently one of the world’s most brazen polluters.

Dark Waters starts when a farmer with a box of videos walks into a law firm asking for help. He has farmed his land all of his life, but when DuPont bought the land next to his farm and started a landfill, the water in his creek quickly became poisonous.  All the livestock on his farm is dying. He finds grotesque deformities and strange behavior.

This movie is inspired by this true story and sequence of events that takes us from the 1960s to the current time. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is an attorney who works at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio defending DuPont. He eventually switches sides and takes on DuPont on behalf of the people in his home town in West Virginia. He is quickly ostracized by his peers, and even shunned by the townspeople. After all, DuPont is the main employer there, the company that puts bread on everyone’s table. They don’t want to know that the company also makes them all sick.

Reminiscent of Erin Brockovich or even Karen Silkwood’s true stories, Robert Bilott’s quest to get justice for his clients goes way beyond just a lawsuit.

We were shocked watching this movie, and we promptly, the next day, threw out our existing Teflon frying pans that we had been using for years and got new ones.

You just have to watch Dark Waters to find out why.

 

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Nicholas Hook was a common 19-year-old man in England in 1413. He had one gift: He was a superb archer and as a result he ended up in the army of King Henry V invading France. Henry V thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, in addition to the English, and he thought God was on this side in his quest to claim what was rightfully his.

This story is about the legendary battle of Agincourt, about which many scholars of history have written numerous books. It tells the story of that invasion in vivid detail from the point of view of the common man. We get drawn into the lives of the people, the thinking of the nobility and the clergy at the end of  medieval Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.

Life was rough. Lords had the power of gods and could do anything they wanted. Clergy was revered and utterly corrupt. All evil deeds were somehow done on behest of God and great suffering was inflicted on the people, through taxation, backbreaking labor, and relentless abuse. During war, the boys and men of the losers were killed, and the women raped and enslaved. This was just how life was.

Agincourt is full of terrible, endless violence. Here is an example of a battle scene:

“Stay tight, stay tight!” Sir John bellowed, making sure there was a man to his left and Sir William to his right. You fought shoulder to shoulder to give the enemy no room to pierce the line, and Sir John’s men-at-arms were fighting as he had trained them to fight. They had stepped over the first fallen Frenchmen and the second line of English were lifting enemy visors and sliding knives into the eyes or mouths of the wounded to stop them from striking up from the ground. Frenchmen screamed when they saw the blade coming, they twisted in the mud to escape the quick stabs, they died in spasms, and still more came to be hammered or chopped or crushed. Some Frenchmen, reckoning themselves safe from arrows, had lifted their visors and Sir John slammed the poleax’s spike into a man’s face, twisting it as it pierced the eye socket, dragging it back jellied and bloodied, watching as the man, in frantic dying pain, flailed and impeded more Frenchmen. Sir William Porter was stabbing his lance at men’s faces. One blow was usually enough to unbalance an enemy and Sir William’s other neighbor would finish the job with a hammer blow. Sir William, usually a quiet and studious man, was growling and snarling as he picked his victims. “God’s blood, William,” Sir John shouted, “but this is joy!”

— Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt (p. 402). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

A good third of the book describes such atrocities. Skulls crushed by hammers and axes, a thousand eyes poked out by knives, swords rammed into bowels and twisted up to the lungs and hearts.

It is graphic and realistic, but it was too much for me. At times I’d start skimming over the battle scenes, as I simply didn’t need to know about every stabbed eye socket anymore, and I wanted to move on.

This was my first Cornwell book. It was recommended to me by colleagues as great historical fiction, and I found that it is. There are countless other Cornwell books, probably just as vivid and graphic. It was well written and very educational, but unlike other fans of Cornwell that end up binge-reading all his books, I think I am done and ready for other subjects.

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Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome who lives in a residential nursing home because he has no relatives and is under the supervision of the Department of Social Services with the state. He feels imprisoned, and realizes that he does not belong there. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is tasked to keep watch over him and take care of him. She does it with kindness and dedication.

But Zak needs to get out. His dream is to become a professional wrestler, and he wants to start by enrolling in the wrestling school run by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), in Florida. With a little help from his elderly roommate and friend (Bruce Dern) he breaks out one night and does not come back. He runs into an outlaw on the run named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and the unlikely pair team up against all odds and start heading south. First stop: Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school.

Reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine, a group of unlikely underdogs make their journey and come out better on the other side.

This is a feel-good movie for all of us and it makes us think about our place in society, and those who are not as fortunate as we are.

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In 1968, when I was a young boy of 12, I enjoyed learning about cars. I was impressed with the Ford Mustang, but my all-time favorite car was the Ford GT40. Of course, I never, ever saw one in real life. I had to be satisfied with pictures.

Ford built the GT40 as a race car, specifically designed to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that was dominated by Ferrari in the early 1960s. One of the requirements to compete in the Le Mans was that the company had to build at least 25 road-going versions of the car they were racing. Ford built 31 GT40 Mk I street cars. Nowadays they sell at auctions for over three million dollars each.

The first time I ever saw a GT40 in real life was at the Escondido Hot Summer Nights a few years ago. Escondido is my home town. On Friday nights in the summer, they close down Grand Ave for an all-town party. Car lovers bring in their babies by the dozens, maybe hundreds.  All the restaurants are open, and it makes for a great outing – and an occasional sighing of a classic, like the Ford GT40.

The movie Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the legendary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who worked with Ford on the GT40, and the daring driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), as they built a car from scratch, in record time, against all odds, to beat Ferrari at the Le Mans.

The movie is over two-and-a-half hours long, but worth every minute of it.

Christian Bale did an amazing job in this movie. He had to lose a large amount of weight to fit the role. Remember, this is the same actor that played Dick Cheney in the movie Vice in 2018. See this article for a picture of the same man for these two extreme roles. I find he is unrecognizable.

I didn’t know much about racing in the 1960s, and this movie taught me a lot. And I got to see the Ford GT40 in action. What more could this 12-year-old boy in the body of a 63-year-old man want on a movie night?

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JoJo Rabbit is a satire. It is cartoonish and grotesque, and for the first half of the movie I really didn’t know what to do with it. It plays with an intense subject matter, the Jewish prosecution in Nazi Germany and how it was possible for an entire nation of people to be led to play along with such an obscene objective.

We all know it happened. JoJo Rabbit tells the story of a lonely and awkward 10-year-old German boy named JoJo who, as all children of his time, joined the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), an organization that brainwashed children from an early age by subjecting them to Nazi doctrine and the personality cult Hitler fostered. Peer pressure did the rest. Create a “family” of like-minded people, in this case children, who are told that their mission is a noble one of creating a pure and good empire and eradicate all bad, ugly, evil and low, and you have an entire generation of followers who never knew otherwise and think nothing of ratting out their own parents for the good of the country.

When JoJo finds a Jewish girl hidden in the attic in their house, it creates a conflict for him that he does not know how to work through.

JoJo Rabbit exposes what went on during the Nazi regime, and it makes us think about what is happening today. We vilify foreigners, especially a certain type of foreigner, we build walls to keep us protected from them by supposedly keeping them out. We know the walls don’t work, they never did, they never will, but we tell our children and our people who do not think for themselves that walls are good, and the illusion feeds on itself. We hold up an emperor, and it does not matter if he wears any clothes. We follow him, because we don’t know what else to do to solve our problems.

When the emperor starts killing and putting uniforms on 10-year-old boys so they can go out and die, the people still follow because they don’t know any better.

JoJo Rabbit shows how this works.

It disturbed and unsettled me.

 

 

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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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