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Archive for the ‘Two Stars’ Category

I was around in 1988, when Senator Gart Hart (Hugh Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. We know how it all ended. Hart exited the race not too long after a story broke about an extramarital relationship with a woman named Donna Rice.

In 1988, tabloid journalism surfaced for the first time in a presidential election. It is now 30 years later, and it seems like tabloid journalism is all we get anymore in high profile elections. Gary Hart was an Eagle Scout compared to Donald Trump. Our senses are now dull, and our sensitivity numbed. The office of the presidency will not be the same again.

But in the days of Gary Hart, different rules applied.

This documentary drama tells the story of the rise and fall of Gary Hart, the man who almost might have been president, until some “Monkey Business” got in the way. The Front Runner is an entertaining and informative film into the way we run our presidential elections and I enjoyed the window into the past.

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Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a quiet, shy working-class man who lives with his wife (Laura Dern) in the mountains outside Denver. He is the local snowplow driver and a respected citizen.

Their young son, who works at the local airport as a baggage handler, is killed one night. When Nels tries to figure out what happened, he runs into the underworld of the local drug traffickers. As he is faced with brutality and criminality, he quickly turns vigilante and picks off the bad guys, one at a time, using fists, guns, snowplows, tree trimming tractors, axes, and anything you might find in a maintenance garage for heavy machinery.

I expected Cold Pursuit to be an action thriller as many other Liam Neeson movies, and it is, but it’s also a dark comedy. I laughed more than I expected, and in the end I walked out chuckling.

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When Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is 21, his father (Bill Nighy) pulls him aside and tells him that the men in his family have always had the ability to travel through time. They can do it at will by going into a dark area like a closet or a bathroom with the lights off, clenching their fists, closing their eyes and wishing for another time. Boom, there they arrive, properly dressed the way they were at that time.

He can’t seem to find a girlfriend, so he decides he is going to use his new skill to get one. That does not turn out quite the way he expected. When he meets a girl and falls in love, she gives him her number, and he bounds away excited. Mission accomplished! But then he travels back in time to help out a friend and realizes too late that he is now in a time where he has never met the girl and never received her phone number. He now has to figure out how to meet her again – but where to start?

I ran across this 2013 movie at a hotel flipping through the HBO channels. Time travel is one of my favorite science fiction genres (just search this block for the category and it’ll be obvious I am an aficionado –>) so this was a natural choice to stop on. The mechanics of time travel in this story are very simple and not scientific, like they would be in a fairy tale, which this essentially is.

About Time is light feel-good movie with no antagonists but perhaps life itself and the curve balls it throws at you. It plays in England, the characters are all delightful and light, and life is — almost — perfect. When the credits rolled I was convinced that I need to live every day as best as I can and I was satisfied.

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Adolf Eichmann was Hitler’s “architect of the final solution” and one of the most notorious henchmen of the Nazi regime. He was one of the few senior Nazis who did not commit suicide but managed to escape to Argentina after the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two children, and worked as a manager at an automotive factory.

In 1960, Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad got a tip from agent Peter Malkin. He convinced them to try to find and abduct Eichmann and bring him to Israel to stand trial.

The movie deals with the soul of a Nazi, and how he justified his deeds at the time, and how he lives with himself afterwards. “I just followed orders, like everyone else,” is the simple answer most of the monsters of history have used to justify their bloody deeds. It also addresses the role the Argentinian government played in protecting the Germans.

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Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is an old man who escaped from prison at age 70. Rather than lying low, he starts robbing banks. He walks in quietly like an elderly gentleman, shows the stunned teller his gun, and walks out with a bag of money – over and over again. He is such an unlikely robber, he gets away with it. On one of his road trips he runs into a woman (Sissy Spacek) with whom he starts a friendship.

The movie is base on the true story of Forrest Tucker, who was a misfit as a youth and spent time in juvenile correction facilities and prisons dozens of times throughout his life.

Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek are seasoned actors who obviously carry the movie. It’s light, and I didn’t find any great value. I enjoyed watching it, but I knew I’d better write this review soon lest I forget all about it.

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April May (yes, that’s the name) is a twenty-three-year-old girl just out of college trying to find herself, her life, and her career in New York City of today. Running around the city on 29th Street at three a.m., she finds an “absolutely remarkable” statue – a ten-foot-tall robot-like transformer wearing samurai armor on the sidewalk in front of a Chipotle.

She calls her friend Andy and they make a video together in the middle of the night and by the next day April is a YouTube sensation.

They name the robot Carl, and they quickly learn that there are 64 more identical Carls in all the major cities around the world. They appear to be made out of a material that is “impossible” and nothing can move or damage them.

April quickly figures that the Carls are alien in origin, and she proceeds as if this was “first contact” with an alien race.

Without planning for it, April is quickly world-famous as one of the most recognizable personality on social media, becoming the human face of the Carls and whatever their purpose is.

Hank Green, the author, is a YouTube star, and he brings the world of social media to the reader. Not everyone is a young social media expert, and this story illustrates somewhat how the world of social media works. It’s a very readable book, and I turned the pages quickly and somewhat enjoyed the story.

It does become more and more “unlikely” as it progresses, and the ending is outright hokey, setting it up for a sequel, like any good YouTube video would. The characters are pretty shallow and the dialog is often awkward. The plot does not make much sense, and the central conflict between good and evil appears very contrived.

Reading this book will give you ideas about social media, but it won’t do anything else of value or inspiration.

I definitely don’t need to read the next book when it comes out. April May was not a well-enough defined character for me to care about any further. The story has fizzled out.

 

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Can You Ever Forgive Me is based on the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a celebrity biographer whose books were once on the bestseller lists in the 1970 and 1980 decades. In 1991, her career in decline, she is broke and cannot pay her rent. She is a curmudgeon. When her cat gets ill and the veterinarian refuses treatment because she already owes $78, which she cannot pay, she gets desperate.

By coincidence she discovers that there is a market for original documents, particularly signed letters, by celebrities. Collectors will pay several hundred dollars for an authentic letter.

She collects a few different vintage typewriters, practices forging of signatures, and starts cranking out fake letters. That quickly takes care of groceries, rent and veterinarian bills and she is back in business. Eventually she recruits her gay friend Jack (Richard E. Grant) to do the peddling, while she is producing the product.

Can You Ever Forgive Me is about artists and writers and their careers. Every career has a peak, and there is a downslide from that peak and for some, who saved up enough resources, it is bearable, and for others, like Lee, it is catastrophic. She is not willing to accept her situation, will not bow to taking on a “regular” job like the rest of us, but is obsessed with using her writing skills to make a living. She almost succeeds.

Eventually, however, a house built on deception will come crashing down.

 

 

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Simon is a well-adjusted high school senior. For his 17th birthday, his parents give him a car. His sister adores him, and his parents are professionals.  They live in a nice home in the suburbs. Simon is part of a group of good friends. He participates in the high school play. His life is perfect. Except for this massive secret he carries around with him: he is gay.

He senses that it’s time to come out and unburden himself from this load and he is starting to think of a plan. But then, by accident, he walks away from a computer in the library with his email account open – and his secret is there for an enterprising classmate to explore. His plans go sideways very quickly and his coming out is not at all what he had in mind.

Love, Simon is a coming of age movie of a fairytale kind. It’s a teenage soap opera. The world is perfect. I could not figure out where it played. The landscape looks like somewhere in Pennsylvania, but there is no foul weather at Thanksgiving and no snow at Christmas. Everyone lives in stately houses. All the kids in high school look healthy, well-adjusted, smart and engaged. The teachers and the principal are models of their profession. There are no bullies. There are no villains in this movie. Simon’s parents are perfect. His mother is a counselor (or doctor, it was not clear to me) and his father a sensitive, caring man. His sister is an aspiring chef who cooks the meals for the family.

It’s a perfect little world, except for Simon’s homosexuality. But even that is not controversial. It’s like the entire school was waiting for Simon to come out and be happy ever after.

Love, Simon is cute and entertaining. And that’s all I have to say.

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Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who tracks down missing girls. He is a veteran of the Special Forces and a former FBI agent. Haunted by violent flashbacks to his own childhood under the boot of an abusive father, and traumatized by his experiences as a soldier, he has more demons in his own head than the real world could ever hurl at him.

It’s not clear what drives such a man to a career where he would encounter brutal violence by the real scum of humanity, those that think it’s right to drug young girls so they can use them as prostitutes and sex slaves. Joe’s favorite weapon in his fight seems to be a hammer.

That should give you an idea that this is not shoot me up gangster movie. This is a film where you sometimes end up closing your eyes because you really don’t want to see what’s going to happen next.

He lovingly cares for his elderly mother in his New York City home. When she gets killed while somebody is trying to get to him, he realizes that the case he is working on may not be as simple as he thought. And that is the start of his one-man war against some very powerful people.

The plot is mysterious and riveting at the same time. I have to admit, to fully understand it, I had to look it up on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in some of the blanks.

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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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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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Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) graduated from college in Boston and went on to have a successful and comfortable life in Sacramento, California. He has a beautiful and sweet wife who works for the government, and a son who is smart, laid back, and a musical prodigy. Brad, you would think, has it made.

When he accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams) to Boston to interview at Harvard, he goes through an existential crisis. He compares his life, which he considers boring and unsuccessful, with those of his college friends, a bestselling author, a Hollywood producer, a tech entrepreneur and a hedge fund creator. As he watches his son’s success, he doubts himself, and as he interacts with his friends he gradually finds out things are not exactly what they seem.

Just maybe he is successful after all?

Brad’s Status is a slow movie, mostly because there is very little action and a lot of narration. We are not watching what’s going on, we’re told about what’s going on, all through the movie. The characters, with the exception of Brad, are not very credible. We’re told that Troy is a gifted musician, yet we never even witness him playing a single key on the piano, his supposed instrument. Troy is a nice, laid-back kid, but he does not strike me as a prodigy and somebody with a mission. He ends up interviewing at Harvard somewhat by accident. Brad is boring, to watch, to be with, and to listen to.

After a very slow and somewhat boring start, the story picks up a bit of speed, and somehow, at the end, when the credits rolled, I was actually satisfied. The best thing about this entire movie is the second it ends.

You’ll just have to watch it and see for yourself.


 

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Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign

Clinton just came out with her own book, titled What Happened. After reading Shattered I decided I don’t need to read Hillary’s book.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes are political writers who had deep access to all levels of the Clinton campaign. Through their insight, they have reconstructed the spirit of the campaign from before it actually began, through election night.

The insight is “shattering.” The campaign was never streamlined. Terrible infighting at the top levels caused the strategy to lack cohesiveness and resulted in a poorly defined message. Hillary never quite clarified why the people should elect her, other than she was, well, Hillary Clinton. Power struggles, lack of direction from the top, and poor use of funding based on analytics that was terribly flawed were the main causes of the eventual defeat.

The campaign didn’t know how close Trump was. Bill Clinton waved off the Virginia governor from coming to New York for the victory celebration immediately after Florida, one of the first states, was called for Trump.

Bill Clinton knew then.

I have always said that Trump did not win the election. Clinton lost it.

After reading Shattered, I am more convinced than ever that this was the case. The Democratic Party elevated an entitled, ego-driven politician, with a muddled message, with terrible baggage, who made very poor decisions along with way, and pegged her against the greatest wild card in American history, Donald Trump. The Democratic Party lost, Hillary will never be president, and the country is being damaged and looted by a self-serving populist con man.

Shattered is a hard book to read. If you are really into politics, if you want to work in a campaign, if that’s your career, this is a good book to internalize. It shows how politics works. I am more interested in the cliff notes, so from time to time the reading was too detailed and dry.

But  then, if you’re going to read one book about “what happened,” this is the book you should read.

 

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Revenger is a science fiction space opera that you can’t take too seriously.

There are swaggering captains on ships with sails, raucous crews of misfits who chase treasures. The world is full of islands with treasures, and if a captain has the right maps, or secret information, he can sail to those islands and get the loot. But there are others that will be on his tail and try to take the prize from him. And there are pirates, who board ships, kill everyone and steal the goods. And that is the story. It could have taken place in the Caribbean in the 1600s, but this story takes place millions, or possibly billions of years in the future.

The Congregation is a swarm of “worlds” circling the Old Sun. Worlds are little planetoids, just a few leagues across. It’s not clear what a league is, but I am guessing it’s around a mile. Inside of the planetoids are “swallowers” which I assume to be miniature black holes that generate just enough gravity for the surfaces to be around one gee. There are also spindle worlds, tube worlds and various other exotic ones. Out of 50 million objects in the Congregation, there are about 20,000 inhabited worlds.

And there are “baubles” which are uninhabited worlds with treasure hidden on them, by whom is not clear. And there are space ships driven by ion drives near objects and light sails in open space. The ion drives are like the outboard motors on our sail ships.

Adrana and Fura Ness are two young girls who run away from home and their overbearing father, sign on with a ship, and very soon realize they are in way over their heads. And so the swashbuckling adventure starts.

I realized pretty soon that this is not a science fiction novel, but a pirate novel, masquerading as a science fiction novel. But I did enjoy it sufficiently to keep reading.

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Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful lawyer in New York City who commutes to the suburbs by subway. One night in spring, when there is a power outage on the train, he is delayed and by the time he gets home it’s dark. As he approaches his house, he sees a raccoon in the yard and as he scares it away, it runs into the door to the attic above his separate garage. He follows it upstairs and chases it out of the attic.

As he looks out of the attic window he sees his wife (Jennifer Garner) and twin teenage daughters in the lit up kitchen in the house. Covered by darkness, he sits down in an old dusty chair and looks out the window. He does not want to go inside. Eventually, he falls asleep.

When he awakes the next morning, he decides not to go to work, or go home. He just watches his family go about their day as they report him as missing. Now that he has been gone for a full 24 hours, he can’t bring himself to return. He stays in the attic another day, and another.

Wakefield is almost a one man show, with Bryan Cranston doing an excellent job as the actor. He narrates the story in a subdued voice, almost just thinking to himself. Some flashbacks illustrate his lackluster marriage and his burned out life.

The movie is very slow and at times I found it hard to remain engaged. As the story progressed, I found myself interested in how it would eventually end. Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, this is not really a movie, but a long monologue. It would work great as a one man play.

This would be a dud, were it not for Bryan Cranston’s excellent acting. As it is, it’s a study on life, marriage and identity.

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