Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What If

What If, which is also released in some countries as "The F Word", where "F" might mean "friend", is a romantic comedy that is smart and witty.  This is Daniel Radcliffe's first romantic comedy.

Wallace is a medical school drop out who is burned out on relationships.  He meets Chantry at a party and the two fall into conversation. At the same time, his friend Allan meets Nicole and this develops into a serious relationship.  Unfortunately, Chantry is already in a relationship, so she becomes "just friends" with Wallace.  Over time Chantry's relationship with her boyfriend becomes more strained while she grows closer to Wallace.

I like the movie for its witty dialog and humor.  The film is rated PG-13 for language and sexual situations.

Rating:  * * *

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movies reimagined for another time and place


William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield was a British barrister, noted for his reform of English law, and became Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales in 1756.  He made a couple of rulings that did not abolish slavery, but paved the way for slavery to be abolished in England.  His nephew, Captain Sir John Lindsay, had an illegitimate child with a slave and left her in the care of his uncle.  The child was baptized Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1766 and was raised along with her cousin Elizabeth Finch.  What little we know about Belle's life was that she enjoyed the privilege and responsibility of being raised in an aristocratic family and was well educated.  She married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, and had three children.  She died at the age of 42.

With so little known about Belle's life, the movie Belle is a historical fiction inspired by a painting of her and her cousin.  As a historical fiction, it is a good story about how slavery, prejudice, social status, and the status of women affected people in this time period.  The movie concludes with Murray making a ruling on the Zong Masacre, an incident where a slave ship threw 132 slaves overboard.

This is a very richly written story with some very intelligent period dialog.  I admire this movie not just for being a good period piece, but a smart one.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Saturday, December 27, 2014



In the near future, a chemical is sprayed into the atmosphere to reverse global warming.  The problem is that it works too well and causes planet Earth to freeze.  The last remaining humans are on a specially built train with an engine that can last forever.  The train is designed to be a lifeboat forever moving.  Years after the big freeze, the people in the back of the train are tired of their crappy existence, which is pretty terrible compared to their oppressors who live at the front, so they decide to revolt.  They fight their way to the front while encountering strange new sights with each new car they pass.
The end of this movie has a lot to say about humanity, and most of it is not very good.  There is the obvious environmental message, along with messages about class warfare and how humans will always fight each other no matter what the situation is.
This is a Korean made film, although 80% of the movie is in English.  It is based upon a graphic novel.
Most of the movie is pretty interesting, although the violence is sometimes intense.
Rating: * * * 1/2

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

A thousand years ago, the environment of the Earth was destroyed in the "Seven Days of Fire" which was a battle between several Giant Warriors, artificially created beings with great destructive power.  Only one of these beings survived but is dormant.  The war created the Toxic Forests all over the world, which are filled with deadly poison and giant mutated insects.  A few human settlements are able to survive outside the forests.

Nausicaä is the young princess of the Valley of the Wind.  This kingdom is able to survive because a constant sea breeze keeps the poison away from their small kingdom.  Two other small kingdoms, the Tolmekia and the Pejite, are at war with each other and their forces collide at the peaceful Valley of the Wind.  The Tolmekia want to burn down all the Toxic Forests, but the people of the Valley of the Wind know that this will bring the wrath of the giant insects, which apparently are easily enraged.  The Tolmekia are also interested in resurrecting the dormant Giant Warrior so that they can use it to destroy the insects and their enemies.

Nausicaä has learned how to live in peace with the Toxic Forests and she later learns that the forests are an important part of their ecology.   With war threatening to destroy her people and their environment, she must find a way to avert disaster.

For Japanese Anime made in 1984, this  probably seemed beautiful and pretty fantastic at the time.  Like most anime, its vision tends to be overly grand and stylized, while the animation is pretty simple and sometime repetitive.  Something is lost in the translation, because the movie has a lot of dialogue like, "Look over there!", which comes off as simplistic.  The story is pretty good, but the movie gets bogged down in battle scenes. 

The film is barely O.K. and kind of interesting as a cultural experience, but I can't imagine wanting to see it a second time.

Rating:  * * 3/4.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  The DVD is distributed by Disney.

The Fault in Our Stars

Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old teenager with thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, meets a 17-year-old teenage boy, Augustus Waters, who has osteosarcoma that caused him to lose his leg.  They bond immediately and agree to read each other's favorite novel.  After reading the novel An Imperial Affliction, a book about cancer written by Peter Van Houten, they arrange to travel to Amsterdam to meet the author.   Although their meeting with Van Houten does not go well, the trip is memorable and allows them to bond further.  Shortly after that, health issues start to catch up with them.

The emotion in this movie hit me like a freight train.  This is a film that knows how to grab your heart and never let go.  It is the kind of film that is willing to be honest and intelligent about cancer, but wrap all that in a sweet romance.  In the beginning the movie claims that it is not going to be artificial or upbeat, but the film tries to be as upbeat that its sad little story will allow it to be.

It is one of the best movies of the year.

Rating:  * * * *

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Interview

A producer of a tabloid TV show and his reporter, Dave Skylark, get an interview with the President of North Korea.  Meanwhile, the CIA involves both of them in a plot to kill the North Korean dictator, but Skylark has second thoughts once he gets to know the guy.  Skylark, who all by himself could be described as Dumb and Dumber, is played by James Franco, and this is a role that will surely boost his career. 
The Interview is the rare type of movie that should be seen just because it caused an international incident.  People are going to want to know what the fuss is about.  What the fuss is about is that this movie is raunchy, politically incorrect, but more importantly, stupid.  However, this is a film that knows that it is stupid and expertly plays that for laughs.  The movie is hilarious if you are in the right kind of mood.  Think Dumb and Dumber meets The Great Dictator.
All this is made even more funny by the fact the North Koreans were so upset over the film.  Prior to this, people might have just dismissed the movie as a dumb and crude comedy.
Rating: * * *

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Tell me if you have heard this one before: An orphan gets abducted by a UFO. He grows up to be some sort of space pirate, but because he double crossed one of the gad buys, he has both the good guys and multiple bad guys chasing him. Along the way he gets runs into a couple different people who would like to either kidnap him or kill him, but after a big fight they all get thrown into jail. In jail they team up with each other and some other questionable characters to break out, but they still have bad people who want to kill them over some mysterious all powerful orb in their possession. They can't let the orb fall into the hands of the bad guys, because that would be really, really bad, and these bad guys are really, really evil. So this leads to almost non stop fights and shootouts for the entire movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy is bigger on action and special effects than it is on drama, character development, or a story that seems remotely plausible. Overall, the story feels a little messy, with too many bad guys and characters to keep track of. Since it is based on a comic book, I suppose that I can forgive its excesses and enjoy it for what it is. The movie does present us with some interesting side characters, such as an intelligent genetically engineered Raccoon named Rocket, and a tree person, Groot, with a very limited vocabulary.

If I am being honest, I think that the movie is suppose to be a comedy, and it does have a few comic touches and at least one running joke. I don't think that I fully understood if I was suppose to enjoy this as an action film, sci-fi movie, comedy or drama. It has all these elements, but the entire movie feels like an excuse for non-stop shootouts and battle scenes. However, most of these are at least somewhat interesting, and there is just enough character development to make me care about the characters.

Part of my problem is that I saw this movie on the small screen. Literally. If I had seen it in the movie theater, then it might have come across as a grand spectacle.

Rating: * * * 1/2

Guardians of the Galaxy has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Theory of Everything

I have wanted to see The Theory of Everything for months after I first saw the trailer, and it has only been in theaters in the Salt Lake City area for a few days.  However, one critic described the movie as "An unremarkable bio-pic about a remarkable man."  So I deliberately approached the film with modest expectations, but my interest in Stephen Hawking made me hope deep down that the film would be a resounding success.  It is.  It is hard to imagine how a film like this could be made any better.

In case you don't know who Stephen Hawking is, he is a theoretical physicist whom some sources describe as the smartest person on the planet.  His theories have increased our understanding of black holes and the origins of the universe.  He is the author of the best selling book A Brief History of Time.  Unfortunately, at the age of 22 he developed motor neuron disease which has left him mostly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair.  

Hawking was a graduate student at Cambridge where he got his doctoral degree.  While there, he met and married Jane Wilde, who initially acted as his caregiver.  As Hawking's conditioned worsened, he needed more help and got it from a volunteer named Jonathan Jones and a nurse named Elaine Mason.  This is where things get messy, because Jane became attracted to Jones and Hawking became attracted to Mason.  Eventually Jane and Stephen Hawking divorced and they both married the people they were attracted to.  The movie depicts the breakup as cordial, but in reality it was quite bitter.

Hawking's second marriage didn't work out very well, and after his second divorce he developed a working relationship with his first wife to help write the biography that this movie is based on.

The triumph of this film comes from the acting performances, all of which are outstanding.  It is also an emotionally moving story about love and adversity.  The film is so full of subtle nuances as we see Hawking's condition change and the problems with his marriage gradually develop.  The movie does not try to hit us over the head with emotion, but instead candidly presents us with the facts realistically, which for me still had great emotional impact.

If Eddie Redmaye, who plays Hawking, does not at least get nominated for the Best Actor Oscar then I will be quite disappointed.  To play Hawking in the later stages of his disease, he had to convey emotion using the subtlest of gestures.  I will also be disappointed if the movie is not nominated for Best Picture.

Rating:  * * * *