Friday, December 16, 2016

Rouge One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a mixture of Star Wars and a traditional war film, set in the Star Wars universe.  As such, it feels like a different kind of Star Wars movie, with more gritty realism and less style.  It is a prequel to the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, and events in Rogue One lead right up to the beginning of A New Hope.

When Jyn Erso is a young child, her father is taken prisoner by the Galactic Empire and forced to do research on a new weapon, the Death Star.  She is raised by a rebel extremist Saw Gerrera, but eventually finds herself imprisoned by the Empire and headed to a forced labor camp.  She is rescued by the rebellion, who want to use her to get to her father.  Her father has smuggled a message to the rebellion, saying that there is a weakness in the Death Star, and if they could find a way steal the plans, then they could destroy it.

Whereas the previous Star Wars films were ensemble pictures with many great characters, I feel like the only great character in this film is the protagonist Jyn Erso.  There are a handful of other characters that are interesting at different levels, such as Rebel Alliance Intelligence officer Cassian Andor, who becomes a love interest for Jyn, weapons researcher Orson Krennic, blind rebel warrior Chirrut Îmwe, and rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO, who also provides some comic relief.  Because there is much going on in this movie, most of the secondary characters don't get a lot of screen time, so we don't get to know them as well as we would like.

Various characters from the original movies make appearances here, most notably Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Mon Montha, R2D2 and 3CPO, and briefly Princes Leia.  Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia are played by Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila respectively, who look nothing like Peter Cushing and a young Carrie Fisher, so some special effects magic is used to make them appear like the original actors.  In the case of Grand Moff Tarkin, I kept thinking that he didn't look exactly like Peter Cushing, but it was close enough to be convincing.  However, the brief appearance of Princes Leia is slightly unsettling thus spoiling the effect.  Although the character does look like a young Carrie Fisher, the face is a little too round and lacking the sharp lines we would expect.  Nevertheless, the appearance of Princes Leia does give the film some extra emotional impact.

Darth Vader's appearance in the middle of the film isn't particularly meaningful, and the voice by the 85 year old Jame Earl Jones doesn't have quite the same impact it once did.  There is a subplot here about Orson Krennic having a power struggle with Grand Moff Tarkin, but this seems more like a distraction.  However, this is made up by Vader's later appearance where he is for a moment completely badass.

Rogue One compared to The Force Awakens is slightly stronger on plot, but a little weaker on characters.  Rogue One has more characters, but consequently each character gets less attention. Neither movie feels like a perfect Star Wars film, but both are good enough.

Did we really need this movie to fill in the story between Episode III and Episode IV?  No, but it does make for an entertaining diversion providing something that we have not seen before.

Rating:  * * * 1/2.

A friend asked me to rate the movie on a A through F scale.  On this scale I would give it a B+.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Doctor Strange

There is no such thing as magic.    It is impossible to conjure weapons out of thin air.  As far as anyone can prove, there is no Astral Plane for our soul to reside in when it temporarily leaves our body.  There is no mirror universe.  As far as anyone knows, it is impossible to turn back time.  So a movie based upon these things requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, which at first was difficult for me.  I can more easily accept the magic in the Harry Potter movies because they are kid friendly, but not as easily in a film for adults.  

However, Doctor Strange so effortlessly drew me into its world that I found myself forgetting any kind of logic and just enjoying it for the really good action picture that it is.  It helps that Dr. Strange starts out as a flawed character who reaches the lowest point of his life before he is able to slowly lift himself back up.  It makes him relatable.  His suffering means that his eventual journey has high stakes, and the path he takes is a very wild ride which leads him to a place that he never thought he could go.

The action sequences in this film, like the action sequences in most movies today, tend to be a little over busy making them harder to follow.  Despite this, the action sequences are very good, which makes for an entertaining picture.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Dr. Strange has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace proceeds at a leisurely pace.  It opens with a scene that I could have done without, where a hillbilly gangster scumbag named Harlan Degroat beats up his date and someone else at a drive in theater.  The movie establishes that Harlan, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, is about as evil as one can get.  Switch to Russell Baze, played pensively by Christian Bale, who is trying to keep his life together working at a steel mill and dealing with his aimless battle scarred military brother, played admirably by Casey Affleck.  His brother keeps getting into debt with bookies and Russel keeps bailing him out.  Things do not go well for Russell when he is sent to prison for a fatal auto accident that was not his fault, but he had had a couple of drinks which did not look good.  After getting out of prison, he goes back to work at the steel mill, but his problems with his brother escalate, which slowly builds up to a confrontation with Harlan Degroat.

All the performances in this film are wonderful, including Zoe Saldana as Russel's ex girlfriend, and Forrest Whitaker, who is always great, as Sheriff Barnes, and William Dafoe as a low life bookie.  This movie is driven by great performances, because the plot takes it time building up to any kind of action.  However, the film doesn't meander.  Every scene moves the story to the next plot point and the next great performance by the actors.  The tone of the movie reminded me of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, although it is considerably more interesting.

The film steals one scene from The Dear Hunter, where Russell, who is so damaged by life, decides to not shoot a deer on a hunting trip.  

I have to take issue with Roger Ebert's review of the movie, who said that for long stretches it doesn't know what it wants to be.  I think that the film knows exactly what it wants to be.  The point is exactly the same as the point of Hell or High Water, where poverty is the overwhelming force that drives people who could have potentially been good to do bad things.  Like that movie, people are trapped in the world they grew up in.  Believable performances lead to an inevitable "Taxi Driver" type of conclusion.  The journey to get there is one that I found very compelling.  

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Out of the Furnace has just a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think that it is an underappreciated gem.  The great performances make it well worth watching.

I have come to believe that many movies have a barely hidden political agenda.  Out of the Furnace and Hell or High Water don't advocate any kind of policy to deal with poverty, but instead show us the us the terrible consequences that poverty has on people's lives.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


The trouble with aliens from another world is that they are alien.  We might have less in common with them than we do with horseshoe crabs, and we might have an easier time communicating with the crabs.  This is the problem faced by the main character of Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, who is a linguist who must figure out how to communicate with these aliens that have mysteriously turned up on our doorstep.  If this were the entire plot, then the film probably wouldn't be that interesting, but the story has a few twists.  There is also a significant side story about Dr. Banks losing a daughter to illness.

All the focus is on Amy Adams.  The movie also stars Jeremy Renner as a scientist, and Forrest Whitaker as a general, both of which are good actors, but neither seem particularly memorable here.  Renner plays a stereotypical scientist who becomes the love interest for Dr. Banks, and Whitaker's character seems like a token general.

There is only so much you can do with aliens in a movie.  For this reason, most alien movies tend to be more about us than they are about the aliens.  It is more about how we react to the discovery of alien life than it is about the aliens themselves.  The film follows a predictable pattern where the human race wants to respond to the aliens with military force.

At times the story moves too slowly as the movie tries to keep us in suspense, but this builds up to a very clever ending that surprised me.  So it is not a perfect film, but I do think that it is very good.  This is probably one of the better movies in the theaters right now.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

P.S. I was thinking that the movie has a certain low budget quality about it. It is probably not that difficult to generate computer special effects of aliens, ships, and military vehicles. I just looked up the budget of the film, which is 47 million, which is not particularly high for a science fiction film. I thought that the characters played by Whitaker and Renner could have been flushed out more. Still, the overall effect is a good one.  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

I assumed that Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese made film, but it is not.  It is an American film about Japanese characters.  Going into it, I also assumed that it is computer animated, but I was wrong again.  It is beautifully animated with stop motion and the effect is almost as good as computer animation, although not quite as smooth; there is a hardly noticeable jerkiness to the the movement of the characters.  However, this is the best looking stop motion film I have ever seen.  The quality of the animation is just amazing. 

The Japanese centric story is a mind bender for American audiences.  It is almost a kind of culture shock.

Kudo is a child with magical powers living with his mother.  Both are hiding from the evil Moon King who stole one of Kudo's eyes and wants to kidnap Kudo and steal his other eye.  The Moon King is Kudo's grandfather, and Kudo's mother was one of three sisters, actually witches, who were sent to kill Kudo's father, who is the most powerful Samurai warrior.  Instead Kudo's mother fell in love with Kudo's father and had a child with him.  Later the father goes missing and is presumed killed.  Kudo and his mother are safe in hiding until Kudo is accidentally discovered.  The only way Kudo can survive is to go on a quest to find three pieces of magic armor that would allow him to fight the Moon King.  He is joined on this quest by a couple of very unusual creatures.  One is a talking baboon, and the other is a giant beetle.

This is a beautifully made film.  The story, which is laden with Japanese mysticism, didn't fully resonate with me, but I did find it entertaining.  The thing I like the most of about the movie is how it humanizes Japanese characters.  Americans think of Japanese characters as Samurai or warriors, and I suspect this is how some Japanese see themselves, but here the characters seem genuinely human with heartfelt emotions.

I think that the story is too weird for American children, but I could be wrong about that.  For an adult audience it is a cultural experience.  I managed to catch the movie on the last day it was showing in a small town theater.  I am not surprised that I was the only one in the theater watching it; that's what I expected.  It is a good movie, but it is not the kind of film that would have broad appeal.

Rating: * * *

Kubo and the Two Strings has a  whopping 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In my original review, I said that Star Wars:  The Force Awakens feels like an imperfect imitation of a Star Wars movie.

Watching Star Wars:  The Force Awakens for the third time has changed my perspective on the movie considerably.  On my third viewing I noticed things I didn't notice before and I feel that I have much better understanding of the film overall.  Its one major flaw is that they tried to put too much stuff in it.  Having so much story means that most of the movie proceeds at frenetic pace.  Transition scenes that would normally occur in a film are simply not there; at times characters seem to jump from one place to another.  But a much bigger problem is that there is far too little explanation.  There is way too much in the movie that should be explained but isn't, making parts of the story feel like plot holes.  It also teases us with many unanswered questions that frustrate the viewer, so I am desperately hoping that the sequels will clear these up.

Unlike the original Star Wars that gave us great characters, Star Wars:  The Force Awakens is very much a plot driven film where the characters are okay but not exceptional.  The first 20 minutes don't work as well for me because the main characters feel flat.   Occasionally both Rey and Finn can be a little grating.  Rey frequently clenches her teeth and has an undercurrent of anger which hints at The Dark Side.  Finn is in the habit of saying stupid things.  Han Solo and Leia Organa feel like echoes of their former selves.  Therefore, the most interesting, deepest and brilliant character of the movie is Kylo Ren.  He is certainly the most conflicted character, and that conflict is what makes him interesting.

It is no wonder that the film has been widely criticized by Star Wars fans.  However, the critics loved it.

Despite the flaws, on my third viewing the movie made more sense and it began to feel like a masterpiece.  It is not only a major technical and artistic achievement, but it is also fantastic storytelling.  Once the action gets going, the film becomes an amazing thrill ride.  

I think that the movie is a masterpiece, but I also think that it is flawed masterpiece that will depend upon Episode VIII to clear things up.  Also the new film will need to improve upon on the characters.  Otherwise, if we get more of the same then it is going to become repetitious and tiring.

Friday, September 9, 2016


If you are looking for a movie to watch this weekend, then look no further.  Although Hell or High Water would be an excellent choice, my first choice would be Sully.  It is hard to image that Clint Eastwood could have made a better film about "The Miracle On the Hudson" or its pilot, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.

On January 15th, 2009. US Airways Flight 1549 Airbus A320-214 took of from New York's LaGuardia airport.  Three minutes into the flight, the plane struck a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines.  Four minutes later Captain Sullenberger managed to safely land the plane in the Hudson River.  Fast response by nearby ships and local rescue forces helped save the passengers and crew.

The film focusses heavily on the investigations conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, which initially tried to blame Captain Sullenberger for not returning the plane to the airport.  Meanwhile, the press and the general public were treating Sullenberger as a hero.  Tom Hanks does a marvelous job playing "Sully" as a man conflicted after the crash.

News stories that gain national attention like this one become part of our national identity.  As a result, we feel connected to these events.  Therefore it is easy to feel connected to the film, just like watching moviess about 9-11.  These kinds of films are moving, and I am glad that Clint Eastwood did such a good job on this one.

Compared to Hell or High Water, which is so negative in its view of America, it is nice to get an uplifting film about an American hero who saved the lives of 155 people just by doing his job to the best of his ability.

Rating:  * * * *

Friday, September 2, 2016

Hell or High Water

The movie Citizen Kane barely qualifies as entertainment, but it is frequently heralded as the greatest film of all time.  Why?  Because the movie has a message, perhaps a political message, about the danger of having too much power.  People love the film for its message, or perhaps for the performance of its actor and director, Orson Wells.

Hell or High Water has an amazing 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  This is no doubt due in part for the good performances by the actors, most notably Jeff Bridges as a crusty old Texas Ranger.  However, I think that main thing driving the good ratings is the movie's overt political message about poverty and the evilness of the banks.  Poverty is referred to as a disease passed on from one generation to the next.  The decaying small town Texan landscape is like another character in this film, which the great cinematography frequently shows us.  We are repeatedly told that the banks are stealing from and trying to cheat the poor.  The movie holds this up as justification for the two brothers robbing a series of banks so that they can save the family farm.  No agenda there.

By the way, I didn't recognize Chris Pine as one of the bank robbers.  This is perhaps an Oscar worthy performance.

In a way this film could be a metaphor for America.   Whether or not future generations regard this as a great film might depend upon how well the message resonates, which I think it will.

My problem with all the lavish praise the movie has received is that the entertainment value of the film is good, but not exceptional.  This is a movie about bad people doing very bad things, which is kind of depressing.  However, the message of the film is thought provoking, which means that there is something special about the movie after all.  It will linger on your thoughts for a very long time.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Film Collection

Just watched the Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Film Collection on Netflix streaming.  Although the twelve little films are a mix of quality, most are really good.  Many seem like experiments in style. 

When watching The Little Match Girl you will need a couple of hankies.  I did.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

The trailer for The Secret Life of Pets makes it look like a funny movie, but it is one of the least funny animated films I have ever seen.  I laughed at the beginning and at the end, but everything in-between is dark.  There are animals trying to kill each other, and an underground sewer full of abandoned pets, scary snakes and crocodiles, a psychopathic bunny who wants to kill humans, and just a touch of scatalogical humor.  I am sure that somebody thought that this would be funny, but tone of the film is all wrong.  It felt weird to me.  I might as well have been watching Lethal Weapon.   This gets my vote for the worst kid's film in recent memory.  Don't take your kids to see this movie.  Instead rent Home, which is a far more enriching experience.

However, adults might enjoy the story about Max and Duke getting lost and trying to find their way home.  It is entertaining, although it might seem familiar to those who have seen buddy and road trip movies.  There is just enough of a story here to make it worth watching, but we have come to expect better from animated movies.

I am torn on how to rate this movie, because I enjoyed it, but I think that it is completely inappropriate for children.

Rating:  * * 1/2

The movie is preceded by the short "Mower Minions", staring those lovable Minions characters.  However, this short seems unoriginal to me in the sense that if you substitute The Three Stooges in place of Minions, you would have exactly the same story.

Monday, August 8, 2016


Home is a 2015 Dreamworks Animation film about highly technologically advanced aliens, called Boov, who invade and take over the Earth.  They aren't particularly bad aliens, and in fact they are kind of benign, but they need a place to hide from the Gorg who destroyed their homeworld.  Since the Boov are technologically advanced, and not particularly menacing, they relocate the entire human race to a very large reservation in Australia.  A girl named Tip manages to evade the forced relocation, and meets a Boov named Oh, who through a series of unfortunate accidents has become a fugitive to his species.

Jim Parsons is magical as the voice of Oh.

From start to finish there is a running joke about how the Boov change color based on their mood.

The movie is intentionally silly, but it has something I like, which is charm.  I found it charming.  And witty.  At times the film is cheesy, but it is also intelligent and thought provoking.  These qualities make for an uneven movie that is not perfect, but I found myself liking the characters and charmed by the whole concept.  

It makes for a pretty good kid's film about understanding outsiders and other people.  I think that most adults will like it if they give it a chance.  Even though it is a kid's film, there are many interesting science fiction concepts in the movie that are surprisingly good.

Unfortunately Dreamworks can't hold a candle to Pixar.  Most of the movies produced by Dreamworks pale in comparison to Pixar, but this has to be one of my favorite Dreamworks films.  After seeing it a second time, I have gained a new appreciation for it. 

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Home has a 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  I think that the movie is vastly underappreciated.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Oh, Indiana. I forgot how hot, humid and miserable your summers could be. What a great time to go see an air conditioned blockbuster summer movie.

The Starship Enterprise is half way through its five year mission, and some of the crew is feeling the strain of a long term deep space mission.  Kirk is considering taking another post, and Spock feels that maybe his time would be better spent helping to restart the new Vulcan home world.  The Enterprise docks at the Starbase Yorktown for resupply, when an escape pod emerges from a nearby nebula.  The occupant claims that her shipmates are stranded on an uncharted planet in the nebula.  The Enterprise goes into the nebula on a rescue mission, but encounters an overwhelming hostile enemy.  Most of the crew end up imprisoned on the uncharted planet, with the exception of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov who attempt to free their fellow crew.

My one complaint about the Star Trek reboot films is that they feel too busy.  This movie may not be as bad as its predecessors, but it still feels rushed.  There is some character development, but only briefly between action sequences.  It feels like a lost opportunity to explore the characters more.  The movie needed to catch its breath so that the audience could do so as well.  I get the sense that the producers think that we already know who these characters are, so there is little need to explore them.

For example, it is implied that the character of Jaylah is an engineer, but I don't think that it is explicitly stated, nor is very clear to me who she is or how she ended up on the uncharted planet.  Therefor her character feels like a plot device.  It is also not clear why the Enterprise crew was being imprisoned on the planet.

The Yorktown starbase is like an Escher Painting with its complex surfaces going in every conceivable direction.  It is not only confusing to the mind, but I can't imagine watching this is 3D.  It might give a person motion sickness.

The movie pays tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy in two ways.  First we are told of the passing of the older Spock from the alternate timeline future.  Then the credits have the statement, "In loving memory of Leonard Nimoy."  I was hoping to also see a tribute to Anton Yelchin, but maybe Yelchin's death came too late to be mentioned in the movie.  Unfortunately, his character, Pavel Chekov, doesn't get much screen time.  It has been announced that the character will not be recast for future films.  In a way that is unfortunate, because Pavel Chekov is an important character in the Star Trek universe.

Just when I have come to accept these actors as the Star Trek characters that we love, the movie ruins the illusion by showing us a picture of all the original actors from Star Trek V.  This ruins the illusion because we know that the new actors look nothing like the old actors, and never will.

I like the movie, and it is a marvelous technical achievement.  However, it is not clear to me that there is enough in the film to make me want to see it a second time, but since I am a big Star Trek fan, I will probably see it a second time anyway.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Star Trek Beyond has a 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Shallow Hal

Shallow Hal opens with a nine year old Hal talking to his father on his deathbed.  His father gives him some politically incorrect advice about women.  Then the movie transitions to Hal as young adult, played by Jack Black, along with his friend Mauricio, played by Jason Alexander, trying to dance with women way out of their league at a nightclub.  As they try to introduce themselves to women who aren't the least bit interested in them, this is the first scene of many in the film that seemed kind of creepy to me.  The scene feels really awkward.

Hal and his friend Mauricia are incredibly shallow and only see women for their beauty.  However, because of their attitudes, they aren't having much luck with women either.  Hal accidently gets stuck in an elevator with self help guru Tony Robbins (played somewhat amateurishly by himself), who realizes just how much Hal objectifies women.  So Tony hypnotizes Hal to only see "the inner beauty" of people.  This leads to Hal meeting what he thinks are many beautiful women, but these same women don't seem beautiful at all to his friend Mauricio.  
Hal meets Rosemary, played by Gwyneth Paltrow,  who is morbidly obese, but to him she looks like a supermodel, which naturally Gwyneth Paltrow does.  (Thanks to Hollywood magic, the actress plays both the thin and fat versions of Rosemary.)  This leads to many funny misunderstandings, and the movie is filled with fat jokes.  In his review, Roger Ebert's said that the movie is funny, and he is right, but the film has a creepiness to it in the way it uses jokes about physical appearance as humor.

Hal falls in love with Rosemary, but the hypnotic spell doesn't last forever, and in the end he is forced to confront his feelings about her and his attitude toward women.  

Rating:  * * *

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Giver

In some distant future, people live in an isolated community where sameness and uniformity are the norm.  They live apparently happy lives, but their emotions are kept in check by drugs that they are forced to take.  They do not know love or other strong emotions, nor do they see color.  The leaders deny them knowledge so that they cannot know that there is an alternative to their restricted existence.

This story made me think of North Korea, but the analogy does not have to be limited to totalitarian societies.  The movie could be metaphor for any type of society that expects conformity and suppresses human potential.  To one degree or another, all human societies are guilty of this.

In this community there is always one person who is implanted with the memories of the past, so that he can advise the leaders about things that even they are unaware of.  That person is called The Giver, played with subdued passion by Jeff Bridges.  He must pass his knowledge to an apprentice, Jonah, played by Brenton Thwaites.  However, when Jonah learns how much more there is to human existence, he tries to start a rebellion.  That would seem like an inherent flaw in this future community; there is always going to be one or two people who know that there is a better way.  Just being human means that they would want to change things.

Meryl Streep gives an interesting performance as the supreme leader.  She is a tyrant, but one with benevolent intentions.  She thinks that she is doing the right thing, but like her subjects, she doesn't know an alternative.  There seems to me to be something very special about the performances by Streep and Bridges, both of which are highly skilled actors.  Both their characters seem to be suffering in silence, but for different reasons.  They are both prisoners of a system much bigger than themselves. 

There is a plot element toward the end about "the border of elsewhere" that is never fully explained, nor does it fully make sense.  But in a science fiction movie things can happen that don't fully make sense, nor do they have to be fully explained.  I am hoping for a sequel that gives more exposition, or maybe I just have to read the book that the movie is based on.

The Giver only has a 35% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I do not understand why it was not more well received.  I think that the movie is good, emotionally moving, and I see nothing major wrong with it.  The futuristic Utopian theme reminds me of Logan's Run or Divergent, but most of it feels different from than anything I have seen before.  The most common criticism I have read is that the movie doesn't capture fully the magic of the book, but I haven't read the book, so I think that the movie is magical too.  The story elements are slightly better than the execution, like maybe the movie could have been just a little bit better, but the story still feels very compelling to me.

Parts of the film were shot in Utah, and having lived there, the scenery seemed familiar.

Rating:  * * *

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Finding Neverland

J.M. Barrie was a novelist and playwright who created Peter Pan.  He became strong friends with the Llewelyn Davies family at a time when his marriage was in decline.  He used to play with their boys and their time spent together became the inspiration for the Peter Pan story.  In this regard he seemed a little bit like an odd duck; the story about a boy who didn't want to grow up was written by a man who didn't want to grow up.

The movie Finding Neverland plays loose with the facts because it shows Barrie meeting Sylvia Llewelyn Davis after she was already widowed.  In fact, he had been friends with her husband and the entire family prior to that.  Later when Sylvia became ill and passed away, her will gave J.M. Barrie shared guardianship of her children.  It is not clear how close the relationship was between Barrie and Sylvia, but it is obvious that he had a close connection to the entire Llewelyn Davies family.

Where the movie shines is how it ties Barrie's life to the Peter Pan story.  In the film we see enough of the Peter Pan play to get a mild sense of wonderment.  One of the final scenes is surreal by intention.  The movie soars toward the end because it surprises us.  This is a film that tries to touch your heart and succeeds.  It certainly touched mine.  

However, the details of Barrie's life are just drab enough that you probably would not want to watch them a second time.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Son of Saul

Sonderkommando were Jews who were forced to work in the Nazi extermination camps.  Their primary duty was to dispose of the bodies.  In 1944, a group of Sonderkommando staged a violent revolt at Auschwitz that was put down by the Nazis.  The Hungarian film Son of Saul takes place during these events.

The movie opens with trainload of Jews arriving at Auschwitz and then being immediately sent to the extermination chambers. Against his will, Saul helps in every part of this process. The movie makes it clear that any Sonderkommando who does not do what he is told is immediately executed. Saul seems to have shut down all his emotions as a way of surviving the horror that surrounds him. Then he recognizes a boy who is killed as his illegitimate son. From this point he makes it his personal mission to get a proper Jewish burial for his son. He hides the body, and then searches desperately for a Rabbi to perform the ceremony.

This is a unique film that doesn't feel like anything I have seen before.  The movie tells a very personal story.  The camera almost never leaves Saul.  Much of the film seems to take place in real time.  We spend half of the film looking at the back of Saul's head as he moves from place to place.  As Saul moves around the camp, we witness one horror after another, most of which are in the periphery, or barely offscreen.  Things happen that are never explained.  There is a mild sense of chaos everywhere in this story.  

I find the subject matter depressing, but not the movie.  The story creates a kind of suspense as Saul tries to find a way to bury his son, and as the revolt builds to fruition.  The film gives us a different perspective on the Holocaust, and it is intensely personal.  Many people would not be able to watch Son of Saul because the Holocaust is too horrible to contemplate, but this feels like a story worth watching.

Rating:  * * * *

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Finding Dory

It is hard to believe that it has been 13 years since Finding Nemo came out.  The long awaited sequel, Finding Dory, is a good way to spend 98 minutes of your life, about 6 of which will be spent watching the animated credits at the end of the movie.

The movie is preceded by the Pixar short Piper, which is about a baby bird who overcomes her fear.  As far as Pixar animation is concerned, this short film feels understated, but in a cute and charming way.  This is also how the ending of Finding Dory feels.  I expected a big emotional ending, but instead the movie finishes on a quiet moment.  It didn't feel right, but that is okay since the rest of the movie is a wild ride.  Finding Dory is essentially an action film with touches of sentimentality and humor.

I thought that the movie stretched believably more than the first film did.  Finding Dory exists in a universe where fish can read signs at Sea World, where predators are friends with their potential prey, where fish take more than a year to grow up and apparently can live for years, where an octopus can drive a truck, and where echolocation works better than X-rays.  In addition, we already know from Finding Nemo that the fish can talk to each other.

Some have stated that Finding Dory is a sequel better than the original, but I am unsure about that.  I will have to watch Finding Nemo again to compare them.  I thought that the sequel could have been a little more sentimental, because most of the emphasis is on action.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ice Age: Continental Drift

With a new Ice Age movie coming out in five weeks, I thought that I should finally watch the last one that came out four years ago.  This film only had a 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is why I was in no hurry to see it, and now I can see why.  Most of it I found entertaining, but there are parts of it I didn't like.

The story involves the break up of the Pangea super continent, notwithstanding the fact that the Pangea super continent broke up 175 million years before most of these animals existed.  This causes Manny, the woolly mammoth, to become separated from his wife and rebellious teenage daughter.  This is where I start to have a problem with the film, because the family story in this prehistoric animal tale is a little too 21st century.  I could have done without the family story altogether.  Manny and his friends end up doing battle with a primate pirate and his crew.  This particular plot element, along with the rest of the story, seems a little weak to me.

It is not a terrible story, but it is also not a particularly great one either.  It has plenty of action to make it watchable.  It is good enough to rent if you have nothing else to watch.  This film has too many pop cultural references, which to me is a sign that they knew the story was weak.  When you consider that this film made almost a billion dollars, you would think that they could have given us a better story.

The original Ice Age film paid close attention to details.  You had a sense of historical accuracy, because you saw the Woolly Mammoth exist at the same time as, and on the same continent with, Native Americans.  This also fits in well with the ice age theme.  The sequel films gave us continental breakups and dinosaurs, which means that any sense of historical accuracy is completely thrown out the window.

Speaking of details:   A woolly mammoth is at least as big as an elephant, if not bigger, and shouldn't have so much trouble fighting an ape.  The mammoth should win easy.  Here the ape looks almost as big as the mammoth, which is not realistic.

My one last observation is that the different Ice Age movies seem to be able to make a boat out of anything.  In one film it is a giant log.  In this film it is icebergs.

I enjoyed the first three Ice Age films, and I enjoyed this one barely enough to be glad that I rented it.  It is a little better than the third Madagascar film.  Both these film franchises seem to be running out of ideas, so I hope that the next Ice Age movie is a little better.

Rating:  * * 1/2

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Imagine enlisting in the Marines, going through one hell after another, to finally get deployed in Operation Desert Shield.  Once deployed, you fight boredom for months, until finally Operation Desert Storm begins.  Imagine you get shot at with no opportunity to shoot back.  Imagine going through hell again, until finally, after a long period of difficulty, you are finally looking at the enemy through the sight of a gun.  All the misery you have gone through comes down to what you do at that one critical moment.  That's what Jarhead is about.  What happens at that moment I can't reveal, but it is not what I expected.

The movie captures the difficulty, boredom and insanity of being at war.  It wouldn't make a good recruitment film, because none of this looks pleasant.

Rating: * * *

Django Unchained

I have been a little soured on Quentin Tarantino movies, not because they are bad, but because Quentin Tarantino always takes things to the extreme.  You could see that in Inglourious Basterds, where the movie would have some interesting dialogue followed by extreme violence, and then repeat the same pattern of interesting dialogue followed by extreme violence over and over.  But the movie that really soured me on Quentin Tarantino films was Kill Bill: Volume 1, with its over the top martial arts scenes, the movie makes no pretense of being remotely believable.  Apparently Quentin Tarantino doesn't care about believably, just so long as the movie is entertaining.  How does he make entertaining movies?   By taking things to ridiculous levels.  As long as you don't care about believability, his movies are a blast.  It is with this knowledge of how Quentin Tarantino movies work that I watched Django Unchained. 

 Django is a freed slave who joins Dr. King Schultz in the bounty hunter business.  Schultz has no qualms about killing anyone without mercy, and he tries to impart that attitude onto Django.  Together they scheme a plot to free Django's wife from a cruel plantation owner, Calvin J. Candie.  They go to the plantation owner on false pretenses, but naturally things get complicated.

Since it is a Quentin Tarantino film, it is a given that the movie is extremely violent and has an excessive amount of profanity for what would have likely been used in 1857.  One thing that bothered me is the excessive use of the N-word.  Someone estimated that the word is used 110 times in the movie.  It is the one thing that sticks out more than anything else.

Despite all the film's many excesses, it does manage to entertain.  Quentin Tarantino movies always do.

Rating:  * * *

Friday, May 27, 2016

The 5th Wave

I have a theory about teen friendly fiction and movies, and it all has to do with what children want.  Preteens want to be teenagers, because, you know, teenagers are cool.  Teenagers want to be adults, with all the benefits of being adults, like romance and being able to make decisions, without all the responsibility that makes being an adult such a drag.

So it is not surprising that a teen friendly movie like The 5th Wave would kill off most of the adult characters leaving the adolescents in charge.  The main character, Cassie, practically acts as a mother to her younger brother Sam.

As far as alien invasion movies go, the movie is not bad, but it is also not great.  There are echoes of plots and characters from other teen-centric movies that seem familiar.  It is only slightly better than a good science fiction TV show, but that quality also makes it a good rental.  

Rating:  * * *

The 5th Wave has only a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I see nothing major wrong with it.  I enjoyed the movie.

The movie is a setup for a sequel.  Given the generally negative reviews, I am not sure if we will get a sequel or not.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America:  Civil War is the type of of movie that entertained me as I watched it, but as soon as the credits rolled I struggled to understand what it was I just saw.  If a bunch of superheroes had fought and almost died together, is it likely that the first disagreement they had would cause them to start punching each other in a herculean battle?  This makes no sense, because sensible adults in the real world would try to hash out their differences and come to a compromise.  But it does make for entertaining movie because we get to see the different super powers go head to head.

To say that this is a "busy" film is an understatement.  There are so many factions wanting to hurt or control each other that it made my head spin.  The story is so complex I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it.  It jumps between so many countries and and so many people that you need a map to keep up.

Does the film make sense?  Not entirely.  But it is a little more intelligent and definitely more entertaining than the average superhero movie.  Just don't think too hard as you watch it; it will spoil the fun.

Rating:  * * * 1/2

The movie should have been called "Avengers 3", because the movie is really about all the Avengers.  I assume that the title has something to do with marketing.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Jungle Book

Disney's The Jungle Book is a remake of the 1967 film by the same name.  The original is a classically animated film consisting mostly of mildly amusing and somewhat silly songs.  The remake is more of an action adventure film, and as such is a remarkable accomplishment.  It appears as if the entire movie is computer animated, except for the main character of Mowgli, who is played by Neel Sethi.  In case you have any illusions that they filmed this movie in a real jungle, the end of the credits states that the movie was filmed in downtown Los Angeles, California.

Mowgli is a feral child found in the jungles of India by the panther Bagheera, who gives Mowgli to the wolves to raise.  However, Mowgli is threatened by Shere Khan, the tiger who killed Mowgli's father.  It is decided for his safety that he must leave the wolf pack and travel to the man village. Along the way he is threatened by the snake Kaa, who has hypnotic eyes.  Mowgli is saved by the sloth bear Baloo, who acts as a mentor to Mowgli.  Initially it seems like Baloo only wants to exploit Mowgli to help him get honey.  Later Mowgli is kidnapped and threatened by King Louie.

At the end of the original film Mowgli ventures off to the human village.  This doesn't happen in the remake, which leaves the door open for sequels. 

As great as this film is, I felt like something was missing.  My favorite musical number from the original was Bare Necessities, which sort of describes my life right now.  Compare the same musical number from the remake and it is not as clever.  In the original, the character of Baloo was a carefree mentor figure to Mowgli, but in this film, as voiced by Bill Murray, he seems nervous and more interested in exploiting Mowgli.  I miss the old Baloo.  This made me feel like the film had less heart than the original, although the film does have some heart to it.

As a technical accomplishment the film deserves much credit, but it is also a great action adventure film.  The acting by Neel Sethi is not perfect, but considering that he had to act with computer generated characters, it is pretty darn good.  I read that they brought in Jim Henson Creature Shop characters for Sethi to act against, although none of these appear in the final film. 

Rating: * * * *

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


I feel a certain emotional attachment to the 1960's.  Although I was a young child in the 60's, and my perspective did not extend much beyond small town Indiana, I was aware that there was a bigger world out there.  I knew that there was the Vietnam War, hippies, Rock & Roll, and The Beatles.

This is why I recently enjoyed on Netflix streaming the CNN series The Sixties, and the follow up series The Seventies.  Both are very well done.

I have always felt emotionally moved by the events of the 60's, most of all the JFK assassination.  This is a major event in American history, and it is a dividing line between the innocence that preceded it and the turmoil that followed.  Maybe this is why I feel so moved by watching Parkland.  This docudrama focuses on the people who would have been in Dallas at the time of the assassination, especially the people who were at Parkland Memorial Hospital.  The movie also portrays secret service agents, Abraham Zapruder, and Robert Oswald, the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald.

The natural tendency is to want to watch a movie about famous people.  Although there are famous people portrayed in the movie, most of the screen time goes to the ordinary people who were there at the time and found themselves swept up by a historical event.  As such I think that it makes for very powerful drama.

Don't even talk to me about the acting.  There are so many good actors in this movie, many of which only have a few minutes of screen time, but we get one great performance after another.

If you feel as emotional about this event as I do, then I think that you will find that this movie is a very powerful drama.  Parkland only has a 49% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  The biggest criticism is that the different stories in the film feel a little disjointed, but I could not disagree more.  This is what it would have felt like if you were there at the time.  If the purpose of a movie is to transport you to a different time and place, then this film does it superbly.

Rating:  * * * *

Consider this an undiscovered gem.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Ashton Kutcher does such an amazing job portraying Steve Jobs that this makes the movie worth watching by itself.  Kutcher looks a bit like Jobs, making him an ideal actor to play him, but not completely like Jobs, so the film plays some games with us.  At first we see less of his face, but by the time we see Kutcher clean shaven, we have come to accept Kutcher as Jobs.

It is hard to know how much of the movie is historically accurate.  It feels somewhat incomplete, because the movie only covers Jobs life up to the point where he returned to Apple.  This make the film feel like it didn't quite live up to its full potential, like maybe the film didn't have enough budget to do a full biography.

Maybe this is why Jobs has only a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I find very little wrong with the movie.  It does a good job of telling the early story of Apple, which is exciting and interesting, but then the film kind of flatlines as it covers Jobs slow fall from grace at Apple.  This is followed by a  jarring jump to his return to Apple, and then shortly thereafter the film ends making it feel truncated.

Still, the movie does entertain, and I love the performance by Ashton Kutcher.  This movie demonstrates that he is much more than just a television actor.

Rating:  * * * 

Although the 2015 movie Steve Jobs is highly fictionalized, it is a much more powerfully acted portrayal of the man and the people around him.  I think that both movies are worth seeing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


CIA analyst Susan Cooper has been content to sit behind a desk until she has a chance to become a field agent, in this parody of James Bond films.

I am convinced that I am better off watching comedies in a group, because if I watch them just by myself I am likely to think that they are silly.  However, in a group laughter can become infectious, and Spy has a huge number of funny moments.

The  movie is rated R for frequent strong language.

Rating: * * *

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup was a free black man living in New York.  In 1841 he was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana and forced to be a slave for 12 years under the most cruel conditions.  After obtaining his freedom, he wrote a memoir Twelve Years a Slave and became an abolitionist and public speaker against slavery.

Watching the film 12 Years a Slave is a difficult experience to get through.  There is such cruelty depicted in this film that it makes Roots look like a Disney picture.  Not only is Solomon repeatedly beaten, but the movie also focuses on the character Patsey, who was a real person and suffered horribly under slavery.  In the movie, Patsey is played by the actress Lupita Nyong'o, who also played Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Force Awakens,.  She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey.

One has to wonder about the historical accuracy of the film, but from what I can read the film is mostly accurate, except that the cruelty in the film seems to be less than what was told in the book.

The film is an important history lesson, but it is hard to classify it as "entertainment."   Is the story entertaining?  Very much so, but for some it would too difficult to watch.

Rating:  * * * .5

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Lately we have had an overdose of superhero movies, with few of them being exceptional.  I think that the 2004 Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero movie ever.  After that, what superhero movies were exceptional?   It certainly wasn't Ant-Man, and all the recent X-Men movies have been just decent. 
As popular as the first Avengers movie was, I think that the film has a few problems.  The second one is much better.  Most of the Marvel based films have been good, but not great.  However, the first Iron Man movie is really good, and Captain America: The First Avenger deserves some credit too.

I think that the 2006 Superman Returns is quite good, but underappreciated.

The reviews weren't particularly great for the 2013 Man of Steel, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it almost qualifies as a great film.  It was willing to take a new direction with more of a science fiction perspective on the Superman story.  

Now the sequel to Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, has terrible reviews, but I can find nothing wrong with the movie.  It is also willing to take a new direction that seems more appropriate for the age we live in, which is an age of terrorism in a post 9-11 world.  Some people view the movie as too dour, but the tone seems perfect to me, and the movie is smartly written.

The story starts with Bruce Wayne witnessing the destruction and loss of life from Man of Steel.  He concludes that Superman is an alien threat to this world, which inevitably leads to a showdown between the two.

Having Jesse Eisenberg play an overly manic Lex Luthor is a nice bonus.

Rating:  * * * .5