Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

The Thinker

Double feature: Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2

There are so many testosterone-laden movies out there to choose from that a pure women’s film is something of a rarity in the cinema. Pitch Perfect (2012) and Pitch Perfect 2 now in theaters drip with the estrogen. No fan of testosterone movies myself I thought I might go for these dedicated chick flicks. Maybe they would have more substance than the vapid stories in your typical shoot-em-up and car crash movies. Two movies about college women bonding in a women-only a cappella group should certainly scratch my itch for rich and meaningful relationship movies.

In truth, I didn’t seek out these movies. I have seen snippets of Pitch Perfect these last few years, mostly over my wife’s shoulders because she is obsessed with the movie. Naturally she wanted to see Pitch Perfect 2 the week it came out. So before I accompanied her to see the sequel this week I sat down with her to see the first movie in its entirety.

Both films center on Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), a slinky but introverted woman with a passion for creating mix up tapes. In the first film she is a freshman (freshwoman?) at the fictional Barden University. She ends up with the perfect roommate, who is as distant as she is. Attending class doesn’t seem to be a priority for her. Both films don’t even mention majors, professors or classes. Her father works at the university and is something of a hovering presence, at least in the first movie. Beca knows it’s past time for her to connect with her gender, which doesn’t come naturally to her. She does half-heartedly try out for the Barden Bellas. (Those in an a cappella group sing together and use voice only. Songs and dance acts are interwoven, and part of its art is to imitate instruments using only the human voice.) The Bellas, in its most recent incarnation, are having a hard time getting traction in this world. Perhaps it is in part due to its dictatorial leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), size zero or smaller, who seems intent to drive all the girls on the team nuts with her obsessive-controlling behavior.

This group of Bellas consists of a fairly unusual group of women including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), Stacie (Alexis Knapp) their black Bella and lesbian and Chloe (Brittany Snow) as the dreamboat redhead men like me fantasize about. So naturally bonding is a bit difficult, which is good if you are doing a chick flick because the whole point of the movie is to explore the ways they bond, and the permutations of their characters and interactions. It does this while subjecting the young women to “riff offs”(informal competitions between a cappella groups) and of course regional a cappella contests.

Both movies try to overlay these relationships with comedy and heavy sarcasm. Comedy is in the eye and ear of the beholder. To this beholder, the comedic aspects often failed and were often quite gross. In the first movie we quickly discover that Aubrey has the dubious ability to involuntarily projectile vomit at inconvenient times. This is the source of a lot of its “humor”. It had my wife laughing, but I just thought it was gross. And at size zero, there is no way she could projectile vomit quite so much. In the sequel the humor orients around Fat Amy, whose Miley Cyrus imitation on stage manages to expose her private parts to an audience that includes President Obama. At least there is no more projectile vomiting in the second movie. As for the sarcasm, the co-producer Elizabeth Banks also acts as one of the color commentators. She and her co-host John Smith (John Michael Higgins) put on quite a show themselves with their commenting, with their sarcastic and obscene opinions. It’s like they are doing an a cappella version of a Howard Stern show. Funny? Not for me, but it seemed to work with the female crowd.

These relationships often seem overly scripted and superficial; the characters are somewhat cardboard-ish. At times these movies are sweet, and sometimes the humor does work. As one or more very important competitions provide the frame of a plot for both movies, it’s hard not to root for these women. It’s not hard to predict that despite many wardrobe or digestive problems, these women will triumph in the end.

There is romantic tension of a lite variety between a male in an a cappella group at Barden, the Treblemakers and Beca. It can’t quite seem to blossom into love, but includes plenty of understated romantic tension, but at least Fat Amy attracts a quality suitor in the second movie. In the second movie Jesse and Becca’s relationship deepens somewhat but still feels more like a relationship out of a Disney animated movie than a plausible one.

Both movies reminded me that most movies are made principally to grab a few quick bucks. That seems to be the case with these movies. This is not high art. It’s arguably not art at all. There will be no Academy Award nominations for this sequel. It feels more like a female version of Animal House than the rich relationship movie I was expecting. But it’s at least good enough to make you care about the Bellas a bit, at least until they win their contests.

In general though there is not much here for the most men to enjoy, aside from a lot of mostly skinny and gorgeous young women and some light humor. Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 are both reasonably amusing movies. However, I suspect many men who sit through this movie will do so sitting on their hands, or looking for an excuse for a potty break. It’s a hard movie for most guys to relate to. Not having grown up a female, I can’t say the same for women. Its financial success for its relatively modest budget indicates both movies succeeded in their goals of titillating and amusing a lot of women.

I can only give them a 3.0 (my B movie rating) because the singing and dancing make up for a lot of mistakes. The puking in the first movie and the crotchless scene in the second movie were both big directorial mistakes that the singing and dancing partially but not fully mend.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Two movie reviews

The Avengers: The Age of Ultron

I’m sure it’s just me, but I’m kind of hoping that one of these days between major crises the Avengers use their fantastic powers to do something about more pedestrian problems, like global warming or making sure litter is getting picked up along our highways. Instead, they are usually busy saving our world that these days seems frequently less worth saving.

In The Avengers: The Age of Ultron we at least get a different kind of criminal: one entirely of the Avengers own creation. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner just can’t help themselves after The Avengers raid a Hydra outpost and in the process acquire some artificial intelligence from a scepter once owned by Loki. The fighting is hardly over before they have pumped the A.I. software into J.A.R.V.I.S, Stark’s talking virtual machine with a mission to completely defend the planet. The result is Ultron. This sounds worthwhile: it would put The Avengers out of business. Naturally it’s not quite that simple and the only way Ultron can figure out how to keep the planet safe is to destroy all of humanity, which at least shows you that Ultron is not stupid. The Avengers get to spend the rest of the movie cleaning up their mistake. It probably won’t spoil any endings to tell you they eventually succeed, but of course not without a lot of work, sweat and character exposition. It was up to Joss Whedon to once again to pull it off.

Perhaps because of his original Avengers movie in 2012, the public was primed for more of the same. The result is that the movie is turning out to be one of the highest grossing movies of all time. However, the movie often feels anticlimactic, and a bit of a hot mess with a lot of it not making a whole lot of sense. Presumably audiences didn’t care too much, as they were far more interested in the spectacle and the nuances between character interactions than to worry about how coherent the story would be. There’s no time to ponder its logical holes and its directorial flaws however. Like the last Avengers movie, this is a speeding bullet and it’s all the audience can do to keep up with the moment-to-moment details.

For those into Marvel comics there is plenty to marvel over. Whedon clearly has not lost any of his directorial talent. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon can credit his success to a combination of story and interesting characters. When his superheroes aren’t trying to defeat Ultron, they are arguing with each other, or he’ll meander into controversial plot points such as a budding relationship between Black Widow and The Hulk. This is the part of the movie that brings home the bacon. The Ultron plot and all the carnage that results is mostly window dressing. What we really care about? Can Tony Stark’s bloated ego be controlled? Will Captain America stay pure? Can anyone but Thor wield his mighty hammer? This movie then is really a complex exploration of these many Marvel superheroes for you to enjoy. And enjoy it you will if you are into this stuff. If like me you didn’t read many comic books growing up and are not familiar with the nuances of all these characters, it’s more of a bloated shoot-em-up movie and thus more of the same.

The financial success of the movie speaks for itself and for Whedon’s wise choices directing the movie. While engaging, the movie arguably gets lost in these conflicts and contrasts of characterization. Just as Star Trek movies have a long backstory, so do these Marvel characters. The more you know the backstory, the more you are likely to enjoy it or be upset by Whedon’s interpretation. Without the backstory, it is just another bloated but reasonably engaging superhero movie, just with lots of superheroes imperfectly trying to work together. Frankly, I’d prefer more attention to the superhero part instead of the character part, which is why I’m probably rating it lower than most of those who waited in line for midnight showings have.

3.2 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Interview

I hadn’t planned to watch The Interview, but that was before I read this recent NPR story about North Korea’s unique way of killing its defense minister: using anti-aircraft guns. North Korea desperately tried to stop the release of The Interview some months back because it was not complementary to its dear leader. North Korea’s hack of Columbia Pictures though simply gave people reason to see a terrible movie. I have to wonder why Columbia Pictures executives, after having viewed this mess of a movie, would have released it at all. Releasing it at least let them cut their losses.

If you like sophomoric movies like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues then you might like this movie, but I doubt it. This movie is highly grating, not the least bit funny even if inebriated and actually makes you feel sympathetic toward the North Korean dictator. He may be evil, but at least he’s not Dave Skylark. Kim Jong-un, like his father, is known for quietly having western tastes, at least in cars, women and bad TV. One of these bad TV shows is “Skylark Tonight”, starring Dave Skylark (James Franco), which is produced by his buddy Aaron (Seth Rogen). Skylark gives wild interviews with celebrities like Eminem, but Aaron is bored with their formula and hungers for the show to be newsier. When they discover Kim Jong-un is a big fan of his show, he reaches out to North Korea and is quickly granted an interview. This helps elevates their show in the ratings.

The plot involves an attempt by the CIA to use Skylark to kill the dictator. All it takes is a simple handshake and about twelve hours of waiting. Once the two actually meet though Skylark finds Kim to be his new bestest buddy and can’t imagine that he is as evil as he is portrayed. The humor of this movie, such as it is, includes lots of Lord of the Rings references, blowing things up with a tank, backslapping, and hard to watch buddy-love. There are also potty-mouth scenes that are not the least bit humorous and make sophomoric humor in the Anchorman movies seems somewhat elevated. Does Kim Jong-un “pee and poo”? This is one of the “humorous” plot points that this “movie” turns on.

In short, it’s a mess of a movie, and largely Seth Rogan’s carnage since he helped direct and write the movie. It’s amazing that they found backers for this piece of garbage. I’ve seen worse movies than this, but only a few, with Ishtar coming immediately to mind. I can’t actually assign a rating to this movie. It’s not quite zero, but its heartbeat is simply too feeble to read. Its dismal box office totals ($6.1M gross to date, with an estimated production cost of $44M) attest to this waste of money.

As with Anchorman 2 if you are going to watch this a few beers before the movie may help you sit through it, as anything that will lower your critical thinking is likely to help. But there’s really no way to turn this ugly weed into anything of redeeming value. The only funny thing about this movie is why North Korea went through the bother of trying to stop its release.

 
The Thinker

Review: Cinderella

My last movie review was a review of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In that review, I noted that there were two actors from Downton Abbey in the movie. It looks like during offseason the younger Downton actors are also booking joint gigs. That’s certainly the case with Disney’s live action version of Cinderella now in theaters. We get two young Downton actors in this movie: Lily James (“Rose” from Downton Abbey) as Cinderella and in a big role reversal from her utterly adorable portrait as Daisy, the kitchen maid/chef we also get Sophie McShera as Drisella, one of the stepsisters.

It should go without saying that you don’t go see a movie about Cinderella expecting any plot twists. You certainly get none here, but you do get a somewhat kinder and gentler version of the tale. Cate Blanchett gets to chew up the scenery as the wicked stepmother, but she seemed sort of wicked-lite to me. Mostly you get a rather upbeat version of Cinderella that moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace. There’s hardly another nasty person in it. The closest is Stellan Skarsgård as the Grand Duke, whose only crime is looking out for the best interests of the kingdom. And that would be that the prince needs to marry an actual princess, for the good of the kingdom.

Granted, most red blooded men would be happy to trade money and protection for the slinky and gorgeous Lily James, who must wear size zero dresses. With beautiful brown eyes, moist and pouty lips and of course long flowing blonde tresses this Cinderella would turn any prince’s head no matter how many cinder ashes are on her clothes or in her face. Besides, she takes to heart her mother’s dying advice: always be kind and have courage. She has to draw on a deep reserve of it after both her parents die and her stepmother quickly turns her into a servant. Yet sweet, dopey and innocent Ella can’t seem to be mad at any of them even when (bet you didn’t see this coming) her stepmother won’t let her go to the prince’s ball.

It’s not entirely clear why I went to see this movie. My adult daughter really liked it, which was something of a surprise as she is a feminist. The whole “I can only be complete with a man” and worse “I can only be fully complete if I marry a prince” memes should make any feminist retch. Well, it’s the magic of Disney I guess. It being Spring Break week and discount day at the cinema, we had a decent crowd for a Wednesday 1 PM matinee. It was perhaps 50% girls under age 8, 40% mothers attending to girls under age 8 and a few oddballs like my wife and I just looking for something halfway decent to see in early April when the movie pickings tend to be slim.

If nothing else Disney knows how to do fairy tales. More typically it has been delivering animated fairy tales. Having plumbed that for pretty much all the profit possible, making live action versions are now a big part of their business plans. Thankfully, at least with Cinderella they do a good job of it. What’s not to like about the handsome, kind and dutiful Prince (Richard Madden), except when he is hunting an elk in the forest (where he first runs into Cinderella, of course) that the ever kind hearted Cinderella does not like to see hunted? The king (Derek Jacobi) is similarly kind hearted, as is pretty much everyone except Cruella, I mean the wicked stepmother. The wicked stepmother is there mainly to keep the adults in the audience awake, and Blanchett gives a fine but not unexpected performance. Among the minor parts we get Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother.

It’s all so clean, sparkly and well done. There are no rainy days in this kingdom. The temperature seems to hover around seventy during the days. There is no mud from horse drawn carriages in the streets. The only thing dirty in this movie, and it’s just a smudge really, is Cinderella, who often sleeps next to the fire to stay warm. If there is a surprise in this movie, it’s its director: Kenneth Branagh, yes that Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor and director with memorable films like Henry V. How Disney snared him, or even considered him as a director in the first place, is something of a mystery, but it’s a good match. Branagh makes this well loved but predictable story not quite memorable (since you know the plot) but largely entertaining in spite of its lack of originality. Disney should consider him for more work like this, since it’s hard to get these factors right.

Branagh hits all the notes that make little girls sigh and swoon. Adults may sigh and swoon a bit too, given that we were young girls and boys once too. There’s nothing to criticize about this movie as long as you can forgive its utter lack of any originality. It’s sweet but not saccharine, strangely heartfelt yet absurdly surreal and it can take even us jaded adults back into a more innocent age in our minds, at least for a little while. The only thing that would have made this better would be to pull it off with a new plot, but then that would be a different story.

Enjoy the lack of surprises but also enjoy the way it so perfectly pulls all your strings as well. It’s the difference between hearing Beethoven performed by your high school orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Branagh has made Cinderalla high art.

3.4 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This movie answers the burning question: what do the actors of Downton Abbey do off-season? I can’t say what all of them do, but the film will answer the question of what Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) do, which is do movies together, well, at least The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Wilton is principally a British TV actor. Maggie Smith’s career needs no introduction. She inspires in most admirers a sense of awe with her amazing and seemingly reflexive acting. She can broadcast more meaning from a single stare or a turn of the head that many actors can do in the course of an entire movie. Like the late Robin Williams, Smith can make even a mediocre movie memorable, which helps in the case with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I suspect men who see the movie will share my opinion about its mediocrity. Most women who see it will probably be like my wife, who was crying at the end. In short, at the risk of showing gender bias, I strongly suspect that this is principally a chick flick.

It’s also a movie for old folks. With a few exceptions, the entire cast is sixty plus, and in most cases seventy plus. As such while the movie certainly has its comic moments, the subtext is that going from old to ancient is not an easy process. Each of these senior citizens deals with the problem in their own way. For example, there is Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) who won’t let the fact that she is turning eighty keep her from a career buying fabric in India for her company. She has a knack for finding great stuff, stuff that will prove highly fashionable, and for getting it at discounted rates. For Muriel Donnelly (Maggie), her job seems to be to give up control. She and her much younger business partner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) run The Best Marigold Hotel in India. Sonny is an energetic young man anxious to prove his business acumen, which is why he and Muriel start the movie in San Diego seeking venture capital from hotel moguls. But mostly the movie takes place at their hotel. Aside from the staff it appears to be populated with white, 60+ Americans and Brit ex-pats who check in but never seem to check out. The clientele is so stable that Sonny and his fiancé Sunaina (Tina Desai) do a daily roll call every day by yelling their names from the open-air lobby, mainly to see if their permanent guests are still alive.

This is a movie with several tracks that clumsily intertwine. One is Sonny’s desperate need to prove his business acumen by creating a second Marigold Hotel. The other is Sonny’s jealousy. He suspects that Sunaina actually prefers their flashy friend Kushal (Shazad Latif) because he is smarter and more entrepreneurial. The rest is a conglomeration of issues with many white people aging. These include Douglas (Bill Nighy), who is technically married and estranged but loves Evelyn with a dopey puppy love that would be cute except he is seventy something. For the women there is the eye candy of Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) to stalk. And there is a fair amount of aging infidelity, of the heart if not of the body, between these aging seniors. Happily the older men are of an age where they fall for personalities not good looking older women. Judy Dench and Maggie Smith are great actresses, but both are packing on the pounds they try to hide behind large blousy dresses.

So it definitely helps to be a much older person to appreciate the movie. For a weekday matinee our theater was surprisingly full, and virtually all of them were senior citizens. This is not surprising due to the day of the week, but also because there are not a whole lot of movies out there marketed for seniors. So this movie is a special treat for them, and something they can relate to instead of another superhero movie featuring impossibly gorgeous people in their twenties. So kudos, with some exceptions, for at least giving us a cast where character is more attractive than looks. With the exception of Gere, none of these seniors will win a senior beauty contest.

Sonny makes for an amusing and energetic if somewhat frantic co-owner. He provides decent entertainment for any of the under fifty crowd that shows up. Filmed principally in India, it of course must have a Bollywood element, which means there must be singing and dancing in it somewhere. Most of it happens at the wedding at the end of the movie. It makes for an interesting amalgamation of Hollywood and Bollywood.

But principally this is a relationship movie, which is what makes it a chick flick. A lot of the pairings don’t make a whole lot of sense to this older male, and overall it seems to be much ado about nothing. However, it at least fills a rarely filled niche of decent movie for the seventy plus crowd. Its basic message: your old but you’re not dead. Enjoy life in whatever way you can while you still have it. And just because you are much older doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a lot of heartache along the way, not to mention new opportunities for love and personal growth.

Both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench though provide plenty of incentive to see the movie regardless of its targeted market. Like a fine wine, these actors age well on camera. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a great use of two hours, but it’s a pretty good use of the time. In general, the older you are the more this movie is likely to tickle your fancy. If relationship movies are your thing, go for it. How nice to get through a movie without anyone dying from a gunshot wound.

3.0 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Double feature, take two

Jupiter Ascending

The last time I reviewed a Wachowski movie, it was a review of Cloud Atlas, a film with lots of potential. It sadly missed the mark, but was still worth seeing. The Wachowski siblings will probably always be best remembered for The Matrix (1999) and its two sequels.

In my humble opinion, Jupiter Ascending is equally as good as The Matrix, and maybe a little better. Sadly, it’s not doing too well at the box office. I have to attribute this to poor publicity, but it may also be because it is at its root a feminist movie and that will bug some people. The heroine, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) doesn’t take much shit. She spends her days in part getting rid of shit by cleaning toilets. She’s part of a Russian immigrant family living marginally in Chicago. Thieves in Russia killed her father before she was born. Of course Jupiter is drop dead gorgeous, and it’s kind of hard to see her being so devoted to her hardworking extended immigrant family that scrambles together a living cleaning other people’s houses. She naturally resists her 4:45 AM wakeup call to begin another day on her hands and knees. She hates her life, she tells us, but won’t do much to change it.

This is not much of a compelling plot but it quickly gets very weird. Apparently Earth is just one of many planets owned by huge profit-oriented conglomerates controlled by various families. We humans and specifically our DNA are much in demand so that its rulers can maintain effective immortality and maximize their profits. In fact, the likely heir to the earth, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is eager to harvest Earth, but first has to get rid of Jupiter, who has no idea that she owns the planet. It’s Caine’s (Channing Tatum) job to try to protect her, even though he is from a far inferior class (half human, half wolf). He does have a few tricks up his sleeve, including these amazing boots that keep him levitated and effectively make him a skywalker. He also has a terrific if somewhat violent dad, Stinger (Sean Bean) who when he is not beating up his son is busy helping him save Jupiter.

Jupiter’s hard scrapple life though is something of a blessing. It makes her tough, resourceful and someone who won’t take much shit when she learns she actually owns the earth and is something of a queen. It also makes her grounded, and she begins to appreciate her simple family that quickly becomes pawns in a much bigger chessboard of universal intrigue.

So that’s the plot, and it seems more appropriate for a comic book than the screen. What’s amazing is what the Wachowskis manage to do with this story. They breathe real life into it in an amazing directorial tour de force. I generally hate CGI in movies because they tend to overwhelm the story. That’s not the case here. The CGI complements the story, and intelligently so and it is full of neat special effects that I’ve never seen before, including ghostly figures and amazingly detailed extraterrestrial civilizations. Moreover, the characters (all of them) are quite interesting. There’s a real universe here, full of quirks and complexity and it is amazingly well visualized by the Wachowskis. There are also some very humorous scenes, such as when the new empress has to get certified by its bureaucracy, which is something out of a 19th century Dickens novel. If it seems a little familiar, think Brazil (1985), which was Terry Gilliam’s (of Monty Python) directorial tour de force. Gilliam shows up here as one of the bureaucrats. It’s a minor part but memorable one.

I personally have not had this much fun at the movies since the last Indiana Jones movie. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, this is equally as good as that, if not better. It’s just not getting the same traction, for reasons I really don’t understand.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Birdman

I usually end up seeing Best Picture, for which Birdman took home the Oscar this year. It is usually sometime after it wins the award, and that was the case this year. Birdman is definitely memorable and is a directorial tour de force just like Jupiter Ascending, just on the micro scale. This movie by director Alejandro Iñárritu was made on a shoestring but he managed to assemble a pretty impressive cast anyhow, including Michael Keaton as Riggan (i.e. Birdman), Emma Stone as his borderline dysfunctional daughter Sam, Naomi Watts as his ex-wife Lesley and Edward Norton as the temperamental actor Mike. If you are looking for something you haven’t seen before at the movies, Birdman definitely qualifies. It is mostly a small series of very long takes wherein the camera closely follows Riggan, a washed up actor known for his Birdman superhero movies from twenty years earlier.

The sixty-something Riggan looks pretty awful. (Michael Keaton is not aging well.) This has to do with his life being a complete mess. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and acting as his assistant, and doing a bad job of it. Riggan is out to prove himself, not as Birdman, but as a Broadway actor, and at the St. James Theater of all places. (I saw The Producers there many years ago.) He has sunk what is left of his fortune into this play, but he can’t seem to keep the other male actor. His producer manages to snag Mike at the last moment, but Mike is quirky, temperamental and prone to blowing up. Riggan struggles mightily to keep his play from imploding, which seems impossible, as each preview is rife with major problems. Moreover the characters intersect, mostly disastrously while what feedback Riggan gets is that he is not cut out for the real theater on Broadway.

It’s all this and Riggan seems to have the mystical powers of his Birdman character, including the powers of levitation, moving objects and flying. It’s left unclear how much of this is real or a product of Riggan’s imagination. But it is impressive to be able to pull off these incredibly long and intimate scenes so flawlessly. I am sure it took a lot of rehearsals. It shows what can be done for so little money and in such a short period of time. I am not sure it deserved Best Picture but it’s quite fascinating as a technical achievement, but perhaps a bit longer than needed. Plus you get to see Michael Keaton go around Times Square in his underwear.

3.3 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Double feature

Seeing double? I am, after seeing two movies in two days. Here are capsule reviews:

Selma

Having seen two of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), it’s not hard to understand how the director and producers of Selma would feel overlooked for not having their film at least nominated. Some say that it is due to racism: when whites are largely responsible for nominating films, they tend to nominate films starring whites. But then again, it was only last year that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Whether or not it deserved a nomination, Selma is definitely worth seeing and certainly feels on par with the nominated films. Then again, any film about Martin Luther King during the height of the civil rights movement, if made really well, would make a compelling movie. Director Ava DuVernay certainly delivers the goods with the help of a cast of thousands (at least in some of the protest scenes), but principally with David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta Scott King.

The movie had to be made with a lot of funding from African Americans instead of traditional sources, which some attribute to discrimination. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper but also owns Harpo Productions. Her company doubtlessly paid for a large part of the film’s costs, since it shows up in the opening credits. The producers’ struggle to make the movie was doubtlessly easier than King’s struggles in and around Selma, Alabama in February and March 1965, which is the focus of the movie.

In a way this movie is a brave portrait of King, since it does not shy away from King’s alleged infidelities. It is not like his mistresses are in your face, but it is alluded to in a very grownup discussion between King and Coretta. It’s hard to see how King could find time to fool around, but it is clear that he was both great and flawed, which seems to be true of all our great heroes. Also flawed is the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Very early in the movie, he is portrayed as wanting to punt on the Civil Rights Act in favor of more achievable goals. This is factually incorrect. Someday Hollywood will give Johnson his own movie because he is an interesting character, just not a particularly telegenic one. Selma does make clear that Johnson was a pivotal character in the civil rights struggle. Arguably, only Johnson had the power to get the Civil Rights bill passed, as his southern credentials (as well as his overwhelmingly Democratic congress) gave him the mojo to do this. Few blacks could actually vote in the south due to poll taxes and unreasonable voter registration requirements. This is the focus of the movie and the stage is Selma.

What Selma does brilliantly is connect us with the extreme discrimination and oppression in the south at this time. Your heart will race during many of these pivotal scenes. The focus of the movie is the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by principally black protestors. These events are now fifty years in our past and thus beyond the memory of most Americans. The movie makes it easy to run back the clock and to understand the extraordinary bravery exercised by blacks (and some whites) back then.

King’s portrayal is thus nuanced, which make him plausible instead of glorified. Along the way we get a host of characters, some best forgotten like Alabama Governor George Wallace, and some we should remember more than we do, like Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. Like it or not you will get a close encounter with our nation’s ugliest side but you will also get a sense for the power of faith in action. King will bring down the walls of Jericho with the help of a lot of dedicated and very brave people. You should get an appreciation for King’s strategic and tactical strengths, and his ability to outthink his opponents. Short of being a reptile, you should be very moved by this movie.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Lucy

Lucy is another movie that really deserved an academy award nomination. It will unfortunately receive nothing from the Oscars this year because it was not nominated for anything. Interstellar will probably win any awards issued this year for a science fiction movie, but really Lucy is the better science fiction movie. In my humble opinion, it’s the most mind-blowing movie in this genre since The Matrix.

And yet of course there are parts of this movie that strain credulity, with its premise being the biggest one. Morgan Freeman plays a professor that ponders what humans would be like if we could use more than ten percent of our brain. This is a lot of silliness, as we do use all of our brain, but perhaps not with 100% efficiency. Lucy (Scarlet Johannson) gets to find out when she unwittingly becomes a drug courier for a very special drug, reputedly a chemical created during pregnancy that stimulates creativity in the fetus. In higher doses Lucy will discover it will let her use 100% of her brain, and this leads to all sorts of magical powers and incredible abilities to use her brain and process information and discern truth. The bad men in Taiwan who put the drug into her body (and a number of other couriers) must take commercial flights with the 500 grams placed in a pouch sewed up inside their bodies. Some very well moneyed clients are waiting, which means that Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) and his well dressed and well armed henchmen won’t let anything go wrong, and are willing to kill lots of people to make it happen. Lucy, once she is transformed by the massive drug overdose, wreaks her own revenge while trying to make use of her abilities to save her knowledge for mankind, while also certain that she will die soon from the cell replication the process spawns.

Johannson is a great actor and gives us a riveting performance as Lucy, while the director Luc Besson makes sure lots of people get killed in and around her for those of us who demand action, blood and gore. Lucy is not afraid to kill either, and with her new precognition she really can’t be beat. But things really get freaky as she uses more and more of her brain and starts to have supernatural and then god-like abilities. But can the knowledge she acquired be passed on before she dies, particularly when so many people want her dead?

This is a terrific movie for any science fiction fan plus you get tons of cool special effects to enjoy too. I’m frankly baffled why it wasn’t nominated for anything and why it wasn’t rated higher by reviewers. It’s a great film, the sort of movie where when you leave the theater you definitely feel you have been taken someplace new. And a bonus: Johansson can act. I can’t say the same about Keanu Reeves (Neo) in The Matrix.

3.4 out of four stars too! What a great double feature!

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Imitation Game

Warning: The Imitation Game ends with perhaps the most heartbreaking five minutes in movie history. You might want to bring a box or two of tissues with you to the movie theater. Aside from the heartbreak principally at the end, it’s natural to feel irritated by Alan Turing, portrayed in this movie by the rising megastar Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing is not an easy man to like and really no one liked him except his parents and his childhood friend Christopher. Christopher is rarely seen in the film but he has really the major part in the film, as will become clear when you see the film.

Turing’s extreme antisocial behavior and brusque manner though did make a certain amount of sense. He was a product of his environment but mostly he was a homosexual. During the 1940s this was not something that you announced, or even admitted in duress. Homosexual conduct was a crime. To survive, Turing learned to keep his feelings tightly bottled up inside of him. Sexual orientation and intelligence have no correlation but perhaps his homosexuality fed his extreme introversion and fascination with mathematics. Today, Alan Turing is known as the founder of modern computer science. The movie is an attempt to show his impact on the world. I am a beneficiary of Alan Turing’s impact, for my career in information technology and my standard of living is a direct consequence of his work. Turing was the unknowing and largely unknown catalyst that brought the computer to life.

He was a more extreme version of Stephen Hawking, whose recent movie The Theory of Everything I recently reviewed. Hawking is a physicist. Turing was a mathematician, but both were geniuses in their own right. It was Turing though who succeeded in the impossible task of cracking the Germany’s Enigma machine, which was used by the German Army and Navy to decode instructions for German forces. This was done by sending coded broadcasts over the radio. The Allies had captured an Enigma machine but without understanding the cypher, which changed daily, there was no way to figure out what the true message was. Decrypt it and the Allies could probably win the war.

This was a staggering problem. Turing’s hope was to create a machine that would test all possible combinations and spit out a decrypted answer. It was an expensive approach and considered a fool’s errand. Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) was tasked with the project’s success. He disliked Turing personally and tried to cut him off. Turing simply went over his head and appealed directly to Winston Churchill, who ensured he had autonomy and millions of British pounds needed to construct his machine. Turing quickly got rid of many of those who were supposed to help him, but looked for suitable candidates by publishing a unique crossword puzzle and encouraging those who could solve it quickly enough to apply for a unique position. One of those he snagged turned out to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) with whom Turing forms a close professional bond, something of a close emotional bond but obviously nothing of a sexual bond. Most of Turning’s staff found him thoroughly irritating and disapproved of his methods. They detected his underlying homosexuality and resented being forced to work for him.

Turing though perseveres, in spite of his initial ambivalence about the war in general and his difficulty winning the respect of those charged to work for him. He inexpertly fends off attempts to shut down his project and also inexpertly tries to win the respect of his team. Their work of course is highly secret and takes place in a hidden military base deep in England. Only one of his male coworkers seems to respect him: John Cairncross (Alan Leech, who you may know as the character Tom Branson from Downton Abbey.) John though is carrying secrets of his own. There is in fact subterfuge underway, which will become clearer as the movie progresses.

It won’t surprise you that the team actually succeeds, thanks to Turing’s machine. Once decrypted though the story takes a different turn, as British intelligence must figure out a way to use the information without tipping off German intelligence that Enigma has been broken.

The movie occasionally moves ten years into the future after the war when we learn that Turing’s patriotism is being questioned and more importantly his homosexuality is discovered, and prosecuted. Turing’s work was so highly classified that his importance to winning the World War II was unknown to the police. Turing nearly went to prison for being a homosexual, and avoided it only through chemical castration that was thought to control his homosexual impulses.

Benedict Cumberbatch is ideal for the role and looks a lot like Turing, except he is skinnier. Keira Knightley is also a good choice as Joan Clarke, but director Morton Tyldum overall does a fine job with this cliffhanger that takes place well behind enemy lines. What becomes clear through the movie is that Turing is a broken and dysfunctional man who inexpertly rises to the occasion. He was also a man of genius, foresight and determination. The movie makes clear the magnitude of his accomplishments.

Turing began the information age. Stephen Hawking was searching for the theory of everything. Turing not only won World War II for the allies but also effectively ended the age of manufacturing and ushered in the information age. As you disable your smartphone before the movie starts, ponder that his accomplishments made your cell phone possible.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Theory of Everything

Suddenly science is cool in the movies, at least if you don’t dwell too much on the science part. Witness two movies out now: The Theory of Everything about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turning, the founder of modern computer science. We’ll see the latter movie tomorrow, but my wife and I did see The Imitation Game last week, so here’s a review.

To start with, this was a daunting film not so much to make but to market. No one except physicists really care about physics and the nature of reality or, for that matter, people like Stephen Hawking who became crippled early in his career with a progressive neurological disease. Recognizing this the director decided to give short shrift to Hawking’s accomplishments in physics and instead concentrated on his relationship with his wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones). This is a compelling story but it is still hard to watch Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) move quickly from active but nerdy PhD student to crippled scientist. While I knew of Hawking’s notoriety and have read two of his books including his best known, A Brief History of Time, I never knew that he was married and even had many children with his wife Jane, all after he was severely hobbled by his disease.

This is where the film tightly focuses. What draws the literary student Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking together seems hard to fathom, aside from the fact that they both attend Cambridge University. Jane is a die-hard Christian (Church of England) and Stephen is an atheist. Jane likes to sing in the church choir and Stephen likes to play chess. Jane likes to dance and Stephen cannot, and this is before his disease progressed. Jane is beautiful and Stephen is asymmetrical, ungainly, socially awkward and wears seriously ugly oversized glasses that accentuate his obvious nerdishness.

Much more puzzling is why Jane would want to marry Stephen, particularly when his disease manifests itself. Jane though is full of either grace or stupidity, because she plunges ahead anyhow, doing almost all the work. She cares for Stephen’s many personal needs, manages the household and then becomes the mother to a number of their children. His disease, which typically kills the recipient in about two years, doesn’t kill Stephen, but it does worsen. And over time technology helps Stephen cope with the disease, giving him an artificial voice and an electric wheelchair.

Jane’s seeming martyrdom does have its price: overwhelming work, stress and no sense of identity beyond being his wife, caretaker and mother of his children. Eventually she carves out a little time for herself by rejoining the church choir. There she meets the new choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan recently lost his own wife so he and Jane quickly become close, too close in the eyes of Jane’s mother, who suspects their last child is not actually Stephen’s. Jonathan though is a genuinely nice man and integrates himself seamlessly into their household, with Stephen’s tacit consent. Stephen seems to understand that he cannot provide the companionship that Jonathan can so this unusual arrangement starts to become the family’s new normal, although it raises many eyebrows both in and out of Cambridge.

By itself though this plot is not terribly compelling. Fortunately it has great acting, mostly by Jones and Redmayne to sustain your interest. We get insights into Stephen and his courage confronting the disease, but in reality this film is more an ode to and study of Jane than it is about Stephen. But even with overwhelming tenacity and perseverance Jane cannot help but feel somewhat the victim in the relationship, although it was a role she took on willingly. It’s not surprisingly that while she avoids a physical relationship with Jonathan for a long time, they become emotionally entangled and that causes more distance between Jane and Stephen.

As his disease progresses, Stephen needs the help of a full time nurse. Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) becomes more than his nurse, but also his confidant and lover, leading Jane and Stephen to eventually divorce and for Stephen and Elaine to marry. And, oh yeah, despite his disabilities Hawking manages to write his book, lecture and make new advances in theoretical physics, something that will not surprise you if you know anything about his life. Hawking is still alive at age 72 but his marriage to Elaine ended in 2006.

So don’t expect to learn much about a unified theory of physics in this movie, which is just as well since we likely wouldn’t understand it anyhow, but do expect to feel moved by the story of Stephen and Jane’s life together and how Stephen somehow managed to live a rich life in spite of the odds against him. Despite all the great acting, this is a fringe film. It hasn’t done great in theaters because it is a topic that won’t interest most people. However, if you are brave enough to inhabit Steve and Jane’s world for two hours, you will probably find it a film worth watching.

3.1 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Two brief movie reviews

The Maze Runner

There have been a number of books and movies where cruelty to children is the main theme. The Maze Runner is sort of a combination of the book Lord of the Flies mixed with The Hunger Games. As sickening as The Maze Runner is at times, you might say it is a lite version of both this book and these movies.

The premise though is kind of interesting, if more than a bit disgusting. In case you missed the trailers, about fifty adolescent boys seem to be trapped in the center of a large maze. In its center, which doesn’t look like it is more than a square mile, they can live a Spartan sort of existence based on mutual cooperation. Except for one gap in the wall, which closes with sundown they are trapped inside. This gives them incentive to explore the maze during the day. This maze though does not stay static and changes daily. If you don’t make it out by sundown, you are presumed dead. The concrete walls of the maze press together, killing anyone unfortunate enough to be between the walls at the time.

Once a month a new male teen is delivered via an underground elevator, his past conveniently erased. He is forced to join the tribe. The latest one is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who quickly has to fit in among the established pecking order. Things have been scary but sort of all right in the center of the maze, but Thomas’s arrival seems to upset the apple cart. A teen gets “suckered” (goes crazy in the woods) nearly killing Thomas. Huge cyborg spiders that hang out in the maze begin to do so during the daylight, making going into the maze all the chancier. Thomas joins the elite group of runners of the maze and quickly decides they must confront their worst fears and the spiders inside it and actually escape. The unusual delivery of a girl Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) with a note makes this perfectly clear. Just in case they don’t take it seriously, a cyborg spider attack occurs during the day, which kills most of them. This makes actual escape an imperative.

The movie is well done, the acting is generally good and the premise is creepy. It’s pretty obvious though that they are the rats in this maze and their days are numbered. The only real question is who is inflicting this misery on them and why? Your curiosity will be rewarded at the end of the movie, but your patience may be tested when you get to the end you realize this movie is first of what looks like many more.

Being inhumane to children seems to be a new profitable Hollywood theme as actual child abuse is against the law. This movie is simply another one and actually less grisly than the many Hunger Games movies. My sensitive stomach found it hard to watch anyhow. It’s well done, it just doesn’t really satisfy the itch for a satisfying conclusion. 3.2 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

How much you like this last movie in the bloated three-part movies based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit will probably depend on what you thought of the first two. This is more of the same, but is actually reasonably entertaining. It’s just that it is not too easy to reconcile the movie with the actual book, if you have read it.

Thankfully, it has been thirty years or more since I read The Hobbit, so I forgot many of the details, thus I didn’t mind too much that so many plot points had changed. What you really get of course is Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth and that requires entertainment and you get plenty of that. So it’s showy, bloated, way over the top, full of CGI and gives plenty of screen time to ancillary characters that never appear in the book itself, including more interspecies love between dwarf and elf, something of a father-daughter relationship between Legolas and Tauriel, and battle scenes that I admit are at least as compelling as the siege of Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. You also get little Peter Jackson signature items, like the invincible Legolas and his amazing abilities to defy gravity as well as lots of collapsing stone pillars, towers and bridges. Clearly these were constructed with low bid contracts because it doesn’t take much to turn them into rubble. You get to witness the awesome power of a dragon (Smaug) as he lets loose his fiery mouth on the town of Dale and watch Thorin descend into gold fever once Smaug is gone and those hordes of treasure are his.

The best parts of the movie though have nothing to do with these massive, mostly CGI-generated battle scenes, but those that are not part of the book itself, such as when an imprisoned Gandalf is rescued by Saruman, Elrond and Lady Galadriel at Dol Goldur. There we get to see the Ringwraiths again and watch Saruman (a near ninety-something Christopher Lee) kick some serious ass back when he was still a force for good. Most of the rest though is formulaic but at least comfortable as you pretty much get exactly the sort of Peter Jackson experience you expect. Jackson’s many movies now feel homey. They may be bloated but they are at least familiar.

Your feelings about Jackson are unlikely to change from watching this movie, but if you watch this last movie you at least get your money’s worth and see Jackson come close to reviving his best efforts from the original movies.

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar is another one of these movies that is quite good, providing that you don’t think about it too much. Don’t let this stop you from seeing the movie if so inclined. It’s not at all a bad movie and it is quite engaging. Ignorance about science actually helps, although director Christopher Nolan got plenty of scientific help to try to make the premise semi-plausible.

The premise of the movie is that the earth is dying, at least as a habitat for sustaining human life. Not much else other than corn is growing and you will see plenty of corn, at least until Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) decides to abandon his farm and family to take a trip through a wormhole around Saturn that appears to have been placed there by an alien intelligence. The wormhole has already taken some brave cosmonauts across vast distances of space and time (actually to another galaxy) to some area of space where there are some candidate planets that might support human life. Mankind needs to vacate the earth soon, which is Cooper’s reason for volunteering to command this mission. He wants to save his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) from the grisly fate of slow death that all humans will face if they don’t get off the planet soon. Apparently, colonizing Mars is out of the question.

Cooper used to be a test pilot but became just another farmer after his test flying days ended. His skills were no longer required. He’s a competent but unenthusiastic farmer who frequently wakes from nightmares from his accident as a test pilot. Fortunately, there’s a gravitational anomaly on his farm. It’s not good to have one of these, but between this and the massive dust storms that regularly arrive he and Murph are reading signs in the patterns of dust in the library of their farmhouse. And decoded it sends them to a place on their handy USGS topographic map where nothing should be. When they drive out there though they find a fenced in area. Once inside, what they really find is NASA, now a hush-hush agency, and Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the genius working on the really hard problem of moving the human race off the earth, out of the Milky Way and to some far flung place to ensure the survival of the species.

This sounds like a worthwhile endeavor but goodness, what a strange set of coincidences already because Cooper already knows Professor Brand from his flying days. Brand immediately petitions him to take a spacecraft to Saturn, because he is the best test pilot he ever saw. He wants Cooper to take it through the wormhole and then to various systems and planets abnormally affected by gravitational waves to find a planet that humans can colonize. Just in case no one on earth can actually follow them en masse, each spacecraft comes complete with human incubators to restart the species on a suitable planet. It is, to say the least, a series of remarkable coincidences. But it’s just the beginning of these as well of many questions.

For me, among the questions is why some sort of intelligent species would place this prominent and useful wormhole near Saturn but not bother to give them a way to communicate. Then there is the physics on whether you could actually traverse through a wormhole and survive on the other side. Obviously, it makes for a great movie if you can. After a long trip from Earth to Saturn with his two travelling companions Brand (the professor’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi), they do slip through the wormhole. Cooper and Brand quickly engage in a series of literally hair-raising visits to a couple of local planetary systems. They go there to find some pioneers who went there and to see if the planets are habitable. Gravitational waves and relativity play major tricks on them, allowing them to age hardly at all while Romilly waits 23 years for their return. Meanwhile, Cooper knows that back home his daughter Murph is aging relatively much more quickly than he is and is seriously wacked out by her father’s disappearance. He promised to come home and get her, but as decades pass it’s hard to see how this can happen, particularly when none of the previous explorers have come back. Fortunately, at least one-way communications from Earth is possible. This gives Cooper many opportunities to tear up when he gets sporadic reports from Murph, who quickly catches up with him in age.

So yes, the plot is a bit convoluted and incredulous at times, but it is all portrayed quite realistically otherwise. Most science fiction and space operas don’t talk about the problem of relativity. At least this one tackles it. And the acting is quite good all around. The acting includes a supporting role for Matt Damon, who plays one of the pioneer astronauts, Dr. Mann.

The plot frequently moves across space and time, to this far-flung galaxy then back to earth, NASA and Dr. Brand’s lab where little Murph becomes one of his scientists and helps him with his complex space/time formula he can’t quite seem to finish. There are plenty of suspenseful parts of the movie. If you are having trouble feeling affected by the acting, then you can revel in the voluminous orchestration that, if you are of a certain age will sound familiar. It’s not just the organ music that feels like it’s come out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but many of the characters as well as much of its plot. Yes, the movie feels like it is something of a homage to the classic 1968 science fiction movie, imitating it in many ways but fortunately not in 2001’s cerebral nature, divorced as it was from emotion.

Matthew McConaughey has grown up as an actor. In the past I have panned his movies. Here he gets to play a serious role rather than a pretty boy with flaxen, blow dried hair, and he does a good job with it, as does Anne Hathaway, of course as his female partner Brand. There is plenty of emotion to revel in too, which considering the weighty topic of the survival of our species seems quite appropriate.

Just don’t think about it too much. Don’t think about how they manage to survive such a long time (hibernation certainly helps) in their spacecraft, don’t think about the improbability of emerging alive on the other side of a wormhole, and don’t think about the likely lethal amounts of cosmic rays just a trip to Saturn would have given them. Presumably NASA figured out a workaround. As regular readers may remember, I don’t believe we are destined to live on other planets, let alone other solar systems or galaxies, given the daunting nature of known physics and the distances between solar systems. Earth is it for our species, I’m afraid. But if you have to dream about such a possibility, Interstellar gives you as plausible a scenario as you are likely to get. It’s just, if you have studied the science and do think about it, you realize it is still implausible.

But you probably won’t care too much. Overall the movie is too good not to ignore a lot of dubious science and major issues with the plot in general. Indulge and enjoy. Here’s one movie that is quite literally stellar.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

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