Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

The Thinker

Two hit movies

It’s blockbuster season. To make sure we are well entertained and our wallets are emptied Hollywood brings us its best films of the year, which are often subsequently nominated for awards. Here are two films early out of the gate that you will likely enjoy.

Doctor Strange

As a rule I’m not into superhero movies, mainly because I find the egregious use of testosterone (and now with Wonder Woman, estrogen) silly and uninteresting. I made an exception for Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch because this doctor is not your ordinary superhero.

When the movie starts Doctor Stephen Strange is a super-successful brain surgeon and that gives him all the latest toys and a fantastic lifestyle, not to mention the company of his favorite nurse and girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams). It also has him hunting for more complex and interesting cases. He is soon brought low by an accident that leaves his memory intact but largely destroys his magical hands that provide the source of his fame and wealth. Stephen is obsessed with getting back his surgical prowess. It looks hopeless until a fellow doctor tells him about the unusual case of a man in a similar condition who succeeded against the odds. Trying to imitate this man’s success, Strange ends up in Katmandu, Nepal and knocking on the door of a nondescript row house. There he hopes to learn these same mystical secrets.

It takes him a while to be taken for a serious pupil. Needless to say Strange is highly motivated and a gifted student. But he finds it hard for his rational mind to accept the mystical powers The Ancient One (a bald and definitely non-Asian Tilda Swinson) says can be projected from the mind. It won’t surprise you (or spoil any plot points) to learn that with her help and the help of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the keeper of the sacred library Wong (Benedict Wong) he succeeds.

Unfortunately, the knowledge in this special library has been pilfered, or at least a key page of it, by the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who is a big believer in chaos theory. He has been battling The Ancient One for control of the earth’s destiny, and his latest stolen acquisition from their library is a serious breach. Fortunately Dr. Strange gains proficiency just in time to be paired with a magical cloak (something of a character in itself) to help The Ancient One fight both a real and ethereal battle with Kaecilius’ forces, with humanity’s future being the prize.

In an age of super special effects, these here are both neat and memorable and complement the plot rather than detract from it. Cumberbatch is now a serious A-List actor and manages to infuse Strange with a captivating personality that is both human and fantastic. Director Scott Derrickson seamlessly pulls all of this together, allowing Strange to be a sort of anti-superhero, a superhero with a human face wrestling with unseen forces to help mankind. I hope there are more Strange movies in the future, because I will be happy to invest more time with this sort of superhero.

3.4 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Arrival

One of the first science fiction films of note, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) tackled what it would be like if aliens landed on our planet. Sixty-four years later we get Arrival with essentially the same plot. When done right, as in Arrival this plot will both entertain and keep you guessing. What makes Arrival somewhat unique is that it plausibly tackles the topic.

Eight huge egg-like alien spacecraft land (well, more accurately hover) at various spots over the earth and sort of sit there, waiting for humanity to investigate. The United States gets one that lands in Montana. The U.S. military of course is all over it, as are militaries elsewhere in the world, but even so it’s tough going. They have to learn how to communicate with these aliens. You can see them if you get under their ships because every 18 hours whoever is there will get swept into an inside chamber where you can view these octopus-like aliens behind a barrier.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who already happens to have a Top Secret clearance gets the call, in this case from Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Unsurprisingly, Banks is a renowned language expert and has studied how language is learned. It’s a pretty tedious process but with the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) the two plod away at the job, overseen by the hovering and mothering military nearby, which sets up a quarantined base camp. Louise does her best, but is not quite at her best. Even before the plot gets going we learn she is a woman haunted by dreams as real as life, but that have never happened to her.

Viewers can take this as a key to a plot that will slowly unfold. Colonel Weber is anxious to make progress because there is something of a race among the countries with these spacecraft. These aliens that they call heptapods are patient but these militaries are not. It all amounts to whether the aliens are friend or foe. If foe they must be destroyed somehow. If friend, they must glean information for their nation’s advantage before another country does.

With science fiction in the theater these days more often to be space operas like Star Wars sequels, this movie turns out to be genuine science fiction. But it’s also a deeply human story, along with a grand mystery and puzzle. These aliens feel like aliens and their writing is sophisticated and seems impenetrable. It’s exhausting work for both Louise and Ian all while Louise wrestles with inner psychological demons and the military works overtime not to use their itchy trigger finger. Meanwhile the Russians and the Chinese cut off communications and soon no one is sharing information anymore.

This one will surprise you in a good and satisfying way and suck you right into its plot. These heptapods are suitably alien, as are their ovoid spacecraft. The mosaic of clues will come together and should leave you more than a little awed, thanks to terrific acting by Adams, Whitaker and Renner and Denis Villeneuve’s deft but understated directing.

3.4 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Girl on the Train

The whodunit is something of a Hollywood staple, something you can release pretty much anytime of year. They make good movie filler outside of the peak summer and holiday movie seasons. Case in point is Girl on the Train, now in theaters and starring Emily Blunt. Blunt plays Rachel Watson, a woman who lives her life in a deeply alcoholic haze. Rachel’s addiction is key to this whodunit because she becomes an unreliable narrator, making it a challenge for the viewer to parse through all the information presented and discern the truth.

One thing that is clear is that Rachel is wholly messed up. She commutes to and from New York on the train. Twice a day the train slowly passes a street where she used to live. She is glued to the window as the train slowly passes her old street. She becomes obsessed with a couple she sees in a house along the tracks and what she sees as their ideal loving relationship on display to passers by. This idealized relationship may be more of a draw than the bottle of spirits she discreetly sips from on the train. It was apparently a life she thought she had before her divorce broke her. She now awkwardly slums with her friend Cathy (Laura Prepon, who plays Alex Vause in Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black) while making a wreck of her post-divorce life.

Rachel is certainly haunted by the breakup of her marriage but also by her inability to have a child that Tom Watson (Justin Theroux) desperately wanted. Her inability to conceive led to the breakup of her marriage to Tom who started hitting on their realtor Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) instead. Rachel can’t seem to help herself and stalks her old neighborhood and her old house, pining for Anna’s new baby with Tom and the life she used to have. The couple two doors down the street seem to have that perfect marriage that because it eluded her now intrigues her. However, one afternoon from her window on the train she observes the woman in the arms of another man. This woman, Megan, inconveniently goes missing one evening after Rachel exits from the train. She sees her and her husband Abdic (Edgar Ramirez) in a tunnel. Megan is eventually found dead in the woods nearby.

Rachel seems pivotal to solving the unfolding mystery. Since she is angry with Megan for her observed infidelity, her being near the scene of the crime and an injury that happened in her deeply intoxicated state, she is under suspicion for the homicide. Even Rachel doesn’t know if she might be the murderer.

Based on the debut book last year by Paula Hawkins, the movie will keep you guessing. Figuring it out when a character is an unreliable narrator is challenging, but made more so by the way director Tate Taylor chooses to move back and forth in time. The movie is sad but compelling. Blunt’s portrayal of a deeply depressed and intoxicated woman is first rate and heartbreaking. Taylor takes us deeply into their intimate worlds, and does this with Steadicams and very intimate close up shots. The dark late autumn days in upstate New York also contribute to the movie’s pervasive gloom.

Still the movie will keep you engaged. You will have your hands full trying to piece together what’s actually going on, so in this sense it’s a very good whodunit. Rest assured that Rachel is not the only person with issues. Pretty much everyone in this story has issues and they are coping badly with them, making the surreal Stepford village Rachel inhabits more human as the movie progresses. Allison Janney has a nice minor part as Detective Riley, who gets to try to figure out who is responsible for Anna’s death. She will have her hands full.

So Girl on the Train is an intriguing filler movie while you wait for Hollywood’s more substantial offerings starting next month. Warning: there is a grisly ending scene that can be hard to stomach.

3.2 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Two movies reviewed

Star Trek Beyond

If you like action movies, you will like Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of this latest franchise reboot. It moves crazily fast, so fast you might want to hold onto the arms of your seat for its 122-minute duration. It is visually dense. Director Justin Lin won’t allow your attention to linger for a second. It also looks crazily expensive.

However, because it’s an action movie, it doesn’t really take you to brave new worlds. You’ve seen variants of this plot many times and in many shows and movies. For me the best Star Trek shows, or at least its best episodes, was when I was taken to these new worlds, or at least new thoughts. Here we have a standard villain Krall (Idris Elba) who wants to destroy the Federation. He only respects warriors and wants the universe full of Spartans like himself. In other words, he’s very much a Republican and he has a problem with the whole “let’s peacefully get along” meme. So maybe his real target is the late Gene Roddenberry. Can Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest stay true to the ideals of the Federation when confronted by such a pathological killing machine?

It won’t spoil too much to let you know that the Enterprise is his first big target and Krall and his fleets of crazy Ginsu knive-shaped ships are going to do more than kick its fenders. Lin seems to be going for what worked in Star Trek’s best movie, The Wrath of Khan. Its plot is not all that dissimilar but at least Lin succeeds in making it not feel like an imitation of that movie.

As for character development, there is a bit of that. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) get to spend too much time together in tight quarters causing Spock to sound more human than Vulcan at times. We learn about a minor tiff between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and that Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling his age a bit, as his birthday is upon him and he’s older than his father when he died. Frankly though none of these characters need more development and have had their personalities dissected many times. What we need are new characters to care about. With the untimely demise of the actor Anton Yelchin (Chekov) maybe we’ll get some in the next movie.

While not exploring any brave new worlds, you are unlikely to care. You won’t have time to analyze your feelings until sometime after the movie, but you will appreciate being taken for a hell of a roller coaster ride. Lin steps into J.J. Abrams’ big shoes to direct this movie, and he does a great job of it, giving it a fresh look … the warp effects are particularly well done. It’s clear that it cost a bundle and it’s so well done, just not particularly nourishing. Here’s hoping in the next movie we get less action and more inspiration. That would make Gene Roddenberry happy but perhaps not Paramount’s stockholders.

3.4 out of 4 stars, however.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Ghostbusters

Speaking of rebooting a franchise, 32 years after Ghostbusters we get this reboot where four women audaciously play the comedic roles played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and Harold Ramis in 1984. And crazily enough that’s a problem for some people who think casting women in these roles is somehow to cheapen the films. Jeebus, it’s a comedy people and Democrats have just nominated the first woman to be president of the United States! Get out of 1950 already!

I think the real sin of director Paul Feig is to go with “body positive” women. It makes a change to have a few plus sized women for the lead roles in movies, including Melissa McCarthy (Abby) and Leslie Jones (Patty). It makes it harder for men to fat shame women when they are normalized on the screen. One of my complaints about movies is that actors are predominantly thin and pretty. Obviously it’s a successful formula if you are chasing profits but for a comedy the rules can be relaxed. All four women including Kristen Wiig (Erin) and Kate McKinnon (Jillian) will keep you engaged in laughing in this pointlessly silly plot about ghosts taking over Manhattan. It makes no sense whatsoever and adds little in material to the premise, but 32 years have elapsed. Many of those coming to see the movie were not even alive when the original came out.

It’s harmless good fun and if you are old enough to remember the original movie you will see some actors that look familiar, just older and greyer. These include Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver in bit parts. (Dan Aykroyd stayed behind the scenes as one of the writers.) It certainly captures the spirit of the original movie while of course not being quite the same. The four women develop quite an ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth (probably best known as Thor, but here he plays “Kevin”) proves he has comedic talent too, this time as their receptionist.

A better than average piece of comedic fluff.

3.1 out of four points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Independence Day (Resurgence)

Before going to see Independence Day (Resurgence), the twenty years later sequel to Independence Day (1996), I made a point of watching its inspiration, Independence Day again. When it comes to movies, my mind is like a sieve so a refresher showing helped me remember who the characters were twenty years ago and whether my assessment back then (a pretty good movie) still stood.

So first a brief second look back at Independence Day, the feel-good 1996 blockbuster summer popcorn movie. Both this movie and the sequel of course required you to suspend disbelief. In 1996 though aliens taking over the earth, while not exactly a new idea for a movie, was at least an infrequent enough a theme where this movie was pretty fresh. And for 1996 the special effects we got were quite awesome. Independence Day had going for it its timing near the holiday but also some really fun acting, principally Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller, who nailed the role of a super-aggressive fighter pilot. They threw in an odd mash up of characters that managed to entertain us. These included Jeff Goldbloom as the quirky David Levenson, whose wife (Margaret Colin) just happened to be President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) chief of staff. Judd Hirsch showed up as his Jewish but not terribly devout father and Brent Spiner had something of an ancillary role as Dr. Okun, whose brain was quickly fried by aliens. Of course the world somehow united (via Morse code, if you can believe it) to defeat these alien invaders/harvesters. Millions died and our capital (including most major cities) was incinerated but in the end of course we won, with the help of a computer virus, Will and Jeff and a vintage 1996 Apple Macbook. There were staggeringly implausible coincidences throughout but who couldn’t cheer when the mothership came down thanks to good ol’ Yankee ingenuity? It was implausible as hell, but it was fun with just the right ingredients to make it engaging and entertaining.

Fast forward twenty years and you can see quickly where this review will end up. First of all, can you think of any summer blockbuster that doesn’t involve the earth or at least some major city like New York getting blasted by super forces? Pick any of the plethora of superhero movies out there and you will know that this plot is (to say the least) tired. Oh so tired. Granted, it’s even more visually stunning in 2016 than it was in 1996. Super special effects in 2016 though are no big deal. Even the cheaper movies can afford special effects, at least like those made in 1996. Trying to go over the top on special effects these days is nigh impossible. We’ve seen it all so many times that it’s a good thing that if we see this movie in a theater we don’t have a fast forward button to skip over them.

Many but certainly not all the characters are back from 1996. Unfortunately the ones who are missing were crucial to sustaining the first movie, principally Will Smith. Jeff Goldbloom is back and looks great twenty years later. Judd Hirsch doesn’t look like he’s aged much either. Brent Spiner is back too and gets more than a bit part. Dr. Okun must have gotten excellent physical therapy while in his twenty-year coma, because he’s hardly out of bed before he is bounding down the halls of Area 51 on his alien hunt. We also learn (or at least infer) that Dr. Okun is gay.

President Whitmore’s little daughter is now in the White House herself, as chief of staff, while her father suffers from what seems to be depression after his leadership saving the world. The earth is supposedly united and peaceful (kicking alien ass will do that to a species, especially when they are worried about a return visit), except possibly in Africa where David Levenson quickly encounters Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), and African warlord with enormous pectoral muscles and a hankering for alien meat. Needless to say from tremors on the earth and the moon along with hulking entities that mysteriously appear on radars … they’re back, they’re much bigger and they are pissed. Time for earthlings to come together and invent a new Corbomite maneuver. Unfortunately, there’s no Captain Kirk here, but there is David Levenson and the now fully restored Dr. Okun to puzzle through how humanity will survive this time.

There are new characters. Captain Hiller’s son Dylan in the first movie is channeling his absent dad (dead, but cause of death not quite described) as a fighter pilot like dad, played here by Jesse Usher. How the earth is governed is not quite spelled out but the U.S. president (Sela Ward) seems to have an oversized role amongst all this new brotherhood. Once the alien attack starts though out go our communications satellites. This time though we revert to a newer technology to keep in touch: yes, shortwave radio instead of Morse code!

The movie does move along at a brisk enough pace but the characters this time are far less engaging while the movie suffers from an overdose of alien attack syndrome. The supposedly scientific explanations don’t make much sense and at times troopers are so busy shooting at aliens that it reminded me of a slightly better version of Starship Troopers. In short, this movie may not escape a Rifftrax commentary in a few years. And if you enjoyed the many implausible encounters in the first movie (like between the First Lady and the fighter pilot’s fiancée), wow, buckle your seatbelts because there are heaps more here.

It won’t spoil the plot to let you know that we beat the bugs again, with the help of a little extraterrestrial intelligence. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing the aliens win. At least that would have been different.

If your standards in popcorn movies are low, by all means go see Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s not a bad movie, just not nearly as engaging as the first one and so rife with cliché and stereotypical characters it’s hard to care if any of the major characters get blown up by bugs. Not many actually do, of course, which means there’s a good chance for another sequel, as the end of the movie makes clear. Maybe based on this experience I’ll wisely skip any next sequel.

2.8 out of four stars here.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Some month’s back I reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s latest low budget movie The Visit, a pretty good example that less can be more in a movie. It wasn’t particularly hard to figure out, but it was still well done, creepy and plausible. The secret to a good horror movie is to make it something that you can relate to.

Last night we went to see 10 Cloverfield Lane and I can happily report that unlike most movies in this genre, it totally creeped me out. It creeped me out so much that I dreamed about it most of the night, naturally in morphed situations where I was in a similar role. It couldn’t have cost that much more than The Visit for except for some special effects in the last ten minutes it all takes place in a small bunker. And whereas The Visit had a cast of four, this effectively has a cast of three, unless you count John Goodman as Howard, whose immense bulk is hard to ignore. Maybe he counts as two. For the kids in The Visit, getting away from the grandparents is not too hard: just run away. For poor Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) there really is no escape. That’s the key here in this horror movie: the characters are put into a box from which it’s virtually impossible to come out alive.

And that’s because Armageddon has arrived. Emmett spent months helping the obsessed Howard build a survival shelter on his property. Howard may be sixty-something and massively overweight but at least he can sense when the end is near and he was prepared. The cause of Armageddon is unclear: was it nuclear war or some sort of massive chemical attack? Was it the Russians, the North Koreans or space aliens? As the youthful Emmett relates it (he managed to fight his way into Howard’s shelter) whatever it was, it sure was bad, but it was worth the broken arm to simply have the chance to survive. To the college-age Michelle, she had no idea Armageddon had even arrived. She got into a terrible car accident and found herself a dozen or more feet underground in Howard’s bunker, chained to a wall in a cinder block room with lacerations on her head and a brace on her leg. Needless to say she is terrified and she is dubious that the paranoid Howard is telling the truth about the outside, particularly when she occasionally feels the grounds shake and she hears loud noises above them.

John Goodman proves himself a hell of an actor and veers between weird, plausibly honorable, humorous, self-deprecating and homicidal. Whatever may be happening when the ground shakes, it is clear that Howard has plenty of issues and will rock their inner world. Given his size and that he has all the keys and a gun, it behooves Michelle and Emmett to be nice to him. There’s not much space in the shelter and even if Howard weren’t so strange it’s hard to share close quarters and not get on each other’s nerves.

I can’t say too much more without giving away great portions of the plot. The important thing to understand is this is a hell of a great premise and even better it had a terrific director (Dan Trachtenberg) to do it justice. And yet it could not have cost much to make, because both Winstead and Gallagher are virtually no name actors. This leaves Goodman to chew the scenery, but not objectionably. And boy is he creepy and gets more so as this story enfolds. A trip to a chamber near the surface convinces Michelle that Howard is telling some variation of the truth, but also surfaces clues that Howard is one messed up and very violent man.

If M. Night Shyamalan sees the movie he’s no doubt pissed that he didn’t get to direct it, but I doubt he could do a better job. It bears some semblance to his 2002 movie Signs starring Mel Gibson. I won’t report if there are aliens in this movie like there were in Signs but Howard can stand in for any alien from another planet. How do you win in this unwinnable situation? How do you come out alive, particularly when Howard is paranoid and his beneficence is often fleeting?

10 Cloverfield Lane inhabits a slim genre of movies that I see. I see plenty of movies and many of them are superstarred and airbrushed to within an inch of their lives. 10 Cloverfield Lane should end leaving you feeling like you’ve seen a movie. A movie is not just a movie, it’s a movie that makes an impact, will resonate with you, which actually feels special and which you can’t possibly forget. If you aren’t too squicked out by horror and violence, it’s quite a tour de force on what must have been a very modest budget.In short, it’s terrific so go see it if you don’t have a weak stomach and skip the bloated Superman v. Batman flick. 3.4 out of four-points. It ends in a way that suggests a sequel is possible, and I’ll be first in line to see it.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Witch

Witch, now playing in theaters is something of a head scratcher. Just what is director and writer Robert Eggers trying to say in this movie of a New England family circa 1630? Chances are that you will emerge from the movie as baffled as I was, so perhaps its meaning (if any) is intended to be in the eye of the beholder. The movie probably won’t leave you satisfied. If there were a “downer of the year” movie Witch would probably win the award and it’s only March. Boy, is it bleak!

That’s not to say this movie about a family ostracized in their New England plantation is not without merit. The acting is quite good and aside from the parents William (Ralph Ineson, who I mistook for Geoffrey Rush) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) it’s otherwise virtually an all-kid cast. Eggers gets fine performance out of these children, some of the best I’ve seen from kids since Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of Cole in The Sixth Sense. It is also suitably creepy in an M. Night Shyamalan way, who of course took off big as the director in The Sixth Sense. This ostracized and overly religious family (no small thing by Puritan standards) leaves the plantation to make their own path with no compromise in their worship of God. They end up on a creepy meadow at the edge of a forest that reminds me of my new digs here in Western Massachusetts. Except it is always overcast on this meadow next to the forest, and William and Katherine’s reverence doesn’t seem to be of much help. It seems like God has mark against them. Something in their dreary lives they must have inspired his animosity. Maybe it was from all that praying and prostrating of themselves.

All this is a hint to expect nothing in the way of humor or levity in Witch. Get your Pilgrim spirit on and start channeling sermons like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. For it’s calamity after calamity in Witch and actual witchcraft seems to be at best a figment of their imaginations. Still, what else but witchcraft could cause their infant son to be mysteriously snatched away from them? It certainly doesn’t help matters when their blossoming daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), perhaps as a small act of rebellion against all the excessive Christianity, suggests to her younger siblings that she is a witch. Mostly Thomasin like most of the family seems to be dealing with PTSD. Their family may aspire to be devout but needs a lot of family therapy instead not to mention some fertile land. But all they have is each other and their good book and it’s not enough.

One thing is clear: the movie couldn’t have cost much to make. One short plantation scene and we are out in the middle of nowhere for the rest of the movie. Their farm is mostly a hovel and their efforts at farming aren’t working out. Is it the hunger and malnutrition that cause them to do loopy things? William takes his boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) into the woods to try to shoot their way to prosperity and William only manages to hurt himself all while hiding this from his wife.

Meanwhile director Eggers keeps throwing metaphors at us that you don’t know whether to take seriously or not. A wild rabbit eludes being shot and shows up at moments of great crisis. A sign of fertility? Things happen in the woods that may involve a witch but it’s hard to tell. Is it that or is all the PTSD causing the kids to hallucinate? They are obviously not getting their daily Flintstone vitamin. Whatever is bad goes to worse and it won’t be spoiling much to say it all devolves into the worst. Moreover, it’s a violent movie and quite gross in many places.

So that’s what you get: a lot of really good acting, an intimate story of life in the wilderness in early Puritan New England, metaphors like the rabbit and a ram and — not to spoil too much – a lot of people in this family will meet untimely ends. Thomasin seems to be the one most between a rock and a hard place. Her mom suspects she is a witch and wants her banished, but is too busy dealing with other traumas to do much about it. William is trying hard to be godly and devout but the harder he tries the more nature and real life proves his better. All this plus a lot of 17th century dialog that is accurate for the period but hard to parse; it’s like listening to Shakespeare but without the poetry.

So I think you will either walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied or you will find some solace in the fine acting and directing and maybe see a meta-meaning to the film. This is one puzzle you can’t put together. Maybe it’s a movie designed to be a Rorschach test. Maybe it’s just a mess. Build your own answer. It’s a dreary bit of cinema but it is well done for whatever that is worth.

2.7 on my four-point scale. Generally this movie should be avoided unless movies with metaphors intrigue you, you want to scratch some Wiccan tendencies (and this will likely leave you unsatisfied) or you want to see really good child actors for a change. Scrimshaw does have an amazing death throes scene. You might want to go just for that.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Spotlight

It’s not too hard to find the year’s best picture in theaters immediately after it wins the award. That’s where we were yesterday, in part because Tuesday means cheap date night: only $5.75 a ticket all day. If nothing else a Best Picture award suggests the movie is unlikely to be a loser. Spotlight won the award this year, against a host of other worthy contenders and my personal favorite of the bunch (of those I’ve seen), Mad Max: Fury Road. But first, a little rant.

Can anyone recall a Best Picture that was not released near the end of the year? I can’t. Why is this? It’s unclear to me but it is unfair. My personal suspicion is that those in the Academy who have voting privileges suffer from long term memory loss. But they do remember what they have seen recently, which is why it seems these pictures always seem to win in the end. Recognizing the reality the studios probably deliberately hold what they think is their best stuff for the end of the year. At least Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated even though it was outside of the cycle as was The Martian.

Anyhow, I set my expectations high for Best Picture, which left me leaving the theater after seeing Spotlight somewhat disappointed. It’s obviously not a bad movie. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men forty years earlier, you’ll know the plot. In this case the bad guy is not the President of the United States, but the entire Roman Catholic Church. Spotlight is the story of a group of Boston Globe reporters who broke the sex abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church, but more specifically within the Boston archdiocese. Boston though was just the tip of this iceberg, actually the tip of the tip. The excitement, such as it is in this movie, is from understanding the magnitude of the abuse, as it becomes clear at the end of the movie. It also comes from understanding why these crimes are so horrendous.

So it’s an interesting story full of twists and turns as you would expect but like All the President’s Men you know how it’s going to end up. The priests mess up a lot of kids, but no one actually dies, except possibly their souls. There’s not even a car chase. What comprises an exciting moment is definitely relative, but there is one near the climax as you would expect when one of the reporters (Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo) runs to the courthouse to get copies of some recently unsealed documents before the competition does. You take what you can get.

What you get is certainly good acting but nothing hugely out of the ordinary. Spotlight is an investigative team at the Globe overseen by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby’s two reporters Sacha (Rachel McAdams) and Mike do most of the tedious grunt work. Fortunately they are well supported by the Globe’s staff, which is undergoing some reorganization. The big change is the new executive editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who basically gives the Spotlight crew their marching orders. At first it’s unclear how this new fancy pants editor from Florida will do in cold and Catholic Boston, but he ends up fitting in pretty well with these Boston-bred reporters. This includes in their managerial chain Ben Bradley Jr. (yes, son of the editor featured in All the President’s Men) played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

There is no Deep Throat or dramatic scenes in parking garages in this movie. Much of the action takes place on doorsteps or in cafes where the reporters interview attorneys and abused victims. They form a tight and driven ensemble but soon sense a stonewall, which is the Catholic Church, which is deftly defending itself from potential legal action through a lot of cash payments, victim intimidation and legal tricks.

The best parts of the movie are the interviews with the abuse victims. Even if you are tuned into the scale of the church’s cover up, it still feels astounding when reporters fully uncover just how large of a cover up this is. Mostly the team succeeds through tenacity and wearing out lots of shoe leather.

The grubby feeling of the Boston Globe is well done, as are the cubicles stacked with papers where the reporters work. The makeup is minimal in this movie. Michael Keaton (whose Bird Man movie last year won Best Picture) is not aging well; in fact he looks much older than he is. Kudos perhaps to the actors for not caring. Ruffalo too looks incredibly ordinary and no Bruce Banner. McAdams was hard to recognize under all that frosted blonde hair. All held back much of their acting prowess, which was probably a good choice on the director’s part because it made the movie feel more plausible. Still, you pretty much get the movie you expect. I just did not get a movie that felt to me like it deserved to be in the Best Picture category.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Carol

I’ve decided that if I were a woman, I’d fall in love with Cate Blanchett anyhow. There is something about her in every role I’ve seen that makes you compulsively interested in her character, but really it’s something interesting about Blanchett that leaches through. She is mesmerizing to watch, beautiful but not particularly pretty, but eye catching nonetheless. No surprise then that in the movie Carol when sales clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) spots Carol (Blanchett) across the sales floor that she finds it hard to serve her customers instead of watching her. The divorcing Carol senses something too but manages to discreetly rope in this filly such that the younger Therese is hardly aware that she is the one being pursued. “Accidentally” leaving her gloves on her counter leads to a lunch date, then a Sunday at her house, and then a road trip west.

The time is the early 1950s. President Truman is leaving office, President Eisenhower is coming on board, and America is at its busiest and brassiest. Unsurprisingly the movie starts in at Christmas time in a Manhattan department store where Therese is forced to don silly Santa hats. She does have something of a social life: an interest in photography and a boyfriend that wants to marry her who is more in her friend zone. Mainly Therese is a woman trying to blossom but not knowing quite how.

Carol on the other hand is trying to get out of a bad marriage and is desperately trying to remain a full time mother to her daughter Rindy while not so successfully trying to stay in the closet. It’s true that her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is brash and controlling. Who wouldn’t want to get away from him? It’s clear to Harge though that she prefers women and he’ll use that as leverage. Her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), an ex-lover, lives with her at her palatial upstate home and helps watch over Rindy and the household.

If you saw the movie The Imitation Game wherein Benedict Cumberbatch played the gay professor Alan Turing, you will know what’s in for Carol if she comes out as a lesbian. In Turing’s case, it landed him in prison. Just evidence that Carol might be a lesbian is enough for Rindy to go into her father’s custody while permanent custody is worked out. This makes Carol distraught and emotionally fragile. In other words, it’s not a great time to take on a new lover.

But so it goes. It’s often during turbulent personal times that affairs happen, and her relationship with Therese is something of an extramarital affair too, although they are a few days on their road trip before it gets tacitly acknowledged (they even sleep in separate rooms). Carol just wants to get away from divorce pressures. Therese is changing too, careers as it turns out, but she’s also chasing intimacy, which she doesn’t quite get from her circle of avant-garde New York friends.

Aside from both fine performances by Blanchette and Mara, the recreation of an early 1950s America should pull you into the movie as well. It is understated but well done and finely detailed, and almost a character in itself since that Puritanical decade frames Carol and Therese’s woes and loves. It’s not so much their love relationship that makes the movie special, although I appreciated the honest and understated way director Todd Haynes pulls it off. For me it was more the frame of this story within the gilded cage of its the times that is interesting. This is not a lesbian Love Story; indeed the love between these two women seems ephemeral at best. It’s more a story about navigating Carol’s personal crises, made especially challenging because she has to struggle to keep her daughter in her life. At best Therese provides her with some relief, but actually more in the way of distraction and companionship while these larger events unfold.

If you come to see great acting from Blanchett you will need to wait until the end of the movie. Meanwhile you can feel mesmerized by her presence and the endearing yet subtle way Carol wraps Therese around herself and her life. Can Carol be authentic to herself in these turbulent personal waters? That’s probably the most interesting part of the movie. Seeing lesbianism on the screen is not that big a thing in 2016 and what there is in this movie is softcore. Shot with a sort of grainy look, Carol feels as intimate as its subject; it’s just that the real intimacy in this movie is not their relationship but Carol’s turbulent personal life in which Therese gets caught up in the whirlwind.

Carol is a good movie with a raw and honest feel to it. It might win Blanchett an academy award, but it is a portrait in the small, not in the grandiose. This suits me fine, as I prefer an artsy and intimate film to an overstuffed blockbuster anyhow. It’s a good arts house film, but for discerning filmgoers only.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

A riffing good time (and a review of “Starship Troopers”)

If you are going to watch a bad movie, why not do it with laughs and commentary? It’s hardly a new idea but it sort of went away in 1999 when Mystery Science Theater 3000 died on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel. You may have slept through the 1990s if you don’t remember Joel Hodgson (1989 – 1993) and later Michael Nelson (1993 – 1999) and his crew of compatriot robots (Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy) endlessly “riffing” (making fun of) bad movies from their “space station” usually parked on Comedy Central. You basically saw their silhouettes in the foreground while some dreadful movie generally from 1960 or earlier played in the background. Their wisecracking “live” commentary was usually great fun, and the films they “riffed” tended to be crap that the original producers didn’t care were riffed, mainly because they were now dead.

It had a good ten-year run but it definitely became less entertaining when Hodgson left the show and Nelson took up his slack. You can still find MST3K (as it is commonly known to its fans) online at the Rifftrax site. Rather than ripping off these riffs, devoted fans will get the DVDs instead, including whole seasons.

Or if you are more interested in the personalities than in the robots and the silly staged setting aboard a space station, you can watch Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy at your local theater instead. No you don’t watch them perform live, unless you are lucky enough to be in a city where they do this, but you can see their shows streamed live at many local theaters. You can also see rebroadcasts courtesy of Fathom Events. That’s what we did last night with maybe a hundred others (mostly local college kids) at our local Cineplex in Hadley, Massachusetts, where we enjoyed a rebroadcast of their 2013 riff of Starship Troopers (1997).

In some ways I do miss the robots because the personalities behind MST3K are now fifty-plus with bellies that generally precede them, often by a considerable amount. Their funding comes from devoted fans that sponsored their Kickstarter campaign. Presumably they also make money from these remote broadcasts. Seeing these riffs in a theater actually is better than seeing them alone, as you are more likely to laugh along. The tickets were a bit pricey ($12.50 each for us) but well worth the price of admission. This rebroadcast was typical: Mike, Bill and Kevin provided commentary in pop up windows on the right side of the screen whilst the movie occupied the rest of the screen.

Many of these bad movies can stand by themselves as stinkers without the commentary. That was certainly the case with Starship Troopers. I would have preferred to see it first without the commentary, then have gone back to see it with the commentary. Wow! Starship Troopers is really quite a stinker, and that’s not just because of all the oversized bugs that get dismembered! Allegedly based on the novel by the late Robert Heinlein, this is a movie only Donald Trump could love. That’s because with a few exceptions it stars an all-Aryan cast of trim and handsome men and puffed-lipped beauties with flawless skin, mostly blondes. You get an odd combination of “talent” like Jake Busey as Ace Levy with his famous spiked Marine haircut, Neil Patrick Harris as Carl, Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico (perhaps the central character) and Dina Meyer as Dizzy who ends up in Johnny’s squad fighting together.

It’s hard to know when this convoluted plot is supposed to take place, but it’s presumably at least a hundred years in the future. The “federation” (our world government, with a vaguely Nazi-like symbol) is apparently at war with distant bugs from other worlds. We send vast spaceships across the cosmos to do battle with them, but for the most part we send in storm troopers to dry class M planets who use machine guns at close range to destroy these oversized insects. Strangely enough, fighting in these wars seems to be optional, as is the case for our young heroes here, who fight to kill bugs and to become “citizens” as opposed to being a lesser boring “civilian”.

What you get in this movie is weird vision of the future, shot in 1997 that epically fails to imagine what the future will look like. We still play football, but in indoor gyms with silver footballs where they keep score on 1990s technology dot matrix clocks. There are weird scenes of kids stomping on insects, Dizzy losing her lunch during biology class, where students dissect the insects from other worlds. Rue McClanahan in there in a bit part as their teacher wearing weird looking sunglasses. You also get an odd scene where teacher, also a veteran, points with the stub of his arm.

You get a space opera that basically makes no sense, but with tons of gore and CGI. These new recruits are off for the ride of their abbreviated lives, and that’s because most of them will end up dead with insect stingers through their innards. I’ll stick to being a civilian, thank you. You get a planet Earth apparently overwhelmingly Caucasian, even in Buenos Aires where the flaxen haired Johnny is apparently from. Given their short mortality, one can at least rise quickly in rank. It helps if you don’t mind seeing lots of dismembered storm troopers or having your brains sucked out by these insects.

The plot basically makes no sense at all. Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to be a spaceship pilot but I guess they haven’t invented shields yet. Worse, all these spacecraft stay in close proximity to each other, so they are frequently crashing into each other. Their tactics for defeating the bugs make no sense. It’s clear their machine guns are not quite up to the task and only occasionally does their air force (space force?) drop a bomb. A brave trooper will occasionally get an opportunity to lob a grenade down a bug’s throat, but mostly they are dismembered or pierced long before then. The bugs sure look lethal, but not so much if you are pretty. At the end of the movie Carmen gets a stinger through the chest but walks away firing back.

So Starship Troopers can stand on its own and doesn’t need the riffers, but the MST3K crew keeps the one line commentaries coming so quickly it’s hard to appreciate just how appalling this movie actually is. So lesson learned. Next time I got to one of these events, I’ll try to see the movie first and then enjoy the movie with the riff, its own special art form worthy of enjoyment.

And we’re likely to be going frequently as they release a new movie riff or a rebroadcast about once a month. It’s a highly entertaining way to spend an evening with fellow bad movie compatriots and an opportunity to get out of the house. Fathom Events is clearly exploring a new revenue model for movie theaters that might just give live events some competition to these bloated Hollywood features.

 
The Thinker

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m hanging with relatives in Maryland and hoping to see the sun before we leave tomorrow. Little sign of sun today but there has been plenty of rain instead, much of it torrential. Mostly I’m chilling with siblings, but I was able to see my father and stepmother, and it’s good to see a nephew and distant brother-in-law as well. Much of yesterday was spent back in Northern Virginia with our daughter. We could not resist driving by our former residence and noted the new owners have been busy ripping out the shrubbery. Got to let it go.

But we also took in the latest Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3-D IMAX, dodging raindrops coming and going, of course. Although old enough to have seen these movies before they had roman numerals assigned to them, the Star Wars genre has done little for me. Its story is timeless: good triumphing against overwhelming evil, just with an outer space theme. What originally annoyed me were mostly the robots, but also how unfaithful it was both to science and science fiction. There was no denying its popularity, since here I was again in a theater nearly forty years later to see the latest reboot of the series, this time by J.J. Abrams who successfully gave us back the Star Trek genre. If anyone could breathe some new life into this tired genre, J.J. could.

And yet Abrams main contribution is to make a new episode feel a lot like the first movie. This is excellent news for Disney, which now owns the franchise, and which needs to derive maximum profits for its shareholders from subsequent installments. J.J. delivered that, as evidenced by all the agog younger faces enthusiastically exiting our showing. Not that J.J. stayed entirely in the comfortable realm. He introduced John Boyega as the stormtrooper turned resistence fighter Finn. Boyega happens to be black, but that turned out to be annoying to some, who like their good guys with white skin. J.J. added lots of females including Daisey Ridley as Rey, probably the chief character in this latest incarnation of this space opera. She looks great but it’s hard to make a living salvaging parts from crashed spacecraft on her planet. Fortunately she quickly encounters Finn and the newest cute robot BB8, which is pivotal to the plot. The newest version of The Dark Side needs the droid because it has a map that will let it find Luke Skywalker and destroy what is left of the Resistence.

Unquestionably, if you are into this franchise then you are going to enjoy this “episode” enormously, much the way J.J.’s Star Trek reboot tickled us Trekkies. It will help you overlook some of the reboot’s downsides. Mostly it is too faithful to the source material, too comfortable, which has the effect of an insulin rush from eating too many Christmas cookies. What you don’t get is much in the way of nutrition. So you should feel very entertained but sort of empty inside, at least if like me you are not a member of this collective. You want more but it’s not quite there.

But you do get nostalgia, including Harrison Ford reprising his role as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher reprising Leia, but now as a general instead of a Princess, but boy they sure do look old. Luke (Mark Hamill) literally only shows up in the last minute of the film, never says a word, but does have a cool beard and looks vaguely like Jesus Christ. BB8 is at least more loveable than C3PO and R2D2 that reprise their “roles” too.

So this is a safe Star Wars sequel faithful to George Lucas’s original version at least. It’s just hard to feel a little resentment that J.J. didn’t plumb some new Star Wars depths. Instead we get an updated version of the 1970’s Star Wars movie.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

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