Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Gunman

Sean Penn is a trained killer. He works independently (with a couple of team members) in Africa as a hired mercenary. When a high profile job is completed, he has to leave the continent (and his girlfriend) and decided to retire. Ten years later, he has changed careers and is trying to fix himself psychologically by working for an NGO back in Africa. Unfortunately, someone tries to kill him and he must now work out who and why and then kill them first (of course). This is gritty, but predictable. I didn't really buy the angst that Penn is purportedly going through. I didn't buy the relationship with the girlfriend. There are not even outstanding action sequences. Overall, a 2nd rate action/thriller.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Spotlight

Mark Ruffalo nails it. He plays Mike Rezendes, a Boston journalist who is part of the "Spotlight" team. This team does long-term investigative journalism for the Globe and have been digging into the Catholic Church child molestation scandal in the late 90's. What I particularly liked about the film is that it was not sensationalized, it was not even really about the church or the scandal. It was about the journalists who pursued the uncovering of the facts, and it was about Boston. I found it fascinating how closed and protective people in Boston were about their own. And how accepting they were of things that they thought were not changeable. I suppose this becomes an expose for all of us about who needs to act against an injustice. In this film, there are many examples, the protagonists included, who have decided that it was up to someone else. Until this particular configuration of a Spotlight team comes along with a particular boss, with a particular combination of people and events. Ruffalo really becomes the bulldog, willing to pursue facts in uncomfortable situations, and even to push his colleagues beyond their comfort levels as well. I was fascinated throughout.
5 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kung Fu Killer

Donnie Yen (who I will watch in anything) is a martial arts expert serving time in prison for murder. While serving time, a series of murders begins to unfold where martial arts masters are being killed. It turns out that the killer is targeting the experts of each field (fists, kicking, swords, etc.) and he has the goal of challenging Yen, who is the acknowledged master of all. Yen convinces the police to let him out of prison so he can help capture this killer. Yen's character is a prototypical master. He is in ultimate control of his physicality, and his emotional state. And he uses this control to exhibit peace and confidence, even amidst battle. Maybe this is a romantic view of the martial arts, but Yen owns the role. He exudes this romantic view of the master, portraying the true value of martial arts and the true purpose of the craft as means to developing spiritual wholeness. Awesome.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Man from Reno

Aki is a Japanese mystery/thriller author who is taking a press tour in the US. She has decided that she is not interested in writing the next book in the series, but her experience in San Francisco changes her mind. She gets enmeshed in a real life murder/heist/mob deal and has to work with a small town sheriff to figure out what is going on, why people are dying, and how to remain safe herself. This becomes motivation for her to begin writing again. The fun in this film is the cross between small town US culture, Japanese mystery author, and a truly strange crime scenario. It is quite intriguing and well done.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in this story of forbidden love. Set in the 50's in New York, Blanchett is an upper crust wife and mother who spends her time shopping. Mara is a shopgirl in an upper-crusty department store. Turns out that they meet by chance and fall in love, take a trip across the country to "escape it all". Well, Blanchett is escaping, Mara is exploring. This is a great love story that is made better because of the context in which the story is told. The two are battling both the sexual conservatism of the 50's as well as the taboo of crossing class, and the story is told so that we get a real sense of the distress felt by all parties. Directed by Todd Haynes, who also directed Far from Heaven, we see the same attention to detail and coloring/tone that we saw there. Not all love stories are feel good stories. This is one of those. I left feeling like I had witnessed love, but didn't necessarily feel good.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With so much hype, there is almost no way this could be an excellent film. Even going in with no expectations, the expectations based on the franchise are inherent. The story picks up a couple decades after the fall of the empire. The rebellion became the republic, and it has now become the resistance, fighting against the surging First Order. This film has the in-enviable task of holding true to the gestalt of a beloved franchise while introducing new characters and conflicts. It did the first two well, but the third fell well short. So short, in fact, that I really felt like I was watching a modern remake of A New Hope. Desert planet, junkers finding a missing robot, crazy bar with a bunch of crazy creatures, giant planet shaped planet killer, dark side master who looks like Voldemort... same conflict, same tension. Overall, while I enjoyed the nostalgia and the visuals, it really did feel like the middle book of a good series. Was this the "rebound", the necessary middle quality bridge between the old franchise and truly new adventures? We can't know until the next iteration is released and we can say if it is really novel and exciting. Until then...
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian

First of all, an excellent film. I loved the book, and the film does not disappoint. This is pure space sci-fi, with the primary fiction being that we are witnessing the third manned mission to Mars. After that, it is all science. Mark Watney is stranded on the planet after his crew does an emergency departure during a storm and leaves him for dead. Watney is the team botanist and mechanical engineer, so he is constantly calculating and improvising his resources to stretch sustaining his life one more day. With this life or death tension riding over the entire story, we manage to be entertained by Watney's approach to life, his interactions with NASA, and by the fact that as the omniscient viewer we see the silliness and/or audacity of many of the decisions that are made. I love that this came across as sci-fi realism and was simultaneously able to capture the excitement and joy and passion of science.

5 stars (out of 5)