Monday, June 20, 2016

The Escapist

Set in a probably mid-20th century English prison, this is the story of an escape. It is an exceptionally well told story in that it tells the entire story from planning to execution, but does so by cutting back and forth between execution-planning-execution-planning-etc. Never does the view get lost, even though I did not notice any explicit time-shift clues. But when we are climbing through a hole in the wall and wonder why that guy got to come along, we eventually get that story in the planning phase. It makes for an outstanding slow reveal. The setting and tension for the escape are desperate, the means plausible, the personalities engaging. I like a heist/escape story, and I found this to be fabulous.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory (3D)

I like my 3D with depth, not height. So this seemed like a good possibility, a window into the ocean instead of stuff flying at my face. And for that, it was good. Three or four times throughout the film, the story/action was slow enough to allow me to get lost in the depth of the background, and it is astounding. But the 3D is a bit of an artifact, even here. It does not help/hinder the story and the film would be identical in 2D. 

The story starts 1-year after Nemo, with Dory part of the family and her remembery loss intact. The film serves as a Dory origin story as we get periodic flashbacks as Dory's memory resurfaces. These resurfacings prompt Dory to want to find her parents and Nemo/Marlin join along. There are token nods to the fun scenes in Nemo (e.g. turtle travel), but they are not novel or nearly as fun. There is no serious tension as the film feels like a series of small obstacles presented and then overcome. We need to get into quarantine, we need to get to open ocean, we need to get to the Cleveland truck, etc. Some hijinks ensue at each stage, but there is no real question about the achievability. Instead, it is a question of what wacky process will get me to the next level. The average kid will likely laugh and enjoy, but there are not catchy songs or indelible scenes to last until next year. 

**Spoiler alert below**
There has been some writing about how Dory helps to normalize ab-normal. Nemo's fin is never mentioned, the octopus is a septapus, the shark is blind, the beluga can't echo-locate, etc. For the most part, these are not even mentioned as "you can get over it" disabilities, or "your weakness makes you stronger". They just are. Which makes for great family discussion about individual differences. I was also watching particularly with an eye toward adoption. How would a child who is interested in knowing birth parents view this? Dory blames herself for losing her parents (suggests her parents probably blame her). As an adult, I can see that this is potentially a normal stage of questioning for a child in understanding families, but as a child, it might raise all kinds of responsibility/blame/shame issues. When Dory finds her parents, the story shows that they have been waiting and searching for her for all these years. Again, what message would an adopted child hear? My birth parents are actually waiting for me to find them? And at the end of the line, everyone is only really truly happy once the child and parents have been reunited. This story could lead to great conversations for many families, on many levels, but could also take some families by surprise. Just go in eyes open based on your family story. 
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Female Agents

In World War II, an allied geologist was captured by the germans in the vicinity of Normandie. The implication that something special was going on in Normandie was something that should not be known by the Germans. British Special Operations puts together a team of 4 women and a man to infiltrate France and retrieve said geologist. From the assembly of this team of disconnected women, each chosen for a particular reason (and each with particular break points), to the fusing of these women into a team while on the mission. This is not just a war film with action and a rescue. Instead, it has all of that, plus spends enough time with the characters for me to see their humanity and struggle with depravity in war. Not a single character was one dimensional. You will have to watch it to see if the mission is a success.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Point Blank

Samuel is a nurse trainee on night shift when one of his patients is nearly killed by an unknown assailant. The fact that Samuel saves the man draws him into a sequence of events that leads to the kidnapping of his pregnant wife, his assisting of a known hitman and fugitive, the murder of police (both good and corrupt) and a citywide crime spree in the attempt to extricate himself and save his wife. This is a constant action film with none of the action gratuitous. Every single scene has purpose and moves the plot forward, either illuminating a new angle or resolving a suspicion. And while Samuel is a regular guy put into a horrible situation, he does not become a super-action figure. All of his action is "regular guy" action born out of desperation. So instead of Jason Bourne or Liam Neeson in Taken, we instead have "action realism". A plausible guy I might know who can drive a story. And no chance for a sequel. This is a once in a lifetime event for Samuel.
4 stars (out of 5)

Metro Manila

Oscar and his family are living in rural Philippines, finding themselves slowly falling further and further behind in their subsistence farming. Finally prices fall out of the rice market and they see that they can no longer afford to live. They make the decision to move to Manila to find work. Oscar falls into a job as a armored truck driver, his wife at a bar as a dancer. They are minute by minute making choices about survival. This is the story of millions. Moving from the farm to the city is a dramatic culture change. Where to live, how to find work, how to survive, how to avoid being victimized, how to not get crushed by the mass of urban humanity, how to maintain hope. Every event in Oscar and his family's life in Manila is seemingly happenstance, and yet inevitable. Every choice they make is really no choice at all. This is an outstanding portrayal of transition to new life, realizing that it is probably more positive and too easy compared to what the majority of rural refugees encounter in the world. Well worth seeing.
5 stars (out of 5)


This Spanish thriller follows an investment banker who works on margins to stay one step ahead of the market. He has a big deal brewing that needs his attention and some timely trades, when he encounters a small problem. The car that he is driving to work, with his two children aboard and to be dropped off at school, contains a bomb. He is instructed by a caller on a cell that he needs to raise a few hundred thousand Euro, empty his own personal bank account, and transfer everything to an anonymous account. If not... boom. Oh, and there is a pressure switch on the seat, so don't try to get out and run. The entire film takes place within the setting of the car, with action happening over cell conversations, through window conversations with the bomb squad, lawyers and his wife. The tension is perfect, not overdone, but significant. A nice offering in the genre.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

It is clear that a moderately successful Neighbors, based on a conflict between a young couple and their fraternity neighbor would necessarily result in a sequel conflict between same couple and sorority neighbor. So the existence of the film does not surprise or bother me. For a plot, young couple Rogan/Byrne are selling their house and enter a 30 day escrow period. At the same time, a group of college freshmen girls decide to rent the former frat house to start a new sorority. The basic conflict is over whether the girls will cause the new buyers to cancel escrow and opt of the sale. The real story here is what I might refer to as Fake Feminism. The girls suggest that they are demonstrating empowerment and strength by going on their own, against the greek system. Intertwine this with a millennial mentality. So why is it Fake Feminism. The girls portrayed in the film are college freshmen that demonstrate no intelligence. They need to be portrayed as these completely inane women in the first place in order to be able to, for the film, have some upward trajectory. A truly feminist film would not need this starting point. You could start with strong, intelligent 18-year old college freshman that have an idea about their skill set and what is possible in life, and a realistic idea of what can be learned. Then the plot would need to develop to allow them to grow even more. But this is not easy to write. I wondered in the first film if I was just aged out of the target demographic. But for this one, even with some funny moments, it sends a message that is mostly wrong, and probably just offensive. It would be interesting to show this to a group of high school senior girls or college freshmen girls and see what they think about the portrayal.

Normally, the only way to get one star is if I walk out of a film, but in this case the message has earned
1 star (out of 5)