Monday, December 30, 2013

The Book Thief

It is probably never a good idea to read a book and watch the film version in the same day. One of the versions will suffer horribly. Usually it is the second one you take in, and if the first is not great to start with, you will find yourself holding your head, rubbing your eyes and checking your watch. This is exactly how I found myself after watching this film (having finished the book earlier today). The fact that the girl Liesel, the Book Thief of the title, does not necessarily need to be a book thief for this film to hold together suggests that some important part of her characterization is missing. It is a nice story, and shows well both the stress of living in Germany during the war as well as the normalcy (or maybe how normal the stress became). While this is not a bad film, there is nothing here to say this is a film worth watching. It simply misses its mark, or has no mark in mind.
2 stars (out of 5)

Olympus Has Fallen

Apparently in the last couple years, the North Koreans have become the new bad guys du jour. The Red Dawn remake recently released and now this. Here the North Koreans launch a flash attack on the Whitehouse in an effort to completely destroy the US. In 13 minutes, the Whitehouse is completely controlled by about 20 commandos. In that time, about 200 something armed secret service, police, etc file out of the building into a hail of bullets and die. Except Gerard Butler, of course. He is able to hide behind a couple of pillars until it is safe to sneak in undetected. Then he saves the boy, saves the girl, tells his superiors what he really thinks, is able to say "I told you so", and then redeems himself in the eyes of his bosses. Straight forward, shoot and run action. Nothing really to recommend.
2 stars (out of 5)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

It is hard to get excited about this film. The middle film of a trilogy, based on a book that I didn't read because it seemed so superfluous after the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Would you get excited about reading chapters 14-27 of a 40 chapter book, and not be allowed to read the end for another year? Well, it really is one of my pet peeves with trilogies these days (books and film). That being said, the film does engage. In spite of my own issues, the imagery and the storytelling are well done. We get the portion of the story where the dwarves travel through Mirkwood, avoid the Orc gang and sneak into the Lonely Mountain, initiating a confrontation with the dragon Smaug. A bit of humor with the Dwarves in casks kayaking down the river (and apparently a bit of magic too as they never seem to flip or fill with water). I stick by my original thinking, this will be an excellent way to spend 8 hours in 2014 when I can see the entire Hobbit in one go.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bounty Killers

After the corporate wars, all white collar people are classified as criminals and bounty hunters (killers) are employed to hunt them down and kill them. The killings are frequent, gruesome and explicit. Lots of blood and gore in a setting somewhere in the southwest desert. That is about all the plot we can give, not because we don't want to give anything away, but because that is all there is to the film. Definitely a B-level grindhouse film. Definitely can not recommend this film. But I still kinda liked it.
3 stars (out of 5)


This is not the Ca$h I watched a couple years ago, even though it has the same name. Instead, this is a French heist film that is really well done. I would put this in the same family as The Sting with a true ensemble cast and a true reveal at the end that surpasses expectations. In the film, Cash is a small time con-man who is working his next pigeon (the mark). Get the police involved, the master con artist, some African warlord/mercenaries and some mafia guys and you have quite an involved organization to thing through. Throughout the entire film, I was engaged, thinking, predicting and always  modifying my thinking as the story progressed. Fun to watch.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Judi Dench plays Philomena, an Irish woman who gave up her son for adoption 50 years ago, and is now looking to find out where/who he is. She enlists the help of disgraced, former BBC journalist (Steve Coogan) to help out, which he does only because the alternative is to write a Russian history book. These two develop a quirky relationship as the investigation progresses, each with their own demons and drivers pushing them forward and holding them back. The story is a meandering journey through scandal and controversy, looking into the practices of the local Irish convent that took Philomena in 50 years ago all the way to the socio-political quagmire of U.S. politics in the 80's. Dench and Coogan play well together, never quite comfortable and never quite antagonistic. Fascinating story and well played. 
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are two astronauts stranded in space after a catastrophic (and repeating) encounter with space junk. Their task is to survive and find a way back to earth. I suppose I had mixed expectations walking into this film. The premise is fascinating, but with any explicitly science based film that is "known" for its scientific authenticity, my tendency is to look for holes. So I tried to just sit back and enjoy.  In the end, my mixed expectations were met. The premise was fascinating and the science was pretty good (but not perfect by any means). In the end, what I was struck by most was the flat feeling I had leaving the theater. Yeah, it was good, I liked it, etc. but I was not blown away and this is not something I will remember as a striking film. That being said, the one scene that did capture (for me) the vastness of space was Bullock floating away against a black background. Camera pull back. Suddenly the sheer volume of space became just a tiny bit clearer. Reminded me of my first experience with Scuba and the realization that I actually do live in a 3D world. If you could capture the vastness of space, juxtapose that with the feelings of claustrophobia of space walking, and sustain that for 80 minutes, now you have a film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 15, 2013


What makes a good heist movie? Seeing the intricate planning, watching the execution, witnessing the getaway, and watching the authorities get fooled. All of this must happen under the umbrella of clever, tricky or downright sneaky. Steal gets a couple of these right. Just enough to enjoy. The primary "clever factor" here is that the criminals are experts in extreme sports (roller blading, base jumping, etc.) and use that in their getaway. But we don't get to participate in the planning or much of the execution. So really, a second tier heist...
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

London Boulevard

Recommended by Netflix because I liked In Bruges, I can see why. Colin Farrell plays a released ex-con who is working to get back to "regular life". Unfortunately, all his connections lead to criminal activities while he is interested in leaving that world. The entire film is a series of these connections and their outcome. Dark, and not nearly as funny as In Bruges, but similar in tone. I continually held out hope that Farrell would find a way out even when it seemed like he was pulled back to crime for good. One minor complaint... I did find myself missing several key scenes because I couldn't understand the "English" language. But maybe that is part of the charm.
3 stars (out of 5)


Deeper, more soulful Statham. Less action, more character. At least, that was the intent. Statham plays Joey Jones, an intentionally homeless Afghanistan war vet in London. He falls into an opportunity to get cleaned up, during which time he takes on a mission to earn some money and avenge the death of his homeless friend. This is not a half-bad look at the angst that vets probably experience on return to their home. A sense of hopelessness, lack of control and lack of options. Of course, Statham presents the necessary tough guy routine when it is needed, but that is not the purpose of this film. I am sure that because of this the film doesn't fit any typical demographic. But I liked it...
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Hot Flashes

In a small town where not much happens but the local high school sports, a funding decline promises to put the mobile breast cancer screening van out of business. This is just sort of cause that moms can get behind. So the state champion girls basketball team from 20 years ago challenges the current state champion high school girls to a 3 game series as a fundraiser for the clinic. Hijinks ensue. The quality of this film is very Saturday afternoon TV in every way. If you want to see a sports film, see anything else. If you have nothing else going on... well, see anything else.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Red Dawn

A cookie-cutter film from a cookie-cutter script. Perhaps it was supposed to be meaningful now because of the North Korean presence in the news, but this is not novel, or even exciting. I would rate this as an excellent B-movie.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Karate Girl

A nice little Japanese karate film staring a couple of young Japanese girls who are masters of their craft. When their father is killed, and they are separated as kids, they each develop their expertise with Karate as a way of holding on to what is important. And neither knows the other is still alive. Of course, one is "good" and one is "bad", but when they meet, family is more important. Excellent choreography in the fight scenes and the power and nature of karate is demonstrated beautifully. This is a great late-night movie.
3 stars (out of 5)

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Film 2 in The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire picks up with life after victory. President Snow is mad about everything, mostly concerned that any spark of hope picked up by the little people will cause him lots of trouble. So the districts become even more restrictive and are locked down under martial law. Snow figures out that to get rid of his antagonists (our protagonists) from District 12, he will send them back into the games. Once again, a well visualized world, contrasting the haves and have-nots. I do think the game arena was not quite as well portrayed, with all the clever subtleties that made it a fantastic arena left out or brushed over. But otherwise, the plot stays true to book, and the created world is both believable and fantastic at the same time.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, November 22, 2013


Jason Statham being Jason Statham. He is a crook working with a new crew on the recommendation of his mentor. The new crew screws up, people get hurt, and that is not how Parker rolls. Oh, and the new crew ripped him off, shot him and left him for dead too. Must be time for some revenge. Parker finds where the next job is, infiltrates, causes havoc, gets revenge. It is funny how you can pass off a character as a thief with morals. Don't hurt innocents? Ok to brutally torture and kill bad guys? This is war mentality. Different morals for different folks, but eventually the lines blur. Does a Parker character's lines of morality make sense if he holds to them?
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

World War Z

It wasn't like the book. Now we have that out of the way, this is a pretty good film. Using the premise of a highly contagious, very short gestation period, viral outbreak that manifests by victims exhibiting zombie characteristics, we are treated to a pretty standard detective thriller. Brad Pitt is Gerry Lang, UN detective extraordinaire who is able to uncover anything hidden by any warlord, weapons dealer or genocide perpetrator. Now he is let loose on nature. Finding the virus cause and potential weapons to use against it requires him to look for subtle clues in an environment that is anything but subtle. This is really not World War Z, but the lead up to the war. This is the shot fired across the bow, as both sides (humans and zombies) figure out who and what they are up against. The real war is just beginning as the final credits role. I appreciate that the filmmakers did not try to throw everything that was possible into the film, did not try to replicate the entire book. As it was, it was enough. Well played.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Village Barbershop

Nine Items or Less in a small town. John Ratzenberger plays the proprieter of a small town barbershop who has just lost his partner of many years. His partner ran the business part of the business and was the personality as well. He doesn't quite know how to cope with the loss or plan for the future. So he just goes about his routine. Enter a "sweet young thing" to help him out. Shelly Cole plays Gloria, a young woman needing a new start. Unwilling to put up with the stereotypes that are put on her as a woman hairdresser, and unwilling to accept 'No' as an option, she drags the barbershop into the future... or at least the present. A nice little relationship film that explores changing ideas and thoughts about the world regardless of how old you are.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Serious Man

Maybe I am not serious enough, but I didn't get it? I never saw a reason to be interested, and while it was labeled a black comedy, I never found a reason to laugh.
1 star (out of 5)

Walk the Line

I am not a die hard bio-pic fan, but I am a sucker for good singing. Have had this on my list for awhile just based on the bass line in the preview. What I found most interesting was the way all the famous (or soon to be famous) stars traveled and played in small houses. Very much reminded me of the "days of my youth" when bands would travel to county fairs and play in front of crowds. Can you imagine U2 doing a county fair in the middle of Iowa? Wouldn't happen anymore in the download world. Other than this inside look at the concert scene, and the fun competitive ribbing between the stars, this was an average film. The soundtrack didn't knock my socks off, and I was hoping it would. Maybe had I seen it in the theater with all the hype???
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Sutter envisions himself as the Ferris Buhler of his time. Maybe the drunk Ferris. Party all the time & don't care about anything. He meets a girl (she finds him in her front yard after a particularly potent party) and finds that she looks at the world differently. He seems to be sincere and engage her as an important person. He seems to be looking at the world differently because of her. And yet we find that the real struggle is not how he looks at the world, but how he looks at himself. Is he ready to be mature? To take himself seriously? This is probably supposed to take me on my own journey of self discovery while making me laugh along the way. But it wasn't that funny and I wasn't that engaged. Probably will forget this one pretty quickly.
2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Word on the street is that this is a modern Huck Finn. Well, it is on a river and it does have a guy running from the law helped by a couple of young kids. But I think this is really a story about love. Or maybe an investigation of love. Ellis and Neckbone are the two local kids living on the Mississippi River. Ellis is our protagonist who lives with his parents ON the river, on a houseboat passed down from generation to generation. Mom and Dad are disagreeing about the direction of their lives and Ellis now looks to every relationship as a benchmark to determine what he can expect from his own life in the realm of love. He watches Neckbone and his uncle, Mud and his girlfriend, his parents, the old guy across the river, his popular girl girlfriend. He is always watching or asking about what makes relationships work or not work. So while the plot involving Mud was interesting, for me it was only a device to allow me watch Ellis inquire and grow in his understanding of human relationships. Very well done.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Winning Season

Sam Rockwell is a down and out guy. Job, fatherhood, identity... nothing is going his way and he forgets about it by drinking. Then he helps out a friend by taking the job coaching the local girls basketball team. Well, the 6 girls at the local high school who are on the team. So in many ways, this is a classic sports underdog film. Team loses all the time, gets a new coach, soars to new heights while bonding as a team in ways never thought possible. Rockwell is unconventional as a coach only because his constant state of drunkenness affects his ability to care. What I liked about the film was that the team did not aim for an undefeated season and a national championship. They were happy with a few wins, and with progress. Like the players, the script stayed within its abilities, not trying to be too much. This is a nice, small film. Don't expect too much and you will enjoy.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Blue Jasmine

I've never been sure about Woody Allen films. I haven't seen many, but they seem either quirky (Funny Girl) or so character driven to require patience (Hannah and her Sisters). And then I saw Midnight in Paris and was converted. Funny, clever, insightful, just enough quirky. And now we have Blue Jasmine. Can I un-convert? This is the story of Jasmine, who is one of those chameleon characters that is completely unable to care for herself. As a result, she becomes who she needs to be to ingratiate herself upon those around her for support. Cate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, but in this film, she is most often ugly. Ugly with pathos and self-loathing. The surrounding cast was helpful, with Bobby Cannavale as Chili most interesting. Perhaps because he was the only character not reaching beyond himself.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 26, 2013


Aaron Eckhart as action hero is not something I would have cast. But he plays the role a bit more "everyman" that others. In his fights he takes a few more hits and finds it just a bit harder to defeat three bad guys at a time. Other than that, this is a completely derivative and boilerplate action film. Think Liam Neeson in Taken crossed with either Damon or Renner in Bourne. A rogue CIA analyst finds she needs to get paid by a weapons contractor to help them deal arms.  When the deal gets exposed in the media Eckhart, as a former black ops, security specialist gets caught in the middle. His teen daughter, who doesn't really like him follows along for the ride. Can you guess who wins?
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

A documentary that follows a few backup singers through their career path. All of the principles have astounding talent. So what we are treated to is an investigation of why some artists are lead/primary artists that become popular and others are not. What are the intangible characteristics that lead to stardom. And what is fun is that this investigation is primarily told from the perspective of the background (there is some screen time by the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen, & Ray Charles) with the power of the story coming from the discussion of the struggle. I particularly liked the filmmaking technique of allowing a few of the songs to play in full, with the documentary narration floating over the top.  An extremely satisfying and musically solid film.
4 stars (out of 5)


Set in London, Michelle Williams is an unsatisfied wife and mom (unsatisfied with the wife part) whose husband is a London bomb squad tech. His detachment leads to her infidelity. And then husband and son are killed in a terrorist bombing at the local soccer match. So we get Williams at her best... haunted. She is haunted pre-bomb, by her marriage and her own disappointment with detachment and she is haunted with her grief after. The wonderful plot device here is that Williams was instructed by her therapist to write a letter to Osama as a mechanism to process grief. And as the story progresses, this becomes a truly wonderful letter. For someone who despises violence and is looking for culturally alternative expressions and attitudes toward violence, this surprised me. The character finds a way to overcome this haunting as well as to authentically stand against violence without jumping to counter-violence as the solution.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Powder Blue

I think I really like this film. It took be awhile to come to this, but I have a feeling I will be thinking about this for awhile. Headlined by Jessica Biel as a single-mom stripper, and supported by Forrest Whitaker, Ray, and even Patrick Swayze, the film managed to pull off extremely dark and depraved and hopeful all at the same time. What starts out as 4 disconnected stories condenses to two stories that are only connected through one chance encounter. In each story, we travel through hopelessness and desperation, with Los Angeles providing the background of isolation and loneliness. Only through relationships lost, avoided and discovered are the characters able to gain some semblance of wholeness in their lives. I found that the film gave a good balance of dark to hope, not transitioning too soon, or too late, (letting the characters live for a bit in their lives). And even in the end, this is not a happy movie, but a sufficiently resolved one. I do wish Los Angeles would have had a more prominent role instead of just the background color/soul of the film.
4 stars (out of 5)


The 1985 British made story of the life (or a portion of the life) of author C.S. Lewis. The story is actually only the portion of his life where he meets, falls in love with and marries his wife, maybe a 1 year window. Quirky characters surround Lewis in his academic life, and I am not sure if they are made more quirky for the script, or are actually that strange in real life. But it made for amusing watching. My biggest complaint is that I could not understand 25% of the speaking. The accent along with mumbly speakers along with poor sound mixing left me feeling like I was missing several punchlines or setups. Otherwise, this is a solid biographical sketch, though not anything to write home about.
3 stars (out of 5)

Seventh Gay Adventist

A small, independent film that follows three gay couples as they navigate life in the adventist church. Probably you could make a similar film choosing any church denomination, so while the details of this film give some insight into the attitudes of Adventists towards LGBT, it is really more about relationships and community than about a particular religious belief system. The film tells the stories of these couples through interviews with the individuals and with those who are close to them. It provides an excellent portrayal of the stress and pain associated with having your identity (not what you do, but who you are) be a theological issue. Almost like if I attended a church that thought introversion was a sin. And yet I had a deep faith and commitment to the belief system held by that church. Well worth seeing regardless of your opinion about LGBT as it provides an opportunity to get to know people.
4 stars (out of 5)

Jesus Henry Christ

Henry is a freak of a kid, which his mom tells him means "special, and unique". The latter is true. He can remember everything he sees, and his memory goes back to when he was about 1 month old. He was talking at 6 months with a full adult vocabulary. It turns out that Henry is a test tube baby and the journey of discovering his biological father leads him to discover how to be a "normal" kid and how to love life being who he is. Overlay this plot with a Wes Anderson-like script (think Rushmore or Royal Tennenbaums) that is quirky to the point of excess and you get it. In fact, I think if you like the Wes Anderson gestalt, you will like this. I don't, and didn't.
2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Darling Companion

Diane Keaton is a stressed out mom and wife who happens upon a stray dog along the freeway. She rescues him, names him "Freeway", and has a new best friend. And while Freeway is the star of the family, he takes no direct part in the pleasurable nature of the film. Keaton, Kevin Kline, Diane Weist, and Richard Jenkins are part of an excellent cast of 6 adults working through various relational tensions. The family connections (husband, wife, sister, boyfriend, nephew, stranger) of the six add complexity and familiarity between the actors and the plot is just farcical enough (and not too much) to be lighthearted and fun. So while the film is all about Freeway, it is all about how we relate, and who is important and who we want to be in those relationships. 
3 stars (out of 5)

The Score

This is one of those mysterious films that I missed when it was in theaters. Released in 2001, this is a well done heist film with Robert DiNiro and Edward Norton, and exactly the kind of film I like. How have I never heard of it? How many other films are "made for me" that I have not heard of? The Score is a good, solid offering in the heist genre. DeNiro is a master safe-cracker looking to get out of the business, but is enticed back in for "one last big job" - of course. Norton is the young guy who pulls him in with the "sure thing". Of course, the simple, sure thing gets progressively more complicated and we get to sit back and enjoy the planning and execution of the job. And clearly I am biased, but when DiNiro states that his safe-cracking method for this job "is just physics", I new I was settling in for something clever. No disappointments here.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Adrian Brody plays a mostly broken, somewhat depressed man who is a career substitute teacher in New York. He has embraced this career as a valuable and necessary part of the educational system and also as a way to remain isolated from any community. He can help, without becoming close enough to anyone for them to be able to help him. The scenario for his current assignment is the worst school, with the worst faculty morale. And he does what he can. What I love about this film is that it is mostly about Brody. We get interview snippets (but don't ever really know why an interview is taking place) along with old home movie snippets of his life. These give us insight to his life philosophy, his educational philosophy and history that has shaped his personality. All total, these snippets probably add up to 5 minutes of film time, but give real depth to the character. This is not a happy film, but it is real. Brody struggles with education, generational attitudes and his own failures in life. He is remarkably functional for a pessimist. He is working hard to be an existentialist, but finds that he cares too much to have any real success with it. This internal battle is not explicit, but is the strength of this film and Brody carries it with integrity.
5 stars (out of 5)

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

I am fascinated by Asian storytelling. The background mythology is so different than western mythology that it forces me think about purpose and history. In this offering, Jet Li is a buddhist monk and master who travels around looking for demons to capture and imprison. At the same time, a local herbalist is saved from drowning by a 1000 year old White Snake demon and promptly falls in love. The tension in this film comes from the mentality of the demon, who does not see herself (or all demons for that matter) as evil. Is there such a think as a benevolent demon? Or only selfish demons? As we explore these questions, Jet Li gains enlightenment and we are reminded of the endless grace of god. So while presenting these potentially deep and interesting metaphysical questions, they are folded into a goofy (by western standards) slap-stick package. Strange, and enjoyable.
3 stars (out of 5)

Day of the Falcon

Two bedouin warlords in the Arabian desert are at war in the early 20th century. They settle their differences by agreeing to a de-militarized zone between their two areas of influence. Along comes an oil prospector who discovers oil in this DMZ and old conflicts are again on the front burner. Antonio Banderas plays one of the warlords and I was unable to watch this entire film because of him alone. He seemed to be channeling an aged Clint Eastwood gravely-grumble (a la Gran Torino) as if it would add depth and stature to the character. It did not. Very bad...
1 star (out of 5)


This is an understandably small film, since its sport of focus is rowing. Abi is a 30 year old rower who was a high school and college standout, but is only good enough to be on the bubble for the US Olympic team. Since the bubble is not good enough, she quits the team and returns home, to fall into a rowing coaching job at her old high school, with her old high school boyfriend as the athletic director. She struggles to learn how to coach at this lower level as well as how to cope with life expectations in a non-competitive life. If you don't know how this ends, then you have never seen a romantic film or a sports film. Put all your expectations for those two genres together and you get this film. This is a great late night summer rental to pass the time when you can't sleep. Pleasant, without any forced drama or annoying characters that you need to hate.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Playing for Keeps

Gerard Butler plays a former Welsh soccer star who played for both country and premier club. He is now living in the Northeast US to be close to his son (and ex-wife). Since he has nothing to do, he falls into coaching his son's soccer team (which did not score a goal in the entire last season of course). A little bit of coaching and the team gets great. Butler is simultaneously fending off the single moms from the team as well as the disgruntled married moms. He is looking for work, and looking to win back the ex, and figuring out how to be responsible as a father. This is cookie cutter sports/rom-com material, and still it is fun. Butler is pretty good as a clueless single dad, and we don't overdo the sympathy factor with the kid. This is really more about adult relationships, almost a coming-of-age story for Butler. Add a couple of quirky neighbors and it is enough.
3 stars (out of 5)

Lay the Favorite

Bruce Willis plays a Vegas bookie who takes a young apprentice under his wing. The apprentice is a very ditzy, former stripper who seems to have a head for numbers (imagine Suzane Somers from Three's Company). At some point, Willis wife enters the scene to be jealous. I can't say more because the script and acting was too much like Three's Company (slapstick, ditzy, 70's) to allow me to watch more than 20 minutes. You will have to be quite desperate to watch this film completely.
1 star (out of 5)


This film is getting pretty good reviews for a summer action flick. With the script/direction by Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame and success along with big names Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, it has high potential and expectations. I was sorely disappointed. Damon plays a "regular guy" in 22nd century Los Angeles. That is, he was once thief and is now straightening his life out, working a factory job and keeping a low profile. The setting is quite good here, with the entirety of Los Angeles as a slum, with all manufacturing some variation of sweatshop labor conditions. The world created and visualized by Blomkamp is engaging and detailed. But the story does not fulfill expectations. Damon has an accident at work, has a few days to live and desperately works to break into Elysium, the orbiting space station for the ultra-rich, which contains medical help to cure his (or any) incurable disease. Elysium (the station) is in itself ridiculous in concept, practice and presentation. I suppose I won't even bother with the practicality since this same film gives us a Darth Maul like light saber that functions as a shield for bullets. If you accept that, you must accept everything. Even so, there was no tension and no drama. Damon's character is a working class factory man and he approaches his entire change-the-political-status-quo-for-earth as another piece of machinery coming down the assembly line. I don't know exactly what is missing here, but I left feeling flat.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 5, 2013

2 Guns

I am a sucker for a buddy cop movie. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg are a couple of undercover cops (unbeknownst to each other) working different cases together. And when the cover is blown and everything goes wrong (of course) they begin to work together to make everything right. As the two protagonists, they are effectively the only good guys, with the DEA, Naval Intelligence, CIA, and Drug Cartel bosses all functioning as the bad guys at one time or another. The good parts of this production are that Washington/Wahlberg demonstrate a pretty good chemistry as partners and the story holds together pretty well. The expected parts are that the bad guys use machine guns in highly populated areas when they really aren't effective and a 30 second gas leak in a kitchen can cause an entire building to explode. The bad piece is the disregard for life as demonstrated by the bad guys. It is not more pervasive in this film than in anything else I have seen, but just matter of fact. Not sure that I expected different in a film titled 2 Guns, but I note it because I noticed it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Sometimes movies are completely predictable and formulaic and you still like them. The Way, Way Back is one of those. Duncan is spending the summer with his mom and her new boyfriend at the beach house of some generic east coast beach town. It is the boyfriends house so all the friends and neighbors know him. Duncan, being a 14 year old kid who is not cool, has to figure out how to survive this awkward summer. He meets a mentor, meets the neighbor girl, confronts the boyfriend and confronts his mom. In the end is a more confident kid, mom and mentor have both recognized something deeper about themselves and in spite of the fact that life often sucks as a 14 year old kid, everything is going to be OK. Along the way, we get funny (courtesy of Sam Rockwell living like a 14 year old as well as a little bit of REO Speedwagon), we het heartfelt compassion, and quirky sidekicks. And in the end, we walk out having enjoyed laughing and feeling largely satisfied. Sometimes it is just good to embrace the formula.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pacific Rim

While I was only partially interested in this story, I was definitely interested in the visualization provided by del Toro. And afterward, I was correct. The story is OK. Good enough, but not great. The action battles between the robots and aliens were too big and too fast to notice details. But the visualization came through in the slow pans across the hangers and the big wall. Just watching the wall construction scenes was enough to give a visceral understanding of the fear and scale of the problem of giant aliens bubbling out of the ocean. But overall, there were just too many holes to make this a good film. For example, why do we need a wall from Alaska to Mexico, but nothing in Hong Kong? Why do massive battles between 1000 ton objects in water not create any waves on shore? Why to the "scientists" have to be such a caricature that I felt like I was watching Ghostbusters? Everything else was played straight, why not the scientists? Am I overly sensitive here? Unfortunately, this film is of a quality that recommends seeing it at home, but really needs to be seen on the big screen. What to do?
2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Numbers Station

Again with a girl that deals with numbers that no-one else can? (see Safe). Set in a World War 2 bunker somewhere in England, a numbers girl goes to work everyday, apparently with an entire unbreakable cipher in her head. She encrypts messages to be sent to black ops assassins so they can be sure their targets are authorized by the government. John Cusack, formerly one of these assassins, is her protector. When the bunker is attacked Cusack and his cipher girl have some difficult choices to make. There are too many holes in this storyline, which is itself to plain, to allow this to be enjoyable. Find something else to watch.
2 stars (out of 5)


Jason Statham plays his role. Out of favor, independent contract killer. Again (see The Mechanic or Killer Elite or and of The Transporter films), he finds someone who needs rescuing, and he does. In this case, a young girl who is a genius with numbers has been taken by the Chinese mob. They use her as their "accountant" since she can remember all numbers without leaving a paper trail. When they try to use her to courier a combination to a safe, and Statham gets involved because of a double cross, the girl and killer team up to try to save each other. Statham has to care, and she gets to live with a new benefactor. The story here holds together and there is enough turning of plot around who double crosses whom to keep us going. You know exactly what you are going to get with a Statham headlined film and he continues to deliver.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden covers most of the decade before his assassination. As a story, the film was engaging and cohesive. My concern with most historical fiction is that I accept it as historical and forget the fiction. What I think that I can take away from this film is the brutality of war, both on a grand scale, and on an individual scale. The torture methodology and results that are shown have been the source of much controversy. I think that what is not controversial is that the torture is torture (brutal and inhumane). What I saw was how the brutality affected both victim and assailant, such that both were victims. The difference being that the assailant generally tries to mask the fact that the brutality has any effect on them. And that mask is seen clearly here. I also was struck by how much of a "video-game" mentality was demonstrated by the soldiers. Perhaps a coping mechanism, but very disturbing as war capability moves more toward remote/robotic destruction. The personal atrocity of face-to-face death seems to be a natural limiting factor toward boundless war. Without it, war and death is simply a mathematical exponential curve, not a personal reality. Too easy to detach.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 22, 2013


Nine Items or Less meets Wendy and Lucy. Jane is a young woman struggling to make ends meet when she buys a thermos at a yard sale that just happens to have a ton of money stuffed in it. When she tries to return it to the old lady who sold it to her, she doesn't get the response she was expecting. But she does get the beginning of a strange relationship. This is a little bit of Jane pursues Sadie, and ends up being a commentary on relationship, friendship, getting old, holding on to dreams and building dreams. Well paced and balanced.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 20, 2013


If you want to see a law enforcement agency that is charged with finding, exposing and apprehending aliens (or ghosts) living among us, go see Men in Black. This was such a derivative film that I am surprised that there were not intentional nods to its parent. Unfortunately, it was also not good. There was no good humor, to surprising plot, so interest. I kept waiting for something to happen. It didn't. I know that 1-star is only supposed to go to films that I can't even watch the entire film, but I am offering an exception. I watched the whole thing and it is still
1 star (out of 5)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Not enough Minions! Too much plot.
2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Kid with a Bike

A story of perseverance, and perhaps resignation. This french film follows Cyril who was recently abandoned by his father. The title (and the opening 1/3) suggests that abandonment will be about seeking comfort or stability in the possession of a bike. In fact, this is more a character study of a person, or people if you include the hairdresser who takes him in, who are struggling to understand themselves and what it means to have a real relationship. And perhaps what it takes to enter (and accept) the trust of another. The slowness of the film, I suppose lets you soak into the characters and appreciate their struggles. When at home, it also lets you get up and make popcorn without actually pausing the film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Muay Thai Warrior

The opening title states that this film was made in honor of 125 years of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Japan. The rest of the film views as a propaganda piece showing how well these two peoples get along. A Japanese soldier is injured in battle and finds himself in a Thai village to recover from his injuries. They take care of him, his nurse is a nice looking young woman who finds him attractive, the nurses young niece is a charming and precocious helper. The village warriors help train the Japanese in the art of Muay Thai boxing and he takes on the mantle of guardian of the Emperor. Every 10 minutes, we are reminded "Look how well the Japanese and Thai can get along" in so many words. And then we proceed to "in an intercultural way" slaughter hundreds in hand-to-hand combat. I would stick with Ong Bak for Muay Thai viewing.
2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel

I am not a Superman fanboy, but I remember the Christopher Reeve versions from the ancient days. I suppose that this was everything I expected, but not what I hoped for. We get a good backstory on Krypton, and a series of snippets of Clark as he grows up and discovers he is different. We get Zod coming to exact his revenge and make his "New Krypton". We get lots of explosions and fantastic flying fight scenes. In effect, we get lots of Zack Snyder. What I hoped for was more Christopher Nolan genius. Something a bit more interesting. This was standard summer action film, on par with something like Green Lantern in quality. Unfortunately for this film, Superman is not on par with the Green Lantern. I expect so much more. An expectations are everything.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview with a Hitman

Victor is a professional hitman and through the mechanism of a recorded interview, we see the development of his craft. Starting with a troubled family in Romania, associations with the local mob, to becoming a freelance expert, Victor is consistently emotionless and hard. And yet, Victor is our protagonist and we are meant to feel sympathy for him. Several times throughout the film, a character states "but I had no choice, don't you see". Victor is continually fighting against this way of thinking, trying to identify if really, there is a choice. Overall, this is a very flat drama designed to match the emotional even keel of Victor. And yet somehow, in the end I found myself thinking "interesting" and "clever", reviewing the actions throughout to see how everything fit together. Of course, the violence is brutal, but it is not graphic as tends to be popular in current action films.

3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Adequate next edition in a great franchise that was rebooted a few years ago in Star Trek. I have never been a true Trekkie, but do enjoy the films. Kirk et al. get enmeshed in a plot by the military industry to start war in order to justify the existence of the military industry. In that respect, we are subtly pointed to look at current events for parallels. Kirk begins to make moral choices, bucking authority in the process, and helps Starfleet develop into a largely peaceful organization. At the same time, we get backstory on Kahn. The main effect of this backstory is the make me want to go watch some of the original film Kahn to really understand the references. Maybe a late night summer project. A solid entry in the sequence, but I still have my socks on.

3 stars (out of 5)

Now you see me

Is it possible to simultaneously like a movie and be a little bit let down? This film presents a pretty good heist premise. Four independent magicians are brought together by some unknown kingpin to utilize magic as a guise for some very large thefts (millions from a bank, insurance company CEO and vault company). The execution is clever and really utilizes the premis of magic well. This is also the let-down. Magic on film could be magic, or it could be CGI? Without revealing the reality (which a magician never does, right?) this may as well be a Disney princess movie. So while liking the plot and the idea, and even liking the device of magic/illusion as mechanism for theft, I was disappointed in the reliance on magic for effect. Can't have it both ways? Maybe not, but that means that I don't have rave over the film either.

3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Thieves

Brilliant. I love a good heist film. This Korean film is one of the best that I have seen in quite a while. It is fun, the heist stunts are a bit crazy, and the double crossing is so frequent that you don't know what number you are on. At the same time, each twist and turn is, as soon as you see it, completely consistent with the overall plot and characterization and not forced. The story introduces a Korean team of thieves and a Chinese team. Then these two teams join forces at the invitation of common acquaintance for a big heist. Each team and a variety of individual groupings within the teams all reveal their personal goals and priorities as the plan is developed and carried out. Extremely well paced and clever. See this.
5 stars (out of 5)

The Stories We Tell

Filmed as a documentary, but really only pseudo-doc as all of the characters are actors following a script. But based on some outline of a true story based on director Sarah Polley's life. The search if for truth, and how we identify and illuminate truth. Perhaps also about point of view. As Polley interviews various family members and friends to find out about her mother, she learns to know who her mother is and probably gets a better picture because of the varied perspective. Each story is based on a personal relationship that is only really known fully to that story-teller. So Polley collects these individual and personal relationships into a cohesive fullness that helps us to feel we know her mother better. Fun to watch...
4 stars (out of 5)

Before Midnight

Third in the Linklater trilogy of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, we pick up with Jesse and Celine married, with kids, and vacationing in Greece.  They are living at a famous writers house and everyone gets to hang out and talk about writing and being and all kinds of metaphysical drivel. Of course, I don't  think metaphysical discussions are drivel, but Celine certainly does. As in the first two installments, Jesse and Celine spend the majority of the film in discussion, but we are not as free here as earlier. Now we have substance that must be covered; family, jobs, division of labor in the household, aging, etc. So while we still try to have a conversational walk-about, the conversation simply doesn't walk. We are slogging through the reality of relationship. Of course it takes time to get to "slog", so the first half of the film is much lighter and more fun. A good (perhaps inevitable) treatment of this life that Jesse and Celine have built over the past decade, but not great. I would characterize it as Solid. And perhaps look forward to the next installment, when the twins have left for college.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Impossible

Based on the true story surrounding the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. A family vacationing over Christmas is caught up in the wave of destruction and we follow their remarkable journey to survive and eventually reunite. The dramatic effect of the film was quite strong as I was tense for a majority of the 90 minutes. In that respect, the film was not "entertainment" per se, but instead a dramatic interpretation of trauma. I suppose that as we were rooting for the family members and astounded by their resolve and luck, we were to be caught up in a human story. Unfortunately, I was more disturbed by the clear differential of wealth and power of the white family. Over 200,000 people died in that disaster. The only effect that we see in the local Thai population is a bit of help for the family and the service of the doctors to the foreigners. I recognize that global awareness is not the purpose of the film, but it is such a vacuum of awareness that it emphasizes just how ethnocentric we are.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man 3

One nice thing about franchise films is that you know exactly what to expect. This is of course what eventually causes franchise films to die. In this case, we get the continuing story of Tony Stark's coming of age story. The fact that he is 40-something is one of those suspend dis-belief things we do when we go to movies. Stark realizes that his past arrogance is causing his current troubles and this provides the plot motivation for the entire film. We get a little diversion with Don Cheadle's Rhodes character, and regular reminders of The Avengers films from last year. Good fun, solid story, plenty of action, nothing new. My one big disappointment with this film (or Oblivion for example) is the necessary voice-over to tell me everything I need to know and think. What ever happened to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, where you didn't really know what was going on half the film and it made the whole thing better? Does nobody trust the audience to be intelligent and figure things out?

3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Easy Money

Isn't. Ever, really. This Swedish film follows JW, a blue-collar guy trying to be a rich socialite. To get there, he gets involved with gangsters and thugs of a variety of flavors. He falls in love with a pretty young socialite, gets connected with a spanish drug dealer who imports drugs from Arabs in Germany who are moving in on the Serbian gangs of Stockholm. So if nothing else, this is a multicultural affair. What is most interesting about this film is how JW's spiral downward seems simultaneously inconceivable and inevitable. Reminds me a bit of Layer Cake with Daniel Craig, although this is a lot less hopeful.

3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, May 5, 2013


One in what seems to be a series of "future destroyed earth" films coming out this summer. Here Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, a drone maintenance technician on earth. His job is to keep the drones running whose job it is to protect the giant fusion machines over the ocean whose job it is to provide energy to the space station. Protect from whom, you ask? Well, the Scavs of course, those alien invaders who destroyed earth in their invasion and are still hanging around causing trouble. Jack is a bit too inquisitive for his own good, and loves earth a bit too much, which gets him into trouble. He finds true love along the way and true purpose in his strangely purposeful life. Fabulous flyovers of earth although I do wonder where all the dirt came from. But otherwise, fun envisioning of ultramodern outposts and a self-repairing earth. Kept me entertained.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Hmmm... I knew it was going to be bad. It was not good. But I watched the whole thing. This was really a stretch, someone looking for an excuse to make a film. Battleship the game barely came into focus. The plot goes something like this: Lifetime screwup joins the navy, continues to be a screwup and is about to be bounced. Aliens invade earth with a scout crew and try to send a message back to "home" to bring more soldiers. Lifetime and navy screwup is the only guy that can save the day. Along the way, he gains the courage to marry the admirals daughter, break down the walls of racism in the navy and honor those who fought in past wars. No big. I feel like a need a different rating scale for bad movies, because this was a pretty good bad movie. Sort of a "lives right up to its expectations" sort of rating. But since I don't
2 stars (out of 5)


As the "prequel" to Alien, Ridley Scott has created another engaging world capable of sustaining story and character. The Prometheus starship is traveling to a planet that has been shown to support life and is pointed to by a variety of archeological signs on earth. The current theory is that the race that lives there is the seed of life for humans on earth. Of course, we must go investigate and cryostasis is required to get there. And of course, this means a robot is needed to monitor the cryostasis along the way. Upon arrival to the planet, life is indeed found, along with a few surprises. What I particularly liked about this was that the tension developed and released repeatedly without needed the horror-factor. Scott throws waves of action, stress, discovery without needing to "scare" the viewer. This lets you appreciate the struggle and feel the tension. My only concern is that if this is not part of a series, then I am extremely disappointed. I bought in, and need the resolution. Help me out Ridley.
4 stars (out of 5)

Fire with Fire

A straight to video, vigilante action flick. The protagonist is a firefighter who witnesses a crime, gets put into the witness security program, gets found by the bad guy, has his new witness security girlfriend threatened and decides the only way out is to go get the bad guy himself. Bruce Willis plays the long-suffering cop who has been chasing said bad guy for years and is willing to help/look away. Of course, since a firefighter is involved, we end up with fire, but it is strangely anti-climactic. Perhaps I would recommend this for late night insomnia... but I am not sure even about that.
2 stars (out of 5)

Tower Heist

This is a pretty good movie, but not a great movie. Its biggest problem is schizophrenia. With Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, you would hope that it come out as a hilarious comedy. With title, you would hope that it was a clever and interesting heist film. Instead, it is occasionally funny and a little bit clever. It also tries to be "current and relevant" by using a Bernie Madoff like character in Alan Alda as the bad guy. While technically current,  not really relevant. Instead, it feels like it is trying to generate sympathy for the common man. So mildly entertaining. Not engaging.

Now I realize that you can't hold any action film to scientific accuracy. Otherwise you would never have a car explosion. But once in awhile there is something that is just crazy. Here you have a golden car... as in solid gold. And it appears to be lighter in weight than even a regular car. I mean, a golden car? At least make its extreme weight part of the plot...
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Debt

Told mostly in flashback, this is the story of a 3-person Mossad team that was charged with infiltrating East Berlin in the 60's in order to identify and extract the war-criminal known as "the Surgeon of Birkenau". As the story unfolds, we see how the team gets to know each other and develops life long relationships based on the events of their assignment. We also see how that affects them later in life, as well as their families. The story is intriguing and while I don't know if this was the intent of the writer, I found the psychology of war, death, and subterfuge fascinating. Specifically, I felt like we were able to see how decisions made around patriotism and moral duty had a way of burrowing into you and festering throughout a lifetime. Similar to (but from a different angle) as The Lives of Others. I would like to see more of this exploration.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Summer must be here. We get tanks, repelling soldiers, ninjas fighting while rock climbing, Bruce Willis and the Rock, explosions galore. Of course, the fact that it is still April puts this film in the not-quite-good-enough category for a summer blockbuster. But for what it is, well done. What it is? B+ action drama. Not really a comedy, but we know we must check our belief of the impossible at the door. But here is the surprising part. The bad guys (Cobra) have a really unique idea for gaining control of the world. They have recognized that there are too many nuclear weapons out there and develop a plan for removing nuclear weapons. Without spoiling the film, I found it quite entertaining. And while I am more than willing to embrace the absurd, I do expect the evil mastermind who initiates such a plot to be consistently mastermind-like. In this case, we have a masterful nuclear dis-armament plan followed by a system that allows the new global domination weapon to be destroyed (not disabled, not set on standby, but destroyed) by pushing a large red button on a remote control suitcase (in fact, the largest red button on the whole device). Mastermind status of Cobra commander has been reset to "dolt"...
3 stars (out of 5)

3 Idiots

Bollywood drama, probably toned down enough that I actually liked it. For example, categorized as a musical, aside from the mid-film musical/dance interlude, the music was so well integrated that I never thought I was watching a musical. The story takes place at a premier engineering college in India, where students are taught to learn what they are taught. Meaning that those who "think" will likely have difficulty. The three idiots of the film are Rancho, who thinks and his two roommates Raju (who is moderately smart but really loves engineering) and Farhan (who has no interest in engineering). Rancho is the charisma in this group. They play pranks, struggle through class and combat the stress that the system of education is creating. The story is told out of time sequence so that we get long sections of flashback to set the stage for the last third of the film and the resolution. A moderately funny film with a good (if a bit trite) message about education and people and relationship and love.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Warrior's Way

Probably the best way to describe this is as a samurai western. A member of an elite assassin group (the Sad Flutes) decides that he has had enough killing and escapes to the new world. He lands in a dust bowl ghost town where he is suddenly playing the role of asian Shane. The feel of this movie hits all the right tones as we get an alternately spaghetti western and asian score backdropping gun/sword battles that elicit impressions of watching good anime. Somehow it all worked for me.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Iron Sky

Sometimes a B-movie is exactly what is needed. This was not the time. I will admit that it is a new take to have a B-movie with modern references. Here we are set in 2018 and Sarah Palin is campaigning for her second presidential term. Part of the campaign is to send someone back to the moon. The astronauts land and are surprised to find a secret Nazi outpost, building strength to re-invade earth. That is about as far as I got...
1 star (out of 5)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Larry Crowne

Tom Hanks plays Larry Crowne, 20 year Navy veteran turned dedicated big box store worker. When he is downsized because of his lack of formal education, he decides to go back to school. He enrolls in Speech, Econ and Writing (although we never see the writing class) and begins to change his life. Julia Roberts plays the speech prof and love interest and George Takei the Econ prof. Hanks meets a young and hip scooter crowd who take liberties with changing his entire persona. This is a feel good romantic comedy of the purest form. Even the things that are difficult in characters lives are so quickly followed by a dramatic, fabulous event that you have no time to wallow in reality. Cruise through this without much emotion, a few laughs and throw it out of your mind when you are done. Rather forgettable.

2 stars (out of 5

Saturday, March 9, 2013

21 Jump Street

Repurposed from the 80's TV drama as a buddy comedy. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are high school enemies based on their social status (jock v. nerd). In the police academy they become fast friends as they discover that they can help each other out and eventually become partners. When they screw up most things on their beat, they are assigned to Jump Street. Here they infiltrate a high school drug ring and bring it down, all the while participating in crazy hi-jinks. [sarcasm on] hilarious [sarcasm off]. Not worth your time since there are better buddy comedy efforts out there.
2 stars (out of 5)


This sci-fi action piece is a feature follow-up to the TV series Firefly. The series played only one season, but has a cult following. It is a space-western with a bit of original series Star Trek cheese.  Most planets that the crew lands on have horses, sheriffs and saloons. The Firefly is a Millenium Falcon like cargo ship run by a small crew of smugglers and opportunists. One of the passengers is River, who happens to be a brillant savant hunted by the government because of her training (that seems to be kept secret). Serenity is a great finale to the 14 episode season, with very little background given. In fact, I would guess that someone watching the film only, and not the season, would be confused about the motivation for much of what occurs. But with the season as background, Serenity definitely delivers.
3 stars (out of 5)

Our Idiot Brother

It is not very often that I see a film that I can't finish. This was one of them. Which surprised me since I generally like Paul Rudd. But here he plays a modern day hippie who is sent to jail for selling marijuana to a police officer. He is all "dude" and no brains. Way too much stereotype, no interesting characterization. When Rudd moves in with his sisters, he is a simpleton who inadvertently changes each of their lives. And then I finally gave in to the boredom and turned the thing off. Sorry Paul.
1 star (out of 5

Monday, February 25, 2013

John Carter

A really good B-movie. Unfortunately, it was not intended to be a B-movie. Taylor Kitsch plays a civil war vet who is on a hunt for gold in the west. While hunting, he gets transported to Mars, where the lower gravity makes him stronger and able to jump higher than the locals. He gets into the middle of a planetary war where he, of course, gets to rescue the beautiful princess and take her side in the war as a force for good. Just a bad implementation overall. Only watch this between 1am and 5 am for full enjoyment.

2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pitch Perfect

Clearly I am not what the producers envisioned as the target audience for this film. A teen, coming of age story peppered with singing, dance, and teen angst. But from the moment I saw the preview last year, I knew I wanted to see it. I am an aca-sucker for acapella. Becky is a new college freshman and going to her fathers school against her wishes. She gets pulled into the campus competitive acapella groups and develops a reason to enjoy school and care about what she is doing. Of course, she must battle the socialites, the mean girls, the crazy anti-social roommate, and the frat-boy shenanigans. But she overcomes and takes her group to a new level of cool. Surround all this by a harmonization that I could only dream of and Christopher Guest quality commentary during the competitions and you get aca-awesome.

3 stars (out of 5)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It has obviously taken awhile for me to get to see this, having been in theaters for months now. Bilbo, at the behest of Gandalf, joins a party of 12 dwarves on a journey to reclaim their homeland from Smaug the dragon. Along the way, the encounter elves, orcs, and goblins and Bilbo acquires the one-ring from Gollum... to be continued. I like Tolkien and Peter Jackson and the entire middle-earth world. But knowing that the book was expanded into a trilogy that I won't be able to finish for over a year left me flat. Overall, the film was an excellent visualization, hitting all the right notes and expertly portraying the fantastic journey of Bilbo. However, after the attention and extravaganza of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this felt like it should have been a direct to DVD followup, Aladdin II so to speak. I suppose that when I finally sit down in 2014 and watch all three Hobbit films together, I will appreciate them for what they are. But now, it will have to sit as an excellent, average offering.

3 stars (out of 5)

Trouble With the Curve

Clint Eastwood is his normal gravely self. Amy Adams the good daughter. Justin Timberlake the good looking young upstart. Plus baseball. Can't really get any better. Eastwood is an aging talent scout for the Atlanta Braves who happens to be going blind. He is also starting to do battle with saber-metrics  whose proponents (in this film at least) are pushing actual scouts out the door in favor of stats. Adams, having grown up her fathers daughter, knows more about baseball than anyone around apparently and when she takes leave from her high powered lawyer job to spend some time with dad, demonstrates this expertise. In spite of the severely contrived attempt at romantic tension  the film works pretty well and a standard coming of age/coming home sort of story. Nothing surprising here, or really astounding. But Adams and Eastwood are always good and any film that John Goodman shows up in is a good day in  my book.

3 stars (out of 5)

Silver Linings Playbook

Category: Sports movies that aren't really about sports, but use sports as a unifying plot device. The Blind Side and Invictus are a couple of recent examples and now we have Silver Linings Playbook and Trouble with the Curve. The sports theme makes you feel comfortable (if you know the sport) or curious (if it is new). In this case, the film isn't even about football, but about the superstition of football fanaticism. And this lets us delve into familial relationships, romantic relationships and mental health. Add in quirky friendships and dance a la Little Miss Sunshine and you have a pretty good outing.

Bradley Cooper plays a recently released from the mental hospital guy who entered the hospital because he was jilted by his wife. Jennifer Lawrence plays a recovering, mentally unstable widow who has a dream to compete in a local dance competition. Robert DeNiro plays the fanatical Eagles fan who is convinced that holding the TV remote in a particular way actually changes the outcome of the game. All three of these principals hit their stride perfectly, presenting a chemistry that drew me in and made me care. And of course, I am a sucker for dance movies...

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, February 8, 2013


This was a pretty good Norwegian thriller. Based on a book by author Jo Nesbo (whom I like), our protagonist Roger Brown is a high level headhunter. It so happens that on the side, he is a high level art thief, a habit that he maintains to support the expensive tastes of his supermodel of a wife. While this starts out as a straight up heist and discovery film, it turns into something pretty different and Roger Brown finds out what kind of man he really is. [get on soapbox] My only complaint with the film is the couple of scenes of graphic violence, including both humans and animals. Such gore and cruelty is definitely not necessary in a smart film like this. I am hooked on the story, on the suspense, and on the tense situations that Brown is in. You don't need to make me cringe to get your point across about how dire his situation is. I get it. I don't need to feel it. In fact, one probably sees films like this specifically to not feel things, so the cruelty is counterproductive even on an artistic or capitalistic level. [get off soapbox] Otherwise, I like the smart turns of plot and creative methodologies for getting into and out of tension. Well done.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Date Night

Tina Fey and Steve Carrell are funny. But they have to have material. This was 100 minutes of film with 30 minutes of action and 20 minutes of funny. I could tell that they had fun making certain scenes, but the plot was definitely developed as a string of situations that could put comedians in awkward situations that they should not know how to handle separated by dramatic pauses that would allow the audience to reflect on their own relationships. Probably the most unfortunate part of this is that it probably made enough money for us to expect Date Night 2.
2 stars (out of 5)


This is as formulaic as they come. Former CIA agent gets framed for killing a spy. Gets sentenced to maximum security prison (which in this case happens to be an orbiting space prison). Conveniently, the presidents daughter is on a humanitarian mission to said space prison when it gets taken over by the prisoners. CIA guy is given opportunity to help his cause by rescuing presidents daughter. Chemistry develops, moral choices are made, smart quips are tossed about ... walk off into the night. Guy Pierce does a pretty good job as the CIA agent with enough swagger to talk back to anyone and everyone. No academy awards (clearly) but a good way to waste an afternoon. And since that was my goal...
3 stars (out of 5)

Twilight Samurai

When I think Samurai, I think honorable body guard trained to be the fiercest of all fighters. In Twilight Samurai we enter into a story of class. There are peasants, there are nobility, and there are Samurai (the paid professional servants of the nobility). These Samurai are often professional warriors, but many of them have a primary responsibility in the mundane. These lesser Samurai might be in charge of the food stores in case of a siege or battle, as is the case here. So while trained to fight, they are actually accountants. And of course, "lower class". Our hero (Seibei Iguchi) is one such accountant, who has lost his wife and struggles on his small stipend to support a senile mother and two young daughters. He is dutiful to his master/clan and to his family. This is not an action or martial arts film, but a look into the culture of mid-19th century Japan as its society begins the transition to modernity. What piqued my interest was the demonstrated roles and responsibilities of living in a hierarchy  At one point, Iguchi makes a request to allow his duty as a samurai to be placed on another. The clan master will not hear of it and, from a position of power, is astonished that the request is even made. Power insists that duty is fulfilled regardless of situation or conscience. Almost immediately following, the hierarchy shows another side. If Iguchi does not return, his superior accepts the responsibility to care for his senile mother and children. With power comes responsibility. Too often, those in power develop a great entitlement to the obedience and forget the responsibility that must be an equal partner.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

I am trying to decide whether this film was worth while or not. The fact that I actually have to consider this probably means it was not. The plot follows Hansel and Gretel 25 years after their childhood escape from the gingerbread house. As they have become the regional witch hunters, their services are very much in demand. Throughout the story, we watch as they hunt witches and come to terms with the truth of their past. All very low concept and perfect for a summer flick. Unfortunately, either the writing or the acting (or both) left me feeling like we are all just marching through a script to the end. It may be the matter-of-fact voice over narration that gave the "ho-hum here's another boring witch" feel. While I can see the value of creating this mood intentionally in the first third, the film was never able to turn it up a notch and get out of "ho-hum" to develop tension that needed resolution. Add this to the fact that I didn't get popcorn since I had just had lunch, so I can't even give it a great rating as a popcorn movie.
2 stars (out of 5)

The Man from Nowhere

A nice little Korean film that reminds me of the plot of Taken, but better. A reclusive pawn shop owner befriends a neighborhood girl who needs a friend (mother is a prostitute and no father). Unfortunately, the mothers work gets her involved with drug running and gets the girl kidnapped as collateral to collect on stolen merchandise. Fortunately for the girl, our pawn shop guy is a former special ops kind of guy who you don't want to mess with. Mayhem and brutal vengeance follow in the effort to save the girl. A clear reminder that racism is universal (all the stupid people here are Chinese and all the smart ones are Korean) as well as retributive violence. It seems that in films like this, with good v. evil guys, the ego of the bad guys always gets them shot. Maybe this is not and intentional cultural statement by the filmmakers on how power corrupts one's sense of place in society, but watch enough of these films and you begin to see them reflecting (on an exaggerated scale in most cases) the mores of society. Imagine a humble crime boss. Would probably be wildly successful since they would not overestimate their abilities, and would make for a box office flop of a film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Tourist

Perhaps a conversation I had with Annika about 15 minutes into this film sums it up.
  Me: Did you want to watch this with me?
  A: No, I heard it was really violent... or really boring... I don't remember which...

Turns out it was the boring option. Angelina Jolie is followed by the police since her former boyfriend is a wanted man. When she gets a message to meet him, she jumps through the hoops to try to lose the police. Part of the plan is to meet a random guy on a train and befriend him, making everyone think the random guy is the boyfriend. Johnny Depp plays the tourist and gets enmeshed in the hijinks. But still, not enough action, or not enough creativity, or not enough chemistry. This felt as if everyone phoned in a performance. If you have late night insomnia, this might help.

2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Jack Reacher

Sometimes inspiration hits in the funniest places. Or maybe not inspiration, but curiosity.  First the movie. Jack Reacher is an ex-Army MP who is apparently the worlds best investigator and baddest tough guy. He gets "called" into Pittsburgh to help investigate the guilt/innocence of a sniper. His persona is one of quiet confidence, which I guess you can have (confidence that is) when you know you can beat up 5 guys any time you want. For the first part of the film, Reacher is almost apologetic about his ability to hurt people and he really just wants people to tell him the truth, not get beat up. But in this we are drawn into a bit of minor hero worship. Don't we all hope Reacher is the guy investigating our crime when we are falsely accused? Don't we all want Reacher to ignore the rules to get at the truth? And as we are set up to really like this guy, we are then reminded that Reacher practices vigilante justice. He is never wrong, so it is OK. It is a bit ironic that the entire film plot is based on Reacher helping a lawyer avoid the death penalty for this sniper who killed 5 people in cold blood. And yet somehow, the villain does not even get a trial or a lawyer to argue against the death penalty. Just death. I like that this is not just straight up action, but is an investigation. It gives us time to observe, to think and recognize what mythology the authors want us to believe. And we have time to decide whether we actually believe this.

3 stars (out of 5)

Now to curiosity. The movie previews included ads for two 1st person shooter games that are being released soon. In my hope to some day see books and films that are both good and offer alternatives to violence for dealing with conflict, I wondered what it would look like for a 1st person shooter game to be non-violent. Or at least, violent without death? It seems that two things are going on in these games: 1st - players must solve a puzzle or traverse a maze to "win", and 2nd- players must be alive to do this (and often killing the bad guy is the only way to progress through the puzzle). Is it possible to have a kick-ass puzzle/maze that would knock even the most ardent player flat with its detail and at the same time, set up "fight rules" that reward violence-alternative solutions? These rules would have to be very cool and unique. I don't play enough to even know how to imagine what the alternatives could be. But this kind of game would be so novel, it would definitely have a corner on the market. I would simply hope that it would not be released and only be "kinda-OK". "Kinda-OK" is like christian rock. It's not really good, but it is christian so some people listen. Someone out there invent a kick-ass, violence-alternative, 1st person shooter game for me.