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)