Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Ouch. Went to see this with my niece and nephews. They had been in a production of Annie, so they were ready for the real deal. This wasn't it. As a musical, I suppose you expect good music. Even the 11 year old with me commented on how bad the singing was. Even so, the end result is that I found my self mildly entertained, but for all the wrong reasons. This is not a film where you laugh at the jokes. This is a film where you laugh at the film and the decisions that were made about what the jokes were. If you embrace "laughing at" instead of "laughing with", you will get through it.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 21, 2014


A Chinese police thriller that follows Lieutenant Liu through a case that becomes increasingly personal. His crime squad is on the hunt for a brazen gang of thieves that are pulling daring armored car heists in the middle of Hong Kong. His "by-the-book" approach is starting to make him (and others) think that he will never be able to prove that is prime suspect is involved. As the stakes escalate, so does the ethical ambiguity. In addition to being a quality police procedural/action film, I also enjoyed watching the struggle of this character as he balanced justice, what he "knows to be true" and even over time, the adjustment of that knowledge as he encounters facts. I must say, I also appreciated the visual effects of adding tracer bullets to the gun battles. I saw that explicitly for the first time in Fury and now again here. It sure does remove some of the seeming chaos from a shoot out scene.
4 stars (out of 5)


This film is a good concept. A kidnapping victim needs to get rescued, but the entire strength of the US Department of Defense can't figure out a way to stage an operation. So the CIA releases four women from prison to make a rescue team. It is a classic technique, with each member chosen for their specific skills. It worked for Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, and a host of other films. The twist here it that it is an all female team. However, you can tell from the opening line that this is a B-movie. Story, acting, and production quality are all 2nd or 3rd tier. Alas...
2 stars (out of 5)


Pretty interesting look into domestic terrorism in London. The title refers to UK citizens who have no historical association with any terrorist organization or ideals. They are not on any watchlist and are so below the radar that the terrorist radar does not know they exist. Enter into this a secret service agent who has seen better days, but is still a master of his craft. What I found particularly interesting was the exploration of fear. The motivation of the terrorists, the motivation of the government, the impact on "the populace". What is rational and what is irrational fear and what actions are led to by these fears. Moderately good action/thriller, thought provoking social drama.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

We pick up with out any "last time, on the hobbit..." reminders. Smaug is attacting Lakewood and the dwarves are trying to get into the mountain hold. Once they take the hold, men and elves come to claim their ancestral treasures that have been secreted away. They start to fight, but then orcs come and everyone fights together to defeat the orc invasion. Overlay this simple plot on sweeping vistas, a series of individually dramatic grudge battles within a massive, carnage filled field, and undertones of "last stand against evil" supported by "love will bridge all boundaries". Now that the series is finished, I am largely uninspired. Ho-hum, epic tale of middle earth...
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Imitation Game

The story of Alan Turing's conquest of the Nazis. Or, how the field of computer science was born. Turing got himself hired as a civilian contractor in WWII England, tasked to a team responsible for breaking the Nazi code system called Enigma. The permutations of the code were too big to crack by brute force each day, so Turing had a plan for a machine that could outperform thousands of people. It seems that his relentless pursuit was less about breaking the code that about building the machine. This is a great portrayal of the intelligence world of WWII Bletchley Park, the drive of one person, the group dynamics that necessarily fracture and fuse under intense pressure, and the horrible implications of both power and culture on the individual. It does make me wonder how other cultures (less individualistic cultures) would look at this film and interpret the personal sacrifices and personal suffering portrayed. Well written and well acted...
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, November 28, 2014


Sometime in the future, life has boiled down to survival. Farming and living in a dustbowl, entire crops succumbing to blight, and technology being the general scapegoat for all things ill in the world. Enter Cooper (McConaughey), former pilot, current tinkerer/engineer/dreamer. He gets the call to pilot a spacecraft through a wormhole in search of a new planet to colonize. Straight up sci-fi. No fantasy, super-heros, romance, or comedy to "broaden" the audience. This a film that makes you want to think about what the future might hold, about what our responsibilities to life on earth are now, about unintended consequences, about the relationship between science/fact/perception/belief, about the limitations to our thinking that we can't even think about and about the implications of a survival instinct. The film is paced patiently so that you can start this thinking while watching. I think this is a good thing, in contrast to a blitz of sensory input and big ideas that blow your mind and don't allow you to integrate the implications of what you are seeing, which is common is sci-fi/big action films these days. In many ways, this is a traditional story of the triumph of humanity over nature. In many ways, this is a cautionary tale in the saga of man v. nature. Loved it.
5 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

John Wick

John Wick is a former mob hitman who has retired from the business. When his wife dies, and his grieving process in interrupted by a robbery, Wick enters revenge mode and re-enters his old life. This is as close to a first person shooter video game film as you can get and offers the same entertainment value. A character that is basically indestructible, can kill without remorse, and basically ravages everyone who crosses his path. There is no thinking here (there is no time), and there is not really much story. The filming and action sequences are crisp and well choreographed. But that does not in itself make a good film. I would classify this as a revenge genre (a la Taken) but to an even higher extreme. If you like watching someone play Call of Duty or similar games, you will enjoy this. I just felt slammed afterwards (glazed eyes, flat emotion).
1 star (out of 5)

Monday, November 24, 2014


The story of a WWII tank crew who has worked their way over the past few years from northern Africa into Germany. They are currently moving through central Germany in the last days of the war. As far as war, action films go, this is fairly typical in that there is an intense camaraderie created within the crew that ultimately overcomes any conflict. There are fierce battles alternated with down time where the crew can "act normal". And each soldier reacts differently to stress and normality. Really this is a character film where we explore the effects of war on different personalities. I am again struck by the coping mechanisms that each of the crew exhibits, from rage to nausea to enjoyment. I am struck by the brutality of war, both in terms of life and death and in terms of psychological abuse on soldier and civilian. I am struck by the assumed "necessary evil" that comes with war and battles. I am not sure if it is more disturbing that some soldiers can switch back and forth easily between brutal and pleasant, or that some get stuck in one mode. I perhaps am most disturbed by the fact that I could see myself as Norman... utterly repulsed by death, but being pretty good at the craft and coming to enjoy it. I suppose that seeing films like this is another push to remind me that pacifism and working toward peace is just that... work.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Sometime this year, nations will decide to artificially seed the atmosphere with a cooling agent to combat global climate change. This global experiment will go awry and cause a massive ice age. A technocrat named Wilford has created a train that moves constantly around the globe and all of surviving humanity is on this train, surviving the freeze in a closed environment. Flash forward 17 years to 2031 and the members of the back end of the train are fed up with their squalor. They plan a revolution, fighting to take over the engine one car at a time. This is a brilliant story, based on a French graphic novel, where a closed ecosystem of humans must remain balanced. The prevailing theory is that in order for there to be balance, there must be disparity. Perhaps my favorite line of the film is in response to a "This is the natural order" comment. Curtis (from the back) says to Mason (from the front), "Thats what people from the front always say to people from the back". Yes, this little train is a microcosm of the world. So why can't someone envision sustainability with parity. Both are required for justice. The fact is, this film (in spite of its massive violence) makes me think again of justice and sustainability and the possibilities for our 2014 world. Love it.
4 stars (out of 5)

The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay: Part 1

Clearly a placeholder film. I mean, it has a place holder in the title (Part 1). So go in with your expectations set at that level, and this is a fine film. Katniss is now in District 13, having been rescued after the escape from the games in Catching Fire. Peeta is not in District 13, having been left behind by the rescuers and forthwith captured by the Capital. President Snow plays his part en pointe, as a friendly, grandpa sort of evil tyrant. Katniss resists and then develops a driving need to be part of the revolution. Great scenery, costumes, etc. Well written, etc. I suppose what makes it a placeholder is that we get no conflict arc. We know the conflict will not be resolved, so it is a slow amping up of the tension. We just have to wait... for a year... I think I will appreciate this series when I watch all four in a marathon next christmas.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


The 2005 released Hong-Kong action thriller (not the Veronica Roth dystopian Chicago future film released this year). This is the story of a grieving cop chasing the murderer of his witness, the lawyer who protects the suspected mastermind, and the hitman who pulled the trigger. An engaging little tryptic that feels like three independently woven stories even though it is clearly one story. And is it possible for a film to be engaging and enjoyable, and entirely forgettable at the same time? Seems like it had nothing substantive to offer.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Equalizer

Denzel Washington is a guy with some serious special forces skills who has retired and is living the quiet life. Well, he doesn't sleep much, so he is always reading in the middle of the night in a diner. When another regular gets in trouble, he helps her out. Since the trouble has a lot to do with human trafficking, the help has a lot to do with hunting down bad guys and killing them. In this helping, Washington apparently finds his post military vocation. There will probably be a sequel and he will probably have business cards by then. And I will probably see it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Way Back

The story of prisons of the Soviet gulag and the prisoners within them. A few escape and walk south to get out of Russia. They walk through Tibet, China (gobi desert), the Himalayas into India. These are not all nice, falsely accused political prisoners. But over their 4000 mile walk, they learn to trust each other. The story is fascinating (similar to Unbroken) in how much abuse a body and mind can endure. And it is fascinating how different characters interpret loyalty, to each other and to place.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Peter O'Toole is a famous stage and film actor at the end of his career (he gets roles laying in hospital beds). When he is introduced to (takes under his wing) the niece of a colleague, his world is changed. We have a lot of the typical "you're old - I'm young" miscommunication and misunderstanding. But O'Toole is also bright enough to recognize that he doesn't get it, but can enjoy the ride anyway. Made me laugh a couple times...
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, October 17, 2014


In the 80's, the conservative party of Margaret Thatcher was in a bitter dispute with the labor unions of the coal miners. Mining communities were hit hard by an extended strike and were not getting good press. Into this frying pan, a group of young men and women in London created an organization called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. They adopted one particular small community, raised  money in London, traveled to the community to offer their solidarity. Clearly the miners prejudice was a roadblock to accepting the help. In the end, everything works out (of course, this is a movie). This was over the top and exaggerated the differences between the two groups for effect. And we wrapped up those differences in short order. So while this is clearly not a documentary, it is a puffy feel good piece that is based on the true story. And perhaps the most inspirational part is the end, when we find that the miners union later went on to support gay rights.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Sword with No Name

In rural Korea a local guy decides that it is up to him to protect the queen. He trains himself and basically stalks her to insure that no harm can come to her. Obvious conflicts arise with the official guard, until he is hired. Then he needs to work his way into her personal guard. Along the way, he falls in love and ... lost interest... not a compelling story and mediocre martial arts scenes.
1 star (out of 5)

Friday, September 26, 2014


Based on the true story of Robyn Davidson and her solo trek across the desert of Australia. Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn and we follow her from nearly the beginning of her decision making process to embark on the trip, including over a year of preparation. She has to apprentice with a couple of camel farmers in order learn how to handle the animals and how to use them since they will be her primary lifeline on this massive trek. She also has her dog who follows her all along. The trek portion of the story is remarkably tension free, with the plot conflict coming from the relationship between Robyn and her financial sponsor (National Geographic) and their photographer. Somehow, the solo trek must include this photographer popping up at regular intervals to document the trip. It turns out to a love/hate relationship as Robyn grapples with her desire to be solitary and simultaneously her loneliness. In many ways this is a self discovery film that lets the self discovery lie subtly in the background. Afterwards, I wondered what was learned, what was appreciated, what personal growth took place? And surprisingly, my anticipation for a landscape film was only moderately satisfied. Big sweeping vistas and the context of the Australian desert did not overwhelm me, or awe me with its vast scope. Maybe this was the filming, I don't know. So while this was entertaining and I found myself enjoying the film, both in real time and in memory, it was not complete. It left me wanting more. Definitely see it. But don't expect to love it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

IP Man 2

Sequel to IP Man, it is now after the war and IP Man is setting up his own school for Wing Chun style of martial arts in Hong Kong. He encounters masters of other styles, along with the British overseers in Hong Kong. Fascinating as a loose biography, as well as in comparing martial arts styles and the class/racial issues going on in Hong Kong in the 50's.

3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

3 Days to Kill

Kevin Costner is a CIA spy on the retirement side of life. He wants to spend more time with his family (daughter, ex-wife), get cancer, takes on "one last job" in order to get access to a secret cancer treatment drug. So many things wrong with this premise. But he does it, and everything goes wrong, and Costner wins in the end. Funny how that works.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Out of the Furnace

A couple of brothers (Christian Bale the ex-con and Casey Affleck the PTSD Veteran) struggle through life. Bale is blue-collar and solid. Affleck is aggressive and flighty. They get mixed up with the underworld bare-knuckle fight scene (managed by Woody Harrelson) to make money... at which point I was so bored that I quit. The first half was slow, ordinary, dark, and predictable. I predict that it got more ordinary and darker, a betrayal, Affleck getting in over his head, Bale rescuing him, brotherly love and angst. There was no real chemistry between any of the actors, with even Harrelson playing his now caricature-crazy guy. No love here.
1 star (out of 5)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Two Lives

This 2012 Norwegian film tells the story of Katrine. During World War II, many Norwegian children were sent to orphanages in Germany and the repatriation of these children was an ongoing political issue for many years. Every so often, one group or another would make progress in declassifying information or extracting reparations for the families involved. Katrine is one of these children and when a reporter arrives at her house after the latest small progress, she is loath to reopen old wounds. The remainder of the film proceeds to tell the history of Katrine, both in flashback and current investigation and interview. Part of the story includes spies, betrayal, murder, secrets and love, in many ways presented as a traditional thriller. But it also feels very plain and ordinary, with a feel similar to The Lives of Others, also set in East Berlin.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Thor: The Dark World

Thor is my least favorite of the Avenger comic hero clan. However, he still rates above film versions of Spiderman (which is strange to me since I loved the Spiderman comics as a kid). But I figured it would be an adequate late night intro to the weekend. In this version, the nine realms are again aligned (after thousands of years) which weakens the boundaries between them. Because of this weakness, Natalie Portman is ported to a remote planet, absorbs some "evil", and ports back. The Dark Elves, who were defeated by Odin during the last alignment and were relieved of their "evil" are still mad and plan on getting it back. Thor has to defeat the Dark Elves again while protecting the nine realms and his girlfriend. Nothing here (acting, strength of story, special effects, etc.) to make me change my original assessment. Thor is my least favorite of the Avenger comic hero clan.
2 stars (out of 5)

Escape Plan

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) wrote the book on prison security. But writing books is boring so he takes on jobs to personally test the security of prisons. That is, for a large fee, he gets himself "admitted" to a facility and proceeds to break out, and then sends a nice report to the warden outlining the facility weaknesses. With the stage set, Stallone takes on a big, top secret, government black ops, big money job. It is a bit different, but his ego gets him to take the job and he is put into a prison that is really unbreakable. The warden has a well-worn copy of the Breslin book on his desk. Inside, Stallone meets up with Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and the two work together to break the prison. This isn't a real novel tale, and it (obviously?) isn't built around Oscar caliber acting. But it is a clever script that was well paced and provided a consistently interesting story arc. Probably safe to categorize it as a high quality, mid-level heist film.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

IP Man

Donnie Yen (who I just saw in Special ID) plays IP Man. He is the undisputed martial arts master in a Chinese town known for its martial arts schools. He does not take on students and lives a life of luxury with his wife and child. He gets involved in local disputes as a benevolent and honorable town judge. Then the Japanese invade and IP Man tries to live under the radar. But he becomes a local inspiration, training workers to defend themselves and ultimately challenges the occupiers. Yen is fun, beautiful and fluid with his martial art, and full of composure as an actor. Much enjoyed.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Trip to Italy

A sequel to The Trip, which I did not see, this film uses the same gimmick, but moves from England to Italy. A couple of friends (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) play themselves, hired by an English paper to travel around Italy, eat at fancy restaurants and provide commentary. Even though they are not food experts, they are entertaining enough for the paper to want six articles. For the film viewer, the two are entertaining enough to just sit back and enjoy. It is like watching a couple of friends who have known each other so long that the know exactly how to joke and push and play. Add that to the fact that these guys are professional impersonators and we get long segments of what I am sure are improvised stand up riffs just making each other laugh while trying to perfect a particular voice. Walking out, one of the viewers was overheard saying "That was so self-indulgent", and while probably true, I don't even care. It is light hearted and fun, made me laugh. And there were 4 or 5 short scenes, usually the just before lights out, or walking away from an event, that the film captures a look or expression that puts the entire thing back into reality (a couple guys who are friends, working, and trying not to think about "real life"). These are glimpses, not major, but long enough to provide perspective to keep the film balanced.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Special 26

A clear example of random Netflix luck. Set in India, a crew of 4 partners work together to impersonate various public agencies to make raids on wealthy (and corrupt) people to steal from them. They are decidedly low-tech in their methods and is quite fun to see how far hubris gets you. It is also fun to see the push/pull between the impersonators and their nemesis policeman who is on their tail. And top it all with typical Bollywood style, we don't pass the 30 minute mark without a full fledged song and dance number. A fun heist film...

4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The November Man

I have liked Pierce Brosnan since the Remington Steele days. And while he was not my Bond (he was not Connery), in the right film (e.g. The Matador, Thomas Crown Affair) he definitely fits. This is another example. Here he plays Devereaux, a retired CIA hitman. We get glimpses of his past as he trains a protege (Mason) and get a sense for his melancholy life. He is pulled back into the business by his former handler, and of course things do not go well. In the end, it is up to him to find what is really going on while mourning loss, running from his former pupil, and protecting the girl. He is pretty rugged, a bit tired, and a bit sassy throughout. His methods are standard (in the way that CIA spy cleverness is standard in films these days) and his confidence is off the charts. A solid entry in the "Bourne genre" of films.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Special ID

In many ways, this film is typical. An under cover cop is in deep and his handler wants to keep him there for personal gain. He is loaned to another agency and his new handler does not understand how he works. Hong Kong style martial arts and street chases and fights abound. A couple of different mafia (in this case triad) bosses are in conflict and our hero is caught in the middle. So standard fare in many ways. Until the last 20 minutes. That is, the final 20 minutes are a culmination car chase/fight scene that you have not seen before, and it makes the whole thing worth while. Quite a good summer flick...

3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Jacket

Oooh, more wacky time travel. Having just read The Time Travelers Wife, this was more than I expected. Adrien Brody is a recently returned from the gulf war (1991 version) veteran who gets mixed up in a bad situation and sent to an institution for the criminally insane. While there, his treatment leads to episodes of time travel, where he goes forward a few years to enlist the help of Kiera Knightly in finding out about what actually happened to him back in "the present". This is quite well done, making us think about time loops, cause and effect, and how to jump out of loops. I also appreciated the portrayed true confusion and altered mental state that returning from combat results in. Perhaps this is because I am in the middle of reading Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels and recently read Baghdad Diaries by Nuha al-Radi. Both of these books give insight into the gulf wars from the Iraqi point of view and raise non-combat mental trauma of citizens in war. So I have war trauma on the brain and this film gave a particularly interesting (to me) perspective.

4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I liked the first Hellboy, perhaps because it surprised me a bit. It was light hearted, action hero based, and yet irreverent and a bit disgruntled. This sequel held to that same standard. Ron Perlman plays the title character and again nails it. He is good, bad, a bit of an immature kid, a bit angry and true superhero when it comes down to it. The story follows him and his buddies helping to prevent ancient royalty from re-animating a robot army and destroying humanity. In addition, we get Guillermo del Toro's brilliance in creature creation again as the crew spends some time in the Troll market. I wonder if that guy just sits around imagining crazy creatures. I hope he gets lots of free time to do more because you could just sit around and "people watch" what he makes and that would be an entire film.

4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Pulp Fiction

I finally saw it. This film that has been talked about as a game changer for film, for violent characters, etc. Eh, it was alright. I can see why it broke ground 20 years ago. But now, it is a pretty good buddy-gangster film, with some idiosyncratic touches. Travolta and Jackson are hitmen for the mob in LA. While they are ruthless, they are also a bit bumbly and faux-metaphysical. At least today, it feels manufactured. I do like the nonlinear editing that Tarantino put together, telling the story out of sequence and putting it back together in a seamless and very pleasing final product.

3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

The first film was good, maybe because it was surprisingly so. We pick up right away, with Kick-ass inspired "superheros" roaming the streets, keeping things safe. Hit Girl has hung up her stars having lost her father. Kick-ass convinces Hit Girl to train him for real, they become an item and a team, get in over their heads, lose faith, lose family, etc. Again, this is a case of kids (and adults) with a fantasy understanding of superheros crushed by the onset of reality. But this is a fantasy film, so the fantasy of course wins out. So was this film good? In spite of the the fact that chronologically it is a sequel, it seems to be, in fact, the same film. Same moral dilemmas, same gimmicks, same ending. So it was OK, but I have this crazy idea that you should actually expand and improve a film if you have a chance in a sequel. No cinematic risks were taken here, and no cinematic rewards will be granted.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


In this film, Mickey Rourke plays an accomplished and well regarded professional hitman whose main clients are mob bosses. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a punk-ass, petty criminal who imagines himself more gangster than he could ever be. These two get mixed up in a job of eliminating some witnesses to a murder and their methodologies (professional vs amateur) clearly cause conflict along the way. This is not a good film. Rourke makes it bearable as he portrays the cold, yet matter-of-fact assassin. Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me was much better.
2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke plays an aging professional wrestler ("The Ram") who is still traveling and performing on the small circuit. He is struggling to find purpose in his life beyond wrestling, or more realistically, to envision that there is any possible thing he could do besides wrestling. He clearly sees the sadness of his own existence, and clearly sees how poor his decisions have been in his personal life. And even so he does not see it within himself to choose differently. Rourke is outstanding, carrying all the weight of a lifetime of glory and angst simultaneously. Tomei offers the same great performance in basically the same life role, but with her profession being a night club dancer. Not a happy film, but a great look into lives.
5 stars (out of 5)

The Monuments Men

Historical fiction is usually interesting to me when it is something that I had no idea about previously. In this aspect, The Monuments Men was excellent. The idea of a group of arts minded men volunteering in WWII with the sole purpose of tracking down and saving from destruction the many works of art stolen and stashed by the Germans is fascinating. Unfortunately, this film takes that fascination and squashes it. It feel self important, and does not bring the drama or the tension I would expect in a war zone. There are scenes which I should have felt this. But I didn't. Instead, I was taken back to the docudrama films I saw in the 8th grade. So great idea, great story, (very) flat execution.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 9, 2014


The setting for this film is both "realworld" and "dreamworld". So automatically, you know there are going to be some weird things going on. Ink is a character that lives in dreamworld. He has traveled to realworld and stolen the soul of a girl. The entire story is one of battle between the Incubus (purveyors of bad dreams) and storytellers (givers of good dreams), with Ink and his stolen soul in the middle. We jump back and forth between the two worlds, and in time (from present to flashback and back again). This is a fascinating creative exploration of what the dreamworld might look like and how the human mind and sub-conscious work to provide meaning and motivation to our lives. In that respect, very similar to the mind-bending books like The Lathe of Heaven and Going Bovine.

4 stars (out of 5)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I used to love reading the Tom Clancy novels, so any Jack Ryan film adaptations that are reasonably good are high on the nostalgia rating for me. In this iteration, Ryan is just recruited into the CIA and on his first operational assignment (to save the world, of course). Spoiler Alert -- he does. I appreciated how understated this film was. The actions scenes were not over the top, but filmed instead with a "realistic" bent. So no one guy v. twelve in a fist fight. My favorite scene was also really a character scene, when Ryan is doing his analysis mojo while his fiance (Kiera Knightly) looks on. I loved how, with a few facial expressions she was able to portray the realization that "Oh my god, this is what he does, and he is really good at it, I love that I get to watch this". Kinda lame, but that made the whole movie for me.

3 stars (out of 5)

The Hundred-Foot Journey

A fusion food movie integrating Indian and French culture and cuisine. Hasan and his family have moved from Mumbai to Europe to try to start over in the restaurant business. They land in Rotterdam in a run down building directly across the street from Helen Miren's fancy traditional French restaurant. Of course there are culture clashes, and a minor food war between the restaurants. Yet while this is a film about food and chefs, it is more about culture and relationship, with the food taking a supporting role. This is unfortunate since the storyline tends to meander without the focus on one thing (2 hours could have been 90 min) and the best part of the film is the slo-mo and close-up filming of food preparation. No actors, and often not even hands. Just the food being chopped, poured, sliced and spritzed. These film scenes also provide the most vivid color and action and yet we see none of it in the second half. Even with these limitations, the film consistently pulled a laugh out of me.

3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Family

Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer star in this dark comedy about a family in witness protection. De Niro testified against his mob friends in New York, so his witness protection needs are extreme. So much so that the family and their permanent federal protectors are in France. But the entire family is a bit wacky, with the mom burning down a grocery store when the owner is rude, the kids taking over the school black market, etc. When the mob finds them (was that really a spoiler?) everybody chips in to save themselves from certain death. It is quirky, and subtle and dark. And moderately fun.

3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne v. Zac Efron. Young married with children next door to ultimate frat guy. Let the hi-jinks begin. Rogan and Byrne try to make friends, try to fit in with the frat guys, try to out smart them, try to ignore them, try to outprank them. Unfortunately, I didn't find much of it funny. Byrne has a bit of a whiny, baby-talk voice that just annoys me and Rogan's chuckling doofus is a bit tired. And/Or I am getting old and am no longer the target audience for college party humor.

2 stars (out of 5)

In the Blood

This Gina Carano vehicle puts a husband and wife on their honeymoon in the Caribbean. There is some back story to provide some motivation (both are recovering addicts, he is wealthy, the in-laws don't like her, etc.) but in the end, this is a Gina Carano vehicle. The husband is kidnapped, she tracks down the kidnappers and "holds them accountable". Some pretty good fight sequences, but this is not novel or engaging in any way I hope films would be.

2 stars (out of 5)

The Wolf of Wall Street

This was not a good film. The story of a self made Wall Street stock broker who knows no bounds (including laws) to achieve wealth. The result is a story of excess that is not even fun to watch, but instead is disturbing. As a genre, I might put this in a "horror-realism" category. Maybe I was expecting too much to get entertainment. That said, Leonardo Di Caprio is good, in that he is fully into this role. He is legitimately a money and power crazed narcissist who cannot release himself from the high he gets from power. But you can still tell that it is Leonardo having fun being crazy. I think the voyueristic possibilities of wealthy debauchery were supposed to make up for the not-so-subtly depressing commentary on wealth. It didn't. Depressing won.

2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Guardians of the Galaxy

Appreciate it for what it is. The 13-year-old in me loved this film. A bunch of misfit criminals (human, green girl, tree guy, raccoon and muscle guy) are thrown together and end up becoming a group charged with fighting a bad guy intent on destroying the universe. Noting unusual here for a comic based film. What makes this work is a relatively straight forward plot and great characters. Each of the guardians has a distinct quirky personality that is both sympathetic and grating at the same time. Throw in some cheeky humor and everyone wins. The most fun I have had at the theater this summer.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bad Words

Jason Bateman is a 40 something guy who has found a loophole in the rules of the National Quill societies Spelling Bee competition. He enters, and he intends to win. A goofy premise, to be sure. Bateman personifies the Bad Words of the title in his portrayal of a crass, entitled, A-hole. He is foul mouthed and foul tempered and the comedy is in the sheer inappropriateness of his interactions. Pair this with his meeting of a 10 year old contestant who is a slight, cheery, endearing Indian kid. Bateman pulls no punches in his racial and junior high quality bullying of this kid, but the kid just smiles and loves the fact that he has a 'friend'. This is a film you are not sure you are supposed to laugh at. Couple an inappropriate, racist, ass with an endearing kid. Does one outweigh the other? While I laughed throughout, and the relationships wound up in the hollywood happy ending, I found myself somewhat unsettled afterward. Maybe that was the point?
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


The 2007 film by this name starring Semra Turan. Turan plays Aicha, a turkish girl living with her family in Copenhagen is a Kung Fu fanatic. She has been training with a local girls club when her instructor suggests she get serious. The problem is, with joining a serious club she will need to fight boys, which is strictly taboo for her muslim family. So taboo, in fact, that it affects her brother's arranged marriage, her father's job, and everything else you can imagine. So while using the Kung Fu as a narrative device, this is a really good exploration of what it means to be part of an isolated immigrant community, part of a family with explicit family expectations, and a woman in a patriarchal system. The pressures on every member of the family are evident, and the resulting interactions are both dramatic and honest in their intensity and difficulty. Very well done.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Robot Stories

A collection of 4 shorts which explore the relationship between machines and people. While this was released in 2003, it seems to be set sometime in the 1980's, based on both the sophistication of the machines and the sophistication of the filmmaking. The shorts can be summarized as follows: Robot Baby - a couple must successfully take care of a baby robot (shaped like a large egg) before being allowed to adopt a real baby; Robot Fixer - a mother becomes fixated on repairing her son's action figure collection while he is in the hospital; Machine Love - two humanoid robots in the workplace endure bullying by humans and fall in love; and Clay - apparently about the downloading of a human intelligence into a machine to gain immortality. In this last short, I say apparently because I fell asleep. The ideas here are all interesting, but for a 2003 film, I expect more. Even 1977 Star Wars had better machines and machine interaction. Think about what we are already experiencing in 2003: Matrix trilogy, T2, X2, and Lord of the Rings. And yes, this is low budget, independent, short film-making, but an egg shaped robot baby?
1 star (out of 5)

Saturday, July 26, 2014


The most anticipated movie of the summer for me. I suppose that is never good. Lucy is an innocent traveler in Taiwan who is pulled into an underworld scheme to be a drug mule. The drug package, that had been surgically inserted into her, ruptures and causes new neural pathways to develop in her brain. This allows her to learn languages quickly (1 hour to learn chinese), see EM radiation (cell phone feeds, etc.) and affect the material world around her. This has possibilities. Unfortunately, they are not realized. Instead of a drug induced, Bourne-like action film, this comes across as a combination of Wanted (also with Morgan Freeman in a god-like, wise sage role) and What the #$*! do we (K)now!? (with its excellent description of bio-chemistry devolving into new-age, self-actualization blather). This film completely missed...

2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Richard Linklater puts together great character movies. He is not necessarily worried that something must happen, but is worried that we as viewers know who the characters are, and what they think and feel. Often, this manifests in long dialogues and metaphysical discussions between characters (as in the Before... trilogy). This film has its own device for how to portray character and remarkably it works (and doesn't feel like a gimmick is pushed on you). Linklater filmed his cast every summer over the course of 12 years, and put together a fantastic story of a boy growing up. Our first scene is Mason at the age of 6, and we end with Mason going off to college. The transitions between capture life for this one boy in this one time. It is not universal, but there are universal themes for adolescence and family that everyone can connect with. And even though there is good supporting work, this film is definitely made excellent by the performance of Ellar Coltrane in his role as Mason. 

5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Picking up a few years after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Cesar and his monkey friends have taken over the redwoods of Marin county (north of San Francisco). They have not seen people for years and believe them to be extinct. In fact, most people have died out, but there is a small colony surviving in San Francisco. The virus has burnt itself out and the remaining people are starting to work at rebuilding civilization. The first step to rebuilding civilization is electricity, so a team of explorers travels north to see if the hydroelectric plant there can be fixed to provide power to SF. People, meet Apes. Of course there is tension, and fear, and racism (Apeism?). But quality leadership leads us past all that, working toward a better life for everyone. Kind of fun to see ideas of racism and pacifism and nationalism portrayed in such an extreme environment that it really becomes obvious what the thinking about these ideologies is. Well done. Entertaining and a bit of thinking.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

White House Down

Channing Tatum is a capitol police looking for work in the White House. His daughter is a politico and huge fan of President Jamie Foxx. When they are there to tour, terrorists take over the building nearly completely. Of course, the 'nearly' is required so that Tatum and his daughter can save the day and save Foxx. This is similar to Olympus has Fallen, but with a homegrown terrorist operation instead of a foreign one. And this was better. Maybe the father/daughter thing? Maybe Tatum is a better 'down on your luck' kind of guy than Butler? Maybe the small amount of political dealing that went along with the invasion? Not exactly sure. But let's be clear, this was not tons better, just a bit. If you are going to choose only one White House terrorist film to watch late at night, this one gets it by a margin.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Wolverine

X-men episode with Hugh Jackman as the wolverine. This episode picks one event in the long, storied life of Logan (rescuing a Japanese soldier from the Nagasaki explosion) and creates an entire action/drama based on the effects of this decision. There is (as there always is) some initial apathy from Logan, after which he finds a damsel in distress to rescue/protect. Formulaic and predictable. Which is exactly what you are paying for.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Fault in our Stars

Based on the novel by the same name, this is a story of romance and searching for the meaning of life among teenage kids with cancer. Hazel Grace meets Augustus in a support group, and the fall slowly in love, each trying to protect the other. They are able to joke about, cry about, and talk dispassionately and rationally about their disease. And they are able to not talk, when not talking is appropriate. So while this is in many ways a typical teen romance, it is also an atypical look into how to have a health outlook on life, regardless of the health of the actual life. Stays pretty true to the book, and about as entertaining. Not excellent, no surprises, but a strong adequate.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Edge of Tomorrow

Sarah Connor meets Groundhog Day? Aliens have invaded earth (some fluke crashing of an infected asteroid) and have devastated Europe. Tom Cruise is a media officer in the army and gets thrown into the Normandy-like invasion of France when he gets caught in a time loop. While it may be his own personal hell, it is exactly the gimmick needed to defeat the alien brain. But he need the help of former time-looper Emily Blunt to get him through. I really liked this movie, both in concept and execution. The time loop concept has the potential to get real cheesy or rely on goofy gags, and there is a bit (enough) of that for comic relief. But we don't get stuck there, and the editors use well paced "flash images" to show quick sequences of 10-15 resets in a row. Our brains can (and do) fill in all the repeated details and sameness without having to see it. It is a perfect combination of showing enough, but not too much. My only complaint with this film is with the ending. I expect with time travel movies to be at least a little bit unsettled at the end, not sure how things are or should be. This left me with a completely tidy package... too tidy. A bit of temporal mess would have been more satisfying.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fast & Furious 6

This is pure money-making, action, franchise gold. Vin Diesel and his gang get back together to help the cops get a bad guy (also fast car experts) and win themselves pardons and the return of a member of their family along the way. There will be street races, fast cars, explosions, gun battles, hand-to-hand combat scenes and very little in the way of unnecessary dialogue. Duane Johnson is really obvious, even in this group, as a caricature of himself, barely able to do more than quote his lines. And I love Gina Carano developing as an up and coming action star in her own right (see Haywire). It is nice to see summer franchise movies know their own limits, but still seem fresh enough to continue to entertain.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This is a fun little romp through the espionage paranoid days of the cold-war. Using MI6 as the setting, and specifically the upper echelon suits that run the organization, we find ourselves on a hunt for a double agent. This is a remarkably straight forward drama with the off-the-record meets with the enemy, the spy coming in out of the cold, the civilian with privledged information, the five suspects and the known double agent who may be a triple agent. The pacing is good, the intrigue is thick, the investigation does not reveal too much too soon and the plot does not try to become too tangled. And it feels all rather ordinary. Good, not great.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

American Hustle

The look and feel of this film is great. Set in the 70's political scene and based on the ABSCAM investigations around public corruption, we get great costuming and characterization that is bigger than life. It is the perfect combination of the classic 70's look and the post-Vietnam, post-Nixon political swagger that shows up in caricature here. Christian Bale and Amy Adams play the con-artist couple used by the feds (Bradley Cooper) to entrap the politician (Jeremy Renner) on corruption. They are all excellent and play just below the over-the-top level required by this film. But beyond the sheer pleasure of watching (looking at) this film, the story line itself drags. Several times throughout the film, I found myself thinking "OK, I get it, let's move on". That is never a good sign for a form of entertainment that is designed to be immersive. So A+ combined with D averages to

2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 9, 2014

On the Job

This Filipino film is an interesting police v. corruption drama inspired by actual contract killings taking place in the Philippines in the mid 2000's. A couple of prisoners are occasionally released for a day to initiate an assassination, at which point they are paid and return to prison. The sheer volume of corruption that is required for this to happen is astounding (from the top person ordering the hit, through several layers of middlemen, down to the many prison guards who look the other way). This gives some indication of how ubiquitous corruption is when the police, even amongst this massive number of people involved, can't get enough of a lead to prosecute anyone. With this plot structure as a basis, I found the relational interactions in the film to make it worthwhile. The two assassins (mentor and protege) and their own familial relations are all complex. The characters display the angst of separation, dishonesty and secrets. Put these characters next to the police (a local detective and the national police investigator), and we see they have the same angst. The mirroring of police and criminal and the confusion about "who is right" probably makes this "too real" to be enjoyable by a large audience. If we are all depressed about corruption in the end, I can see why it didn't make any money. But if we enjoy this for the social commentary and the character portrayal, how is it any different from any other dark, police procedural that we consume. I liked it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 7, 2014


A North Korean boy is released from prison and pressed into service for his country after his father is killed in similar service. It turns out that, like his father, Dae-ho is serving in order to keep his still imprisoned sister alive. And his service to his country? Infiltrate South Korean society and be on call as an assassin. The film is set around the time of the power transition from Kim Jong-Il to Kim Jong-Un, resulting in lots of political and "secret police" infighting along the way. The main story follows an internal battle between Unit 8 and Section 35, two North Korean spy organizations who have infiltrated the South and want control of the spy responsibilities. Dae-ho, as a young man, uses his cover as a high school student to allow him to move around under the radar. He befriends a classmate, does his job, is disillusioned by his country, all while working to keep his sister alive. The story moves along quite nicely and does not bog down with unnecessary (or unnecessarily long) fight scenes. I particularly like the humanization of the characters. That is, these spies are not just machines, but are thinking/living people who make well intentioned decisions. How would I act different given the same scenario, but my own conscience and ethical bent?
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ordinary Decent Criminal

Kevin Spacey plays an Irish anti-hero, pulling heists that are brazen and very public. He and his crew continue to plan and implement thefts even amidst a trial for that very said crime. He gets mixed up with the IRA and gets pushed into a bit of a corner, but has ego enough for everyone to ensure that everything will be OK. I can see why this did not make waves at the theater as it is a bit too lighthearted. It is not a serious heist film (the thefts are brazen, but the planning/implementation is not the focus of the film) nor is it a political thriller or romantic comedy. It is a bit of a dark comedy. But only a bit. It doesn't really have a target audience. Which makes it a great late night rental (can one really say "rental" anymore? or must we say "stream"?).
3 stars (out of 5)

Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks is Rich Phillips, container ship captain for Maersk. His current assignment is to pilot a full container ship from Oman, around the horn of Africa, to Kenya. Barkhad Abdi is Muse, Somali fisherman turned pirate. His current assignment is to capture a large ship and hold it for ransom. These two characters are engaged throughout the film in a standoff, each with a worldview supporting their position and actions. You occasionally get glimpses through the worldview fence, as the two "captains" interactions demonstrates an inability to decide the role that trust plays in their struggle. Granted, this is a war/hostage situation and the tension and stress is through the roof, so it is not surprising that the characters would not be able to rise above cultural barriers to "understand each other". But throughout the film, there are opportunities, and near-misses in connection and it is clear that the near-miss is not stress/tension induced, but truly a cultural divide. And it is clear that this effect is intentional by the film makers, to show that in spite of the extreme scenario, humans seek connection, and in spite of this seeking, it is extremely difficult to achieve.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Expendables 2

If you expect a film to be bad, and it is bad, how do you rate it? Is it a 5-star bad movie (living up to expectations)? This offering by Stallone, et. al. is exactly what is expected. It is a spoof/send up of action films, but in the genre of an action film. I think the original Expendables was more of an homage, this is clearly a spoof. The old guys offer too many cheeky glances and lob each other too many softball lines (Willis to Schwarzenegger: No I'll be back) to be anything else. And the wacky, mysterious appearance/disappearance of Chuck Norris can only be categorized as cheese. The body count is accordingly high and my only real complaint is the unnecessary "graphic comic violence" in the form of decapitations and blood splatter. Don't need it. I am watching a film to leave reality, let the killing fade into the background. Every bit that reminds me of actual war violence brings me right back to reality, which defeats the entire purpose of the film.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Berlin File

Jason Bourne as a North Korean spy... so to speak. I guess Bourne as super-spy, not Bourne as genetically modified, drugged up super warrior. Jong-seong is working in Berlin, brokering an arms deal with some Russians and Arabs. When the deal goes bad (Mossad shows up) he is on the run and trying to find out who blew the lid open. Now he and his wife are chased by both Mossad, the Arabs, and South Korean agents looking to close the illegal arms traffic to their peninsula. Part of the fun is the non-stop action, and part is the psychological "who is the mole?" investigation that happens simultaneously. Having seen a few of these Korean spy-action films recently, I can definitely see the influence they have had on US action films in the genre (see nearly any Statham film) where the protagonist is battered, beat up, and single minded in achieving the goal. Jong-seong is clearly single-minded here in spite of everything else. He manages to portray an honest weariness while running, searching and fighting.

3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, May 30, 2014


Jon Favreau (of Iron Man and Avengers directorship fame, and Cowboys and Aliens which I have taken heat for liking) wrote and directed this father-son, road trip, food film. Favreau play El Jefe, a hip restaurant chef in LA who find himself creatively stifled. When he blows up and loses his job, he takes his son back to his roots in Miami, picks up and rehabs an old food truck, and embarks on a journey back to LA. What makes this film good is the outstanding Cuban/Latin soundtrack and the few moments of genuine connection between father and son as they traverse this journey of self discovery. What prevents this film from being great is editing. Cut 20 minutes out (probably most of it in the LA chef setup) and the pacing keeps me from checking my watch and getting bored.

3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

XMen: Days of Future Past

Now this is a summer movie. Action, time travel, superpowers. Love it. Sometime in the future Prof X and Magneto have made peace to defeat a common enemy. The enemy are sentinels, robotic hunter-assassins, who only hunt mutants (or those who have recessive mutant genes). Very Skynet-ish. I love this series because of the massive possibilities for "mutant powers". Of course, you have Wolverine and Cyclops and Storm. But we also can get anything you can imagine, and the fun comes when you put a team of these "anythings" together in a fight. They can work together and the sum is greater than the whole and all that. The main storyline is that Wolverine is sent back to the 70's to prevent an assassination by a mutant which ultimately leads to the unified human move to destroy all mutants. In the 70's, Wolverine is helped out by Quicksilver, and chases down Magneto and Mystique/Raven (she is still having an identity crisis at this point). Lest I spoil all the fun, just see it and enjoy all the campy humor and mutant fun.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Million Dollar Arm

Based on a true story, John Hamm plays a sport agent looking for an angle to keep his fledgling business afloat. Fledgling as in he-has-no-clients. Channel surfing one night juxtaposes cricket and a TV talent show. Bam - a brilliant idea. Go to India, run a contest to find cricket players who can be converted to baseball pitchers. Then just sign these pitchers and create your own clients. The fun in this film is the Indian scenery and people. The rest of it is pretty standard. Two kids are found, brought back to the US and dumped on the pitching coach. They don't succeed, the agent gets distracted, the girl helps him refocus, everyone gets a second chance. If the kids weren't charming this would be an straight to TV film. But there is enough humor and charm to carry it along.
3 stars (out of 5)


This is my first Godzilla film. It was everything I expected and completely disheartening at the same time. In terms of expectations, it was a nice creature film. It was sufficiently cheesy (big creatures eating ICBMs), sufficiently wacky (prehistoric creatures with a primary weapon of EMP pulse) and generated cheers in the audience a few times throughout. What more could you want from a creature film? What disappointed me was how much of a U.S. nationalist flavor this had. My expectation/hope was that this would be an eastern film, building on the Japanese monster with a decidedly Japanese character. It could be that I don't know what I was expecting, but walking out of the movie I found myself wondering why Godzilla had to go to San Francisco, why the US Navy had to be the hero, why this had to be so western. Very disappointing in that respect...
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I am not a huge fan of Woody Allen films, but am of Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman. This is a film with a silly little premise and it plays as an Allen standard. Johansson is a young journalist wanna-be who happens on a scoop of a murder. The silly part is that the scoop comes from the ghost of a recently murdered journalist. Johansson chases down the story (and the murderer Jackman) with the help of small time magician Allen. It is kind of "talky" and has all the requisite odd moments with Allen providing the key insight to move forward in the plot. But still, it was fun. Not great fun. Just fun.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

IRIS: The Movie

I have to admit that I was largely confused throughout this film. Somehow, early on I missed associating names with faces and when the conversation was describing the intricate alliances and double crossing, I was never sure who was on what side. Add to this the fact that a North Korean/South Korean spy thriller takes place in Hungary and perhaps you can see my problem. The story follows a South Korean super spy who is cut loose by his country, decides to help the other side and then reforms again with the help of his super spy wife. It turns out this is similar (without the heroes) to the plot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with IRIS filling the role of HYDRA. There is an IRIS TV series, so I am sure that builds on these same characters and seems like a better medium (as a serial).

2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Don Jon

After Her and Captain America, I was needing another Scarlett Johansson fix before Lucy comes out this summer. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is always good. Gordon-Levitt as Jon is the ultimate Jersey gigolo. A new girl every night, cocky and good looking. But he likes his porn and eventually it becomes more important to him than real relationships. Johansson (as Barbara) is the first long term relationship he has tried in awhile, and the reality/porn conflict obviously rises between them. What I enjoyed about this film was the "Jersey-ness". Not having spent time in Jersey myself, the actors put together a consistent portrait that I would guess is right on the border between reality and caricature. The accent, the walk, the attitude, the lip snarl. Brilliant and hilarious. What I wonder about is the conflict between the story told and the message. How should I feel about a film that ultimately presents an anti-misogynist message after 90 minutes of misogyny. Is the "anti" message really the point? Or is this just the way to make the film palatable to a wider audience, with the good hollywood message/ending? And how might this be different than a film like Hero that uses massive violence, but ultimately preaches a non-violent ethic? Does the moral-of-the-story justify the-story?

3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Django Unchained

Billed as a modern spaghetti western, Quentin Tarantino puts his own stamp on the genre. Not actually a spaghetti western since it was filmed in Wyoming, not in Italy, the feel is pretty good. Of course, there is more blood splatter here than in the total of all Sergio Leone's films. The story follows German bounty hunter Christoph Waltz and recently freed slave Jamie Foxx on a journey of acquiring wealth through their bounty business and then using that wealth to find and free Foxx's wife. The barrier is wacko landowner Leonardo DiCaprio. So the story itself is not amazing, but the portrayal of the ever-present, oppressive violence toward slaves is a stark reminder of the history we all share. And while Tarantino contextualizes this violence in the framework of the wild west which is violent already, and throws in some wacky comedy and blaxploitation undercurrents to allow us to emotionally detach from the horror. If you are prepared for the graphic nature of the violence, this is worth seeing.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Safe House

Ryan Reynolds plays a career stunted CIA agent currently in his 12th month babysitting an underused safehouse in Cape Town. Denzel Washington is the long hunted ex-CIA/current traitor who walks in off the street to "turn himself in". He is taken to the safehouse, the safehouse is attacked, Reynolds takes Washington and while the two are on the run, it is never sure who is in charge. Not a novel action/spy thriller by any means and where Washington is too cool as the grizzled veteran, Reynolds is to conflicted as the rookie good-cop. The only real utilization of the setting in Cape Town is a rooftop escape in a local township. And perhaps that you can apparently shoot and kill at will without interference from law enforcement. But that is a suspension of disbelief necessary for most action thrillers these day. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't good.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Warm Bodies

Following the lead that Twilight set with friendly, romantically attractive fantasy creatures, Warm Bodies attempts to do the same with zombies. The teen zombie who questions his own "life" purpose, wondering why he is stuck in such a rut. He meets a girl, chooses not to eat her, takes her home, falls in love and begins to change back into a human. Cheesy, lots of plot and continuity holes, and not much opportunity for acting. A couple of B-level laughs. Ok, maybe C-level. If you have nothing to do on a Saturday night, and this shows up on your TV, and the popcorn is already made, this will be perfect. But don't go seek it out.
2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Draft Day

This has been compared to Moneyball and has been derided as an advertisement for the NFL. Maybe. I am not a fan of the NFL, haven't watched a full game in many years. I don't follow any teams other than what pops up on the front page. But I would put this more in the Trouble with the Curve category. It is a (clearly manufactured) story not about the NFL, but about sports franchise. Focused around draft day, who gets to make decisions, who has to live with them? What is the role of the owner, or of the fans? How do the franchises interact with each other? Draft Day provides one possible look at the answers to these questions. Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., GM of the Cleveland Browns in his 3rd year. His father was long time, beloved coach of the Browns and Jr. fired him the year before. Now he is trying to rebuild the team through the draft, with a few good players available and a Ryan Leaf-like quarterback the consensus franchise savior. Jr. has the 7th pick in the draft to start the film. Let the machinations begin. It is fun to watch Costner work, and it is fun to watch blunder turn into opportunity turn into stress-fracture turn into... you get the picture. Clearly this is not intended to be the portrayal of a great schemer. Instead, it is the story of a man who loves the game, and knows the game so well that he can have inspiration and reaction that leads to success. It is the front office version of what is expected of the players on the field.
3 stars (out of 5)


This may be the first PG rated film I have seen in awhile. They are hard to find, and are generally not interesting or good. But this Danish film (dubbed in English) is both, interesting and good. Pelle is your typical 12 year old kid who is socially invisible in every way. He wants friends and he wants to be noticed by a girl. By some accident, he is bitten by a genetically altered ant and takes on the strengths and weakness of the ant. It takes the comic book geek to befriend him and teach him the ways of being a superhero, and it takes a nemesis (The Flea) to attack the school to spur him to action. But in the end, this is the story of a kid who wants friends, and wants to be noticed by a girl. It is good storytelling and doesn't resort to fabulous effects, language or action. Trying to make this film in the US would result in something like KickAss, wholly inappropriate for young audiences. But this provides an entrance into the live-action superhero world that is not hurl-humor or violent, but instead puts forth the thoughtful conflict of superhero responsibility to society as well as the social development of the young superhero. If you have a kid who likes superhero (or as in my case, like them yourself) see this film.
4 stars (out of 5)


I watched this after seeing it listed somewhere as one of the great heist films. Come to find out it is a 1955 B&W French heist film (making a splash at Cannes that year). And I would agree, this is a fantastic heist film. The story involves a young thief and his just-out-of-prison mentor. They have an idea for a job, get a couple of guys in on the job and proceed to relieve a local jeweler of his wares. There is some romantic intrigue, a rival gangster, and the dichotomy of the thieves life (both hope and resignation, anguish/stress and pure joy). Put a great noir soundtrack over the top and this will satisfy all your expectations. But wait, there's more. The best part of the entire film is the actual heist. No fast cars or chase scenes, no high tech. Just an extended segment of silent, tension-filled thievery. Loved it.
5 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Heat

Molly McCarthy playing Molly McCarthy (or at least the typecast version of herself that has come to be), and Sandra Bullock working really hard to play a straight laced, no-fun FBI agent. The latter manifests itself in the form of strange facial tics that really feel unnatural. The plot is a straight forward cross between The Odd Couple and traditional buddy-cop fare. Wild-side local cop McCarthy and mechanical FBI agent Bullock end up working together to take down a rising drug kingpin in Boston. Hijinks ensue. A few funny moments, nothing worth writing more about.
2 stars (out of 5)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rogers is back. So is HYDRA, and SHIELD is having trouble, having been infiltrated by HYDRA. Rogers is having what we might call a mid-hero crisis where he questions his purpose, the organization he works for, and the relationship between being a soldier and an ethical human being. It doesn't help that the Winter Soldier of the title is a brainwashed ol' buddy. It does help that he has a community of heroes around him who he can talk to (Falcon, Black Widow). In all, this is good fun and at the same time raises enough issues that you can force a legitimate real conversation with adults about the moral/ethical issues. What more could you want out of a comic book film. 

4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, April 5, 2014


I have had this film sitting around for ages and finally got around to seeing it. Why did I wait so long... this is an excellent film. The story of Jeanne and Simon Waran, a couple of 30 something twins in Canada who are rifling through the history of their mother Naral after her death. In her will, she leaves some cryptic instructions that lead to a search for family and history. With the story split about equally between the present day search and flashbacks of Naral's life as a young woman, we get a great view of what motivates Naral, and a great look at the ridiculous atrocities of war. The flashbacks (and some of present day) takes place in some fictional mid-east country that had undergone a war between christians and muslims (reminding me of Lebanon, or something similar). The search for truth is painful for the children, and yet they also see the value in knowing what has been hidden from them for their entire lives. So they pursue truth.
4 stars (out of 5)

The Lunchbox

Ila is a young Indian woman living with her husband and daughter in Mumbai. She is trying to rekindle the fire of her marriage by sending fabulous lunches to him while he is at work. And like nearly everyone else in Mumbai, she uses the dabbawala, an extensive lunch door-to-door delivery service. Renown for its efficiency and accuracy, Ila's lunches happen to get deposited at the wrong desk. After a couple days, notes start to get passed back and forth with the pail and a relationship is born. What is fabulous about this film is that the communication and development of the relationship happens via one note per day. The pacing of the film shows this, and drew me into the anticipation of tomorrow's lunch along with the need to continue with the other plain tasks of each day. How to be patient and impatient at the same time. Both Ila and Saajan are changed by their encounter, and we care about both of them. Add in fantastic scenes of life in Mumbai and comic relief from Auntie upstairs and you get an thoroughly enjoyable film.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Killing Them Softly

Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini... must be something worthwhile there. Sadly, we are mistaken. A couple of idiot locals get mixed up with the mafia by ripping off their closed door poker games. The mafia guys come in to clean up the mess. I think this was supposed to feel like Fargo, with idiosyncratic characters that are charming, and the mysterious mafia guys who talk about "them" and "they" as if the simple mentioning of names reveals too much. But it wasn't. It is too muted, too cool, too bumbling, in all the wrong places, making me just not care. So even though the DVD played all the way to the credits, it wasn't worth it. Skip it.
1 star (out of 5)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Prey

Franck Adrien is serving the last few months of prison sentence for bank robbery. He was caught and convicted, but the 2 million in cash was never recovered. His wife and kid on the outside, his partners buddies, and a former cellmate all lead Adrien to believe his stash is in danger. So he does the only logical thing. He escapes. And now that he is on the run, he draws the attention of one of France's up and coming super-star detectives to hunt him down. Why I like this? Adrien (played by Albert Dupontel) is a no nonsense guy. He sees what needs to be done, and finds a way to do it by being extremely quick in his planning and implementation while reacting to situations (and being "cinematically lucky" of course). He doesn't trust anyone, and doesn't hesitate to tell everyone that this is the case. And of course, every time he offers even a bit of trust, he gets burned. Add to this a feisty cop with good intuition and we have a great little game of cat and mouse. There is nothing unique or novel, but I found it engaging and exciting throughout. The second good, French, prison film I have seen recently (A Prophet).
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, March 30, 2014


It has been a long time since I have been in a full theater. Usually this is fun for epic openings as the entire crowd gets into the film. Suffice it to say, there was more applause for a couple of the previews than there was engagement during the feature. Another clue as to the mediocrity was the fact that I found myself thinking about work, or other films, or books to read in the middle. Not overwhelming, and I came in with pretty low expectations. The film itself traces the life of Noah from seeing his father killed by the descendants of Cain in the opening scene, to getting the word from God to build the ark, to actually floating around on the boat. I did like that there was an attempt to get inside Noah's head as he tries to interpret God's commands. It turns out that God doesn't actually speak to Noah, but he has visions that are cryptic and need interpreting. So what was God's purpose for man in this destruction via flood? And how is Noah's vision & interpretation any more or less valid than other prophets and/or cult leaders in the past of present? Is scriptural/spiritual interpretation that leads to self preservation always suspect? Interesting questions at least. Too bad the film doesn't hold up its end with entertainment value.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 29, 2014


I found this on someone's list of all-time great heist films. De Niro is the heist crew leader and Pacino the cop who is chasing him. Add in Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Ashley Judd, Amy Brenneman, Dennis Haysbert and Natalie Portman. This is fun. And nearly the polar opposite to The Yellow Handkerchief. Heat is 100% action with, at best, 1 dimensional characters. Every character is pretty stereotypical. Pacino is the gritty, driven detective who "Says what he means and does what he says", De Niro the criminal mastermind who has no attachments that "he can't leave in 30 seconds". The puppy dog assistant criminal, devoted criminal girlfriend, struggling parolee, enamored new girlfriend, etc. Everyone has their role and plays it and only it. Of course, in this case, there is not really a need to have multidimensional characters since the tense game of cat and mouse holds all of our attention. And you know this is done well because you are simultaneously rooting for both De Niro and Pacino to win the battle. You really want there to be some sort of outcome where they are both fulfilled and satisfied. You will have to watch to see whether this is the case.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Yellow Handkerchief

William Hurt is just released from a 6 year stint in prison and no-one is around to pick him up. He meets a couple of kids and travels with them to New Orleans in search of his wife. Through flashback and story-telling, we get a sense of Hurt's life. The two kids seem to just be around to listen to stories, and provide some variety. Not much plot, lots of character. After recently reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and complaining that it wasn't that good because it didn't "do anything", I am surprised that I really like this movie, and it didn't "do anything" either. This is very nearly a zero plot, 100% character film. We meet Hurt's character and learn who he is by his small interactions with the kids, with strangers around him, and through his own professed confidence and self doubt. A road trip movie with no action. But still excellent. I suppose I will need to continue thinking about what makes a good film or book. It is clearly not just plot or character.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

About Time

There is something about Bill Nighy that makes me happy. Seeing him standing, one hand on a chair back, the other held out palm up, bumbling about with clever language... he does not disappoint here. With a minor role as the father of Tim in a family where the men are able to travel back in time, he does just enough to provide credibility to this crazy scenario. Tim is our protagonist, who learns the joy and struggle of time travel. Every travel back allows some benefit, but also some cost. While the story is quite clever in how it deals with the unintended consequences of travel, it does not adequately explain how some of the travel decisions are "undone". How do you get back to the present? Do you just live back through the time, or can you jump? It seems both, but without reason... I would categorize this as a moderately good romantic comedy and a low-moderate quality sci-fi time travel film. Made me laugh, and didn't make me mad.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Set in a middle class English suburb, 'Skunk' is the local 11-year old girl. She is about to go to high school, lives with her older brother and single father after mom left several years earlier. Played by Eloise Laurence to perfection, Skunk is the heart of this film and her acting is what makes it an excellent film. She witnesses a violent altercation between her neighbors, is growing into her adolescent self (physically and emotionally), has abandonment issues because of her mother and a crush on her teacher. And amidst all of this, she is endearing and the epitome of a good person. I love the relationships she develops, the anger she shows, the fright, the curiosity and mischievousness. Well worth it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Four Lions

Intended as a farce, a la Borat, but not funny. Four Islamic British men fancy themselves Jihad warriors, when in fact they are bumbling idiots. It plays as a series of sketches pieces together with over the top "punchlines". Perhaps had I been able to finish watching, I would be able to provide for you some grand meaning or purpose, some satirical commentary on religious fundamentalism in western society. But I was unable to finish...
1 star (out of 5)

Silver Tongues

A couple travel around the country for a week or so, role playing all their interactions with people. They meet a young couple on their honeymoon and role play as swingers. In a church, role play a detective. In a nursing home, role play as kids. the characters are abusive and mean, and seem to take joy in destroying the joy of the people they interact with. The man is definitely the lead here and as a viewer, you are pulled into the drama of figuring out the relationship and the purpose. Who is role playing, who is letting their real self show through? What self-discovery is happening? Or are the characters so apathetic about their lives that they feel nothing, discover nothing? Are they psychologically cutting just to generate emotion? Not fun, but fascinating. It left me with a grimacing, no-redeeming-value, curiosity.
3 stars (out of 5)

Blood: The Last Vampire

This is definitely what I would consider a B-level movie. Saya is a Japanese 16 year old samurai who happens to be half-vampire. Her life purpose is to kill Onigen, the biggest-baddest demon around, who also happened to kill her father. She is killing low level demons in an attempt to draw out Onigen and in the process, meets a nice human teenage friend to help her out. I suppose the B-level movie means that there are many significant holes you must overlook. The "vampire" part of this story is so minor and so "not vampirish" that I am surprised that it makes the title. You could have called this Blood: The Last Demon Hunter. For some reason this is set in the 1970's. Often, an era choice allows you to utilize some of the cultural phenomena from that era to fun or dramatic effect. Here, it remains unused, so it is a strange choice. So in spite of the fact that I found the Saya character growing on me over time, one must have rating standards, and for an average, B-movie, it must be
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Charlie is going to High School as a social misfit. He has never had any friends and hopes that high school will be different. Early in his freshman year, he gets integrated into a circle of senior friends that are all quirky for their own reasons which allow them to relate to him. Charlie has a messed up past, is a bit fragile, and is somehow the center of this circle... or at least it seems that way since the story is told from his point of view. Over the course of the year, everyone gets to know themselves and stretch beyond to envision that life will actually be better after high school. I suppose that this is exactly the message that teenagers want to hear, that it will get better later. So these kids deal as best they can and help each other get through. Breakfast Club for this generation? Good music throughout and quite a few laughs in a light hearted comedy that deals with some serious social issues. Not sure that I like the message, but I am also not sure that I have a better one.
3 stars (out of 5)


Full disclosure, I loved this book series. I love the idea of social class based on the focus a society should take. And I love science fiction that puts you in a world so crazy that you can look at the ideas presented and consider them on their own merits, without consideration for current reality. Tris and her brother Caleb are at the age where they take "the test" to determine their faction placement. Tris finds that she is divergent. That is, she does not have an aptitude for one particular class. As a result, she is an explicit danger to the social structure of factions. With this foundation, Tris chooses the Dauntless faction (the courageous warrior class) and is initiated into their ranks. Follow up with initiation, isolation, friend making, self discovery, boyfriend finding, authority angering, and heroic actions to fill out the story. The film does a great job of visualizing future "post-war" Chicago, and holds together well on its own without needing the book as reference (unlike some of the Harry Potter films). Some of my favorite things: wind turbines stuck to buildings, the emptied Lake Michigan, low-tolerance zip lines, and fluorescent capture-the-flag flags. What would I have done differently? The tattoo application process was lame. If that is all you have to do, even the Amity would have inked up bodies...
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pirate Radio

Bill Nighy is the operations manager and Philip Seymour Hoffman the anchoring DJ for Radio Rock, on offshore radio broadcaster anchored in the North Sea in the 1960's. While this all sounds very formal, in fact this offering tilts more to the zany side. With characters like The Count (Hoffman), Slow Bob, Young Carl, Thick Kevin, etc., the cast has a passion for radio and freedom of expression that is simultaneously goofy and an important part of the development of commercial radio. The Radio Rock crew is broadcasting in the absence of any legal recognition (not prohibited, not allowed) while parliament works to find a way to squash them as cultural boundary pushers. This is a fun (I laughed out loud) historical fiction version of the Pirate Radio phenomena. And you can't go wrong with Nighy or Hoffman.
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New World

There is no doubt about the tone of this film from the first seconds as we open with a torture scene. We are introduced to Jeong, a top level boss in the Korean mafia boss who is "questioning" a suspected mole in his operation. Brutal. We are also introduced to Jung, the top level Chinese boss, and member of the same international criminal conglomerate. When the big boss is killed, a succession battle is in order. The interest comes from our protagonist, Ja-sung, who is an undercover cop directed to push the succession in a specific direction. Ja-sung needs to process his own loyalty (what is his duty, what is owed to him) and his own identity (undercover for 10 years). The characters are quite well played, with a little bit of comic relief amidst the brutal violence of a mafia clan war. Again, similar to themes explored in A Prophet, a player is put into an impossible position and must make decisions that contradict their self-identity. And we as viewers are forced to think about that small word - must. Were the decisions made the only decisions possible? Can we imagine a world where different decisions are made? Well done, you made me think.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Red Machine

Set in the early 30's, a naval intelligence officer with expertise (and history) with the Japanese teams with a small time safe-cracker to get information about a new Japanese code system. Not a bad premise. The problem with this was the characterization and genre. The officer with history let that entire history demonstrate itself by showing no emotion at all... in the entire film. Too one-dimensional. And the feel of the movie was some sort of cross between The Sting and Newsies. But I think the feel was supposed to be straight up dramatic, political thriller. Fail.

2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Four

In this Chinese action-crime film, we get a fine mashup of 12th century Song dynasty martial arts, fantasy action with modern, territorial police chasing a counterfeit ring procedural. The entire look and feel of the film is ancient, but many of the the small touches are straight out of any TV procedural. The first clue that this is a unique perspective is that the two competing law enforcement agencies are named Department Six and The Divine Constabulary. Maybe these mean something and the mashup was unintentional, but I found it hilarious and thought these kinds of touches added to the overall affect. The story follows a few martial arts masters with "special skills" as they track down a counterfeit ring. Each agency has its own agenda, and there are spies and moles throughout. Add in the magical technology and the magical powers and viola... entertainment. This setup begs to be a franchise starter as each of these characters could tell a story of their own, and the group could tackle many threats to the king. Love this.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Prophet

Malik is a 19 year old French-Arab sent to prison for some unknown crime that lands him 6 years of time. He is almost immediately initiated into the prison underground structure of favors and protection, finding himself the lapdog of the Corsican mafia. With this beginning, the film is really an investigation of how a young man develops character and identity. Malik navigates impossible choices, race tension, loyalty tests, self preservation and relationship development all with an underlying pragmatic point of view. Maybe existentialism is really the only way to survive in prison. Hope, looking for the future, any sense of control will ultimately leave you disappointed and more broken than before. Tahar Rahim does an excellent job portraying Malik, embracing these tensions largely with body language and facial expressions. He is able to communicate a state of mind in the midst of ugly and graphic violence, the developing of hardness over time, and the core character that must not be shown in prison. And I love that we don't have a tidy resolution foisted upon us after so much struggle. Identity and character creation doesn't happen only in prison, or with young men. It is a lifetime process for everyone. 
5 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Company Man

Continuing on my recent Korean film fascination, A Company Man takes on the apparently universal question of meaning in employment. Must employment provide meaning and value to you as a person beyond the wages you earn? Are you what you do? How does your job define, or not define, who you are? Our protagonist Ji battles these questions throughout. The twist here is that the answers for Ji should be obvious, since his employment is as an assassin working for a private "black-ops" company. When he begins to develop relationship outside the job, and is confronted with some grey-area assignments, Ji begins for perhaps the first time in his life, to think. The resulting juxtaposition of universal questions of meaning and value being asked by someone who is so outrageously outside a universal value code means that we viewers with "regular jobs" must all the more seriously consider the questions for ourselves. This kind of thought provoking story-telling packaging extreme situations with common cultural issues is exactly what I appreciate about quality sci-fi writing and it is fun to see the same methodology in film.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My Girlfriend is an Agent

I suppose a lighthearted, romantic comedy. Soo-ji is a secret agent for Korean NIS and is always having to keep her life secret from her boyfriend. He dumps her, goes and becomes his own secret agent, and then returns. The idea of everybody has a secret leading to hi-jinks could be good, but I just didn't buy in. Maybe it is the rom-com genre that doesn't translate like action, drama or thriller would. It was a bit too cheesy, too goofy for me. Didn't finish it, and don't really have an interest in knowing how it ended (which is quite strange for me).
1 star (out of 5)

Saturday, March 1, 2014


If you like a good psychological thriller, this Korean film will be perfect for you. Dae-su is kidnapped and captured by an unknown person, for an unknown reason, spending 15 years isolated and in a semi-drugged state. When he is "released", the remainder of the film is spent finding out why this happened to him. As the watcher, we are just as confused as Dae-su, and just as surprised and shocked as discoveries are made. And in the end, his captor both wins and loses... actually, everybody both wins and loses. The film is both disturbing and revealing about the human condition, both in our ability to inflict damage as well as our ability to endure and heal from damage. While I don't really love the psychological thriller genre, this was pretty good.
3 stars (out of 5)