Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Place Beyond the Pines

A film by Derek Cianfrance in two parts. But first, Cianfrance also made Blue Valentine and this follows the tone of that nearly identically. Key word - angst. Part 1, Ryan Gosling is a stunt motorcycle rider in a traveling show. Opening scene, he encounters an ex-girlfriend and with their conversation unfolding as a slow, anguished interaction of very few words, we see the tone of the film. Gosling finds out he has a son, quits his job to hang around town and eventually makes bad choices that introduce him to Bradley Coopers police officer. Part 2, Cooper utilized the result of this introduction to launch a career and 15 years later, everything wraps around on itself. I found the storyline quite clever, even though it was not entirely engaging. A little bit too self important and too much angst written in to the characters. Clever on its own is not sufficient.
2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Take the Lead

This 2006 biopic is based on the life of Pierre Dulaine, a ballroom dance instructor who gets the idea to teach New York City troubled high school kids how to ballroom dance. Antonio Banderas plays the Dulaine character, and after seeing a crime, tracks down the kids school, takes over their detention, gains their respect, convinces them to dance, and takes them to a city-wide competition. This is all rather formulaic, more so, I am sure, than Dulaine's actual experience. The characters in the film are all in detention, but are all really budding stars working hard to better their lives and are in detention for some reason other than being bad kids or doing bad things. Add to this the fact that the dance was only secondary in the action. Instead, there was lots of talking about dancing and thinking about dancing, and we viewed snippets of dancing. I much preferred Street Dance II although the fact that I can actually have a "favorite dance movie I have seen this week" does concern me a bit. 
2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Secret Reunion

After enjoying The Righteous Thief, South Korean film opens up a whole new genre of film. In The Secret Reunion, a detective for the National Investigative Service is on a personal mission to capture "The Shadow" and bring him to justice. This Shadow is a North Korean assassin operating in the South and tasked with bringing defectors to justice (i.e. kill them). When he and his young apprentice slip away again, our detective is fired for his failure. The bulk of the story takes place six years later when the detective (now private) accidentally encounters the apprentice and a little game of cat-and-mouse ensues. This is part buddy-cop film, part soul-searching-identity-development, part police-procedural. I do think it is interesting that the films cross-over to appeal to me (western film-goer) without pause. There are few strange cultural references or inside jokes that I can see but don't understand, which I often expect when I am watching foreign films.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Righteous Thief

This is a fun South Korean heist film. I think I will go on a South Korean film binge for awhile. Our protagonist is Muhyeok Hong. The family business is to operate as a Robinhood style thief, stealing from the rich and corrupt, giving to the poor. And by family business, I mean that he is 18th generation in the business. The story takes us through a series of complications including romance (not only because the girlfriends brother-in-law is the main prosecutor), an over-eager younger brother, spies and counter spies. The characters are fun, and have fun with their roles, making this as near to an action-comedy heist film as you will see. But it is not belly-busting comedy. Instead, it is subtle and clever.
4 stars (out of 5)

Street Dance 2

Not sure what prompted this viewing, other than it was late and I needed a no-thought movie. I didn't even see Street Dance 1! You could probably tell me the plot of the film, based on the title. A bunch of street dancers gather together to form a team (an underdog team) to try to knock off the street dance elite squad in the best street dancers in the universe contest. Along the way, the team has some difficulty instigated by a dancing setback, gets taught an important lesson about teamwork, and pulls it all together for the finals. Surround this with steamy latin-fusion dance in a european nightclub environment and you see exactly where this goes. And still, it is fun to watch the dance. The "battle" format of the competition is sort of 8 Mile in its feel and the action is pretty good. No Oscar. Cheesy fun.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Enemy at the Gates

A bit of historical fiction using the German invasion of Stalingrad as a setting to highlight life purpose, love, propaganda, courage and the atrocity of war (not necessarily in that order). Jude Law is a country boy sent to the Stalingrad front where he meets up with Joseph Fiennes propaganda officer. Fiennes turns Law into a hero and inspiration based on his ability as a sharpshooter. The larger than life personality attracts the attention of the Germans, who send their own sniper (Ed Harris) to kill this hero and demoralize the Russian soldiers. Add in a love triangle, a cute kid, and a bit of self doubt and you have a story. What struck me the most was the ridiculous decisions made by the Russian commanders. Their running of the war (according to this telling) was almost keystone cops. The blatant disregard for life and inability to put any effort into maximizing even their own troop's lives was disturbing. I know that war, by definition, does not value life, but the visualization of this callous decision-making was dramatic.
3 stars (out of 5) 

Sunday, February 9, 2014


I liked this film. It is set in a future LA, but the future alternates between "way future" and "that is almost now". The world is one where technology is ubiquitous, but still external (no nano-webbots implanted in your brain). We see how good decisions and good products that might be considered part of a utopian society can actually manifest as a dystopian personal life. In this context, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) installs an AI operating system, initializes it as female (at which point it names itself Samantha), and begins a relationship. He (and Samantha) are happy and both Phoenix and Johansson do an excellent job expressing the joy of developing/discovering this relationship. So in many ways, this is a classic romantic comedy. But it is more sci fi, and exactly the part of sci fi I love. The writer leads us from "How does this new technology affect society, or relationship?" to "How is this crazy futuristic technology that much different than our current situation?" to "Is my current technology use affecting relationship? Am I in a dystopian present that I am unaware of?" to "How will we know when we have crossed that line?". So even while the technology is the core of this film, it is also only a mechanism pushing the viewer to think.
5 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


I liked RED a couple years ago and like the sequel too. The premise of Retired Extremely Dangerous former secret agents who get pulled back into action is fun, and the tone of the films walks a well balanced line between spoof, slapstick, wacky and serious action, spy-thriller. Putting together Willis, Mirren, Malkovich, Parker and Hopkins creates a group with just enough acting ability to pull off this balance. Not Oscar worthy, by any means. Great weekend rental. The story (if it matters to you) finds Willis and Malkovich (along with Parker) pulled into avoiding death by chasing down a secret nuclear weapon that was smuggled into Russia during the cold war. Mirren is the MI-6 contact and Hopkins the crazy mastermind of mass destruction with a chip on his shoulder. What could be better?

3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

At Middleton

This is exactly what you expect. The premise: a couple of parents take their respective kids to Middleton college for the college tour, the expectations of each parent is inconsistent with those of their child, and all expectations are unrealistic, the parents spend the day "lost" from the tour and find an amazing connection, everyone learns something about themselves. The film is fun, lighthearted, occasionally serious (but not too) and outrageous (in the sense of non-realistic) in the scenarios used to achieve the romance and comedy necessary.  In the end, we are happy and thoughtful (but not too). Somewhere, someone had the idea to use a back to school tour as a romantic comedy and fed these inputs into THE FORMULA. And of course, the reason the formula exists is because on some level it works.
3 stars (out of 5)