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)