Friday, December 30, 2016


The historical fiction telling of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving. These two lived in Virginia in the 60's and, since it was illegal to get married or co-habitate as a mixed race couple in Virginia, they traveled to Washington DC to get married. Unfortunately, the marriage license made no difference to the Virginia law and the two were arrested, sentenced to a year in prison or 25 years probation if they left the state. Then a couple of ACLU lawyers pick up their case and take it to the supreme court, to set the national law allowing interracial marriage. Those are the facts. Beyond the facts, this film tries to capture the drama and angst that these two experienced over the course of 10 years. From the opening line "I'm pregnant", I picked up on a sense of impending doom. How will this turn out bad? What tragedy will unfold? And this sense was never resolved, instead holding me in tension throughout, as I waited for the shoe to drop. But it never did. This was the nicest, most pleasant depiction of racism that I have seen. Even the ugliness was cordial. And all of this cordiality was sitting on top of the sense of impending doom. I am not sure what the filmmakers were aiming for in terms of tone, but the juxtaposition I experienced rang false. The personal tension came through, but the overt tension was non-existent. Maybe my expectations are unrealistic, the result of my history coming from dramatic films. Maybe this is really how it was.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck is the lead character in this character driven drama. And he nails it. The short version of the plot follows Affleck as he returns from his Boston maintenance man job to his hometown of Manchester after the death of his older brother. While making arrangements as the last living relative, Affleck encounters his past in surprising and difficult ways while trying to navigate a future for both himself, and his now fatherless nephew. There is a lot of angst here and Affleck wears it well. He has mastered the vacant eyes looking off to the side that suggest "it's possible for me to go there, but I can't because of where it would take me". This is the pure emotional struggle of a man who can't deal with the past, but is truly kind-hearted and wants to do right by his nephew. There is enough humor here to keep viewers from fully diving into Affleck's world, and I would guess that it is this humor that keeps him afloat too. An excellent portrayal of reality... loved it.
5 stars (out of 5)

La La Land

A true movie musical. Emma Stone is an aspiring actress, going through the grind of auditions, and working faithfully as a barrista. She crosses paths with Ryan Gosling, a talented Jazz musician who is so interested in tradition and pure Jazz that he often can't get jobs. They meet, they break out in song, they dance, they inspire each other to be their better selves, they sing some more. I suppose I am not the traditional target audience for musicals (e.g. I don't like them), but this was a pretty good story and not a traditional hollywood 'feel-gooder'. I liked John Legend's role, I liked the musical numbers that were not singing, but instead were jazz background. This felt true to the film and the style and seemed to be more seamless than the break-out-in-song traditional numbers. I liked the LA scenery, and I liked the Sliding Doors retrospective at the end. Don't call me a musical convert, but consider me entertained.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Amy Adams plays a linguist called into action when several alien pods appear on earth. One of them is hanging out in Montana, and the pods are just hanging around. Powers that be are working to communicate, to see if this is a hostile or friendly visit. Adams is the one for the job. She (and physicist Jeremy Renner {who has no real purpose other than eye candy in a nice gender role reversal}) spend a lot of time in the alien pod, and interacting with the aliens (who they refer to as Abbot and Costello). The beauty of this film is the slow unfolding of knowledge, both for the characters and the viewers. The painstaking work and long hours of scientific inquiry are effectively shown, including the frustration, the small breakthroughs, the teamwork, the inklings of ideas as they germinate, the risks and leaps of logic that are needed. But don't get me wrong, this is not a science process documentary. This is straight up sci-fi that will push your thinking about society, and science, and relationship and probably a bunch of other stuff. And one of the best I have seen in awhile.
5 stars (out of 5)

Rogue One

Backstory. I suppose this was the logical place to start. This is a good story that only really needs to meet the touchstone of having plans for the DeathStar stolen. And that it does. Somehow though, this all feels like going through the motions. Jyn has a little bit of history, and then is suddenly a key rebel fighter. Characters are introduced and it feels as if they are expendable, that, knowing the future, there is no future for these characters. So I don't really need to care. Maybe this franchise is no longer able to exist as one-off films, in a world where Firefly and Dark Matter have seasons to develop characters and stories. Or maybe it needs to go further afield, using the Star Wars universe, but not necessarily the storyline. So Boba Fett chronicles, or a Jawa tale, or ... Anyway, enjoyable, but not epic. I want epic.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Wire (Serial)

Season 3

Back to excellence. After a bit of a drop-off in season 2, we jump right back into excellent story-telling. I realized during this season that what I particularly about this series is the same think I like about epic fantasy books: multiple storylines that interweave. In this season, we have the newly formed Major Case unit, we have Herc & Carver as detectives in the Western District, we have councilman Carcetti and all the political side, we have Barksdale & Bell on the gangster side, Cutter as a rehabilitated gangster and of course Omar. Each of these storylines carries through on its own, with occasional connections to the others. We are reminded as a viewer from time to time that the characters don't know as much as we do. And we are also forced to think as a citizen about what solutions there are to drug problems in this country and we are faced with the reality of addition on a few different levels.  This is great writing and great acting. Love this.
5 stars (out of 5)

The Wire (Serial)

Season 5

In this final season, we bring in the Baltimore Sun as a major player. The mayor is having difficulty with politics and cleaning up the mess of the police department. Perhaps to compensate, McNulty and Freeman go even further afield to put Marlo behind bars. Here the perfect storm of lies converge, McNulty floats a big one and an aspiring Pulitzer seeker floats his own. These two lies grow and gain a life of their own. The interplay of police, politics and media is fascinating, as is the maturation of McNulty, Greggs and Carver in their life roles. Great final season. Well wrapped.
5 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, December 10, 2016


An interesting take on the JFK assassination story from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy. The story mechanism is an interview with Jackie a few weeks after the event, told in alternating bits of flashback and conversation with the reporter. I would guess that the historical fact portions are largely consistent with history (although I have no independent verification of that). I actually found the movie a bit slow and overly dramatic. That is, I felt like the pacing, even the score, was intentionally trying to build drama and angst, to force me as a viewer to feel the grief of Jackie. Overwrought? Yes. The grief was present and apparent without the manipulation. I will also say that something bugged me about Natalie Portman's accent and portrayal of Jackie. It seemed forced, and overly intentional. That said, I have never seen a single bit of footage of the actual Jackie Kennedy, so perhaps it was true to form. All in, interesting - but a bit grating.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Wire (Serial)

Season 4

I have now settled into excellence. Love this season, with the Barksdale crew basically wrapped up, time to introduce new stories. The focus this season is on the school system, but this does not take over the season like the dock's did in season 2. Instead, it is a unifying theme that continues to come back into the storyline, holding everything together. We also have a new player in the drug game (Marlo Stanfield) and his muscle, Chris and Snoop, are an astounding addition. We also have some unique policing strategies (e.g. the creation of Hampersdam) that raise the ire of the bosses. The series continues to push and inform and entertain.
5 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

This is a great spin-off. Fantastic Beasts builds on the Harry Potter world, but doesn't rely on it. That is, we are fully in the world of wizards and muggles (or Nomags, as the Americans refer to them) but if you have not even heard of the Harry Potter series, but are just a fan of fantasy this film makes sense. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, one of those european wizards who is on his first visit to the US. As he enters New York, he stumbles upon some wizarding troubles, and exposes the true purpose of his visit, while making friends with likeminded odd wizards and muggles. Redmayne is excellent as the diminutive, scholarly wizard who just loves his creatures and, like many good wizards, diminutive generally means deceptively powerful and sneaky. There are some great actions scenes and some laughter, but not much thinking. I suppose you can decide if that makes for a good fantasy film or an excellent one. I will rank this good.
4 stars (out of 5)

Run Fatboy Run

Pleasant Simon Pegg romantic comedy. Pegg left his pregnant fiancé at the altar 5 years ago. Today he regrets the decision, and needs to come to terms with this every time he goes to pick up his son. It doesn't help that the new boyfriend is a total ass. In some testosterone battle, Pegg decides that running a marathon will show he has changed, and is a better man. So of course, this plot line is ridiculous. It is a set up for soundbite jokes and gags. But when watching a cheesy romantic comedy, who really cares. I did laugh at the jokes and gags, and I did find myself repeating lines in my head as they were quite funny. Not quite good enough for me to remember any of them out of context. But enjoyable none-the-less.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Wire (Serial)

Season 2

This second season sets up with the task force reassigned all over the place in some pretty petty positions (evidence locker, foot beat, harbor patrol). When a body is fished out of the harbor and it turns out to be tied to a group of 13 other women who died in a container ship, the wheels are set in motion to get the team together again. However, this season takes 5 or 6 episodes to set the stage. I feel like the writers did not take advantage of the prior season, and while yes, they did have to introduce an entire new community in the dock workers, they did nearly lose me in the process. But once the team is together, and chasing money and phones, they again make connections that lead to arrests. And I think that they get the agreement to make the task force permanent as a major crimes detail. Stay tuned.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Dr Strange

Another marvel superhero. I didn't have any background on this guy, so it was very similar to Deadpool, or the first Iron Man. The hero in this case is a super arrogant neurosurgeon who sees himself as God's gift to humanity. When his arrogance threatens his career, he seeks out help from a group of (what we learn later to be) sorcerers. He gets in touch with his ability to draw energy from parallel universes, and of course, since he is so smart and so good at everything, he is also very good at this. Dr Strange becomes the guy who is smart and good enough to save the world from annihilation. Relatively fun, with some inception like CG and some crazy self-actualization a la Wanted. But I must say that being able to tap into energy from a parallel universe and being able to reverse time to fix anything that you missed the first time puts you in a different league than all the other guys. As a stand alone movie, pretty good. As part of a larger universe, is there room for anyone else?
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Luke Cage (Serial)

I guess largely forgettable. I like the idea of Luke Cage, a kind of everyman hero. But then this everyman personality is matched against oversized neighborhood villains. So I am not quite sure how to suspend disbelief here. The premise is that Cage is a regular guy who had some sort of experiment done on him (a la Captain America, Deadpool, etc) in which his skin turns super dense and impenetrable (by normal bullets and knives anyway). He originally showed up as a walk-on in the Daredevil series and was helped by Nurse Claire (who plays a recurring role here too). Ultimately, however, the same problem besets all of these Marvel heroes: are they vigilantes? and is that OK? Marvel tries to have the characters struggle with this issue, and tries to justify their actions. However, I wonder if the only way to really struggle with this honestly will be when one of them makes a mistake. Takes out a bad guy who later is determined to be innocent. If there are enough events, ultimately a mistake will be made. And what then is the justification for vigilante justice...
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Never go Back

Another Jack Reacher film. I have been reading these books and had read this one quite awhile ago, meaning I didn't really remember the plot. Which is good since I realize that the film needs to take some liberties. Reacher, as a former MP, in this installment works with the CO of his old unit to uncover some drug and gun smuggling by private military contractors. Overall, this is an average entry into the action hero genre. What I expected. Nothing more. Nothing less.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Accountant

Ben Affleck plays the title character. Just so happens that his job is a cover for his other job, assassin. And he is very good at both. He is also on the autism spectrum, so his ability to see patterns and numbers, and his ability to pay attention to important details seems to be enhanced by that. And his ability to act without emotional investment is key to his personality and success. The film was well constructed and well acted. And it did make me think. How is this character different than Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher. Those are also effective action heroes, very good at their job of noticing details and killing without emotion. But this accountant character has his strength seeded in his autism. And it feels different. So it made me think about stereotypes, rationalization of violence and justification of actions. I don't know where this thinking goes, but it is rattling around my head. It is also all this thinking that promotes this from 'movie' status to 'film'.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Breakout Kings (Serial)

Two seasons back in 2010 and 2011, this series follows a US Marshal team put together to find and recapture prison escapees. The unique part of this team is that the only currently badged marshal is the team leader. The rest of the team includes a former marshal convicted of grafting cash from drug seizures and 3 convicts who each get assigned to minimum security and 1 month sentence reduction for each capture they assist in. Overall, it is a light hearted fun series that probably failed because it couldn't find the balance of maintaining the fun while pursuing darker themes (e.g. serial killers) that inevitably show up in these kinds of procedurals. I will say as well that the writing did not really take strong advantage of the particular skills of each con. Yes, the "psychologist" was generally used to profile and predict, but the "tracker" and the "gangster" didn't get a chance to use their skills regularly enough to draw interest. I think the writers saw the writing (so to speak) because by time this series ended, it did not end with a cliff hanger, but with a relatively reasonable closure.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Wire (Serial)

Season 1

Set in the Baltimore police department homicide division in the mid 2000's and told from the perspective of both the police and the drug dealers. The police find that a major part of the drug trade on the West side is controlled by a guy that they have never really heard of. They set up a task force to break this ring up when a witness is killed in a drug trial. This is a gritty drama with not a lot of flash. the police are setting up wire taps on public pay phones and pagers while sitting on rooftops with cameras trying to make connections between who is calling whom at what time and with what information. The task force is really a bunch of misfits who are detailed just so that the police commander can tell a pesky judge that they are paying attention to his pet issue. But in the end the task force comes through.
5 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children

In some ways, a softer version of Dr. Xavier's school for the X-Men. At least, less explicitly violent visually. But in other ways, this is still pretty scary. We follow Jacob on a trip with his dad, where he discovers a special school. Actually, he discovers a house that is full of kids with special powers. And he discovers that he too has powers. And of course, he is the one that is able to save the kids from the scary monsters. A fun mixture between carefree kids and powerful monster hunters that mixes these worlds seamlessly. Nicely done.

4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, September 5, 2016

Bad Moms

I am sitting in the theater with a demographic breakdown as follows: 90% middle age women in groups (presumably moms day out), 9% men with a couple other women (the tagging along dad) and me. I personally found the film mildly entertaining. I found the crowd hilarious. The stereotypes and predictable laugh gags all worked, which does make for a more enjoyable viewing experience. Mila Kunis, is a working mom with two kids, a dog, and a husband who does nothing. When she finds him internet cheating, she kicks him out. She already does everything, but has reached her tipping point and opts out of the "perfect mom" treadmill. In reality, this is a film with a message telling parents that they are actually serving their children better by jumping off this treadmill. It pushes them beyond the entitlement and helps them grow up. At the same time, it gets parents some of their life back. The 'Bad Moms' of the title is recognition that all parents are bad parents, in as much as they are not perfect. But recognizing that, and loving your kid at all costs, means that you are a good parent. The mid-credit outtakes included interview vignettes with the actresses and their real-life moms, which was also cute and heartfelt. Everybody walked of that theater feeling better about themselves.
3 stars (out of 5)

Mechanic Resurrection

I am not sure what people expect of a movie like this, or how you could possible give it a bad rating. You know exactly what you are going to get, so in my opinion if you don't want to see that, don't go. But going to the film, getting what you know it is going to be, and then critiquing it for not being something else is simply not good for your formulaic-tentpole-summer-action-movie-karma. What you do get is Jason Statham reprising his role as The Mechanic. Here he is a retired hit-man who has faked his own death to be left alone. He gets found, and gets coerced by a weapons dealer to assassinate said weapons dealers competition. The coercion in this case is the lovely Jessica Alba, former military operator turned rescuer of children from the Cambodian sex trade. How could you not rescue that? The action is solid Statham (hand to hand, clever chases, impossible break-ins, several opportunities to remove shirts), and the plot is so standard that even the twists are straight up formula. What more could you want?
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sex and the City

Watching it again on HBO as hotel time filler. It has been at least 5 years since watching any of the series or films, so it was fun (nostalgic) to watch again. All the girls helping each other cope with NY and with relationships and with themselves. In many ways, revealing the best parts of true friendships (laugh together, cry together, fight but always make up, etc.) and exposing the insecurities that arise (or continue to exist) as we grow older. Definitely felt dated, in as much as it made me remember a particular phase of life when we watch the show.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 2, 2016

Catch Me If You Can

The based-on-a-true-story telling of part of Frank Abagnale Jr.'s life as a con man. He started with check fraud and moved on to impersonating pilots, doctors, lawyers and police. DiCaprio plays Abagnale and Tom Hanks plays his nemesis from the FBI. This is a cat & mouse game where the conclusion is foregone (remember: based-on-a-true-story) but the joy is in the journey. 
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Hard Day

Korean film following the main character of Detective Go Geon-soo. Go is juggling his mothers funeral and an internal affairs investigation into his unit for taking bribes. And then he hits a pedestrian with his car. Freaked out and pressed for time, he covers up the accident and moves ahead to put out his other fires. But the coverup does not go unnoticed and Go is drawn deeper into a corruption scandal that threatens to destroy him and his family. Go, even as a corrupt cop, is the protagonist that we root for here. This is classic Korean style police drama, but feels more 'real' by leaving out the expert martial arts and crazy mafia revenge storylines. Standard, but enjoyable.
3 stars (out of 5)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey vehicle to demonstrate that her abilities extend outside the comedic actress lines and develop her portfolio as a dramatic actress. This film is based on real person Kim Barker. Fey plays Kim Baker, TV journalist copy writer who is sent to Afghanistan in 2003 (since most reporters were in Iraq at that time). She is in way over her head, but develops a network of support and a bit of an addition to the adrenaline of reporting in a war zone. While the film is ostensibly about Baker, it tells a seemingly pretty honest story about Afghanistan, war and the US role there. No progress, lots of corruption, lots of good individual expats, soldiers, locals, all put in a sucky situation and doing their best to continue to be people and live life. We get hints of the arrogance of the West and the polarity of Afghan society. Yes, this was entertaining and superficial. But it is not a war exposé. As a mainstream film, it opens our eyes just a bit to a new way of seeing the world. I liked it more than I thought I would.
4 stars (out of 5)

Southside with You

The story of Michelle Robinson and Barak Obama's first date in Chicago in the 80's. The two are working at the same law firm (her as 2nd year associate, him as a summer intern) and connect one afternoon on their way to a community gathering in the low income Gardens neighborhood. In many ways, this is a sentimental love story that portrays this famous couple in the best possible light, foreshadowing all of their good and righteous characteristics. The plotting was slow enough to allow me time to think throughout, which you can judge as a good or bad thing. During all this thinking, I tried to watch the film as a depiction of random characters instead of the famous ones. If this was a random, fictional story, would it be a good story? Or is it only interesting because of the famous pedigree? How would a Tea Party audience view this film? How would a black audience? A 20 something? I enjoyed the film partially because it was a 'nice story' about a 'nice couple'. I enjoyed it more because it gave me time to ask questions, and to ponder their answers. It led me to wonder about perspective, and about white privilege, and then about responsibility. It let me see passion for social justice and the wax/wane of personal commitment to life values? It showed people question whether actions define values, or whether values can direct action. One of the better discussion films I have seen recently.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Precious Cargo

Bruce Willis is a bad guy who plans heists. Mark-Paul Gosselaar is a master thief who is getting out of the business, but gets pulled back in when his only-trouble ex-girlfriend pulls him back in for "one last heist". Interesting heist, poor setup and motivation. Sorry, I need more...
2 stars (out of 5)

The Lava Field (Serial)

A short, 4-episode series set in Iceland that follows Reykjavik based Detective Helgi. He is investigating an apparent suicide in a small village that turns out to have many connections and much larger implications for some national corruption investigations. His investigation challenges him to face his own history, look at who he is as a father and still work effectively as an investigator. So while the plot and acting reminds me a lot of the Scandinavian police procedurals, the on location sets, the stark (almost haunting) backgrounds and wide Icelandic vistas give this series a remarkable feel that makes the entire experience immersive.
5 stars (out of 5)

Five Minutes of Heaven

Set in the modern day Ireland, this film tells the story of Alistair Little and Joe Griffen. Little killed Griffen's brother 25 years ago in an assassination authorized by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), who sponsored the killings of hundreds of Catholics during 'the troubles'. Now, Little and Griffen have agreed, as part of a reality TV series, to meet on air and engage in a sort of Truth & Reconciliation. Throughout the process, we see the angst that each of these men has held onto over the past decades, and the trauma that war puts upon the lives of those involved. Whatever you think about Truth & Reconciliation as a process, confronting your victim or your aggressor is not trivial and this film is able to tease out portions of this difficulty. It may be a bit to easy in fact, but you can only ask so much of a 90 minute film. I love that the dramatic tension here is based on the trauma of reconciliation v. revenge, forcing viewers to also address that tension.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep is a wealth arts benefactor who has so much money that everyone humors her. When she takes singing lessons, she gets the best in the business and they all fake that she is good. And then she decides to give a concert. Hugh Grant is her manager/husband how pulls all the strings. Alternately painful and funny, but generally flat. The Emperor Has No Clothes...
3 stars (out of 5)


I grew up in the Schultz brother years of the 1984 and 1988 olympics. these two were legends in the wrestling world so I was looking forward to this film. And it was extremely informative. But wow was it slow. And depressing. I got some facts here, but the benefit of presenting historical fiction is that you get to dive in and really show some character. Here all the character was surface. I feel like I would have been better served by a documentary for as much deeper connection I gleaned with either of the brothers or DuPont. And I really wanted to like this.
2 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Jason Bourne

Bourne has really become the standard by which modern spy thriller movies are compared. Is the hero as tough, or as smart, or as quick as Bourne? Is the plot smart, subtle and twisted enough? This film has its own history to live up to, with Matt Damon returning to the title role. Bourne has put his CIA life behind him and is hiding out in the underworld. He is drawn back in to the suck when new information reveals (actually just hints at) his fathers role in the Treadstone project. Tommy Lee Jones as project leader is typically myopic (it is all about him) as he makes decisions that necessarily amplify the danger and drama. Put all of this over the backdrop of a NSA/Internet Privacy conspiracy and you got yourself a real spy thriller cookin'. And yet... when you walk out with a 'meh!', something got left out. Maybe this formula for spy thriller is just too worn to possibly feel fresh. Maybe the 'current event' of internet privacy was too obviously an overlay and not integrated into the DNA of the plot. So I would guess that this will have a polar audience: fans love it (or tolerated it but say they love it because that is what fans do) and others will pan it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Welcome to Punch

Set in London, James McAvoy plays Max Lewinsky, a brash cop who ran into a career changing case a year earlier. He was chasing a notorious heist gang and ended up getting shot in the leg while they escaped. Flash forward, his knee still needs to be drained regularly and he limps around like the grizzled veteran he is. And then he finds out that his nemesis is heading back to town. What follows is a pretty interesting story of corruption and allegiance and policework amidst the self questioning that probably always follows a traumatic event. And this is gritty London, not MI-5 London. This is pure and simply and action, thriller. The characters are not deep, but are deep enough for the genre. The storyline is twisty, and maybe a bit too obviously so, but it gets the job done. And the look&feel is dark and gritty instead of slick like Bourne or Mission Impossible. I like it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Suicide Squad

I like characters, and boy do we have them here. The entire first third of this movie is character introduction (which may have been a bit much, but I understand the issue). Once all these characters have been introduced, with all of their over-the-top comics-bold style, we get them together to fight crime. It is a Dirty Dozen of the superhero world and I always did like the genre. Do you need to know the plot? The bad-guy heroes are assembled into a team to fight the non-hero bad guys. One of the bad guys on the team turns out to be an actual bad guy, so the rest of the team needs to take her down. Smatter around some jocular banter, some supernatural mojo, some hefty gun battles, some second thoughts and the motivational speeches that go with them. Bam! Live action comics. It's not literature, but it sure is fun.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 7, 2016


Nelson Mandela starts out a local lawyer, marries Winnie, becomes a leader in the anti-apartheid movement and is sent to prison for said leadership. This film mostly tells the story of this imprisonment and how Mandela continues to resist, and continues to evolve as a leader in an ever changing political world. The evolution is itself a point of contention among his ANC colleagues and with Winnie. My own recollection of Mandela paints him as a much stronger voice for non-violence in the ever contentious discussion about how to bring about regime change as a guerrilla organization. But that was not a strong emphasis here, so I am not sure if that is my own memory bias, or whether that was just not significant for this writer/director. This film needs to be watched and then discussed. This part of global history needs to be remembered.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, August 5, 2016

The American President

This is good ol' nostalgia here. Aaron Sorkin pre West Wing, telling a political story of a campaign. Michael Douglas plays the sitting president who was elected as a recent widower. Entering the 2nd term campaign season, he is introduced to Annette Bening, a lobbyist for an environmental organization working on passing a bill that is important to the White House. The two begin to date, it becomes THE political issue, Douglas refuses to address the dating since it is a private life issue, until he does address it. Like I said, harkens back to the feelings in the 90's. Polyanish by today's political standards of Scandal and House of Cards.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

Animated story of what pets do when left alone. The story line follows some house pets that get out, then get dragged into the underground world of the feral/mutts of the world. What is particularly enjoyable about this is the clever portrayal of the stereotypes of each animal/pet. In fact, this is so clever that it is clearly this idea (how about if we have animals that we can caricature in a hilarious way) that green-lit the film. The story or characters themselves are not enough to carry the film.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Orphan Black (Serial)

Season 2 (10 episodes)

Pick up right where we left off. Sarah Manning is a clone. She knows of Casima, Allison, Helena. She saw Beth get killed. We are introduced to a couple others. Sarah is the only one who has had a child, while all the others are barren. This season is really about furthering the research into who created the clones, who is hunting them, who is interested in their well being or wants to control them. There are lots of concurrent stories here, but Sarah is the central thread that ties everything together. Tatiana Maslany is brilliant as Sarah, Casima, Allison, Helena, etc., playing all roles, very often against herself. Wonderful sci-fi, wonderful underlayer of "genetics morality" that pops up from time to time in between all the political thriller subterfuge.
5 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

I really do like this series, even though it is not new or ground breaking. In fact, the series is formulaic to a fault. But it is a good formula. New aliens, new problems to solve, same old overacting by Bones, bad science. Kirk and friends are sent on a mission into an uncharted nebula to assist in the rescue of a destroyed ship. They find that they have been drawn there for a purpose and are attacked. They then need to overcome all odds to save the entire crew and return to the space station to prevent it from being attacked. Woo hoo! 
4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Boy Meets Girl

A story set is small town/rural Kentucky that follows a trans girl Ricky and her best friend since age 6 Robby. Ricky is beloved and supported by her father and younger brother, has a job at the local coffee stop and runs a youtube channel on fashion as she works at applying to attend the Fashion Institute in New York. She meets a new friend, encounters bias and confusion and hatred and love. And everything works out. This is an almost too sweet, too clean, too positive portrayal of how relationships  should work out. So much so that it is clearly not reality. Even the stereotypical conservative, white male, republican politician changes his mind in about 2 minutes. And still, I found myself liking the innocence and enjoying the world that "too positive" gives.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Weird setting for a pretty traditional feel good movie about growing up and love. Set in Iowa in the context of butter carving, the 15 year champion carver is stepping down and opting not to enter the Jackson County contest this year. His wife (Jennifer Garner) finds this  unacceptable and enters herself. Turns out that a young foster girl new to the county (and new to her parents) discovers a natural talent in butter carving and enters as well. A couple others for comedic relief join the fray and we have ourselves a contest. The movie explores themes of race, the foster system, small town politics, familial honor and marital honesty. And uses butter to do it? Like I said... weird. But not bad.
3 stars (out of 5)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2

Finally the end of the series. Unfortunately, I had so lost interest by time they split the novel (which I had lost interest in on its own. So really I watched this as a way to close the series. So you can see, very low expectations. With that, I enjoyed this movie. In has been about 2 years since the last episode, so I only really remember vaguely the story points. But this film seems to hit all the right points, with out being overly dramatic or overly crass, etc. Just a solid action entry. The story follows Katniss as she and the rebellion move to take over the capital. And she does. There are decisions and losses along the way, and there are victories. In the end, war is awful (but worth the cost in this narrative). Very much follows a Just War theology, which we can take issue with if you want, but then you have to start the entire trilogy over with a different morality.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Love Lily Tomlin. She plays the Grandma of the title, a poet, and estranged from her daughter. Her life partner has died in the past year and she is still struggling with the grief. Her granddaughter shows up at the door and confesses a need for $600 for an abortion that is scheduled for that evening. Tomlin has $40 so the two of them spend the afternoon traveling around trying to collect debts and encountering old memories (good and painful) and building relationships. Tomlin is perfect as the cantankerous, world-wise, hippie, poet who guides the granddaughter while learning about herself as well. Very Grace and Frankie feeling... which is a good thing.
4 stars (out of 5)

Hot Pursuit

Reese Witherspoon plays an uptight cop who tries too hard. She gets her big break when she is assigned protective detail on an important witness in the drug war. She is to escort Sofia Vergara (wife of drug kingpin) to the courthouse to testify. The two quickly find themselves on their own as Vergara's husband and Witherspoon's partner are quickly killed off and they need to get to Dallas on their own. Kind of buddy cop feel with its silly humor and physical comedy. Witherspoon was given the role of uptight cop, but she plays it perhaps too over-the-top and gets annoying quickly. Otherwise, average film. Don't spend money on it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Infiltrator

The story of Bob Mazur, an FBI undercover agent in the mid 1980's and his work in the war on drugs with the Columbian drug families. Bob goes under as a money manager and gets his marks to begin to invest in his legitimate companies as a launder mechanism. When he gets high enough up the chain, the trap is sprung. This felt like a cross between Argo and Sicario. That is, felt like Argo, in the world of Sicario. The real drama here is the interplay of relationships shown. Bob maintains his relationship with his family, while developing new relationships. All of them are damaged and strained. There is no good way to be a bad person, and even faking being a bad person will harm you in ways you cannot anticipate. Good historical fiction.
4 stars (out of 5)


Meh! Pretty much what I expected. I love all four actresses here, and each had their opportunity to be the star (although Kate McKinnon as Holtzmann was by far the best IMO). As a remake, the plot follows the original pretty closely. Evil guy is working to bring demons and ghosts to this plane of reality so he can control the world. Ghostbusters (a combination of scientific genius and crackpot persistence) are just getting started when the influx of ghosts lends them legitimacy. They predict and track the evil guy, eventually preventing the end of the world. This didn't expand the world of the original, nor did it diminish (truly a remake, not a sequel). Maybe this reboot gets us a sequel now? Where we can expand the world?
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Limitless (Serial)

Season 1 (22 episodes)

A followup sequel series to the film version of Limitless, which was awful. But in hindsight, if the entire purpose of the original film was to set the scene for the series, then it was worth it. But I don't think that is true. The setting is one where a drug NZT exists that allows users to see connections they normally wouldn't and to have perfect recall of anything they have ever experienced. However, NZT has horrible side effects and kills people. We pick up with Bradley Cooper (from the film) having spent his NZT time to develop a side effect antidote booster that keeps you save for a month or so. Our hero, Brian Finch, is recruited (conscripted) by now Senator Cooper to infiltrate the FBI, take NZT and work as a double agent. Every episode follows Brian as consulting detective for the FBI on a particular case, with the season story a progression of the intrigue and conspiracy around NZT and the antidote booster. Good balance between the two and fun along the way.

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Shannara Chronicles (Serial)

Season 1 (10 episodes)

Based on the books by Terry Brooks... loosely. Well, this is not really Brooks Shannara, nor is it the Shannara of my imagination. The broad strokes of the premise (demons are held at bay by the magic of the Elcrys tree that is currently dying, Wil and Amber are charged with saving the world) are straight from Brooks. But the writers take lots of creative licenses with the details, the timeline, and the world to create effectively a new form. So compared to the book series, awful. Putting the books aside, and looking at this as a new sci-fi/fantasy entry, I liked it. A little bit cheesy with the visualization of the reaper and the trolls. A little bit "after school special" with the attempt of the characters to demonstrate romantic interest. But also a fun look at a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by humans, elves, gnomes and trolls, and integrating clear connections to the modern world. Not bad, and if a second season comes out, I will watch it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Spy Time

Spanish spy thriller. A son, who works as an hourly "security guard" at a local electronics shop discovers that his father is a feared and world renown spy. The father gets involved in an assassination plot that threatens to take down the very organization that he works for and protects the Spanish people from "the bad guys". When the son gets involved, he discovers a newfound respect for his dad, and also new found skills that his dad has secretly trained into him from a young age. In the end, things work out pretty much as expected. In fact, there is not really anything particularly novel or great about this film. But somehow, since it comes from the Spanish perspective, it feels fresh. If this exact film was made in the US, it would flop, and be considered a bit of a spoof. None-the-less, I appreciated it for what it was.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 7, 2016


An Italian gangster movie with the gangsters trying to ... well, I never really understood what they were trying to do. There was some sort of confusing intrigue with the Pope, and some politician caught in a sex scandal while the gangsters were going to make some money somehow. Too confusing and slow, with not even enough interest to get me to watch the whole thing.
1 star (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Shallows

Girl v. Shark.

Ok, so in terms of thriller tension, and keeping a viewer on the edge of their seat pretty much the entire film without resorting to ghosts and demons, this does a pretty good job. Our heroine (Blake Lively) has traveled to a secret beach in Mexico where her mom once surfed. She is there as a tribute to her mom, who has recently lost her battle with cancer. While surfing, a great white comes into the picture and the battle begins. Now, having stated that this film fulfills its goal of providing thriller tension, let me reveal some of my pet peeves. When there is no reason for science to be bad, why do filmmakers allow it to be so. For example, I don't think that a great white will really circle a rock for hours and hours because a potential food source sits on that rock, especially when a readily available food source in the form of a dead whale is 40 feet away. This implies that the shark is angry, or holds harmful intent toward the girl on the rock, which is just not true. However, this I can overlook because it is necessary for the story. If the shark in fact just eats a bit of the whale and leaves, then it is not a very good movie. On the other hand, the filmmaker also manufactures that there is only one tide per day in this secret bay, and then proceeds to explicitly show through a series of cuts between rock and wristwatch, that the tide is basically unchanged for 23 hours, and then increased by 6 feet in 10 minutes. This is not necessary for the story. It demonstrates (and teaches) an incorrect understanding of tides, and the story would have been just as effective had the filmmakers included good science. Maybe my original assessment that I was on the edge of my seat "pretty much the entire film" was not quite correct if I was able to pick up on (and be bugged by) tide science throughout.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Wedding Ringer

Kevin Hart has a business that provides "Best Man Services" for those who have no friends. He is excellent at his job. When he gets a new job that requires best man and 7 additional groomsmen, he takes on the challenge. Things go wrong, people laugh, quite predictable. I don't think one should be conscious of how long one has to wait until the next funny moment when watching a comedy.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Last (Serial)

This is the first non-movie review here on Cinebux. With the explosion of serial television of late, and the fact that some of these series are really good, I will start recording here when I have watched a series. My guess is that I will record seasons, or series in totality, since the beauty of series is that the story arc can develop over time.

Last is a 16 episode (1 hour each) series from South Korea. The setup involved Jang Tae Ho, a stock trader who has found success with his stock manipulation schemes. He gets a contract to run a scheme that doesn't go so well and he ends up owing millions to loan sharks, who take his life as collateral. A narrow escape and getting lost in the homeless world of Seoul Station sets the scene. The remaining 15 episodes build a world where Tae Ho is striving to regain his status and enact revenge. Along the way, he learns about life. What I really like about this series is that every character has depth and motivation. Yes, sometimes it is cheesy soap-opery depth, but it is backstory that gets revealed in increments over the episodes. And this slow reveal allows alliances and allegiances to shift or strengthen, changing the playing field as we go. Overall, an excellent mafia/crime thriller with some love story and family angst thrown in for good drama.
4 stars (out of 5)

Now You See Me 2

Picking up where the original Now You See Me left off, the horsemen are in hiding and working on a project (upon request of The Eye) but without any real details to understand what they are doing. This film, instead of being about a heist, is really about the magicians and the art of magic. The horsemen, in the original, took down an insurance magnate as a personal vendetta. Now for payback, and payback of payback, and ... well you get the picture. The reason this is such a better film is that we are brought behind the camera to see how the magic is done. And this reveal is actually an important part of the plot, so it doesn't seem false. It's not big action, so it probably doesn't play as well as other summer films, but I like the clever plot, the tricks and reveal, and Ruffalo, Eisenberg, Harrelson, Radcliffe make a great cast.
4 stars (out of 5)

Central Intelligence

Kevin Hart and Dwane Johnson together in a buddy cop film. Has serious potential, right? The premise is that Hart was the perfect popular kid in high school, Johnson the caricature of loner/geek. Flash to 20 years forward, Hart is an accountant and Johnson shows up in his life as, well, The Rock. Turns out that Johnson is a CIA agent who needs Harts forensic accounting skills to crack a case. Not sure who is good, who is bad, etc. Hart is OK here. Doesn't have a lot to work with other than to continually not want to be part of this partnership, only to continually succeed. Johnson, on the other hand, does a creepily good job at playing the role of the high school loner/geek 20 years later. His mannerisms continually reveal that personality hasn't really changed, even though the body has. The fact is, this is put together as a slapstick comedy. I think it would have been a better movie as an action comedy (yes, there is action, but it is secondary). Maybe a rental.
2 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Escapist

Set in a probably mid-20th century English prison, this is the story of an escape. It is an exceptionally well told story in that it tells the entire story from planning to execution, but does so by cutting back and forth between execution-planning-execution-planning-etc. Never does the view get lost, even though I did not notice any explicit time-shift clues. But when we are climbing through a hole in the wall and wonder why that guy got to come along, we eventually get that story in the planning phase. It makes for an outstanding slow reveal. The setting and tension for the escape are desperate, the means plausible, the personalities engaging. I like a heist/escape story, and I found this to be fabulous.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 17, 2016

Finding Dory (3D)

I like my 3D with depth, not height. So this seemed like a good possibility, a window into the ocean instead of stuff flying at my face. And for that, it was good. Three or four times throughout the film, the story/action was slow enough to allow me to get lost in the depth of the background, and it is astounding. But the 3D is a bit of an artifact, even here. It does not help/hinder the story and the film would be identical in 2D. 

The story starts 1-year after Nemo, with Dory part of the family and her remembery loss intact. The film serves as a Dory origin story as we get periodic flashbacks as Dory's memory resurfaces. These resurfacings prompt Dory to want to find her parents and Nemo/Marlin join along. There are token nods to the fun scenes in Nemo (e.g. turtle travel), but they are not novel or nearly as fun. There is no serious tension as the film feels like a series of small obstacles presented and then overcome. We need to get into quarantine, we need to get to open ocean, we need to get to the Cleveland truck, etc. Some hijinks ensue at each stage, but there is no real question about the achievability. Instead, it is a question of what wacky process will get me to the next level. The average kid will likely laugh and enjoy, but there are not catchy songs or indelible scenes to last until next year. 

**Spoiler alert below**
There has been some writing about how Dory helps to normalize ab-normal. Nemo's fin is never mentioned, the octopus is a septapus, the shark is blind, the beluga can't echo-locate, etc. For the most part, these are not even mentioned as "you can get over it" disabilities, or "your weakness makes you stronger". They just are. Which makes for great family discussion about individual differences. I was also watching particularly with an eye toward adoption. How would a child who is interested in knowing birth parents view this? Dory blames herself for losing her parents (suggests her parents probably blame her). As an adult, I can see that this is potentially a normal stage of questioning for a child in understanding families, but as a child, it might raise all kinds of responsibility/blame/shame issues. When Dory finds her parents, the story shows that they have been waiting and searching for her for all these years. Again, what message would an adopted child hear? My birth parents are actually waiting for me to find them? And at the end of the line, everyone is only really truly happy once the child and parents have been reunited. This story could lead to great conversations for many families, on many levels, but could also take some families by surprise. Just go in eyes open based on your family story. 
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Female Agents

In World War II, an allied geologist was captured by the germans in the vicinity of Normandie. The implication that something special was going on in Normandie was something that should not be known by the Germans. British Special Operations puts together a team of 4 women and a man to infiltrate France and retrieve said geologist. From the assembly of this team of disconnected women, each chosen for a particular reason (and each with particular break points), to the fusing of these women into a team while on the mission. This is not just a war film with action and a rescue. Instead, it has all of that, plus spends enough time with the characters for me to see their humanity and struggle with depravity in war. Not a single character was one dimensional. You will have to watch it to see if the mission is a success.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Point Blank

Samuel is a nurse trainee on night shift when one of his patients is nearly killed by an unknown assailant. The fact that Samuel saves the man draws him into a sequence of events that leads to the kidnapping of his pregnant wife, his assisting of a known hitman and fugitive, the murder of police (both good and corrupt) and a citywide crime spree in the attempt to extricate himself and save his wife. This is a constant action film with none of the action gratuitous. Every single scene has purpose and moves the plot forward, either illuminating a new angle or resolving a suspicion. And while Samuel is a regular guy put into a horrible situation, he does not become a super-action figure. All of his action is "regular guy" action born out of desperation. So instead of Jason Bourne or Liam Neeson in Taken, we instead have "action realism". A plausible guy I might know who can drive a story. And no chance for a sequel. This is a once in a lifetime event for Samuel.
4 stars (out of 5)

Metro Manila

Oscar and his family are living in rural Philippines, finding themselves slowly falling further and further behind in their subsistence farming. Finally prices fall out of the rice market and they see that they can no longer afford to live. They make the decision to move to Manila to find work. Oscar falls into a job as a armored truck driver, his wife at a bar as a dancer. They are minute by minute making choices about survival. This is the story of millions. Moving from the farm to the city is a dramatic culture change. Where to live, how to find work, how to survive, how to avoid being victimized, how to not get crushed by the mass of urban humanity, how to maintain hope. Every event in Oscar and his family's life in Manila is seemingly happenstance, and yet inevitable. Every choice they make is really no choice at all. This is an outstanding portrayal of transition to new life, realizing that it is probably more positive and too easy compared to what the majority of rural refugees encounter in the world. Well worth seeing.
5 stars (out of 5)


This Spanish thriller follows an investment banker who works on margins to stay one step ahead of the market. He has a big deal brewing that needs his attention and some timely trades, when he encounters a small problem. The car that he is driving to work, with his two children aboard and to be dropped off at school, contains a bomb. He is instructed by a caller on a cell that he needs to raise a few hundred thousand Euro, empty his own personal bank account, and transfer everything to an anonymous account. If not... boom. Oh, and there is a pressure switch on the seat, so don't try to get out and run. The entire film takes place within the setting of the car, with action happening over cell conversations, through window conversations with the bomb squad, lawyers and his wife. The tension is perfect, not overdone, but significant. A nice offering in the genre.
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

It is clear that a moderately successful Neighbors, based on a conflict between a young couple and their fraternity neighbor would necessarily result in a sequel conflict between same couple and sorority neighbor. So the existence of the film does not surprise or bother me. For a plot, young couple Rogan/Byrne are selling their house and enter a 30 day escrow period. At the same time, a group of college freshmen girls decide to rent the former frat house to start a new sorority. The basic conflict is over whether the girls will cause the new buyers to cancel escrow and opt of the sale. The real story here is what I might refer to as Fake Feminism. The girls suggest that they are demonstrating empowerment and strength by going on their own, against the greek system. Intertwine this with a millennial mentality. So why is it Fake Feminism. The girls portrayed in the film are college freshmen that demonstrate no intelligence. They need to be portrayed as these completely inane women in the first place in order to be able to, for the film, have some upward trajectory. A truly feminist film would not need this starting point. You could start with strong, intelligent 18-year old college freshman that have an idea about their skill set and what is possible in life, and a realistic idea of what can be learned. Then the plot would need to develop to allow them to grow even more. But this is not easy to write. I wondered in the first film if I was just aged out of the target demographic. But for this one, even with some funny moments, it sends a message that is mostly wrong, and probably just offensive. It would be interesting to show this to a group of high school senior girls or college freshmen girls and see what they think about the portrayal.

Normally, the only way to get one star is if I walk out of a film, but in this case the message has earned
1 star (out of 5)

X-Men: Apocalypse

I like the X-Men. Always have, probably because of the variety of characters and mutant abilities allows some serious action and some fun. In this installment, we get great fun from Quicksilver (who channels a little bit of the Deadpool DGAF attitude, but in a PG-13 way) and Nightcrawler (the innocent, newbie, German exploring his abilities). And we get the ongoing battle between Professor X and Magneto, the introduction of Storm, and an explanation for the pyramids. The general plot is that Apocalypse is a mutant who can transfer his consciousness into a new body and take over that bodies abilities. He is betrayed during a transfer attempt in ancient Egypt and lies dormant until present day 1980's. When he awakes, he resumes his quest to control the world and wants to take over Professor X, with his ability to control minds. What could be better. In the end, the moral of the story is "Those with better friends, win". I must say that as a casual fan (i.e. not a fanboy) I find myself confused with timeline and characters in these films. I often found myself wondering during this film if I was supposed to know some history, or remember some future that was revealed in a past film (how is that for a timeline bending idea). Maybe that is intentional, providing obscure details so that the fanboy will have an inside track and get more satisfaction from knowing said obscure details, leaving the casual fan with only a slight confusion and not enough to impair overall enjoyment.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

While We're Young

This was hilarious, but I am quite sure that it was only hilarious to a very niche demographic: 40-something, childless couples. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are said couple and find all their friends are becoming "lost" to their kids. So they befriend some 20-something hipsters. Just this setup allows for the film to skewer all the stereotypes around conflict between children/childless and middle age/millennials. But I think those with kids will only find it moderately funny and millennial/hipsters will say "Huh. I guess I can see the humor there". The main hipster/new friend is Adam Driver who happens to be a filmmaker (same as Stiller) and turns out to be a manipulative narcissist. The not-so-subtle message is that most millennial/hipsters are also manipulative narcissists and the 40-somethings are really better all around with their own kind (and with kids).  I don't really agree with this message, and this might be what prevented the film from being great. It could have been funny *and* had a good message.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, May 14, 2016


Bradley Cooper happens upon a designer drug that accelerates his mind. While on the drug, he understands numbers better, sees disparate connections, learns languages. This turns out to make him a rock star in the investment world as he can see market trends that others can't. Unfortunately, it seems that this designer drug has not been perfected yet to the point of not having side effects, the most important of which is death upon withdrawal. It also turns out that there is a limited supply, so another user becomes desperately interested in acquiring Cooper's supply. And that is it. No real quality, feel-good use of the drug. And not really dark enough to be considered dark. By trying to be enough for a wide audience, it seems like this is not really anything for anyone.
2 stars (out of 5)


The best possible way to have a sequel to the Rocky franchise. Rocky Balboa is now a restaurant owner in Philadelphia, where he remains a cultural icon. He is approached by a young Californian fighter who needs a trainer. Turns out this fighter is Apollo Creed's son. So of course he agrees (of course, for the film, but reluctantly, for the character). This leads to some tension in the existing Philly boxing community, but works out in the end. A classic underdog, plenty of nods to the original franchise without seeming overly gratuitous. Pretty cool.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, May 13, 2016

Money Monster

George Clooney is a pop-financial TV guru who fills time with his show on the business TV networks. Julia Roberts is his producer. When a disgruntled investor who had taken Clooney's advice loses everything, he comes onto a live show to demand information (with a bomb vest to be worn by Clooney). He doesn't want money. He wants to know why. Clooney does a great job in his role. And plays the hero as he works to actually find out what happened with this "glitch" in the system. Lots of fake drama and over the top action (e.g. a "parade" as they walk from the studio down to a Wall Street investment firm). And for an "exposé" film, a largely unsatisfactory ending. We really are just dumb investors with no recourse when "the system" goes wrong.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Other Woman

Cameron Diaz finds out that her boyfriend is actually married to Leslie Mann. They meet accidentally and strike up a strange friendship. Actually, Mann stalks Diaz for awhile trying to find answers about why her marriage ended with a cheating husband. In the process of their sorting out their friendship, they discover Kate Hudson is yet another girlfriend. So of course, the revenge plan commences. This feels a little bit like Home Alone repurposed for the midlife crisis. And with that image, you can guess how everything turns out. Moderately entertaining diversion.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


I don't get the fascination with this film. Amy Schumer plays a professionally successful woman who has decided that relationships are impossible, so all relationships should be one night stands. This comes from her opening scene 'Monogamy is not realistic' mantra that her father ingrains into her and her sister. So the film becomes a series of drunken relationships and confusion about the lack of life satisfaction that they give. The film is only moderately comedic (it relies on all the tired stereotypes) and the characters are shallow and really uninteresting. Maybe I watched it "too late" after the cultural hype was dead. But if this is the case, if the only reason this was "good" was because of a flash in the pan cultural hype, then I guess it was not really good at all.
2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War

A sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, from four years ago. Let's start with my initial reaction in the theater. I knew it was a sequel, but for the first 30 minutes I felt like I should have known more than I did. The story required that I remember some plot details from four years ago. And while a Morgan Freeman narration did what it could to provide a setting, in fact the only result was him reminding me how much I should remember, but didn't. Lesson: If your sequel is four years later for a barely-moderately successful film, don't assume anyone remembers, and don't assume a voice-over will help anyone remember. Once we settled in, the film has given some backstory on the huntsmen and why they were created and who they were. As I write this, I am thinking there are some pretty significant timeline issues with this backstory and how it fits in with the original Snow White. But I digress... this is a fairy tale with a basic question: Will love conquer all? Since it is a fairy tale that must, by definition, end happily-ever-after, you know the answer. With a great tale, the journey is epic. The journey, in this case, is only adequate. I am not sure if I am aging out of the target audience age-group and I would have really liked this more 10 years ago? Or is this just a middling, quarter-good attempt at some action-fairytale fare? Not yet wanting to give up on my fantasy-action-loving youth, I am going to stick with the later at this point.
2 stars (out of 5)

A Hologram for the King

Tom Hanks is a salesman for an IT firm that has developed next generation teleconferencing technology. He is in Saudi Arabia to pitch his company to be the sole provider of IT for a brand new (actually in-process) planned community. The planned community is a pet project for the King, hence the film name. Once in country, Hanks encounters resistance and unexpected delays, along with unexpected friendships and self discovery. In fact, the way this plays out, the film is not exciting, or comic, or romantic. It is instead a pretty mundane slice of life for a middle-aged, middle-manager. Hanks is discovering some things about himself, but they are not epiphanies. He is gradually sliding into deeper understandings of his relationship with his daughter, his career, his failed marriage. In many ways, the plot contrivances are absurd. At the same time, they come together to create a rather plain film that in many ways presents a more realistic path to self discovery than most films. Not sure if "pleasant" is praise for a film, but that really is what this was -- pleasant.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sing Street

Fabulous. Set in Dublin, the story of a boy (Cosmo) who changes schools and begins to discover who he is. His older brother is a dropout, musician wanna-be who lives at home, smokes alot, and continues to give him advice about music, girls and life. Cosmo, in order to get the girl, decides to start a band. The film basically follows the development of this band as they traverse the 80's genres (Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall and Oats, The Jam, etc.), using these bands to fine tune their sound as well as their look. It is quite fun to see the entire band changing its look from one week to the next as they encounter another influence. Fun music and the outstanding flavor provided by all the surrounding characters in the school makes this pure fun.
5 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris

Sally Field plays Doris. She is an aging spinster who is dealing with the recent death of her mother. She finds herself falling for the new 20-something director of marketing where she works. She gets some help from the 13-year old granddaughter of her best friend (facebook, concert tix, etc.) and makes her move. Equal parts cheesy and grimace (oh no, don't do that). As a comedy, it plays like a series of caricatures and one liners that induce laughs. But it does not hold together as a good film. The relationship that Doris is seeking comes from a place of true loneliness and here is used simply as a setup for laughs. You will get a much better treatment of this same material (aging, loneliness, relationship, coming of age regardless of generation) with the excellent Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Eye in the Sky

This was a difficult film to watch. But also important. It is an extremely well done presentation of the behind the scenes actions around drone strikes. I understand that everyone who sees this will see it through their own political and moral lens, somewhere between a moral tragedy and necessary heroic actions. The film itself dives into the political/moral morass explicitly through the presentation of a single military mission in two hours of real time viewing, which probably realistically reflects actual stress and drama. What starts out as a capture mission changes to a kill mission, with Helen Miren as the hawkish British Colonel leading the mission and Alan Rickman the general managing the politicians. The most telling statement of the film was the response by a political figure to the question "You would save this one collateral damage and suffer the risk of up to 80 deaths?" Her response ... "Yes". Unequivocally. Collateral damage is not acceptable. Imagine if we could create a world, by making daily difficult decisions, that values every individual life at every moment. Is it ever worth trading one life now for many, or potentially many, in the future? My answer is no. And so you see my bent. We think we can predict the future, so we think we can do the moral accounting and achieve the greater good. But what we, humanity, has never been able to achieve on a significant scale is to value the current life, and let that value system change the future. Even here, the filmmakers do an excellent job of letting us sit with the implications of the mission. We see many possible futures resulting from every decision made, and we are left to sit with the tragedy of these decisions, and second guess every one. And in the end, where do we come down? The power and ego that is wielded with the drone weapons are not acceptable in a civilization that I want to be part of. Everyone should see this film.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Intern

Robert DeNiro, retired and widowed, applies for and gets a job as an intern (part of a new senior intern program) at a local tech startup. He is assigned to CEO Anne Hathaway, who clearly is too busy to need an intern. But DeNiro makes himself useful, is liked by everyone, and finds his way into the inner circle of trust, both in business and in life. While not a standard rom-com plot, it does have all the traits of typical rom-coms, most clearly that everything is too neat and tidy to be real. But we all check our critical minds in at the ticket booth and enjoy the banter, the mentorship, the obvious roadblocks to success that get solved with obvious solutions, and the fact that everyone lives happily ever after. A mediocre, friday night date film that knows exactly what it is, and does it adequately.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

I liked this, maybe mostly because in my insular world of the late 80's/early 90's, I had no idea any of this world existed. The story of the development into mainstream success the music genre of gansta rap. N.W.A. formed in the late 80's with Easy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube as the core members, rapping about their local experience. They get picked up by a manager and blow up. This was a good portrayal of the difficulties of fame and staying connected to those you need to stay connected to. It was interesting to see the stark contrast between white and black in terms of talent vs management, and the very ingrained power roles that were played out.  It was fun to see the development of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre since I am more aware of their roles in entertainment today, 20 years later. Well worth it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 1, 2016


I would classify this as a film-noir style crime thriller. The setting is London and the players are all hustlers and criminals of one sort or another. Lenny is (in his mind) the big boss of the area and he gets paid to grease the wheels of government when real estate deals need to get done. A Russian billionaire pays him a bunch to do said greasing, but the payment gets swiped by "The Wild Bunch", a group of low level friends. There are several layers of connection here between all the players which makes it fun to parse as a viewer. And it has a couple of my favorite actors right now in Tom Hardy and Idris Elba. Engaging.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Mermaid

I have this on my list for awhile as it has been getting good reviews. Although now that I have seen it, I am not sure why. Or, I am not the target audience. The story is of a mermaid clan in a particular bay that have been inadvertently trapped there by developers. The developers put sonar broadcasters in the bay to keep dolphins out so they could develop the property without violating dolphin protection laws. But the sonar is killing the mermaids. The mermaid clan sends one of their own as a honey pot to lure and then kill the developer. She falls in love and can't complete the mission. The developer sees the error of his ways and turns off the sonar. Ho hum. Very predictable, with odd sequences that may have been intended as comic relief, or transitional opportunities for characters, but just came off as odd. I guess the Chinese romantic comedy demographic does not include me.
2 stars (out of 5)


This animated feature tells the story of Zootopia, a metropolis of animals that all get along, encouraged by the mayors "mammal inclusion initiative". Predator and prey live together in harmony, until they don't, and new police officer (the first ever bunny cop) needs to figure out why. Walking out of this theater, I felt like I was walking out of church. In some sermons, you are told what to do and why to do it and how to do it. In others, you are given some ideas about how to to think differently, and then left on your own to think. This film was the former. Tolerance is the goal of a civilized society. There are those who are not ready for tolerance, or who are ready to sacrifice a few of "them" so the majority of "us" can live better. Those people (mammals) are wrong. Sometimes these kinds of films, in an animated form, can present the message with humor, or subtly. Not so here. There was one joke (a smiling sloth) and lots of speeches. I can't imagine kids loving this film like they would minions or a musical or, actually almost anything else. No slapstick humor, no memorable songs. So clearly this is a sermon... er, film for adults. And yes, tolerance is a worthwhile message. Is it wrong that I have no tolerance for that message in my animated movies when it is so heavy handed?
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

American Sniper

A fictionalized story based on the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper deployed in the post 9/11 Iraqi war. I am never sure with historical fiction how much of the story is history and how much is fiction. Here it seems like the point of the film is to portray the emotion of what it means to be a soldier (in particular a sniper), which is strange since the story shows that a sniper is (must be) necessarily emotionless to succeed at their job. Kyle is exceptional at his job and almost from day one becomes known as "the legend" based on his efficiency and skill. Between the lines, between the hoo-rah, is a story of tragedy and destruction brought by war, both physical and psychological. This is a devastating undertaking. I suppose that in this first 2/3, the viewers point of view will reveal whether the film is a patriotic demonstration of American dominance, power, benevolence and responsibility... or whether the film is a critique, exposing the true cost of war. Then we get to the last 1/3. Kyle finally comes home, struggles, gets some help, recovers and begins to help others. Not perfect, but the military family and his own family rally around to allow Kyle to construct new meaning upon which he can base the remainder of his life. This portion of the story comes with point of view attached. The viewer either accepts this story as reality, or rejects the entire film. 

I suppose I appreciate a film that exposes to the American public the reality of war, the devastating human cost. Unfortunately, this one does so with not so subtle undertones of American exceptionalism - completely focusing on the American cost. Yes, this is probably a realistic picture of the dialogue and attitudes of the characters. But it is not the only perspective and while it has the opportunity to show the human cost, those kinds of films are relegated to small independent, ultimately low viewership films. 

3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spare Parts

I am a sucker for these kinds of films. It is the underdog student/team with the reluctant/enthusiastic teacher/coach battling adversity for the win. It is Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, McFarland, etc. In this iteration, George Lopez plays an engineer down on his luck after a personal tragedy and settles for a long term sub job as a physics teacher/robotics team coach at a Phoenix area low income school. The club is non-existent, but gets started and joined by 4 undocumented students looking for focus. They build an underwater rover on a shoestring budget, travel to UCSB for the competition, excel and find resolution to many of their personal traumas. In reality, this is not a great film, and the telling of the story is predictable and the characters are pretty 1 dimensional. However, I am a sucker for these films. I like the underdog student/team with the reluctant/enthusiastic teacher/coach battling adversity for the win.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, February 28, 2016


This is a quirky, independent film in the vein of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Brick. A high school kid is smart and going somewhere. But he gets mixed up in a drug deal and has to work his way out in order to save his chances at admission to Harvard. While not really breaking the 4th wall, there is a subtle "knowing" of the characters as they play to the camera, aware of how they are being viewed by the audience and the story that is being told. Overall, I found this offering flat. Many other things better to see.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Triple 9

I am putting this in the same class of films as Sicario, but not nearly as well made. The class is of a pretty good film about a subject without redeeming themes or characters. In this case, the setting is the Atlanta police force, and the story is one of corrupt cops. The thing is, after watching this film, I felt brutalized. Without an underlying morality, or characters you like, it is relegated to a dark story bringing career and personal angst to the surface. Sometimes this can work if the characters have some depth (as they begin to do in Sicario). That is, if as a viewer I am brought into their life and understand their context and/or motivation for living and decision making. But these characters were pretty flat, with surface motivation only presented at a level that was required to move a plot along. Can't recommend this.
1 star (out of 5)

Sunday, February 14, 2016


Astounding. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade/Deadpool. As Wade, he is a high value bounty hunter working a dangerous job. When he finds that he doesn't have long to live (cancer diagnosis), he takes a risk on an experimental treatment. Turns out the "treatment" is a scheme to force mutations by stressing the body, and his "doctors" are mutant traffickers. The treatment works, he mutates and gains the ability for rapid healing. He is immediately recruited by Prof. Xavier's X-men academy. Unfortunately, Wade is not the team player type. In fact, what makes this movie so good is that the smart-ass personality that Wade has developed as an independent bounty hunter is retained in his Deadpool personality. Much has been made about the R-rated-ness of this film, and based on the language and graphic violence, it definitely deserves the rating. But the success of the film is not because of the R-rating. The success is because the character of Deadpool is an R-rated smart-ass. And Reynolds plays that character perfectly. I loved this movie because Wade/Deadpool plays a consistent character in context with the story. My fear is that movie execs will think the success is because of the rating and start throwing a bunch gratuitous language/violence into future franchises to get a rating, when that language/violence doesn't really fit the characters or story. I hope not. But for this instance, it is on point.
5 stars (out of 5)

High School Musical

Having recently played a small part in a version of High School Musical for my basketball team, I figured it was time to see this now decade old, made-for-TV cultural phenomena. It was everything I expected for a decade old, made-for-TV musical. Cliques and angst appropriate for high school, catchy songs, jocks and nerds crossing social classes and opening the eyes of their friends to solidify an "everyone is valuable for who they are" social message. And all this made better by watching with my age-appropriate niece and nephews. So while I can't actually recommend this for your viewing, I will say it was a valuable filling in of a gap in my cultural wardrobe.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mr. Bean's Holiday

Ah, Mr. Bean. Slapstick humor at its best. If slapstick has a best. Bean has maybe 10 lines throughout the film, and the rest is physical comedy. Bean wins a trip to the South of France, encounters lots of hi-jinks along away, picks up a kid (who he caused to miss his train and get separated from his father) and then spends the rest of the film working at a reunification scheme. Silly, goofy, and an awesome movie for 7-10 year olds. Not for me, but I watched the whole thing, so...
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

People, Places, Things

Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Concords fame (at least that is were I found and loved him) stars in this comedy/drama. Clement plays a graphic novelist who is recently single and recently taking more responsibility for his young daughter. He also teaches at a local community college, and is working on a novel that explores his recent life changes. He meets a young student with real talent, develops a relationship with her mom, and honestly struggles with the reality of his situation. Clement is charming, funny and heartfelt in his portrayal. I liked this film, mostly because of the low-key acting by Clement.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Divine Move

A Korean action thriller based on the gambling underworld around the game Go. In this world, rich gamblers play the game in places where the house cheats. They have cameras and expert players feeding moves to the house player. At the same time, the visiting gambler has their own cheats. So while two people in the room are playing, really it is two experts playing each other via the proxies in the room. This is completely illegal and yet known and expected. The plot follows one player who was destroyed at a young age for getting in over his head with his debts. A couple of years later, after becoming a master Go player in prison, he initiates his plan to exact revenge on the mob bosses. Classic Korean action, with equal parts choreography, violence and character. Quite fun.
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hott Fuzz

Simon Pegg is an overachieving police officer in London, and he is embarrassing his fellow officers based on his excellence and efficiency. So he is reassigned to a small town, backwater district in rural England. As he struggles to fit in with the slower pace, he uncovers a corruption that runs so deep that noone in town will acknowledge it exists. So of course, he needs to root it out. With unlikely help from the mayors son, Pegg sets off to work. Amusing and entertaining.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Big Short

Historical Fiction film telling the story of the credit default swap monetary policy that led to the housing mortgage crisis. It is quite a well done film to provide background and detail to the common viewer about the events that led to the bank failures at the same time as being funny, entertaining and serious. Eye-opening.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Gunman

Sean Penn is a trained killer. He works independently (with a couple of team members) in Africa as a hired mercenary. When a high profile job is completed, he has to leave the continent (and his girlfriend) and decided to retire. Ten years later, he has changed careers and is trying to fix himself psychologically by working for an NGO back in Africa. Unfortunately, someone tries to kill him and he must now work out who and why and then kill them first (of course). This is gritty, but predictable. I didn't really buy the angst that Penn is purportedly going through. I didn't buy the relationship with the girlfriend. There are not even outstanding action sequences. Overall, a 2nd rate action/thriller.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 9, 2016


Mark Ruffalo nails it. He plays Mike Rezendes, a Boston journalist who is part of the "Spotlight" team. This team does long-term investigative journalism for the Globe and have been digging into the Catholic Church child molestation scandal in the late 90's. What I particularly liked about the film is that it was not sensationalized, it was not even really about the church or the scandal. It was about the journalists who pursued the uncovering of the facts, and it was about Boston. I found it fascinating how closed and protective people in Boston were about their own. And how accepting they were of things that they thought were not changeable. I suppose this becomes an expose for all of us about who needs to act against an injustice. In this film, there are many examples, the protagonists included, who have decided that it was up to someone else. Until this particular configuration of a Spotlight team comes along with a particular boss, with a particular combination of people and events. Ruffalo really becomes the bulldog, willing to pursue facts in uncomfortable situations, and even to push his colleagues beyond their comfort levels as well. I was fascinated throughout.
5 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Kung Fu Killer

Donnie Yen (who I will watch in anything) is a martial arts expert serving time in prison for murder. While serving time, a series of murders begins to unfold where martial arts masters are being killed. It turns out that the killer is targeting the experts of each field (fists, kicking, swords, etc.) and he has the goal of challenging Yen, who is the acknowledged master of all. Yen convinces the police to let him out of prison so he can help capture this killer. Yen's character is a prototypical master. He is in ultimate control of his physicality, and his emotional state. And he uses this control to exhibit peace and confidence, even amidst battle. Maybe this is a romantic view of the martial arts, but Yen owns the role. He exudes this romantic view of the master, portraying the true value of martial arts and the true purpose of the craft as means to developing spiritual wholeness. Awesome.
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Man from Reno

Aki is a Japanese mystery/thriller author who is taking a press tour in the US. She has decided that she is not interested in writing the next book in the series, but her experience in San Francisco changes her mind. She gets enmeshed in a real life murder/heist/mob deal and has to work with a small town sheriff to figure out what is going on, why people are dying, and how to remain safe herself. This becomes motivation for her to begin writing again. The fun in this film is the cross between small town US culture, Japanese mystery author, and a truly strange crime scenario. It is quite intriguing and well done.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in this story of forbidden love. Set in the 50's in New York, Blanchett is an upper crust wife and mother who spends her time shopping. Mara is a shopgirl in an upper-crusty department store. Turns out that they meet by chance and fall in love, take a trip across the country to "escape it all". Well, Blanchett is escaping, Mara is exploring. This is a great love story that is made better because of the context in which the story is told. The two are battling both the sexual conservatism of the 50's as well as the taboo of crossing class, and the story is told so that we get a real sense of the distress felt by all parties. Directed by Todd Haynes, who also directed Far from Heaven, we see the same attention to detail and coloring/tone that we saw there. Not all love stories are feel good stories. This is one of those. I left feeling like I had witnessed love, but didn't necessarily feel good.
4 stars (out of 5)