Monday, October 9, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Set in Los Angeles, Ryan Gosling is a Blade Runner - a replicant detective tasked with hunting down and retiring early model replicants that didn't have the "you must obey" directive grown into them. Along the way, he uncovers a replicant conspiracy of sorts and has to figure out where he fits into said schemes and what his responsibility as a "person" is. What I liked: The pacing was outstanding. For an action film, there was no giving in to the "you must be sprinting on a treadmill" fallacy. Instead, director Denis Villenueve took his time when necessary to let me really soak in scenery and emotion. This was a rare treat in today's sci-fi genre. What I didn't like: the LA future visualization. It had some pieces that were clever, but the overall implementation felt like someone up-chucked a bunch of cliché future city pieces and made sure they were all in view. Future LA could have been yet another character, but was just a 2D background tableau that could have been any-city. Perhaps this is unfair, but for a great future city, go see Hong Kong in Ghost in the Shell. And of course, I now need to go back to see the original.
4 stars (out of 5)

Bordertown (Serial)

This police procedural is a Finnish production that follows an ace detective as he moves to a remote part of Finland to try to live a more balanced life with his family. Alas (and we can see where this is going) no such balance arrives. He is thrust into a series of complex and grisly crimes. The hook is that our detective is a bit of a cross between Monk and Sherlock. So brilliant, strange habits and ways of thinking. Add to this a Finnish sensibility and you get a pretty interesting series. I really enjoyed and hope they do additional seasons.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 29, 2017

Crossing Lines (Serial)

This 3 season police procedural follows a special investigative team that works for the world court out of the Hague. They are particularly tasked with crimes that cross EU boundaries and helping individual country based police units share information across borders. I loved the first two seasons of this as the characters all had a chemistry that developed into an interesting team. In this third season, only a couple characters are back, but the writers don't spend the time developing the team. Instead, they act like it already exists. Or it doesn't exist, but they don't really care. The conflicts are ripe, but no effort is put into letting that play out. Everything is superficial, in service to the chase. So watch the first two, skip the third.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, we know what to expect in terms of action, gore and satire wrapped together. This time, the Kingsman organization is destroyed at the start by a targeted attack taking out all agents. Well, almost all. The remaining two discover an extreme prejudice clue that sends them to the U.S. to meet their new world counterparts The Statesman. The two join forces to take out the bad guy. Enough for the plot. What made the first film worthwhile was its social commentary in the guise of an action-satire. Here again, we get bits of that commentary that clearly show the bias of the English writers. Or more correctly, show clearly the perspective that the Kingsman are true heroes and the Statesman are basically a bunch of  'merican doofus' with guns and whiskey. The caricature portrayal of the Statesman are hilarious, but I could also see that if you are not tuned into the satire, or not able to see that satire speaks truth you might not want to hear, then this is not funny at all. But if you can't laugh/grimace at your own culture, what can you laugh/grimace at?
3 stars (out of 5)

American Assassin

A young man is traumatized when his fiancé is murdered in a terrorist attack while on vacation in the UAE. Flash forward and he has trained himself as an individual weapon on a personal mission to infiltrate and eliminate terrorist cells. He gets picked up by an elite CIA special team with Michael Keaton as the legendary boss of infiltration ops leading and training the team. And the team instantly gets pulled into pursuit of a rogue nuclear weapon that has hit the black market. What is supposed to make this different than all other films of this ilk is the personal story and transformation of our hero from vigilante into patriot. The telling line... "patriotism was created to give people like us a higher purpose". That is, patriotism is a valid replacement for God, and in this films opinion, a more worthy recipient. Normalization of vengeance and glamorized preemptive retaliation (yes, unfortunately that is a thing) all in the service of this higher calling of patriotism. The discussion of the characters within the film is not that vengeance is bad. Instead, it is that vengeance alone is not a good enough motive. You must have vengeance plus. So we are trying to make an argument about the limitations of vigilantism and vengeance, but take the too small, too simple step to 'wrap it in patriotism' and it's all OK. The problem is that any true alternative to vigilante justice would require a subversive act of sacrifice and require a 10 film commitment to play the entire story out to a possible better future. The movie going public does not have the patience for that. The best we get in film is a future utopia (a la Star Trek) where we start with a society that has agreed to be largely peaceful and can turn efforts to exploration and improving the universe. But we don't get to see the 9 prequel films for Star Trek... who made the first subversive act of peace... and the second... and the 100th... until it became codified?

But I love that this made me think, albeit probably not in the way the filmmakers intended.
4 stars (out of 5)


Monday, September 4, 2017

Lady Bloodfight

Two martial arts masters participating in a tournament in Hong Kong fight to a draw. This was supposed to be the way to settle a dispute between them. But instead, they are forced to agree to return in 5 years to the tournament. They are to bring a proxy, with them as teacher, to settle the dispute. There is lots of anger and resentment. Flash forward 5 years, an American martial artist travels to Hong Kong in search of her lost father (who happened to fight in the tournament 20 years earlier). She "happens upon" one of the masters, becomes the student and enters the fray. Tournament begins, etc. etc. etc. ... and they lived happily ever after. Mediocre story, mediocre action (did not showcase the variety of martial arts styles that were on display), mediocre movie.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Trip to Spain

Third in the series (The Trip and The Trip to Italy), this is really the same film again. And it is the same comedic goodness. Coogan and Brydon plan another trip to write about travel and restaurants. Effectively, they travel from place to place, eat, and over a meal have impressions contests with each other throwing one British actor after another across the table. It feels very slice of life, documentary, improv and as a result we feel as viewers like voyeurs of this lifelong friendship. While these two are quite funny, I would say that this installation has a bit of an edge to it. The guys are a few years older, and clearly dealing with mid-life, mid-career issues that provide a bite to their conversation. The dueling is all in good fun, and the dark edge is all hidden and kept private. But it is clearly there, showing its fangs in pushing the competition just a bit further than fun, offering just a bit more sarcastic version of 'comedic notes'. I am not sure if this was intentional in the script, or just the way these guys are in their lives right now, but the fact that I am not sure speaks volumes about how authentic the story comes across. It was completely appropriate and gave the interactions a depth that I did not experience previously. Hoping for another installation in a few more years.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Finally saw this "pacifist goes to war" film. It was as gory and bloody a film as I have seen, to the point that I started thinking about the violence as cartoonish instead of realistic. This is John Wick violence, not Fury or Eye in the Sky violence that shows how gruesome and ugly war actually is. On that front, the film (for me) was a loss. The story is of Private Doss, a 7th Day Adventist who enlists for WWII with the understanding that he will be able to be a combat medic and not carry a weapon. The first 2/3 of the film is this drama playing out (pre-enlistment life, boot camp drama, etc.). The final 1/3 is a singular battle in Okinawa where U.S. forces are attempting to take Hacksaw Ridge from the entrenched Japanese. I feel like the entire pacifism identity was portrayed as an excuse to make a brutal film, or as putting "the pacifist" in a zoo to look at. And somehow, I still walked away feeling as if, even agreeing with the pacifist, I should also glory in the war. So the "alternate point of view" subtly hides the fact that this is not a critique on war or violence culture at all, meaning no real depth of understanding of pacifism communicated. I am not sure what I was expecting or hoping for, but largely this left me feeling flat. It was by no means awful, but the (I believe) intentional haziness of intended, and received messages makes this perhaps more dangerous than good for pacifism.

3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sniffer (Serial)

Season 2

Same cast as Season 1, but better in that there is a season long story arc that was missing in the first. Maybe even to a fault, resulting in some episodes being nearly completely connective. But again, our protagonist is arrogant, independent and brilliant. This gets him into trouble and saves the day. I like this character and the Russian Sherlock persona he plays.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard

Gotta say, I like Ryan Reynolds. Or at least, I like the characters he has been portraying and the tone of the films he has been starring in. But I tend to think that probably reflects a bit on him as a person as well. In this movie, he is a super compulsive former CIA operative who runs a protection agency. After a setback, he gets a call from his ex-girlfriend (interpol agent) to help with transporting an incarcerated hitman (Samuel L Jackson) across Europe to the Hague to be a witness at an international war crimes tribunal. In many ways, this is a classic buddy-cop film, with the two characters maintaining opposite personalities and continually grating on each other, but ultimately respecting their partner. Only the specific details that they are not partners or cops is dropped. The action sequences are fun, exciting and add new elements (a chase on boat, motorcycle and SUV through Amsterdam). It seemed strange at first, but it was right in line with irreverent Reynolds, that every so often, the action pauses for a heartfelt moment with an appropriately chosen 80's glam rock background song being played. In the end, this pacing made the difference between a frenetic action flick and an enjoyable action-comedy.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver play the Logan brothers, a couple of boys from West Virginia struggling along. They are not dumb, but not really bright either... and they are battling the Logan Family Curse of bad luck (Tatum has a bum leg and can't keep a job, Driver lost a hand in Iraq, various parents, uncles, cousins suffered similar fates of bad luck). Tatum has the idea (when he is fired from his job for said bum leg) to break into the cash safe at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and solve all their problems with a quick score. What follows is partially brilliant heist movie, partially hillbilly caricature dumb luck, sprinkled with enough missing details to allow the heist to actually happen. This is not the most precise presentation of a good heist, but it is fun, relying on a cast of odd characters that are completely over the top as individuals but somehow fit into the ensemble as normal. Quite fun.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Legends (Serial)

Season 2

With Sean Bean playing Martin Odom, and MI-6 operative who can succsessfully pull off any legend (undercover assignment) so that he really has trouble knowing who the true Martin is. In this season, Martin is recovering from the trauma of the assassination of the director of the FBI (of which he is accused) and has amnesia from the trauma. So the entire season is about Martin working to discover who he is. Of course, this has to happen within the context of a major international crisis. And to tell the story, we get flashbacks to operations in Prague in 2001 which set the stage and directly affect the current operation in Prague. This is a good spy-thriller, with plenty of drama and intrigue and double agents and inter-agency "cooperation". And Bean does a good job of playing the super-spy as a regular, troubled guy.
4 stars (out of 5)

New in Town

Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. are the hate each other - love each other pair in this cheesy romcom. Zellweger is the Miami based corporate bigwig sent to Connick's Minnesota town to downsize/close his food processing plant. It's cold in Minnesota. They talk funny (caricature funny in this case) and have weird traditions. But it all grows on the Miami corporate bigwig and she becomes one of the crew. Oh gosh.
2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Sandcastle

The story of an army infantry unit stationed in Iraq during the occupation. The protagonist Private Ocre, only signed up for the reserves in June 2001 as a way to pay for college. Then he found himself in Iraq, and not a fighter. But with his unit, he is sent into a remote village to help distribute water and fix a pumping station after US forces accidentally destroyed it. This portrays well the struggle that Ocre goes through as a soldier, and as a human. It displays the brutality and the ugly reality of war on both the aggressor and the occupied people. I suppose the moral of the story is, there are no winners in war.
4 stars (out of 5)

The Glass Castle

Based on a book of the same name, which is based on the true story of this family. The prime characters in the family are daughter Jeanette (Brie Larson) and father Rex (Woody Harrelson), who are kindred souls in this family. Rex is philosophically opposed to the stifling order and rules of society and raises his family to avoid such. This means that they move often, go without food more than should be, are "homeschooled", etc. Rex often copes with these stresses by getting drunk and spending any money the family does have on alcohol. But Jeanette always believes in him and in what he aspires to. But as each of the 4 kids gets older, they each leave to go to school and "abandon" Rex. The story is told in alternating current/flashback mode, with current being in New York where Jeanette lives, is a gossip column writer for the newspaper, and is about to get married. Her parents are squatting in a vacant building on the lower east side and she continues to have interactions with them, as she is recalling her upbringing. It really is a fascinating story, and thought provoking critique of how to educate children to be creative, free thinkers. This is clearly a case bordering on neglect (often on the other side of the border), but are there elements of this lifestyle that could be integrated into every childhood: the dreaming, education by reading, exploration of wilderness, etc. Well made, and great to watch.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Wolf Warrior

Since Wolf Warrior II is in theaters now, and is crushing at the Chinese box office, I thought I would first check out the original (which also crushed). Chinese special forces sniper Leng Feng is disciplined after an operation where he disobeys orders, but ultimately gets the bad guy. In military prison, he is unrepentant for his decision, and as a result is offered a place on the Wolf squadron. This is the special forces group that is used in military training games to act as the enemy. In some ways, this squad gets no respect (they never actually fight), but in other ways they take pride in not losing to the "real army". In the middle of one training exercise, Leng Feng finds himself and a small group of comrades attacked by foreign mercenaries (B-movie acting level American soldiers) with live fire. Leng Feng's history is coming back to haunt him and the honor of the entire Chinese army is at stake. This is a pretty good movie, and I would say that it fits pretty well into my preconceived notion of what state approved propaganda should look like from the Chinese perspective. Maybe this is just me reading in, but there is a definite nationalist point of view here. I wonder if it is any different when a Chinese audience watches Jason Bourne, or Independence Day.
3 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Newsroom (Serial)

Season 1

Aaron Sorkin clearly wrote this, and if you are a fan of West Wing, you will be a fan of this show. Jeff Daniels plays the conservative, republican news anchor of a cable news show during 2010-2012. This is during the development of the Tea Party and cable news increasingly affecting politics. Daniels is on a "mission to civilize" where his news show will actually inform people about facts and educate them, not just tell them what to believe based on rhetoric and preconceived bias/fear based reporting. The entire show is (watching in 2017) a big soapbox that seems to have been quite prescient. Of course there are lots of office politics and romance and tension to go along with the political posturing and elitism, but that is what Sorkin is good at.
4 stars (out of 5)

Norman

The story of a New York Jewish fixer. Norman Oppenheimer (played by Richard Gere) is a scheming businessman whose only role is make connections and help people out. He is the male version of the stereotypical Jewish mother who shows up at your door with a to-go lunch because you don't eat enough and then stays around to complain that you don't visit enough. Norman makes a chance encounter with the guy who turns out to become the Israeli Prime Minister a few years later. This connection is finally Norman's big break. But can he handle it? I found this to be charming, in that annoying, he gets on my nerves just watching, sort of way. And Norman himself never (until the very end) seems to "get it", and even then, doesn't get all of it. Can something be enjoyable and grating at the same time?
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani plays himself in this historical fiction version of how he met his future wife. As a struggling standup comic in Chicago, Nanjiani is constantly battling the pressures of his 1st generation immigrant Pakistani family and their expectations. Comedy is not doctor or lawyer, and single is not taking seriously the matchmaking arrangements that his mother is sending his way. When he meets a girl, but is unable to bring her to the reality of his family expectations, they break up. Until said girl gets sick, goes into a medically induced coma, and Kumail spends a tons of time at the hospital meeting and getting to know girls family (Ray Romano and Holly Hunt). These interactions are serious and irreverent and illuminating for everyone as the importance of relationship and care are at the forefront of every conversation. This is remarkably funny in that authentic, life-comedy sense. Although it does feel like Juno, where a full year of the funniest statements and situations are reduced to a single 90 minutes. A greatest hits of comedic, "authentic" interactions. On the other hand, I am not sure that that is a critique, but instead probably a recognition of good writing in a historical fiction/storytelling.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron is a badass MI-6 agent at the height of the cold war. Her current assignment is to go into Berlin, days before the fall of the wall, to recover a list of spies that has been stolen. This is pure 80's, Bondian kitsch. The outfits, the style, the characters, the storyline. We get the convoluted involvement of MI-6, CIA, KGB and Stassi, we get independent and rogue agents, we get icy stares in smoky interrogation rooms, watchmaker fixers, clever evasion, and face-to-face brutal combat. Of course, it is at the same time predictable, thinly held together by a plot with lots of holes and clearly designed to be a vehicle piece for Theron. In my mind, even these detractions are a good thing for a summer action film. Loved it.
5 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Silicon Valley (serial)

Season 1

A satirical, send-up of Silicon Valley startup culture that is so over the top that it can't be true, but with enough truth to be believable. Richard has developed the next unicorn compression algorithm and received a bit of seed funding to get his company started. He gets his 3 friends to work at his company and ... well, life happens. They are sidetracked, need to develop a logo, need to provide proof of concept for scalability, need a next round of funding, ... All of this regular business stuff happens amidst wacky circumstance and eccentric not-reality reality that defines Silicon Valley. Like Portlandia is only funny if you have some connection to Portland, probably best if you have some connection to the start up world, and even then only in small doses.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Girls Trip

First of all, I don't think I am the target audience for this film in any way. But I guess it is no different that me not being the target audience for Pitch Perfect and still liking that. This is the story of 4 friends who were the definition of close in college. Now, 10 years on, their connections have thinned and each has her own life which consumes most of their bandwidth. An opportunity to reunite (based on a paid for convention soirée of "The Successful One" brings the four back together in New Orleans. Of course there are tensions and old slights that rise to the surface. But the friendships are true and survive in the end (and if that is a spoiler, then you have not got a predictive bone in your body). I loved the soundtrack here, and strangely, I liked that it seemed OK for me to be a bit of a cultural voyeur. That is, as an outsider (white, male) I was able to watch the film and appreciate a point of view, relational process that I don't see... ever. Somehow this film felt at least a bit more authentic in how relationships are portrayed than the average buddy reunion film. There was still hyperbole, and still outrageous situations. But not as much, or at least not as the focus of the characters.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dunkirk

Supposedly the "film of the year", this tells the story of the evacuation of British soldiers from the beach of Dunkirk. All I can say is that it was adequate. It felt very much like an 'arthouse film' that was definitely letting me know as a viewer that 'you are watching an arthouse film, and you better appreciate it'. We did get to see the story from a few perspectives (on the beach, on a civilian rescue boat, in the air), and we did get a sense of the hopelessness, the terror of war, the sense of duty, etc. But again, beat me over the head with how good this movie is supposed to be. Maybe 10 minutes of dialogue in the film -- total. The storytelling is not chronological, which on its own can be interesting. But I don't feel that it was used effectively to tell this story. And I really didn't care about any of the characters. There are way better WWII movies out there.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 21, 2017

Greenfingers

Clive Owen is a convict in the English penal system. He gets assigned to a new "open prison" where inmates are expected to work and learn a trade. He begins gardening and gets his crew the opportunity to enter a national gardening show. Based on that prediction, you probably know exactly where this is going, and how it will end. And in spite of that, I still liked it. A feel good comedy/drama that doesn't pretend to be more than it is, and offers a look at regular people learning how to be regular people. Very much in the same flavor as Saving Grace.
3 stars (out of 5)

Girl Most Likely

Kristin Wiig is an aspiring playwright in New York who falls on hard times. She moves back home with her mom to New Jersey (against her will) and begins to rediscover her passion and talent. Average, Average, Average.
2 stars (out of 5)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

I have been looking forward to this film (which is often a recipe for disaster) based on one preview. It looked good. And I do like Luc Besson and his aesthetic. But wow. The story is pretty average: a couple of galactic cops get involved in a conspiracy/coverup that could cause a species to go extinct. Spoiler alert: they save the day. But with this average story, a visual feast is served up that is at once extravagant and stunning while at the same time being appropriate. That is, sometimes extravagant can pull you straight out of the story and cause you to look at the film. Here, the colors and aliens and scenes and technology all fits directly into the story and becomes an essential part drawing you into the story and what you are watching. So much so that you probably need to watch it a few times to truly grasp the scope of what is being presented. I loved this. Best sci-fi I have seen in quite a long time. By far the best film so far this summer.

In the "I have to mention it" category: Why do storytellers make silly and completely unnecessary scientific mistakes? Here, the Alpha space station is too big to continue orbiting earth and is sent on its way to become an independent entity. This story picks up several hundred years later, when the Alpha station is in the middle of nowhere, having travelled --and I quote "700 million miles". Ugh! 700 million miles puts the thing about 10AU, or around Saturn's orbit. Not out in some interstellar space. Completely unnecessary... and lazy...

5 stars (out of 5)

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Assignment

Sigourney Weaver is a crazy doctor. Seems like she wanted to be Hannibal. But she doesn't even come close. Instead, she comes across as if she is reading a monologue from a teleprompter. Michelle Rodriquez is an assassin. She has been changed by said crazy doctor and now wants to find out what is going on, and get revenge of course. In spite of some clever ideas, this was an awful implementation. I can see how someone read the script and said "Cool". Skip it.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

They call me Jeeg

Italian superhero movie very much in the vein of the Danish Antboy from a few years ago. A regular guy -- in this case Enzo, a small time criminal -- gets chased by the cops and to escape, ducks under a barge. In the process, he submerges himself in some radioactive material and discovers over the next few days that he has super strength. Meanwhile, he meets a slightly crazy, cartoon obsessed woman who is sure he is a superhero, even though she knows nothing about his power. We get to watch the development of Enzo's morality, and the evolution of his character's character. And throughout, I felt like I was really watching the discovery of something new. No special effects, low budget, and a true superhero film. Loved it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Glow (Serial)

Set in the 80's, a misfit group of women show up for a casting call for a women's wrestling show. Well, they show up for a casting call... they don't really know what it is for. So obviously it is a group of 2nd tier, desperate for work types. The director is "famous" for his high concept, political satire, horror films, and is just doing this to get his next film funded. Each of the women has her own story and much of the fun of this series is the reveal of that story through interactions both in and out of the ring. When the women realize that wrestling is the same (really) as soap operas, they get into the character development and story line of the show they are developing. The feel (early 80's) is spot on, without going over the top on the hair spray or blaxploitation. But everything is there. Nice little series.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors

Spanish language film based on true events of espionage and theft in the 90's. A police chief in Madrid has been embezzling money (a lot of money) and needs help laundering and hiding his cash as well as with avoiding capture. A former intelligence agent who has been disgraced works (for a fee) to help the chief solve his problems. The story is told by The Pilot, who is an assistant to the intelligence officer. A fascinating story, and plenty of plot twists and turns as money moves and people hide. A rather slow developing story, which gives it a definite European storytelling feel, but engaging and fun, nonetheless.

3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Caesar is back, and trying to show his humanity. He wants to end the war with the humans and just be left alone. He emphasizes this in the opening scene by letting a few soldiers go, asking for truce. Obviously this doesn't work. The apes are hunted down while they are trying to escape to the desert and held prisoner by Woody Harrelson. So Caesar and his crew need to figure out a way to escape and protect the apes. What I found most disturbing: the slaughter of apes during warfare. Strange that I had a visceral reaction to this, but felt nothing about the same depiction of human soldiers dying in battle. What I found most annoying: obviously bad military tactics by supposed military tacticians. An entire convoy being followed by "the enemy" by only 100 yards, but not being spotted, or standing tall in a backlit area to "spy" on enemy encampments. Seems not too difficult to fix in script. What I found most enjoyable: Bad Ape. My first reaction was Jar-Jar Binks, but his was a good implementation of silly/clever humor. Excellent finish to the trilogy.

4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bad Guys (Serial)

A one season Korean version of The Breakout Kings. Tough cop Gu Tak Oh is brought out of suspension to lead a special investigative team consisting of three criminals, a gangster, an assassin and a serial killer. Each has his specialty, and each has his own demons to exorcise. This is a well made series and does a better job at using the individual talents of the criminals that the US version did. Also has a season long story arc that includes hidden history and tension between the team members. Love the action, the look, the grittiness. I also love that this series is not afraid to have its characters explore deep ideas about justice. These are police and criminals, and they are openly questioning and thinking about the nature of justice, the role of violence in their "careers" and the possible fallacy of violence as justice. Well done.

4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Spiderman: Homecoming

Fortunately we got the actual origin story as a cameo in Captain America: Civil War so this film jumped in with that out of the way and becomes a "development story". Peter Parker is an over eager hero who just wants to help. He keeps getting brushed off by the big guys (Tony Stark) so he keeps pushing and pushing, until he gets in too deep. The fun part here is all the 2/3 well done stunts (swinging on a web that is just a bit too long so his feet drag on the ground) that show Parker is still learning. He is also not very good at making excuses for his absences, or coming up with the one liners that all superheroes have. He is just an teenager trying to be cool and figure himself out. Because of this ordinary guy portrayal, we really connect with Parker in a way that we never will with Thor or Captain America or Superman or...

4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Golden Cane Warrior

Indonesian martial arts has a different feel than Chinese or Korean. Here the guru of the Golden Cane house is dying and passes her "birthright" on to one of her students. However, the other students are not so happy. They take over the house and begin the hunt. The true Golden Cane warrior seeks help and trains so that she can restore her house to its original purpose.

3 stars (out of 5)

Baby Driver

Baby is a 20-something kid who has been the getaway driver for Kevin Spacey and his heist crews. Baby has tinnitus from a childhood traumatic event, so always has music playing. In fact, his driving requires a soundtrack to be good. Baby meets a girl, tries to get out of the game, gets pulled back in and has to save the girl. Definitely an action, race film, but also felt a bit like a 90's rom-com with a pinch of noir thrown it. I liked this. Different that everything else out this summer.

4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Swiss Army Man

Weird. Paul Dano is stranded on an island about to die. Dead Danielle Radcliffe washes ashore. The love that Dano shows for a companion brings Radcliffe "back to life". Or rather, the body utilizes some functions to be useful, hence the title. This is well acted, and really a clever storyline. But weird. It is one of those films that has a point to make, but I am not sure what is was. It didn't really make me thinking about my identity, or my values, or life choices, etc., but was strangely entranced as I watched. I suppose I am not sure what to think about this.

4 stars ?? (out of 5)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Heartbreakers

Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt are a mother/daughter con team working on one last score. They are also in competition to show each other that they can manage things solo. Can't tell you how it ends because even I couldn't finish this...

1 star (out of 5)

Monday, July 3, 2017

Midnight Special

Remember The Happening? Sorry. Here a kid has special talent and can hear radio frequency. This entire movie is a road trip taking the kid from his cult upbringing to a field in the Florida panhandle. Surely something must happen along this road trip? No... oh, the kids eyes glow...

1 star (out of 5)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Shooter (Serial)

Apparently I am on a Ryan Phillippe kick. This 10 episode USA Network series reminded me of the plot of Personal by Lee Child, but apparently it is based on Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter. Point being, this seems to be a well worn plot. Bob Lee Swagger is the most decorated sniper in US Marine history. His friend asks him to help prevent an assassination attempt on the president, only to find he has been set up to take the fall for said attempt. Now he is on the run, using all his special training to find the real culprit and clear his name. Oh, and he can't trust anyone. Guilty Pleasure.

3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Chaos

Jason Statham is a cop coming off suspension to pursue a bank robber. Ryan Phillippe is his new rookie partner. The two seem to always be a step behind, but the clues are there. In many ways, this is a typical heist film, with the typical twists and turns, and the typical misdirects. But it is also a Statham film that doesn't rely on him being a fighter. I liked the story and the development of the heist (both in forward time, and in flashback). 
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Last King

A historical fiction telling of the civil wars in Norway in the 1200's. A king is murdered, and his illegitimate son is protected by the Bierkebeinerne (basically special forces) as he is escorted back to the political seat of power to rule. Along the escort, the Baglers (Swedish soldiers loyal to the Pope) chase down the child king trying to kill him and end the Bierkebeinerne rule or Norway. Interesting story, and fabulous scenery. It did seem, however, like the film was an excuse to shoot this scenery, with many (many) scenes of soldiers chasing soldiers on skis. But it prompted me to look up some history, and it was really fabulous skiing, so
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel is future version of badass Jason Statham in Transporter.  Not the same universe, but in style and substance. He is contracted to get a girl from a Nepalese monastery to New York. He does the job (against all odds and lots of people trying to kill him and the girl) against a steampunk modern backdrop (think Mad Max on ice/in the city). And like the transporter, he gets a conscience and makes a decision that is against his better judgement as an employee. Fun... ish...
2 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mr. Right

Sam Rockwell is a master assassin. Anna Kendrick is a flighty millennial looking for love and purpose. They meet. Both have their quirks, but it turns out they are soul mates and this movie is about how they discover this connection amidst basically slapstick assassin humor. Reminded me of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (the early years), or if the skillset of Neo (Matrix) was applied to romance. In that context
4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Legend

The story of 1960's London mafia bosses Ronald and Reginald Kray. Tom Hardy plays both twins, with Reggie being the front man, charismatic leader, on the verge of going straight and Ronnie being the sociopath that just enjoys power, control and violence. Hardy does an excellent job in this dual role and the the film itself is engaging, but not extraordinary. That is to say, it kept my attention throughout, but was predictable. Perhaps that is because the writers were staying true to the history, which is more predicable than extraordinary in most cases.
3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I was mostly interested in this film because of the cameo Wonder Woman scenes, having just seen Wonder Woman. And it is interesting seeing the two films next to each other. This film is mostly fight scenes, tied together with a story. The story is a bit of jealousy/grudge between Batman and Superman that ends up with the two finally working together. The fights aren't really fights, but instead epic battles that the words "sensory overload" only begin to describe. This is in many ways a typical superhero movie, and I think that this typicalness is what makes it just average. Compared to WW, with story predominant, this is a barrage. As to the cameo, we should just say that having seen WW, the search for the picture and the decision to participate or not in the "battles of men" makes more sense that it probably did originally.
3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman

I have been looking forward to this for quite some time, and to help out my enjoyment, tried to opt out of all the media hype and analysis prior to seeing it. The result... it was good. Not great, but solid good. It is effectively the origin story for Wonder Woman, and as such, contains quite a bit of actual story. Diana is an Amazon warrior, put on this earth to protect against injustice. She has been isolated from this world and when she chooses to engage (with the help of Chris Pine), she is thrust into the melee of WWII. The development of this story means that this is not just a superhero action film. This is both good and bad, as it adds substance and allows Diana to demonstrate her confusion and struggle with understanding man and her role in striving for justice. But, and I am not sure if I like this, but the pacing actually left me time to think about the film while watching the film. Generally I would put this in the "slow" category if my mind has time to disengage from the entertainment to think. Like I said, this is not a critique because I don't think I like the alternative if it is a barrage of action. I could have wished for a story so engaging that I didn't need to have time to think. But thinking aside, well done. The necessarily serial nature of comic inspired heroes does in fact leave me wanting more. So until the next installment...
4 stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Miss Sloane

Jessica Chastain plays the roll of Sloane, a brilliant lobbyist in D.C. She cuts all the corners she is legally allowed to cut to get the results she needs. She is ruthless, effective, and supremely lonely. When she is approached to lobby for the NRA, her narcissistic, ego driven self propels her to choose the other side, working to get a gun restrictions law passed. What follows is a political thriller that twists and turns and, while mostly predictable, left me with the same satisfied "whoa" as I remember from Primal Fear. Loved it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Last Witch Hunter

Vin Diesel plays an immortal protector of humanity from witches. The witch council has come to an understanding that they will not be hunted as long as they don't ply their witch trade on humans. This makes for some interesting "witch bar" scenes reminiscent of the Mos Eisley cantina scenes set on Tatooine. Diesel gets a witch sidekick and then goes on to re-conquer the queen of all witches who is working to come out of her death hibernation (of which Diesel originally placed her hundreds of years ago). The story holds together well and Diesel plays Diesel to his full effect.
3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Allegiant

Third in the Divergent Series films, this went straight to video. It was not any worse than the others in the series, and in fact wrapped up the series quite well. Tris and Four finally take a trip beyond the wall, find that they have been part of a genetic cleansing experiment, and then fight back to make Chicago independent. My guess is that the decision to not release this to the theater was based more on general dystopian fatigue, than on any quality concerns. I rather liked it.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Everly

Salma Hayak in a grindhouse movie. Worth a shot. I am not a grindhouse connoisseur or fan, necessarily. Maybe the most interesting part of this is that the entire thing is filmed in a single room. Otherwise, it plays out as Hayak working as a prostitute in a building owned by her pimp. When she tries to get out, she basically needs to defend herself from a long series of assassination attempts. These attempts all come to her (hence the all in one room). Pretty typical grindhouse explicit gore and borderline steampunk vibe. But not particularly engaging as a nominal fan. So I can't tell you how it ends since I never made it that far.
1 star (out of 5)

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2

First, let me say "I am Groot". In fact, you don't really need to know anything else. Vol. 2 is remarkably similar to Vol. 1. Unfortunately, the fun of Vol. 1 was the unique and clever, outside the box, superhero eccentric ensemble cast. But to go with that, vol. 1 built the box, so repeating it in vol. 2 is no longer outside the box. Advantage lost. The plot of this film follows Starlord and his crew continuing their bounty hunter ways, getting in trouble by really being criminals, and then chasing down family history only to find that family is effectively god. Narcissistic god at that. Overall, I would put this in the category of cheap thrill.
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bosch (Serial)

Season 3

This continues to be one of my favorite police procedural/crime drama shows. Titus Welliver as Detective Harry Bosch, Hollywood division LAPD is excellent. This season (10 episodes) finds Bosch and his partner Jerry Edgar tracking down the murder of a homeless veteran. Along the way, Bosch is implicated in another murder while he is simultaneously testifying for the DA on a serial killer. We get a little bit of Bosch's developing relationship with his daughter, who now lives with him, and flashbacks to his childhood as he embraces parenthood and encounters a homeless kid in the midst of the investigation. Overlay all of this drama with the city of L.A. and some noir vibes. Overall, it reminds me a bit of The Wire, although it is focused more on the singular character of Bosch than the community or politics or criminals as characters.

5 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Power Rangers

I didn't really watch the power rangers growing up, although I have enough familiarity to know of the morphing, the zords and megazord, and the campy-low-fi-martial-arts. In this reboot, we are essentially given the origin story with enough action to allow a franchise to continue on for a few more films. These new rangers begin their team as the millennial breakfast club. They discover the power coins, discover their new power, train, and then save the world. All of this happens with the necessary teen angst over belonging, meaning and friendship. A fun bit of nostalgia with appropriate updates. I can't imagine this ever being a great series. Although, I suppose that it exists at all might prove me wrong... in somebodies eyes...
3 stars (out of 5)

Ghost in the Shell

This movie has taken all kinds of heat for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is a whitewashing backlash for casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead. For my own perspective, I have no history with the story or the original material that it is based on. So staying true to original material is irrelevant. The story follows Major (Johansson) along a path of self discovery. She is a member of an elite police unit in future Hong Kong. She is the ultimate cyborg, with only her brain being human. Her journey reveals her past, the process by which she became who she is, and the neurosis of the organization that "saved" her. I found the story interesting, if not compelling. I loved the representation of future Hong Kong, thinking throughout that I was actually glimpsing a possible future, not a writers attempt to be crazy novel. I enjoyed the existential questions that inevitably arise when one puts a human brain into a robot. I really liked this.
4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Killjoys (Serial)

Season 1 & 2

This SyFy channel series follows a team of Killjoys, warrant officers who are formally neutral in any and all politics, who accept jobs to chase down bounties or do deliveries, no questions asked. Well, mostly no questions asked. For flavor, you can compare this to Firefly or its channel mate Dark Matter. It has the same irreverent humor amongst the team, and takes itself just seriously enough to be good science fiction. Set in The Quad, a system with a planet and 3 moons, the team goes about each episode fulfilling a warrant, and finding out more about themselves and their own history. Of course it is dark and sorted. And of course this history places our protagonists at the center of a system wide political conspiracy which could potentially destroy the entire system. Let the fun begin.

4 stars (out of 5)

The Boss

Melissa McCarthy plays a financial guru who is put in prison for insider trading. When she gets out, she connects with her former assistant and stumbles on an opportunity for a new business by competing with the girl scouts to sell cookies. The funny moments here are few and far between. The mean humor is pervasive. The attempts to be meaningful and poignant about relationship and life are forced and fall flat. But I watched the whole thing.
2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Almost Human (Serial)

Season 1

If everything is derivative, I put this at a cross between Continuum and I, Robot. Set in the future by only 30 years, the opening voiceover says everything you need to know: "Evolving technologies can no longer be regulated". This is quite powerful, and likely quite prescient. I would guess we are not too far from this point, especially in AI and Biotech. In this one season series, we have a police officer John Kennex returning to work after PTSD based on an incident where he walked a lot of people into an ambush. He is mandated to work with an android partner, and get assigned Dorian, a decommissioned model with emotion. What could go wrong? Actually, the two work well together and show that they each have strengths the other needs. In many ways, standard fare buddy cop series. The two have fun insulting each other, but as a view, we always know they care...

3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fugitive at 17

Apparently one of a series of TV movies "____ at 17" that all seem to be pretty B quality, high channel cable stuff. In this iteration, Holly discovers that her friend was murdered in a club and she is the prime suspect. She is fortunate to be a bystander in a prison break and takes advantage to run herself. Now she can use her formidable hacking skills to track down the real killer. Definitely higher quality the later you watch this, and for me it was a midnight-2am viewing. So... pretty OK...

2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sniffer (Serial)

A Russian made (and set) cop drama where the protagonist is a consultant for the Russian equivalent of the FBI. This consultant has a peculiar condition where he is able to isolate smells and odors (think Monk with a great nose). Couple this talent with the arrogance and deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes and you begin to get the picture. Lot's of peculiar Russia specific flavorings that I am sure that I only see half of.

3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Fences

Based on a play. Oh so obviously based on a play. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a working class guy in the 60's, in his 60's. He goes to work, has a drink on weekends and tries to support his family out of a deep sense of responsibility. This family consists of an older son (trying to be a musician), a second wife and their teen son, and a brother who is a mentally impaired war veteran. The film/play follows Troy over about a year. I emphasize play because there are lots of speeches and long monologues. I felt very "preached at". So an interesting look into these characters, but I could have done with less words, I guess?

3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Set at the end of the Vietnam war, a helicopter squadron (led by Samuel L. Jackson) is tasked with escorting a geological survey of a newly discovered island in the south pacific. Turns out this is an interface between the hollow earth (where large creatures live) and the surface. So this survey crew encounters (and is decimated by) King Kong after dropping seismic charges all over the island to verify this hollow earth theory. Consider the theory verified. We then follow the science and military cohorts as they work to escape the island. In many ways a classic Kong film, which could also be viewed as derivative. I will say that Samuel L Jackson does not once use his inside voice in this film. Take it for what it is worth.

3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, March 6, 2017

Santa Clarita Diet (Serial)

Season 1
Silly, I know. Silly in the vein of Weeds but with zombies. Drew Barrymore, stereotypical suburban mom and realtor becomes a zombie. She has a hankering for human flesh. The show works out over several episodes how she is going to find her meals without tipping off the two neighbor cops, how she is going to track down a cure, and how she is going to maintain normality with the rest of the family and neighbors. Like I said, pure silly. But well done and just enough plot to pull me through to the next episode. This is an example, I think, of where having the entire series available at once allows me to watch. If this was a once per week viewing, I am sure I would have lost interest.

3 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Logan

This film has been getting rave reviews. Partially because this is R-rated, it is targeted toward adults and, like Deadpool, that has its pro's and con's. In effect, this is the dramatic counterpart to Deadpool's comedy. The story is set a decade ahead with Logan taking care of a physically failing Professor X. This physical failing is coupled with mental failing, so he has "psychic seizures" that are potentially deadly for anyone nearby. Enter into the picture a young girl seeking transport north. She is being hunted, and only Logan can help her. So... road trip.

The film earned its rating via gory body count and language. But the dramatic themes were lost on me. I saw the thinking about legacy, the struggle with responsibility aging parents, care for the next generation. But this, to me, came across as standard issue drama. The fact that it was in a superhero world might be different, but not different enough to say this was a high quality drama. It was an average drama. And a pretty good superhero flick.

4 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Last Diamond

A French heist movie that hits all the right spots. Recently released from prison Simon is pulled into 'one last job' by his former crew. The planning, the intrigue, the police, the love, the improvising... how will it actually end. Love a good heist film.

4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Battle for Sevastapol

The story of a girl in WWII Ukraine who joins the military to fight Nazis. Over the course of her career, she becomes one the the deadliest snipers in the entire Soviet force. Written and produced in Russia/Ukraine, this biopic pulls no punches in showing the cruelty of war to all involved, enemy or friend.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, February 6, 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

The xXx program is an off-book, special program that the US government uses to solve problems that the laws won't allow it to solve. The xXx agents are all highly trained with special skill-sets usually acquired in the X-games. This installment finds the agents pursuing Pandora's Box, an electronic gadget that can break any encryption and that the bad guys are using to crash satellites into the earth. Of course there are good good-guys and there are bad good-guys and there are good bad-guys and the fun of this film comes partly from sorting all those out. The rest of the fun comes from the stunts and ridiculous action sequences. As a sucker for both of these types of fun, I call this movie a win.

3 stars (out of 5)

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Founder

The historical fiction story of Ray Kroc and his "founding" of McDonalds Corp. The short version of the plot is that Ray is a midwest salesman who encounters the McDonalds brothers and their restaurant in San Bernardino. He enters into an agreement with them to be their franchise liaison and, after a bit of success, takes over the company. The impact of the film, however, is not just a relaying of the history of the company. Instead, it is a commentary on capitalism. I am sure that every person who watches, probably dependent on their existing bias, will "see" a different message - critique or praise - about capitalism. In the end, do I feel bad for the McDonald brothers? Do I hold Kroc at fault for his enthusiasm and hustle? Or is the world a better place because of how this story played out? A great portrayal of this story, and well suited for discussion with friends over coffee afterward.

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Covert Affairs (Serial)

Season 1 - 5

A spy-thriller-drama that is quite fun. It has the same feel as Alias (in its first couple of seasons) or Burn Notice. Annie Walker is a young agent who works for the Domestic Protectorate Division of the CIA. Turns out that she is pretty good at clandestine work, mostly because she goes out on her own to solve problems instead of being bound by protocol. And of course is always on the verge of trouble for it. She has a sexy but troubled handler whose blindness prevents him from being in the field (most of the time) and a sexy, rock star boss who takes her under her wing as mentor/role model. Perhaps amazingly, the show never jumped the shark, maintaining its quality writing throughout all five seasons.

4 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lion

The based-on-a-true-story story of a young Indian boy from the sticks who gets stuck on a train and transported for a couple days to Calcutta. He doesn't know the name of his town, or where he is and joins the orphan community in Calcutta. Eventually, he is adopted by an Australian couple, where he "lives the good life" growing up. Jump forward to his adult life, and he begins a quest to find his original home based on a few vague memories and Google Earth imagery. It really is an astounding story and portrayal of both the survivor instinct in humans as well as the long term emotional impacts that surviving can have on a person. Well done.

4 stars (out of 5

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hidden Figures

This film is awesome. I hate to build up expectations for films because the viewing can never match the anticipation (see any Star Wars movie ever released after 1980). But in this case, expectations exceeded. This is the story of three African-American women in the 1960's who work in the West Computing Group at NASA's Langley Lab. The computing groups were groups of women who functioned as computers, calculating trajectories and friction coefficients and anything else that needed calculating in the process of running a space program. The west computers were the temporarily employed black women. The east computers were the permanently employed white women. This story follows three of the women (one mathematician, one engineer, one supervisor/programmer) who are friends and working to contribute to the US space program. The story telling here is fabulous, alternating between hilarious, subtle, heartbreaking, and ordinary. The supposedly covert racism that, from the perspective of today seems so overt, definitely draws seemingly 21st century responses in the form of eye-rolls and sassy rebuttals, subtly breaking the 3rd wall in a wink-wink with the audience. I loved the portrayal of these women as strong, and enduring, and the smartest in the room. Well done.
5 stars (out of 5)

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Magicians (Serial)

Season 1

This SyFy series is based on the book by the same name by Lev Grossman, which I loved. Grossman was involved in the making of this, so it is clearly in line with his vision, and very true to the storyline and feel of the books. The storyline follows Quentin, who attends Brakebills school of magic. He finds himself, along with his friends, needing to protect the world from The Beast. To do this, they need to travel to the fictional world of Fillory. Think of this as a cross between Narnia and Harry Potter. This is not high drama, or dark comedy. More teen-drama, which is also true to the book. I am not sure if I liked it because it was good, or because it was familiar. Probably a bit of both. The overall feel was a bit CW or MTV, which is lightweight for those who are looking for Orphan Black/Black Mirror dark sci-fi. So knowing what it is, I enjoyed it.

3 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Captain America: Civil War

The Avengers are now the global police, independent hunters of criminals. To start out, they are chasing a bad guy, and bad things happen, and a few innocent bystanders are killed. The governments of the world step in to put some bureaucratic controls and checks/balances on the Avengers. However, only some of the Avengers are willing to submit to this. So we get Iron Man going legitimate and Captain America going rogue. When the Winter Soldier (Bucky) is reactivated by a bad guy, the two sides disagree about how to handle the situation. And it breaks the Avengers unity forever. A fun introduction of Black Panther and Spiderman, and of course, epic battle scenes make this well worth the time I spent watching it.
3 stars (out of 5)