McFarland, U.S.A.

February 19th, 2015 — 7:05pm

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.31.19 AM*****

McFarland, U.S.A. – sp -

What could be more all American than a sports film staring Kevin Costner? (think Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tip Cup, For the Love of the Game) Add to this, a New Zealand director who has established credentials in understanding cultures, not her own, by immersing herself within these places. That is Niki Caro who previously made the award winning film “Whale Rider” about an obscure Maori tribe. On top of that , Disney Studios is backing the film. McFarland, U.S.A. is certainly a United States story, but it is also an authentic depiction of first generation Mexican immigrants living in the Central California town of McFarland. The community lives by picking fruit and vegetables that will be on American tables. The kids attend school but are also employed in the fields doing the back-breaking “picking” work to add to the support of their families. Along comes a new teacher, Jim White, (Kevin Costner) who had had problems in his previous jobs and comes to McFarland as the only place which was so desperate for a teacher that he is hired. He arrives in this small, dusty, impoverished town with his wife and two daughters, none of whom is happy to be coming to this place so alien to them. He is to be the assistant football coach and teach life sciences courses. While his job as football coach soon ends, he realizes that while the kids have little going for them, some of them are incredibly fast, strong runners. The story takes off from there. On one hand you might think that you can guess the drift of the film, but this is much more than a “Chariots of Fire” lookalike. It is a moving story based on the lives of real people who you will hear about in the closing scenes and rolling credits. It will touch you, excite you and make you laugh. It will send a chill up your spine, bring a tear to your eye and you will walk out of the theater knowing you have experienced an outstanding film. (2015)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, Family / Kids, Sport

Tangerines

February 12th, 2015 — 4:59pm

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 10.59.12 PMTangerines- sp Most Americans don’t know very much about the various regions of the former Soviet Union and regional wars that have occurred there over the years. For example in the 1990s there were intense battles between the Chechens and the Georgians who were fighting over land formerly lived in by people from Estonia most of whom fled back to Estonia. If these historical facts don’t mean much to you, it isn’t necessary to study maps of this area to appreciate this film. The plot is relatively simple. Ivo, an Estonian man has stayed behind to build wooden crates to help harvest a crop of tangerines, which are grown on his friend’s nearby farm. Some bloody encounters between the warring factions leave several soldiers dead and 2 injured at Ivo’s doorstep. What develops is a moving drama between these two soldiers on opposing sides and the two civilians who attempt to rescue them The story was written in two weeks by Zaza Urushadze who also eventually directed the movie after it was set up for a 30 day shoot by producer Ivo Felt. The film emerges as good of an anti-war movie that you will have ever seen. The acting is suburb with starring roles by very well known actors in their region of the world. They are: Lembit Ulfsak, Mikheil Meskhi, Giorgi Nakhashidze, Elmo Niiganen and Raivo Trass. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe and currently is one of the nominees for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. It has English subtitles and deserves to be translated into many different languages and shown all over the world. It may be a little while until is passes through your local Art Movie theatre but it is worth tracking down and seeing it when it becomes available. (2015)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama, War

Still Alice

February 7th, 2015 — 6:52am

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 1.28.40 PM***

Still Alice- rm We were moved to see film because of all the pre Academy Award hype about the performance of Julianne Moore. After seeing this film we agree that she did a tremendous job playing a college professor who has Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease and probably deserves an Oscar. The overall movie disappointed us. Alice Howland ( Ms. Moore) is happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who is forgetting words and having memory lapses. She receives a diagnosis of this relatively rare disease which inevitably has a fairly rapid downhill course. Ms. Moore’s performance is nuanced and her struggle is very painful and easy to empathize with. Her facial expressions convey what we imagine are her internal feelings. Her eyes portray her fear and then the diminished attention and intellectual ability. It is a remarkable performance. It is helped by her gradual change in makeup and hair appearance. The screenplay which was written by director Richard Glatzer is based on novel by Lisa Genova, was focused almost completely on Alice despite having an excellent cast and potential story lines that could have made this in our opinion a much better movie. We learn in this film that this is an inherited disease and once you have the gene you will inevitably get the disease. It is possible to do genetic testing and that is offered to her three children played by Kristin Stewart, Shane McRae and Hunter Parrish. One daughter declined to be tested, one son tested negative and a third daughter who was trying to become pregnant tested positive. We are not shown anything about their struggle and their decision process, which is one of the major areas of ethical discussions in the world of modern genetics. Her husband is played by Alec Baldwin, who in our opinion turns in an uncharacteristically bland performance. Perhaps again it is the choice of the screenwriter/director to keep the main focus on Ms. Moore. This may be why we don’t see the internal struggle of the husband and his remarkable decision in what would seem to be the final phase of his wife’s illness, to decide to take a job out of town. It could have been a tour de force if we could more fully appreciate what this family was going through as well as the devastation conveyed so well by Ms. Moore. (2015)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama

Red Army

February 5th, 2015 — 8:22pm

*****Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 11.08.25 PM

The Red Army-sp The Red Army is a film about hockey, except that it isn’t! We agreed with several people in the audience, with whom we saw this film, who stated that they had not been looking forward to this documentary about the national hockey team of the Soviet Union. However, we, like they, were entirely captivated by this incredibly well executed documentary written, directed and produced by the young filmmaker, Gabe Polsky. While much of the film showed actual footage of hockey games played by this extraordinary team, the scenes were beautifully put together between photos of early years of some of the players, magnificent interviews with a wide range of people and footage of life in the soviet union over the years. Mr. Polsky created a film that was enlightening, poignant and engaging by focusing mainly on one player, Viacheslav (Slava) Festinov and telling his story. By doing that, he told the story of the proud Russian people and their culture. He was able to explicate the determination and love of country, even in the face of adversity and lack of freedom that existed. Festinov as a young boy was like millions of other youths who wanted to play hockey and dreamt of being on his national team. Because of his skills he became part of the national hockey-training program that selects the best and vigorously trains them for several years. Through carefully constructed and interwoven interviews and film clips we come to see the total dedication to the game that these young men developed. We are introduced to the coaches who revolutionized the game by treating it on the level of complex ballet and complicated chess games, both of which the Russians had been known to be masters. We also see the unrelenting, even cruel training techniques that required total dedication and the total power that a coach with support of the government could have over the players. The film shows the fascinating years of the amazing world wide successes, then the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in which the United States Olympic hockey team upset the Soviet Union and went on to win the Gold Medal at Lake Placid and the redoubled efforts following that loss which created a whole new “must win” era in the Soviet Union. The events that then occurred with all the twists and turns of a “must see” thriller are captured in the film keeping the viewer totally engaged. The events in Festinov’s life as well as the changes in the Soviet Union are compelling. With hockey as a platform, it is what happens in the lives of the people in this space that makes for a film that compels you to become involved. It is the best of what a good documentary does. You see, you learn and most of all you care. (2014)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 5 Stars, Documentary, History, Sport

Timbuktu

February 5th, 2015 — 8:10pm

**Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 11.14.13 PM

Timbuktu sp- “Timbuktu” is widely used to describe a place extremely far away and regarded by many as a myth. In reality it’s a city in Mali, West Africa. It is situated on the southernmost edge of the Sahara Desert. This film although named Timbuktu was actually filmed in Mauritania, a country a little to the north and deemed a little safer for the French and African crew and cast that made this highly charged political film. This movie was produced and directed by Ahderrahmane Sissaki who also co-wrote the screenplay. It is the first film from Mauritania and one of the very few from Africa to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It attempts to show how the Jihadists, who are contemporary armed Islamic fundamentalists, attempt to impose their values on other Islamic people who don’t hold their extreme beliefs. The setting is the beautiful African dessert where some animals run wild and others are herded by local people many of whom are religious but don’t hold the extreme beliefs of the Jihadists. This leads to horrific scenes, which include a young couple being stoned to death for having a sexual relationship and not being married. Others are given painful 40 lashes for singing and enjoying music. Women are also forbidden from even showing their hands and must wear gloves. The actors are quite good and very believable in their roles although most have not acted before. Some of the actors, we learned, have performed as musicians. The storyline is more a tableaux of scenes woven together to achieve the message that the filmmaker clearly wishes to make. It has relevancy to the world situation as the news is filled with stories about terrorism by various extremist Islamic groups, such as ISIS, al Qaeda and others as they spread their influence throughout the world. A movie such as this one that attempts to show extremism and oppression of people becomes even more effective than political speeches and news reports to educate the public. We understand that already the movie is showing strong box office appeal in various parts of Africa as well as in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. However, as an enjoyable, absorbing well done film we can’t put it near the top of our list. Granted the photography is quite beautiful and did capture the texture and ambience of the land. However there is no real storyline. There is no character development and we really know very little about the background of any of the people that we meet. Since they mostly walk around with some type of cloth around their faces (men and women), at times we didn’t even know who was who. Some of the scenes were drawn out too long in our opinion. We had the opportunity to question the filmmaker about some of the fine points of the movie that we did not comprehend. Although that helped to understand what had occurred, regular movie goers will not have that added help. The overall message was fairly clear but we found the movie which was 97 minutes, to feel much longer. In sum, the political value trumps the cinematic value. We hope it makes a difference but we can’t recommend it as a must see film.(2015)

 

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 2 Stars, Drama, History

American Sniper

January 31st, 2015 — 10:57pm

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.57.50 PM***

American Sniper –rm   After being shut out at the box office last week because it was sold out we finally got in to see this film. It has already grossed over 217 million dollars (so they really didn’t need our money) on a budget of 59 million dollars to make it. The film has been nominated for an Oscar as best picture and Bradley Cooper as best actor as well as receiving nominations for sound, sound editing and best adapted screenplay by Jason Hall. (It was adapted from the book by the sniper himself Chris Kyle) It is directed by Clint Eastwood. We tend to side with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who decided that this film didn’t make the grade for any Golden Globe Awards. In our opinion we just didn’t make any emotional connection with the character as depicted in the movie. Yes, we were genuinely touched at the end of the film when there were actual movie clips of the funeral tributes to this war hero who died as a civilian in 2013. (Sorry about the spoiler but you probably knew this already and it won’t take away from the movie). He had an unusual skill with a long range rifle and he cared about his buddies. Chris Kyle had more than 160 “kills” which is the most by far in the history of the United States military. He volunteered for extra tours of duty (actually having 4 tours and he had over 1000 days in a combat zone) despite the pleading of his wife (played by Sienna Miller) that she and their children needed him. He could have spent more time at home training other soldiers. Perhaps the writers and filmmakers try too hard to stick to the exact story presented to them and don’t use the poetic license that a good fictional drama can explore when they develop a character. It was interesting to us that we felt the same way about the movie Unbroken (see our review) which was another recent movie about a real life war hero which stayed close to the  facts without very much depth.. It also didn’t move us although our admiration for the man especially as shown in the book was tremendous. Compare this to what we think is one of the greatest war films to come out in a long time, The Hurt Locker (see our review). This was fictional drama perhaps based on real events, but the main character is a composite. In our opinion this allowed the writers and director to explore subtle themes and find ways of bringing about an emotional attachment with the audience. In the the American Sniper, as in most war movies today, the combat scenes were very realistic. The sound was fantastic (does deserve the potential Oscar acclaim ) and the music with a lot of drums and included one composition credited to “the man of all seasons,” the director Clint Eastwood, was quite effective. There were the requisite expensive special effects, which likely made it just like it would really be if we were there. Sometimes all the smoke made it hard to see who was shooting who and we couldn’t tell the bad guys from the good guys but maybe that is the way it is in some combat situations. But without a strongconnection to the main character we can’t put his film near the top of our list. (2015)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Drama, Thriller, War

Wild Tales

January 29th, 2015 — 11:38pm

*****Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 11.06.54 PM

Wild Tales sp  – Damiean Szifron is a young Argentinian director and playwright who had a drawer full of short screenplays all of which have an element of revenge that more or less spins out of control. He put six of them together for an anthology that ended being the Argentina entry in the Academy Awards for the best foreign films. Out of the 82 entries from all over the world, this became one of the six nominated in this category for an Oscar. By taking each storyline to a point of seeing the main character or characters losing control, Szifron also has created at times a hilarious comedy. The acting is great as apparently some of the best actors in Argentina were drawn to this project. It starts off with a airline flight where the passengers realize that everyone is in some way connected to the same guy from their past who they learn has taken over the cockpit of their plane.. The movie concludes with a wedding scene that you will never forget and may even have some elements in it with which you will identify. Although they are not all very pretty, they will have you laughing. Each of the sections of this movie, while different in content, do flow together. The editing is crisp, the camera views are thoughtful, the music appropriately carries the mood and the subtitles are very readable if you don’t understand Spanish. It is a most creative, brilliantly executed film that is well worth seeing! (2015)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 5 Stars, Comedy, Foreign

The Queen of Versailles

January 5th, 2015 — 2:44am

**Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 2.30.22 PM

The Queen of Versailles – nf  Mrs. American, a Florida beauty pageant winner marries 2nd husband David Siegel, one the richest men in the country thanks to his success selling time-shares. He is 30 years her senior and they go on to have eight children. Although they live in a mansion with nannies and other help, they set about to build the largest house under one roof in the United States. They fashion it after the Palace of Versailles and it will have more than 90,000 square feet. Their life style includes limousines, extravagant furnishings and clothes, as well as everything for their children. If there ever were a family to which the term “ life styles of the rich and famous” would apply, it would be to this one. Mr. Siegel even takes credit for election of George W. Bush by carrying Florida because of his great financial support of him (which he even acknowledges might have been a little illegal.) He owns one of the largest buildings in Las Vegas, which he turns into a time-share operation. Mr. Siegel’s timeshare selling team won’t take no for an answer and they have a time-share for every budget. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield realizes that this couple would be a fascinating subject for a documentary film and they agree to the project. If this were the entire story, it would probably be an interesting film which would provide insight into how people with essentially unlimited money live their lives. However, this project was started a little before 2008 when the US was hit with a gigantic stock market and real estate crash. Too many Americans had “sub-prime “mortgages, meaning they held mortgages, on which they could no longer make their payments once the economy, went bad. This not only impacted the little guy, or even the average family but it affected big time, timeshare mogul David Siegel who suddenly found that he could not pay his loans. His financial world came crashing down around him. The film became the story of how this family began to deal with the sudden completely unexpected change of events for them. They had to put their unfinished dream house up on the market with nary a buyer in sight. They had to radically cut back on all their help, stop their extravagant spending and even started to have arguments about keeping unnecessary lights on in their house. Even if this is not exactly rags to riches and back to rags, it is a lesson in how people often don’t appreciate what they have and when they have it want more. While the message may have long lasting meaning, the nuances of the economy problems seem somewhat dated, the movie also feels that way. Hopefully new regulations put in place will at least protect the little guy in the future. The big boys usually fend for themselves. We did a search to find out how the folks in the film were doing today which revealed that in 2014, the filmmaker and the Siegels were suing each other for issues related to the movie. (2012)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 2 Stars, Documentary

A Most Violent Year

January 5th, 2015 — 2:26am

***Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 5.03.14 PM

A Most Violent Year- sp Rather then being about a violent year, this movie is about how one man tries to be keep his moral compass in an environment where it is seems almost impossible to do so. The setting is 1981 and we meet Albert Morales (Oscar Issac), the owner of New York City Oil Delivery Company that is trying to compete with a bunch of other companies most of which are run by gangsters, He knows that even his wife’s (Jessica Chastain) family has roots in crime but he believes that honest hard work will triumph in the end. He tries to instill this in the drivers and other workers. Screenplay Writer and Director J.C, Chandler (known for Margin Call and All is Lost with Robert Redford) creates an atmosphere where the viewer feels the tension and the looming danger. This is facilitated by a good supporting cast, which includes David Oyelow (who stars in Selma this year) and veteran actor Albert Brooks. All of us moviegoers who have seen gangster films know all about the mob and what our hero is up against. As the movie progresses and we identify more closely with the main character, it begins to feel like Shakespearian drama bordering on an impending tragedy. In the end we have a complicated ethical analysis to decide how we feel about the story we have been told. We have always said if the film gets you thinking and talking, the filmmaker will have achieved a worthy goal. (2014)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - Comment » | 3 Stars, Crime, Drama

Unbroken

January 4th, 2015 — 1:45am

**

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.32.49 PMUnbroken- sp This movie is about the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian –American who grew up in a poor family in Torrance, California and became a champion track star and member of the US 1936 Olympic team in Berlin. He subsequently signed up with the US Air Force and became a bombardier during World war II. He and another crewmember survived a crash at sea and drifted in the Pacific Ocean for 2000 miles in 47 days dealing with starvation, dehydration, shark attacks and strafing from Japanese planes. He was then captured and spent most of the war as POW where he was brutally treated in part because he was recognized as a US Olympic runner. Most of the movie is spent recounting this experience. It is based a book by Laura Hillenbrand, a screen play by the Coen brothers and a few others. Angelina Jolie directed this film. Jack O’Connell, a 24 year old British actor plays Zamperini and he certainly does a adequate job although a more riveting actor such as a young Sean Penn might have helped to give this film some depth and that something special that seemed to be missing in our opinion. It didn’t help that we were struck by how the main characters mustache and goatee was fairly well groomed throughout the 47 days at sea and that he was pretty well clean shaven during prison time and also how most of the prisoners had clean military caps or hats. (It may have been that they were issued razors during imprisonment instead of decent nourishment, which they were surely not given.) We got the message that his brother gave him early on in his life that he should not give up but there was not much more in depth understanding of this important heroic person- other then he could stare his captors in the eye and was able to take a beating. Having read the book by Hildenbrand, (click here to see book review) one of us was disappointed that Zamperini’s bout with PTSD and alcoholism after he was freed was not shown nor was the story of his recovery with the help of the evangelist Billy Graham depicted. Some of the drifting and beatings could have traded for some more story with better insight into his psychological make up.. Another character that had great potential for a supporting role was Zamperini’s main nemesis among his captors and that was the Prison Commander known as “the Bird.” He is played in a somewhat bland manner by Miyavi (who is actually known best as a Japanese singer, writer, guitarist). He is supposed to be quite a mean cruel prison commandant but there is no attempt to show something about his character, which was developed in more depth in the book. Nevertheless the movie certainly stands as a tribute to Louis Zamperini, American hero who died at age 98 a few weeks before the release of the film, although he apparently saw the final version before he died. We don’t recommend that you do so. (2014)

Readers are encouraged to put any opinions or comments about the film and this review. - 2 comments » | 2 Stars, Biography, War

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