Category: 3 Stars


The Lady In The Van

February 14th, 2016 — 4:57am

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The Lady In The Van-rm

Dame Maggie Smith, who is one of the most distinguished and famous actresses in the United States and England, plays a woman close to her actual age but quite the opposite of how she would ever be seen in-person. In this film she is Ms. Shepherd, a homeless, raggedy old woman with a hidden past that is slowly revealed. We meet her as she lives in a van in a community which could be in a suburb of London. Although she is a blight to the neighborhood, she becomes well-known to the local people. She wrangles permission to keep her van in the driveway of a playwright, Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings). The real Alan Bennett is an actual playwright and wrote the screenplay for this movie. This film directed by Nicholas Hytner uses an interesting mechanism to examine the character of Bennett. He is shown as two personas, the one who sits and writes at his typewriter gathering ideas from his life and the other, a person who actually lives the life to get the ideas for his writing self. Mr. Jennings plays both parts of him and they frequently are shown on the screen together talking, “to each other.” There is also a small role for James Corden, TV host of the Late Late show who blends in with local Brits.

Maggie Smith of course is outstanding as the cranky old woman with a past. Mr. Bennett’s deep-seeded motivation seems to be related to his own relationship with his mother (Deborah Findlay) who we get to meet in the movie and observe as they are interacting.

This is a somewhat touching story with great acting, especially by Ms. Smith who gained a Golden Globe nomination for it. We are told at the start of the movie that it is based on a “mostly true story.” We found it interesting that in the award category, this movie was considered to be a comedy. There were some funny lines but it was the poignancy that carried the film in our opinion. However, we didn’t feel it moved quite fast enough for our taste and left something to be desired for the viewer. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Comedy, Drama

The Big Short

January 4th, 2016 — 4:03am

***

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You probably know that this movie is not about pants or the measurement of peoples’ height. It is about one of the largest financial meltdowns in this country’s history and how much of it was because of some behind-the-scenes financial trickery carried on by Wall Street insiders. It is based on a book by Michael Lewis which we have not read, although M.B. did read and recommend another book by him, Flash Boys which is about a different type of financial manipulation carried by some Wall Street people

In The Big Short, Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a real person who is a brilliant, somewhat peculiar guy, maybe Asperger type. He actually was a physician who ended up as a chief of a large financial fund. He studies numbers very carefully and concludes that the mortgage market which has always been thought to be reliable and dependable, is on the verge of collapse. The reason for this (now this is the tricky part) is because hundreds or maybe thousands of mortgages have been lumped together in mortgage bond funds that people buy and trade for the high interest rates that they generate. These funds include AAA mortgages, BB and C mortgages, the latter groups being known as subprime mortgages.

Nobody seemed to have noticed how fragile and vulnerable these mortgage funds are and that this house of cards was on the verge of collapse. That is except this one strange guy and a few other financial wheeler dealers who get wind of what’s going down. Once such team is led by a character played by Steve Carell, who continues to demonstrate his acting chops in serious roles. There are the usual excellent depictions of various key players by Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling.

There are some riveting dramatic moments as the movie goer can get caught up in the impending crash. You may not fully understand exactly what is happening but don’t feel badly since most people didn’t either as it was really happening. When the dust cleared, this cost our economy over a billion dollars (this movie only cost $28 million). We hope that people who run and regulate our economy learned some lessons from this story, but that probably is not the case. Many people, though, will find this movie quite enjoyable although it may make you uncomfortable about the future. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama

Ricki and the Flash

December 12th, 2015 — 7:29pm

***

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If you are a “streeper” (nickname Meryl Streep’s fans often called themselves) you are going to enjoy her in this performance. As usual Ms. Streep who is known as a perfectionist in preparing for her roles, appears to have mastered her character down to the last note.

In this case, it is as an aging rock musician who has only made one album and now spends the daytime being a grocery checkout lady and the evenings being a grooving rock musician leading her band “The Flash” playing in a local club in Tarzana, California. Her fellow guitarist Greg is played by Rick Springfield, known to be quite a successful musician in real life. Ricki left her husband and children when her kids were quite small to follow her dream as a rock musician and had very limited contact with them over the years. One of them Julie (played by Mamie Gummer , a rising actress who in real life is Ms. Streep’s real daughter) has just had a traumatic marital breakup and Ricki returns to Indianapolis to support her. Her daughter and two grown sons one of whom is about to get married are not very thrilled to see her at first. Her former husband (Kevin Kline) has married a very lovely woman (Audra McDonald) who confronts the rock musician with her failure as a mother. There is a lot of sadness in this film and also a lot of rocking music led by Ricki (alias Ms. Streep) and Greg (alias Mr. Springfield) and some very fine backup musicians.

The story by Diablo Cody and the direction by Jonathan Demme lead us on a fanciful trip but in the end it is feel good stuff. We don’t think it will lead to Ms. Streep’s 20th Oscar nomination but you never know. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Musical

The 33

November 16th, 2015 — 7:32am

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The 33-sp

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar, the story of the 2010 Chilean Mine disaster and the 33 miners trapped underground, was one of the best books we have read in a long time (see book review). So a movie following in its footsteps has big shoes to fill. Director Patricia Riggen and the producing team led by veteran producer Mike Medavoy did a pretty good job of capturing the atmosphere as well as creating the tension and interaction of the beleaguered miners. They chose to make this film in English, which took away from the realism but we understand the reasonable necessity to do this to facilitate worldwide distribution. Much of the film was deep in the dark mine and the faces of the characters were understandably in deep shadows. While good for realism, it did take awhile for the characters to be clearly distinguished as individuals.

There was one interesting issue which we wonder if it was fact or creative license. That was when Laurence Golbourne (Rodrigo Santoro), the young government official who was Minister of Mines for the Chilean government told the veteran mine rescue expert exactly how he should position the last chance drilling effort, which was the only drill to reach the miners. Just as important as the interaction of the miners with each other was the role of the families putting pressure on the various officials to make an all-out effort to save their loved ones. The emotions of these family members, friends and one mistress was highlighted by the character of Maria Segovia, sister of one of the miners, who was well-played by Juliette Binoche. Another standout was the character of Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) who assumed the leadership role of the trapped miners.

This was the last film of the late James Horner who as usual created an excellent soundtrack to capture the changing moods of the film. At the conclusion of the movie, we see a postscript telling us that none of the miners received any compensation from the mine company. In a post screening discussion, we were able to ask producer Michael Medavoy if this film is financially successful, would the miners receive any compensation. The answer was, “You bet,” but it has to come after all the backers of the film receive their upfront money back plus a reasonable profit. We thought that why should the miners not receive their compensation upfront? But that apparently is the usual Hollywood way. Despite this concern, the film itself, while not meeting the standards of the amazing book is still worthwhile and should be seen and enjoyed by many viewers. Shortly after the actual disaster occurred I also wrote two blogs  about the psychological implications of this experience  ( see blog#1   and blog #2 ) (2015)

 

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History

Carol

November 11th, 2015 — 7:10am

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Two great actresses, Cate Blanchett (two academy awards for The Aviator and Blue Jasmine) and Rooney Mara (known for two recent outstanding performances in The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) are matched in a subtle, low-key romance that takes places in the early 1950s in New York. Carol Aird (Blanchett) is a wealthy married woman with a 5-year-old daughter who finds herself drawn to Therese Belivet (Mara), a younger woman working as a department store clerk with a boyfriend who is getting ready to propose to her. Therese shares the attraction to Carol and the two spend time together and go away together on a road trip.

The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy is based on a novel by the famed author Patricia Highsmith. Director Todd Haynes worked with a veteran recognized staff which included costume designer, Sandy Powell, Director of Photography Ed Lachman, Film Editor Alfonso Goncalves and the music being done by Carter Burwell. Each of these artists creates a very realistic sensitive environment in which the attraction and love between these two women blossoms. Taking place in the mid-20th century period makes the plot more poignant, as the internal struggle with homoerotic feelings obviously did not have the acceptance, overt support and understanding that it has today. Perhaps, this is the very reason that modern movie goers might share our feeling that despite being extremely well-done, we expected more of a storyline. We are left feeling that we have witnessed a simple fairy tale. We wish this talented movie team could have delivered much more. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Romance

Steve Jobs

October 25th, 2015 — 2:17am

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Steve Jobs- rm

We came to this version of Steve Jobs’ story, Apple’s iconic founder, having seen the recent documentary film of Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine and also having read Walter Issaacson’s 2011 biography of Jobs. We are not so sure that we would have appreciated the nuances and the depths of how the relationships were depicted in this current movie, had we not experienced the two previous pieces. For example, we see a recurrent theme, which defines Jobs’ relationship with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) as he pleads with Jobs to give him and the Apple-2-team credit during the new Apple launches. Jobs refuses because he says he wants to emphasize the future. In fact, Jobs has treated his friend Wozniak, the real inventor of the first Apple computer, very poorly. They had been friends working in Jobs’ garage when they were in their 20s. While not shown in this film, it has been previously documented that one of the first projects that they worked together was designing a game for Atari where Wozniak did all the work and Jobs dealt with the interface with Atari but grossly short-changed Wozniak when they were paid for their work, a pattern they apparently continued later in life. .

Perhaps the most important and revealing relationship shown in this film and well described in the previous book and movie is the one with his daughter Lisa. Early on Jobs consistently denied his paternity of Lisa. When it was eventually proven by genetic test, he reluctantly paid minimal support for the struggling mother and child despite the fact that at that time he was worth at least $440 million. We see Jobs wrestling with his feelings about Lisa in this film and his ambivalence towards her and her mother.

The dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin was typical of his fast-moving style in both the words and the physical movement of the characters. The film did not attempt to be a biography of Steve Jobs. Instead, the storyline showcased three specific product launches of the Apple computer. It revealed the behind-the-scenes interactions of Jobs and other important people, particularly with his daughter Lisa played very well by three different actresses, Mackenzie Moss when she was five, Ripley Sobo when she was nine and most significantly by Perla Haney-Jardine when Lisa was 19. Lisa’s mother was played Katherine Waterston.

There was one very interesting foray in trying to show some psychological insight of the origin of Jobs’ self-centered personality. This occurred when Jobs was interacting with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) the Apple CEO who was originally hired by Jobs and then participated in firing Jobs at a later point in time. The discussion was about how Jobs was treating his daughter and how it might be related to his own childhood relationships. Jobs related how he was adopted as an infant but his new mother wasn’t sure that she would be allowed to keep him for certain complicated reasons, so she withheld her love during his first year so she would not become too attached to him. If that were true, it might explain Jobs’ apparent defective ability to relate to others despite his genius, unusual vision and talent in bringing his products to the world.

Credit has to be given to Michael Fassbender in his role as Jobs and to director Danny Boyle. A key role was also well done by Kate Winslet who played Joanna Hoffman an important member of the Mac team. The film will give the  moviegoers the experience  that they are transported back in time, and are seeing this iconic figure up close during some of his historic moments in the birth of the Apple computer. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History

Clouds of Sils Maria

October 24th, 2015 — 4:33am

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This is one of those movies where the actors (in this case actresses) played characters who are actresses themselves preparing for a part. In this case real life gets interwoven with the role that they are going to play. It sounds interesting, especially if you are into inside show business stories. The actual story and presentation by screenwriter/director Olivier Assayas was well done but we felt he coped out in the end and left too much to our imagination.

The story line introduces us to Maria Enders (Juliette Binochea) a successful actress who 20 years previously had her first real breakout role in a production where she played an 18-year-old assistant to a big time actress. There was a complicated interaction in the story between the two women which included a sexual affair. The older woman ultimately felt devalued and committed suicide. Now 20 years Maria Enders the actress who played the younger woman is now a successful veteran actress who has her own personal assistant (Kristin Stewart). She is asked by a director to star once again in the same production but this time to play the role of the older woman. She ruminates about this and ultimately meets the woman scheduled to be her younger co-star at this time (Chloe Grace Moretz).

The key here is the inner workings of the mind and emotions of the older Maria Enders’ character. We get a window into them as she rehearses and runs lines with her personal assistant. Reality meets fiction in a subtle gradual manner. We are caught up as we watch the metamorphosis develop. The setting for most of this film is outdoors in Switzerland where the esteemed author of the play that is to be performed was supposed to have lived. The Clouds of Sils Maria are in reality a snake-like intrusion of a low-lying cloud formation that slips between the mountains on a regular basis writhing like a snake, which is the name of the play that the actors and actresses are scheduled to perform. Perhaps it is also a metaphor for being slowly overwhelmed. The acting in this movie is excellent with each character being quite believable and you can try to imagine how things work out in the end. (2014)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama

Bridge of Spies

October 22nd, 2015 — 10:18pm

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With Steven Spielberg directing, Tom Hanks staring, the Coen brothers being part of the writing team in this story of the spies in the cold war, this movie would seem to be bound for success. If you were around in the 1950’s, the story of Colonel Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy caught spying in  Brooklyn and Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot shot down taking pictures over Russia should be quite familiar to you. That may take some of the suspense away from you as you know how the movie is going to end. On the other hand, if you were close to the millennial generation, the film might generate enough tension to put you on the edge of your seat.

The film did show very interesting depictions of two persons who became well known to the American public as the central events unfolded. There is the captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who was very devoted to his cause and not really a bad person although clearly hated by most Americans. On the other hand, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) the American pilot on the secret spy mission taking pictures over Russia is shown as an all American-type handsome guy who is the center of attention because he didn’t do the expected, deadly self-destruct thing with the poison pin, before he was captured.

The main protagonist was James Donovan (Tom Hanks). It’s hard to say if we like him so much because he was Tom Hanks or was it because he was this idealistic attorney standing up for American principle’s of giving everyone a fair trial, even if his client were a despicable man of the times being a Russian spy.

Spielberg appeared to put his $40 million budget to good use as the scenes were all quite realistic. Especially dramatic was the building of the Berlin wall and the views of some attempted escapes from East Berlin and of course there was the bridge where the exchange was to take place. The shoot down of Powers’ plane seemed quite realistic (we hope no one was hurt in the escape from the plane – it seemed that good). There was a little too much repetition in this two-hour and fifteen-minute movie with much more talking than action. For those who didn’t live through this period, this film may very well become the mental representation of this period although we didn’t think it quite captured the fear and apprehension that existed in the country at that time. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, History

The Armor of Light

October 14th, 2015 — 7:02am

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This thoughtful and original documentary film makes a case that the conservative right in this country led by evangelical ministers should consider that the correct moral position would be to support gun control. The case for this action, as unlikely as it may seem to be, is clearly made by this compelling documentary movie. It follows the conversion process to this point of view of Reverend Rob Schenck, who is a well-known leading American evangelical reverend who ministers to elected and appointed officials in Washington, D.C. and is president of the Christian Outreach Ministry “Faith and Action.”

The filmmaker and the force behind this film is Abigail Disney, who is the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company. She is also a philanthropist, a peace activist, and an accomplished filmmaker. She has developed a deep passion for the subject of this film, which is consistent with many of her other beliefs which includes women’s right to abortion. Once she decided to make this film, she had occasion to meet Reverend Schenck who had become very upset about a mass gun shooting of innocent people near where he lived in Washington, D.C. and began to think about gun control.

After meeting Ms. Disney, he agreed to participate in this film, which was exploring the subject of gun control although apparently, he had not yet made up his mind about his personal decision on this controversial subject. We see him embark upon series of discussions with many lay people as well as other ministers. He himself wanted to understand guns and actually got training in the use of them. He also attended the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, which was an interesting event in and of itself. All of this is filmed by Ms. Disney and her documentary team.

Reverend Schenck speaks with many members of his congregation as well as others across the country. He, of course, reflects on this subject with deep thought and prayer. He also had occasion to meet Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed teenager who had been murdered and whose killer was using the so-called Stand Your Ground defense in the State of Florida. Ms. McBath is a devout Christian and becomes moved by her son’s loss to use her grief to bring about political action for gun control. Her faith, passion, and advocacy lead her to interact with Reverend Schenck, first in trying to influence him and then, becoming his ally in the crusade for gun control.

Perhaps the most dramatic and powerful portion of this documentary is the passion and determination of the Christian ministers and others who attempt to justify citizens owning and using weapons and the recitation of their dictum that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Equally dramatic is the evolution of Reverend Schenck’s position to where he passionately concludes that the moral, ethical and Christian decision is an anti-gun viewpoint.

Obviously, this film does not solve this controversy but its presence and availability at the present time could have great significance and influence in this debate. The film is in the process of creating a controversy that centers around Reverend Schenck and the prominent position that he holds. In a post film discussion in which he was present, he indicated that he has already received significant criticism from evangelicals as well as support from some ministers. His organization has also received threats of the withdrawal of funds because of his evolving position on gun control.

Ms. Disney is planning to open this film in 24 cities in the United States many in the Bible Belt. We already see that the political debate and the presidential campaigns will expose some of the major disagreements among candidates, which includes gun control and “right to life.” This documentary film could be shown at local churches and civic meetings and have the potential to allow people to consider that there may be good moral reasons to change their position on the issue of gun control even if they are not yet ready to compromise on other social issues. Whether this potential will be realized remains to be seen.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

He Named Me Malala

October 12th, 2015 — 12:59am

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Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl who grew up in the Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan. As she was growing up, the local Taliban became increasingly powerful and instituted a policy of banning girls from attending school. Malala who is named after a famous poet and female warrior from Southern Afghanistan was approached by the BBC and asked to write a blog talking about how girls were prevented from having an education. She agreed to do so and began making speeches which were covered by the local and international press criticizing how the Taliban was taking away the rights of girls to get an education. Supported and encouraged by her father who was a teacher and a political activist himself, Malala continued to speak out. Soon, many of the schools in this area were destroyed by Taliban bombings. Malala’s activist speeches received worldwide recognition. Then. on October 2012 when Malala was 15 years old, a Taliban gunman approached her and identified her as who she was and point-blank shot her in the head. Miraculously, she recovered after extensive surgery and rehabilitation in England. Having the world spotlight on her in her campaign for girls’ rights to education, she continued her determination to speak out. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.

This movie is a documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim, which shows a clear picture of this charming, most well spoken and dedicated young woman. Her personality shines through whether it is from actual video or film footage of her interacting with her parents and her precocious brothers at home, meeting President Obama or speaking before the United Nations. Through photographs and video clips as well as the use of animated cartoons, her pathway to this unique position on the world’s stage is depicted at the same time that we see her struggling with her school homework.

There is also some attempt to show the influence of her father upon her. Incidentally, he insists that he never pushed her to speak out and the decisions to do so were all her own. While that is the narrative of the film, it is clear that her father certainly was a powerful influence in her life. There is much less shown about her mother who does seem to be a vivacious and quite intelligent although uneducated woman.

The chronology in the film is not clear. The lack of focus on the time sequence of events may not be crucial as the story is probably well-known to the moviegoers who choose to see this film. Malala is amazingly articulate. She speaks English quite well and of course she is also fluent in her native language. She gives a heck of a speech with memorable lines that are obviously inspirational to young and old alike. We want to read her book ( I am Malala) and we are sure that we will want to give it to our granddaughters. This movie should have special appeal to those who know of her story and want to see the real person up-close. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

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