Category: 3 Stars


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

Aram, Aram

October 8th, 2015 — 9:58pm

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This is an independent film that deals with the universal problem of a new generation of immigrants having its young people gravitate towards gangs to protect and assert themselves. Director/writer/cinematographer, Christopher Chambers became interested in the Armenian culture in Los Angeles, a subject that he knew very little about when he began this project. This particular group came to the United States from the old  Soviet Union and were hardworking, usually poor people. Chambers wanted the story to be very authentic so he decided to cast only Armenians as his lead actors and to have most of the film in their native language (with subtitles), which he did not speak. He was quite clear, however, about the story that he wanted to tell. John Roohinian was chosen in an open audition to play Aram, a 12-year-old boy who came to live in the United States in Los Angeles with his grandfather. Sevak Hakoyan, a young man who was studying acting was chosen to play Hakop, the Armanian gang leader. The casting of Arsen, the young boy’s grandfather who wanted to keep his grandson on the straight and narrow path, involved tracking down Levon Sharafyan, an experienced Armenian actor, who is well known in Armenian films and Armenian television. Much to his surprise, film maker, Christopher Chambers found him living in the Los Angeles area and the rest is history as he magnificently played the all important grandfather with sensitivity and, of course, with authenticity.

This is an artistic film with wonderful camera work and editing by Mr. Chambers. Although most of the dialogue, which is translated into subtitles is conveyed by excellent acting and direction, the final portion of the film, which was also filled with action, tension, emotion and sentimentality is essentially without dialogue. The essence of the story is simple but worth telling. This movie deserves to be seen, not only by the usual movie goers but also by students in our city schools where the film will resonate with many of the new generation of young people from immigrant families and should, strike a meaningful chord with them. (2015).

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Foreign

Pawn Sacrifice

September 28th, 2015 — 5:58pm

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This is the story of Bobby Fischer, the American boy wonder chessmaster, who at the age of 29 in 1972 beat Russian champion chess player Boris Spassky to become the best chess player in the world. We meet young Fischer as a preteen growing up in Brooklyn where his preoccupation with chess makes him a very unusual brilliant young man. It would appear that his limited social skills matched with his total preoccupation with chess and a genius mind that could visualize and memorize numerous chess games in his head, suggests that he had Asperger’s disorder. As we follow this brilliant genius into preparation and ultimately arriving at the classic series of matches in Iceland, we see how he became preoccupied with the belief that he was being spied upon. He took apart a telephone looking for listening devices and even insisted that the venue for the match be moved to a basement setting instead of the large stage where it was to be held. He limited the number of TV cameras demanded a certain distance from him. The film does suggest that this classic famed match had great significance to both the United States and Russian governments. We even see that the CIA may have been involved in meeting Fischer’s demands for money and other requirements in order for him to participate in the match. However the film also points to the probability that Fischer’s mental functioning was much more than the political paranoia of the time. In fact, we think that a case can be made that Bobby Fischer had a schizophrenic mental disorder.

This well done film is a recounting of one of the most important and widely followed chess matches in history. It is also a sad story of a tortured soul. Tobey Maguire who plays Fischer as an adult did a fine job although it was a one dimensional view of this man as we never saw any evidence of him having any joy or meaningful relationships which we would expect even with a severe mental disorder. Liev Schreiber was quite good as the large contemplative Russian master Boris Spassky who barely said a word in the film.

Even though most of the movie audience probably knew the results of the match, seeing how it developed and went down was filled with suspense and drama. The subsequent downhill slide of Fischer which was not shown in the film and only told to us in a post-script at the end of the film, with a few newsreel clips, might have taken the movie to a more dramatic and interesting conclusion had the writers Steven Knight, Stephen Rivele and director Edward Zwick chosen to extend the film to this subject. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, History

The Intern

September 28th, 2015 — 5:37am

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Ann Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a young attractive woman who is CEO of an Internet company that she founded from scratch that sells woman’s clothes that they guarantees they will fit. The company has blossomed to one that has more than 200 employees. The fearless leader is married to a modern bearded young man who gave up his successful job to stay at home and raise their delightful cute little girl. Robert Di Nero plays Ben Whittaker, a retired 70 year old widower, who had been a executive in a large company that sold and manufactured telephone books. Since his wife died he retired, has been looking for something to do and came across an ad for a internship program for senior citizen in the above described Internet company that was set up by one of the young executives who had the idea that maybe seniors might have some views to balance the point of view the young people running the Internet business. The Di Nero character gets assigned to the young woman CEO who seems too busy to even assign him a task as he patiently tries to find ways to be helpful. The story takes off from there.

While this could have been just a delightful comedy, it really became much more than that. The storyline examined the role of young women in today’s business world . Who should raise the children and don’t you really have to go all in if you are trying to make it in today’s competitive world with start up companies going boom or bust.? Also, is there a role for retired seniors in today’s business environment? Are they a resource that is forgotten and lost in the race to succeed?

The voice behind the production is Nancy Meyers, writer, director and frequently producer of many important movies that reflect the changing social times such as, Parent Trap, Somethings Gotta Give, Its Complicated, What Women Want. In this current film, the questions are raised but on one hand they aren’t very nuanced and yet the answers and conclusions are way too simple. However, when the stars and supporting cast which included Rene Russo, Adam DeVine, Zack Perlman, Anders Holm Nat Wolff, Linda Lavin and the little girl played by JoJo Kushner are all so superb, you can’t help having an enjoyable movie experience.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Comedy, Drama

Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine

September 13th, 2015 — 10:33pm

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This documentary by Alex Gibney is a very enlightening film. It relies on archival footage mainly of Steve Jobs in action throughout the years as well as talking head interviews with people who worked very closely with him. It is a look at the man, his company Apple, and the remarkable inventions that have become part of our lives. The film also challenges the viewers by holding up a mirror to us and asking why has Jobs been held in such high esteem. It also raised the question of what was this man, who was so revered and almost worshiped by many, really like?

In the biography of Jobs written not too long ago by Walter Isaacson it was certainly shown that Jobs was self-centered, preoccupied, and perhaps narcissistic. But this film really pulls no punches in showing the dark side of this man. While it took a little awhile for the negative traits (to say the least) to come out they certainly did emerge. The movie reviewed how early on when they were quite young, he and Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple with Jobs and the person who did the real technical stuff) worked on a project for Atari, a game company. Jobs handled the interface with the company although Wozniak did most of the technical design. Jobs was given a $15,000 check for the successful project that they completed but told his partner it was for an amount of $1,500 and gave him $700. When Jobs made his girlfriend pregnant he initially denied it with a court affidavit but then when genetic testing proved he was the father of the newborn little girl, he paid only $500 a month for support just after he made $200 million from Apple going public. Later in his career when an Apple prototype of a later iPhone was found in a bar left by an Apple employee it ended up in the hands of a journalist who wrote about features of this phone. He described the product on the Internet, which led Jobs to unsuccessfully take all kinds of draconian steps to hurt this man and his small company. Jobs was also behind Apple vetoing philanthropic activity that Apple had started to do. Bill Gates on the other hand continued with a foundation that supports all sorts of worthwhile projects. Jobs was also behind an illegal and unethical agreement between the major technical companies that they would not interview people from competing companies who might want to be considered for new and perhaps better jobs.

This film did show the tremendous drive that Jobs had to make his products successful. He had the ability to envision what people wanted and mobilize the genius inventors at Apple to put together these amazing devices. It remains to be seen if future generations, especially children will have less creativity and social interaction because of these devices.

This documentary film certainly shows us the legacy of Steve Jobs, who we see at the time of his death was mourned by people all over the world. He deserves a place in history because of his creative accomplishments, but this film shows us that he certainly is not be a person to be emulated (2015).

1 comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

While We’re Young

September 12th, 2015 — 6:45am

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Noah Baumbach is a prolific filmmaker who is best known for the award winning movie The Squid and the Whale (2005) that he wrote and directed. It was probably semi-autobiographical as it told the story of two boys in Brooklyn dealing with the divorce of their parents.  

This current film 10 years later which was released in March of 2015 is about a middle-aged couple in their 40s, Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who encounter a younger couple Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who are in their mid 20s and seem to be “living in the moment” and enjoying life the way the older couple believe they did when they were that age. This leads Josh and Cornelia to do a great deal of self -reflection. Stiller’s character is a documentary filmmaker who hasn’t achieved the success that he hoped for and seemed to be stuck in the rut in many ways including being obsessively involved in one film for the past 10 years (An interesting sidebar is that the subject of this Josh’s film is a historian who is played by Peter Yarrow of the 1960s folk singer group Peter, Paul and Mary). In fact, Josh and Cornelia’s marriage also seem stuck as they ambivalently accept the plight of their not having children while all their friends are reproducing. Josh’s new friend seems to value him as a mentor, which is initially quite flattering to him. This new couple, Jamie and Darby, seem to be enjoying life and doing all the things that the couple in their 40s hasn’t been able to do. The storyline by Baumbach allows us to understand and empathize with the struggle of Josh and Cornelia. Not surprising however, things are all not what they seem to be as this film ultimately has an interesting reveal.

Each of the veteran actors mentioned above are excellent including Charles Grodin who plays Cornelia’s father who is a very successful veteran documentary filmmaker who while depicting his character’s elderly wisdom still conveys the actor’s comedic self.

Whenever there is a film about the inside working of some aspects of the moviemaking business (documentary films included), we expect that the filmmakers are giving us the inside scoop from their real life experience. That may very well be the case here but it is also a penetrating look of the struggle of many people trying to go through the process of maturing as adults. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Comedy, Drama

Rosenwald

August 16th, 2015 — 11:18pm

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Aviva Kempner is the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a documentary filmmaker who is interested in showing the contributions of Jews to society. Among other films that she has made were The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which told the story about the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. She also made a film titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of the actress, writer and television star Gertrude Berg. This time she has taken on the story of Julius Rosenwald who died in 1932. He was the son of an immigrant peddler who never graduated from high school but became a successful businessman and ultimately the president of Sears Roebuck. He was a major philanthropist and focused his energy and his wealth on the African-American communities in the South. He was the moving force in building over 5000 schools in the early 20th Century for young black students in Jim Crow states. This film also showed the support he gave to Tuskegee University in Alabama and his relationship with one of its founders Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald was a truly remarkable man who had the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Rosenwald was a living example of the historical bond which has existed between Jewish and black cultures in the United States. Much of this story is told with interviews with such people as Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Gordon Parks, Cokie Roberts , various descendants of his family and many others. The fascinating subject of this film and his actions will resonant with many people and should provide an example for future generations.

The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the implications of Rosenwald’s contributions may have led her to lose focus at times. For example, the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt to Tuskegee University to pay attribute to be Tuskegee Airmen and the ride she took in a small plane was quite interesting but moved the film further from its main theme Similarly, telling the story of Marian Anderson, the great black singer and one of the recipients of Rosenwald’s many scholarships, led the filmmaker to deviate into a long exposition about Anderson’s achievements. Some of these interesting but somewhat extraneous segments would have been better left to the bonus DVD which will accompany the film when it is purchased for personal use (although we understand that that bonus DVD in the making, is already three hours long). While not a great film, it was a unique look at a very special and not well-known person who made many contributions that changed countless lives. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

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