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Growing Up Brady (2000)
For Fans Of The Brady Bunch
Like pretty much every kid of my generation I grew up watching The Brady Bunch. I can't say that it was ever my absolute favourite TV show. I always preferred "Gilligan's Island" and "Hogan's Heroes" - but this was certainly part of my after school fare (it was the early 70's and they were all in syndication by then.) I've heard a lot of the stories about the show - Barry Williams (Greg) and Maureen McCormick (Marcia) hooking up, Robert Reed (dad Mike) being gay and being very uncomfortable showing any affection for Florence Henderson (mom Carol) and also rebelling against what he saw as a silly sitcom that would ruin his career as a dramatic actor, Barry's actual "date" with Florence - but I've never actually read Williams' book. And as a big fan of The Big Bang Theory, I decided I wanted to watch this when I found out that Kaley Cuoco actually played Maureen McCormick in this and was delighted to find out that it was available on You Tube. And it turned out to be a fun and nostalgic made for TV movie.
The cast I thought was superb. With the exception perhaps of Suanne Spoke (who played Ann B. Davis, who played Alice - these kinds of movies can get confusing) all of the cast members looked their parts and played them pretty well. It's interesting watching these child actors work with their parts, struggle with keeping real life separate from their TV lives, and seeing apparently all the kids struggle a bit with hormones - challenging as the attractions were to their TV brothers and sisters, making for some difficulty with some scenes (humourously portrayed as we watch Barry and Maureen try to shoot a scene together without getting carried away!) It is a lot of fun, and it did give a good "behind the scenes" feel. The film (according to its closing credits) was in memory of Robert Reed (who had died in 1992) but it didn't pull any punches in its portrayal of him. He was, as I've heard, fiercely devoted to and protective of his "TV kids" but he also hated the show he co-starred with them in, believing it would destroy his career as a serious actor, and he was a challenge to deal with on the set, demanding continual rewrites and refusing to play certain scenes. Reed's attitude (along with the kids coming to be represented by a sleazeball agent who was more interested in making money off their hoped for singing career than the TV show) ended up being the death of the series after five seasons on the air.
The biggest weakness of the movie (and this is perhaps because it's based on Barry Williams book) is that it probably concentrated a little bit too much on the Williams-McCormick relationship. I can understand the challenge involved. Maureen McCormick was a very pretty girl. I had a crush on her too! If I were Barry Williams I'd have had some of the same problems he had (including one hilarious scene when he had invited Maureen to his parents home for dinner and his parents "interrupted" them, calling them down for dessert and poor Barry had to walk downstairs and to the couch bent over - for obvious and completely understandable reasons.
This is a fun, nostalgic movie. It wouldn't be of interest to anyone other than fans of The Brady Bunch, but if you are a fan of the show and you've never seen this, it will be enjoyable to watch. (8/10)
Big Eyes (2014)
Interesting Biopic, But A Knowledge of The Keanes And/Or Art Would Have Made It Moreso
I have to say right off the top that I am no aficionado of art. I say that to make the point that there's nothing about the basic subject of the movie that leaped out at me. It was my wife who watched this and told me that because she had enjoyed it so much I had to watch it. And after checking it out I decided that since it starred Amy Adams (whom I adore!) I would watch it. And I will say that it's an interesting movie - a biopic about Margaret Keane and her efforts to gain credit for her artwork. Mind you, a lot of that was lost on me. I am so unfamiliar with the art world that I had never heard of Margaret Keane or Walter Keane or big-eyed waifs. That was all brand new to me - and, I suppose in that sense, that made the movie worthwhile (although not particularly engrossing) because I did learn something from it.
Margaret Keane's life was difficult. She seems to have been a woman who lacked self-confidence. The movie opens with her leaving what must have been a troubled marriage (although nothing much is really said about it) with her young daughter in tow. There's a little bit about her attempts to make it as a single mom (in the 1950's, when that would have been very much out of the ordinary) but for the most part this deals with her relationship with Walter Keane. They meet and fall in love very quickly. Walter had been painting (maybe?) Parisian street scenes while Margaret had concentrated on her big-eyed children. They quickly fell in love and married and Walter began both showing Margaret's work - and claiming credit for it. "Keane" artwork became both popular and profitable as it started to be spun off onto posters and postcards, etc. etc., but even as the deception gave Walter and Margaret a very comfortable life, the tension between the two increased. Basically, the movie depicts Margaret's increasing resentment of Walter taking credit for her work, and Walter becoming ever more controlling and even dangerous. The movie culminates in their eventual divorce and a court trial which established her as the artist.
I found this interesting as a study of Margaret's life and personality and her growing self-confidence, and it was very satisfying to see her finally revealed as the artist. The background reading I've done since suggests this portrayal (while taking a few liberties) is largely accurate. Any Adams did a fine job in the role. Christoph Waltz was solid as Walter - sometimes fun-loving, sometimes hostile and frightening, sometimes even violent. Personally, I appreciated the look at the snobbery of the world of art critics, who are largely represented by Terence Stamp's portrayal of New York Times art critic John Canaday - who hated the big eyes. But frankly if people liked the big-eyes then who was Canaday (or any other art critic) to speak so contemptuously about them? The movie was directed by Tim Burton. There's not a lot of his classic, quirky Burton-esque style on display here - although the opening scene, which was a picture of the street Margaret lived on with her first husband, did strike me as the sort of street scene you'd find in perhaps "Edward Scissorhands."
I found this movie enjoyable and interesting - but because of my lack of interest in the art world I had no strong connection with any of the characters. Had I been interested in art I would probably have rated it much higher. than the 6/10 that I gave it.
A Brief History of Time (1991)
Part Biography - Part Science
I confess that I have never read the book of the same name by Stephen Hawking, and although I have a broad interest in questions about the origins of the universe, I lack the scientific background, knowledge and training to really be able to do more than scratch the surface of the subject. Having heard many people over the years speak highly of the book, I thought this movie might help me do more than scratch the surface - but it really didn't. In fact, the movie in many ways is less about science than it is about Stephen Hawking's life. It's a documentary style biography, as opposed to the dramatized biography presented in the 2014 movie "The Theory Of Everything." And I have to say that the biography part of this is excellent.
One does get a feel for Hawking's life from his childhood (really, from his birth) onward. I've always been something of a fan and admirer of Stephen Hwking - feelings that are enhanced today, quite honestly, by his willingness to make regular guest appearances on a TV show like "The Big Bang Theory." Aside from his TV appearances and his scientific research, Hawking is probably best known for being afflicted with ALS (in every day terms, Lou Gehrig's Disease.) What we learn from this movie (at least it was speculated by his mother) is that it was his ALS diagnosis that really motivated him in his work. Before the disease, he was a very bright but often unmotivated young man. Perhaps it was the prospect of having a limited time to live that made him what he is today - at least, that seems to be what's suggested here. This is an interesting look at his life - even very inspiring. If Hawking could overcome the challenges he faced and become what he's become, how can I complain about my relatively minor inconveniences? So the bio part of this movie is well done.
The scientific part of the movie I thought, though, was a little bit lacking, for two reasons - which are a little bit contradictory, I confess. First. a lot of what was offered was admittedly over my head. I could be impressed by Hawking's knowledge - but it's kind of like being impressed by anyone who says a lot about things you know little about. I have to accept that he's right, because I don't know enough to say he's wrong, or even to question his ideas - which, as one of the interviewees in the movie said, is the very heart of science. But I don't know enough to raise the questions. And yet, at the same time (and here's the contradictory part) while I may not have the knowledge to question what Hawking says or his theories, I also felt there was a little bit of a lack of depth to this. We hear a little bit about a lot of his theories - which is maybe all the average scientific lay person can even begin to process, but the lack of depth was still noticeable. He raises a lot of intriguing ideas - but they don't seem to come to any real definitive point. Perhaps that's appropriate, given his conclusions about the universe having no real singularity (and thus no real beginning) and the ongoing lack of the infamous "theory of everything." I shouldn't be bothered by the lack of depth - because if this had been any deeper it would have been even more inaccessible to me - but somehow I was.
Having said that, this was an interesting film. If I thought there might have been a lack of depth in the presentation of the science, the interviews that were at the heart of it (from family members, friends and colleagues) gave us real depth into Hawking the person. He's is an intriguing (even fascinating) man. I'm not onside with some of his conclusions. Admittedly (as I've confessed) my scientific knowledge about the origins of the universe is limited, but I still see nothing that was presented here (or that I've seen from Hawking since) that convinces me that there's no God. His research likely blows holes in some of the creation myths of various religions - but they are, of course, myths that seek to reveal truth rather than fact (and truth and fact are not identical - the former is philosophical, the latter is scientific.) Even one of his colleagues interviewed in the movie acknowledged that he personally believed that "the universe" has a "purpose" - which is a philosophical (and potentially even theological) statement. As a person of faith, I've always found that science (which I'm fascinated with) deepens faith rather than detracts from it.
In any event, this movie was one that I found thought provoking. Perhaps not without its weaknesses - but definitely thought-provoking. (7/10)
Patriots Day (2016)
Nothing Here Really Connected With Me
I want to start out with the positive. Patriots Day was a good reminder to me of what actually happened on that day in Boston. Not being an American, I was certainly aware that the bombing of the Boston Marathon had taken place in 2013 but I can't really say that many of the details of the event and its aftermath had stayed with me, in the way that the 9/11 attacks did. So I had honestly forgotten that the hunt for the bombers extended over several days. I didn't remember the police officer who was ambushed by the bomber several days later. I really didn't remember the almost complete lockdown of parts of the city as the authorities closed in on the bombers. So the film was successful in jogging my memory of the events. The testimonies from actual survivors and from others involved in what happened as the movie came to an end were worthwhile, and the tribute to those who were killed (including a 9 year old boy) were sobering. The chaos portrayed in the immediate aftermath of the bombing came across as realistic. So there were some things that worked here - but the basic problem I had with this was that I just didn't find it especially interesting.
In all honesty the first 20-30 minutes of this were painfully dull and had me wondering why I was even bothering to watch this. But beyond that, the primary problem I had was that none of the characters really connected with me at all. The movie kind of moved in a bit of a blur. No one stood out and said to me "I'm the one you need to be watching; I'm the one you need to care about." None of the victims were really followed that closely. We saw a lot of police work going on - but none of the police officers or other officials made a huge impact. Mark Wahlberg's Sgt. Tommy Saunders was supposed to be doing that. He was the main character. The problem was just that, though - he was a character; completely fictional. I'll give the benefit of saying that the character was a composite, but still fictional. So why did I need to know about his wife, or whatever discipline it was he was dealing with as the movie opened? That was totally superfluous - since the guy didn't even exist! And none of the other actors in this really leaped out at me. As the story moved into the hunt for the bombers, there were times when this came across more as an action thriller for entertainment purposes than anything, full of gunfights and little else. I also can't say that I found this especially dramatic. You wait expectantly for the bombs to go off once the movie shifts to the actual Marathon, but aside from that this comes across as kind of flat. There was also no real exploration of the motive of the Tsarnaev brothers, or how they came to the point of wanting to do this.
It's a movie that was going to be made. To be honest, it's probably a movie that needed to be made. There were people who deserved to be paid tribute to, and really the entire city should be commended for the way it came together. Those who made this simply needed to do a better job of connecting with the viewer. (3/10)
I have to say that this is watchable from pretty much beginning to end. As a matter of fact the opening title sequences - which may be the sexiest title sequences ever made as Jane Fonda floats around half-naked in some sort of zero gravity environment - ensure that you're probably not going to take your eyes off this (at least if you're a straight male) for the rest of the way. Yes, it's a movie in which there are many young and attractive female characters in the background (and Jane Fonda front and centre) who spend much of their time in various states of undress. Admittedly it's pretty tame by today's standards (really nothing more than toplessness) but definitely aesthetically appealing! (And for the straight women out there there's also half naked angel Pygar!) There is a story to this. Fonda is Barbarella, sent by Earth to find mad scientist Durand Durand (and yes, the rock group Duran Duran took their name from the character Durand Durand in this movie!) and experiencing various adventures along the way. It's not an especially good story, the special effects are quite primitive - even laughable - and the script leaves a lot to be desired. But it's quintessentially 1960's stuff in so many ways.
It seems to pay tribute to various entertainment genres that were all the rage at the time. Sci-fi had started to hit big time with shows like Star Trek. There was the secret agent out to save the world (or in this case maybe the whole universe) like James Bond. The was the campiness seen in TV shows like Batman - and Barbarella's turn in the Pleasure Chamber seemed like a soft core version of the various traps Batman and Robin would be subjected to. Some scenes are the epitome of pyschedelic, and there's a few scenes featuring a few apparently high characters smoking - well - something.
Apparently a number of actresses (including Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren) had been considered for the title role, but Fonda was well cast. She was well known but not quite as famous as Bardot or Loren, who probably wouldn't have agreed to some of the more "revealing" scenes Fonda did. And Fonda played the whole thing with this sort of wide eyed innocence that really made the film all the more enjoyable. It's not a good movie by any means. But it is an interesting movie - or, at least, it's a movie of interest that certainly isn't unpleasant to watch, even if it is hopelessly a product of its time. (4/10)
A Christmas Carol (1984)
A Very Good Adaptation Of A Familiar Story
I knew that there had been a version of "A Christmas Carol" made that starred George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge, but as far as I can recall I had never seen it until now. The basic story is well known. It might be the most famous story in English literature and I can't think of a piece of literature that has been adapted so many times and in so many different ways. This version was what I would call a "straight" adaptation. It stayed more or less true to Charles Dickens' work. Everyone knows the plot: Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser who hates Christmas and who ends up being transformed as a result of ghostly encounters into a jovial, kind and compassionate philanthropist. It's a story of redemption in a way. The story being so well know, then, what really counts about this adaptation is George C. Scott. How did he do?
I went into this movie as a dedicated fan of the famous 1951 version of the story that starred Alastair Sim as the miserly old Scrooge, and I had some doubts about Scott in the role. I have to say that having now seen this, my doubts have disappeared. Scott was absolutely superb! He took on a very difficult role (because it's so famous, and because Sim's take on the character is iconic) and he mastered it. His own take on Scrooge differs from that iconic take. Sim offered almost a whimsical, comedic portrayal at times, but at his nastiest Sim's Scrooge was very cold and hard-hearted. I thought Scott's performance was much more "even-keel" you might say - and perhaps in that sense even more believable and more in keeping with Charles Dickens' story. Scott managed to become Scrooge for me, and given how ingrained Alastair Sim is in the role in my head, that was a difficult task. He once again showed that he is a very fine actor.
The supporting cast in this was good, and the movie was as interesting as a movie can be when you know from the start how it all ends. To be honest it has not replaced the 1951 version in my heart - but it certainly is a worthy adaptation of the story. (8/10)
The Case for Christ (2017)
I Believe In The Resurrection As Well
I get Lee Strobel in a way that many of the reviewers of this obviously don't. At least in the sense that I, too, was an outspoken atheist who became convinced about the reality of the resurrection. Having become a Christian I later became a pastor. I'm not a fundamentalist. I generally disdain adjectives that serve little purpose other than to divide Christians into competing groups, but if I was forced to pick one I'd say that I probably lean toward the more progressive side of the Christian faith and have an open mind toward Christian universalism, although I'm not convinced of it. But I'm not here to shill for the Christian faith or to proselytize. I'm just here to review a movie. Lee Strobel's story interests me for obvious reasons. As a journalist he was bothered by his wife's sudden conversion to Christian faith and essentially set out to collect evidence that would debunk the Christian faith. Instead, the evidence he collected convinced him of the truth of the Christian faith. As a summary of Strobel's faith journey, I thought this was interesting and well portrayed, and Mike Vogel did a good job as Strobel, as did Erika Christensen as his wife Leslie.
I'm not convinced that this movie would convince anyone to believe. Nor am I convinced that the purpose of this movie was to convince anyone to believe. I think the purpose of the movie was to simply portray Strobel's own journey. How did this atheist turn around and become a man of faith? So, really, this is what I'd call a "niche" movie. It will be of interest to Christians - evangelicals who like stories of conversions and people like myself who can understand Strobel's journey. So negative reviews that are based on not being convinced by the evidence Strobel presents are missing the point. That's legitimate reason to dismiss the book (of the same name) that Strobel wrote - which did have an evangelical agenda - but as far as this movie is concerned all that really matters is that Strobel found evidence that convinced him, not whether that evidence would convince anyone else. He did, and the story is well presented.
My own journey was different. Although I believe there's more than enough evidence to support the basic tenets of the Christian faith (including concepts such as resurrection and incarnation) I readily accept that the evidence is circumstantial and subjective. The evidence can point one in a particular direction, but somewhere along the way there has to be an experiential element to a conversion that actually convinces a person to believe. Faith, after all, is indeed belief in that which cannot be proven. And the movie did make a valid point - that both belief in God and unbelief in God is really a matter of faith, since the existence of God can be neither proven nor disproven. It is by its very nature a matter of faith.
This is a surprisingly decent movie. There's a bit of a backstory about some of Strobel's work as an investigative journalist trying to uncover police corruption in Chicago, but mostly it's a Christian movie about the search for truth. It won't "convince" anyone - but it will provide an interesting enough account of one man's spiritual journey from atheism to Christianity. (7/10)
The Best I've Ever Seen From Reese Witherspoon
I'm accustomed to seeing Reese Witherspoon in lighter fare than this. She's generally pretty good in that kind of stuff, but just the genre itself means that she's never really ranked in what I would call my "A" list of actresses. But my appreciation of her talent increased immensely when I saw her in "Wild." She carries this movie on her back just as much as her character carries her heavy backpack throughout most of the movie. She's in pretty much every scene, so nothing really happens without her, and she's excellent. With all due respect to Julianne Moore, Witherspoon probably should have won the Oscar for best actress that year, and why "Wild" did not even earn an Oscar nomination is beyond me. I'm aware that Cheryl Strayed (on whose memoir this movie is based) said that it was a case of sexism - suggesting that because the movie was based on a woman's experience it didn't get the respect it deserved. Whether that's true or not I have no idea, but overlooking the movie was a huge and sad oversight.
As Strayed, Witherspoon was portraying a very troubled young woman dealing with a whole lot of demons in her life - an abusive father, a loving mother who died far too young, a failed marriage. All those things led to drug addictions and sexual promiscuity and eventually an unwanted pregnancy until Cheryl finally decides to basically find herself and get her life back together by committing to hike about 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail - in spite of the fact that as far as hiking goes she's completely inexperienced and totally unprepared. The movie does a superb job of following her along the trail, recounting some of the experiences she has along the way. You expect her to encounter trouble, but although some of her experiences are (or seem) threatening, nothing really bad ever happens to Cheryl, and for the most part she meets a lot of really nice people along the way. It's more a case of the mood that gets set along the way. In fact, most of what happens on the Trail is so unexciting that I can't even call them adventures - and so I use the word "experiences." But the story isn't so much about the Trail or what happens to her - it's about a journey of self-discovery; a journey that helps her come to terms with who she is and where she's been and - just maybe - where she's going. Director Jean-Marc Vallee, I thought, did a great job of moving forward a story that wasn't really "exciting" but keeping it interesting all the way through. The movie intersperses the story of Cheryl's hike, with her backstory, through flashbacks as far back as her childhood and up into her troubled adulthood after her mother's death, and these flashbacks certainly help us to understand how Cheryl got to the point where she needed to do something to re-centre her life. I'm not sure that, in similar circumstances, I'd choose a 1000 mile hike - but she did, and it seemed to work for her.
There's really not much to criticize here. The ending may be a little bit rushed - this was a rare movie that left me thinking that maybe there could have been just a bit more? But, overall, I was really impressed with this. In some respects it reminded me a little bit of the 1999 movie "The Straight Story." I wasn't sure that a movie about a woman going on a long hike would be able to keep me interested for almost two hours. But it did. (9/10)
After A Tedious First Hour This Movie Finally Get Going
I have to admit that "Mudbound" almost lost me during its first hour. The story sounded good - an account of two farm families (one black, the Jacksons; one white, the McAllans) dealing with racism and various other challenges during and immediately after World War II. The McAllans owned the farm and the Jacksons were sharecroppers. But to be blunt that first hour or so was pretty dull. There didn't seem to be a great deal of tension between the two families. Yes, the Jacksons wanted off the farm - and the reality of the sharecropper system (that basically the sharecropper could never earn enough to pay off their debt so that they could never leave) was pointed out. But what we basically saw was the everyday life of the two families. There wasn't really any drama involved with it. The movie seemed to jump back and forth. Eventually, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and Ronsel Jackson and Jaime McAllan join up. Ronsel becomes a tank commander and Jaime a bomber pilot. So in addition to various scenes from the families' home life, we sometimes cut to war scenes. But none of it seemed well connected; the movie didn't seem to be going in any particular direction. It portrayed everyday life - at peace and at war - and everyday life just isn't really that exciting, I'm sad to say. It was rather tedious.
The movie does take a sudden turn for the better in the second half though. Ronsel and Jaime return home - and they're changed. The shared experience of war (even though they weren't together in Europe) has broken down a lot of barriers, and they become friends. But Ronsel - having experienced a more racially friendly atmosphere in Europe - has trouble adjusting to the racial realities of the American south, and Jaime just has trouble getting his feet back on to the ground, so to speak. He's traumatized by some of his war experiences, begins drinking - and over it all is his father, who is a completely unpleasant character; a racist who demeans Jaime's war experience. As Ronsel and Jaime become closer you know there's trouble coming, and eventually it arrives, and a movie that had been muddled and tedious all of a sudden becomes focused and riveting.
Ronsel is involved in a racist confrontation with Jaime's father almost immediately upon returning home. He might be returning home in uniform as a sergeant after serving his country, but in the south he's still a - well, insert the "n" word, which - be aware - is liberally (but appropriately given the historical setting) used in this movie. Everything leads to a very brutal scene involving the KKK (and an ultimate confrontation between Jaime and his father) but without giving much away let's just say that the KKK scene could have let the movie end on a very sombre note, but instead the movie ends on an incredibly beautiful and hopeful note.
"Mudbound" almost seems to be two completely different movies - one very good; the other - well, not so much. Throw them together and I have to give this a 5/10.
Simple And Straightforward With Some Excellent Tank Battle Scenes
If you're looking for a deep and well developed plot, then "Fory" will probably disappoint. It's a very straightforward and even simple story of an American tank crew in the last days of World War II. Battle hardened and perhaps a bit cynical as a result, these Americans for the most part are not the honourable heroes that American movies usually portray. They've become as vicious as anyone else. They'll mercilessly kill their prisoners, they'll rape German women. There's repeated reflections on how bad the SS are whenever they're encountered - but under the surface there's a sense that this particular tank crew at least isn't all that much better. They kill indiscriminately, with little hesitation and few attacks of conscience. It's all to paint a broad picture of war as brutal and ugly. It dehumanizes warriors, turning them int killing machines. It's a very bloody and graphic and violent movie, featuring some of the most vicious tank battles I've ever come across on film. It isn't a movie that's going to give you the warm fuzzies, nor does it create heroes. It's not a very likable movie - and yet, I enjoyed it.
First, I liked the lead performances from Brad Pitt as Sgt. Collier (the commander of the tank crew) and Logan Lerman as Norman (a clerk typist who somehow got assigned to tank duty. Logan was not welcomed or respected by the crew. He didn't want to kill; he didn't really want to fight. He wanted to type. He still saw the Germans as people rather than enemies. I liked the portrayal of the bond that developed between Collier and Norman. Collier took him under his wing in a sense - protected him somewhat from the abuse of the crew and treated him decently, all the while preparing him for war. Norman gradually evolves and - sadly in some ways - by the end of the movie becomes a savage warrior like the others. I found myself kind of wanting Norman to stay more human; his gradual transformation was a little bit sad. The rest of the tank crew (played by actors like Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal) were pretty one dimensional.
The best scenes of the movie are probably in the German apartment where Collier and Norman hook up with two German women - one of whom seemed very young and innocent - much like Norman, actually. There's a tension to those scenes. Norman takes her into a bedroom and we assume they have sex - but it didn't seem to be a savage rape. This was Norman. The two seemed genuinely to like each other and found something with each other in the midst of the insanity around them. The girl's death as a civilian casualty when the Americans are attacked seems to be the turning point for Norman.
As I said, this is a pretty simple and straightforward movie - but it does have some good moments of reflection and humanity. (7/10)
Battle Los Angeles (2011)
Standard Alien Invasion Fare
It's all a matter of taste, I suppose. If you're really into the action stuff - and if you are, that's great - you'll love this movie. There's lots of action in this. Lots of gunfights, lots of combat. What was believed to be a meteor shower actually turned out to be aliens whose ships land in the oceans and start to attack 20 earth cities. Obviously, this movie centres on the battle for Los Angeles, basically following a platoon of US Marines as they do battle with the bad guys from outer space and try to protect a few civilians they come across while doing so. Beyond that there's no real plot or story to this. We really don't learn very much about the aliens or why they were attacking - except that they wanted our water. It reminded me a little bit of War of the Worlds - although that (actually both movie versions) was better.
The characters really aren't especially fleshed out or interesting. We get a bit of a backstory on Staff Sargeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhardt.) He had led a platoon in Afghanistan or Iraq (can't remember if it was named specifically) and lost some men. He blames himself for their loss and was getting ready to retire until he was sent back into battle with the platoon fighting the alien invaders. Fortunately for him the brother of one of the men he lost was in the same platoon. So there's a bit of interplay there, some mistrust, some respect having to be re-earned. But basically this was about the battle. It went on for too long. It was well portrayed, but after a while I started to lose interest, to be honest, because it didn't really seem to be going anywhere, and you knew eventually where it would have to go - these aliens would have to be defeated. So, for about half the movie I was paying attention; then my mind did begin to wander a bit as I waited for the end.
What it comes right down to is that this is pretty standard stuff about an alien invasion of earth. There's nothing especially unique about it to capture or hold your attention. If you like non-stop battles with invaders from outer space - this is your kind of movie. For me: 4/10
In a Valley of Violence (2016)
A Strangely Interesting Movie That Works
It's intriguing that I found this to be an interesting movie, considering that for the most part I thought it had some difficulty trying to establish what it wanted to be. Certainly it's a western - gunfights and horses and a marshal. It often feels as though it wants to be a comedy. The scenes with the drunken preacher wanting to "save" the town of Denton were humorous, as was a lot of the interplay between the various characters. It's most certainly a revenge story. Paul (Ethan Hawke) is out for blood after the killing of his beloved dog. And don't forget the dog. One of the cutest dogs and most talented dogs you'll ever come across in a movie - it upset me when she was killed partway through. So this is going in a lot of different directions all at once, and yet ... it does work. It's not great. It's not going to win an Oscar. But it works.
Hawke was good in his role. He was believable as the lonely drifter seeking revenge after his faithful companion was taken from him for no particular reason. James Ransone as his main adversary Gilly didn't hit home quite as well with me. He was all right. I was more taken with John Travolta as the marshal - who also happened to be Gilly's father. I've seen some criticism of him - suggestions that he was miscast - but I thought he handled the part pretty well, and to be honest I was sympathetic to his character. He didn't do anything. He let Paul off the hook when he could have taken him in after he and Gilly got into a fight to start the whole thing. He told his son and his buddies not to go after Paul - and he wasn't happy when they defied him and did it anyway. He didn't deserve his fate.
It's not a lavish movie. The sets are pretty barebones - and the opening credits were bizarre. They reminded me of the opening credits of a 1960's TV show somehow and kind of lowered my expectations from the start of what I should expect. But the movie exceeded those expectations once it got started. I also appreciated that in the end there was no attempt to introduce a romance into the story. Had there been one it surely would have been between Paul and Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga.) The problem would have been that Mary Anne was supposed to be 16 years old. I suppose in the context of the Old West a romance between them wouldn't have been shocking - but given the current climate in Hollywood, it's probably best that the movie didn't go in that direction. This just turned out to be a pretty decent and interesting movie. (6/10)
The House (2017)
I'm never quite sure what to expect out of a movie starring Will Ferrell. He's done some things that I've really liked and found very funny (the first "Anchorman" comes to mind; "Elf" would be in there somewhere; I liked "Step Brothers;" his one man show about George W. Bush was really good.) But he's also done some real stinkers. "The House" unfortunately tended to the stinker side of the spectrum - not his worst movie by any means, but not a good movie by any measure. This was a disappointment, because comedies that are based around a plausible scenario can be very effective. And there was a believable backstory to this. Scott and Kate (Ferrell and Amy Poehler) need money to send their daughter to college. I'm the father of a teenager. I can relate to that reality. They depended on a scholarship from the town, but the corrupt mayor stole the money that would have gone to the scholarship. So, in desperation, they concoct a scheme to open an illegal casino in a friend's house. "The House" always wins, after all - so getting enough money for tuition shouldn't be a problem.
There is some potential there. Unfortunately, it was lost somewhere along the way. There was a crudeness to this movie that took the spotlight off whatever humour there may have been - and the whole thing became way too overdone to be in any way believable, even as a comedy. Ferrell was just Ferrell. There was nothing especially noteworthy about his performance. Poehler wasn't a standout. And in fairness I suppose neither had much material to work with.
I will confess that I laughed at the scenes in which Scott cuts off people's appendages by accident and earns himself the nickname of "The Butcher," with the whole town becoming terrified of him. And as a fan of "The Walking Dead" I appreciated the references to that show - same premise (desperate people facing a desperate situation) but obviously in a very different context.
In the end, I found this crude rather than funny. It wasn't a pleasant movie to watch. Although there were a few laughs, when it ended I didn't feel that I had been entertained in the way a comedy should entertain. (3/10)
It's Certainly Quite A Ride!
You have to watch this movie if only for the car chase - which seems to take up at least two thirds of the screen time! This is kind of a comeback movie for Halle Berry, who hasn't really done very much in recent years. In "Kidnap" she plays Karla - a waitress who's involved in a custody dispute with her ex over their 6 year old son. After finishing work one day, Karla takes young Frankie to an amusement park, and he vanishes. Finally she catches a glimpse of him being forced into a green car - and the chase begins. And it's certainly a wild chase. Yes - wild to the point of unbelievable, but nevertheless a lot of fun to watch. The chase is wild and suspenseful and even frightening at times. It leads up to another pretty suspenseful encounter with the kidnappers at their home.
Berry did pretty well with the part. To be honest, she's the only cast member of any real significance, so a bad performance from her would have made this unbearable. But she did well enough with the part.
You know right from the start that little Frankie is going to be kidnapped, and there are a couple of points early in the movie that lead you to suspect one or another as responsible for the kidnapping. And, in the end, there's no way to predict the discovery Karla would make at the kidnappers' home.
It's a pretty unbelievable film. The writing isn't all that great, but then again in a largely one person cast there's not a lot of dialogue necessary. The car chase and the scenes at the house are enough to keep you watching. I certainly wouldn't call this a great movie - but it's fast paced and entertaining and suspenseful. Well worth watching. (7/10)
Left Behind (2014)
If I Had Been Raptured While Watching This Movie I Wouldn't Have Minded
As a non-fundamentalist Christian, I remember when the Tim LaHaye book (on which this is based) came about. It stirred a lot of excitement in those fundamentalist circles. I was never especially interested in it; never read it. To be honest I wasn't especially interested in the movie either (and never watched the earlier Kirk Cameron version.) But - hey - it's on Netflix; I had a free afternoon. How bad could it really be? Well, pretty bad. It isn't as awful as some people say it is. To be honest, the actual moment of rapture was kind of well done. People's clothes just dropping to the ground as they disappear leaving everybody else with either mouths agape or screaming in terror. It was kind of cool. And it's true that millions of people (whether Christians or anyone else) just simply disappearing all at the same time would cause chaos around the world - although we didn't see much of the world. Just a bit of New York City and mostly the airplane.
You see, most of this movie is set on an airplane. Nicolas Cage plays the pilot - Captain Ray Steele (which is a kind of a cool name - kudos to LaHaye for coming up with it in the novel.) The Steele family is divided. Ray and his daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson) are non- believers (Ray's having an affair with a flight attendant played by Nicky Whelan), while Irene (mom) and Raymie (young son) must be believers - 'cause they get taken to heaven, meaning we don't see much of them. I thought the scenes on the plane were semi- believable at times. Passengers had a variety of reactions - aliens or time travel or conspiracy or whatever. There were times of panic - although by the end everybody seemed surprisingly calm. There's a wee bit of suspense as the plane approaches New York City with no fuel. But overall the story and characters were pretty weak.
As for the theology, or at least the moral message? Well, first of all all children go to heaven. Because we get told that there are no children left. No age was attached. Do you get a free pass to heaven until you're - 10? 13? 16? I don't know. And, boy, once those Christians are gone it turns out that most of those who are left are looters or related thug-like folks, because there's lots of looting. And most of the Christians who were portrayed before the rapture were of the - shall we say - extremist variety, so this is clearly a triumphalistic sort of message from the fundamentalist community - come over to our side because we're gonna win! And there was really no great attempt to explain the idea of the rapture. It's not an idea that's universally accepted among Christians, and it's really a kind of bizarre idea. This is obviously supposed to be a sort of religious propaganda; an evangelistic tool meant to unfortunately scare people into believing that they better believe or this terrible thing is going to happen and you're gonna be "left behind." But scaring people into faith rarely works in my experience, and if it does it calls into serious question the very reason why a person would believe. The Christian faith as I understand it is supposed to put the focus on caring for others; this kind of evangelism tells you that you should be worried about yourself. And there's that irritating song that closed the movie out that I hadn't heard in years. "I wish we'd all been ready. ... The Son has come, and you've been left behind."
This isn't as absolutely horrible as some people say it is - although I wouldn't have objected to being raptured during it. I could have seen that as an act of divine mercy. Of course, I wasn't raptured during it, but I will confess that I fell asleep and missed the last 20 minutes of it - but I was interested enough to go back and see how it ended. Everything's kind of left up in the air - maybe leaving open the possibility of a sequel, since there have been Lord knows how many books in the series. I doubt that will happen. I would think this has a very niche market. Fundamentalist Christians might yearn for more. Others (like me) might check it out on Netflix, but I certainly wouldn't pay to see a sequel in a theatre or specifically rent a DVD of a sequel. (3/10)
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
A Moving And Inspirational Account Of A Pacifist At War
I have to give credit to Mel Gibson. His work directing "Hacksaw Ridge" was exceptional - one of his best pieces of work, I'd say. This is a biographical movie, offering us the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and pacifist who nevertheless joined the US Army during World War II, serving as a medic and refusing to take up arms against the Japanese - as he says in the movie, he joined to save lives and not to take them. Andrew Garfield took on the role of Doss and did well with it. I was also impressed with Teresa Palmer as Doss's wife Dorothy. The cast as a whole was not chock full of superstars, but it was solid.
The movie starts with a long account of Doss's backstory. I often find backstories overdone and find myself wanting to get on with the meat of the story. Not so here. I enjoyed the backstory and found myself thinking that Gibson got perhaps a bit too focused on the very graphic and gory depictions of the Battle of Okinawa at the expense of Doss's life. So, to be honest, I was a bit disappointed that much of Doss's backstory was fictional - he was raised by his parents as a Seventh Day Adventist and pacifist, but a lot of him homelife and his courting of Dorothy was apparently not accurate - unfortunate, because the depiction of his courting of Dorothy included one of the best pick up lines imaginable!
Doss's introduction to military life was portrayed in a way I found believable. As a pacifist who refused to bear arms He had to fight for acceptance among his comrades. The movie doesn't offer a full account of Doss's military service. He had served and been decorated for his service in Guam and the Philippines before Okinawa, but the story seems to imply that Okinawa was his introduction to the horror of war. And the movie did portray war as horrific. As I mentioned above, Gibson gave us a graphic and gory and blood-soaked look at the battlefield. It certainly made the point that there were ways for pacifists to serve their country courageously and honourably. To be honest, I found that almost too much.
Closing with some footage of the real Doss and his comrades, this movie, while taking liberty with Doss's early years, was both moving and inspirational. (8/10)
The Revenant (2015)
DiCaprio Holds Together An Over-Rated But Watchable Movie
I was surprised to discover that "The Revenant" was based on a true story - then disappointed to learn that it was only very loosely based on a true story - a lot of important details in the movie (like Glass's Pawnee wife and son) are simply not true, and the real story of Hugh Glass wasn't really a revenge story. What was true was the bear attack. I was familiar with the silly story about Leonardo DiCaprio (or really Glass, his character) being "raped" by the bear. That was utterly ridiculous. The movie made clear that this was a female bear with cubs nearby. Why anyone would start such a story is beyond me. It was a bear attack - a pretty vicious one that was very well portrayed. And, as I said, it's really the primary connection to the real story of Hugh Glass.
Set in 1823, the movie starts strongly, with a depiction of an Indian attack on a group of American fur traders. That's very well choreographed. In fact, overall - including the depiction of the bear attack and the choreography of the Indian attack - the strongest part of the movie is probably the work of director Alejandro Inarritu. His work was excellent. All throughout the movie you see great camera work, excellent photography and spectacular scenery. All that is so good - and, in fact, it's almost too much. It seems to take over the movie at times. That's probably because the story as a whole didn't exactly enthrall me. The movie is set up as a revenge story, with Glass hunting down Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) - who had killed his half Pawnee son. As I said, that's fake, and really the movie doesn't emphasize the revenge element. This is really a survival story - and there are times when you wonder how Glass survived. How did he survive the wounds from the bear attack? How did he survive the raging river and waterfall? Why didn't he freeze to death once he got out of the river, soaking wet in the middle of winter with snow on the ground? How did he survive the plunge over the cliff? He's almost superhuman - the survival scenes are too unbelievable to make Glass a character you can really empathize with. There are also more than a few cringe worthy moments. There is that gruesome bear attack. There's Glass cauterizing his own wounds. There's Glass gutting the horse so he can crawl in to stay warm. Yeah. I was wincing a few times. But those are scattered throughout the story, and for long periods there's not much to fall back on but the scenery and photography. It's beautiful, yes, but some of it could probably have been taken out for the sake of making a tighter and more focused movie.
Having said that, the story did grow on me as it went along and came closer to the climactic confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald. I admit my attention wandered a few times, but I was never tempted to just step away from this. DiCaprio offered a basically one man show for extended periods, and was all right doing that. I've probably seen actors pull it off better than he did (Tom Hanks in Cast Away, James Franco in 127 Hours, maybe even Robert Redford in All Is Lost all come to mind) but DiCaprio was pretty good in holding it all together. And I did like the ending. The final scenes in which Glass finally confronts Fitzgerald were very well done. It wasn't true, but it was well done. Interestingly, I also found a pretty consistent spiritual theme running through the movie - which I wasn't actually expecting.
I think this is a bit over-rated, but it was worth watching. (6/10)
Septembers of Shiraz (2015)
Some Interesting Thoughts About The Iranian Revolution
I watched this movie on Netflix Canada where it was called "Enemy Territory." Set in Tehran in 1979 about eight months after the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power, the movie basically tells the story of one affluent Jewish family living in the city and trying to navigate their way through the chaotic times.
Adiren Brody played Isaac, husband to Farnez (Salma Hayak) and father to Parviz and Shirin. Isaac is a successful jeweller who stays out of politics and looks after his business, treating his Muslim employees well. The biggest mark against him is that he regularly travels to Israel to visit family. As the movie opens, the family is happy and successful and celebrating Parviz' opportunity to go to school in the United States. All seems well, even in the aftermath of the revolution. But suddenly Isaac is arrested, and the family finds itself living in a nightmare. Confined to a prison, Issac is questioned and tortured in an attempt to get information from him. Most of the torture was not especially graphic, but there was one unsettling scene in which Isaac is tied and beaten. His wife and young daughter aren't given much information about where he is, and for a time don't know if he's alive or dead. You feel for the family's plight, and you hope for their eventual escape, but for me Isaac's story and the family's troubles were secondary. I found this movie more interesting for offering a few different takes on what the Revolution was all about.
To be honest, the religious aspect of the Iranian Revolution wasn't much depicted. But I found three competing narratives that told the Revolution's story. There were those who honestly saw the Revolution as an attempt to right social injustices and to free Iran from foreign domination. Much of this was seen through Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo) - who worked for the family but who was also a friend to them, but who was increasingly aware of the discrepancy between the two. As she noted once, in all the years she had worked for them she had never been asked to share a meal with them. Watching her struggle within herself about the meaning of the Revolution was interesting, and Aghdashloo did a good job of portraying that internal struggle. Then there was Habibeh's son Morteza (Navid Navid.) Essentially he and his cohorts are the thugs who appear in every revolution (or even just protest) and use the events as an opportunity to wreak havoc. Morteza steals everything from Isaac, in spite oft he fact that Isaac had been very good to him. And there's Mohsen (Alon Aboutboul) - in charge of the prison where Isaac is held. His character makes the point out that even revolutionaries are for sale. Once Isaac arranges to give him a lot of money (donated to the revolution, of course) Mohsen suddenly arranges for Isaac's release and gains him and his family safe travel out of the country. None of that is earth-shattering, but I thought it was a well done portrayal of the multi-faceted motivations behind a revolution.
I can't say this was a particularly exciting story. There is some drama toward the end as the family approaches Turkey, and it isn't at all clear that they'll make their escape, but beyond that it's a relatively straightforward movie. Isaac gets arrested; Isaac gets tortured; Isaac gets released; Isaac flees with his family. It's not complicated. But somehow I did like the portrayal of the Revolution. (7/10)
John Wick (2014)
You Can Steal A Man's Car - You Can Beat A Man Up - But Don't Kill The Man's Dog!
As the title clearly tells us, this movie is really about one man - John Wick. John is a sort of super (perhaps even super-human) hit man for the Russian Mob. But he's retired. He found love; he got married; everything was great; he left the life. But his wife got sick and then died, and as her parting gift to the devastated John, she arranges for him to be sent a puppy after she died. The puppy comforts him in his grief. Until ... One day he has an encounter with the son of the Russian mob boss he used to work for. They don't know each other. The guy falls in love with John's car, and later breaks into John's house, beats John up, kills John's puppy and steals John's car. It was the killing of the puppy - the last link with his beloved wife - that pushed John over the top. He's back, and he's out for revenge: bloody, merciless and remorseless revenge against anybody and everybody even remotely involved with this heinous act.
That's it, more or less. The movie then goes through a whole series of bloody gunfights and fistfights and martial arts sequences as John (Keanu Reeves) single-handedly wreaks havoc on the Russian Mob in New York City. The fight scenes go on and on and on. They seem never-ending. It was a very one-dimensional part for Reeves (but, then again, most of the characters in this were one dimensional.) The point of the movie wasn't to tell a story or to give us meaningful moments and characters. They were all pretty one dimensional, working with a plot that was straightforward and largely predictable. This is obviously all leading up to the climactic confrontation. Admittedly, I wasn't entirely sure who John's final confrontation was going to be with until the son was killed with almost a half hour left to go. Clearly it wasn't him. So it goes on and on and on for a while longer.
Personally, I found the last half hour quite tedious viewing. If you really like this kind of genre - violent and bloody action with little or no story - then this is a movie you've got to watch. I have to admit that this just really wasn't my style, even though I can appreciate a man wanting to take revenge for the killing of his puppy! (3/10)
Hidden Figures (2016)
These Women Definitely Had The Right Stuff
I couldn't help but think of this movie in relation to the 1983 movie "The Right Stuff." That film honoured the first seven American astronauts in the Mercury program. This movie honours the vital contributions to that program of African American women - largely behind the scenes and often not getting the credit they deserved. The movie focuses on three women in particular: Katherine Gobel/Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). All three are brilliant in their respective fields: Katherine as a mathematician, Dorothy as a programmer and Mary as an engineer. All three work for NASA in the early days of the space program as the Mercury program is just beginning, and all three are involved in the vital calculations necessary to launch, orbit and re-enter capsules. In the midst of the work, the women are forced to deal with things such as riding at the back of the bus, segregated bathrooms and the prejudices of their co-workers. Henson and Spencer seemed somewhat more central to the story and offered good performances. Monae - better known as a singer than an actress - seems to fade away a bit compared to those two, but still does a fine job with the role.
Truthfully, race was really as central a theme to this movie as was the space race. While it was all set in the context of the space race between the USA and the USSR, it was also set in the early 1960's at the NASA facility that was located in Virginia - a state where segregation was still an accepted and every day fact of life. And, of course, the women are not just African Americans - they're women, and they have to deal with sexism as well - even from some African American males, who don't seem to know what to make of them working in such important jobs. The scenes depicting the reality of life in the south in the era are sobering, and once the Mercury astronauts are introduced there's a lot of tension involved - although much of that is mitigated by the fact that we've seen the astronauts' stories and the basic story of the space flights in "The Right Stuff." But it was inspiring to see the contributions of Katherine and Dorothy and Mary and others like them.
It's a well done movie. Some of the characters are composite characters. That isn't really a big deal and was probably necessary to give some focus to the movie. Actually, two of the most important NASA figures - Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) were composites. There were some scenes that were very dramatic but that were created for the movie. Harrison (and since he didn't exist - no one else) never smashed down a "Coloured Women" restroom sign, for example. It was a powerful scene, but completely made up. I want to suggest that Parsons was a superb choice for the role of Stafford. His role as Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory makes it easy to relate to him as a jealous and arrogant scientist who seems to look down on everyone else's work - and he proved here that he can handle such a character in a dramatic role as well - although if I were Parsons, I might be concerned a bit with the possibility of type casting.
It's also a bit jarring in the year 2017 to see the state of technology in the era. I'm a child of the 1960's and grew up without computers, but even so I'm so steeped in today's culture that when I saw the sign "Coloured Computers" for the first time, I thought how ridiculous it was that even the computers that African Americans used were segregated. It took me a few minutes to realize that the African American women WERE the computers, doing the necessary calculations. NASA was just in the process of having a huge and primitive IBM computing machine built to take over the job of doing their calculations. Seeing people working frantically on all of the complex equations in the movie was a bit disorienting.
This is a very deliberately paced movie. It's interesting all the way through. I wouldn't say it's an intense movie very often, but it's a very watchable movie that pays deserved tribute to a largely forgotten but courageous and determined group of African American women who played a vital role in the beginning of America's space program. (8/10)
It's Tough To Stick With, But A Powerful Ending Makes The Effort Worthwhile
Perhaps it's strange to review a movie starting with the end, but somehow with "Arrival" this makes sense. Everything, to me, led up to the question that Louise (Amy Adams) asked Ian (Jeremy Renner) as the movie approached its close - basically, "if you could see your whole life laid out before you, would you change anything?" That's a thought provoking question - and put in the context of this movie, it's a powerful question.
As the movie started, we seemed to be offered a series of flashbacks of Louise's life. She was a mother, her baby grew into a young girl. Louise was a good mother, she adored her daughter, but something happened and her husband left her and her daughter got sick and died. What a downer of a way to start a movie. And how did it possibly relate to a story about aliens? Clearly this was not going to be a typical action-packed alien invasion/sci fi movie. But that opening was was what kept me watching. It was clear that the daughter's death had to be central to whatever was going to happen. But how? Louise was a Linguistics professor. One day, apparently after her daughter's death, 12 alien ships ("shells") appeared in various parts of the world. Louise - the linguist - is brought in by the US government to try to figure out a way of communicating with the aliens, to figure out why they're here and where they're from. And she's teamed with Ian - a scientist. And really, until the last 10 minutes of the movie, that's about it. The movie seems to be about trying to communicate with the aliens (and to some extent about the various nations trying to communicate with each other.) I took some Linguistics classes when I was in university. I enjoyed them, but I never would have thought that linguistics would make the basis of a good or entertaining movie - and I was right. To be honest, watching Louise try to talk to the "heptapods" (because the aliens had seven limbs) was tedious and at times excruciating. Why are the aliens here? That was the question for all of the characters in the movie. Why am I watching this movie? That was the question for me through most of it. But the opening scenes with the daughter kept me watching. I had to figure out how those fit in with the story. And - I'll be honest - I still don't entirely understand it.
Somehow the aliens' way of communicating has something to do with time. The aliens don't have a linear view of time. It isn't from the past into the future. It's everything together, all at once. And somehow this has impacted Louise. Her daughter didn't die in the past - her daughter will die in the future. And as it all comes to an end - after Louise has saved the day by convincing the Chinese (who were about to attack the shell that had landed on their territory) to back down (which maybe turned Louise into a bit too much of a hero; I think the point could have been made in a different way) she poses that question to Ian: "if you could see your whole life laid out before you, would you change anything?"
Ian's the father! Or, he's going to be the father! He asks her, "do you want to make a baby?" And suddenly the question is for Louise to answer: "if you could see your whole life laid out before you, would you change anything?" She knows that if she makes this baby with Ian, this baby is going to die as a teenager. Would you change that? Would you not have the baby? Would you not marry Ian? Because the marriage is going to fail. There are things in all our lives that we probably think on the surface we would change if we could. But that question made me think - if I changed the things that weren't so good, that would change all the things that are really great! Everything would be different, because everything is connected to everything else - like the aliens who made clear to Louise that they were just one out of twelve alien ships, all connected. Louise would marry Ian and have the baby. And, having thought about it, I don't think I'd change any of those things in my life that aren't great - because even the not great stuff is connected to the great stuff, and if I didn't have the not great stuff, I probably wouldn't have the great stuff either. If that makes any sense. Very rarely does a movie make you do something as deep as contemplating the very nature of your life. This one did.
Believe me, that last 10 minutes is worth it just for that one question that it raised, and for the explanation of the movie's somewhat strange timeline. It's kind of a tough slog to get get there. It's tedious at times; it's confusing at times. There are things that are simply unbelievable. The aliens seem to have an incredibly complex way of communicating, and Louise really didn't seem to have that much time with them, so her deciphering of their language in that short time was hard to accept. But those opening scenes do keep you watching, and the closing that ties it together makes the whole exercise of watching it worth it. (7/10)
The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)
An Important If Lesser Known Story From The Holocaust
Strangely in a movie about The Holocaust, my first reaction as I got into the main events of the movie was sympathy. As the Germans bomb Warsaw, I found myself feeling such angst for the animals at the Warsaw Zoo, who must have been absolutely terrified by what was happening. That's obviously not the main message or reaction that the movie is going for, but it's effective as a way of drawing us into the much more serious plight of Warsaw's Jews after the German occupation of Poland.
I'll say right off the top that this isn't "Schindler's List" - which, for me, remains the most powerful and most moving Holocaust film ever made. Having said that, it rightly honours the courage and sacrifice of the Zabinski family. Jan and Antonina owned the Warsaw Zoo. They took wonderful care of the animals - Antonina especially having a special bond with them - and as the movie opens (in the summer of 1939) all seems bliss. There are concerns about a possible German attack, but no one seems to take them very seriously - especially not Dr. Heck, a Berlin zoologist who is a friend of the Zabinskis and denied any interest in politics. Once war comes, though, the bliss disappears, Jews start to be rounded up and confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Zabinskis hatch a plan to save as many Jews as they can - starting with their best friends, then a girl who Jan rescues after she is raped by two German soldiers (it was an absolutely haunting and disturbing scene as she's led away into an alley by them, and actress Shira Haas was superb in depicting the absolutely traumatized girl afterward.) Eventually, they hid over 300 Jews in the Zoo, saving them from the concentration camps. It's a powerful story - a true one, and one that I was unfamiliar with (and I consider myself fairly familiar with that part of history.) Like Schindler from the aforementioned movie, the Zabinskis were eventually declared "Righteous Among The Nations" for their heroic work during the War.
The brutality of the war was clearly depicted; the terror that must have been felt by the Jews was felt. In a way, Heck sums up what is still to this day one of the great mysteries of that era: how Germans who, before Hitler and the War, were good and decent people could become consumed by the Nazis and their evil ideology. Because as the movie started, Heck did seem like a decent person - not someone you would expect to become caught up in the work of the Holocaust.
Jessica Chastain played the title character as Antonina. Her performance was good (as were the performances in general) but I found the fake accent she (and others) used in this movie to be at times difficult to follow and sometimes distracting. I really would prefer that actors in these kinds of roles just use their normal voices, because phony accents really don't convince me or give any feel of reality to the story. But beyond that there really isn't very much to criticize about this - except that perhaps the suffering in the Ghetto was somewhat underplayed, and the ongoing focus on the plight of the animals might have been a bit overdone at the expense of the human tragedy that was unfolding. (8/10)
The Family (2013)
I Expected Something Better
This is supposed to be a comedy - but the major problem with this is that it just isn't very funny. It seemed to have potential. It's about a family (headed by Robert de Niro, who in my opinion seemed a little old for the part) who are in the witness protection program because dad (De Niro) has ratted out his former Mafia family. First - I wondered about the FBI stashing them in France? France? It just seems implausible to me that France would be host for an FBI witness protection program. But OK. It's a comedy. I can live with that. It was supposed to be about the challenges of the family fitting in with French society. That actually could have been funny - but it wasn't. At times it was violent, at times it was quite boring. But it was really never particularly funny. The whole family (including Michelle Pfeiffer as the mom, Dianna Agron as the daughter and John D'Leo as the son) just more or less continues on with their mob upbringing and lifestyle, with not much of an attempt that I could see to fit in. Tommy Lee Jones was added as the head of the FBI team responsible for them. So the cast is good and capable and should be able to pull of comedy - because they've done it before. But it just didn't work.
I'll concede that while it may not have been funny, there was a bit of a "cute" moment when De Niro's character goes to a local film festival and watched "Goodfellas." Although, in all honesty, that might have been a bit too cute. The final scenes (where the mob shows up in the little town - more than half a dozen of them, which strikes me as a bit of overkill, but then again I'm not a mob boss) aren't too bad. They seem to be an attempt on the part of director Luc Besson to add some action into the movie. As I said, those closing scenes aren't bad - but one of the problems is that I never felt that Besson had a handle on what genre of movie he was supposed to be making. Perhaps (if you take away some of the nonsense) the film manages to give you a sense of how frustrating it must be to be in a witness protection program - constantly moving; constantly looking over your shoulder for whoever might be out to get you.
Basically, I expected more from a movie with a promising plot and such a collection of names in the cast. But if I ever feel the need again to watch a movie about how hard it is for outsiders with a secret to keep to fit in, I'll stick to "Coneheads." (3/10)
Perfect Stranger (2007)
Dreadfully Dull With Way Too Many Plot Twists
The cast was promising - the stars of this are Bruce Willis as Harrison and Halle Berry as Ro - and the story seemed mildly interesting. Ro's friend is murdered, and Ro tries to figure out who the killer is, suspecting a guy that her friend was having an anonymous internet romance with. OK. Like I said - it seemed promising. But it turned out to be dreadfully dull for most of its runtime.
It starts with an actual interesting story about Ro (an investigative reporter) confronting a US Senator about a sex scandal. But that turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. I guess it just establishes that Ro is a hotshot investigative reporter. OK. You could have just told us that. Then her friend gets murdered and she has to figure out who did it. So we spend a huge amount of time watching Ro pretending to be someone else, sending online messages to "ADEX," who she thinks is Harrison. Meanwhile Ro's friend Miles is some sort of tech wizard who spends a lot of his time hacking. Is this serious? Even in 2007 online romances and hacking would have seemed a bit dated. But by 2017? Let's just say that this ten year old movie already seems much older. But I get the sense that the viewer is supposed to be dazzled by this high tech wizardry. The movie meanders and sputters along, with none of it being especially interesting. Then - after 75-80 minutes of boredom, it's as if writer Todd Komarnicki suddenly realized that the script was a dud and filled the last 20- 25 minutes with no fewer than three plot twists. So we go from the killer that the whole movie had suggested, to a new killer, only to find that the old killer was really the killer, only to discover that there was actually a different killer. My mind had gone numb by this point. For the record - plot twist # 1 (which dealt with Miles' relationship with Ro) was the most interesting, and plot twist # 3 (which revealed the real killer) was, I confess, totally unexpected. But, still, you can't save a movie that's been boring for almost an hour and a half with plot twist after plot twist after plot twist. Komarnicki also gives us a lot of unnecessary backstory about Ro's childhood and her abusive father and he throws in the "f" word a lot. In my experience overuse of the "f" word is a sure sign that a writer knows he's written a dud, and rather than actually fixing the script he throws in the "f" word as much as possible, apparently thinking that prolific use of the "f" word will make a movie seem hard-hitting and exciting. (Memo to all script writers: IT DOESN'T WORK!!)
Not a movie I would recommend at all. (4/10)
Navy Seals vs. Zombies (2015)
Decent Zombie Flick With A Confusing Title
I was confused from the very beginning - and I still am, a little bit. I notice that here the film is listed as "Navy Seals vs. Zombies." That makes perfect sense, because that title sums up the movie perfectly. I watched in on Netflix Canada though - and there it's listed as Navy Seals: The Battle For New Orleans." So I spent a lot of the 90 minutes wondering how New Orleans found its way into the title, since the whole movie is about a zombie outbreak in Baton Rouge - and as far as I can remember there wasn't a single reference to New Orleans in the entire movie. I notice that there are reviewers on various sites who say that this movie is about a zombie invasion of New Orleans. But it isn't. It's about a zombie outbreak in Baton Rouge. It's all very confusing. Did somebody somewhere (in coming up with that alternative title) not realize that New Orleans and Baton Rouge are not the same place?
The confusion around the title notwithstanding, I found this surprisingly enjoyable. It's a fairly simple and straightforward, low budget movie with a largely unknown cast. You expect little out of it - you get more than you expect. There was one chuckle in this. The cable news network that was reporting on the outbreak was called "ZNN." Yeah. Too cute. At first you're kind of set up to believe that the outbreak is a result of an enemy attack using some sort of biological weapon - "to bring a superpower to its knees" as one character says. But it turns out that the biological weapon seems to have been created in a US government lab and it accidentally got out. I wasn't entirely clear on whether you had to actually die to become a "zombie" or just be infected through a bite. It was made clear that you had to shoot the zombies in the head to do away with them.
Most of the movie is set in Baton Rouge (with a little bit at a Seals command centre in Virginia Beach) as a Navy Seals team enters the city and tries to evacuate (1) the Vice President, who's stranded in the city, and (2) scientists at the lab where the virus was created in the hopes that they might be able to make an antidote. Most of it is a pretty standard battle against the zombies. That's becoming a bit too routine, what with the zombie plague currently on the go on movies and television. But it's still a decent action flick, whose ending seems to be a bit of a tribute to US Navy Seals. If you're into the zombie genre, this is worth taking in. (6/10)