Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

Plot: T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) becomes Black Panther  and King of Wakanda when his father the old Black Panther dies, and after he wins a one-on-one dual with a rival prince. Wakanda is futuristic and wealthy country that hides itself. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) steal valuables from Wakanda, and the Black Panther with his all-female posse including Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Okay (Danai Gurira) go to get it back. They chase them around Busan, Korea, and Killmonger eventually finds his way to Wakanda. He reveals himself as a long lost Princely cousin, and challenges T'Challa for the throne. This starts a civil war leading to the final battles. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: The beginning is best. I liked the set-up: the mythology of a rich, advanced African country hiding from colonizers.  The art direction was great. I liked the arm-crossing gesture and the female soldiers pounding their spears on the ground. I liked the fighting challenge in the water.

It is slow going early as back-stories unspool including Jordan's Killmonger as the long lost prince. I liked drama of an psycho becoming King; an analogy to Present Trump, as they spell out in the dialog for anyone who misses the symbolism. When the bad guy takes over the government, the army falls into place and the government's resources are now available to profit from.

After Killmonger's initial success, there isn't much cleverness left. The writing delivers some bleak, dark situations for the good guys several times. This whipsaws our emotions, and that's OK.

There is a debate between Killmonger and T'Challa about why doesn't Wakanda open itself to immigrants or share its technology freely with the outside world. Killmonger wants to help the oppressed overthrow their rulers. Killmonger is makes better good points than T'Challa, but he [not a spoiler] gets defeated by T'Challa, standing up for property rights. This is a Disney film after all, and intellectual property rights are sacred to them. Having said that, in the first post-credit scene, T'Challa and Shuri (Letitia Wright) start a mission in Oakland; so Killmonger seems to have won part of the argument.  (Director Coogler is from Oakland.)

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Andy Serkis, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright.

Directed by:
Ryan Coogler

Written by:
Ryan Cooglar and Joe R. Cole based on the comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

The Music:
Disappointing. There is a hip-hop soundtrack by Kendric Lamar and a regular soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson. Goransson has African themed orchestral music; some repetitive: nothing that sounds good when reviewed the clips on iTunes. Lamar's hip-hop is nothing special, except for Pray for Me by The Weekend and Kendric Lamar. 

The Visuals:
I loved the lab. I loved the moving symbols on the walls and the other walls painted with African symbolism. I loved first shots in Korea, outside and in the casino. I liked how the female soldiers were bald and had tattoos on their scalps. You gotta like the armored rhinos; so sad I can't find a photo of them. 

3.0 stars: I liked the clever ideas and art direction early. I liked the epic sweep. It has stayed with me. 


More: Here is info on the two end credit scenes.

Even More: Even with all the female actors, my wife hated, hated this movie.



Saturday, February 3, 2018


Plot: Captain Joe (Christian Bale) is taking old Apache Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Montana so he can die at home. Along they way they meet Mrs Quaid (Rosamund Pike) whose family was just killed by outlaw Comanche. Captain Joe aided Yellow Hawk to find and battle the Comanche. Mrs Quaid tags to Montana with them. On the way the women (Q'orianka Kicher, Tanaya Beatty) get kidnapped and raped by white fur trappers.  When they finally get to Montana, there are more hostile men to shoot. Everyone in this movie is Hostile.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: You can make a 2010's Western about the 1890's, by drawing out all the subplots that got skipped in mid-20th Century Westerns. The hostile people are different groups of white people and different groups on natives. In Hostiles the suffering of the women is foregrounded. The theme is common humanity of the Native Americans, the White people and the one Black soldier. A second theme is the hardness and arbitrariness of life in the old west.

Hostiles is slow paced. Lots of faces talking slowing at night, or just staring. The style is either supposed to evoke old-fashion Westerns or more modern Art movies. It was particularly slow at the beginning.

Christian Bale's Captain Joe is evocative, but really under-acted; He is not trying to be a 1890's soldier -- he is a little more woke. Rosamund Pike's Mrs Quaid was so great when she was hiding under the rock from the Comanche. She played a traumatized Mom pretty well with a nice mix of primal scream and stoic blank stare. Like all 2010's heroines, Mrs Quaid shoots the bad guy who says she doesn't have the nerve for it.

Hostiles shows that you can update the Western to modern moral standards, but so what? It is still a boring old Western. 

Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi

Directed and Screenplay by:
Scott Cooper

Manuscript by:
Donald Stewart

The Music:
Almost no music. It makes the stillness stiller. I liked the shrieking sound effect at the first Comanche attack.

The Visuals:
Some great outdoor landscapes.

2.5 stars: With all the strong points, it is still a boring old Western.


More: A surprisingly international cast: Rosamund Pike is English, Adam Beach - Canadian, Tanya Beatty - Canadian, Q'orianka Kilcher - German

Even More: Editor Tom Cross says that he was trying to set up a mediation on the landscape to show the vast distances and to show how far the characters are going psychologically. link

Yet More: "One other interesting technical tidbit was that because of the SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] and the desire to keep horses safe, you’re not allowed to use full load blanks near horses, and you’re not really allowed to use squibs very close to horses. So a lot of the muzzle flashes and gunshots were enhanced digitally later." From an interview in at




Saturday, January 27, 2018

Lady Bird

Plot: Rebelous high schooler Lady Bird (Saorse Ronan) goes through a couple boyfriends and girlfriends on the way to her dream college. She butts heads with her Mom (Laurie Metcalf) as she goes through Senior year, picks a college, gets a summer job, and goes to prom. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: I really thought this was a biopic of President Johnson's wife Lady Bird, just like they made Jackie last year. I was surprised and confused that it was set in 2002. Unexpectedly, it is about another girl named Lady Bird.

This one lives lower middle-class and somewhat rebellious life in a Catholic high school, and has all the problems of regular high school girls, though more rebellious and well-read than most.

Everyone has to love the acting, because it is wonderful. It is a seminar in emoting. Saorse's Lady Bird is fun, quirky, and always likable. The script is strong, but not overwrought like an Aaron Sorkin movie. It's never boring.

 I liked it, and it is staying with me like a thoughtful movie should. 

Cast: Saorse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothee Chalamet, Lucas Hedges

Directed and written by:
Greta Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento. She said she was much more conventional -- though we know she was a drama kid. 

The Music:
A variety of pop songs. I liked the oldie from the Monkees, As We go Along. Other highlights are The Crossroads by Bone Thugs and Harmoney, and Little of Your Love by Haim. 

The Visuals:
Mostly people talking. I liked the dance scene at the end. 

3.5 stars: You have to love the acting. It is a feel good story. Not sure it has a message, and that keeps this from being 4 stars. (4 star dramas should be more than just character studies, see Marshall.)

More: Writer/director Gerwig says the "concept of home [...] only comes into focus as it is receding." I think that is true.

Even More: We saw this because it is an Oscar movie. It is not "Classic" enough for best picture.




Saturday, January 20, 2018

I, Tonya

Plot: The story of Olympic skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who is infamous for the attack on  rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Olympic trials. It is told in flashback by actors playing older versions of the characters including Tonya's mother LaVonna (Allison Janney), husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and low-friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser.)  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: I, Tonya a bio-pic telling Tonya's story before deep-diving into the kneecapping incident on rival Nancy Kerrigan. It is interesting because of the strange characters especially Tonya's bitter and irritable mother LaVonna, played wonderfully by Allison Janney. The drama turns on delusional friend Shawn who is wonderfully played by Hauser. Instead of playing a prank, Shawn decides to play James Bond. Shawn is the pathetic center of the plot. The emotional center is LaVonna, Tonya's mom. She is mean, bitter, and selfish. Her treatment of Tonya makes us sympathetic for Tonya. It helps explain why Tonya stays in an abusive relationship with Jeff.

Writer Rogers blames Harding's working class origins as the real source of the problem. Initially, he runs down the other skaters as too privileged, and later blue-collar American culture is blamed for poor sportsmanship and ineptitude. In reality there are many blue collar Americans with strong character and many upper class villains.

In these #MeToo times, the abuse that Tonya received from fruitcake husband Jeff deserves extra comment. Is poverty an excuse for domestic violence? Tonya's life reminds me the abuse by gymnastics doctor Larry Nasser.

It is humorous to think of Shawn and LaVonna as a hopeless losers, and that serves the interest of the plot. I think Shawn was mentally-ill, and it stops being funny when you think about it too much. He does think he is secret agent after all. LaVonna was probably an alcoholic.

Where are we after it all? Entertained by the acting. Impressed by the special effects. Rethinking the role of poverty in making people miserable.

I wonder if Tonya would have admitted everything and then blamed mentally-ill Shawn. 

Cast: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser

Directed by:
Craig Gillespie

Written by:
Steven Rogers

The Music:
Mostly 1980's music

The Visuals:
The skating scenes realistically show actress Margot skating. The movies are smooth and faster -- faster than the real Tonya did them. This was impressive, and I'd like to see how they did it. 

2.5 stars: Good acting; Entertaining. No extra points for social commentary because it gets that wrong. 


More: I finally understand what a triple Axel is.

Even More: Here is the real Tonya





Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Post

Plot: The Post is about the leaking and publishing of the "Pentagon Papers," a history of the Vietnam war that had embarrassing government's secrets and bleak military assessments. We see the Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) give the papers to the NY Times, and the later to the Washington Post. Brash editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) pushes to obtain the papers, and then owner Mrs Graham (Meryl Streep) agonizes about whether to publish them because of the risk of being sued by President Nixon.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: I'm never excited to see a movie starring 69 year old Meryl Streep, but time I see her I get sucked in because she is that good an actress. I am less sick of Tom Hanks, but he good too. Noisy and strutting, but never over the top.

The story of the Pentagon papers is old and well-trodden, and we already know the end. The script takes an offbeat angle by focussing on the editors and publishers. This gave the story more movement, and the content of the papers gets in by osmosis.

The best part is the analogy between Nixon and Trump. Trump is attacking Post owner Bezos today, just like Nixon swears vengeance on the Post in the final scene. The movie was written and shot before the election of Donald Trump. Strange but true.

I liked Don McNamara, who had the Pentagon Papers written for his successors and future historians. Government secrecy & manipulation of the populous reminds me of Machiavelli. McNamara's situation is an interesting example of whether the end justified the means. One takeaway is that states  have a different morality than individuals. As Wikipedia says:

Machiavelli believed that public and private morality had to be understood as two different things in order to rule well. As a result, a ruler must be concerned not only with reputation, but also must be positively willing to act immorally at the right times.

The Post was entertaining. The acting was great. The script kept moving despite the potentially dry subject matter. It was not super-fun, and the story of Kay Graham's bravery in publishing I had heard before. 

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bruce Greenwood

Directed by:
Steven Spielberg

Written by:
Liz Hannah, Josh Singer

The Music:
Orchestrial Score by John Williams; This score is better than his other recent work. I liked The Presses Roll

The Visuals:
Mostly talking and Tom Hanks scowling. I liked the scenes of the type setting machines and the letterpress printing machine. 

2.5 stars: Good acting, but it just an average movie. Because it is tired subject matter, no extra points for social awareness.


More: I wonder if rich people really wandered around in the pajamas so much in 1972; makes me think of Charlie Rose who at home with female CBS colleagues in his pajamas.

Even More: Here is the real Katherine Graham. Meryl looked a bit like her in the movie make-up.




Saturday, January 6, 2018

Molly's Game

Plot: Molly (Jessica Chastain) learns to run high stakes poker games, and then starts to host them herself. It is a glamorous but tough business, so she is run out of LA and lands in New York, where she starts a higher stakes game. She attracts attention from mobsters, and soon enough the FBI raids everyone including Molly. Molly hires lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), and the court case leads to the final scenes.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Molly's Game is a well-told story. It starts with her athleticism, through her accident, and then into her subsistence wage jobs. Soon she is scraping by with a side-hustle counting chips at a poker game, and before you can say "All-IN" she is running the games herself. We sympathize with Molly because writer-director Sorkin tells the story from Molly's point of view. It is glamorous life, and it looks fun & sexy on the screen. Even after she is caught, Chastain's Molly is principled. At the end the story turns back to Molly's childhood and her relationship with her father. Sorkin's dialog is perfect as her psychologist father explains her childhood in a new way.

Molly's Game has a theme that Molly and her family are high achievers because of their pushy father. Molly is  as-successful-as-she-is because she is smart and principled -- just like her brother the athlete or her brother the doctor. Her principled nature is hard to understand, because of the drugs and her associates. I wonder if it is the puffery of autobiography, or the puffery of Hollywood, or perhaps something unique to her upbringing: My bet is Sorkin's Hollywood script. See Even More below.

Sorkin's dialog is the real star--not everyone likes Sorkin, but I do. The exchanges between Chastain and Elba in the office are well-tuned and dramatic. The final scene with Kevin Costner and Chastain looks simple, but they pack a lot of psychology into the few minutes, and I liked how they flash pack to the girlhood film, where then the words mean something completely different, "I have no heroes," she said.

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera

Written and directed by: Aaron Sorkin; Based on the book by Molly Bloom

The Music:
Acoustic music by Daniel Pemberton

The Visuals:
Some flashy scenes to make the card games look glamorous. Otherwise, it is mostly people talking in rooms. 

3.5 stars: Fun to watch, great dialog. Why not 4 stars? Not sure the drama is that dramatic. 

More: The real Molly Bloom.

Even More: Based on Molly Bloom's Wikipedia page, the final scene may have been overly dramatic. It seems many charges were dropped in a plea bargain -- explicitly different from the movie. Interestingly, the Judge said she was ordered to run this game by her former boss in LA, making her an employee rather than a mastermind. The LA boss faded from the movie plot much earlier.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

Shape of Water

Isn't this a nice poster?
Plot: In a magical version of the 1960's Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a defense base meets an amphibious man (Doug Jones) being held captive, and grows to love him. Elisa's friend & fellow cleaner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) helps interpret Elisa's sign language and covers for her visits to the man. Elisa's room mate is a gay man, Giles (Richard Jenkins), whose career struggles help create the films magical and distopic mood. Villainous military official Richard (Michael Shannon) tramples on everyone trying stay ahead of the Russians and later to foil Elisa. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: It's a magical fantasy delivering romance, sitcom humor, and social satire. It is a creative balance of all three. I like magical fantasy so it was easy for me to like it. While it has a monster and some sci-fi elements, it is not a horror or an action movie.

Symbolically, the creature is The Other, and he represents other Others in mid-20th Century America, from disabled people like mute Elisa, black people like Zelda, gay people like Giles, poor people, and women. The Russian scientist represents those whose search for knowledge is crushed by  bureaucracy.

I liked the performances especially Sally Hawkins, who is so evocative without speaking at all. Villain Michael Shannon is such dramatic, over-heated, morally-challenged striver. He creates so much threat and menace with his face. Octavia Spencer's role was more comic and so her performance was less nuanced.

Despite the obvious morality play, it doesn't feel that way. It feels like an thriller with Michael Shannon's Richard scaring everyone.

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer

Directed by:
Guillermo Del Toro

Written by:
Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

The Music:
Aquatic orchestral music and lounge music by Alexandre Desplat intercut with show tunes from old movies. Elisa's theme is pretty nice. 

The Visuals:
Full of great images including early images of the amphibian man, but less so when he gets into the human world.  The art direction of the science lab is great with sickly colors and menacing metal equipment. The underwater scenes are graceful and artistic. 

4.0 stars: Fun to watch in the theater and fun to talk about afterward


More: Del Toro says he says: “I wanted to do a movie about an amphibian creature who changes the life of whoever rescues it, in a magical way.”  It is loosely inspired by the Grimm brother's story about a flounder that grants wishes for a fisherman. 

Even More {SPOILER}: One reason sea creature romance worked for me is the Elisa's connection to the sea is foreshadowed early, first she was found on the beach as orphan child, and second is that Elisa has orgasms in the bathtub.