Saturday, December 27, 2014

Big Eyes

Plot: Margaret (Amy Adams) is a starving artist in LA, and she meets fellow artist Walter Keen (Larry Kraszewski) who she promptly marries. Walter takes Margaret's paintings of waifs with BIG EYES  to shows claiming to be the artist. Walter is a great promoter and salesman, and soon the paintings are popular and they get rich.

Margaret is resentful that the world thinks that Walter is the artist while she is unnoticed, so after while they divorce. [MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW] In time, she goes public saying that she is the real artist. Ultimately this is decided in a court in the final scene.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Big Eyes  play on two levels -- on one level it is a situation comedy with funny scenes created by Walter's outrageous promotions and Margarets fuming rage. On the other level, it is a feminist fable that reminds us how primitive life was as recently as the 1950s.  (The Imitation Game was similar in that the primitiveness of 1940s Britain was a main theme.) 

Waltz's Keene is a consumate salesman, and he is grossly over promoting himself from the beginning. This makes him insincere and phony, and this was a desired effect because this was a comedy. A problem with the film is that Walter is the only character playing a comedy, and the others are in a light drama. I could have used more sincerity from Walter so we understood him better. 

Amy Adams is serious thoughout, and we get to see some solid dramatic acting from her -- a lot of bemused frowns and a little stern resolve. I would have liked her to be less subdued, but her passive nature was probably needed to advance the story believably. 

It has a good sound track with songs by Lana Del Rey and Danny Elfman, and a few clever images especially as the relationship breaks up. 

Art fraud has been with us for centuries, but his movie also pays as a husband who systematically took advantage of his wife. In this case, Walter may have been a life-long grifter, but Big Eyes has a broader theme about the exploration of women in pre-feminist society; although working class women are probably more exploited after all  Margaret does end up with a house in Hawaii. 

Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz

Directed by: Tim Burton, who is a collector of Margaret Burton's art

Rating: 3.0 stars -- a well made picture with a message and a story. Not funny enough as a comedy, with too few deep characters for a drama. 

More: Here is a Bing image search for more paintings. They used actual Margaret Keene images in the movie. 

Even More: Here is the real Margaret Keene at 87 years old. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Imitation Game

Plot: British Mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) volunteers to crack the German coding machine called Enigma. He is hopelessly arrogant and anti-social, and the other code-breakers hate him. He hires cute mathematician Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), and she helps him socially as well as on the project. The team battles to complete the machine under pressure from the Navy to finish quickly. There is a parallel story line about Turing's post-war prosecution as a homosexual, which was illegal in 1950's Britain.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: This is an engaging movie with strong characters, a point-of-view, and a life-and-death conflict. They make the codebreaking game understandable, and we feel the tension of the war effort. Even if we don't understand the codebreaking mechanics, we can feel the importance of it from the dynamics of the characters.

Cumberbatch's Turing is socially handicapped as if he had Aspergers, and this makes his performance tougher. (More on whether the real-life Turing had Asperger's here.) Cumberbatch's Turing is socially engaging when he needs to be, in the service of keeping the story going. Turing is engaging even if not always likable.  Cumberbatch is the motor that drives the movie, and I understand the Oscar buzz.

Joan Clarke is an interesting character (biography here). Knightley's Clarke finds herself in almost sitcom settings with unfamiliar power dynamics, and she gets of opportunity for some excellent subtle acting. The real life Clarke was one of three female cryptographers at the site, and she really was engaged to Turing for a time.

Most of the action takes place indoors, and the photography is simple. The soundtrack is typical orchestral music. 

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear

Directed by: Moren Tyldum

Based on the book by:  Andrew Hodges

Written by:  Graham Moore

Rating: 3.5 stars: Dramatic, suspenseful. Some good performances.

More: Here is a video where Joan Clarke talks about her relationship with Alan Turing.

Even More: Here are the real life Alan Turing and Joan Clarke


Saturday, December 20, 2014


Here is the Spanish poster, because the photo is better.
Don't worry the move is in English.
Plot: Andrew (Miles Teller) is a freshman at an elite music school, and big time Professor Fletcher (JK Simmons) invites him to join the seniors in the Studio Band. Fletcher is exceptionally tough on the band members, swearing at them, provoking them, and insulting them. Andrew gets fed up, which leads to escalating confrontation with Fletcher.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Some coaches and teachers push for excellence, and sometimes they push too hard. Whiplash is about that balance -- Fletcher's students achieve excellence, but he treats them inhumanly along the route. 

Every scene with JK Simmons is a highlight. Every word Simmons' Fletcher says is calculated to build up his band members and then tear them down, so they work ever harder. The dialog is punchy and interesting.

The best scene is a three-way challenge to play the drums in a competition; it was intense watching each boy play for just a few seconds with Fletcher stopping them suddenly and flinging insults. 

When Simmons was off-screen the story dragged, because the plot is simple and one-note. Some of the maltreatment of students is unpleasant enough to be hard to watch. The love story subplot with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) never went anywhere. Teller has a few good moments, but he was primarily a blank-faced enigma. Teller was supposedly motivated by competition with his brothers for his father's approval, but the dinner scene that set that up seemed inauthentic.

Simmons is nominated for a supporting actor Golden Globe & SAG Award, but he should have been a lead actor. 

Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Rating: 2.5 stars: Recommended. A little uneven. The good parts are very good, but the plot is simple and Teller doesn't deliver.

More: 60 year old Simmons must be on steroids because his muscly physique makes him look like a tough guy.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Plot: Katniss's (Jennifer Lawerence) escape in the last movie has created protests around her country of Panam. Katniss has taken refuge in the barren district 13, where its President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) have her making commercials. Later enemy President Snow puts Katniss's crush Peeta on TV to taunt her. Katniss wants him rescued, and this leads to the final act of this 1st installment. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Too much politics and an improbable plot sink the third installment of Hunger Games, which is based on the weakest of the three novels. Here Katniss, who is supposed to be inspiring the revolution, is also willing to settle for a peaceful life with Prim at home. The whole notion that a mascot like Katniss is critical to success of a revolution is hard to believe. Worse the relationships between Katness, Gale, Prim and Finnick don't seem that strong or believable. The Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle has its lost energy too.

The best part is the war of videos that Presidents Snow and Coin wage. In this world, the videos are the new bombs and bayonets, which is interesting social commentary. In many ways Putin's assault on Ukraine is being battled on TV.  The middle of the movie where Katnis is making inspiring videos was the best part, and the videos in the film even felt inspirational and emotional. 

The politics are far less interesting that the commercial and social themes of the first movie. 

Cast: Jennifer Lawerence, Liam Helmsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks

Directed by: Frances Lawrence

Rating: 1.5 stars: This is based on half of the weakest book. The politics is just not that interesting. 

More: The fun lifestyle satire of the first movies is gone, with just militarism in its place. 

Even More: Elizabeth Bank's Effy is still funny. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Plot: Actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) played the superhero Birdman in Hollywood blockbusters, but to be taken seriously, he is writing, directing, and staring in a Broadway drama. As the movie begins, they are starting rehearsals. The play's plot mimick the real life conflicts in Riggan's life.

Complicating this, Riggan believes that he has superpowers like levitation and telekinesis. It is unclear whether these powers are real or mental illness. Riggan argues with a voice inside his head like a madman, but it's Birdman's voice.

The plot has many threads, and one is the on-going fight about how to stage each scene of the play, especially with replacement actor Mike (Edward Norton). Debris from the past with his ex-wife and daughter surface too. The pressure increases on Riggan until the climatic and surreal opening night. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Birdman was a lot of fun because there are so many different levels. The characters are vivid and quirky.

Michael Keaton's Riggan is always is on the edge of breakdown. Unlike every other movie with Zach Galifianakis, Galifianakis is the sane one who calms the crazy people down, and helps them cope. Ed Norton and Naomi Watts should get supporting actor nominations -- strong, emotional performances of damaged people.

Emma Stone plays daughter Sam, and she floats around backstage. Her character is used to get the other characters to talk, but she is also tragic, fragile, and on the edge of self-destruction.

The soundtrack by Antonio Sanchez is distinctive with a lot of jazz drumming. During key scenes, the drummer appears in the scene -- in a magic-reality way.

Only see Birdman if you are OK with a fuzzy, abstract story that is both magic and real. At the end of the movie, there is a symbolic victory as well as sick person recovering, as well as Birdman flying around. People who want a logical resolution should go see Interstellar. 

Cast: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Edward Norton

Directed by: Anejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Rating: 4 stars: There should be more movies like this. 

More: At one point Riggin is arguing with Birdman's voice in his head saying, "You are just a mental concept" --just like a contemporary pop-psychologist. The audience is unsure how real Birdman really is -- maybe he is more than a mental concept. This reminds me how people in the grip of their affliction believe the voices that they hear are real too. 

Even More: Birdman is filmed to look like one long take. I noticed this at the beginning, but lost track of that as the action progressed. Now I'd like to see it again.

There is one funny scene where Riggan get's locked outside in his bathrobe, and for a contrived reason, he has to run around the theater in his underwear past the waiting audience who is filing in. The single camera action makes the action more immediate here. (This has a symbolic level too, with Riggan bearing his soul and so on. )

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Plot: This is a biopic of Prof. Stephen Hawking's wife Jane (Felicity Jones). It isn't about Stephen's (Eddie Redmayne's) struggle to be a super-successful physicist with Lou Gehrig's disease.

It shows their courtship, Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) getting sick, Jane taking care of Stephen, Stephen getting sicker, Jane having babies while taking care of Stephen, Stephen making a discovery, Jane flirting with the choir director, Jane having another baby,  Stephen flirting with his nurse, and more. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: See this movie for the physical acting as Stephen drifts from physical fitness to physical disability, and that Eddie Redmayne does so masterfully. It starts slowly as foreshadowing, then trembling, and finally he falls . . . then wonderful scenes of Redmayne hobbling on two canes. We see and feel the turning point when Stephen sits down on wheel chair, and again when he begins to use the computer to speak. 

The first love triangle starts slowly and it snuck up on me. After that however, the movie just drifts for another 45 minutes until the not very definitive end. After all Stephen is still alive, and the movie had to peter out at the end, didn't it?

Cast: Eddie Redmayne. Felicity Jones

Directed by: James Marsh, based on the book by Jane Hawking

Rating:  2.5 stars: The great physical acting by Redmayne, and the facial acting from Jones balance out the weak ending. 

More: The soundtrack was pretty and melodic. Very nice. I bought two tracks. There were a few painterly visuals from director Marsh.

Even More:
Jane Wilde Hawking and Stephen Hawking in 1990

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Big Hero 6

Plot: Hiro, a bored 14 year old genius, invents mini robots that link up with each other to do cool things--just about everything. He meets other students who make high tech robots too. One student is Hero's brother whose robot is an inflatable medical robot called Baymax. Soon the school burns down with all the mini-robots, and Hiro's brother is killed. Suddenly a villain, wielding a massive number of Hiro's mini-robots, threatens to to destroy the city. Hiro and Baymax join forces with four students to become the Big Hero 6. They battle the villain and avenge the brother.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: This is a younger kid's superhero movie. In its best moments it is like The Incredibles with likable characters working together. In its worst moments, it is like Power Rangers with robots bashing stuff with colorful weapons. 

The beginning is slow, but after a while we meet the other students who liven things up. Baymax, the inflatable, medical robot, and needs to be coxed into fighting -- a little bit of pacifism in this kid-friendly superhero movie.

Big Hero 6 has a strong soundtrack. The ending has some nice graphics that evoke Studio Ghibli. The characters come together to save the day, and Big Hero 6 ends with a nice positive message -- adult superhero movies are never this sincere (although maybe that is the Japanese influence coming in again.)

Directed by: Don Hall and Chris Williams

Rating: 2.0  stars: Big Hero 6 is good when compared with other kid's movies. As an adult movie, it is a waste of time. 

More: One of the interesting aspects is the American-Japanese cultural fusion they show. With Japanese dialog it will play well in Japan. It is unclear if this is a world vision message or a commercial reality.

Even More: There already are little modular robots that link up to do things. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Plot: Life on earth is being destroyed by an airborne disease, and everyone is farming since it is so hard to grow food including Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. Daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chasten & Ellen Burstyn) thinks she sees a ghost in her room, and they decode a message from the ghost, sending them to a NASA base. Turns out the Cooper used to be an astronaut, so they send him to Saturn to look for a gateway to another galaxy (just like 2001: a Space Odyssey.) Cooper goes through the gateway to investigate worlds on the other side. They find black holes and barely habitable worlds, and after many struggles Cooper arrives beyond 3-D space where the final resolution takes place.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Interstellar is one of the best Sci-Fi movies intellectually: it has big ideas and big motivation. It hits hard on both spirituality and science, and I liked it with my brain. It does not connect emotionally.

There are good scenes too: a great tearful goodbye scene between Coop and Murph which will win Mackenzie Foy many future roles -- so remember her name. There is a suspenseful fight scene, and a gripping tidal wave scene too.

I loved the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, and I am disappointed that individual tracks aren't available to buy. I also liked the silence of space -- that is spaceships did not make jet plane noises like in Star Wars.

As mentioned, I didn't love the movie emotionally. The initial scenes with Coop's dad (John Lithgow) and son, were too slow. Michael Caine's Professor Brand had boring set-up dialog and was really dull.  The ending was a missed opportunity: sleepiness instead of joy. Where were the hugs & kisses? [More in SPOILERS below.]

The photography was a little fuzzy on the giant EPIC screen at MJR in Southgate. I think it was intensionally fuzzy --  see how fuzzy the move poster (above) is. I was not wowed by the space-ship scenes, unlike Star Wars or Star Trek. The spacecraft were work-a-day freighters and not very cool or even interesting. 

Mathew McConaughey was very strong just like he needed to be. I liked two of three Murphs, Chasten and Foy. Anne Hathaway had some good moments. 

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain

Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan

Rating: 3.5 stars: Cool ideas but not always fun-to-watch. It gets 1/2 star for its smartness and strong story. (Not as good as Lucy or Gone Girl. )

SPOILERS:  [SERIOUSLY DON'T READ THIS]: I loved how the ghosts and "they" were really humans from the future. I liked the concept of a place where time was a spatial dimension, but how every place Coop could see was only one room. Very cool.

I also liked the notion that love transcends space and time.

As mentioned the ending was a missed opportunity. After a lifetime of searching when Murph and Coop reunite, what happens. They didn't even shake hands. Why have her in a hospital room with strangers who did not care about seeing their long-lost hero grandfather. And then in the post ending, Coop is a-drift and is heading back out to space. Does he arrive, and give Brand a hug?  Well no. (About all this end does is set up a sequel.) 

More: Tesseract: the extra-dimensional place inside the blackhole - that is a four dimensional cube. I came across that on Wikipedia.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Plot: Freelance video photographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) crawls the streets of LA at night, filming for accidents and crime scenes to sell to TV stations for their morning news. Lou is driven to succeed, and he has odd ideas about business that he tells everyone. Soon he gets some scoops and sells them to Nina (Rene Russo) at struggling channel 6. He stumbles into a multiple homicide crime scene, and does some unethical things for better images, and these lead to the closing scenes. {imdb]  [photos]

Review: There is something a little off about Lou Bloom -- we see that immediately. In Nightcrawlers, Lou slides from a hustler who is a little weird, to an overeager paparazzo,  to a twisted manipulator, and finally to an evil man with a character disorder. Perhaps he always had a character disorder? 

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a great performance in making an believable character. My issue with the character is more with the writing than the writing by director Dan Gilroy, which gives us an obsessive loner character who is also people-oriented enough to be a master manipulator. That is an unnatural combination. 

There is one police car chase scene that is exceptional -- very suspenseful and more realistic because they are following the police and trying to film it.

The soundtrack is great -- several interesting pieces. The photography was strong too, especially the chase scene. 

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed

Written and directed by: Dan Gilroy; Gilroy is a writer, but he did a nice job here in his first directing assignment.

Rating: 3.0 stars: A good performance by Gyllenhaal; nice chase scenes; some interesting psychological twists. It was not always fun-to-watch because Lou was so creepy. 

More:  Nightcrawler is a thriller not an expose of freelance video photographers because of the twisted mental state of Lou. Lou's business blather is not so different from what pop business gurus say about getting ahead. When Lou does questionable things at first, perhaps this is OK.  As it continues, the moral lapses get greater, and we get a sarcastic critic of small business culture.

Even More: Possible Oscar nomination for Gyllenhaal. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

St Vincent

Plot: 7th grader Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) moves in next to  drunken asshole Vincent (Bill Murray), and inexplicably his Mom (Melissa McCarthy) signs up Vincent as Oliver's after school baby sitter. Of course, Vincent takes Oliver to the bar, to the track, let's him watch old comedies on TV and introduces him to stripper/prostitute/girlfriend Daka (Naomi Watts). [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Don't see this movie.  That is short and sweet isn't it. I can't believe I paid to watch this. Yuk. 

St Vincent is a black comedy where I was not amused by how big an asshole Vincent is. It was funny that anyone would spend any time with him. I'd bolt the door or maybe move. 

Like many movies, the child's dialog is far too adult -- so much so that it was distracting. Of course, distraction is welcome. 

Happily Melissa McCarthy is likable and fun. I also liked pregnant girlfriend Naomi Watts. The two women had jobs. Vincent just sits on his butt drinking, gambling, and extorting babysitting money from the neighbors. 

Other low lights include the gross eating scene at the end where Bill Murray crudely eats spaghetti with his mouth open. I hated the Dylan music over the end credits. 

It is too big a chore to watch this jerk. I can't believe I paid to watch this. Yuk. 

Cast: Bill Murray, Jaeden Lieberher, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

Rating: 1 lonely star: Usually there needs to be something truly offensive to get a one star rating, but I am going to make an exception. 
More: Clint Eastwood was grouchy neighbor in Gran Torino. It was a drama not a black comedy, and Clint's character went through a redemption. It reminded me of much better Bill Murray movie, Scrooged, where Murray starts evil of course is transformed overnight. 

Even More: Yuk. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

Plot: Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) is missing, and there are signs of a fight. He calls the police and they search the town. Nick comes under suspicion. After this, there are big twists that are too much fun to give away.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Gone Girl has a long, long wind up to excruciating and clever conclusion. It starts like a murder mystery and ends as twisted psychological thriller. The end is super fun:  four stars.

Just like the book, the ending is creepy and tense and wonderful. Both Nick and Amy are sociopaths bound by that common thread. Both characters were trapped by their actions and the tension between them was so great. 

I loved the performances of Affleck and Pike. Affleck sold his contrite confession on TV seeming more sincere then confessionals seem in real life. Pike manages a range of emotions, but she is best when she is the driven, smart Amy -- the super-competent Amy. Even though real women aren't like that all the time, she was so good at it that she sells it.

Writer Gillian Flynn brings the tension from the book right to the screen. Even though there are some logic gaps -- the plot twists hold together pretty well.

There is a level where Gone Girl is an allegory for a real marriage -- where two high damaged people stay together by mutual manipulation. The end makes more sense when viewed that way. The end makes sense poetically more than realistically.

More in the spoiler section below.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by:  Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name.

Rating: 4.0 stars: This is what movies should be like. 

More:   The TV reporting plays a major role in the movie, that the book did not need. They become one of the motivating forces in the story. It reminds me of the Hunger Games book in how the media culture can motivate a new kind of evil. 

More with SPOILERS: The two big twists are so jarring even though I had read the book. I was swept along by the dynamic of the movie  Because we had begun to believe that Nick really had done it, when see Amy alive, suddenly we see everything that we thought was wrong.  It happens again when Amy kills Desi (Neal Patrick Harris) and a third time when she drives up to her house in front of the camera crews, and it is just as surprising when Nick gives her a hug on the sidewalk.

The strength of the story is that Amy is a great villain -- she is smart and works endlessly hard on her plan -- then she carries them out -- with a pretty smile. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Drop

Plot: Bob (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini)  work at a bar owned by Chechen gangsters. Marv needs some money so he enlists Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) to rob the bar. Detective Torres (John Ortiz) comes around to investigate to raise the tension level.  Meantime Bob meets Deeds ex-girl friend Nadia (Noomi Repace) and adopts his old dog. This sets a conflict with Deeds that gets deeper as Marv's plan plays out.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: The Drop is a crime drama with Tom Hardy and Noomi Replace underacting -- very subdued -- almost like Noir movie; but the styling of the movie is gritty not stylized. Despite the subtle acting, the interpersonal scenes are solid and engaging. The dialog is similarly understated.  

The early film evokes Rocky, the boxing movie, wiht scenes about pets being used to introduce a shy potential girlfriend. 

The soundtrack was minimal, and the photography was pretty standard. 

Overall, the slow pacing sapped energy, but the well plotted story steadily increased the tension leading to the surprising end. 

Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Repace, James Gandolfini, John Ortiz, Matthias Schoenaerts

Directed by: Michael Roskam (based on the short story by Dennis Lehane)

Rating: 2.5 stars: Slow moving, but still enjoyable. Recommended.

More: Three puppies were used in the filming of the movie. The puppies kept growing too fast. 

Even More. James Gandolfini finished filming prior to his death -- that is there were no scenes rewritten for that reason.