Friday, December 25, 2015


Plot: Joy is the story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), who invented a mop, endured a difficult ramp-up process, and tries to sell her stuff on TV. Joy needed to borrow money from family, cope with sick relatives, screaming kids, a divorce and a trouble-some father. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Joy is an estrogen-soaked success story that emphasizes perseverance, and high school aged girls should especially see it.

The script-writer emphasizes the hardship in Joy's life, and at times she is like the biblical hero Job, with everything going wrong repeatedly. It is humorous how terrible things are in a sitcom sense.

The biggest shortcoming is that the script feels concocted to create these frustrating experiences for Joy -- no one's life is really like this. The unreality breaks the dramatic tension. There are intentional situation comedy moments from the co-stars especially De Niro, who is almost a clown of a father. Jennifer Lawrence is in a drama, and the co-stars are in a comedy like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

The highlights are all emotional turning points for Joy: Joy goes through a wringer, but it creates great moments for Jennifer L on screen. Definitely worth an Oscar nomination.

Even though there is a big cast of co-stars, only Bradley Cooper and Isabella Rossellini are something special.

Joy has its moments. I liked it, and I am glad I saw it. 

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramierez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Maden, Isabella Rossellini

Directed by:
David Russell

Written by:
David Russell; story by Annie Mumolo 

The Music:
Several good songs from Mexican folk to classic rock. 

The Visuals:
The only good visuals are of Jennifer Lawrence in different poses. For example,  drawing with crayons or sitting at her desk at the end.

3.0 stars: A showcase for Jennifer L. The overall movie is only OK. It gets some points for a positive message especially for girls and young women. 

More: Which Joy is better Jennifer Lawrence's, or Amy Poehler's in Inside Out?

Clearly Jennifer -- she should get an Oscar Nom. On the other hand, Inside Out is the better movie.

Joy Mangano and Jennifer Lawerence
Even More: Here is a photo of the real life Joy, who invented her mop at age 33. More here.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Plot: Years after The Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker is missing, and the Nazi-like First Order is attempting to take over the Galaxy. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has a map to where Luke may be, and he gets attacked by First Order & Darth Vadar acolyte Kylo Ren (Adam Driver.) Scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds cute robot BB-8 and meets an Imperial defector Finn (John Boyega.) They escape on the Millennium Falcon to take the map to the rebels, but soon run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca. Before the climatic battle, we see rebel base, an enemy super-weapon, and an X-wing fighter attack. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: The Force Awakes is lots of fun, and cleverly written. It gives us two interesting new characters Rey and Finn, both underdogs and alone in the world. New villain Kylo Ren is a striver; he aspires to be evil, but is conflicted inside. I think will see a more angst from Adam Driver in the following movies.

Daisy Ridley plays Rey with subtlety, and there some great reaction shots. John Boyega's Finn is likable in part because of the character's history, but also because of the personable acting. Two good performances. Adam Driver is less good as Kylo Ren -- too stuffy.

The script got so many things right. It skip over details of the old story, and pick up key points with new characters. We have the old characters for familiarity, but they are not involved too much. The replacement of Darth Vader with another villain is hard, and we will see how Kylo Ren evolves.

The movie is more about friendship and sacrifice than it is about good and evil. The movies may be about the ascent of Rey, who begins as garbage picker, and who seems to have bottomless potential.

Force Awakens is as good as one could hope it to be, and so much better than Phantom Menace.

I want to see it again.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Directed by:
JJ Abrams

Written by:
Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, Michael Arndt; It will be interesting to learn to what extent they borrowed from the older Star Wars fiction for characters like Supreme Leader Snoops and Kylo. 

The Music:
John Williams is back in the saddle at age 83 with a great score. John Williams has had some middling quality work over the years, but this was as good as ever. I love The Scavenger and Rey's theme. 

The Visuals:
Great special effects

4.0 stars: The highest rating is that I want to see it again. 

More: So who is the Supreme Leader Snoops? I am voting for former Emperor Darth Sidius. I think he's still alive and even more disfigured.

Major spoilers: Clearly the plot recycles elements from the previous movies. It starts with a droid with a secret, people search for the last Jedi master, towns folk are massacred by stormtroopers, we spend sometime in a bar, go to the rebel base, and finally go destroy a planet-sized super weapon.  In the middle, there is another villain confronting his father scene that ends differently.


Saturday, December 12, 2015


Plot: A team of newspaper reporters investigates systematic child abuse in the Boston Catholic Church in 2001. It shows the process of investigation and reporting along with reporters trying to cope with the emotional wreckage of the emerging scandal. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Spotlight is a heroic reporter story; it gets its energy from the emotional stress of priests abusing children. The reporters come off as heroes, and in this case they probably were.

The plot is all numbers, dates and documents. To make Spotlight work, it needed good actors, and these actors were fun to watch. Mark Ruffalo gave his character an intense, Alsperger's syndrome focus - hands in the pockets, head cocked, with an laser intensity stare. Stanley Tucci is always one of my favorites. Rachel McAdams and John Slattery both provide emotional resonance.

The best scene is when the reporters are gathered around a desk getting good news on the phone, and they all react to it in a different way. It is like a little wordless play.

Remarkably, all this interviewing and phoning and legal fights and paperwork is threaded into a story that is compelling and interesting: great directing by Tom McCarthy. The difficulty with the directing is the primary case for a 4 star rating.

I tend to believe that Catholic priests have been routinely having sex with children for hundreds of years, but happily in the 21st Century, it is being stamped out.

As a lapsed Catholic, I find the whole episode emotional retching. The clerical culture that allowed abuse for centuries isn't apparent to parishioners in the pews. The clerical culture is secretive to keep the illusion going, and it's mission is not congruent with the mission of the Church. In my view the resistance against female priests is also from the clergy, not the laity or the theology.

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Katon, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiger, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery

Directed by:
Tom McCarthy

Written by:
 Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

The Music: I never noticed the music. Was there any?

The Visuals:
Almost entirely dialog. Nothing fancy.

3.5 stars: A 3 star movie with an extra half star for the message. While the story-telling and directly may merit a 4, it just doesn't feel like to me. 

More: Here is the real Spotlight team.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Plot: Going Clear is a documentary about L Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology. It focuses former church members who talk about cult-like mind-control and physical abuse.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Going Clear is a straight-up documentary that is mostly interviews. Early on it keeps moving, and has interesting video to show during the narration. It a good story, but it bogs down after Hubbard dies and the abuse stories get repetitive. Famous Scientologists like John Travolta and Tom Cruise were profiled with tabloid-like focus.

I once-again realized narrow cults can be very powerful, and worse, this cult had lie detector that the faithful used on each other to enforce orthodoxy.  The Sea Org, serves as the clergy, and these people are barely paid, on the other had, the church collectively seems obsessively focused on money. Other charities with unpaid staff also have corruption issues. Paying workers fairly reduces this kind of corruption.

I enjoyed the first half hour or so, after that, it was like doing my third set of leg presses -- not fun any more. 

Directed, Written and Narrated by: Alex Gibney; based on the book by Lawrence Wright

The Music: As in many documentaries, the music is queued to how they want you to feel.

The Visuals:
 The art design of the Scientology conventions was great: majestic.

2.0 stars - might have made a better 20 minute segment on a TV news show 

More: Here is a link to Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard's Wikipedia entry.


Saturday, November 28, 2015


Plot:  Boxer Adonis (Michael B Jordan,) son of ex-champ Apollo Creed, finds ex-champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train in him for big-time fights. He trains every he second that he is not with girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson). After a few plot twists Adonis ends up at the big fight for the finale.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Creed is good fight drama. Adonis, Bianca, and Rocky are well-realized and likable characters. As the fight gets closer, Rocky and Adonis get closer emotionally too. Creed is more about the relationship than the fight, and there are only two boxing matches in the film.

When the fights come, they are as dramatic as ever with jaw-shattering punches, and high-speed punch exchanges. The final fight is tension-filled and exciting. 

One especially good scene was Adonis running in the streets of Philadelphia with the guys from the neighborhood hood doing wheelies on their street bikes. The rap song over the top made it all memorable.

The message of Creed is something about working hard can help you achieve your dream, and that having a dream is OK. There is a more subtle message about not needing to have money to be fulfilled.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

Directed by:
Ryan Coogler 

Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington based on the characters by Sylvester Stallone

The Music:
I liked the music which were of three kinds, pop rap songs sampled for the action scenes, traditional orchestral music by Ludwig Goransson, and vocal music by Tessa Thompson singing as the character Bianca, and these were composed by Goransson. The best one is Breathe. The rap music was great during the actions scenes. Listening to the rap tracks at home wasn't the same. 

The Visuals:
Creative and gritty visuals. The art direction evokes the mood of the first Rocky movie. 

3.0 stars: I liked it. It was fun to watch, and more people oriented than expected. 

More: Creed succeed by pairing the underdog story back, and only bring two of the old characters back, Rocky and Adonis's mom. Creed benefits from moving the story to a black subculture because it is so different from the ethnic Irish and Italian cultures of the earlier ones.

Major Spoiler: Everyone may not realize that Creed ends just like the first Rocky did. The upstart fighter loses the fight but wins an emotional victory and the respect to come back and try again.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mockingjay Part 2

Plot: At the end of the part 1, the tributes had escaped from the Hunger Games and begun a revolution. Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) had been kidnapped, brainwashed by Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland), and rescued by Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). In part 2, the revolution continues with made-for-TV battles created by the evil game-makers. Katniss is reunited with the remaining live tributes for an assault on the capital when she is not sparring with rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore). After 3-4 battles and many injuries to Katniss, comes the final battle, which has a twist. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: This is surprisingly good. It had character interaction, and a lot of soulfulness from Katiss as played by Jennifer Lawerence. I liked her selflessness and determination.

Mockingjay 2 extend the metaphor of reality TV show and war out of the arena and onto the street. Since it is a movie, it mocks TV better than the book could.

President Snow's battle plan is to show demoralizing defeats on TV, while President Coin has Katniss in a special propaganda platoon to inspire the rebels. The movie ends with a made-for-TV atrocity. This Sci-Fi satire says that modern warfare has a propaganda component. The most recent real-life example are the made-for-TV executions by ISIS, but another example was Iraq war II invasion being shown live to US viewers by embedded anchors. TV war may have started during the Vietnam war when Americans saw battles on TV, and gradually lost support for the war. In this sense the war was lost on TV before it was lost on the ground. In the movie, the show business aspect of the war gives Katniss something to rebel against  -- insisting that people are suffering, and providing justification for the family-friendly ending.

Jennifer Lawerence's Katniss is an everywoman dropped into a heroine role. She does such a fine job that the movie is satisfying and interesting. It is not just the dialog, it is the reaction shots and the look on her face as she hugs her friends. Katniss is interesting and likable. There were several actors who were great, but lacked screen time: Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch; Jena Malone who played an angry bald-headed tribute; and Woody Harrelson. The two male leads, Hutchinson and Hemsworth, were not so interesting.

The dialog is good too. There are fewer shoot-em ups than expected and more talking. The made-for-TV battles are short, and are like video-game battles in that they are puzzle-like and have solutions.

The message is that human life and daily human family matters are more important than politics and personal ambition. 

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali

Directed by:
Francis Lawrence

Written by:
Suzanne Collins and two others. Collins also wrote the novels.

The Music: I didn't notice it. The soundtrack is only available for pre-order -- so I can't give it a second listen.

The Visuals:
The art direction is a pale shadow of the first movie. The architecture of the capital was disappointing. It could have had more historical or cultural references. I loved the scene with President Snow in the snow-covered greenhouse with the white roses -- that was inspired. 

3.0 stars: Emotionally satisfying and carried by JLaw's performance

More: Lots of female leaders in the rebellion.

Spoiler: I liked the post-script about having kids with Peeta for two reasons it shows that all the politics is less important than relationships and family, and second it finally settles this Gale/Peeta controversy.


Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Plot: Walter (Ben Stiller) works at Life Magazine in the 1990's, and he flirts with Meg (Kristen Wiig).  Walter imagines many adventures, and in the course of the movie he has one.   [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Walter Mitty is a fantasy set in New York city. It has fantasy parts are pretty cool. interweaved a rom-com style plot. As Walter grows he fantisizes less, and the move becomes an surreal adventure. I am a sucker for magic realism, so this was a good genre for me.

I liked Kristen Wiig here, she is pretty good when she is not do extreme characters as she did on Saturday Night Live. Ben Stiller was OK, because the character called for the nerdy cluelessness that he often plays. I am not a Ben Still fan generally, but this is one of his better efforts.

I saw this on TV about 2 years after it was in the theater. It is a good movie for home viewing because a lot of the action is mental.

The 1940's version promoted the trope of Walter as a tremendous exaggerator, and according to Wikipedia this entered pop culture at the time. In this version, the fantasies are in Walter's own head, and he is not a fabulist or big liar. Walter's issues are more mental than social, and there is a feeling that dreaming big is not necessarily bad.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig

Directed by:
Ben Stiller; based on the short story by James Thurber

The Music:
A few good pop songs, including an A Cappella version of Space Oddity by Kristen Wiig. 

The Visuals:
Some nice visuals in Iceland. I liked the art direction of the Life Magazine offices with the large photos on the walls, and the photos being carried out at the end. 

2.5 stars: Entertaining and Interesting. 

More: Walter Mitty is a fictional character in James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and in book form in My World and Welcome to It in 1942. (Wikipedia)



Saturday, November 7, 2015

Spector (James Bond)

Plot:  Spy agencies are going digital, and old school spies like M (Ralph Fiennes) and 007 (Daniel Craig) have a new boss C (Andrew Scott), and he wants to consolidate into one global pan-national spy agency, that would collect all data - rather like the NSA. Bond suspects it is a ploy by the shadowy Spectre organized crime group, which uses terrorism to justify the global intelligence units it will use to take control.  He travels from London to Rome to Austria to Algiers to Monaco  and more as he chases the shadowy Spectre organization he suspects is orchestrating it all. In Austria he questions Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) and she joins the international chase. The outcome is resolved by car chases, fist fights, gun fights, and explosives.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Spectre has big splashy action scenes that are simply fun to watch, and it's threaded together with a story line that is has modern and traditional spy-movie elements. Modern with electronic surveillance and computer crime, but traditional in that Bond's classical villain Spectre is back, and lots of thugs get killed. Like all other Bond movies the action is in far-flung locations providing variety for example the aircraft chasing cars down a snowy mountain, and a luxury car ride in a sandy desert.

This Bond movie continues on the theme that terrorism causes governments to collect more data and this in itself is bad. Daniel Craig's Bond is not a playboy, although he does hit on a friend's daughter whom he promised to protect from assassins - which is sleezy & unprofessional, and more like the original Bond character.

What didn't I like? The depth of emotion is down from Quantum of Solace or Skyfall. For example Madeline is too cool to be alarmed that an evil terrorist group wants to kill her. While Ralph Fiennes does a good job, he is way less powerful than Judy Dench.
Cast: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Andrew Scott

Directed by: Sam Mendes

The Music: Great sound track by Thomas Newman which weaves the iconic melody with many other influences.

The Visuals: 
Spectre and recent Bond movies set a new standard for action movie visuals. Great variety, always well done. 

Rating: 3.0 stars; A movie Experience. Great visuals. Maybe it should be 3.5 stars because of the quality, but maybe not because it is a little mindless. It is a summer popcorn movie that happens to have come out in November.

More: Bond movies always have a little comic element. It reduces the tension, and makes the movie fun. I find it hard to grapple with certain elements of the story are there to make it move fun for audiences, and that does not fit with movie as Art or movie as Message. Spectre, other big mass-market, and horror genre movies are Experiences not Messages or Art. They give the viewers something to feel which has its own intrinsic value. Maybe all Art gives us something to feel, but good Art needs to be new, and good Experiences don't.

Even More: The villain and his white Persian cat live to take over the world in the next movie. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Steve Jobs

Plot: This is a biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender). It focusses on three days of his life, the launch of the Macinosh, the launch of Next computer, and the launch of the first iMac. In each launch he talks with his ex-wife, daughter, assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet), Woz (Seth Rogan) and ex-Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) about business and about their lives.  [imdb]  [photos]

Review: .he dialog is outstanding, sparkling, sharp, and fun-to-listen to. This is great because the movie is filled with write Aaron Sorkin's dialog. This movie could have been dull, but the script is great.

I love the relationship between Steve and Joanna, Kate Winslet's character. Joanna is the only one who can talk directly to Steve, and cut through his bullshit. Kate Winslet is great in this movie.

I like this movie, and it is important to separate the film from whether one likes Steve Jobs as a person. In this film, he is not necessarily a successful person. CEO's are often assholes; especially self-made ones. The longer they are in the top job, the pushier and less connected they are.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Written by: Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson's book

The Music: Mixed instrumental tracks by John Debney, the best being Think Different, and  augmented with Bob Dylan and period pop music

The Visuals: It is mostly dialog, but I loved the conference room scene with the water running down the windows, and the shadow of the running water on the ceiling. Pretty cool.

Rating: 3.5 stars: The dialog is that good!

More: Info on the historical accuracy is on Wikipedia


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Plot: In 1957, Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is put on trial in New York, and Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) becomes his defense attorney. 1950's America hates and fears the Russians, and Donovan encounters bias legal rulings. Abel is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Meantime Francis Gary Power's is captured when his U-2 spy plane is shut down over Russia. Donovan does a back-channel negotiation to trade Powers and Abel. [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Bridge of Spies is a simple story told as a metaphor for civil liberties shrinking in post 911 America. In America the main story was about hatred and persecution, and in Europe the story was about the oppressive power of government. The message is that the difference is respect for the law. 

Tom Hanks kept the slow-moving story interesting with his clever expressions and readings. He does a good job with the old-time phrases. 

Mark Rylance who plays Abel is a blank cypher -- not interesting at all. Donovan's wife was played by Amy Ryan, and while she had a small part, she has one knock-em-dead facial expression at the very end that I loved. 

There is a lot of German dialog, and while some it was fast; the vocabulary was simple enough for me to understand most of it. 

Despite the high powered cast, it is a simple moral fable, it is well-told, but beyond the fairly simple political message, there isn't much there. It is a good movie to start a conversation.

Don't go to see Bridge of Spies thinking it is a new James Bond or Mission Impossible. One of my main disappointments with Bridge of Spies is that it is not the movie the trailer makes it seem to be. It isn't cool to be a spy in the real world.  Abel is one of the least cool people.

After all is done, I am left admiring James Donovan and his adherence to American values. It strikes me that in the battle against radicalism, Americanism is a good weapon. 

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Directed by: Steven Spielberg; Written by the Coens. 

The Music: The music is very spare. Mostly silent.

The Visuals: Mostly dialog. One excellent scene is when Power is shot down, and he is dangling from the plane as it falls. The other great visual is when the escaping East Berliners are shot trying to climb wall. All the 50's era stuff is interesting in a Mad Men way. 

Rating: 3.0 stars: It's a standard 2.5 star movie with an extra half star for the political message. 

More: Here are photos:

Donovan with President Kennedy

Rudolf Abel

Even More: Here is a story about the Donovan's from their home town paper in Lake Placid.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Plot: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is assigned to a militarized drug task force along the US-Mexican border. Her new colleagues, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), are using aggressive, bloody tactics on their raids on drug runners and king-pins. Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel) follow along in increasingly adventurous raids which lead to a dark and morally-clouded finale.  [imdb]    [photos]

Review: Dark. Intense. Gripping and Exciting too.

What does law enforcement do in the name of the greater good? Plenty of shooting.

Sicario is a top movie with good characters, big action, subtle action, and a message. I really liked it even though it left me feeling bleak and empty by the end. 

Benicio Del Toro's Alejandro is a force of nature; Alejandro has a long past with politics, criminals, retribution to his family; he is strategic, emotional, and brutal. Del Toro makes this performance look easy.

Emily Blunt's Kate is super-competent, but she and her boss are conflicted about bending the rules to get the bad guys. As the rules get bent into pretzels, her conscience becomes the surrogate for the audience's.

This is a well-made,thoughtful movie with great characters and a moral issue to chew on. I loved it.

Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jeffrey Donovan

Directed by:
Denis Villeneuve

The Music:
Great soundtrack by Johann Johannsson. Often drum heavy, but hitting the emotional beats hard exactly. The final song, The Beast, echos the bleak, dark mood of the final scenes. The music played over the soccer game is some of the saddest music ever. The soundtrack should get an Oscar.

The Visuals:
The best visual was the soldiers sneaking up to the smuggler tunnel with the setting sun behind them. All or nearly all the bloody shooting is off-camera, so it is not a gory as it could be.  

4.0 stars: Even though Sicario is serious, it is still exciting, and parts are fun to watch. 

More: "Sicario" means hitman in Mexico; it originally meant a Jewish Nationalist in Roman Palestine.

Even More: Last week at The Martian, no one asked "Why save Watley?" even though spending the money used to save Watley on vaccinations for poor people would have saved many more lives. Utilitarianism says the best outcome is the one where the most people are in the best condition. 

In Sicario, the USA justifies a lot of killing using the utilitarian principle that by killing these drug smugglers today, more people will live elsewhere. That is, extra-constitutional, extra-territorial violence doesn't matter in the name of the greater good.

In The Martian there is a different moral calculus, that we had a absolute moral requirement to rescue the astronauts because they took the risk on our behalf, and we needed to expend any cost to do so.