Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

Movie Review: ‘Toni Erdmann’

Peter Simonischek plays the role of Winfried Conradi (alias Toni Erdmann).

Peter Simonischek plays the role of Winfried Conradi (alias Toni Erdmann).

The poet, Philip Larkin, advised “don’t have any kids yourself” in his celebrated poem on parenting, “This Be The Verse.” In the film, “Toni Erdmann,” the dynamic between parent and child is explored to heroic, and hilarious, levels. Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller) is all business and seems to be doing well in her corporate career. But her father, Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), thinks he knows better.

Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller)

Ines Conradi (played by Sandra Hüller)

Ines’s father knows his daughter is terribly unhappy and he aims to fix that. Part of his plan is to amuse her with his jokes. But the jokes keep getting more and more elaborate to the point that he dons an alter ego, Toni Erdmann, made up of fake clown teeth, fright wig, and nonstop blustering. It’s pretty maddening and just a matter of time before something has got to give.

“Toni Erdmann” is written and directed by Maren Ade. It is nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Foreign Film. And it so inspired Jack Nicholson that he has come out of retirement to play the lead, alongside co-star Kristen Wiig, in the upcoming American remake. Indeed, there is something special about this film so go seek out the original. But be prepared for a European view that certainly runs counter to your typical mainstream American big studio movie. But if you enjoy offbeat/absurdist humor, then this is definitely for you.

"Toni Erdmann," written and directed by Maren Ade

“Toni Erdmann,” written and directed by Maren Ade

What I think may happen with the upcoming Americanized version is that all the playful and theatrical quality to this original film will be explained far more than necessary. The gritty European sensibility will most likely be wiped away in favor of something that seems to make more sense to most Americans. That said, dysfunctional families are every bit a part of the American scene as anywhere else. And, it is dysfunction that is at the root of this film. Ines, the daughter, is a mess. Winfried, the father, is a mess. But, despite a high level of tension between them, the two share a secret language and seem to be at their best in each other’s company. At least, there are enough positive signs to encourage the dad to keep trying to find his daughter.

Where it gets sort of weird is how insistent the dad is in his practical joke therapy path to winning over his daughter. Winfried Conradi cannot cope for very long without enacting some jarring gag. To say he is a compulsive jokester would be putting it mildly at best. No, this guy has some coping disorder and it’s pretty serious and kinda creepy. This film does address the dad’s problem but in a deceptively light way. It gradually builds. Before you know it, you’ve come to know this father and daughter in a truly remarkable way. And you come to realize that a rather heroic and rambling tale about a father and daughter can add up to a truly remarkable film.

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Filed under Academy Awards, Germany, Movie Reviews, movies, Oscars

Movie Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

I went to see “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” at the Seattle Cinerama Theatre just to make things even more special. Any Star Wars movie is a special event and this latest installment is no different. The big draw for me is the winning performance by Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, daughter of a great rebel hero who must prove that her father did not fall in league with the Empire. Her journey becomes more complicated as she runs into conflict with her handler, Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna). Our story takes place in vintage Star Wars, just before 1977’s A New Hope. This movie opens the window further to show just what wonders still lie ahead with a Disney-owned Star Wars franchise.

I’m not a hardcore Star Wars fan but even I could appreciate Peter Cushing back on the screen, digitally re-created, in order to reprise his role as the villain Grand Moff Tarkin. Most of the other CGI trickery was all Wookiee to me. But I did catch the vintage vibe here and there with cantina characters popping up and X-Wing fighter pilots back in action. George Lucas must have decided early on that his Rebel Alliance fighters were going to look more like average folks than hardened warriors. Any minute, you could expect your own grandmother to pop on the screen. In fact, one of the pilots does look to be someone’s grandmother.

The plot is pretty straightforward: earnest and lovely Jyn Erso must press on, save her dad, and save the rebellion. There’s a bunch of doublespeak in the interim and good-natured talk of believing in the force within you. There’s nothing really here with the iconic quality of a Yoda but that’s okay. We’re already treading on iconic vintage soil so that’s plenty. But there is one compelling addition in the form of the robot K-2SO brilliantly voice by Alan Tudyk.

The gang is all here.

The gang is all here.

Let me tell you a few things about K-2SO. He’s a big guy, bigger and brasher than C-3PO. I had a little girl seated next to me and she perked up every time that K-2SO acted up. He’s none too refined at times. Where C-3PO relied upon cunning, K-2SO is just as likely to rely upon brawn. In one scene, when a gatekeeper asks if he requires any help, K-2SO simply nods, raises his fist, and pounds the guy to death. It’s a pretty odd scene but easy enough in context to pass over. There’s a war on, you know. In fact, for one quick scene, we close in on ground forces that may as well be in Syria. Then we zap back into space for a bit and, ultimately, we see that everything does not rely just upon brawn but on Jyn Erso guiding the rebels back to a new sense of hope.

One spoiler, perhaps. You probably already know this. It won’t hurt anything really if you don’t but Carrie Fisher appears at the very end. It is a CGI version of her 19-year-old self and she claims victory for the rebellion and welcomes a new hope. That really touched me. The whole experience of seeing a Star Wars movie and in such a regal movie house brought home to me the still enduring power of cinema. With people consuming content is every conceivable way possible, it is reassuring that we can all be drawn back to a more basic and communal activity as going to the movies, to go and sit together to see the big event on the screen. It is not nearly the same powerful experience as it was for moviegoers in the heyday of the box office but it’s still something. It comes pretty darn close.

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DVD Review: ‘Anomalisa’

Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis) and Lisa Hesselman (voice by Jennifer Jason Leigh

Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis) and Lisa Hesselman (voice by Jennifer Jason Leigh)

You go to Google and look up this disorder and you get, “The Fregoli delusion, or the delusion of doubles, a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise.” Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman liked that as a concept, became fascinated by it, and it led to his writing 2015’s “Anomalisa,” a stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film directed and produced by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, based upon Kaufman’s 2005 play of the same name. I had read about it and had seen the trailer. I had rented it and then found myself with a quandary: I had lagged on my video viewing and was looking at a mounting rental fee. So, I sat down then and there and viewed it, a quite random thing to do but time quite well spent.

Everyone else (voices by Tom Noonan)

Everyone else (voices by Tom Noonan)

Similar to the main character, Michael Stone (voice by David Thewlis), I find the human comedy we all live in to often leave one scratching one’s head. Well, we all feel like that to some extent. But it’s when you get into specifics that we could be talking about a full blown existential crisis. This is what Michael Stone is going through. And maybe you’ve already gotten a chance to see the movie but, I must say, getting yours hands on a DVD or Blu-ray is well worth the effort. The extras are engaging: plenty of discussion on acting and production and plenty of Kaufman. That’s where I picked up the connection to the Fregoli delusion. It is at the Hotel Fregoli where our story takes place. And to hear Kaufman talk, as well as the rest of the creative team, this feature came close to never seeing the light of day many a time. The special stop-motion process nearly killed everyone with the expenses and sheer labor. But you wouldn’t have gotten this unique film without this grueling process. Sounds like a dilemma tailor-made for Charlie Kaufman.

"Anomalisa"

“Anomalisa”

You can say that this film is a perfect companion piece to Kaufman’s celebrated “Being John Malkovich,” from way back in 1999. It is very much a commentary on the absurdity of life up until proven different and, even then, there are still no guarantees on happiness. There’s more likely a guarantee on sadness than happiness, according to Kaufman. What gives our hero, Michael Stone, some hope is a connection he stumbles upon during a sales seminar where he is the featured speaker. He falls in love with Lisa, a call center representative (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). On the surface, Lisa seems basically average but Michael is taken with her quirky personality. For Michael, everyone else he encounters is literally a slight variation on the same theme. And here is where Tom Noonan comes in as the voice of every other conceivable character in the film besides Michael and Lisa. So, there you have it: a love story with that sardonic Kaufman vision.

“Anomalisa” will prove to be a most rewarding experience even if you don’t consider yourself necessarily a fan of stop-motion animation since this film does everything possible to subvert your expectations. You lose yourself in this story, root for the characters, all the time made aware that you are looking at essentially little puppets on a stage. But these are highly sophisticated maquettes with the eerie quality of evoking very human emotion while retaining their puppet quality. There are seams to each of the character’s faceplates that are left visible to drive the point home. And you can enjoy various other details to this animation process when you check out the extras section. It is certainly a film I would see again.

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Movie Review: ‘Office Christmas Party’

office-christmas-party

You do know about the T.J. Miller Uber kerfuffle, right? To recap, after a heated exchange involving Donald Trump, the “Silicon Valley” star allegedly slapped his driver. There’s nothing like a big red cup of Starbucks product placement (prominently held in the hand of Jason Bateman for the first few minutes) to take you out of the movie unless every time you see Miller on the screen, you start thinking about Uber drivers being manhandled. The good news is that watching “Office Christmas Party,” even with Uber drivers on the brain, pays off. At first, Miller does not seem up to it as he delivers his lines in the first segments with self-conscious snark. But the dude makes up for it.

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

Come for the laughs and stay to enjoy two heavy hitters, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, who make this comedy stuff look so easy. While the actual movie they are in has its fair share of clunker gags, Bateman and Aniston own their characters and command razor-sharp chops. A weak early scene with Miller lamenting the misunderstood needs of bald men is saved by a perfectly-timed answer by Bateman: “Hair?” Miller says over a dozen words. Nothing. Bateman says one word. Comedy gold. It’s that simple. I’m not led to think about Donald Trump or Uber drivers being terrorized. I’m only enjoying pure comedy gold. The same with Aniston. In a somewhat similar set-up, Aniston’s character asks a simple question to Vanessa Bayer’s character who proceeds to chew the scenery. Aniston, now irritated, asks the question again in a tone that demands a quick answer. Bayer answers. Very funny performances from both of them.

Now, as for the plot, the whole shebang hinges on Miller’s character throwing this incredible office party that will save the company, save jobs, and make America really really great again. Okay, not necessarily that last part. Anyway, there’s more. Aniston and Miller are brother and sister in the movie. The two run the family business. Actually, Aniston runs it and Miller gets to act a fool at the Chicago branch office. But, if Miller can just get his act together this once, and this is where the office party comes in, everything could turn out great. Maybe even America could turn great again. Who knows. In fact, a good part of the plot rests on the action of the character played by Olivia Munn who shines as a tech genius. Another good reason to see this movie. In fact, there are quite a lot of moving parts to this movie and it works remarkably well considering unnecessarily bad humor and some rather maudlin subplots.

If only they had trimmed some of the frat house humor, this might merit another star for those keeping score at home. Otherwise, don’t sweat the weak spots. And we come full circle with the character of Lonny played by Fortune Feimster. She actually plays the role of a Uber driver! In the backseat is not Miller. No, instead, it’s Aniston who is none too patient with her chatty driver. Another good example of some good laughs.

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Filed under Christmas, Comedy, Humor, Movie Reviews, movies

Movie Review: ARRIVAL

arrival-movie-amy-adams-2016

What will it be like when they arrive? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over again, from H.G. Wells to Steven Spielberg. What sets “Arrival” apart is that this new sci-fi film starts where most of these first contact stories end: this is a film about engaging with an alien race from some other world in some rather in depth terms. In the process, we humans may learn more about ourselves and the very nature of reality. It’s rare that a movie really hits me on such a visceral level. Part of it has to do with its steady and realistic pace. 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” set the standard. In recent years, we’ve seen a trend towards more contemplative sci-fi. In this case, it’s what the movie has to say about how we perceive reality. The aliens have got a much different take on that.

"Arrival" screenplay by Eric Heisserer

“Arrival” screenplay by Eric Heisserer

Director Denis Villeneuve is known for pulse-pounding thrillers with a quirky sense of style (Sicario, Prisoners, Enemy). For “Arrival,” the trick was to find the right balance of the theatrical with the compelling and cerebral quality of the original short story by Ted Chiang. I strongly encourage you to seek out Chiang’s story. You will find it to be quite moving with a different set of parameters at home on the printed page. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer succeeds in taking the beauty and nuance of Chiang’s work and finding something comparable in a Hollywood screenplay. Heisserer addresses every aspect of the original story. He amplifies the plot and adds action where it makes sense. Read my interview with Eric Heisserer right here.

"Stories of Your Life and Others" by Ted Chiang

“Stories of Your Life and Others” by Ted Chiang

Part of this story is about communicating and connecting. How do we do that? The answer lies somewhere in language. Amy Adams plays the role of an exceptional linguist, Dr. Louise Banks. She is assigned to crack the alien language. Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly) is assigned to crack the alien math. And Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber) is there to monitor. There are many others behind the scenes. In fact, there are twelve of these massive alien pods that have landed on various spots across Earth. But our attention is mostly on these three main characters, and our eyes are especially on Louise.

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks

By the time that Louise has been enlisted, the alien site in Montana has been joined by an organized U.S. government contingent. And initial contact has been established: a crew enter a portal and make their way to a screen that separates them from a couple of Cthulhu-like creatures. While incredibly strange-looking, they also seem benign. Louise’s breakthrough is to authentically reach out to them. In time, these “heptapods” emerge from the language barrier to reveal a whole other way of looking at reality. Amy Adams delivers an exquisite performance as the one person who really gets it, in the same spirit as the Richard Dreyfuss character, Roy Neary, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

"Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Arrival,” directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Arrival” is one of those special gifts from Hollywood that are still very much possible. This movie ranks right up with 2014’s “Interstellar,” starring Matthew McConaughey, as Cooper, in a somewhat similar struggle involving a parent and a child. Eric Heisserer says that his screenplay pitch went through 100 rejections from producers before it was green-lit. Well, his persistence most certainly paid off. This is definitely the perfect holiday movie, date movie, perfect all-around movie.

“Arrival” went into wide release as of November 11th. Visit the official site right here.

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Filed under Eric Heisserer, Movie Reviews, movies, Sci-Fi, science fiction, Screenwriting, writers, writing

DVD Review: STAR TREK BEYOND

“STAR TREK BEYOND” (2016) PARAMOUNT PICTURES

“STAR TREK: BEYOND” (2016) PARAMOUNT PICTURES

The latest Star Trek movie pulls us in with great ferocity and it never lets go. “Star Trek Beyond” makes an excellent case for the franchise as it celebrates its 50th anniversary going back to the original television program. With the third in the new Star Trek movies, first launched by director J.J. Abrams, we have reached a point where we can afford a touch more subtlety. And, having explored the Kirk/Spock dynamic rather thoroughly, it’s a good change of pace to turn a bit more focus this time around to Scotty. Yes, Simon Pegg, as Scotty, comes away one of the big winners this time around. Pegg co-wrote the script and, it may come as no surprise, he found a lot of new wrinkles in which to place his character.

By and large, this latest Star Trek film continues with an action-heavy plot. What it tries to do is deliver on some of the less flashy aspects to the franchise and it does a fairly good job of that. You do get a generous amount of banter between the characters. You do get thrills and plot twists. But, even more than action, what a movie franchise of this caliber can always use, considering its stellar cast and resources, is more compelling content. Ease up on the warp drive, breathe in and out, and allow the story and the characters to engage with the audience. But, hold on, I do think this movie is quite engaging and it is not without its thoughtful moments.

Now, this is what is going on right. First, you’ll have a good time with Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. He’s grown with the character. He remains very credible, the guy you want to follow and root for. You get every bit of gravitas you’d expect as Kirk rallies his crew: “We’ve come to understand there is no such thing as the unknown, only the temporarily hidden.” Early in, we follow Kirk down a corridor during a quiet moment. He ponders to himself, “The more time we spend out here, the harder it is to tell when one day ends and the next one begins. It can be a challenge to feel grounded even when gravity is artificial.” Ah, those are the type of nuanced moments of reflection we want. Actually, a little more in and we have a marvelous exchange between Kirk and Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) over some bourbon they found in Chekov’s locker.

What J.J. Abrams aimed for all along was a high wow factor. And that is definitely in place here. It’s very useful to critique a movie within context. That said, as far a providing an all-ages wow factor, this movie is off the charts. Honestly, a lot of what we want is an ultimate razzle dazzle contemporary version of the original show. This is exactly the sort of thing that a big studio is designed to do. The opening sequence, for example, is the gold standard. Kirk walks into an exotic looking chamber. High above is a council of elders made up of imposing gargoyles. Kirk thinks he’s there for a simple ceremony until he’s subjected to harsh questioning by the tribal leader. Things turn ugly and CGI mayhem ensues. It has just the right touch of humor, Kirk swagger, and element of surprise.

This movie is definitely not to be taken for granted. At the end of the day, yes, this is an adventure with an imposing villain, Krall (Idris Elba), and his legion of deadly fighters. You can count on the original show on steroids in that regard. But there’s more to it as well. Running throughout all three latest installments is a grounded storyline: Spock (Zachary Quinto) struggles with survivor’s guilt after his home planet of Vulcan was destroyed. And he finds in Lt. Urhua (Zoe Saldana) a compelling human connection. Perhaps more powerful than his connection to Kirk. We seek a good balance in these kind of movies and, overall, this Star Trek movie delivers. And, if we keep asking for more, that’s alright. This is Star Trek we’re talking about after all.

“Star Trek Beyond” is available on DVD and Blu-ray as of November 1st. And, if you’re a Seattle local, you can always stop by Video Isle and pick up a DVD or Blu-ray rental at Seattle’s best video rental store. Visit them right HERE. And visit them on Facebook right HERE.

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DVD review: CANDY

Ewa Aulin and Marlon Brando in 1968's "Candy"

Ewa Aulin and Marlon Brando in 1968’s “Candy”

“Candy” was a notorious novel from 1958 by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. It had sex, satire, and more sex. By 1968, director Christian Marquand brought to the screen something which was equally notorious and it had sex, satire, and more sex. There’s a story that Buck Henry, the screenwriter, tells in a bonus feature on the DVD. Marquand, Henry, and a producer, Peter Zoref, would routinely go to lunch during the filming. Zoref was regularly verbally abused by Marquand but, on that day, Marquand took to slapping Zoref. Henry admonished Marquand to stop. When Marquand ignored Henry and resumed his abuse, Henry threatened to use his knife on Marquand–which he ultimately did! With a knife impaled into his hand, Marquand began to maniacally laugh. He just kept on laughing and laughing. To this, Buck Henry conceded some form of greatness on the part of Marquand! And, with that said, it gives you a taste of “Candy.”

1968 was a long time ago, no two ways about it. So, we take that into consideration when viewing such a work as this. It is not an unequivocally classic piece like, say, Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” No, no, no. It is not that. However, a case can be made for it being a misunderstood gem. There are some interesting things going on that raise it above a typical Sixties exploitation movie. In fact, there are plenty of entertaining scenes to make this worthwhile and a lot of that rests on the stellar cast of actors. Everyone on board seems okay with the premise and play it to the hilt: a young woman, a veritable ingenue/sex object wanders about as various middle-aged men ogle her and dare to fondle her. Candy, on the other hand, does not find the potential suitors to be repulsive. She is mostly concerned with being given a decent reason to take her clothes off. Silly. Surreal. Disturbing. Check all of the above.

We begin with Richard Burton as Candy’s first suitor. That turns out to be quite impressive. And the list of suitors goes on from there: Ringo Starr, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and Marlon Brando. At one point, I sort of started to think that director Marquand had set up a cynical trap for all these A-listers putting them in a situation that would leave them looking ludicrous. But, no, that does not really happen. Everyone survives, if not excels. Burton is brilliant as MacPhisto, a latter-day Lord Byron with a throng of young women in a frenzy over him. With any woman at his disposal, MacPhisto becomes transfixed by Candy, played to spaced-out perfection by Ewa Aulin. The only problem is that MacPhisto is all thumbs, like most of the men depicted in this movie, when it comes to actually having sex. Candy is all for it but MacPhisto proves to be trapped within a bubble of his own self-delusion. Fast forward to Marlon Brandon, as Grindl, the charismatic guru, who proves to be a capable seducer. While all the rest of the men marvel over Candy the sex object, Grindl has no problem firmly placing hand over mons and proceeding. Whether true zeitgeist or more kitsch, “Candy” has a certain colorful quality to it that makes it hard to resist. It is a masterpiece train wreck.

“Candy” has been released on DVD from Kino Lorber. You can find “Candy” at various outlets including Amazon right here.

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Oscars 2016: BRIDGE OF SPIES

Hanks Bridge of Spies

In 1960, Arnold Spielberg was an engineer with General Electric in Russia as part of a foreign exchange program. As part of his initial tour, he was confronted with a display of the flight suit of airman Gary Powers and some of the remains of the infamous U-2 spy plane that the Soviets had shot down. This was meant to leave a impression on the American visitor. It did. His son is Steven Spielberg who has gone on to make some of the most memorable major motion pictures in history. So, it turns out, Spielberg’s latest film, “Bridge of Spies,” is a film that the director was compelled to make. You learn about the anecdote regarding Spielberg’s dad in the extra feature on the DVD. As bonus features go, this one is a keeper.

It’s really good to see the lauded director genuinely excited, like a kid, as he talks about his film, which has great relevance for today. How do we treat enemies of the state? Does the rule of law still apply? This is the story of a lawyer, much like Atticus Finch, who never swerves from his pursuit of justice, even if he’s representing a Soviet spy. Tom Hanks plays the role of James B. Donovan, the American lawyer enlisted to negotiate the release of airman Gary Powers during the course of some extraordinary events.

Bridge-of-Spies-Tom-Hanks

I think in any other year, “Bridge of Spies” would be a shoe-in to win for Best Picture at the Oscars. This year gives us a particularly tight race. That said, this is a film that will go down as a respected achievement whatever the case. Even at this high level of moviemaking, it comes across as a genuine labor of love. It is a relatively quieter film for Spielberg. I think the hype surrounding “Lincoln” overshadowed what a fine film that actually is. In the case of “Bridge of Spies,” it has the no-nonsense appeal of Tom Hanks. There aren’t really any famous scenes to point to but the story is brimming with Cold War intrigue.

“Bridge of Spies” is very much a period piece and very strong on story. The original screenwriter, Matt Charman, was first drawn to the seemingly unusual selection by President Kennedy of attorney James B. Donovan to broker the release of prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion. Just who was Mr. Donovan? Charman dug deeper and discovered the rest of the intriguing story. And to give Charman’s initial screenplay an added texture of personality, Spielberg enlisted the famous Cohen brothers, Joel and Ethan. I can see that, with unlimited resources like that at one’s disposal, a production like this could collapse under its own excess. However, that is not the case here. No matter how great the budget, no matter what the content, a successful creation has got to have a fire in the belly. Spielberg has not squandered anything and delivers at the level of a truly great director.

At the heart of this film is a steadfast belief in principles and integrity. What’s more, this film inspires a trust in willing to go to the very edge to safeguard not only a way of life but the rule of law upon which it stands. Sounds like pretty heady stuff. Well, it’s the stuff of great entertainment from “High Noon” to “Star Wars.” If you want the good feeling of believing in something, with the added benefit of a suspenseful thrill ride, then you’ll want to see Tom Hanks give it all it’s worth as the persistent Mr. Donovan.

To find out more, and to purchase a DVD or Blu-ray, visit the official “Bridge of Spies” website right here.

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Oscars 2016: THE BIG SHORT

The Big Short

“The Big Short” is a movie that has earned its place among a unique set of movies that can really make a difference. Who knew that the more arcane details of the housing crisis and subsequent financial meltdown of 2008 could be rendered in an accessible and entertaining fashion? And with some of the best talent around to boot. I actually went to see this with my 19-year-old daughter. The roster of leading men and the offbeat intent of the movie made it very promising. So, it was about derivative swaps, well, okay then.

For anyone who has seen it, “The Big Short” not only delivers but leaves you feeling encouraged about the state of filmmaking today. I had assumed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would have heaped praise, and awards, upon it without giving it a second thought. It just goes to show what a heated race it is this year as we approach the Oscars on February 28th. It’s a hot race in the Best Picture category, and “The Big Short” is up against some stiff competition with the leading favorite, “The Revenant.” “The Big Short” is just the sort of significant movie that should win big on the big night.

The Big Short Adam McKay

Much has been said about this movie. Consider the spirited New York Times review here. I’ll give you my take on it. First off, it’s been a long time since the media has focused on the housing market and the major banks–almost as if nothing had happened at all. Sure, the news runs in odd cycles but it does leave one wondering. In fact, one of the points made in this film is the fact that the issues surrounding the financial crisis are far from resolved. How we got here, and why we don’t seem to learn, is at the heart of this story. The movie faithfully plumbs the depths of the famously entertaining nonfiction book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” by Michael Lewis.

Prior to 2008, there were only a few key players in a position to read the handwriting on the wall. Their anticipation of an impending financial collapse, had something to do with insider knowledge and everything to do with seeing what would someday become the obvious. Their collective response was to use specialized hedge funds to bet against Wall Street! And so we see our story play out. Among these special key players who could see what lay ahead, there is genius fund manager Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale) who is willing to take his position of authority at the firm he works for to bet the farm. As the pressure mounts on Burry from his bosses to retreat, we see a study in rebellion with other people’s money.

The point was, and remains, that money is not as abstract as some would like to believe. It is ultimately other people’s money that gets manipulated, stolen, and outright lost. The powers that be, the major banks, continue to take those sort of gambles that present little, if any, consequence.

But it’s not just consequences that those in power manage to sidestep. As this film repeatedly points out, the corruption is deeply entrenched and the major banks are masters of deflecting blame. Mirroring the activist spirit of the book, the message here goes above and beyond buyer beware.

We have had a few exceptional films dealing with the housing crisis. What makes this film remarkable is its fierce vision, its commitment to keep you engaged. And its timing, in an election year, is perfect. To have a film of this caliber is such a great opportunity to further the discussion. An Oscar win for Best Picture would seem to be most appropriate. In fact, in some circles, this film is considered a front-runner for Best Picture. With “The Big Short” taking the Producers Guild of America’s top prize this last weekend, the odds could very well be in favor of this film taking the top prize at the Oscars.

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Filed under Hollywood, Movie Reviews, movies, The Oscars, Wall Street

Movie Review: STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

the-force-awakens

And so it begins, a Disney Star Wars movie. Disney had its share of false starts when it started venturing away from such titles as “Superdad” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang” to its first PG-rated movie, a sci-fi action flick no less, the box office flop that was 1979’s “The Black Hole.” At the time, it was deemed too expensive for Disney to use some Star Wars magic and rent equipment from George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic. Of course, all that was a long time ago. After the Disney buyout of Lucas to the tune of $4.05 billion, would Disney gain some real Star Wars cred? The goal seems to be met.

This Star Wars movie had to be better than the last three installments and it had to harken back to that something special from the original, without kowtowing to it. Were the Egyptian pyramids this intimidating to build? Yes, I think so. When I read Lev Grossman wax on about Star Wars in Time magazine, it felt like he was describing something too big to fail. When I saw the Star Wars special edition of Jimmy Kimmel Live, I saw in J.J. Abrams one relieved dude. The major players from the cast were there with Mr. Abrams. And they too looked relieved, after having carried a mighty weight upon their shoulders. They had all survived an enterprise involving enough money to bankroll a number of countries’ annual budgets.

Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This movie was designed to not disappoint anyone. And, if you believe the speculation from diehard fans, the opening line says it all, “This will begin to make things right.” The opening line is recited by Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) at the prospect of finding a gone missing Luke Skywalker. But, as core fans will tell you, it sure sounds like a coded message related to fans’ distaste for the Star Wars prequels. This is something that Abrams certainly took to heart.

Finn (John Boyega)  and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finn (John Boyega)
and Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

There is no doubt that the shadow of the Star Wars legend looms larger than life here. An answer to R2-D2. Check. An answer to Han Solo. Check. An answer to Yoda. Check. And so on down the line to the Mos Eisley Cantina and Luke Skywalker’s X-34 Landspeeder. The sense of urgency to get it right is ferociously palpable. It is directed into every single scene by J.J. Abrams. Abrams wrote the final script with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan. The two best new additions to the franchise: John Boyega as Finn, a runaway deserter; and Daisy Ridley as Rey, a reluctant new hero in touch with The Force.

In simpler times: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford

In simpler times: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford

Star Wars was never true science fiction. It was fantasy and, more to the point, a comment on fantasy. At its core, Star Wars was a quirky tribute by George Lucas, a nostalgic look back to Buck Rogers and action-packed pulp fiction. It was a nostalgia for childhood entertainment that was then reconfigured into something even more enchanting. By the time that the original trilogy was completed, George Lucas was done. So, it’s hard to really blame him for the direction he took with the prequels which was as far removed from the original source as possible. It was simply too early to get all nostalgic over something that was nostalgic to begin with. And, anyway, Harrison Ford would never have reprised his role at that point. More time would need to pass which brings us to what amounts to this fun revisit.

But how often can you successfully tap into nostalgia with a franchise like Star Wars? As the James Bond franchise has learned, it all needs to be measured out in proper doses. For now, it looks like a new trilogy has been mapped out that holds on to what made Star Wars worthwhile to begin with. In the end, at its best, Star Wars was an eccentric notion by an eccentric guy named George Lucas. It’s now a franchise designed to not disappoint anyone.

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