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Matthew Shephard died in 1998. This dramatization covers the aftermath., 7 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I remember hearing of the Matthew Shepard murder in October 1998 but didn't really know very much about it, only it seemed to stem from his being homosexual. This film, a dramatization in documentary approach, fills in most of the gaps.

Shortly after the incident a group led by Moisés Kaufman and including members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project, several of them also homosexuals, went to Laramie, Wyoming, where the kidnapping and murder happened. Their focus was to interview as many of the locals they could, including pastors, teachers, and medical staff. They wanted to piece together the puzzle of why this happened when it did and where it did.

It was originally an HBO film and never having HBO myself only had a chance to see it now by getting the DVD from my local public library. It is very well made and actors, most of them experienced and well- known, play the parts of the out-of-towners and the townspeople who were interviewed.

Included is a dramatization of the trials of the two young men responsible for the kidnapping and murder, each resulting in two consecutive life sentences.

Hard to watch at times because of the content but overall well made and worth a viewing.

Help is only 140 million miles away. For Mark Watney, stranded on Mars., 5 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

We viewed this on DVD from our public library. Picture and sound are first-rate.

The premise is somewhere in the 2030s we have advanced our space exploration to successful missions to Mars. While one is underway a large, unforecast storm comes up on Mars requiring the crew of 6 to cut the mission short and use the escape rocket to blast off and rendezvous with the main space ship orbiting Mars. But one of the crew, Mark Watney, is hit by a large object and carried away, injured and out of communications. Reluctantly they have to blast off without him after a short search was futile. Mark was presumed dead.

But Matt Damon as Mark Watney didn't give up so easily, he managed to get himself to a base station and using medical tools and staples repaired his wounds and set about trying to figure out how to survive with limited resources. Fortunately with rations for 6 he was able to make food stretch, and as a Botanist even came up with a method to make water and, using his own waste as fertilizer, used a Thanksgiving package of potatoes to grow potatoes in a chamber converted to a greenhouse of sorts.

So much of the movie is about Mark's survival, plus his figuring out a way, using old abandoned Mars exploration robots, to communicate with NASA. The real hard part becomes how to plan and carry out a rescue mission. Mars is far away, it takes a long time, he has limited time to survive.

The cast is varied and good, with Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, the commander of the mission. Kristen Wiig in a serious role as a NASA communications officer, Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders, the NASA chief, Michael Peña as Rick Martinez, the pilot for the mission, Kate Mara as one of the crew, a computer expert, Beth Johanssen, among others.

This is a really good and entertaining movie. It is a serious subject but is treated with appropriate humor.

SPOILERS: When the first rescue approach failed in a faulty rocket launch, a young data nerd calculated, using NASA's super computer, that the crew on their way back to Earth could accelerate and using the Earth slingshot return to Mars, but it would require a risky capture of a re-supply module and a never-rehearsed module take-off from Mars to try to capture Watney in a Mars fly-by. NASA said no to the risk but the crew decided on their own to try the rescue. That whole last scene was very tense and of course it was a success.

This film makes it clear, we are all on the fast track to extinction., 5 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I found this program on DVD from my public library. It is a "2-hour program" I suppose with commercials but the actual running time is about 87 minutes.

This is a very good presentation, however bible fundamentalists who believe the world we know can only be a few thousand years old cannot watch this without risking a cranial explosion. Because it starts with the (theoretical) Big Bang billions of years ago. While the Big Bang remains only a theory, and not one that all experts buy into, there are enough sources of scientific evidence that show our universe is indeed many billions of years old.

So this program starts with the Big Bang theory and concludes in present time. Along the way it explains how early gravity worked on energy and matter to form masses that eventually with enough pressure and heat ignited into stars. Eventually some of those stars exploded sending hydrogen, helium, and select heavier elements into space. After enough billions of years some of that resulted in our Earth in orbit around our Sun.

Of course almost everything we think we know about the development of the Earth, accumulation of water and oxygen, evolution of various animal and plant species are based on analysis of artifacts that have been found over the years, and there can be no doubt that some of it is incorrect. But science overall is pretty good and I'd bet most of what is in this program is pretty close to what actually happened.

The program includes input of quite a number of experts and we see short snippets of what they contribute. It traces some of the extinctions, like the big one that caused the dinosaurs to disappear, the rise of the primates, and the rise of the alpha primate, the Human species. Plus how we spread all over the Earth as tectonic plates and land masses moved, oceans swelled and receded.

But my own summary, as I watched this highly accelerated view of the History of the World, we the Human species are not good stewards of the world we inherited. We are on a fast track to extinction, moving as fast as we can towards new technology and new ways to entertain ourselves, but also figuring out newer and better ways of going to war and killing our opposition.

A bit sobering. But a good program.

Visions (2015/II)
Horror in the wine country outside Los Angeles., 4 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I found this horror movie on Netflix streaming. I watched it for two reasons. The first is the wine country theme, my wife and I have visited various California and French wine areas over the years and I always enjoy seeing vineyards. The second is Jim Parsons who plays the OB GYN doctor here. Parsons grew up near us and of course is now famous as Sheldon on the TV series and I wanted to see what he would do with a non-comedy role.

The story may seem a bit complex but it isn't. A young couple pursue their dream, at least his dream, to own and operate a winery. So they find one that has been shut down for a few years and in need of TLC so they buy it. Unaware that some strange things have been reported there over the years.

The wife gets pregnant and soon starts having visions in and near their new home. But they are strange visions in that bottles of wine may break, a window shatters, a gun is seen on the floor, but when she calls her husband there are no traces of any of that.

Isla Fisher is the young wife, Eveleigh Maddox, and Anson Mount is the wine-making husband David Maddox. Gillian Jacobs is Sadie, also pregnant and a new friend. And Jim Parsons is the Ob Gyn Dr. Mathison.

Overall I did not find it to be a very good movie. It was entertaining many times but it is also the type of movie that left me with a "so what" feeling at the end.

SPOILERS: What the wife was seeing were premonitions, facilitated by the spirits of the former residents. They were warnings of what would soon happen. But when they started happening there wasn't really anything to do to counteract it, only to think "Oh, that is why I saw those things." It was all related to the new friend Sadie who wasn't really pregnant but was planning on stealing Eveleigh's baby. In a flashback we see that Eveleigh was in an accident that caused the other woman to lose her baby, now she couldn't have another, that other woman was Sadie. But in the final encounter and shoot-out Eveleigh and David prevail, but they sell the house and move.

Bogdanovich comes through, a messy love quadrangle farce that is a delight to see., 4 February 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I watched this at home on DVD from my public library. My wife chose not to watch it, not her kind of comedy. It almost has a Woody Allen sensibility to it.

The story itself is being told by Imogen Poots (British actress using her best OTT fake Brooklyn accent) as Isabella Patterson. She is well-dressed and well-spoken and in the present time doing very well. But it hasn't always been that way, as we see in flashbacks that actually make up the movie.

She was an aspiring actress who still lived with her constantly quarreling parents, and she worked as a call girl to earn money to support herself and to help her parents. It was just a job to her.

Owen Wilson is a director, Arnold Albertson. He has traveled to New York to prepare for directing a new stage play, it will star his wife who is traveling over a day or two later with the kids. So alone in his hotel room Arnold calls an escort service and asks for 'Glo-stick', the pseudo that Isabella uses. They have a good time, he takes her out to dinner, they come back and sleep together, then he asks her to quit doing what she does, and he says he will give her $30,000 if she will quit. The money will help her start fresh and do something she wants with her life.

So we have a guy who gets horny, cheats on his wife, but has a generous streak that makes him want to help young ladies have a better life. An interesting concept and it is carried forward in this movie in a very entertaining way.

The cast is very good, the writing is inventive and witty, and as the story unfolds a number of interesting entanglements surface. It does not attempt to judge who might be right or who might be wrong, just glimpses into the lives of these interesting characters.

SPOILERS: The spit first hits the fan when the next day Isabella shows up to audition for a part in the play Arnold is directing and his wife is starring in. Of course he doesn't want her there, it would be awkward and dangerous for him but she is great and has to have the part. In other scenes Arnold happens upon several other young ladies who had been similarly helped with gifts of $30,000 to get fresh starts and each one thanks him for saving them. Of course his wife finds out and in the end Isabella is the only one who comes out smelling good in this whole mess.

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A matter of philosophy and ethics. Phoenix and Stone do well., 31 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

We watched this at home on DVD from our public library.

While I am not a giant Woody Allen fan I do look forward to his yearly movie. He has his own style and I always know I'm in for something unexpected.

Many of Allen's movies over the years feature men and women in their most base attributes, including lying, betraying a relationship, and murder. This one is no exception to that rule.

Joaquin Phoenix is the new Philosophy professor, Abe, coming to this fictitious college in Rhode Island. His reputation precedes him and most seem to be looking forward to his arrival. He seems quite "different" from the very start and carries a flask in his back pocket, usually with a Single Malt Scotch whiskey in it, and isn't discreet when and where he breaks it out.

One of his students is Emma Stone as Jill. She has a steady college boyfriend, a really nice guy, but she takes an immediate liking to Abe, commenting that she isn't "exclusive" with her boyfriend.

Not your usual story it takes a few unexpected turns. Not a great movie but we were entertained. Typical Woody Allen.

SPOILERS: Abe and Jill are in a diner and a group in the next booth behind are talking, they are upset because a family court judge seems to be giving the woman a hard time about custody, she is spending all her money on legal fees, she thinks the judge and her husband's lawyer aren't playing fair. Abe does some research on his own and finds that the judge really does seem dishonest so decides to kill him, to rid society of a vermin. His ethics seem OK with that. He sneaks into the Chemistry stockroom and steals some Cyanide. He stalks the judge, finds out his routine, on a park bench switches the judge's orange juice with one laced with poison, and the judge dies. Jill is horrified when she finds out the whole story and her ethics compel her to expose him. But Abe doesn't want to spend his life in prison so he plots to kill Jill by meeting her after her piano lesson and pushing her down an open elevator shaft he rigged. But she fights, he slips on a small flashlight that he had won for her, down to his own death.

Ashby (2015)
Awkward teen meets retiring professional assassin., 31 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

We were able to watch this at home on DVD from our public library. It is funny and quirky with some serious subjects.

Set in Virginia, Nat Wolff is new transfer student Ed Wallis, a senior coming from Oregon. Ed is very smart and has intentions of being a star wide receiver on his high school football team but isn't sure he wants to confront the mean coaches and potential teammates.

Ed's new next door neighbor is Mickey Rourke, in fine form, as Ashby Holt. They meet right after Ashby has a minor incident behind the wheel of his car, he is diagnosed with a debilitating condition and told he has 3 months to live. No longer allowed to drive he has Ed take him places. When Ed asks what Ashby does for a living he tells him he was a napkin salesman. In fact he has been a professional assassin.

The story here is two-fold and each as important as the other. Ed is coming of age, he needs encouragement to confront his fears both on the football field, and with the pretty new friend at school, Emma Roberts as Eloise. And Ashby needs to confront his life of killing, he has a strong faith and doesn't want to die and be sent to Hell.

Also good are Sarah Silverman as June Wallis, Ed's needy single mom, and Zachary Knighton as Father Ted, the priest that Ashby confessed to near the end of his life.

Interesting movie, we were entertained.

No Escape (2015/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Terror in Thailand, can they escape and survive?, 30 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Interesting point in the DVD extras, one of the co-writers, brothers, recounts how he was due to visit Thailand right after a military coup of sorts, and when he questioned if it was safe was told, "Yes, it is a friendly coup." So he wondered, what if Americans went to Thailand and the coup was NOT friendly? Thus this movie.

Owen Wilson is Jack Dwyer, his most recent job had ended and now took this opportunity to go be sent by his new company to Thailand to be plant manager for a water plant. As he and his family are on the plane from San Francisco we see an incident where the President of Thailand is assassinated. The Dwyers have no idea, it happened while they were in the air and Jack could find no current newspaper in English.

So as they settle into their hotel room and wonder why no one from his company is there to meet him all hell breaks loose. He is on the streets looking around when he sees an encounter where rebels and policemen start to beat and kill each other. Jack manages to escape and make his way back to the hotel, where the rebels are starting to invade and kill people.

Jack's only instinct was to survive and to protect his family. And it gets worse, the rebels are angry with his company and are hunting down each of the new arrivals, Jack included, to kill them.

Lake Bell is good as the wife, Annie Dwyer, and the two small girls are played well by Sterling Jerins as Lucy and Claire Geare as Beeze. A key figure is Pierce Brosnan as Hammond, a mysterious man who initially gives them a ride to the hotel and in the end tells them how to escape to safety down the river to Viet Nam.

The whole movie is tense and scary, very realistically recreating what it must be like to be in terror in a foreign country trying to escape with your life while being hunted. Owen Wilson shows that he can carry a straight dramatic role.

The changing demographics of a small Missouri community., 29 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I came across this documentary on Netflix streaming.

Spanish Lake, maybe 10 miles north of downtown St Louis, has a rich history, and in the 1950s was pretty much the ideal unincorporated community. Ideal in that it was pretty much 100% white mid- westerners with heartland values and attitudes. The people there liked it just the way it was.

However it changed, not too different from how scores of similar communities changed from the 1950s to the 2000s, when racial segregation was being abolished and government programs were created to help erase poverty. A big part of that was to create affordable, subsidized housing for the poor, and that meant mostly the poor black population.

Spanish Lake's unincorporated status, ideal for eliminating unnecessary government influence, worked against its desire for the status quo. Subsidized housing sprang up, poor neighborhoods relocated from inner city St Louis to Spanish Lake. Fear, partly driven by the real estate agencies seeking more business, resulted in whites selling homes and black Americans moving in. But that was not really the bad part, a heavy criminal element moved in also.

As a the younger single black lady living now in Spanish Lake says, the biggest problem is "kids raising kids" and not really knowing how to prepare them for the real world. Lacking in education the cycle of poverty continues.

The film was motivated by a young man who grew up in Spanish Lake and moved away when his parents were divorced in the 1970s. When he returned he was dismayed to find his town so changed. But Spanish Lake is not unique, I go to my small town, about 4 hours away, and see businesses closed, storefronts empty, homes in disrepair, the old school building long gone, not because black Americans moved in but because times change. We all live in a disposable society, we tend to move to bigger and better things, and what gets left behind is just a distant memory of what it used to be.

This documentary is interesting but leaves no great impact. If you go to Google maps and do street view of Spanish Lake you'll find a nicely attractive area with typical 1950s and 1960s homes. The documentary seems to focus on some properties which have been neglected but the community seems rather nice-looking today.

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Dramatization of writer-director Maya Forbes' life growing up., 29 January 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Maya Forbes is a writer and also directs this movie which is mostly autobiographical but with name changes. Her real-life daughter, Imogene, plays the role that would have been Maya in the late 1970s. She is part of a prestigious family in New England and that is depicted in the movie. For example she is related to U.S. Secretary of State John Forbes Kerry.

Mark Ruffalo is Cam Stuart (the real father was Cam Forbes), a free spirit in the 1960s, when he met his eventual wife, Zoe Saldana as Maggie. What was endearing as 20-somethings eventually became a large burden a decade later as they were raising their family with two young girls. You see Cam is bipolar, and to a child "polar bear" was a good substitute name. He was an infinitely polar bear.

Essentially broke and with Cam just out of therapy after one of his breakdowns, Maggie decides to get additional education so that she can get a better job to support Cam and the girls. She leaves them in Boston as she goes to New York on an 18-month program to get her MBA.

Most of the movie is about the trials Cam and the girls have, living together in a small, often messy place, with Cam doing the best he could to be a good father and mother. This part is likely very accurate as the writer-director was one of the girls growing up in the situation.

With difficulty it worked and unable to find suitable employment as a black woman in Boston Maggie takes a job in NY which allows the girls to go to private school and get good educations. Although it isn't covered past that point it seems that Maggie and Cam were destined to just slip farther apart while being good parents to the girls.

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