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Deepwater Horizon (2016)
A Good Depiction Of What Happened On The Rig
When we think of the Deepwater Horizon incident I suspect that most people tend to think of the massive leak, that leaked literally hundreds of millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of several weeks before the leak was sealed. It was one of the most massive environmental disasters in American history. What doesn't stand out in my memory, though, is what happened on the oil rig itself. This movie tries to fill in that gap, and does so admirably.
Much of it is told from the perspective of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the chief electrician on the Deepwater Horizon. It opens by giving us a glimpse of his family life (enough to make this a very human and poignant story, but it's not overdone.) Once on the Horizon, we're introduced to various crew members, as well as a couple of executives from BP, who own the rig and the well. There's a lot of technical content, much of which went over my head, but I wonder if that might have been very deliberate. I may not have understood exactly what was happening, but I understood clearly enough that there was a problem building.
The early tension comes from conflict between the crew (especially "Mr. Jimmy" - the captain, played by Kurt Russell) who know something isn't right, and the BP execs (the most important played by John Malkovich) who push the crew to keep going because their primary concern is that the project is over budget and behind schedule. When money takes priority over safety the result usually won't be good. In this case it's not. The well explodes, the rig is caught up in a massive fire, and the crew is left in a desperate struggle to survive.
Everything is very well portrayed and the cast does a very good job of drawing the viewer into the story and making you care. I've never been on an oil rig, but the set seemed authentic and gave the viewer the sense of being there. The buildup of tension is well done and once disaster strikes this becomes fast-paced and exciting. Peter Berg did a good job directing. Well done all around.
The Sessions (2012)
Sensitive And Sensual
I wasn't sure what to expect from "The Sessions." A movie about a disabled man who hires a sex surrogate seems capable of going in a lot of different directions - not all of them good or worthy. But this turns out to be a very good movie. Sensitive and sensual, it's also thought-provoking. It takes us through a wide range of human emotions, from fear to joy to sadness. It features very good performances from the three leads (John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy) that end up making this a real pleasure to watch.
Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien in this true story. O'Brien is a writer and poet, stricken with polio, as a child, confined to a gurney and dependent on an iron lung to survive. He's missed out on a lot of normal experiences, and one thing that bothers him is that he's 38 years old and, while he has felt love, he's never experienced sexual intimacy, and after consulting with his priest (Macy) he hires a sexual surrogate (Hunt) to lose his virginity.
The inter-relationships between O'Brien and the other two are fascinating. Macy is a wonderful actor, and he plays the part of the priest well. Father Brendan wants to be a support for Mark, but there are times when he's clearly out of his depth in discussing this situation, and Macy handles those scenes with a subtle sense of humour. Meanwhile, Cheryl, the surrogate, finds herself struggling with perhaps unexpected feelings that she begins to develop for Mark, even while she has a husband and son at home. There's a remarkable chemistry between Hunt and Hawkes. Hunt seemed comfortable in a part that demanded a great deal of nudity - but it was all appropriate and never gratuitous. The world of sexual surrogacy must be a strange one, demanding both great intimacy and solid professional boundaries, and Hunt gives us a glimpse into that world.
It's a very good movie, based on an article O'Brien wrote about his experiences with sexual surrogacy. leading up to an ending that's both heart-warming, as O'Brien meets a woman (Robyn Weigert) to share his life with but also a bit heart-wrenching as he passes away a few years later.
Some Movies Are Just So Bad That They're ... Well ... Really Bad. This Is One Of Them.
Everyone must have just a little, tiny bit of masochism in them. At the very least I have to confess that I do. Otherwise I would never have watched this movie. It's a movie that you know, from even before it starts, is going to be bad. Really bad. Unquestionably, undebatably and unapologetically bad. It's that last bit that might be the movie's only saving grace. Everyone involved with it - from the producers to the key grip and best boy - knew that this was bad. They had to know. And they made it anyway! For putting themselves through the experience of making this, they're also masochists! For them, because they actually released it for other people to see, there's a bit of sadism involved as well.
It opens with some captions referencing Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" - and noting an invasion of birds in 1975 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. That incident never actually happened - but, weirdly, there apparently was a bird "invasion" in Hopkinsville in 2013 - almost 40 years after this move was made. I don't know what to say about that, so I'd best leave it alone. Anyway the captions end with the words, "No one is laughing now." In another example of soothsaying - no one was laughing when this movie ended.
What can you really say about this? You know it's going to be bad when the best known "performer" in it is the San Diego Chicken. OK, one could make a case for Jack Riley, I suppose, who clearly didn't have enough to do to keep himself busy after his turn as Mr. Carlin on "The Bob Newhart Show" came to an end. And I guess you have to give it credit - because you know it's going to be bad and it turns out to be really bad, so it meets expectations (perhaps even exceeding them) and maybe even accomplishes what it set out to accomplish because I think it was meant to be bad. Really bad. And it was. You know what - it gets a 2. For being exactly what it was expected to be. Really bad.
Hero Or Traitor?
I watched this movie with no real stake in it. I'm aware of Edward Snowden and have a little bit of familiarity with what he did, but I don't really have a position on whether he's a hero or a traitor. The perspective of this movie is clear. Directed and co-written by Oliver Stone, it's hardly surprising that the film falls on the "hero" side of that question. And, to the extent that the movie is an accurate portrayal of events, that's certainly an arguable position to take.
The movie presents us with basically ten years of Snowden's life. He begins as a soldier, trying to get into Special Ops, but he just isn't good enough and eventually is discharged because he's not physically up to the job. He ends up working for the CIA (and later the NSA) and during those years we see a gradual evolution in his understanding of his work. He progresses from a man who simply wanted to serve his country and help keep it safe to someone who concluded that the country he was serving wasn't the country he thought it was. One gets the impression that his real disappointment was in Barack Obama, who became president but changed nothing. His disillusionment, caused by his growing realization that a lot of the American intelligence services were actually busy primarily keeping tabs illegally on every day, law-abiding Americans, eventually leads to his decision to become a whistle blower and finally a man without a country - living in Russia, but with no place really to go. He did have the satisfaction, though, of seeing his leaks result in the surveillance program being supposedly cancelled. (Although - who knows?)
The movie provided a fascinating (and somewhat frightening) look at the ability of US Intelligence to keep track of its citizens activities (and presumably other countries have the same ability.) It's hard to watch this and not feel just a little bit paranoid, although I've been able to resist the temptation to put a band-aid over my laptop camera lens. And yet, while perhaps frightening, it's also hard not to be grudgingly impressed by what you see. Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a fine job as Snowden. I also liked Gordon- Levitt's work in "The Walk." He's become a very fine actor since his early days as Tommy on "3rd Rock From The Sun." The movie has as its background Snowden's meeting with two reporters to whom he gives the classified information that he stole (who are played by Melissa Leo and Zachary Quinto, who both were good but weren't really central in my opinion to the point of the movie, except that they facilitated the information getting out to the public.) There was a lot of reflection on Snowden's relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay, played by Shailene Woodley. Theirs was an up and down relationship - not surprisingly perhaps, since Snowden had to keep so much of his life and work secret even from her. Woodley, who I'm not familiar with, was fine in the role - and quite lovely as well. I was pleasantly surprised to discover in the captions as the movie ended that Lindsay had joined Snowden and now lives with him in Moscow.
My biggest criticism of the movie is that it was rather slow moving, and I thought a bit disjointed. There were times when I was having some trouble fitting all the various pieces together. It was an interesting movie, but it wasn't a movie that captivated me or held me spellbound. In the end, while I'm more sympathetic to Snowden, I also understand why the hero or traitor question is still an open one. It's certainly a complicated issue that will probably always polarize people.
The Moon Is Down (1943)
The Evolution Of An Occupation
"The Moon Is Down" is based on a John Steinbeck novel of the same name. The movie was produced in 1943, the novel was published in 1942. Steinbeck's novel was a bit more circumspect in its treatment of the subject. He never named the Germans as the occupiers or Norway as the occupied. It was simply a story of an occupation. Clearly, though, Steinbeck was referring to the German occupation of Norway, and the movie makes that clear. It seems to be set in a small town in Norway in the early days of the Nazi occupation, which would be 1940. Both novel and book were and should be seen as anti- Nazi propaganda pieces - the novel actually won an award presented after the War by the King of Norway. But it's interesting propaganda. This is no simple good vs. evil, black vs. white issue. The Germans are not portrayed as monsters (at least, not as monstrously as might have been expected at the time.) Instead, the various characters evolve as the story moves forward. In that sense, it's a very human movie. At its start, the townspeople are peaceful and even docile villagers, leading quiet and happy lives, most of them working in a local iron mine. But the Nazis want the iron, take over the town and force the workers to increase production, using various threats against their families as a weapon.
The Nazi commander - Col. Lanser - was played by Cedric Hardwicke. He did a good job with the role, and Lanser was not a stereotypical Nazi. He came across as thoughtful and cautious, wanting to co- operate with the townspeople more than dominate them and very aware of the potential perils of pushing things too far. He wants to work with the local mayor (Orden, played by Henry Travers), much to the chagrin of the local Quisling-type (Corell, played by E.J. Ballantine) who thinks that he should be immediately put in charge. The relationship between the three is fascinating. Lanser and Orden both come across as men of principle who are capable of having intelligent and respectful conversations, while Corell is more ruthless, and while he assumes that he should be in charge he's also surprised to discover that he is rejected by the villager. Among the lower ranking German officers Capt. Loft is much more what one expects in the portrayal of a Nazi, while Lt. Tonder is a more sympathetic character - a young man who seems to want to develop friendly relations with the locals (including one young woman in particular) and who explains that he doesn't want to be there, he just has no choice. What we watch is the gradually increasing German violence and the evolution of the townspeople into resistance fighters, aided by having the British drop them dynamite and chocolate, which leads to acts of sabotage.
The movie ultimately leads up to an order to have 10 leading men of the town executed unless the sabotage comes to an end. That leads to an interesting reflection on the differences between the Nazis and "free men," from Mayor Orden, who basically notes that if you killed ten German leaders the war would be over, but killing ten leaders of free men makes no difference, because others will just rise to take their place. It's a very effective ending. As the ten selected for execution stand in front of the gallows from which they are to be hanged there's suddenly a huge series of explosions from the surrounding buildings. The message is clearly - "we are not beaten." This was a very good movie with good performances all around, and I did appreciate the more nuanced portrayal of the various German characters. (8/10)
The Captains (2011)
Not Exactly What I Was Expecting
There are definitely some things you learn from this documentary about the various actors who have played "The Captain" on all the various incarnations of Star Trek. They all worked hard. There were lots of references to 12 or 14 or 18 hour days, or being at the studio until 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning. So being the star of a TV show (I assume the same would hold true for any TV show) is hard and demanding work. I get that. And we learn that the gruelling demands on their time lead to a lot of family problems. William Shatner and Patrick Stewart and Scott Bakula were open about the divorces they experienced (Stewart especially expressing great regret about them) and Kate Mulgrew was very candid about the challenges of being a single mother to two children while she was shooting Voyager. (Apparently both of her children still resent the show and won't watch it.) So there are some interesting things here, and I think Shatner did a pretty decent job as an interviewer, drawing some of that material out of the various "captains." Overall, though, I wasn't entirely sure what this documentary was trying to accomplish.
It's basically Shatner interviewing all of those who have played "The Captain" on the various incarnations of Star Trek. So you have Stewart (Picard on TNG) and Bakula (Archer on Enterprise) and Mulgrew (Janeway on Voyager), along with Avery Brooks (Sisko on DS9) and even Chris Pine (Kirk in the Star Trek reboot) talking about their experiences in the captain's chair. But it's more personal than professional. A lot of their chats are more about their lives and Star Trek's impact than on Star Trek itself. You don't learn much "behind the scenes" stuff, for example. In that sense it was a wee bit of a let down. Especially disappointing, I thought, was Shatner's interviews with Brooks. I got very little out of Brooks comments. He spent most of his time playing the piano and singing jazz with Shatner. And even Bakula's focus seemed less on "Star Trek" than it was on "Quantum Leap."
There is some interesting material about the actors respective backgrounds. Most started out on stage, Bakula and Brooks have music backgrounds, and Brooks is a professor of Theatre Arts at Rutgers University. It seemed to me as if most of these actors have had to "come to terms" with their Trek background. It was only Stewart of all of them (who probably has the most accomplished acting background) who was actually able to say that he will be very happy to be remembered mostly as Captain Picard rather than as any of the Shakespearean or other characters he's played.
As might be expected, the documentary centres on Shatner, and I was unconvinced about the need to repeatedly cut back to Shatner at Star Trek conventions being greeted by adoring crowds. It was good to see him working the crowds and interacting with fans (especially the young man in the wheelchair) but the number of times the film cut back to Shatner at the conventions made it seem a little bit self- serving.
Parts of this were interesting. It wasn't exactly what I expected. I was thinking there would be a lot more background, behind the scenes Star Trek material as opposed to the personal stories (often the non-Trek stories) of the actors. Not bad, but to me it fell a little bit short. (6/10)
For the Love of Spock (2016)
A Man And The Character Who Made Him Famous
It may be called "For The Love Of Spock," but this documentary is really about the entire breadth of Leonard Nimoy's life. Perhaps the most beloved and iconic character and actor in the long history of the Star Trek franchise, this film obviously has a heavy focus on Star Trek, but also provides a fascinating (to use a word made famous by Mr. Spock) look at Nimoy's family and the way in which Star Trek fame impacted his family life. It can be a bit jarring at times to those who want to see Nimoy as interchangeable with Spock. He wasn't as in control as his famous alter-ego. His family life wasn't perfect, he had his own demons and addictions to deal with. The documentary was made by Nimoy's son, Adam, who used a letter his father had written to him in the early 1970's as a sort of catalyst, moving the film forward. Theirs was at times a troubled relationship, but was ultimately a healed relationship, and this film is clearly the story of a man paying tribute to his father, who died partway through the film's production.
There's a lot to follow - from Nimoy's early days as a struggling actor (never working more than two weeks at a time until Star Trek, as he tells us in an interview) to the fame he achieved as Mr. Spock, and a brief look at some of his other work as an actor and director. One thing we learn is that fame came with a price. However, clearly Nimoy was a man respected by his many peers and whose portrayal of Spock had an influence beyond his own work. There are interviews with the cast of the new Star Trek franchise, some discussions with Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik from "The Big Bang Theory" about Spock's influence on Parsons' "Sheldon" character, appearances from a variety of others (including Neil deGrasse Tyson) and interviews with many of Nimoy's original Star Trek castmates (William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig all appear.)
I must be honest and confess that it seemed a little bit too long at almost two hours, but it does have a lot of interesting material in it. It will be of most interest to fans of Star Trek, obviously. (8/10)
The Finest Hours (2016)
I Spent Most Of Two Hours Wondering What Had Gone Wrong With This
This seemed to have a decent enough cast (Chris Pine and Ben Affleck, for example) and it certainly sounded like it would be an exciting story of a rescue at sea, as members of the US Coast Guard try to rescue the crew of an oil tanker adrift off the coast of Massachussetts during a winter storm. And - for what it's worth (which often isn't much) it has the advantage of being based on a true story (although one expects it to be "disney-fied," since the movie was made by Disney. Still, it seemed to have a lot going for it - and yet I ended up spending most of the movie's runtime wondering what had gone so terribly wrong.
It really wasn't very interesting. It had one of the least engrossing opening I've ever come across. To be honest I dozed off at least three times in the first 30 minutes, which were just interminable. Maybe I'm just not the romantic type, but I really couldn't get myself revved about about the relationship between Bernie and Miriam. And, once we got to the actual rescue, it really didn't get much better. The special effects were OK, but somehow there was an aura of unreality hanging over this. It just didn't seem convincing. And at one point near the end of the movie - which had already gone on much too long - for whatever reason there was a decision made to show the waves crashing over the tanker and the rescue boat - in slow motion! Oy vey! That just made it longer.
I wanted to like this. I really did. And I thought I would. But I didn't. I didn't like it at all. I just wondered what had gone wrong. I got totally lost in that muddle of an opening half hour, and nothing that came afterward appealed to me enough to get me interested again. (1/10)
Allende en su laberinto (2014)
A Little More Background To The Coup Would have Been Helpful
I know the barebones facts about Salvador Allende - the very barebones facts. He was a socialist who was elected President of Chile and sought to lead a peaceful socialist revolution. He was virulently opposed by the United States, and eventually overthrown and died during a coup by the Chilean military with the assistance of the CIA, ushering in a time of violent and ruthless fascist rule of Chile by a military junta under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet.
I knew all that. It's only the basics, but it was enough knowledge to make me intrigued by this movie. For the most part it didn't disappoint. It details the last few hours of Allende's life, as he and his supporters wall themselves up inside the presidential palace and fight desperately, hoping for some miracle that would save them. The miracle, of course, didn't come. I thought it was a pretty convincing account of Allende's last seven hours, but that was also its great weakness. Knowing only the barebones facts, I would have appreciated a little more about the political situation in Chile. How did we get to this last day of Allende's presidency and life? Without knowing much about the internal workings of the Chilean politics of that era, I found myself a little bit lost. Having to watch it with subtitles (because I don't speak Spanish and it wasn't dubbed into English) was also a bit distracting, although the story itself is clear and straightforward enough.
Overall I liked it. I just wish it had offered a little bit more background to the coup and how it came about. (7/10)
Tired Material That Will Appeal To Anti Trump Fanatics
I know this was released several months before he actually won the election, but since Donald J. Trump is now the president elect of the United States, this short movie will probably start to get a lot of attention. It's less than an hour and it's a satirical look at Trump's book "The Art Of The Deal." It's narrated at the beginning and end by Ron Howard, who "explains" that it's a lost movie that Trump himself made and then discarded until it was found at a yard sale outside Phoenix. OK. So it's supposed to be satire. The problem is that it just wasn't very funny.
Maybe it's just because of the unending coverage of a very uninspiring campaign, and now the unending coverage of the transition, but this material portraying Trump as a racist and sexist, etc. already seems tired. I don't care for Trump myself (wouldn't have voted for him if I had been able to vote) and I have no objection to poking fun at public figures - but this just wasn't very funny as far as I could see. "Tired" sums it up. It's the same stuff that's been being said about Trump ever since he jumped into the race a year and a half ago (although it seems so much longer.)
Johnny Depp was all right as the Donald, although he didn't nail him as well as Alec Baldwin has done on Saturday Night Live, but beyond Depp this didn't have much going for it. Fanatical Trump haters will probably think it's classic. It actually put me to sleep toward the end. (2/10)