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The Finest Hours (2016)
Great depiction of the era and New England Coast Guard outposts provide foundation for harrowing rescue saga
This movie does a magnificent job of setting the table for itself. It took me back to the early 1950's in New England without so much as an echo of a false note. The dances, the cars, the attitudes, and the not-so-esprit-de-corps-except-when-it really-counts attitude among the Guard members at the outpost are all presented with remarkable accuracy. It was just like stepping into a time capsule.
I don't understand some people's criticism of the acting as wooden. I found it anything but. Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) is a fantastic dramatic actor who is stereotyped too much from his Oceans movie roles. Here, he steels the movie from Pine, Foster, and the rest. Not that Pine and Foster were bad - they were pitch perfect as the determined and focused rescuers with lives of their own. As the Commander, Eric Bana gave the film's most thankless role everything he could.
I thought Holliday Grainger was a revelation as the spunky and unconventional Miriam. The subplot with her pushiness and combativeness was well told and did an excellent job of providing context.
As for the action, it was magnificent with the saga well told both in magnitude of the task, dissension on the big boat, human courage and weakness in the face of death, and of course, the rescue itself. I did go to the 3D version and the effects and motion of the waves made that well worth it for me. It is a great film for the entire family.
Disappointing Grandma/Granddaughter Road Movie Substitutes Misanthropy and Derision for Wit
I love Lily Tomlin. I thought she was very effective playing gay in Tea with Mussolini. Most of my friends with similar tastes thought this was hilarious so I looked forward to seeing it on DVD. I was disappointed.
Road movies are by their nature episodic. And the overall length of this film (about 80 minutes) is blessedly short. The first half hour is one-note, nasty and tedious and wastes Nat Wolff. John Cho is especially irksome. After that the visits and episodes get more interesting beginning with Sam Elliott as Tomlin's ex-husband. Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as the mother in the next sequence. Together, the two give the film its best scenes. The scenes following these two are fine and serve to wrap up the plot and land everything in perspective. Finally, Tomlin's curmudgeon does have a soft center deep inside after all.
So, after the first half hour, it's a bit more than watchable; F for the first 30 minutes, C+ for the next 50 minutes. C- (4/10) overall.
The Homesman (2014)
More Anti-Western than Western and NOT a feel-good movie
The first two-thirds of this movie seem like a Hallmark made-for-TV movie with extremely high production values and excellent acting. We have a plain frontier woman Mary Bee Cuddy (two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank , lonely but with enough grit and determination for 3 men, set off on a mission to take 3 demented women back east for a mission woman (three-time Oscar Winner (Meryl Streep) to reunite them with their families. This mission has been requested by the local Minister (John Lithgow) Being practical and recognizing she needs help to complete the arduous journey successfully. Through flashbacks which are repeated throughout the journey to an annoying point, we find that she had to endure insanity issues with her own mother that resulted in the mother's death and her anger at her callous father.
She encounters hard-edged drifter George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) who vigilantes attempted to hang for claim jumping. She hires him and they meet various challenges along the way, each with a touch of historic reality not found in mythic westerns and each interesting. The last of these challenges comes when they encounter an unearthed corpse of a young boy exhumed by native Americans for the buffalo hide in which he was buried and left on the ground. Mary Bee, in keeping with her religious commitment that made her volunteer for the task, undertakes burying the child, then catching up with Tommy Lee Jones and the women after nightfall. She does so after awhile but at the cost of her aplomb. She returns a crying and dehydrated mess. In the course of trying to restore her, George grows close to Mary Bee and despite every trepidation involved in doing so, reluctantly but lovingly (as well as that word can be ascribed to his character) has intercourse with her.
That is where this ceases to be the movie I thought I was watching. It may well be logical, realistic, and might even be based some real-life situations. But, for me, the film transformed from a crusty buddy movie /romance under hardship to something even much darker. And this is the spoiler: Mary Bee hangs herself out of grief and remorse.
From hereon, it is episodic including a violent scene when George ruthlessly destroys all for a callous fop (James Spader) who denied his group water and food. This "visceral satisfaction" scene took much too long and the self-righteousness seemed out of character for George. Finally, we get to the town. Having completed his mission in a nice scene, George tries to mend his ways but is unable to be accepted, and so, he returns to his live-for-the-day roots.
All in all, fascinatingly directed with some great camera work and use of locale, and unforgettably acted especially by the two leads. But I was numb and put off watching the last third of the film, hence the mixed vote of 6/10.
No Escape (2015)
A Family Taken Beyond Human Limits
Pacing is a top criterion for me in movies. This one sucks you in the beginning and never lets you move from the edge of your seat. The score is perfect, serving to tighten the suspense without ever being obtrusive and with the correct feel for a country like the one in question - at lest to an American ear.
(I don't want to get lost in a sidebar but the identity of the country and ostensibly its capital city with a US Embassy has been discussed. I've hear to crossing a river to get to Vietnam is all wrong and it's generally a more glistening city. It's a fictional movie so perhaps it's meant to stay an amalgam. But if it's somewhat based on a real country, Burma/Myanmar would make more sense to me as Rangoon is on the side of the country across from Vietnam and the country has seen more than its share of human rights violations.)
As has been pointed out, the director's brings his horror roots and creates a movie scarier than any horror movie because of the average American viewer's identification with the family. The rapidity with which a completely believable overseas assignment could suddenly turn into an unfathomable nightmare where chances of survival seem nil takes the viewer's breath away and never lets it go. When Wilson grabs his daughter from the pool and mutes her protests while his wife tries desperately to make the killers going room to room for foreigners and anyone perceived to be related to working for the company (including Asians), the wild ride begins. From that time to the time incognito agent Pierce Brosnan helps guide them to the roof where people frantically hope for escape, there is no time to breathe. When all others but them are slaughtered and they are the only ones who put together the obvious fact that the only alternative is to attempt a feasible but scary jump to a nearby building, there was no thought in my head that aspect was a bit far- fetched because the acting, direction, pacing, and flow made it seem perfectly consistent with the suddenly inhumane terror of their situation.
The family dynamics and the evolution of Wilson's and Bell's thought processes throughout the frantic and at times aimless rush from anywhere to anywhere for survival are amazing and certainly separate this from a normal action movie with hero/heroes and a mission. There is nothing but doubt and lack of self-confidence in the minds and hearts of the two adult heroes and only the need to try to save the lives of their children keep them from the recriminations and remembering the sadness with which they began their journey. This psychology subtly carries the emotional dynamic under the actions when survival mandates encouraging the youngest girl to pee herself, then further as they need to kill as cold-bloodedly as their hunters for survival. The hesitancy and grief with which Wilson kills even though he know he has no alternative and the cold-bloodedness in which a dying Brosnan executes his duty are displayed in stunning contrast even though the frantic pace doesn't allow the audience to appreciate the comparison until the end.
At the end - and the family's final escape is due to what is probably the least realistic and at the same time the most viscerally rewarding sequence in the movie - I couldn't inhibit myself from shouting "Wow!" aloud, and I am not easily impressed.
In fact, even though this movie was completely fictional, the movie No Escape most reminded me of is the fact-based Hotel Rwanda. In very many ways, including the hero being a career-oriented family man suddenly thrust into desperate survival mode while a holocaust of murderous xenophobic frenzy breaks out all around him, the two situations are close parallels as was the excellence of the acting and the development of the characters from non-violent citizens with ordinary fears and problems into men of action who regret what they must do to survive. To me, these are much better analogies than Taken or Mission Impossible - did these heroes show an ounce of regret in doing what they have to do? Just part of the training, ma'am. Contributing to that dynamic is the equally stunning transformation of Lake Bell from whiner to having to be the mentally and physically strong one when Owen's psyche lapses (and every step in between). The daughters, while frustratingly annoying obstacles to their own safety, are incredibly realistically portrayed. Kudos to both young actors. Brosnan's professional and cynical agent, reminiscent of Ed Harris in Under Fire and Nick Nolte in Hotel Rwanda, provides a perfect contrast to the incredible physical and emotional stress experienced by an untrained family who never had an instant to analyze anything beyond survival.
Anyway, even though it is to me an incredibly textured lead performance hitting many nuances right on the money, I don't expect Wilson to get nominated because of "odious" political motives that both left- wingers and right-wingers seem to be attributing to the film. Then again, you can never explain to me how an at-best flawed black comedy like Birdman won Best Picture against fantastic competition such as Imitation Game, American Sniper, Theory of Everything, Grand Budapest Hotel, etc.
I'll summarize by saying that you are cheating yourself if you let critics deter you from this incredible experience. 10/10.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Well-directed and well-acted voyeurism delivers well on its objective
I come to the movies to be entertained. I was very much entertained. I came this movie partially to see a character study featuring a virgin on the verge of college graduation coming of age at the hands of a self-advertised millionaire sadist who considers himself soulless. That is precisely what i got. THe other attraction of this movie, of course, was the opportunity to watch B & D sex set against a trashy love/lust story. This obviously is not for all tastes but just as obviously, given the box office, attracts many and half of the people I know who went once have now gone twice.
I see a lot of IMDb critics giving this movie one star on the basis of calling it soft porn. I won't deny that this film is right on the edge of soft porn and that if you don't like voyeuristic sex and soft porn, you should not go into the theater. Is there anyone who bought a ticket who did not know to expect "the sexual abuse of a young woman being used as supposed entertainment." I read this quote verbatim in at least three reviews. Like anything else, if you know you find such things so abhorrent, that's all you'll think about, then you SHOULD NOT GO to see this film.
Me, I like well-made soft-porn laced with occasional humor. As someone with what I consider a healthy and open-to-anything libido, I also enjoy watching naked bodies engage in kinky sex, especially when set up properly. For this kind of movie, the direction was incredibly crisp and cogent. Christian Grey was exactly the menacing, narcissistic yet charming control freak he was supposed to be. I found it impossible not to be overwhelmed and seduced by his power. I certainly found it easy to believe that Dakota Johnson would be. Marcia Gay Harden's brief turn as Grey's adopted mother is wonderful.
Even the many one-star haters seem to indicate that the direction and pacing (fantastic in my opinion) were not bad. I would say the best I've ever seen in a borderline soft-porn movie and among the best I've every seen for a trashy love story (Think Butterfly, The Other Side of Midnight, and Once is Not Enough). I'd also ask how a movie with decent direction could get ONE star (3 o4 4 would be more reasonable). I reserve ONE STAR for total disasters with totally incompetent direction like Homer and Eddie. This was slick, well-directed, and in my opinion (perhaps the biggest actually pertinent major disagreement with the critics) uniformly well-acted especially by the supporting cast and Johnson. I also did find the chemistry electric with Jamie properly stiff when he found himself confused by letting Anastasia into a heart he had blockaded and a soul he was convinced he didn't have.
As for the bodies shown, the nudity, the devices, and the choreography of the sex, I've never seen better. One problem I generally have with the borderline soft porn genre is spending two much time on mechanics. Most movies based on trashy novels also spend too much time dwelling on emotionally ravaged faces not quite executed bu mediocre actors. This movie never stopped coming at you with excitement, intrigue, and sex long enough to stagnate like that.
So, I had a great time and enjoyed it thoroughly and most of the 100+ women and 8 other men in the audience seemed to enjoy it on that basis as well. After all, they got what they knew they were coming to see.
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Fast-paced tale of how technology changes standards - Fantastic Cumberbatch
I enjoyed it quite a bit. Cumberbatch was PERFECT as Assange, nailed him - and so piercing. Excellent supporting performances by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Seddig (Dr. Bashir from DS9), Anthony Mackie, and Michael Culkin. Yes, I said Laura Linney - who I consider the most overrated actress ever and whose performances I always despise. Here she was beyond perfect in her timing, dialog, expressions, and nuances as a State Department Official who has some conscience, thinks she is a pragmatist but needs periodic reality checks from Stanley Tucci, and certainly won't sacrifice her own neck for principle when it comes down to it. Tucci underplays his part to great effect. Culkin and Seddig are both very interesting in their two scenes. The direction was fast and well-paced with amazing sets and a most appropriate score.
I haven't mentioned Cumberbatch's co-star, Daniel Bruhl, who gets just as much if not more screen time, as co-Wiki-leaks Founder Daniel Berg. Nor did I mention the female lead, Alicia Vikander, who played Amke, Berg's girlfriend. Berg provided the source material use for the film and he is the voice of conscience with which we are supposed to sympathize - especially when Assange fires (expels actually,since no one at WIki Leaks got paid) both of them for insubordination and brands them as delusional traitors. I say we're supposed to sympathize with them but I came away feeling them more self-pitying and whiny than heroic and I'm not sure whether it was the writing, the acting, or a combination of the two. I'm not saying that I could pinpoint anything wrong with the performances; and I'd have to see other work to see whether my reaction to the two came from he script. Those two characterizations/performances make this a 3.5-/4 instead of 4/4 (8/10 if you prefer). I thought it was very good - especially if you have an interest in the media's role in politics and intelligence agencies.
Amazing Amanda Seyfried Carries Taut Thriller
This well-directed if thinly scripted thriller has more-than-adequate supporting performances by a good cast, but almost all are given little to do beyond providing the backdrop for Amanda Seyfried's Jill. And Jill has us in her corner from start-to-finish as she tries to overcome her branded-as-delusional history to race against time to save her sister's life. The police and her psychiatrist do everything possible to undermine her efforts.
Now don't over-analyze the plot or view this in context of what would happen in the real world. It won't hold up if you do but such scrutiny would be missing the fun. This is not a docudrama.
There are plenty of thrillers with driven protagonists bit Seyfried's remarkable and multi-layered performance puts this one two notched above most. Score is perfect for the movie, understated but drive. I give this an 8/10. Be seated with your popcorn and go to the bathroom before you sit down and watch, turning your cell phone off. You won't want to be interrupted during this one.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Mesmerizing
She also starred in Belle and totally captivated me with her intensity and ability to convey multi-layered and complex feelings of varied intensities. After seeing Beyond the Lights, I am even more impressed with her abilities and ever-refining raw talent. The entire cast was very good - especially co-lead Nate Parker who managed to overcome some of his sermonizing dialog to make his officer with political ambitions by-way-of-his-father become a bit more real than the cliché the writing of his character set him up for. The actors playing Trey and Liam worked well off each other in the group-think mindset of the music industry.
Minnie Driver has been one of my favorite under-utilized actresses for a long time. Her Hell-bent on Success Manager/Mother had unusual layers of complexity and dimension for what would normally be a well-worn stereotype. Danny Glover brought some of his magic and personality to elevate his character beyond being an equal and opposite meddling and domineering force, despite the limitations given to him by the scriptwriter.
I thought the auteur fares better as director with excellently telling visuals and as author of the story's "book" than as a dialog writer - especially for her male characters. The good news is that she allowed her actors enough freedom to work past the clichés.
Overall 8/10 - well worth seeing.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
The Theory of Everything - Magnificent Acting and Intriguing Story - But Oh, that monotonous score
Herb Blank Head, Business Development and Managing Director, ESG Solutions Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are nothing short of remarkable in the Theory of Everything. The supporting cast, cinematographic innovations, and costuming were all excellent. I learned a lot and recommend it fairly highly.
However, the tedious piano score, relentless throughout, really started alternatively putting me to sleep and getting on my nerves. I know many of today's young filmmakers and critics have a disdain for overly dramatic scores. I don't personally but either way - this was truly the other extreme!
The only other nit I'll pick I recognize as representative of the fact that I am from a prior generation. I found the dialog overly spartan and a lot of story blanks deliberately unexplained. To me and I daresay others from my generation, this creates distance and makes personal emotional involvement difficult. That said, I am aware enough of both the subject matter and today's artistic and industry standards to believe that was exactly what James Marsh had in mind.
I've often heard today's highly regarded filmmakers and "experts" express disdain for verbal storytelling insisting that really talented directors should emphasize imagery and the visuality of the medium over story exposition. For those people in the reviews I've read, the DIrector didn't go far enough in that direction so I should be grateful - and I am. There also is a marvelous scene where Jane tells her mother (who inadvertently starts the new Chapter in Jane's life with the choirmaster) that "She's never heard anything so English in her life." So indeed, the lack of outward emotion expressed on film and the economic and sterile dialog is quite illustrative of a very English family background and Cambridge-educated gentry. It also is consistent with the recurrent subtext of the film contrasting Jane's C-of-E morality and natural proclivity toward adherence to standards of decorum with Hawking's personal immaturity (dictated by circumstances), unconventionality and unrepentant atheism. So the understatement is quite appropriate especially from Jane's lens which is how we get to view most of what unfolds. In short, I have to recognize that James Marsh did a superb job of conveying in cinema the subtext of the film.
So, I conclude that most of IMDb will appreciate what I found detracted just a bit from my personal enjoyment. But that's quite trivial overall. I enjoyed the movie and think most will as well.
Not Easily Broken (2009)
Very well-acted and interesting adult soap opera that elicited visceral reactions in both directions
I watch movies for their entertainment value in the sense of keeping me engaged in its world and its story. I do not care if it reinforces my political, religious, or cultural beliefs. I recognize that is not true of everybody, and that's okay also. I just wanted to provide context.
At its core, Not Easily Broken is the story of a marriage that undergoes various tests and stresses from many directions. There is tragedy, heartbreak, and hidden agendas along the way. In other words, this is what we used to call a classic "sudser" or adult soap opera.
For a limited budget movie, I thought the acting was superb - most especially Taraji Hanson (Joss Carter on Person of Interest and hilarious in the otherwise tiresome Think Like a Man). Others here refer to her as a one-dimensional harridan but I think nothing could be further than the truth. My wife and I cared about their marriage because she was conveyed well but subtly that she was balancing different instincts and being pulled in different directions and was searching for but not finding a moral compass. And yes, this really is where belief in God can make a positive difference in real people's lives (whether he "really exists" or not) and frequently does. This was also well conveyed extremely well by this talented actor. Jenifer Lewis was magnificent as her interfering mother who also was not without her redemptive qualities but could not overcome the damage she had sustained.
In many ways, their roles were much tougher than that of the sympathetic Maeve Quinlan or co-Executive Producer and star Morris Chestnut. I've always thought it easier for an actor to convey empathy and understanding for a sympathetic character than a nasty one. Not that both were not terrific in their performances. I was unfamiliar with Ms. Quinlan but she truly impressed. I've adored Albert Hall since his performance in Apocalypse Now. He does a convincing job here as the minister but I would have loved to have seen more from him.
Morris Chestnut who portrays lead character Dave, the narrator of the film, obviously, is a terrific and increasingly accomplished actor. He was also co-producer of the film. I do not know to what extent he was involved in the messaging aspect of this movie or to what extent the Jakes' novel (I've not read any of them but have seen two other movies based on his works) focused on the relationship between women and men "being turned upside down" in today's world.
In many ways, this plays a bigger role in the film's apparent raison d'etre than its message of getting back in touch with God - which is universal in these movies. As an ardent feminist, I am personally very uncomfortable with this point of view. But as said, I enjoy the movie on its entertainment value on its own terms. In its principal illustration, Not Easily Broken attempts to show that an imbalance can be created when an independent woman uses money or some other artificial barometer as a means for controlling the marriage and the household and demeaning her husband whom she has convinced herself she does not really need. As it turns out, she has been indoctrinated by her mother's negative experiences and anger. The minister helps bring her closer to God and realize the importance of not letting their marriage be torn asunder. Dave (Morris Chestnut) persuades her that their marriage must be more of a partnership. Voila, a woman who had put her career in front of the inconvenience and loss of independence she perceived in having a child is now thrilled that she is pregnant.
Okay, I've known couples like that - unfortunately, that solution in all 3 of those cases ultimately led to divorce. But, that's just 3 cases and makes Dave's viewpoint no less valid or at least somewhat defensible by a reasonable person.
There was a scene that did bother me a lot - and maybe I'm just being defensive because I am just like Kevin Hart's character in that he happily allows his wife to make all decision because he says, "Happy wife equals happy life." I agree, but in the context of the movie, he is comic relief and ultimately the object of scorn. I thought it was especially odious when his wife threw him out because not only did he have no backbone and no independent opinions, but because he has small feet (wink, wink). Talk about judgmental about what constitutes manhood!
Then again, not only was I actively engaged in the movie, but it also provoked enough thought from me afterward to compel me to write this lengthy review. It also made me cry when Maeve Quinlan's son dies - which according to the movie's scorn for Kevin Hart's character must also be "unmanly." But like I say, the filmmakers are entitled to their opinion - they just need to entertain me. They did and even made me think.