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Un-Scary Schlock, 26 June 2016

I'm easily frightened by movies. I've never been able to get through Disney's "Pinocchio." "The Conjuring 2" is one of the least scary movies I've ever seen. I laughed out loud several times. I thought it was so ridiculous, heavy-handed, absurd, over-the-top.

I was actually scared during one scene. Patrick Wilson, as paranormal investigator and allegedly Catholic anti-demon commando Ed Warren, wades into standing water underneath a suburban home. Everyone knows anyone who wades into standing water in a domestic setting risks being electrocuted. Alas, the only menace Warren faces is the cardboard outline of a standard-issue specter who rolls up behind him. Boo!

The other scary factor: how old Franka Potente, who plays paranormal investigator Anita Gregory, has gotten. Back in 1998's "Run Lola Run" Potente was the embodiment of youth. Now … she's in her forties. Scary.

I honestly don't know what filmmaker James Wan was trying to achieve. Was he really trying to make a scary movie, or was he trying to make a meta-commentary on how schlocky scary movies can be? I hope the latter, because that is what he has achieved. The saving grace of the film is the presence of Vera Farmiga, an actress who deserves so much better than this, but who shines like sterling amidst the dross.

"The Conjuring 2," just like the original "The Conjuring," is based on an allegedly true story. In 1977, in Enfield, England, two sisters, 11 and 13, claimed to be experiencing demonic possession. They were the child of a single mother and lived in a council house, that is a government welfare house. There was video footage proving that one of the girls was faking.

Never fear. Ed and Lorraine Warren, an American couple who sold themselves as real live paranormal investigators and exorcists, showed up.

"The Conjuring 2" wallows in 1970s nostalgia. That there even is such a thing as "70s nostalgia" is evidence of the demonic. The men all wear wide lapels and wolfman sideburns. There is a lot of emphasis on retro tech, like bulky reel to reel tape recorders – the kind that actually could capture Satan's voice, whereas today's hand-held digital devices just don't pack the same punch.

There is a loooong pointless scene where Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, treats the possessed children to an imitation of Elvis Presley singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love with You." Watching this endless scene, I really wondered what was going on with James Wan, the director. Is he tired of cheap, teen horror and does he want a career as an artiste and auteur?

"The Conjuring 2" is really hard to look at. The allegedly haunted Enfield council house is visually repugnant. There are threadbare, royal blue chairs on a threadbare, royal blue rug. If you have any taste at all, you know what horror I dare invoke with these words. Everything in the house is begrimed. It looks as if a toddler had been rolled in molasses and car exhaust and then set loose on every fixture. And of course the family is so poor that they can't afford a single one-hundred watt bulb. The house is kept at forty-watt level throughout the film.

The allegedly scary stuff: kids levitate and speak in deep voices. A scary nun appears. If you've ever gone to Catholic school you are laughing as hard as I was at this point. The nun looks so much like Marilyn Manson that I'm sure his lawyers are asking for their cut of the film's box office.

There are some cinematic classics in the horror genre. James Whale's Frankenstein is indelible. "The Haunting" from 1963 is one of the most profound and disturbing films ever made. These films are about so much more than James Wan's bag of tricks, which consists of sending an impaired person into a dark space – say, Patrick Wilson after he's been partially blinded by escaping steam from a broken radiator, having that person stumble about, holding the camera on one spot for a long time, and then having a scary nun pop suddenly into the frame. Horror classics have something truly menacing and challenging behind the costume.

There is something truly scary behind "The Conjuring 2" and behind the Amityville Horror, another Warren cause celebre. In both cases, we are talking about broken families. We are talking about kids who have troubled relationships with their parents, or absent parents. Shenanigans like the Warren's obscure the real facts that really need to be addressed. At least two of the children who grew up in the Amityville home say that they were abused by their stepfather. We were so busy looking for demons in that house we couldn't see the kids being hurt.

Another disturbing aspect of this film. I'm really sick of James Wan's exploitation of Catholicism, a religion he evidences zero respect for but loves to exploit in order to plump up his box office. Wan is constantly tossing crucifixes, rosaries, and clerical garb onto his piles of junk. Ed Warren, in "Conjuring 2," references the Catholic Church so many times it is monotonous. Wan is from Malaysia, a Muslim majority country. He is himself Chinese. I do not see him denigrating Islam or Confucianism in his films. He wants to avoid any risk of true horror.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Moving, Authentic, Important, 26 June 2016

"Free State of Jones" is a moving, authentic, important film. Matthew McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Newton Knight, an historic figure. I forgot I was watching Matthew McConaughey and felt that I was watching Newton Knight. I've really never seen a performance quite like McConaughey's here. His Newt Knight is the most manly man in any room – or swamp – and yet he is also as tender as a mother.

In the early Civil War battle scenes, he plays a nurse. Knight is not shown mowing down the enemy with impressive, explosive gunfire. Rather, he is shown risking enemy fire in order to save men's lives, or to retrieve and bury the corpse of a boy shot in battle on his first day. My tears flowed freely during these scenes. Later, Knight himself cries after one of his men is hanged. But Knight gets his revenge, an eye-for-an-eye revenge scene that I won't soon forget.

Newton Knight was a white Mississippi farmer. He was the grandson of a slaveholder, but Knight owned no slaves himself. He served in the Confederate army, but deserted in 1862, after serving for almost a year. He was outraged by the Twenty Negro Law, that allowed families who owned twenty slaves to exempt one family member from service for every twenty slaves they owned.

Knight and other deserters formed The Free State of Jones, declaring their loyalty to the Union, and flying the stars and stripes rather than the stars and bars. After the war, Knight worked for Reconstruction and married Rachel, a freed slave woman. His children also married cross-racially. He died in 1922. As might be expected, he is a controversial figure in Mississippi. Fans of the Confederacy denounce him as a traitor. Others celebrate him as one white Southerner who had a conscience and resisted white supremacy.

Newt Knight was clearly someone with a bucketload of charisma. His power inspired men to fight to the death against their own nation. McConaughey radiates charisma in this role. He is masterful and yet intimate. I'd follow this Newt Knight into battle and feel proud to do so.

"Free State of Jones" is receiving negative reviews. It's easy to see why. There is something in this film to anger multiple grievance mongers.

First, race hustlers will hate this movie. Race hustlers want the official story to be that all whites are supremacists and all blacks are heroic. A film that depicts a white man who worked for black rights is taboo. Race hustlers anathematized "Mississippi Burning" and "The Help" for the same reason. Such a shame that the race hustlers' ideological blindfolds make it impossible for them to appreciate great art.

Liberals might hate this film for a couple of other reasons. I don't know if I've seen a movie where almost every scene hinges on how guns are used. Almost everyone is armed, and uses those weapons to keep breathing and to settle disputes. Even little girls have guns and use them heroically. Second amendment fans may love this film. It depicts what they dream of: oppressed citizenry taking up arms to defeat their own government.

In addition to clinging to their guns, these rebels cling to their God and their Bibles. This is one of the most religious American films I've seen in a while. It's an historical fact that Newt Knight was a devoutly religious Primitive Baptist – he didn't drink, for example. The film drives home Knight's Christianity. He is shown in a long scene using a quill to record a birth in his Bible. In one heartbreaking scene, a slave who has been sexually molested survives psychologically by reciting verses from Genesis. "Free State of Jones" practices a muscular Christianity. One eye-for-an-eye scene takes place in a church.

Republicans will be torn about "Free State of Jones." On the one hand, Knight, like many populist leaders, preaches against economic inequality. "No man should be poor just so that someone else can be rich." I can hear theater seats squeak as Republicans head for the exits. Knight's words, though, reflect the facts. Poor white Southerners were sabotaged by the slave economy and they knew it. That's why they deserted.

But Republicans, if they sit through the entire film, will see how the Republican Party was the favored choice of freed slaves in the post-Civil-War era.

There is a narrative problem in the film. The viewer expects "Free State of Jones" to end after the Civil War. I actually began tying my sneakers, readying to leave the theater. But the film keeps going in what feels like an anti-climax. Gary Ross, the filmmaker, wants to make a point: the Civil War was *not* the happy ending. The KKK rose up, and Jim Crow became entrenched. Black men who tried to exercise their right to vote were lynched. This is an important point, but the film should have been better structured so its narrative flow didn't stop before the film itself did.

"Free State of Jones" was clearly made by sticklers for authenticity. Everyone looks dirty and tired. The clothes look like clothes people wore in the nineteenth century. A confederate officer's uniform looks baggy and tacky, not sparkling and admirable. Scenes are shot in lamplight. I loved this aspect of the film, as will Civil War re-enactors.

Moving In Spite of Itself, 26 June 2016

"Me Before You" was made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In spite of myself, though, I was moved by and I enjoyed this film.

"Me Before You" is a romance between a perky, poor, not spectacularly beautiful girl and a rich, suicidal, model-handsome quadriplegic. You may have begun gagging already. I understand, and believe me, everything that you fear may be wrong with such a film is wrong with this film. It talks down to its audience. Its play with dangerous ideas is a child playing with matches. And yet, I cried.

I think two things save "Me Before You" in spite of all that's wrong with it.

Sam Claflin plays the part of Will Traynor, the rich, handsome, suicidal quadriplegic. Claflin is young, ripped, and handsome enough to be in a toothpaste commercial. He is really good. I believed everything he did. I was right there with him. I felt his pain and desperation.

Janet McTeer, a multiple-award-winning actress, is the soul of the film. She plays Will's mother. She is given very little to do, but she pops in and out regularly. There is an infinite sadness and terror in her eyes. I'm a former nurse's aide and I'm very familiar with dealing with family members of afflicted people. Janet McTeer is superb. She shows the exact strength, vulnerability, and hoping- against-hope of the loved ones of the wounded and doomed.

"Me Before You"'s plot doesn't do anything you wouldn't expect it to. If you go to the movies to be surprised or intrigued, stop right now. But you already knew that when you saw the movie poster of the perky girl sitting on the lap of the very handsome man in a wheelchair, as they gaze lovingly into each other's eyes.

"Me Before You" takes place in the England that exists only in the imagination of fans of Masterpiece Theater, Jane Austen adaptations, and Merchant Ivory films. This is very much not the England of Sadiq Khan and Brexit or even of royal family scandals.

There are very rich people who also have good taste. There are poor people who are warm, simple-minded, and humble, not at all resentful or bitter about their place. Sort of like Hobbits. There is sweeping, green countryside defined by rambling stone walls and trout streams. There is a big, fat castle – yes, really – overlooking everything.

Weather? It's either blue skies, burgeoning lilacs and hydrangeas, or gently drifting snow outlining the castle battlements, or perfectly formed autumn leaves. Thomas Kinkade is the meteorologist.

Louisa "Lou" Clark is a cutie pie poor girl. Emilia Clarke, who plays Louisa, telegraphs how adorable Lou is in every scene. She is constantly dimpling her cheeks and wriggling her eyebrows as if they were migrating caterpillars looking for a leaf to pupate on. Look, if you wanted to smack Emilia Clarke during every scene of "Me Before You," could you please send me a Facebook friend request? Does the word "subtlety" appear in Emilia Clarke's dictionary? Or "teamwork"? In every scene she demands attention. Actors should never work with babies, animals, or Emilia Clarke.

Lou is supposed to be really poor. Lou never wears the same item of clothing twice. Her clothes are unique designer finds. Her shoes alone would go for a few hundred bucks. Oh, but she's this noble poor girl. Yeah, right.

The filmmakers here keyed their film to teenage girls who love clothes more than life itself and who have short attention spans. My utterly subjective estimate: no scene in the film lasts for more than ninety seconds. You think there's going to be a serious discussion, or even three consecutive lines of dialogue, about the issues at play here: can afflicted people live worthwhile lives? Is suicide ethical? Will this film encourage the handicapped to off themselves? But that never happens.

It's safe to guess that Will's quadriplegia is, to the filmmakers, merely a plot device. Tweener girls find guys attractive, but are anxious about real physical intimacy and all it entails. Also, tweener girls don't want to be obliterated by masculinity. They want to exist in a world where they are the center. And, tweener girls are anxious that they aren't pretty enough.

Thus, "Me Before You" gives tweener girls a very handsome, ripped hero who couldn't engage in physical intimacy even if he wanted to. And he is so needy and so isolated that the tweener girl's cuteness and spunkiness and fashion choices become the center of his world. And she doesn't have to be beautiful to be the center of the universe to this handsome guy who, if he were not a quadriplegic, would be the hottest date in town.

Yes, it is all pretty awful, right down to Lou's boyfriend, who is an endurance athlete obsessed with his physical performance, but insensitive to Lou's emotional needs – he is meant to contrast with the lovable quadriplegic. One man can run but can't feel. One man can feel but can't walk. Oh good grief.

And yet I cried while watching this film. In spite of everything, Claflin's and McTeer's performances opened my heart.

3 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
So Slight It Is Almost Not There, 23 April 2016

"Elvis and Nixon" is a movie so slight if it had one less word of dialogue or one less dollar for set design it might totally disappear. The concept is terrific – the backstory behind the famous photograph of Elvis Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon. Presley had written Nixon a six-page letter asking for the meeting, and offering himself as a "federal-agent-at-large."

A lot could be done with this premise. Why did the King want to be an agent? How might one of the stiffest and least charismatic men in history – Richard Nixon – be affected by such a close encounter with one of the sexiest, swerviest men in history? What did they say to each other behind closed doors? Why do people who have the world at their feet – like Elvis, like Nixon – crave things that they can't have – FBI agent status? To manipulate elections illegally? What does the meeting say about the dark side of celebrity and power?

The movie goes nowhere with any of these premises. The film is not offensive or exploitative or even especially inept at the technical level. It's just not there. The script is miniscule. You need a microscope to see it. Elvis says something mildly amusing, "I'd like to go undercover" and then the next ten lines are vapid comments about White House protocol or the autographing of photographs – void of any significant content.

Kevin Spacey has a twinkle in his eye that no amount of makeup could disguise. He also conveys a self-aware intelligence and amusement at the human carnival that was very different from Nixon's dark mien. Michael Shannon comes nowhere near capturing Elvis' animal magnetism, but then, who could?

Given how much money and prestige is risked in the making of any film, one has to wonder why this film was even made.

5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Jumbled and Alienating, 23 April 2016

"Miles Ahead" is chaotically put together, difficult to follow, and difficult to care about. Miles Davis (Don Cheadle), the main character, is depicted as a repugnant human being. The film plays shopworn musician biopic tricks in nasty ways to manipulate the audience. In interviews, Don Cheadle has said that he needed to get a big white star to appear in the film, and thus he built the film around the MacGuffin of Davis being interviewed by Ewan McGregor, allegedly the big white star. My guess is that Cheadle's funding didn't come through not because he is a black actor playing a black musician. My guess is that the funding was hard to find because the script was not a commercial script, no matter the color of the main character.

The film opens with a confusing mishmash of images. Miles Davis is being interviewed. We don't see the interviewer. There is film in the background of the Jack Johnson fight. This confused me. I know the fight took place over a hundred years ago and I did not know that anyone filmed it – meaning I was losing focus on the movie I was watching, and drawn into thinking about the movie in the movie. Not a good thing.

The scene is shot in extreme close-up. We see Don Cheadle's mouth and fingers as he smokes a cigarette; we also see an ashtray. This extreme close-up gives the film a claustrophobic feeling. As the film went on I began to wonder if the tight close-ups were used because there wasn't enough of a budget to create a set that reflected the time periods of the film: the 1970s and the 1950s.

The unseen interviewer asks Davis about jazz. Davis interrupts the interviewer and commands, "Don't call my music jazz." He insists that calling his music "jazz" stereotypes it. That's one of the dumbest and most petulant things I've ever heard a character say. Of course Miles Davis was a jazz musician. Ordering someone not to call jazz jazz is the demand of a petty dictator who wants control of language. The film was just beginning and I already hated the main character. And I was really sick of all that focus on his cigarette and his ashtray.

Ewan McGregor, the big white star meant to offer his magical powers to get purportedly rich whites to underwrite the movie and buy tickets to see it, shows up as Dave, a Rolling Stone reporter. He knocks on Miles Davis' door. Davis opens the door and immediately sucker punches Dave, a visitor he has never met. At this point, the film has offered me no reason to like Miles Davis, and lots of reasons to dislike him. There's more. He has a receding hairline and he wears his hair long – an older man's unsuccessful attempt to look young. And he dresses like a blind pimp. He's wearing a hip-length, turquoise and black jacket made of fabric best reserved for upholstery in houses of ill repute.

Davis has already proved he's cool by sucker punching a white man. He also proves he's cool in other cheap, manipulative ways. The film consists of a jumble of scenes shot in the 1970s and flashbacks to the 1950s. In the 1950s scene, Davis is in a car with a young white woman. The young white woman behaves foolishly. The young black woman in the front scene rolls her eyes at this white girl's buffoonery. So, Davis is cool because he can get a white girl.

The car pulls up to a house. A very beautiful young black woman is on the street. This is Frances Taylor, whom Davis will marry. He asks his white date for a twenty dollar bill. She gives him one. He writes his phone number on the bill and hands it to the black girl. Again, Davis is cool because he can mistreat white people, in this case a woman.

In more jumbled together, plot-less scenes, we see Frances dancing. She is exquisitely beautiful and the camera adores her. We see Frances and Davis making love. We don't see Miles Davis beating his wife. He did. He also made her quit her dancing career. What a guy.

More jumbled, plot-less scenes whose only point is to show what a boss Miles Davis really was, because he could mistreat white people. Miles Davis marches in to the offices of Columbia records. There is a man there who is obviously meant to be Jewish. He is smarmy and oily and condescending and power trips Davis. Davis pulls out a gun and shoots at him. He takes the man's money and uses that money, in a subsequent scene, to purchase cocaine, from yet another worshipful, star-struck white man he mistreats, while a white girl, partially undressed, sits on a bed. Davis, of course, must tell her to move over so he can sit next to her.

You get the idea.

What the movie does not show you is that Miles Davis grew up comfortable and privileged. Davis' father was a dentist who owned a couple of homes and a ranch. His mother was a musician. Davis received music lessons as a teenager, on daddy's dime. Davis was no gangster. He was a brat and a creep and an abuser of himself and others. I learned nothing about his appeal or his talent from this movie.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Delightful. Go See It. Significant Difference from 1967, 23 April 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Jungle Book" 2016 is a delight. Go see it. Neel Sethi is utterly adorable. He's so good you want to dispatch a protective bubble or a team of social workers to his home to rescue him from the sad fate of other excellent child stars, like Judy Garland and Patty Duke.

Sethi plays Mowgli, a little Indian boy who cavorts around the forest with his animal friends: a pack of wolves, Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), and Bagheera, a black panther (Ben Kingsley). Shere Khan the Tiger (Idris Elba), Kaa the Python (Scarlett Johansson), and King Louie the Orangutan (Christopher Walken) provide menace. The ratio of mindless fun to genuinely scary and suspenseful scenes is perfect. The CGI is excellent. I'm a birdwatcher and it was fun seeing realistic looking hoopoes, bee-eaters, peacocks and hornbills.

I loved "The Jungle Book" 1967 and I love this movie, too. I wish this film had as many songs as the old version. One song is cut because of a change in the plot, and one song is cut because a change in the approach. In the older version the elephants were comical; in this version they are the gods who created the forest. Baghera teaches Mowgli to worship them. That idea of elephants-as-gods probably won't go over well with many religious viewers.

Kaa, the python, does sing "Trust in Me," but over the closing credits, not during the film. That's a shame. Scarlet Johansson's smoky-jazzy Chet-Baker style version knocks it out of the park. The track is on youtube and fans are insisting that Johansson sing the next James Bond movie theme song.

"The Jungle Book" 2016 is all about boys and men and all for boys and men. The only significant female character is Kaa, and she tries to kill and eat Mowgli.

Most of the voice actors are much more low key than they were in the original version. I wish they had had more fun, been more flamboyant and campy. Bill Murray and Christopher Walken are really the only ones who juice up their voices for their parts, recognizing that voice acting is different than being on camera. Idris Elba is much too low- key as Shere Khan. George Sanders was, of course, superb in the original. With that voice and that attitude, who could he not be?

Go see this movie for no other reason than to hear Christopher Walken voice King Louie the Orangutan who wants to be human. Walken is Just. So. Good. I mean, he's Christopher Walken. How could he not be?

"The Jungle Book" 2016 has a significantly different ending than "The Jungle Book" 1967. If you don't want to know how the film ends, stop reading now, as this review will reveal the ending.

The plot of "The Jungle Book," both 1967 and 2016, is that a young orphan boy has been raised by wolves. His mentors, Bagheera and Baloo, must escort him to the man village, where he belongs. In the 1967 version, Mowgli does go to live in the man village. He is lured by a cute girl, singing the significantly titled song "My Own Home." In the 2016 version, Mowgli stays in the jungle. What is the movie saying, then, about humanity's "own home"?

Mowgli, in fighting off Shere Khan, grabs a burning torch from the man village. He accidentally sets the forest on fire. He uses his engineering skill and the elephants' "divine" strength to create a dam and flood the burning forest, thus extinguishing the fire and saving his animal friends' lives. In the 2016 version, the ideal human is not one who leaves the forest to live in the man village. The ideal human is an environmentalist. He is in the forest, of the forest, and he manages the forest and protects it from mankind's depredations.

5 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Popcorn Revenge Against Terrorists, 14 March 2016

"London Has Fallen" is anti-terrorist revenge porn. The words "Muslim," "Islam" and "Allah" are, I think, never once mentioned in the film. Given world events, it's entirely understandable that a studio would want to make, and viewers would enjoy seeing, such a film. Many reviewers have questioned the wisdom of releasing this film. Wise? No. Entertaining and timely? Alas, yes.

Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) must protect American President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) at a state funeral in London. Many world leaders are there, including Germany's Chancellor Bruckner, who is played by Nancy Baldwin made to look as much like current German Chancellor Angela Merkel as possible.

A little girl approaches Bruckner with a flower; security pushes the girl back. Bruckner urges the girl forward. We get the message. Bruckner is ignoring necessary security protocols. She is putting herself at risk.

It doesn't take long for the risk to materialize. Bruckner is murdered. The white rose the girl had handed her is stained with red blood.

In short order, almost all of the heads of state visiting London for the funeral have been shot to death, blown up, or crushed in a spectacular series of explosions and mass assassinations. Blood spatters on white shirts. Flames billow. Bridges collapse. Missiles fly from rooftops. Helicopters crash. Sirens sound. Men in funeral dress shoes outrun armed assassins on motorcycles. Knives and shrapnel plunge into flesh.

"London Has Fallen" gives England its own 9-11. London's towers, like the WTC, are blown up on camera.

Back in the US, Vice President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) watches from a situation room, jam packed with good actors no doubt wishing they were somewhere else, yet eager to cash their paychecks. Jackie Earle Haley is there, looking overwhelmed and sad. Melissa Leo is on screen for mere seconds. She may have won an Academy Award, but she is still a woman over fifty. There is also a gentleman listed in the credits as Stern-faced adviser (Stacey Shane).

Eventually it comes out that the attack on London is – surprise surprise – a terrorist action carried out by the Pakistani Aamir Barkawi. His daughter was killed in a US drone strike that was intended for him. Barkawi has, with his ample petrodollars, bought off every other person in London. His terrorists have penetrated the Queen's Guard, those guys with the tall, black fur hats and red coats, the police, emergency response personnel, and apparently every motorcycle rider in England.

Barkawi's ultimate goal: assassinate US President Asher on YouTube and stream the assassination live. Obviously this atrocity is inspired by contemporary terrorists.

Banning and Asher run, run, run. Terrorists chase, chase, chase. Banning is superhuman. You get it, after a while, that for all its political and topical trappings, "London Has Fallen" is really just a video game. Banning faces off with endless supplies of armed terrorists. They fire at him directly and somehow he never gets shot, even while he manages to kill every terrorist he wants to, sometimes with only a knife.

In one scene, Banning is talking to one of the chief terrorists on the telephone. Listen to this, he says. He places the phone near the mouth of another terrorist he is stabbing to death. The man groans into the phone as he dies. "Was that necessary?" President Asher asks. "No," Banning says.

There are many such scenes, where the American good guy gets to beat up on the terrorist bad guy.

Showing images of London's landmarks spectacularly succumbing to terrorist bombs strikes me as visual incitement. Why give these monsters ideas?

Even so, I enjoyed the movie because there really was no risk involved. The movie doesn't get you to care about any of its victims. Angela Basset, one of my favorite actresses, is not treated well by the film, and her fate left me utterly uncaring. It was all so cartoonish. I liked the spectacular visuals of London's landmarks and the silly, faux serious tone of the film. I actually laughed out loud more than once.

Fun and popcorn. But the heavy themes are there. "London Is Falling" tells you that Europe has been penetrated by terrorists, their bought-off allies and enablers. It tells you that Europe can't defend itself against this onslaught. It tells you that London is really Londonistan. It tells you that Germany's woman chancellor is especially guilty. It tells you that YouTube can be used to advance terror. It tells you that Americans must save the day. However you feel about these statements, even popcorn entertainment is now communicating them.

Risen (2016)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Risen 2016: See it for Terrific Fiennes, Affecting Jesus and Unique Premise, 13 March 2016

In "Risen" 2016 Joseph Fiennes gives a terrific performance as Clavius, a Roman tribune tasked by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) with investigating the disappearance of the corpse of a crucified Jewish carpenter whose name I think you probably know. Fiennes is so good that if this had been a better-produced film he would have been nominated for an Academy Award.

I like high production values in a film about the ancient world. You won't find that here. No breathtaking views of a recreated first century Jerusalem; no magnificent desert sunsets, no surging crowds.

What you get, instead, is Joseph Fiennes' supremely handsome face, grimacing in the heat of battle, gazing snake-like as he plays power games with Pontius Pilate as they share a tiled bath, and, eventually, awestruck into transcendence. The scene where Clavius confronts the truth of Jesus is one of the best scenes I've ever seen in any movie. It was so stunning that while I was watching the movie I was actively wishing I could "rewind" and watch it all again.

The film opens with Clavius fighting Jewish insurgents. Again, because of low budget, the film can't show you rank upon rank of infantry. What it does show you, instead, is the close-up and personal aspect of combat. You've got a handful of Roman soldiers, full armor, obviously rigorously and expertly trained in the art of war, working out their carefully routinized tactics against a passionate but ragtag group of Jews fighting in fevered frenzy for their homeland and their God. The Jews score a few points. The Romans are better equipped and trained, and they ultimately triumph. Clavius has noted exactly which Jew killed his friend, and he is sure to kill that Jew with his own hands.

"Risen" handles Jesus' crucifixion in a way unlike any I've seen before. Jesus was crucified on Golgotha, place of the skull, meant to be a hill. Usually filmmakers and painters capitalize on the dramatic aspects of hilltops in order to highlight the crucifixion. "Risen" does not.

In this film Jesus appears to be crucified in a dirty little alley, at almost eye level. Clavius uses a terse soldier's purely manual sign language to communicate, above the screams and wails of witnesses, to a foot soldier to break the crucified's legs in order to put an end to their suffering. This sign language is very affecting. It lets you know that these Romans have crucified so many victims that they have developed a code. Clavius notices that Jesus' mother is in agony as she watches her son suffer. He decides that piercing this victim's side will be the more compassionate route. As Jesus is pierced, Clavius looks up at Jesus' face. Jesus' face makes an impression on him. That impression will prove important later.

Romans crucified thousands of victims. That being the case, they would have been able to erect and dismantle crosses quickly and efficiently. That's exactly what happens in "Risen." This is a sort of Ikea crucifixion. As soon as the condemned breathe their last, Romans scurry to dismantle the pre-fab cross into its constituent, reusable parts. They've done this so many times, they don't have to read the printed directions in five languages. Then they unceremoniously dump the corpses into a common grave, and cover them over, shallowly, with lime. Flies buzz loudly.

Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) approaches and begs for Jesus' body, that he might provide it with a decent burial.

After Jesus' resurrection, Clavius interrogates many in an attempt to discover the truth. Clavius begins in the tomb, where he sees Jesus' burial shroud imprinted with what we now know as the image of the shroud of Turin. Clavius goes on to speak with Jesus' followers. His investigation changes his life forever.

A protest: the film depicts Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) as a prostitute. She was not. In fact she was a woman of means who used her money to underwrite Jesus' ministry. She was also the apostle to the apostles. She was the first to share the good news, telling others of Jesus' resurrection.

A complaint: Fiennes has a shallow wound on his lip. The scab would have healed much quicker in real life than it does in the film. Also the scab moves to the left as it heals which is a tad distracting.

I wish "Risen" had had a tighter script. There are scenes that just beg to be rewritten. Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan), a follower of Jesus, says he would willingly be crucified for Jesus, and that followers of Jesus are "everywhere." These are beautiful sentiments, but the script in this scene really needed a couple of more rewrites. Mary Magdalene is given nonsense lines, and her scene is merely annoying for this reason, although Botto does her best with the part.

Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor, is terrific as Jesus. He's warm, affecting, offering a sense of depth and complexity, and, blessedly, not the picture perfect pretty boy of too many films. Max Von Sydow has long been my favorite cinematic Jesus, but Curtis is an excellent runner up.

"Risen" isn't the best Biblical epic I've ever seen, but Joseph Fiennes really couldn't be better in it. I look forward to seeing the film again to savor his performance.

4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Masterful Filmmaking; Hope It Wins Best Picture, 17 January 2016

I walked out of "The Big Short" experiencing that unique high I get from an excellent movie. As much as I loved "Spotlight," I really want to see "The Big Short" win the 2016 best picture Academy Award.

I don't know anything about money and I rarely see movies built around finance. "The Big Short" is all about men's cut-throat competition with each other in a world as testosterone-fueled as the military or professional sports. Its virtuosic filmmaking is what glued me to the screen, ready to learn, laugh, and, yes, cry.

A barefoot man in a t-shirt is pouring his heart out, in an utterly unselfconscious way, to another man, who is wearing a suit. At the end of the conversation, the man in the suit timidly asks, "So, do I get the job?" It's a surprising and very funny moment. It tells us about the childlike soul and lack of social skills of the casually dressed man. It's quick and it doesn't beat you over the head. Either you caught the depth and the humor in the scene, or you didn't.

Next, we are in a support group of some kind. A member is sharing a personal heartache. Another man bursts into the room. He is talking loudly. He drowns out the first man. Everyone stares at him in anger and disgust. The rude, oblivious man makes himself a cup of coffee, and then uses his cell phone and leaves the room. He is one of the most insensitive, obnoxious people you've ever seen. The movie tells you his backstory, and it's so complex, and so heartbreaking, that you fall in love with this character.

"The Big Short" seduced me through terrific writing that captured characters in quick, deft strokes, and made me care about those people, people who are human just as I am human, and, through my caring about their humanity, made me care about their very alien world. I have no money and don't understand how it works. They play with billions of dollars before breakfast and then go to strip clubs. Masterful filmmaking.

The supernova cast puts the story across. Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, and every secondary actor is superb, like Jeremy Strong as Vinny Daniel. The one performance that made me sit up and want to shout, "Hold everything!" is Steve Carell as Mark Baum. If you cherish the experience of being so moved by art that it changes how you view a person and how you view the world, you will want to go to see "The Big Short" just so you can see Steve Carell's performance.

"Mark Baum" is a fictional hedge fund manager inspired by a real person, Steve Eisman. In the film, something tragic happens in Baum's life. That event is fictional. It didn't happen to Steve Eisman.

This is what is not depicted in the movie, at the request of the Eisman family. The real life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman had felt that he had an angel on his shoulder that looked out for him. He felt that nothing bad ever happened to him because of this angel. This is what common mortals like us assume about the superrich – the Richard Cory fallacy. One night, a nurse hired to look after Eisman's newborn son, Max, rolled over on top of Max in her sleep. Max was smothered to death. Eisman changed after that.

That's the character Steve Carell plays in the movie – a man touched by tragedy. He is the moral gravitational center of "The Big Short."

"The Big Short" knows that it is selling something few viewers will want to buy. The 2008 economic crisis was caused by very complicated financial manipulations. Many people, including me, don't understand it. Too, people want to lay the blame on their villains of choice. Left-wingers want to blame greedy Wall Street oligarchs. Right-wingers want to blame Democratic politicians who won votes by making unfulfillable promises and greedy, lazy borrowers.

"The Big Short" addresses the difficulty of its subject matter by occasionally reverting to docudrama mode. It breaks the fourth wall. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennet, a character based on Greg Lippman, aka "Patient Zero," that is, the first person who saw the crisis coming and figured out how to capitalize on it. Gosling is a supremely charismatic actor. He turns to the audience and explains what is going on on screen. Because this is a Hollywood movie and not a science class documentary, he uses stars like Selena Gomez and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to educate the audience in what all this financial mumbo jumbo means. For example, Bourdain, in a restaurant kitchen, says, "What if I buy too much fish. I chop it up and resell it as fish stew. It's not old fish; it's new stew." That's how wheelers and dealers resold bad mortgages.

Too, the characters on screen are often confused by what is going on in their own financial world. Steve Carell as Mark Baum is one of those confused figures. He needs other characters to explain to him. Gosling explains by bringing wooden blocks to a meeting. The blocks represent "tranches," or financial products. As each tranche is pulled away, the entire structure becomes weaker, and collapses.

"The Big Short" is intriguing enough that it made me want to read about the 2008 financial crisis. It's easy to find articles online, like one by Michael Grunwald at Politico, stating that the film is incorrect in its depiction of that crisis. Even if Grunwald is correct, that the movie made me want to read more about the crisis is testimony to its achievement.

11 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
I Laughed Out Loud. Bloated, Pretentious Gore-fest, 16 January 2016

I laughed out loud several times while watching "The Revenant," a bloated, bigoted, pretentious, boring, gore-fest that begs to be parodied. "The Revenant" is so over-the-top, so ham-handed, I never, for one second, forgot that I was watching celebrated actor Leonardo DiCaprio straining toward his inevitable Academy Award nomination.

I never forgot that his nemesis was played by Tom Hardy, who was struggling to avoid being pigeon-holed as a pretty boy with bee-stung lips by playing an unrecognizable psycho villain. Director Alejandro Inarritu's didactic hand was all over everything. Normally I'm very squeamish and have to close my eyes during violent or gory scenes. There's as much blood in "The Revenant" as in a Quentin Tarantino movie. I didn't have to close my eyes once. In fact I laughed out loud over and over.

DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a real frontiersman (1780-1833). The movie version of Glass was married to a Native American woman and had a son by her. The real Hugh Glass was not. There is a skirmish between white Americans and Indians in the Louisiana Purchase. The whites leave the scene on foot. Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear. He is badly wounded. The party's commander leaves Fitzgerald behind with Glass. This makes no sense whatsoever. Fitzgerald has telegraphed that he is an unhinged, hostile, and aggressive bully who has openly threatened Glass. No sooner does the commander leave but Fitzgerald kills Glass' son and leaves Glass in a shallow grave, even though he is still alive.

Glass arises from his shallow grave and starts chasing Fitzgerald across what looks like the Grand Tetons. In fact the film was shot in Canada, the US, and Argentina. For many long stretches of the film it feels as if the whole point of the exercise is a long slog to find the most picturesque spot in which to bite off a live fish's head. Many shots consist of nothing more than DiCaprio, in heavy "I've been attacked by a grizzly" prosthetic makeup, staring into the camera, which was probably an inch away from his face, grimacing and grunting. If you don't like the sound of DiCaprio grunting, don't go see this film. All this grimacing and grunting builds up to the inevitable showdown between Glass and Fitzgerald. Cue the spurting blood.

Little of this is plausible. Glass is frequently seen standing in or walking through water and surrounded by snow and ice. Hypothermia would surely kill any human who attempted any similar stunt. The grizzly bear attack is plainly CGI. There is a much better grizzly bear attack in the 2009 romantic comedy "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" That film used a real bear, not computer-generated pixels.

"The Revenants"'s director, Alejandro Inarritu, was recently interviewed on NPR. He whined about how very, very hard it is for him, a Mexican, to live in the racist United States. He's a Hollywood millionaire. He won multiple Academy Awards for "Birdman," a movie few people saw and fewer people liked. Inarritu is very Caucasian in appearance. But oh boo hoo he has to live in the horrible, racist United States as a Mexican!

Inarritu also whined about the evils of colonialism, which he hoped to highlight in his movie. Because, you know, it's really a bad thing when men hurt, punch, knife, shoot arrows and bullets into, rape and stab others. But, it's a really wonderful thing when Inarritu makes a film showing all these actions in gory, graphic detail, and makes a bucket-load of money marketing those very violent images. Nothing like sincerity and purity of artistic intention.

"The Revenant" is overtly anti-Christian. Tom Hardy's psychopathic Fitzgerald is the one kind of interesting character in the movie, He is just about the only one who talks. DiCaprio mostly just grunts and grimaces. Though the characters are slogging through the high Rockies, Hardy has Fitzgerald speak in a British-actor-working-under-a-Mexican- director's movie-version of a Southern accent. Southerners should sue Hollywood – why are psychopathic bad guys so often Southern? Even in the Grand Tetons? Anyway. Hardy speaks in this nearly indecipherable faux Southern accent. He's a mean, weird, unmotivated, hostile villain. He talks about God and Jesus constantly. The message is very clear. The white man's God is evil.

A character named "Toussaint" rapes an Indian woman. "Toussaint," of course, means "all saints." I wonder what Inarritu thinks of what Comanche used to do to white women captives. Google it. And don't blame me if what you discover gives you nightmares.

Glass gets through his travails through repeated visions of his Indian wife, who was, of course, murdered by evil white men. In one vision, Glass sees his son in a destroyed Christian church. There are paintings of Mary and Jesus, distorted by decay. Trees grow in the church. Trees are sacred, see. The church was just evil brought by the white man to hurt the Indians.

At a key moment in the film, a key character makes a profound decision based on whispered Indian wisdom.

Yes, not only are Native Americans spiritual and loving, they also know how to use combs. In "The Revenant" the Native Americans have groomed hair, while the whites all have stringy hair hanging in their eyes. Frontiersman needed their eyes – certainly to aim their rifles – and combs are easy to make. The unrealistic hair is just more evidence of the director's heavy-handed strain that took me right out of the movie.

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