Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2017.4

Published by marco on

These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of almost 1200 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood. YMMV. Also, I make no attempt to avoid spoilers.

The Two Faces of January (2014) — 8/10

This is a slow-burning thriller set in 1962 about an American couple—Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst)—on vacation who meet an American tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who is living and working in Greece. They engage his services and they get to know one another. The husband Chester is suspicious and slightly jealous of Rydal. Rydal seems to be open and only somewhat crooked (he tends to add to prices in order to enlarge his cut). The story is based on the book of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley.

After their week together in Greece, Rydal bids them adieu, only to soon after their parting discover Colette’s bracelet in the taxi. He takes it back only to find Chester dragging a body down the hotel hallway. Chester assures him that the man is a drunk who was trying to con him and that he’d knocked him out. Rydal believes him initially, but he is soon embroiled in their attempt to get away from further pursuers—Chester has swindled people out of money and is on the run with Colette.

They continue to Crete by boat and bus, heading for Iraklion, waiting for replacement passports for Chester and Colette, when tragedy strikes. They end up in Istanbul, on the run from police. Intrigue abounds. I would have given a seven for the script, but added a star for the acting, for the mood and the setting.

Chris Rock: Kill the Messenger − London, New York, Johannesburg (2008) — 9/10

Rock had last done a show during the Bush years, in 2004. This show was filmed in three cities just at the end of the election in 2008, before the election of Barack Obama. Rock talks about Obama, McCain and the election, as well as some foreign-policy issues, but quickly settles into his main material, dealing with issues of race and gender. His best work is when he finds exactly the things that one side can obviously do but the other side obviously cannot—even though it’s the same thing.

His physical comedy (he dances) is apropos, his grimaces and growling/shouting voice enhance his jokes. He comports himself like a preacher, bringing back punchlines or aphorisms to underscore his examples. (E.g. his emphatic bits that end in “that’s right. I said it!” or “It’s not the words, it’s the context in which they are spoken.”)

He’s a hell of a bombastic guy, just pure power on stage. He’s not always right—but he’s never all wrong. Even with his discussions of the differences between men and women: even when you’re thinking that this doesn’t apply to you, it’s still funny because what he says definitely has a kernel of truth for many others. I know that this is over-explaining it, but I’m trying to explain why his show holds together better than those of others I’ve seen.

His best joke, I thought, was the one about his house in Alpine, New Jersey, a very rich neighborhood where he has a house worth millions (“don’t hate the player; hate the game”) but almost all of his neighbors are white. He is one of four black people in the neighborhood. The others are Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Eddie Murphy. They are all stellar talents at the top of their game. What does Rock’s white neighbor do? He’s a dentist.

This is a raucous, bawdy show with no holds barred. Brace yourself if you don’t like filthy comedy. He’s hilarious, politically nuanced and on-point, but he doesn’t mince his words nor does he care at all whether you approve of what he says or how he says it. Do not watch this with un-hip relatives looking to prove that they’re not racist. I’m looking forward immensely to the new show, Total Blackout.

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) — 7/10

Jamie Fox plays Nick Rice, an assistant DA who has a laser-like focus on his conviction record. Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton, a man to whom we’re introduced with a home invasion in which his wife and daughter are brutally tortured and killed right in front of him. I found him more sympathetic in this role than either Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson have been in very-similar roles.

There are two perpetrators, but one (Ames) watches the event spiral out of control while the other (Darby) spins them that way. The case goes to trial but, because of a weak evidence, Rice plays it safe and accepts Darby’s plea down to five years while Ames gets the death penalty. Shelton is incensed.

Fast forward to ten years later and Rice is even more successful, on his way to Ames’s execution. It goes horribly wrong and Ames suffers terribly. There are signs that the poisons were sabotaged. Darby is kidnapped and tortured horribly. We are quickly shown that Shelton has reappeared for what he claims is justice, not vengeance. He allows himself to be arrested and convicted and the chess game begins between him and Rice. It turns out that Shelton is a wet-ops brain guy sans pareil. He’s playing a very long game. Rice and the rest of Philadelphia are hopelessly outmatched.

Until they’re not. It was going along so nicely until the last 10 minutes. Spoiler alert. Clyde (Gerard Butler) is otherwise so clever and prepared. He has cameras installed in the main meeting room, but he has no cameras on the room in which he placed the bomb? And he placed it so obviously in an attaché case? And there’s no motion sensor in the bag? My phone has a motion sensor. So they moved the bomb back to his cell and let him blow up half the prison? Why? Why not just disarm the damned thing or put it a swamp? Why not just block his damned cell-phone signal?

The last minute, showing Rice with his wife, watching a cello recital of his daughter’s was utter pap. This feels like the ending that they tacked on because the stupid test audience was horrified when Shelton won. Minus one star for the bad ending.

Men in Black (1997) — 8/10
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones star as J and K, respectively, agents of the M.I.B. Rip Torn is Zed, the director of the organization. Vincent D’Onofrio plays a man being driven by an alien bug living in his body, Linda Fiorentino is a morgue director who’s wise to the alien presence on the planet. Tony Shaloub is a pawn-shop owner who’s also an alien. The effects and story hold up remarkably well for a 20-year–old film about aliens on planet Earth. Still recommended.
Katherine Ryan: In Trouble (2017) — 8/10
I’d never heard of Katherine before but was very glad I tuned in. She delivered a very funny and natural set, with a lot of continuity and sharp observation. She was born in a poor Canadian town on the southern border and has been living in England for a long time. She’s the single mother of a 6-year–old daughter. A lot of her jokes and stories are observational about Canada and England with a bit about the U.S. as well. She’s not shy, but not as over-the-top rude as Chris Rock. Would watch again. Recommended.
Captain America: Civil War (2016) — 7/10

This movie was better than I expected it to be. The action was tamer than in the other movies, which says more about how ludicrously over-the-top the action was before.

I started my review of the comic books with “In which Tony Stark proves once again that there is nothing so self-righteous and self-assured as a dry drunk.” This is also the case in the movie.

The plot was decent, the movie a bit long, Tony Stark so, so, so, so stupid. He was easily manipulated from start to finish and it wasn’t obvious why. There’s always his ego to consider, his guilt at feeling like he was responsible for every death, but it was desperately simplistic. They barely tried to show why he would act the way he does.

The basic premise at the center is a good one: that the Avengers shouldn’t be allowed to act with impunity just because they have powers. That they aren’t elected, that there is no democratic control over them and their power. That’s a good point. We don’t like vigilantism anywhere else; why with the super-powerful?

But that Stark would immediately accept the “U.N” as the oversight is laughable, considering his historical rebelliousness in literally every other movie. It wasn’t the U.N. but the U.S. government, which no-one who can read above a first-grade level would trust with oversight of superheroes. And yet Stark was on board immediately, guilted into it by meeting the mother of a young man who died in an Avengers battle, who blamed Stark personally.

And he is so one-dimensional that this is all it takes to convince him. No-one even raises the question as to who should really be to blame for the carnage unleashed by a Norse God leading a pack of hyper-dimensional dragon-worms on a rampage through New York City. Apparently they are all immediately in agreement that the blame lies with the selfless heroes who stopped him. The blame lies wholly on them since they let a single person die. Criminals, the lot of them.

This is typical of American philosophy, though, I guess. Just disappointing. The U.S. Secretary of State—played by William Hurt, slumming it—played one video after another, blaming the people who stopped the destruction for having caused it. The incident that broke the camel’s back was the accidental bombing of a part of a floor of a single building in Lagos. The videos that preceded it are of Loki’s flattening of New York and Ultron’s lifting of a most of a country from the surface of the Earth. And then the bombing of part of a building was the thing the world could no longer stand. Dumb. Sad.

There is a point to be made here, but the movie doesn’t make it. Vision comes at it a bit sideways by pointing out that maybe the prevalence of heroes invites combat with them, but the point is quickly dropped for purely emotional reasons.

Chris Evans as Captain America is very good—coming from a time in America when the Dulles brothers were running the show, he’s more suspicious. The plot is bigger than even this 2.5-hour film. The puppetmaster is Daniel Brühl as Zemo, an ex-hydra soldier who lost his family in the Ultron attack on Zakovia. He does a great job, with perhaps the best character-building, constantly calling the last phone message he had from his wife.

However, his grand plan is utterly transparent. He literally tells it to them and it works on Stark anyway. He shows Stark, Bucky (Winter Soldier) and Cap a video of the Winter Soldier killing Tony’s parents. Stark believes it 100%. This is about an hour after he finds out that he ruined the Avengers because he believed that the first video released by Zemo blaming Bucky for an attack was real. Which it wasn’t. So Stark is dumber than dumb, even though he’s a genius? This is hard to follow, much less swallow. Even given that the video is real, Zemo had killed the super-soldiers that they all thought were the weapons that he was after—then told them that his plan was to have them fight to the death and Stark is OK with that. Positively dives into it without thinking.

And then there’s the matter that Stark’s father built all of America’s weapons for … 50 years? Sowing death and destruction while making billions, if not trillions. Then he was killed with his wife because he was driving somewhere to deliver the super-soldier serum that was an uncontrollable weapon. Hardly an innocent man, but Stark sees only vengeance—ironically enough—because someone killed his Mommy (who also lived a life of luxury as the wife of the world’s leading weapons merchant). In fact, I missed the Hulk, but I think the director just transplanted the Hulk’s intelligence and personality into Tony Stark.

So Stark was played perfectly as an asshole by Robert Downey Jr.—just like in the comic. The other actors were all quite good. I have to say I like the new Spider-man (again). Renner as Hawkeye was fun.

Fracture (2007) — 7/10

Anthony Hopkins continues his run of roles in which he plays a Hannibal-Lecter–like killer. This time he’s a husband who’s found out that his wife is cheating on him. He gives himself up pretty easily, turning himself in to the detective with whom his wife was cuckolding him. Hopkins elects to defend himself (of course) and he selects Will Beecham (Ryan Gosling) as his prosecutor.

Beecham is a rising star with one foot out of the DA’s office and one foot into a superstar lawyer job at a superstar lawyer firm, working for Rosamund Pike, with whom he’s also started an affair. He continues to work the case—as his last case for the DA—but Hopkins outfoxes him at every turn. The murder weapon can’t be matched; the confessions are invalid because the detective who’d been banging his wife and who attacked him at the scene, to boot, was in attendance; his wife is hanging on by a thread.

Hopkins pleads for acquittal and is granted it. After the trial, Hopkins elects to pull the plug on her, finishing the job he started with a bullet weeks before. Long story short (and spoiler alert), Gosling meets Hopkins at his house, just before he leaves on a long trip. There, Hopkins admits that he did shoot his wife, but that he cannot be retried for the attempted murder because that would be double jeopardy and unconstitutional. Gosling smiles and thanks him for the confession, then arrests him for the murder of his wife, carried out when he pulled the plug. The end.

Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark (2017) — 7/10
It’s a pretty good set with a lot of observational humor about New York, a lot about Scotland, a long bit about Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. He does a ton of accents, all of which are pretty good—recognizable and fun. Usually the payoff is pretty good, but some of his jokes are long setups. Then, out of nowhere, we see that while racist comedy is no longer OK, it’s completely acceptable in the US today to make jokes about Russians that you wouldn’t get away with for anyone but persona non grata. It was OK, but the premise was that the Russian accent is scary, that there is nothing scarier than Russians, that they just take whatever countries they want. Ignorant. It’s as bad as Bill Burr’s extended fat-shaming bit. It was uneven, but had some fun bits.
Enemy at the Gates (Stalingrad) (2001) — 7/10

Vasily Zaitsev (Jude Law) is sent to the front to fight the Nazis at Stalingrad. He survives the initial slaughter and proves his mettle by sniping five Germans. He is promoted to the sniper corps and starts taking out dozens of Germans. He has a significant affect and the Germans import their own sniper: Major König (Ed Harris). Joseph Fiennes is Vasily’s friend, a political officer. Bob Hoskins is Nikita Kruschev. Rachel Weisz is the clever love interest, Tania Chernova. Ron Perlman plays another soldier, Koulikov.

The duel between the two snipers is grueling and deliberate. The accents are a bit offputting. The Germans speak German or English with German accents. The Russians all speak with English accents.

Snowden (2016) — 9/10

Oliver Stone delivers another important and eminently watchable historical documentary. There was some embellishment but it was, in its substance, accurate. The recent and further revelations by Wikileaks about the CIA just bring the point home that Edward Snowden’s work isn’t done.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Snowden, Melissa Leo is Laura Poitras, Zachary Quinto is Glenn Greenwald, Nicholas Cage plays Hank Forrester (based in large part on William Binney) and Tom Wilkinson plays Ewen MacAskill, an editor from The Guardian.

Snowden starts out as an Army Recruit (Special Forces) but washes out with two broken legs. He moves to the CIA, where he excels. He moves on to the NSA, again quitting because of moral/ethical issues. He ends up as a contractor for the NSA because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. He catches wind that a giant eavesdropping program that he wrote is being used without compunction on everyone and without warrants, to boot.

He decides to reveal what he knows to the world: he sneaks out the data and delivers it to Poitras, Greenwald and The Guardian. This is the story the world should know. It’s true and it happened pretty much this way (with some embellishment). Highly recommended.

Garfunkel and Oates: Trying to be Special (2017) — 8/10
The two chanteuse/comediennes put together a pretty good show, filled with funny and NSFW songs. Some of the material was collected from other shows, but it was a greatest hits and well-written. Recommended.
American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (2017) — 7/10
This a ten-show retelling of the O.J. Simpson story that stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J., John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey and so on. Courtney B. Vance was very good as Christopher Darden. There are no heroes in this story: the cops messed up, LA is a racist shithole, filled with terrible cops and terrible people. The rich only care about their own. O.J. probably got away with murder, but the trial was decided correctly, based on the evidence available. It was interesting enough, but nothing to shout about.
Arrival (2016) — 6/10

I expected more out of this supposedly smart science-fiction movie. The movie tried too hard to please everyone, including the Academy, I think. It felt like it had gone through some dumbing-down versions. Were people really so thrown by the name of the aliens—heptapods—that they had to explain the etymology on-screen?

I thought the two scientists were far too weak, too cowed by the military, playing the typical roles of geeks only too eager to please their supposed superiors. It was very believable in that sense, but I didn’t enjoy that story. Watching administration flunkies and wonks as well as Forest Whitaker as the chief of the whole affair browbeat the scientists into fitting their theories into their worldview, while believable, wasn’t much fun. I was (semi-)silently screaming at them to defend themselves, to tell the military that can’t be in charge because they don’t know anything.

I would ordinarily like this kind of slow movie, but it wasn’t thoughtful enough. Adams throws in a speech about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—which posits that a mind can be affected by the language used by a person. There are two versions: a strong one where it is posited that the mind is constrained by language, that the thoughts a mind is capable of are limited to those that can be expressed in the language(s) known to a person. The weak version posits that language influences but does not constrain or limit.

Adams—the leading linguistics expert on the planet—describes this as the capability of a language to change how a mind works or can change its basic structure and capabilities—a super-powered version of the weak version. This doesn’t really have anything to do with linguistic relativity and sounds much stronger than even the strong version defined above. As she learns the alien language, she discovers that the language that the aliens speak has a concept of time that does not include a single present, that the aliens experience what we see as the arrow of time as a fourth spatial dimension that can be traveled mentally.

It’s weird and interesting, but I thought they crammed it all in to the last ten minutes,
focusing instead of prosaic issues of military striving and the efforts of humans—those in power—to compartmentalize and constrain the wonder of alien ships that hover off the ground and can change localized gravity. Humans are in no way on a level playing field with these beings and no-one in this movie even acknowledged the overarching wonder of it. Humanity was not humbled. Oh, and the U.S. reacted with military organization but not violence whereas the Chinese and Russians (of course) reacted unreasonably and uncooperatively. A tale America tells to itself about its own essential goodness and reasonableness.

There’s better sci-fi out there. Not recommended.

Army of Darkness (1992) — 6/10
I have fond memories of this movie—I killed time on a rainy afternoon on Florida spring break one year and was pleasantly surprised at how funny the movie was—but it hasn’t stood the test of time as well as it could have. There are a lot of stop-motion effects and broad, physical comedy. Bruce Campbell is very charismatic. He and director Sam Raimi do all they can for this movie, but I can’t recommend it anymore. There are good bits and it passed the time during a couple of workouts, but it’s not a must-watch. I gave it an extra star for nostalgia.
Twin Peaks (1990) — 9/10

This is David Lynch’s only directorial work for television. He co-wrote the convoluted script about a small town near the Canadian border that suffers through the murder of its prom queen, Laura Palmer. Kyle MacLachlan is Special Agent Dale Cooper, leading the investigation for the FBI. There is almost too much detail to include here—and it’s all been excruciatingly detailed elsewhere.

The writing is superb, the acting is above-par, the music is great, the sets are detailed and chock-full of information and nearly everything is just delightfully off. The story comprises multiple arcs, all intertwined and intricate.

Miguel Ferrer as Albert Rosenfield has some of the best lines:

“I do not ask you to understand these tests. I’m not a cruel man. I’ve got a lot of cutting and pasting to do, gentlemen, so why don’t you return to your porch rockers and resume whittling.”

I’m deep into the second season and the show is really getting intricate and going off the rails at the same time. The confluence of prosaic, real-world as well as the esoteric and magical and then the madcap and slapstick all combines to create a helluva ride. Lynch’s imprimatur is on every second, on every inch of the set, in every line, suffusing every zany character and conversation.

The original story—solving the murder of Laura Palmer—culminates in episode 10 of season 2. The evil at the heart of the crime is supernatural—and that beast is still on the prowl. The second season starts to go off the rails a bit, with a flurry of new characters and concepts introduced after the evil of Bob is dispatched. There are UFOs, a mysterious partner from Cooper’s past, more vicious Canucks and Nadine woke up from her coma with the mind of a fifteen-year–old. The list goes on and it’s a bit difficult to keep track as the second season presses on.

It’s really hard to imagine this show having aired in its entirety on ABC in the early 90s.
All in all, it holds up remarkably well. I’m looking forward to the revival show—it brings back almost all of the original cast as well as the writers and director.

Black Mirror (1990) — 8/10

This is a thoroughly enjoyable, modern-day Twilight Zone. The first season was decent, starting off with the weakest episode (the pig-fornication performance art) and moving on to the strongest (the recorder in everyone’s head). The second season has slightly stronger production values with better writing, again moving from weakest to strongest over the season.

The themes are similar, dealing with technology and its potential for negatively disrupting age-old processes. Some of these processes are broken, but the technological fix isn’t always better. Generally, each show focuses on a single technological advancement, with others subtly available throughout an otherwise recognizable world. My favorite so far has been White Christmas, starring Oona Chaplin and Jon Hamm, about the subjectivity of time, cloning and punishment.

Logan (2017) — 10/10

Logan is, from start to finish, a fantastic movie. It is enriched by knowing more of the back-story. It is the finale the series deserves, the denouement Wolverine has earned. The story is minimalist, in the best tradition of science fiction and cinematic storytelling, filling in only little details, letting incidental comments tell whole swaths of history.

On the surface, it’s at least partially an action movie. That is what many will see, to the exclusion of the film that I saw. Those seeking only standard superhero fare will likely be bored. Those shocked by raw violence will turn away as well.

But the movie has so much more, even on the surface. It’s a real movie, a real story, with pathos strung on the skeleton of a science-fictional world, a world with mutants and a world that had heroes, but discarded them. It’s about the futility of existence, about the bastards winning, grinding down, with inexorable, stubborn mindlessness, all that is good—all that which gives hope and purpose, a reason for going on. It is the story of a man longer in years than any since Biblical times, seeing that he came from nothing and will end in nothing. He is heroic, but unnoticed, of no consequence. He keeps fighting the windmills, the whirlwind. Why? Because it’s there. Life is pain, stoically borne.

Please see my full-length review for more.

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes (2017) — 6/10
This was a decent special but nothing to write home about. He has a nice delivery but his material is largely uncontroversial. He’s more of a nice storyteller and less of a big-joke guy. He was a bit too self-referential and ended with a plea to not take his relatively inoffensive jokes the wrong way, which felt a bit weak, as he was barely offensive at all. Well-written but not too thought-provoking or hilarious.
Neal Brennan: 3 Mics (2017) — 8/10
Neal has quite a storied history: he was Dave Chapelle’s writing partner on the original show. He wrote the cult classic Half Baked. His “3 mics” are for one-liners, personal stories and standup material. He’s better than Birbiglia and has funnier, more biting material. His bit about testosterone is well-done. Recommended.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016) — 7/10

This is a decent coming-of-age movie that focuses on a family of four that loses its father when the kids are in their early teens. The son Darian (Blake Jenner) is an all-rounder who steps up and keeps the family on an even keel, especially when the mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has talked herself out onto yet another ledge inspired by a nervous depression.

The movie’s focus is actually on the slightly younger sister Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) who is a bundle of problems and insecurities, lashing out at anyone and everyone, including but not limited to her brother, her mother and her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson)—who starts dating Darian early in the film. The characters were unexpectedly well-rounded with Woody Harrelson adding spice as history teacher Max.

A decent film about an angsty millennial who makes a lot of trouble for everyone (including her main crush who she misleads horribly, a misdeed for which she utterly fails to apologize, despite him having handled it with just about the most aplomb that you could expect). The other main character is an excellent Hayden Szeto as Erwin, the persistent and all-around excellent guy who ends up “winning” Nadine in the end.