Movie Watching (February 2016)

Still chronicling the movies I watch on a month-to-month basis, February’s offerings are below.  I saw two top-notch films (one of which received a slew of awards attention) and some other middling to above-average fare.

Rating System:  * to *****

Ricki and the Flash- An instituted fact at this point is that pretty much anything with Meryl Streep is worth watching but a lot of the time, the material is not as good as her performances.  “Ricki and the Flash” is about a musician (yes, named Ricki) who gave up on everything (including her family) for her chance at rock stardom.  Things didn’t really work out according to her dreams and she returns home to try and reconcile the relationship with her daughter, Julie (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer).  The cast, which also includes Kevin Kline and Rick Springfield, is good but the film is bland.  There is not really anything about this movie that makes any sort of impression afterward (other than that Streep is a great performer but one can watch her in anything else).  A major disappointment considering the acting star power and Jonathan Demme (of “The Silence of the Lambs”) directing.  **

The Visit- M. Night Shyamalan went from being one of the youngest and aspiring director stars of his generation to being the architect of an absurdly bad run of terrible B-movie type films with decent budgets.  He has not made a good movie in more than a decade.  “The Visit”, thankfully, is a little bit of a return to form for Night.  No, the movie is certainly not perfect.  There are some leaps in logic within the plot and the whole gimmick of “found footage” is getting tiresome.  However, the movie does bring some genuine creepiness and a sense of mystery.  The twist at the end flows nicely with the rest of the plot build up (even if being fairly predictable).  Also, Night has taken a relatively unknown cast and cultivated some solid performances.  I root for Night and hope he gets back to making good movies again.  This is a decent start. ***

Mr. Holmes- Sherlock Holmes has probably got to have some sort of record for the most filmed character in the history of movies.  “Mr. Holmes” featuring Ian McKellen in title role takes a different course.  McKellen’s Holmes is relegated to a sort of retirement, a beekeeper and suffering from the cruelties of dementia at the age of 93.  The year is 1947 and Holmes is haunted by his last unsolved case. He had been hired by a man to checkup on his wife (Hattie Morahan) who had been exhibiting strange behavior after suffering through two miscarriages.  The proceedings move methodically and the unwelcome trappings of old age add a sad, reflective quality over the entire movie.  Slow but containing some intriguing and thoughtful moments.  ***

The Man From U.N.C.L.E- All Guy Ritchie movies (that I have seen) have a cool swagger to them.  “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” is no different and boasts dazzling 1960s era set pieces with Cold War paranoia.  The story, which is based on the old TV show, finds Solo (a CIA agent played by Superman Henry Cavill) joining forces with Illya Kuryakin (a KGB agent played by Armie Hammer)  in order to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  In other words, this sounds a lot like an old James Bond film plot and that is what makes this movie not incredibly original.  I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I had seen this all before.  ***

Bridge of Spies- Steven Spielberg was a cinematic legend for the ages a long time ago but he continues to put out great films.  He seems to be at his absolute best when doing historical dramas (think Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln).  Here he has crafted another film that thematically calls Americans to transcendent values even in the face of our geopolitical enemies.   The movie opens with Rudolf Abel (Oscar winning Mark Rylance) looking in the mirror as he creates a self-portrait.  The setting is the 1960s, Cold War era and Abel is about to be arrested for being a Soviet spy.  Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer who is assigned to defend Abel and we are informed by a judge that this is pretty much a formality as they intend to convict Abel (and potentially seek the death penalty) before the trial even started.  The movie is impeccably made with top notch cinematography from longtime Spielberg collaborator, Janusz Kaminski.  An engaging and solid movie, “Bridge of Spies” comes highly recommended.  **** 1/2

99 Homes- Nine years on from the Great Recession, there is still a boiling rage right under the surface regarding what people went through and the organizations that caused the collapse.  Ramin Bahrani’s film opens with a pair of legs seated upon a toilet.  Blood is splattered on the wall.  A homeowner has blown his brains out on the day he was to be evicted from his home.   Rick Carver (a brilliant Michael Shannon), who makes Gordon Gekko look like a choir boy, is handling the deal with a cold determination through his real estate company.  Eventually, he evicts Dennis Nash (post Spiderman Andrew Garfield) who is a down-on-his-luck construction worker.  Later, Carver decides to take Nash under his wing but can Nash stomach the job of throwing people out of their houses?  Carver assures him that after awhile he will become numb to everything.  Nothing is more sacred than the human idea of home.  It is a sanctuary away from the world where we raise families and experience life with those closest to us.  In this movie, that sanctuary is violated and destroyed by predatory real estate and bank companies who will quote “letter of the law” in removing somebody from their house but lie about interest rates and forge documents behind the scenes.  The movie shows a ruthless capitalism where nothing is sacred except making money at other people’s expense.  Bahrani is known for making films about individuals who are on the outside of the American Dream looking in.  “99 homes” is about people being run over by the Dream.  The film is crafted like a thriller with a script that ratchets the tension so the audience fears and knows that something horrible is coming.  This is one of the best movies of 2015 and a soaring accomplishment for Bahrani.  Consider the opening shot of the suicide with the very final shots of the film.  Of course, these images are intentional and juxtaposing these images strikes at all the thematic issues that Bahrani is raising.  **** 1/2

Straight Outta Compton- From south central LA, NWA burst onto the scene in the late 1980s to controversy, critical acclaim and millions of record sales.  The group consisting of Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) went on to worldwide fame, crazy parties and a high class lifestyle.  Then, the group broke up and the artists went their separate ways over disputes with their controversial manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti) and arguments about money.  “Straight Outta Compton” tells the biopic story and serves as not just a telling of the careers of these musicians, but thematically touches on police violence to the African-American community which is an extremely timely message.  A relentlessly entertaining film, the third act de-evolves into episodic highlights of the group’s accomplishments rather than feeding the storyline but this is a minor criticism.  ****

The End of the Tour- Here is a film centered around the real life encounter of Rolling Stone reporter, David Lipsky (played by the great Jesse Eisenberg) with legendary and tragic writer, David Foster Wallace (the best performance I have ever seen from Jason Segel).  The plot is essentially a long conversation between Wallace and Lipsky as they road trip from Bloomington, IL to St. Paul, MN.  Wallace had just released “Infinite Jest” to massive critical acclaim.  Watching this film really made me want to read Wallace (I never have before) and the ideas and conversation topics are compelling and keep the audience engaged to the work.  The movie engages the intellect even if it may leave many feeling emotionally cold.  *** 1/2


About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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