Monday, February 25, 2019

The Oscars Got It Right...Almost

Academy, I didn't know you had it in you, but you managed to present an awards telecast which lasted only three hours and fifteen minutes.   Granted, it could've been shorter, but considering how bloated the awards ceremonies have been since forever, this is a positive step.    You don't need a host.   A host kills the first 10-15 minutes with a mostly lame monologue which no one remembers, and then the writers feel they have to write stunts, gags, and jokes for the host to pepper throughout the show.    They have a host for a reason, right?   Why pay him for just the opening fifteen minutes?  And let's throw in meaningless montages too.   Anything to kill the momentum.

I pray the Academy learns from this year and tweaks next year's telecast so it ends just as the 11:00 news is supposed to start.    The ads were the most bloated thing about this year's show; stuff about Oscar-winning directors urging the folks at home to follow their dreams and go make films, or something like that.   There were highlights, lowlights, a few upsets, and the year's best movie actually won Best Picture.    I didn't exactly clean up in my Oscar predictions though.   Only four of my eight predictions came to pass, batting .500 in this instance is not good.   

Best Picture:  Green Book.   I predicted Roma, and although it won three prizes for Cinematography, Directing, and Foreign Language Film, the big prize eluded it.    As stated in my predictions article from last month, this was a lean year for movies.   I gave positive reviews to only three of the eight Best Picture nominees, and Roma was not among the positive.    Roma was a critical darling, but if many critics had a choice between watching Roma and Green Book, they would choose Green Book and throw away the remote.   But, even though Green Book took home the Producers Guild prize, I felt without a corresponding Best Director nod that Green Book's chances were nearly dead.    I was wrong, and I'm glad because Green Book was my favorite film of 2018. 

Best Director:  Alfonso Cuaron (Roma).   Cuaron was a frequent visitor to the stage, and his Golden Globes and DGA wins were precursors to this award.    As close to a lock as you could get.   My prediction was Cuaron.  

Best Actor:   Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)  I picked Christian Bale even though Malek won the Golden Globe and eventually the SAG Award for Best Actor.    I didn't feel either performance was on the same plane as Viggo Mortensen's in Green Book or even Bradley Cooper's, and Cooper must be shaking his head wondering why he worked so hard to learn to sing and play guitar when Malek simply lip synched Freddie Mercury and took home the Oscar.   Cooper isn't the only one shaking his head.

Best Actress:  Olivia Colman (The Favourite)   Glenn Close was my pick and virtually everyone else's outside of the Colman household, but Close had to watch someone else give an acceptance speech for a seventh time.   Colman gave a frenetic, awkward acceptance speech, likely because she didn't expect to win.   Or was she just doing schtick?   Either way, I felt bad for Glenn Close.

Best Supporting Actor:  Mahershala Ali (Green Book).   Ali was my pick, and his performance outshone the other nominees in a quality category.    It's his second Oscar in three years, and well-deserved.   

Best Supporting Actress:  Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)  Amy Adams has now had to sit through an Oscar loss for the sixth time, one short of Glenn Close.    Her performance wasn't Oscar-worthy anyway, and King's momentum didn't stall after her Globes win following by no nomination from the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA.    King was my pick

Best Original Screenplay:  Green Book.   My pick as well.   It was a lively script with characters I could listen to all day long.   

Best Adapted Screenplay:  BlackkKlansman.   I chose If Beale Street Could Talk, but Spike Lee would not be denied his first competitive Oscar win.   He was a Governor's Award recipient, but a competitive victory was obviously more exciting for him.   Then, he went ahead with a terrible display of sportsmanship and turned his back on the Green Book winners as they accepted their Best Picture award over Lee's film.   Bad form, Spike.

Some other observations:   

*  It is now obvious the Academy will not forego televising technical categories after the outrage leveled at it when it proposed awarding some during commercial breaks.    But, this year, the Academy has proven it can still put on a decent, more efficient show even with their inclusion, so I won't fight this battle anymore.   Just please don't add a Popular Film Category.   Pretty please.

*  Bradley Cooper's duet with Lady Gaga "Shallow" was the highlight of the Best Song nominee performances.    There were three other songs performed, and none of those were memorable.   But, if I were Bradley Cooper's girlfriend, I would keep an eye on he and Lady Gaga after they got all close up at the end.   

*  During Barbra Streisand's long-winded introduction of BlackkKlansman, she pointed out how she and Spike Lee both hailed from Brooklyn.   Lee shouted out "BROOKLYN!" and represented.   That was funny.

*  Samuel L. Jackson's enthusiastic announcement of his old pal Spike Lee's win was also endearing and memorable.   There is little doubt who he wanted to see take home the Adapted Screenplay prize.

*  In an age of information available in a flash at our fingertips, how is it humanly possible to miss prominent names in the In Memoriam section?   Carol Channing and Sondra Locke, both former Oscar nominees, were omitted from the tribute.   It must be wearying for the Academy to keep attempting to explain away glaring In Memoriam omissions.   Or perhaps not, because they continue to leave names off the list.  

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Fighting with My Family (2019) * * *

Fighting with My Family Movie Review

Directed by:  Stephen Merchant

Starring:  Florence Pugh, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Bowden, Simon Frost, Lena Headey

There are wrestling fans and then there are the Knights.   Based in a small blue-collar town in England, the Knight siblings don't just have fights, their father gives them pointers on how best to choke out the other.   The daughter Saraya (Pugh) and son Zak (Bowden) dream of joining the WWE.   The family runs a small wrestling school which puts on shows featuring all of the family members and some friends who are also students.    They love the business, and know the official rules and unwritten rules of competing in the squared circle inside and out.    One day, Hutch Morgan (Vaughn), the WWE's head trainer, comes calling and offers the siblings to try out.    Saraya makes the cut, Zak does not, and soon Saraya is on her way to becoming Paige, one of the most beloved wrestlers of the past decade in WWE.

As a wrestling fan for the past thirty plus years, the show works when you suspend disbelief and go along with the story.    WWE used to pretend to be an actual sport, but switched over to "sports entertainment" because it gave them huge state tax breaks.    The curtain slowly lowered on Vince McMahon's empire, and nowadays it is a multi-billion dollar cash cow.   Paige's WWE career was brief, but memorable, and sadly the movie doesn't reveal that she is now retired due to cumulative neck injuries after a five-year in-ring career.    But, Fighting with My Family isn't about the bad stuff, it lovingly shows us Paige's family of lovable goofballs and an almost inside view of the rigorous training it takes to become a WWE star.

Saraya is ghostly white with a goth look.   But she impresses Hutch enough at the tryout to invite her to train with other hopefuls in Florida.    Hutch makes it abundantly clear the rookies will be put through a physical and mental hell in order to achieve their goal of being on the active roster.    Paige, riddled with self-doubt (especially when she meets her prettier and more athletic female counterparts) and guilt over being chosen over Zak, is overwhelmed by the scope of the training and nearly quits, but in Rocky-like fashion, she pulls herself up and improves enough to win an opportunity at a televised match for the then-Divas title.

Zak, however, is not forgotten.   He struggles mightily with his defeat, sliding into depression and envy at his sister's success, even though he has a loving girlfriend from a proper family and a newborn child.    His follow-up attempts to persuade Hutch to change his mind are equally pathetic and crushing.    He knows he has to alter his life plans, but doesn't know if he wants to continue training his friends to become wrestlers.

Dwayne Johnson produced and co-stars as himself, giving the audience a peek into the WWE persona which helped launch his movie career.   He is charismatic, self-deprecating, and entertaining.   Other WWE stars are featured in walk-ons or silent cameos, but the movie belongs to the Knights.    The father Ricky (Frost) is an ex-con eking out a living as the head of a small wrestling organization, but at least he isn't robbing anymore.   Julia (Headey) was once a junkie, but thankfully found love with Ricky which helped her pull out of her tailspin.    They adore each other, and they have a warm family dynamic with their two children. 

The ending, in which Paige finally gets to show her stuff on WWE Monday Night Raw, is not as triumphant as you would expect.    The movie oddly decides to showcase her match with the arrogant Divas champion A.J. Lee as an actual sporting event in which Paige overcomes her inexperience to win the title.    It's as if the WWE (whose studio made the film) is somehow trying to keep the cat in the bag that wrestling is scripted, even after showing us for nearly two hours that it indeed is.    It is an unusual choice, but not a deadly one.   In reality, just Paige showing up on worldwide television is already a win for a young woman from such a humble background.    WWE may be scripted, but its wrestlers are stellar athletes who put their bodies and health on the line to entertain their loyal fans.  It is an athletic soap opera which is now treated with respect instead of derision, and Fighting with My Family treats us to an entertaining soap opera of its own. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Isn't It Romantic? (2019) * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Todd Strauss-Schulson

Starring:  Rebel Wilson, Adam Devine, Prianka Chopra, Liam Hemsworth, Betty Gilpin, Brandon Scott Jones

Isn't It Romantic? is a spoof which works much better than it has any right to.   Its plot is similar to the failed 1991 John Candy comedy Delirious, in which Candy played a burned out soap opera writer trapped in his own soap opera.   But, Isn't It Romantic? is a romantic comedy which parodies other romantic comedies, or at least recognizes their clichés.   Isn't It Romantic? tries hard to avoid those clichés itself, and in many ways succeeds, although there are two ill-timed musical numbers which  kill the mood.

Natalie (Wilson) once idolized Julia Roberts by watching Pretty Woman, but has given up on any hopes of love for herself.   She is an architect who is disrespected at work, even by her assistant who watches romantic comedies on her computer in full view of everyone.    Her only friend is Josh (Devine), a nerd who clearly likes her, but she has clearly friend zoned.   She rails against the conventions of movie romances, not really understanding that these clichés are also part of their charm.

But after an attempted mugging in the New York City subway, Natalie bangs her head and wakes up living in a romantic comedy, with her office and apartment looking as perfect as movie sets and a handsome Aussie billionaire (Hemsworth) who in this alternate universe adores her and says "beguiling" a lot, as if he had just heard the word for the first time today and wants to use it in every sentence he can.   This new world is so nice and sweet that it frightens Natalie, because this world can't possibly be real.   Curse words are bleeped out and there is no actual hanky panky allowed.   Only kisses, dancing, and singing.   Oh, and she has a stereotypical gay friend (Jones) who materializes out of thin air whenever she seems to need him the most.

Wilson is likable and energetic, and we understand her earlier behavior is caused by defensiveness and fear of rejection.    She learns a lot about herself and even more about Josh, who she grows to love (of course), but doesn't exactly lose her edge either.   Isn't It Romantic? doesn't always work, but it does have a certain sweetness to it which makes its success somewhat surprising.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel (2019) * 1/2

Alita: Battle Angel Movie Review

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring:  Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jackie Earle Haley

It didn't bode well for Alita: Battle Angel when I began comparing it to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.    The world of Alita is Valerian meets Fred Sanford's junk-laden backyard meets the Columbus, Ohio of Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One.    The incoherent plot and dialogue throws names and places around which would register if we cared in the first place.    The action centers around the popular sport of Motorball, which rips off Rollerball (you pick which version), and everyone's desire to ascend from Earth to Zalem, which is supposedly a more desirable world located in a gigantic spaceship which hovers over the planet.    What isn't a more desirable world than the mess in which Alita takes place?

The Alita (Salazar) is a cyborg manufactured by "cybersurgeon" Dr. Ido (Waltz), who attaches a head he finds in a massive junkyard to the body of his deceased daughter.    Alita comes to life in Pinocchio-like fashion, and can't remember anything of her past.   It turns out she was a superior cyborg warrior unlike any other, and has powers and athleticism far beyond any cyborgs which came before her.    Soon, thanks to reasons much too laborious to recap, her body is sliced into a dozen pieces and Dr. Ido reattaches Alita to her old cyborg body which she found at a battle site.   Now she is a complete cyborg with big doe eyes, an expressive human-like face, and an impressive figure for a cyborg.  

The villains are Chiren (Connelly), Dr. Ido's ex-wife who may as well be wearing a "will have a change of heart" t-shirt and Vector (Ali), a slickster who makes promises of one-way tickets to Zalem in exchange for robot parts which will help his Motorball team win.   Vector is also a human portal for the grand poobah who rules Zalem and by extension, the planet.    Vector's eyes change colors when he is possessed by the grand poobah, whose name escapes me. 

Alita costs nearly $200 million to make, but still looks cheaply made.   The action scenes are nonsensical, as is the plot.    The city itself looks like a farmer's bazaar gone haywire.   The actors attempt their mightiest to pull off their roles with aplomb, and there are three previous Oscar winners in the cast in Waltz, Ali, Connelly.   Each has been in big bombs before and have shaken them off to produce more quality work.    It may take a little more effort to shake this one off.  

Monday, February 18, 2019

Valentine's Day (2010) * * *

Valentine's Day Movie Review

Directed by:  Garry Marshall

Starring:  Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Patrick Dempsey, George Lopez, Hector Elizondo, Shirley MacLaine, Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Queen Latifah, Eric Dane, Julia Roberts, Bradley Cooper, Taylor Swift, Taylor Lautner, Jessica Alba, Emma Roberts

Just typing up the names of the actors who starred in Valentine's Day is tiring enough.  Trying to recount their various, intertwining subplots will likely have me rambling on far longer than I'd like.
But, at least it would be in service of a romantic comedy (or should I say a series of romantic comedies) which manages to maintain a certain likability and charm.   Most of the people in it are decent, except for one or two who get what's coming to them.   There are one or two subplots and a few more characters who I wouldn't have minded seeing hit the cutting room floor, but as far as rom-coms go you could do a lot worse.

Valentine's Day stars so many A-list actors it's as if Garry Marshall didn't want to turn anyone away.
It's to Marshall's credit he keeps things moving along as well as he does.    I will mention a few of the more important characters and leave how the rest fit in to be discovered by you, perhaps by next Valentine's Day.   Florist Reed (Kutcher) just got engaged to a young lady named Morley (Alba), who not only doesn't flaunt her engagement ring, she doesn't even wear it because she didn't want to put up a million questions.   That should be a red flag to Reed that this engagement might not last through lunchtime.   Reed's best friend is Julia (Garner), a schoolteacher having an affair with married, two-timing surgeon Harrison (Dempsey), who lies to her about having to travel to San Francisco on business on Valentine's Day.   He says he is about to divorce, but that is not so, and Reed discovers this because Harrison isn't exactly discreet about ordering flowers for his wife and mistress.

We also meet Liz (Hathaway), a receptionist  who moonlights as a phone sex operator and her new boyfriend Jason (Grace) is put off by her swanky, porn movie music phone ring which signifies a client calling in.   She hates having to duck out to perform phone sex, but considering how much business she generates, she should simply make that her full time gig.   There are other characters for the movie to juggle, including a gay quarterback, a soldier traveling home to see a loved one, a sportscaster who wants to be taken seriously by his television station, a high school senior who wants to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, and a publicist who holds an annual dinner bashing Valentine's Day because she can't find a date.   That publicist is played by Jessica Biel, and in a movie requiring numerous heavy suspensions of disbelief, this may be the heaviest of them all.

There are more characters who we have to keep track of in our minds as they search for love and happiness on the most romantic day of the year.   Some already have it, some are looking for it, and others have lost it or will shortly.   No matter, because Valentine's Day still works on its intended level as an exaggerated romantic comedy with an all-star cast of likable actors.    Garry Marshall followed up Valentine's Day with the less successful New Year's Eve and the sorry Mother's Day. 
I don't know of any truth to the rumor that he was about to direct a movie about Arbor Day at the time of his unfortunate passing.   But, Garry Marshall demonstrated a flair for intelligent romantic comedy and in Valentine's Day, he doesn't just perform the trick once, but over and over again.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Miss Bala (2019) * *

Miss Bala Movie Review

Directed by:  Catherine Hardwicke

Starring:  Gina Rodriguez, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Anthony Mackie, Cristina Rodlo

Miss Bala earns points for its slick, polished style, albeit in the service of bland characters and an even blander plot.    We meet a reticent makeup artist named Gloria (Rodriguez) who finds herself caught in the middle of a war between a Mexican drug cartel and a corrupt police chief.    She travels to Tijuana to visit with her oldest friend Suzu (Rodlo), who needs Gloria's makeup expertise as she enters the Miss Baja California beauty contest.    They visit a hopping club one night and after an attempt on the police chief's life, Suzu is missing and Gloria is kidnapped by the cartel's leader Lino (Cordova), who is such a trusting and relatively nice drug cartel leader that I kept thinking he has to be a cop or DEA agent.    He has to be, no?   Otherwise, why is he taking Gloria out on a date out in the country and telling her his life story?    He and Gloria are both from Mexico, but spent a lot of time in the States, so neither person exactly fits in as a Mexican or an American. 

It turns out that date is quickly forgotten as the plot moves ever forward.   The date was used to establish the inner conflicts of the characters, but these don't play into the final act.    Gloria transforms from meek victim to gun-toting badass just when the script requires, as if a switch is flipped, and she walks through a hail of gunfire in slow motion.     Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria as a naïve babe in the woods, but I found myself not fully investing in her, maybe because her morphing into an action hero is so telegraphed that I felt she was biding her time (and ours) until the change.

Cordova gives Lino some interesting dimensions, but instead of following up on those, the movie forces him to slip back into vicious criminal mode and forgets all of the nuances brought up prior.    The movie does provide a twist of sorts, but nothing earth-shattering.    Miss Bala feels tired, with a lack of energy permeating each scene despite the activity.    Sure there are shootouts and chases, but it is by rote.    Miss Bala doesn't break any new ground in terms of story or characters, but it doesn't provide any sort of edge either.    We're left with roughly ninety minutes which didn't impact us much at all. 


Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Men Want (2019) * *

What Men Want Movie Review

Directed by:  Adam Shankman

Starring:  Taraji P. Henson, Tracy Morgan, Max Greenfield, Brian Bosworth, Josh Brener, Aldis Hodge, Ed Helms, Richard Roundtree

Everything that can be done with this premise has been done over the course of two movies now. 
Mel Gibson had the power to read women's minds in the forgettable 2000 comedy What Women Want, and now Taraji P. Henson can read men's minds in this sporadically funny, but mostly harmless and yes forgettable 2019 remake.    Let's face it:  This is a much better idea in theory than in practice. 

What Men Want features Taraji P. Henson in the Mel Gibson role, but instead of a hard-charging advertising executive, she is Ali, a hard-charging sports agent who can't land the partnership at her firm she craves.   Her boss Nick (Bosworth-yes THAT Brian Bosworth) says she doesn't know how to connect with men, but Ali figures the agency is a boy's club she can't enter because she's a woman.  After a visit with a psychic, drinking some nasty tea, and hitting her head on a bar, she wakes up with the ability to read the thoughts of any man she comes into contact with.    She is surprised to learn that some of the men at the agency don't care for her, others keep poker night secret from her, and at least one guy at the agency is a closeted homosexual.

She now wants to use her newfound "gift" to attempt to sign the projected number one overall NBA draft pick while figuring out a way to outmaneuver his controlling father (Morgan).   She has a budding relationship with a widower named Will (Hodge) and his cute six-year-old son, but for reasons not entirely made clear she manages to have them pose as her husband and son without their knowledge.    What Men Want takes the sitcom, slapstick approach to the material, with some sentimentality thrown in.   It is all an ungainly fit, with Henson putting forth an enormous amount of energy in trying to keep up with it all.   I was hoping at some point in the movie she could take a nap, and she does pass out after some particularly rough sex with Will. 

My issue with Mel Gibson's version and this one remain the same, even though they were made nearly twenty years apart.   There is only so much that can be done with it.    The secret thoughts of the opposite sex are really just cheap, lame one-liners, and the ability to hear them is a gimmick anyway.   The real story is how Ali transforms from a manipulator who is always playing agent to someone who learns to love and understand men.    She even learns to understand the loneliness of her father (Roundtree), who raised her like he would a boy, with heavy emphasis on boxing.

What Men Want leans heavier on slapstick, with a payoff that is inevitable and predictable, which would be acceptable if I cared.    Instead, we get a remake of a movie which wasn't screaming to be remade in the first place.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Soul Man (1986) * * *

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Directed by:  Steve Miner

Starring:  C. Thomas Howell, Arye Gross, Rae Dawn Chong, James Earl Jones, James B. Sikking, Leslie Nielsen, Melora Hardin

With the issue of blackface dominating the news cycle thanks to the Governor and Attorney General of Virginia, my thoughts turned to this likely forgotten comedy from 1986.    Soul Man is about a Harvard freshman who unethically and illegally wins a scholarship by posing as an African-American because his father won't pay his tuition.    The scholarship is aimed at the most qualified minority applicant, and Mark Watson (Howell) takes a heavy dose of experimental tanning pills and wears an Afro to pass for black.    Does he care that he took a scholarship away from another candidate who is actually a minority?    That is an emphatic no.   As Mark puts it, "Harvard, there is no substitute,"

Mark is apparently shortsighted in his selfish quest to go to Harvard.    Does he understand he may have to be someone he isn't for the rest of his life?    Such thoughts don't occur to him, even as he finds himself discriminated against by police, landlords, and the father of a potential white girlfriend.    Even in 1986 Boston, it isn't easy being black, and less so for a white guy pretending to be black, because he can't protest his treatment by confessing he is actually white.    But Mark learns a little during his stint as a minority, and naturally he will come face to face with the student he beat out to obtain the scholarship.    She is Sarah (Chong), a poor, struggling unwed mother who really could've used the scholarship, but Mark of course stole it, and he can't confess his deception to her either because he may be falling for her.

Soul Man walks a fine line between offense and satire.    It pokes fun at stereotypes (inherent skill at basketball, prominent penis size, etc.) and at the people who believe them as gospel.    During a dinner scene, an older white man (Nielsen) stares at Mark and envisions him as a pimp.    This is not unlike the scene in Annie Hall in which Annie's grandmother stares at Woody Allen and views him as a Hasidic with a long beard and hat.   Which is more offensive?   The stereotypes themselves or the fact that people still cling to them?   

I found Soul Man funny in the same vein All in the Family was funny.   The joke is on the bigot, and in some cases, on Mark as well.   The jokes, and occasional sitcom treatment of its touchy subject, are based on spoiling preconceived notions about African-Americans.     Mark undergoes the deception because he mistakenly believes, "This is the 80's.  This is the Cosby decade.  America loves black people,"   The movie obviously couldn't foresee what would become of Bill Cosby, but Mark comes to understand how he completely underestimated the hold racism still has on some people.   

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Taken (2009) * * *

Taken Movie Review

Directed by:  Pierre Morel

Starring:  Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Gerard Watkins

Liam Neeson has managed to take the "particular set of skills" he mentions in Taken's most famous scene and used them to propel himself into one of the most ubiquitous action heroes of the last decade.    At least once a year, Neeson turns into a deadly assassin/vigilante/hitman before our very eyes in movies mostly less skillful than this one.   Taken spawned two inferior sequels and numerous copycats, many starring Neeson himself.    Taken is hardly believable when held up to scrutiny, but it is engaging while you watch it.    The villains are evil and Neeson dispenses with them in increasingly creative ways.    In one instance, he electrocutes a guy and leaves with the power still on, so the schlub will have thousands of volts coursing through him in perpetuity.   By the time anyone knows what is happening, he will likely be a heap of ashes.

Bryan Mills (Neeson) isn't simply terrorizing bad guys for his health.    He is a retired CIA operative who has settled down in Los Angeles.    Divorced, but still friendly with his ex, he is increasingly aware of his teenage daughter Kim (Grace) growing up and wanting to do things on her own.   Like travel to Paris with her friends without a chaperone.   Kim lies to her dad about where they will be staying in Paris, which doesn't serve her well when thugs come calling wanting to kidnap her and sell her into sex slavery.   This leads to the pivotal scene in which Bryan talks to the kidnappers on the phone, warning them of his skills and what will happen to them if they don't leave his daughter alone.   They scoff at him, much to their detriment.   But, they can't say they weren't warned.

Within hours, Bryan is in Paris tracking down the kidnappers, which he is able to do with surprising efficiency and ease.    Maybe a little too easy, but the movie paces itself like it has a schedule to keep.   The time frame of 72 hours is thrown about, which suggests if Bryan doesn't find Kim within that time she will be lost forever to the sex slave world, I guess.    No matter.   Bryan dispenses with the kidnappers and anyone even remotely related to the crime.   Bodies are littered all over Paris, and Bryan manages to avoid capture rather easily.   This must be one of his special skills he brags about so much.

Yes, Taken is silly, but Neeson brings conviction to it and raises the stakes.    The bad guys are simply horrible, and they get what they deserve as Bryan cuts them down one by one with relentless brutality.   This isn't a spoiler, since Taken 2 and Taken 3 came later, but those sequels turned into unintentionally hilarious action films which made their predecessor seem sensible by comparison.   

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Jerry Maguire (1996) * * * 1/2

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Directed by: Cameron Crowe

Starring:  Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Jonathan Lipnicki, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Regina King, Bonnie Hunt, Beau Bridges, Jerry O'Connell, Jay Mohr, Kelly Preston

Jerry Maguire (Cruise) is a high-powered sports agent with so many clients he can hardly keep track of them.   He flies from coast to coast making appearances with clients, holding negotiations, and putting out fires.    One night, he awakes with a panic attack and composes an email which he sends to every member of his agency.    It is honest, ethical, forthright, and calls for fewer clients so they could receive proper representation.    The email may be what is on the minds of every agent in the agency, but it doesn't endear Jerry to his bosses, so he is soon fired, but not before assuring he takes a couple of clients with him and perky assistant Dorothy Boyd (Zellweger), who thinks he is really onto something and finds him very attractive to boot.

Many will remember Jerry Maguire for the "show me the money" catchphrase, but they may not remember how charming and warm it is.   The movie is above all a romantic comedy, in which Jerry's soon-to-be only client wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Gooding, Jr. in an Oscar-winning performance) shows Jerry the way to true love while Jerry is trying to show him the money.    Rod is married to Marcee (King), and the two truly love each other.    When Rod is seemingly severely injured during a critical football game, Marcee's wants Jerry to "bring Rod to me,"   The money doesn't matter at that point, only that Rod returns to her safely.   It is one of the most moving scenes in the movie.

Rod's ideal marriage is a contrast to Jerry's awkward courtship and then quickie marriage to Dorothy.  Jerry likes Dorothy well enough, but does he love her in the way Rod and Marcee love each other?
Could he ever love her in the way Dorothy clearly loves him?    Jerry begins the movie with a cold, callous girlfriend (Preston), who pretty much abandons ship when Jerry is fired.    He also has to deal with the scheming, oily Bob Sugar (Mohr), who is ready to swoop in and steal Jerry's clients, who in some cases are primed to be stolen.

Jerry Maguire has a knowledge of the sports agency business, which is an "up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege," Jerry tells Rod as Rod makes it difficult for himself to renegotiate a big payday because of his mouth and perceived lack of respect.    It is no wonder Jerry woke up in a panic.   He had money, power, but not enough love.    Throughout the movie, Jerry edges cautiously towards love and self-respect.    Cruise is a natural for this role.    He has a slick exterior which carefully conceals his needful interior.   Zellweger has eyes and a smile to die for, and she just loves Jerry to pieces even against the advice of her doubtful, watchful sister Laurel (Hunt). 

Jerry Maguire is a romantic comedy set in the high-pressure world of sports.   You wouldn't think the two worlds could mesh so well, but they do, and Crowe's film is one which is hard not to love. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) * * * 1/2

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Directed by:  Peter Jackson

With They Shall Not Grow Old, we bear witness to a war fought over 100 years ago, as if transported back to 1914.   We feel like we are in the trenches with the British soldiers who had to battle not just the enemy, but disease, starvation, rats, lice, rotting corpses, bullets, bombs, gas, and the innate fear that their lives could be snuffed out by an unseen bullet.   Those who miraculously survived returned home to England to find their war met with indifference.    When World War I started in 1914, the British government used considerable resources to drum up patriotic fervor and instill in men nineteen and older (and in some cases younger) a sense of duty requiring them to sign up for the army.   It became peer pressure.   The government made it sound like the upcoming war was an adventure they could proudly tell their children about.   The fact that many of them would die on the battlefields of Europe wasn't exactly in the brochure.

The men who signed up for basic training were nervous, but soon excited about the prospect of fighting for their country.   Some of the many soldiers who provide voice-over narration (they are not seen) were thrilled to go.   Heck, it's not every day you get to see Belgium or France.   But, their thrill is soon replaced by the harsh and ugly reality of the battlefield.    With basic training, you get a bed and three squares a day.    In the trench warfare of World War I, they slept standing up, ate whatever food they could find (even moldy), and drank water from a jug used to carry gasoline.   They could still taste the gas in the water, but it's better than going thirsty.   And don't even get me started on where and how they were forced to defecate.

Peter Jackson uniquely recreates the war through use of 100-plus year old archive footage.   Some is in the original black and white with the speed reduced, while others are convincingly colorized so the footage appears as if it were shot on a movie set.    The film itself is slowed down and the 3D further adds to the chilling effect, placing us in the middle of the action.    In some cases, the soldiers look at the camera and it feels as if they are looking right at us.    This isn't the shoddy colorization Ted Turner attempted on classic black and white movies thirty years ago.    The effect is real and captures the daily lives of the soldiers who may not even be alive an hour after they were filmed.    The soldiers weren't as much interested in the progress of the war as they were simply trying to survive a few more minutes at a time.   Their smiles during the periods in between battles were soon replaced by sorrow, fear, anger, or in many cases death.   Those who returned from battle had much different countenances than those who were heading towards battle.

They Shall Not Grow Old not only contains scenes of violence and bloodshed, but the narrators are the soldiers themselves who likely told their stories for documentaries made decades ago.    Some look back on the war with regret, others with pride, but most also understand that most people, even their loved ones, could not possibly grasp the effect the war had on them.    People could not empathize because they were safely tucked away at home.    The war has created not only camaraderie, but the only other people the soldiers could talk to about what they shared together.    Their camaraderie extended to the German soldiers as well, who were also pawns of their government's desire to expand the German empire.

Through the superior computer technology used to alter the century-old war footage, They Shall Not Grow Old creates a unique, lasting, and thoughtful view of not just the war, but a grave sense that what was lost on the battlefields of Europe will never be regained.    And we witness it, and maybe even understand it for the first time.