Weekly Movie Reviews: Jun 4-10, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

I first heard about Hunt for the Wilderpeople when I was reading about the upcoming Thor movie, which is also directed by the same person (Taika Waititi). I was excited about it from the minute I read about it – I’ve been enjoying non-American movies more and more recently, and it seemed like it would be an enjoyable kind of quirky.

Ricky Baker is a orphan with a history of getting into trouble, and the only family that will foster him live out on a remote farm. To his surprise, his foster mother is kind and patient, and he’s actually found a real home – at least until she dies suddenly. Now child welfare services wants him back, and through some unfortunate circumstances, he ends up on the run with his curmudgeonly foster father Hector (Sam Neill) in the bush. His child welfare services offer, Paula, takes his escape personally, and a intense manhunt commences.

This movie reminded me a little bit of Moonrise Kingdom, although without all the Wes-Anderson-ness. It’s funny and cute and full of heart, and the actor who plays Ricky is amazing. Sam Neill hasn’t really gotten that much better with children than he was in Jurassic Park, but that’s exactly why he’s so good in this role. I highly recommend this one!

Other Movies Watched

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Akeelah Anderson has always been great at spelling, although she tries to hide how smart she is from her classmates because she’s afraid of being bullied. Her teachers and principal notice her talent and push her to compete in regional spelling bees to have a shot at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I liked this movie a lot – it’s a typical underdog story, but I found it a more realistic portrayal that similar movies. Akeelah has to overcome her own self-doubt and embrace her ability and who she actually is rather than trying to fit in. The cast is great too – Angela Bassett plays the mom and Laurence Fishburne plays the curmudgeonly mentor, but Keke Palmer absolutely steals the show as Akeelah.

Run Lola Run (1998)

I remember enjoying this movie when I first watched it more than eight years ago but I didn’t remember any details about it. I’m always fascinated by the idea of little decisions having a big impact on how things turn out, and Run Lola Run is probably one of the movies that examines this best. After receiving a panicked call from her boyfriend, a small-time criminal, Lola has 20 minutes to acquire 100,000 marks and get them to him to prevent his boss from killing him (literally). The movie shows us three iterations of her 20 minute run and how each turns out. It’s a fast-paced movie, there are a lot of details to pay attention to (as is often the case with this kind of story), and it’s just very well done. Watch it!

The Nice Guys (2016)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer/director Shane Black is back again with another black comedy neo-noir buddy cop movie set in Hollywood, and it’s almost as good. PI Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and enforcer Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) encounter each other (violently) while investigating different angles on the same case and eventually decide to team up. This movie is set in the 70s, and that’s actually a big part of its atmosphere – it doesn’t happen to be set in the 70s, that fact defines its identity. The comedic elements are funny and the characters have heart, especially thanks to March’s (precocious, of course) daughter Holly. I would have liked it more if it had been a little bit more serious, but it’s still a good movie.

Despicable Me (2010)

I wasn’t expecting a lot from Despicable Me based on the trailers, but it turned out to be surprisingly good. Our protagonist is Gru, an aging supervillain who is trying to pull off the biggest heist of his life. In order to retrieve the shrink ray (needed for the heist) that a rival supervillain stole from him, he adopts three young girls from a nearby orphanage. They turn out to be more than he bargained for, and his whole life turns upside down. The three girls are absolutely adorable, and it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with them. Without them, the movie wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, even with all the great voice actors.

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Newly retired supervillain Gru and his three adorable daughters are back. Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League as an undercover agent to foil a dastardly plot involving a serum that turns anything that drinks it into ravening monsters. In addition, he also has to deal with eccentric AVL agent Lucy Wilde, his daughter Margo’s first crush on an entirely unsuitable boy, and the resignation of longtime employee Dr. Nefario. These movies aren’t deep, but they’re cute and a lot of fun. I particularly liked Dr. Nefario’s role in this one. Lucy annoyed me in the beginning, but she grew on me by the end.

War Machine (2017)

War Machine is a satirical look at the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of General Glen McMahon, who is sent to command the NATO forces and help “win the war”. It is a thankless job in a very complicated situation, but McMahon is idealistic to a fault and believes that he can really make a difference. I wanted to like this movie more than I did – the actors do a good job, especially Brad Pitt, who plays the protagonist. Ultimately it seemed directionless and more like a farce than a satire – everything is so over the top that it doesn’t end up saying anything consequential.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 28-Jun 3, 2017

The Fighter (2010)

I’ve enjoyed director David O. Russell’s other movies (Three Kings, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy) quite a bit, so I was pretty excited about watching this movie. I was not disappointed.

The Fighter is biographical sports movie about boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Micky is managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother, former professional boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). As he keeps ending losing the fights they secure for him, he realizes that he needs to choose between his career and his family, as painful as that may be.

As usual, Christian Bale steals every scene he’s in as the crack addicted Eklund who spends his days making trouble and talking up his former glory. This is really Mark Wahlberg’s movie though, and he’s great at playing the sympathetic underdog. I also liked that the movie ended on a high note without losing any complexity – often movies that deal with family conflict end up being too saccharine and neat, but this wasn’t one of those.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter’s Bone stars Jennifer Lawrence (in her breakout role) as Ree, a tough teenager from a poverty-stricken family who needs to find her missing father in order to avoid her family being evicted from their home. It makes total sense why she was cast as Katniss in the Hunger Games movies after this performance, her character in this movie is very similar (dealing with poverty, taking care of her family because her mother has checked out mentally, willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe). It does pack a lot more punch because this seems like a real story set in our world, and it’s scary to be exposed to a world of such uncertainty and loss. This isn’t always a pleasant movie to watch, but it’s well worth it.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

This movie tells the story of Ron Woodroof, an electrician who contracted AIDS, and his business (the titular Dallas Buyers Club) which helped make medication that hadn’t gone through the long FDA approval process available to dying patients. Matthew McConaughey (who plays Woodroof) and Jared Leto (who plays trans woman and fellow AIDS patient Rayon) absolutely steal every scene that they are in. The movie reminded me a little bit of Erin Brockovich in its style and tone, although the content is very different. I also appreciated that the movie wasn’t on a crusade for one side or another, it did not portray what Ron was doing as noble or purely altruistic. Ron is definitely the protagonist and he believes in what he’s doing, but it also shows the other side, such as Ron having medical issues because of untested new drugs.

127 Hours (2010)

Based on a true story, 127 Hours is about canyoneer Aron Ralston who was trapped by a falling boulder for over 5 days and ended up cutting off half his arm to escape. It’s a pretty intense and sometimes unpleasant movie, but it’s very good. James Franco plays Aron Ralston and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Director Danny Boyle has the tough job of making a movie about a guy who doesn’t move for over five days interesting, and he rises to the challenge with aplomb. He uses memories and hallucinations (which the real Ralston describes as highly accurate) to keep things paced well, and he utilizes interesting techniques like split screens to keep your attention focused. This movie might make you queasy if you’re squeamish, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Chronicle (2012)

I’d heard great things about Josh Trank’s debut, Chronicle, for a very long time but we only just got around to watching it. It’s a found footage movie about three high school boys that find a mysterious object in an underground cave and end up getting superpowers. It ends up being a somewhat typical superhero movie, but the perspective it’s told from makes it unique. I was hoping it would end up being more of a coming of age story that happened to involve superpowers, I think that would have made it even better. That’s not the route it took, but it’s still a terrific and original film.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

This movie is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who was a terrible but beloved singe who gave many performances, including one at Carnegie Hall. Meryl Streep plays the main character with pathos (and picked up her 20th Oscar nomination for it). Her Florence is sad and somewhat delusional, but she’s also passionate and generous and you can see why so many people are willing to lie to her just to see her happy. Hugh Grant is also terrific in his role as Florence’s husband – they have a complicated relationship and he makes it look easy. The end of the movie was a little too dramatic for my taste and seemed to undermine the characters it had built up, but overall I enjoyed the movie.

Public Enemies (2009)

I was sure I’d like this movie since Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) directed it, but I found myself underwhelmed. Johnny Depp plays famed bank robber John Dillinger and Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with tracking him down. The acting was good, and the movie was clearly made with attention to detail, but I couldn’t get invested in either of the main characters and I didn’t care what happened to them. The ending seemed to want me to feel a lot of emotions that the rest of the movie failed at setting up. The most compelling character was Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie, played by Marion Cotillard but the movie is not really about her.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 21-27, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun is adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard about Jim Graham, a boy who ends up going from living in luxury in Shanghai to being separated from his family and becoming a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp for years. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg, who outdoes his usually brilliant self.

Jim is played by a 12-year-old Christian Bale, and he’s probably the best child actor I’ve ever seen. He perfectly plays a sheltered and precocious kid who tries to survive the (often horrific) events around him without anyone to support him, doing his best to stay sane with a sort of nervous energy. There’s something extra stark about viewing war through a child’s eyes – Jim doesn’t really care who wins or what the political implications are, or if something is morally right, he just wants his life to be predictable and at least living in an internment camp gives him that. The supporting cast is wonderful, especially Jim’s quasi-protectors, John Malkovich as Basie and Nigel Havers as Dr. Rawlins.

Spielberg’s best known movies about World War II are Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and those are both very good, but I think Empire of the Sun outdoes them both for its unique perspective and near-flawless execution.

Other Movies Watched

The Prestige (2006)

I loved The Prestige when I first watched it, but I barely remembered it. After re-watching it, I think it might be Christopher Nolan’s best movie so far. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are stage magicians and bitter rivals, both fiercely dedicated to their craft. When Borden debuts a new trick that Angier cannot figure out, he goes to extreme lengths to do better than him. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman do an amazing job of playing their insanely obsessive characters, and David Bowie is fantastic as Nikola Tesla. I don’t want to spoil any of the revelations in this movie, but I think they’re all genius (I know it’s from the book, which I also liked, but the way they’re revealed in the movie is genius, too). This is the first time I’d watched the movie after I knew what was going on, and there’s a lot of foreshadowing that I didn’t notice the first time around – that’s part of what makes the movie so good, you’d just be annoyed if things came out of nowhere.

Logan (2017)

Ever since I watched the trailer for Logan (with that great Johnny Cash cover of Hurt), I’ve been really excited to watch it. It didn’t look anything like any other X-Men movie (or any superhero movie, really). It ended up being even better than I wanted it to be, it’s definitely one of the best superhero movies ever made. It’s set in a 2029 where mutants have stopped being born, Logan works as a luxury chauffeur, and Professor X has a degenerative brain disease and is in hiding. And the movie isn’t about changing the past, or fighting a big bad enemy that wants to destroy the world, it’s an intimate drama about a slowly dying Logan having to protect a new mutant from an organization that wants her dead. Every detail about the movie is terrific – the acting (including the young girl who plays X-23, Dafne Keen), the atmosphere, the pacing, the action. Watch it, it’s the perfect send-off for Jackman’s Wolverine, and just might be the first superhero movie to make you cry.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

I’m a big fan of Westerns, but I hadn’t watched many of the classics from the 50s and 60s. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly stars Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the titular trio – a bounty hunter, an assassin, and an outlaw. They’re all after a treasure buried in a remote cemetery and are racing to get there. But it’s the middle of the Civil War, and they have to get past both Union and Confederate troops, as well as each other. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, it’s slow and takes a while to build up, but it’s an epic. Most Westerns I’ve watched centered around a hero saving a town from a villain, so it was nice to see a different kind of story – with such great characters too! The incorporation of the Civil War was good to see too, it helped ground the movie in history. I’m looking forward to watching more of Sergio Leone’s work.

Singles (1992)

Singles is a romantic comedy about a group of 20-somethings who live in the same apartment complex in Seattle. It reminded me a lot of Reality Bites, it was about slightly older people, but it had a similar structure of focusing on a single couple (Linda and Steve, played by Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott) while also telling the stories of a few of their friends. I’ve enjoyed most of Cameron Crowe’s movies, and I thought this one was pretty good, too. All of the characters are different in terms of profession and lifestyle and that made the movie seem like it was telling a larger story about a generation (although the secondary characters were more dramatic than in Reality Bites). Also, Matt Dillon’s character is in a band, and the rest of the band is played by members of Pearl Jam (before they got famous), so that was fun to watch.

Battle for Terra (2007)

I haven’t watched a lot of indie animation, so I was looking forward to watching Battle for Terra. Our protagonist is a rebellious alien girl, Mala, who lives an idyllic life on her home planet. Her home is suddenly invaded by an unfamiliar hostile force – humans (who are looking for a new home to terraform after destroying Earth, Mars, and Venus). Both species require different atmospheres, so a war seems inevitable, unless Mala and the human pilot she saved can figure out a way to stop it. This movie is pretty simple and can get preachy on occasion, but I thought it was really cute. It doesn’t shy away from depicting war as horrible, but it also shows people (sentient beings?) rising above their instincts. Plus, it’s original sci-fi with interesting worldbuilding!

The Wizard of Lies (2017)

Robert De Niro stars in this TV movie about Bernie Madoff, a legendary stockbroker and investment advisor who perpetrated the largest financial fraud in history. I was hoping to see details about the fraud, but the movie ended up being more of a family drama, and it focused mostly on the week the scandal broke, with some flashbacks. The cast is great, but they don’t have that much to do, it seemed almost like a documentary, I guess that requires its own kind of good acting, though. Overall, The Wizard of Lies didn’t make much of an impression on me, good or bad.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I’ve been skeptical about the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast ever since it was announced, even though I enjoyed the recent live-action Jungle Book. The animated version is one of my husband’s favorite Disney movies, so we’ve watched it together a couple of times. The remake is definitely well-made, it has great production value, the music is mostly good (Emma Watson was obviously auto-tuned, which was hard to listen to), and the acting was good, but I didn’t think there was any good creative reason for the film to be remade. The Jungle Book actually told its story in a new way, but this movie was too faithful to the original to be interesting. Also, the auto-tuning was awful – they should have either cast someone who could actually sing, not auto-tuned Emma Watson (even if that made the song sound different), or dubbed Emma Watson’s singing voice.

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 14-20, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

I watched Kung Fu Panda a long time ago and remember really enjoying it. I don’t expect a lot from American animated movies that aren’t made by Disney, Pixar, or Laika, but I think this movie is definitely up there with the best.

Po (Jack Black) is a panda that dreams of being an amazing kung-fu warrior just like his heroes the Furious Five who protect the valley he lives in. When the masters of the Jade Temple announce that the legendary Dragon Warrior is about to be proclaimed, Po eagerly rushes to see which of the Furious Five it will be. To everyone’s surprise, Master Oogway chooses Po, who is completely unprepared for his daydreams to actually come true. He has to master kung fu in a very short time, because Tai Lung, once the Jade Temple’s best student, has escaped his prison and is heading to the valley for revenge, and only the Dragon Warrior can stop him.

On the surface, Kung Fu Panda is a typical story – an unlikely hero pushes past his circumstances and saves the day. However, it’s got great worldbuilding (it takes its setting of ancient China seriously), the characters are heartwarming and fit the setting (Po’s relationship with his dad is great, the Furious Five take Po’s ascension especially well), and the multiple characters actually grow over the movie. Plus the cast is great! Jack Black is fantastic as Po, but we also have Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and a bunch of other great actors.

Other Movies Watched

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Po and the Furious Five are back, this time heading out of their valley to defend China from Lord Shen, a bitter peacock prince that wants to obsolete kung fu and conquer the whole country. Po has accepted his role as the Dragon Warrior, but he keeps being distracted by Lord Shen’s insignia bringing up painful childhood memories. Unlike a lot of sequels, most of the things that are good about the first movie stay that way – Po has a good character growth arc, the rest of the characters continue to be heartwarming, and we see the worldbuilding expand into greater China. The cast continues to be terrific as well with some great new additions – Gary Oldman as Lord Shen, Michelle Yeoh as the Soothsayer, and Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme as other kung fu masters.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

I didn’t love this one as much as the first two, but it was still very good. Po is reunited with his birth father, Li Shan (played excellently by Bryan Cranston), but he can’t enjoy it for long since Kai (J.K. Simmons), an ancient foe of Master Oogway, has returned from the spirit realm and intends to absorb the power of every kung fu master alive. Po’s arc this time focuses on learning to be a teacher in addition to being a warrior, and the mythology of the world is expanded further with the addition of the spirit realm. I was worried that the addition of Po’s real father would take away from his relationship with his adopted father (which has been one of the cornerstones of the movies), but the movie handles it very well.

American Psycho (2000)

A black comedy about Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), an investment banker in New York with a uncontrollable urge to violently murder people. I can’t imagine anyone other than Christian Bale in the part – he portrays Bateman perfectly, going from vacuous charm to quivering rage in minutes. Don’t expect this movie to tell a tidy story – it’s unclear if Bateman is even who he says he is or if the events of this movie are happening outside his own head, and the ending is a little abrupt. This movie is also not for the squeamish, describing the violence as gratuitous is an understatement, and if you took it seriously, it would be horrifying (Wikipedia calls it a horror movie, in fact). I don’t think I’m doing a very good job reviewing the movie, and I’m not sure how to do it any better, but it’s definitely worth watching.

Money for Nothing (1993)

Based on the true story of Joey Coyle, an unemployed Philadelphia dockworker that found $1.2 million in cash in the street (it had fallen out of an armored truck) and decided to keep it. The police get closer and closer to finding him, and he becomes increasingly desperate to keep the money somehow. I didn’t expect a lot from this movie but it turned out to be pretty decent. John Cusack does almost too good of a job playing someone that’s permanently on edge, it was uncomfortable to watch him sometimes. This is one of those movies that you know is good but never want to watch again, primarily because it portrays Coyle’s predicament so well that it just makes you anxious the whole time.

Cars 2 (2011)

I’d heard terrible things about Cars 2 but I thought they had to be wrong. People didn’t like the original Cars as much as Pixar’s other movies, but I loved it, so I figured the same would apply to the sequel. Unfortunately, I was wrong – this is definitely one of Pixar’s rare missteps. The protagonist is the dumb-but-affable Mater (the tow truck from Radiator Springs), who gets mixed up with some British spies and ends up having to save the world (and his friends) from an evil conspiracy, all without knowing what he’s doing (literally). As a standalone movie, it wasn’t bad – the spy stuff is done fairly well, but Mater is a really annoying character, and there’s none of the heart from Cars. Even Lightning is reduced to a few stock catchphrases. I really hope Cars 3 will be better.

Batman and Robin (1997)

The fourth (and thankfully last) movie of the 80s-90s Batman film franchise, Batman and Robin probably shouldn’t have even been made. Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher returns, but we have yet another actor playing Batman – George Clooney – who is utterly wasted in the role and doesn’t seem to have any personality. This movie also features Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), who I found supremely annoying and seemed shoehorned into the movie. The villains are Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), whose scenery chewing may be the only saving grace of the movie (especially Mr. Freeze’s puns) – but really, it’s just bad all the way through. No wonder everyone loved Batman Begins so much after this!

Weekly Movie Reviews: May 7-13, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Science of Sleep (2006)

We started watching The Science of Sleep in 2015, but I hadn’t watched a lot of movies then, and its weirdness made me uncomfortable. Watching it now, I’m not sure why I didn’t like it, it’s surreal, but it’s really a great movie.

Stéphane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a young man that has trouble telling his (extremely vivid) dreams from reality. He has just moved back to his childhood home in France from Mexico based on his mother’s promise of a creative job. The job turns out to be mundane typesetting work and no one appreciates his talent, leaving him unhappy. He also ends up with a crush on Stéphanie, his neighbor. All of this stress and insecurity makes his dream vs. reality issues worse.

I can’t imagine anyone else playing Stéphane other than Gael Garcia Bernal, it would be too easy to make him creepy or sad, but he’s a perfect mix of adorable, poignant, and intense. The film seamlessly shifts from reality to dream, and the way the dreams are portrayed is truly imaginative, with some extremely memorable sequences. I highly recommend this movie.

Other Movies Watched

Annie Hall (1977)

Alvy “Max” Singer (Woody Allen, also the director of the movie) is a neurotic comedian who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, Annie Hall. He tries to figure out what went wrong, and we see the history of their relationship, and his prior relationships. Just thinking about this movie makes me feel neurotic! Allen perfectly captures the minutiae of a real relationship with all the insecurity and awkwardness of first getting started, the routine it settles into, the slow drift of growing apart without even realizing. Alvy’s character drove me crazy but only because he was so realistic. I’d never seen anything by Woody Allen before watching this movie, but I’m sure I’ll be watching a lot more of his work.

The Assassin (2015)

The Assassin is a Taiwanese period drama – sort of a wuxia movie, but eschewing many of the conventions of the genre. The titular assassin is Nie Yinniang, a young woman who shows mercy and fails to assassinate her designated target. In order to overcome her weakness, her master sends her back to her family with a new mission – to kill the governor of her province who also happens to be the cousin she was betrothed to as a child. You don’t really know what’s going on in this movie, it drops you into a complicated story without any explanations, and a lot of things have to be inferred from context (I’m sure I missed a lot of things, not being very familiar with the genre or Chinese culture in general). But it’s a beautiful, slow, and quiet movie, and it’s one of those rare movies where you don’t need to understand exactly what’s happening to appreciate it.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

I don’t usually enjoy comedies, but I remember loving Tropic Thunder when I first watched it eight or nine years ago. It held up better than I thought it would. The movie is about a bunch of actors making a Vietnam war movie who accidentally stumble into a real battle with a drug kingpin’s forces and have to rely on their acting skills to help them survive. The movie starts off with a few fake trailers and advertisements as a way to introduce the main characters, and they’re hilarious. It continues to parody the movie industry throughout, helped by some great performances, especially by Tom Cruise as a fat, balding, and greedy studio executive, and Robert Downey Jr. playing a dedicated Australian method actor who is playing a black sergeant in the movie. I can’t really say that it has heart, but maybe I like it so much because it pokes fun at movies so effectively but also so lovingly.

Reality Bites (1994)

Reality Bites follows a group of young college graduates in the 1990s as they try to make their way in the world. It focuses mainly on Lelaina (Winona Ryder) and her best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), although their friends Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) and Sammy (Steve Zahn) are a big part of the movie too. Each of the friends have their own issues – Lelaina is an aspiring filmmaker who can’t find a job that takes advantage of her talents, Troy is a musician who doesn’t take anything seriously, Vickie has a series of one-night stands and is terrified of contracting AIDS, and Sammy is gay and afraid to come out. This movie is one of the most realistic depictions of the 1990s that I’ve seen and it’s great for that reason. Ben Stiller makes his directorial debut with this movie, and even though I usually associate him with comedy, this is really not a comedic movie (and Stiller plays a great supporting character as an earnest yuppie). The only complaint I have about this movie is that although the characters were realistic for most of it, the ending seemed a little too much like wish-fulfillment.

Fences (2016)

A movie adaptation of August Wilson’s play of the same name, Fences focuses on the life of Troy Maxson (played by Denzel Washington, also the director of the movie), a working class man living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy is far from perfect, but he makes a significant impact on the lives of those around him. The cast of this movie does a tremendous job, the acting is nuanced and will make you feel a lot of things all at once. However, I didn’t enjoy this movie because it is so clearly adapted from a play that you wonder why they bothered to film it. It mostly takes place on a single set (Troy’s home and backyard), and it doesn’t take advantage of any of the unique things about film.

Guarding Tess (1994)

Nicolas Cage plays secret service agent Doug Chesnic whose current assignment is guarding ex-first lady Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine). Tess is beloved by the public but she’s an absolute pain to work for, she delights in breaking security rules and treating Doug like a domestic servant. Through the course of the movie, they slowly learn to get along with each other. Most of this movie was pretty cute, sort of like Driving Miss Daisy. Both Cage and MacLaine do an excellent job making the audience care about the central relationship. However, the movie is ruined by a nonsensical and melodramatic finale which completely changes the tone of the movie.

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever is the third movie in the 80s-90s Batman film franchise. Joel Schumacher takes over directing duties from Tim Burton, and Val Kilmer replaces Michael Keaton as Batman. This movie also introduces Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell. I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, but it’s pretty bad. The loss of Tim Burton means that his signature creepy style (which didn’t quite mesh with Batman, in my opinion) is toned down significantly, but his worldbuilding is also lost. There’s a lot more campy drama and the plot’s pace picks up, but the movie doesn’t make any sense (we watched the deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray, and they made the movie make a bit more sense, but that doesn’t count). Val Kilmer’s Batman isn’t nearly as good as Michael Keaton’s, he’s too intense and the rest of the movie doesn’t match that style. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones are clearly having fun playing the villains, but they’re pretty cartoon-like and not very compelling.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 30-May 6, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Thelma and Louise (1991)

I’ve been wanting to watch Thelma and Louise for a long time – it’s a classic, plus Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, and I like when he branches out from the epic films he’s so well-known for. I knew very little about it going in and wasn’t sure quite what to expect.

Diner waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) set out on a two day vacation, but when they end up shooting a potential rapist, they end up on the run from the law and events start escalating. I’m not quite sure what genre this movie falls under. It’s got a unique tone, part black comedy, part drama, part road movie, part tragedy, and probably a few other things as well. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and it has one of the best endings I’ve ever encountered. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are amazing in it. It’s not a perfect movie – Harvey Keitel’s character was a bit on the nose – but it’s very good.

I’ve heard that Thelma and Louise was a controversial movie when it first came out, and I can see why. Usually my husband and I end up having very similar opinions about the movies we watch, but we talked about this movie for weeks afterward. He found the characters (mostly Thelma) annoying, but they made perfect sense to me and I had nothing but sympathy for them, even when they made bad decisions.

Other Movies Watched

Split (2016)

James McAvoy plays a character suffering from dissociative identity disorder (he has 23 personalities) who kidnaps three teenage girls for nefarious purposes. I’m not usually a big fan of psychological horror, and I haven’t been too impressed by M. Night Shyamalan’s recent work, but once I heard that Split was set in the same universe as his earlier movie, Unbreakable, I was much more excited to watch it. Unbreakable was a terrific and grounded superhero story, an original story made to be a film rather than an adaptation of another medium. Split is a very different movie, but it has the same underlying DNA. James McAvoy does an outstanding job, there’s a particularly memorable scene where he cycles through a bunch of different personalities in the same shot. I was worried about the horror aspects of the movie (I scare easily) but it is really more of a slow drama than a horror movie and it never gets very scary. I’m excited to watch the next movie in the trilogy!

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

The Motorcycle Diaries is based on Ernesto (Che) Guevara’s memoirs of his motorcycle/hitchhiking journey across Latin America when he was in his early twenties. It’s a biopic that also fits into the road movie/coming-of-age genres, which is unusual. Che starts off the journey not really knowing who he is or what he really wants to do, but the people he meets on the road instill convictions in him that he didn’t realize he cared about. Any movie about famous people, especially revolutionary figures, risks being too much of a hagiography, but The Motorcycle Diaries makes Che seem like an ordinary and relatable person, thanks in large part to Gael Garcia Bernal’s portrayal.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a 1950s housewife with a successful husband, a thriving social life, and a beautiful house. When she finds out that her husband is attracted to other men, her life starts to fall apart. Her only solace is her friendship/burgeoning romance with an African-American gardener, but of course, that’s pretty scandalous for the times. This movie is very interestingly shot, the colors and camera angles are reminiscent of a 1950s film (Wikipedia tells me it is imitating the style of a particular director, Douglas Sirk, but I’m not familiar with his work). The actors all do a fantastic job, especially Julianne Moore. I thought this was an ambitious movie that succeeded at what it was attempting, but I didn’t love it because the characters didn’t display a lot of emotion and I found it hard to connect with them.

The Space Between Us (2017)

Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), the first person born on Mars, has the opportunity to visit Earth for the first time, and goes on a roadtrip with a girl he met online to try and find his biological father. I had high hopes for The Space Between Us when I first heard of it, but I knew it had terrible reviews by the time we watched it. Still, I’m a sucker for anything related to space, and I find teen drama comfortingly nostalgic, so I wanted to watch it anyway. It’s a terrible movie – the plot is drivel, the science is bogus, and some of the actors seem to be phoning it in – but I enjoyed watching it. The first part before Gardner gets to Earth is actually decent, but it devolves into cliches (street smart girl, fish-out-of-water boy) quickly.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Hyperintelligent genetically engineered sharks get tired of being experimented on and decide to destroy their creators instead. I knew this movie would be really dumb going in, but sometimes stupid disaster movies can be fun, and this is certainly one of those. There are people being picked off one-by-one, a silly half-developed romance, ominously moving fins, and of course, plenty of explosions. The emotional payoff was surprisingly good, usually in movies like this, the characters you like the most end up getting killed, and that wasn’t quite the case in this movie. There are also some scenes that are pretty funny, the movie clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is good. But still, a really dumb movie.

One Eight Seven (1997)

One Eight Seven is a weird thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson as a teacher who is stabbed by a student in a gang-dominated neighborhood in New York, and then moves to L.A. to another gang-dominated neighborhood where he encounters some more threatening students. I really did not like this movie. The way it is filmed and acted is clearly intended to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and it definitely succeeds at that. It seems to want to be inspired by The Deer Hunter (which is explicitly referenced), but it’s really not in the same league. I had a hard time getting invested in any of the characters, even though Samuel L. Jackson does his best.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 23-29, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Moonlight (2016)

I knew we were going to have to watch Moonlight eventually, since it won the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but I wasn’t really looking forward to it because it sounded really depressing. The Academy knows what they’re talking about, though, because Moonlight is a fantastic movie.

We follow Chiron, a young black man through three decades of his life – as a kid, a teenager, and an adult – as he navigates his sexuality, his poverty, and life in general. Unusually for movie protagonists, Chiron is introverted and sensitive, and the movie doesn’t try to disguise it. There are long periods of silence where no one says anything, and the actors still manage to convey a world of emotion. There’s not much drama in this movie, and the most dramatic events happen off-camera anyway, allowing the audience to be entirely inside Chiron’s head.

If you’ve been putting off watching Moonlight like I was, don’t!

Other Movies Watched

Fargo (1996)

I’m not a big Coen Brothers fan – I know they’re great filmmakers, and I don’t dislike their movies exactly, but they always seem heartless somehow. Fargo is an exception, though – it’s both scathingly funny and adorable, depending on the characters you’re seeing. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy, playing his usual sad-sack) attempts to get his wife kidnapped in order to extort ransom money from his wealthy father-in-law, but due to general ineptitude on the part of pretty much everyone, things go horribly wrong. Frances McDormand plays Marge Gunderson, the cop investigating one of the incidental crimes. The acting is terrific, the Minnesota/North Dakota winter setting adds a great deal of atmosphere, and the writing and emotional payoff is spot-on.

Loving (2016)

After watching the excellent Midnight Special, I was on board with pretty much anything else that Jeff Nichols wrote and directed, so I was excited to watch this movie about the Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple that caused the Supreme Court to rule that state miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. Like Midnight Special, this movie drops you right into the life of the Lovings without too much explanation, and it chooses to focus on the people rather than the larger civil rights issue. The Lovings aren’t an exceptional family, and they’re not on a crusade to change anything – they just happen to be discovered by the ACLU. Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton do an excellent job making the Lovings feel like people you probably know, and that makes their story more poignant than if the movie had followed the traditional tropes of trying to make you care about them.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief who has had no luck obtaining a more steady job. He observes a crew of stringers covering a car accident to obtain footage to sell to local television, and decides to enter the profession himself. He turns out to be extremely good at it, especially when he starts crossing ethical boundaries to obtain better footage. Jake Gyllenhaal is simultaneously creepy and compelling as Bloom, and the movie treats his story as both horrifying and like a success story – scenes where he’s done something amoral to get ahead are often scored triumphantly. The rest of the cast is really great, too, especially Rene Russo as a television producer who is desperate for more and more lurid footage to keep her job.

La La Land (2016)

This movie has gotten a lot of great press, and we loved Damien Chazelle’s earlier movie, Whiplash, so I fully expected to love La La Land as well. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an actress trying to chase their respective dreams in Los Angeles. The movie is very well-made, and when I was watching it, the phrase “ode to moviemaking” kept popping into my head, and I think that describes it well. Much like Whiplash, the protagonists are obsessed with their work and everything else (including their relationship) comes a distant second, but unlike Whiplash, they seemed more like archetypes than sympathetic characters. The music is excellent, and the technical skill is amazing, especially in the sequence at the end (you’ll know it when you see it), but I just wasn’t invested in what was actually happening, so unfortunately I can’t say that I loved it.

Batman Returns (1992)

I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies, so we’re watching them in order. Batman Returns has Tim Burton returning as director and Michael Keaton starring as Batman, this time going up against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and evil industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). It was much better than the first movie, I particularly liked the Batman/Catwoman relationship. It’s still fairly ridiculous and a little uncomfortable to watch, just like most Tim Burton films.

Gold (2016)

I was expecting great things from Gold, since it was written/directed by Stephen Gaghan, who did the terrific Syriana. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it was definitely underwhelming. It’s based on the Bre-X mining scandal, and stars Matthew McConaughey as a down-on-his-luck miner who teams up with a geologist who claims to know where to find a massive deposit of gold. McConaughey does a good job at playing an average hapless guy, but I don’t think it makes use of his talent. I can’t find anything else notable to say about this movie, it seemed like one of those movies which you’d never hear about but encounter on TV when channel-surfing (if people even do that anymore) and think was kind of interesting.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 16-22, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Green Mile (1999)

I’ve been wanting to watch The Green Mile for a really long time – The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies of all time, and this is also a historical movie set in prison, directed by Frank Darabont, based on a Stephen King story. Plus, it stars Tom Hanks! How could it not be good?

Paul Edgecombe is an officer in charge of death row at a Louisiana prison during the 1930s. His block gets a new inmate, John Coffey, who is the gentlest inmate Paul has encountered, despite the horrific crimes he has been convicted of. It eventually becomes apparent that John has mysterious supernatural powers (good ones, not scary ones) as he starts to affect the lives of many of the people he meets.

The Green Mile is a long movie – over three hours – and it tells its story slowly. This is a good thing, there’s a great sense of atmosphere, and we get to know all of the characters very well. This movie would not have worked without Michael Clarke Duncan’s performance as John Coffey, he utterly sells the innocence and suffering without ever coming across as hokey. I also liked that most of the prison guards were portrayed as nice people who genuinely wanted to make the lives of their prisoners better, even when the world hated them.

Other Movies Watched

Escape from New York (1981)

In the future, crime has risen astronomically, and Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When the President’s plane crashes into the prison, war hero and convicted bank robber Snake Plissken (one of Kurt Russell’s most iconic roles) is sent in to retrieve him in exchange for amnesty. I saw Escape from New York a few years ago, but I didn’t remember much of it except that it was a great sci-fi action classic, and Snake Plissken was awesome. Well, that’s still true, but this time around I’m much more familiar with the tropes of sci-fi action genre, so I noticed more details, like how great the worldbuilding was, even with very little dialogue, and how much this movie influenced later sci-fi action movies.

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Steel Magnolias follows the lives of a group of women in a small Louisiana town over a couple of years – Truvy (Dolly Parton), the local beauty salon owner, Annelle (Daryl Hannah), her new employee with a troubled past, and four of her customers – older widow Clairee (Olympia Dukakis), mother/daughter M’Lynn (Sally Field) and Shelby (Julia Roberts), and their neighbor Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine). M’Lynn and Shelby are the real heart of the movie, although every woman has a character arc. I don’t think I’ve seen many movies which revolved entirely around the life of women in such a realistic way, I wish there were more. It’s heartwarming, tragic, frustrating, and really good.

Secret In Their Eyes (2015)

I am a fan of writer/director Billy Ray (Breach, Shattered Glass), so I was excited about Secret In Their Eyes. I watched the trailer a while ago, and I was expecting some sort of mediocre murder mystery thriller, but fortunately the movie turned out to be much more interesting than that. It’s based on the 2009 Argentine film of the same name (which won the best foreign film Oscar) and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ray Kasten, a former FBI officer haunted by an old case involving the rape and murder of his colleague Jess’s daughter. The case was never solved, but when the alleged perpetrator resurfaces after 13 years, he gets all of the old investigating officers involved in a new effort to capture him. This movie has a great cast, and Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts (whose part was originally written for a man) in particular are excellent. The movie has great tension without resorting to melodrama, and the resolution that it builds up to is very satisfying.

The Cider House Rules (1999)

Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has spent all his life in an orphanage. His mentor and the orphanage’s doctor, Dr. Larch (Michael Caine), expects him to continue working at the orphanage, but he wants to see the world. He ends up leaving with a couple that visits the orphanage and gets a job as an apple picker. The Cider House Rules is very much a coming of age story, and it’s an unusually good one. Homer learns about the world, and that includes some immensely screwed up things happening, but the movie presents both the bad and the good things in a matter-of-fact way. I think the most notable thing about this movie for me was that it portrayed kind people, terrible people, and people that were neither. Most movies don’t display such a diversity of characterization, and I enjoyed it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Fotoula “Toula” Portokalos is a first generation Greek-American who is the despair of her family because she hasn’t gotten married yet even though she’s 30. She works at her father’s restaurant but dreams of a more fulfilling life. She gets more than she bargained for when she falls in love with Ian, a WASP, and they decide to get married. Despite the title of the movie, the wedding doesn’t take up more than a third of the movie, most of it is a coming of age story where Toula finally begins to feel comfortable with both herself and her roots. It was great to see a movie about the more ethnic communities of America – many of the situations and scenes were uncannily familiar to me as a recent immigrant who married a more traditional American. It’s a pretty good movie, it’s funny, it has heart, and the fact that star Nia Vardalos is also the writer lends it authenticity.

Elizabethtown (2005)

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) has just been fired from his company for designing a flawed shoe that resulted in huge losses. He doesn’t feel like he has anything to live for anymore, but before he can follow through on his plan to commit suicide, he learns that his father has died. He travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to retrieve his father’s body and discovers a whole new side to life, especially through the bubbly flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) he meets on the plane. I usually like Cameron Crowe’s movies, but I wasn’t a huge fan of this one – it’s got all the components of a good movie, but it felt empty somehow. This movie also originated the “manic pixie dream girl” trope for a good reason – it was hard for me to believe that Kirsten Dunst’s character was anything approaching a real person.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 9-15, 2017

Favorite Movies of the Week

Broadcast News (1987)

Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a news producer who is very good at her job but also has daily emotional breakdowns. She works closely with brilliant and cocky reporter Aaron Altman (who’s in love with her), but when handsome news anchor Tom Grunick joins the network, she can’t help but pursue him despite the fact that he does not share any of her ideals about what news should be. I don’t think that’s a very good description of the movie, but I’m not sure I can do better – this movie is just about the interaction of Jane, Aaron, and Tom until external circumstances make it impossible for them to work together, set in the background of a changing news landscape.

The only other James L. Brooks directed movie I’ve seen is Spanglish, and judging by both these movies, he’s one of my new favorite directors because he makes great movies about real, ordinary people interacting with each other. The only other director that I can think of who consistently has such identifiable women is Sofia Coppola. Broadcast News was apparently nominated for seven Oscars, and that makes total sense to me. Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt all put in amazing performances – very few movies make you feel like you know characters as well as these ones. I also thought the conclusion of the movie was satisfying and realistic.

The Dressmaker (2015)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this Australian movie described as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”. Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, an expert dressmaker who returns to her childhood home of Dungatar after a long absence. She’s bitter since she was accused of murder as a child and driven out of town, but tries to set up a business since she needs to take care of her sick mother. But people in small towns can be utterly unforgiving, and she doesn’t find it easy.

At first, you think this is the kind of movie where a stranger moves into a small town and they’re quirky but eventually change everyone’s lives for the better. Tilly’s dresses make people look fabulous and turn the fortunes of a few women around. But The Dressmaker is actually a black comedy, and subverts a lot of those tropes. I don’t want to say more – it’s best experienced for yourself, but not only was this a better movie than I thought it would be before I saw it, it was way better than I thought it would be even midway through the movie.

Other Movies Watched

Maverick (1994)

Professional gambler Bret Maverick is a few thousand dollars short of the money he needs to enter a one-of-a-kind high stakes poker game, but he just isn’t having a very good week. This is a western comedy (which I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen any other examples of before) and it’s a lot of fun. Mel Gibson has impeccable comic timing as Maverick, Jodie Foster is endearing as the incorrigible thief Annabelle, and those two actors really make the movie work. Some popular western tropes are subverted (lovingly) – the writer of the movie also wrote The Princess Bride, and there’s a lot of the same charm. Plus there are a lot of cameos and references to other movies – my favorite was when Danny Glover (Mel Gibson’s partner in the Lethal Weapon series) showed up briefly.

Patriots Day (2016)

Peter Berg’s second movie of 2016 about a real-life disaster starring Mark Wahlberg (after Deepwater Horizon), Patriots Day tells the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. I actually lived an hour away in Providence when this happened, but I knew very little about it because I was in India visiting my parents at the time and I missed most of the real-time coverage. The movie tells the story well, we see events from a few different perspectives – bombing victims, police officers, and the victims of the aftermath when the bombers fled. It’s formulaic, but it makes you sympathize with the situation without trying to tell you how to feel by focusing on melodrama. I read about the real events afterwards, and it seems the movie actually stayed very faithful to the facts, which I appreciated.

Little Man Tate (1991)

Jodie Foster’s directorial debut is about seven year old child prodigy Fred Tate who is torn between his mother (Jodie Foster), who is loving can’t understand his mind and the founder of an institute for gifted children (Dianne Wiest), who gets him intellectually but is neurotic and stiff otherwise. Both women care for Fred, but have very different approaches to dealing with him, sort of like the central conflict of A Bronx Tale. Unlike A Bronx Tale, though, the movie is not about the kid, it’s about the women’s journey to growing to be able to provide Fred with both an emotionally stable and intellectually challenging environment. I liked most of the movie quite a bit, but I thought the ending was too neat and oversimplified a complicated situation. I thought the kid playing Fred did a terrific job, though.

The Client (1994)

Eleven year old Mark Sway and his younger brother Ricky are playing in the woods when they stumble into a famous mafia lawyer who is committing suicide, but not before he tells Mark the location of a recently murdered senator’s body. Suddenly Mark becomes the recipient of a whole lot of attention – from the ambitious district attorney who is determined to convict the mobsters, from the mob who wants to silence him before he says anything, and from reporters. This movie is based on the John Grisham book of the same name, and John Grisham movies are a genre of their own (I’ve seen The Firm, The Rainmaker, A Time to Kill, Runaway Jury, and The Pelican Brief so far) – they’re thrillers with over-the-top plots and melodramatic characters, usually involving lawyers. The Client fit that mold very well, with some great performances by Susan Sarandon as inexperienced lawyer Reggie Love and Brad Renfro in his film debut as Mark Sway.

The Discovery (2017)

I’m always looking for new, good, science-fiction films, so I was excited to read about the Netflix original film The Discovery in an Ars Technica article. Robert Redford’s in it, plus I enjoyed both director Charlie McDowell’s first movie The One I Love, and the last Netflix original science fiction movie I watched (Spectral), so I figured The Discovery would be pretty good. Unfortunately I was wrong and this movie is terrible. Movies that deal with metaphysics can be amazing, but this movie seems to think it’s being profound when it’s actually incredibly trite. The dialogue is awkward at best, and the two main romantic leads have no chemistry. In fact, everyone’s acting seems stiff and wooden. Hopefully this isn’t the standard that Netflix is setting for their original movies.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Apr 2-8, 2017

Midnight Special (2016)

I remember watching the trailer for Midnight Special last year and being intrigued but not knowing quite what to make of it. It seemed like maybe it was a supernatural thriller (my notes for it said “small boy with laser eyes”), but it didn’t seem very scary. It turns out that it’s just a straight up sci-fi movie that pays homage to the “government chase” genre (like E.T. or Starman, which I’ve never seen) and it’s very good.

The movie starts out with a TV playing an AMBER alert announcement for eight year old Alton, who was last seen with a man named Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon.) Roy and Alton are watching this TV, and it’s pretty clear that Alton has not been kidnapped – we soon find out that he’s actually Roy’s son, and they’re on the run from a religious cult (“the Ranch”) that has sprung up around him.

I won’t go into too much detail about the story because I think that’s best experienced through the movie. We don’t know very much about what’s going on at first, and the movie explains it slowly in a natural way through excellent dialogue. The characters accompanying Alton seem larger than life, especially in their support of Alton, but they also look and act like normal people that you know (a minor example is that Kirsten Dunst wears no makeup in this movie.) If you’re expecting a neat ending where everything is explained in detail, you won’t get it, but I don’t think this movie needs that – it would take away from its genuine feel.

 Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians and computer scientists who helped make NASA’s space program a reality. There was very little chance that I wouldn’t like this movie, since it combines a bunch of my favorite things – space exploration, computers/mathematics, underdog stories, and Kevin Costner. Many movies these days that explore racism or sexism aren’t very subtle about it. Hidden Figures is not one of those movies and its depiction of the era and people seemed more realistic to me – widespread segregation and lots of subtext. I do wish the technical detail had been a little more interesting, every time there was a math-related scene, the concepts were heavily simplified, which took me out of the movie a little bit.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Disney/Pixar and Studio Ghibli make some of the best movies, and I often wish there were more good animated movies that tried to appeal to both kids and adults. I had forgotten about Laika, but they definitely fill that niche, based on the this movie and Coraline. Kubo and the Two Strings is the story of Kubo, a young boy who must find three pieces of magical armor to protect him from his grandfather the Moon King who wants to remove his humanity. It’s an original story inspired by Japanese mythology, and it’s creative, beautiful, heartwarming, and fun. It’s got a great voice cast – Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, etc. I enjoy the stop-motion aesthetic (and am in awe of the technique), and this movie does it particularly well.

Live by Night (2016)

I’m a fan of Ben Affleck’s directing (Gone Baby Gone, Argo, The Town) and I’ve mostly enjoyed movies based on Dennis Lehane’s books (Gone Baby Gone again, Shutter Island, Mystic River) so I was interested in seeing how Live by Night turned out. Affleck also stars in the movie as Joe Coughlin, a thief who tries to stay clear of organized crime, but is forced into getting involved when he falls in love with a gangster’s mistress. We just follow the story of his life, the plot is pretty loose, although it’s thematically coherent. I found this movie a lot better than I thought it would be and was shocked to find out that it was a commercial and critical failure. I particularly liked the character of Coughlin – he’s in touch with humanity and is actually a pretty good guy, and he’s the first gangster I’ve ever found relatable.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steve (John Savage) are three friends from a small Pennsylvania town who decide to enlist to fight in Vietnam and it changes everything about their life. The Deer Hunter is one of the first movies to portray the effects of war in a gritty and realistic way, and it is an incredibly depressing movie. It’s divided into three acts – before, during, and after their stint in Vietnam, and none of them are very pleasant. The actors are all incredible, especially Robert De Niro (who is not his usual reassuring self) and Christopher Walken. The movie is very realistic – as someone who dislikes crowds and parties, I found the wedding scene excruciating, even though all the characters seemed to be having fun. If this movie has a flaw, it’s that it never lets up on the grimness, but I think that’s probably by design. If you’re just looking for entertainment, don’t watch this movie, but otherwise, it’s well worth your time.

Munich (2005)

After the assassinations of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Israeli government secretly launched Operation Wrath of God, a convert mission aimed at eliminating the leadership of the Palestinian group that planned the attacks. Munich follows an assassination team lead by Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), a Mossad operative as they track down various targets and eliminate them. The team is fairly inexperienced at first, but they’re motivated and do their job fairly well, but the deeper they go, the murkier their mission becomes. This movie is based on the memoir of the Israeli agent who led this operation, and it’s dark and compelling. I can’t point to any flaws in this movie (except for one questionable sex scene near the end – you’ll know it when you see it), but I didn’t feel satisfied by it. Maybe it was that the juxtaposition of the stark horror of the Israeli athletes getting killed with the increasing moral ambiguity of the main storyline didn’t feel very smooth? It’s still definitely a movie worth watching.

A United Kingdom (2016)

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (future Botswana) falls in love with English woman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) while studying in England. They marry but face stiff opposition from all quarters – Seretse’s people disapprove of their king marrying outside of their own people, Ruth’s family disapproves of her husband being black, and the English government tries to discredit Seretse’s claim to chieftainship because of fear of losing the uranium trade with Botswana’s neighbor South Africa, which has recently adopted apartheid policies. I generally love movies based on true historical events, but this one was bland and boring. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike don’t have a lot of chemistry, and the supporting characters all seem like cardboard cutouts that are just doing what the plot wants them to.