Cerebral Movies: A Most Wanted Man

MV5BODY2MTA0MjYzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE3NzE4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_A Most Wanted Man has the dubious distinction of being Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. Fortunately, it is a well done film with fine performances.

Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann the head of a German security agency tasked with stopping domestic terrorism. When a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (brutally tortured by the Russians) shows up illegally in Hamburg, looking to acquire funds left to him by his Russian father, Bachmann (and other security agencies) take notice. It becomes a race against time to figure out if he is a victim or a terrorist bent on revenge.

Bachmann wants to turn the immigrant into an asset, hoping that he will lead them to the real men in power.  But the other agencies, including the CIA, want to capture and punish him. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse with each agency jockeying for dominance. Although all the agencies ostensibly want the same thing, they all have different methods for realizing their goals.

Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright and Willem Dafoe round out the cast as a sympathetic lawyer, a CIA analyst, and a German banker respectively.

A thought-provoking and cerebral film, based on a novel by John le Carré,  A Most Wanted Man illustrates post 9/11 spy craft and how various security agencies use different methods to achieve their goals. Often times, these agencies are at odds with each other how to achieve these goals.

The film is about 2 hours long, but it never feels overlong, or boring. The directer did an excellent job pacing the film to keep the viewer’s interest.

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A Most Wanted Man

Worth a look if you like cerebral films or realistic depictions of spies and espionage in the post-9/11 age.

Skip it if 007 is more your thing.

– steve



Holiday Movies: A Christmas Story

MV5BMTI1NzY1NjkyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjYxNjE0MQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_Originally released in 1983, A Christmas Story was largely ignored by theater-going audiences. It wasn’t until its release on VHS that it became a bona fide cult classic.

Based upon the novel by Jean Shepherd “In God We Trust, All Other Pay Cash,” A Christmas Story is Shepherd’s recollection of the Chrismas holiday circa early-1940s Indiana.

The movie chronicles Ralphie’s (Jean Shepherd) attempts to secure  a BB gun for Christmas, his idea of the ultimate Christmas gift. Of course all the adults respond with “you’ll put your eye out with it.”

As Ralphie contends with school, bullies, and adults who don’t understand his desire for a  BB gun, the film is a wonderful slice of life in depression-era America. Particularly funny is when Ralphie drops the f-bomb in front of his father. When Ralphie’s mother asks indignantly where he had heard it, adult Ralphie says:

Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.

But young Ralphie, in a moment of panic (unjustly) rats out a friend, who gets severely punished by his mother. And Ralphie gets his mouth washed out with a bar of soap for his troubles.

The movie is perfectly cast with Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, Darren McGavin as his father and Melinda Dillon as his mother.

Worth a look if you like warm, sentimental holiday movies.

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A Christmas Story

– Steve


Holiday Movies: Christmas Vacation

MV5BMTI1OTExNTU4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzIwMzQyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Another holiday favorite of mine, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation stars Chevy Chase again as hapless Clark Griswald. All he wants is to have a perfect holiday, but events conspire to ruin his Christmas. But in the end, Clark is the eternal optimist and is able to make the best of some very disheartening situations.

Chase displays brilliant comedic timing as the various disasters fall upon him: Cousin Eddie shows up, broke and driving a dilapidated motor home;  an over-done turkey; an ignited Christmas tree nearly burns his house down; waiting on a Christmas bonus which never materializes; and stringing up Christmas tree lights browns out the neighborhood.

Beverly D’Angelo plays Clark’s long suffering wife, Ellen. Johnny Galecki (of Big Bang Theory fame) and Juliette Lewis play his  son and daughter respectively. Randy Quaid is very funny as Cousin Eddie, in fact, stealing every scene he is in.

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National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Worth a look if you want to see some poor, miserable sap having a worse holiday than you.

Skip it if slapstick comedies are not your thing.




Holiday Movies: Elf

MV5BNjY1NjQ3NDY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODAyMTc3._V1_SX214_AL_Elf is one of my favorite holiday movies. It stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human infant who is inadvertently taken to the North Pole with Santa Claus and raised as an elf. It soon becomes apparent to Buddy that he is not an elf after a growth spurt makes him twice as tall as any of the elves. Buddy finds out from his elf father (played by Bob Newhart) that is real father is in New York.

Buddy leaves the North Pole  in search of his real father (played by James Caan), who turns out to be a heartless jerk with a neglected family. Can Buddy turn his real father around so that he is filled with holiday spirit? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen round out the cast as Buddy’s love interest and stepmother respectively. Ed Asner is well-cast as Santa Claus. Look for Amy Sedaris, Peter Dinklage, Jon Favreau and Andy Richter in minor supporting roles.

The movie is very funny in the slapstick vein and plays on Buddy’s elf upbringing. Not having been raised by humans, Buddy has a wide-eyed innocence and often responds inappropriately to situations he finds himself in.

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Worth a look if you like Will Ferrell and/or slapstick comedy.

Skip it if you are a blackhearted grinch or think Scrooge was just misunderstood.





MV5BMTQ1NDk3NTk0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTk3MDcxMzE@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Maleficent is Disney’s retelling of the timeless Sleeping Beauty story. Staring Angelina Jolie as the titular character, she is re-imagined as a magical fairy who is by default the leader and protector of the fairies against the evil of men. The fairies and men occupy two separate kingdoms: the fairies live happy idyllic lives while the men suffer from poverty, envy and greed; the men covet what the fairies have.

As a young fairy, kind-hearted Maleficent befriends a young man, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and their friendship blossoms into something more. But Stefan, like most men becomes greedy and corrupt.

Later, the men attack the fairies but are repelled by Maleficent and her army of tree warriors. The defeated (and dying) king-of-men offers his kingdom to the person who destroys Maleficent. Stefan takes the king up on his offer and in a shocking act of betrayal deforms Maleficent and turns her heart to stone.

After Stefan becomes king, Maleficent shows at the christening of his newly-born daughter, Aurora and curses her with the sleeping curse. Maleficent immediately regrets her curse and modifies it so that only true love’s kiss can break the curse. Three fairies kidnap Aurora to circumvent the curse.

I like how the film gives Maleficent a back story; she is not just the evil queen of the Sleeping Beauty tale, but wronged and in her anger, takes it out on an innocent.  She realizes her error and makes amends, because she is not truly evil, only wounded by a betrayal.

For a Disney film, it is dark, and somewhat more violent than I would have expected. In one scene, Maleficent battles with the king and his army defeating them with the help of her army of animated forest vegetation: tree-like soldiers on “horseback,” a serpent which tunnels underneath the ground and attacks the army of men from below and tree-like troll creatures with hammers. The visuals are stunning and well-rendered.

Despite its PG rating, it might scare small children, so keep this in mind when viewing with little ones.

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Worth a look if you like fantasy films which turn a trope upside down.

Skip it if Disney films are not your thing.

– steve





Under the Skin

MV5BMTU1MDEwMDg4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTk3NTcxMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Under the Skin is a creepy, atmospheric film starring Scarlett Johansson as a woman who cruises around Scotland looking for single, lonely men to seduce, ultimately luring them to their demise.

It’s hard to discuss this film without spoiling it, but suffice it to say that the overall tone of this film is exceedingly unsettling. Director Jonathan Glazer slowly builds tension: each time a man is lured to his death, we see a bit more information as to what is actually happening. The more we see, the worse it gets.

We see Johansson’s character coming to terms with what she truly is, and what she is doing, although the “why” is never fully explained.

A few scenes are downright chilling: Johansson’s character physically overcoming an exhausted swimmer on the beach; the truly horrifying end scene. Scenes where men are lured to their demise are used to horrifying effect.

The cinematography uses drizzly Scotland to good effect: the colors are muted which adds to the tension of the movie. The grey skies add to the mounting dread.

This film stuck with me long after I finished viewing it.

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Under the Skin

Worth a look if you like creepy, unsettling films.

Skip it if dread is not your thing.



Cult Movies: Billy Jack

MV5BMTkwNTg4MDYwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIzMTQyMQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_Billy Jack is the story of a half Indian/half white ex-Green Beret hapkido expert (played by Tom Laughlin). He was a war hero in Vietnam, but ultimately turned his back on the war.

As the movie opens, Billy Jack interrupts the slaughter of wild mustangs and runs afoul of the rich-guy-who-actually-runs-the- town and his weak-willed, spoiled-rotten son, Bernard.

Billy Jack also protects the “freedom school” run by Jean Roberts (Laughlin’s real-life wife, Delores Taylor.) It is a school for troubled teens, dropouts, and others who do not fit into normal, polite (read “white”) society. Of course, being hippies, the good, decent (and racist) townsfolk do not like them, and are frightened by their liberal ways.

Billy Jack is very much a movie of its time. Released in 1971 when the Vietnam war was in full swing, the movie deals with pacifism, violence, hippie counter-culture, and social consciousness.  Billy Jack is not a good film; the acting is sub-standard, it is overlong in spots, is preachy and its “peace through violence” message is incongruous. But it is a time capsule; a glimpse into a time of civil unrest and American involvement an unpopular war.

The one thing the movie does well is violence. After Billy Jack has beaten the crap out of Bernard Posner and his gigantic buddy, Dinosaur, Billy is confronted in the town park by Posner’s dad and a bunch of racist rednecks. Billy dispatches dad with a single kick and subsequently takes on the rest of the rednecks. At first Billy holds his own, but eventually is overcome by their sheer numbers. I find this to be very realistic. In most movies with martial arts sequences, the hero is usually untouchable, taking on wave after wave of villains and ultimately dispatching them all (although it would help their odds if the villains would attack more than one at a time, but I digress.) Not so in Billy Jack; Billy is no Superman, and although has expert fighting skill, he does succumb to superior numbers, especially after many attach him at once. Billy is saved only through the intervention of the town sheriff.

The fight scenes were choreographed by Bong Soo Han, a hapkido expert and Laughlin’s real-life martial arts teacher. Han even doubled for Laughlin in some of the fight scenes and can be spotted if you watch carefully enough.

Originally under-promoted by its initial distributor, Warner Studios, Tom Laughlin took matters into his own hands and distributed and promoted the film himself. It later became a cult hit due to its being shown on TV and subsequent VHS and DVD releases.

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Billy Jack

Worth a look if you want a glimpse into the turbulent Vietnam era.

Skip it if you don’t like dated films or movies about dirty hippies.