Under the Radar Movies: What If

MV5BMTcyODc4Njg4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDIwNDA4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_What If is a delightful rom-com starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. The story has been done to death before: “boy meets girl; girl has long-time boyfriend; boy  and girl become become “only” friends; boy and girl realize that they are meant for each other.” But smart dialog, good performances and great chemistry between the two leads raises this above a normal cliched rom-com.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a man burned out on relationships and has ostensibly given up on them. He meets Chantry (played by Zoe Kazan) and they have an instant bond, but Chantry already has a long-time, live-in boyfriend. The two decide to be “just friends.”

Predictably, Wallace  and Chantry become interested in each other more than either want to admit. The plot does contain stock rom-com tropes, but Zazan’s and Radcliffe’s performances and smart dialog elevate this above the normal rom-com fare.

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What If

Even if you hate rom-coms, it is worth a look for the good performances and great chemistry between the two leads.

Skip it if you can’t Radcliffe as anyone else other than Harry Potter.

– Steve



MV5BMjQwNTI2MTA0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODc1NzkzMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Rudderless is the story of Sam (played by Billy Crudup) whose son dies in school shooting. Sam goes from being  a successful, highly-paid advertising executive to living on a boat and painting houses.

Through happenstance, Sam discovers a box of his son’s recorded songs. He listens to them and begins to learn them, eventually working up the courage to play one of them at an open mic in a  local dive bar.

Sam catches the attention of Quentin (played by Anton Yelchin) who is about the same age as Sam’s son would have been. Quentin is a local small-time musician and is duly impressed with the song Sam had played. Quentin wants Sam to form a band, and after some considerable pestering, Sam relents. Soon after, two more musicians join the band, which achieves some local success playing the songs written by Sam’s deceased son. Unfortunately, Sam does not initially inform his band members of the source of the songs.

A startling revelation in latter third of the movie forces the viewer to look at the circumstances of Sam, his son, and Quentin in a different light. The revelation darkens the tone of an otherwise uplifting movie about a father coming to grips with the death of his son.

Rudderless is the first film directed by William H. Macy (who also as a small supporting role in the movie). A stunning debut, and hints at great things to come.

The songs in the movie stand out; they are catchy, funny and poignant, sometimes all at once. Crudup and Yelchin give credible musical performances.

Rounding out the cast is Laurence Fishburne as a music-store owner.

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Worth a look if you like movies about music.

Skip it if school shootings upset you.

– Steve








MV5BMTU4OTQ3MDUyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTA2MjU0MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Whiplash at its core is about greatness and the lengths that ambitious people will go to achieve it.

On the one hand, there is Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role. He truly deserved it as he delivers an electrifying performance. Fletcher, a brilliant but nefarious instructor,  leads the jazz band at one of the country’s best conservatories. He drives his students hard to achieve greatness. He is looking for the next Charlie Parker and will do anything to bring this out in a student. Often, he crosses the line with verbal, emotional and physical abuse.

On the other hand, there is Andrew (played by Miles Teller.) He is ambitious and talented. He is a student and wants to achieve greatness in jazz drumming, but lacks focus. His hero is Charlie “Bird” Parker, a giant among jazz musicians. (Parker unfortunately died a drug addict at the age of 35.)

Fletcher discovers Andrew one day after hearing him perform with another band at the conservatory. Fletcher senses greatness in Andrew and invites him to play in the most prestigious band ensemble in the school. Almost immediately, Fletcher starts to berate Andrew. He goads Andrew, pushing him to the limit with insults and physical assaults.  He capriciously replaces Andrew with other drummers to make him work harder to keep his position in the band.

The movie is stark and brutal in its depiction of Fletcher trying to bring out greatness in Andrew using extreme methods; at times it’s hard to watch. Andrew puts up with abuse because he senses greatness in himself and feels that only by pushing himself will he be able to achieve greatness. But pushing himself too hard eventually costs him: his hands bleed from practicing his drumming for extended periods; he gets into a car wreck because he is frantic to make a performance. (His hand is so banged up from the accident that he fails the performance miserably as he can’t hold onto the drum stick.) He breaks up with his girlfriend because he believes that she will only hold him back and even come to resent him for placing his dream of greatness ahead of her.

Whiplash is a fascinating (if brutal) look into greatness and the lengths that people will go to and the abuse that they will endure to achieve it. The movie is non-committal as to whether browbeating and/or abuse is the best way to bring out greatness in a performer. The film ultimately leaves this up to the viewer.

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Worth a look for a fascinating look into jazz, and what it takes to excel in that world.

Skip it if you are sensitive to verbal and physical brutality.

– Steve



A Walk Among the Tombstones

MV5BMTQ3NzY2MTg1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY2Njk4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Based on the 1992 mystery novel by author Lawrence Block,  A Walk Among the Tombstones concerns the adventures of former-New-York-City-cop-turned-unlicensed-private-detective Matt Scudder.  Scudder is an alcoholic who let his drinking impair his judgement while on the job with the NYPD which resulted in his dismissal.

Block as written 17 novels with Scudder as the protagonist, and are well worth seeking out if you like gritty crime novels.

As A Walk Among the Tombstones begins, the brother of a wealthy drug dealer contacts Scudder hoping that he will look into a problem. Against his better judgment, Scudder goes to see the drug dealer. It seems as though someone kidnapped his wife, demanding a ransom. The drug dealer negotiated the ransom, paid it but found his wife cut up in bags in the trunk of a car. The drug dealer wants Scudder to find the person or persons responsible in order to exact revenge.

Scudder reluctantly looks into the case. He is conflicted about helping a drug dealer, but wants to exact justice for the murdered wife. As he gets deeper and deeper into the case, he comes to a startling realization: the kidnappers are targeting criminals who are unlikely to involve the police. Furthermore, the kidnappers are sadistic; torturing their victims for sick thrills before killing them.

Things come to a head when the kidnappers abduct the teenage daughter of a Russian drug dealer. Scudder (again reluctantly) becomes involved to get the daughter back before she is tortured and killed.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a taught psychological thriller which relies on suspense rather than mindless action or shooting sequences. Scudder is a damaged man, an alcoholic who lost his job because of drinking on duty. Despite this major flaw, Scudder is a good PI who solves his cases through information rather than shooting. In fact, by helping those in need, Scudder may even be seeking redemption.

Worth a look if you like hard-boiled PI stories or film noir.

Skip it if torture and violence make you queasy.

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A Walk Among the Tombstones (DVD)

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A Walk Among the Tombstones (novel)

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.