Movie Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)


Title: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 2008
Director:  Dave Filoni
Summary/Review:

Feeling all Star Wars-ish lately, I decided to watch this animated movie set in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Obi Wan and Anakin are leading clone armies into battle against the separatists and have to negotiate a treaty with Jabba the Hutt and have a padawan Ahsoka Tano delivered into their midst.  The animation allows for visual sequences that might not be possible/plausible in a live-action film, although some of the battle sequences remind me of 1980s GI Joe or Transformers cartoons (which may be good or bad depending on how much you enjoyed them).  I thought that the character work was pretty strong especially the interactions between Obi Wan and Anakin and Anakin and Ahsoka.  Much better than in the prequel trilogy where characterization and development was given short shrift.  But really this movie is worth watching for the scene in which R2-D2 basically uses a Baby Bjorn to carry Jabba the Hutt’s son.

If that’s not weird enough, we also meet Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who is coded as being fabulously gay with the voice of Truman Capote.  Padme is introduced late into the story, and while it’s good to see her, she is swiftly taken captive and doesn’t add much to the story.  But I found myself enjoying this movie despite myself.  I hear that the spinoff series is better, so I may give that a watch.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Easy A (2010)


TitleEasy A
Release Date: 2010
Director:  Will Gluck
Summary/Review:

This movie was described to me as the high school comedy interpretation of The Scarlet Letter.  The story begins when 17 y.o. Olive tells her friend that she lost her virginity to a fictional college boyfriend.  Word gets out and Olive suddenly has a bad girl reputation.  Soon Olive is pretending to be sexually involved with several boys in order to help their reputations (that is for one boy to cover that he’s gay, for another that he’s an overweight loser, and so on).  Enjoying the attention and also making a statement about double standards and rumor mongering, Olive begins wearing more revealing clothing with the letter A stitched on.  A series of improbable but hilarious events ensue.

It’s a good mix of high school comedy with biting satire, and a fun way of addressing some serious topics such as bullying, gossip, and teen sexuality.  The movie is episodic but it’s tied together by the wit and charm of the lead actor Emma Stone.  And it’s really funny.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Her (2013)


Title:  Her
Release Date: 2013
Director:  Spike Jonze
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future, this movie is about a man developing a romantic relationship with the consciousness of a computer operating system.  It’s an interesting take on the love story dealing with layers of reality and artifice and the role of technology in human society.  While there are some very uncomfortable and unsettling scenes, the movie doesn’t take the typical kneejerk anti-technology stance, and it doesn’t judge.   The overall feeling I get is that intimacy and relationships in this future will continue to be a challenge to negotiate but that the new technology will not make it a dystopia.

The protagonist Theodore works as writer for a service that provides personal handwritten letters which are neither personal now handwritten.  Despite his ability to express meaningful emotions for others in the letters he crafts he has trouble expressing his own self to others.  We see him often in crowds where everyone seems to be having meaningful interactions with someone, just not the people around him.  Most surprisingly for a comedy about “man who falls in love with his computer” he’s not alone as other characters admit to also having relationships with their operating systems which is an interesting twist.

The story of Samantha, the OS, is also interesting as it addresses the idea of the rights and privileges of conscious beings even when artificially created.  The conclusion of her story is unexpectedly reminiscent of the 1984 movie Electric Dreams (on of my all time favorites, cheesy as it is).

One thing I really liked about this vision of the future is a Los Angeles where people lived and worked in cozy high-density buildings with lots of public transit and pedestrian space.  This movie is mostly quiet conversation and at two hours I admit my attention did drift a bit.  But it is a thought-provoking and beautifully filmed and acted story.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Return of the Jedi (1983)


Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  . People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29


TitleHarvard Beats Yale 29-29
Release Date: 2008
Director: Kevin Rafferty
Summary/Review:

This football documentary has an intriguing title in that it gives away the final score, yet it also fibs about one side winning a tie game.  It’s a no-frills sports documentary where tv footage of the actual game is interspliced with interviews with dozens of the players who participated in the game.  For Ivy League colleges, it is interesting that many of the players had working class backgrounds.  On the other hand, one team had a player who was roommates with George W. Bush and the other team had a player rooming with Al Gore.  The latter is famed actor Tommy Lee Jones.  The interviews touch on the Vietnam War, student protests, and the sexual revolution, but largely this is the story of men in their 60s reflecting on how one exhilarating moment affected their entire lives.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Related Post: 38 Things About Me and Star Wars

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)


TitlePitch Perfect 2
Release Date: 2015
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Summary/Review:

There’s always some chanciness around sequels to a cult classic movie. This one takes the Rocky III approach, with the Barden Bellas succeeding for several years but failing as success gets to their heads, facing the taunts of new rivals, and having to regain their way.  In this case the Bellas are embroiled in scandal due to a wardrobe malfunction at a performance before the President, plus the realization that with graduation looming there is life beyond college and a capella.  The Clubber Lang of the movie is the German supergroup Das Sound Machine whom the Bellas must defeat in the totally made-up World Championship of A Capella to be reinstated in collegiate a capella.

The movie is kind of a patchwork quilt of set pieces, subplots, and music performances, but it makes an entertaining whole.  The funny bits actually are funnier than the original movie, although the musical performances that made the first movie so brilliant aren’t as strong here.  I think that’s partially because the plot has most of the performances take place when the Bellas “have lost their voice” and are trying glam things up too much with spectacle.

Hailee Steinfield is a good addition as a Freshman legacy who joins the Bellas and Keegan-Michael Key is funny as Beca’s arrogant boss at a production studio.  On the downside, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks’ bits as a capella commentators are even less necessary and less funny than in the first movie, and the new character played by Chrissie Fit is just an endless series of bad Latin American immigrant jokes.  The only advantage here is that there’s less time for stereotypical Asian jokes about Lilly.

On the whole, it’s a fun movie.  Like Return of the Jedi, I’ve reached the point where I care enough about these characters to overlook some of the movie’s shortcomings.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Star Wars (1977)


Title:  Star Wars
Release Date: 1977
Director:   George Lucas
Summary/Review:
Rating: ****1/2

What can you say about this movie in 2016?  Most people know and love the movie and our popular culture is steeped in its motifs.  But this was the first time my children watched the movie and  the first time I’ve watched it in a long, long time (but still within this galaxy).  The kids generally claim not to like movies, but they liked this one and asked to watch it again, which is always a good sign.  I wonder what it’s like to watch Star Wars for the first time when it’s something that’s always been around and references are wound into our culture like mythology as opposed to when I was a child and it was brand new?  I was impressed that the movie holds up very well.  There are many things from the 70s, 80s, & 90s that seem to have dated much more than this.  Of course, I’m an old fuddy-duddy and prefer the somewhat slower pace and practical special effects of Star Wars to many of today’s blockbusters.  But really the stories and the characters are what made the movie what it is and what makes it persist.  So simple, rooted in older stories, yet so fresh and new at the same time.

Movie Review: View from the Top (2003)


Title:  View from the Top
Release Date: 2003
Director: Bruno Barreto
Summary/Review:

I was in the mood for something dumb, and saw this listed on Netflix and thought it might fill the bill.  It’s story about Donna, a young woman from a small town who dreams of getting out and decides to become a flight attendant, first with a skeezy commuter airline and then with one of the top carriers.  This movie really doesn’t know if it wants to be a screwball comedy, an inspirational film, or a romantic comedy and jarringly jumps among all three styles.  A lot of the “humor” relies on gender stereotypes and movie cliches.  I know I got what I asked for when I wanted something dumb, but it wasn’t even an entertaining dumb.  Somewhere in here is the seed of a good movie, but the didn’t seem to try.
Rating: *1/2

Movie Review: The Night James Brown Saved Boston (2008)


Title: The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Release Date: 2008
Director: David Leaf
Summary/Review:

April 5, 1968. Cities across the United States are in turmoil as grief and anger over the murder of Martin Luther King leads too violence and rioting. In Boston, city officials considered canceling a scheduled concert by James Brown, but instead Mayor Kevin White is convinced to allow the show go on as a memorial to Dr. King and broadcast it live on WGBH.  The documentary begins with a good background on Brown, King, and Boston leading into 1968. Then there’s extensive concert footage intercut with interviews with people who were there that night (including Mayor White but sadly not James Brown) as well as commentators like Cornel West and Al Sharpton. The biggest moment of tension is when some concert-goers rush the stage and Brown himself asks the police to stand down and the fans to return to the floor. Other than that, the music is spectacular and reports come in that people in Boston are staying home to watch the live broadcast and then the immediate rebroadcast.  And by the way, the WGBH crew having no idea how to produce a pop concert for television is pretty hilarious, but they end up doing a decent job. The film concludes with the effect on James Brown becoming a more vocal leader of the Black American community in the ensuing years. This an excellent document of a moment in Boston history as well as a fantastic concert film. 

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Big Fish (2003)


Title: Big Fish
Release Date: 2003
Director: Tim Burton
Summary/Review:

The center of this story is a son trying to reconcile with his dying father. Edward is a man who charms people with his stories but Will feels that stories prevented him from really knowing his father. This being a Tim Burton film, the stories are dramatized in all their splendor with witche and werewolves, circuses and mysterious towns, a giant and conjoined twins, and lots and lots of fish metaphors. 

It has a Southern Gothic motif like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Forrest Gump, but unlike those films doesn’t even acknowledge segregation which is a disturbing omission. There’s also a part where Edward pursues the woman he wants to marry in ways that are stalker creepy rather than romantic. There are some good bits too. I particularly liked a gag about a Texas bank being robbed by real estate speculators. 

On the whole the this movie feels flat. The music and the drama are telling you that there’s supposed to be a meaningful message about storytelling and life, and the cast of talented actors are trying their best, but the relationships just aren’t there.  This movie has a lot of wonder, but it doesn’t have much heart. 

Rating: **

Movie Review: Wild Africa (2015)


Title: Wild Africa
Release Date: 2015
Directors: Mike Slee, Neil Nightengale, and Patrick Morris
Summary/Review:

Saw this at the Mugar Omni Theater at the Museum of Science, Boston in IMAX format. It’s beautifully filmed with overhead shots reducing the flora and fauna of Africa to abstract art, then zooming in to immerse the viewer in waterfalls, gushes of lava, and a variety of animal one-on-ones. The volcanic eruptions and crocodiles attacking wildebeest are particularly scary for a four-year-old. Time lapse and slo-mo are also used to good effect. 

There’s a downside, particularly in the cliches Helena Bonham Carter is forced to narrate. The silly sound effects and music choices are also questionable (Coldplay, ugh?!?). Most IMAX nature films have a message about environmental stewardship – albeit heavy handed – but this film chose to ignore human influence on nature entirely, which is mind-boggling. I’ve been watching nature documentaries for close to 40 years and it’s disappointing that the narrative framing can’t keep up with the dramatic leaps forward in visual spectacle. 
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: A League of Their Own (1992)


Title:  A League of Their Own
Release Date: 1992
Director:  Penny Marshall
Summary/Review:

I can scratch this off the list of movies I never got around to seeing.  This highly-fictionalized movie tells the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League started during World War II.  It’s a generally entertaining account of an overlooked time in sports history but a few things bug me about.  First, there are a lot of broad comedy devices that seems to undermine the professional aspirations of women athletes by just making them look to silly.  Second, the movie feels bloated with the framing device about the reunion at Cooperstown.  I guess I would’ve found it more interesting if they’d tied it more to actual alumni of the AGPBL rather than having older actors play older fictional versions of the fictional characters.  Finally, I thought Lori Petty played her character far too petulantly (although I was happy that her team won the championship at the end).  Other than that the acting is pretty good – Geena Davis is a strong lead character, for stunt casting Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are actually quite excellent in supporting roles, and I warmed up to Tom Hanks as the angry drunk manager with a heart of gold.  The scene that made me laugh the most is the one where he tries to upbraid a player for missing the cutoff but is unable to find any words.  The thing I get out of watching this movie more than 20 years after it was made is that today we have a professional women’s basketball league and a professional women’s soccer league, but dang it! I just want a professional women’s baseball league, too.
Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: A Couple of Short Films 


Title:  World of Tomorrow
Release Date: 2015
Director:  Don Hertzfeldt
Summary/Review:

This animated short depicts a future when the personalities of people can be downloaded into clones. And a clone travels through time to visit the original person when she’s a toddler.  The depictions of the people in this animated short are childish, crude, and reminiscent of Hyperbole and a Half but set against surreal backgrounds. And the toddler voice behind Emily Prime is just perfect. It’s the type of movie that makes you laugh and then makes you say “hmm…”

Rating: ****

 

Title: The Gnomist
Release Date: 2015
Director: Sharon Liese
Summary/Review:

If you want to cry for 17 minutes this movie will do the job. This documentary tells the story of fairy homes appearing mysteriously in a forest in Overland Park, KS that end up helping the grieving process of a family that lost a three year old child to cancer.   The story of the people behind the fairy houses are equally heartbreaking. 
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wet Hot American Summer (2001)


TitleWet Hot American Summer
Release Date: 2001
Director:  David Wain
Summary/Review:

This comedy is part parody/part homage to the teen sex comedies of the 1970s and 1980s with a keen attention to period detail.  The humor is kind of hit or miss as it’s basically a series of set pieces and some are funnier than others, kind of like an improv show.  The best running gag is that it is impossible for all these things to be happening in a single day and the characters are aware of the way movies play with time.  This seems like the kind of movie a group of friends who remember the 80s might enjoy watching together, but I’m not sure if it was worth me waiting 15 years (or is it 35 years) to see it.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence


Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville
Summary/Review:

This Netflix documentary follows Keith Richards as he works in the studio on new songs and travels through America to sites connected with American music. Theses scenes are intercut with archival footage of Richards and the Stones. The influences in this movie are musical – Blues, Country, & Reggae – and Richards talks about his love for music and how he creates his own. Musicians talking about music is the best kind of music documentary. It has all the joy and none of the bitterness of Richard’s autobiography.  As an added bonus, Tom Waits appears for a few scene-stealing interviews.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ballerina (2006)


Title: Ballerina
Release Date: 2006
Director: Bertrand Normand
Summary/Review:
This documentary documents a couple of years in the lives and careers of five women dancers in the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. These ballerinas – Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Ulyana Lopatkina, Alina Somova, &
Evgenia Obraztsova – are celebrities in ballet-crazed Russia. Each represents a different point in the career from a recently hired graduate of the grueling Vaganova Ballet Academy to a member of the corps de ballet getting her first solos to an experienced dancer venturing out to perform with companies abroad and a ballerina regaining her skills after being sidelined with a foot injury for two years. There are some creepy aspects to this movie such as young girls being selected for Vaganova simply on their body type and the dictatorial behavior of instructors and directors. The ballerinas are guarded in their interviews with one stating that she can only really express herself in her dance. So it is no surprise that the best parts of this documentary are the dance performances on stage, and even more so in rehearsal.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Moonrise Kindgom


Title: Moonrise Kindgom
Release Date: 2012
Director: Wes Anderson
Summary/Review: Set in 1965 on a fictional, rural island in New England this movie tells the story of a pair of 12-year-old, both outsiders with “behavior problems,” who decide to run away together and the efforts of their community to find them.  This being a Wes Anderson movie it has all the hallmarks of his style – bright colors, symmetry, unusual music choices, and quirky behavior. I tend to waver on whether I like Anderson or not, but I ended up enjoying this movie.  I think it succeeds on the strength of the young actors in the lead roles, Kara Hayward as Suzy and Jared Gilman as Sam, where it could have failed with less authentic acting performances.  Hayward and Gilman even outshine the many big name actors who surround them, including France McDormand and Bill Murray who are either miscast or just underused as Suzy’s parents. The story of the community coming together around the missing children also strikes a nice balance of being sweet without being saccharine and sardonic without being cynical.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Cars 2 (2011)


Title: Cars 2
Release Date: 2011
Director:  John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Production Co:  Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Animation | Family | Comedy
Rating: 5 of 10

I had low expectations for this movie since Cars is my least favorite of the Pixar films and the premise for this one sounded, well, …. dumb.  But my daughter wanted to watch it and even after she fell asleep in my lap, I kept watching.  Lightning McQueen, the main character  (car-actor?) of the first movie is barely in a supporting role this time as his friend Mater the Tow Truck takes the central role.  Mater feels out-of-place on a world tour of grand prix races and finds himself caught up in international espionage.  It’s basically a remake of Bill Murray’s The Man Who Knew Too Little, with an unsophisticated character stumbling around and successfully outwitting the baddies.  And it’s funny and it’s got heart and it’s got some clever bits.  I don’t know if kids actually get all the machinations of the complex plot, but hey, if they get a good nap out of it and Dad still finds it watchable, that’s not a bad thing.