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The Reader (2008)
Wish I could rate this one higher but...
There are already many excellent reviews covering the thought-provoking story of "The Reader". I decided to write a quick review because the story was important and, for the most part, well-written and well-acted. But, in my humble opinion, to make this a truly great movie, and the material deserves more attention, this film needed another pass through an editor's hands to remove the extraneous sex scenes.
The subject matter is serious but I found myself wondering if the costume budget had been drastically cut given how many scenes are shown of naked people. I only needed one sex scene to set the stage for the passionate affair between Michael and Hannah. The repetitious sex scenes became gratuitous and boring. Not one of them was original but instead were reminiscent of those that had gone before in "Summer of '42", "The Graduate", and many others. A good 20 minutes in sex scenes alone could've been cut and the movie would've been better for it. As it was they became an unwelcome distraction from the actual point of the film. And that's a shame because once we get beyond them the movie really takes off. Until then, however, my inclination to stop watching was great. I'm glad I didn't, but I did want to warn others. It gets better. A little fast-forwarding may be in order.
Burn After Reading (2008)
Sadly wasted potential
Despite the all-star cast, regrettably, this movie doesn't deliver. If you enjoy this genre a far better movie which is superior in every way is Ruthless People (1986). Check it out instead.
Having said that, there was some potential here but poor writing and slow, clumsy pacing sank what could have been a hilarious black comedy. Brad Pitt just about steals the show as the dim-witted Chad Felheimer, a character very reminiscent of Bill Pullman's "Earl" in Ruthless People.
I'll be honest, the only reason I'm leaving a review for Burn After Reading is to strongly suggest everyone take a look at Ruthless People, a gem of a movie which should be analyzed and taught in movie-making school.
The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)
Not perfect but good
"The Zookeeper's Wife" is based on the lives of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, during the German occupation of Poland during World War II. I class this movie in the same league as "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" and "It's A Beautiful Life". These are movies which give viewers credit for having a brain as evidenced by a lack of gratuitous violence, blood, gore, and killing.
We don't need to see animals being blown up or girls being raped to know these things happened and were horrible. I don't find graphic images of such things "entertaining" anyway so I appreciated the lack of shock and horror. Instead the writers and director effectively allude to the horror without abusing me, the viewer. Some will say the movie is a sanitized view of WWII and they would be right. But it didn't diminish the impact of the story, which is the entire point of the film.
The story is one of kindness, bravery, and resilience in the face of Nazi evil. It is simply told in a linear fashion. The movie is well filmed and well acted. As entertainment goes it's good. As far as "message", it's as deep as the viewer wants it to be. I found myself thinking, "What would I do in a similar situation?" And if I find myself asking myself that question rather than turning away I call that successful story-telling. A good movie doesn't need to beat up the audience to drive home it's point.
So, mostly I just wanted to provide a review applauding the restraint of the movie maker. For too long I've had little choice in movies I'd want to watch since so many of them feature explosions, gunplay, graphic scenes of murder and rape, gratuitous use of obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity, and rarely give me credit for having any kind of discernment as they beat me over the head with some heavy-handed "message" usually about something with which I completely disagree. "The Zookeeper's Wife" doesn't employ any of these tired, ugly devices. I didn't once feel manipulated. It's not a perfect movie but it was entertaining and left me with plenty to ponder and talk about with others.
The Great Gatsby (1974)
Some books are meant to be read
I just finished re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby". It's a novel I hated as a child -- was forced to read it for English in high school -- but appreciated much more as an adult. Then I went to Netflix and watched this movie again. It is, for the most part, a faithful adaptation of the novel but Fitzgerald's beautiful, succinct prose is the only reason to read this tragic tale to begin with. No matter how big the stars or how gorgeous the sets the bottom line remains the artistic assembly of words in the novel. Intermittent narration doesn't cut it and the story itself isn't much to begin with. It's ALL about Fitzgerald's use of words. Lacking that is lacking everything that makes "The Great Gatsby", the novel, something of value. This movie compared to the novel is like...a paint by numbers kit for a masterpiece by Van Gogh or an elementary school band's rendition of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
So, I guess I'll say, if you haven't read the novel you may enjoy this movie. And even if you've read the novel the movie may satisfy on some level though the heart of it has been cut out. But do yourself a favor and read the novel. Read every word. Drink them in. Admire the skill with which Fitzgerald uses language. Then go watch "The Great Waldo Pepper", another Redford film, and enjoy.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Good movie but, sadly, Hollywood must tinker with facts
I really enjoyed watching Hidden Figures. The story was compelling and laid out neatly for our viewing pleasure. It shone a spotlight on a part of history with which I wasn't familiar. And, most importantly, it made me want to learn more about Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. What a shame the screenwriters felt they had to preach at me about racism rather than just tell the true story of these amazing and talented women. They weren't amazing and talented "in spite" of being black or "in spite" of being women, they were just amazing and talented in their own right. One day, perhaps, Hollywood will get a clue and give audiences credit for having a brain.
Much of the atmosphere of racism in the movie did not ring true for me. In many cases it didn't even make sense, so I looked into it. The first question I had for the internet was "Did Katherine Goble have to run half a mile to use a bathroom on the NASA complex?" The answer is no. For more info on the conditions and life of Katherine Johnson check out the interview with her here: https://youtu.be/r8gJqKyIGhE. In particular check out 11:49 where she says she "didn't feel segregation". Everyone was working. The job was important and they weren't going to jeopardize the mission with foolish racist antics. She was part of a team. I would've liked to have heard so much more about Katherine and her mind and work, less about the social issues of the 1960s!
I understand screenwriters have to condense a large amount of information into a couple of hours but the ham-handed and, let's be honest, false representation of racism at NASA and the treatment of these women was a repeated and unwelcome intrusion into what should have been a very interesting and educational movie about such remarkable women. For example: I strongly suspect Katherine Goble never, ever would have been so unprofessional as to scream at her boss and co-workers like she does in what Hollywood probably sees as a "cathartic" scene. It was completely out of character and a distraction from what should have been the real story, that of Katherine's accomplishments. Goble was a conscientious and intelligent woman who would've never done such a thing which, to my way of thinking, says a lot more about her than this silly, manufactured scene.
But I don't want to run the risk of being just as ham-handed in my review and I'll leave my criticism at that. I'll only add, don't let the prospect of being bludgeoned by an anti-racism message keep you from going to see Hidden Figures.
Rogue One (2016)
Entertaining enough but mercilessly dark
If you're into the Star Wars odyssey by all means, pay the money, and see this one on the big screen. If you're even a lukewarm fan of the franchise, sure, go have a look because the film is visually entertaining with some interesting effects, in particular, the light and shadow effects as planets and spacecraft move around their respective suns. Notice I am not using words like "outstanding" or "stunning" because nothing about this movie qualifies for either of those adjectives, and yet it held my interest for two hours and 13 minutes but left me with very little to applaud.
The story is familiar and the lines spoken by the actors are nothing new but not so much so that I was left shaking my head or groaning though I did find myself sighing many times toward the end as the movie packed in one trouble after another and the dreadful denouement loomed large.
Momentary bright spot: The robot, voiced by Alan Tudyk, thankfully speaks his lines in a matter-of-fact way that was a blessed relief from all previous "cute" robots. And he had some good lines too. He is a complete departure from the earlier robots in that he's not there to appeal to children but rather simply there as comedic relief in this mercilessly dark story. Which brings me to my main criticism of this film.
SPOILERS AHEAD!! (Consider yourself warned) . . . . . I really did not like this movie once the story was told and done. I walked out of the theater feeling disgusted and gloomy, and that's not what I pay the price of a ticket to do. I go to movies to be impressed, amused, and diverted from my cares. To me that's actually the definition of "entertainment". But a movie where everyone dies is not entertaining. And if the writers of this movie honestly think they redeemed this dismal exercise in death by having the final word in their script be "hope" they are naive and completely underestimate the power of the medium from which they've chosen to make a living.
So, for the die-hard fans, sure, go, enjoy the special effects. For the rest of us who would rather not see a movie entirely devoted to death and destruction, save your money. For all it's good points, Rogue One is a miserable movie with nothing to offer but death. And right now in reality on planet earth with apocalyptic nihilists running around indiscriminately murdering people Rogue One seems particularly ill- timed and unhelpful. And no, I'm not comparing the rebels to terrorists but I am saying we, humans, have enough real death in our lives already. We don't need even more of it in our "entertainment".
Amish Grace (2010)
It's all about forgiveness
I haven't been this delighted with a movie in a long time. The script was smart, the topic timely and important, the message clear, and the visuals very watchable. It's a rare movie that I can give my own double thumbs up to and recommend to anyone of my acquaintance without added disclaimers about what might offend or annoy them. This is a movie about the value of forgiveness plain and simple (no pun intended).
The movie is based on the real life events that took place in Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania in 2006 when a gunman entered an Amish schoolhouse and shot ten school girls. The gunman then killed himself. The Amish community immediately reached out in love to the widow of the gunman.
As you can imagine Christian teachings are a core part of the plot but there is nothing preachy about this movie. It's not meant to be an evangelical tool like some movies such as the "Left Behind" series . As I said before, this movie is about forgiveness -- the "mechanics" of forgiveness if you will. What does forgiveness look like using the Christian model? How is it done? To whom is it extended? The movie addresses these questions and more.
One reason why I think this is one of the smartest scripts I've ever seen is the way these questions are presented. Nothing is sugar- coated. The hard questions are asked and the answers are not spoon-fed to us by writers trying to make their own private points but rather left be answered by each individual. Some answers are demonstrated for us by the players in the movie. Not everyone feels like they can forgive the killer and there are a wide variety of reasons given for this. For those who are determined to forgive we are given a glimpse at their inner struggle and the process they go through to reach the place where they can forgive and move on with their lives. It's made abundantly clear that forgiving people is not easy but is as vital to living as breathing.
Another reason the script is smart is because it doesn't insult my intelligence or feel it has to show and tell me everything. The murders themselves are alluded to but there isn't a drop of blood to be seen in this movie. Reading up on the actual events the crime scene was described as horrific -- there wasn't a surface inside the one room schoolhouse that was not covered in either blood or broken glass. We don't need to see these things to know how horrible the slaughter was and I appreciate that. The acting is good enough that we understand very clearly what these folks were facing.
For those looking for a factual retelling of the tragedy, this isn't it. A disclaimer at the beginning of the movie explains clearly that this is a fictionalized account based on a true story. It goes on to make clear that the main characters in the story, the Graber family, are completely fictional. The event is merely a vehicle to talk about forgiveness and the point is well made. This is not a documentary.
So, whether you're "religious" or not, the message of forgiveness is completely applicable to anyone's life and the world would be a better place if more people practiced the unconditional forgiveness we're shown in "Amish Grace".
America: The Story of Us (2010)
Too many errors to be credible
From the narrator mispronouncing names like Powhatan and Antietam to repeating well-refuted legends such as buckets of blood and human flesh at the Donner Party campsite, I spotted one factual error after another in this series. The show even goes so far as to speculate that modern day computers are based on 19th century textile machine "technology" but states it as if it's fact. Add to that the annoying "shaky cam" effects during action scenes and flashing camera cuts and it all adds up to colossal disappointment which outweighs anything good the series might have to offer.
I was pleased to see some attention given to the presence and contributions of free blacks early in our nation's history. Native Americans were also presented in a more even-handed manner than I've seen in other historic shows. Some of the special effects, such as the computer simulations of the growth of cities, were well done. Other special effects done in the manner of "CSI" were unnecessary and seemed out of place.
The commentators were a mish-mash of celebrities and "experts" with only a handful of them adding any kind of useful or factual insights. Again, so much of the information was incorrect or slanted to support certain modern day perspectives that it was difficult to know what was credible and what wasn't which, in my humble opinion, makes this a pretty useless history show.
Kate & Leopold (2001)
I saw this movie on television last night. Generally, I like Meg Ryan and I think Hugh Jackman is adorable, but "Kate and Leopold" didn't give either one of them much to do. Additionally, what on earth did the movie's hairdresser's do to Meg's hair? I've never seen her look so unattractive throughout an entire movie which was increasingly aggravating to look at after awhile and left me wondering what it was that attracted Leopold to her in the first place? The trite story (isn't this the same story as Crocodile Dundee?) and shallow characters (honestly, what would anyone see in Meg Ryan's character?), the stupid overused gimmicks (tripping at inconvenient moments, etc.) and unnecessary foul language made this movie less of a pleasure to watch than it might have been. This is not your basic cute, fluffy romance much to my disappointment.