Contact

Contact was the first film to really take on extra dimensionality in space exploration. It was written by the master Carl Sagan himself so right there you know it’s worth watching. (Also there’s the fact that 2 original Alien cast members are in it) It’s the screenplay however that made me say to myself “Out damnned spot” many times while watching the thing, not the concept nor the cast.

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Though the drama side of it is tedious and at times a laborious crawl, the concept and visuals in the last 1/4 make up for that. From space enthusiasts to backyard star gazers, this is a winner you shouldn’t miss.

Jodie Foster would have been an excellent choice as a wife for me. I know, she has married already but I definitely feel a kinship with her. She is amazing in the late seventies show Freaky Friday and I have admired all her work since then. She is amazing in Contact. There are some truly gripping scenes between her and her father that would make a grown man cry (well, they kind of did). If you must know the part, leave a comment and I’ll tell you ūüėČ Speaking of notable moments, the opening of this film could be a powerful short on its own. It travels out into the solar system’s reaches, beyond, and into other systems as recorded by Hubble. It’s really well done. It’s the kind of this you could have on infinite repeat as you’re waiting for guests to arrive at your home party. (scroll down for the video)

This film was Robert Zemeckis’ brain child. After Back to the Future, what can a director do, right? He did Romancing the Stone as Well that burst Kathleen Turner onto the scene. Who, by the way I would accept as a third wife. I hope my wife doesn’t read this, although recently she shared she had a thing for the guys in Peaky Blinders. Well? To each her/his own. Anyone who says Kathleen Turner wasn’t high grade hot in Peggy Sue Got Married might not have a pulse. But I digress …

That leads me to Matthew McConaughey, who I am doing a podcast about this week to be aired soon. He’s great, that’s it. I could complain he tries to be a heart-throb and achieves in being a something else throb but I won’t. He is a priest of sorts in this. A man of the cloth who has lost his way in modern science and astronomy. He is the voice of faith on the main character’s shoulder. Don’t worry, it isn’t done in a packaged, Biblical God sort of way. It’s more an issue of faith. There is a sort of transformation in her as a result of Matthew McConaughey’s character. It was less than moving for me but I imagine¬†Bible thumpers who are somewhat open minded will find it deep and astounding. I on;y say that because that used to be me. I’m more interested in the idea of the space travel and again, the visuals in the last 1/3 of the film. I have yet to see something that terrifying and touching at the same time. AND it’s not really fast, Zemeckis stretches the experience so we can really develop an idea of what it happening.

This is a remarkable film that unfortunately tries a little too hard to be an amazing dramatic piece. I think it could have been half as long if it avoided a lot of that and stuck with the special effects and the theories about “life out there.”

I give it a 7 out of 10 because while great sci-fi, it languishes in misplaced drama writing a good portion of the film.

Instead of a trailer, here’s that opening scene I told you about. Enjoy. Do you think I’m more right or wrong about this film? Please leave me comments with your opinion! This would be a great film to discuss right here!

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Robert Zemeckis
Steve Starkey
Screenplay by James V. Hart
Michael Goldenberg
Story by Carl Sagan
Ann Druyan
Based on Contact
by Carl Sagan
Starring
Jodie Foster
Matthew McConaughey
James Woods
John Hurt
Tom Skerritt
Angela Bassett
Music by Alan Silvestri
Cinematography Don Burgess
Edited by Arthur Schmidt
Production
company
South Side Amusement Company
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

I recommend you see this movie with no presuppositions. Even the few small things I mention here should be seen as simply one critic’s opinion. I wrote this review the week of its premiere in 2014. This is a uniquely remarkable film. I highly recommend it.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
R | 1h 59min | Comedy, Drama | 14 November 2014 (USA)

A washed-up actor, who once played a famous superhero, attempts to revive his career by writing and starring in a Broadway play.
Director: Alejandro Gonz√°lez I√Ī√°rritu (as Alejandro G. I√Ī√°rritu)
Writers: Alejandro Gonz√°lez I√Ī√°rritu (as Alejandro G. I√Ī√°rritu), Nicol√°s Giacobone

See it with an open mind. To begin: this is not a superhero movie. I purposely did not use a mock Birdman as an image for my post. Instead I used Michael Keaton in his underwear because metaphorically, this is what you get. I feel bad for the kids that may pay to go see this expecting a gritty sort of superhero that mimics the likes of Batman. This is not a lower Batman, this is a lower person and the anatomy of his breakdown. It just so happens that in this man’s life, he played a “Birdman” in a set of sequels. It doesn’t matter to the point. Birdman is a firing of brain cells in the mind of an actor who has wasted his life living for appearances and not for reality. In his words, he “has not been present” for his life. We can all get some good lessons from this movie. It portrays men as egotistical and highly capable of getting what they want at any cost. It portrays women as victims who men fail to support time and time again. The male brain is sinister at times and women find this sad. In fact, the audience is meant to find it sad. At the bottom right of Riggan’s (character played by Michael Keaton) mirror he has a quote taped on that reads: “The thing is the thing, not what is said about the thing.” Could there be an application to social media? To “getting off the grid?” Maybe. You as a viewer decide to what degree.

There is also a dream element that has already been touched on all over the internet so I won’t get too into it. There is a lot about the brain but not in the way you might think. Some see the film as a death bed reflection, others see it as part dream and part brain firing. I do not feel that this movie was meant to be understood. It was meant to be enjoyed and talked about but never fully understood. One thing I noticed that didn’t seem real was when Riggan pulled a cocktail napkin out of his wallet, showing his daughter Sam (Emma Stome) it’s significance to the play. Raymond Carver had signed it for his while he was in a bar with his dad. I din’t know about you, but receipts in my wallet start to disintegrate after a few months. I thought it was bad writing at the time but now I see it could be part of a dream or trick of the brain at time of death. Perhaps the whole movie is that.

You keep waiting throughout the film for it to make sense but it really isn’t until you’ve seen the entirety of it that you can start to form opinions on what just happened. Hallucinations permeate the film so it’s hard to see what’s really going on. I think in the end, the psychiatrists will have the best read of this film. Go see Birdman if you want to see a creative and beautifully filmed movie. It might also appeal to you that Michael Keaton, Zach Galafinakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone are in it. The acting drew me in like a moth to a light. It was a highly enjoyable movie experience but you have to be willing to fill in the mortar between the bricks. Once again, don’t assume it’s about a superhero. The title is extremely misleading. There is a man in a suit but he is the voice in Keaton’s head that tells him things. He isn’t real. He is, in fact, in the movie only about 10 minutes total. Ok, I’ve said enough about that. This is not a superhero film. I feel it leaves too much up to the imagination. It reminded me of the acclaimed Enemy movie that way. Perhaps the director got too close to the material and forgot the audience couldn’t get the ending. It needed to be explained more. For that reason I think a lot of people will be frustrated with this movie. I know I was. It could have said so much more about “being present” in ones life and social media and art and theater. Instead, it tries too hard to be spooky and vague and achieves it, which is also fun when you’re out at the movies. This is at the cost of a star. I give it 4/5.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A film showing the darker face of religion when the wolf comes in sheep’s clothing. In this case, Robert Mitchum plays a great wolf, and as he usually is a scary one too.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
1h 32min | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir | 24 November 1955 (Argentina)

A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery.
Director: Charles Laughton
Writers: James Agee (screenplay), Davis Grubb (based on the novel by)
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish

Plot Summary

Harry Powell is a lifelong crimimal doing time with a one time thief, Ben Harper, seeking only to secure his kids’s future. To Harry it’s all about greed. While in prison, Harper tells Powell about his huge stash from the crime and Harry Powell dedicates himself to getting it. Posing as a preacher, he infiltrates Ben Harper’s town and family as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” but find that money from the secrets he shared with his children isn’t going to be easy.

Director and Actors

This is actor Charles Laughton’s only credited work as director. He has a very recognizable face. You may know him as the hunchback in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sir Wilfrid Roberts in Witness for the Prosecution, or any other of his many successful roles in film. I admire his direction in this film, the characters all seem focused on the same page. The “page” is something that would have been a real taboo in that day. Preaching is often mocked to make a point. Even though we know the villain is no preacher, all the significant particulars relating to religion tend toward a reality that isn’t flattering. This would seem to be the intended message of the director.

Robert Mitchum is just scary as all get up in this. I’d say it comes close to Cape Fear as such. I suppose it you’re religious, you view him as worst of the worst because he’s posing as a man of the cloth. If you’re not, you might see religion as the evil here. Either way, he’s a truly bad dude doing really bad stuff out of greed. Shelly Winters plays Willa and does a really good job as such. Nonetheless my favorite character in the film is Rachel Cooper played by Lilian Gish. She comes later in the film but is such a strong force. She helps build a lot of plot to a climax. She’s the real hero of this story.

My Take on the Film

This is an oldie from 1955. It carries that air of mystery you might sense in an Alfred Hitchcock film. At the same time, there is the classic look everywhere like in the wooden houses or even the archaic farm equipment. The boats, the wardrobe, everything reminds of a time long ago. One aspect that isn’t far off though is the evil that people do in the name of religion. Toward the end of the film they seem to redeem faith but in the first 2/3 of the film religion in general is portrayed in a bad way. No one can deny it enables the villain to have access to the wife and her kids. Most the film is suspense, drilling down on the wife and kids. Mitchum is at his best faking religious drawl as he seeks to extract the location of the money from the kids. The film stays on that for a large chunk and it is enjoyable, a definite thrill ride. But when the kids see fit to escape, we are relieved of the suspense, Mitchum is free to play an all out evil wolf, and a slightly different air rises up in the film. It’s more a stalker film at that point. I enjoyed the dialect and story of the film. It was also very well cast.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who’s seen Robert Mitchum as an evil character in a film knows he is unmistakable and talented as such. This is no exception. Watching him weave his wiles as a preacher in the family and as Willa’s new husband in hypnotic. He is very convincing. You find yourself saying “No No Willa, think of your kids” as she’s taking her vows. His smug face is so perfect for the role. If you’re hankering for a suspense filled black and white from the 50’s, I highly recommend this one!

10/10

‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’

ET might as well be subtitled ‘A Gen-X childhood.’ Those of us who were around age 10 in 1980 received this film that was aimed right where we live.

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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Cast

Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote

Directed by

Steven Spielberg

Written by

Melissa Mathison

Other Info

Family, Sci-Fi
Rated PG
115min

Suburbs had been a thing in the 60’s and 70’s but they were blooming all over the American map in the 80’s. ET isn’t the only film from that decade that features them prominently. They are still very much with us today but there was rarely a time when new suburban plots and neighborhoods reminded so many people in America of home. The alien named ET is the interloper who walks across the suburban threshold and gives us an accounting of what we’ve done and where we’re headed. There is also a part of ET that will always appeal to any child. He is the little green man with magical powers that all the kids want face time with. He’s the pet on the street that every kids wants until the next cute one comes along.

ET came on the heels of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I remember seeing ads, on paper, that described what the film was going to be about. It explained the meaning of the term ET “Extra Terrestrial.” A creature from a place other than Earth. There was no photo but I think his green finger was pointing. This built incredible suspense or me at that age about a mysterious creature that Steven Spielberg was going to show us.

When the film starts out, we are in a tract home kitchen. There are Mexican designs like stucco visible but it might as well be a cookie cutter copy of what most American kids recognized as home. The kids are playing a board game and a single mother is supplying them with munchies, a pizza is on the way. This could not be more Americana, to me anyway. What makes it even more close to home for me is the way the mother (Dee Wallace) is a real estate agent. My dad was a real estate agent most of my young life in an Orange County city called “Mission Viejo.” It looks almost identical to the town in this film.

There is a little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and an older brother Mike. Elliot is the middle child who makes the strongest connection with the alien. One night, after being left behind by his ship, ET is discovered by Elliot and that’s where the meter play begins. We get an other-worldly look at ourselves as earthlings through the eyes of this alien called ET.

Spielberg has been making movies that do this for decades. If you recall Back to the Future and the way it took us on a ride back to our childhoods to observe the choices the characters made and how they affected their future. Wouldn’t it be grand to go back and change things? I think it’s a very human thing to wonder that and therefore Spielberg’s film appeals to many. ET has a conflict with grow ups (who might report him to the authorities) and the government, NASA to be specific. In the film, I think Spielberg is showing us about ourselves and the way we want to conquer and own something alien rather than respect and learn from it.

There’s a hypnotic effect that comes from scenes with ET. He is such a creative figure. I heard that Spielberg wanted to make a creature that appeared ugly but would still be endeared to children and adults because of his mannerisms and actions. For many years after the film was released, there were ET shirts and toys selling off the shelves. Watching ET, especially in the final scenes, almost puts me in a trance every time I watch it. He gives the film a dreamy aesthetic that evokes wonder without fear.

I remember the Halloween scene so well because it reminded me of when I would go trick or treating. ET is still being hidden from the mother but the kids pull it off by pretending he’s Gertie dressed up like a ghost in a sheet. He is about her height. To me, this movie is more of a flashback to my childhood than a move plot to be reviewed. I would recommend it to any human as a heartwarming film about childhood. At the same time, know that it is a little sing-song and certainly there is no intense action or definitely no horror. This is a family film with enough of an edge to keep it highly suspenseful and engaging. It has the fingerprint of its household name producer on it for sure. As a classic film of all time, I highly recommend it to you.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Article first published as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on Blogcritics.
At a time of enlightenment about Autism, this film sheds a realistic light that’s not always easy to watch.

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Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was directed by Stephen Daldry, known for The Reader, Billy Elliot, and the Hours. It has been advertised as a stunning, avant garde movie centering on how the 9-11 tragedy affects one family. It centers around Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old boy who is hell bent on discovering a remnant of his father’s past. His father is Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, who dies in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The last remnant, as it were, he has left behind for his son is a cryptic key. Oskar finds in a vase in the closet after his father is dead. He is from then on driven and fixated on finding the lock that the key opens. This generates a plot of pseudo adventures meeting all sorts of people and devising all sorts of elaborate schemes along the way. What about the twin towers? That was my burning question most of the movie. Make no mistake: this film is not so much about 911. Instead it is more akin to a public service announcement for Asperger’s syndrome, or some garden variety diagnosis of a tortured genius nine year old. Oskar Schell apparently has license to scream horrible words at his mother, (Sandra Bullock) because of his unique disorder. He rolls on the floor, bangs his hands against furniture, and shows utter frustration when his “genius” ideas are thwarted. I could get into the unrealistic amounts of time he is alone to carry out his adventures but I won’t. I also won’t get into the ridiculous cussing exchanges (equally implausible) he has with the security guard (John Goodman) of his building as he comes and goes. I don’t think this movie is meant to be realistic, it’s up to something else. I am not sure I know what it is. It is definitely hard to follow. Fortunately, we can find some compassion for the boy and that held my interest for some of the film.

Of course, anyone would have sympathy for Oskar. He lost his father who was seemingly his best friend to the tragedy we now refer to as 9-11. Still, it doesn’t excuse his disdain for his mother and the strange fixations he leaps headlong into to find the origin of the key. Along the way, he meets a nice, quiet (mute in fact), man who rents a room from his grandmother. He is aptly called “The Renter” (Max von Sydow). He accompanies Oskar on his key expedition which is very difficult because the old man cannot speak. In a way, the renter is best suited to Oskar: he never talks back. The renter is Oskar’s long lost mute grandfather and ironically becomes the only voice of reason. In my opinion, Max von Sydow gives the most compelling performance in the movie. I must add also that there isn’t much competition.

Oskar is very taken with his own “clever” ideas and likes to tell people about them with every opportunity. His lines are annoying and they are delivered with an equally unsettling voice. There isn’t much more to the story than Oskar finding the lock for the key. The mystery’s end is not exciting and he doesn’t seem to advance much in is grieving process for his dad.

I think this movie failed to impress me because it was not about what it advertised. A movie can get away with that when it is such a powerful film you forget you were cheated by the ads. In my opinion, this movie used 9-11 as a “bait-and-switch theme to get people into the theater. There is only minimal reminiscing about the tragedy. On the other hand, the movie centers on Oskar who is not an emotionally well young man. We therefore have nothing to relate with. The boy’s actions are annoying and obtuse, he treats his mother atrociously. I can’t relate with how a kid like that sees his mother and the world. We want to relate with Oskar but the feelings never come. Then there is the theme of 9-11. We want to relate with that but it has such a small small place in the movie. I think it would have been better to either make a well developed movie about 9-11 -or- to make a movie with a decent script about Asperger’s syndrome. They didn’t do that though so what we are left with is a movie with an extremely long title and an incredibly flat plot. I was very let down by this movie and the way it promoted itself to be something it was not. If you like the actors, it is worth seeing. If you want to re-examine 9-11 or anything “real” about the grieving process, or Asbergers for that matter, stay incredibly far away from this one. While this movie may be extremely loud & incredibly close on one level, it is most decidedly not incredibly deep.

Despicable Me

This is my article first published as Despicable Me Is Not Your Typical Villain Movie on Blogcritics.

People have asked me what movie is the best of 2010. This is my answer. Despicable Me is a delightful film with much to offer families and any movie-goer looking for fun in a film. It was co-directed by relative newcomers: Pierre Coffin, Gary’s Fall 2003, and Chris Renaud, in production on The Lorax and creator of No Time for Nuts, a short on the Ice Age DVD. I watched previews for Despicable Me with some cynicism thinking: “Here we have yet another piece of CGI predictability.” I was pleasantly proven wrong, however, when the characters, writing, and voice performances turned me around 180 degrees. I haven’t been this impressed with an animated film since Meet the Robinsons (2007). In the same way Robinson’s does, Despicable Me does more than entertain us: it shows a portrait of our humanity.

Without giving away too much, the movie is about Gru, a super-villain who is trying to recover a shrink ray from Vector, another super-villain. This is sort of the opposite of a human growth hormone. After multiple efforts to penetrate Vector’s lair, Gru discovers Vector’s weakness for girl scout cookies as he lets girl scouts come past the gate. Gru then gets a “lightbulb” and surreptitiously adopts three girl scouts from a local orphanage to do his bidding. Gru quickly learns what caring for kids is all about, and the girls prove less expendable than he thought.

There are some big names behind the voices in this movie; most are incredible performances. Steve Carell brings a superstar appeal to the film’s marketing. Having said that, I don’t find anything extra special about his voice in the film. He does an okay job as “Gru,” the Pinocchio nosed, Russian-accented villain who becomes an unwitting dad. The CGI is what makes his character amazing. His legs are¬†unnaturally¬†spindly and belie his enormous rotund body. He’s hilarious without uttering a word. I really liked Steve Carell in Dan in Real Life and most everything he does. He has a great personality-filled voice, but I think he served more to get people into the movie than to give Gru a memorable voice.

The other characters are a whole different story. The actors doing the voices for the girls, (Margo: Miranda Cosgrove, Edith: Dana Gaier, and Agnes: Elsie Fisher), Miss Hattie (the adoption lady): Kirsten Wig, and Vector: Jason Segel, are noteworthy and special. They provide a sonic reality to the animation rarely seen in the minions of CGI animated movies nowadays.

This movie is being marketed as a villain movie. It is indeed that for a while, but eventually it moves to a wider encompassing place. The juxtaposition of such an evil guy, Gru, with three sweet little kids lends the movie a global warmth, taking it beyond a potentially one-dimensional villain movie with just “neat” effects. I think it will have mass appeal with family movie-goers. It made me want to hug my kids.¬†Comic relief is provided by the “minions,” amazing little yellow tubes that serve Gru and do many hysterical things. Interesting trivia: the minions are voiced by the two directors of the movie, Coffin and Renaud.

Vector is a great “villain’s villain.” You love to hate him. He is reminiscent of villains we’ve seen in the past, but Jason Segel brings new character to the villain we love to hate. I had to stay after and watch the credits because the voice was just so familiar to me. I was a big fan of him in I Love You Man and, when I saw his name in the credits, it was a V8 head-smacking moment. Segel does a great job voicing the true villain in this film.

The littlest girl Agnes is beautifully portrayed. The scenes when she talks to Gru begging for a bedtime story get me to the core. I would say any father in the theater could attest to the same. I’ve already alluded to it twice but I will say it again that I feel the audio performances like the one of Agnes make this a unique and special animated film.

To wrap this, I recommend Despicable Me to families and people who appreciate more than just visuals in an animated movie. The characters, writing, and voice performances work together to make this film exceptional. Despicable Me made me glad I spent my $10 and 95 minutes at the movies.

I Love You Man

This post I wrote was first published at Blogcritics.

I just saw I Love You, Man, the latest film by director John Hamburg (The Letter, Along Came Polly) and I laughed myself silly. The operative word here is “silly” because in the same spirit of Hamburg’s Along Came Polly, this movie is a laugh a minute. Despite some crude references, which are more the norm than the exception in Hollywood these days, this is a wholesome R-rated comedy (if that is possible).

Peter Klaven, played by Paul Rudd, is a real estate agent in his 30s, set to be married to Zooey, played by Rashida Jones. Peter needs a best man. His brother can do it but he feels they are not that close. Instead, Peter chooses to start “man-dating.” This sets a stage where some truly hilarious scenes take place. These are jokes about the insecurities some guys have about getting close. There’s nothing gay going on but it feels like that same category of humor (i.e. Reno 911, The Birdcage, etc). This is a clever job of writing; it’s nice to see a movie that takes a spin on something that’s already been done and makes it original.

One of the themes revisited several times in this film is the “man cave.” Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) has a man cave and invites Peter into it to jam Rush songs and observe his “special chair” (one of the crude references I alluded to earlier). Every guy 21 and up can relate to a man cave: a place to jam music and talk about chicks!

The conflict at the end is quite predictable, especially in its resolution, but frankly, I didn’t care to be critical. I was laughing and enjoying myself right up until the end. They might have made the Sydney character a bit more normal since most guys have friends like that. Then again, this is a movie so it doesn’t have to be exactly like real life, I guess. It never became as odd as The Cable Guy but that sort of weirdness in another shade is what I’m talking about. Take it from this writer, friends don’t have to be that weird to be weird according to our wives. I thought the writing of Sydney was a bit overkill.

The Southern California settings were beautiful, starting in Pasadena, working through Venice Beach, and finally culminating in the real on-location wedding in Santa Barbara. I found the realism of setting reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s recent film Yes Man which was shot in Pasadena, Balboa Park, and at the Hollywood Bowl.

I recommend this one to guys and/or couples 21 and up. My wife and I laughed our brains out. Sure, it could have been better with a more realistic characterization of Sydney but who’s keeping track of stuff like that in new movies that really make us laugh?