Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Blue Ruin (2014) ****

R, 90 min.
Director/Writers: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, David W. Thompson, Brent Werzner, Stacy Rock, Sidné Anderson

“Blue Ruin” is one of those independent films that wears the blood, sweat and tears of the filmmakers’ efforts right out on every frame. It’s a dismal story about a family broken by the choices of the previous generation. If you’ve seen Jeff Nichols’ brilliant debut “Shotgun Stories”, you have an idea of the subject matter. “Blue Ruin” isn’t as stylish as Nichols’ film and it’s much more brutal and devastating.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Interview / ** (R)

Dave Skylark: James Franco
Aaron Rapaport: Seth Rogen
Kim Jong-un: Randall Park
Sook: Diana Bang
Agent Lacey: Lizzy Caplan

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen. Written by Dan Sterling and Seth Rogen & Even Goldberg. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence).

I’ll admit that I’ve found the story surrounding the release of the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy “The Interview” to be one of the most interesting news stories of the year. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past month, the film’s distribution studio, Sony Pictures, was hacked in late November. Soon sensitive information was leaked to the Internet, including corporate communications and downloadable copies of five of Sony’s big holiday movies. A group calling themselves the GOP (Guardians of Peace)—a curious set of initials considering they were already taken by a well-known political party—claiming responsibility and demanding the cancellation of the planned Christmas Day release of “The Interview” because of its depiction of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. It was eventually confirmed by the CIA that they felt North Korea was responsible for the hack. More Sony secrets were released to news organizations and violence was threatened at exhibitor venues that chose to screen the movie on Christmas Day. Several major distributors decided not to screen the film and Sony announced that the Christmas Day opening would be canceled with no other plans to distribute the film. There was an outcry—my own included—that expressed how this development was allowing foreign elements to control our freedom of speech in the U.S. After being virtually scolded by President Obama, Sony announced new plans to release the movie as originally scheduled on Christmas Day to select independent exhibitors and through select video on demand outlets.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Unbroken / **½ (PG-13)

Louis Zamperini: Jack O’Connell
Wantanabe: Miyavi
Phil: Domhnall Gleeson
Fitzgerald: Garrett Hedlund
Mac: Finn Wittrock
Cup: Jai Courtney

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Angelina Jolie. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Running time: 137 min. Rated PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language).

The story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian American Olympic athlete who served his country as a bombardier in the Pacific Theater of WWII and was captured after surviving for 47 days at sea only to suffer the torments of a prisoner of war camp in Japan, is certainly the stuff of Hollywood. His story and life are testaments to what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation. Zamperini experienced more in the first quarter of his life than many ever experience in a lifetime. While the life is great, the movie leaves much of it unexplored in detail and emotions.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies / *** (PG-13)

Bilbo Baggins: Martin Freeman
Gandalf the Grey: Ian McKellen
Thorin Oakenshield: Richard Armitage
Thranduil: Lee Pace
Tauriel: Evangeline Lilly
Legolas: Orlando Bloom
Bard: Luke Evans
Alfrid: Ryan Gage
Kili: Aidan Turner
Fili: Dean O’Gorman
Balin: Ken Stott
Dwailin: Graham McTavish

New Line Cinema and MGM present a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Jackson & Guilermo de Toro. Based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images).

If “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” proves anything, it’s that we’re pretty much done with Middle Earth now. There are only so many times you can watch digitally created armies of humans, dwarves, elves, orcs and various other monsters come together in epic battle and still glean anything worthwhile from it. “The Hobbit” hasn’t exactly overstayed its welcome. Peter Jackson has once again crafted an exciting and visually stunning piece of cinema, but I think I’m done now; and I doubt I’m alone.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) ****

PG-13, 97 min.
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Writer: John Hughes
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, Randy Quaid, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Miriam Flynn, Cody Burger, Ellen Hamilton Latzen, William Hickey, Mae Questel, Sam MacMurray, Nicholas Guest, Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Nicolette Scorsese, Keith MacKechnie, Brian Doyle-Murray, Natalia Nogulich

So, when you’ve been watching a movie once a year for almost thirty years, it’s easy to forget what originally spoke to you about it. With a movie like “Christmas Vacation”, which plays upon the universal truths of what gets under our skins about the holidays, it evolves with the ages. What makes me laugh today probably didn’t when I was 18, and the things that had me holding my gut then, may only stir a chuckle today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—Die Hard (1988) ****

R, 131 min.
Director: John McTiernan
Writers: Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza, Roderick Thorp (novel “Nothing Lasts Forever”)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald Veljohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, James Shigeta, Alexander Godunov, Bruno Doyon, De’vereaux White, Andreas Wisniewski, Clarence Gilyard Jr., Joey Plewa, Lorenzo Caccialanza, Gerard Bonn, Dennis Hayden, Al Leong, Gary Roberts, Hans Buhringer, Wilhelm von Homburg, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush, Bill Marcus, Rick Ducommun

It’s a Christmas movie! OK??!!!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings / **½ (PG-13)

Moses: Christian Bale
Ramses: Joel Edgerton
Seti: John Turturro
Joshua: Aaron Paul
Viceroy Hegep: Ben Mendelsohn
Zipporah: María Valverde
Nun: Ben Kingsley

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian. Running time: 150 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence including battle sequences and intense images).

“I’ve never been certain whether the moral of the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, ‘don’t try to fly too high,’ or whether it might also be thought of as ‘forget the wax and feathers, and do a better job on the wings.”
― Stanley Kubrick

The films of Ridley Scott always strive for greatness. He directs almost everything on such a grand scale that it is inevitable that every once and a while he will, like Icarus, fly too close to the sun. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is one of those times when Scott’s visionary scope has him biting off a little more than he can chew, or more accurately more than has been chewed for him by his screenwriters.

“Exodus” joins the growing population of Christian-themed movies filling our metroplexes of late. Although, it may not truly be as Christian-themed as the Christian-produced movies that take place in modern times, such as “God is Not Dead” and “Heaven is Real”. Like Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” earlier this year, “Exodus” is not so much about being Christian as it uses the Bible as a source material for a special effects extravaganza. Also like “Noah”, it changes a great deal of its source material. In doing so, it seems to have forgotten to transport much of the depth of Moses’s story.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Ida (2014) ****

PG-13, 82 min.
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik

If you haven’t heard of the Polish film “Ida”, then you will if you pay any attention to the Foreign Film categories at the Golden Globes and Oscars. Considering how well it did on almost every top ten list at the end of this year, it will most likely take home the golden statues from them. It deserves the attention it’s getting. It is one of those simple, beautiful films that allow you appreciate life for what it is while reflecting on its greatest horrors.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Chef (2014) ****

R, 114 min.
Director/Writer: Jon Favreau
Starring: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sophia Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey Jr., Amy Sedaris, Russell Peters, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’

I’m not the only person I know that will pick this movie as one of my favorites of the year, although it seems to have been largely forgotten by critics, who were all about it when it was released theatrically. This is often the case with movies released earlier in the year. It’s interesting that the awards season doesn’t seem to have forgotten “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, but this one seems to have disappeared from everyone’s memory. That could be because it doesn’t distinguish itself with flashy cinematography, quirky characterization and dialogue, or “important” issues. However, it is the lack of most of those aspects that makes this movie so special.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) ***

PG-13, 186 min. (extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel “The Hobbit”)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Scott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Manu Bennett, Lawrence Makoare, Anthony Sher

For all of the excitement I had over the first “Hobbit” movie, the second one left me wanting more, and not in the way the second film in a trilogy should. Really, leaving them wanting more is exactly the purpose of a second in a planned trilogy; however, I felt I hadn’t gotten enough out of what was there. Not only did the film suffer from the new phenomenon of conveying an incomplete story, which is afflicting more and more movies these days as Hollywood has discovered a new way to milk book adaptations for money by splitting a single book into multiple movies, but what was there didn’t seem to carry the weight that all of the other Tolkien films have.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Hannibal, season 2 (2014) ****

TV-14, 13 45-min. episodes
Creator: Bryan Fuller

Directors: Tim Hunter, Peter Medak, David Semel, Michael Rymer, Vincenzo Natali, David Slade

Writers: Bryan Fuller, Thomas Harris (characters from novel “Red Dragon”), Steve Lightfoot, Jeff Vlaming, Jason Grote, Scott Nimerfro, Ayanna A. Floyd, Andy Black, Kai Yu Wu, Chris Brancato

Starring: Hugh Dancy, Mad Mikkelsen, Lawrence Fishburne, Caroline Dhavernas, Hettienne Park, Scott Thompson, Aaron Abrams, Raúl Esparza

Guest starring: Gillian Anderson, Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Tucker, Martin Donovan, Patrick Garrow, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Maria Del Mar, Shawn Doyle, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres, Kacey Rohl, Amanda Plummer, Anna Chlumsky, Ted Ludzik, Katharine Isabelle, Jeremy Davies, Chris Diamantopoulis, Mark O’Brien, Michael Pitt, Daniel Kash

There was a point about halfway through the second season when I though this series had finally run itself off the rails. It has always skirted on the precipice of going too far off the deep dark end. I’m sure there are some who feel that it started that way. However, the writing has always been incredible on this series. It is about the best written American television show out there. So how was it possible that things could go so wrong with the writing starting with S2E9 “Siizakana”?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Fountainhead (1949) **

NR, 114 min.
Director: King Vidor
Writer: Ayn Rand (also novel)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey, Kent Smith, Robert Douglas, Henry Hull, Ray Collins

I suppose I can see how at one point in time the philosophies of Ayn Rand might’ve held appeal to some, but at this point, her narrow minded ideals seem like a pretty tough sell to me. Back when King Vidor made her novel “The Fountainhead” into a film, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal as her idealized leads, maybe her ramblings didn’t sound quite so elitist, although I would guess she wouldn’t have a problem with that term. That’s what is hardest to swallow from her for me, the way she sees “the people” as something lesser than her characters.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—Happy Christmas (2014) ***

R, 82 min.
Director/Writer: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Linskey, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Jude Swanberg

Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” is not going to be the next holiday classic. In fact, I’m guessing it’s the type of movie people don’t really want to see for the holidays, which might explain its summer theatrical release date. And yet, it has come out on home video formats just in time to remind us of the things we don’t necessarily appreciate as much as we should during the holidays—our relatives.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) ****

PG-13, 182 min (extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel “The Hobbit”)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Scott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries, Jeffrey Thomas, Lee Pace, Manu Bennett

It seems “The Hobbit” trilogy hasn’t been as well received as “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s flown in a little lower under the radar and fueled less passion than Jackson’s first Middle Earth trilogy. Much of the dismay about it seems focused on the fact that it was one book that he’s making into three very long movies, instead of three slightly longer movies out of three books. I really don’t see the extension of the story as a negative, as long as what they come up with is good. Roger Ebert always said, no good movie is ever too long; no bad movie is ever short enough.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—River’s Edge (1986) ****

R, 99 min.
Director: Tim Hunter
Writer: Neal Jimenez
Starring: Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Daniel Roebuck, Joshua Miller, Dennis Hopper, Roxana Zal, Josh Richman, Philip Brock, Tom Bower, Constance Forslund, Leo Rossi, Jim Metzler

Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge” was such a staple of my teenage years that I was almost afraid to revisit it and possibly find that it was not as good as I had remembered. I’ve been trying to see it again for several years, I even considered purchasing it on a whim, something I gave up doing when my children started sucking up all my money. I found it on one of my streaming services and the mood seemed right, so…

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—Kingdom of Heaven (2005) ****

R, 190 min. (director’s cut)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monaghan
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Marton Csokas, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Velibor Topic, Alexander Siddig, Liam Neeson, Ghassan Massoud, Michael Sheen, Jouko Ahola, Kevin McKidd, Jon Finch

With “Exodus: Gods and Kings” in theaters for early preview screenings tomorrow, director Ridley Scott takes his shot at the biblical epic. This is hardly Scott’s first foray into Christian themes, however. Perhaps one of his most overlooked films, “Kingdom of Heaven”, takes a look at faith in the backdrop of the Crusades to restore the Christian lands around Jerusalem. It isn’t really a Christmas themed movie as it has little to do with Christ’s life on Earth, but I include it for this year’s Holiday Thoughts because it contains one of the best portraits of what it means to be a good Christian in times that most Christians lose sight of the teachings of Christ.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Holiday Thoughts ‘14—Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever (2014) *

G, 85 min.
Director: Tim Hill
Writers: Tim Hill, Jeff Morris
Starring: Grumpy Cat, Aubrey Plaza (voice), Megan Charpentier, Daniel Roebuck, Russell Peters, David Lewis, Evan Todd, Isaac Haig, Shauna Johannesen, Casey Manderson, Tyler Johnston

The circumstances that led to my watching “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever” are surprisingly mundane. It was a Friday night. The kids decided to spend the evening at their cousins’ house. Ang was going through e-mail that had piled up through the week. I was doing some similar cleaning on my computer. I figured the wife and I would take in a couple of catch up television episodes while we waited for the kids to get back. I turned the TV on just to have some noise in the background. Before I knew it, Ang had gone to bed and I was stuck watching a bad Lifetime Christmas special starring an Internet meme sensation from a year ago.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Me and My Moulton (2014) ****

NR, 14 min.
Director/Writer: Torill Kove
Narrator: Andrea Bræn Hovig

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences narrowed its list of possible nominees for Best Animated Short Film to 10 about a month ago. This category that is usually a key to winning the Oscar pool. The reason is that it is often difficult for the general public to see the nominees before the awards ceremony without going to a special art house screening of all the nominees.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) ****

PG-13, 251 min. (special extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, John Noble, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Alan Howard (voice), Sala Baker, Marton Csokas, Bruce Hopkins, Sean Bean, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lee, Bruce Spence

When you ask children to sit through a four-hour movie, it had better have a lot of action within it to keep them checked in. If anything, “The Lord of the Ring: The Return of the King” accomplishes that task in spades. What’s really impressive is that it isn’t merely action. Jackson juggles several different storylines all filled with their own catharsis and depth and masterfully edited together in such a way that the action keeps things moving but never runs over the depth and sentiment.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Palo Alto (2014) **

R, 100 min.
Director: Gia Coppola
Writers: Gia Coppola, James Franco (short stories)
Starring: Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts, Nat Wolff, James Franco, Zoe Levin, Olivia Crocicchia, Claudia Levy, Val Kilmer

This is one of those rare occasions where I’ve actually read the book upon which the movie is based. I read James Franco’s collection of short stories, “Palo Alto: Stories”, and I didn’t particularly like it. He has a natural hand for writing, but it seemed he was trying too hard to be indifferent about his characters’ lives. He writes about harsh lives of adolescence and bad choices, but he seemed too willing to leave his characters hanging without any judgment or catharsis.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) ****

PG-13, 223 min. (special extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Karl Urban, Bruce Hopkins, Sala Baker, Sean Bean, John Noble

OK. A little warning here. This ain’t gonna be much of a review. The Penny Thoughts format is supposed to be flexible in that way. Hopefully at some point I’ll get around to posting my original review of this movie to make up for it; but for now, I’m just going to tell a funny story. And frankly, I’m sure this story will be funnier to me than anyone else.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Nymphomaniac, vol. I (2014) ***½

NR, 117 min.
Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Connie Nielsen, Ananya Berg

I’m not really sure what I was expecting from Lars von Trier’s latest controversial epic, the two-part “Nymphomaniac”. I suppose I was expecting something a little more sexually harsh, like Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” or von Trier’s own “Antichrist”. “Nymphomaniac”, however, is a much more sympathetic portrait of sexual deviancy, at least throughout the first volume.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) ****

PG-13, 208 min. (special extended edition)
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Marton Csokas, Andy Serkis, Alan Howard (voice)

So, Peter Jackson claims the end to his time in Middle Earth has come with “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, due in theaters December 17. As such, I felt it was time for my sons’ time in Middle Earth to begin, and so it did over the Thanksgiving weekend in what might become a new family tradition. The tradition won’t be to watch “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy every Thanksgiving weekend, which is what we did this year, but maybe we’ll do some film series every year. It seems to me “Star Wars” would be an appropriate choice next Thanksgiving, And we could watch all six movies in about the time it took us to watch the three extended editions of LOTR.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats (2014) ***

NR, 74 min.
Director: Lance Bangs
Writer/Performer: Chelsea Peretti

I had never heard of Chelsea Peretti before seeing “Brooklyn Nine Nine”, the Andy Samberg police comedy show in which she plays the precinct secretary. Of a cast of oddballs, her character is by far the strangest of the bunch. She’s a too cool for school playa who probably sat by herself talking mostly to herself during lunch period.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) *

UR, 102 min.
Director: Jeff Tremaine
Writers: Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine, Fax Bahr, Adam Small
Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Greg Harris

Perhaps it is fitting that I should follow up the documentary “The Final Member”, about the world’s only penis museum, with a movie produced by the Jackass crew. “Bad Gandpa” got surprisingly good reviews when it was released in theaters last fall. I have, up to this point, been fortunate enough to avoid anything and everything having to do with the MTV show “Jackass”, which somehow jumped from the small screen to the big screen with three theatrical releases based on its hosts’ stupid choices. Now comes what I guess is their attempt at a dramatic narrative.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Final Member (2014) ***

R, 75 min.
Directors: Johan Bekhor, Zach Math
Featuring: Sigur∂ur Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Páll Arason

“The Final Member” is not a documentary for those with weak stomachs. It really doesn’t try to be gory or gratuitous, but frankly I didn’t ever want to see the body part of its subject in the way we see it here.

“The Final Member” is a documentary about the world’s only penis museum. Sigur∂ur Hjartarson founded the Icelandic Phallological Museum from his own personal collection of penises. It features an amazing variety of penises, from some of the largest phalluses in the world to some of the smallest, but until recently the one species he couldn’t seem to obtain a specimen from was a human. This movie documents his efforts to obtain one.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Jurassic World trailer & Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer

The first time I met Roger Ebert I totally embarrassed myself by criticizing one of his colleagues, long time Today Show film critic Gene Shalit. I took a light-hearted shot at Shalit, suggesting that I could do his job, not realizing that Shalit was an alumnus of The University of Illinois along with Ebert. Ebert gently defended his friend and colleague without really demeaning my opinion.

I never really liked Shalit’s shtick of clever wordplay in his reviews. He never really seemed to get to the meat of the movies that way. Of course, his very short form television format hardly afforded him any depth to begin with. But it really ticked me off when instead of reviewing a new movie one week he reviewed the first trailer of the first Harry Potter movie. This was the week before I met Ebert, so it was fresh in my head. How insulting to the filmmakers who did have releases that week that their chances of promotion would be preempted by a review of a trailer.

That being said, the were two very high profile trailer releases this week, that I’ve decided not to let go by without dedicating one of my Penny Thoughts columns to them. The second was such a big deal that people might have already forgotten about the first.

In case you missed it, the beginning of this Thanksgiving week brought us the premiere of the first “Jurassic World” trailer. The fourth “Jurassic Park” movie has been in the oven so long, I figured the studio would eventually throw it out, or if they did finally make it, it would be burned to a crisp. Well, They did make it, and I was surprised to find that it actually looks pretty good.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Snowpiercer (2014) ***½

R, 126 min.
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writers: Joon-ho Bong, Kelly Masterson, Jacques Lob (graphic novel “Le Transperceniege”), Benjamin Legrand (graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”), Jean-Marc Rochette (graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”)
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Ewen Bremner, Ed Harris, Allison Pill, Luke Pasqualino, Vlad Ivanov, Adnan Haskovic

So, it’s the future. The world has been thrown into a frozen state following an ill-conceived solution to global warming. The only survivors of the human race have been living on a supersonic train that traverses the planet once very year. The train is sectioned off into social orders with the poorest passengers stationed at the back of the train, eating protein bars provided by the train’s administrators, while the upper class citizens live in luxury in the train’s front cars. The back passengers plan a revolt to gain control of the train.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Turkey Thoughts ‘14—Addams Family Values (1993) ***

PG-13, 94 min.
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Writers: Paul Rudnick, Charles Addams (characters)
Starring: Raul Julia, Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Joan Cusack, Christina Ricci, David Krumholtz, Jimmy Workman, Carol Kane, Peter MacNicol, Christine Baranski, Kaitlyn Hooper, Kristen Hooper, Carel Struycken, Christopher Hart, Dana Ivey, Mercedes McNab, Sam McMurray, Harriet Sansom Harris, Julie Halston, Barry Sonnenfeld, Nathan Lane, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde Pierce, Peter Graves, Tony Shalhoub

I’ve never done a Thanksgiving themed review before, so it might seem strange that I’m starting with “Addams Family Values”, which could seem off topic beyond the fact that it was a Thanksgiving eve release when it was originally released in theaters. The plot actually does touch upon Thanksgiving, however.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 / *** (PG-13)

Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence
Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth
Plutarch Heavensbee: Philip Seymour Hoffman
President Alma Coin: Julianne Moore
President Snow: Donald Sutherland
Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson
Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson
Beetee: Jeffery Wright
Boggs: Mahershala Ali
Primrose Everdeen: Willow Shields
Finnick Odair: Sam Claflin
Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks
Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci

Lionsgate Films presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins. Based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Collins. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material).

We’ve seen to two Hunger Games now and it is time for the revolution of Panem. But, before we get to that let’s pause to consider just what we’ve done and what it is we are calling upon ourselves to do. It is rare that an action franchise will take the time to consider its own ramifications, however, this first part of the exciting franchise finale might just be more about making money from four movies instead of three. I believe if its final chapter weren’t split into two parts, Katniss probably wouldn’t have quite this much of a chance to prepare herself to be the symbol of change she becomes here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Force 10 from Navarone (1978) ***

PG, 118 min.
Director: Guy Hamilton
Writers: Robin Chapman, Carl Foreman, Alistair MacLean (novel)
Starring: Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Carl Weathers, Franco Nero, Richard Kiel, Barbara Bach, Alan Badel, Michael Byrne, Angus MacInnes, Philip Latham

My wife and I have always been pretty protective of our children when it comes to exposing them to mature content in movies. I believe it depends on the person as to what they can handle by which age. Some kids will handle things better at an earlier age than others. By this point both of our older boys (13 and 9) have long since been exposed to all sorts of violence through video games and playing with their friends. Seeing “Fury” recently, I was reminded how much war movies helped to form my tastes as a cineaste and I realized that I have never shown my boys a real war movie. So, I decided to start them on the one I believe my father started me on, Alistair MacLean’s follow up the “The Guns of Navarone” and early Harrison Ford flick “Force 10 from Navarone”.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interstellar / ***½ (PG-13)

Cooper: Matthew McConaughey
Murph: Jessica Chastain
Murph (10 Yrs.): Mackenzie Foy
Murph (older): Ellen Burstyn
Brand: Anne Hathaway
Professor Brand: Michael Caine
TARS (voice): Bill Irwin
Donald: John Lithgow
Tom: Casey Affleck
Tom (15 Yrs.): Timothée Chalamet
Doyle: Wes Bentley
Romilly: David Gyasi
Getty: Topher Grace
Dr. Mann: Matt Damon

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Running time: 169 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language).

“You're familiar with the phrase ‘man's reach exceeds his grasp’? It's a lie: man's grasp exceeds his nerve.”
                                    —Nikola Tesla, “The Prestige”.

In 2006, Christopher Nolan released a movie called “The Prestige”, about how magicians create their illusions. Real life electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla appeared as a character in the fictional film as a mentor to one of the magicians. While Tesla was a legitimate innovator in science, he gained a reputation as a “mad scientist” through his showmanship and some of his more outlandish experiments that never gained mainstream support. He provides a science-based version of the magicians work in that movie in a way that somewhat bridges the gap between art and science. This could describe much of what Nolan seems to do as a director. His latest epic space adventure “Interstellar” could be his grandest work of art and science yet.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Pompeii (2014) *½

PG-13, 105 min.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Bathler, Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sasha Roiz, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham

I’m not sure what I did wrong to be subjected to two Paul W.S. Anderson movies in one week. Truth is it’s my own fault. I voluntarily watched both of them and I should know better. I couldn’t shake “Event Horizon” from my head after seeing “Interstellar” for some reason and then “Pompeii” came through the mail from Netflix. I didn’t want it sitting around without something good coming to replace it, so I watched it. True, I’m the one that put it in my queue, but I thought a movie about Pompeii would be really interesting until I learned that Paul W.S. Anderson had directed it. By that point, it was already in my queue, and I was a bit curious as to just how much he could screw it up.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

If someone were to create a cineaste major for higher education (which may have been done), the introductory courses would most certainly contain a few movies from Mike Nichols. The renowned director redefined cinema with movies like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), “The Graduate” (1967)—for which he won his Best Direction Oscar—and “Carnal Knowledge” (1971). In fact, Nichols’s films would populate every level of such an education trajectory.

He dabbled in nearly every genre, including broad comedy “The Birdcage” (1996), tragedy “Silkwood” (1983) and “Wit” (2001), political satire “Primary Colors” (1998) and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), war “Catch-22” (1970), science fiction “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), confidence “The Fortune” (1975), horror “Wolf” (1994), heart-wrenching drama “Regarding Henry” (1986), satirical melodrama “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), farce “What Planet Are You From?” (2000) and even stand-up/sketch comedy “Gilda Live” (1980). He helped lead the cinematic feminist movement by directing the female-led, Oscar-nominated “Working Girl” (1988). He directed a couple of terrible movies, but an inordinate amount of his films are masterworks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Event Horizon (1997) **

R, 96 min.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Philip Eisner
Starring: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Kathleen Quinlan, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Jack Noseworthy

Having just watched Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (review coming in the next couple of days), I had a hankering for some space adventuring. For some reason, I felt compelled to re-watch the 1997 space/horror flick “Event Horizon”. This was a particularly strange urge since I didn’t like the movie when I saw it in theaters. I saw it a second time on video some years after that, but no time recently, and I still didn’t like it. Something made me connect this movie with “Interstellar”.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) / **** (R)

Riggan: Michael Keaton
Sam: Emma Stone
Mike: Edward Norton
Lesley: Naomi Watts
Jake: Zach Galifianakis
Laura: Andrea Riseborough
Sylvia: Amy Ryan
Tabitha: Lindsay Duncan

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. Written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence).

I think I was about 8 years old when I determined that most people are assholes. Don’t read that the wrong way. I didn’t think at such a young age that there was no good in the world or that it was useless to make friends. I included myself in that group of maybe 99 percent of people that are essentially selfish pricks. It is just part of being human. Even for those of us who want to be good to and for others, we spend most of our time struggling to find our way through it all to benefit ourselves as much as possible. Although, that group who desires to benefit other includes a much smaller amount of people. This concept of our human nature seems to be at the heart of the remarkably entertaining movie “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Rocketeer (1991) ***

PG, 108 min.
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul de Meo, William Dear, Dave Stevens (graphic novel)
Starring: Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, Terry O’Quinn, Ed Lauter, James Handy, Robert Guy Miranda, John Lavachielli, Jon Polito, Eddie Jones, William Sanderson, Don Pugsley, Nada Despotovich, Margo Martindale, America Martin

“The Rocketeer” is a rip roarin’ good time! That’s what I would imagine reviews of this movie would read like were it released during the golden age of Hollywood in which it takes place. It’s a fitting review. It doesn’t lie, and it could very well stand as my review of it in this day and age.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nightcrawler / **** (R)

Louis Bloom: Jake Gyllenhaal
Nina Romina: Rene Russo
Rick: Riz Ahmed
Joe Loder: Bill Paxton

Open Road Films presents a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for violence including graphic images, and for language).

My wife and I watch the morning news just about everyday. It’s the only newscast we watch regularly. I don’t think we’re any exception to the rule. In this 24-hour news cycle that began close to 30 years ago, the local morning news is about the only outlet that can continue to compete against the CNNs, MSNBCs and FOX News teams. The new thriller by Dan Gilroy, “Nightcrawler” might have you thinking twice about the morning news as a reliable news source.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) ***

PG, 114 min.
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Steve Conrad, James Thurber (short story)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt, Sean Penn

The Hollywood process is broken in some major places and a film like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a perfect example of the effects of the failings of the Hollywood system. Ben Stiller’s dramedy, based on the James Thurber short story, was released during the ridiculously busy Christmas awards season last year. On any given Christmas Day each year there are 7 to 8 major releases that find their way into the metroplex. That’s more major releases than on any other weekend of the year. In a system that is do or die on that opening weekend, that doesn’t give a movie much of a chance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Dumb & Dumber (1994) **½

PG-13, 107 min.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Writers: Peter Farrelly, Bennett Yellin, Bobby Farrelly
Starring: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly, Mike Starr, Karen Duffy, Charles Rocket, Victoria Rowell, Teri Garr, Hank Brandt, Cam Neely

Tonight, the 20 years in the making sequel “Dumb and Dumber To” will open with early screenings across the country. While the original “Dumb & Dumber” may be responsible for the wave of what I call “stupid” comedies that populated the 90s and launched the careers of Bobby and Peter Farrelly, it really wasn’t all that impressive. I remember thinking that when I saw it at that time, and I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset for it then. Nah. That wasn’t it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

St. Vincent / *** (PG-13)

Vincent: Bill Murray
Oliver: Jaeden Lieberher
Maggie: Melissa McCarthy
Daka: Naomi Watts
Brother Geraghty: Chris O’Dowd
Zucko: Terrence Howard

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Running time: 102 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language).

Hollywood has done its best over the years to teach us that we need other people to point out our flaws and help us grow toward being better. There have been countless movies where some old curmudgeon has his heart chipped away by the innocence and beguiling purity of a child. The child in turn learns the ways of the world from the crotchety so-and-so and takes his first steps toward maturity. The latest entry into this time-tested formula is first time writer/director Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent”. The affable film casts Bill Murray in the role of the childish adult mentor and Jaeden Lieberher as the child forced to grow up due to the separation of his parents. Despite its formulaic nature, “St. Vincent” proves worthwhile with a cast that’s enjoyable to watch.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Dark House (2014) ***

R, 102 min.
Director: Victor Salva
Writers: Charles Agron, Victor Salva
Starring: Luke Kleintank, Alex McKenna, Anthony Rey Perez, Zack Ward, Lacey Anzelc, Ethan S. Smith, Lesley-Anne Down, Tobin Bell

Well, we get an unplanned Horrorfest entry with “Dark House”, which is a good thing since I like it better than any of the final three films I watched as official festival entries.

“Dark House” is a unique horror flick. It has some of the signature standbys of the genre, like and isolated location and a select number of cast members to be taken out one by one in bloody fashion. However, its story is a little more unique than the cookie cutter elements that generally inhabit most horror flicks these days.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Need for Speed (2014) *½

PG-13, 132 min.
Director: Scott Waugh
Writers: George Gatins, John Gatins
Starring: Aaron Paul, Dominic Cooper, Imogen Poots, Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez, Harrison Gilbertson, Dakota Johnson, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Michael Keaton

“Need for Speed” is a very well made bad movie. There is nothing in this movie to distinguish it from countless others about fast cars and explosions. This is “Fast & Furious” for the slick-as-shit set. What it doesn’t have are personalities for its characters, good motivations for its plot, or anything of interest beyond very expensive cars blowing up in slow motion. And, it actually has surprisingly little of that considering its long running time.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) **

PG-13, 109 min.
Director: James Wan
Writers: Leigh Whannell (also characters), James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

I was a fan of the original “Insidious”. I very much enjoyed the way director James Wan played with lighting and sound to create a film where it was impossible to escape the frights it contained. I liked its unique take on the haunted house story by presenting a different kind of poltergeist that haunted individuals instead of merely their dwellings. It did a good job handling the horror standby of the child in peril. It had a nice smattering of humor to prevent it from becoming overly oppressive. And frankly, I had trouble getting its images out of my head when I went to bed that night.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Sinister (2012) **

R, 110 min.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley

*sigh* There is so much misguidance in today’s horror filmmakers. Remember how in art class you were taught that you had to learn the rules before you could break them? Yeah. Nobody ever told Scott Derrickson that one, apparently.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—You’re Next (2013) **

R, 95 min.
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Sarah Myers, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton, L.C. Holt, Simon Barrett, Lane Hughes, Kate Lyn Sheil, Larry Fessenden

I was surprised with “You’re Next”, because it had received pretty universally positive reviews. It doesn’t deserve them. I can’t imagine what impressed so many reviewers who are often in contention with the popular acceptance of horror movies. I suppose the fact that the villains of this horror movie are fallible is a slightly different take on this type of torture porn approach, but I felt the movie wasn’t really sure what it had to say about anything.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Kill Baby… Kill! (1966) ***½

PG, 83 min.
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Romano Migliorini, Robert Natale, Mario Bava, John Davis Hart
Starring: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Erika Blanc, Fabienne Dali, Piero Lulli, Max Lawrence, Micaela Esdra, Franca Dominici, Giuseppe Addobbati, Mirella Pamphili, Giana Vivaldi

With every Mario Bava movie I watch, I enjoy his filmmaking and stories more. The acting leaves something to be desired, but Bava saturates every film with such atmosphere that the performances hardly matter.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Fury / **** (R)

Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier: Brad Pitt
Norman Ellison: Logan Lerman
Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan: Shia LaBeouf
Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia: Michael Peña
Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis: Jon Bernthal
Captain Waggoner: Jason Isaacs

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by David Ayer. Running time: 134 min. Rated R (for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language).

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”
                                   —Sgt. Don Collier, “Fury”

French filmmaker Francois Truffaut is often cited as having said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film.” I’ve always had a problem with this notion. I’ve been a fan of war films almost my entire life. I suppose it’s a statement like that one that would inspire Truffaut’s belief that to make a war film is to glorify war. Most critics of war films cite Hollywood’s insistence upon some sort of sentiment as the glorifying factor. But it is sentiment that allows us an entry into the human aspect of war. While war films have given me an appreciation for what it takes to be a soldier and a pretty good appreciation of history, what they have never done is make me want to be a soldier or experience war in even the most peripheral way. There is a degree of sentiment to the new war film “Fury”, but it would be hard for anyone to argue that it glorifies war.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Steadfast Stanley (2014) ***

NR, 5 min.
Director/Writer: John Kim

“Steadfast Stanley” tells the story of the as yet untold during the inevitable zombie apocalypse—the story of the family dog, the ever-devoted bastion to the family dynamic. We’ve seen families broken up by zombie apocalypses before, but how often have we followed the travails of the tiniest members of the family. I say tiny, because in this zombie flick our hero is the family dog, in this case a Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Thoughts ‘14—Zodiac (2007) ****

R, 157 min.
Director: David Fincher
Writers: James Vanderbilt, Robert Graysmith (book)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Chloë Sevigny, Dermot Mulroney, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Philip Baker Hall, Zach Grenier, John Terry, Adam Goldberg, Clea Duvall, James Le Gros, Charles Fleischer, Jimmi Simpson, Patrick Scott Lewis, Pell James, Ciara Hughes, Lee Norris, Ione Skye

David Fincher’s “Zodiac” seems to be the moment in his career when he transcended all that had come before and entered a new era of his work. I don’t know if it’s because everything he’s done since “Zodiac” has been based on a book, or if he just broadened his scope in terms of depth and drama. But, “Zodiac” was certainly the start of a new phase in Fincher’s career.

What makes “Zodiac” such a powerful film is the way it captures how the investigation of the zodiac killer disintegrated after years of mistakes, lack of coordination, and just plain bafflement. It also parallels the obsession that drives a serial murder with those of the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who was not part of either the law enforcement investigation or the journalistic one, but was responsible for the book upon which the film is based. The dramatic rewards, however, are not what concern me on this Halloween evening. I’m more interested in the horror aspects of the movie.