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.