Sunday, October 27, 2013


In order to explain my review of Gravity, I have to talk a little bit about Avatar. 

Long, long ago, in 2009, James Cameron's Avatar was touted to be 1) the pinnacle of 3D films and  2) an amazing film experience not to be missed. Somehow, I didn't exactly get the point that statement #2 was inextricably linked to statement #1. Inextricably. Well, I saw the non-3D version of Avatar.  I really don't have any particular interest in 3D, so my clearly poor decision made sense to me at the time.

 As it turns out, Avatar suffered from a plot and script which I am pretty sure came from an 8th grader that James Cameron secretly had on staff.  So, for those of us who made the dumb-dumb-dumb decision to see it without the 3D, the experience was less than amazing. A lot less. And that brings me to Gravity.

I was not going to make the same mistake again, particularly when I read a few reviews that also indicated that Gravity lacked a decent script. Some people took issue with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as actors, others more pointedly disliked the characterizations. I got the point this time: see it for the 3D. So, I did.

From that perspective, Gravity is really enjoyable. I can't say it suffers from a bad plot. It's a very simple plot, and that's really all that it needs to be. The film is quite beautiful. I don't know (or care) about 3D technology, but I am going to take a stab here and say that a possible measure of success is when a viewer becomes completely unaware of the 3D, and is, rather, just immersed in the experience. Gravity was very successful for me in this respect. I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the 3D. I was, instead, very much 'inside' the space experience. And being in space is both nerve-wracking and cool, so that makes for a fun movie-going adventure.

As for the script, it could have been much better. George Clooney's character was tired and cliche, but possibly befitting a super-cool-astronaut-guy. I was fine with Sandra Bullock. Again, the script didn't do her any favors, but her acting was reasonably good. Her body, on the other hand, was quite impressive.

Overall, it was a good time at the show. The immediate response is pretty "WOW", but it doesn't last. I'll forget about it by next month, but I'm glad I saw it.

Friday, August 9, 2013

NEW REVIEW: The Attack

I thought that this movie was going to be more of a thriller. But it was really more of a glimpse into a world that I will never in a million years begin to understand.

Dr. Amin Jaafari kisses his wife of 15 years goodbye, sends her on a bus to go visit a relative, then goes off to receive his big medical award for being Surgeon-of-the-Year (or something like that). During his acceptance speech he speaks about being the first Arab to receive this award. Dr. Jaafari lives and works in Tel Aviv.

Next day, lunchtime--BOOM--explosion somewhere in town---bloody bodies coming into the hospital for care. Children crying. One man refuses treatment from Dr. Jaafari (presumably because he is an Arab). Reports surface of a suicide bomber at a local restaurant.  And guess who the authorities suspect is responsible? Siham Jaafari, the doctor's wife.

The doctor is outraged and 100% sure his wife had nothing to do with this. I was 100% sure she had nothing to do with this. But this is a movie that is going to try to explain, just a little bit, how someone who seems pretty normal can become a suicide bomber.

What I liked:

1. I learned a bit more about life in The Territories. (I really can't even read about the conflicts because I get confused and don't know what to think. I hate that feeling of never being able to distinguish right from wrong and truth from lies).
2. I saw the spectrum of people from those who seemed like crazed fanatics to those who completely avoided involvement (like Amin). And then there are all those in the middle ranging from people who simply sympathize with the resistance to those that are actively engaged in resistance, yet don't actually seem crazy.

In truth, this was a depressing film. I just felt hopeless for the people there. I just don't see any way out.

That doesn't mean it wasn't an interesting movie. You should just be prepared for the feeling you will be left with. Still, it's always a good thing to be reminded of other people's realities.

Monday, August 5, 2013


I am not a 'Save the Whales' person, nor am I any kind of activist for animals, much less anything else. I'm sure I should be, but I'm not. I tell you this just so you don't feel that you have to have this area of interest in order to enjoy this film.

By 'enjoy', of course, I don't mean 'have a jolly time.' I mean 'have a worthwhile experience that makes you feel your time and money were well-spent.' Maybe 'appreciate' would have been a better choice of word. Anyhow, the film is a good one. Very thought-provoking.

For one thing, I never really gave SeaWorld much thought. I think I saw one of those dolphin/whale shows many years ago, but, frankly, it was never really of great interest to me, so I didn't think about it much. I don't really like the circus at all, and I think carting animals all across the country in cages to do shows is a bad idea, but I never gave a second thought to the marine-life shows.

Blackfish does a very good job of capturing your interest regardless of whether or not the subject interested you before. It moves compellingly along weaving historical information with recent events and the stories of the lives of whales as told by their human trainers and researchers. I quite enjoyed learning about the natural tendencies of the orcas in the wild. Did you know they travel with their moms for life? You couldn't help but feel the love for these intelligent, social, community-oriented beings.

And speaking of love, there are several truly poignant interviews with trainers. You can see how deeply bonded they become to these whales. It is heartbreaking to hear some of the stories of how a young person comes so enthusiastically into the training system yet learns over time that it just doesn't feel right. The film presents its case clearly, simply, and engagingly.

After seeing Blackfish, despite the arguments presented by SeaWorld, I can now say, unequivocally, the whale shows are a bad idea. I gather that SeaWorld does a lot of work to raise awareness of marine mammals and to raise money for rescue and research. Those are great things, and donations can be made specifically to the sub-division in SeaWorld that focuses on those things, but I can no longer see supporting the entertainment division, ever, at all. They can get into the whale-watching business or some other program whereby you can observe the orcas in their natural habitat, but Seaworld needs to be pressured into stopping the breeding of whales into captivity for the purpose of these shows. It's really disturbing.

I feel like this documentary is an eye-opener that pretty much anyone will find compelling. I'd like you to check it out.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

TV-DVD REVIEW: The Wire (Season 1)

The Wire is considered by more than a few critics to be the best drama ever produced for television. I sincerely apologize for having watched this show a decade late. For that, I offer the lame excuse that I haven't had HBO at home in forever. If you want to see a truly affecting bit of television, I encourage you to check out The Wire. AND---this is important---do not be put off by the first episode. It is very hard to become involved in the story at the outset, but pushing through will make it all worthwhile in the end. Unlike your usual police procedural where cases are solved in one hour, The Wire takes the entire season to semi-resolve one case in the Baltimore drug-trade.

Forbes listed Baltimore as the seventh most dangerous city in the country. I grew-up in Oakland, which is listed at number three. On 99th avenue, our neighborhood boasted, at the very least, a pedophile, 2 drug dealers, a teenage thief, and a couple of women who tried to shoot and kill their men. I'm sure there was more going on that I didn't even know about. And yet, as far as Oakland goes, my family did not live in the really bad neighborhood. That distinction probably belonged to 'The Projects', which is equivalent to the area featured in The Wire.

During the first episode, I was mostly just confused. Quite honestly, I couldn't even understand half of what was being said. The drug dealers were speaking a language of their own and I couldn't really get a handle on all of the characters. I can easily understand why this show, while critically acclaimed, was not a popular success. It is so much better to watch the episodes in rapid succession. By the fourth or fifth episode I was very interested, and by the end I was fully vested. The show forgoes the quick pay-off, and in so doing, ensures the immensity of the pay-off as a whole.

If I had to state the two primary reasons why The Wire is so affecting, they would be 1) the detail afforded in focusing on a single case over a whole season and 2) a brilliant (and large) cast to whom you become very attached.  Days later, I still think of D'Angelo and Wallace, Bubbles, Omar, Lester, and Lt. Daniels. I think about Oakland and Baltimore and Detroit and all the cities where the cultural result of being both poor and black is entrenched and seemingly endless. And I think about the fact that like most people, I am afraid to live anywhere near there. So, we all just move away.

I think about the police who have an impossible job. I think about the parents and teachers who have an impossible job. I think about the kids who might be saved from this disaster. I think about the media, the politics, the hopelessness. And all that thinking, I suppose, is what is so great about a show like The Wire. It at least forces you to remember what you are running from. It reminds you that hell is a relatively short drive away from your house, and it reminds you that real-live people live and work there.

Boy, that all sounds depressing. So, is this really television entertainment? It is. It's not the shocking and amusing microcosm of, for example, The Sopranos, but it is equally engaging. It is a police procedural of sorts, and we know how beloved those are. It's just also quite a bit more than that.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

NEW REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

At the risk of sounding like an illiterate boob, I somehow managed to miss reading the novel. Yes, I did complete high school. I just somehow managed to avoid Fitzgerald completely. I think during those years, when I came to despise Hemingway, I lumped Fitzgerald in with him. Now that I'm a grown-up, I should probably re-think that.

Anyway, as you may be aware, the most well-known film adaptation was made in the 1970's and starred Robert Redford. The movie got a lot of flack at the time, but actually there has been some backpeddling since then. People now seem to give it a little more credit. Not really knowing the story, when I saw this version, I enjoyed it. Mia Farrow makes you want to stab your eye with a fork just a little bit, but I enjoyed Robert Redford. Cut to Baz Lurhmann and a LOT of flack, once again.

I have come to the conclusion that, when it comes to movie-making, no one is going to be able to please a majority of people where this book is concerned. There have been a lot of negative reviews. Maybe it is just one of those books that doesn't translate to film. However, there have also been some very positive reviews.
One thing that seems to be agreed upon by most is that Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job in the leading role. I'd very much agree with that. I found his characterization much more nuanced and complex than the Robert Redford version. I also really thought Tobey Maguire was great as Nick Carraway.

The big polarizer here is, of course, director Baz Luhrmann. Although this film is not a musical, it is very Moulin Rogue-y in spots. Whereas I truly love Moulin Rouge, some people find it garish and sappy and all kinds of unpleasant things. Bottomline: If you like Luhrmann, you'll probably enjoy The Great Gatsby.

I loved the Baz-touch. I think the film is stunning...another sparkling jewel. The 3D took a little getting used to, but once I adjusted, it was actually really cool. The Jay-Z music was apparently a real problem for some critics and viewers, but, honestly, they must be very sensitive. It was barely noticeable to me. And despite all the Baz-y goings-on, the very tragic story remained intact. And I do love the story.

I give this two big Roger Ebert thumbs-up. I'm definitely planning to see it one more time.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Both of these films were directed by Alex Proyas---so, apparently he knows how to catch my interest. The thing is, I would never have independently chosen to watch either of these films. Yet, I certainly enjoyed them.

The Crow always struck me as sort of a "B" movie that garnered most of its attention from the fact that its star, Brandon Lee (Bruce's son), was tragically killed on set in a terrible accident. However, in watching it---which I truly did not want to do---I was completely (and quite surprisingly) taken with it. It is by no means perfect. It's corny in spots. The acting, overall, is not great. The story is kind of hokey, if I have to be really honest. But Brandon Lee's performance is truly engaging and endearing, and the directing is....awesome.  I was just completely taken with the look of the film and the way scenes were shot.  I also really enjoyed the look of the characters, especially some of the 'bad guys'. In some ways it's like an extended music video from the golden age of MTV. It's just way better.

I haven't seen the film recently, so I'm not sure how well it holds up to the test of time, but I'd recommend checking it out. Dark City, on the other hand, probably holds up well over time.

I definitely would not have chosen to see this film on my own volition. I owe this one to the late, great Roger Ebert. He ranked it as numero uno on his list of the top ten films of 1998. He piqued my curiosity with this uncommon choice.

This is a dark movie, both literally and figuratively. During some scenes I actually felt I was struggling to see. The movie is sci-fi, but has a period piece feel. I sometimes go for the latter genre, but rarely go for the former, hence my surprise at how much I liked this movie. Acting-wise, the leads do a good job. Kieffer Sutherland gives a weird, almost goofy performance, but he's quite enjoyable. Again, the direction makes the film quite engrossing. It's a very interesting looking film. Also in common with The Crow, the look of the 'bad guys' was kind of enchanting in that dark sort of way. I love the end of the movie. It has a Planet of the Apes-ish pay-off.

So, you may want to give these two films a shot, though I suspect they may fall into in the 'love 'em or hate 'em' category. But I think that mostly applies to your tolerance for 'dark', if ya get my meaning.

Let me know what you think!

Friday, March 1, 2013

NEW REVIEW: Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is an adaptation of the classic Chicano novel of the same name written in 1972 by Rudolph Anaya.  Although I'd never read the book, I'd heard of it because it is assigned reading in some schools...and has been subsequently banned in others.

In seeing this film, it is extremely hard to imagine what on earth could have been offensive enough to get this poignant and spiritual tale banned from schools. From what I've read, parents apparently had concerns about the language and sexual references. As far as the film goes, there is nothing to be concerned about. I'd feel perfectly comfortable taking a ten year old to see it, although they might not fully appreciate it.

The story takes place at the time of WWII in rural New Mexico. The filming and scenes of the dry, but beautiful landscapes set a great atmosphere. The dramatic tale of family conflict, community conflict, and spiritual conflict is made powerful by its subtlety. The coming-of age feels believable and even monumental in a way. And the scenes of Tony and his school friends are funny and touching, as well genuine, in recalling those universal moments of boyhood.

The true highlights of this film, though, are the main characters as they are portrayed by Luke Ganalon and Miriam Colon. Luke plays Tony, a bright and thoughtful six year old who forms a special bond with an elderly curandera (think 'medicine-woman'), Ultima (Colon).

The faces of these two actors are almost heartbreakingly beautiful: Tony's radiating angelic innocence and Ultima's radiating strength and wisdom. A close-up of each of their faces elicited such surprisingly strong feelings in me. That's a very special gift.

If there was any downside to the film, I felt that some of the supporting actors were a bit weak. Although, I thought that Dolores Heredia, who played Tony's mother, was great. Also, the story is mystical and spiritual, which isn't something some people can wrap their heads around. Still, my sis and I both really enjoyed this. As a matter of fact, I'd see it again. Message me, if you wanna go!