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The Two Popes

Amazing writing, amazing performances, incredible movie
I'm not a Catholic, and this movie is very, very Catholic. But beyond that, it's one of the deepest cinematic examinations of faith I've ever seen. Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, playing Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (who later becomes Pope Francis) respectively, both deliver brilliant, finely crafted lines with stellar performances. (It's somewhat ironic that two Welsh actors are playing a German and an Argentenian, but most of the film is spoken in English, so it works out in some strange way.) I really didn't follow the most recent transition between Popes, so I had not expected to be so deeply involved with this movie, but I am very glad to have watched it. Highly recommended for its insightful look into the human condition and the underpinnings of faith with its sometimes wavering texture, even for the most religious of us. Beautifully filmed on location in Argentina and the Vatican. If you subscribe to Netflix, then I suggest you watch this movie tonight.


Cats can sing and dance. It's a fantasy.
Like "Moulin Rouge," the movie "Cats" is a weird sort of fantasy movie, far, far removed from reality. "Cats" is definitely the lesser movie, but still the concept is interesting, the digital fur fascinating, the singing can be terrific, and the dance moves (ballet, hip hop, Fosse, and tap) are great. If dancing, singing cats isn't your thing and if you're not a cat person, best go see some other film. This one's definitely for diehard fantasy fans. Also, if cat-like people or people-like cats with digitally twitching tails and ears freak you out, then stay away.

Ford v Ferrari

An amazing recreation of mid-century motor racing
If you know car history, then the ending of this docudrama movie is never in doubt. Damon and Bales deliver excellent performances, but this is a car movie and the cars are the stars. For viewers of a certain age, seeing Shelby Cobras, Ford GTs, Ferraris, Corvette Stingrays, and other iconic racing cars (or their computerized recreations) from the 1960s chew up the tracks feels like putting on old, comfortable shoes. The cinematography and what has to be a ton of CGI (verified in the credits) plus the pounding, distorted, absolutely perfect guitar music really make this movie for me. I remember seeing the movie "Gran Prix" in the 1960s. It set the bar for car-racing movies. This movie attains the same level of gritty realism. The theme song for this movie is a gritty, instrumental version of "Poke Salad Annie" and it too is perfect for the movie.

Knives Out

A lot of fun, once you get over Daniel Craig's southern accent
The reviews didn't prepare me for how funny this movie is. There are a lot of fast quips flying by. Listen carefully or they'll get past you. For example, one character, after hearing Daniel Craig's southern accent, says "What is this, CSI KFC?" Hilarious! I didn't guess the real culprit. I was sure the entire movie and I was wrong. Lots of fun following the action and the portrayals. This is not a deep movie. It has a simple message: Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sword of Trust

Small, weird film that's the love child of Deliverance and National Treasure
A very quirky film that takes place in today's American Deep South. So naturally, it's about the American Civil War (The War of the Northern Aggression). There's an old, inherited Union (The Army of the Northern Aggression) sword that supposedly proves that the south won the war. The sword now belongs to a lesbian couple who team up with a Birmingham pawnbroker and his dim sidekick to sell the sword to a collector for big bucks. That's when the characters plucked from Deliverance start to appear. This movie is never predictable. At least it has that going for it.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Rowling's Hot Mess of a Movie
This review isn't going to change the minds of committed Potterheads. They'll see this movie no matter what because it's set in the Harry Potter universe. If you don't live in this universe, then this movie likely will make no sense to you at all. There's very little character development and the frenetic cutting from scene to scene gives you no time to make sense of what you are seeing nor even catch your breath. If you want to know who the main characters are or why they act the way that they do, better start studying the voluminous online documentation because there's precious little discussion in the movie to catch you up. The first Fantastic Beasts movie was far more muggle friendly. (Muggles are non-magical people largely unaware of the Potter universe.) The movie is already number one at the box office, so it will do well. Too bad. Rowling's storytelling skills and expansive vision deserved better.

First Man

A movie about the social and psychological costs of the US manned space program
This movie may not meet your expectations if you're expecting to see a rip roaring, feel good movie along the lines of "The Right Stuff" or "Space Cowboys." This movie is a tightly focused look at the psychology and the psychological costs of being an astronaut. In particular, being Neil Armstrong. As an engineer myself (but hardly an astronaut), I think Ryan Gosling captures the quiet introspection of the engineering (enginurd) type. He can focus his mind on trying to solve problems whether its his young daughter's brain tumor, finding a missing Agena docking target in orbit, or finding a safe place to land on the moon as the fuel runs dangerously low. Solving problems is the essence of engineering and Gosling captured this essence in a bottle. Claire Foy sheds every shred of British to become the quietly suffering astronaut's wife Jan, who is constantly left behind to deal with the home front as her husband flies into the skies, into space, and ultimately to the moon. This movie focuses almost entirely on these two people, their relationship, and their kids. The rest of the cast is there to support, from a considerable distance.

You should know that my wife did not care for this movie. There are long scenes of being shaken (in a simulator, on the Lunar Lander Research Vehicle, in a Gemini Capsule, in an Apollo Capsule, and in the Lunar Module). There are long looks at the lunar landscape reminiscent of the glacial pace of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." The movie tried her patience. For me, I've been mentally entangled with the space program starting with the earliest days of the Mercury 7 astronaut team. I watched every launch on black and white TV. Even without seeing them in the movie, I know that Redstone and Atlas boosted Mercury, Titan boosted Gemini, and two Saturns boosted Apollo. If you're that type of person, then "First Man" is your type of movie. Otherwise, go watch "The Right Stuff."

The Wife

That which lies hidden
It's a pleasure seeing Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce play husband and wife in this tragicomedy of a film. The story opens in 1992 with Joseph Castleman getting a phone call at oh-dark-thirty from the Nobel Committee telling him he's won the Nobel Prize for literature. As the story moves forward, it also flashes back to tell the story of this marriage, where it started, and how it got to where it is. Watch carefully and you'll click onto the secret long before the reveal towards the end of the film. However, the real joy in this film is watching Glenn Close's face bring nuance and substantial explanation to the events of 1992. It's a masterful performance.

Crazy Rich Asians

Handsome Prince falls for commoner and evil mother tries to interfere
"Crazy Rich Asians" is the familiar Cinderella story transplanted from its origins in France to Singapore. It's about a rich, handsome Prince (of commerce) who has fallen in love with someone who is not a princess (she's an economics professor), and the Prince's mother tries to prevent this mismatch from reaching its obvious conclusion. At times, this movie reminded me of a James Bond film because of its exotic sets. At times, it reminded me of the wedding comedy "Bridesmaids" for its focus on wealth and female attire. But always, this movie is as accessible to middle-class Caucasians as it is to Asians. The lineage of the actors really doesn't play into the themes, except for the Chinese family traditions, expectations, and assumptions woven into the story. This is a fine and enjoyable film, even if the ending is never in doubt.

Trek: The Movie

A Mormon teen comedy/drama about faith
Tom is a modern-day Utah teen who lost his faith a year ago during a traumatic experience. Now he's signed up for a three-day handcart journey, a re-enactment of the Mormon migration to Utah in the mid-1800s by dozens of high-schoolers. It's a sort of Mormon vision quest and a rite of passage. However, Tom's not feeling it. He says he doesn't wish to become another "Latter Day Droid": someone whose Mormon faith is automatic and unthinking. But Tom's dad bribes him with a winter ski pass and the deal is sealed.

The three-day trek across wilderness with his peers, pushing a handcart and living somewhat like the Utah pioneers of the 19th century affects most of the participants taking part in the re-enactment in very positive ways, teens and adults alike. I don't want to say much more about the movie because I'd prefer not to spoil it.

You don't need to be a Mormon to appreciate this movie. I'm not a member of the LDS church, for example. The movie's surprisingly unjaded, like a Hollywood teen film from the 1930s or 1940s starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. So it's a refreshing change from today's more jaded, more nuanced Hollywood with its infinite shades of gray.

The characters in "Trek" are unusually polite, unusually sensitive to each other. Even the teens. Even the "NoMo" (non-Mormon) teen from LA who is on the trek with the others. Yet these teens are still contemporary. A few speak hip-hop slang for example, which at least grounds the film in the present though it stretches credulity to hear such polite kids speak fly. I'm guessing this movie isn't going to get wide distribution. That's a shame.

We've seen many similar movies about loss of faith for other religions: Christian, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc. Now, the LDS church has one of these films too and it's uniquely Mormon, and uniquely flavored by the beautiful Utah scenery.

Phantom Thread

There's a lot of potential in the movie's concept: brilliant 1950's fashion designer, creating fashions for Europe's upper crust, owns a cool 1950's British sports car, a confirmed bachelor who meets a waitress and dines with her that night. Could have gone places. Didn't. This is a slow movie about some very strangely damaged people somehow accommodating each other in ways neither my wife nor I could fathom. You know how you see some movies and wonder for two hours "When's it going to start?" That's this movie.


This movie provides more depth to LBJ than I expected
I was 10 when LBJ became president. I associated him more with possibly putting me in Vietnam than anything else. It wasn't a good impression. This movie and Harrelson's excellent portrayal fleshes out the man as someone who had mastered the art of political give and take, who was as powerful a senator as you could become, and yet someone who needed people's approval and even love. If you expect to see LBJ the great manipulator and master politician, you'll only get a little of that. More, you'll get exposed to LBJ's complex relationships with his wife Lady Bird, John and Bobby Kennedy, Kennedy's presidential staff, and one or two congressmen such as Senator Russell of Georgia. Set against a huge backdrop, this is still an intimate movie of LBJ the man. My wife and I both enjoyed it.

The Trip to Spain

Third in a series. Doesn't hit on all cylinders but when it does, it's great
This is the third movie in a series of road trips by funny man Steve Coogan and his sidekick Rob Brydon. I still recall the second movie, "The Trip to Italy," which shares the same premise: two semi-famous British entertainers eat their way through a country while entertaining each other with scripted and improvisational banter and comedy. "The Trip to Spain" echoes the last movie except the scenes are in Spain and the language being spoken is Spanish.

It seems to me that there's a lot more involvement with people playing Coogan's and Brydon's families and love interests in this third movie and for me, this pierces the bubble of the movie's conceit. Coogan calls his married lover in New York and a camera just happens to be there to capture her end of the call? If that part isn't unscripted, then the whole movie is scripted with perhaps some improvisation. So when Coogan and Brydon entertain each other with endless facts about the towns they're visiting, they're not being erudite, they're reciting scripted lines. Some of the overlong imitations of Marlon Brando, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, and particularly Roger Moore--those are likely to be improvisational.

In all, this is a pleasant movie and the Spanish scenery and architecture steal the show and are probably worth the price of admission alone. The bit about food and reviewing restaurants seems muted and subdued in this film compared to the last one.

The ending however, deserves to live on the cutting room floor. (Again, that's my opinion.) I'll leave it to you to decide on that one.

All the Rage (Saved by Sarno)

For pain sufferers not helped by conventional Western medicine
An engrossing look at a doctor who has committed his life to curing people with severe pain who have not been helped by conventional Western medicine. There's still a lot that the medical community/medical industry does not know. One thing we do know is that the brain and amygdala make all sorts of body-regulating chemicals, of which we have only a partial understanding. That Dr. Sarno's approach has helped many people makes it worthy of study. If people can feel better by reading his book, that's great. Just as it's great if people feel better when stuck with pins by an acupuncturist. Getting back to the movie, I'm not sure how I feel by seeing Larry David and Howard Stern appear as providers of testimonials. They're popular, but I'm not a big fan. I'm also not a fan of celebrity testimonials for medical treatments, as they are grossly overused by purveyors of elective surgeries and fringe nutritional treatments. Whether these help or hurt overall, I can't say.

The Lovers

Will have a hard time finding an audience
This movie starts out slow. It never gets much faster. I cannot fault the actors. Debra Winger and Tracy Letts could obviously have done far more with better material. As it is, we see a couple that has obviously fallen out of love with each other. Each has an active affair on the side and neither seems to be aware of or care about the other. The movie telegraphs a great climax taking place in the near future as the son (Tyler Ross) is due back from college with his girlfriend and both Mommy and Daddy think that's the perfect time to reveal their infidelity and end the marriage.

Although this movie is called a comedy in many reviews, it's just not that funny. It's also not that interesting. It's really hard to identify with these characters who have a great life, a great home in the LA suburbs, two good jobs, a great kid, and such empty lives. It's sort of like watching a poorly written Dante's Inferno. These people are in a Hell of their own making. We don't know why and we don't really care.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Not nearly as good as Volume 1
This movie has already earned the better part of a billion dollars in box office receipts, so it's like spitting in the wind to write a bad review of it. But here it is. This movie is a hot mess. A melting pot of a bunch of old SF movie plots blended into what's going to be largely hard to understand for a lot of people not already enraptured by SF or the Marvel Universe. Our heroes start out doing what they always do: taking on impossible tasks and succeeding. Then pissing everyone off and becoming goats. The movie then fractures into many, many subplots. There are not one but two father/son-issues subplots. There's the men-become-gods cliché trope (calling Gary Mitchell). There's the rival siblings subplot. There are not one but two budding romances. There's the inferiority complex of a goodhearted character who pushes away his friends so he won't get hurt by them. There's the evil-but-goodhearted space pirates plot. Also there are numerous bits and pieces lifted from dozens of other SF films including several in the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. There's also plenty, plenty of pretty, pretty CGI eye candy.

If you can't get enough of this stuff, then Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is a buffet for you. Eat hearty.

Oh yeah, many of the songs are far more obscure this time and they were an integral part of Volume 1.

Radio Dreams

Waiting for Godot at WKRP in Farsi
This is an existential movie that, in part, gently examines the mindset of people who have moved to the US from certain parts of the middle East (primarily Iran and Afghanastan). It uses the unlikely vehicle of a Farsi-speaking Iranian radio station in San Francisco (PARS Radio) as its main locale. The station is a surreal place, like the old WKRP in Cincinnati TV show, but instead of kooky American stereotypes this radio station is inhabited by kooky middle Easterners.

The distracted head of the station is more interested wrestling than radio. His daughter, a frosty and remote fashion plate, is the station's business manager. She seems to have captured her unfair share of local Iranian advertisers including a dermatologist specializing in removing unwanted hair from Iranian women and a fast-food restaurant in a food court specializing in Afghan and Iranian cuisine. Perhaps these are nods to Iranian assimilation in the US.

But this movie really revolves around the fictional Hamid Royani, a noted poet and a truly masterful literary writer in Iran, reduced to working as the program director at this tiny radio station filled with misfits. He single-handedly tries to maintain his country's cultural heritage against the insurmountable odds of America's highly assimilating, melting-pot culture.

The entire movie captures one day in the station's existence when a Metallica-inspired Afghan rock-and-roll band that Royani has flown to the US from Kabul is supposed to appear on the air with Metallica in a jam session. This is Royani's dream: a celebration of international cultural mixing. He's a dreamer living a nightmare, surrounded by the leaden (from his own perspective). In fact, I think it's hard to tell which parts of this movie take place only in Royani's mind. I'm sure that part of it does.

The people surrounding Royani at the station, mostly interns, spend a lot of time looking into the camera with blank stares. I assume that's the filmmaker telling us how empty these people's lives have become as expats living in the US. (All in all, you're just a brick in the wall.)

There are funny parts to the movie. There's confusion. There is pathos. There are beautiful moments. But mostly, this movie trundles at a truly glacial pace, perhaps reflecting the director's feeling about life. Or not. In many ways this is an art film minus the art. It's the sort of thing I'd expect to get from a film student just starting out.

I saw this film as part of the Camera Cinema Club in San Jose, CA. The audience consists of longtime film patrons accustomed to seeing many different sorts of films through the club. This movie left a lot of them scratching their heads.

Ghost in the Shell

An SF Masterpiece, if you're not expecting the remake to mirror the original anime
Many reviewers seem to have downgraded this movie because it does not slavishly follow the original anime version from 1995. I celebrate this movie for its own originality. It draws from the earlier anime and manga material but is its own story. In the same way that "Bladerunner" created a unique, dark, dystopian Los Angeles, the new "Ghost in the Shell" creates a unique, dark, dystopian city of the future (New Port City or Hong Kong if you wish although the city is never named in this film) inhabited with all manner of people, augments, cyborgs, and robots. Many of the characters are familiar from the earlier movie. Some of the scenes are the same. Some adapted. Many all new.

The story is the same but quite different at the same time. The imagery is unique to this movie. The question is the same in this movie as in the original (and in Bladerunner): What does it mean to be "human"? Philosophers have been asking this question for 10,000 years, so do not expect an answer from this movie. It's all in asking the question.

I was drawn in. My disbelief was suspended. The movie moved along and never dragged for me. After all, that's why I go to see a movie. If I want to see the original version, I have it on DVD and can watch that any time. You can too.

Hidden Figures

Punches all my buttons: segregation, space, engineering, computers
I'm an engineer. I designed computers, I grew up in the south during the 1950s and 1960s. I was heavily involved in the space race at an early age and watched every launch and recovery on black-and-white TV. I never saw separate restrooms and drinking fountains for "colored" but they were there. I never rode on segregated public buses, but they were there and I knew it. This movie, "Hidden Figures," brings all of these worlds back to me. No, it's not a painstakingly accurate picture. NASA didn't have flat-panel screens back then. Communications between the ground and the Mercury capsules were not static-free. But a lot of this movie feels real. Very real.

The protagonists in this movie are three women of color working in one of the most unwelcoming environments they might hope to find: NASA Langley, Virginia, in 1961. As women, they were employed as human "computers" because they were less expensive and they got their numbers right. As "colored" folk, they got their own separate (and sparse) restrooms and their own, separate dining facilities. This was not America's shining hour, even in some place as lofty as NASA.

At the same time, civil unrest was rising in the towns. This is the time of Martin Luther King's rise to prominence. It's a time just before the rise of militant civil rights groups. It's a time when resistance to segregation and discrimination was still civil, but as the movie shows, that resistance was beginning to firm up and become widespread.

There are several reasons to see this movie: from a civil rights perspective; from a feminism perspective; from the perspective of the early space race when we lagged the Soviet Union, badly. If you lived during this time, see the movie to remember. If you were born later, see this movie to see what things were like.

The Eagle Huntress

Hard to believe this beautiful film is a documentary
Filmed in a remote part of Western Mongolia, this beautifully shot film chronicles the coming of age of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl who wants to become an Eagle Hunter like her dad, grandfather, and all male ancestors stretching back 12 generations. Her dad is all for it (quite a modern attitude, as it turns out) but custom dictates that eagle hunting (that's hunting with eagles, not hunting for eagles) is a male undertaking. Girls are too weak, fragile, get cold, etc. The usual explanations why a female can't do what a male does. However, Aisholpan is fearless. With dad's help, she climbs up and down a mountain to trap her own eaglet just before it's old enough to fly away from her. She trains it to hunt with humans. She competes in the local eagle-hunter festival in Ölgii (signage in the film is in Russian and English). All of this takes place surrounded by the beautiful but bleak mountains of the Mongolia steppe, carefully captured on film. (Looks a lot like Death Valley in winter to me.) These people are heroic just going about a nomad's daily subsistence life that's obviously hundreds or thousands of years old but adapted to modern times with down parkas, trucks, and motorcycles. Their lives are both far removed and yet arrestingly similar to Western life (minus the Starbucks). They care for their kids, drive, go to school, listen to the news on the radio, read by electricity stored from a solar array set up on a metal pole and a wooden stick.

The point: This movie captures a mostly pre-industrial society coping with 21st-century norms in a modern world, and with little to no extra effort as portrayed in this movie. For example, the film's Web page on Sony Pictures' site shows Aisholpan with a Go Pro Hero action camera strapped to her head, which explains where some of the film footage came from.

Billed as a documentary, we presumably see things as they happened. I couldn't say but nothing much goes wrong in this movie. Mostly, things go very right and the narrative just moves forward. Nevertheless, I was always cheering for Aisholpan, because she's a most worthy heroine.

The Dressmaker

The Female, Australian "High Plains Drifter"
Ordinarily, I'd never consider seeing a movie titled "The Dressmaker." However, that was today's mystery movie for the monthly Camera Cinema Club in San Jose. If you'd told me that Kate Winslet could play the Clint Eastwood role in "High Plains Drifter" and that the movie would be reset to nowhere, Australia in 1951, I'd have said that would be an unlikely formula for a hit movie. I'm here to tell you that this is an exceptional and unusual movie with links to many outstanding films of the past, yet unique unto itself. Winslet has never been better in my opinion in this strong role and she's supported by a great cast with knockout performances especially by Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis. This movie is filled with quirky characters sure to tickle your interest and funny bone. Yet it's not an all-out comedy. There's a serious amount of serious and a fair amount of tragedy. If you like your movies cut from a different cloth, "The Dressmaker" belongs on your must-see list.

For the Love of Spock

For the hard-core Trekkie, and anyone else with an affinity for Spock
Star Trek's been in my life for a week shy of 50 years at this point. I was saddened by Leonard Nimoy's death in early 2015 both because of my affinity for Mr. Spock and because I was able to work on a TV show for one day with Nimoy. So when I got a chance to contribute to the making of this movie through Kickstarter, I jumped at it. This documentary, made with a heap of love by Nimoy's son Adam, chronicles the life of the actor starting with his move to California in the 1940s, follows him through his salad days in the 1950s working as an actor for no more than two weeks at a time, and then describes his big break, diving off the cliff into Star Trek. As the movie will tell you, Roddenberry wrote the role of Mr. Spock specifically with Nimoy in mind. What happened after that resulted in one of the most durable characters on both the big and small screens, alien or no. If you followed the saga of Star Trek for all or even part of the last half century, then you will definitely want to see this film.

Star Trek Beyond

Pitch-perfect recreation of TOS
I watched the first broadcast of Star Trek TOS (The Original Series) in 1966 and have seen every TV series, sat through endless late-night reruns, and watched every movie (even the odd ones). "Star Trek Beyond" is as faithful to TOS as anything that's followed while adding great texture and depth to Roddenberry's vision. Hats off to Simon Pegg and Doug Jung who wrote the script and to director Justin Lin for recreating that original ethos. It brought tears to my eyes. Also hats off to Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Keith Urban for channeling the Kirk, Spock, and Bones trio while adding their own very special flavors to the mix. If you like your Star Trek straight and undiluted by some of the concepts that the Federation has accreted over the past half century, then "Star Trek Beyond" is your film. Please guys, make another real soon.

Florence Foster Jenkins

A small, insightful movie about love, courage, and art
This movie gives us what we go to see movies for: to see love, courage, and art in action. Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person. She died in 1944 and this movie shows us the end of her life. She was a wealthy patron of the arts who loved music but could no longer sing well. The people surrounding her loved her so much, they ignored her failing abilities and never mentioned them. Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant are at the top of their game playing wife and husband in this close movie, and Simon Helberg (that's Howard Walowitz to "Big Bang Theory" lovers) plays the piano, well. A well-made, inspiring movie that delivers without the muscled superheroes, explosions, and galactic strife of a summer blockbuster. This one's for us grownups.

We saw this movie as part of the Camera Cinema Club series in San Jose. Following the screening Metropolitan Opera vocal coach Arthur Levy (who worked with Streep to re-create Jenkin's "sound") discussed his contribution to the film via SKYPE.

Zero Days

Straightforward Stuxnet documentary - chock full of info
This documentary about the Stuxnet worm that attacked Iran's uranium centrifuges tries to get at the truth about who was behind the attack. The movie shows interviews with a lot of high-ranking people who either won't talk or who will only comment about very public information. The facts are that Stuxnet was a large and very sophisticated computer virus, ultimately capable of infecting any Windows PC but it only activated inside of very specialized equipment: one brand of programmable logic controllers attached to a very specific configuration of machines. The target pattern matched Iran's uranium enrichment facility.

The movie's point is that, like the Trinity atomic test in New Mexico in 1945, Stuxnet has let another genie out of the weapons bottle. This genie is cyber weapons that can strike anywhere on the planet essentially in an instant.

If that makes you nervous, then the movie has met the filmmaker's objective.

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