Today’s review is for the Sci-Fi movie “Dredd” (2012) starring Karl Urban.  This movie is a remake of “Judge Dredd” (1995) which starred Sylvester Stallone.  Whenever you start off a movie review with “remake”, there are two immediate questions: have you seen them both, and, which one is better.  Answer one: yes.  Answer two: neither one of these is going to win anyone any Oscar.  As a Urban “fan” and as someone who is not “really” a Stallone fan (although I’ve seen a LOT more of Sly’s work than Karl’s), I’d be tempted to go with the remake.  In fact, though, they are different films about the same main character which makes comparison more problematic.
Dredd (Sly) is a lot of action with a touch of humor.  Dredd (Urban) is a lot of action with a lot of blood.  Dredd (Sly) is a lot like any other over the top comic hero shoot ‘em up.  Dredd (Urban) is a visual “experience”, shot very similar to “300” or “Watchmen” with slow-mo amputations and spurting blood.  It was obviously meant to be viewed in 3-D at a theater, but I’m a 2-D person at home, so it probably lost some of its effects.  In any case, even when these visual effects are spectacular at the start of a movie, at the end of two hours you’re still yawning (ho-hum).
In this film, Dredd is assigned a new partner and he must evaluate her performance.  The pair get trapped in a meg-structure controlled by a drug-cartel / gang.  (Spoiler alert) The twist is that the cartel hires some “bad” Judges to come in and kill Dredd and his partner.  Three guesses: which judges win? who gets out of the building alive? and, does the rookie pass her evaluation?
The movie is about a dystopian future where there is very little value placed on human life.  Still, I found it mildly off-putting there was so much emphasis on the carnage and blood-letting and so little on a plot which made more sense.  Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’m just getting old.  Yes, the F/X are better in the remake, but I can’t help feeling the first version had more story.  I’m definitely NOT saying it was a great movie – or even a better than good movie.  I just feel the first was better than the second as a story if not as a movie.  The one exceptional thing about this movie was the decision that Dredd would not take off his helmet for the entire movie.  I can’t think of many actors who can convey emotional content – for an entire movie - without the use of their eyes, but Urban carries it off.  (Like I said, I am a Karl Urban fan.)
Final recommendation: low to moderate recommendation with the qualification that although the title character is based on a “comic-book” character, this is not a child appropriate film due to language, violence and adult content.
On This Day In:
2013 Enemy Mine
2012 Strengthen Me
2011 Service, Please
2010 The Church In Crisis…

Now What?

Today’s review is for a DVD I picked up for old time’s sake.  The movie is titled: “Diner” from 1982 and was directed by Barry Levinson.  This was his directorial debut and was one of four movies he made about life in his hometown: Baltimore, Maryland.  It’s is supposed to be a “comedy / drama”, but I didn’t find much to laugh about in the movie, so I guess it’s supposed to be a “black comedy”, which, in turn, means it’s “disturbing” and not funny.  Levinson is supposed to be a big deal producer / director, but I don’t follow that stuff much, so I’m not really bothered about it.  With the exception of Hitchcock and Spielberg, I don’t really “go” to a movie “because” of its director.  I guess I’m unusual that way, as it seems to matter to people I know a lot more than it’s ever mattered to me.  And, although I did see this movie during its original release, I have no recollection of the other three movies in the “Baltimore series”.
Anyway, this movie is kind of an adult / older version of a coming of age story.  I usually think of “coming of age” stories as teen-to-adult, not “Oh, shit!  I’m an adult.  Now what do I do with the rest of my life.”  Well, this is the latter.  It’s the story of six male friends (and the wife of one of the friends) who come together for the wedding of one of the other five (the friend played by Guttenberg).  The movie was a launching pad for some folks who later went on to have pretty well known careers for the rest of the ’80′s, including: Steve Guttenberg (the guy getting married), Daniel Stern (the guy already married), Ellen Barkin (his wife), Mickey Rourke (playing a macho hairdresser, unlike Warren Beatty in “Shampoo“), Kevin Bacon (as a young alcoholic jerk with surprising intelligence jerk), Tim Daly (as the handsome guy in the group), Paul Reiser (as the “I have no idea why this guy is in this group of friends or this movie” character).
Now, you may be asking, why did this movie make Kevin’s list “for old time’s sake”?  Well, growing up, I used to follow the American football team based in Baltimore – the Colts – because I really liked their quarterback (Johnny Unitas) and one of their wide receivers (Raymond Berry).  The hooks (for me) in this movie are: before the Guttenberg character will marry his fiancé, she has to pass a test of knowledge about the history of the Colts and the NFL; the music played during the bride’s procession to the altar is the Colt’s theme / fight song; and, the wedding colors are Colt’s Blue and White.  The best line in the movie is when a female / spouse complains to one of the wedding guest characters about the wedding colors and he responds: “Hey, she should be grateful he doesn’t support the Steelers.”  For those of you who know little to nothing about American Football, the Pittsburgh Steelers colors are black and gold.  The “gold” has always looked more “yellow” to my eye, but it is supposed to be gold.  The fiancé narrowly fails the test, but he marries her anyway.  In my head, I can see a Steeler fan telling his fiancé their wedding colors will be Black and Gold…  Heck, I can see that now, let alone back in 1959!!
I don’t know if Americans “come of age” while sitting in diners anymore.  Perhaps they – diners – (like my own youth) are a thing of the past in these days of malls and franchise restaurants, but if you want to see a little slice of “Americana” as it was in earlier days (at least it is similar to how I remember late nights and early morning hours from my late teens and early twenties), then this is a pretty accurate snapshot and you should check out this movie.
Final recommendation: moderate recommendation.  A darker and more East Coast version of “American Graffiti“, without the cars / crusin’.  Good music, good writing and good character actors.
On This Day In:
2013 Judgement
2012 A Wild And Crazy Believer
Life’s Hope
2011 Just Getting Up
Directions Please

Hi-Yo Silver, Away!

Today’s movie review is for the 2013 version of “The Lone Ranger” starring Armie Hammer (as the Lone Ranger) and Johnny Depp (as Tonto).  Now, I don’t know Hammer from beans, but I’ve grown to really like Depp since he went through his “Pirates of the Caribbean” phase.  This is a remake / reboot of the classic Western genre movie hero.  It is also a classic “buddy-movie”.  I grew up listening to “The Lone Ranger” as a 78-LP, even before I started watching it on TV with Clayton Moore.  Needless to say, I first saw this movie on its opening weekend and this viewing is from the DVD which I was recently given.  (You can read my first review here.)
The “Lone Ranger” myth is a classic story of good versus evil.  In this version, a man, dedicated to law and order, and to justice, survives an ambush, teams up with an American Indian (Depp / Tonto) and they seek to bring justice to the gang which slaughtered the posse of Texas Rangers and the Indian’s tribe.
Within the context of the struggle between good vs evil / power vs justice, the movie has an over-arching theme and then two sub-themes.  The over-arching theme is exaggerated action typical of the “Pirates” series (same director).  This is meant to visually stimulate and entertain the audience with “eye-candy special effects”.  The first (for me) sub-theme is that peaceful folks survive by luck and this is represented by almost slapstick comedy (basically, the first half of the movie).  The second sub-theme is that criminals can “really” only be confronted and controlled by violence (the second half of the movie).  In this movie, there is a palpable change between sub-themes when the main character (John Reid / Hammer) decides to “become” the avenger for Justice: “The Lone Ranger”.  After this inflection point, the action becomes intended instead of “chance / coincidence / slapstick”.  While I don’t agree with the “philosophy” of the decision towards violence to confront the criminal, it is (probably) mostly inescapable in real life.
So, is this a Disney / family / kids movie?  Kinda to mostly, but not entirely.  There are a few scenes which are surprising graphic and may be too intense for very young children (under 8), but all in all, it remains a “Disney” film.  I found it to be long, but entertaining, well worth the purchase price and I hope there will be sequels.  Final recommendation: with the minor qualification about age appropriateness, this is a highly recommended film.
In case anyone cares, most of the “professional” reviewers hated this movie, while most of the regular folks either liked or loved it.  I think (still) history will show it was better than the professional reviews.  When I went to see this movie at the theater with my daughter (Sarah), there was a line!  I was stunned and said aloud, “Don’t you people realize this movie was trashed by the critics!?!”  What I noticed was there were of lot of older Dads and Grand-Dads bringing their kids and Grand-kids to see this movie.  I like to think of this as cross-generational pollination of the “good and worthy” hero to those who follow.  And so the myth of that hero in the Old West continues…
On This Day In:
2013 Warning:
2012 Thinking About Beauty
2011 A Founding Father’s Argument Against Public Funding Of Religious Education
Weekend Update
So Far, So Good


Good Wins

Today’s review is for the 2011 version of “Jane Eyre” starring Mia Wasikowska (title character) and Michael Fassbender (“Young Magneto from the X-Men series” as the romantic interest).  If you are into period costuming (and I am) and / or into romantic characterizations where the good people “win” in the end (and I am), then you will enjoy this movie (and I did).  This is, however, a dark movie about a young girl who must endure physical and psychological abuse while growing up.  She is blessed with a keen mind, a sharp tongue, a strong will and a kind heart.  In the end, her mind, her will and her heart earn her the love she has been seeking her entire life.
Viewing this movie, I was struck by the fact that although the title character achieves “love” at the end, the movie itself was surprisingly unfulfilling for me.  I was left with the impression that I’d just seen a very good performance by Wasikowska, but it was not a movie which left me saying, “I want to see that again.”  This is in contrast with “Pride & Prejudice” (2005), which I’ve seen at least a dozen times and will watch again (I am sure) anytime I’m given a chance.  Final recommendation: strong recommendation.  Interesting and thought provoking, but not what I would call “enjoyable”.  I guess the best way to describe it is to say that not every hearty dinner has to end with a great dessert in order to be satisfying.
On This Day In:
2013 Before
2012 Look To This Day
2011 One View Of Man


Today’s review is of the 2013 movie: “White House Down” starring Channing Tatum (as the Hero) and Jamie Foxx (as the President).  The premise is fairly straight forward: the hero is touring the White House with his daughter, when it is attacked by terrorists trying to kidnap the President of the United States.  There are some minor twists in the movie, but they are by and large predictable.  The movie is a standard “good-guy buddy” movie with all the same action / explosions of any of the “Die Hard” or “Lethal Weapon” franchise.  There is also a pinch of flag waving in the front yard (for the super-patriots), political / fascist intrigue (for the conspiracy theorists), and just a few one-liners and comic moments / scenes (which always make this genre more enjoyable).
All in all, this move is nothing more than it sets out to be – an action / intrigue movie with the emphasis on the action (read: fights, shooting and explosions).  If this is your thing (and it is clearly MY thing), then you will enjoy this movie.  If it’s not your thing, you won’t find much here.  Final recommendation: solid (but not High) recommendation.  Entertaining, but not ground breaking.
On This Day In:
2013 Exposed Spirits
2012 Ow-ow
2011 Focused Relatives


What Price Freedom?

At the start of the month, I went to see “Captain America: The Winter Soldier“, starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / The Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / the Falcon), and Samuel Jackson (Nick Fury).  This is the sequel to the 2011 film, “Captain America: The First Avenger“, also starring Chris Evans in the title role.
If you’ve been following this blog for any reasonable length of time, you know by now that I was a big comic book reader while growing up and am now a big comic book-movie follower (and buyer), so I admit to a certain amount of bias in my reviews of this genre of movie.  Having said that, this is definitely one of the best of all the comic book based movies ever made.  Although lacking some of the originality of the first movie, this sequel more than makes up for it with a much deeper storyline / plot while maintaining its roots as an action movie (lots of fights and explosions).
The sub-textual plot is what does a “good man” do when faced with a world of gray shadows and it’s hard to tell if what you’re doing is “right” (morally).  Well, if you’re Captain America, you stand with your friends to bring truth out into the light.
The main plot is the fight between good and evil where the “good” is represented by SHIELD – an agency supposedly dedicated to preserving peace and freedom, and Hydra – the “bad” organization, dedicated to the subjugation of the common man for the benefits of the few who are holding power.  SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra and just as Hydra is about to initiate their ultimate “security” weapon, all heck breaks out (in the form of Cap and his friends).
As this is fairly early in the movie’s release cycle, I won’t give away too many spoilers.  All I can say is that you have to set aside your old notions of Cap as a suped-up normal person.  This movie version of Captain America is far more “super” than “normal”.  But if you can set aside common sense about things like – oh, gravity and the effects of sudden stops on the human body, for example – just for a couple of hours, this is a very entertaining film.
One of the things I particularly liked about this film was the subdued patriotism in favor of moral values.  In other words, it is less “my country, right or wrong” and more “this isn’t freedom, this is fear” symbolism.  This is visually captured by Cap’s change from a black and silver/grey uniform at the start of the movie to his traditional red-white-and-blue uniform for the final third of the movie.  In essence, he takes off the “fear” and returns to the inspiration of “freedom” as the justification for his heroic actions.
Final recommendation:  highly recommended!!  This movie works on many levels – action / adventure, sci-fi, political intrigue, and, of course, comic book heroism.  (And let’s not forget to say as a lead-in / promo for future Marvel comic book / movies.)  I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and look forward to seeing it come out on DVD.  Heck, I may even go see it again at the theater.  Now, I can’t wait for SpiderMan and Avengers 2!!
By the way, I went to see this movie with my son James, who is also a big comic book and comic-movie fan.  I treated him for his birthday.
On This Day In:
2013 Remembering Val
2012 Good-bye, Val
Survival Value
2011 Traitors In Our Midst
Life Ain’t Easy


In My Lifetime…

I recently went to see “Cesar Chavez” at the theater with my mom and my daughter Rebecca.  My daughter is very politically inclined and offered to come down from Sacramento to see it with me as part of my birthday weekend.  My mom got invited because it’s close to her birthday and because she (and I) actually met Mr. Chavez and we lived through the period the movie covered (mostly the 1960′s to mid-70′s) here in California.  Although we were not living in the Central Valley, nor were we involved in agriculture, my mother is a Mexican national and we were keenly aware of the issues of the braceros (temporary farm workers who were forced to leave the country if they stopped working) and many of my cousins and relatives, while not “braceros”, were manual laborers.  My mother was an early adopter of the California grape boycott and, as a youth, I sold some or my dog’s puppies and donated the proceeds (about $12) to the United Farm Workers union (UFW).  That was my one time actually meeting Mr. Chavez, who came to receive the funds and have me in a photo-shoot demonstrating support by folks in San Francisco.  I also remember admonishing my friends several times for eating grapes and other boycotted produce.
So, having some history with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, can I be objective in my review?  No, and I won’t really try to be, either.
Is this a great movie or great cinema?  No.  I got the feeling it was intended to be quasi-documentary and quasi-theatrical.  Is it entertaining?  No, at least not in what I would call the traditional sense of the word.  Is it at least accurate?  To be honest, I don’t really know.  Particularly from the growers side of the movie, it seemed more theatrical / dramatized as nobody in their right mind would admit to having the conversations related in the film.  Is it worth viewing, then?  Most definitely!!
The movie is about the life of the title character (Cesar Chavez) during the almost two decade struggle to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and the grape boycott which came to symbolize the struggle for civil rights for field workers in the California Central Valley (and most of the American southwest).  While the movie adopts an almost documentary feel (in timing and cinematography), it maintains a sense of the moment, and by that I mean it maintains the almost carnal feeling of the absolute poverty and hardship being experienced by the farm workers (Hispanic and Filipino).  There is something profoundly disturbing about watching a person working in the sun, in a field, in what is clearly HOT weather, who is being paid a dollar or two a day, and all the while, the landowner is sitting in a truck with water which he is selling to the workers.  Even forty years later, I remain stunned that humans would treat each other this way.
I remember watching “The Butler” in August last year (review here) and seeing a black laborer get shot to death by the white landowner in front of all the other workers and thinking, “Yes, but that was almost a hundred years ago, when someone could get away with it in the South.”  In this movie, these things happened in my lifetime…
I guess my point is that while I did not find this movie to be “entertaining”, it was profoundly disturbing because as far as we may have come – or feel that we have come – from these kind of working conditions, we very much seem to be on a course taking us back to “the good ol’ days”.  At the moment, unions represent fewer than 15% of the U.S. workforce, yet unions are constantly being denounced by the right (and by non-union workers) as one of the great fundamental sources of unemployment and lack of competitiveness in the American workforce.  I can understand this belief on the part of the right, but I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone who has spent any amount of time working (let alone studying the union movement) can believe that unions are the reason the American worker is making less money than thirty years ago.  (Actually, it is more correct to say the American worker has less purchasing power, not that we earn less money.)
The ironic moment in the movie is when the U.S. government (under the Nixon Administration) intervenes to guarantee the sale of grapes in Europe and the purchase of produce for consumption by the American military, it is the European unions which come to the aid of the UFW by refusing to off-load or move the produce from the ships to the shops.
I attended the movie on opening weekend.  There were fewer than fifteen people in the entire theater (including the three in my party).  The movie has not gotten very good reviews and I imagine it will go quietly into the night.  That is too bad.  While the movie may not be as good as it might have been (entertainment-wise), it is a profound warning about where we have only recently been – and, I fear, where we are all too quickly headed.
Final recommendation: If you want to see a realistic representation of working conditions in a dystopian America (“the good ol’ days”), this is a must see movie.  Highly recommended!
To find out more about the United Farm Workers union and the continuing struggle for workers’ dignity (and pay), please visit their site at: http://www.ufw.org/
On This Day In:
2013 Democracy
2012 Borrowed Expectations
2011 Not Necessarily True

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