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The Occasional Movie Review

second best posterIt’s a holiday weekend, and I’m trying to see if I can catch up on some couch time…

It’s a given that sequels are rarely up to the task when it comes to matching up to their predecessor. The reasons why are a mystery–the same cast, same writers, director, etc. should all add up to another hit. But the great unknown factor is the story. Building on the story in the first movie can be tricky. Especially when you have to stay within the walls that the story in the first film set up.

So the filmmakers usually try to spice things up a bit with a new character, some new, unforseen challenge for one or all of the characters to face.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel tries its best to hold on to everything that was charming about its predecessor, and it succeeds to a point, but the story here is, sadly, really flat when it shouldn’t be.

Just to recap, in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we find a collection of British retirees settling down in a rundown hotel/boarding house in India. We discover their reasons for settling in India, and find them trying to establish the next phase of their lives in a new world full of unknowns. (See my review here.) So while there are separate characters and individual storylines, there’s a commonality to them.

This time, we’re focused on next steps, which offers some commonality, but not enough to make the story interesting enough for another 2-hour movie. Sonny (Dev Patel) is trying to expand his hotel empire, with the help of one of the guests (Maggie Smith) and an American investor. Judi Dench’s character is looking at where her life is taking her in terms of a new career buying fabric for a local garment maker while she and Bill Nighy’s character are dancing around their relationship, wondering if they can take it to the next level. There are other relationship questions and problems for the other characters, and all of this is set against Sonny’s upcoming marriage, which may or may not happen because he’s overly tense over the arrival of an American hotel inspector (Richard Gere) sent by the investor.

Honestly, this isn’t a bad film. It just takes so long to get to the payoff that I had to just stop watching a few times because the story just felt like it was collapsing under its own weight. By the time I got 2/3rds of the way through the movie and realized that the story is finally getting somewhere, I wondered what took it so long. But minor plot points got in the way of everything: an accidental murder-for-hire plot, health problems that are not really addressed, romantic and business rivals, and the “is he or isn’t he the inspector” storyline.

The addition of Gere is probably unnecessary, though I understand his role as the foil for Sonny and as an unexpected love interest for Sonny’s mother (though frankly, just having him arrive and fall in love with her would have been a good enough storyline in a romantic comedy). And there was absolutely no reason to bring back Penelope Wilton as Bill Nighy’s soon-to-be ex-wife, nor was it necessary for the introduction of a second, rival hotel inspector.

Simplicity could have gone a long way toward making this movie as light and easy to watch as the first one: Let the characters shine in a simple story about people figuring out their part in the next phase of their lives. In the end, this is really a story about love and miscommunication (or lack of communication). They could have left the movie at that and it would have been just as good as the first.

Three out of Five Stars.

 

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The Occasional Movie Review

captain america civil war posterAllow me to do some level setting before I get into the heart of this review: I did not read comic books as a kid. I wasn’t ever a big fan of superheroes. I don’t know the backstory on all of them, nor have I learned about any of the strong storylines for the characters over the years. And now that the movies are huge business for Disney/Marvel, I watch them, but have not immersed myself in the stories enough to fully remember where we last left off…Especially when they’re crossing over into different “franchises” just about every other year.

Got it? Because I needed a briefing before going in.

The basic story of Captain America: Civil War is exactly what the name implies. Except it’s complicated. Much more complicated than that.

When last we saw Captain America (in an Avengers movie last year), the Avengers had managed to basically destroy a European city while trying to stop a computerized/robotic evil that Iron Man/Tony Stark had created in an attempt to create a world peace and defense system (Ultron). But prior to that, in the last Captain America movie, Cap was working to find a shady assassin called the Winter Soldier, while SHIELD was being taken over by some evil government wonk. The Avengers basically went rogue in both accidentally creating Ultron, and in trying to destroy it. And Cap had gone rogue against SHIELD in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the bad guys.

As a result, cities were destroyed, billions of dollars were probably spent to repair the damage done, and while the world was still safe, the world is now feeling little goodwill toward these superheroes. So they’re offered one chance to stay in the world’s good graces: agree to work under a UN group and deploy only when told to and how they’re told to, or stop being superheroes. Iron Man agrees (hell, he probably brokered the agreement, it appears), but Cap has his reservations. Because…well…reasons, I’m sure. Maybe being frozen toward the end of WWII and not being thawed out for 60+ years meant he didn’t realize what the UN really stands for. Nonetheless, the two sides are clearly staked out, and they will not agree.

Oh, and meanwhile, the whole winter soldier thing is still hanging out there because Bucky Barnes, Cap’s best friend from the war, was part of some experiment to turn people into killing machines.

So how do superheroes solve disagreements within their own ranks as to whether or not to sign on with the UN? They recruit members to their side and prepare to fight, of course, at a German airport, as it turns out.

By the way, we already all know what happens when the public becomes tired of the problems caused by superheroes. Has anyone seen The Incredibles? So now we know that when the next movie comes out, they’ll all be working clandestinely in a 1960s era CGI US and Mr. Incredible, Frozone and Elastigirl will be helping them.

Okay. Let me say right now that the movie was fine. I can’t call it great, not only because action movies are not really my cup of tea, but also because I think Ant Man was actually better than a lot of these movies. But on its own, it was perfectly okay without anything to really make it outstanding or horrible.

But I do have a problem with this increasing interweaving of story lines. I go to action movies with my family because they enjoy them. I’ll watch them because they used to be fairly mindless entertainment (good guys v. bad guys…period.) that pushed the envelope of special effects. I understand that they all exist in the same movie universe, and that their comic book stories are intertwined, but I’m not invested in the story lines enough to look forward anxiously to the next Avengers/Captain America/Ant Man/Spider Man/Iron Man movie to see how this story continues. And increasingly, these movies assume that everyone watching them is invested in that complicated, multi-branched story.

Case in point: there was a character in this film that I honestly couldn’t remember seeing. But there he was, with everyone interacting with him like he’s always been there, and I’m waiting for the plot point to explain who the hell he is. Except it wasn’t coming, because the filmmakers assumed everyone remembered him as being created as part of the Ultron creation. I didn’t. And I have to assume I wasn’t the only one.

So here’s what it comes down to: if you’ve seen the other movies in this line, then by all means, check this one out. You’ll probably love it. But otherwise, you probably can just skip it for now. At least until you’ve seen the other ones. Three out of Four Stars.

 

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The Occasional Movie Review

rs_634x939-151119112930-634-hello-my-name-is-doris-posterIndie films are hit-or-miss: sometimes, these limited-release movies are true gems. Sometimes, they’re just a waste of time.

Hello, My Name Is Doris is one of those gems, for several reasons: Sally Field is amazing in this movie, the story and script is spot on, and the ending is brilliant.

Doris is an eccentric, shy, single, middle-aged woman who has lived with and cared for her mother for her entire adult life. Together, the two have become hoarders, and when her mother dies, all she’s left with in her life is an old house filled with the things collected over a lifetime, and her routine data entry/accounting job.

As she’s clearly considering where her life is, she almost instantly becomes infatuated with a handsome young advertising exec who moves to her New York office from the company’s California location. Thus begins a comedy of errors that nearly everyone can relate to: she tries to make herself something she isn’t to befriend him, cyber-stalks him, and ignores friends and family in the pursuit of a romance with the man. Meanwhile, her brother and his wife are pressuring her to clean out the house that she’s spent her entire life in.

In the end, the movie is about fresh starts and life changes and the things people will do for relationships, all told through the frame of reference of the naive and innocent title character. It’s a story that pushes all the right buttons–it makes you uncomfortable at the right times, happy at the right times, and sad at the right times–all because it’s a story that everyone can relate to at some level. The story doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary details, but isn’t thin, either. It moves at an enjoyable pace, and is fairly predictable for most of the film. And yet, the ending is surprising and still very appropriate and appreciated. And no, I won’t give it away…

Sally Field pulls off the portrayal of Doris excellently: she’s awkward in ways and confident in other ways. She’s mousy and yet emotional. And considering that she’s in just about every scene in the movie, I appreciated the fact that she owned the role and yet didn’t overplay it. By necessity as the center of the story, she carries the entire movie, but doesn’t overshadow any of the other characters. Her character is consistent, and you can feel her anxiety when her family tries to clean out her house, feel her shyness when she first meets her love interest, and feel her pain when her life comes crashing down at Thanksgiving.

All-in-all, this is a breezy, heartfelt story that’s told well and acted well. Highly recommended. Four out of Five Stars.

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The Occasional Movie Review – Valkyrie

220px-Valkyrie_posterIt’s a well that Hollywood loves to mine: Nazi Germany during World War II. If anything screams pure evil, it’s Hitler and his army trying to take over Europe and the world. And frankly, it seems like there are still stories to tell from that time, including about the multitude of assassination attempts made on Hitler.

Such is Valkyrie, a story about one of those attempts. And while you’d think that between that powerful story and its robust cast, that the movie would be truly amazing. That was certainly my wish heading into watching it, but I, like a lot of others I’ve seen online, was disappointed. Though I’m not sure where to lay the blame.

The film is a historically accurate telling of a group of conspirators within the German military during World War II who plotted to kill Hitler and seize power by implementing Operation Valkyrie, which was designed to lock down the government quarter in Berlin to maintain the central government in spite of the loss of its leader.

As anyone who has studied any World War II history can tell you, there were many attempts on Hitler’s life during his time as leader of Germany, and none, obviously, was successful. Yet this attempt, according to the filmmakers, was intriguing because the military conspirators explicitly knew what their punishment would be if they failed, and yet, feeling the importance of the need to rid Germany and the world of Hitler, they continued with their plan anyway.

So with the powerful drama of a plot against Hitler, with only two possible outcomes (Hitler’s death or the death of the conspirators), there seems to be a strong, compelling story. And the filmmakers added a strong cast: Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Terence Stamp among others. The combination should be powerful. It should be a good, tense drama. But it isn’t.

The problem is that I’m not sure where it falls flat. The writing itself seems to go through each event point by point, as if reciting them from a history book. And yet, that seems like should be compelling enough on its own. In fact, there is no urgency or feeling of tension in the writing, and this may be what ends up being translated to film by the actors. But while Hitler appears in the film on a couple of occasions, he never is characterized in such a way to appear worthy of our condemnation, and the conspirators aren’t ever cast in the light of being heroes. It’s as if the writers decided that the viewers’ own existing feelings about Hitler and those who would wish to kill him would be strong enough to carry the emotional weight of the film. So without the strong characterizations in the film, we have no reason to root for or hate anyone in the film.

The weak characterization carries into the acting: Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the main character, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was not flat, but it wasn’t powerful enough to convey any real tension or fear on his part. Kenneth Branagh appears early, connecting Stauffenberg to the conspirators, and then disappears for the entire movie, until we see him kill himself after the plot fails. Bill Nighy’s character comes off as weak and indecisive. And even Hitler’s character is mostly forgettable.

The saving graces for the movie are the fact that while it’s just over two hours long, it moves along, doesn’t get caught in unnecessary subplots, and that the shots and scene setups do a good job to not get in the way of the story. But again, for a drama that should have been so tense, it was, frankly, boring.

Three out of Five Stars.

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The Occasional Movie Review

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterThere are remarkable films out there that do wonderful things with a very simple story, like this one: an Indian immigrant and his family make their way to France where they open a restaurant and he becomes one of the most celebrated chefs in Paris, but he finds fame lacking.

But that is basically the plot of The Hundred-Foot Journey, with a few side plots and a love interest or two thrown in. And maybe because of that, this movie is fun, light, enjoyable, and emotional, all while celebrating the universal appreciation of good food.

The story is this: Hassan is a chef trained by his mother to cook with flavors and smells. But his family is forced to flee India after political violence destroys their restaurant there and kills his mother. The family first make their way to England, but find their lives there unhappy and unfulfilling–mostly on a gastronomic level. Then they move to rural France, where they purchase a dilapidated restaurant right across the road from a very well established, Michelin one-star classical French restaurant run by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren).

While Madame Mallory is perpetually in pursuit of a second Michelin star, she and her restaurant staff look down at the simple and non-French food that the Indian family is offering in their restaurant, and she works to try to undermine their success in several ways, none of which fully pays off. Meahwhile, Hassan is learning about French cooking from books lent to him by a sous chef in Mallory’s restaurant, and eventually he and the sous chef fall in love. But when vandals tag the property, set a fire in the building, and Hassan suffers burns in the fire, Mallory changes her tone, believing that racism has no place in cuisine.

Her acceptance turns to friendship with the family, and eventually, she becomes convinced of Hassan’s unique skill as a chef, and takes him on in her restaurant as an apprentice, promising to develop his skills further. He helps the restaurant earn the prized second Michelin star, and he soon goes to Paris as a result of the accolades, where he becomes a star chef, but finds his success empty because he misses his family, his former girlfriend, and the two-restaurants out on that country road.

As I said, it’s a remarkably simple story, performed well by both actors and director, who seem to effortlessly tell the story without doing anything over-the-top–with the possible exception of Mirren’s French accent, which was probably unnecessary, but understandable. The serious scenes are serious, and yet, there’s always a light and somewhat playful undertone to the whole story, because ultimately, you know all the way through the movie that you’re in for a happy ending, even with all of the drama and tragedy that everyone experiences.

I was more amazed to learn about the surprising amount of totally unobtrusive CGI that went into the film: half of the french restaurant didn’t actually exist, and the nighttime Paris views out of Hassan’s restaurant windows wasn’t real, either. In fact, it was so seamless that had I not watched the “making of” featurette on the DVD, I never would have known the depths of the cinematic trickery involved.

Ultimately, the film celebrates food–a cross-cultural appreciation of just how wonderful and amazing food can be in any culture (with the exception of English food, which was universally declared flavorless by Hassan’s family as they’re leaving the country). And good food is something that everyone can appreciate.

Four out of Five Stars

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The Occasional Movie Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers posterThere is nothing that makes you feel old like going to a movie clearly not aimed at your demographic. And, truth be told, I’m not a huge action movie fan–sure, they’re eye candy and are usually really easy to watch–but there is a certain enjoyment to sitting in a comfy seat for a couple of hours watching people blow stuff up.

So the whole family and I headed out for a Tuesday night bargain feature of the brand-spanking-new Avengers: Age of Ultron, the follow on film to…well, practically everything Marvel’s been doing for the last seven or eight years. I mean, Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor…oh, and those other people who are supporting characters. Technically it’s a sequel to the first Avengers film, which, if nothing else, was Disney’s proof positive that they really, really know how to squeeze every cent they can out of the movie-going public.

I know…This sounds bad so far. Just read on. I promise it isn’t horrible.

The story is that of problems brought on by our heroes themselves, as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) work to revive the Ultron project–an AI-based Earth peacekeeping system. Things go wrong, alien glowing crystals get mixed into the whole thing, Ultron becomes the bad guy, and suddenly a town in Russia is being obliterated, leaving the heroes to learn from their mistakes and interpersonal issues to be the team the planet can count on.

In a nutshell, that’s the story. And one of my two biggest problems with the movie derives from it: it shouldn’t have taken 2 hours and 21 minutes to tell. I know the reasoning: every twist or step on the path to fight the problem needed a fight scene. Fight scenes need a good 5-10 minutes to keep the fans happy. And when the movie starts with a 5 minute fight scene, you know it’s going to be a long one. But maybe that’s how the comic books were. And I didn’t read comic books as a kid.

Actually, I now recall that my dad always said that a good western was one that featured the first killing before the first word of dialogue. So in that case, this might be good…

The second problem I have with the film is that all of these movies now have shaky scenes that cut to quickly, so half the time, I’m sure I’m missing so much of what’s going on. It just gets irritating. Well, that and the fact that as I’m getting older and my hearing is getting worse, the loud sounds of the film tend to cover up the dialogue. But I’m assuming that the dialogue wasn’t important.

Beyond that, it was an entertaining film. The story, even being dragged out too long, kept moving, and there was plenty of action and eye candy to keep all of the fans happy. And when it comes right down to it, I can’t say I didn’t like it. I went in expecting an overly long, loud action movie, and that’s exactly what I got–a well done overly long, loud action movie.

So I really can’t complain. In fact, I’ll give it a higher rating than I gave the last Woody Allen movie I watched, which featured no explosions beyond the meltdown of its main character. Three out of Five Stars.