Review: “La La Land” – Just go enjoy it!

I’ve been itching to see “La La Land” since it came out in Malaysia nine days ago, and it finally happened today.

Verdict? It’s lovely, fun, exuberant, smart, nostalgic, and just plain terrific. Go see it!

It’s a classic love story of two artists, one a jazz pianist and other aspiring actress, who find each other, fall in love, inspire each other to reach for the stars, and end up attaining those dreams, but not in the way the audience might think.

I won’t provide any spoilers, but the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is electric. The music is an infectious, toe-tapping romp through many musical genres, but especially raw, robust jazz and heart-warming show tunes, which high school drama troupes will be singing for decades to come.

This picture is very much a throwback to the classic old musicals from Hollywood’s heyday. There are so many lovely visuals and magical moments that you’ll swear that Fred Astaire is going to pop out and tap dance on top of a car roof or something.

This movie is a Broadway mega-hit ready to happen. I have no doubt that it will. Once it debuts in New York then London, give it a few years, and it will be standard high school fare. That’s not a criticism, by the way. It’s an acknowledgment of the scripts universal themes, nostalgic feel, and lively music, which will make it a winner for years to come.

Movie Review: “Sully”

“Sully” chronicles the heroic efforts of US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger who landed his disabled aircraft successfully in the Hudson River, saving all 155 passengers on board. “Sully” is backed with star power as Tom Hanks plays the protagonist and it is directed by the 86-year-old icon, Clint Eastwood.

Before I give you my views on it, I would like to mention an unnamed movie critic that said this about Eastwood’s “Sully,” – “[Eastwood’s] politics may be unduly coloring his films, and it’s becoming distracting.”

Might I suggest, esteemed critic, that Eastwood’s politics isn’t coloring his movies more than your politics are coloring your idiotic reviews. I hate to even give this lunacy a mention except to say if you find something politically unsettling about “Sully” then you have some serious problems.

“Sully” is exactly the type of movie we, as a country, need at this time. A reminder that there are heroes, real-life heroes, who do extraordinary things which are colored by race, politics, or any of the other issues which so often divide us. It’s a story about a man who simply did his job, and in doing so, saved a lot of lives in the most humblest of ways.

Hanks gives a terrific, understated performance. The mixed feelings, the doubts, the second guesses come across effectively to build the makings of as tense of a human drama as you can make without there actually being a tragedy.

Eastwood’s direction deftly juxtaposes the past and present to show a two-pronged approach to the story, while mixing in just a tad of Sully’s backstory as a boy and Captain fighter pilot.

The two tiered tension is first on the plane and it’s miraculous landing, but the main conflict of the film lies with the NTSB, which while doing its due diligence in investigating the craft, sets up a wedge between itself and Sully, peaking at the dramatic hearings which reveal if Sully was indeed a hero or simply a pilot who made the wrong call at the wrong time.

It’s all right to walk away from a movie feeling inspired once in a while. It’s okay to realize that life isn’t always a disaster, and that there are people who do the miraculous. We call them heroes. And the world is better off because of them. Just ask the other 154 who were on that flight. I think they would agree.

Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens – Does it match its hype?

It’s a good film.

Does it match its hype? No.

Is it, as one critic said, “not only the best Star Wars film, but also one of the best films of 2015.” Ummm. No.

I am a Star Wars fan. I’m not a total zealous fanatic, and I usually approach sci-fi with much apprehension. But Star Wars has always been one of the film franchises that I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the memory of going to see the original Star Wars in the now defunct Penn Theatre in Butler, PA in 1977. I with my older sister and older brother. My sister passed away in 1978, and that’s still one of the tangible memories I have of her. I also remember my brother complaining before the movie that he wasn’t going to like it because he was a self-professed anti-sci-fi fan. But when he walked out of the theatre after the movie, I still remember his boisterous voice, “That was the best movie ever.” It felt that way to me, too. One of the reasons is that it was, from my recollection, only the second movie that 10 year-old boy ever saw. The original Star Wars has some warm and fuzzy feelings for me. The prequel trilogy, not so much.

But what about the new one? Yes, this is supposed to be a review, not a stroll down memory lane.

What is immediately obvious about The Force Awakens is that it absolutely has the look and feel of the original films. The story line, the symbolism, the good and evil, the feel of the Star Wars universe, the pacing, and just the storytelling – they nailed it. It felt like a stroll down memory lane, and that’s a good thing.

But at the same time, it felt kind of like a bad thing. There were SO many parallels and symbolism in the storytelling between the original trilogy and this one, which made many of the scenes predictable. I don’t want to give away any info, but you’ll know what I mean because you’ll be able to say, “I knew that was going to happen.” Overall, where it really lacks is in originality. There’s not much original about it at all. It almost seems like a re-make of the first three films put together. Not exactly, but close.

Of course, it was a pleasure to have the original cast members back. Yes, thirty years changes people a lot!

The storytelling is fast paced and the new characters become endearing after a while. There’s definitely new material to work with for episode 8 and beyond.

Overall, it’s a worthy restart on the franchise, but after it’s all said and done, it’s only an action sci-fi movie. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here.

So if you believe the hype, you might find yourself a little disappointed.

But it’s certainly a good, breezy film to get your mind off the presidential race.

My Kind of Movie: “Bridge of Spies”

Steven Spielberg plus Tom Hanks plus a Cold War thriller based on actual events?

Sign me up in a big way. “Bridge of Spies” is movie-making at its best: human, subtle, gripping, and visually just stunning. It has tremendous, thought-provoking heart, something sorely lacking in most movies these days.

The story follows the case of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) and the honorable attorney chosen to defend him, James Donovan (Hanks).

It’s a delicate story that  deftly shows the tension between 1950s nuclear hysteria and the most American of all ideals: due process for all. (While watching, one can’t help but ponder the constitutional issues of habeas corpus and due process concerning enemy combatants during the Bush administration. It’s an interesting comparison; one in which the viewer can ultimately decide for themselves how valid it is.)

As Hanks defends Abel successfully, meaning that Abel was not given the death penalty for his espionage and merely a 30-year prison sentence. But when an American spy is captured in Soviet territory, Donovan is called upon again to negotiate the swap between the two – the only problem is that the negotiations will take place in East Berlin behind the newly constructed Berlin Wall.

The movie’s landscape is fascinating. The recreation of the construction of the wall and the remaining WWII destruction in East Berlin a good 12 years after the end of the war hits the viewers hard, as the mild-mannered Donovan has to head into the heart  of the  enemy without escort or assurance.

Spielberg once again shows his mastery of human drama and the small symbolic touches along the way are both lovely and meaningful. Hanks is terrific, and the touching ending was satisfying and emotional, as his kids and wife  come to realize what he had been fighting for and why he put his family in  danger.

The one character I simply couldn’t take my eyes off of was Mark Rylance. He gave an amazing, understated performance. There was so much life behind all the expressions which were greatly restrained. That’s not easily accomplished, but he was extraordinary.

When Hollywood gets it right, go give them your money. This is a wonderful story and important message. I  highly recommend it.

Best Easter Movie? Still can’t beat “Ben Hur”

If I say “You can’t beat ‘Ben Hur'” next year, you might be confused because MGM is currently filming a new version of epic Charlton Heston, William Wyler classic. But now it’s still 2015 and “Ben Hur” is, in my estimation, the greatest Easter movie ever created for the silver screen. Here’s my review of Ben Hur from last year:

Review of Ben Hur

Other Easter movies you may want to check out is, of course, “The Passion of the Christ” which is the intense standard if you want the most vivid and brutal depiction of the crucifixion. The imagery is powerful and moving, though not always easy to stomach.

You may also want to watch 2014’s “Son of God” from the same folks that brought the History Channel miniseries “The Bible”.  The “Son of God” has flaws for sure. The storytelling is not nearly as compelling as it could have been and some scenes are just rather stale, but it does have it’s moments and shows a interesting overview of the Passion Week.

What will MGM bring to a new version of “Ben Hur”? Whatever it may be, call me skeptical. Remakes of classics are a risky business. How do you update perfection? Reportedly the writers are going back to Lew Wallace’s classic novel, which can only be a good thing. But with the mood Hollywood is in these days, I’m a little skeptical that they can pull it off. It is scheduled to be released next February. I’ll be sure to see it, and I hope I’m surprised. I doubt it could ever knock off the original one however.

Happy Easter and happy watching!

Movie Review: The Water Diviner

“The Water Diviner” (releasing in April in USA) is the directorial debut of Russell Crowe, and he directs and stars in a fine period war drama set directly after World War I.

The premise of the story, supposedly inspired by real events, shows an Australian man travelling to Turkey after to find his three sons who were killed in the Battle of Gallipoli.

Crowed weaves some fine storytelling and some beautiful cinematography to bring to life both Australia and chaotic Turkey at the end of WWI as the Ottoman Empire is being carved up on all sides.

There’s a lot of great performances, including Olga Kurylenko who plays the beautiful hotel hostess where Crowe’s character stays in Istanbul during his trip. The little boy playing Olga’s son is simply adorable, and he develops a tender and believable relationship with Crowe’s character.

There are intense and vivid war scenes which rightfully illustrate the barbarity of Gallipoli. The story itself leans towards the sentimental and works towards an ending where peace can be found – or at least as much peace and resolution possible within these difficult set of circumstances.

The weaknesses of the script come from the title itself. At the beginning, Crowe’s character uses the divining rods to locate water on the Australian prairie, but a lot about his powers  of perception are too underplayed and unclear once he is trying to find the bodies on the peninsula in Turkey. He someone just knows where they are, and there is another rather ridiculous revelation which comes through a dream. I won’t play spoiler here. But these two weaken the plot and especially weaken the title of the movie which implies that he has some power to discover things – but it’s never explained let alone explored.

But overall, these are minor criticism. “The Water Diviner” is a first-rate Australian production which I recommend.