Hello everyone, and welcome to 111 Archer Avenue. What started as a film review blog has become my online judgment forum. I will review the occasional movie or DVD, post an interesting trailer, critique a newly-read book, talk about sports, and share my thoughts and opinions on random issues. You can also follow me on Twitter (@OlieCoen) or check out my work on DVDTalk.com. Thank you and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Trailer - Cavemen

Director: Herschel Faber
Starring: Skylar Astin, Camilla Belle, Chad Michael Murray
Release: February 7th, 2014

This movie has been done a million times and almost always badly.  Why would anyone want to make it again, a movie about young friends who are secretly in love?  Is this a story that needs to be constantly repeated because it's just so important?  I don't think so, Tim.

Movie Review - Toy Story

Director: John Lasseter
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles
Year: 1995

Talk about a beloved classic.  This animated children's movie has, cheesily, touched the hearts of a lot of us, becoming part of our childhood or of our children's movie collections.  So it's a standard now, but it was once a ground breaker.  It was the first film of the Pixar animation company, teaming with Disney to produce a blockbuster computer generated movie, an art form that was just blossoming.  And of course from there Pixar has made many more excellent kids' pictures: A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up.  But you could argue that none are better than the one that started the trend, the movie that began a movement and renewed our interest in animation not just for a few years, but for decades to come.

Toy Story could not be a more accurate title.  It is a story about toys, their lives, and the important role they play in the development of children.  Woody the cowboy and his friends are the toys of Andy, a nice boy who plays with them all but has a special place in his heart for his wild west buddy.  What he doesn't know is that his toys come to life when he's away, interacting together & planning on how best to make Andy happy.  Their routines all change upon the arrival of a new toy, a Buzz Lightyear space ranger.  He's cool, he flies, he's got a laser, and he thinks that he's really a crashed space pilot.  Woody tries to make him understand that he's just a toy and eventually tries to get him out of the picture when Andy starts favoring Buzz over Woody.  But the two toys need each other when they become lost, forced to work together to get back to the boy who loves them.

There is something in this movie for everyone to like.  For kids it's silly, fun, adventurous, bright, and overall enjoyable.  For adults there's the patented Disney hidden gems, the clever comments, the slightly adult humor.  And the animation can be enjoyed by everyone.  The colors are so beautiful, the characters so elaborate, the shadows & all details done with meticulous care.  Visually it's a stunning movie that has perhaps been outdone since but will never be diminished by time.  And the story itself is classic; friendship, love, purpose, overcoming obstacles.  It's a film that can be watched over & over again and never gets old.  The voices are well done, Hanks & Allen; they are perfect for their roles and help to make the toys come to life in a way that even the animation can't deliver.  An extremely popular movie, it's hard to imagine that you haven't seen it.  But on the off chance that you missed it, please go correct that mistake.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Trailer - The Other Woman

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton
Release: April 25th, 2014

There are some very strange people in this horribly-looking film.  Cameron Diaz & Leslie Mann are both bad actresses.  Kate Upton is not even that, she's just a model.  And don't forget cameos by Don Johnson & Nicki Minaj.  Very odd and I'm almost positive very, very awful.

Movie Review - American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper
Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner
Year: 2013

This was the movie that I was the most excited about the entire year.  After all, it had all the parts in place to be a phenomenal film.  David O. Russell has proven that he is a great director with movies like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  They were Oscar caliber, audience favorites, and strong all-around.  The actors are a mix of proven veterans and up-and-coming talent: Bale & Adams having worked together in The Fighter, Cooper & Lawrence the dramatic duo of Silver Linings Playbook.  Add Jeremy Renner to the mix, an awesome 70s soundtrack, a cool con vibe, and you've got yourself a film that's tailor-made for an Academy Award.  And after seeing it, I'm sure it'll be nominated many times over, deservedly so.  But I don't see too many victories in American Hustle's future.  It was a great film, no doubt, but it fell short of perfection and/or emotional relevance which will doom it to mediocrity come March.

It's a complicated plot that drives the story of this crime drama roller coaster.  Irving (Bale) is a professional conman.  He's got his fingers in more pies than he can count and is making money hand over fist thanks to the gullible public.  His wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) stays at home with his adopted son while he picks the pockets of desperate people, doing her nails, her hair, and reading fascinating articles.  True love enters Irving's life in the form of Sydney (Adams), a fellow conman, actor, and adventurer.  They are happy together and all is well, up to the point where they get caught.  Young FBI agent Richie (Cooper) busts the pair for fraud, but he's after bigger fish.  He wants the duo to create a con, a giant trap to ferret out politicians with sticky fingers.  Irving & Sydney are along for the ride, creating the con of the century to catch New Jersey's own Mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) and any twisted crooks who fall into the pot.  But who's tricking who, who's over who, and how will the twisted story end?

At the very least, the acting in this film is incredibly strong & entertaining.  Bale as the slick trickster with the nasty comb over is excellent; greasy, greedy, kinda gross, but ultimately lovable.  Adams as the ex-stripper, the girl who wants more, and the professional con-lady is great; cool accent, awesome outfits, and believably in love.  Cooper is just OK as Agent DiMaso; if annoying & immature was what he was going for than he succeeded.  And Renner was the best I'd ever seen him as the young do-gooder, a role that suited him much better than the one he played in The Hurt Locker.  But it was Jennifer Lawrence who stole the show.  She was incredible as Rosalyn the ditsy Long Island blonde.  She brought humor to the film, some levity, and a nice relief from the pressure of the heavy plot.  Of all the actors, I think she has the best chance of an Oscar with a Best Supporting Actress.  Both Bale & Adams might be nominated, but their performances weren't amazing, just great.  That might seen unfair, but they & Russell will be held to very high standards that they might not meet.

Speaking of the director, he did a fine job.  The movie was fast-paced, clever, interesting, strong; everything you want a film to be.  But it wasn't special.  I didn't leave the theatre saying "wow" or carrying a certain feeling home with me.  The story was delivered nicely, and it was a partially true story which helped to solidify the plot, but it never transcended my expectations, never became the stellar project that I had hoped it would be.  Two things the film lacked were sex & violence.  Now, I'm not saying it had to be bloody & perverted to be good, but a little added heat & reality would have helped to make the story gritty & believable.  A little grit would have gone a long way, made it seem a little less safe.  Comparing it to a film like The Departed which was incredibly violent makes me wonder why they didn't take a step in that direction.  Scorsese hit that one out of the park, while Russell kept this one just inside the fences.  It's a tame version of a great crime story, one that featured amazing actors in parts, but failed to be wonderful.  I still think it will get nominations and I still enjoyed watching it, very much so; it was a good, good movie.  But I wanted it to be the best movie of the year and it just didn't quite make it.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Friday, December 27, 2013

Movie Trailer - 22 Jump Street

Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube
Release: June 13th, 2014

How is Channing Tatum the hottest thing since Terrance Howard? I didn't see the first one of this new series, but I kinda wanted to.  I felt dumb at first, but then after it got OK reviews I actually thought maybe it would be worth a shot.  This movie isn't my usual style, but I actually laughed a little during the trailer.  I can't see myself rushing out to see either film, but perhaps someday they're worth a rental.

Movie Review - Prince Avalanche

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch, Lance LeGault
Year: 2013

Taking a look at director David Gordon Green's previous films makes you a little nervous about how Prince Avalanche will turn out.  Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter weren't exactly the greatest pieces of modern cinema.  And even though I like the Rogen/Franco/Hill crew, I had my doubts coming in about how he would transfer that raunchy comedy talent to a more quirky comedy style.  He had the right actors for the job, as both Rudd & Hirsch are very talented, naturally funny, and can turn on the serious when it's called for.  But now add in the fact that this film is based on the 2011 Icelandic comedy Either Way.  That's a lot of strange & unique pieces that have to fit together snugly in order for this movie to be high-quality, or at least enjoyable.  And as it turns out, perhaps there were just too many odd components and not enough room for error, because if the film worked it was just barely.

Alvin & Lance are a pair of road workers in 1980s Texas.  They live in a tent in the woods, bathe in the local streams, catch fish for dinner, and by day paint lines on new pavement that has been laid after a horrible forest fire.  Their job is fairy monotonous, although Alvin tries to make it more exciting by playing German language lesson tapes, and Lance shares his wild stories of nights at the clubs in the city & of the various girls he has met.  Alvin has a girl back home, who happens to be Lance's sister, and he writes letters to her professing his love despite voluntarily taking this break from her & from civilization.  This strange duo of lonely men work hard during the day, discuss the world at night, and try to figure out life from their own odd perspectives, all while living off the land, communing with nature, and getting drunk off spiked Ale 8.

You better enjoy offbeat indie comedies if you want to have even the slightest chance of liking this strange film.  Everything about it is just plain weird, from the one-on-one conversation to the Walden-esque forays through the woods.  There's really not an exact point to the movie and you're not going to come away with much, but it definitely delivers a unique story from a fresh perspective, if that's what you're looking for.  Paul Rudd & Emile Hirsch are both actually very strong, especially playing off each other, and they can make you laugh & make you feel very depressed at the exact same time.  So there are parts that worked well and some solid moments, but overall the film was a little too crazy to be great.  It was a bit messy, maybe a little flippant, and never really got on track.  The moments between the men were hilarious and I wish the movie had centered itself on them instead of losing itself in some confusing self-indulgence, but in the end it was a quirky comedy that was good not great, one that would be hard for most people to enjoy and I doubt will leave a lasting impression.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Movie Trailer - Rob the Mob

Director: Raymond De Felitta
Starring: Michael Pitt, Nina Arianda, Ray Romano, Andy Garcia
Release: 2014

I kind of wanna see this.  It looks like an American & slightly better version of Stand Off, but with Ray Romano instead of Brendan Fraser.  Neither of those guys makes me specifically interested in movies that they're involved in, but for some reason I'm intrigued by this movie.  Maybe it's just a well-edited trailer & it turns out to be garbage.  Rental?

Sports - 2013 NFL Picks, Week 17

Here are my NFL Week 17 Picks
(8-8 last week, 156-83-1 for the season)
Bye teams: none
Cle @ Pit - The Stillers still have an outside chance of making the playoffs if they can win here and a few other teams lose.  Not very likely, but possible, and the Browns shouldn't be much of a problem.  They've only won one road game all season and that bad trend should continue.

Was @ NYG - It's hard to predict who will win a game between two teams that are officially out of the playoffs and have nothing to play for.  At least the Giants can still save their coach's job by finishing strong; the Redskins have assumabley already decided to move on from Mike Shanahan.

Bal @ Cin - Well the Bengals have already locked up their division so they'll only be playing for seeding, but I still think they'll bring it against their rival.  If the Ravens were going to make a run at the last wild card spot they'd have done it against NE instead of getting creamed 41-7.

Hou @ Ten - Another meaningless matchup, but one that someone's gotta win.  The Texans have lost an amazing 13 games in a row after winning their first 2 and I just can't see them turning that around now.  The Titans aren't good & they're out of the playoffs too, but they should still win.

Jax @ Ind - The Colts were in big need of some momentum going into the playoffs as they were not looking like a tough team at all.  Two wins in a row should help that, as should a home win here.  The Jags have been playing better of late, but they don't really stack up.

NYJ @ Mia - The Dolphins are so close to the playoffs that they can almost taste it.  Almost.  After getting blown out by the Bills last week they have got to win here to keep their playoff hopes alive.  Luckily the Jets are done and are also 1-6 on the road.  You can do it Miami!

Det @ Min - It's almost unbelievable how badly the Lions have squandered some golden opportunities.  Rodgers & Cutler go down, the division is wide open, and they collapse when they need to win the most.  Well their season is done and I can't see myself picking them to win ever again.
Car @ Atl - No divisions have been won in the NFC quite yet, while all are sewn up in the AFC.  So while the Panthers control the South right now, they better win if they don't want to lose their grip & go on the road in the playoffs.  Atlanta is a team that they can beat, even away from Carolina.

TB @ NO - But if the Panthers do lose, then the Saints can jump right back up on top with a win here.  They are undefeated at home this year and I can't see them losing the most important game so far to the Bucs.  NO doesn't wanna go somewhere cold in January, they won't leave happy.

Buf @ NE - The Patriots showed last week that they're not messing around with a big win over the Ravens.  They want that #1 or #2 spot so that they can play in Foxboro come the playoffs.  Right not they just need to beat the Bills at home, which really shouldn't be that hard.

STL @ Sea - That slap in the face in the form of their first home loss of the season last week might have been exactly what the Seahawks needed to get their feet back on the ground.  Now they know that they have got to stay focused each & every game.  They should win here & beyond.

GB @ Chi- This is one of two games that will decide a division.  The winner takes the NFC North, the loser goes home.  The Bears are helped by the fact that Jay Cutler is back, although he's a little rusty.  I still think he beats Matt Flynn & the Pack, even though Chicago's D is awful.

SF @ Ari - I've enjoyed rooting for the Cardinals to make some noise this season and they've really been fun to watch.  Right now they are out of the playoffs, but they would still have a shot if they were to win right here.  They are 6-1 at home, just beat the Seahawks, and could win it.

Den @ Oak - Just the second away team I've picked so far, but I gotta go with my Broncos.  Peyton just set the all-time TD record with 51, Denver owns the #1 seed, and I think they win one more here to cement it.  The Raiders might like to play spoiler, but they just don't have the team.

KC @ SD - The Chiefs don't have anything to play for in this one; they're stuck at #5 and will be going on the road in Round 1.  The Chargers on the other hand are playing for their lives.  A win here goes a long way toward getting that coveted last playoff spot, and I think Rivers leads them to it.

Phi @ Dal - Last game of the regular season and it's a big one.  Winner takes the NFC East, loser goes home.  And with Romo now out for the season, I don't think the 'Boys have much of a chance in this one.  Kyle "Neck Beard" Orton steps in as the QB and should lose his only start of the year.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Movie Trailer - Welcome to Yesterday

Director: Dean Israelite
Starring: Patrick Johnson, Allen Evangelista, Ginny Gardner
Release: February 28th, 2014

This looks like the teen version of Primer.  And while I really liked that movie, I'm not sure I'm young enough to like this one.  It's not that it looks terrible, it just looks a little too pop & a little too cool.  I think I'll stick with dark & weird & non explanatory.

Movie Review - Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
Year: 2012

I didn't get the big deal about The Hurt Locker.  Kathryn Bigelow was on every body's hot list, the movie got rave critic reviews, and it even won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  I thought it was just alright.  The story was cool, sure, but it was a real life situation that automatically elicits a ton of emotion, not a great original plot that deserves a lot of credit.  Jeremy Renner didn't even do that great of a job, and his role was pretty generic; the maverick soldier who is slightly traumatized & kind of heroic.  So going into Zero Dark Thirty I imagined I would get a repeat; a film about war, well-made, but without a great actor & about subject matter that speaks for itself and doesn't need over dramatizing to be effective.  Well that's exactly what I saw, but again most critics saw a wonderful work of art where I just don't think one exists.

The topic of this movie is anything but broad.  It is a depiction of the real life events leading to the killing of Osama bin Laden after his apparent lead of the attacks on 9/11.  More specifically, the film follows the one woman war of Maya, who is obsessed with the terrorist's capture and spends her entire government career attempting to bring him to justice.  The subjects that the story touches on are both deep & troubling: torture, the detaining of political prisoners, American foreign war plans, the CIA.  And while these story lines exist, the focus remains on the intel, the process, and the execution of the final goal; the removal of one of the greatest single threats to American safety.

I guess, in the end, I just don't see why the majority of people think that this and Bigelow's other projects are so great.  Yes, the subject matter is very interesting.  She's banking on the fact that this is information that we want to know & that we probably want to see on screen.  The CIA details, the passion behind the chase, the elimination of such an influential historical figure; all of that is cool to see & well-detailed.  But it's the part that makes a movie a movie that I didn't enjoy as much, and to me that's a problem.  I thought Jessica Chastain was bad; not just OK, but pretty awful.  And I need a strong lead actor to help me enjoy the story even if the topic is inherently intriguing.  Some people don't care as much and can be a little more forgiving, but I can't.  Weak acting paired with mediocre directing and a cool true-life plot.  That gets you right in the middle; not a bad movie at all, but not an Oscar-worthy one either.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Trailer - Blended

Director: Frank Coraci
Starring: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore
Release: May 23rd, 2014

I might really like The Wedding Singer, but I'm not gonna fall for this one.  I get that it's kind of made for families, although raunchy families I guess.  But that doesn't mean it's going to be good.  Adam Sandler just does dumb crap now, it's like he's not even trying.

Movie Review - Crystal Fairy

Director: Sebastian Silva
Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Juan Andres Silva
Year: 2013

The actual title of this film is Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012.  That ought to tell you all you need to know about this movie.  It's weird, let me just put that out there.  It's weird in the way that many drug stories are, portraying a culture that I, thankfully, know nothing about.  But that makes it hard for me to really comprehend what the characters are feeling, what is driving them on their quest for the perfect drug.  Every once in a while someone makes a movie that's about people who happen to take drugs, not drugs themselves, and it's those films that I can actually connect to.  This one tried to get there, but never really quite managed, despite some good acting and a so-so plot, making it just another strange & wild trip.

Jamie is a young man with one thing on his mind; the famous San Pedro cactus.  He has traveled far in search of this hallucinogenic plant, building it up in his mind as the ultimate drug experience, one that will blow away all the cheap drugs that he's done so far in his youth.  With his friend Champa & his brothers in tow, Jamie starts a road trip that he hopes will end in amazing enlightenment.  But he made one mistake on this path to perfection, and her name is Crystal Fairy.  Crystal is a girl Jamie met randomly at a party, talked to while high, and apparently invited along.  But now that she has arrived, he is sure she'll mess up what was supposed to be a man's weekend with her strange hippie ways, her crazy talk about auras & magic stones, and a general positive energy that Jamie can't stand.  The two will have to learn to get along so that they can both enjoy the magic cactus and what might be the best thing to happen to them all year.

Like I said, it's weird.  I mean, it's a story about a group of young people whose sole mission is to boil some cactus juice, get high on it, and see life differently.  It's a plot that turns out to be a little boring actually, and it's only saved from total crap by some surprisingly good acting.  I like Michael Cera, some people don't, but he was really good in this one.  He was intentionally unlikable, pretty assy, and funny in a very awkward way.  What caught me off guard was Gaby Hoffman.  She was a completely different person than what we've seen from her before, or at least what we know her for: Sleepless in Seattle, Now and Then, Volcano.  In this one she was intentionally ugly, with a uni-brow and a look that said she hadn't washed in some time.  She was hairy, grungy, and for some strange reason very often naked.  The nudity itself was shocking and not meant to be enjoyable.  I guess it was there to make a point, to make audiences uncomfortable, and to show the free spirit of a character who was quite opposite from the one played by Michael Cera.  But regardless, the entire movie was an oddity, a slow-moving adventure with no great point.  I have no idea who I'd recommend this to, perhaps no one, and I definitely wouldn't watch it again myself.

My rating: ✰ ✰

Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Trailer - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Andy Serkis
Release: July 11th, 2014

This is a sequel to the popular Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I didn't see.  I liked the old Charlton Heston movies enough, and hated the new Marky Mark remake as did everyone.  I like the idea of a reboot of the series because it's a cool storyline that warrants a second take.  Maybe I'll have to go back & check out the first before I see this sequel, might not be too bad.

Movie Review - Home Alone

Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Catherine O'Hara
Year: 1990

This might be a Chris Columbus film, but man does it have John Hughes written all over it.  Of course, Hughes did write the script, but he had more to do with the movie than just putting some words down on paper.  He personally campaigned for the lead role to be given to Macaulay Culkin, who he had previously worked with in Uncle Buck.  Jon Candy too as a matter of fact, who also appears in this film.  And the world in which the story is set is 100% Hughes; a small town in Illinois, a dysfunctional family, childhood angst, some crass humor wrapped in a heart-warming lesson.  If you've seen his other projects you'll feel him right away; Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, just to name a few.  It was a sad day when Hughes died at the age of 59; the film world lost an amazing talent, a writer & director who was a genius in his own right and someone who gave us movies that we will never forget.

In Home Alone, Hughes & Columbus introduce us to Kevin McCallister, the youngest child in a family of five kids.  He feels like the goat of the group, the one who gets blamed, the one who gets overlooked.  And is he ever overlooked when his family prepares for a trip to Paris for the holidays.  During a hectic morning, Kevin is forgotten, left alone in the attic while everyone else flies away.  And although his mom realizes her mistake fairly soon, it's incredibly difficult for her to get back to her son, due to Christmas air traffic.  Kevin, meanwhile, thinks he wished his family away & is pretty happy about that.  That is until he realizes how alone he actually is.  A pair of bumbling cat burglars are preparing to pull off the theft of the century, stealing from every house on the block whose residents are away on vacation.  But they don't know Kevin, and they don't know to what lengths he will go to save his house, protect his territory, and make his family proud.

Talk about a classic Christmas movie.  This is one that I have got to watch every year.  It puts me in the mood for the holidays, teaches a good lesson about being careful what you wish for, and is ultimately about the love & warmth of family.  But along the way it's also hilarious.  Much of the humor is juvenile, some is silly, a lot is physical, but it doesn't really matter.  You can be any age and enjoy the wild ride, the ribald jokes, the smacks to the face.  Because it's never dumb; Hughes & Columbus keep it smart if not exactly high class.  And the acting is excellent as well.  Culkin looks the part more than he acts the part, but he's not bad for a kid.  Joe Pesci as the lead bad guy is superb and Catherine O'Hara as Kevin's mom is appropriately guilty & slightly crazy.  The side characters never detract from the story, and the music is surprisingly excellent until you realize that it was composed by John Williams.  All the pieces fit together, making Home Alone a holiday classic, a comedic masterpiece, and a must-see film.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movie Trailer - Earth to Echo

Director: Dave Green
Starring: Teo Halm, Astro, Reese Hartwig
Release: April 25th, 2014

This reminds me a little of Super 8, and not in a good way.  That movie was a cool homage to old sci-fi, but in the end it just turned out to be a kids' movie about aliens.  I think that's the path this movie is headed down too, but at least that fact is a little more apparent.

DVD Review - Barbara

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Jasna Fritzi Bauer
Year: 2012

There is something incredibly fascinating about the division of Germany after WWII, the East & West sides and the politics surrounding the split.  And then the 80s, the smuggling, and the eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall.  I think it reminds us of Nazi Germany, the ghettos, the trafficking of humans, the secrets, the governments watchdogs.  They say history repeats itself, but here there is an almost instantaneous repetition of events, on different scales perhaps but with a sense of irony that cannot be missed.  And as with films about the German occupation of Poland, films about the divided post-war country capture our attention & imagination like few other historical events can.  Barbara is just one more story of a place & time that seems almost surreal, but one that is done so subtly & so well that it can stand alone as a singularly excellent film.

The Movie

Barbara is a woman who has fallen from grace.  Once a prominent doctor in Berlin, her subversive political views and subsequent incarceration have ruined a promising career.  Her talent is too important to be cast aside though, so upon her release she is forcefully relocated to a small provincial town in order to work at the clinic there.  She is monitored constantly, subjected to searches of her small apartment and even her own body.  She is a political outcast, a rebel, a woman who is labeled as dangerous and will never be free from the oversight of the government.  She rides the train or her bicycle to work, returns home, and never participates in life outside of her job, living an uncomfortable life in a place she never imagined would be her home.

But Barbara has secrets that are as unlawful as her opinions.  She meets with her lover on occasion, in the forest and in hotels, planning her eventual escape from the region to freedom in another county.  The wheels of the plot have been put into motion, but several events complicate matters beyond her control.  One is her fellow doctor, Andre.  He is handsome, kind, brilliant, a man who makes a positive impact on the lives of all around him.  But he is also paid to watch her, to report on her performance & her doings to the authorities that constantly monitor her.  And there is also a girl, a young pregnant woman who is a captive of a work camp, a place no better than the concentration camps of WWII.  Barbara cannot help but feel a deep compassion for this girl, a desire to save her from the fate that awaits both her & her baby.  And as the day of her liberation draws near, both Andre and the girl will become important parts of her life, ones that she cannot easily leave behind.

What an interesting take on a fascinating period in time.  Perhaps not everyone is as intrigued by the division of post-war Germany as I am, or even the history of WWII for that matter.  But if you are, here is a film that captures that era excellently.  But the difference between this film and one like The Lives of Others is the location.  This story is set in the countryside, a place of relative peace & beauty, a great contrast for the intense political & social issues that are simultaneously occurring.  The other is set in Berlin itself, under the shadow of the wall, deep within the underground movement, the government surveillance, the constant danger.  Setting this movie in a place still clinging to the past and still protected somewhat from the modern world was an excellent choice, as it showcases a complex situation in a simple place.

And the story was delivered very well.  There was a subtlety and a silence about the film that was enjoyable to watch but gave a dangerous feel.  Moments were captured in simplicity but with the knowledge that the undertones were anything but.  Again, this was also reflected in the innocence of the town, even while a thrilling story was taking place right under it's nose.  That's not to say there was a lot of thrilling action.  The threat of harm was ever-present, but there was very little violence or anger on display; most of the emotion in the film was bubbling just under the surface.  And that made the story feel that much more realistic & engaging.  These were things that actually happened, if not this event specifically then ones that were very similar.  And the choices that the characters had to make during the film were ones that had real consequences and were driven by real emotion.

The acting helped to support a well-constructed story and breathed life into incredibly believable characters.  Nina Hoss was excellent as Barbara, playing her as an extremely private woman, one whose life was made hell by the constant invasion of her space, her body, and her free will.  Her performance was subtle & realistic, keeping her emotions in check for most of the film, only showing them in extreme moments.  And Ronald Zehrfeld was as strong as Andre, the attractive & compassionate young doctor.  We were left a little unsure as to his character's intentions, his motivations, and his actual feelings.  We as an audience had to figure out what was driving him & which parts of his persona were honest, which were a show.  And the chemistry between the two was spot on, with trepidatious interest & barely controlled passion, creating a tension that added to the intensity of the plot & crafted a captivating film.


Video - With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the video quality is very high.  The color is every scene was rich & in wonderful contrast.  The picture was sharp, attractive, and detailed.  The many outdoors scenes were very well done, with wonderful natural light.  The entire film was a pleasure to view.

Audio - The DVD was done in Dolby Digital.  The language of the film is German with English subtitles.  There are no options for different languages or any other audio choices.  The sound quality of the film was good, but with no scenes crafted to highlight its richness.  Much of the film was quiet conversation, silent moments, and so the lack of sound was more important.

Extras - There are no extras on the disc.

Final Thoughts

RecommendedBarbara is a film without mass appeal but with a very solid product to deliver.  The history behind the story sets the stage for the drama, and so people who are interested in that era may enjoy this film more than those who are not.  The acting holds up on its own and the simplicity of the action is refreshing, but there are times when audiences could become bored.  The video quality is great, the audio fine, but the DVD has no extras.  This is well-made film, but one that is slow, foreign language, and historically based.  Not a movie to excite the majority perhaps, but one that has some excellent qualities that deserve attention.

✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ - Content
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ - Video
✰ ✰ ✰ - Audio
- Extras
✰ ✰ ✰ - Replay

Friday, December 20, 2013

Thought - Oscar Update

Two months ago I posted some early Oscar Predictions.  Since then the picture has changed a little and it's time for an Oscar Update.  I'm trying to see & review as many contenders as possible before the Academy Awards and I hope to give you some insight into any movies you don't get the chance to see.  So here are some candidates for Best Picture:

This is the Indiewire.com ranking of top possible Academy Award contenders:

  1. Gravity
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Saving Mr. Banks
  4. Nebraska
  5. The Wolf of Wall Street
  6. Inside Llewyn Davis
  7. American Hustle
  8. Captain Phillips
  9. Her
  10. The Butler
  11. Blue Jasmine
  12. August: Osage County
  13. Dallas Buyers Club
  14. Philomena
  15. All is Lost
  16. Fruitvale Station
  17. Prisoners
  18. Lone Survivor
  19. The Book Thief
  20. Before Midnight
Added: Dallas Buyers Club, Lone Survivor, The Book Thief.

Book Review - The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1959

I would say that my favorite author is Stephen King.  I understand that some people don't like his work, and I also understand that he's not a very unique choice for a favorite, but he has ability to draw me into the worlds he creates like no one I have ever read before.  His stories are fun to read on the surface, but also extremely deep if you care to jump in.  The only other author who comes close is my second favorite, Kurt Vonnegut.  His books are more overtly meaningful with less of a popular element to catch the eyes of people who are looking for a page-turner.  That's not to say that he doesn't write entertaining stories, because he does, but they are obviously metaphorical, where King's could just be taken at face value if that's what you choose to do.  Anyway, Vonnegut is an amazing author who I've read well, even though this is my first review of one of his books.  The Sirens of Titan is one of his earliest novels, one that gained him a lot of fame, but also one that isn't as strong as his later works.  That's not to say that it's not good; it's still a fascinating story with an incredibly rich message, one that ought to be read, discussed, and enjoyed.

Meet Malachi Constant, the richest man on Earth.  He has extreme good luck, as did his father, and he does what he pleases with his money with not a single thought for the future.  When he meets Winston Niles Rumford & his wife, events are set into motion that will lead to the collapse of Malachi's fortune, the ruin of his business, and his eventual travel to the planet of Mars.  There he unwillingly becomes a part of Rumford's plans to invade Earth, to conquer it using Martian troops and advanced alien technology.  But Malachi revolts against this path, leading him on a journey through space & time that he never could have imagined.  And the secrets that he learns about the point of the universe & the meaning of human life will change his world forever.  He will meet his soul mate, father a son, repair a broken robotic alien, live on a great number of planets, become the entire Earth's whipping boy, and grow old during an adventure that never seems to end and always remains astonishingly random.

How's that for a summary?  The book doesn't really make much sense if you break it down into events.  The first part is pretty boring; rich people talking about the future and the author giving us the story of Malachi's family fortune.  But powering through that portion you arrive at a place in which the action never stops.  A war between Mars & Earth, glowing space creatures that spell out messages, a religion formed around chaos theory, space ships that fly themselves, voodoo dolls in the form of Malchi Constant.  The events are weird beyond description, but each one has a meaning, a deeper purpose that leaves readers pondering the great questions of the world.  And that's, I guess, the point of the story; to get you questioning the world, your purpose, intelligent design, God, the future, destiny, fate.  All the big questions come up, some of them are "answered", and others are left for you to figure out.  I enjoy a story in which I'm left to think for myself, to create my own theory to explain the hows & the whys.  And Vonnegut creates such a story here.

It's not his best book perhaps, but it is one of his early works & he can be forgiven for not creating a polished masterpiece.  Vonnegut himself grades it an A, and I would be hard pressed to disagree, although I liked some of his other books far better.  Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five; now those are great novels; incredibly excellent stories with the patented Vonnegut weirdness and some mind-blowing messages to deliver.  He likes to throw a little bit of sci-fi into all his books; this one just happens to have a ton more than usual.  But that's not to say it's a sci-fi book.  The technical aspect isn't there, he's just using space as a backdrop because it allows for so much, his imagination can run wild without too much critique or correction.  And for this story it works; an outer space tale about the meaning of life as told by a man who fell into the events of the book randomly.  There are a lot of funny moments, odd happenings, great quotes, weird characters; all the things you could want from a Vonnegut book.  If you are already a fan chances are you'll like this one too.  If not, I would recommend trying a different one of his works and coming back to this one when you've gotten a little acclimated.  This one's kind of out there; good, but strange, and perhaps not one you want to read as your first Vonnegut experience.

My rating: ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Movie Trailer - Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return

Director: Will Finn
Starring: Lea Michele, Bernadette Peters, Patrick Stewart, Martin Short
Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer, James Belushi, Hugh Dancy, Oliver Platt
Release: May 9th, 2014

There are some animated movies that are made for both children & adults.  There are some that are made just for kids.  I think this is going to be the latter.  I would be surprised if there was much to hold onto from a grown-up perspective, but I think my daughter might really enjoy it.

Sports - 2013 NFL Picks, Week 16

Here are my NFL Week 16 Picks
(8-8 last week, 148-75-1 for the season)
Bye teams: none

Mia @ Buf - It's all starting to come together for the Dolphins.  They hang on to upset the Patriots, they put together a winning streak, and the playoffs seem just within reach.  They have got to win these last games of the season and I think they will, starting with a beatable Buffalo team.

NO @ Car - The Saints are in trouble.  They're still a great team, but the blueprint for beating them has been established; take away Jimmy Graham.  Brees doesn't seem like the same QB when his TE is unavailable, and let's not forget that NO has not been a very good road team all season.

Min @ Cin - Last week's loss to the Stillers didn't surprise me, despite the Bengals being the better team.  What would surprise me would be the Vikings beating them at home.  Cinci is undefeated in Queen City and knows now that the playoffs are not guaranteed if they start screwing off.

Den @ Hou - The best team in the league vs the worst.  This could have been a trap game had the Broncos not lost last week and been smacked in the face with the knowledge that the playoffs are coming & that they'd better regroup.  I don't think Peyton & Co. will falter here.

Ten @ Jax - Here's the surprising fact of the day; the Jaguars are 3-1 when playing teams in their division.  They can't beat anyone else, but that doesn't matter as far as this matchup is concerned.  Neither of these teams has any playoff hope, but the Jags are playing at home and should win.

Ind @ KC - Recently the Chiefs have only been able to beat mediocre teams.  But right now, I think you've got to call the Colts a mediocre team.  They've backed into the playoffs where they might be hosting KC in the first round.  So this game has some meaning to it and I can't see Indy winning.

Cle @ NYJ - We'll call this the Who Cares Bowl.  Neither team is going anywhere, both have a boat load of problems, and it doesn't really matter which way this one goes.  The Jets are good at home (5-2) while the Browns suck on the road (1-5), so I guess the game is in New York's hands.

TB @ STL - I didn't see that last one coming, as the Rams stomped the Saints.  If they can do that to Drew Brees, what can they do to Mike Glennon?  Add in the fact the the Rams are a good home team while the Bucs lose when they're away and we should have a one-sided battle.

Dal @ Was - This one could get ugly.  No one allows more points than the Redskins, though the 'Boys aren't far behind, so we should get to see a good old fashioned shootout.  The winner will be decided by which QB makes more mistakes, Romo or Cousins.

NYG @ Det - I hate picking Jim Schwartz & the Lions to win anything, but how could I pick a team that scored zero points at home last Sunday?  New York is a giant mess (see what I did there?) and should lose even though Detroit seems to have a penchant for sucking.

Ari @ Sea - It's been fun watching the Cardinals surprise us all, but they're just out of the playoffs and have to go into Seattle to take on the Seahawks.  No team is more powerful at home and I can't see Palmer playing better than Wilson.  It's been a nice run, but it could all end here.

NE @ Bal - If the Bengals are the AFC's Lions, than the Pats are the AFC's Siants.  Take away their main weapon, send them on the road, and watch them crumble.  You could probably say the same about most teams, but the Patriots are supposed to be elite.  I doubt they show that this week.

Pit @ GB - Matt Flynn did just enough last week to win, with a little help from Tony Romo of course.  Rodgers could be back this week, maybe next, but either way I think the Pack are just the better team, despite Pitt's big win vs Cinci last week.  Look for some Lambeau Leaps.

Oak @ SD - This would be a simple game to pick if the Raiders didn't enjoy playing the spoiler so much.  As it is, I don't think they have enough this season to mess up too many teams' plans.  The Chargers are heating up at the right time, have their sights on the playoffs, and should roll.

Chi @ Phi - Jay Cutler is back & the Bears are alive, but that defense is still a major problem.  Both Chicago & Philly are leading their respective divisions & want to hold onto them, but someone's going to fail.  The Iggles always play better vs NFC opponents & should win here.

Atl @ SF - I don't love the Niners and I can't see them going deep in the playoffs, but this is a winnable game.  The Falcons are over-matched, on the road, and just can't keep up.  The Niners are coming in hot, winning four straight.  They'll keep it going and get the W here, no problem.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Movie Trailer - Interstellar

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway
Casey Affleck, Michael Caine, Topher Grace, John Lithgow
Release: November 7th, 2014

We have a while to wait for this one, and this is just a teaser, not a full trailer, so it's hard to tell what to expect.  I'm not overly confident in the cast, but I am a sucker for space exploration movies.  Especially when all is not as it seems?  When things go awry?  When people float off into space & their crew mates cry?  Yeah that's been done a million times and I would guess that this movie will follow some of the same guidelines.  But like I said, I'm a sucker for it, and so are a lot of other people.  Doesn't mean it'll be great, but it might at least be pretty cool.

Movie Review - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Year: 2013

In preparation for this movie I brushed up on my Tolkien.  I reread the book & reviewed it (The Hobbit), I watched the first movie & reviewed it (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), and I got out my Elvish phrasebook so I wouldn't feel like such a tourist.  Let me start off by saying that I love the original novel & have read it a dozen times.  I think it's a phenomenal story that can instantly translate into a great film without a lot of work or embellishment.  That said, I'm not a crazy purist.  I understand that small changes are necessary to help the book fit the screen and that not every single detail will make it past the final cut.  I also understand that a little extra might need to be added to flesh out a scene, add to a conversation, what have you.  Peter Jackson did a great job with the Lord of the Rings movies in sticking to the book as much as he possibly could.  I was shocked that he didn't do the same with the first Hobbit movie, crafting entirely new pieces out of thin air.  And so I guess I was prepared for much of the same with the second movie, but I had no idea that the story would be completely butchered beyond recognition.

This second film relates the second part of Thorin & Co.'s journey from the west back to their homeland in the east where a dragon awaits them.  The group, including Bilbo & Gandalf, have just escaped the Misty Mountains and the goblin horde.  There, Bilbo encountered Gollum, found the ring, and started serious events in motion.  But for now the goal is still the Lonely Mountain and the retrieval of the dwarven treasure.  The party, still harassed by the pale orc, seek shelter with Beorn the Bear.  From there they will travel through the dangerous forest of Mirkwood, past the Wood Elves realm, to the town of men on the Long Lake, and then up through the wastelands to the mountain and the awaiting enemy.  Not an easy trek, and one that will take all their luck & courage to complete.  They will battle their pursuers, giant spiders, Elven captivity, the shortsighted laws of a troubled town, and ultimately Smaug the Terrible as they creep closer & closer to their ancient treasure and the fate that awaits them in that desolate place.

I can only take so much before I explode.  The first film added quite a bit, seemingly vamping much of the time in order to stretch one film's worth of material into three epic movies.  So that frustrated me as a fan of the book and made me wish they had done things differently.  But this movie took that practice to a whole new level.  Almost every single word spoken, action shown, battle fought, and plot unfolded was a complete fabrication.  The timeline was the only aspect of the book that was followed; first Beorn's, then the forest, the Elves, Lake Town, Smaug.  But nothing that happened in those places was at all what happened in the book.  Beorn is an ugly giant?  Orlando Bloom pops up?  An elf falls in love with a dwarf?  Bard is a smuggler?  Bilbo & his friends fight Smaug in the mountain?  Umm, no, none of that happens, none of that is in the book, someone just made all that up and his name is not J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's unbelievable that the movie would stray so far from the novel that it becomes almost unrecognizable.

Now, for someone who hasn't read the book in years or maybe has never read it, I can see how the story being totally different wouldn't bother you.  I can see how you could enjoy this movie as an action-packed adventure.  If I had never read a popular bestseller, saw the movie, thought it was great, and then learned that it was nothing like the book I might not care.  But then again, The Hobbit is not just some book.  It's one of the greatest novels ever written, the Bible of fantasy, a near perfect execution of comedy, drama, & tragedy.  This is a story that doesn't need rewritten and that's what was done with this second film.  Sure, there were parts that were enjoyable; the action was cool, the sets & music were of course beautiful.  But as someone who loves the book, the "neat" parts seemed unnecessary to me.  I didn't need the orcs to talk like Klingons.  I didn't need a made up love story.  I didn't need Legolas shooting a million bad guys through the brain pan.  What I needed was a functional representation of the classic book, something akin to what Peter Jackson has proven that he is capable of doing.  What I got was a fantasy movie that was very loosely based on The Hobbit.  Judging it that way, it was OK & maybe you'll like it, it's not horrible.  But judging it as a film version of the book I love, I'm appalled that there wasn't even an attempt to stay true to the story, to showcase the wonderful & hilarious & heart-breaking writing that Tolkien poured into one of the best books ever written.

My rating: ✰ ✰