Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thanksgiving Week Movie Tips

Happy Thanksgiving.  The holiday is Thursday and some folks may be taking off more than just that day.  If hitting the cineplex the see a movie is on your list of leisure time activity, here are my notes on five current releases that I've seen.
SPOTLIGHT:  I saw this movie in September and wrote a post about its excellence.  When it opened early this month, I did another piece about it.  In an age in which journalism has drastically changed and when a new generation seems to gets its news in short blurbs on Twitter instead of reading an entire column in a newspaper -- if anyone still purchases a newspaper -- Spotlight praises the hard, grueling work of investigative reporters back in the day when the job included lots of footwork, lots of doors slammed in your face, taking notes in longhand and doing countless hours of research and fact-checking in a library versus using Google and treating Wikipedia as if it's a worthy successor to the history books written by Will and Ariel Durant.  Like All The President's Men, a classic film from 1976, Spotlight focuses on a real-life investigative journalism team that breaks a major story that has national and international significance.  The Boston newspaper team that writes for the Spotlight section uncovered a story of sexual misconduct amongst Catholic priests when men who were victims of the sexual abuse as boys spoke out.  Spotlight is one of the best journalism movies to come out since All The President's Men.  It's also a tale of redemption, making things right.  Attention is paid when it should've been paid long ago.  If this intelligent and compelling film doesn't get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the Academy has lost its collective mind.  Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup star in an outstanding film that features some excellent ensemble acting.

SICARIO:  No one is talking about this movie but, man, what a crime thriller!  There were times that I gasped at what happened.  And I wasn't the only moviegoer in the cineplex audience to do so.  I saw Sicario recently when I had a few hours to kill before heading back to where I'm staying.  I knew that it had to do with the drug war in Mexico and that Emily Blunt -- who gave such rich comic performances in The Devil Wears Prada and the musical Into The Woods -- was cast a top-notch FBI agent.  I read a couple of snarky review comments about the slim, pretty actress being cast in the role.  The snarky comments, written by guys, struck me as sexist.  Emily Blunt rocked that role.
Like Jodie Foster's character in The Silence of the Lambs, Blunt's idealistic Kate Macer is a highly regarded and the lone female in a male-dominated agency and job.  She is enlisted to go to Mexico to help fight the blood bath of a drug war between Mexico and the U.S.  But who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?  Benecio Del Toro stars as the mysterious man on her team.  And is there a price to pay for playing by the rules as Kate Macer does?  In Blunt's portrayal, you see a mind that's constantly, actively alert in a woman who is always true to her moral compass.  Sicario is violent, tense and action-packed.  Emily Blunt and Benecio Del Toro deliver powerful performances.  Trust me.  You will gasp too at a couple of scenes in this beautifully shot and edited feature.
BURNT:  If Food Network started producing made-for-TV movies, this is the kind of feature we'd get.  Unfortunately, Food Network would've probably put Guy Fieri in the lead instead of Bradley Cooper.
Cooper stars as the handsome top chef who was just too popular in Paris until drugs and alcohol stalled his career.  Now he's cleaned up and gets another shot at stardom in the kitchen -- this time in London.  But he must learn humility, how to be a team player, how to control his temper and how to let people care about him as much as he cares about food.  The surroundings are posh.  Fabulous Emma Thompson has an all-too-brief role as the wise therapist checking the top chef's 12 Step recovery and cracking though his emotional crust.  British actress Sienna Miller, still trying to click with American moviegoers the way Emma Thompson, Emily Blunt and Keira Knightley have, plays the top chef's potential love interest, a fellow cook in his restaurant kitchen.
Have you ever had dinner at one of those fancy restaurants where the place is deluxe, the folks are well-dressed and you're paying top dollar for little bitty gourmet portions on a big-ass plate?  I have.  I always stopped at a pizza joint on the way home to get a couple o' slices.  This movie is like that.  A little bitty story in a big-ass fancy film.  There's eye-candy in Cooper and all the food looks terrific, but you don't leave feeling full.

THE 33:  In my previous blog posts this month, you can see me interview cast members Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips and Rodrigo Santoro.  This film is based on the miraculous news story of 2010.  On live TV news, we witnessed the rescue of 33 men, victims of a mining disaster in Chile.  They were trapped far below ground for 69 days.  With modern technology, we were able to see video of them underground before they were individually brought up to reunite with family and other loved ones.  OK, I'll admit it:  When I followed this story on CNN and saw video of 33 shirtless Latin men with hardhats and huddled together in a dimly lit space, I thought "If each one of those guys was holding a cocktail and if there was house music playing in the background, that would be just like a sexy club I visited one night in the East Village of New York City.  Woof!"
There was a moment when the 33 semi-clad men gather together for a group hug. My heart skipped a beat.  Not to worry.  This film is fine for family viewing.  It was surely tough to write because 33 men were involved, plus rescuers and relatives.  You can't tell each miner's story in the screenplay, so it has to focus on a couple, crystallize the situation and find the main theme.  In this story, the theme is faith.  Keeping the faith.  There's not much drama beyond them hoping to be rescued, but it's big on faith via the leader played by Antonio Banderas.  And the final scene with the miners is quite touching. The film was directed by Mexican-born, New York City-trained Patricia Riggen.  There is very little food for the 33 miners.  The food fantasy sequence is delicious and a most amusing break from the seriousness of the situation. I love what the director did there.

THE MARTIAN:  Actor Matt Damon is lost in space.  Think about The Martian as you eat the mashed potatoes on your Thanksgiving dinner plate.  This is a smart thrill ride of a movie that blends science, the Happy Days TV sitcom and classic disco music into one of the most entertaining pictures Matt Damon has starred in recently.  Just like The 33, you have a man on an exploratory mission.  Disaster strikes. He's unreachable and must be rescued.  Keeping the faith is key.  But this story has way more drama and action going on than The 33 does.  Also, we're able to focus on one main character.  The movie opens with a manned mission on Mars.  Astronauts are walking on the planet.  When a colossal, dangerous storm approaches, they must abort the exploratory mission, race back into the ship and blast off.
Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead, a victim of the killer storm.  He's not dead.  He regains consciousness to find himself alone on Mars.  His astonished space crew far out in the galaxy is determined to rescue him.
Watney must "science the hell" out of his situation.  He figures out how to grow food for himself.  It's his philosophy that when things "go South," when all goes wrong, there's only one choice:  "You just begin."  You figure out one problem, and then another, and then another.  We see him, there's his team in space and there's the NASA team on earth.  The Martian is a pro-racial and pro-gender diversity cheer for what can be accomplished all over the world when we work together.  Damon is excellent in a largely solo performance.  Co-starring in The Martian are Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig.  Clever script and great special effects.
Some critics accurately noted that his character in The Martian has challenges like the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away.  In Cast Away, the man was lost and separated from the woman he loves.  Notice that Mark Watney never mentions a girlfriend or wife and kids waiting for him back on Earth.  The miners in The 33 had wives or girlfriends waiting for them to be rescued.  In one case, a miner had both.  The stranded astronaut has his NASA crew and his parents.  Interesting.  Also, The Martian is an exciting movie that'll give you a greater appreciation for duct tape and potatoes.  You'll see what I mean.

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