Friday, August 22, 2014

movie review: CALVARY (2014)


(reviews may contain spoilers for those that have never seen the film or are unfamiliar with the characters.)

* * *

CALVARY (2014)

Father James is the senior priest in a small hamlet on the Irish Coast. He knows everyone by name, and everyone knows him as well.

It was a usual Sunday, preaching sermons and hearing confessions. However, today's confessional included something rather unique. One parishioner said he would be killing someone at the end of next week….Father James!

Being magnanimous, he does give Father James a week to prepare for his eventual demise.

* * *

This film wasn't on my radar this morning, when I went to check movie times. But, I saw a trailer and the premise intrigued me.

What is said in a confessional is supposed to be kept confidential; between you, the priest and God. Would Father James break that oath to save his life? I wanted to know.

Make sure you get to the theater before the movie starts as there is no wiggle room before the confessional scene, and it's a lot more than simply "I'm going to kill you."

Additionally, I need to say right up front, you really need to leave the kiddies at home. Calvary earned it's R rating with violence, adult language and subjects including pedophilia, homosexuality and adultery. I would not want to have to explain to the young ones what they're talking about at times.

It's obvious, almost from the beginning, that Father James (Brendan Gleeson) knows who his adversary is. However, writer/director John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly, The Guard), kept us in suspense pretty much till the end.

Several times I said to myself, "AHA!!" Only to catch myself saying it again a few minutes later when another person meets with the priest.

Besides Gleeson, the film includes an ensemble cast as unique as the characters they portray.

Filmed in relatively secluded County Sligo, of northwest Ireland, the scenery helps paint the feeling that you're far away from the big city, in a sleepy little village.

The film did seem to drag on at times because the first two-thirds of the film has very little sound track to it, and what little there is is at a very low volume. Only, when we're getting to the end does the volume reach a fever pitch.

Most of the movie's 105 minute running time surrounds Father James trying to convince them to change their ways before its too late, all the while battling his own issues.

In prepping to write this review I came upon a couple of references suggesting this was wickedly funny. For the life of me, I couldn't find any humor that I'd label funny. It's part drama, part suspense.

This film will not be for everyone. I left the theater in a bit of a funk. Not because it was such a depressing film. But, because it was emotionally intense, percolating to a dull roar from the very beginning.

RATED: 6.75 out of 10 STARS

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Calvary is currently in limited release nationwide, showing nearby at the California and Piedmont Theatres at least through next Thursday.

A full listing of show times and locations can be found at Fandango.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

And the Oscar goes to… (2014 edition)

movie_and_popcornLast November I wrote a blog entry with mini-reviews for the 2013 Oscar Awards.

It was an interesting exercise, so I decided to do it again.

I watched as DVDs became available through the Alameda County Library System so reviews were written over a couple months, not immediately back-to-back.

Comments are based on personal preferences, and don't take into account popularity at the box office.

So without further ado here are my thoughts on this year's Best Picture Nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards presentation.

american_hustle_posterAMERICAN HUSTLEAmerican Hustle is a visit to the recent past where hair styles were bigger, clothes were gaudy and music was still psychedelic.

Throughout watching the film I had to keep asking myself exactly who was conning whom? Just when you thought things were going one way, it took a left turn and went another.

Character development was intricate, with the main ones having many layers like an onion. I never really felt sorry for any of them. But, it was like a train wreck coming on, you wanted to keep watching.

The strongest character was probably Sydney (Amy Adams). Vulnerable at times, she knew how to control men when she needed to and it was intriguing watching her spin her web.

It's easy to see how American Hustle garnered Oscar nominations in all the Big Five categories, plus five others.

Though the screenplay is clearly fictional, it really works because it liberally borrows from actual events; the ABSCAM scandal.

captain_phillips_posterCAPTAIN PHILLIPSCaptain Phillips takes us on the five day piracy epic of the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship in November 2009.

Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Richard Phillips, the commander of the ill-fated cargo vessel. His demeanor was pretty much an even keel all the way through as if he was trying to diffuse the situation as best he could.

Producers took a gamble in casting four native Somali expats, who never acted before. This could have been disastrous. But, they carried it off very well. Being naturally gaunt, and looking like they were constantly hopped up on qat, and their characters were more interesting than Hanks'.

dallas_buyers_club_posterDALLAS BUYERS CLUB – In the early days of the AIDS crisis, people scrambled to find anything that might help to put off the inevitable.

Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) was a blue color worker and part-time bull rider who contracts AIDS through unprotected sex.

We follow Woodruff as he turned a quick buck scheme into something that prolonged lives and his transformation from borderline homophobe to civil activist.

Yet another amazing acting job by McConaughey, proving he's one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood.

I appreciated that director Jean-Marc Vallée chose not to stereotype the Dallas transvestite community, and explore their human side in supporting characters, such as Rayon (Jared Leto).

gravity_posterGRAVITY Nothing is peaceful than floating 600km above the surface of the Earth in the vacuum of space.

One minute Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is fixing a problematic satellite taking in the view; the next she's whirling out of control after a close encounter with space junk demolishes the space shuttle.

George Clooney and Bullock received equal billing in promos for Gravity. But, make no mistake; this was Bullock's film. Clooney's screen time was minimal at best.

An interesting tactic used was to constantly keep the camera moving for most of the film. This movement, even so slight, added to the ultra-realistic effects, gave me feeling as if this was actually shot in outer space.

After several minutes of Bullock hyperventilating and tumbling through space I began to wonder if that was all we were going to see. Fortunately, they moved the plot along in different ways.

They packed about three hours of events into the film's 93 minute running time, so we were kept on the edge of our seat for most of it.

her_posterHER A guy breaks up with his live-in girlfriend, and then relies on his computer's rather unique operating system for companionship.

Her is probably the strangest of this year's Best Picture nominees.

It's effectively a total of two hours-worth of conversations between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson); the body-less voice of his computer's operating system.

Phoenix sure has come along way since his 1986 debut in SpaceCamp, and Theodore must've been his hardest role yet because he had to effectively talk to the air as if he's interacting with a real person that's not visible.

Johansson had the luxury of showing up to a sound booth to record her lines and it wouldn't surprise me if she never set foot on the set.

Though the pacing of the film was slow most of the time, my biggest problem was the extreme foul language used when it just wasn't necessary. This included Writer/Director Spike Jonze in a cameo where his character excels at swearing and flipping the viewer off.

nebraska_posterNEBRASKA Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) won $1,000,000! At least that's what Woody thinks, and despite his failing health he's willing to walk a thousand miles to collect; much to the consternation of his immediate family.

Woody's son David (Will Forte) finally relents to drive his father the 850 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect what's due him.

Along the way they visit Hawthorne, where Woody grew up, and where it seems like nothing has changed.

Nebraska is one of those films absolutely loved by  film festival goers, which I could never really get into.

It's thankfully short, yet it seems to drag on as if it were twice as long. Compounding that problem was the choice to film it in black and white.

Director Alexander Payne chose to use B&W because he always wanted to shoot a film in that medium, and because he felt this movie should be done that way.

To me, the choice didn't add anything which a grainy effect wouldn't have to a color film. Supposedly, they also produced a color version. But, that was never released. It would be interesting to compare the two some day.

On a positive side, the give and take between Dern and Forte was great, and kept me from dozing off.

Anybody who has had a grandparent who religiously pestered them to fill out PCH sweepstakes forms year after year will sympathize with David as he tries to dissuade his father every chance he gets before finally throwing his hands up in defeat.

philomena_posterPHILOMENA Philomena has kept a deep secret for 50 years. So deep, that she hadn't even shared it with her daughter.

Her daughter, after learning of her older brother, connects mom up with former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith, who accompanies her on her real life journey to be reunited with her son, forcefully given up for adoption so long ago.

This film was an absolute gem. It's 97 minute running time is packed with detail that moves the story along, keeping the viewer's interest.

Judi Dench, best known to American audiences as M, in the James Bond franchise, was absolutely astounding. What's particular fascinating are the scenes where there is no dialog and her facial expressions were enough for the moment.

Steve Coogan took a step out of his comedic comfort zone to play a very serious Sixsmith. Not only was Coogan the lead actor. But, he also had his hands in writing the screenplay and film production.

wolf_of_wall_street_posterTHE WOLF OF WALL STREETJordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) had an amazing gift at being able to sell things.

Unfortunately, while working on Wall Street, he met a smooth talking mentor who showed him how to not take no for an answer.

After his firm was dissolved in the 1987 stock market crash, he took a job in the relatively unregulated penny stock world, building a fortune in a short time, and bringing him under the microscope of the FBI.

This film starts out like a race horse firing out of the gate. It tries to hook your attention with lots of flash and dash like one of those 1980s investment infomercials.

Unfortunately, it doesn't keep that pace and there are some dead times where you begin to lose interest. Frankly, it's just too long, with a running time of three hours.

The ensemble of supporting actors brings variety to the screen. But, this film is all about Belfort, and when DiCaprio is off his mark, it fails.

twelve_years_a_slave_poster12 YEARS A SLAVE As a Free Man of Color in the North, Solomon Northup stood out amongst his fellow residents of Hebron, New York.

In 1841 he was introduced to two men who were interested in hiring him for his skills with the violin.

However, Northup soon woke up in a foggy state, his fancy suit replaced by the chains of a slave.

12 Years A Slave follows his tribulations while living as a slave in the southern plantation system, and his eventually freedom and reunification with his family.

This film was both wonderful and horrific at the same time. Wonderful in that it's beautifully photographed and meticulously written. Horrific in that some of the attention to details might cause most people to become sick to their stomachs.

It's a fact that slaves were whipped. This has been shown many times before in movies. But, the makeup effects portrayed the results of whipping at a level I've never seen before in a movie.

Another issue some might have is the usage of the N word. I know of several people who refused to see the movie because it was used at all. Had they watched it, they would have probably left the theater within the first 20 minutes.

Screenwriter John Ridley wrote a script which seemed like a compilation of several vignettes, rather than one single story. At times it switched from one to the next rather abruptly.

* * *

So what would have been my choice for Best Picture?


A real gem. Acting was not over the top, and melded kept us interested with several twists and turns along the way.

While some events may have been enhanced by creative license, it was done to move the plot along. This was probably the closest to what really happened compared to the other films based on real life events.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Wasabi and Mango and Cappuccino…OH MY!!

About 16 months ago Frito-Lay came up with a big marketing campaign where consumers would vote for one of three flavors to join the ever growing list of potato chips.

The reward for submitting the eventual winning flavor? ONE MILLION DOLLARS!! As you can imagine, there were thousands of entries.

After much fan fair, Cheesy Garlic Bread won the right to stick around over Sriracha and Chicken & Waffles.

It deserved it as it tasted the closest to what it was supposed to be after my unscientific sampling.

I guess the powers that be were happy with the results as the Do Us a Flavor contest is back!

This time we've got four new flavors to tantalize our taste buds, including the first sweet entry to make the finalists.

Unlike last year, I have been able to find all three flavors pretty much immediately. I did have to do a little searching for the Lay’s Kettle Cooked Wasabi Ginger flavor.

For whatever reason Frito-Lay decided to release two of their finalists in their classic potato chips, while the third is Wavy and the fourth is a Kettle-cooked option.

However, they didn't think their marketing through. All their displays show off only the first three, and you have to go elsewhere in the store to find the Kettle-cooked variety. Plus the Kettle-cooked are more expensive.

* * *

Here are my thoughts after sampling the chips.

CAPPUCCINO – When we think of potato chips we generally think savory. At least, that's what I normally think of. But, that didn't stop lots of people from submitting flavors that are sweet. (Can anyone say Cotton Candy Potato Chips? EEK!).

Cappuccino is the first sweet variety to make it into the finals, and I wonder whether it was added at the last second just to see how things go as they've bumped the finalists up to four this year.

With much trepidation I popped open the bag somewhat preparing to be mortified.

First thing that hit me was the aroma. Most definitely reminded me of a steaming hot cup of cappuccino. Then came the taste test.

To be perfectly honest, this isn't half bad. It's not overly sweet. Just enough sweetness, and it's actually pretty balanced because I don't particularly taste the potato flavor you get in a lot of other flavored chips. This is a plus for any sweet flavored chip.

CHEDDAR BACON MAC & CHEESE – What's probably the number one comfort food in America? Mac & Cheese!! (If it's not it should be). All that cheesy goodness slathered over the top of warm macaroni. Then sprinkle crispy bacon, and bake till it's got that crunchy top. YUM!

A cheesy aroma came out of the bag. Nothing really different than the other cheese-based varieties.

Regarding the taste, the first thing I noticed was the macaroni part. Not overly cheesy. The bacon didn't show up until after a few seconds.

Sadly, the more chips you ate, the less the unique flavors could be noticed.

KETTLE COOKED WASABI GINGER – At any good sushi restaurant you always get a side of wasabi paste and pickled ginger to go with your meal. I guess it's the Japanese version of ketchup and mustard at the hot dog stand.

What's interesting about this variety is that they're a kettle-cooked style. The biggest difference is they're thicker than your normal chip, and they seem crispier. Not sure if it's by using a higher temp or longer time.

The aroma was rather muted when opening these. Wasabi was definitely in the nose. But, not ginger.

I was surprised how delicate the flavors were. Most noticeable was the wasabi. It wasn't blast furnace burn your sinuses hot like what happens if you put too much wasabi on your sushi. It was just enough so you knew what it was.

The ginger showed up a little later. But, as with the bacon in the mac & cheese flavor, it was more pronounced after you ate the chip, than as you were eating it. On the plus side it didn't get lost the more chips you consumed.

WAVY MANGO SALSA – Some people cringe at the idea of salsas that contain anything but tomato as the basic ingredient. Those people need to try Peach and Mango salsas to see what they're missing.

Supposedly the waves make it stronger so you use it for dipping, so it seems like putting salsa flavors in a chip you're going to dip into salsa might be strange.

Aroma does remind me of a jar of mango salsa. There's a slight sweetness that comes out when taking a whiff. But, that's as close to mango salsa as it got.

Trying to figure out whether I like the flavor, or not. At first taste there's certainly the mango characteristic. But, it's not as fresh as I'd care for, and there's certainly no tomato  and/or garlic to be found.

Then the potato takes over in the aftertaste, along with a somewhat buttery characteristic, which is most certainly not present in any salsa I've ever had.

* * *

Call me crazy. But, after tasting all four flavors, I cast my vote for Cappuccino. It's certainly not a flavor I'm going to be eating all the time, and I'm more likely to eat only a handful instead of wolfing down a bag in a day (which is probably a good thing, eh?).

You have until October 18th to vote for your favorite flavor at