Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Great Caruso (1951)

This is a movie that won't work for most people, cuz this is really not much of a biography, but more of a movie for opera lovers, showcasing Mario Lanza.  There is nominal plot, and really, it takes a lot of liberties with Caruso's life.  However, it's full of entire opera arias and Italian songs and for someone like me, that is sheer joy.  It's like putting on a DVD instead of a highlights disc.  This is a movie to watch if you're in the mood for all the famous tenor arias in one place, sung by Mario Lanza, who couldn't be a more ideal choice to play Enrico Caruso.  Celeste Aida, Vesti la Giubba, La Donna e Mobile, E Lucevan le Stelle, the sextet from Lucia, the quartet from Rigoletto, Cavalleria, etc. etc. It's chock full of music I love!

I was also happy to see and hear Dorothy Kirsten as soprano Louise Heggar.  She got to sing a couple solo pieces herself, including one of my favorite soprano arias from Aida.  Yay!  My dad was always fond of her, as he grew up hearing her sing on the Voice of Firestone radio show, so I appreciated getting to not just hear her, but see her as well.

Ann Blyth plays Caruso's wife, Dorothy who falls for him the first time he sings for her.  I admit, I'm a sucker for being serenaded, so can't blame her one bit.  LOL.  She even gets to sing a song herself, It's the Loveliest Night of the Year, a song I've always loved.  I love the way she tells him she's pregnant, and the way he finds out he has a baby girl during the Lucia sextet... quite amusing.

This movie influenced many a future opera singer, including Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, and I can see how.  Lanza's in great voice, looks great, and they show the opera life as quite glamorous.  It's a fun movie for opera lovers, and one I'm happy I own, so I can put it on whenever I'm in a mood for Lanza. 

If I had a time machine, one of the things on my agenda would be to go back and hear Enrico Caruso sing.  We're lucky to have many recordings of his arias, but this was the infancy of recording, and if he sounds that good on those old recordings, imagine what he sounded like live?  I'd love to go back and find out.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ex Machina (2015)

Here's another Oscar Isaac movie that's right up my alley.  This one is an intimate, claustrophobic little sci fi movie with basically four actors:  Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Sonoya Mizuna.  Oscar plays Nathan, a brilliant billionaire recluse who's created Artificial Intelligence in the form of Vikander's robot, Eva.  Gleeson arrives at Nathan's remote underground research facility/home to help test Eva, to see if she really is an AI.  Things do not go quite as planned.

This movie is both scripted and directed by Alex Garland, whose script for Sunshine (2007) I absolutely love.  (I found out from the extras on the disc that Oscar Isaac auditioned for a role in Sunshine!  How cool would that have been?  Wonder who he might have played?  Sunshine is also perfectly cast, and so I'm ultimately glad he's not in it, but that would have been cool.)

The casting for this film is perfect, and what makes everything else work.  Oscar Isaac is excellent as the simultaneously friendly and intimidating genius inventor.  He pads around the film barefoot for the most part, looking ridiculously well-built and good-looking in his half-buttoned shirts.  His home/facility is fabulous, built into the rock and earth of a ginormous fictitious estate in Alaska (that you can fly over for two hours before ever reaching his abode).  The remote, beautiful home fits Nathan's personality perfectly, richly and neatly but sparsely furnished.  I love his kitchen and deck.  But the majority of the place is underground, windowless, controlled by computers, and more than slightly claustrophobic.  Worse, there are power glitches in the electrical system that lock everything down at random times, trapping you wherever you are until the power comes back on.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, an employee of Nathan's company, who supposedly wins a lottery to spend a week with the big boss.  But Nathan's not a chancy person.  Everything he does and sets up is very specific and with purpose.  Caleb is nice, almost too nice, and a bit naive.  He's skinny and awkward and helpful and concerned.  Nathan is much smarter, and much stronger physically, and it's a great contrast between the two.  Nathan takes Caleb on a hike up beside a waterfall, waiting politely for out-of-shape Caleb to catch up, then promptly taking off impolitely again before Caleb can catch his breath.  (This made me laugh, I admit, cuz I've been guilty of doing that to people who weren't in as good a shape as me.  But I've also had it done to me just as many times, so fair's fair.)

Alicia Vikander is wonderful as Eva, the AI Nathan has created, that Caleb helps test.  She brings so much to this role, and has just the right alien quality and humanity at the same time.  The effects on her are also amazing.  She's beautiful and a bit terrifying at the same time.  Nathan prowls his home like a bored lion, and she prowls her much smaller living quarters like a sleek ocelot.  They're both very cat-like, but as one is creator and one is the creation, this works very well.

Sonoya Mizuna plays Nathan's domestic servant, who does not have a single line of dialogue, nor does she need one.  She conveys everything with looks and action, never needing to speak.

This is not an action movie, so the conflict and tension comes from the relationships of the characters.  There's a lot of talking, but I never found any of it boring.  There are a lot of ideas in there to chew on, and I like that.  It is also a very tense movie, particularly as things unravel.  I quite liked the ending, though apparently people's mileage on that varies.

I also love all the little things that you only pick up on in re-watches.  Like Nathan only ever wears grey, black, or white clothes, and I don't think that's an accidental choice, particularly as each color subtly matches his actions of that scene.  It's kind of brilliant, particularly as just about everything in the movie is orchestrated by Nathan.

This one I bought immediately almost as soon as I returned the Netflix disc.  It is rated R for language and some nudity (not sex).

Monday, January 18, 2016

For Greater Glory (2012)

I've had this film in my Netflix queue mostly because it became one of my favorite James Horner scores from the minute I first heard it last year.  It is an outstanding, pure Horner score.  Some might deem it overly emotional, but I love every second of it.  It's big, sweeping, romantic, emotional... everything I love in a James Horner score.  I love the Latin flavor, love the action, love the love theme, love everything about it.  I’ve listened to it countless times since I picked up the CD.  Barely a day has gone by since I got it that I don’t listen to it at least once, or think of it.  It had that much effect on me.  So I had decided I wanted to see the movie, which somehow flew completely under the radar when it came out. I hadn’t even heard of it, despite having Andy Garcia as the lead. So, Andy Garcia and James Horner... I’m in.

Then I found it also has Oscar Isaac in it, so, yeah, had to watch sooner rather than later.

And I loved this movie.  Really loved it.

The album is long, nearly 80 minutes long... and to my surprise, there was a lot of music in the movie that’s not on the album.  I knew the movie would be emotional just from the score.  So it didn’t surprise me that I cried my way all the way through it.  Now, some of that has nothing to do with the movie.  Some of that is still just me dealing with Horner’s death.  Yes, I still cry when I hear his music, and this score made me cry from the first time I heard it, before I even knew what the movie was about, so adding powerful images into what is already a personal rollercoaster... I was a bit of a wreck watching this one.

The movie is based on the true story of the Cristero War.  This is a chapter of history I don't recall from any of my history classes.  The Mexican Revolution, yes, but not this rebellion, which followed it in the late 1920s.  The Mexican president attempted to get rid of the Catholic church's influence and power over the people by enacting a series of anti-clerical laws that were brutally enforced.  The people rose up again to fight for their religious freedom.  This movie fictionalizes and follows some of the players through that vicious conflict.

I admit, I'm a sucker for this kind of story.  Freedom of all kinds is very important to me.  I'm not religious in any way, shape, or form, but I believe very strongly in the rights of people to worship according to their own beliefs.  The fact that Andy Garcia's character of General Gorosteita was an atheist but fought just as hard for beliefs he did not personally share just appealed to me even more.  That's my kind of character.  I've been a big fan of Andy Garcia since The Untouchables came out and several of his movies are among my favorites.  I loved him in this movie.  His character was both strong and touching.

Then there's Oscar Isaac, who is great in this movie.  If I hadn't already loved him as an actor, this role would have done it.  His character of Victoriano Ramirez has a great, memorable entrance, great action sequences, and he gets to mouth off to Andy Garcia's character.  It made me laugh with delight to learn some of my favorite music on the album belongs to his character.  As much as I adore Andy Garcia, and as great as he was in this, I have to admit my favorite scenes in this movie all belong to Oscar Isaac.  From that grreat entrance, to how he earns his nickname El Catorce, to the scene where Andy Garcia earns his grudging respect, to the touching scene between him and Andy Garcia where they talk about failing someone.  Okay, yeah, really anytime those two were together was great.  Oscar Isaac is one of those chameleon actors who looks and sounds totally different from role to role.  And I love his scruffy, dirty, Mexican freedom fighter look in this one.

The rest of the cast is also really good.  I particularly liked Santiago Cabrera as Father Vega, Bruce Greenwood as Dwight Morrow, and Catalina Sandino Moreno as Adriana.  Reuben Blades has the rather thankless job of playing the Mexican president, and he sells it perfectly.  The actors playing the truly bad people in this movie were outstanding as well, as I hated their characters passionately.  Peter O'Toole has a small role as a kindly priest, and he was lovely, as always.

The movie's a fair bit rough to watch in a few places.  Oppressive regimes tend to do very bad things to innocent people, and a movie covering such a time period is going to have some of those moments, and that's hard.  And the end has an unnecessary "sum-up-the-movie" sequence that was the only part of the movie that didn't work for me.  The rest I loved.  I also liked the end credits that provided extra info on the fates of many of the characters.  The on location scenery in Mexico was beautifully shot.

This is a movie I'll be picking up on DVD.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Good-bye Alan Rickman

Thanks for all the memorable roles, Mr. Rickman, from Die Hard to Harry Potter, to Sense & Sensibility to Sweeney Todd, to Quigley Down Under and the spectactular Galaxy Quest. You will be greatly missed.  Rest in peace.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I've wanted to post thoughts on The Force Awakens for days now.  To that end, I have a Word doc with 3000 words in it -- there's no shortage of things I can say about Star Wars.  But, as the document keeps growing and I post none of it here, I realized that these just aren't thoughts I'm willing to share.  You wouldn't think something like Star Wars would be a private thing, but it appears it is.

My feelings run too deep, and they're too intertwined with who I grew up to be.  Seeing Star Wars in 1977, when I wasn't quite nine yet, seeing it twenty-five times in the theater... it may have been nearly forty years ago, but it shaped me then and it still shapes me now.

So, I'm not going to talk about Force Awakens, other than to give basics.

  • I love it.
  • How much do I love it?  It is currently my second favorite of all the films, behind Empire. It might even end up surpassing Empire, for Reasons.
  • I've seen it six times already, and that number will grow before its theatrical release is finished.
  • Poe is my favorite character.
  • I adore Rey and Finn too.
  • Kylo Ren and Hux are great bad guys and make me grin every time they're on screen. 
  • Han, Chewie, Leia, Luke... just... YES.
  • I grin and laugh all through this movie. It's got the kind of natural humor I love, where people aren't trying to be funny, they just are.  Nothing is forced.
  • It's full of sass and I love this.  Every character is sassy. Except Phasma, which is probably why she's one of my least favorite characters, even if she looks cool.  Every other stormtrooper is sassy, except her. (Guess one of them has to stay serious.)
  • Speaking of stormtroopers.... Daniel Craig.  Best. Stormtrooper. Ever.  And I thought that before I even knew it was him in the uniform.
  • The music is fantastic, but they had better release a complete score soon, cuz my favorite cue is not on the album and that drives me crazy.  Cuh-ra-zee, I tell you!  I need that cue, precious!
  • My favorite moment and favorite cue are, not coincidentally, for the same scene in the movie. (when the Resistance X-Wings coming in over the water, in particular, the long awesome single-shot that starts with Finn, follows Poe maneuvering around blasting tie fighters, with Finn coming back into frame farther down the landscape, without losing track of either of them.  That is one beautiful, glorious piece of filming right there.)
  • Unlike most viewers, I have no desire to have all those unanswered questions answered.  Right now, I couldn't care less about anyone's backstory, or any whys and wherefores.  It's all irrelevant to my enjoyment of what's on screen.  Not knowing things is much more interesting than having things explained.
  • Did I mention how much I love love love Poe?
  • Poe is also the character I most relate to.
  • My family quotes this movie constantly, and there are many quotes that will end up in the Lifetime Quotables list, not just the heat-of-the-moment quotables.
  • This is the most emotional of all the Star Wars films for me, not because of nostalgia (though that plays a small role), but because it has genuine moments that make me tear up.  Not coincidentally, those are also all tied to moments in John William's music.  Not coincidentally, that's also one of the Reasons this movie shot to the top of my favorite Star Wars movie list.
  • Bloody awesome practical creatures and effects and amazing sets and landscapes.
  • Joy and wonder.  Rey when she sees Maz's green world.  And even when captured, Poe can look around the immense hanger of the star destroyer with a bit of awe. 

When Han says, "Chewie, we're home," he's not just speaking for them, but for those of us out here in the audience who have lived in this world ever since we first saw Star Wars.  This movie is home.

Now, where's my X-Wing???

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 movie overview

I saw quite a few new movies in the theater this past year, that I never reviewed or wrote about.  I thought I'd write up a quick summary now.  I’m not sure why, but I didn’t actually review any of the new movies I saw this year at the time I saw them.

Cinderella – Oh so pretty and nice.  Adore that blue dress of hers.  Probably the least stressful movie I saw the entire year, it is just... nice.  Not one I have any particular desire to see again. 

Tomorrowland – Meh.  This movie only got interesting when George Clooney made the scene, which was like halfway through.  I thought the lead girl was miscast.  She didn’t work for me.  Best part was the end fight between George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, which completely cracked me up, particularly when they stop fighting the minute they realize they’re all alone, then start up again the second they’re back.  This movie had lots of potential, but just didn’t seem to gel properly.

San Andreas – Really enjoyed this one.  Just a highly entertaining, over-the-top disaster movie with likeable characters.  I laughed all the way through, but in a pleased, I'm-being-entertained way.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Disappointing, but then again, it had impossible shoes to fill.  Too much plot, and (oddly for me) too much fighting that didn’t advance the plot.  Did have great humor, and I was absolutely delighted with all the Hawkeye stuff, cuz nothing bugged me more than people trying to make Hawkeye and Black Widow a current item in the first Avengers, and this nicely put that to rest.  I always wonder why people don’t appreciate the power of friendship over romantic love?  Loved all the new characters.  But dude, soooooooo disappointed that Thomas Kretschmann was only in it for like five minutes.  Hmph.  I didn't bother buying it on DVD, but will probably pick it up at some future point. 

Jurassic World – I’m not sure what it means when the only characters I cared what happened to were the velociraptors, but that's how it was.  The people were particularly lame and stupid (Chris Pratt excepted) and not enough of them got eaten.  I only cared about those four velociraptors, particularly Blue.  The end was quite fun and satisfying, though.

Spy – Surprisingly funny.  I was not expecting to like this one as much as I did.  Loved Jude Law, and Jason Statham was awesomely hilarious.  Those two really made this movie.  I even didn’t mind Melissa McCarthy.  I will probably pick this up on DVD.

Terminator: Genisys – I liked this one.  The time travel stuff was cool.  But whoever was in charge of the trailers was an idiot because they gave away their game in the trailers, and that really got me mad.  I think the movie would have been much better not knowing a few things.  I'm quite fond of Jai Courtney and enjoyed his version of Kyle Reese (even if I will only ever really be able to picture Michael Biehn in the role).

Ant-Man – Loved this one!  Was my favorite new movie of the year until Force Awakens came out.  Light, funny, great action scenes.  Loved the characters.  Loved the ants.  Really want that Ant-Man suit, even more than I want Iron Man’s suit.  Never thought I’d say that!  Bought on DVD immediately.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Good, solid, but lacked the humor of Ghost Protocol and didn't have nearly enough Jeremy Renner, so it does not displace GP as my favorite of the Mission Impossible movies.  However, Alec Baldwin was a bonus, and Rebecca Ferguson was great.  Also had opera in it!  Turandot, which was lovely, even if they played the opera out of order.

Man from UNCLE – Great fun.  Loved this one too, though I wish it had a different score.  Loved the characters and actors, loved the plot.  Bought on DVD immediately.

Shaun the Sheep – Loved this one!  Sweet, cute, funny, and far more touching than I thought it would be.  My sister bought the DVD immediately, so I can watch it there, but I may have to pick up my own copy at some point.

Hitman Agent 47 – Really only went to see it because Thomas Kretschmann was in it, but it ended up being a lot of fun and very entertaining.  And Ciaran Hinds was in it, which I didn’t know going in, and getting to see him and Mr. Kretschmann together was awesome.  I may pick this one up on DVD at some point too, for Mr. Krestschmann and Mr. Hinds.  Good no-brainer action flick.

Pixels – Had a lot of fun in this one too.  Went to catch it because the trailers cracked me up.  It delivered exactly what the trailer promised, and I enjoyed it a lot.  Sean Bean and Brian Cox were hilarious together.  I loved the premise, and the whole thing was just... popcorn fun.  Those are the games I grew up playing, though I was only ever good at Space Invaders. 

Pan – Another movie I really liked.  Loved the characters, loved the fantastic visuals, and it was also surprisingly funny.  Levi Miller as Peter was adorable and perfect.  Garrett Hedlund and Hugh Jackman were great.  I will probably pick this up on DVD, but my sister nabbed it, so at the moment, we can watch at her house any time, so I'm not in a hurry.

Last Witch Hunter – Enjoyable.  Vin Diesel is always entertaining.  I didn't know Michael Caine was in this until I saw it!  I was disappointed there wasn't more of Vin Diesel in his Viking garb, cuz he rocked that look.  Really liked Rose Leslie in it as well.

Crimson Peak – I’m not a horror person at all, and only went to see this because my sister is a huge Tom Hiddleston fan and she wanted company.  To my great surprise, I loved this movie and loved the characters.  It wasn’t really horror, and wasn’t remotely scary, which was a relief.  Mostly, it’s just an old-fashioned, gothic romance.  The movie is so very beautiful, I ooohed and ahhhed throughout.  Now, it did have the most ridiculously gruesome helpful ghosts, but they were so outrageously fake that we just laughed every time they came on screen.  There were a few scenes of violence, however, that were so graphic, I had to look away.  Not scary, just... too graphic.  But we liked it so much we went back to see it again.  We took my niece... and she did not laugh at the ghosts... she thought they were freaky and quite scary... so my sister and I might be the only people who were unfazed by the ghosts.  Will buy this on DVD as soon as it comes out.

Spectre – Disappointing.  The first half was great, then the movie derailed.  I’m not sure why, but they made Blofeld the most boring Bond villain ever.  He seems patterned after Donald Pleasance’s version of Blofeld, who was also quite bland, so maybe this was actually their goal?  In which case they achieved it spectacularly.  Boring, unthreatening, and I just didn’t care.  Dave Bautista, however, was fabulous, and his exit marked the start of when this movie went off track.  It did have great action sequences, I particularly love the snow chase, and I still adore Daniel Craig as Bond.  He can personally do no wrong for me in the role.  I only saw it once, though, and it's hard to fairly judge a movie on one viewing.  I'll pick it up on DVD when it comes out, cuz... Daniel Craig, and give it another go then.

The Good Dinosaur – wow, this was surprisingly violent, dark, more than a little bit creepy and weird, none of which their trailers seemed to indicate.  The trailers make this movie seem cute and child-friendly, and... not so much.  There were more than one kid crying in our theater during this film, which is never a good sign.  One was saying, “I don’t like this movie!  I want to go home!” as he bawled his eyes out, poor kid.  So, I guess this is the Pixar film that scars a generation of young ones?  The animation of the landscape was outstanding and exquisitely done.  It’s getting to a point where it’s photo perfect.  By contrast the dinosaurs were very fake and animated.  Kind of a weird contrast. 

The Force Awakens -- First time I saw this, I liked it a lot, but had to do a lot of processing and thinking and letting it settle in my brain, then the second viewing was great and I knew I loved this movie.  Third viewing was also great, but the fourth viewing... that was the wow, I LOVE THIS MOVIE viewing, the emotional tear-up at everything viewing. My family saw it twice on New Year's Day, so that was great fun.  I love the new characters, love the old characters, love the score.  Really, there is very little I don't love about this one.  Poe's my favorite new character, but I adore Rey and Finn just as much.  Rey is wonderful.  Kylo Ren and Hux are great as our new bad guys.  Han, Leia, and Luke... yeah.  And Chewie!  Chewie has always been cool, but in this one he was even more so.  Chewie totally rocked.  I should probably write something a bit more proper on this one, given how important Star Wars is in my life.  I'm sure there will be quite a few more viewings before this leaves the theater.  (Only on viewing five right now... LOL!)  Will, of course, grab this on DVD the second it's out, and I really really hope they release a complete version of the score.  The one that's out is lovely, but it's missing some important music.

So, those were the 2015 films I saw when they were released in the theater.  Quite a lot!  Tomorrowland and Good Dinosaur were at the bottom.  Force Awakens and Ant-Man at the top.  With a lot of good solid entertaining movies in the middle.  Very pleased with this last year's theatrical releases.