It saddens me that I must give this brilliant film a heartfelt two thumbs up. Why, you might ask? Because the premise is such a downer very few people will want to see it: If a child is confined with his mother to a small room for the first five years of his life, what can he expect when the door is opened? Well, I have a personal foible: I want someone to root for and this one actually gives me at least five. This inspiring movie really delivers and there is already early Oscar buzz about it (10-30-15).

This R-rated drama from director Lenny Abrahamson ("Frank") in collaboration with first-time screenwriter/novelist Emma Donoghue, is inspiring because it celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit and the power of a mother's love.

The cast:
  • Jacob Tremblay ("The Smurfs 2") is little Jack, whose eyes have never focused on anything beyond the four walls of their small "Room." He's reasonably happy, but can't imagine "in" or "out" and when he sees a leaf blown onto the skylight, he's fascinated.
  • Brie Larson ("Short Term 12") is brilliant as Ma. She tries to keep Jack physically fit and is teaching him to read, but knows she must get him out of isolation before the damage is irreversible.
  • Sean Bridgers (Lots of TV) is Old Nick, the fellow who kidnapped a teenage girl and has kept her locked in his shed for seven years.
  • Joan Allen ("Bourne") is Nancy, Jack's grandmother, whose life changed irrevocably when her daughter disappeared seven years ago.
  • Amanda Brugel ("Orphan Black") is Officer Parker, whose gentle insight helps a little lost boy put his world back together.
  • Wendy Crewson ("The Vow") is a talk-show host you will love to hate!
Both of our escapees suffer from sensory overload, so with the press hounding them and a criminal case pending, it is no surprise that they both need counseling and time to adjust. In addition, the boy has never seen a stair, has an underdeveloped immune system and can't tolerate full sunlight.

The boy's grandparents are no less challenged. They can't imagine what the two prisoners have endured but try to treat them with sensitivity. Their attempts made me smile...
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Take a look:
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I always think long and hard before I send a dish back to the kitchen in a restaurant, because I know it's the poor server who must bear the brunt of the chef's reaction...and it might be blistering. In this story, we can see what a daunting challenge it is to become a top chef, but if you've already achieved it and then watched your career implode due to drugs, alcohol and ego, you can see why our hero has a self-imposed penance. He has promised himself he will shuck 1,000,000 (a million!) oysters before he will allow himself to try again.

We join him as he logs that final oyster after three long years. He walks away from his employment and gets ready to try again. This R-rated dramedy is directed by John Wells ("August: Osage County") working with a screenplay by Steven Knight ("Seventh Son") from Michael Kalesniko's story. It takes us to chaotic closeups of kitchens in several high-end London restaurants.

The cast:
  • Bradley Cooper ("Silver Linings Playbook") Adam Jones is in recovery for drugs and alcohol, with a long list of bad debts and abused friendships that he must own and try to rectify. His ego is another matter. Chefs are the superstars of the restaurant world...and they are all seeking a one-, two- or three-star Michelin rating.
  • Sienna Miller ("American Sniper") is Helene, who has to take a position with Adam after he got her fired from her current job. Her young daughter is quite the taste tester... By the way, Adam forces Helene to apologize to the turbot for making it die in vain.
  • Daniel Brühl ("Rush") is Tony, who reluctantly hires Adam again, fully aware of his potential for trouble. Their story unfolds slowly over the course of the film.
  • Omar Sy ("The Intouchables") Michel should still be angry at the dirty trick Adam pulled on him in Paris "back in the day," but all is forgiven and he joins him in London with his new endeavor.
  • Emma Thompson ("A Walk in the Woods") Dr. Rosshide will never quit trying to persuade Adam that group therapy might help. She monitors his sobriety and tries to talk some sense into him.
  • Alicia Vikander ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") Anne Marie is a daughter of the deceased Parisian chef who gave Adam his first toque. She and Adam have a history and she too, is in recovery. Her father willed his knives to Adam.
  • Uma Thurman ("The Slap") Simone Forth is an arrogant reviewer who specializes in restaurants.
This film is absolute Nirvana for foodies. In extreme closeups, we see preparation of numerous gourmet dishes, plus fast food which Adam studies for new ideas. The photography is yummy and Cooper is very, very good. As you might expect with this top-notch cast, all of the acting is wonderful and the (sorta) predictable story is satisfying.

Expect yummy photography, lots of kitchen action, scores of F-bombs, an unexpected (but well-deserved) kiss, a few plot twists, and many people to root for. No gunshots, no vehicular mayhem and no blowie uppie stuff. Whew!
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Take a peek:
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Our Brand is Crisis

"If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal." So says a top-ranking political consultant who is sent to a war-torn country in South America to fine tune a faltering election. Director David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") is working from an R-rated script (smoking and language) by Peter Straughan ("The Debt") which in turn is based on Rachel Boynton's documentary by the same name.

Problem is, our heroine's long-term nemesis shows up with a conflicting goal. Trouble ensues.... As a political junkie, I got a huge kick out of all their dirty tricks. They are unexpected and original. Everything from making a catapult from the elastic on a fitted bed sheet, to a misleading quote supposedly from Goethe (you have to see it).

We watch:
  • Sandra Bullock ("The Heat") is Jane; coaxed out of a self-imposed "retirement." After an insulting incident launches her into action, she develops a clever strategy and a clear objective, but she also has a bit of common sense that penetrates her clinical depression.
  • Ann Dowd ("Masters of Sex") Nell is the recruiter who convinces Jane to once again, enter the fray. Nell has connections....
  • Billy Bob Thornton ("The Judge") Pat Candy has a history with Jane and doesn't hesitate to use it. This actor plays loathsome perfectly.
  • Anthony Mackie ("Avengers") Ben is Jane's right-hand man, but sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing... Jane's strategies are out of left field and break all the rules.
  • Zoe Kazan ("Olive Kitteridge") LeBlanc is the ultimate researcher. She's also multi lingual...what a treasure!
  • Reynaldo Pacheco ("Right Mind") Eddie is an early volunteer because his deceased father had been a supporter of Castillo in earlier campaigns.
  • Joaquim de Almeida ("A Date With Miss Fortune") Castillo is the client, trying to make a comeback but waaaay behind in the polls. He totally lacks charisma but is a politician through and through.
It was interesting to see the favelas (slum-like homes, not just in Brazil) clinging to the hillside and to watch the merchants setting up shop. I loved the road race between the two campaign buses and appreciated Jane's way of "changing the narrative instead of the candidate."

We learned a lot, some of which we would rather not know...

One little quibble: I can appreciate that Bullock is fifty years old, but it strained credibility to see her in full makeup from morning to night. Even when rising early in the morning, it's intact. C'mon, Sandra...
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Here's the international trailer:
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Finding Mr. Right

A few months ago I helped a couple from Hong Kong find the Chihuly Glass Museum at Seattle Center. They had come to Seattle because the wife was bitten by the Seattle Bug. She was one of millions of Chinese who made the award-winning "Bei Jing yu shang Xi Ya Tu" (English captions) one of the highest-grossing romances in Chinese history. Naturally I was curious, so I got my own copy as soon as I could spot it in the catalogs. The one I have is in Region 3 format, but the Blu-Ray comes in Region 1.

I soon became intrigued by Jiajia, a city girl from Beijing, come to Seattle to bear an American-born son for her wealthy, MARRIED, boyfriend back in China. She picked Seattle because "Sleepless in Seattle" is her favorite film of all time; she has an unlimited credit card and an imperious attitude. She has made plans to stay in a private home with two other Asian women awaiting the births of their babies. With establishing shots of Seattle (the rest filmed in Vancouver, BC), I enjoyed seeing our waterfront, Macy's with the Christmas star, and of course, our iconic Space Needle.

First we meet Frank, the fellow who had been assigned the task of bringing her in from the airport (he's a bit late); he is polite, hard working and self-effacing. Soon we meet her Seattle landlady, the two other women, Frank's tween-age daughter, his wife and the doctor Jiajia has selected simply because she speaks Chinese. Jiajia is rude, demanding and selfish.

As her fortunes wax and wane in this sweet romantic comedy, so do her relationships. I became invested in the outcome and was happy I bought this DVD. The first part is difficult to watch simply because she is such a pill, but when she hits a speed bump, the story gains traction.

There is no rating, but in my opinion this would be a solid PG-13. I recall no profanity, no vehicular mayhem, no gunfire and no blowie uppie stuff. A sweet clichéd ending guarantees that a good time is had by all!


The Amazing Nina Simone

Little Eunice Waymon from Tryon, North Carolina, grew up "Young, Gifted and Black." After elementary school, she attended a private all-girls high school, graduated as Valedictorian, then landed a job in an Atlantic City night club. She didn't want her gospel-oriented parents to know where she was working, so she used "Nina" (Spanish for little girl) and "Simone" (in honor of French actress Simone Signoret) and VOILA! a star was born.

A piano prodigy from age three, she was always gifted, opinionated, and outspoken. For example, at her first formal recital in her home town (she was 12 years old), her parents were seated in the front row but it was in the days of Jim Crow, so her mother and father were quietly moved to a back room. When she came out to play, she refused to play a note until they were moved back to their front-row seats.

In this wonderfully researched documentary by Jeff L. Lieberman ("Making of..." documentaries), we watch her grow as an artist and also as an activist. She couldn't get that job in the night club until she proved she could sing, so her unique vocal style was born in that moment, but she was convinced she missed out on a full scholarship to the Curtis Institute because of the color of her skin. An elderly board member remembers the incident and insists it was discrimination all right, but it was because she was female, not because she was black (she went to Juilliard instead).

We hear interviews with members of her backup band, friends, relatives, a woman who was a child when her parents rescued Nina from an abusive relationship...at midnight...in Manhattan... We hear from members of the press who had interviewed her, theater owners, night club owners, record company executives and health care professionals.

We see her marriages, love affairs, successes, failures, struggles and her increasing activism and notoriety. Unfortunately, that increased activism seemed to coincide with her increasingly bi-polar symptoms, so that part is interesting, but not pleasant.

I absolutely LOVED a bit right near the beginning where she is in the middle of a performance and stops, dead. Then she points at someone in the audience and says, "Sit DOWN!" There is a long silence. She points again and repeats her command; the audience titters as the guilty party sits down. She was never afraid to speak her mind and commanded respect wherever she went.

I owned some of her albums (none of the many bootlegged ones!) and was so happy to hear snippets of my favorites. By the way, there are no captions and there is not a moment where I needed them! Whew!
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I can't find a trailer yet.
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Steve Jobs

A fellow I respect once said, "Just because a guy is a genius doesn't mean he isn't a jerk!" (He didn't use the word "jerk.") In this case, the genius is already legendary, so we let director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") use three major product launches to illustrate the life and times of the iconic founder of Apple Computers. With a demanding script from the always excellent Aaron Sorkin ("Moneyball") based on the book by Walter Isaacson, he pulls back the curtain on a classic American hero.

Sorkin wrote "The Social Network," as he looked at Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, but this time, his trademark "walk and talk" scenes are overdone and unrealistic. All of them take place during three product launch countdowns ("Thirty minutes, Mr. Jobs!" "Five minutes, Steve!" "It's time! You don't want to be late!") so I constantly felt anxious and impatient with the intransigent Mr. J. In addition, each launch features the same six people backstage. Really??? Plus everyone yells, interrupts, swears, and no one EVER changes his or her mind.

The cast:
  • Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave") is Steve Jobs, a selfish, abrasive guy who marches to his own drummer. He can't write code, isn't a programmer, nor is he technical. He sees himself as an orchestra conductor, i.e., he doesn't play any instrument, but is in charge of everything.
  • Seth Rogen ("The Interview") is Steve Wozniak, the brilliant geek who worked shoulder to shoulder with the "other" Steve to launch Apple. He's tired of being Ringo to Jobs'  John.
  • Kate Winslet ("Insurgent") is Joanna Hoffman, a woman who can go toe to toe with Jobs. She is the overworked dogsbody who, for decades, has kept him on schedule, placated his coworkers and looked out for his daughter Lisa.
  • Jeff Daniels ("The Martian") is John Sculley, the CEO of Apple whose board of directors ousted Jobs when he wouldn't budge on his new operating system.
  • Katherine Waterston ("Inherent Vise") has the thankless task of playing Chrisann Brennon, mother of Lisa, a daughter Jobs refuses to recognize even after DNA proves he is the father. (I said he was intransigent.) She has had a sinus infection for over 15 years.
  • Perla Haney-Jardine ("Future Weather") is the third version of Lisa. We watch Lisa grow up on screen. Her relationship with her father is contentious to say the least. By the way, in this film, there is no mention of his wife or his other children....
  • Michael Stuhlbarg ("Hugo") Andy Hertzfeld is constantly abused, insulted and demeaned by Jobs. In return, he suggests Lisa find a therapist and provides a strong masculine figure for her childhood. (Jobs never forgives him.)
This offers nothing special in the way of new information or insight. In my opinion, it wasted some top-flight talent. Fassbender is a pleasure to watch and Sorkin writes good R-rated dialogue, but 110 minutes is longer than I want to spend on this rehash.
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Here is a sample:
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Bridge of Spies

Once again our favorite Everyman Tom Hanks is working with his long- time friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers"). These guys seem convinced that Americans need to know more WWII history. Lucky for us the Coen brothers are on the writing team, they bring some very dry humor to the Cold War as we watch two superpowers (plus East Germany) negotiate an exchange of spies.

This time Hanks is an insurance lawyer ordered to defend a Russian spy. His reluctance to side with the enemy is justified when his family is targeted by outraged citizens who now see him as anti-American. We also watch as some Air Force pilots are assigned to the CIA; they will fly camera-equipped U2 spy planes 70,000 feet above the USSR. They are called "drivers" and are instructed to commit suicide if they are caught. They are stunned!

We see:
  • Tom Hanks ("The Terminal") is perfect as James Donovan, a highly rated attorney who hasn't practiced criminal law in decades. He's smart, funny, and very, very resourceful. He quickly realizes his "client" will be denied Constitutional protection by the American courts. As a lawyer responsible for an accused prisoner, all he can do now is try to prevent the death penalty.
  • Amy Ryan ("Birdman:...") is Mary, his wife. When he goes to East Berlin to negotiate a trade - his Russian spy for the American pilot of a downed spy plane - she thinks he's going to Scotland to fish.
  • Alan Alda ("The Longest Ride") is Thomas Watters, Donovan's boss. It's at his insistence that Donovan must take up this case.
  • Austin Stowell ("Behind the Candelabra") is Francis Gary Powers, a U2 pilot (not the band!) who was shot down from Russian skies.
  • Mark Rylance ("Wolf Hall") is amazing as Rudolf Abel, the notorious agent who meticulously eludes discovery for so long. When asked if he is frightened, he replies, "Would it help?"
  • Sebastian Koch ("The Lives of Others") Wolfgang Vogel is the East German official who resents being overlooked by the two superpowers who ignore him...in his own city!
  • Will Rogers ("The Bay") is Frederic Pryor, a student caught behind the Berlin wall as he tries to rescue his girlfriend. Donovan wants him to be part of the deal, too.
Cold War, Donovan, Abel, Powers... Many of these names will draw a blank from the younger generation because History as a school subject is no longer considered politically correct. Do they know about the Berlin Wall? We see it being built in this wonderful film; AND for period touches, we see an astonishing array of vintage cars, plus discarded flash bulbs on the floor, I had forgotten about those. In addition, Donovan makes a terrific speech to the Supreme Court about what makes America unique.

I can't help but recall George Santanaya's immortal quote: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." More's the pity... Every young American should see this PG-13 movie. (By the way, be sure to stay for the terrific postscripts!)
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Here is a preview:
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Beasts of No Nation

Nothing is so heartless or chilling as forcing a child to become a soldier in a war no one understands. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (the memorable "Sin Nombre" and "True Detective"), working with screenwriter Uzodinma Iweala (who wrote the book on which it's based), have fashioned a riveting saga where we watch a bucolic childhood in some unnamed African country turn into a hellish nightmare.

For 137 long minutes, we see children shanghaied into a fighting force and transformed into merciless killers. When we realize the lengths they must go to in order to survive, we can't help but wonder what sort of effect these hardships will have on their future...or even if they HAVE a future.

The cast:
  • Idris Elba ("Avengers: Age of Ultron") is the charismatic Commandant, who reminds us that power corrupts, in EVERY way.
  • Abraham Attah (in his first role) is Agu, our youthful hero, thrown into a chaotic ordeal to which he must adapt. This includes learning how to kill with a machete (blood splashes on the lens) and a rifle.
  • Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, another first-timer, is his mute friend Strika, always by his side when he's needed.
As I watched the Commandant use his effective Call & Response to goad his army of children to a fighting frenzy, I was reminded how effectively this method works in the evangelistic world. As I watched the use of drugs by the fighters as they tried to blunt their fear, I was reminded of how drugs have been used by fighting forces since time eternal. Some things never change.

This is R-rated (language, rape, and bloody murders) but my major concern was this: Who would pay their discretionary money to subject themselves to something this chaotic (in the firefights I could never tell who were the "good" guys or what they wanted), confusing (who is rebelling from whom and why?), and bewildering (are the "good" guys really good?). I have no problem with the quality of the acting; Elba is always outstanding, even when he is playing someone as morally compromised as this guy, but personally I want someone to root for. That one pathetic little boy has been so transformed it becomes a stretch....

Oh, by the way, if you have any hearing problems, be sure the theater offers closed captions.
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Here is the preview:
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Yup, it's about Peter himself. Actually, this is a genesis story: where Peter came from and how he became the legendary Peter Pan. Screenwriter Jason Fuchs ("Ice Age: Continental Drift") working from J.M. Barrie's classic, gives director Joe Wright ("Anna Karenina") a contrived story that is just close enough to the original that we recognize the characters, but far enough to confuse children who expect the Disneyfied version.

A preliminary scene shows us a bereft mother dropping off her baby at an orphanage. Then our story begins in London during the Blitz where these Dickensian digs shelter 12-year-old boys. Of course the head nun is an ugly tyrant who exploits and mistreats them, so we enjoy it when she gets her comeuppance. Thus begins our Hero's Journey.

Here are some of the actors:
  • Levi Miller (in his first big-screen lead) is wonderful as Peter, a boy who is convinced his mother will come back for him. He is curious, skeptical, and a natural leader, but has sense enough to be afraid when things look bad.
  • Garrett Hedlund ("Country Strong") is Mr. Hook, a two-fisted Indiana Jones look-alike, complete with fedora and attitude; "I don't have your back, Kid!" (I kept looking for the bull-whip). I enjoyed every scene where he was featured.
  • Hugh Jackman ("Les Miserables") This charismatic actor is buried in Blackbeard's evil persona, determined to find the Fairy Kingdom which will provide him with enough fairy dust for eternal youth.
  • Rooney Mara ("Side Effects") is Tiger Lily. This character is far, far from Barrie's original. This one is a swashbuckling swordsman (woman?) who battles Blackbeard and flirts with Mr. Hook.
  • Adeel Akhtar (Lots of TV) is Sam Smiegel ("Smee"), a hapless coward who only hinders everyone around him.
Like so many big-screen, big-budget movies these days, our tale is overwhelmed by Computer Generated Imaging which does nothing to advance the story: e.g., the airborne sailing ships come complete with cannons AND flamethrowers. The battle scenes are endless and ultimately, boring. This PG-rated fantasy ran for 111 minutes, but somehow it seemed longer.

For me, it just didn't pan out.
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Take a look:
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He Named Me Malala

"Malala" is the name of a legendary Afghani girl who had the courage to speak out and was eventually killed. This timely documentary directed by David Guggenheim (the award-winning "Waiting for Superman") gives us a first-hand account of her namesake, a courageous Pakistani girl who has the temerity to defend her right to attend school, much to the outrage of the religious zealots who tried to kill her. Even more interesting to me, was following the gradual shift of the Taliban from a charismatic new political influence to a tyrannical, blood-thirsty theocracy.

Even before she was been awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala had become a highly visible advocate for education throughout the world, believing that this is the most direct way to cleanse countries of radical zealotry. "One child. One teacher. One book." To balance her celebrity we appreciate the humorous ways her family keeps her grounded, part of which includes doing her homework and getting along with her three younger brothers.

We see:
  • Malala Yousafzai, starting with the news clips which describe the Taliban's attempt to assassinate her and her brush with death at age 13. We see her in the company of queens, presidents, movie stars and school children. She is comfortable with them all.
  • Ziauddin Yousafzai, her father, who overcame a childhood stammer to become a powerful speaker. He too, is a firebrand who refuses to tolerate the actions of the Taliban and the claim that they are based on the Quran.
  • Toor Pekai Yousafzai and Atal Yousafzai are two of her articulate (and entertaining) younger brothers.
  • Khushal Yousafzai is a child bride who grows up to become Malala's mother. She is homesick for the Swat Valley in Afghanistan but is working hard at assimilation in England.
As we come to grips with the realities of life in Pakistan through news clips and interviews, we also learn about Malala's family history through animated figures and family photos. By the way, her father discovered that his family tree goes back over 300 years and Malala is the first female name that has ever been entered.
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Take a look at this inspiring trailer:
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