La La Land: a 21st century Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers flick. When was the last time you saw a good old fashioned Hollywood musical? If you’ve been jonesing for a big screen romantic music & dance fete, this is your film. In fact, even if you are not a big fan of those Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire films, I think you’ll enjoy this movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The spontaneous dance numbers that pop up throughout the film are well integrated into the romantic tale of Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) and Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), who have a refreshing on-screen chemistry. La La Land opens with a dance number out of the 1930’s and the movie takes place almost entirely in – of course – L.A. Mia works at a coffee shop located on a movie studio lot and has been auditioning for various roles. Sebastian is a piano player who wants to open a traditional jazz club. After a few chance meetings, Mia and Sebastian connect at a Hollywood party, which leads to a beautiful dance number at the Griffith Park Observatory. The film unfolds in unexpected ways. The musical score by Justin Hurwitz should earn him an Oscar nomination. The jazz is first rate. Also, there’s an excellent number by and performed by John Legend a little more than halfway through this 127 minute film. J. K. Simmons has two brief appearances; he doesn’t dance. Gosling and Stone do dance and their scenes carry this delightful movie. Gosling and Stone have paired up twice before in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. This film is totally different. I don’t remember seeing a big time musical that has delighted me as much as La La Land. The only comparable films I’ve seen have been relegated to the Turner Classic Movies venue.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Manchester By the Sea: a family drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. This Manchester is in Massachusetts, not England. When I saw the film’s preview, I thought it might be an interesting flick but given the number of films that debut during the holidays, I figured I would skip it. My normal M.O. is that if the preview isn’t sufficiently convincing then see something else. Then I read a New Yorker article about Lonergan and Manchester and changed my mind. I’m very pleased I did. Casey Affleck will probably receive an Oscar nomination for his performance as the lead character, Lee Chandler. Affleck is on screen for a significant portion of the film’s 137 minutes. When the film commences, Lee is working as the janitor of an apartment complex in Quincy, Massachusetts. The event that triggers the heart of this story is a phone call Lee receives advising that his older brother, Kyle, is in the hospital. Although Lee leaves immediately, by the time he gets to Manchester, Kyle has died. Via flashbacks, we learn that Kyle has had a heart condition and an ex-wife with an alcohol problem. Following Kyle’s death, Lee learns that Kyle had designated him as the legal guardian for his sixteen year old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), which is totally unexpected. The rest of the film deals with how Lee handles the news (not very well at first) and why, and in the process we learn why Lee is living alone and what happened to his family. Michelle Williams is superb as Lee’s former wife. I think if you have had any relationship with working class Catholic New Englanders, you will easily relate to the characters in this film. Manchester is a film about grieving and how one man with significant communication challenges deals with death and relationships. The characters are genuine and the interactions among them have a level of realism frequently lacking in movies. This is particularly true for Patrick who is active in sports (New England = hockey scenes), plays in a band, is indifferent to his studies and is very interested in girls. You quickly grow to care about whether Lee and Patrick will work things out between themselves. The one negative in this film is its musical score; there were certain scenes I just couldn’t get into because of the background music. But in the overall scheme, this is a minor criticism. I believe this film will receive an Oscar nomination for best original script, among other categories, including Jody Lee Lipes for Best Cinematography. The film offers humor amidst the grief and presents us with a slice of life, some of which can be ridiculous. I won’t say more because I want to preserve for you the effect of the storyline.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Moonlight: not your typical coming of age film. The story takes place in Miami. We meet the protagonist as a young boy (Alex Hibbert), then as an adolescent (Ashton Sanders) and finally as an adult (Trevante Rhodes). Each actor does a superb job of portraying an individual who fails to fit within his society’s given models. During the course of this 110 minute film by Barry Jenkins (director and co-writer), we vicariously experience drug abuse, school violence and some of the difficult issues relating to sex and sexuality identity. The film is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCranney. I understand the film runs true to the play. The story opens with the protagonist as a young boy called “Little”. He is being raised by Paula, a single, crack addicted mother played brilliantly by Naomie Harris. Her crack dealer is Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to meet Little through other circumstances. Juan takes a liking to Little and begins to take care of him like a son. There is a very tender scene where Juan, who was born in Cuba, teaches Little how to swim. There is another scene in which Juan reminisces about his own childhood and explains to Little the importance of defining himself and not letting others do it for him. Then Juan, Paula and Little recognize the dots that connect them to each other. I would like to have known more about Juan. During the middle portion of this film, school violence is a focal point. Our protagonist is called Chiron. This segment includes a troubling sequence of events involving Chiron’s long time schoolmate, Kevin. We see Kevin in all three segments of this film; Jaden Piner plays Kevin as a boy, Jharrel Jerome as an adolescent, and Andre Holland as an adult. The adult segment shows Kevin placing a late night call to Black, an adult now living in Atlanta. The three segments come together with a positive link between Kevin and Black and a positive relationship between Black and his mother. There is a violent undercurrent running through this film but scenes of actual violence are minimal and brief. At the end, you will be pleased to have met Little/Chiron/Black and will be glad to have had the opportunity to travel with him on his painful and difficult road to adulthood. I believe Moonlight will receive a few Oscar nominations. Although it’s been a week since I saw this film, a number of the scenes continue to flash into my mind and linger.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Loving: a true life love story. This is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the individuals who challenged Virginia’s law banning Blacks and Whites from marrying each other. In 1967, by ruling in favor of the Lovings, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Virginia passed its first anti-miscegenation law in 1691. This film, however, does not focus on the law’s 276 year history nor is it a legal drama. Rather, Loving is a story about the relationship between Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga). The movie opens in 1956 with Mildred telling Richard she is pregnant. Richard is very pleased and, in a subsequent scene, asks Mildred to marry him. Knowing that such a marriage was banned in Virginia, the couple drives to Washington D. C. Upon their return, Richard proudly hangs their marriage license in the home they share with Mildred’s family. Richard’s mother, who lives in a neighboring house, is the midwife to this rural Virginia community. A short while later, the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) arrests the Lovings in the middle of the night. It is from the sheriff that we learn about the community where Richard and Mildred have spent most of their lives. It is racially mixed with considerable Native American bloodlines, which explains in part why Mildred identified herself as Indian on the marriage license. Because the community is self-contained and located in an insular rural area, it did not seem unreasonable for Mildred and Richard to believe they could live together in peace despite Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute. The film tracks the Lovings’ personal life from 1956 until the 1967 Supreme Court decision, including their time living in D. C. Both the court scenes and the meetings with the ACLU lawyers Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass as) are brief. Jeff Nichols directed this 123 minute film and also wrote the screenplay. His telling of Richard and Mildred’s story affords you a full understanding of their deep love for each other and their children. Nichols relies significantly on the 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, which is also worth seeing. Nichols clearly understands rural America (see his 2012 film Mud with Matthew McConaughey). The acting throughout this film is first rate. Edgerton totally nails Richard and you will be blown away by his performance. Also, of special note, is Michael Shannon’s brief appearance as the Life magazine photographer. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
A Man Called Ove: a Swedish comedy-drama. When we first meet Ove (Rolf Lassgard), we meet a stereotypic Grumpy Old Man. Although his grumpiness never fully goes away, we discover during the course of the film that Ove is not really that old (59). We also learn about his life, the reasons why he is so grumpy, and that Ove is a truly decent human being who is grieving deeply for his recently deceased wife. After the introductory sequence, we watch as Ove attempts to kill himself. His effort, however, is interrupted - again and again and again - each time by an intervening and humorous event. With each interrupted suicide we learn a bit more about Ove. As it turns out, Ove has lived an eventful life filled with good deeds and blessed by a wonderful marriage. The movie opens a few months after Ove’s wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), passes from cancer. We get to know Sonja through charming scenes of Ove’s remembrances of their life together. Ove’s residence is part of a small homeowners association. Many of the owners ignore the regulations established by the Association but not Ove, who is rule and enforcement excessive. Into this tight community moves a young couple with two young children and another on the way. The husband is Swedish and from the general area. The wife is Iranian. Through kindness and persistence, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) forms a relationship with Ove and, in the process, we learn even more about our character. Parvaneh and Ove develop a father–daughter relationship and the children think of Ove as their grandfather. Part of the reason their relationship grows is that Ove views Parvaneh’s husband, as he views most folks, as an idiot. The more we learn about Ove, the more respect and appreciation we have for him and the more we understand his tremendous grief over losing Sonja. Ove is a person who has endured tragedies but still managed to create a good life, until Sonja’s death. This 116 minute film is based upon Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestselling Swedish novel of the same name. It is directed by Hannes Holm. The sub-titles are posted at a readable pace. There is far more humor in A Man Called Ove than this outline indicates. This is a very enjoyable film and, if you take the time to see it, you will be pleased to have met Ove.
Saturday, October 29, 2016
Denial: a British film about an individual who denied the Holocaust and sued for liable in an English court an American academic who published a book calling him a Holocaust denier. The individual is Daniel Irving, played marvelously by Timothy Spall. The American is Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). The film is based on her book: History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. This true story was more entertaining than the subject matter would lead you to believe. Partly, this is due to how much you will loath the Irving character. It is not just that he is publicizing a hideous lie but is doing so with a smugness that is incredible to watch. A second reason is the performance by the British barrister employed to defend Lipstadt. Tom Wilkinson, who has given many fine performances, is at his best and basically carries the final third of this 110 minute movie. The third factor is that if you ever wondered about the importance of who has the obligation to prove a fact in a courtroom, this is your film. While the legal technicalities get a little muddied, the key to why Irving sued Lipstadt in England and not America is that in England, Lipstadt had to prove that Irving knew he was a liar as opposed to the American rule which would require Irving to prove that Lipstadt was knowingly making false comments about him. This results in this being a film about how you prove the existence of the Holocaust without the testimony of Holocaust victims. The lawyers did not want to give Irving the opportunity to cross-examine Holocaust survivors. A fourth reason to see the film is the sequence when Lipstadt and her attorneys, including Wilkinson, visit Auschwitz. The pre-dawn presentation of the grounds with a blanket of snow and fog is a beautifully shot scene and makes the point as to why the falsity of a big lie propaganda by someone like Irving needed to be proven to be false in a court of law. The film was directed by Mick Jackson from a screenplay by David Hare. The cinematographer was Haris Zambarloukos. While I knew the outcome without seeing the film, the movie held my attention due to the skill of the two actors.
Monday, October 24, 2016
The Accountant: I’m looking forward to seeing The Accountant II. Despite some goofiness in the story line, this movie is entertaining. Ben Affleck plays this very unusual accountant, Christian Wolff. We later learn that Wolff is not the character’s real name and it’s unclear whether we’re ever told his true moniker. When we first meet the Accountant, he is doing what accountants do –helping a couple resolve a tax problem. He displays no personality and no emotion, which somewhat fits the stereotypic image of an accountant. This benign segment occurs after the opening shot in which we watch a person entering a crime scene littered with multiple dead bodies. We then regress to a scene from childhood. There are individuals and an autistic child. The child is the Accountant, and Seth Lee does an excellent job playing the child. This movie is comprised of two intertwined stories. There is a junior accountant, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) who has discovered irregularities in a company’s books and the Accountant is hired by the company to find out who’s been messing with its finances. John Lithgow gives a quality performance as the head of the company. In the concurrent story, Raymond King (J. K. Simmons), head of the Treasury Department’s financial crimes division, is trying to learn the identity of a guy who keeps appearing in photos with various criminal heavyweights and terrorists. King brings in Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to assist him. As the movie progresses, we meet Braxton (Jon Bernthal). This is the character whose role in the story led to my comment about goofiness, but to say anything more would spoil the telling of this tale. With uniformly strong performances by all the main characters and the odd quirkiness of the Accountant, I was entertained throughout this 128 minute film. The director is Gavin O’Connor. Bill Dubuque wrote the screenplay. Escapism and the draw of physical action successfully drives this movie to its conclusion. But if one dwells on the underlying tale, you cannot ignore its story of a depressing and violent childhood.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Queen of Katwe: a feel good movie that takes place in Uganda. Katwe is a slum area in the city of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and is where the principal characters of this film reside. Queen of Katwe is based on a true story. At the end of the film, as the credits are rolling, the actual individuals are introduced next to the actors who played them. The lead character is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl who watches people playing chess and eventually becomes Uganda’s champion player. We meet Mutesi when she is 10 years old. The movie takes her through most of her teenage years. This story is not confined to chess playing. It also tells the tale of someone coming from poverty, and the physical and mental obstacles she must overcome as she reaches for her dreams. The film focuses on Mutesi and her entire family. The mother is played by Lupita Nyong’o who gives another Oscar caliber performance. The only other named star is David Oyelowo, who plays Robert Katende, the individual who teaches the children chess. In the telling of Katende’s story, we learn why a country such as Uganda struggles despite its many talented individuals. There are a number of subplots running through this 124 minute film, which is directed by Mira Nar. The screenplay, written by William Wheeler, is based upon the book by Tim Crothers. This film shows Uganda’s poverty and its wealth and the myriad problems society and its individuals must overcome. I highly recommend this film.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
The Magnificent Seven: a Western based on a 1960 film of the same name. Both are based on the Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai. All three versions share a common storyline: a town is under siege by evil individuals; seven men with no connection to the town rally together to save the town and its people; and there is violence. The 2016 version is directed by Antoine Fuqua and stars Denzel Washington as Sam Chisolm, whose counterpart in the 1960 film was Yul Brynner. Chisolm is the character who brings together the Magnificent Seven and his introduction into the story may be the best part of the film. Although Denzel may be reason enough to see this film, like the 1960 version, the 2016 remake has a strong supporting cast. The basic plot is unchanged, but the current version has two significant differences. First, the 2016 Chisolm has a specific, personal reason for becoming involved whereas in the 1960 film, the motivating cause was simply righteousness. Second, the 2016 tale includes as a significant character a gun-toting female villager, Emma (Haley Bennett). The bad guy is played by Peter Sarsgaard, whose character is evil incarnate even if one dimensional. The big shoot-up scene could have been better edited as I thought it ran long and reminded me why some of you do not like Westerns. But the bottom line is that if you like westerns, you’ll enjoy this 132 minute film.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Sully: a film about Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s 208 second miracle landing on the Hudson River. While the river landing is played out, the film focuses on the subsequent National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”)investigation. With an excellent script by Todd Komarnicki, Tom Hanks, as Sully, is given strong material with which to work and the result is one of Hank’s best roles. Combining Hanks’ performance with Clint Eastwood’s directorial abilities, we are presented with a highly entertaining, mature story. Without the use of fancy special effects and despite knowing the ending, you are totally pulled into this re-telling of an actual event. The fact that all 155 people on board survived remains a remarkable feat, and using the NTSB process to recount what happened, you learn just how miraculous a save it was. The entire cast is excellent. The interplay between Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), feels accurate and real. The script makes it clear that Skiles’ role was important in the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549. The NTSB interviews with Sully and Skiles begin with the presumption that the Hudson River landing was unnecessary. We learn that the results of the NSTB’s mock test showed that the plane could have returned safely to LaGuardia or have landed at a New Jersey airport. The NTSB also questioned whether only one engine was down following the run in with the flock of geese rather than two as reported by Sully. The fact that Sully is able to show why the NTSB recreations and presumptions are flawed is artfully presented and sits at the heart of this 95 minute movie. Also well-handled is the portrayal of Sully’s reaction as an individual who had never been in the public arena. Stick around for the credits and you’ll see photos of the real Sully interacting with his crew and the real passengers. Eastwood continues to know how to put together a well crafted film.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Kubo and the Two Strings: an animation movie. I don’t often do cartoon movies, but every once in a while a story comes along that peaks my interest. Kubo is one of those. What you’ll notice right away is that the animation looks different. This difference arises from a technique known as “stop motion”, which gives all movement, down to the smallest detail, a very different appearance. But the “stop motion” technique is far from the only reason to see this film. Kubo offers the viewer an arresting story. Following the opening scene of a woman in a small boat fighting off turbulent waves with nothing but a shamisen (a type of three stringed lute), we are introduced to Kubo, a young Japanese boy sporting an eye patch. Kubo lives with his mother in a cave on a small, faraway island. Each day Kubo goes to the nearby village with his shamisen and entertains the locals with his captivating stories. His mother warns him to come home each evening before dark. One day, being a young boy, Kubo gets distracted and fails to make his twilight curfew. While the story to this point is interesting, what happens next is what makes this 102 minute film so delightful. We meet an extremely protective talking monkey and a samurai warrior beetle. As Kubo, Monkey and Beetle search for the armor once owned by Kubo’s father, the only items that can provide Kubo with the protection he needs, things begin happening and Kubo learns of his lineage and history. Quality actors provide the voices, including Matthew McConaughey (Beetle), Charlize Theron (Monkey), George Takei (a villager), Ralph Fiennes (Grandfather) and Art Parkinson (Kubo). The film is directed by Travis Knight. The story of Kubo and the Two Strings is a tale for people of all ages. Because of its visuals, Kubo is best enjoyed in a theatre.
Thursday, August 18, 2016
Indignation: a coming of age movie based upon a Philip Roth novel. It is 1951 and the protagonist, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), is graduating from a Newark high school. He has been accepted at the fictitious Winesburg College in Ohio. Roth also graduated from a Newark high school in 1950 but went to college at Bucknell in nearby Pennsylvania. Marcus and his father (Danny Burstein), a kosher butcher, have a close relationship. As Marcus’ departure date gets closer, the father becomes obsessively worried about the fate of his only child. Later in the film, we learn from the mother (Linda Emond) that during Marcus’ college attendance, the father has become increasingly unhinged. If Marcus hadn’t gone to college, he would have been drafted and most probably sent to Korea. Early in the film there is a Korean war sequence followed by a Temple burial scene of a young Jewish man killed in action. As a college student, Marcus is protected by deferment. The empathy evoked in those of us who were Vietnam War candidates is quite real. At college, Marcus is assigned to room with the only two Jewish upperclassmen at the college who are not members of a fraternity. Among its other mandates, Winesburg requires attendance at Christian chapel services regardless of a student’s religious belief. Things were different in 1951, including blatant anti-Semitism. Marcus, a virgin, meets beautiful blond named Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and becomes smitten. Their relationship becomes the central focus of the film. Olivia, who is not Jewish, also feels out of place and her history is critical to the story. Running throughout this 110 minute tale is the adversarial relationship between Marcus and the college’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), including a heated discussion about Bertrand Russell. This film marks the directorial debut of James Schamus. It contains a good amount of intelligent dialogue; I understand the film closely tracks Roth’s novel. The acting, particularly Linda Emond’s performance, is first rate. The characters are believable: Roth should be pleased with the film.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
Jason Bourne: a disappointment. With the return of Matt Damon and with Paul Greengrass at the directorial helm, I was looking forward to seeing this movie. Two of the prior Bourne films which I enjoyed, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, were directed by Greengrass. I believe this installment is the first time I’ve used the word “disappointing” in connection with a Greengrass movie. The problem does not lie with Damon - he does his part. The problem rests with the script, co-written by Greenglass and Christopher Rouse, and Rouse’s editing. The basic storyline is that Bourne learns there is more to the death of his father than he had been lead to believe, and his search for the truth moves the plot along. But there are three big issues that detract from the film. First: if you’re not already familiar with the Bourne character, the film’s opening will not make much sense. The last Bourne film with Damon was released in 2007, and it’s been four years since the non-Damon Bourne Legacy came out. The timeline of the novels upon which the series is based goes back to the 1980”s and ‘90’s. Second: the bad guy (Tommy Lee Jones), while central to the story, is just not believable. For those of you familiar with my commentaries, you know that I’m a big Jones fan, but having a CIA leader directing the assassination of CIA people? Also, there is nothing at all appealing about the other bad guy (Vincent Cassel), who is referenced only as The Asset. Third: the Vegas car chase scene is way too long. I could go on. The only true Bourne moment occurs during the concluding sequence of this 123 minute movie. The scene is strong enough that if a 6th Bourne film is made and it includes the Alicia Vikander character, I’ll be in the audience. After all, I still have pleasant memories of the first three Bourne films and the Jason Bourne character remains a person of interest. This installment, however, can be skipped.
Friday, August 12, 2016
Café Society: a Woody Allen comedy. Allen is the narrator as well as writer and director of this film, which is the best comedy he’s done in years. There are some brilliant lines that will have you laughing out loud. The events take place “in the 1930’s”. We are never given a precise year, and though the story appears to stretch over more than 10 years, the film never leaves the 30’s. The fact that America was in the midst of The Depression is never referenced. Rather, the focus is on Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), the younger son of a New York City jeweler. The film opens with Bobby moving to Hollywood where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a successful talent agent. We then meet Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s secretary, and various stereotype Hollywood personalities. As the story unfolds, we meet Bobby’s immediate family, which includes his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick), a school teacher, and older brother Ben (Corey Stroll), a gangster. The first half of the film takes place in Hollywood with various party scenes. The second half has us back in New York, primarily in the nightclub owned by Ben and managed by Bobby, who’s returned to the Big Apple. The players in the film appear to have a 20’s attitude but all the Hollywood references are from the 1930’s. One could riff on the inconsistency between the life styles shown in the film and what was actually occurring in America at the time, but Allen clearly just wants to amuse his audience. This 96 minute movie addresses relationships in a style that viewers of Allen’s films have come to expect. Eisenberg gives an excellent performance. Also, as expected in an Allen movie, the musical score is superb. If you have ever enjoyed a Woody Allen movie, you should see this film. You will leave the theatre with a smile.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Star Trek Beyond: Entertaining but . . . The challenge inherent in franchise films is that it’s impossible not to compare the current episode with past tellings of the tale. This is especially true for “Star Trek”, which has television roots going back fifty years to 1966. This latest installment begins with Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Starship Enterprise departing on a rescue mission beyond the known territories. The Enterprise crashes on a planet where most of the crew is captured. The core group: Spock (Zachary Quinto), Bones (Karl Urban) and Scotty (Simon Pegg, who co-authored the script with Doug Jung), who of course are not captured, join Kirk in an effort to rescue the captured crew. They then depart the planet on a quest to save the innocents living on a space station which is under attack by Krall (Idris Elba), the villain who caused the Enterprise to crash in the first place. The only new, interesting character is Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a crew member from a previous ship that had been brought down by Krall. The two other “Star Trek” core group, Sulu (John Cho) and Chekov ( the late Anton Yelchin), play their roles with accents a bit too thick. One nice touch to this story is that Spock and Uhuru fall into a relationship and, although their on screen chemistry works, the chemistry between Kirk and Spock is unfortunately missing. Director Justin Lin keeps the story moving forward, however, if I hadn’t already established an emotional attachment with the main characters of this episode, the only character I would have cared about is Jaylah. Krall is evil but, perhaps due to his costume, too bland. Jaylah had her own science wonders but they are presented with no explanation as to how they worked. If you enjoy the “Star Trek” stories, you will be entertained. However, if you don’t already have a bit of the Trekky spirit in you, this 120 minute film will not awaken the Force.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Hunt for the Wilderpeople: a New Zealand adventure comedy. This delightful film is set in rural New Zealand. The film opens with a social worker and a police officer delivering 13 year old Ricky Bates to foster parents living in the countryside. Paula (Rachel House), the social worker, describes Ricky as a bad kid who’s being given one last chance. Bella (Rima Te Wiata), the foster mom, greets Ricky with a hug and good humor. While introductions are being made, Bella’s husband, Hec (Sam Neil), is returning from a hunt. It is very clear that being a foster parent is solely Bella’s idea. During the first night at the cabin, Ricky runs away but doesn’t get far. When he awakes in the bush, Bella and her dog are there. Bella and Hec live off the land, and Ricky, played marvelously by Julian Dennison, becomes part of the family. It turns out that Ricky is just a kid who never spent any time with an adult who actually cared about him. Then Bella dies. At this point, the movie becomes far more than just a schmaltzy tale about a kid needing love. Hec and Ricky leave the cabin and go into the bush. The rest of this 101 minute film is about their experiences and the social worker’s pursuit of them. The only minus to this film is that the social worker never grows beyond a one-dimensional character. The cinematography by Lachlan Milne is beautiful. What makes this film a must see is the interplay between Hec and Ricky; their chemistry is remarkable. Taika Waititi’s screenplay and direction maintains a lightness and cheer to what could otherwise be a very common tale. Like chapters in a book, each segment of this film has its own title. The movie is based upon Wild Pork and Watercress, a novel by the late New Zealand writer, Barry Crump.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Our Kind of Traitor: a John leCarre story. This time the focus is on the Russian mob. A British college professor, Perry (Ewan McGregor), and his British barrister girlfriend, Gail (Naomie Harris), are vacationing in Marrakech. During dinner, Gail receives a business call and leaves the table to handle the matter. A diner at a neighboring table asks Perry to join him and his male friends. Perry accepts the offer. We learn that the diner, Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), is a Russian gangster who is in charge of the Mob’s entire European money laundering operation. We also learn that Dima fears for his life and the life of his family. Unbeknownst to Perry, he is being recruited into a scheme whereby Dima and his family hope to relocate to England in exchange for Dima’s disclosure of details about certain British politicians who have been bought by the Mob. During the course of this 107-minute film, Perry and Gail become intertwined with Dima, his family and British M6. The M6 contact, played by Damian Lewis, is not a likable character. It is Skarsgard’s performance that drives the film. Susanna White is the director. Although there are some gaps in the screenplay, the excellent acting nicely compensates. This very adult film is entertaining and worth seeing. It is within the expectation of what one hopes a John leCarre story will deliver. If you are not a leCarre fan, this movie is not for you. There are a few short, violent scenes. There are also some beautiful shots of the French Alps. I enjoyed this movie.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Free State of Jones: not your typical American Civil War movie. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi. The opening scenes portray the violence of battle you would expect from a civil war film but, thereafter, the story becomes much more than a military tale. From the time Knight decides to take his nephew’s body home and desert his Confederate regiment, the film concentrates on Knight’s struggle to forge a free state for both white and black people. This film is based on a true story about an individual who leads an armed rebellion against the Confederacy and much of the cinematic telling is accurate. Gary Ross is the director and screenwriter. Jones County is comprised of significant swamp land, which provides plenty of cover for those slaves escaping to freedom early on. When the Confederacy issues an edict that exempts sons of farmers owning 20 or more slaves from the draft, the individual white farmers of Jones County choose to throw in with Knight and the runaway slaves and fight the Confederacy. The romance between Knight and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domestic slave who supplies fugitives with supplies from the plantation house, is true. Running through the film is a story from 1948 about a descendent of Knight who, because of his 1/8th Black heritage, is prosecuted for marrying a white woman. The period of poor white farmers and former slaves working together is short lived. This 139-minute film ends with scenes of the Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Smithsonian Magazine (March 2016) has an article about how controversial a figure Newton Knight remains to this day in Jones County. There are strong performances by Mahershala Ali as Moses and Brad Carter as bad guy Confederate Lieutenant Barbour. McConaughey’ s performance is excellent and he may earn another Oscar nomination. Cinematographer Benolt Delhomme also deserves mention as his ability to connect us with the physical environment is an integral part of the story. This film tells of a history I was previously not aware of so while being entertained, I received a lesson about our nation’s past. This is a film worth seeing.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Maggie’s Plan: a romantic comedy. We are told at the outset what “Maggie’s Plan” is. Maggie (Greta Gerwig) tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) that she wants to become a mother. During the course of the conversation, we glean bits and pieces of background information such as Maggie’s inability to maintain long term relationships. Maggie’s plan is to inseminate herself. She has found a donor, Guy (Travis Fimmel), someone both Maggie and Tony knew in college; friends with no romantic ties among them. Tony is married to Felicia (Maya Rudolph). More scenes with Tony, Felicia and Maggie would have made this enjoyable film even more fun. Donor Guy owns a pickle factory in Brooklyn and, as Tony notes, has social issues. As the arrangement with Guy starts falling into place, Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), a part-time professor whose area of expertise is “ficto-critical anthropology”. John is married to a tenured Danish Columbia University professor named Georgette (Julianne Moore) with whom he has two children. John is trying to write a novel. At this point, of course, Maggie and John connect and become a couple. The film then leaps forward about three years. Maggie is tired of taking care of John who, as we knew from the start, is self-absorbed and allergic to sharing, which is exactly how John describes Georgette. We know Maggie is a person who likes to be in control, however, trying to control her own daughter plus parenting John and Georgette’s children proves overwhelming. Maggie comes up with a new plan: get John and Georgette back together. The cast is excellent, and there is a cameo appearance by Wallace Shawn. While I never bought into the John-Maggie relationship, I still thoroughly enjoyed this film. Everything is done with a light and humorous touch under the talented guidance of Rebecca Miller, who is both director and screenwriter. This 98 minute gem shines with a delightful charm. The bounty of smiles, gentle laughs and adult humor make this movie a positive and pleasant respite.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Alice Through the Looking Glass: not what Lewis Carroll had envisioned. Quite frankly, it was not what I was expecting either considering that the script’s author is Linda Woolverton, the same person who penned Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. To create a successful movie based on a Lewis Carroll novel, a certain degree of nonsensical disorder is necessary. However, in this film directed by James Bobin, there is oftentimes only disorder. While certain individual scenes are brilliant, the overall result is massive disarray and confusion. Part of the problem is that much of the original story has been jettisoned without benefit of a solid creative replacement. We have the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) looking for his family, within a father-son schism, after we all understood the family had died. There is that Nice Girl/Mean Girl thing going on between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Carter’s performance is strong while Hathaway is, again, just Hathaway. To the extent this movie has any storyline, it is about time travel: Alice (Mia Wasikowska) steals a gyroscopic time machine in an effort to alter the past. I enjoyed Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of Time, but even he has problems with the bizarre script. During the course of the film’s 113 minutes, the typical “Alice in Wonderland” characters make their appearance, and when Tweedledee & Tweeledum (Matt Lewis), the White Rabbit and company are on screen, the film has a more centered, enjoyable feel. Their presence, however, is quite limited and cannot rescue this confused tale. IF you’re set on seeing this film, see it in a theatre so you can at least savor the special effects. As to whether you should make the effort to see this film, my answer would be no.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
A Hologram for the King: a Tom Hanks movie. If you’re a fan of Tom Hanks, this is a must see movie. Hanks’ skills translate a quirky storyline into a delightful 97-minute film. It is 2010 and we learn that Alan Clay (Hanks) is traveling to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of selling a holographic teleconferencing system to the Saudi government. We also learn that Clay was once a high level executive for Schwinn Bicycles and was instrumental in closing Schwinn’s American plants and moving the jobs to China. Clay is newly divorced and, as the movie opens, is trying to recover economically so he can afford to send his daughter to college. His boss treats him as a has-been salesman. The company Clay works for is one of many Western businesses vying to sell products to the Saudi government. The only reason Clay scores the Saudi opportunity is because of a friendship with someone in the Saudi royal family. The Saudis plan to build a master city outside of Jeddah but development is moving at the pace of pre-global warming glaciers. Clay has three technical people at the site who are housed in a large tent while other executives work in a nearby office building; the difference in treatment is never explained. At night, Clay stays in a modern hotel and each morning he oversleeps, which results in our meeting Yousef (Alexander Black), Clay’s taxi driver. Yousef spent a year in Alabama and loves rock music. He also believes that one day soon, his taxi will be rigged to a bomb because of his affair with a married woman. The interplay between Yosef and Clay is funny and complements the film’s humorous undertone. Clay becomes ill and is treated at a Saudi hospital by a female doctor (Sarita Choudhury). Yosef comments more than once that there are only a handful of female doctors in Saudi Arabia and, even more unusual is the fact that Clay, a male, is being treated by a female doctor. The film is not kind to Saudi society. Tom Tykwer wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which is based on the novel by Dave Eggers. The story seems to be heading in different directions at various points, however, as things gradually unfold, you begin to see the end point. This is a story with a nice ending and part of its pleasure is the realization that you are being told a tale that is very different from the hints that are dropped throughout the first half of the film. I enjoyed this movie.
Saturday, April 30, 2016
Miles Ahead: Don Cheadle’s tribute to Miles Davis. Cheadle is Miles Davis and he gives an Oscar worthy performance. He also co-wrote and directed the film. In this regard, Cheadle’s performance does not quite equal the quality of his acting. The movie primarily takes place during the five years in the 1970’s when Miles did not produce an album. It ends in 1980 with Miles’ comeback concert with cameos by Herbie Hancock, who is now 76, and Wayne Shorter, who is 82. Unfortunately, performances by Miles and others are limited, although the background music by Robert Glasper is excellent. The film focuses on Miles’ temper and his drug use with multiple flashbacks involving his wife. The timelines are blurred and some of the scenes are pure fiction. Nonetheless, there are parts that are absolutely brilliant and, if you are a Miles Davis fan, there are little things that occur during the 100-minute run time that are impressive. There is a brief scene where the television is on and you see the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, wrapping up his humiliation of the then Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries. In 1971, Miles dedicated an album to Jack Johnson, but there is far more to the connection. Throughout the film, we witness the blending of Jack Johnson’s attitude and the free flowing spirit of a Miles album. I suspect the more you know about Miles, the more likely you are to enjoy certain scenes with a proportionate amount of frustration with the factual liberties that are taken. Emayatzy Corinealdi gives an excellent performance as Miles’ first wife, Frances Taylor. Unlike the reporter character (Ewan McGregor), Emayatzy is believable. Arguably, she and Cheadle are the only truly believable characters in the film. The more I think about Miles Ahead, the more impressed I am with the film, with the most impressive element being Don Cheadle’s performance. Seldom do I find a singular acting performance sufficient reason to see a film. Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles Davis is on par with George C. Scott playing General Patton – totally dominating and magnificent.
Saturday, April 16, 2016
Marguerite: French film with subtitles. The time is 1921 and the place is an exquisite residence outside Paris. A fund raising event is occurring and the final presentation is an operatic performance by the event’s host, Marguerite (Catherine Font). As the film unfolds, we learn that Marguerite and her husband, Georges Dumont (Andre Marcon), have been sponsoring these concerts on behalf of a music society for quite some time. The events are always private, however, a reporter has crashed this particular concert, which is a benefit for the war orphans. Lucien, the reporter (Sylvain Dieuaide), writes a review entitled “The Orphan’s Voice” and describes Marguerite’s singing as “the human truth”. Marguerite befriends Lucien and the storyline heads towards Marguerite giving a public concert. A major character in the story is Marguerite’s butler and driver, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who is key to hiding the truth from Marguerite - that she cannot sing. His motivation has an evil twist to it. This 128 minute film is told with humor and, despite the Madelbos character, with respect for the singer. The story is presented in chapters and leads with a photograph of Marguerite posing in an operatic role. What unfolds in each chapter is consistent with its title. The director, Xavier Giannoli, co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano. We are told at the beginning that the story is based upon true events. A significant difference, however, is that the real individual was an American socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins, and not a French woman with a moniker mockingly similar to the Marx Brothers’ character Margaret Dumont. I understand a movie has been made starring Meryl Streep as Jenkins. Frot is marvelous as the clueless chanteuse and her performance alone makes the film worth seeing. But really, does her voice have to be so painfully off-key?
Sunday, April 10, 2016
Eye in the Sky: an excellent thriller addressing serious ethical questions about war. The plot line is simple: British military has located two Al-Shabaab extremists who are meeting in a safe house in Kenya. The original plan is to capture the terrorists. However, before the plan can be executed, the two individuals, one British and the other American, move to a second, more secure compound. With information gleaned from drone surveillance, the “eye in the sky”, the military learns the terrorist are planning a suicide bombing mission. At this point, the military’s mission changes from capture to kill, but they must first obtain authorization for the new mission. During this 102 minute film, the issue of collateral damage is fully explored. Helen Mirren, in another Oscar worthy performance, plays British military intelligence officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, who is advocating for the strike. She reports to Lt. General Frank Benson, played by Alan Rickman in his final movie role; Rickman died of pancreatic cancer in January 2016. Rickman is excellent. Lt. General Benson is in a room with the British Attorney General, a British foreign secretary and others who have the authority to authorize the strike. Initially the authorization is given, however, a young girl enters the strike zone to sell bread. The drone pilot, played by Aaron Paul, who is located in Las Vegas, insists on obtaining new authorization before he will release the bomb. At this point, the film gets really interesting as the authorization requests travel up the administrative chain on both the American and British sides. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert is excellent and the dialogue concerning collateral damage is realistic. The actors are outstanding, even those in more minor roles such as the Somali undercover agent played by Barkhard Abdi, who is operating a drone inside the compound area. The film is directed by Gavin Hood. Most military thrillers are all about the action. This film focuses on technology and the ethical issues which arise from the plethora of information made available through the new technology. Most importantly, the film addresses the conundrum of the value of a single life when the consequences of saving that particular life will most probably result in the death of multiple others. Further, the film speaks to the belief that a drone pilot is conscious of his role in a real life operation and is fully aware that he is not simply playing a sophisticated computer game. The adage spoken by Rickman at the end of the movie, “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war,” is driven succinctly home. I highly recommend this film.
Sunday, February 14, 2016
Hail, Caesar!: Silly brilliance by the Coen Brothers. Time is the early 1950’s. Place is Capital Pictures, a mythical Hollywood movie studio. The film opens with a focus on Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is the “Head of Physical Production” for Capital and a “Fixer”. Everything that happens thereafter flows through Mannix. This movie works because despite the utter silliness and seeming chaos of the underlying tales, the Mannix character threads through and connects everything. The story takes place over a few consecutive days and runs the gauntlet of Mannix dealing with twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) to Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in a movie called “Hail, Caesar”, being kidnapped. Whitlock’s kidnapping is the primary story line, however, there are numerous sub-stories. For instance, a pregnant but unmarried Ester Williams type actress (Scarlett Johansson) investigates whether she can legally adopt her own child, which leads to a brief and funny appearance by Jonah Hill as an accountant who will make it happen. Then there’s Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly type actor with his own unique issues. The actor who is brilliant throughout the film is Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a Singing Cowboy who is asked to do a period drama, which leads us to Ralph Fiennes as the director who must deal with Hobie’s total lack of acting ability, and Frances McDormand as a film editor who has a near fatal accident. While tumbling through the ruckus of these incidents, the movie returns to Whitlock’s kidnapping and the kidnappers. This entire 100 minute film is done in a blaze of fun. The actors project a genuine joy in romping through this parody of various movie stars from the 1950’s. The film is brilliant and for anyone who enjoys movies, this is a must see.
Friday, February 5, 2016
The Finest Hours: a rescue at sea & romance combo. The advertisements for this movie center on the fact that it is a true story of a miraculous rescue at sea. The opening scene, however, is the first date between Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine)and his bride to be, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). In fact, a significant portion of the film is devoted to their love story. The time is Winter 1951 and the location is Cape Cod. The focus remains on the Bernie/Miriam romance until February 1952, when the couple become engaged. At this point, the film finally switches, for the most part, to the massive storm and the subsequent rescue. The rescue is dramatic and, to this day, remains the most successful Coast Guard small boat rescue on record. Webber and his 3-man crew accomplish something no less than spectacular in dealing with an oil tanker split in two during an extreme Atlantic winter storm. The scenes involving the floating half of the tanker are the strongest parts of this movie as are the scenes with Webber and crew crossing a sandbar to get to the tanker. During the run of the credits, we learn that Bernie and Miriam were together for 58 years, which is wonderful. The movie, however, has a distinct Hallmark ambience and too much of the 117 minutes are devoted to Miriam. The exceptions are those scenes involving Miriam’s conversations with a widow who lost her husband in a similar storm. Rachel Brosnahan gives a strong performance as the widow. Casey Affleck, as the chief engineer who manages to keep the tanker afloat long enough for Webber to arrive, also turns in a strong performance. Unfortunately, The Finest Hours may also have provided 2016’s worse performance in a supporting role. Eric Bana is terrible as Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff, Webber’s commander, and his attempts at mimicking a Southern accent are abysmal. The movie’s director is Craig Gillespie. The scenes at sea work, especially those on the tanker. The same cannot be said for the far too abundant scenes on land.
Monday, January 25, 2016
The Revenant: a 21st century telling of a 19th century tale. This film is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a Mountain Man who was left for dead after being attacked by a Grizzly bear. This is the second telling by Hollywood, the first being Man in the Wilderness, a 1971 movie in which Richard Harris played the Glass character. The Revenant begins in 1823 in the Upper Missouri River region where fur trappers are hunting in Arikara Indian territory. The movie was actually filmed in Canada and Argentina. Glass had been married to a Pawnee woman and has an adolescent son. The bear mugging scene is truly incredible, but there is so much more to this movie. The talents of director Alejandro Inarriu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are confirmed by the fact that at the end of this movie, I was freezing from watching scene after scene of a bitterly harsh winter. Leonardo DiCapario’s performance is remarkable and he truly deserves to win his first Oscar. The storyline itself is simple. After Glass is mugged by the Grizzly, the leader of the trapping party leaves Glass in the care of two of his men, John Fitzgerald (Tom Handy in an excellent performance) and 19 year old James Bridger (Will Poulter), until “the inevitable” occurs, with instructions to give Glass a proper burial. When Glass fails to succumb, Fitzgerald and Bridger abandon him. The rest of the movie deals with Glass surviving the 200+ mile dead-of-winter journey to Fort Kiowa and his Hollywood interaction with Fitzgerald. I won’t comment further on the film’s conclusion or its link to the factual story; the scenes as presented in the film work. If you want to know more, email me and I’ll follow up with you. At 156 minutes, the film runs a little long. It is violent, but it is depicting violent times about men whose very existence depended on dealing with the harshness of nature and an uncivilized world. The film’s technical work is amazing. I describe this film as a 21st century telling primarily because the Native American characters are accurately portrayed and the dialogue is real. Inarrritu co-wrote the script with Mark Smith. The film is based upon the 2002 novel by Michael Punke, who based his story on Glass’ tales. This film deserves whatever Oscars it is awarded. I would, however, still give the Best Picture Oscar to The Big Short.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Youth: a movie about human emotions set at a luxurious Swiss hotel & spa. The primary story line involves the Michael Caine character, Fred Ballinger, a retired classical music composer and conductor. I’ve been a Caine fan since 1966 when Alfie premiered. Caine, who is 82, has retained all the charm, character and acting ability that were present 50 years ago. As the film unfolds, we learn that Ballinger retired when his wife was no longer able to perform. Part of Ballinger’s past is told through his interaction with his longtime friend and Hollywood filmmaker Mick Boyle, played by Harvey Keitel. Boyle and Ballinger have been meeting at the hotel for many summers. Many of Boyle’s films featured an actress named Brenda Morel. This summer, Boyle has brought a team of young screenwriters to the hotel to assist him in completing his newest screenplay, whose main character is an aging diva, Morel in real life. We also learn about Ballinger’s past through Lena (Rachel Weisz), his daughter and assistant, who also happens to be married to Boyle’s son. Ballinger’s past is also revealed through his interactions with current movie star Jimmy Tree, played by Paul Dano. Two other characters who deserve mention are the hotel’s masseuse, Luna Zimic Mijoviic, a very unusual looking woman, and Roly Serrano for his tennis ball scene. Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography is spectacular. For the male readers, even more spectacular are certain scenes involving Miss Universe, Madalina Ghenea, a truly beautiful woman. This 124 minute film is written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, who presents a certain Fellini culture attitude. If you saw Sorrentino’s Oscar winning film The Great Beauty and liked it, you definitely should see Youth. The opposite is also true, except for the reference to Miss Universe. I think Youth is a better film than The Great Beauty because it dives into the emotions of the individual characters. 60 Minutes had a piece about Youth and Caine, including a lovely scene with Caine sitting in a pasture and conducting. But this film offers so much more than what was conveyed in that brief 60 Minutes piece. Jane Fonda makes a brief appearance as Morel towards the end of the movie. I did not recognize her, and this comment is meant as a compliment. Fonda deserved her Golden Globe best supporting actress nomination. The signature composition discussed throughout this complex movie, Simple Song #3, was composed by David Lang and is beautifully performed in full at the end of the film. Lang deserves his Oscar nomination. It is not easy to present the aging pathos of males. This film does an excellent job with a light comedic touch.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Concussion: not just a football story. This true story focuses on Nigerian trained pathologist, Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. In 2002, as a pathologist with the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office, Dr. Omalu is performing an autopsy on the great former Pittsburgh Steelers center, Mike Webster (David Morse). When the standard autopsy fails to reveal the cause of death of an otherwise healthy 50 year old individual, Dr. Omalu, at his own expense, orders additional tests. He eventually discovers a disorder of the brain with characteristics similar to what those in the boxing world referred to as “punch drunk”. This new disorder, caused by repeated blows to the head, is given the name “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or “CTE”. Dr. Omalu continues to perform autopsies on additional Steelers players. When he publishes his findings on CTE, he is unprepared for the savage attacks unleashed upon him by the NFL. From what I have independently read, this film is kind to the NFL. The portrayal of Dr. Julian Bailes (Alex Baldwin), the Steelers’ former team doctor, shows that some people truly cared about the welfare of the players. Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) is barely on screen. During the course of the story, a personal relationship develops between Dr. Omalu and Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an immigrant from Kenya. Their relationship and eventual marriage is nicely interwoven into the story. Will Smith does an excellent job and his Nigerian accent is authentic. I enjoyed the scene where he tells us why woodpeckers and rams can absorb head hits while humans cannot. This 122-minute film has some football scenes, but director and writer Peter Landesman’s concentration is on Bennet Omalu and the science of CTE. You don’t have to have a fondness for football to enjoy this movie, however, if you are a football fan, you owe it to yourself to see this film. For the past few years I’ve been saying that players have gotten too big for the game. This film supports my remark and does so while telling a story about an individual seeking knowledge.