Friday, December 16, 2016

Manchester-by-the-Sea


Casey Affleck lumbers through Kenneth Lonergen's Manchester-by-the-Sea like a man with the burdens of the world draped over his shoulders, and, in a sense, they are. In a commanding, heartbreaking performance, Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an apartment handyman in Quincy, Massachusetts, when we meet him. Lee is the fellow who recedes into the background in bars and at parties until he's riled, and then he's a bruiser. Most of the time he doesn't seem to want or need anything the world offers but he's also by turns listless and combative, and it seems to have something to do with events back home in Manchester-by-the-Sea. When he receives word his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has suffered a heart attack, Lee drives the 90 minutes to see about him but is greeted with news of his death and later that he's been named guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, the randy and rambunctious Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Over the course of the film, we discover why Lee is directionless and empty, why his wife (Michelle Williams) left him and what he needs to do to best care for Patrick. Not one of the answers to these questions is expected, which is the beauty of the raw and masterful script by Lonergen.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Moonlight

 
We follow the taciturn hero of Barry Jenkins' amazingly affective film Moonlight from roughly age 8 to 26, as he is battered physically by neighborhood bullies, emotionally by his drug-addled mother and psychologically by his own queer identity. Each of the actors playing the lead -- who variously goes by Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes) -- are uncannily expressive despite collectively delivering less than two pages of dialogue during the film's 2 hour run. Their eyes, their sloping shoulders, skittish response to physical contact and their silences speak powerfully of their disconnection from life and of the soul-deadening effect of the Liberty City projects. Early in the film, the boy Little is befriended by a drug dealer named Juan (an Oscar-worthy Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who feed and shelter him when the boy's mother (a terrific Naomie Harris) runs him off so that she can consort with a boyfriend or fire up crack rock, which, coincidentally, she buys from Juan. Through those caring surrogates the boy begins to feel worthy of love though his journey to self-acceptance is by no means assured. It is that uncertainty (possibility?) that makes Jenkins' film so resonant, as resonant as it is beautiful. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is a puzzling alien-contact picture that packs quite a wallop and has a marvelous resonating conclusion. The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker as members of a U.S. military operation to establish contact with scoop-shaped craft over Montana, one of 12 alien vessels hovering around the world. Adams plays a university linguist; Renner, a Los Alamos physicist; and Whitaker, the chief army officer directing the operation to crack the alien's beautiful but cryptic language and find out why they're here. Villeneuve, who also directed the wonderful Sicario from last year and 2013's unnerving Prisoners, has given the film a pacing and density that might turn off those looking for more flash and spectacle. I was drawn into the cosmic mystery at the heart of the movie and the enigma of the space visitors and the humans chosen to reach out to them.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson is a certain director -- deliberate and robust, not interested in subtlety or nuance. His world is stark and painful. His film Hacksaw Ridge is all of that and as uncompromising as its hero, Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during WW II who saved the lives of dozens of American soldiers during a bloody battle in Okinawa. Doss, played by the wonderfully engaging Andrew Garfield, is the son of an embittered WW I veteran, a terrific Hugo Weaving. The younger Doss wants to serve but his religious convictions keep him from taking up a gun. Still he enlists as a noncombatant in an infantry platoon. After attempts to first get him to quit and then to imprison him fail, Doss becomes a medic and in that capacity becomes a war hero. Gibson is no stranger to sanctimony and this film puts God front and center as the motivation for Doss's extraordinary feats but avoids asking why God would allow the savagery that fills every frame in the last third of the picture. The film is part celebration and part indictment and as sickening as it is self-righteous.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Doctor Strange

Scott Derrickson's trippy Doctor Strange is weighed down a bit by the mystical hoodoo spouted by the bald and ever-fascinating Tilda Swinton, as The Ancient One, to the crassly egomaniacal surgeon DOCTOR Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is looking for life after a career-ending accident and ends up leading a battle against dark forces threatening the known universe. The picture is kept aloft by its fantastical effects that are as close to the cosmic tableaux in Marvel comics as any I've seen in this impressive (and impressively reliable) series of pictures. Magical characters move between locations, time and dimensions, bending physical space into jaw-dropping Escheresque landscapes and often cracking wise while doing so. It's a lot of fun and for hippies of a certain age might prompt an acid flashback or two. Recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Accountant


Gavin O'Connor's The Accountant is a peculiar tale of a high-functioning autist (Ben Affleck) whose brilliance with numbers and inability to connect with other humans make him an ace CPA. Those attributes do not explain, however, his skill as a marksman or why he plays a hired assassin when he is not finding tax shelters for clients. Those answers are delivered in time in this violent, amoral story of greed, corruption and failed systems (government, law enforcement, family, medicine). Affleck is fine as the lethal and generally unflappable anti-hero (he's a completion addict and has this thing about threes) and Anna Kendrick is good as the requisite distressed damsel who is more of a likable plot device than a full-blown character. Also in the cast are Jon Bernthal as rival killer, J.K. Simmons as a Treasury Department honcho and the lovely Cynthia Addai-Robinson as an analyst who is tasked with tracking down the elusive accountant. I enjoyed the puzzles at the movie's center and tittered at all of the robotic killing. The body count is yuuuugggge. Recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

Setting aside the license writer / director Nate Parker has taken in his retelling of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, the film distresses because it borrows so freely and unnecessarily from the slave film canon. The freshest element is Parker’s portrayal of Turner but even his performance, which is quite good BTW, has remnant patches of Roots, Glory and even 12 Years a Slave. The film is as bleak and bloody as the event it recounts but without the resonance of many of its predecessors and so I left feeling awful but not enlightened.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Snowden

Oliver Stone's polemical defense of Edward Snowden's actions to release classified information regarding the National Security Agency's collection of private information on American citizens is not his best work but it has the sheen of importance, if not the performances to match its weighty subject. The film, which stars a throaty Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, tracks the former special forces recruit through basic training (he was discharged by stress fractures in his legs), his admission to CIA training school in Langley, Virginia, and his work in counter-intelligence in Hawaii, establishing Snowden as a patriot at heart. During the time of his CIA training, Snowden, an brilliant autodidact meets his intelligence mentor Corbin O'Brian (a wonderful Rhys Ifans) and his future love interest, the unapologetically liberal Lindsey (a good but badly wigged Shailene Woodley), who ends up pulling Snowden to the left. Unknown to her, she gets an assist from unsettling discoveries about covert intelligence, the War on Terror and the reducing of foreign civilians to dust. Snowden's decision to share information with reporters from The Guardian is portrayed as the work of a patriot who values the Constitution more than his own freedom. Snowden is a political martyr, and Stone's film is a competently crafted apologia for what some charge was a treasonous act. It's deliberate, preachy, and Stone. Recommended.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sully

Clint Eastwood’s enigmatic political persona notwithstanding, the Oscar-winning director knows how to tell a tale about people caught up in extraordinary events, rising to the challenges they are facing and overcoming them with ingenuity and grace. Such is the story of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the veteran U. S. Airways pilot who landed his immobilized passenger jet in the Hudson River after taking off from LaGuardia. The picture stars Tom Hanks as Sully and Aaron Eckhart as first officer Jeff Skiles, who chose to ditch the plane in the river rather than try to return to the airport. That call, though it resulted in no loss of life, drew an NTSB inquiry that threatened to tarnish Sully’s previously sterling 40-year record and deprive him of his pension. Though he is visited by moments of self-doubt, Sully is ultimately resolute in his defense of his actions before the imperious board. It’s a small film with a contained story but Eastwood masterfully stages the harrowing crash and its aftermath. It’s both a celebration of the individual and the spirit of unity that often follows crises.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Southside With You


Richard Tanne's enjoyable, and talky, film recreation of the first "date" between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) -- Southside With Your -- is a loving tribute to the first couple and an endorsement if not of the president's politics then certainly of the spirit of rational engagement and empowerment that, one could argue, has defined his terms in office. Though Michelle insists their outing to a Southside Chicago community meeting is off-the-clock, professional time between law firm colleagues and not a "date," Barack is persistent and winning, one might even say calculated, in his wooing, booking for them much more than the meeting. The two spend most of the film's 84 minutes talking about themselves, yes, but they're actually telling each other (and those of us eavesdropping) what has made them who they are (and, for those of us eavesdropping, what they will become). Michelle is guarded; Barack is hopeful. But, in the end, they appear compatible in their differences.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Don't Breathe

You can't really call Jane Levy (Evil Dead remake) a Queen of Scream because there's no screaming going on in Don't Breathe -- at least, not on the screen. The audience? Now that's a-whole-nother thing. Director Fede Alvarez, who wrote the screenplay with collaborator Rodo Sayagues, methodically lays out the story and the playing field for this cat and mouse game. Levy's Rocky and friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zavotta) have been burglarizing homes in Detroit because their lives suck and they want out of Motor City. Alpha dog Money scopes a house on a deserted street. The owner is a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) mourning his daughter who was killed by a careless motorist. Setting sympathy aside, Money and Rocky decide to break into the house and relieve the vet of the money he received in a settlement from the driver's affluent parents. Beta male Alex, who is pining for Rocky, is ambivalent at first but eventually joins the gang. Once inside the house, however, the plan goes awry and the blind vet -- with his keen hearing and smelling -- proves to be much more than he appears as the thieves try to hide from him in his creaky house. It's all bloody good fun that had me rooting for both the cat and mouse at different times and sometimes both at once.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings / Hell or High Water


Both the animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings and David Mackenzie's Gothic Western Hell or High Water are dark, engrossing tales. Kubo is the name of a gifted, one-eyed troubadour in samurai Japan. He cares for his ailing mother -- a former celestial being -- when he's not bringing to life with music the origami sculptures he uses to tell stories in the village square. Kubo had been warned that evil is stalking him and he must take care. When it finds him he sets off on a quest to secure the armament he needs to protect himself. The film features the voices of Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei and is a fable unlike any I've seen. Death is a constant presence throughout the picture, which includes terrific battle scenes that would likely be quite frightening to the youngest children.


Chris Pine and the ever-entertaining Ben Foster are West Texas sibling bank robbers trying to right wrongs done to their family by bad luck and greed. Beau Bridges is the Texas ranger who is nearing retirement but whose understanding of the criminal mind is still sharp. The expansive desolation of that desiccated region is in every frame but it's the flinty language writer Taylor Sheridan puts in the mouths of the actors that is the true star of this wonderful, brutal and human picture.

Bad Mom

Mila Kunis plays a do-everything Supermom with an ungrateful spouse and kids and a part-time job being the adult in a gourmet coffee company. She’s a wreck and blows a gasket when she discovers her husband is virtual-dating a chat room porn star, her son is coasting through middle school
and her daughter is a walking bundle of stress. Even the family dog is a mess. Bad Moms, directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, follows Kunis’s Amy as she decompresses and takes back some of her life. While all does not go well, she does befriend two other distressed mothers – Kathryn Hahn’s randy vulgarian Carla and Kristen Bell’s emotionally battered Kiki – but crosses the local PTA maven (Christina Applegate) who swears vengeance. The laughs will be hearty if you enjoyed Lucas and Moore’s Hangover series but the film also carries a needed message about self-love and priorities.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Stephen Frears is a loving filmmaker who urges audiences to embrace his characters but not too roughly lest we harm these spirited but fragile people. In Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears directs the indomitable Meryl Streep and the reliably affable Hugh Grant in the true story of an aging New York socialite and music patron and her husband during the Second World War. Madame Florence, doused with stardust after hearing the heavenly Lily Pons at Carnegie Hall, decides she wants to revive her own performance aspirations. The problem is she’s deaf to her own tunelessness but gets only affirmation from doting husband St. Clair and the high society toadies who love her sandwich and potato salad parties and money. She enlists the support of the effete and impoverished young pianist Cosme McMoon (an Oscar nomination for the Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg) and is off to the races. I found quite a lot to love about Florence, was touched by her passion and rooted for her despite her delusion.

Sausage Party

Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s brilliant animated film Sausage Party takes the unrelenting vulgarity and sex and drug obsession that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg peddle (Superbad, Pineapple Express) and turn them into a phantasmagoria of talking and dancing grocery store items that are awaiting the rapture of being purchased for Red, White and Blue Day (the Fourth of July) – for that is the reward the gods (humans) have planned for them. When a bottle of honey mustard is purchased by mistake and returned, he brings word (between his mad ravings from PTSD) that no good awaits the franks, buns, veggies and condiments on the other side of those glass doors. Thus begins a quest for the Truth, and therein lies the film’s brilliance. While titillating viewers with naughty talk by comestibles, the filmmakers are also addressing gender roles, sexual repression, religious intolerance and ethnic persecution. Not as odd a mixture as it might appear. The movie will probably require multiple viewings.  Not because the commentary is so dense. Rather, it is because the gags are so rapid-fire that you’ll miss half of them because of your howling laughter.

Captain Fantastic



Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic is a thoughtful film about how the best intentions of loving people can have devastating consequences. Viggo Mortensen is the shamanistic father of six living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. His wife and the children’s mother has been hospitalized for what is later revealed as manic depression and suicidal tendencies. Mortensen’s Ben has rejected societal conventions and is raising his children – ranging in age from 18 to 6 – as primitives and philosophers who kill and cook their meals, scale the side of cliffs, read Nabokov and celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Yes, the premise is fantastic but the sentiments feel genuine, and when the family receives tragic news about their mother, their sadness and distress and then resolve to fulfill her wish for a Buddhist departure feels pure and real – which in these times of mountainous cynicism is reason enough to see this gentle and affirming film. The children’s performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine is guaranteed to bring on the waterworks.

Jason Bourne

No, Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne is not as edgy and dynamic as the three previous installments, especially The Bourne Ultimatum, and has a frustratingly familiar style and flavor and set pieces that echo the earlier films. Matt Damon stars as the buff and predictably unstoppable Bourne, who is on the hunt for answers to his identity and the mysterious forces that turned him into a killing machine. Tommy Lee Jones plays the intelligence villain with the same sliminess as his predecessors – Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and Scott Glenn. Alicia Vikander, however, lends a bit of freshness as the ambitious CIA cyber-warfare chief with her own agenda but, sadly, she’s not able to lift the movie’s staleness. Greengrass amps up the vehicular wreckage and lays waste to Athens, London and Vegas, which will undoubtedly delight die-hard Bourne-boys and girls. And, yes, there might be more.

Star Trek Beyond

Justin Lin capably moves the Star Trek franchise forward with a film that pits militarism against humanism, albeit with a predictable outcome. Idris Elba, the kind of actor I wish Sam Jackson was, joins the stable of performers introduced by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot as the energy-devouring war lord Krall, who draws the Starship Enterprise into a trap with the intent of using Kirk and crew to destroy the Federation of Planets. Lin’s staging of the destruction of the Enterprise is spectacular and ingenious, as it represents not only the imperiling of the ship’s crew but the near demolition of the idea of exploration and peaceful coexistence. Elba’s speech at the film’s climax, and the big reveal that comes immediately before, is intelligent screen craft and worthy of the venerable series’s legacy.

Hunting for the Wilderpeople / The Innocents

Saturday’s double-feature at the Nick was the delightful New Zealand film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” starring Sam Neill and the juvenile actor Julian Dennison, in a semi-farcical, adventure tale of a grumpy backwoodsman who becomes the reluctant guardian of a ward of the state who passionately wants to be “gangsta,” and “The Innocents,” a haunting film set in post-WWII Poland. In “The Innocents,” a French Red Cross worker (Lou de Laage) responds to pleas for help from a young Benedictine novice and discovers several nuns in the nearby convent pregnant, the result of assaults by German and Russian soldiers during the war. Both films are quite beautiful and tremendously affecting in distinctly different ways. The lush, mountainous bush of New Zealand is nearly a character in the often tender and heartwarming Hunt, and the snow-blanketed terrain surrounding the convent in Innocents is just as important in communicating isolation without disconnection, as both films portray, quite vividly, the human capacity for courageous compassion.

Weiner

Former Congressman and much-maligned New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s predilection for naked selfies and Internet sexplay with strangers led to his exit from Capitol Hill and his trouncing in the 2013 Big Apple election. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg document the fiery Democrat’s graceless fall from grace in their fascinating film Weiner, which describes – rather sympathetically given Weiner’s energy and charisma – the utter waste of talent his self-destruction represents and the depths to which New York tabloids will sink for penile puns.

Finding Dory

Finding Dory is Disney / Pixar’s latest high-concept animated family feature that is a parable about determination and family, in all of its configurations. Ellen DeGeneres (whose public persona is preternatural kindness) voices Dory, a forgetful blue tang who, after being separated from her parents, must make the trek across miles of ocean to find them. Helping her are friends Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (from Saving Nemo) and assorted other goodhearted fish (shelled and un-shelled), including a scene-stealing “septopus” named Hank (Ed O'neill).  It’s a beautifully crafted adventure (it is Pixar, after all) with many sweet moments (it is Disney, after all) and a few stinging insights about humans.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping / Maggie's Plan


Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s intermittently funny Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a compilation of not altogether successful Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone) videos starring Andy Samberg’s Conner 4 Real, the under-gifted frontman of the inexplicably celebrated rap group The Style Boyz (Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone). Conner leaves the group for a solo career but flies too close to the arena lights and crashes and burns. It’s actually the crashing and burning – and not Conner’s idiotic ascent – that is most entertaining about the movie, which stars a boat load of addled celebrity cameos and the prominent appearance of a fanboy penis (not in a  box) that Conner must autograph. It’s all much too much but will undoubtedly delight SNL’s Lonely Island fans and others sucked into the vortex of producer Judd Apatow’s expanding universe.


Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is a nicely observed film about self-delusion and self-absorption, starring Greta Gerwig as Maggie, a low-level administrator at New York’s The New School and Ethan Hawke, as a whiny egoist and part-time New School anthropologist married to a high-powered Columbia University egoist (Julianne Moore). Maggie wants to have a baby and enlists the services of a donor named Guy (Travis Fimmel) who’s a pickle entrepreneur and mathophile. Maggie’s plan goes awry after she meets Hawke’s John and agrees to read his novel – an interminable treatise on the hell that is his marriage to Moore’s Germanic Georgette. Maggie’s swept up and swept away, abandons her single-motherhood plan, has John’s baby, marries him after his divorce from Georgette and enters into dismal marital torpor, which, of course, then leads to the hatching of another plan. The small film is smart and insightful and the three leads are wonderful and get terrific assists from Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s supportive but not sympathetic friends.

The Conjuring 2

How much one enjoys James Wan’s latest scarefest, The Conjuring 2, depends on one’s appetite for the earnest ridiculousness of the “true tales of demon possession” genre. I don’t exactly crave them though I do enjoy a good jolt that comes with the gravitas of endnotes. C2 has plenty of jolts –maybe too many – and a final 10 minutes that are both intense and maddeningly contrived. It’s literally spiritualist Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) telling husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) “don’t go into the basement,“ which he does, of course. Still, you pull for the ghost hunters and the north London family whose house is crawling with pissed off poltergeists and whose younger daughter (Madison Wolfe) – a true screamer – is channeling the undead.

A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash’s beauty is not understated though the performances are wonderfully nuanced, even Fiennes’, whose character, rock producer Harry, fills a room with his narcissistic brio. He and his love child Penelope (Johnson) arrive on the impossibly lovely Italian island of Pantelleria to visit with former lover and recuperating rock star (Swinton) and her studly filmmaker partner (Schoenaerts). They appear to be friends if not friendly, intimates without much regard for feelings and bristling with irritation at one another when they’re not having sex or sprawling about naked. Director Guadagnino has fashioned here a puzzling psychodrama where much lies beneath the surface, which is literally where these characters discover the meaning of life. Which is not to say the answer is life-affirming.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

In the prologue to Matt Brown’s interesting but undernourished film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Irons’ character, Cambridge professor H.D. Hardy, suggests that he and the “man” of the title shared a deep friendship that the film does not relay. In fact, the movie does much to show Hardy and Indian mathematician Ramanujan (Patel) had a surface-y association for much of the time of their collaboration. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England in the 1910s after receiving a letter fro…m the young Hindi that contained imaginative mathematical formulas and a request for help publishing his work. Hardy spent many hours urging him to discipline his thinking and test his ideas by using established, accepted proofs. Ramanujan resisted at first but eventually conceded, all while suffering hateful treatment from teachers and classmates. That Hardy knew nothing of this or much else about the man speaks not only to his detachment from his protege but, as is slowly revealed, the scholar’s detachment from life outside his own study. Hardy eventually becomes Ramanujan’s champion and delivers a stirring case for his admission as a fellow to the Royal Society. The math is dense and its importance not clearly conveyed. Because of this, the story needed more about life away from the books and chalk. The few scenes of Ramanujan’s alienation only suggest the pain he must have endured to be heard.

X-men Apocalypse

Singer’s X-Men Apocalypse is a bad picture that is technically, er, Marvelous. It’s mishy-mashy, hodgy-podgy, unwieldy and tedious. Its tale of the End Times runs far too long; its battle scenes are blurry, illogical messes that made me squirm with irritation. It lacks wit and insight and nearly everything that made the original entries in the franchise classics. I’d read the film was weak but it’s astounding how awful it is.

Money Monster



Jodie Foster’s Money Monster crackled and popped like a first-rate thriller but lacked sufficient narrative to get me to care about the people at the center of the story (Clooney and Roberts). It is saved, ultimately, by actor Jack O'Connell, whose highly engaging angry young man Kyle Budwell drives the economical plot to what is, unfortunately, a predictable ending. Clooney stars as a television investment guru and Roberts the director of his circus of a show. Enter stage right disgruntled Everyman Kyle with a gun and a vest filled with explosives and a simple demand – to know why a stock Clooney’s Lee Gates had promoted as a sure thing only a few weeks before had recently lost 800 million dollars, ruining Budwell and thousands of other investors. As crafted by Foster, as serious a film director as any, the story of this catastrophe stays a little too murky, the last reel showdown a bit too rushed and pat for my taste. Still, the movie’s strength is the middle section when Budwell’s pain – in all of its human dimensions – becomes clear and the focus of the picture.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is an explosively excessive treatise on loyalty, accountability and excess explosives. Evans and Downey lead teams on opposite sides of a movement to put the otherwise free-agents-of-justice Avengers under U.N. supervision. It seems that rampaging, enhanced vigilantes sometimes leave mass destruction and dead bodies in their wake. All of this death and regret makes for intensely dour (though wonderfully crafted) stuff by the Russo Bros. Leave the kids home.

Barbershop 3: The Next Cut

Ice Cube’s highly entertaining Barbershop series has been mostly a celebration of urban (black) culture and sexual politics with social consciousness as garnishing. The third outing amps up the polemics with not altogether satisfying results. Still, the laughs come honestly and are nearly devoid of pandering and buffoonery. Even though the film’s resolution feels more audacious than hopeful, its message to reject community impotence in the face of gang violence is sorely needed.

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is a funny flick about good guys doing bad things to worse people. Crowe and Gosling are a ball-busting Abbott & Costello in disco-era polyester with a 13-year-old moppet sidekick as they lay waste to half of L.A. while searching for a missing social activist porno actress. It’s all ludicrous but so much fun.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Eye in the Sky and Hello, My Name is Doris.



Gavin Hood's morality play Eye in the Sky about a multinational anti-terrorist operation led by the British (Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman) and supported by American drones asks important questions about the value of a single innocent life when the possibility of even greater loss resulting from inaction is nearly certain. Both Mirren and... Rickman play steely military commanders who want to take out a terrorist unit in Kenya in the worst way -- even though members of the suicide bomb squad they have been tracking include both British and American citizens who have been radicalized by Islamists. Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) plays the drone pilot whose reluctance to fire without full confidence collateral damage is at an acceptable level begins a fascinating (and frustrating) dialectic on the price of war. Highly recommended.

Michael Showalter's sweetly delightful Hello, My Name is Doris asks questions about the value of human life in an entirely different way. Sally Field plays Doris, a meek though colorful data enterer in New York, who takes the ferry over from her family home on Staten Island and two trains to get to her office. She's a lonely hoarder of other people's refuse who is taken by her company's new ad director John (Max Greenfield), who notices her and treats her kindly. That's just enough attention to lead Doris into some benign cyber-stalking with the granddaughter of her best friend (Tyne Daly). Doris and John become friends but the spinster's desiccated social life and over-stimulated imagination leads her into some fairly cringe-inducing moments that are handled brilliantly by Field, Greenfield and director Showalter. The film can be either funny or sad, depending on your age, or both, if you are close to your own humanity. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


Zack Snyder's high energy Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is fueled by pain, grief and regret -- like the characters at its center. Their stories are familiar and fretful tales of personal (Batman) and planetary (Superman) devastation that they wear like a second skin, or like the uniforms they don to fight evildoers. The film is gorgeous but terribly bleak, the battle scenes stupendous and interminable and the acting not entirely engaging but totally serviceable. The much-maligned Ben Affleck makes a studly though surprisingly dense Bruce Wayne / Batman, and the studlier Henry Cavill a surprisingly randy and adolescent Clark Kent / Superman, whom the hapless Lois Lane (Amy Adams) doesn't know exactly what to do with. I would not suggest that any of this is alien to Snyder's world; they just feel a bit flat for a movie that contains a hefty amount of religio-philosophy about the nature of God and godliness and man's duty. This deep-thinking is delivered mostly by a frantic Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose daddy issues have turned him into an affluenza psychopath. As annoying as his tics might be, I enjoyed watching Eisenberg chew scenery; he's one of the best. This introduction to the upcoming DC Universe film series (Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Justice League are all either in production or being planned) is not the film disaster some claim but it will probably be savored mostly by DC comic hounds and admirers of high dollar Hollywood beefcake.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Deadpool

Tim Miller's Deadpool is counterpoint (counterpunch?) to the Marvel Universe's customary earnestness -- much like 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and 2015's Ant-Man, both of which starred enormously likable leads (Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd, respectively) playing characters who reluctantly pulled on a hero's mantle. In Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds' Wade Wilson -- cancer survivor and mutated vigilante badass -- is no more interested in being one of the sanctimonious X-men (he's being courted by Xavier's emissaries) than he is in flying to the moon. That is to say his aspirations are pretty base. Deadpool, the character, is a lethal, indestructible vulgar hedonist, who delights in both eviscerating his enemies (Ed Skrein and Gina Carano) and in holiday-themed sex play with his squeeze (Morena Baccarin). Deadpool, the film, is a celebration (and also a bit of a denunciation) of fame and fandom, targeted at fanboys who still think a quick punch to the nads is hilarious and the fangirls who hang with them. It's glib hyper-violence and a good amount of tightly choreographed mayhem and destruction. Don't forget to wear your cups -- boys and girls.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hail, Caesar!


Joel and Ethan Coen's Hail, Caesar! is not exactly a motion picture. To me, it's more of an entertaining notion realized by Coen Brother cache and connections. I enjoyed both the idea and the execution of this movie about movies and moviemakers. They've written and staged dozens of hilarious moments -- a couple of mildly risible scenes -- and packed the story of movie producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who's trying to make a movie about Jesus (this Ben-Hur) with crafty insights and commentary about power, faith, fidelity, communism and a half dozen other important issues but, interestingly, at least for this viewer, doesn't close the deal on any of them. And that's OK because I don't think they intended to. And I think they, self-referentially, make that point in the last reel when studio megastar Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as a Roman centurion (think The Robe) delivers what should be the crescendo moment at the foot of the cross on Mt. Calvary but, alas, it doesn't come off as planned. And that, in Coen Brother style (Think Blood Simple, Raising Arizona), is the way it goes. Sometimes you blow the line, lose the girl, drop the cash and the deal, but, because this is life, you carry one. Highly recommended for folks who love the Coen Brothers and/or the movies.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anomalisa


The animated feature film Anomalisa, conceived and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and Duke Johnson, is an insightful treatment of disconnection and alienation -- portrayed through stop-motion puppetry. It's astonishing not simply because of the fluid detai in its crafting but the smartness of its conceit: As we age and retreat from life a stifling and stiffening sameness descends that is lifted, occasionally, if we're lucky, by something (someone) genuine and unaffected. That's the story of human relations guru Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewliss) who flies from L.A. to Cincinnati to deliver yet another talk to customer service personnel who read and "loved" his book on the importance of recognizing the humanity in our patrons. Oddly, for Stone, every other person looks and sounds the same (voiced by Tom Noonan) except the shy and damaged (physically and emotionally) Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who drove down from Akron with a friend just for Michael's speech. They provide one another reprieve for a night and the morning delivers, along with scrambled eggs and Belgian waffles, a glimpse of new possibilities. Though the characters are cozy felt figurines, this is no children's feature, as it includes scenes of graphic nudity and simulated sexual relations. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Revenant


The fellow in front of me at the cinema asked the clerk for a ticket to the "mountain man movie." I'm not sure if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's The Revenant delivered the kind of story that patron was expecting but it IS a tale of a primordial survivalist, who rises from a snowy grave to seek revenge with nothing but his will and a knife. Leonardo DiCaprio is such a fine actor that little needs to be said about the quality of his performance. He is riveting as tracker and guide Hugh Glass, who is attached to a fur trade operation in the western frontier. Bands of Arikaree Indians rout white settlements in answer for the pillaging done during the westward expansion. DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, who had met and fathered a son with an Indian woman, survived such pillaging with only their son, whom he is devoted to. During one of the film's most harrowing scenes, Glass is nearly gutted by a mama bear while scouting. He is left in the care of his rival, an angry and murderous trapper from Texas named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who quickly grows impatient with the badly wounded Glass and tries to help him shuffle off his mortal coil. Glass's son tries to stop him and is murdered for his trouble in front of his father. The horribly mauled Glass is left for dead in a shallow grave, and Fitzgerald and a conscientious but outmatched young trapper named Bridgers (Will Poulter) head back to the fort through some of the most beautiful and treacherous terrain imaginable. A combination of willfulness and beneficence from the Great Spirit moves Glass to drag himself out of the tomb and onto the trail to find Fitzgerald and avenge his son ... and himself. The film is a cinematic feast, astounding and overwhelming (as is much of Inarritu's work), but it is unmercifully bleak and bloody. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Danish Girl


The beauty and truth in Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl will not be lost on those who can imagine the pain of being absolutely certain about something that no one else can see. The film, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, stars Eddie Redmayne as Einer and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, a young Danish couple, both painters in the 1920s, who discover his peculiar secret after she asks him to pull on a pair of hose and lady's slippers so that she can finish the portrait of an absent model. What at first appears to be just a fetish for women's garments -- a game for the young lovers -- soon blossoms into his awakening as a woman in a man's body. Then begins a journey that ends with his undergoing dangerous surgery to align body and soul. Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) is far too intelligent to give this story, which is based on the life of an actual transgender pioneer, over to melodrama and anachronistic political pronouncements. It is firmly rooted in the world of the early 20th century with all of its ignorance and inhumanity. In fact, the film has a reverential tone -- set by its sets, music and pacing. It's all lovely but, alas, rather joyless. None of this is the fault of Redmayne or Vikander, who bear Einer's transition to Lili in different but utterly believable ways. Early in the film, Hooper stages a scene with Einer venturing out as Lili to a party with Gerda. At the party, Lili unwittingly draws the attention of a young man (Ben Whishaw) whose proposition to the not quite beautiful and mysterious Danish girl is pitched perfectly, masterful and elegant, which makes the scene -- and the film -- all the more heartbreaking. Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Hateful Eight

 
Quentin Tarantino is a student of history but certainly not in any conventional sense. His bloody revisionist histories of both Nazi Germany (Inglourioius Basterds) and the Antebellum South (Django Unchained) delighted his many fans who relish the visual and auditory barrage his films offer. The Hateful Eight is a reading of the post-Civil War westward expansion that features his signature verbosity and violence. Eight snowbound travelers -- criminals, bounty hunters, lawmen and some unaccountable others -- huddle together in a remote mercantile in Wyoming and relive the horrors of the War Between the States, racial and ethnic animosities and the wholesale denigration of womanhood when death comes a-calling. The story actually has the structure and perhap the intentions of a classic drawing room murder mystery but is in fact an orgiastic 70 mm visceral feast of revenge and vindication as only Tarantino can stage it. It features several of the auteur's old reliable players -- Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth -- and a few new faces, most notably Kirk Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Walton Goggins. QT is an acquired taste and his eighth feature, while quite often brilliant, is not for the self-serious or the squeamish.
 

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