Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Best and Worst films of 2015

Top 10 Movies of 2015
Spotlight- Terrific ensemble acting in the riveting true expose of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The Martian- Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut on Mars was suspenseful, exciting and filled with unexpected humor.
The Big Short- Impressive yet highly stylized version of the events leading to the Mortgage crisis of 2008 with an excellent cast including an outstanding performance by Steve Carell.
Sicario- Emily Blount, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro were excellent in this tension filled southern border crime drama.
Brooklyn- Wonderful period drama filled with emotion about family and finding oneself. Soairse Ronan is luminescent.
White God- The best film ever about a dog trying to survive in a hostile world and the teenage girl trying to find him. Great back story as well about the shelter dogs used in the film.
Inside Out- Leave it to Pixar to create an animated film that was the most emotional movie of the year and certainly not for kids.
Room- Riveting drama of maternal love and devotion that was devastating as well as beautiful. Incredible acting by Brie Larson and Jacob Trembley.
The Hateful Eight- Tarantino…love him or hate him but nobody makes movies like him. “Ten Little Indians” meets “Reservoir Dogs”.
Trumbo- Communist paranoia runs rampant in the America of the 1950’s. Another great ensemble cast led by an outstanding Bryan Cranston as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Honorable Mention-
Slow West- an unconventional western that upends the genre.
Love & Mercy- Brian Wilson bio featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson in the early and later years of his career. Dano’s scenes creating “Pet Sounds” gives you goosebumps.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- If you’re a fan, it’s spectacular (even if it seems too much like déjà vu).
Mad Max: Fury Road- The most action packed visceral film this year with Charlize Theron stealing the film from Tom Hardy. Loses some points for basically being a one trick pony.
Mr. Holmes- a great script and the impeccable Ian McKellen. What else do you need?
’71- A terrific thriller that takes place in Belfast Ireland during the “Troubles”. Jack O’Connell is terrific as a British Soldier caught in the conflict.

Worst 10 Movies of 2015
The Fantastic Four- Worst version yet. Utterly unfantastic.
Jupiter Ascending- Sloppy, confusing and Channing Tatum with elf ears.
Blackhat-  Total mess of a cyber thriller.
Black Sea- A submarine sinks and so does the film.
Tomorrowland- a two hour PSA to save the planet.
Poltergeist (2015)- Such an unnecessary remake. Stick to the original.
Rikki & the Flash- Meryl Streep found a way to embarrass herself and Kevin Kline too.
No Escape- that’s what the audience kept thinking as the silly film ran its course.
Crimson Peak- All style and no substance. A terrible ghost story.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.- Again, all style and no substance. Dishonors the original TV show.


     The latest collaboration between Writer/director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Bradley Cooper. "Joy" is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, a self made entrepreneur,  who created the "Miracle Mop". 

       Mr. O. Russell was not interested in a simple bio and instead stylizes Joy's story into a bigger than life fable. Mr. De Niro plays her father, Virginia Madsen plays her mother, Edgar Ramirez, her ex-husband Tony and Diane Ladd, her grandmother.  It is a very dysfunctional family and the movie begins in a state of chaos.

       When she gets the idea for her mop,  Joy asks her divorced father's new girlfriend, played by Isabella Rosselllini, to invest in her invention.  Initially things do not go well but once she meets Neil Walker, an executive at QVC, played with confidence by Bradley Cooper, things begin to turn around.

          The film is a testament to one woman's resolve but it's a universal tale that will empower women everywhere. Joy is a force to be reckoned with and watching her personal growth throughout the film, you can't help but root for her. Ms. Lawrence carries the film on her back with ease. She continues to grow as an actress with every film. 

            I am a fan of Mr. O. Russell but I didn't find "Joy" to be his best work. The acting is first rate but I found his direction odd at times and the story didn't quite resonant with me. Of course I am not a young entrepreneurial woman but I did go in with an open mind.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Revenant

          The latest film from director Alejandro G. Innarittu is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper and guide in the 1800's. The story is one of survival and revenge. Mr. Glass is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in what has to be the most physically demanding role of his career. Mauled by a bear and incredibly wounded, he is at first kept alive by the other trappers in his party but when it becomes clear he is dragging them down and a burden, they leave him behind to die watched over by his son and two of the other trappers. 

          Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald, one of the trappers tending to Glass who commits two terrible acts that are the catalyst for the remainder of the film. Mr. Hardy makes a worthy villain and adversary. The film also co-stars Domhnall Gleason as Captain Andrew Henry, the leader of the group forced to make the tough decision to leave Glass behind. Both Mr. Hardy and Mr. Gleason have been the most ubiquitous actors of 2015 but they deserve all the work they are getting.

         The cinematography is outstanding, framing the beautiful winter wilderness where the film takes place. Written in part by Mr. Innarittu, certain elements of Mr. Glass's story are fictionalized for effect to create a stronger emotional bond to the character. Mr. DiCaprio has little dialog but his physical acting skills are remarkable as we watch him mauled, beaten, bruised, nearly drowned, almost frozen, fall off a cliff, as well as horrible acts of man testing him to his limits. To say he earns his salary on this film is an understatement.

          Mr. Innarittu interweaves his narrative with beautiful shots of nature. Cuts to streams, rivers, treetops, clouds, mountains take place throughout the film to remind us of the beauty of nature and man's small place in it. However, it drags the story out longer than necessary. While a technical and acting marvel, the film could easily have been 20 minutes shorter and still have the impact Mr. Innarittu ultimately achieves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Big Short

    Director Adam McKay, known for outrageous comedies, takes on Wall Street with this highly stylized version of the mortgage housing collapse of 2008. Dramatic in nature but still filled with plenty of laughs (some unintentional), the film hits a hard reality in a very entertaining way.

     The film stars Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry (who first predicted the collapse), Steve Carrell as Mark Baum (who quickly became a believer), Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (who brings the information to Baum looking for investors) and Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert (a retired investor mentoring two young upstarts). Obviously everyone is portraying a real person and while it seems over the top, it's really on the money (pun intended). Mr. Carrell is just terrific as Mr. Baum. His tired resignation at the end (despite becoming very rich) is so human and honest, you almost forgive him for profiting from the disaster. Mr. Bale is also quite good as the very odd but brilliant Dr. Michael Burry. He actually seems to regret how much money he makes from the collapse.

       Mr. McKay makes some interesting choices to help explain Wall Street terminology and financial maneuvering to the audience.  Mr. Gosling narrates and frequently breaks the 4th wall speaking directly to the camera. An odd assortment of "celebrities" explain complicated terms in simple terms, again, directly to the audience.  Definitions appear written on screen. You would think all the breaks in the narrative would be disruptive but you get used to it fairly quickly and it does help to break things down in layman's terms for a wide audience.   

        This is a cautionary tale that, unfortunately, will quickly fade into the history books and and life will go on...on Wall Street and little pink houses everywhere.  


          Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The brain disease that has crippled and killed far too many football players now has a name, thanks to Dr. Bennet Omalu. This new drama is based on the true story of Dr. Omalu's discovery and struggle to convince the National Football League to acknowledge that condition was real.

           What elevates this film from a Lifetime "movie of the week" is the incredible performance of Will Smith as Dr. Omalu and the taut script from writer/director Peter Landesman. Mr. Smith dominates the film like a Pro Bowl quarterback. His acting is impeccable, whether he is going face to face with The NFL or quietly and subtly falling in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw who plays his tenant and eventual wife, Prema.

           CTE can only be detected after death and as a coroner working in Pittsburgh, Dr. Omalu finds himself performing the autopsy on Mike Webster (an almost unrecognizable David Morse), a beloved former Pittsburgh Steeler, that leads him to his discovery. The film plays like a mystery thriller, with Dr. Omalu first discovering the disease and then proving to the NFL that it's killing former players. 

            Supporting him from the start is his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht, played very convincingly by Albert Brooks (who continues to shine in dramatic roles) and later, Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julien Bailes. The film also features Mike O'Malley, Stephen Moyer, Eddie Marstan, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, and Adawale  Akinnuoye-Agbaje as various doctors and members of the NFL. Each has small but significant roles to play in Dr. Omalu's story.

           Men who play the violent sport of football know they risk injury on every play but the long lasting effects of repetitive head trauma is not so simple a diagnosis. Concussion protocols early on have been completely rewritten since CTE has been brought to light.

           Balancing a story of medical discovery against an emotional journey of a pragmatic immigrant's struggle to better understand the country he has come to love, "Concussion" scores a touchdown on multiple levels. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Hateful Eight

             A group of strangers are forced to wait out a  Colorado blizzard at a stagecoach stopover called Minnie's Haberdashery. The majority of this three hour film takes place in this singular location where alliances are made and broken, secrets are revealed and much blood is eventually spilled. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's new western plays like "Ten Little Indians" meets "Reservoir Dogs".  It is inflammatory, ultra violent and immensely entertaining ...everything you would expect from Mr. Tarantino.

             The cast is a mix of Tarantino favorites as well as some new faces and everyone is terrific. Kurt Russell is John Ruth, a bounty hunter on his way to Red Rock with his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The rest of the ensemble is Samuel Jackson as Major Warren, Demian Bichir as Bob, Michael Madsen as Joe Gage, Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray and Bruce Dern as General Smithers. There are other characters but I don't want to spoil any surprises. Mr. Russell is tough as hardened leather doing his best John Wayne impression. Walton Goggins is terrific as the racist "sheriff" and Mr. Jackson is outstanding as Major Warren. A Tarantino regular, his chameleon-like ability to inhabit his parts so completely, makes him unique with every film. Ms. Leigh steals the film as Daisy. Only a daring actress like Ms. Leigh would tackle this difficult role. During the course of the film, she is physically put through the ringer, leaving her bloodied, bruised and battered pretty much from the onset.

             This is a character driven story and watching this great cast go through their paces with Mr. Tarantino's dialog and direction never leaves a dull moment. Like many of his films, the story is divided up into chapters and the first few take their time setting up an insane second half. A throw back to the "event" films of the '50's and '60's, "The Hateful Eight" comes complete with an overture, an intermission and even a souvenir booklet.  It is after the intermission that things move very rapidly to it's bloody conclusion. The film itself is also shot in 70 millimeter with a wide angle lens giving it a pristine full screen appearance that can't be recreated with today's digital projection. Mr. Tarantino is calling this limited release the "Roadshow Engagement" and if you have the chance, this is the way you should see the film before it goes wide.

            Mr. Tarantino does not shy away from hot button dialog or brutally misogynistic treatment of his female characters. Along with the visceral violence, this may turn many away from the film, but if you consider the time period and setting (a few years after the Civil War), you can appreciate the authenticity Mr. Tarantino is looking to deliver. This film, like the seven before it is quintessential Quentin Tarantino. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

        Written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, the script has taken the spirit and adventure of the original Episode IV and improved on it in every way. The direction by Mr. Abrams is perfect. He deftly manages the technical aspects of the multiple battle sequences but also knows exactly how to handle the human element which sets the bar far above episodes 1-3. He pays tribute to the past by updating the future and weaves intriguing original ideas into a world many of us already recognize.

         The film works on every level for old and new fans alike. For the original fans, just the sight of the opening words...."a long time ago..." is enough to give you goosebumps. Reuniting the original stars in unexpected ways keeps the audience guessing and cheering throughout the film.

          Introducing new leads can be tricky but the new cast is terrific. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is a surprisingly good villain. Daisy Ridley as Rey,  John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe are all introduced with this film and it's clear early on that they will quickly become important pieces of the Star Wars universe. And the new droid, BB-8 is an instant fan favorite.

        Even if it does rehash the familiar plot of blowing up an even bigger "death Star", this is spectacular entertainment. I can't wait to see it again and episode VIII can't come soon enough.


        Beautifully photographed and meticulously acted, "Carol" is a highly romantic melodrama  starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It is also exceedingly slow and rather dull as it charts the course of a forbidden love in the 1950's.

         Ms. Blanchett plays Carol, a married woman drawn to Ms. Rooney's  Therese, a young department store clerk with a talent for photography. They begin a courtship that leads to love and a tedious road trip to escape New York and Carol's lovelorn husband, played by Kyle Chandler. Directed by Todd Haynes and based on a short story by Patricia Highsmith, the film bookends nicely with Mr. Haynes other '50's melodrama, "Far From Heaven" (a far better film, however). 

           The  pacing and style deliberately overshadow a weak plot that never reveals much about these unlikable women and what motivates them in the first place. Sarah Paulson fills in some of the blanks as a friend and ex-lover of Carol but it's not enough to provide sympathy or even empathy for these characters. 

            The film lures you in with it's lush recreation of the period and the highly stylized acting of it's leads but it ultimately leaves you as unfulfilled as it's characters. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015


       Bryan Cranston stars as legendary Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted as a communist threat in the 1950's. Simply put, he is outstanding in the role.

       Directed by Jay Roach, the film mixes fictionalized scenes (based in fact) with archival footage to trace Dalton's life during this dark period in America when Russia was our greatest threat and the cold war caused rampant paranoia and fear. Mr. Dalton and hundreds like him were blacklisted, couldn't work and even ended up in jail.

         Serious in nature but still very entertaining, the film is a metaphor for issues still facing this country today. The supporting cast includes Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo, Elle Fanning as Niki Trumbo,  John Goodman as Frank King and Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird. They are a wonderful ensemble that bring the period to vivid life.

               The film however, is a triumph for Mr. Cranston. He's in almost every scene and embodies Mr. Trumbo in body and soul. This is a performance and a film, not to be missed.

Saturday, November 28, 2015


          Based on the true story of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the new crime drama tries hard to reach the level of "Goodfellas" but ends up a British version of the recent Boston true crime film "Black Mass". Instead of Whitey Bolger, here we have the infamous Kray twins running crime in London and keeping Scotland Yard off their backs.

          Easily the best thing about the film and the reason to see it is the fantastic performance of Tom Hardy as both Kray twins. Sure, the digital magic of CGI plays a big part in the scenes where they share the screen (and even fight each other) but Mr. Hardy inhabits both roles so completely, it's a marvel to watch. The brothers couldn't be more different and yet Mr. Hardy brings them both to life equally with the help of precision direction by Brian Helgeland. With every film he does, Mr. Hardy's immersion into his diversity of roles continue to show the strength of his acting. Co-starring are Emily Browning as Francis, the love interest of Reggie Kray and Christopher Eccleston as Nipper Read, the detective that doggedly pursues the brothers. 

           Mr. Helgeland, who also wrote the screenplay, does a nice job recreating '60's London but keeps the film relatively intimate, filming many scenes in the same locations. At two hours, the film wears out it's welcome and easily could have been a bit shorter. More than just a crime story, it's really a character study of two brothers locked in a love/hate relationship that ultimately brings them down.


       Let's call this film what it really is...."Rocky 7". Writer/director Ryan Coogler continues the saga the only way possible, he reboots it. And in doing so he turns it 180 degrees with Rocky training the son of Apollo Creed and bringing everything back full circle.

         The film is heavy on dialog and could have easily used one more fight sequence but as with the original, it's all about the emotional road leading up to the big fight. Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Creed) who, with his father's DNA coursing through his veins, wants to create his own fight destiny out from the shadow of his father. Mr. Jordan trained very well for the film. He's in great shape and the fight sequences are very realistic and exciting. Of course he can't deny who he is and eventually takes his father's name.

           Sylvester Stallone (how could it be anyone else) returns as Rocky Balboa and reluctantly agrees to train "Donnie".  The film moves quickly from Los Angeles to the streets of Philadelphia where every Rocky cliche fills the screen.  Mr. Stallone casts his own giant shadow over the film, given six previous incarnations. Here, however, he is the most honest and realistic in his portrayal of Rocky since the very first film. He is a man who has made peace with his past, accepts his present and isn't scared of his future.

            Tessa Thompson co-stars as Donnie's love interest and Phylicia Rashad has a small role as his step-mother.  It's the performances however, of Mr. Jordan and Mr. Stallone that carry the film and keep it interesting since the plot itself is a predictable, cliche filled retread. It ultimately ends evoking the original with a perfect set up for a new franchise.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


       Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, "Brooklyn" is a  exquisite and moving new drama. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby make magic together telling the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant who comes to New York in the early 1950's.

        Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis and it is the performance of a lifetime for this fine young actress. She is literally luminescent in every scene. Expressing a full range of emotions as she arrives in Brooklyn, Eilis is, at first shy and homesick but eventually finds her way. Her life takes a turn for the better when she meets Tony but it is not long after that, a tragedy forces her to return to Ireland. Returning home, her two worlds collide and difficult choices have to be made.

        Emory Cohen plays Tony and his courtship of Eilis is so natural and sweet, it's a joy to watch. We find ourselves embracing these characters and become completely invested in their lives. All the supporting actors, including Julie Waters, Jim Broadbent, Jessica Pare, Domhnall Gleeson, and Brid Brennan are also terrific. 

        The cinematography, lighting and costumes envelop the audience in a simpler time.  It is rare to find this kind of old fashioned drama in today's movie climate. Go for the fine storytelling and the appreciation of Ms. Ronan's wonderful performance. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


     Based on the best selling novel by Emma Donoghue, "Room" is an intense drama of fierce maternal love as well as sexual and psychological abuse.

      Kidnapped at 17 and locked away in a shed where she is repeatedly raped for seven years, "Ma" gives birth to Jack, who's entire world exists inside "Room". When the film opens, we observe Ma and Jack's daily existence locked inside "Room". Jack is five years old and the inside of the shed is the only world he knows except for what he sees on a small TV set, that he believes is all made up.

       The bond between mother and son is unbreakable and even "Old Nick" as Ma has decided to call her tormentor can't come between them. This is a remarkable drama with a screenplay by the author that mirrors her novel almost scene for scene. The camera work and set design of "Room" gives the viewer a 360 degree angle of the claustrophobic world they inhabit.

       The story is narrated by Jack so most of what happens is from his point of view. When"Old Nick" pays his "visits" to Ma, she puts Jack inside a cabinet to shield him from what is about to happen. The camera stays on Jack as he tries to make sense of what might be happening on the other side of the cabinet door. The film is directed by Lenny Abrahamson with a very delicate touch.

        This is an emotional powerhouse of a story. Brie Larson as "Ma" and Jacob Tremblay as "Jack" are both incredible. The chemistry between them is undeniable and young Master Tremblay is nothing short of astonishing. Joan Allen co-stars along with a brief cameo by William H. Macy as Jack's grandparents. 

          While the subject matter and plot sound horrific, the focus is really on the relationship between mother and son and there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


            Co-writer and director Tom McCarthy's riveting new film is based on the true story of how a group of Boston Globe reporters exposed a massive scandal and cover up of child molestation by priests in the local archdiocese. It is the best investigative thriller since "All The President's Men".

        The film stars an ensemble of quality actors. Liev Schreiber is Marty Baron, the new editor in chief who strongly "suggests" opening an investigation into the church. The team of specialized reporters known as "Spotlight" are played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D'Arcy James. their boss is Walter "Robby " Robinson, played by Michael Keaton. While all are just terrific, it is Mr. Ruffalo and Mr. Keaton who really stand out. They inhabit their roles so completely, you forget you are watching actors. The film also stars John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan as various real life characters important to the story. If there was an Oscar for best ensemble, this group would be a lock for the award.

This is storytelling at its dramatic best. Mr. McCarthy and his co-writer, Josh Singer get all the details right and the script isn't afraid to tackle this delicate subject matter head on. Mr. McCarthy directs his ensemble with an even hand, giving each actor a chance to shine in various scenes. Howard Shore's music drives the action and keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

Thought provoking, revealing and extremely entertaining, "Spotlight" is easily one of the best films of the year.

Monday, November 09, 2015


      Director Sam Mendes returns with star Daniel Craig for the 24th  James Bond film. This is Mr. Craig's fourth turn as Bond and rumor has it, it will be his last. Mr. Mendes previous partnership with Mr. Craig resulted in the biggest grossing Bond film ever, the terrific "Skyfall".

        "Spectre" follows the Bond formula perfectly and the result is far from terrific.  Seeking to top their last effort, they instead cram in every element of what you have come to expect from James Bond and end up with an overstuffed turkey. Granted it's a tasty meal at times but the formula shows it's age and between the fine action sequences, boredom has set in.

      The plots reveals a thread running through all four of Mr. Craig's films that seeks to bring closure to his tenure as Bond. Christoph Waltz plays Oberhauser, chewing the scenery as the over the top villain. In typical Bond fashion, he explains everything to the trapped hero facing certain death. His great reveal should come as no surprise to Bond fans. The film also stars Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Wishaw as Q, Andrew Scott as C, and Lea Seydoux as Madeline Swann, the requisite Bond "girl", who holds her own for most of the story but in the end, still needs to be rescued by our hero.

          Of course there are some spectacular action sequences and beautiful scenery but something about it all seems too familiar. Maybe it's a comfort level we've come to expect from these films but you can telegraph every sequence before they happen. There really is no suspense anymore.

         Mr. Craig wears a stiff upper lip along with his finely tailored clothes whether he is seducing Monica Bellucci, an assassin's widow, for information or getting tossed about like a rag doll by wrestler, David Bautista in a train sequence that pays homage to both "Goldfinger" and "From Russia With Love" at the same time. In fact, there are many moments that honor Bond history and that is one of the most enjoyable things about the film.

         With or without Mr. Craig, James Bond will return and fans (including this one) will look forward to it with much anticipation. I can only hope the next one will be called "Phoenix" as it rises out of  Spectre's ashes.

Friday, October 30, 2015


      Back in 2004, "60 Minutes" ran a story that ultimately forced Dan Rather to resign and got producer Mary Mapes fired. This is the newsroom drama of the story behind that story.

       Cate Blanchett stars as Mary Mapes, the hard driving "60 Minutes" producer who "doesn't like bullies" and is a relentless journalist. Robert Redford co-stars as Dan Rather, long time anchor of "60 Minutes" and a iconic journalism figure in television news.  Mr. Redford looks nothing like the real Dan Rather but he does a good job capturing his vocal mannerisms and of course his acting is excellent. Ms. Blanchett looks very little like Mary Mapes as well but her acting is outstanding  and I wouldn't be surprised if there is another Oscar nomination in her future.

        There is a terrific supporting cast as well. Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss,  and Dennis Quaid are all part of Ms. Mapes investigative team. Bruce Greenwood is Andrew Heywood, the head of the CBS News division. Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, and Dermot Mulroney all play key roles in the drama.

        The story is a compelling look at news and politics and a cautionary tale for any news reporter. Watching the story behind the story unfold and then have everything fall apart is fascinating. Does the film ever get to the actual "truth" is debatable but there is no question Ms. Mapes and Mr. Rather are portrayed as scapegoats by CBS management.

Crimson Peak

         Writer/director Guillermo del Toro has crafted a beautiful ghost story that unfortunately is more style than substance.  What it lacks in scares, it makes up for in a gorgeous set piece of a haunted house. 

          When Thomas Sharpe (played by the dashing Tom Hiddleston) marries Edith Cushing ( a plucky Mia Wasikowska), he brings her home to to his crumbling mansion, nicknamed Crimson Peak because of the red clay under the grounds. He lives there with his sister (A very creepy Jessica Chastain). Part of the problem is that the second half of the film is just three characters, only one unfamiliar with the ghost that haunts the house. After one or two preliminary appearances, the ghost just isn't very scary. Ms. Chastain is actually the scariest thing in the film, her character revealing more and more of an evil side as the film progresses.

           The first half of the film is all set up with one quick "scare" at the onset but it takes too long to get to the "haunted House" half of the film. Mr. Hiddleston is dashing but weak willed compared to his sister who has obvious plans for his new bride. Ms. Wasikowska is a luminescent heroine but how many times can we watch her wander the empty halls of the mansion? Charlie Hunnam also co-stars as a family friend of Edith's who harbors a secret love for her.

             It's the mansion itself that is the star of the film. Mr. del Toro has a distinct visual style and pulls out all the stops with amazing art direction (and costumes for that matter). The ghosts of the film look creepy enough but there is a lack of suspense that dampens the scares.

              Mr. del Toro will be had pressed to top his masterpiece, "Pan's Labyrinth" and for real scares, check out his earlier film "The Devil's Backbone".

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Bridge of Spies

     Once again director Steven Spielberg has crafted an impeccable film that holds it's own with the best of the cold war dramas.  With Tom Hanks as his "go to" leading man, the film is a suspenseful, thought provoking drama based on a true story.

      The Jimmy Stewart of his generation, Mr. Hanks is perfectly cast as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (played by the wonderful Mark Rylance). It's clear it's a case he can't win but his morality and ethics still move him to do the best job possible. When U.S. pilot, Gary Powers is shot down over Russia and accused (rightly so) of spying, it is Donovan who is asked to negotiate the exchange of spies in East Berlin. But of course it comes with a twist that complicates matters .

       Mr. Hanks has played these kind of roles before, the straight laced hero but it's fun to see his character annoyed by a head cold, downing scotches to feel better throughout the film. Mr. Rylance is brilliant as Abel and I hope to see him get a best supporting Oscar nomination.  Co-starring as Donovan's wife is Amy Ryan and Sebastian Koch as a shadowy East Berlin lawyer.

       The screenplay is by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers. It is cerebral yet accessible to a broad audience with more than one clever line. Mr. Spielberg's recreation of cold war Berlin and the Berlin wall is chillingly authentic (no pun intended) as is everything else in the film. It's a heartfelt tribute to Mr. Donovan, who's work for our government deserves the recognition.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Walk

       Robert Zemeckis and his team do the impossible and bring the World Trade Center "Twin Towers" back to life for two hours in this technical marvel of a film. Mr. Zemeckis has always been on the cutting edge of new technology but he outdoes him here in a beautifully rendered recreation of the iconic buildings and the man who dared to cross them on a high wire.

        The film is based on the true story of wirewalker, Philippe Petit and his dream to walk across the Towers in 1974 just as the buildings were being finished. There is an excellent documentary about it called "Man on Wire" if you want to know more. Mr. Petit is played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, who's french is better than his accented English, but still charms as Petit. He obviously trained for sometime to be competent on the wire, as well as juggling and acrobatics.

        Mr. Gordon-Levitt narrates the film from the torch of the Statue of Liberty (with the towers in the background) telling us about his early years and how he found his life's calling when he meets Papa Rudy (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) an accomplished wirewalker and circus performer. He then goes on to explain his obsession with the Towers and how, with a small gang of "accomplices", he pulls off the stunt (or what he calls the coup) of the century.

         When the action shifts to the actual stunt, it plays like a great cinematic robbery and the characters that come to life and steal the film are the towers themselves. The film must be seen in 3-D as it's possibly the best use of the technology I've even seen. As Philippe walks his wire, my hands were actually sweaty during the entire sequence (confession, I'm not a fan of heights to begin with).

            The film is a testimony to human endurance and a loving tribute to The World Trade Center. For those brief two hours, the towers are back, vibrant in the New York skyline and all is right in the world.

All Things Must Pass

         Actor and now director Colin Hanks charts the rise and fall of Tower Records in this new documentary. For many years Tower Records was a music retail powerhouse with stores all over the world. It's founder, Russ Solomon had a laid back style that suited his management style well. By the year 2000, Tower was bringing in a billion dollars but few short years later, it landed in bankruptcy court.

           Using archival footage, interviews with Mr. Solomon and his senior staff (including son, Michael), Mr. Hanks chronologically presents the viewer with how the mega-chain grew out of a small section in a drugstore but hit a combination perfect storm that brought it all crashing down. In many ways it's a business 101 cautionary tale.

             Cameos from Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Dave Grohl are fun and interesting but the film would have been better served if a few more big names with more variety had also been included.  Considering all the great in-store appearances over the years, it would have been nice to see some footage from them as well but the film is still interesting from start to finish.

              Mr. Solomon is such a colorful and iconic figure, he is natural subject matter. There are interviews with former employees and a few music industry executives who are colorful characters in their own right. If you are a music lover familiar with Tower or an industry insider looking for a nostalgic trip, despite a few shortcomings, you will enjoy this film very much.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bone Tomahawk

           If you like westerns and you're looking for something different, this is the film for you. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, on the surface it's a simple story of a rescue but Mr. Zahler takes that simple premise and throws convention out the window. Without any "A" feature credits to his name, Mr. Zahler has assembled a high caliber cast including Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox and gives them a script that is destined to become a midnight cult classic.

           Mr. Russell is the sheriff of "Bright Hope", a town that harbors a terrifying danger just a few days ride away. David Arquette and horror film veteran Sid Haig set things in motion when they trespass across some kind of ancient ceremonial plot in the mountains. Mr. Arquette finds himself wounded in Mr. Russell's jail being attended to by Ms. Simmons. When they, along with a deputy disappear, Mr. Russell forms a four man posse to search for them. Mr. Wilson is Arthur O'Dywer, Ms. Simmons's  husband who, despite a bad leg wound is determined to find his wife. Richard Jenkins is "Chickory", the grizzled old deputy and Mr. Fox is a dandy ( his clothes match the color of his horse) who is also a skilled gunfighter. The four men ride off with no idea what they are about to encounter.

            The characters are familiar yet original and don't fit together in any way that makes sense. The dialog is very original and filled both with unexpected humor and deep thought. What the men find in the mountains turn the story incredibly violent and gory during the last part of the film. Be warned that one scene, in particular, is like nothing you've ever seen and quite gut retching.

             Everything about this film is unusual (even the song played over the credits deserves a close listen) but somehow it all works and is quite entertaining (except maybe that particular scene) in it's own weird way.

Steve Jobs

        Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin team up to give us still another look at Steve Jobs, the iconic mastermind behind Apple. There are many documentaries and books about Mr. Jobs and Mr. Sorkin's screenplay takes a very different approach to peel back the curtain behind the man.

         Rather than try to be biographical, the screenplay focus is on three of the most important product launches in Mr. Jobs career, "The Macintosh", " Next" and the "iMac". The film is literally divided into three sections and the same characters appear each time to basically argue and fight with Mr. Jobs about his products and his approach. The one character that adds an emotional connection to the story is  Mr. Jobs's daughter, Lisa who we first see as a five year old, then nine, and finally nineteen. During the first arc, Mr. Jobs vehemently denies Lisa is his daughter but there is a growing connection between them as the story progresses and his seeming acknowledgement by the end is the core of the film. 

         What is most appealing is the terrific acting of Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs and Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, his long time head of marketing. While Mr. Fassbender is certainly no dead ringer for Mr. Jobs, he does an excellent job capturing the essence of the man and Ms. Winslet disappears completely into Ms. Hoffman. Jeff Daniels co-stars as John Scully, Apple's CEO and it's a typical role Mr. Daniels can do in his sleep. Also in smaller but significant roles are Seth Rogan as  Steve Wozniak and Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld. 

          Mr. Boyle directs with his signature kinetic pace and Mr. Sorkin's screenplay is filled with his signature verbal barrages. Normally both would impress but the structure of the film doesn't serve them well. They strive more for entertainment than truth but end up with just a series of incredibly repetitive confrontations that don't really entertain and certainly play hard and fast with the facts.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Martian

       Director Ridley Scott goes back to space in this film version of the bestselling book, "The Martian". He is very much in his element directing with precision, a faithful recreation of the novel. The film is so realistic, it's like watching a documentary in real time. Even if you have read the book, you will still find yourself holding your breath multiple times during the film.

      Mr. Scott brings the realism but star Matt Damon and the rest of the cast bring the entertainment value. Mr. Damon is Oscar caliber as Mark Watney, the astronaut left behind and thought dead during an aborted space mission to Mars. His fellow astronauts are played by Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Michael Pena and as the mission commander, Jessica Chastain. They spend a great deal of the film off screen returning to Earth, believing Watney is dead. They do, however, play a integral part in the second half.

       Back on Earth, the head of NASA is played with much gravitas by Jeff Daniels and various other NASA staff are played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis  and Kristen Wiig. It's a strong cast that plays every scene with convincing realism.  The one exception is Ms. Wiig, who I realize is trying to widen her range as an actor, but seems out of place in the serious role of the NASA Media Director.

       Of course the film really belongs to Mr. Damon who spends the majority of the film alone and many times dialog free. It is a testament to a great script and his terrific acting that we are fully engaged with his character. The script is infused with much unexpected humor and it's a welcome relief to laugh occasionally during this suspenseful story. 

       The film is being offered in both 2D and 3D versions. I wouldn't recommend paying the extra fee for the 3-D as it didn't seem to add much to the visuals except make the film seem darker than necessary. I would recommend though, seeing the film on a large screen to appreciate the vastness of space and the replicated Martian landscape.

       "The Martian" is first rate entertainment and a great initial launch for the holiday movie season.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Black Mass

   Based on the true story of Boston criminal, James "Whitey" Bulger, this new drama aspires to be in the same league as "Goodfellas" but lacks the energy that director Martin Scorsese infused into that classic. It does, however, star Johnny Depp transformed to look like Bolger but actually looking more like Ray Liotta channeling James Bulger.

      Makeup aside, Mr. Depp does disappear into the role and it's one of the best things he's done in years. Unfortunately his co-star Joel Edgerton steals the movie right out from him as Bulger's childhood friend, John Connolly, now a rising star in the FBI. If we are to believe the script as factual, Connolly managed to make Bulger an FBI informant thereby keeping him safe from prosecution, even while he ran a criminal empire out of South Boston. Connelly uses Bulger for his own ambition but convinces himself it's a just and legitimate cause.

       Benedict Cumberbatch also co-stars  as Billy Bulger, Jimmy's  brother, a politician who became a Massachusetts senator. Mr. Cumberbatch, while a wonderful actor, seems out of place in the role. Other familiar faces in the film are Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson (who disappears halfway through the film), Julianne Nicholson, Adam Scott and Rory Cockrane. Aside from Mr. Cumberbatch, the rest of the cast does an admirable job as the friends and enemies of Mr. Bulger.

          The story is compelling and even though there are many violent scenes, Mr. Depp is magnetic to watch. Director Scott Cooper keeps things moving in a slow and deliberate pace creating a constant state of dread and paranoia. It's a true American crime story of greed and corruption where everyone gets what they deserve.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


    Based on the true story of an ill fated expedition to Mount Everest in 1996, this new film is best seen in IMAX 3D to be appreciated. The screen play is based on the Book "Left For Dead" by Beck Weathers but the story has been told before in the book  and the film "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer. 

     Mr. Krakauer's first hand account of the tragedy that left nine people dead was an absorbing read that gave the reader insight into many of the real life people on the mountain. This new film is focused more on a few characters in the drama, primarily Rob Hall, played by Jason Clarke, Doug Hansen, played by John Hawkes, and Beck Weathers, played by Josh Brolin. There are many other recognizable stars in the film including Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly (as Jon Krakauer), Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, and Robin Wright. 

     Most of the actors are just fodder for the mountain or the women left behind to anguish over their men.  The real star of this film is the cinematography and special effects that literally immerse the viewer into the film, especially in IMAX 3-D.  You literally feel like you are on the mountain with danger at every turn.
     There is not much thought given to character development and with the exception I made earlier, we don't know much about these people or what drives them. The story itself is simplistic.  People climb up to reach the summit and then climb down. What happens along the way makes for an harrowing adventure but an unfortunately tragic story as well.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


      Summer is over and the serious fall films are starting to emerge. This new crime thriller from director,  Denis Villeneuve, will satisfy fans of "Traffic" and the TV show, "The Bridge". The story centers on our government's involvement with the Mexican drug cartel.

      The film stars Emily Blunt as Kate, an idealistic FBI agent who is recruited into a mysterious unit led by Matt, played by Josh Brolin, working off the grid to find a Mexican crime boss. It's a bit confusing at first, especially when Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro makes his appearance. The confusion, however, is clearly deliberate as we see the story unfold through Kate's eyes and it's easy to understand how the lines blur and everything is not as it seems. Ms. Blunt is excellent but her character is underdeveloped, acting more as our window into this violent world, more than anything else. Far more interesting characters are Matt and Alejandro, especially as motives become clearer.

       There are some riveting sequences as well as quiet moments but the film propels itself towards a climax we don't expect, yet fully understand as the credits role. There are many violent scenes and yet, Mr. Villeneuve shakes us with violence that takes place off screen as well. The cinematography is by Roger Deakins, and he makes great use of the desert scenery and a particularly tense sequence shot through the lens of night goggles. The musical score is haunting and serves to keep the audience unnerved throughout the film.

        It lacks the scope of "Traffic" but it's an authentic and suspenseful drama that exposes the ambiguity and grey lines that sometimes have to be crossed for the greater good. There are no easy answers when the wolves at the door end up everywhere.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Irrational Man

      Woody Allen's latest ruminates on questions and ideas he has expressed far better in films like "Love & Death" and "Crimes & Misdemeanors".  His themes are the same old questions of meaning of life and what motivates us to action. His voice this time is  represented by Joaquin Phoenix  and Emma Stone.

      Mr. Phoenix plays an philosophy professor at a small college in Newport Rhode Island. Ms. Stone is one of his students who falls for him, even though he is an alcoholic, overweight and depressed. Parker Posey plays another professor, married but lonely who also becomes involved with Mr. Phoenix. The cast work very well together and do a good job expressing Mr. Allen's ideas.

       The first half of the film is dialog heavy as Mr. Allen sets up the plot twist that turns the story. Newport is a lovely setting and the score, mostly Ramsey Lewis, is infectious. Things pick up rapidly in the second half and  play out to a logical and what some would think, a surprising conclusion. It's entertaining enough but Mr. Allen doesn't have anything new to say.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

No Escape

      Owen Wilson and Lake Bell star as a couple, along with their two young daughters, caught up in a coup in an unnamed Asian county. The film belongs to the genre "run for your life movies" as it's a variation on trying to survive in a very hostile environment. The problem here that there is no real justification for the trouble they are in and the film comes off racist and fairly ridiculous.

       The saving grace is that the film is pretty suspenseful with some truly intense moments as the family find themselves in danger just about right from the start.  As silly and irrational as it seems, you find yourself rooting for everyone to survive. The action sequences are pretty much non-stop with not much thought as to how or why. Ms. Bell and Mr. Wilson are credible as a scared mom and dad doing whatever it takes to protect their kids. Pierce Brosnan plays a mysterious figure in what amounts to a cameo, but he does get at least one big scene.

          The unnamed country is obviously Thailand and I suppose they were so upset at the end result they fought to have any reference removed. The trailer does a great job sucking you into the action but taken as a whole, if you must, wait for cable or Netflix to catch this one.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Rikki and The Flash

      Don't expect to see Meryl Steep winning any awards anytime soon for this lightweight family drama. The film should have been called "Rikki and her Dysfunctional Family", as it's certainly not about her band. And it's barely about her family.

        The thin bare plot is about a mother who abandoned her family years ago to pursue her musical dreams. After one album that went nowhere, Rikki is barely surviving a minimum wage job during the day and playing covers in a seedy bar at nights. One gimmick is that Rick Springfield is her guitarist and boyfriend. They are a mismatched pair and this would be a complete embarrassment for Ms. Streep except for the fact she can carry a tune and manages to get by on "American Girl" and "My Love Won't Let You Down".

         The other gimmick is to have her real life daughter, Mamie Gummer, play her troubled daughter in the film. This certainly lends credibility to the character's relationship. The family plot that drives the story, though, is so lightweight it's laughable (at least something is funny because the film isn't). The characters are stereotypes and cover all backgrounds. A gay son, check. An interracial couple, check. An understanding ex husband, check. There is no character development or back story for any of the characters other than Rikki herself. Audra McDonald and Kevin Kline also co-star but are restrained by the weak writing. 

           I can't resist the pun. "Rikki and The Flash" is a flash in the pan. If you love Rick Springfield or worship Ms. Streep, see it quick before it's gone.