Saturday, December 31, 2016

Best and Worst of 2016

Top 10

The Handmaiden- Visually stunning, exciting, perverse, dramatic, humorous, surprising and erotic. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.
The Witch- highly original and very scary in a minimalist way.
Hacksaw Ridge- Tremendous World War II true story of courage under fire with remarkable battles sequences.
Manchester by the Sea- fantastic acting in a sad, sad story without a false note.
Hidden Figures- Uplifting true story of the African American women that helped the Space program
Moonlight- unique glimpse into a black American experience that is captivating and extremely moving.
The Man Who Knew Infinity- Little known true story of an Indian math genius that is remarkable and features fine acting by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.
Zootopia- Animated story that is hysterically funny, visually stunning and slyly gives a great morality lesson.
Captain Fantastic- Highly original and offbeat tale of a father raising his six kids in a very unconventional way.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story- Exists beautifully between episodes 3 & 4 of Star Wars. Even though you know the outcome this sci-fi war/heist movie is a great ride.

Honorable Mention
Miss Sloane
Hell or High Water
Sing Street
Florence Foster Jenkins

Bottom 10
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice- a boring mess
The Legend of Tarzan- Did anyone see this besides me?
The Girl on the Train- Just ridiculous
Allied- could it be any less boring or unsexy
Hail Caesar- rare miss by the Coen Brothers but great dance number with Channing Tatum.
Midnight Special- a disappointment by Jeff Nichols but he redeemed himself with “Loving”.
Miles Ahead- Don Cheadle would have been better off with a different director and a better script.
Demolition- What they should have done to the film.
War Dogs- not terrible but overindulgent
The Magnificent Seven- Boring remake. Just an excuse for actors to play cowboy. You don’t mess with the classics.

La La Land

The latest from writer/director Damian Chazelle recreates the lost art of the Hollywood musical. The film stars Emma Stone as Mia, a struggling actress and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician finding love in contemporary Los Angeles. 

The film is colorful and vibrant whenever there is a musical number but does contain a few dull spots between song and dance sequences. Both leads do pull off the difficult singing and dancing adequately and definitely have great chemistry between them. 

Opening with a great musical number on a crowded LA freeway, you settle in for the ups and downs of this young couple over the course of a year and then some. Without giving it away, I found the ending to be the best part of the film as it's very original and extremely satisfying. 

Mr. Chazelle uses Los Angeles as another character in what is a love letter to the city. Mia's struggles at acting auditions, the shallow parties, the Griffith Observatory all become part of the bigger story. It's a fun upbeat musical love story and the kind of film you just don't see anymore so Kudos to Mr. Chazelle for taking the successful risk.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Hidden Figures

 This new film is based on the true story of three African American women and their team that made major contributions to the U.S. space program in the early  '60's. It is a heart warming, crowd pleasing, and inspiring piece of work. 

Working for NASA in 1961 segregated Virginia, Katherine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae were mathematicians who helped calculate the math that would help launch and bring home safely America's first astronauts. The three actors are absolutely wonderful in their respective roles.

Ms. Johnson in particular, ended up working closely on the Freedom Seven calculations with the first team of all white male engineers and mathematicians. Ms. Vaughan recognized early that the new IBM computer would require programmers, brought her team of African American women up to speed and were the first to use the new mechanical "computer". And Ms. Jackson became the first African American female engineer.

Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons costar as the supervisors  who don't make things easy at first for Ms. Johnson but slowly begin to realize her brilliance. Mahershala Ali plays Ms. Johnson's love interest and Kirsten Dunst plays an uptight, prejudiced supervisor overseeing the women's division.  

The film is inspiring in so many ways and one of the most feel good movies of the year, despite the blatant racism of the period. Overcoming so much prejudice as African Americans and women, to succeed and open the door for others leaves you with chills as the credits roll. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


     August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play finally makes it to the screen (with a screenplay by Mr. Wilson before his death) directed by and starring Denzel Washington.

     Mr. Washington recruits Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson from the Broadway stage version they performed in 2010. The film opens up the story a bit but still feels much like a filmed play with the majority of the action taking place in the backyard and interior of their 1956 Pittsburgh home.

      It is a powerful family drama buoyed by terrific performances by both Mr. Washington and Ms. Davis as Troy and Rose Maxson. The rest of the cast including Mr. Henderson as Troy's best friend Bono, Jovan Adepo as their son Cory, Mykelti Williamson as Troy's mentally challenged brother (from a war injury), and Russell Hornsby as Troy's older son from a previous marriage are all excellent.

      While Mr. Washington has the largest and showiest role with volumes of dialog, he is generous enough to provide the cast with moments of their own, especially Ms. Davis and Mr. Adepo. Troy Maxson is a towering, imposing figure of a man, bitter over crushed dreams, who rules his family with an iron fist. The consequences of his decisions and actions toward his family are the basis of the plot.

          Filled with Mr. Wilson's prize winning dialog and Oscar worthy performances, it is a film not to be missed.

Monday, December 26, 2016


    A true story, Saroo Brierley is a young Indian boy of five who is separated from his brother and ends up lost to his family. Twenty five years later, he begins a search to find his original home and family, after being raised by adoptive Australian parents. The film certainly has it's share of emotional moments and makes quite a statement for the thousands of children lost in India every year.

      Saroo, as a boy is played by Sunny Pawar and he is smart and adorable. He is an expressive and impressive young talent. As an adult, Saroo is played by Dev Patel, already a seasoned young actor who is always interesting to watch. His adoptive parents are played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Rooney Mara's talent is wasted as Saroo's girlfriend in a supporting role. The other Indian actors who play his biological mother and siblings, along with his adoptive brother Mantosh are all excellent. Another "co-star" is Google Earth, which plays a big part in the story.

      Since it is based on a true story, the anguish of young Saroo's separation and loss is soon replaced by the happiness of his very lucky adoption. The Brierley's have a reasonable amount of wealth and they raise the boy in a wonderful home environment. It is only after the adult Saroo has a moment of awakening to find his real family does the film take another turn. It is a seemingly impossible task for him to find his home and his frustration begins to cause cracks with those close to him.

        Mr. Patel is an engaging actor and it's easy to become emotionally involved in Saroo's search in the second half, and young Mr. Pawar captures your heart from the very start.  In these trying times, "Lion" is a welcome ultimately uplifting film.

Friday, December 23, 2016


Director Martin Scorsese's passion project finally arrives 28 years after he first made the decision to film the Japanese novel.
It is a remarkable achievement in many ways, that further explores religious themes existing in many of his films.

"Silence" is the story of two 17th century Jesuit priests that leave Portugal in search of a lost priest in Japan. It is an almost three hour harsh look at the brutal way the Buddhist Japanese treated the Christian priests and Japanese converts. In a bit of odd casting the Portuguese priests are played by Liam Neeson  (the missing priest seen early in the film), Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver. After the two priests are separated, the weight of the film is placed squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Garfield, who grows into his role as the film progresses. 

The persecution of the Christian Japanese and the mission priests who seek to convert and teach them the Holy Bible lies at the center of the film. The Buddhist "inquisitor" and his men seek out the Christians and force them to renounce Jesus under threat of torture and death. Mr. Garfield's  Father Rodrigues's faith is constantly tested throughout, even as he too, is forced to renounce Jesus.

The film achieves  greatness in it's storytelling. Mr. Scorsese's direction is nearly flawless ( he never spends much needed time in editing rooms), the cinematography is gorgeous and Taiwan, as the principal location is breathtaking. The Japanese cast is terrific, especially Issey Ogata as the "Inquisitor" and Shinya Tsukamotoas Mokichi, an important reoccurring character.

With probable little appeal to today's wide audience, "Silence" will still be a critic's darling garnering major praise and multiple nominations in award season. It is an experience that transports one to another world and time that requires a commitment and faith on the part of the viewer.

Rogue One: A Stars Wars Story

Cynics would say it's just a money grab for the holidays to suck in fans but "Rogue One" is a gamble that pays off.  The story exists between episode three and four of the Star Wars saga and successfully bridges the gap between the original trilogy and the generally panned by fans, second trilogy. Of course if Star Wars is not your thing, this film will hold no interest.

The story contains all the elements we've become accustomed to; a female hero, Jyn, played by Felicity Jones, a dashing "cowboy" hero, Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, a despicable villain, Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, and a wise cracking droid,  K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk.  

MadMilkkensen,Forest Whittaker, Riz Ahmed
play other important characters.  And of course what would a Star Wars story be without an appearance by Darth Vader, a quick cameo by R2D2 and C3PO, and a few other familar faces? Two actors are digitally recreated for continuity (a little creepy)and that's actually an alarming concept. At some point, movies won't need real actors at all.

There are some terrific action sequences and the requisite space battle and the film moves at a brisk pace. I missed the John Williams score but Michael Giacchino fills in nicely to add musical emotion to the space opera. The special effects are up to par, especially during the climax of the spaceship battle. And of course, the film is breathtaking if you see it in IMAX 3D.

All in all, a welcome addition to the continuing Star Wars mythology that won't disappoint.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


    An absolute tour de force  from Natalie Portman who is just remarkable as Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Director Pablo Larrain frames the entire film around his subject with much of it shot in closeup for maximum effect.  An intimate portrait of the woman, Ms. Portman is just about in every scene.

     The film opens a week after the assassination and a reporter from Life magazine has come to Hyannisport to interview Jackie. Billy Crudup plays reporter Theodore H. White who  presses, as gently as possible, Ms. Kennedy for her thoughts and feelings. The interview, which appeared in Life Magazine, takes us to the days leading up to the tragedy and the days that follow. We see the private and public Jackie who's persona, already bigger than life, takes on mythic proportions as "The Widow". 

      Peter Sarsgaard co-stars as Bobby Kennedy and while a strong actor, doesn't quite capture the younger Kennedy brother. Greta Gerwig is almost unrecognizable as Nancy Tuckerman, Ms. Kennedy's assistant. It's an excellent change of pace for Ms. Gerwig and it really shows her range. Other dependable actors portray the real life people of the time including Max Cassela as Jack Valenti, John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley, and John Carroll Lynch and Beth Grant as Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson. In just a few scenes, Caspar Phillipson is a credible doppelganger of John F. Kennedy.

        Mixing recreations with actual footage, the film is very faithful to the public events surrounding the tragedy.  Jackie's private moments can only exist in the mind of screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim but they seem natural and believable considering the circumstances. Ms. Portman simply transforms herself as Jackie and never has a false note. She must be considered the strong front runner for Best Actress at the next Oscars. It's an amazing performance.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

      Sprung from the pages of a Hogwarts textbook, J.K. Rowlings brings Newt Scamander to life in this prequel to the Harry Potter series. Ms. Rowlings wrote the screenplay and produced the film as well.

     The first film in a planned series introduces us to Newt, a British wizard, as he arrives in New York City in 1926. He quickly finds himself in the middle of a growing confrontation between "No-Mags" (American Muggles or ordinary people) and wizards with a very dark wizard on the loose threatening them all.

       Newt is played with a child-like quality by Eddie Redmayne. He is shy and reserved but still maintains an amazing aura around him. He seems wrong for the part at first but you quickly realize, he's actually perfectly cast. Co-starring as allies and enemies are Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Allison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo and John Voight.

             Mr. Fogler almost steals the film as a "No-Mag" who helps Newt save the day. The human cast is excellent but they are overshadowed by the cast of CGI fantastic beasts that live in Newt's suitcase (not your ordinary piece of luggage). In fact the film's CGI visuals are really the star here. The recreation of 1926 New York, all the creatures and the havoc they create really define the words "special effects". 

             Director David Yates, already familiar with the Harry Potter world, uses all the tools at his disposal to create a wonderful visual treat from start to finish. The film is fantastic fantasy fun for young (not too young) and old alike.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Manchester By The Sea

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, this film may be his finest work yet. It is a devastating drama filled with fully rendered emotional characters. While it examines grief, guilt, longing and pain, it is also filled with moments of heart and humor.
Casey Affleck is heartbreaking and brilliant as Lee Chandler, who we first meet working as a janitor and living in a one room basement apartment. When he receives news that his brother Joe has died, he reluctantly returns to Manchester to make funeral arrangements and take care of his nephew and his brother's affairs. There is a terrible sadness to Lee that is revealed in flashbacks  when he was married to Randee, played by Michele Williams. Ms. Williams is only in a few scenes but their final scene together is remarkable in it's brutal honesty.

The film moves back in forth in time to convey the full story. We see Lee and Joe, played by the always dependable Kyle Chandler in happier times with his young son Patrick, played later as a teenager by Lucas Hedges. Lee's relationship with his nephew after Joe's death dominates much of the film as both must come to terms with their own grief.

Gretchen Mol also co-stars as Joe's ex-wife and there is a one scene cameo by Matthew Broderick. The entire cast is excellent but it's the writing and direction by Mr. Lonergan that really make them shine. No shot or line of dialog is wasted. The actors bring this story to life in such human fashion, you can't help but leave the theater moved by the experience.

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, this new drama is based on a true story that eventually struck a big blow for civil rights in the '60's. This is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who marry legally in 1958 Washington D.C. but chose to live in their hometown in Virginia, where it is against the law.

     Joel Edgerton plays Richard Loving and Ruth Negga play the couple, who under threat of jail leave the state to raise their children in D.C. Mr. Edgerton plays Richard as a man of few words lumbering through the film existing only to love and protect his family. Ms. Negga adds a depth to Mildred that grows steadily as the years pass. Her quiet dignity shines throughout the film and she is excellent. Nick Kroll plays Bernard Cohen, the lawyer who takes their case to the Supreme Court. There is also a brief cameo by Michael Shannon as a Life Magazine photographer.

The dialog is sparse and the pace slow and the film drags to it's final resolution. Mr. Nichols 's script deliberately leaves out any backstory of either character. We never really get beneath the skin of Richard or Mildred. We never learn how they met or what drew them to each other in such a time of racial inequality. There is a brief moment when we learn that Richard's father worked for a black man and he grew up around other black people but nothing else about his background is explained.

It's also disappointing that when their two lawyers, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Hirschkop finally get before the Supreme court, we only hear a moment of their argument.  You would think this would be a major scene in the film and it is reduced to just a few lines.

What drives ( albeit slowly) the story is love. It is clear throughout the film (it's pretty obvious from the title) that love will conquer all regardless of the racism and laws of the time . Despite never getting under the surface, you can appreciate the hardship and battle this couple (aptly named Loving) endured for years while their feelings for each other never wavered. 

Monday, November 28, 2016


  Director Robert Zemeckis tones down the special effects he is known for to helm a wartime romance. He strives for an epic World War II romantic saga but overdoes the romance to the point it parodies itself.

      The film looks stunning from the set design to the impeccable clothes worn by it's leads, Brad Pitt (Max) and Marion Cotillard (Marianne). Movie stars in the old fashion sense, Mr. Pitt and Ms. Cotillard attempt to light up the screen like some modern day Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They work so hard to make you believe their love and attraction that it goes over the top to the point of laughable.

        Max and Marianne meet in Casablanca during World War II, spend days getting to know one another, carry out a successful mission and then it's off to London and suddenly a year later, Marianne is accused of being a German spy. Is she or isn't she? It's up to Max to find out the truth to protect the woman he loves and their daughter. It all sounds romantic and suspenseful but never really ups the ante and leaves plot points dangling and falling flat.

          Mr. Zemeckis has a scene in the desert where Max and Marianne make love in a car during a sandstorm. In the very next scene, they are back at home with not a speck of sand anywhere to be found on their car or themselves. A sandstorm like the one depicted would have buried their car and likely have smothered both of them but it looks great for the story. The screenplay by Steven Knight introduces Max's lesbian sister (played by a wasted Lizzie Caplan) in three short scenes. To what end? Her character is there for no other reason than to kiss her lover on a dare from some drunken soldiers. Really?

          Max is a captain in the Royal Canadian Air force but reports to a British officer played by Jared Harris. He spies for the Resistance in Casablanca  but is not really a spy. His role in the film is just one of many confusing and contradicting moments. The stars are beautiful, their clothes are beautiful but the story is a melodramatic bore. I did like the realistic resolution at the end though.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Handmaiden

The new film from acclaimed director, Park Chan-wook is an Asian adaptation of "Fingersmith, a novel by Sarah Waters originally set in a Victorian era. The setting is now Korea under a Japanese Colonial rule. The film is in both Japanese and Korean with subtitles.  Do not let the subtitles bother you, this film is not to be missed and best seen on a large screen.

This is an erotically charged psychological thriller played out in three chapters telling the same tale from different angles, each revealing twists and turns you never see coming.

It is stunningly beautiful in it's visuals, from the cinematography to the costume design, to the actors themselves. The plot, on the surface is a simple con game filled with humor, intrigue, sex, and a dash of perversity. With each subsequent chapter, layers are peeled back and the story becomes deeper and richer with explosive revelations.

This is a film that will reward the viewer in many ways, directed by a master filmmaker, who holds an audience in his grasp with every frame. Enraptured by it's intricacies,  I may have forgotten to breathe until it was over.

Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal excel in this new film by designer/filmmaker, Tom Ford. Only his second feature, Mr. Ford directs with confidence from his own original script.  The film is a very sophisticated thriller about relationships and the fragility of love and cruelty.

Ms. Adams plays Susan, an art curator in a troubled second marriage to Hutton, played by Armie Hammer. Her ex-husband Edward, Mr. Gyllenhaal's character, has just sent her a manuscript of his completed novel, entitled "Nocturnal Animals". Over a long weekend alone, Susan begins to read the novel which then comes to life on the screen.

In the film within a film, Mr. Gyllenhaal plays Tony, a loving husband who runs into trouble on a dark Texas highway late one night, while traveling with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). Also featured in this part of the story are Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (both excellent). The film cuts back and forth between Susan's world and Tony's story in the novel.

There are connections to be made and devastating revelations to be revealed between the two worlds and Mr. Ford frames every detail with exquisite production values and cinematography. The ending will surely garner discussion and images from the film may haunt you for some time.  

Miss Sloane

Jessica Chastain is a force of nature in this outstanding original political drama. Playing Miss Sloane, a lobbyist in Washington who switches alliances on an upcoming gun control bill, Ms. Chastain commands the screen from the opening seconds until the very last shot. Easily one of the best roles of her career, she will be an automatic for a Best Actress nomination.

The film co-stars Sam Waterston, Mark Strong, John Lithgow, Allison Pill, Gugu mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jake Lacy as various allies and enemies. Even though the script is word heavy (it has a Aaron Sorkin feel to it), John Madden's direction and the entire cast work brilliantly to bring this terrific story to life. 

The less said about the twists and turns of this Washington potboiler, the better.  You can easily believe much of what you see on screen actually happens every day in D.C. and the film is so timely, it's issues will having you discussing it long after you leave the theater.

The last and biggest revelation hits like a ton of bricks but does strain credibility, however it makes for great storytelling and entertainment value so I forgive the plot machination from first time screenwriter, Jonathan Perera. This smart film grabs your attention from the start and is riveting until the very end.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bleed For This

           Miles Teller delivers another knockout performance as  real life boxer, Vinny Pazienza in this fact based boxing drama. Mr. Pazienza was on top of the boxing world when a car accident left him with a broken neck. This is the story of a miracle comeback.

            Mr. Teller is excellent in the role, handling himself well in the boxing sequences but really excelling during his rehabilitation period. You can feel the strength and determination in every grimace and bead of sweat as he fights not only to walk again but to eventually return to the ring. 

               The film co-stars Aaron Eckhart as real life trainer Kevin Mooney and it is a trans-formative performance playing against type. Also co-starring is Ted Levine as a fight promoter and as Vinny's parents, Katey Sagal and Ciaran Hinds. 

                The acting is first rate and it's an amazing comeback story but as boxing films go, it doesn't have the emotional heft of "Rocky" or the depth of "Raging Bull" to go the distance. It does however, land a solid one-two punch with Mr. Teller and Mr. Eckhart.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

                 An amazing true story of courage and faith under fire. This new war drama is the story of Desmond Doss, a man of conviction and strong religious belief who wanted to serve his county in World War II but refused to carry a weapon. Think what you will about Mel Gibson, the man, you have to appreciate him as a director and the entire cast and crew that bring this remarkable story to life.

                 Andrew Garfield stars as Doss and he is sensational. It is a very demanding role, especially in the second half of the film and he is truly inspiring. Co-starring are Rachel Griffiths and Hugo Weaving as his parents, Vince Vaughan as Sargent Howell, Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Teresa Palmer as Dorothy, the love of Desmond's life.

                 The first half of the film is backstory explaining Doss's decision to be a pacifist, how he meets Dorothy, and his subsequent enlistment into the army. The second half of the film is all about the battle of Hacksaw Ridge and this is where Mr. Gibson and his team excel. They bring the viewer smack into the middle of war in all it's horror and gore. The battle scenes are incredibly realistic and you feel every bullet and explosion. It is a visceral experience beyond the opening sequence of "Saving Private Ryan". The violence and gore only serve to illustrate the miracle of Medic Doss and what he does during this battle, without a weapon, to save not only himself but seventy five wounded soldiers.

                   The film ends with a wonderful coda, a short interview with the real Desmond Doss, filmed shortly before his death at the age of 87.  "Hacksaw Ridge", while difficult to watch at times, is a wonderful testament to a true American hero.

Saturday, November 12, 2016


If cerebral science fiction films appeal to you, then add this new sci-fi drama to your "must see" list. Don't expect much to happen though as the action, such as it is, is minimal. It's never mentioned in the film but if you have any idea what the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" is all about, you will probably appreciate the story much more than the average viewer.

When twelve alien vessels appear in various locations on earth, Linguist Dr. Louise Banks and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly are brought in by the U.S. military to try to communicate with the aliens hovering over Montana. Dr. Banks, the main protagonist, is played by Amy Adams. Jeremy Renner plays Dr. Donnelly and the two of them spend the entire film trying to communicate with the aliens. Deciphering their written language becomes the key and if you are still awake by the third act, there is a revelation that turns the film on it's head. It just takes a long time to get there.

 The film co-stars Forest Whitaker as Colonel Webber,  who is in charge of the investigation and Michael Stuhlbarg as Agent Halpern, the CIA agent suspicious of the alien intent. The film, however, really belongs to Ms. Adams as she is the key character to the story, bringing an emotional element to what otherwise would be a dry scientific treatise on how to communicate with aliens. She also does a great job "selling" the whole concept.

 I can appreciate Director Denis Villeneuve wanting to tackle a new genre but a thoughtful, philosophical, and theoretical sci-fi film isn't what you might expect from the trailer. Having said that, you still may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Doctor Strange

        Marvel Studios gets it right with this big screen incarnation of Doctor Strange, one of it's oldest characters. Benedict Cumberbatch is the perfect choice for the role, completely inhabiting the character. The film works because of him and the fantastic special effects (for the most part) that really pop in 3D.

        Much has been said about casting Tida Swinton as "The Ancient One" since that character is an Asian male in the comics. Don't hold it against Ms. Swinton as she does an admirable job in a key role. The rest of the cast includes Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, a love interest and "go to" surgeon when Dr. Strange needs medical help, as well as Mads Mikkelsen as the central villain, and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as disciples of The Ancient One.

         This is an origin film and as such, has its share of dull moments as Dr. Strange learns to harness his mystical powers. Most of the action kicks in later in the film but, throughout, Mr. Cumberbatch brings a self effacing humor that adds laughs and keeps things interesting.

        As special effects go, the film takes the effects of "Inception" to a new level and the astral ride that starts Dr. Strange on his journey rivals the trippyness of "2001: A Space Odyssey". The dark dimension is a bit disappointing but the time spell Dr. Strange uses to his advantage redeems the effects team. And this is a film that actually works best in 3D to really appreciate the visuals.

       You can argue logically about plot points but remembering this film is based on a comic book may help you overlook your issues. It's simply a fun ride.  Make sure you stay through the credits for two good (for a change) extra scenes.

Monday, October 31, 2016


  Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this new drama is a very intimate story of identity and human connection. The film is divided into three chapters in the life of Chiron, a young black man from a poor neighborhood in Miami,  first seen as a nine year old, then as a teenager and finally as an adult.

The character is played by three different actors,  Alex Hibbert as "Little", Chiron's nickname as a child, Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron, now known as "Black". The film also features Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, and Naomi Harris. The acting is remarkable, especially considering the dialog is sparse throughout much of the film.

Mr. Jenkins direction is flawless, pulling depths of emotion from his characters, often without words. He relies heavily on Chiron and the world seen through his eyes as he struggles with his identity and sexuality. A world highlighted by the excellent cinematography of James Laxton. The story unfolds at a slow deliberate pace, drawing the audience deeper into Chiron's life to the point you don't want his story to end.

Dividing the film into three distinct periods in Chiron's life is a bold move. Much of the story remains untold between the chapters, where the audience must fill in the pieces. The transition from teenager to adult in particular is shocking at first, but you soon realize it was almost predestined. What never changes is Chiron's struggle with identity and his desire for a real emotional connection. There is poetry in this film.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Accountant

             Well here's a story that just doesn't add up. A highly functioning autistic boy is trained by his military father in martial arts and weaponry only to become an accountant for criminal organizations and kills people on the side. And furthermore, he covers his tracks by doing taxes for the locals in his small town.

               The story is fairly ridiculous with plot holes everywhere but the crazy thing is, Ben Affleck makes it work. Mr. Affleck's conviction in the title role makes the whole thing very watchable and even enjoyable though you don't buy any of it for a second. 

                Anna Kendrick co-stars as the damsel in distress along with J.K. Simmons as the Treasury Agent in charge hunting the "The Accountant". The film also features Jean Smart and John Lithgow as a corporate power brother and sister team who hire Mr. Affleck to check their books for a major discrepancy (ooh, the tension). Jeffrey Tambor, Jon Bernthal and Cynthia Addai-Robinson round out the cast.

                 While the film may be baffling in many ways, it  has it's moments of suspense and excitement until it falls completely flat at the end. Unfortunately, the door is left open for a sequel. I can see it now..."The Accountant 2: The Audit" coming soon to a ledger near you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Deepwater Horizon

Based on the 2010 oil rig disaster in the gulf of Mexico, this new drama recreates the event with amazing detail. Director Peter Berg realistically charts the events leading up to and during the explosion that destroys the Deepwater Horizon rig and tragically takes the life of eleven crew members. Watching the film, it's actually a miracle that more people weren't killed but for the survivors, it will still be a nightmare that will haunt their dreams for a lifetime.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams along side Kurt Russell as Jimmy "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell. Mr. Jimmy runs the rig and Mr. Williams is one of his engineers. They both frantically try to rescue their fellow crew members and control the damage until it becomes clear they must try to save themselves too. The film also co-stars Gina Rodriguez as Andrea Fleytas, another crew member as well as Kate Hudson as Mike's worried wife back home. John Malkovich also co-stars as Donald Vidrine, the BP executive who orders the drilling to continue after routine tests show an irregularity.

Credit Mr. Berg and his team for recreating the amazing action sequences including the multiple explosions and the fire that follows. He sets up an emotional connection to the characters and when things go wrong, the audience is pulled right into the nightmare and concerned for every life.

You can read about these disasters and watch them on the news but this film does an excellent job of putting you right in the middle of one. It is extremely exciting and tremendously sad at the same time, when you realize what you are watching actually happened. You owe it to these brave souls to stay through the credits for a tribute to the crew that lost their lives as well as acknowledging the work of the entire film crew that brings the story to life with incredible realism.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

American Pastoral

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Phillip Roth, this new drama fails to live up to the depth and impact of the book.

Directed by and starring Ewan McGregor, it is the story of a family torn apart during the turbulent '60's. Mr. McGregor plays Seymour "Swede" Lovov, a successful Jewish businessman living in the New Jersey Suburbs. His non-Jewish wife, Gwen, is played by Jennifer Connelly and their daughter, Merry (from 16 on) is played by Dakota Fanning. The film also co-stars Peter Riegert as Seymour's father, Molly Parker as a therapist and Uzo Aduba as Vicky, a senior employee at Seymour's Glove factory.

Mr. McGregor's direction is pretty straight forward with a literal eye for the screenplay. He and his team capture the look and feel of the '60's with an assist from archival footage. The acting is good but the real problem here lies in the screenplay. 

The script by John Romano edits out the depth and richness of the novel, breaking it down into key moments  that propel the film through it's heartbreaking story. This doesn't do any justice to the characters or their circumstances. Everything plays out rather superficially with an illusion of depth.  

The film is slow to start but after a life changing moment, the pace does pick up a bit. However, unless you are the father of a daughter (I totally understood Seymour's pain), you may find yourself losing interest in the story.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


     "Denial" is based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt's legal battle for her historical interpretation against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier. In the English legal system, in cases of libel, the burden of proof is on the accused, therefore it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, led by Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton, to prove that the Holocaust really happened.

        The film stars Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt, Timothy Spall As David Irving, Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius and Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton.  The cast is outstanding. Ms. Weisz is fiery and defiant in her pursuit of her defense as the accused. Mr. Wilkinson is just brilliant as Rampton and should be a best supporting actor consideration. Mr. Spall plays the heavy well with a purposeful scowl. And Mr. Scott is a revelation in one of his best roles to date.

       Director Mick Jackson keeps thing taut and to the point. The screenplay by David Hare is smart enough to leave just enough doubt as to the trial's outcome to keep the suspense high.

      Scenes filmed at Auschwitz are chilling and strengthen the audience resolve for justice. Besides the obviously strong subject matter, I also found the machinations of the British legal system fascinating. This is a powerful drama well worth your time.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

          Written and directed by as well as starring Nate Parker, this new drama may not be completely historically accurate but it is an emotional powerhouse and an important American film. It is the story of Nat Turner, a slave and preacher who led a rebellion in 1831 that sparked the flames that eventually led to the Civil War and the emancipation proclamation. 

           Mr. Parker has clearly put his heart and soul into this project but he may have been better served by a different director. His acting is excellent but starring in your own film is always tricky and in this case, Mr. Parker has a hard time turning the camera away from himself, as his subject matter. The film co-stars Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earl Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union. While Mr. Turner is of course, the focus of the film, other characters are sacrificed with little development or after thought. The film would have also benefited from additional editing and a variety of pace. It's a deliberately slow paced film which I interpret as a metaphor for the building anger and rage inside Mr. Turner. 

            The film positions Nat Turner as a hero and while his intentions to fight injustice (as well as a spiritual calling from God, if you believe Mr. Parker) are righteous, the result caused the deaths of not only the fifty seven or so slaves that joined him in rebellion but over 200 innocent black people killed by mobs and the militia during the rebellion. The violence in the film is horrific, brutal and I'm sure accurate in the way many slaves were treated. There has been controversy over certain scenes that may not have actually happened and others that definitely didn't happen, but Mr. Parker has "based" his film on history, never claiming to be making a historical documentary. His script canonizes Nat Turner and justifies violence against violence. 

              Taken as a whole, the film unflinchingly focuses on an important period in American history that deserves to be seen, discussed and certainly further researched.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Girl on The Train

      This train wreck of a movie is billed as a thriller but unintentionally comes across as a bad comedy. There was lots of unexpected laughing from the sold out show I attended.

       It is based on the best-selling novel which follows a "Gone Girl" formula but not quite as biting. Much like its central character, Rachel, the film is a mess. The story is silly and beyond belief, filled with amazing coincidences and contradictions. The dialogue is ridiculous and it's about as exciting and suspenseful as watching paint dry.

       Rachel is played by Emily Blunt and she is the best thing about the film. As the alcoholic ex-wife of Paul Watson, played by Justin Theroux, we watch most of the film through her blurry eyes. The film also stars Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, and Edgar Ramirez. Laura Prepon also has a small part as Cathy, Rachel's roommate.

       This is a story that works much better on the page than the screen and if I were you, I would just skip this train and read the book.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

              More like the Magnificent bore, this unnecessary remake is two hours of setup for a 10 minute one sided shootout. It's an excuse for Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia Ruflo and Martin Semsmeier to play cowboy.

              Director Antoine Fuqua throws in almost every western cliche in the book in an attempt to recall the golden days of westerns and while the film looks great, the story lacks the gravitas of the original western (based itself, on the Japanese film, "The Seven Samurai") and any depth of character.  The seven heroes are stereotypes that give us no reason to cheer them on except for the pre-conceived notion that we should because they are, after all, the "Magnificent 7".

               Peter Sarsgaard chews the scenery as the villainous Bartholomew Bogue and Haley Bennet is Emma, the widow who hires Mr. Washington and crew to save her town. Ms. Bennet has the final word as the only fully realized character in the film. For two hours plus, our heroes, with almost no backstory, are introduced, give each other steely eyed stares, twirl their revolvers and set up the inevitable gun fight against overwhelming odds. Of course every bullet fired brings down a "bad guy" instantly so the odds are actually in our heroes favor.

             Anyone who has seen the original western will recognize one of the greatest movie themes in history (by the late Elmer Bernstein). I kept waiting for that theme to rouse me out of my stupor but Mr. Fuqua commissioned an original score to separate his vision, so even that was a letdown.  Thankfully, he does resurrect it for the closing credits, which only serves to remind you that the film has been done much better before. Twice, in fact so seek those versions out for true movie magic.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


            Depending on your point of view, Edward Snowden is either an American hero or a traitor.  His true story of exposing classified Government information has been well documented in the press and in the excellent documentary, "Citizenfour". Now comes the "dramatization" of his story by director, Oliver Stone.

            Known for incendiary films in the past, Mr. Stone takes a rather pedestrian approach to telling Mr. Snowden's story. He presents the facts as he knows them but stretches and bends the truth for the sake of  absorbing storytelling, using his self proclaimed (at the beginning of the film) "dramatization" as his out.  

            The film starts in 2013 in Hong Kong, where Mr. Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon- Levitt, tells his story to journalists from The Guardian" played by Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson. The event is documented by filmmaker,  Laura Poitras, played by Melissa Leo ( the aforementioned, "Citizenfour"). The story then jumps back in time to Mr. Snowden's time in the military and what leads to various jobs at the CIA and NSA. Early on, we are also introduced to Lindsey Mills, played by Shanilene  Woodley, the young woman who quickly becomes his girlfriend. The film also co-stars Nicolas Cage as a trainer at the CIA, Timothy Olyphant, as a CIA field operative, and Rhys Ifans, as his senior CIA trainer and mentor,  Corbin O'Brian.

        If not for the score, the film would be completely lacking of suspense. The music creates an atmosphere of tension and paranoia that is truly represented in just a few scenes. The rest of the film is saved from utter boredom by the excellent acting of Mr. Gordon-Levitt. The film is really a character study of Mr. Snowden and Mr. Gordon-Levitt, an engaging and thoroughly committed actor, does a fine job in his accurate portrayal. Mr. Ifans is also excellent as Mr. O'Brian, the type of character he has never played before and he is chilling. Ms. Woodley's role calls for her to be eternally understanding and smile a lot. 

          It is clear that Mr. Stone sees Mr. Snowden as a hero, blatantly in fact, as he exits the CIA bunker bathed in light with his stolen documents. Directing without his usual fireworks and even craziness, the film leaves little in the way of entertainment or controversy. Mr. Snowden's real story is controversial enough and the film disappointingly adds nothing on it's own to the real life drama that continues even today.