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.