Category Archives: 2015 Movie reviews

Chronic-2015

Chronic-2015

Director-Michel Franco

Starring-Tim Roth, Robin Bartlett

Reviewed September 18, 2017

Grade: A-

Chronic is a brave film, a character study, that offers an in depth look at the life of a male nurse and his rich relationships with his patients. What the film also does quite soundly is reflect on not just the obvious physical needs of the patients, but the deep effects that the main characters dying patients have on himself as well. The film is quite bleak with a quiet element and very long scenes containing little dialogue, but is a treasure in bold storytelling and brazen reflection.

The film is a subdued work requiring attention and focus. Yes, some would deem Chronic to be slow and certainly most would describe it as “a downer”, but to dismiss the film is a mistake as it offers rich writing and an in depth look at a vocation and lifestyle misunderstood or confusing to most people.

Tim Roth, famous for his bad boy roles, especially in Quentin Tarantino films, does an about face, delivering a superb, subdued performance as David Wilson, a lonely and depressed nurse living in the Los Angeles area. He is a quiet, kindly man whose internal pain registers on his face as he dutifully treats his mostly close to death patients, sometimes attending their funerals after they have expired.

Initially, we meet David as he tends to a sickly young woman. Clearly once beautiful, she is gaunt and haggard and I cringed when the woman’s nude, skeleton-like body, is on display as David washes her with a wash cloth. The film makers do not gloss over his tender attention to her private areas, which is shot gracefully and certainly not done garishly. Still, the long scene is unnerving and frightening in its realism.

When the woman succumbs to AIDS, David reluctantly becomes involved in a celebratory drink with a newly engaged young couple after he goes to a bar to unwind. When he pretends the deceased woman was his wife, he receives sympathy, but the couple quickly become aloof when he reveals what she died of. Does he do this purposely to push the couple away? Throughout the film we realize that David thrives on being with his patients, and can do no other type of work. In contrast, he has difficulty with relations with “normal” people.

Perplexities abound in this film, which make the viewer think and ponder throughout, and certainly after the story ends. For example, David searches through a young girls Facebook account looking at her photos- he later finds the girl, revealed to be studying medicine, and they happily reunite. Is she his daughter or the daughter of a deceased patient? Later, David is sued by an affluent family, and subsequently fired, after he watches porn with an elderly man to lift his spirits. There is a glimmer of uncertainty where we are not sure what David’s sexual orientation is.

In the most heartbreaking sequence of all, David begins caring for a middle-aged woman with progressive cancer. Martha (Robin Bartlett) is strong-willed and no nonsense and makes the painful decision not to continue with chemotherapy after suffering chronic nausea and later soiling herself. It is apparent that her family only visits her out of obligation as she lies to them that her cancer is gone and she is in the clear. She then pleads with David to end her life with dignity using a heavy does of morphine- the sequence is heartbreaking.

The final scene of the film will blow one away and I did not see this conclusion coming. The event left me questioning the entire sequence of the film, wondering how all the pieces fit together. Surely, being overlooked for an Oscar nomination, Tim Roth proves he is a layered, complex, full-fledged actor, in a painful, yet necessary story.

I Smile Back-2015

I Smile Back-2015

Director-Adam Salky

Starring-Sarah Silverman

Reviewed June 13, 2017

Grade: B+

As a fan of Sarah Silverman, the comedienne, I was anxious to see the 2015 film, I Smile Back, which garnered her a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Silverman tackles a heavily dramatic role in a film which teeters on being a pure “downer”. In fact, many fans expecting the actresses comic wit to be featured need not see the film. Rather, I embraced the performance and found the film to be an independent film treat, in large part thanks to Silverman’s powerful performance. She nails the part and carries the film to success. I Smile Back is a very small film that I wished had garnered more viewers.

Laney Brooks (Silverman) appears to have it all. She lives an affluent existence in Westchester County, NY with handsome husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and their two young children. With a gorgeous house, dinner parties, and friends, who could ask for anything more?  Bored and troubled by a tough childhood and “daddy issues”, Laney has a tendency to drink too much, abuse drugs and prescription pills, carry on an affair with her best friends husband, all while managing to successfully run a household. As she gradually begins to spiral down a darker path, Laney sees her perfect world slowly begin to crumble around her.

My question throughout the entire film was, “Are we supposed to root for Laney or dislike her?” Certainly director Adam Salky does not make it easy to like her. In addition to her substance abuse use (or over-use), Laney is rather selfish. From the small scenes when Laney drops off her kids from school and is annoyed when the crossing guard and a teacher refuse to give her special treatment, she mutters insults under her breathe as she grabs a cigarette and heads for her scandalous rendezvous.  But when she is put in great peril later in the film, following one of her benders, I could not help but feel deep sympathy for her. In this way, the film is a bit unclear of what the audience should feel.

This leads me to conclude without a doubt that the film belongs to Silverman. In fact, what impressed me most is how believable she is in most scenes. She packs creative lunches for her kids and plays fun birthday cake decorating games with them, but in the next breathe snorts cocaine and rails at a neighbor lady for not celebrating Thanksgiving. Thanks to Silverman, she plays these scenes with gusto.

Some critics have complained about the script, but I find no real fault in it. Clearly not the strongest element, it is fine, nonetheless. I Smile Back is a low-budget indie drama that serves its purpose- it does not delve too deeply into the how’s and why’s of her addiction, and a nice scene with Laney’s father (Chris Sarandon) offers no concrete evidence of why this man drove her to drugs by his abandonment, but the film seems to be more about proving a good performance by Silverman than anything else.

Sarah Silverman commands great respect with her dark portrayal in I Smile Back. This role, combined with her recent turn in Showtime’s Masters of Sex television series, portraying a pregnant lesbian in the 1960’s, proves that she has what it takes to compete with the great dramatic actresses of today. She is certainly much more than a stand-up comic. Here’s to hoping for more drama from this talented lady in the years ahead.

99 Homes-2015

99 Homes-2015

Director-Ramin Bahrani

Starring-Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon

Reviewed April 13, 2017

Grade: B+

99 Homes is a 2015 independent film that contains an underlying theme of morality as its central message, bubbling to the surface throughout the run of the film as our main hero is faced with a major dilemma. Set in 2010 in the midst of the dark economic housing crisis where thousands of families lost their homes to foreclosure, the film is depressing at times, but turns uplifting towards the end. Reminiscent of The Big Short and Inside Job in subject matter, we witness a wonderful performance by Andrew Garfield in the lead role, with a worthy supporting turn by Michael Shannon as a venomous opportunist.

Director Ramin Bahrani immediately creates tension with a taut musical score that bombards the screen. We see a poor victim of foreclosure, having shot himself to avoid the humiliation of being evicted from his home, followed by the introduction of powerful real-estate mogul, Rick Carver. Carver has wisely capitalized on the slew of Florida working class families, living well beyond their means and novice homeowners, booted from their homes thanks to adjustable mortgages that they cannot afford to pay.

Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a struggling construction worker, raising his young son and presumably supporting his mother (Laura Dern). They are fated to be evicted even though they have tried to win an extension with the court- months behind in their mortgage payments. They feel victimized and are forced to move to a seedy motel that houses many others in the same circumstances. Desperate for work, Dennis ironically ends up working for Rick and becomes encased in the dishonest world of real estate scheming- manipulating banking and government rules at the expense of homeowners who are down on their luck.

The main point of the film is the exploitation of the “working man” at the expense of “the man” and Rick is an example of this beast. Dennis represents the goodness of humanity as he wrestles with the moral repercussions of evicting families since he himself has met with similar circumstances. Is the money worth the pain and the hardship he causes people? How is it Rick has no morals, but Dennis does? Will Dennis choose money and lose himself in the process? What would the viewer do?

Despite the morality questions, the film does play like a slick thriller, with a few slight contrivances and the “wrapped up in a neat bow” style ending. This slightly makes the film lose its luster at times. It is implied that the film ends happily for Dennis and that Rick gets his “just desserts”, but what about the characters kicked out of their homes? Sadly, as in real-life, they are largely forgotten by the end of the film and play as footnotes in a larger story. Some follow-up as to what happens to them might have been nice.

99 Homes is a thinking man’s film and will undoubtedly leave the viewer asking what he or she would do in many situations that Dennis is faced with. The emotions ooze from the face of Andrew Garfield as Bahrani uses many close-ups and enough cannot be said for Garfield’s bravura performance. In one heart-wrenching scene, he is forced to evict a man and his wife and children from their home, the man reduced to tears, comforted by his wife-Dennis is pained. In another, an elderly man with nowhere to go is evicted, left defeated by the side of the road. These scenes may have played as overwrought, but Garfield convincingly brings honesty and raw emotion to the work.

Laura Dern is very good in her role as young mother, Lynn,  to Garfield’s Dennis and I am perplexed why she was cast- she barely seems old enough to play convincingly as his Mom, but she does pull it off. However, I could not help but desire more meat from this Oscar nominated Actress- sure there is one great scene when Lynn realizes the extent of Dennis’s involvement with Rick, but I wanted more. Still, the acting all around in this film is superb.

What left me so bothered by 99 Homes is that situations just like the ones that played out in the film are examples of countless real-life occurrences people experienced due to greed, dishonesty, and uncaring fellow human beings and that is a sad realization. Director, Bharani, surrounded by a stellar cast, brings this realism to the big screen in raw, honest, storytelling.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl-2015

Director-Marielle Heller

Starring-Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Kristen Wiig

Reviewed February 2, 2017

Grade: A-

I was not entirely sure of what I expected from the Independent Spirit award winning film, Diary of a Teenage Girl. I surmised that I would be treated to a light hearted, yet well-written coming of age story, but the film is much darker than I would have thought- and this is a plus- the film is edgy. There is so much depth to the central characters and an incredibly complex performance by newcomer, Bel Powley as the title role. Stars Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard also give tremendous performances. The film is based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner.

Set in 1976 San Francisco, a time filled with hippies, drugs, music, and life, fifteen year old Minnie, an aspiring comic book writer, is insecure as any typical fifteen year old is. With wide-eyes and stringy hair, she is cute, but rather quirky looking, not the prettiest girl in her class, and records all of her deepest thoughts into a cassette recorder. Minnie is intelligent and worldly, accepting of alternative lifestyles and drugs, despite her young age. She is wise well beyond her years.

Minnie’s mother Charlotte (Wiig), lives a bohemian lifestyle, constantly partying and losing jobs, and is divorced from Minnie’s and sister Gretel’s affluent, but mostly absent father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni). In a comic way, the girls refer to him as “Pascal” instead of “Dad”, which he abhors. Determined to lose her virginity, Minnie is man crazy and develops a sweet relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgard). Things begin slowly, but develop into a full-blown sexual relationship. A controversial piece to the story is that Monroe is thirty five years old- Minnie only fifteen. Both Monroe’s and Minnie’s feelings are challenged due to circumstances and Minnie’s emotions spiral out of control.

The subject matter of The Diary of a Teenage Girl will undoubtedly be off-putting for many folks as the actions are technically statutory rape, but the film never goes in that direction. Rather, director Marielle Heller crafts a tender story of young love and when there is too much drama, there is comic relief thrown in. Monroe is never the aggressor and, in fact, Minnie is. She is a young girl who knows what she wants. Since the director is female there is absolutely no hint of Minnie being taken advantage of or regretting her affair- the film is not about this. Rather, it is about a young girl with blooming sexuality and blooming emotions finding herself in the world. I admire this left of center approach to story immensely.

Other aspects of the film may be too much for some- Minnie and her best friend pretend to be prostitutes and orally service two young men in the men’s room on a lark. Later, Charlotte uses filthy language to describe Monroe’s and Minnie’s relationship. The film is not safe, but brazen and honest- I admire its courage.

Enough cannot be said for the three principle actors in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Bel Powley is a find! Nominated for an Independent Spirit award, this amazing young actress should have been recognized by the Academy awards, but she no doubt has many years and films ahead of her. She is a “regular girl” type and reminds me a bit of actress Lena Dunham in her looks and her rich delivery.

Kristen Wiig is fantastic and is evolving into a great dramatic actress. As Charlotte, Wiig is wonderfully insecure and an offbeat mother. She does not discipline, but rather befriends her daughters, showering them with hugs and kisses and gives a vulnerable neediness to the character. Wiig, dynamite in the comedy/drama The Skeleton Twins, has embraced small, but important indie films and kudos to her for this.

Lastly, Skarsgard, mainly known as HBO’s villainous Eric on True Blood, is inspiring as Monroe. Providing his character with sympathy and humanity (tough when having an affair with a teenage girl who also happens to be your girlfriends daughter), Skarsgard evokes so much emotion into the role that you almost root for Monroe and Minnie before remembering that she is too emotionally fragile. Skarsgard is brilliant in Monroe’s breakdown scene. I hope audiences see him in more of these complex roles as he is far more than a hunky actor.

Diary of a Teenage Girl intersperses graphic novel/animated elements into the story told from the perspective of Minnie and the character narratives parts of the film. An authentic, interesting story not only for teenagers, but for smart thinkers and anyone who has ever been over their heads in the emotions of love.

Holding the Man-2015

Holding the Man-2015

Director-Neil Armfield

Starring-Ryan Corr, Craig Stott

Reviewed January 24, 2016

Grade: B+

Holding the Man is a brave love story centering on two young men and spanning fifteen years as the men begin as high school sweethearts and progress into adulthood and sadly both contract AIDS. This is a pivotal aspect to the film as it is set during the 1970’s and 1980’s- a time when this disease was dreadful and more or less a death sentence. The film is tender and poignant, but despite these characteristics, I felt at times something with more vigor was missing from the film- I did not have the exact emotional reaction that I thought I might have, and felt a slight blandness. The film is set in Australia and adapted from a 1995 memoir of the same name.

The action begins in 1976 as we meet Tim and John- both high school students. They are from opposite social groups- Tim a theater student and John captain of his soccer team. Surprisingly, they connect romantically as Tim asks John out on a date. For the time period it was, the pair receive little hassle and are quite open with their relationship. Certainly, they face a bit of opposition from officials at the school, but this is not a main aspect that the film goes for. Instead, the main problems come from John’s family- specifically, his father, but this is certainly played safely. Tim’s family is much more accepting. Over the next fifteen years, the couple encounter death directly when they are simultaneously told they have acquired HIV.

The film is mostly told chronologically, but does go back and forth at times- specifically, we are reminded of John’s youthful good looks in flashbacks, when he is close to death-now bald and sickly looking. The main point of the film is the men’s enduring love for each other, which is a really nice message. Otherwise, the film (2015 and long since the AIDS plague), goes for a reminder of how harsh those times were for gay men, though there is a softness to the film that I felt-instead of the brutal reality.

The actors playing John and Tim (Craig Stott and Ryan Corr, respectively) have decent chemistry, but this may have been stronger than my perception was, and the reason I did not feel emotionally invested in the film. The film was nice and sweet-the romance part, but when one of the men succumbs to AIDS I should have been a puddle of tears and I just wasn’t.

I did enjoy how the film does not focus too much on the opposition by John’s father (Anthony LaPaglia). He certainly would wish his son’s sexuality differently, but is more concerned with how his son’s relationship with a male looks to Dad’s friends and neighbors. The deeper story was the love between the men that knew no barriers.

It was nice to see Geoffrey Rush and Guy Pearce in supporting turns as a drama teacher (Rush) and as Tim’s father, Dick (Pearce). Both do well with limited roles and I adored how the film portrayed Dick as a supportive father- even dancing a slow dance with his son at a wedding- free of embarrassment. Also notable is the sweet ending of the film where a photo of the real Tim and John is shown during a narrative from an interview the real Tim did before his death.

Holding the Man is a nice film, but does not quite have the power that other LGBT films in recent decades had- Brokeback Mountain immediately comes to mind as a similar film, but one which was more emotional and engaged me much more. A nice, honest effort, though.

The Lady in the Van-2015

The Lady in the Van-2015

Director-Nicholas Hytner

Starring-Maggie Smith

Reviewed January 19, 2017

Grade: B

As far as I am concerned Maggie Smith can do no wrong and I will happily enjoy watching her in anything- anytime. Around in film since the 1950’s this lady deserves starring film role.  Utterly distinctive she is- as legendary actress Bette Davis was- Smith has a style purely her own- her facial expressions and exasperated gasps make her one of the great film stars. The Lady in the Van is specifically made for her, I have no doubt, but besides her talents the movie is a decent offering, but very safe. It lacks the depth that it could have had.

Written by Alan Bennett, the film tells the true story of Mary Sheperd, an elderly woman living in a broken down van, who befriends Bennett, and eventually lives in his driveway for fifteen years before her inevitable death. Set in northern London, a quaint and gorgeous part of the world, Mary harbors a deep secret involving her van, and is revealed to have been a star piano pupil in her day.

Smith has no qualms about playing unflattering characters. Sheperd is grizzled, abrupt, and rude, but Smith puts a lot of heart into her too, so that the audience senses her vulnerability and falls in love with her. With her sad protruding blue eyes, wrinkles for miles, and chirpy voice, Smith is fantastic at giving her all to the role. The rest of the cast, however, adequately play their roles, but are limited and out-shadowed at every turn. Most notable is the wasted talents of Jim Broadbent, appearing in a small and quite meaningless role.

Besides Smith’s brilliant performance, The Lady in the Van lacks any layers. The story is well and good, but we never see many of Mary’s struggles- how does she afford food? how is she not sick? The film skims over the darker elements of being homeless in favor of a lighthearted tale. Fine, but what about her inevitable issues?

Other less important stories are mentioned but not fully explored. Alex speaks to what looks like his twin brother, but is it his alter ego? Young men come and go at night, so the presumption is that Alex is gay, and in the end we do see Alex living with a man, but why is this so vaguely written? Why mention it at all? This story would have been interesting to delve deeper into especially given the fact that the real Alex Bennett wrote the film.

Other side stories are introduced, but remain on the surface. Alex’s mother clearly suffers from Alzheimer’s, but this is not explored much, and Mary’s brother, who institutionalized her at a young age, offers no explanation as to why this was done- obviously she had mental illness- but the brother’s motivations are not clear. I wanted more from the supporting characters than was offered.

Still, the bottom line is that The Lady in the Van is a Maggie Smith film, and any film in which she has the lead role, is pretty damned good for that reason alone.

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens-2015

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens-2015

Director-J.J. Abrams

Starring-Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Reviewed December 8, 2016

Grade: B

As a youngster who grew up exposed to the original three Star Wars films (admittedly, I cannot keep track nor care enough to learn the exact chronological order of the films in the franchise), the 2016 reincarnation is very nostalgic for me. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were magical films for a kid to enjoy and be bedazzled by. Sadly, The Phantom Menace in 1999 was a rather forgettable endeavor and did nothing to draw new fans to the franchise- nor keep existing fans engaged.

Taking center stage in this installment are beloved stalwart character’s Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in a nostalgic trip down memory lane. A slight gripe is the shamefully under-use of one of these characters. The visual effects are very impressive, the main villain is okay, and the action sequences adequate, but it is the ode to past history that keeps the long-time viewer engaged  the most. In a way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is aptly title as it is a rebirth of sorts for the storied franchise.

Legendary actor Max von Sydow is shamefully under-utilized in a throwaway part in the films first sequence. Ironic is that he resembles deceased actor Alec Guinness, made famous all over again in the 1970’s when he appeared in the first Star Wars. A co-incidence?

It would seem that film makers are going for a modern reboot of episode IV (the 1977 Star Wars). The main character of Rey (Daisy Ridley) is clearly meant to be the new Luke Skywalker, who is known as a Jedi hero in the land, and has been missing for years. Rey has special powers and is accompanied by her sidekick droid, BB-8, a similar character as R2-D2. The villain is Kylo-Ren, son of Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia, and reminiscent to Darth Vader. The film is a classic tale of good versus evil as the evil First Order battles the good Resistance.

I enjoyed the good storytelling most of all and prominent roles for Han Solo and Leia were good choices for the storied franchise. Newcomers Rey and her love interest, Finn, are appealing, as are fighter pilot, Poe, played by Oscar Isaac. Reportedly, this film is the start of another trio of films so we will undoubtedly see more of these characters in the films ahead.

I could not help but notice the Nazi similarities of the First Order and their soldiers- the Stormtroopers. Possessing a red quality and a Nazi- like salute to their supreme leader, they even look German in appearance. Kylo-Ren, raven haired, pale, and clad in a dark black cape, was clearly derived from Darth Vader, especially when he appeared in mask attire. He almost could have been his son.

Set thirty years since the original Star Wars, the plot is more or less similar, and I think this is a wise move in introducing the franchise to a new audience, while staying true to the rich history of the central characters and their offspring. Han Solo and Leia discuss their love affair, past adventures, and of course, their son, who has been hypnotized to the dark side. They struggle to concoct a way to rescue him and hope to persuade him that aligning with the Resistance is the only way to go.

Favorite scenes of mine include the ultimate showdown between Rey and Kylo-Ren. Set in a snowy, wintry forest, with their glistening and glowing light sabers, the scene is gorgeous from a visual perspective, as are the many scenes in one battle station or another. The re-appearance of comical C-3PO is darling.

As with the original Star Wars, humor is mixed in to lighten the mood. Han Solo and his dedicated side-kick Chewbacca, gently spar, and when Han Solo takes the group to a saloon filled with interesting creatures, the scene is light and fun. 

The real drawback for me is that the film is not all that compelling save for the nostalgia aspects. It is merely a classic battle of two wills, but otherwise, offers nothing very new and exciting. Sure there are a few new characters, but the plot is rather basic and what one would expect. 

I, personally, am not truly invested in the franchise, despite zillions of die-hard fans being fanatics of the films and their intricacies, so that is more of an opinion than a criticism of the films merits. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens  will undoubtedly please fans and introduce new ones to a world of galaxies, and the indelible “force”. Still, a satisfying trip down memory lane.

Embrace of the Serpent-2015

Embrace of the Serpent-2015

Director-Ciro Guerra

Starring-Nilbio Torres, Antonio Bolivar

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Reviewed November 23, 2016

Grade: B+

Embrace of the Serpent is a cerebral experience in the art of complex storytelling, weaving two parallel stories set forty years apart from each other. It is an immensely creative film crafting a black and white cinematic expressionism into its lurid walls. Admittedly I found the stories tough to follow at times, and the film contains an impressionistic quality, but I knew I was watching something creative and brave and that is worthy of a hefty thumbs up.

The setting of the film is the Amazon jungle, along the vast Amazon river, deep in the heart of South America. The time periods are both 1909 and 1940, and both feature an Amazonian shaman who is the very last of his people and very resentful of white men. In 1909, he travels with a dying German scientist and in 1940, an American. Both are looking for a sacred healing plant, which contain magical powers.

The parallel stories both feature a Spanish Catholic Mission by the side of an Amazon tributary. In 1909, the leading priest is sadistic and abusive towards the young boys in his charge. Years later, the young boys are now hardened and grizzled. Both stories also feature the revelation of the plant, though in different ways and with vastly different outcomes.

Worth mentioning as the best part of the film, much better than the story-line, is the effective use of black and white visuals. This gives the film a mysterious, old world type of vibe that is tremendous, and really makes it feel like a film made in the 1940’s, if not earlier. In this way, it makes Embrace of the Serpent a visual spectacle, especially as countless scenes occur along the Amazon- we see the characters float, via canoe, and are treated to the beauty of the water and the surrounding luscious mountains. It appears other-worldly, a part of the remote continent that few must see or appreciate. This is my favorite aspect of the film.

The stories are, indeed, complex, sometimes not making complete sense, and I found myself a bit confused throughout, but this may have been due to the films clear art film persona, leading the film to be open to interpretation. Both white men have different experiences with the sought after plant. I was left with some questions that I still am not sure about even having read the synopsis of the film. One of the men has a dreamy, hallucinating experience with the magical plant, but what happens after this? The shaman is an interesting character as we see him as a young man and as an old man, throughout his life living as a lonely, resentful man.

Embrace of the Serpent is a perplexing, interpretative film, but contains a magical quality and, if the story is muddy, one can whisk away to a fantastic experience just watching and enjoying the cinematic treats being offered. A visual gem.

Son of Saul-2015

Son of Saul-2015

Director-Laszlo Nemes

Starring-Geza Rohrig

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Reviewed November 16, 2016

Grade: A

Son of Saul, arguably the deserving winner of the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a grim yet refreshing and inventive look at a subject matter that has been covered in great length in cinema. The topic is a heavy one and to describe the film as a downer is justified, but there is also something brave and even heartwarming about this film, and the central character’s desire to do something decent in the face of death and hatred.

The film is Hungarian, and takes place in 1944, where Saul is a prisoner in a Nazi extermination camp. He is given various duties- considered a “glorified” prisoner- as he takes valuables from the belongings of those gassed, and scrubs the floors after the gassing has occurred. He later must dump the dead bodies into a pit to be incinerated. One day, after a group of Jews are gassed, a young boy is miraculously still breathing. Soon after being discovered, the boy is suffocated. Convinced the boy is his son, Saul is determined to bury the boy properly for religious purposes.

I was immediately struck by two aspects of Son of Saul that really separates it from the pack; the camera work, and the coloring of the film.  The character of Saul is immediately shoved in our faces from scene one-allowing us to see things from his point of view. Extreme closeups of Hungarian actor Geza Rhorig overwhelm the viewer as the message of suffocation is apparent. When closeups are not used, we are treated to the camera following Saul around as he performs his duties without emotion- clearly having done them on multiple occasions. The point is we become Saul and experience activities solely as he sees or hears them. This is understated yet compelling.

Secondly, the film contains a rustic, beige color, mixed with sickly greens and yellows- muted almost, which is highly effective given the amount of death involved. Certainly not glossy in the least, the color scheme portrays a sense of ruin and discourse without overwhelming or going for total bleakness. The style is a dusty, smoky variety, nauseating at times. I found this to separate Son of Saul from a myriad of others with the same subject matter, making it quite distinctive.

Clearly not a happy film, neither is the piece a complete downer that will leave one entirely depressed. Saul’s intentions to give his son a decent burial (and it is unclear if the boy actually is Saul’s son or simply hoped to be) is admirable and a small glimmer of goodness in a world that contains evil. Other prisoners aide Saul in his efforts, telling us that their world is not entirely without hope.

Still, despite the goodness of some of the prisoners, a couple of scenes are tough to take. Early on, dozens of people are huddled-naked, into a small room. They are promised coffee and jobs and most importantly- hope. Sadly, the viewer quickly realizes that the intention is to exterminate them, though the film wisely does not visually show this. A brilliant distinction to Son of Saul is the background sound and what is happening in the vicinity of Saul- we hear the gasping, the pleading, and the screaming of the victims, while the camera stays entirely on the character of Saul and his stoic reactions. Sadly, we realize this is a typical day in his life.

Deserving of its accolades in a year of exceptional foreign language films, Son of Saul takes a familiar subject matter and gives new and unique elements to it. The film also departs on a bit of a cliffhanger involving a second young boy- a clever moment in an already superior film.

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Straight Outta Compton-2015

Director-F. Gary Gray

Starring-O’Shea Jackson Jr., Paul Giamatti

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Reviewed November 12, 2016

Grade: B-

The rap group N.W.A. was a highly influential and controversial unit to emerge from Compton, California in the late 1980’s and featured soon to be solo rap artists Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Another member, Eazy-E, rounds out the trio that is featured in this film along with their manager Jerry, played by Paul Giamatti. Straight Outta Compton tells their story.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced the film along with Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, and Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. portrays Ice Cube. The film is interesting as a way of learning about the rap group and their rise to and fall from stardom, but the film has a very slick and glossy style that detracts from the grittiness of the subject matter- it feels very Hollywood and overly produced. Especially, since the language is atrocious- almost overly so, as if the point was being shoved down the audiences throat. Additionally, the acting, except for Giamatti, is not too impressive. Lastly, the violence portrayed and the gang stuff seemed a bit stereotypical for my tastes.

The film begins in 1986 and we meet the trio of friends. Determined to provide a raw, honest style of poetry to their music, they eventually meet their manager, Jerry, who takes them under his wing and leads them to their success. Predictably, with success comes jealousy and contract disputes. The film delves into this subject matter as the partying and drug use, womanizing, and violence, all lead to the rap groups constant struggles with the police force, especially since one of their top songs is anti-police.

Impressive is the real-life footage used of the 1991 beating of taxi-driver Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department and the subsequent riots that occurred after the officers were found not guilty of any wrong doing. The racial tension that existed in this city at that time was interesting to revisit and palpable to the films subject matter.

The acting was noticeable to me and not in a good way. The young actor who played Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was fine, but the others (Jackson) and Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E were average at best. In any of their dramatic scenes where they appear to be angry, it just does not work, and the scenes lack grizzle and intensity. Conversely, any dramatic scene that held any gusto belonged to Giamatti, who was excellent in his part. In some ways he made the others seem better, but in other ways their inexperience was evident as compared to his. In any event he only made the scenes he appeared in more genuine. Early in the film, when Jerry lashes out at police officers, it is a meaty scene and forceful.

The film makers certainly went for a message of violence and swearing in this film, but despite these qualities Straight Outta Compton still seems safe and overly produced. This may have had to do with the bright, slick cameras used. In this way it had a studio, high budget appearance that does not completely work. I wanted it to look grittier and dirtier and see more of the seedy side of the business instead of it merely being explained to me.

Women in this film are not treated very well and the characters who are the girlfriends are written sympathetically, but not given much of substance to sink their teeth into. Contrasting this, Death Row Records CEO “Suge” Knight is portrayed as a maniacal, violent man. Straight Outta Compton is clearly a guys film.

I had difficulty relating to any of the central characters except perhaps Giamatti’s and it becomes unclear if Jerry really had been ripping off the members of the rap group or if that is merely their perception. He really seems to care about the members of the outfit, so that part is undefined.

Perhaps this film might hold more appeal for fans of N.W.A., which I never was, and rap is not my preferred style of music, but I can appreciate the biographical way the film explains the trio’s story, ups and downs, reunions, death, and violence, but this film could have been much better and is flawed by its over stylized filming.

What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015

Director-Liz Garbus

Starring-Nina Simone

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Reviewed October 25, 2016

Grade: B+

Nina Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of seventy, was an iconic singer and pianist with a musical style all her own. As important as her soulful musical creativity, Simone was also a civil rights activist during the restless 1960’s, and was outspoken about black power and racial discrimination- leading to much controversy. What Happened, Miss Simone tells her story in a thorough, rich fashion.

Executive produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, the piece is standard fare, using a multitude of interviews and performances by Simone. We experience her upbringing in North Carolina, her acceptance into the prestigious Juilliard, her families reliance on her for money, and her years of struggle performing in dingy night clubs.

I loved seeing the old clips of her performances- they are raw, gritty, and full of something special- poetic almost. Simone had trouble relaxing as she gave every ounce of energy in her shows and knew no other way to be.

Simone is like no other and the documentary does not need to explain this point- her performances tell it all. Not one to phone in a performance and arguably not really “performing” at all, Simone was as real as they come- immersing herself into her music – and often times seeming to drift off into another reality.

As an activist, Nina Simone is shown to be controversial- not against supporting violence by blacks against whites in the name of freedom. Simone had tumultuous relationships with both her husband and daughter- having claimed to have been beaten repeatedly and forced to work.

Clear comparisons to other singers such as Aretha Franklin are explored, but there is an edgy element to Simone that others singers of that day did not have- she had a style all her own and did not “play the game” to achieve her success- instead choosing to only be true to herself. This is not a slight against Franklin, but the documentary states that if Simone had been happier, she might have had more commercial appeal, but would she have been satisfied with that? I doubt it as she was an intense soul.

Shocking to me are claims of physical abuse vocalized by her daughter, but this is explained away as a result of her mental illness and not herself at times. Prescription drugs and diagnoses were not what they are now in those days.

From a critical perspective, the documentary delivers what it is supposed to- an overview of this amazing talent- warts and all. We basically see her from child until retiree, and cannot help but pity her in a way because of her apparent mental illness, which caused her not always to be the charming celebrity we would want her to be. What Happened, Miss Simone helped me to learn something fresh about an artist I was unfamiliar with and that is what a documentary should do.

Creed-2015

Creed-2015

Director-Ryan Coogler

Starring-Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan

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Reviewed October 16, 2016

Grade: C+

Creed will certainly please die-hard fans (and there are legions) of the Rocky franchise, eager for a trip down memory lane to revisit with Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa”. For those yearning for a slice of nostalgia and a harkening back to 1976, when the first Rocky was released, Creed will be a crowd pleaser. For others expecting something new or innovative to the story will not be as satisfied. The film is predictable for sure, with all of the expected elements of a sports film.

Instead of Rocky Balboa being the main attraction- he is now a senior citizen and long since retired, now owning a modest Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, the action centers on a young fighter- bastard child of Apollo Creed- Rocky’s nemesis turned friend from the first few installments. Adonis Johnson Creed (played by up and coming star Michael B. Jordan) is his name and until rescued from a group home (he has a temper and fights a lot, naturally) by Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) he does not know fighting is truly in his blood. Determined to make it big in the boxing world, he moves to Philadelphia and convinces Rocky Balboa to train him. Along the way he meets a love interest-Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson), a musician.

The main positives for me are the nods to past history and a few sentimental moments throughout the film. How wonderful to see Rocky Balboa again- like catching up with an old friend we have not seen for years. We learn that sadly, Paulie and Adrian (Rocky’s brother-in-law and wife) have long since died and a sweet moment shows Rocky visiting their side by side graves, pulling up a chair, and reading the newspaper to them. Rocky’s son has moved far away so Rocky is left a lonely man- and Apollo’s son revives a father figure element within Rocky.

Also nice are some flashback scenes to the earlier Rocky films and we see portions of Rocky’s and Apollo’s fights. The plethora of external Philadelphia scenes do bring authenticity and familiarity to the film and this is a wise decision, instead of too many interior scenes in a studio.

Otherwise, the film is largely  a miss. The formulaic, predictability must have been intentional to make Creed an ode to fans and a film that is easy to watch.  We are served the many “inspirational” training scenes as Adonis trains and trains for the big match- with conveniently an arrogant, loud, Londoner, with an equally unlikable coach. The “good vs. bad” mentality that the film develops is contrived and completely plot driven- it makes Adonis that much more likable and gives him the rooting factor. This occurs time and time again in sports films. Why not make both fighters nice guys? But, of course, the film also gives Adonis a temper- to insure that he appeals to the testosterone driven fans expecting such.

Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson are clearly stock characters- we get the standard reaction shots from both as they wince along with the blows that Adonis receives, and Rashad gets an unintentional comic moment- when Adonis lands a flattening blow on his opponent, she proudly professes “that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”. Interesting to note however, is the clever decision to make Bianca suffer from progressive hearing loss. Having her handicapped gives her a nice humanity, though once the fight scenes begin this is never mentioned again.

A standard boxing film with the expected elements- testosterone, brutal fighting, a bit of sentimentality for good measure, and dutiful female characters with little substance, Creed is a guys movie, basic and predictable, with little edge and lots of machismo. However, it does capitalize on the Rocky franchise and offers a nice little nod to the past. Otherwise, it is a rather forgettable film with a mediocre story.

Songs My Brother Taught Me-2015

Songs My Brother Taught Me-2015

Director-Chloe Zhao

Starring-John Reddy, Jashaun St. John

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Reviewed October 14, 2016

Grade: B+

Songs My Brother Taught me is quite the understated film experience, but despite the slow pace, I found the film of great interest. The Native American population is largely ignored in cinema (and perhaps other avenues) so what a treat it was to see a film, albeit a small, quite film, being made to represent this group of people. The film is produced by Forest Whitaker- undoubtedly the funding necessary was responsible for allowing it to be made at all.

Living on an Indian reservation in remote South Dakota, the story focuses on Lakota Sioux brother and sister Johnny and Jashaun- aged 16 and 11, respectively. When their father dies in a house fire, they are forced to ponder their future within the Indian reservation, and also their desires to escape their lives and move to Los Angeles with Johnny’s girlfriend- also an inhabitant of the land.

The film is largely a slice of life on a reservation and the trials and tribulations of the members who live there. Johnny’s mother- a kindhearted yet boozy young woman, who has another son in prison. Jashaun’s mentor- a tattooed man who is a creative and attends alcoholics anonymous meetings, only to be caught drunk by Jashaun. A rivalry between Johnny and some rival boys develops. Finally, Johnny aspires to purchase a truck from an older gentleman. The film is laced with different facets of real-life situations- trivial to some, but an entrance into a culture most know so little about.

I found the film to be quite interesting and compelling in a very subdued way. A marvel is the frequent long views of the prairie land- sweeping winds and gorgeous scenery for miles. Many shots of both Johnny and Jashaun are featured- simply gazing into the crisp air in deep thought.

We see the conflict put upon both youngsters. Johnny, quite handsome and the object of affection by more than one young lady, yearns for a more exciting life. His girlfriend will be attending college in California- pretty and smart- she is sure to move on to success, but Johnny plans to go with her. Her brother inquires how Johnny will live with no job and no money- all valid points. Will Johnny age and remain on the reservation for the rest of his life or escape to a different world?

Jashaun- quite young-is filled with quiet energy and curiosity. She is more studious and clearly wise beyond her years. What will become of her without a father and surrounded by some unsavory types that her family knows?

Certainly not an offering for those who are intent on seeing more action than thoughtfulness, but for the patient viewer, it is a fascinating introspective treat. Songs My Brother Taught Me is a lesson in good storytelling.

45 Years-2015

45 Years-2015

Director-Andre Haigh

Starring-Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

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Reviewed October 1, 2016

Grade: B+

In the case of 45 Years, acting is the clear highlight of the film and the main reason to view it. Seasoned veterans take center stage and give tremendous performances and lessons in the craft of acting. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling carry the film. The subject of 45 Years is an enduring marriage tested by an outside revelation that escalates in importance into conflict and mixed emotions. The film moves at a very slow pace, and can be a challenge to the most patient of viewers, but the slow pace is warranted as the longevity of the characters marriage is the key to the film.

Geoff and Kate Mercer, a happy couple living in rural England, are excitedly planning their 45th wedding anniversary (the 40th having been canceled due to Geoff’s heart condition). They are a popular couple within their town, both kind and decent people, and the event will be attended by many. One day Geoff receives a letter from authorities in Switzerland- a young woman (Katya) he was once involved with, and presumed dead in 1962, has been found. Having fallen into an icy glacier, her body is preserved and she looks the same as she did then. Not knowing the extent of their relationship, Kate is riddled with multiple feelings including jealousy, curiosity, and guilt. Geoff and Kate’s marriage is tested.

45 Years is a mature film involving mature characters. Geoff and Kate are still in love after decades of relationship, but the introduction of Katya becomes unwelcome conflict. The film plays out in a slow way, but a realistic way, as marriage moves along slowly. Many scenes of Geoff and Kate’s day to day activities are shown- they walk their dog together, travel into town to shop, or simply relax and read the newspaper. Like real people do. This is an asset to the film. Real life is sometimes mundane and dull, but these little tasks are also pleasurable and soothing.

Geoff and Kate’s marriage contrasts with the relationship Geoff and Katya briefly had all those years ago (excitement, risk, youth) and one can understand Kate’s point of view. As details reveal themselves, Kate feels inferior. She is not young anymore and she thinks of Geoff and Katya and the life they may have had together if the accident had not occurred. Despite being dead, Katya becomes an obstacle in Kate’s mind.

The film wisely does not write Kate as a jealous shrew or one-dimensional. She fights her jealousy every step of the way and tries to be strong and realistic. Charlotte Rampling gives such a good, subtle, understated performance that it is easy to overlook how good she is. She does not have hysterical moments or a scene where she loses control. Rather, Rampling shows a series of complex emotions with her facial expressions.

Let’s not forget to mention Tom Courtenay. Imagine being in the golden years of your life and a long-lost lover (in spirit anyway) returns to the fold. Geoff cannot help but be transported to imagining a life with Katya had she remained alive. Kate asks Geoff if he would have married Katya- he cannot deny that he would have.

Several scenes show the couple engaging in “old people” issues- awkward lovemaking for example, which enhances the differences between when Geoff and Katya were in their prime. Geoff cannot help but be whisked back in time with thoughts and what-ifs.

A standout scene is when Kate and Geoff dance at their anniversary party. Having given a fantastic speech professing his enduring love for her, they causally dance. Kate is both touched and pained and as the scene goes along she unravels in a quite manner. She explodes internally.

Sometimes perhaps a tad too slowly paced, I get the point of pacing 45 Years in this way. After all, nearly 50 years of marriage is a long time and a multitude of similar days will pass with few important moments. Thanks to superlative acting, I was able to overlook this and be astounded at the complexities both Rampling and Courtenay bring to the table.

Joy-2015

Joy-2015

Director-David O. Russell

Starring- Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro

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Reviewed September 23, 2016

Grade: B-

Joy is a safe, mainstream, female centered 2015 film, a biopic clearly written for current star Jennifer Lawrence. She was nominated for a Best Actress academy award for her role and she clearly carries the film.  Still, despite her very good performance, the film is really nothing special and is written in a ho-hum manner. It is simply not very compelling and the supporting characters are not utilized as they could have been. Despite being based on a true story, the writing is lazy and the plot far-fetched. I expected more.

The film is another collaboration between director, David O. Russell, and big stars of the time- Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro- all used in previous Russell films.

Lawrence plays Joy- a struggling Long Island mother of two- divorced form her husband (who still lives in the basement of her house), with multiple family members living with her, forming a support unit.  The sense is that Joy is the bread-winner of the family. The story is narrated by Joy’s grandmother, who she calls Mimi (Diane Ladd). Mimi always had a feeling Joy would be a success and we see a few scenes of Joy as a child, surviving her dysfunctional family and her parents disputes. DeNiro plays her womanizing father, divorced from her mother (Virginia Madsen), who lies around in bed all day watching soap operas. Cooper plays opportunist, QVC executive, Neil Walker, who takes a liking to Joy and helps her achieve her dream as a successful business woman after she patents an idea for a new, high powered mop.

Enjoyable to me was the authenticity of the time period- circa 1989- and through the 1990’s- as we see Joy working for Eastern airlines, a company that would fold several years later. Also authentic were the automobiles of the time as well as the dress and hairstyles. These points the film does very well. And how cute was it to see famous daytime television stars such as Susan Lucci, portraying soap opera stars, as Joy’s mother lives her life vicariously through their tangled and bizarre soap lives. Several scenes occur on the television set as we get glimpses of the soap stories.

The film as a whole, though, feels too tidy and neat. Predictably, Joy faces obstacles on her way to success.  Already struggling financially, she takes out a second mortgage on her house. At first she cannot give away mops, let alone sell them. On the brink of giving up, she finagles a meeting with execs who laugh at her product, but Walker is there to give her a break because she has a pretty face. Predictably, things do no go well at first, and there is a rather dull sub-plot about a company in Texas trying to steal Joy’s idea. When she goes and threatens them they immediately back down and obediently give in to her every whim. This is both unrealistic and uninteresting. I much rather would have seen a messy back and forth and/or some court scenes, but the Texas company is portrayed as nothing but the villain.

The writing has either plot holes or contain missed opportunities altogether and many questions abound. Despite many scenes of Joy’s past we end up knowing little. Her entire family lives with her in a suburban Long Island house- why does Joy own the house and not her mother or grandmother? Why does Joy have a rivalry with her half sister, Peggy? Why does Joy’s father own an auto garage and still need to stay with Joy, presumably always broke? Why is Joy’s mother mostly in bed? Madsen as the mother is rather cartoonish and unnecessary to the plot as is Ladd- a dynamic actress given little of substance.  I did not buy DeNiro as a cad nor as in love with his wealthy new girlfriend Trudy (though great seeing Isabella Rossellini in the part), conveniently there to be Joy’s financer.

Despite an enormously talented cast, which is fantastic to see, most of the supporting parts could have been played by any actors, as the roles are not all that challenging, and the film itself is for certain a vehicle to showcase Jennifer Lawrence, David O. Russell’s current “it” girl.

This is not a slight towards Jennifer Lawrence as she is the best part of the film.  She successfully portrays Joy as a sympathetic, strong willed, fair, decent human being, with enormous struggles, and a blue collar sensibility. Great performance, but I wish the writing and the other talents involved in the film were given better material.

Results-2015

Results-2015

Director-Andrew Bujalski

Starring-Guy Pearce, Kevin Corrigan

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Reviewed August 29, 2016

Grade: C-

Other than one fantastic supporting performance by Kevin Corrigan, who should have been the star of this film, Results is an independent romantic comedy that lacks any real identity. The film has trouble deciding which couple the audience is meant to root for leaving me to root for none of them, and frankly, a bit bored with the overall script. Still, Corrigan and to some degree Guy Pearce make it a tolerable watch.

Corrigan plays Danny, a newly wealthy average joe type, who joins a gym presumably to achieve a supportive network of friends, as he is new in town- Austin, Texas.  He meets Trevor (Pearce), who owns a local gym, and is trained by the moody Kat (Cobie Smulders). The three individuals lives intersect as a triangle of sorts develops.

Kevin Corrigan, who has appeared in numerous independent films over his decades long career, as well as blockbusters such as Goodfellas, completely steals the show and is the main reason to tune in. His acting is effortless as he plays a lonely, rich man looking for human connections. He is troubled, but has a comic , sardonic wit that shines and gives him needed vulnerability. We want him to find happiness despite being unlikable. Speaking of unlikable, Smulders as Kat is a frigid iceberg with attitude for miles. Why anyone- let alone two men- would have interest in her is beyond me.

Pearce is appealing as the good natured, aspiring to be successful businessman named Trevor, who is buff beyond belief- to enormous credit since Pearce is no spring chicken. Otherwise, we know little about his character. He is not in love with Kat, then suddenly seems to be. Kat warms to Danny, but then is in love with Trevor. The entire romantic entanglement is quite silly and no chemistry exists among any of the principles. The casting of Giovanni Ribisi as a stoner lawyer and Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club from the 1980’s) as a fitness guru are pointless.

The fitness/gym angle is sort of cool if one- as I am- is a fan of physical fitness. It is a nice little lesson as Kat teaches Danny basic core exercises. But after too many scenes of Kat drinking kale shakes and jogging incessantly, or Trevor eating egg white omelets and body strengthening, the message is overkill. They are fitness buffs- we get it.

The biggest fail is how the film begins focusing on Danny and Kat as a potential romantic couple, then suddenly shifts gears, making Kat and Trevor the main couple, with Danny on the outside looking in. It really makes little sense, and by that point I was rather bored anyway and the film just petered out for me.

Results has shreds of potential with better structured story-telling, but the film misses good potential in many areas- underdeveloped characters and a meandering plot are a couple of major problem points.

Glass Chin-2015

Glass Chin-2015

Director-Noah Buschel

Starring-Corey Stoll, Marin Ireland

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Reviewed August 28, 2016

Grade: B-

Glass Chin is an independent drama film from 2015 with some positive qualities as well as some negative qualities. The film has two rather intriguing central characters, a working class appeal, and some fun moments of Quentin Tarantino style influence, but the villains are unappealing and downright annoying-so much so that these elements detract from the main story. Still, a solid effort.

The premise is straightforward and comfortable- Corey Stoll plays Bud Gordon, a former New York boxer with a level of one time success. He now lives in a basic, small apartment in New Jersey with his girlfriend Ellen (Marin Ireland). Yearning to get back into the game, he aligns with crooked businessman, JJ Cook, played by Billy Crudup. Along for the ride is JJ’s odd henchman, Robert. Framed for a murder so that he is now “owned” by JJ, Bud must struggle to escape the mess he has gotten himself into.

The interesting parts of Glass Chin belong to Stoll and Ireland as they make Bud and Gordon both likable and genuine. They are a great team, once having success, now struggling to pay the rent. They encompass blue-collar appeal. They are nice people, happy to dine at cheap diners, clip coupons, but also wanting a comfortable life. When Ellen tries caviar for the first time at a fancy hotel, she dislikes it. She is a happy working class girl, comfortable in her own skin. Bud misses the boxing lifestyle, not for the glamour, but for a purpose. Having owned a failed restaurant, he is now forced to take a job with a shady character in order to make ends meet.

I would have preferred the focus remain only on Bud and Ellen and their life struggles, perhaps more emphasis on their aspirations, his feelings of failure, and more story involving his training of young boxer, Kid Sunshine, but sadly these aspects are secondary to the emergence of villains JJ and Robert.

I am not sure why the film makers decided to make both JJ and Robert so weird, and I assume they were going for a Quentin Tarantino influence, but this did not work and, in fact, led the film to lose some continuity. Both characters, especially Robert, meander with monologues of nonsense dialogue and downright crazy talk that is rather over the top. It adds nothing to the story. They are high class thugs- the point comes across. The female characters, besides Ellen, are Tarantino influenced as far as their left of center actions (the wedding dress outfit, the statuesque model who beds Bud), but we know almost nothing about them.

As a side note, I loved the constant outdoor locales of New York City and New Jersey, which added authenticity to the film. When Bud drives around in his beat up 1980’s Country Squire station wagon in the snowy New York weather, it adds great atmosphere.

More of Bud and Ellen would have been preferred and less of JJ and Robert would have helped Glass Chin be a better film. Still, there is something about it that appeals, but overall Glass Chin is quite uneven.

Anomalisa-2015

Anomalisa-2015

Director-Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson

Starring-Tom Noonan, Jennifer Jason Leigh

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Reviewed August 27, 2016

Grade: A-

Anomalisa is one of the most creative offerings I have seen of late. As animation is not my forte- typically I find them much too nicey nice, and the old “family friendly” tags makes me cringe- but Anomalisa has received heaps of buzz so I decided to check it out. I am glad I did. The stop motion film is quite adult themed, though not the slightest bit raunchy. Rather it is an intelligent tale about loneliness and human beings connecting with each other through this loneliness. It is a bit of a melancholy film too. Anomalisa is based on a 2005 play.

The central character of the story is Michael Stone, a depressed customer service expert, who travels to Cincinnati to deliver a seminar on his area of expertise. Michael is riddled with anxiety and his life is rather mundane though he checks into a stylish hotel that is presumably hosting his convention. He is a bit of a big name within his industry. Oddly, every person he encounters looks and sounds the same- that of a white man- even his wife and son. He is haunted by the memory of an old flame, Bella, who it is revealed he jilted years ago and now lives in Cincinnati.

The story gets interesting when Michael hears a woman’s voice singing- up until now all voices are male, remember- and he is desperate to find the voice. He meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), an insecure, rather dowdy woman, who he becomes infatuated with. A customer service representative at the hotel to witness Michael’s seminar, Lisa is instantly smitten, though wary of Michael’s intentions. They bond and the film tells of their romance and insecurities.

The film is highly creative and unique. It is also mysterious. My first wonder was attempting to figure out why all of the character’s- regardless of gender- share the same voice. Clearly Michael is lonely and sees everyone else in his life as monotonous or meaningless- until he meets Lisa, that is. The film is not clear as to what Michael sees in Lisa- perhaps her realness in a world of phoniness. She is an ordinary girl, but perhaps that is the point? I am still not sure of this.

I did not find the character of Michael to be likable and certainly not one to root for. He is dismissive of some characters, a bit condescending, but despite this, is not a hated character either. He and Lisa as a duo are to root for.

Anomalisa has some humor too- albeit dark humor. When Michael mistakes an adult toy store for a traditional toy store and purchases a Japanese sex doll for his son, Michael’s wife hilariously wonders about some foreign substance around the doll’s mouth. A nervous male passenger on Michael’s flight clutches Michael’s hand, even after landing safely.

The explicit sex scene between Michael and Lisa is as shocking as it is tender- I think showing this graphic edge in animation really through me for a loop since this rarely happens in animated films, and I still- perhaps incorrectly- assume that animated films are for children only with their parents to endure. To be fair, Anomalisa is not true animation- felt puppets are used, which gives a great, human looking feel to the film and makes the characters more life-like.

Anomalisa is not a perfect ten, but is damn close for it’s left of center approach alone. A magical journey into the art of creativity and thought. A little far out there for most, and perhaps the sarcasm may be lost on some, but a unique experience, nonetheless.

Best of Enemies-2015

Best of Enemies-2015

Director-Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

Starring-William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal

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Reviewed August 19, 2016

Grade: B

Best of Enemies is a 2015 documentary that transports the viewer back in time to the 1960’s, and specifically to 1968, during the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I found the documentary to be a nice little history lesson for me  as 1968 was before my time and the timing of my viewing (2016) was perfect as at the time of this review we are in the midst of an intense presidential race. This is an adequate slice of political debate and rivalry- differing ideologies among the central figures.

ABC Primetime news, at that time a floundering network, needed something to attract viewers, and something to compete with competitors, the much higher rated CBS and NBC. This was a time when audiences had merely three networks of news offerings to choose from. The documentary references this fact as the power of the medium of television in 1968 was quite intense and still new. I looked back fondly on the limited choices of networks then, compared to the oodles of offerings now, but everyone watched the same programming, which elicited better conversations the next day it could be argued.

ABC concocted a scheme to bring together two bitter rivals, ultra conservative, William F Buckley, and ultra liberal, Gore Vidal. the pair, obviously of differing opinions, reportedly despised each other and the possibilities electric.

I found the documentary to be very genuine- 1968 was before reality television and mock feuds to garner ratings eve existed. Their heated debates are now legendary and there was authenticity to them. The documentary is told in a structured way- Buckley and Vidal faced off during a total of ten primaries- five for the Republican primary in Florida- five for the Democratic primary in Chicago. Other than their blowups, the conversations crackled with intelligence- both men obviously passionate, and well-educated in their views.

Best of Enemies also gives an overview of both Vidal and Buckley and how they  each had come to achieve their respective fame. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends are interspersed in the documentary among the constant barbs between the two as the debates ravaged on.

A monumental moment occurs during the final democratic debate that would cement the loathing between Vidal and Buckley for decades to come. Continuing to debate with a snarky, condescending tone by both, tensions came to a head as Vidal referenced Buckley as a Nazi and Buckley, in turn, called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the mouth. The hatred in the eyes of both men are the central point of the documentary as their rivalry knew no boundaries. The fact that this all took place on live television (before tape delay censors) made it all the more shocking.

Strangely, the documentary chose to use narrated voices by Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow  as Buckley and Vidal, respectively, for a few segments. I found this rather unnecessary and even distracting. The voices were surmising what each felt at the time and really did not work at all.

A smart, intelligent toned documentary that shows the real birth of political pundits (now a dime a dozen) and the realism that television was at that time period- still rather novel. Today it is filled with outrageous people and those looking for their ten seconds of fame. Best of Enemies shows us the authenticity of television back in the early days and sadly, reminds us what it has now become.

James White-2015

James White-2015

Director-Josh Mond

Starring-Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon

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Reviewed August 15, 2016

Grade: A

I am always struck with a warm feeling and my faith in film is reaffirmed when I am able to watch an interesting independent film (or mainstream studio film for that matter) that has the guts to tell a dark character driven story and tell it very well consisting of sympathetic characters written exceptionally well. 2015’s James White is an appreciative offering about life and death and how the main characters deal with the roadblocks of life and the effects of death. This film is quite dark, however.

A fantastic young actor, Christopher Abbott, plays the title character of James White. We meet James in a loud, frenetic nightclub as he wears headphones with soft music playing, mixing in an interesting way with the pounding beats of the club music. The audience immediately can tell that James is wound up, aggressive, and troubled. His estranged father has just died and while he is not too upset by his father’s death, he cares deeply for his mother, Gail, and is worried about her. No sooner than a service, hosted by the father’s new wife, is held, we learn that Gail is suffering from stage four cancer and will not live much longer.

The crux of the film is how James deals with his multitude of problems from his mother’s illness, to finding a job, a rocky relationship with a teen girl, and his reflections on his own life, all while filled with rage. The film takes place over a three month time period, culminating in the dead of winter, an obvious irony.

Abbott and Nixon give astounding performances as son and mother, the apple of each others eye, and how they each deal with Gail’s inevitable, impending death. James is bottled up with anger throughout most of the film and frequently needs to escape before losing it. In one amazing scene though, he does lose it during a drunken hotel bender with pals Nick and Jayne. The sheer emotion and desperation that Christopher Abbott gives during this scene is inspirational for any aspiring actor to emulate. One wonders if director Josh Mond allowed his actors to improvise most scenes as the compelling, raw feeling to many scenes is evident.

Nixon, since her fame on Sex And The City, has chosen daring and complex roles and this is certainly to her credit. As Gail, we see her desperate, emotional, filled with rage, and at times delusional, as she wonders what will become of her son after she is gone and how her world has spiraled out of control. We also see Nixon successfully play motherly as she coaches her son through his anger and pleads with him to take care of her. It is a powerful performance.

Two slight knocks to the film- James’s best friend Nick is gay (and black), but despite their differing sexual orientations, they are the closest of friends. While this aspect reaps heaps of praise for being incorporated into the film, we know very little about Nick, his family, or his inner feelings. James’s new girlfriend Jayne is also a mystery. She is significantly younger, is dutiful, but what are her motivations? Yet, given the very short run time of the film (1 hour and 27 minutes), I can see why the filmmakers chose to almost exclusively focus on the mother/son relationship. A very slight criticism.

A film such as James White is purely character driven and must be enormously rewarding for actors to play these two raw characters. A downer, to be sure, and too painful for anyone dealing with a loved one suffering from cancer, but a fantastic journey into the world of wonderful acting and dynamic screen writing.

Trainwreck-2015

Trainwreck-2015

Director-Judd Apatow

Starring-Amy Schumer, Bill Hader

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Reviewed August 13, 2016

Grade: B

Trainwreck is a raunchy 2015 comedy/romantic comedy that lends its success largely to its star. Amy Schumer makes this film as good as it can be (after all, she wrote it) and despite the raunchy, brazen, girl power themes that are currently the popular trend in films of this genre, Trainwreck has some laughs and good times thrown in, thanks to Schumer. Directed by Judd Apatow, who has successfully directed a gazillion of these types of films in modern times. The film does teeter off into predictability toward the conclusion. It has it’s moments of fun and is not boring.

Unapologetic, sexually promiscuous, and boozy, Schumer plays a successful magazine writer (Amy) given an assignment she despises- interview a sports medicine doctor, named  Aaron (played by SNL alum, Bill Hader).  Amy hates sports and knows nothing about them- she also goes from man to man, nothing serious, and is currently dating a sexy bodybuilder named Steven (John Cena), who she thinks may be gay. Predictably, Amy and Aaron fall in love.

In typical fashion, Trainwreck contains many stereotypical characters or characters who are merely there to bounce off of the main action- SNL alum Vanessa Bayer, and Tilda Swinton are the most obvious examples, as the loyal best friend and rigid, type A boss, respectively. Brie Larson and Colin Quinn co-star as Amy’s family members. Both give one-note performances that are fine, but unspectacular and one surmises that Brie Larson agreed to this role before her Oscar winning turn in Room.

Despite the comedy clichés, however, I had some good fun with Trainwreck. Schumer is quite likable as the ordinary girl- think of her as the new Melissa McCarthy- that many people can relate to. I am not sure Schumer and Hader had the best chemistry, but the point was more that she found love with a “regular” guy, a tad dull, to counter-balance her big, loud personality. And they do make a charming pair.

Some scenes really work. When Amy encourages a naked Steven to “talk dirty to her” in the bedroom and he attributes everything to bodybuilding, the scene is very funny. Others, as when Amy and Steven banter with an angry couple at the movie theater, fall flat.

Certainly not high art, for the raunchy comedy genre, Trainwreck is a treat and entertaining to watch, in large part due to the comedic talents of Amy Schumer. More often than not, when the masses rave about a current comedy as being “great”, I am usually disappointed. While Trainwreck is not great, it is good, with some laughs. Otherwise, it is a rather by the numbers film.

Theeb-2015

Theeb-2015

Director-Naji Abu Nowar

Starring-Jacir Eid

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Reviewed August 4 , 2016

Grade: B+

An Arabic spoken foreign language film that received a 2015 nomination for Best Foreign Language film, Theeb is an old world film set in 1916 during the time of the Ottoman empire. The event is  World War I as an Englishman battles Arabs and nobody can be trusted. The film is largely shot in the smoldering Arabian desert (in Jordan) and told from the perspective of a child- named Theeb. Despite the very slow pace of the film, it actually makes the moments of action even more important and the film has a grainy quality to it that makes it somewhat of a bizarre Arabian western.

Theeb lives in a small village run by his father and older brother, Hussein. One night a mysterious Arab man and an Englishman arrive in the village seeking a guide to take them to a Roman well, close to the Ottoman railway. The mission is feared a dangerous one, as the trail they must take is riddled with bandits, not to mention, the Englishman is in possession of a box containing gold, making him a vulnerable target. Theeb, left behind because he is so young, follows and joins them, much to the groups chagrin. Predictably, trouble ensues and Theeb must fend for himself.

What I enjoyed about this film is its unpredictability in what happens after the group faces danger. Sure, when the foursome sets out on a trail led by camels, we know bad stuff will happen. But, finally left to his own devices, I was intrigued as to how Theeb would face his new challenges, having up until now been protected by his family. In ways, Theeb reminded me of another adventure film, Life Of Pi, though Theeb is a much darker film. Both feature a young, non-American male of Indian or Middle Eastern background, forced to survive largely on his own.

The John Boorman classic, Deliverance, also came to mind during one dark scene, as Theeb and Hussein cower amongst rocky caves while their devilish pursuers taunt and whistle at them mockingly from below. The hunter vs. victim component is front and center and it is kill or be killed.

Later, an interesting bond develops between Theeb and one of the raiders (Hassan) as both are mistrustful of each other. Will they forge the bond or will one betray the other? The answer to this question emerges during the final moments of the film and the buildup is very compelling. I was aware of the father and son dynamic mixed in with the friend and enemy. When Theeb treats Hassan’s wounds there is a tenderness on the exterior, but is Theeb really fully kind to Hassan?

A slight negative for me existed in that I did not buy that the time period was the early 20th century, but rather, everyone looked and acted so modern, as if they were merely dressed up for their parts….as they were. Perhaps it had to do with the hairstyles or mannerisms.

Shot entirely in Wadi Rum, Jordan, a gorgeous part of the world, the desert and big sky lend much to the ambiance this creates. It was almost like being in the old, wild west and an ode to old western films, only set in the Arabic world.

The entire cast, save for the Englishman, are non-actors, an amazing achievement, and a measure that creates an obvious level of realism that rehearsed actors cannot always bring to the table.

Originally meant to be a short film only, Theeb emerged as a full length feature and I am glad it did, as it has enough meat to warrant a longer duration. The film is a cinematic wonder with a psychological edge.

Sisters-2015

Sisters-2015

Director-Jason Moore

Starring-Tina Fey, Amy Poehler

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Reviewed July 31, 2016

Grade: B-

Slapstick comedy is admittedly not my genre of choice, though I will watch some for light entertainment purposes or to see just how bad (or good) current offerings are. Nonetheless, I have tried to put myself in a mindset of having low expectations for these types of films that are by and large fluff and plot driven. In the case of Sisters, the film is pretty much as one would expect: vulgar, crass, and raunchy. Yet, due to the chemistry between the leads (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey) and a few light, heartfelt romantic moments, there is something that works about this film- it is not as mean as one might think. This is not to say that Sisters is a great film- hardly- but not as bad as I feared.

Poehler and Fey play Maura and Kate Ellis, respectively, two late thirties sisters, living in other areas of the country, who return home to Orlando, Florida, when their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) sell their childhood home. Maura and Kate have been tasked with cleaning out their bedrooms in time for the sale. The sisters come up with an idea to throw one final bash and invite their high school classmates, who all conveniently still live in the same town. Obviously, events go awry and the party gets way out of hand. Mixed in with the main plot are sub-plots consisting of a romantic interest for Maura, and a rival for Kate, played by Maya Rudolph.

The best part of the film is the chemistry between Poehler and Fey. They simply “have it” whether it is a Saturday Night Live sketch, hosting the Golden Globe awards, or starring in Sisters. The banter and the jokes work well because the two comics work well together and it shows on-screen. They are believable as sisters despite looking nothing alike.

Otherwise, Sisters is a traditional vulgar comedy. One irksome recent trend in this style of film (now more female driven than in years past) is the leading ladies being class-less and this must be an attempt at female empowerment or the assumption that since adult comedies were once a man’s world, female characters should be written like men. Do we really need Kate and Maura swearing like sailors, making poop jokes, and being so raunchy? Behaving like ladies would now be the exception not the norm (Bridesmaids set this precedent).

Not surprisingly, the supporting characters are all caricatures as is typically the case in films of this genre. The parents are a bit clueless, have kinky sex much to the girls chagrin, Brinda, bitchy, judgmental, yet insecure, the Korean (big stereotype) nail technician who cannot properly pronounce English words, the new owners of the house are snobbish, uptight, and clueless, and finally, James, the guy next door, who is Mr. Fix-it and the straight man in the high-jinks. He is sugar sweet and the male hero.

The romantic scenes between Maura and James are rather sweet and sentimental, nicely balancing the vulgarity and raunchiness that the rest of the film encompasses. They are a nice couple and have a rich rooting value.

Most of the action takes place at Kate and Maura’s childhood home where posters of such 1980’s films as E.T. and Out of Africa, as well as a poster of heartthrob Tom Cruise hang on the walls. This and many other references that Generation X’ers will take delight from in this film are pointed out, so that is a treat and a positive of the film.

As the party gets off to a slow start and the thirty and forty something’s appear dull and either talking about their kids or their various maladies, and suddenly, after being fed drugs, are back to their college party days, is both dumb and cute at the same time.

Sisters (hopefully) knows what it is. It is a late Saturday night, raunchy comedy affair, meant as fluff and as escapist fun. It is not a masterpiece nor does it intend to be one. Rather, a full length SNL sketch including many alumni. It is harmless fun.

A War-2015

A War-2015

Director-Tobias Lindholm

Starring-Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny

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Reviewed July 29, 2016

Grade: B+

A War, a 2015 film, made in Denmark, is a thought provoking story that one might think is a standard “war film” on the surface, but as the film moves along, it turns into something much deeper and rather cerebral. A slow mover, but necessary to the nature of the films message,  the viewer questions what he or she might do in a similar predicament as the main character faces a moral dilemma.

The action begins in Afghanistan as we meet a company of Danish soldiers assigned to protect civilians from the evil Taliban. They are young, good-looking and of varying ethnic groups (a nice touch by the film).  One female soldier seems to be thrown in for good measure, though we never see her in combat. Their leader is Commander Claus Pedersen, a good, decent man, well liked by his troop. They have all seen death and destruction, and Pedersen frequents the middle of the action on the front lines. He is one of the guys.

When one of his men is wounded during an attack, Pedersen makes a controversial decision, resulting in the deaths of civilians, some children.  Pedersen is then charged with a war crime and sent home to Denmark to be tried. His wife and three small children are happy he is home, but distraught and opinionated on how he should testify.

The thing I found interesting about A War is how the film shifts gears around the mid-way point.  The camaraderie between the soldiers in the field, and their bond with Afghan civilians are mixed with dangerous threats from the Taliban. I kept waiting for an attack to occur and in these ways the film is a standard war film. Mixed in are snippets of “home life” involving Pedersen’s wife- she appears a typical military wife- struggling to raise her three kids, one of whom has recently developed behavioral problems. It is clear they miss Pedersen.

The latter half of the film is largely set inside a courtroom as Pedersen is interrogated by a female prosecutor. While she sympathizes with Pedersen’s anguish, she is looking for a conviction. After all, children were killed because of his actions. The filmmakers are on Pedersen’s side, but the entire conflict makes for great analysis. Should he be held accountable for deaths in a war zone? The viewer will ask him or herself- “would I lie to stay out of jail and with my family who needs me”? Interesting stuff to ponder.

A War, ironic to the title, is a calm, subdued film- very much impressive to me.  To compare, a film of this nature, targeted as a “blockbuster” would likely have technical enhancers- dramatic music, undoubtedly would play to cue action in the war zone. The climax of the film, when Pedersen’s verdict is read aloud in the courtroom, would contain some jarring camera shots, or an intense musical score. A War has none of those and that brings a certain reality to it- this could be everyday life. A decision is made and life quietly goes on.

Some complain of A War being a tad boring. I see their point, but it is an atypical war film. It is understated and character driven, rather than a shoot ’em up, overwrought with testosterone action, or laced with artillery or explosions. A War is not that mainstream a film- much to its credit. Rather it is methodical and fraught with interesting thinking points.

Trumbo-2015

Trumbo-2015

Director-Jay Roach

Starring-Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane

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Reviewed July 11, 2016

Grade: B+

Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, who is suddenly in everything these days, is a 2015 biography drama about Dalton Trumbo, a  famed, talented Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950’s. Cranston is certainly center stage in the film, and very good. The film itself has a crisp, glossy look and excited me with its ode to old Hollywood and it’s mixture of real-life interspersed newsreels. Great stuff for a classic film buff!

The sets, costumes, and art direction travel back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, but throughout I had a constant feeling of a modern film dressed to resemble an older one and I never felt true authenticity- still, a very good effort and a well above average Hollywood film.  A treat for cinema lovers or even those folks interested in seeing some classic black and white footage- a young Ronald Reagan is seen testifying, presumably against those feared to be communists.

Following World War II there was a panic throughout the United States, including liberal Hollywood, to oust anyone with a thinking deemed “un-American”. If this sounds like a dated way of thinking now, the United States was not always as diverse as it is in 2016. The infamous “Hollywood 10”, included ten screenwriters who were Communists- or at least had communist beliefs and sympathies. The story in Trumbo obviously focuses on Dalton Trumbo, a quirky screenwriter, always with a classy cigarette, and holder, in hand. His story is told and the audience sees his passion for fairness in the United States- he sees nothing wrong with being a communist.

The supporting characters are excellent. John Goodman, in the role of Frank King, B movie director, who gives Trumbo a chance to write under a pseudonym, and Helen Mirren and David James Elliott, as villainous Hedda Hopper and John Wayne, respectively. Personally, I felt Diane Lane could have been given more to do as loyal wife of Trumbo, but sadly, Hollywood is not a woman’s world.

If I were to have any criticism of this film it is that Trumbo is mainstream fare and not high on the edgy factor, which is only a mild complaint. There is nothing wrong with that, but the film screams Hollywood branded.  For instance, throughout Trumbo’s two year prison sentence he faces no real threats, no beatings, no abuse, nothing really. He emerges from prison with a few gray hairs and life goes on. When Trumbo’s friend battles, and finally succumbs to lung cancer, there is no long suffering scenes, making the film on the soft side. Again, more an observation of the type of film Trumbo is more than a complaint.

The scenes of Trumbo with his three children as the film periodically ages the children with older actors, are touching, especially scenes with his oldest daughter, Nikola, are sweet. She grows up to be just like her father. Trumbo earnestly explains to young Nikola, why he is a communist and asks what she would do if someone else was going without- her response is to share- a simplistic and sweet scene. Ah, through the eyes of a child the world is so innocent.

Trumbo goes back to Hollywood of old- clean, glamorous, extravagant, both in the way the film is made, and also the retro use of old footage. It is a non threatening film that simply explains the story of Dalton Trumbo in a safe, yet thorough way. I enjoyed the film tremendously.