Category Archives: 2016 Movie reviews

O.J.: Made in America-2016

O.J.: Made in America-2016

Director-Ezra Edelman

Starring-Various

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Simply put, O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films that I have ever scene- if not the best. The level of detail that is thoroughly explored without being over-inflated is to be marveled at. In fact, it is much more than a documentary, it is more a chronicle of one of the most talented professional athletes and one of the most controversial figures of our time. The piece dissects not only O.J. Simpson and his tumultuous life, but also how race, wealth, and celebrity factored into the infamous trial that took over the world in 1994. Basically, this story tells of the examination of the rise and fall of an American sports hero.

At seven hours and forty three minutes in length, I had no intention of actually committing to watching the entire saga, surmising that I could easily obtain a good grasp after watching only one disc, but it needs to be viewed in its entirety to be fully realized and appreciated. The documentary is an ESPN production and part of the 30 for 30 series plays out more like a mini-series, with multiple chapters (five in total) encompassing the entire chronicle. The title of O.J: Made in America is of vital importance and a powerful reason for the success the documentary achieved as film makers question whether many factors were instrumental in making O.J. Simpson what he became rather than creating merely an overview of the events.

An immediate positive, and successfully got me immediately intrigued, is how the documentary begins in present times, O.J. Simpson, now imprisoned and presumably at a parole hearing, he is asked about his duties in the prison and how old he was when he was first arrested- the answer is age forty six, when he was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. The documentary then immediately returns to Simpson’s humble upbringing in the ghettos of San Francisco and how, through scholarships, was able to attend and become a major star at University of Southern California in the mid 1960’s.

What I adore most of all about O.J.: Made in America is that it is a multi-faceted story. Instead of a straight up biography about the troubled celebrity, the film-makers instead choose to balance the documentary with related stories about racial tensions. Certainly, a chronological approach is taken when it comes to Simpson- yes, we learn his skyrocketing trip to super-stardom as a college football player and then professionally as a Buffalo Bill. We are educated of his achievements in commercials, films, and various endorsements, but the documentary relates this to what America made O.J. Simpson into- a beloved star.

Finally, the documentary explains his relationship and marriage to Nicole Brown and the dreaded death and subsequent trial that was sensationalized beyond belief. Lots of time is spent on the trial portion with oodles of interviews ranging from the prosecution- Marsha Clark, Gil Garcetti- as well as numerous friends and relatives of both Simpson and Nicole Brown. An astounding seventy two interviews were conducted.

Surprising to me at first, but making total sense in retrospect, is how the issue of race relations, especially in Los Angeles, have an enormous amount to do with the O.J. Simpson murder case. Film-makers draw many wise comparisons to the history of poor relations between blacks and the Los Angeles Police Department and certainly, the documentary explores the Rodney King incident from the late 1980’s and poses a crucial question- was O.J. Simpson found “not guilty” as a way of exoneration for Rodney King? More than one juror has admitted she refused to find O.J. Simpson guilty and send a black man to prison.

O.J.: Made in America is a superb, well-rounded, concise, and brilliant study of a troubled man- deemed a hero, who obviously had a dark side. The excellent documentary wholly explores his life and provides a fair, unbiased assessment of the events and the thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the case. It is a sad story, but one that is told in brilliant fashion.

Toni Erdmann-2016

Toni Erdmann-2016

Director-Maren Ade

Starring-Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller

Reviewed October 1, 2017

Grade: A-

Reaped with a slew of award nominations in 2017, mostly in the Foreign Language film categories, Toni Erdmann is a unique film that I must champion, but for its imagination and humanistic perspective alone. At two hours and forty two minutes in length, it can almost be watched in segments- miniseries style. The film is set in Bucharest, Romania, so viewers are treated to several exterior scenes of the bustling city and interesting European culture. However, the film is actually German and Austrian made and produced.

Winfried Conradi is a hippie-type man in his sixties. Divorced and working as a music teacher, his dog suddenly dies resulting in his decision to reconnect with his corporate, power hungry daughter, Ines. She is forging her career in business consulting, currently on assignment in Bucharest. Winfried insinuates himself into Ines’s busy life as she wants little to do with him or the petty practical jokes he continues to play on her. Gradually, involving a few hysterical antics and embarrassing situations, father and daughter reunite and forge the loving relationship that they once shared.

What makes Toni Erdmann an unusual film is simply that one will not know what to expect from the film or what direction the film will go in as we get to know and love the characters. We do know that Ines is a driven career woman, busy beyond belief, with no time for her father. Yet, in all of the scenes that Ines and Winfried share, in large part due to fantastic and believable acting by the two principles (Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller), there is an underlying love and appreciation for each other that comes across on-screen. This chemistry made me root for the father-daughter reunion and re-connection.

When Winfried dons his garish wig and horrid false teeth, naming himself “Toni Erdmann”, a series of hilarious scenes ensue. Winfried is successful at being noticed in important corporate functions and dinners he follows Ines to, as well as a ladies dinner with Ines and her friends as he explains to the women that he is in Bucharest to attend a funeral that a friend is having for his pet turtle. The way that actor Simonischek fills his character with an earnestness and dry wit is what makes these scenes so hilarious.

My favorite scene of all and, if this film goes down in history as remembered, is a scene that will surely be talked about for years to come, is the “naked party” scene. Not only is the scene comical, it is also fraught with meaning as it is a turning point for the character of Ines. Hosting a team building party for her birthday, the party is set to begin, except Ines cannot get her dress on and her shoes do not match. Frustrated, with a guest already at the door, Ines strips naked and decides to turn the party into a naked, team building experience. Some guests are disgusted and leave, others reluctantly agree to strip nude. It is the point where Ines sheds not only her clothes, but her stodgy, rigid persona and begins to appreciate and enjoy life again- thanks to her father.

Toni Erdmann is a unique and unpredictable film by a female director (Maren Ade), who has an interesting and strong perspective on the female psyche. She carves a thoughtful tale about a damaged father and daughter with characters to root for and a realism. The film is a fun, laugh out loud romp, that also goes into dramatic territory, careful to remain playful and not be too overwrought. I enjoyed the film tremendously.

Clown-2016

Clown-2016

Director-Jon Watts

Starring-Laura Allen, Christian Distefano

Reviewed September 16, 2017

Grade: B-

As a fan of all things horror, and with a robust appreciation for the horror film genre, the inclusion of clowns in said genre films is always a stroke of genius, and the 2016 film aptly titled, Clown, establishes a creepy premise right off the bat. After seeing the film, it was not until a few days later that the story began to marinate more with me and I gained a bit more appreciation than I had once the film originally ended.

Clown reminds me quite a bit of the mid-2000’s Showtime horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, though, in fact, the film is a full running length of one hour and forty minutes. The film has a unique, creepy vibe that was also a highlight of the cherished series of yesteryear and this film oddly also plays out like a vignette.

The premise is laden in the creep factor as the action kicks off. When Kent McCoy, a likable young father, who works far too much maintaining his real estate business, is notified by his wife, Meg, that the clown they had hired to entertain at their son Jack’s birthday party, has canceled. Determined to save the day, Kent discovers a very old clown suit in the attic of one of his abandoned houses and dons the costume. The next day, Kent and Meg are startled when Kent is unable to remove the costume even when pliers, a hacksaw, and other horrid machinery is used on him.

The story then introduces a strange character named Herbert Karlsson, who informs Kent that the clown costume is not a costume at all, but rather the hair and skin of an ancient demon from Northern Europe. The demon needs to feast on and devour children in order to survive, Kent realizes, as he begins to become ravenous with hunger. Karlsson attempts to kill Kent, revealing that the only way to destroy the beast is via beheading.

The clever and compelling part of the story is the mixture of clowns and children in peril- a recipe for success in most horror films- and at the risk of being daring. The fact that Kent and Meg slowly begin the temptation to harm children is both shocking and effective. The McCoys are average, everyday folks, Meg even working as a nurse, so the likelihood of the pair harming kids on any other day is remote, but tested by a vicious demon and their own son Jack in peril makes Clown work well.

My favorite sequence of the film occurs during a birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese. While the kids play in a lavish and dark tunnel, the demon (Kent) is on the loose, causing havoc and eating two children. When Meg drives an unwitting young girl home, she is conflicted and tempted to offer the girl to the demon as a sacrifice in order to hopefully save Kent. The girls pleading is palpable.

The film is gruesome from a violence perspective and hesitates not in going where many horror films dare not to go- with the death and slaughter of young children. One kid in particular is basically shown disemboweled, granted the kid is written as a bully and therefore gets his comeuppance in grisly form. Sad is the death of a lonely trailer park type kid, only looking for just a friend in Kent- little does he know his short days are numbered.

As strong and measured as the story idea is, Clown does have some negatives. The film has an overall amateurish quality to it, and certainly not because it is an independent film. Rather, the style almost comes across as a student film project. Some of the acting is not great, specifically actress Laura Allen as Meg. In fact, the filmmakers might have been wiser to make this project more of an episodic venture instead of a full length release.

Clowns, kids, and demons make a fun combination for horror and the aptly named Clown is a solid B-movie effort in the glorious chambers of the cinematic horror genre. With a few tweaks and zip-ups, Clown might have been an even more memorable film. It will not go down in history as a masterpiece, but does have the necessary elements for a good watch.

Other People-2016

Other People-2016

Director-Chris Kelly

Starring-Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon

Reviewed August 24, 2017

Grade: B+

2016’s recipient of numerous Independent Film award nominations is equal parts a touching drama and equal parts witty comedy, providing a film experience that successfully transcends more than one genre- is it a heavy drama or is it a comedic achievement? Without being sappy or overindulgent, Other People is a film that will elicit both laughs and tears from viewers fortunate enough to see this film focused on a tough to tackle subject- a woman dying of cancer. The title of the film, which one character states he always thought cancer was something that only happened to “other people” is poignant.

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon play son and mother in the brave film both written and directed by Chris Kelly. The very first scene is a confusing one and caught me off guard- we see the entire Mulcahey clan- father Norman (Bradley Whitford), three kids, David (Plemons), Alex, and Rebeccah, along with their dead mother Joanne (Shannon), all lying in the same bed, sobbing and clutching hands. Clearly Joanne has just succumbed to her battle with cancer. This powerful opening scene, which ironically is also the final scene, sets the tone for the entire film as Kelly, works his way back, beginning a year prior to the important “death scene”.

Cancer is a very tough subject to cover in film, especially going the comedy/drama route. The sensitive film maker must be careful not to trivialize the subject matter with too many comedic elements nor go for the heavy drama. Kelly successfully mixes the humor and drama well so that the film works as a cross-genre film. He achieves this by putting capable talents like Plemons and Shannon to good use- they share tremendous chemistry in every scene they appear in together. Scenes that show David and Joanne cry in each others arms work as well as others, such as when David takes a giddy Joanne to meet his comedy friends.

Most impressive is that the story in Other People is largely autobiographical- Kelly, a gay man like the character of David, moved from New York City to Sacramento, California, to tend to his ailing mother, who had also died from cancer. Actress Shannon reminded him so much of her that he had the fortune of casting the talented lady in his film- the part originally slated to go to Sissy Spacek instead.

Mixed in with the Joanne’s battle with cancer is also a nice story about David. A gay man, David has broken up with his boyfriend Paul, previously living together on the east coast (though still pretending to in order to spare Joanne worry), to return to the west coast. Over the course of the next year we see Joanne and Norman slowly come to terms with David’s sexuality- more so Norman than Joanne. In fact, the turbulent father/son relationship is explored during the course of the film as Norman, initially hesitant to even meet David’s boyfriend, Paul, in the end, pays for his airline ticket to attend Joanne’s funeral.

A slight miss with the film is the Norman/David dynamic-besides a few hints of Norman encouraging David’s struggling writing career and his obsession with David joining the gym and boxing, it is not really clear what issue he takes with his son being gay or why he is uncomfortable with it- other than the implication that the family is rather conservative no other reason is given. David’s sister’s and grandparents do not seem to take issue with David’s sexuality, though it is not made certain if the grandparents are even aware of it. Is it a machismo thing with Norman? This part of the story is unclear.

Still, in the end, Other People is a good, small, indie film, rich with crisp, sharp writing and a tragic “year in the life of a cancer patient” along with good family drama and the relationships that abound when a family comes together and unites based on a health threat. The film is certainly nothing that has not been done before, but thanks to good direction and a thoughtful, nuanced, approach, along with one character’s sexuality mixed in, the film feels quite fresh.

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

Director-Raoul Peck

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Reviewed August 19, 2017

Grade: B

I Am Not Your Negro, a 2016 documentary created by director Raoul Peck, chronicles an unfinished manuscript written by social critic James Baldwin, entitled Remember This House. The memoir is a series of recollections by Baldwin, who died in 1987, of his experiences with famous civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

Released in a year that saw similarly racial themed documentaries such as 13th and O.J.: Made in America emerge, all were recognized with award nominations in several year end ceremonies. If comparisons are drawn, 13th, the most similar in theme to I Am Not Your Negro, is the superior piece. While interesting, the latter did not quite grip me as much as the former. Still, I Am Not Your Negro is worth a watch if nothing else than to understand and be exposed to the continuing battle for racial equality in the United States.

The documentary itself teeters around discussion and back-story of all the leaders mentioned. Lots of location shots are used, as well as speeches made by and old footage of each of the men. A high point are interviews by Baldwin himself, and his insight about his own racial experiences, both positive and negative. Each of the leaders, King, X, and Evers receive roughly the same amount of screen time and the best part is Baldwin’s own dealings with each man.

I enjoyed immensely the multitude of scenes featured of racial history in cinema and the harsh reality is that blacks have not been given their due until quite recently in how their characters are portrayed. As recent as the 1950’s and 1960’s, and arguably later than that, blacks were demeaned or treated as nothing more than secondary characters. Worse yet, some were portrayed for laughs or as caricatures.

A startling admission comes from Baldwin himself. Having been an enormous John Wayne fan as a child, and reveling in the joy of his films, it was a harsh reality to understand that the Indians in Wayne films, seen as the “bad guys”, were really Black Americans- therefore himself. Certain films Baldwin watched were viewed through the innocent eyes of a child- real life was harsher.

Unnecessary is the narration by Samuel L. Jackson and the actor being a well known name, distracted from the message being told. Jackson seems to read Baldwin’s words as if he were acting, and Baldwin and Jackson are two very different types of men, so the result is disjointed.

The most important takeaway that I Am Not Your Negro left me with is a crucial one- better understanding of the historical plight of the Black American and how far the United States has come in better racial equality. Even more important, however, is the realization that we still have so much work ahead of us as a nation to ensure even better race relations and this is a sobering message.

Tanna-2016

Tanna-2016

Director-Bentley Dean, Martin Butler

Starring-Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa

Reviewed August 18, 2017

Grade: A

Tanna, named for the tiny South Pacific nation of Vanuatu in close proximity to Australia, is a small film made in 2016 and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award. A marvelous work in every way, the crowning achievement is how this particular film was made. Shot entirely on the island with a minimal budget and the use of non actors, the result is  a  romantic, yet tragic  love story that will move its viewer to tears in its innocence and beauty. Tanna is shot in the  Nauvhal and Nafe languages.

Film-makers reportedly spent seven months in the village of Yakel, immersing themselves in the culture and civilization of the tribe. The people are the last of their kind, rebuffing nearby colonial and Christian influences in favor of their own traditional values and beliefs. The story that the film tells is based on a true story of love inflicting two tribe members and played out by the villagers- each portraying a role very close to their own lives and hearts.

As the movie opens, we are immediately exposed to a tribal community going about their daily life- they wash, hunt, and wander through the jungles exploring their natural surroundings. The men wear simple penis sheaths and the women are mostly topless. We sense a great community and a sense of togetherness. When Dain and Wawa  (I am admittedly unsure if these are the “actors” names or the real-life people) lay eyes on one another from across the jungle, they instantly fall in love and begin to secretly spend time with one another in a tender and romantic courtship.

A traditional rule of the tribe is arranged marriage, which becomes a major problem for Dain and Wawa as their love blossoms. When a neighboring tribe attacks the Shaman over a dispute regarding bad crops, Dain wants revenge. When cooler heads prevail, the leaders of each tribe decide that Wawa will marry a member of the other tribe, which leaves she and Dain distraught and desperate- their love is then tested in the ultimate way.

The individuals who play both “Dain” and “Wawa” offer an authenticity and  truth that astounds as reportedly, in addition to never having acted, neither had never seen a camera before, but both pour their souls into the characters they portray. This also goes for the little sister of Wawa, who is a goldmine in her honest portrayal. In fact, all the performances are rich.

Visually, Tanna is just breathtaking. The exotic lushness of the green jungles mixed with the gorgeous running streams and waterfalls are one thing, but the oozing volcano that inhabits the island is both colorful and picturesque during the night scenes.  In fact, the entire film is shot outdoors and is captured incredibly well. In this way, the film immerses the audience wholly in the tribal world.

Comparisons to the William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet must be made. The film is a romantic tragedy of epic proportions and the doomed couple share  everlasting love and a bond that can never be broken. The truth in this tale is genuine as the couple must agonize over a decision to either remain together or risk the threat of Dain’s life and Wawa’s freedom if they return to their native village. The film is almost poetic, never more so than in the final act, which is set upon the glorious spitting volcano.

Sadly, films similar in both richness and honesty are rarely made in modern times, but that just makes Tanna stand out as a treasure in beauty and thought. Interestingly, because of the real-life couple’s determination and strength, the age-old tradition of chosen marriages has since been lifted and true love encouraged.

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

Fire at Sea was honored with a coveted 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar award nomination, but despite this high achievement, was met with largely negative reviews from its viewers- this is not as surprising as it might seem. Furthermore, the documentary was also the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language film category, but was not chosen. In this way, the piece is rather a hybrid between a “typical” film and a documentary, making it all the more unique in itself.

The lackluster comments are undoubtedly due to both the very slow pace and the way the documentary is jagged- interspersing snippets of story not seeming to go together with the main message. Compounded by the sheer length of the film (one hour and fifty four minutes is very long for a documentary), the work will not go down in history as a rousing crowd-pleaser. But it is an important film.

The story tells of a group of modest individuals inhabiting a tiny Sicilian fishing island named Lampedusa, located somewhere between Sicily and Libya. The island is prominent for being a rescue area for migrants forging a treacherous journey from African countries (mostly Libya and Sudan) to the island for safety and medical treatment. It is implied that the migrants do not actually stay on the island for very long, but rather Lampedusa serves as a temporary sanctuary. It is not explained where the migrants go or what happens to them after medical treatment.

After a slightly tedious start, I began to become immersed in the various stories and began to appreciate the slow pace- I actually found this calming. We see snippets of the ordinary daily events of the residents: a young boy and his friend carve faces out of cactus plants, later the boy experiences an eye exam and is told he needs glasses- later we see a lengthy scene merely of his family eating pasta. We also get to know a resident doctor, grandmother, disc jockey, and scuba diver.

Admittedly, I began to wonder what a young boy preparing a sling-shot, or a grandmother preparing sauce,  had to do with the main content of the documentary- that of migrants coming to the island. Then I realized that director Gianfranco Rosi is telling a human story and witnessing the ordinary Lampedusa citizens going about their lives is in strong contrast to the fleeing and terrified migrants. I was able to put all the pieces together.

Told without narration and with the dialogue in Italian containing  sub-titles, additional unique aspects to the project, Fire At Sea is unusual, but I admired its important message.

The most powerful scene in the film is a quiet one- a resident doctor describing his experiences with the migrants. He professes how any decent person should help any needy souls and describes the grisly task of performing autopsies on the people (many women and children), who do not survive the harried journey across the Mediterranean Sea- many dying of hunger and thirst or being burned by the diesel fuels from the tiny boat they are stuffed into. His long, yet powerful account will move one to tears.

This testimonial by the doctor speaks volumes regarding the current influx of needy individuals, mainly from Syria, who need help from both neighboring countries and countries far away. Some have been kind and have let individuals into their countries, while others have shunned the migrants (namely in 2017 the United States). The honest account from the doctor summarizes the message of humanity that Fire at Sea represents.

Another powerful scene emerges towards the end of the documentary as several African men are rushed from their ship to another ship and tended to by rescue individuals. Sadly, the barely alive, yet conscious men are not long for this world as a few minutes later we see a series of body bags lined up containing the expired men. This tragic realization speaks volumes for the need for such humanistic individuals as some who reside on Lampedusa.

Fire at Sea, the title a World War II reference to the fiery waters that the residents could see from a far distance during that time, is a story that is worth watching. It provides a lesson in kindness and good decency and a reminder that some people are just good, generous souls, all but willing to help those in need. We can all learn from this documentary.

13th-2016

13th-2016

Director-Ava  DuVernay

Reviewed August 5, 2017

Grade: B+

Hot on the heels of her successful feature film Selma (2014), director Ava DuVernay follows up with another race relations piece- this time with an informative documentary entitled 13th, after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, freeing slaves and banning slavery.

The documentary, however, brings to the surface, loopholes to the constitution, and how progress has been too slow for black people following the Civil war and into modern times. It looks at the escalating incarceration rates of the United States black population over the years. and how the prison system as a whole has been used as both a money-making system and as a way of controlling minorities.

The United States prison system is examined throughout the documentary and gets off to a compelling start as we hear an audio clip of former President Barack Obama inform us that the United States has five percent of the worlds population yet twenty five percent of the worlds prisoners, a direct message to those convinced that the United States is the greatest country in the world. This powerful message sets 13th off right as we begin a journey into why the statistic exists.

I thoroughly enjoyed the high production values that the documentary offers, including modern graphics as the numbers of the incarcerated blacks came on screen in an edgy way. 13th does not feel dated or monotone as some documentaries do. Rather, it feels creative and nuanced with interviews and news clips of events such as the Civil Rights movement to Depression era footage and to very modern day footage so that over a hundred years of history is represented.

A great add on to 13th is the chronological path through history that the viewer experiences, beginning with the Civil War and ending with 2017- with the unpopular Donald Trump as President of the United States. In fact, the gloomy implication is that, with the current (2017) presidency, the minority population is still repressed and discriminated against by many political figures and that they are still largely feared and blamed for the “perceived” high crime rates.

DuVernay’s major point of her documentary is that many political figures use “scare tactics” to influence voters to vote a certain way and throughout history voters have fallen for this measure time and time again. She wisely goes through history and dissects several presidents terms and individual campaign messages. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr., and Obama are heavily featured. I loved this aspect since it was like a fresh history lesson for me and how the times have not only changed, but in some ways stayed the same.

13th avoids being too preachy, and, to its credit, presents “both sides of the aisle”. There are some who feel that political figures tough take on crime is not meant to repress minorities- a few of these folks are interviewed and given time to explain their viewpoints, but the film is largely left-leaning in tone and views- the negative portrayals of Trump, Nixon, and Reagan, are proof of this.

Enjoyable are interviews with prominent activists such as Angela Davis, leader of the Communist Party USA, and a woman with close ties to the Black Panthers. Considered a radical in her day (the 1960’s), the documentary features clips of her interviews both then and now. Current political figures Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are featured giving 13th a crisp, modern, and relevant feel to it, rather than a period of time long ago.

Overall, I found 13th to be an educational and historical lesson in the challenges and the race issues that people of color have dealt with over the years and how their world is still effected by current legislation and decisions by political figures (mainly white), who hold all of the cards and repress people who speak out against them.

The Salesman-2016

The Salesman-2016

Director-Asghar Farhadi

Starring-Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti

Reviewed August 2, 2017

Grade: A

The Salesman is the latest film directed by Asghar Farhadi to win the coveted Best Foreign Language film Oscar-2011’s A Separation also won the crown and 2013’s The Past, nestled in between the other films, is nearly as good. All contain mesmerizing and gripping plot elements that leave the audience in good discussion long after the film has concluded- that is what good storytelling is all about.

Rich with empathetic elements and good, crisp writing, Farhadi has quickly become one of my favorite international film-makers as each of his pictures are as powerful in humanity as their counterparts. Along with fellow contemporary Claude Chabrol (admittedly around a lot longer), similarities abound between the two creative maestros in the form of thrills, mystery, and differing character allegiances. I adore how both directors incorporate the same actors into their films.

In clever fashion, Farhadi incorporates classic stage production, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, into the story and the play and the film contain similar themes- humiliation and secrets.  Young and good-looking couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are community theater actors living a happy existence in metropolitan Tehran, Iran. They have a wonderful array of friends and companions and are popular with their close neighbors and theater buddies. Emad, a well-liked high school teacher, and Rana, a housewife, make a perfect couple, but their bond will soon be severely tested.

Forced to move from their crumbling apartment into temporary quarters owned by a theater friend, they are unaware that the former tenant worked as a prostitute and had a bevy of gentleman callers. What they do know is that she left the unit in a hurried way, leaving behind all of her belongings for them to sift through. One night when Rana is home alone, she inadvertently allows a mystery person to enter, which leads to a terrible incident. The film centers around determining what exactly happened between Rana and the intruder. Is she hiding the truth? Can she and Emad get past the implications of the events?

The audience is left  with a powerful and intriguing mystery to absorb and unravel. Throughout most of the film questions are brought to the surface to be thought through. Who was the intruder? Will Emad exact revenge? What happened?

The brilliance of The Salesman is that we, as the audience, never actually see the incident inside Emad and Rana’s apartment take place, so we are baffled by what has transpired. We merely witness the after-effects and the questions the characters (mainly Emad) have. Is Rana being truthful? Did she know the man who entered the apartment? Was it even a man or perhaps the former female tenant? With Farhadi, anything is possible, but rest assured, a startling climax will ensue.

Compelling and the pure genius of the film is how the viewer’s loyalties will not only be divided by character, but will also change within an actual scene. In one tense sequence, a heroic character becomes the villain and slowly returns to being the hero again-talk about a topsy turvy experience! The Salesman is smothered with a roller coaster of emotions and feelings.

In fact, the way that more than one of the central character’s change their motivations is largely the film greatest success. Rana, Emad, and “the Man” are flawed, complex characters, and what a treat it must have been for these actors to sink their teeth into these roles.

A special mention must be given to the other actors involved in the film. The Salesman is fraught with great performances big and small. In addition to the leads (Hosseini and Alidoosti), the supporting cast exudes immeasurable talent. Farid Sajadhosseini as “the Man” is simply astounding in his performance and his family members, appearing largely in the conclusion of the film, deserve much praise. These small characters appear in the most pivotal time of the film and give it the needed acting chops required to pull off the end result.

Asghar Farhadi hits another one out of the park with The Salesman and how deserving is the Oscar win for this man- a director whose films are always sure to be compelling, thought provoking treats. I cannot wait for his next film.

Closet Monster-2016

Closet Monster-2016

Director-Stephen Dunn

Starring-Connor Jessup, Aaron Abrams

Reviewed July 22, 2017

Grade: B

Closet Monster is a 2016 Canadian LGBT drama that had the honor of being featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was crowned the Best Canadian Drama winner. Upstart director, Stephen Dunn, directs the film and adds some interesting visual techniques as well as some imagination. The story is a compelling coming of age piece, but the film as a whole is uneven at times, mainly with some character underdevelopment. Still, for the subject matter, a nice film for LGBT teenagers to be exposed to.

The film is set in Newfoundland, where eighteen year old Oscar Madly (Connor Jessup) is a closeted, creative, teenager, with aspirations of being accepted into a prestigious school in New York, designing special effects makeup. Through the opening scenes, featuring Oscar as an eight year old child, we learn that his mother has left the family to begin a new life, and that Oscar witnessed a vicious beating of a gay teen, leaving him terrified of his own developing feelings towards the same sex.

Oscar has issues with both of his parents- his mother’s abandonment, and his father’s temper and homophobia. He frequently escapes into a private tree-house he and his father have built and daydreams of happier childhood times with his father. Oscar’s best friend is Gemma, who his father mistakenly assumes is his girlfriend. When Oscar meets suave co-worker, Wilder, he immediately becomes smitten with him.

Director, Dunn, creates a talking pet hamster for Oscar, voiced by actress Isabella Rossellini, a wonderful, creative add-on to the film. Buffy is a source of advice and wisdom throughout Oscar’s constant trials and tribulations and has been with him through the years. In a clever revelation that goes over his head, Buffy reveals to Oscar that she, in reality, has been replaced several times by other hamsters over the years.

Closet Monster has its positives and negatives. Certainly, for teenagers, or for any age group, struggling with either sexuality issues or for children of divorce, the film hits it out of the park, and serves as a relatable film. Dunn successfully makes Oscar an empathetic character, with wit and charm, and just the perfect amount of vulnerability. In many ways, Oscar is mature beyond his years. For the most part a careful character, he is surrounded by a world of chaos and disorder and uses escapism (his fantasies and secluded tree-house) to get through life. In this way Oscar is a very strong and well-written character.

Also a hit is the love interest of Oscar’s- the sexy Wilder. More of a bad boy, and assumed to be straight, Wilder, while rebellious, also becomes a sweet and trusted friend to Oscar. When he realizes Oscar’s sexual preference and that he is the object of Oscar’s affections, he does not freak out or dismiss Oscar. Rather, the young men become even closer. In a tender scene, Wilder offers to be Oscar’s first kiss, so that he can experience the monumental moment in a special way.

Still, the film would have been wise to develop Oscar’s parents better. At first, the father (Peter Madly), appears to be a decent man, dumped by his wife, and forced to raise his son alone. Conversely, the mother (Brin), is written as abandoning her child to selfishly start a new life with a new family (Oscar even spits in her face!). Somewhere along the line, Peter becomes a reckless homophobic with severe anger issues and Brin is painted as the sympathetic one who suddenly is “there for Oscar”. Better development would be recommended for these characters as I found their motives either unclear or perplexing. Why did they split in the first place?

Dunn is great at making Closet Monster an atypical film. He does not pepper the story with predictability or tried and true story points when it comes to the same sex romance, which is a brave choice. Rather he fills the film with non cliche moments. Closet Monster is a worthy entry in the LGBT film category and a must see for those struggling with identity issues- the film acts as a form of therapy.

Life, Animated-2016

Life, Animated-2016

Director-Roger Ross Williams

Starring-Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind

Reviewed July 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Autism is still a baffling disease to many people (myself included) since I know nobody personally who is afflicted with it and, before watching this documentary had many questions. How wonderful to see a documentary that not only teaches the viewer about autistic people, but presents a wonderful story of how Disney films helped an autistic child into a world of normalcy with the aid of loving parents. Life, Animated is an empathetic film with a positive and inspirational message.

The production is based on a 2014 novel, written by journalist Ron Suskind, entitled Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, in which Ron tells the story of his son Owen and how Disney films helped him communicate with the outside world. The documentary, however, is told from Owen’s perspective, through childhood years into adulthood. The story incorporates not only Owen’s challenges with autism, but also his love life, relationship with his brother and parents, and various other autistic people he has come to bond with. He also was fortunate enough to be invited to Paris, France to speak at a conference.

How Owen, an energetic and “normal” three year old, suddenly shrunk into himself and away from the rest of the world is mysterious, but also how autism works. Owen’s parents, baffled at the sudden change in Owen’s behavior, did the dutiful parental actions of doctors and studies, but, in essence, helped Owen on their own. When Ron, on a lark, and with some desperation, began speaking in the voice of a Disney character, Owen sprung to life like magic.

The film will please fans of Disney films since Owen lives and breathes the various classic movies, immersing himself in their worlds and memorizing scenes and dialogue alike. Specifically, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are heavily featured as reference points.

As a teenager, Owen sadly was tormented by school bullies, which caused him a setback. Fortunately, through his creative mind, he began to write stories and come up with his own characters as a sense of relief from everyday stress. The film intersperses various drawings of Owen and his family throughout, adding a creative edge to the documentary.

The documentary wisely does not state that Disney films will cure anyone with autism, but rather Owen’s love of these films served as a stimulus to bring him back to life. Presumably any autistic child could find a source or something he or she loves, to help build self esteem and achieve skills.

I highly recommend Life, Animated to anyone with an autistic child, sibling, relative, or friend, or anyone seeking an empathetic experience and a heartwarming tale of achievement. From a film perspective, the documentary is clear, concise, and to the point, with videotaped images of Owen’s life as a child through adulthood. Life, Animated received a 2016 Best Documentary Oscar nomination.

A Man Called Ove-2016

A Man Called Ove-2016

Director-Hannes Holm

Starring-Rolf Lassgard

Reviewed June 12, 2017

Grade: A

A Man Called Ove is a wonderful 2016 Swedish film, honored with a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, that is just a darling watch-in fact, the film is wonderful. Equal parts whimsical, humorous, and heartbreaking, the film churns up emotions in me brought to the surface, and that is quite telling about the experience. The film is magical in a sense. Lovely scenery of Sweden also abounds, making A Man Called Ove an unexpected marvel and certainly worth checking out for good film lovers.

Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a fifty-nine year old curmudgeon living in suburban Sweden. He is the keeper of law and order in his quaint, little community of bungalows, regularly ridiculing rule breakers and the oblivious with torrents of shouts and insults. He despises several of his neighbors including a beautiful cat that saunters around the complex as if she owns the place.  When an interracial family moves in next door to Ove, his life forever changes as he becomes acquainted with the husband, the wife, and their two young girls. In the midst of his new found entertainment, Ove regularly visits his deceased wife’s gravestone, bringing her flowers, and plotting his own suicide. Through flashbacks, we are taken on a journey through the past as we learn all there is to know about Ove.

The film as a whole is a beautiful experience and , admittedly, I worried at first that A Man Called Ove would be too lighthearted and sentimental- just the type of foreign language film the Academy far too often recognizes in lieu of darker, more complex (and in my mind, deserving) films. A Man Called Ove is not exactly dark, but certainly not trivial or fluff either. I found the film rich with great writing and character development.

Romance is also a major theme of the film, but not in a corny way. For a good portion of the running time, Ove’s deceased wife Sonja, is a complete mystery. We only know that Ove misses her terribly and cannot wait to be with her in the afterlife. In fact, we only get brief glimpses of her photo on the table. When finally introduced to the story, we see them both in younger years, filled with hope and promise. I beamed with delight during these wonderful moments. The scenes of their innocent first dates and the connection they develop are heartwarming and innocent.

Later, when Sonja’s story is wholly explored, we come to a new appreciation for Ove and why he is the way he is in present times- we understand him better and the character develops. Some of the paths that life takes Ove and Sonja are tear inducing and emotional, largely due to the character and personality that Sonja possesses. On the heels of the Ove and Sonja back-story, we are treated to scenes of Ove and his father, in the past. His mother dying way too young, the pair develop an unrelenting bond that is severed only by tragic circumstances.

Ove’s constant bungled attempts at suicide (he buys poor quality rope to hang himself, a visitor interrupts his attempt to breathe in toxic garage fumes, and he ends up saving a life when he intends to be hit by a train) are the comic turns that the film mixes perfectly with the heavy drama.

A perfect balance of drama, comedy, churning emotions, and heartbreaking honesty, A Man Called Ove is a pure treat in modern cinema and is highly recommended for those seeking a treasure with a full array of characteristics.

Fences-2016

Fences-2016

Director-Denzel Washington

Starring-Denzel Washington, Viola Davis

Reviewed June 11, 2017

Grade: B+

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both give dynamic performances in Fences, a film directed by Washington himself, and based on a stage play, written by August Wilson. The film reunites several actors from the stage version and, while compelling, Fences does not translate as well onto the screen as hoped. Throughout the film, I kept surmising how much better Fences would be on the live stage. Still, a tremendous acting tour de force transpires, which is well worth the price of admission.

Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson (Washington) is a struggling fifty-three year old black man, working as a trash collector alongside his best friend, Jim Bono. Married to Rose (Davis), they share a teenage son, Cory, an aspiring high school football player. In the mix are Troy’s younger brother, a mentally impaired World War II veteran, and Troy’s older son, Lyons, a fledging musician. Everyone lives in a close-knit community and there is a sense of comradery, though the principal characters are frequently at odds with each other as dramatic situations slowly arise.

Troy is a very angry man, frequently going on rants about his time playing in the Negro baseball league and complaining about the unfairness of the world, specifically the racial injustice of the time. The friction between Troy and Cory is thick as Cory wants to dedicate his life to football, while Troy feels his son will ultimately be disappointed. When Troy drops a startling bomb on Rose, their lives are forever changed as they work to mend the damage inflicted between them.

Fences is at its core a family drama and the story offers tons of conflict. Almost all of the action takes place in the Maxson family home- a two story brick house- and scenes frequently play out in the backyard. In this way, the film stays very true to its roots as a stage production, which is good and bad. The film feels like a play, so therefore I found myself fantasizing about how good the production would be on the stage rather than on the screen, especially since some of the actors (namely Washington and Davis) starred in that version. What a blessing and a curse.

The film feels a bit too limiting at times and contains a glossy “Hollywood look” to it. This is all well and good, but the stage version would undoubtedly be more bare bones, giving the production more of a raw feel- especially important in several key dramatic scenes between Troy and Rose.

Despite other opinions, I did not find Troy to be a likable character at all. Certainly, Washington infuses power and good acting grit into the character, but I found few redeeming qualities. To say nothing of the situation with Rose, he does not treat son Cory with much respect. I found Troy’s repeated verbal rampages and stories irritating after awhile, and began to wonder, “why should we root for this man?”

Viola Davis deserved the Best Supporting Actress award she received for her turn as Rose. Dutiful, loving, and woefully under appreciated, her character rises well above a traditional housewife, as during one pivotal scene, she explodes with rage. Davis, a fantastic “crier”, saves her best tears for this part, as it is a weepy portrayal. But more than that, she exudes a strong woman, in a time when black women had it particularly tough.

I would have preferred an edgier film than the final result of Fences brings to the big screen, but the wonderful performances more than compensated for what the film otherwise lacks in darkness. At times too safe and slightly watered down, the stage version may be the one to see.

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Hacksaw Ridge-2016

Director-Mel Gibson

Starring-Andrew Garfield

Reviewed June 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Hacksaw Ridge is considered somewhat of a comeback film for troubled director Mel Gibson, having not directed a film in over ten years. The film received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Andrew Garfield). While the film has a few minor flaws, and despite being yet another exhausting war film, Hacksaw Ridge is quite powerful, mostly because of the warmth and convictions that Garfield breathes into the central character, and real life hero, Desmond Doss. The film also leans anti-war and pacifistic, needed components in these troubled times.

During World War II, Desmond is a young man living in Virginia. With a brother around the same age, they deal with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive mother. Desmond realizes he has a talent for medical care and, after falling in love with a small town nurse, he decides to enlist in the Army as a non combat medic. After refusing to use weapons and train on Saturdays, he is met with contempt by his commanding officers and fellow recruits. When, inevitably, Doss and his troops are deployed to the Pacific theater during the Battle of Okinawa, Doss becomes a hero when he saves numerous lives on the frightening  “Hacksaw Ridge” in courageous form.

For the first half or so of the film (save for a peculiar opening battle sequence that comes into play during the second half of the film), the action largely either takes place in Desmond’s hometown  of Virginia or at a basic training facility.  We get to know a bit about Desmond’s childhood experiences, his love life, and his love of country and duty. His father, a retired military man himself is damaged- he drinks, beats on his wife, and hits the boys, though Gibson tones down the abuse by not showing much of it. He saves the real gore for later in the film.

The film during the earlier portions has a very mainstream, safe feel to it and I found more than a couple of aspects to nitpick. Desmond’s fellow training recruits are laced with too often used stereotypical, stock characters- the brooding one, the cocky one nicknamed “Hollywood” for his good looks and tendency to walk around naked, the funny one, the strange one, the list goes on and on. Predictably, drill Sergeant Howell (played by Vince Vaughn, now parlaying from comedy roles to drama) is tough as nails. This is a character we have seen in dozens of war films before it and it feels stale as do all of the characters. Some of the jokes used are cheap one-liners like, “we are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy” to describe new surroundings- Duh, really?. Additionally, there is glaring machismo in the first half that is a negative to the film and it makes the film feel like nothing more than standard fare.

However, the second half of Hacksaw Ridge really drew me in- much more than the first half did. Now in Okinawa, the film grips a much darker tone with the inclusion of battle scenes, some very gruesome with the loss of limbs and life. Technically speaking, the cinematography and camera work are shaky and move very quickly, causing an effective shift from the sun and peace of the United States to the dark and fog of unfamiliar territory.  A sweet scene between Desmond and brooding former rival, Smitty Ryker, inside a foxhole, is wonderful as we get to know each character much better within that one scene. Both men discuss their pasts and grow a new affection for one another. It is humanistic and character driven and thereby makes the film much more powerful.

Andrew Garfield is a marvel in the film and deserves the attention received for the role. Coming into his own as an actor after suffering hiccups with Spider Man, he has thankfully returned to character driven and empathetic roles. The role of Desmond is a truly heroic role for him and he is wonderfully cast.

A war film with a distinct anti-war message, Hacksaw Ridge  is overall a “guy’s film” with the female characters taking a backseat to the men, and suffers from some tried and true aspects, and some of the hairstyles seem awfully 2016, but in the end the film depicts a wonderful human being and tells his heroic story, so that makes the film a good watch.

Spa Night-2016

Spa Night-2016

Director-Andrew Ahn

Starring-Joe Seo

Reviewed May 19, 2017

Grade: B+

On the surface, Spa Night may seem like a straight-ahead independent LGBT themed film (of which in recent years there is no shortage of), but the plot of the film is really twofold. Sure, it tells the coming of age story of a young man’s sexuality, but Spa Night is also a story of the boy’s Korean parents financial struggles and their desire to raise a son into a successful young man, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. The films tone is very subtle and the action moves slowly, but it is a sweet story and a relevant one.

David Cho is a shy Korean-American high school student on the cusp of going to college. His parents (who only speak Korean) have sadly recently lost their take-out restaurant in Los Angeles. The parents struggle to make ends meet (she by waitressing, he by doing odd moving jobs), while David takes SAT classes to ensure he get into a great college. David is also struggling with his sexuality and one night visits a local male spa with drunken friends. He gets a job there and begins to experience male on male shenanigans taking place on the sly in the spa, all the while developing his own blossoming sexual feelings.

David’s development in the story is key- he is resistant to coming out as gay because his parents are traditional Korean, constantly mentioning David finding a girlfriend and succeeding in school, becoming what they have failed to achieve. When, at one point, he fools around with another male in the spa, David insists on a no kissing policy. This reveals to the audience that he has issues with the intimacy with another male and in one compelling scene some self-loathing occurs. When he stares too long at a buddy in the bathroom, while both are inebriated, this clues in the friend, who is then distant towards David.

The film is enjoyable because there are two stories being told rather than one, which helps the film succeed. We also care a great deal about David’s parents, compassionately portrayed rather than the stereotypical “tiger mom” and a rigid father. Wanting only the best for him, and having no clue about his sexuality struggles, they trudge along with their own issues. The father drinks too much and the parents frequently squabble. This is a clue to the film because it explains why David is hesitant to mention anything to them, despite the fact that he is close to his parents.

I also enjoyed the slice of life and coming of age appeal that the film possesses. Several shots of day to day life in Los Angeles are shown, mainly as characters go about their daily routines. The budget allotted Spa Night must have certainly been minimal, but the lesson learned is that some really fantastic films are made for miniscule money, but as long as the characters are rich and the story humanistic, the film succeeds- this is the case in Spa Night.

Almost every single character is of Asian descent- I am guessing all Korean actors. This is another positive I give to Spa Night. In the cinematic world, where other cultures and races are woefully underutilized or still stereo-typically portrayed, how refreshing that Spa Night breaks some new ground with an LGBT centered film with Korean characters.

Spa Night was deservedly crowned the coveted John Cassavetes award at the 2016 Independent Spirit awards (for films made for under $500,000) and director Andrew Ahn is certainly a talented novice director to be on the watch for. He seems destined to tell good, interesting stories about people.

Elle-2016

Elle-2016

Director- Paul Verhoeven

Starring-Isabelle Huppert

Reviewed May 17, 2017

Grade: A-

Certain to evoke both disgust and intrigue from viewers brave enough to watch it all the way through, and hopefully ponder the character dynamics, Elle is a titillating French film that was showered with heaps of praise upon its release in 2016. Controversial without question, in large part by the films main character, Elle will undoubtedly divide film fans- some heralding the picture as greatness, others detesting it as too exploitive. Not an easy watch by any measure, one aspect is cemented in truth-Isabelle Huppert gives a fantastic performance in a complex and perverse role.

Unique even in its first scene, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is a ruthless, alpha, business woman, who is raped and beaten by an intruder in her lavish Paris home. The violent act occurs in the very first scene immediately giving the film an “in your face” presence. When the rapist, who wears a ski mask, flees, Michele shakes off the incident with nary an emotional scar. Through backstory we learn that years ago Michele’s father brutally murdered many people and is imprisoned for life. Michele’s mother is an aging glamour girl who hires sexy male escorts. Michele’s son is engaged to a domineering pregnant woman, and her ex-husband is dating a younger woman. Michele lives a complicated life.

At first Michele, for all intents and purposes, seems like a sympathetic character and we feel her pain as she is taunted by a woman in a coffee shop for her fathers past deeds. To say nothing of her rape, we cringe when Michele hears noises and imagines the masked intruder returning to rape again, empathizing with the character. When Michele is harassed by the mystery man- he sends coy notes and leaves “gifts” in her home- we are scared for her. However, as the film goes along Michele’s obsession and other questionable actions, make the character tough to like. I also began to wonder if, perhaps, the entire film was being imagined or dreamed in Michele’s head!

As a fan of acclaimed film director, Claude Chabrol, Elle appears to be heavily influenced by him. Director Paul Verhoeven certainly must have studied his works. No slouch himself- female empowering sex films such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls that he directed, come to mind, he gives Elle a sleek and sexy feel. The fact that it is set in romantic Paris somehow helps and also makes the film glamorous and cultured. Verhoeven even weaves a whodunit into the story for much of the film until the rapist is revealed in shocking fashion.

If the film had ended with the big reveal, this would have made for a compelling, if not mainstream Lifetime television type film, but Elle really takes off from this point. Michele, already fancying her handsome rapist, actually begins a macabre relationship with the man, going so far as to act out the rape again- her fantasies coming true! This story turn may repel the average viewer, but to me, this turns the film into a completely left of center, layered, psychologically themed story. Elle is not a revenge tale or a film about a victimized woman, it is so much more.

What a dynamic performance Ruppert gives and here is why- she successfully makes Michele both sympathetic and reviled. Besides the aforementioned rape complexities, she despises her mother, sleeps with her best friends husband, and in a scene which arguably makes Michele cross the line in reprehensible behavior, she confesses her affair to best friend Anna, just when Anna is at her happiest moment- this is downright cruel! So, no, the audience does not completely sympathize with this character, but how layered does this make the character and what a treat for actress Ruppert to sink her teeth into a character like this one.

With a wounded yet cold central character-Elle-in large part thanks to exceptional direction by Verhoeven and a brilliant portrayal by Huppert, takes Elle into largely unchartered territory and brave waters to create a film that will make the viewer both think and loathe. Part nymphomaniac, wounded bird, and vicious shark, Elle contains a complex and memorable leading character.

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

10 Cloverfield Lane-2016

Director-Dan Trachtenberg

Starring-Mary Elizabeth Winstead,  John Goodman

Reviewed May 11, 2017

Grade: B+

10 Cloverfield Lane is a 2016 psychological thriller that is billed as somewhat of a successor to the 2008 hit, Cloverfield, though I fail to see the apparent correlation  between the films. Furthermore, the two stories seemingly have little or nothing to do with one another. Despite these pesky details, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a very good, edge of your seat type film that is unpredictable as well as thought provoking. It is a film worthy of discussion by the time the credits roll- a very good quality for a film to have.

Without any dialogue during the opening sequence (a clever move), we meet Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a twenty-something woman presumably on the outs with her boyfriend, who we never see. Alone, she flees their residence and drives into the night to parts unknown. The couple is metropolitan, living in central New Orleans. Now in the middle of Louisiana, and hearing radio reports of strange blackouts, Michelle is soon involved in a terrible car accident. When she awakens, she finds herself chained to a bed inside a small bunker inhabited by two men, Howard (John Goodman), and Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.). They insist that the outside world is no longer and all human beings are dead as a result of a catastrophic attack. Michelle, initially skeptical, slowly uncovers various clues that leave her baffled as to what the truth really is.

10 Cloverfield Lane may very well be John Goodman’s best film performance. He plays Howard with gusto and mystery and the audience is largely left baffled whether or not to trust this man. Is he a vicious abductor, creating a make believe world to keep Michelle hostage-or is he telling the truth? He plays the character as both creepy and surly, but with a tinge of vulnerability and sadness. I certainly was both fascinated and confused by Howard and could not determine his true motivations.

Winstead  also deserves credit for portraying a female character that is strong yet sympathetic and she is never reduced to playing a victim, a testament to the actresses ability. Over the years Winstead has appeared in several duds (Black Christmas and The Thing) so it is nice to see her in a film worthy of her talents. Michelle is smart and determined to deduce her true surroundings and formulate a clever escape- though in a nice twist by film makers, does she really want to leave the safety of her bunker after all?

In this way producer J.J. Abrams weaves a story layered with twists and turns, which does wonders to keep the tension and the interest at a high level throughout the course of the film. The major question that reoccurs is “what on earth lies outside of the bunker?”

I enjoy how this film is not the typical, cookie-cutter type fare where we root for the female victim to escape the clutches of a male maniac- the film is much deeper and complex than that. Most enjoyable is how events slowly unfold and we, the audience, begin to question thoughts we have harbored throughout the run of the film. A perfect example of this comes in the final chapter when events take off in an entirely different direction than the rest of the film. Feeling a bit suffocated inside the bunker, what a relief to finally have some action occur outside of this location and into fresh air. But what lurks in this new setting?

One small oddity is how the film chooses to include famous actor Bradley Cooper’s voice as Michelle’s boyfriend Ben, heard via telephone only. This went unnoticed by me until the credits rolled and seems like a silly and unnecessary inclusion. Also, we never know what the turmoil is between Michelle and Ben- is their domestic trouble simply a plot driven antic or is there further meaning?

In a nutshell, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a film best watched when knowing not the first thing about the plot or circumstances surrounding events. The film was so enjoyable to me because I did not know the twist, the conclusion, or even who starred in the film. In this way, the film kept all of the elements of surprise away from me and I found the film all the more enjoyable because of this.

Arrival-2016

Arrival-2016

Director-Denis Villeneuve

Starring-Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Reviewed May 9, 2017

Grade: B-

Arrival is the latest entry into what has become a recent trend of science fiction themed films to garner Academy Award praise, either by way of technical achievements or in the case of Arrival, a surprising Best Picture nomination in addition to the more traditional awards notice for categories like sound effects and editing. Traditionally, science fiction fare tends to get little or no recognition in major categories, all the more surprising is the films under the radar style inclusion with the big guns.

Similar in style to recent films such as Interstellar and Gravity, Arrival ultimately proves a disappointment as a complete film, succeeding only in specific avenues like its musical score and a sort of surprise twist ending that the film presents, but at times is downright to say nothing of its tedious moments. Needless to say, I disagree with its Best Picture nomination wholeheartedly.

Not claiming to be the world’s greatest science fiction fan either, at times Arrival does have glimmers of success (mainly in the first act) and some high points in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (the greatest of the greats in the genre), but the good moments ultimately fade as the story lumbers on only to show a brief resurgence in the final act. Sadly, the rest of film is rather middling.

In a role seemingly written just for her, Amy Adams stars as Louise banks, a linguist professor living and teaching in Massachusetts.  When one day a series of twelve extraterrestrial aircraft appear across the world, Louise is summoned by an Army Colonel (Forest Whitaker) to travel to a remote area of Montana where one aircraft has taken up residence, and assist a physicist,Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in communicating with the aliens. Their goal is to determine why they have come to planet Earth. Interspersed with the main story are strange flashbacks of a life Louise briefly spent with her daughter, who appears to have died of cancer as a teenager.

The premise of the film is reminiscent of another film named Contact, made in 1997, and starring Jodie Foster. In fact, the film seems to borrow aspects from several other famous science fiction films such as the creepy, ominous score that harkens back to 2001: A Space Odyssey in its mysteriousness, to the oddity of The Day the Earth Stood Still. So much so that the film reminds me  too much of other films, it therefore has little identity of its own, especially throughout the mid-section of the film.

Other than the character of Louise, there is no character development and this is glaring among the male cast of top talents like Whitaker and Renner- in fact, the roles are glorified throwaway roles. Save for Renner’s limited involvement in the films climactic “twist”, admittedly barely raising the film above mediocrity, neither character serves much purpose and could be played by any actor.

Whitaker’s G.T. Weber has little motivation other than to convince Louise to take part in the mission. The film also seems unsure whether to delve full force into a romantic entanglement between Louise and Renner’s Ian. Certainly a flirtation exists on the surface, but the film never hits a home run with it. Couldn’t meatier story be created for these two storied actors?

The unique extraterrestrial, a hybrid of tentacles, fingers, and funny eyes,  appearing as a pair humorously nicknamed Abbott and Costello, is impressive from an artistic perspective and this does help the film. Also, the fact that the characters are unsure whether Abbott and Costello are friends or foes is slightly intriguing, but the films main negative is that nothing much really happens other than repeated attempts by Louise to communicate, whimsically staring up into the camera in wonderment, and ultimately figure out the alien’s messages and purpose.

Worthy of mention is a fantastic and ominous musical score that allows the film some climactic and dark components that feel like the highlights of the film. It adds chilling, effective components. In this way, the elements raise the film up a notch from complete blandness.

The best part of the film is its ending and I rather got a bit of chills up and down my spine with the unique and inspired big reveal. In this way Arrival saves itself from being completely lackluster, but too little too late. I would have preferred the film balance the emotions, the surprises, and the thrills a bit more rather than exist mostly as a tedious, uninteresting film. Overall, the outcome of Arrival is more of a retread rather than anything new or original.

Nocturnal Animals-2016

Nocturnal Animals-2016

Director-Tom Ford

Starring-Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal

Reviewed April 30, 2017

Grade: A-

Nocturnal Animals blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in a revenge themed thriller directed by Tom Ford, in only his second directorial effort- 2009’s A Single Man was his first. While not always hitting the mark and at times very difficult to follow, the film is both unusual and mesmerizing, as well as lovely to look at from a visual perspective. Some scenes literally blur together in a splendid way so that the scenes seem interposed-a brilliant touch. The film is clearly influenced by David Lynch in tone and style.

Events are divided between “The Real World” and “The Novel”. The film begins in a strange manner as a bevy of nude, obese women prance and dance on video screens during an art exhibit opening. The gallery is owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful woman living a glossy life in Los Angeles. We quickly learn that Susan is involved in a loveless marriage with hunky Hutton (Armie Hammer), a businessman who is inattentive towards Susan. Before Hutton, Susan was briefly married to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novelist, who dedicates his latest manuscript to Susan received via mail. As Susan reads the manuscript, she is transported down a dark path of memories and fantasies concerning Edward and their past.

The locales of the film are split largely between Los Angles (the real world), and western Texas (where the novel takes place). This, in itself, is a compelling aspect to the film and really separates the two different worlds. Los Angeles is featured mainly at nighttime as Susan, presumed to be suffering from insomnia, is compelled by her reading. She also rubs shoulders with sophisticated artist types and colleagues at her studio.

Conversely, the setting of western Texas is worlds apart from the Los Angeles setting- like night and day. In Texas, we are introduced to the protagonist of the story that Susan reads. Tony, traveling through Texas with his wife, Laura, and their daughter, India, are accosted and terrorized by passing local motorists. Clearly from out of town, the family is stranded in the middle of nowhere and kept at bay by the rednecks- the story has a tragic ending. The stories intersect in an interesting way as we see the differing worlds.

I found the scenes in western Texas to be frightening and fraught with tense moments- so much so that my heart was beating very fast. I pictured myself as Tony in a situation faced with peril and danger. As the family attempts to reason with the thugs, they get deeper and deeper into trouble. The feeling of being vulnerable and unsafe with no help around is tremendously in the film.

The acting in Nocturnal Animals is excellent all around, no surprise with the tremendous cast. Adams and Gyllenhaal are especially worthy of mention. Their scenes playing via flashbacks, we find them both sympathetic and vulnerable (at first)- he a sensitive writer, she a college girl with aspirations of love and a family life. As the plot thickens both characters become more nuanced and complex- the subject of betrayal and revenge certainly comes into play, and both characters, now older and more pessimistic, intersect again as mature adults.

Michael Shannon, though believable as Detective Bobby Andes, assigned to Tony’s case, and suffering from stage four lung cancer, is not the standout for me, and I disagree with his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Certainly a fine performance, I would have much rather Gyllenhaal or Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as one of the rednecks) be awarded the nomination.

I was reminded of David Lynch’s masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, largely during the Los Angeles scenes. The slick, night air and the trials and tribulations of the wealthy mirrored each other quite readily. There is a gothic, haunting, moody vibe that the sequences contain.

The central theme of revenge comes into play in both worlds- Tony and Bobby seek revenge on the criminals in western Texas, while revenge also is a focus on Los Angeles, though much more subtle. A hint is given a couple of times in Susan’s art gallery as a large exhibit entitled “Revenge” is a focal point. What the Los Angeles revenge is, however, is not revealed until the very last scene.

One thing is certain about Nocturnal Animals- the film is dreamy, complex, and worthy of a good conversation. Tom Ford is an up and coming director with visual sensibilities and a dream-like vision. I hope we see more from this fascinating director.

The Lobster-2016

The Lobster-2016

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz

Reviewed April 20, 2017

Grade: A-

One thing is certain about the puzzling 2016 film, The Lobster- it is a film worthy of discussion long after the end credits roll and will leave the viewer pondering many facets of the film- a great film to dissect, if you will. This in itself is worth recognition and praise to the power of the film- so many questions abound. I was immediately struck by how heavily The Lobster contains major subject matter influences from “message novels” (and films) such as Brave New World, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange, as well as creative, stylistic recent film influences from The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom.

The story begins somewhere outside of Dublin, where David (Colin Farrell) has recently been dumped by his wife in favor of another man. Now single, he is whisked away by authorities to a luxurious hotel in the woods, where he (and the other guests) are given forty five days to find a suitable romantic partner, or else they will be turned into an animal of their choice. David is accompanied by his brother, now a dog, and has decided, should he be turned, that he will become a lobster because he loves the sea and they tend to live to be over one hundred years old.

The hotel management adheres to strict rules- no masturbation, mandatory temptations by hotel employees, and a strange outdoor hunting game where the guests hunt other guests to win extra days extended to their stays. As David befriends fellow hotel guests, he is conflicted and desperate to find a mate. Events take a surprising turn when circumstances allow the rules to change for him and he becomes involved with a short-sighted woman (Weisz).

The plot of the film is strange beyond belief, yet also incredibly creative and thought provoking. The subject matter is pure dystopian- a facility, presumably controlled by the government, with a rebel group intent on ruining the “status quo”. Mixed in with all of this suddenly appears an odd little secret romance between David and Shortsighted Woman that begins only during the final act of the film.

One aspect to the film that I found interesting was the odd monotone dialogue that the characters used- almost matter-of-fact in whatever they were saying, even while expressing anger. This peculiarity perplexed me, but the more I think about it, the more this decision makes the film dark humored and dry with wry wit.

Another interesting nuance to the film are the multitude of quirky characters, many of whom are mainly referred to by their nicknames. Lisping Man, Limping Man, and Nosebleed Woman to name a few. And what viewer would not spend the duration of the film imagining which animal he or she would desire to be turned into and why?

My favorite aspect of the film is the offbeat performance by Colin Farrell- typically a rugged, sex symbol, he goes against the grain and plays a pudgy, socially awkward, insecure man, but all the while instilling the character with enough warmth and likability to make the character work- and his chemistry with Rachel Weisz is fantastic. This turns the strange dark comedy into a strange romantic drama.

A beautiful forest becomes the backdrop for a large part of the film as does the city of Dublin itself, contrasting the film in nuanced ways. Combined with the lavish hotel, the film achieves several different settings for the action, each meaningful in its own right.

Without giving anything away, the conclusion of the film- the final scene in particular- is positively gruesome in what goes through the viewers mind, and the resolution is left very unclear. Does David do it or doesn’t he? Clearly, much of the film is open to one’s interpretation and imagination.

Black humor and cynicism are major components of The Lobster, which is a thinking man’s movie. In fact, I continue to think of this film as I write this review. The film flairs with originality and thought and this is a great positive. Confusing and mind blowing? For sure. A run of the mill film? Absolutely not. The Lobster is a film that gives no answers and is not an easy watch, but an achievement in film creativity- something sorely needed.

Sully-2016

Sully-2016

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart

Reviewed March 10, 2017

Grade: B

I think most film critics would agree that each modern film directed by Clint Eastwood would accurately be described as compelling films yet safe films and the 2016 Eastwood offering, Sully, fits into both of these categories in snug fashion- just as Sully feels like a snug film. Everything seems to fit into a nice package by the time the credits roll and while the film is sympathetic and has leanings of a character study, it is also shrouded in a wholesomeness that is incredibly safe and “Hollywood”. This is not a knock or a demerit towards the film as it is very good and well made with a high budget, but edgy is not its thing in the least and it might have gone for a bit more grit.

The quite recent perilous United Airways flight 1549 that now famous Captain Sully successfully landed into New York’s frigid  Hudson river one January morning, is recounted in the film. Tom Hanks plays the role of the subdued and unassuming hero to perfection as his calm demeanor and grounded persona makes him quite a likable chap to say nothing of the fact of saving 155 lives aboard the would be doomed flight that day.

Instead of going in a purely linear direction, building up the events (gravitating passengers, takeoff) in sequential order, until the inevitable crash, Eastwood wisely decides to begin directly after the crash has already happened.  Captain Sully, clearly jarred by the events, is startled awake by nightmares as he dreams of crashing into midtown Manhattan instead of safely landing the jet. The hero is clearly beginning to suffer from symptoms of PTSD. He is kept in New York City for days on both a press tour, interview after interview, as well as being questioned by The National Transportation Safety Board, who wonder why Captain Sully did not return to a nearby airport for an emergency landing as simulated computer recreations show that he could have. This leads to both Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) put under a microscope and questioned.

I was a bit caught off guard, and getting slightly bored, as the film takes about thirty minutes to even focus on the actual crash or show and airplane scene, rather building up the events by focusing on Sully and Skiles mental health, but in retrospect this is actually a wise decision by Eastwood. The entire film in itself is barely over ninety minutes total so the action does come fast and furious mid-stream.

Still, the film is not quite all that it could have been. Despite the potential horrific consequences faced with an airplane blowing both engines due to the flocks of birds, I never got many extremely perilous moments during the film. In fact, the danger scenes as Sully navigates the plane into the river, while technically well done, lack much in the way of punch. Sure, there are a few quick shots of passengers praying or appearing frightened, but we never get to know any of the passengers very well. A “don’t blink or you might miss it” scene of an elderly mother and her daughter shopping for a snow globe at the airport or three men rushing to catch the plane in order to catch a golf game in Charlotte are not enough for the audience to become to enveloped in their characters. In fact, they almost seem thrown in last minute as a way of personalizing the passengers.

To my mention above, the point of the film certainly surrounds Sully (and arguably it should; nothing wrong with that) and to a lesser degree Skiles, the supporting characters contain no character development and even Skiles’s personal life is not explored well. Scully’s wife is only seen by way of phone conversations (played by Laura Linney) that he is happily married with two daughters. There is brief talk of some money trouble, but the wife is underdeveloped. Additionally, the NTSB agents are portrayed as quite antagonistic towards Sully and Skiles (rumors abound that this was embellished for movie making), which makes sense.

I enjoyed the ending of the film- in tandem with the credits rolling- of seeing not only the real-life Sully, but his wife, and the passengers and crew of the real United Airlines flight 1549, through interviews and photographs. This offering in true life biography films is now a standard feature to look forward to as it brings a humanistic conclusion to the story just watched.

The focus of the film centering on Captain Sully is fine by me- the man is a hero- but as a film, and more than a biography, it might have added depth to have richer supporting characters and a stronger background of the man that is Sully. A few rushed childhood aviator and battle plane scenes seemed rather out of place. Still, as a whole the film is nice and quite watchable, just nothing that will set the world on fire or be remembered as much more than a decent film based on a true story.

American Honey-2016

American Honey-2016

Director-Andrea Arnold

Starring-Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf

Reviewed March 6, 2017

Grade: A-

American Honey is an unconventional coming of age drama that deserves kudos for not only being shot on a shoe-string budget, but also of having something of substance to tell. The film is mostly shot outdoors throughout the scouring summer months in heat drenched Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Kansas, as the film follows a group of rebellious, lonely teenagers as they attempt to sell magazines as part of a shady con organization. Their female leader uses cult-like rallying techniques to achieve loyalty. The film is shot mainly by hand-held cameras and only uses natural light, which are admirable feats in film.

The film’s central character is an eighteen-year old girl named Star, played by novice actress, Sasha Lane. Saddled with a deadbeat boyfriend with two young kids that she is forced to care for, she takes food from dumpsters in order to survive. One day, she is approached by a charismatic, handsome bad boy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake, along with a group of teenagers, offers her a job in Kansas. Hesitant, but realizing her dead-end existence, she accepts the mysterious job and travels with other unsavory characters across the bible-states, where they prey on wealthy, religious types willing to lend a hand, under the guise of selling them magazines.

The main story envelopes Star, her romantic feelings for Jake, and her quandaries that she faces on the road. She drinks, smokes, curses, and is sexually active, yet also savvy and wise beyond her years. The audience wonders if she will continue this lifestyle and worries when she comes into contact with older men- all rather well mannered and some affluent. Will they pay her for her magazines or some other forms of entertainment? How will Star handle propositions and scrapes in and out of precarious situations. Star grows up throughout the film. Star is also a kind and confident character.

At two hours and forty three minutes long, American Honey is extremely lengthy, especially given the fact that the film is an independent feature and also seems not to contain many concrete plot points nor much of a conclusion. It seems to just go on and on and on. Despite, the film never bored me and I was quite enraptured with the antics of the stories characters, finding myself quite fond of the surprising love story shrouded amongst the hip hop and rap soundtrack. Star and Jake (thanks in large part to the talents of Lane and LaBeouf) have true chemistry and likability as a couple.

The mystery surrounding Star is we know nothing about her parents or family or how she came to this existence at such a young age. At one point, she does mention her mother dying of a meth overdose, but it is unclear whether she makes this story up for the benefit of a magazine sale or if it is the truth. Star is rebellious, but very intelligent and capable, all the while exhibiting a kindness to strange children and her “colleagues”.

Interesting to note about American Honey are two key aspects: the film uses almost all non-actors- most of the kids were scouted and offered roles at local malls or various hangouts by director Andrea Arnold, so the film has a rawness and energy that is powerful given that the film is largely improvised. Also, the film is almost entirely shot using a basic hand-held camera or cellphone eliciting a shaky, documentary style feel. Instead of these characteristics giving American Honey an amateurish feel, it gave the film an authentic quality.

The left of center approach of featuring male frontal nudity and same sex relations gives the film much credo as an alternative film- the teens also swear and use drugs quite a bit, which could turn some off.

Receiving a heap of 2016 Independent Film award nominations (but winning none), my reason for watching the film, American Honey breathes some fresh air into the world of independent cinema, where sometimes too many big name stars appear in the indies to garner some credibility. Watching a film of novices or individuals with no acting aspirations simply create a good story is worth something in itself. And kudos to Arnold for spinning such a fresh tale.

Hidden Figures-2016

Hidden Figures-2016

Director-Theodore Melfi

Starring-Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer

Reviewed February 26, 2017

Grade: A-

Hidden Figures is a mainstream, “Hollywood” style film that is produced, written, and acted very well. It is a film that tells of three female African American mathematicians who faced many struggles and were rather overlooked at the time, the early 1960’s. The women achieved historical success and were instrumental in allowing John Glenn to orbit planet Earth. From a film perspective, the story is feel-good, but does not feel contrived- in fact it feels quite fresh, and features a wonderful ensemble cast with nice chemistry. I enjoyed this film immensely.

Blessed with good smarts, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Henson), are fortunate enough to work for the Langley Research Center – the time is 1961. In those days, segregation still existed and the women worked as temporary workers and used separate “colored” bathrooms and were largely excluded from the white workers. The three women are best friends and drive to work together- each of them has an individual specialty and the film focuses on each woman’s story.

The larger role and main story is about Katherine. Since the Russians had achieved success in outer space already, the race was on for the United States to follow suit. Katherine is assigned as a “computer” in the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Initially, Katherine is dismissed by her colleagues, but eventually is accepted due to her smarts. In sub-plots, Dorothy struggles to be given a Supervisor position, and Mary aspires to be the first female engineer, despite needing entry into an all-white school to take necessary classes.

My favorite of the three performances is of Taraji P. Henson. The actress impresses with her spunky, well-mannered, portrayal, and specifically her fantastic scene when she has simply had enough of the segregation and the difficulty in performing her job. She loses it in front of the entire team and rails against them- expecting to lose her job, instead her boss Al, (a fantastic nice-guy role for Costner), sees her point and declares NASA will see no distinction of color. Henson is the lead actress in the film and carries it well.

The chemistry between the three actresses is what allows Hidden Figures to work so well and come off as believable. The women always have each others backs and are friends outside of work- attending church and picnics together. In fact, the film is smart to feature the women’s lives outside of their professions. A nice side story of single mother Katherine (her husband having died) meeting and being courted in lovely fashion by handsome National Guard Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali) is a sweet story, genuinely told. The two also have nice chemistry together.

The films finale as the attempted launch of John Glenn is met with problems, is compelling. Due to the genius of Katherine, she must save the day as Glenn trusts only her judgment and calculations of the ever so important numbers. The scene is a “just desserts” moment for Katherine as the country rallies behind the events in patriotic fashion.

Hidden Figures plays it safe and the true struggles of the real women undoubtedly had darker and meaner situations as the discrimination they faced had to have been more intense, but the film strives to downplay some of the grit in favor of light hearted, crowd-pleasing fare, but I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and enjoyed the film ride that I was given.

Captain Fantastic-2016

Captain Fantastic-2016

Director-Matt Ross

Starring-Viggo Mortensen

Reviewed February 10, 2017

Grade: B+

A thought provoking story that raises a question of home-schooled, non- traditional book intelligence versus the lack of social norms and interactions, and debates which upbringings are more relevant, Captain Fantastic is a terrific film with a moral center. Starring Viggo Mortensen, who is not afraid to tackle complex and thoughtful roles, the film is a family drama with a unique spin and an edgy subject matter. Perhaps not as gritty as it could have been and feeling a bit safe, it still entertains and elicits thought, which is an important aspect to film and is oftentimes lacking in modern films.

Director Matt Ross immediately treats us to aerial views of green and mountainous Pacific Northwest where a family of seven- 1 father and 6 children ranging in age from five to seventeen- silently prey on and kill a deer grazing in the forest- this is their dinner. The family is unorthodox to say the least. Led by Ben Cash, he teaches the children how to fight, how to survive, and how to be ready for any situation. They are highly intelligent kids- able to recite the Bill of Rights and the most complex of literature.

Soon, it is revealed that their mother, Leslie, has committed suicide and a battle ensues between her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) who are determined to bury her “properly” with a Christian funeral, and Ben and his children, who are determined to honor her last wishes for cremation. Ben and the gang travel via their run down school bus to New Mexico, meeting local townspeople along the way as a battle of cultures takes place.

I commend Ross for creating a story that challenges the viewer to think- depending on the viewers religious or political views, there is a risk of people either loving or hating the film. The film is skewed toward the left, certainly, as a dinner and sleepover with Ben’s sister and her very “Americanized” family is awkward- the families having completely different styles. Ross makes it clear that Ben and family are the intelligent ones and his sisters kids quite dumb- not even knowing what the Bill of Rights is and mindlessly playing violent video games. The fact that they are a “typical American family” is sad and quite telling of what Ross’s view might be.

Captain Fantastic wisely shows that either side is not perfect. His oldest son, Bodevan, blooming sexually, has an awkward encounter with a pretty girl, proposing marriage to her with her mother present, because he knows no social norms. A younger son is attracted to a “normal” life with his grandparents, who are a wealthy couple. The grandparents are not presented as bad people, but rather, wanting the best for their grandchildren, and fearing how their lives will turn out without better structure or what they perceive as a better upbringing. Some of the kids blame Ben for their lack of social skills and being what they perceive as “freaks”.

The film does end in a safe fashion as a happy medium is ultimately reached, but I never felt cheapened by this result. I found Captain Fantastic to be rich in intelligent writing and a challenging tale. Many moments of “what would you do?” were brought to the forefront. Mortensen portrays Ben Cash flawlessly mixing just the right vulnerability with stubbornness to the character, and it is a great film for anyone fearing being intelligent is not cool, because it is.

Florence Foster Jenkins-2016

Florence Foster Jenkins-2016

Director-Stephen Frears

Starring-Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant

Reviewed January 30, 2017

Grade: B

Director Stephen Frears certainly loves to direct films that are starring vehicles for mature actresses- Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and now Meryl Streep have benefited vastly by his direction (all received Oscar nominations). In Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears crafts a warm hearted tale of a famous real-life opera singer, the title character, played by Streep. The film is likable, but not up to par with other Frears gems, specifically Philomena or The Queen. The film is a tad too safe for my tastes and should have been darker given the subject matter.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a New York City socialite and heiress living and flourishing during the year 1944. She is the founder of the Verdi Club and does a world of good for music, specifically the world of opera, which she adores. Nicknamed “Bunny” by her husband Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant, he reveres her, but not in the physical sense- he resides elsewhere with a girlfriend. This is due to Bunny being afflicted with long-term syphilis, causing her to be medicated and rendering her bald and unable to engage in sexual relations.

Bunny is a wretched, flat singer, despite her passion for singing, yet everyone convinces her how wonderful she is because she is so well regarded in her social circle. Many people are paid off in exchange for their support. Due to Bunny’s medication, it is assumed that she cannot hear properly leaving her unaware of how bad she really sings. Bunny now determined to sing at Carnegie Hall, Bayfield must scramble to make sure no critics are anywhere in site for the big show, saving his wife from humiliation.

Any film starring Meryl Streep is assured to be fantastic from an acting standpoint and, per usual, she does not disappoint. Streep envelopes the role of Bunny- giving her charm and a vulnerability that only Streep can do. The character knows what she wants and is stubborn, but there is a kindness to her and we see the passion ooze from her pores. Clearly Streep is the highlight and the draw of the film.

Hugh Grant is worthy of kudos himself and I rather liked the chemistry between the two actors. Seeking physical relations with another woman may risk making him appear a cad, but Grant also gives Bayfield a sensitivity and genuine care for his wife. They have “an arrangement” but he hides his girlfriend when Bunny shows up unexpectedly- not wanting Bunny to be embarrassed. Grant’s and Streep’s scenes together are tender and believable.

Simon Helberg, as Bunny’s pianist, McMoon is also a positive of the film. Hired to accompany Bunny’s singing, he is first appalled, bemused, and finally understanding of Bunny, coming to love and respect her for who she is. The character is clearly gay (the film never comes out and says this), but gay themes are common in Frears films and it is a non-issue among the principal characters- wonderful, but perhaps unrealistic for that time.

A flaw of the film is the lack of any purely great moments during the film. I suppose the climax at Carnegie Hall should have been it, but I did not completely buy the entire film. Even the laughter and the mocking of Bunny by the crowd seems done in a soft, light way. The film is a decent offering, nonetheless, and Streep the ultimate selling point. Great costumes, too.