Saturday, December 31, 2016

La La Land

Two aspiring artists, a would be actress and current coffee shop worker(Emma Stone) and a semi-delusional jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling), meet cute, sing, dance and romance across the City of Broken Dreams with the weight of reality bearing down, not only on their hopes and wishes but also on their relationship. Damien Chazelle's La La Land, a sophomore effort following his sleeper hit Whiplash, plays like the latest installment of That's Entertainment! or rather it is a well made emulation of the great Golden Age musicals which has absolutely no story or nothing at all to add to the genre. What starts out as energetic and stylish quickly settles down for a routine treatment and how can it be that for such a touted musical the most memorable thing about it is not the music, lyrics, or dancing (all of which is standard at best) but rather the camerawork and art direction? As for the performers, Gosling and Stone are no Rogers and Astaire nor Bogart and Bergman nor Kelly and Charisse nor whomever they happen to be imitating at any given time during the picture, and at no point did I believe these two leads ever truly held their sacred passions and ambitions. Despite some sporadic, determined directing from Chazelle, La La Land is a safe film, a movie made to win Oscars (which it no doubt will), and geared towards a demographic who take comfort in watching the same inane romantic comedies over and over again on cable TV who also will undoubtedly love this movie.
** out of ****

Friday, December 30, 2016

When We Were Kings

Leon Gast's behind the scenes look at "The Rumble in the Jungle," the storied 1974 Ali/Foreman Zaire based title fight which features supreme footage, some funny, some just strange, with great fight clips and fantastic editing. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton's subjective commentary is a plus.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

A morose art gallery curator (Amy Adams), with her second marriage to a suave, disloyal decorator (Armie Hammer) on the outs, receives by mail the latest novel from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) which tells the story of a family being terrorized on a Texas highway by a band of marauders, and severely shakes her up and impacts her sense of guilt. Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is an attempt to blend his own sleek, lifeless vision with some sort of feeble attempt at modern noir resulting in a phony, pretentious, clearly Oscar luring, unintentionally funny muddle that brings down the fine cast assembled around it which also includes an amusing Michael Shannon and an insufferable Aaron Taylor-Ross.
1/2 * out of ****

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


A grandiloquent, resentful ex-Negro leagues ballplayer (Denzel Washington), deemed too old for the big leagues following integration, works his Pittsburgh garbage route while thwarting his son's chances to play college football and causing extreme grief to his patient and loving wife (Viola Davis). In bringing August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play to the screen, a work that Davis and himself helped revive on Broadway, the smartest choice Washington makes is apparently remaining faithful to Wilson's words and not opening up the material too much for the screen. While his own performance often grows laborious and redundant, it is impressively polished and Davis contributes another powerful turn among a solid supporting cast.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, December 23, 2016

Shallow Grave

After putting interview subjects through the ringer, three crass roomates (Ewan McGregor, Christorpher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) finally find a candidate to inhabit the fourth room of their Edinburgh flat who summarily winds up dead from an overdose, leaving behind a small fortune of the mob's money. Danny Boyle's feature film debut is an unfunny, cruel minded psychological thriller which drew comparisons to Hitchcock due to voyeuristic situations and body disposal but totally lacks the tension and wit. With characters so unlikable, lacking any human qualities until the screenplay wishes to humanize McGregor on a dime, and for all its so called originality, at its core the plot and themes could not be more hackneyed.
* 1/2 out of ****


An Irishman (Gabriel Byrne) finds the body of a missing Aborigine girl on a fishing trip and decides to carry on with his mates and not report their discovery to the authorities until the excursion is completed, a decision that places undue stress on his already strained marriage to his Aussie wife (Laura Linney). This overlong and unnecessarily expanded adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" totally misses the point and is intensified by awkward scene transition and a tone deaf performance from Linney.
* 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Barely a week after the assassination of her husband, Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) grants an authoritative interview to a smug reporter (Billy Crudup) at the Hyannis Port family home focused mainly on the aftermath of the tragedy.  Pablo Larrain's Jackie is stylish but vapid, a film where it appears that most of its budget was designated for design with very little thought going into its half-cooked screenplay which decides in its last twenty minutes that it wishes to be profound. Portman is strong but dances between that line of performance and impersonation. Many of the other casting choices are questionable, especially the adept Peter Saarsgaard who brings very little to table as Bobby Kennedy.
** out of ****

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Match Point

A tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is welcomed into the wealthy family of one of his tutees (Matthew Goode) and is soon given a prominent position within their company and engaged to their needy daughter (Emily Mortimer), all of which is threatened to come crashing down in the aftermath of a heated love affair with his brother-in-law's sultry ex-girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson). Match Point is unlike anything Woody Allen has ever done before (even Crimes and Misdemeanors which explored similar themes and some of his straight dramas which draw a homologous tone) and was probably imbued with new life due to his decision to film abroad and leave NYC for I believe the first time in his career. The result is a haunting, brilliantly thought out, pristinely filmed, philosophically Dostoevskian treatise with Rhys-Meyers excellent, even amusing at points as a sociopath with an answer to every question and Johannson at her most alluring though grating during heightened dramatic scenes.
**** out of ****

Top Hat

A socialite (Ginger Rogers) vacationing abroad mistakes an actor (Fred Astaire) for her friend's husband who is actually married to the performer's business manager, all the while her insanely jealous fiance keeps a watchful eye. Classic and silly Rogers and Astaire mistaken identity farce doesn't feature as many song and dance routines as you would expect though they are extraordinary, not only the much cited "Cheek to Cheek" (which really is sublime), but also "No Strings" and "Isnt This a Lovely Day?" standing out on an impeccable Irving Berlin soundtrack.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, December 19, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

The story of Delmer Doss (Andrew Garfield), a God fearing Virginia apple knocker who enlists in the Army Ranger corp as a medic while refusing to carry a weapon and went on to become the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for his actions on the incendiary, blood strewn battle fields of Okinawa. Hackneyed to the point of old fashioned "Aww, shucks" mawkishness and upended by unrelenting, almost celebratory combat violence, Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge plays like a demented Sergeant York with Andrew Garfield's overly aloof performance failing to carry the picture. Hugo Weaving is quizzically miscast as Garfield's drunken WWI battle haunted father and Vince Vaughn brings welcomed relief as his disapproving drill sergeant.
** out of ****

Selected Shorts by Werner Herzog

Just as he has been drawn to epic, quixotic projects, in his extended career Werner Herzog has also favored short form storytelling, the results of which have been no less outlandishly idiosyncratic. Here is a random sampling of these films, all of which can be found readily online or as part of DVD extras:

Precautions Against Fanatics, 1969
One of Herzog's first film attempts is a very short (and very unfunny) look at people involved in horse training.

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, 1974
Presents the story of a ski jumper who was so veritable that he began to flagrantly and dangerously overshoot the course. Plays like an episode Wide World of Sports, but not without great footage and central Herzogian themes.
Ballad of the Little Soldier, 1984
Intriguing footage of child soldiers from an impoverished Nicuraguan village preparing for combat against the Sandinistas.
*** 1/2

The Dark Glow of the Mountains, 1985
The director and his German speaking subjects are disappointingly dubbed over by an American narrator in this no less compelling documentary of a pair of mountain climbers who discuss their trade and the perils involved.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


As a series of anomalous spacecrafts land in unusual locations around the globe without making their intentions clear, a melancholic linguist (Amy Adams) is drafted by a high ranking military official (Forrest Whitaker) to work alongside a scientist (Jeremy Renner) to determine the visitors' purpose before the world leaders commence an interplanetary war. Made with clear craftsmanship and transparent political undertones, Arrival quickly goes from involving to dull and redundant before arriving at a half-baked resolution that seems like it was taken out of the playbook of every popular sci-fi flick of the last twenty years. Denis Vileneuve, the film's talented and distinctive director, proves that his slow-burn style is not suited to every project and Adams' moody and detached performance has been met with glaring overpraise.
** out of ****

My Best Fiend

Werner Herzog looks back on his temptestuous friendship and professional relationship with Klaus Kinski, the maniacal actor with whom the director shared a boarding house as a youth and went on to star in some of his best work (Aguirre the Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo), while recounting having to weather (and often encouraging) Kinski's fierce tirades and abuses before his premature death in 1991. My Best Fiend is the kind of documentary that probably sounded better in its initial conception rather than its end result. Though containing some hysterical and outrageous stories and footage, where Herzog's megalomania is just as much on display as Kinski's, this is the kind of work that plays better as part of movie lore than as a documented record.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, December 17, 2016


Told in three passages, Moonlight conveys the story of an alienated black youth from childhood (Alex Hibbert) to adolescense (Ashton Sanders) through young adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) as he grapples with a crack addicted mother (Naomie Harris) finds comfort and shelter in the home of a noble dealer (Mahershala Ali) in his impoverished Miami neighborhood while concurrently coming to terms with his own sexuality. Drawn from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, Barry Jenkinks semi-autobiographic, starkly filmed, and well-acted poetic rumination sadly unravels in the forced and illconceived third act which feels more like a film school thesis rather than a continuation of the well-formed, moving meditation that preceded it. Ali and Sanders are particular standouts.
*** out of ****

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

In 1919 Ireland, a medical novice (Cillian Murphy) leaves a promising career to fight in a guerrilla unit alongside his brother and fellow countrymen against the encroaching British soldiers seeking to disrupt their bid for independence. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a two hour socialist sermon from a brilliant and empathetic director, here employing his craft to the finest degree in drafting a powerful, involving, no punches pulled account, and all beautifully shot against a verdant background.
*** out of ****

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

A grieving and detached maintenance man (Casey Affleck), living in near isolation in a Boston area one-room apartment of the complex he tends, returns to the fishing community of his youth when he is notified of his brother's (Kyle Chandler) passing. As old devastating wounds are torn open, he learns he has been appointed custodianship of his teenaged nephew (Lucas Hedges), a responsibility that would likely force him to return home for good and confront his past. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a complex, intricately woven drama, taking on tones both operatic and tragic, while presenting on the surface a humanistic, often humorous, keen-eyed seemingly simplistic small town story. Affleck has never been better, always in tune to his sympathetic, emotionally stunted character and Michelle Williams, playing his ex-wife, shows what an exceptional talent she is, most memorably in a trumpted, cathartic scene played by the duo towards the end of the picture. Chandler also brings his usual stoic resolve to the picture, to great effect. 
**** out of ****

Monday, December 5, 2016


In 1996, a overcautious mountain guide (Jason Clarke), while in competition with a rival climbing outfit, led an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest when a vicious snowstorm hit on the final leg of their journey. Everest is a surprisingly intelligent, apparently knowledgeable, and well crafted mountain climbing movie, a genre that seems difficult to scale, even though things turn expectedly cliche towards the end and the filmmakers have difficulty keeping track of characters and their fates. The casting is excellent.
*** out of ****

Sunday, December 4, 2016


A Spanish born music student (Laia Costa) enrolled in the conservatory in Berlin and barely familiar with the language spends her Saturday night hitting the local clubs, carousing with a group of strangers, and somehow finding herself at the center of a bank robbery when an underworld figure comes calling in a marker on one of her newly made friends. Once getting passed the impressive feat that Sebastian Schipper's Victoria was filmed in one continuous, unbroken take, I started thinking how much is lost when you tell an entire movie (here a long movie) without editing, severely limiting what you can and cannot show in the process while pushing plot to the back burner. And in the end, when boiled down, is it really anything more than a filmed play on a large stage? While watching, my mind also retreated to Russian Ark, maybe the prime example of this kind of approach, and even with that movie's cast of 100s and magnificent stagings, it likewise became plotless and tiresome. These unobstructed shots seem to work best in smaller doses, see Touch of Evil, Goodfellas, The Player, or virtually anything by Alfonso Cuaron for a more effective employment. In the film's defense, however, there are some exciting moments and Costa's amiability aid the proceedings and keep the picture from being a total unceasing bore.
** out of ****