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Movie Reviews


‘The Big Lebowski’ plays at Oakland’s New Parkway

Wed, 12 Jul 2017 19:07:55 UT

The Coen brothers have had a long and eclectic career — but even as talented as they are, sometimes it seems they’re throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks. The anthem for slackers and marijuana use has inside-Hollywood origins, with “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges) based on film producer and distributor Jeff Dowd, whom the Coens (Joel and Ethan) met while peddling their first feature, “Blood Simple.” Audiences and critics weren’t initially in on the joke; it got lousy reviews and failed at the box office.

Special screening of ‘The Last Dalai Lama?’ in San Rafael

Wed, 5 Jul 2017 17:51:30 UT

Special screening of ‘The Last Dalai Lama?’ in San Rafael The film opens at both the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, but the Thursday screening in San Rafael is a party. Revisiting his subject after 25 years provides a depth other documentaries are missing. For a review of the film, see Peter Hartlaub’s take in Datebook on Friday, July 7.

Blanchett’s not bad, but ‘Manifesto’ is overkill

Thu, 22 Jun 2017 19:57:53 UT

Artistic and political manifestos are best consumed in small bites, a significant problem for Julian Rosefeldt’s new movie. If anyone could pull this off, surely it would be Blanchett, and it’s fun, at least initially, to watch her glorying in the revelations, contradictions and absurdities of the documents she quotes. Among her other roles are a homeless person, a TV news anchor (and the reporter with whom the anchor has an on-air chat), a puppeteer with a puppet who looks just like her, a hazmat-suited worker in what appears to be nuclear power plant and an autocratic Russian choreographer. There are quotes from early works such as Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto of 1918 and from the Futurist and Fluxus movements, and later words from the filmmakers behind Dogme 95 and from Werner Herzog’s 1999 Minnesota Declaration. There are some blunt ironies in the contrast between the quotations and the characters and contexts in which they are delivered: from a woman in widow’s weeds at a funeral or a CEO offering commands to her subordinates. The manifestos are dense with meaning, full of paradoxes, wild imagery, anger, contempt and impossible dreams, and eager to contradict themselves and each other. The cumulative effect is overkill, and all the sentiments begin to blend together into a free-floating rage at things as they are and a call for perpetual rebellion.

Correction for Sunday Datebook, June 11

Sun, 11 Jun 2017 07:01:00 UT

Movie review capsules, June 11, Datebook, Page 30 A capsule review of the movie “Megan Leavey” incorrectly states the first name of the film’s star. The correct full name is Kate Mara.

Animal magnetism saves otherwise so-so ‘Megan Leavey’

Thu, 8 Jun 2017 17:44:58 UT

“Megan Leavey” is one-half of an unremarkable war movie, followed by a touching story about the importance of animals in people’s lives. The war service of Megan Leavey, a real-life person, would be the remarkable and central experience in any individual’s life. [...] as war movies go, the Iraq portion of “Megan Leavey” pales in comparison to other Iraq war movies that we’ve seen and have by now internalized. Speaking as someone who gets stressed out simply inspecting a hotel room for bedbugs, I can’t even imagine this ultimate case of searching for what you hope not to find. Here, the consequences aren’t itching welts, a dry-cleaning bill and having to buy new luggage, but actual death, for you and others. Mara gives Megan a slight quality of disconnection, suggestive of either a lack of intelligence or of a weird, finely tuned sensibility. [...] she meets her dog, Rex, who looks like Rin Tin Tin but acts like Cujo, at least at first. Mara opens up, too. [...] suddenly, everything that previously made Megan Leavey an improbable subject for the cinematic treatment becomes a virtue. [...] the usual strategy with a review is to not talk about anything that happens past the first 25 minutes.

No space for errors that bring on horror in ‘Alien: Covenant’

Thu, 18 May 2017 19:04:25 UT

Scientists are in a rush to create artificial intelligence, beings that can think and act human but that have no capacity for human feeling. In many ways, this new installment in the “Alien” series is a conventional horror movie, starting quietly and building in intensity, from the first hint of trouble to the thunderous life-and-death struggle at the finish. The opening pre-credits sequence is a tribute to Stanley Kubrick, taking place in a spare, white room. The whole feeling is cold and somber, full of a sense of loss that’s punctuated by the robot’s innocent observation that he is eternal but that the human scientist will eventually die. The robot, Walter, is at the helm of a colony ship on the way to a distant planet. The human crew is in a state of suspended animation, but when a fire erupts, Walter wakes up the officers so they can pilot their way out of the crisis. The emergency and the deaths of some of their crew members leave the survivors in an unsettled state that makes them ripe for rash choices. Unwilling to get back into their hibernation pods — where 46 of their company have been burned to death — they become intrigued by a human-sounding transmission from a nearby planet. For the uninitiated, the alien of the “Alien” movies is a particularly grotesque creation, not a single monster, but a species, with a head shaped like a bus, no visible eyes, and rows of little teeth. As tiny buds, they float into a human orifice, making the host very, very sick. Though the scale is large and the action takes up a fair chunk of the screen time, Alien:

Recipe for a complex career as a culinary superstar

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 20:55:24 UT

The Last Magnificent is an attempt to secure the place of the renowned chef in American culinary history. Tower was born into a wealthy family, but had a difficult and lonely childhood, which, according to the film, resulted in a complicated personality. Tall and good-looking, he could be charming and convivial, the most magnetic person in any room. The behind-the-scenes footage of the Chez Panisse kitchen in the 1970s makes cooking look sexy. Tower feels that Waters took credit for his inventions, and the documentary contains interviews that both support and qualify that contention. [...] the movie leaves the impression that both Waters and Tower are seminal figures in American cooking, but that Tower, who is somewhat forgotten, deserves to be remembered. The movie contains lots of footage from Stars’ heyday, which shows Tower hobnobbing with the politicians and celebrities of the era. The documentary takes Tower through his much-publicized recent stint as the chef at New York’s Tavern on the Green, a rather hopeless assignment for a perfectionist. The restaurant is enormous, and ensuring quality control when a kitchen is preparing 1,000 meals a night is next to impossible.

'The Circle' review: Cool young tech firm, creepy world in Hanks movie from Eggers novel

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 13:00:00 UT

[...] the future may be shaping up to be just as horrible as the pessimists have been predicting, but with a few unexpected twists. Yes, people will become enslaved, but not to governments, but to social media and search-engine companies. [...] yes, people will be watched and monitored, but not against their will, but with their permission. “The Circle,” based on Dave Eggers’ novel, is as chilling as the most frightening horror movie. Let’s put together a time capsule and make guesses as to how people 50 years from now will see this movie. Directed by James Ponsoldt and adapted by Ponsoldt and Eggers, the movie tells the story of a young woman who goes to work at the Circle, a company that’s like a hellish cross between Facebook, Apple and Google. The place is run by its two founders, who, in an inspired bit of casting, are played by the inherently likable Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt. In an early scene, the more extroverted of the two, Eamon (Hanks), does a presentation in an auditorium full of employees. What makes “The Circle” so valuable is not only that it’s showing us a ghastly possible path that the world may take, but also that it articulates the mentality that could create and sustain it. According to Eamon, complete transparency strengthens democracy — nothing untoward can happen behind closed doors. Outside the enclosure of privacy waits the online goon squad, always ready to reinforce the stupid consensus through an idiotic stream of commentary. “The Circle” is very much a plea for the preservation and sanctification of privacy, but it’s nicely constructed in that no one character expresses the film’s distinct point of view.

A view of life and death, ‘Truman’ is a thing of beauty

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 21:19:14 UT

Last year, at the Goya Awards (the Spanish Oscars), it cleaned up — best picture, best actor, best supporting actor, best director and best original screenplay. Mentioning the awards up front may seem like a lazy way of establishing a movie’s quality, but in this review it’s a delaying tactic, used out of fear that once you know what this movie is about, you won’t want to see it — even though you do, you really do. The reason for the visit is that Julián has some kind of terminal illness, unnamed at first, though you can guess. [...] here is where it absolutely must be said and then emphasized that “Truman” is nothing like all the lousy illness-based movies that we have all been seeing for years. Nor is it like the mediocre ones that become borderline effective, either by being maudlin, or by being funny — either in a phony tear-and-a-smile sort of way, or a phony outrageous way. Darín has more natural authority as Julián, an actor and former matinee idol used to being the most forceful and charming person in every room. Though it’s never explicitly stated, Darín’s performance suggests that Julián’s illness has reinforced his innate tendency to be honest, so that every encounter is free of pretense. The title, “Truman,” refers to Julián’s bull mastiff, an ungainly but devoted animal he loves like a second son. Part of the project of the men’s four days together, though encompassing a fairly small amount of screen time, involves Julián’s effort to find a new home for his dog.

‘Tomorrow’ seeks global answers to environmental decline

Thu, 13 Apr 2017 20:06:24 UT

[...] many environmental documentaries have come out in recent years and covered the same ground that some viewers (and reviewers) feel that the genre is in a rut. Give credit, then, to the French production “Tomorrow,” an advocacy film that’s more vibrant than many movies with similar themes and focuses on some less common angles. The film urges decentralization and bottom-up decision making as tools in remedying problems of global warming, food production and the like. The tone is more upbeat than you might expect, and there’s a certain glossiness to the movie that’s a refreshing change from some of its more dour documentary siblings. “Tomorrow” even has a bit of fun, such as showing co-director Mélanie Laurent (also an actress, in “Inglourious Basterds” for instance) and her crew trudging single file from location to location, crossing many borders in their search for ideas and answers. In Kuttambakkan, India, different castes are working side by side to combat environmental problems. [...] residents of Copenhagen have made huge strides toward their goal of weaning themselves from fossil fuels, trying to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025. Indirect approaches, like local currencies and the caste-busting going on in Kuttambakkan, promise progress in fighting issues other than environmental abuses, as well.

Old jokes still have charm in pleasantly amusing ‘Going in Style’

Thu, 6 Apr 2017 21:04:56 UT

Old jokes still have charm in pleasantly amusing ‘Going in Style’ Director Zach Braff runs in the opposite direction of these stereotypes and all other things hackneyed, crafting an enjoyable time at the movies. The steel company gets bought by foreign concerns, and their pension disappears. The bank heist that ensues becomes a geriatric and mostly consequence-free “Hell or High Water” — more of a catharsis than a crime, to right a wrong created by a corrupt system. There’s a reverence that comes across for the lead actors in their late 70s and early 80s (“Scrubs” actor Braff may realize he could be playing one of these roles in 40 years). [...] Caine, Arkin and Freeman respond by giving their all. Arkin in particular embraces his role, with the same vibrant crankiness that won him an Academy Award for “Little Miss Sunshine.” The only truly uproarious sequence is a shoplifting caper that doesn’t make much sense, probably crafted for the visual of Caine and Freeman in a low-speed street chase on an old folks’ grocery-shopping scooter. [...] even that over-the-top contrivance ends pleasantly, with a humorous detente between our heroes and a flustered yet understanding store manager (Kenan Thompson, making the most of his three minutes of screen time). [...] when getting up to leave, I realized my face physically hurt from grinning throughout the movie. Like its lead characters, “Going in Style” just grooves along nicely, until the credits roll and you realize it was time well spent.

‘Zookeeper’s Wife’ — World War II from inside Warsaw Zoo

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 21:49:48 UT

In the opening moments of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” director Niki Caro introduces us to a pocket paradise of every glorious form of creation — animals of every size and description — overseen by a team of benevolent human beings. Though the war was and remains the greatest calamity ever to befall the planet, it has been the subject of too many movies, good and bad. [...] the zookeeper’s wife calms the father elephant and helps out the mother. The Zabinskis owned and ran the Warsaw zoo and, after the German invasion, used it as a transit point and refuge for Jews escaping the Warsaw ghetto. Caro conveys the terror of the bombing by filming them from above, starting in panic as explosions are heard on the soundtrack. For Chastain, Antonina is an ideal vehicle that crystallizes what she has been bringing to the screen since “Zero Dark Thirty” — portraits of strength and heroism. There was the angry version (“Miss Sloane”), the flawed version (“A Most Violent Year”), the parody version The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and the horror movie version (“Mama”), but the heroism is the same. For Antonina, Chastain adopts the obligatory Polish accent that movies insist on (even though people don’t speak with accents in their own language), but she also alters her mannerisms, so that she seems Eastern European. To ascribe the movie’s virtues to the gender of the filmmakers would be to minimize their individual achievements, but there are touches throughout that are not the usual thing. The war was a great external event, but Caro reminds us that it was experienced internally, by the people and the animals who had to try to live through it.

‘Donald Cried’ a strange and good movie about going home

Thu, 9 Mar 2017 21:01:29 UT

[...] to make matters more hard to manage, he loses his wallet. Kris Avedisian, who co-wrote and directed the movie, plays Donald, who is a singular mix of alarming and amusing. [...] we never know exactly what to make of him, or to know whether we or Peter should be comfortable in his company. Most of the film consists of conversations between Peter and Donald, as they go about the day, and the dialogue is funny, but without punch lines or even laugh lines. Peter was a cool guy in high school, and Donald was a victim of his practical jokes — and even cried on one occasion. Though the friendships of youth are often just the result of proximity — being in the same class, living on the same block — your childhood friends end up knowing the real, unvarnished and eternal you. “Donald Cried” touches on that, as it explores its main subject, the phenomenon of leaving home and coming back, and what it feels like for those who stay and those who return. Within that frame, the movie goes deep, hinting at a richer backstory and giving us just enough to wonder about Donald’s unconscious drives. Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic.

The Oscars' 9 best picture nominees and how we rated them

Thu, 23 Feb 2017 21:24:47 UT

The Oscar’s 9 best picture nominees Prep for your Oscars party this weekend with a recap of this year’s nine best picture nominees, each film reviewed by The Chronicle’s Datebook team. On the big day, also keep up-to-date with us at The 89th annual Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, is broadcast live on ABC at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26. Arrival Director Denis Villeneuve casts aside almost every “Independence Day,” “E.T.” and “Contact” cliché, and makes a science fiction epic that breaks free of genre shoeboxing. Amy Adams is a linguistics professor who, in collaboration with a physicist and mathematician played by Modesto-bred Jeremy Renner, races against the clock to make conversation with aliens. Better to leave the rest to surprise. The film is tightly calibrated, but leaves things open to interpretation, for discussion on the ride home from the theater and beyond. PG-13. 116 minutes. To read the full review, click here. Brilliantly written (by playwright August Wilson and directed by Denzel Washington), this is one for the ages, alongside “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” as one of the handful of great movies made from great plays. The ensemble work is flawless, highlighted by Washington and Viola Davis as a working class couple in the Pittsburgh of the 1950s. PG-13. 138 minutes. To read the full review, click here. Andrew Garfield is terrific in the lead role. R. 131 minutes To read the full review, click here. Hell or High Water An outstanding modern Western, about two bank-robbing brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) pursued by a pair of Rangers (Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham) in dusty and economically depressed West Texas. The film touches on many weighty themes — the law, institutional responsibility, loyalty to family, individualism — but has a surprising amount of humor. R. 103 minutes To read the full review, click here. A by-the-books historical piece, about black women mathematicians working in NASA’s early days, the film is enlivened by the three principal actresses, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer, and by Kevin Costner, who is the perfect vision of the early 1960s man. PG. 127 minutes. To read the full review, click here. The result is one of the best films of the year, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as a pair of strivers who meet in Los Angeles and try to help each other. PG-13. 128 minutes. To read the full review, click here. Knowing the ending in advance is usually considered detrimental to effective filmmaking, but a smart director and screenwriter can use foreknowledge to their advantage, if they work it right. For much of the way, director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies work it right in “Lion,” the fact-based story of a young man (Dev Patel) who goes in search of his lost childhood. PG-13 118 minutes. To read the full review, click here. Manchester by the Sea Casey Affleck is magnificent in this portrait of a working class guy in Massachusetts, stumbling through life in the wake of personal tragedy. R. 137 minutes. To read the full review, click here. Stars Bay Area’s own Mahershala Ali. R. 110 minutes. To read the full review, click here.

Matt Damon fights monsters in ‘Great Wall’ bomb

Thu, 16 Feb 2017 21:20:09 UT

“The Great Wall,” the week’s big release, is a Chinese action/monster movie, somehow starring Matt Damon as an English mercenary. [...] you know the Great Wall of China? [...] you’ve probably stopped reading, and so you’ll never know that, however bad this sounds, “The Great Wall” is way worse. [...] a monster jumps out from the shadows, but we don’t really see it, because the fight also takes place in a tight close-up. The visual strategy makes no sense, and, with the next scene, Zhang drops it as fast as he adopted it. [...] odd little touches let you know that this is not a film made by or for an American sensibility. The narrative is clumsy, and the monster scenes are ridiculous, but not ridiculous enough to be funny, just ridiculous enough to be boring. [...] the physical motion of the monsters — the way they whip around — has the whiff of a computer game about it. Every close-up is an invitation to forget the rest of the movie and marvel at the pristine features. [...] each time, the invitation is revoked, and we’re back in this culture-shock video game, with all those toothy Odyssey-sized iguanas attacking from all sides.