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Movie Reviews


‘Patriots Day’ skillfully shoehorns tragedy into formula

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 19:48:07 UT

A horrible thing happens, and a few years later a movie comes along to tell the story of it back to us, so that we come away feeling better — still sorry that the horrible thing happened, but with a sense of resolve, a spirit of community and some kind of assurance about the ultimate victory of good over evil. The disturbing element isn’t so much the commodification of tragedy as it is the shoehorning of tragedy into a familiar and reassuring form. Remember the VH1 show “Behind the Music,” a documentary series about various pop stars? No matter who was the subject, it was always the same story: humble origins, early struggle, big success, drug problem, fall from grace, burgeoning comeback. The goal of such films, though made with the best of intentions, isn’t really to tell the true story of people’s real human experiences. Though the portrayal of the bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, couldn’t be more negative, it’s hard to escape the thought that just that much, being portrayed on screen in a major feature film, is more than they deserve. The story follows the familiar course of using the opening minutes to establish the various, disparate characters whose lives will intersect because of the tragedy. [...] they start to make love, and director Peter Berg, in a move of staggering vulgarity, has the camera show their legs at the edge of the bed. The Tsarnaevs are detestable, and the means by which they were caught — store surveillance cameras and videos — are fascinating. Kevin Bacon plays the FBI agent in charge, and he cracks the case, albeit with an assist from the fictional Tommy Saunders. Despite being fictional in a world of real people, Tommy is a very emotional guy, and Mark Wahlberg gives a wholehearted performance.

Will Hollywood be in the mood to party at Golden Globes?

Fri, 6 Jan 2017 20:13:20 UT

On Sunday, Jan. 8, the movie industry will gather for the Golden Globes, which are regularly one of the most freewheeling and frothiest award shows of the year. The election of Donald Trump has loomed over this year’s awards season, where the movie industry’s usual self-congratulatory toasting has been mixed with a foreboding sense of dread. “We are living in very troubled times,” Kenneth Lonergan, writer and director of one of the season’s favorites, “Manchester by the Sea,” said Wednesday, Jan. 4, at the National Board of Review Awards. Barry Jenkins, the writer-director of the tender coming-of-age tale “Moonlight,” said at the National Board of Review Awards: “As we make America great again, let’s remember some inconsiderable things in our legacy, because there was a time when someone like me was just not considered.” Fallon, who was criticized for what was considered a softball interview of Trump on “The Tonight Show” during the campaign, isn’t likely to set a very political tone for the evening. Award show TV audiences have generally been slumping, but the Golden Globes have certain advantages. On the film side, Damien Chazelle’s Los Angeles musical “La La Land” leads all nominees with seven nods, including best picture, comedy or musical.

‘Silence’ is Scorsese at his worst

Thu, 5 Jan 2017 18:32:59 UT

The feudal lords of Japan tortured many Roman Catholics during the 17th century, and yet the numbers of their victims pale when you consider how many people Martin Scorsese will ultimately torture with “Silence.” [...] Scorsese is one of our great filmmakers and that, coupled with the film’s unmistakable sincerity, could lead a person to mistake “Silence” for an important piece of work. In human terms, one can see how this could be interesting — two young men armed with nothing but their religious conviction, who don’t even speak Japanese, go to a place where they can be arrested at any moment. If a prisoner steps on a religious icon, thus implicitly rejecting Christianity, he or she can go free. While stepping on a sacred symbol would be disturbing to a person of faith, the moral absolutism of the young priest begins to seem excessive. Would a forgiving God really throw believers into the jaws of hell just for committing a harmless act that will keep them from being boiled alive? The whole movie is reminiscent of the prayer that the King utters in “Hamlet,” which never takes wing but stays leaden on the ground. Garfield is unconvincing as a man of conviction, and the temptation would be to blame him, except that he just got through playing a religious man in “Hacksaw Ridge,” one of the year’s best performances. Father Rodrigues wrestles with God’s silence, and Scorsese, who adapted the novel with Jay Cocks, leaves the audience feeling that Rodrigues is just talking to himself. Either “Silence” is about the spirit, or it’s about a series of pathetic incidents, centuries ago, involving a delusional young man. Most of the Japanese actors overact shamelessly, as if they’d just drunk 10 cups of coffee and watched a Kurosawa movie, but Tadanobu Asano is charismatic as the translator, and Issey Ogata plays the grand inquisitor with wit and presence.

Jack Nicholson month at the Balboa Theatre

Wed, 4 Jan 2017 18:30:31 UT

Or plain toast, as Jack wants in the great “Five Easy Pieces,” which he has to order in this way: A chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. ... Bob Rafelson’s 1970 rule-breaking classic opens the Balboa Theatre’s all-Nicholson January in its Thursday classic series at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5. The Smith Rafael Film Center’s annual gathering of a few of the foreign films under consideration for Academy Award nominations includes a couple of well-publicized films in theaters now: Most intriguing: “A Flickering Truth” (6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11), technically from New Zealand, a documentary about the lost history of Afghan cinema stretching back over a century. To mark the anniversary of the singer-actor’s death, the Castro Theatre has booked two double features of his films. On Saturday, Jan. 7, Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” has him facing off against a young Jennifer Connelly in a 1987 fantasy, with D.A. Pennebaker’s shot-in-1973 concert documentary “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” serving as a stark contrast. Nicolas Roeg’s spellbinding science fiction film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) and a film that continues to haunt me, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), set in a World War II prison camp and directed, seemingly with much guilt, by Japanese master Nagisa Oshima. [...] I said when reviewing “The Love Witch” that I am in awe of the indefatigable Biller, who has been making films here and there for 25 years. ...

‘An Eye for an Eye’ — death row documentary not persuasive

Thu, 29 Dec 2016 18:19:35 UT

Mysteries often vanish once an explanation of pure, unadulterated, pristine and unsullied stupidity is considered. The movie features interview footage with Stroman and also the words of Stroman as voiced by an actor. In his years on Death Row, Stroman apparently started writing poetry, and so we hear some of it, and it’s dreadful, even if the movie has it intoned as though from an oracle. The point “An Eye for an Eye” tries to make is that the death penalty is a bad thing and that Stroman’s life should be saved. [...] to watch the film is to be persuaded in the opposite direction. [...] even if you buy completely that Stroman became a different man than the one who murdered those people — he is, admittedly, marginally more likable near the end — it’s still hard not to believe, from the evidence of the movie, that the transformation was because of the imminence of his execution. All the people who came forward to make contact with him and speak on his behalf (including a man he severely wounded) came into Stroman’s life only because he faced a death sentence.

With ‘Great Wall,’ China sets its sights on global audience

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 18:53:46 UT

LOS ANGELES — “The Great Wall,” an epic fantasy film that cost at least $150 million to make, opens with Matt Damon fleeing on horseback through red stone formations in northwest China. The movie, filmed entirely in China, was engineered not just as escapist entertainment but also as proof that the Chinese film industry can serve up global blockbusters too — that event films can rise in the East and play in the West. The last Chinese-language film to become a breakout hit in North America was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which awed with its martial arts and stunt work and took in a surprising $180 million in 2000, after adjusting for inflation. “If this doesn’t work, then I don’t know what will,” said Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who has studied China’s efforts in recent years to emerge as a moviemaking superpower. The film addresses a lot of the previous issues that China has faced as it’s tried to internationalize its film industry, like language and the lack of internationally known stars. “Step one went really, really well,” said Thomas Tull, chief executive of Legendary Entertainment, which produced “The Great Wall” with Universal Pictures, China’s Le Vision Pictures and China Film Group. [...] “The Great Wall” remains a long way from the box office threshold Legendary ultimately hopes to hit in China — $200 million or so for its full run — and some analysts were underwhelmed by turnout given the marketing push the film received. Marketing efforts included two trailers, three music videos, 60 online video ads and stunts in 260 shopping malls owned by Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate that bought Legendary for $3.5 billion in January. Are ticket buyers ready to embrace a film that is very much Chinese, even if it does have an American star in a lead role? The People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, even weighed in on “The Great Wall” this week, publishing a commentary after what it called “lively online criticism” of the film. Directed by Zhang Yimou, known for films like “House of Flying Daggers” and for orchestrating the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, “The Great Wall” finds Damon in ancient China as William Garin, a bedraggled European mercenary. Garin and his partner (Pedro Pascal, known for Netflix’s “Narcos”) soon discover that the wall was not, as history tells it, erected to keep out invading nomads, but rather to protect against the flesh-eating creatures that rush the wall every 60 years in an attack on humanity. Zhang’s extreme close-ups, pacing and use of 3-D effects that come straight at viewers are likely to stand out as a departure from Hollywood’s usual cinematic language, but Jing’s character may best sum up the cultural needle the movie tries to thread. “The Great Wall” will attract additional scrutiny when it arrives in the United States because it comes as some lawmakers question China’s increasingly aggressive efforts to use motion pictures to promote itself. U.S. studios have struggled to meet the co-production requirements, which mandate the inclusion of “Chinese elements,” a nebulous umbrella term that touches on everything from the film’s financing to its casting, story line and shooting location.

Ben Affleck juggles pressure of prestige pictures, crowd-pleasers

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 18:42:38 UT

NEW YORK — When Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won best picture four years ago, it was an unquestionable high point in a career that has seesawed with ups and downs. Though many expected him to continue on the path of prestige filmmaker, he, with just a touch of fanfare, took on the high-pressure role of Batman, a bid to secure his place on the A-list and wow his 4-year-old son. [...] after splitting with his wife, Jennifer Garner, Affleck again found himself a tabloid regular. “This business tends to exaggerate highs and lows,” Affleck said over coffee at a Manhattan restaurant overlooking Central Park. [...] you become a cast member in a soap opera that you’re not writing. “They’re saying you have to have x, y and z to make money in the movie business,” Affleck said. Casey is enjoying the most acclaim of his career for “Manchester by the Sea,” while Ben has run up more than $1.7 billion in box office, starring in Batman v Superman: What could be less newsworthy than a person saying they want to have a good script for their movie? ... After the critical lashing of “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” Affleck would have good reason to emphasize the script stage of his “Batman” film, which he calls an “exhilarating” challenge, “like jumping out of an airplane.” Lehane, the celebrated crime noir novelist, said Affleck is orderly, “no-muss, no-fuss” in talking over the screenplays of “Gone Girl” and “Live by Night” — even if there were understandable delays. [...] I had no idea a story about immigrants and the Klu Klux Klan and morality would feel so current today.

3 black women of NASA and ‘Hidden’ history

Thu, 22 Dec 2016 21:13:02 UT

In an early scene, the three women, stuck on the side of the road with car trouble, are approached by a white highway trooper. All three of these real-life women made contributions to American space exploration, but Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is at the center of the film. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was the leader of a computing team, back when the word “computers” referred to people who did computations. Because it’s based on fact, “Hidden Figures” is not as immediately satisfying as a fictional version of this story might have been. Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”), who directed and co-wrote the film, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, does a nice job of organizing and telling a complicated story involving three women and their personal and professional lives. Henson, Spencer and Monáe all excel, conveying the intensity and worthiness of these women’s ambitions, even as they deal, almost in a matter-of-fact way, with obstacles that are maddening. Kevin Costner is nicely cast as Al Harrison, Katherine’s boss, who is mostly too busy to differentiate the very smart people on his staff from the flat-out geniuses. Costner is a useful actor to have in period films, because he can slip into that midcentury vibe like nobody else. [...] he’s the most authentically 1962 thing in the movie.

‘Sing’ cranks out gags like a jukebox

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 22:09:51 UT

A highly produced, expensive and corporate-financed tribute to struggling live theater that — if all goes on schedule — will pack movie theaters this week, leaving three people at your local high school’s version of “A Christmas Carol.” Cynicism is the enemy of “Sing,” an animated musical that is built on the barest of plots and the most predictable of story structures. [...] yet there will be applause in your cinema at the end, and maybe a few tears. Because as little as production company Illumination Entertainment seems to care about an original, well-told story, it knows how to please a crowd. Illumination also made “Minions,” another animated musical that the masses liked a lot more than movie critics. At least half of the 110 minutes in “Sing” feature a repeat of the same basic gag: an animal, often playing against type or in front of a funny backdrop, singing a recent pop hit or a very recognizable one from the past. A mix-up with the prize money amount — instead of plot turns, this movie just piles misunderstandings upon misunderstandings — brings every amateur singer with a dream to Moon’s door. If the protagonist didn’t appear in the form of the cuddliest creature in the animal kingdom, voiced by one of the most likable actors in Hollywood (Matthew McConaughey), he would have no one’s support. Christmas is the easiest time to leave your most sardonic relatives (and any critics in the family) at home, and get lost in a flawed movie with a really happy ending.

Beautiful, hopeful ‘La La Land’ is one of the year’s best

Fri, 16 Dec 2016 01:41:37 UT

Good movies come in waves and patterns, but great movies are usually from Jupiter. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), “La La Land” has respect for movie tradition, in the sense that it references some of the best elements of the big studio musicals from the 1940s and early 1950s. The scene is more charming as an idea than in the execution, but it lets us know that in this musical, the ugly and the quotidian will not be denied. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who loves old jazz and dreams of reviving it by starting a high-end nightclub, but he is working in a restaurant playing Christmas tunes. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista at a coffee shop and spends her time going out for movie auditions that not only come to nothing, but are demeaning experiences. Coincidence or fate throws them together a few times, until they start to get the hint and notice each other. The film is dotted throughout with production numbers and romantic songs by Justin Hurwitz, more than enough to qualify “La La Land” as a musical, but not so much that the characters are subordinated to the songs. Here they’re shot the way Fred Astaire always insisted they be shot, with the dance shown from start to finish, and the dancers filmed from head to toe. We’re looking at people expressing their feelings, their joy, their melancholy, their desire. Aside from the technical aspects of their performances, which are impressive enough — they sing, they dance and Gosling even plays the piano, expertly — Stone and Gosling are lovely. What it’s whispering is not the usual musical thing, or the usual movie message.

‘Rogue One’: exhausted, demoralized and no fun

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 18:36:02 UT

Actual performances from the actors. [...] no going down rabbit holes of plot in pursuit of tiny details of concern only to the most obsessive fans. [...] comes “Rogue One” to remind us of the good things that are lost to the series, such as naivete and the sort of loopy sincerity that lent integrity even to the worst elements. With the help of four screenwriters, Edwards turns “Star Wars” into a war movie, and that is a fundamental error. War movies are about toil, half victories, moral compromise and self-doubt. “Star Wars” is all about good versus evil, about the hard, rewarding work of bringing the light and casting out darkness. Yes, it’s understandable that after eight movies depicting the same struggle, filmmakers might feel a certain exhaustion. [...] the Empire is developing a super weapon, a “planet killer,” which we are to understand is the Death Star. Early in “Rogue One,” Jyn is kidnapped by the rebel forces, in the hopes that she can help them contact her father. Everything about their mission is tainted by doubt and moral confusion, just as the rebel hierarchy is a disjointed lot, a bunch of competing factions beaten down by war and ready to give up. [...] it can’t be an exciting battle scene, featuring something like the destruction of the Death Star, because that has already happened (or will happen) in another movie. [...] “Rogue One” is strictly for completists, for the type of “Star Wars” fans who hated “Phantom Menace” and yet watched it more than twice.

‘Manchester by the Sea’ dominates Screen Actors Guild nominations

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 18:29:29 UT

“La La Land” may have hit all the right notes for the Golden Globes, but the Screen Actors Guild sung a different tune when Kenneth Lonergan’s New England-set family drama “Manchester by the Sea” picked up the most Screen Actors Guild nominations Wednesday, Dec. 14. Shut out of the coveted ensemble award was Damien Chazelle’s candy-colored musical “La La Land,” which scored nominations only for its leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. While some categories looked generally as expected, like the supporting actress nods for Williams, “Fences’” Viola Davis, “Moonlight’s” Naomie Harris, “Lion’s” Nicole Kidman and “Hidden Figures’” Octavia Spencer, others were quite surprising. [...] SAG nominated Emily Blunt for the adapted thriller “The Girl on the Train,” which scored tepid reviews from critics and had not been seen as a major awards contender. [...] missing were nominations for Jeff Nichols’ fact-based civil rights film “Loving” and its leads Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, as well as for French actress Isabelle Huppert, who has won many of the critics’ awards for her performance in the edgy “Elle.” The streaming service utterly dominated television nominations with 17 total, followed by HBO’s 13 and, finally, a broadcast network — ABC with a distant five. The 23rd annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will be broadcast live on TNT and TBS on Jan. 29 from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

A solid cast saves this holiday ‘Christmas Party’

Thu, 8 Dec 2016 20:16:04 UT

“Office Christmas Party” is a movie that benefits greatly from the newly relaxed marijuana laws in California. The movie starts with the solid foundation of Jason Bateman as Josh, a newly divorced second-in-command at a data networking firm run by a Type A train wreck of a woman (Jennifer Aniston, channeling Sigourney Weaver from “Working Girl”) who’s at odds with her immature underling brother (T.J. Miller, channeling T.J. Miller). Yes, the filmmakers have taken a single sequence from “Revenge of the Nerds” and stretched it out into an entire movie. Cue the montage featuring a truckload of alcohol, inappropriate things done to the staff copy machine (and, memorably, the 3-D printer) plus all the repressed older office ladies cutting loose on the dance floor. Directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon sully the over-the-top bacchanalian mood with awkwardly straightforward relationship building that seems as if it belongs in a different movie. Aniston’s admirable efforts are almost ruined by the script, which has her character fluctuating wildly between goofiness and pure evil. Bateman and Olivia Munn, mostly unconvincing as the code-building engineering minds behind the tech firm’s success, create an unshakeable rooting interest. (With any luck, it will be the half that includes simulated oral sex with an ice sculpture.) Like most office Christmas parties, “Office Christmas Party” is just good enough to validate your decision to show up.

‘La La Land’ named best film by New York film critics

Fri, 2 Dec 2016 18:07:21 UT

The top award came as something of a twist after the critics’ early choices leaned toward Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age portrait “Moonlight” and Kenneth Lonergan’s grief-filled drama “Manchester by the Sea.” “Manchester by the Sea” took best actor for Casey Affleck, best screenplay for Lonergan and best supporting actress for Michelle Williams. Chazelle’s film, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, also led the Critics’ Choice Awards nominations on Thursday with 12 nods. Best first film was a tie between Kelly Fremon Craig’s teen comedy “The Edge of Seventeen” and Trey Edward Shults’ micro-budget family drama “Krisha.”

Disney’s ‘Moana’ No. 1 at box office

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 22:38:01 UT

NEW YORK — Disney’s South Pacific animated tale “Moana” fell short of a “Frozen”-size debut but nevertheless dominated the Thanksgiving box office with an estimated $81.1 million over the five-day weekend. Boosted by the star power of Dwayne Johnson and the appeal of original songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton,” “Moana” landed Disney another big hit in a year full of them. Civil War, “Zootopia,” “The Jungle Book” and still has Star Wars: “If you look at the track record of this year, there’s definitely a correlation to the films that have broken out and become hits,” said Dave Hollis, head of domestic distribution at Disney.