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Movie Reviews


‘Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent’ celebrates chef

Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:23:47 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 he entered. 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. Stars, which created a sensation in the 1980s, was Tower’s greatest creation, and its food and the atmosphere are discussed in rhapsodic terms by food celebrities such as Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. The movie contains lots of footage from Stars’ heyday, which shows Tower hobnobbing with the politicians and celebrities of the era. The restaurant is enormous, and ensuring quality control when a kitchen is preparing 1,000 meals a night is next to impossible.

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.

Oscar-nominated shorts long on quality

Thu, 9 Feb 2017 20:54:51 UT

Here are highlights of this year’s collection in two categories: animated (86 minutes total) and live action (130 minutes total). Besides the five animated films that won nominations for 2017, a selection of last year’s shorts will be shown. [...] the distributors say that although most of the animated movies are suitable for children, one film is not: “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” includes a healthy dose of adult subjects. The strongest among the animated offerings is “Blind Vaysha” (directed by Theodore Ushev, Canada, eight minutes), a fable about a girl who, despite the film’s title, is able to see, but in a special way: The style is reminiscent of linocuts and that school of animation based on paper silhouettes. “Piper” (directed by Alan Barillaro, United States, six minutes) is an entertaining look at some life lessons experienced by a sandpiper chick, including how to forage for food. An Algerian-born man seeking French citizenship sits in a chair and is interrogated by a French official. [...] viewers with a high tolerance for schmaltz may enjoy “La Femme et la TGV” (directed by Timo von Gunten, Switzerland, 30 minutes), with Jane Birkin as a lonely woman who develops a kind of long-distance relationship with the engineer of the train that passes by her house every day.

Everything is still cool with ‘The Lego Batman Movie’

Thu, 9 Feb 2017 18:52:43 UT

“The Lego Batman Movie” is less awesome than its predecessor, but it’s a clever, well-paced, self-aware and completely satisfying kind of less awesome. After endless Batman movies and TV shows (all acknowledged in this film), it’s accepted that Batman can easily outsmart every villain in Gotham. (An extended scene where he microwaves his Lobster Thermidor is comic perfection.) Our hero develops a sort of family unit, unknowingly adopting the orphan Robin. [...] that it’s a foregone conclusion that Lego Batman can beat the Joker, his primary struggle is with commitment issues. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, off to guide the Han Solo “Star Wars” prequel, place “The Lego Batman Movie” in capable hands with “Robot Chicken” veteran Chris McKay. The five screenwriters credited squeeze jokes into every second of screen time, including the part before the movie when corporate logos flash by. From there, the filmmakers successfully mine everything that’s funny about Batman — his brooding nature, his repetitive story lines, his vanity — while still maintaining most of what makes him cool. Like its predecessor, “The Lego Batman Movie” works as both comedy and action. The movie begins to drag in the final act, when it becomes clear there’s no secret twist that will take the film to another height. The last battle against an entertaining collection of historic villains — Sauron from “Lord of the Rings” and bad Mogwai from “Gremlins” among them — explores no ground that wasn’t covered in the first “Lego Movie.”

‘Space Between Us’ lands somewhere between awful and lovely

Fri, 3 Feb 2017 08:01:00 UT

The tone shifts at will from lofty fantasy to down-and-dirty realism, which might have been promising — except that the realism seems faker than the fantasy. The camera is sometimes placed so as to catch the actors in the throes of extreme emotion ... but the emotions are so extreme that the whole enterprise is suddenly rendered counterfeit, and then ridiculous and then hilarious. The idea is that the environment of Earth is getting damaged, so why not go to a planet where there is no air at all? Here’s the interesting thing: Because he gestated in a gravity-free environment, his organs and bones developed in an odd way. [...] once again — as in “Passengers,” as in “The Martian,” as in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man” — we have space as the ultimate emblem of loneliness and isolation. Asa Butterfield plays the 16-year-old boy, who has grown up indoors, talking only to robots and to an astronaut (Carla Gugino) who serves as a mother figure. Tall and thin with bright blue eyes, he looks frail, earnest and otherworldly. Gardner knows nothing about Earth, so when his health finally allows him to cross the vast space between nowhere and the Western United States, we have the fun of seeing him react to things we take for granted as though they were new. Gary Oldman has a supporting role as the man who started the Mars program and is ripped up with guilt at how things turned out for poor Gardner.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ a strong portrait of James Baldwin

Fri, 3 Feb 2017 01:33:37 UT

For anyone who grew up when that great American author was alive and making appearances on talk shows, that is the question that crosses the mind every time something of consequence with regard to race in America takes place: the Rodney King riots, the election of Barack Obama, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter ... At times, Baldwin seems to be directly commenting on things that happened just a year or two ago. Peck also shows Baldwin himself in a variety of public appearances — talk shows, debates, speeches — and these are the best parts of the film. If you were to encounter Baldwin for the first time in “I Am Not Your Negro,” you could easily come away assuming that he was the Christopher Hitchens of the 1960s and ’70s, a great essayist and speaker and a public intellectual. [...] as a portrait of James Baldwin, the documentary is limited in scope, but it shows him at his most passionate and will probably send people flocking to his books. Through Baldwin’s words, read by Samuel L. Jackson, and through images, archival and modern day, the filmmaker presents us with a kind of report card on the state of the nation. Baldwin’s comments on the soul-destroying effect of cable television’s mission of nonstop titillation, and its potential to undermine democracy, land with particular force. Jackson is a good narrator, but — and this is strange to say when comparing an actor to a writer — he’s no James Baldwin. Watching it, it’s hard not keep wanting to see more of Baldwin and hear less of Jackson, so that part of the pleasure of the film comes after it’s over, when it becomes possible to get on the computer and watch and listen to hours of Baldwin on YouTube. Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle’s movie critic.

Farhadi’s ‘Salesman’ finds drama in daily life in Iran

Thu, 2 Feb 2017 18:58:45 UT

The dramatic things that happen are the sorts of dramatic things that happen to real people, not people in the movies. The film, a best foreign film Oscar nominee from Iran, is universal, and yet specific. Basically, husbands and wives act like husbands and wives, but outside the circle of marriage, a woman’s rights are limited. A man wakes up in the morning and finds that everyone in his apartment building is running down the stairs with only a few possessions that they can easily carry. The film’s title, “The Salesman,” takes its name from “Death of a Salesman,” the Arthur Miller play that the husband (Shahab Hosseini) and wife (Taraneh Alidoosti) are starring in. [...] any connection between the Miller play and the rest of the film is tenuous, and so the “Death of a Salesman” element is ultimately not a strength of the film. The rest of the movie deals with the fallout from this assault, the effect on the woman’s sense of security, on the marriage, and on the husband’s sense of himself and his own responsibility. [...] this means never achieving closure: no feeling of security for the woman and, for the man, the pressing and demeaning sense of being unable to protect his wife. Hosseini and Alidoosti are superb, with rich internal lives that give depth to their characters’ actions — and these characters are indeed active. Though much of the movie is about the psychological effects of a single violent act, this is not a story that stays entirely in the mind.

Tormented by a turtle in appealingly vintage animation

Thu, 26 Jan 2017 21:24:43 UT

Directed by a Dutch-born London filmmaker, it’s a co-production of Japan’s esteemed Studio Ghibli, and that’s quite an endorsement. The director, Michaël Dudok de Wit, won an Oscar in 2001 for his animated short “Father and Daughter” (and “The Red Turtle” was just nominated for best animated feature). For his new film, the filmmaker has come up with a Robinson Crusoe tale with such resonance that you’d swear he was working from some venerable folk story. The plot (no spoilers follow) is as minimalistic as the movie’s animation style. [...] there seems to be a seagoing enemy intent on thwarting his several attempts to do so — not a white whale, but a large red sea turtle. The only CGI in the movie is the titular turtle itself — the rest was done digitally on a Cintiq tablet, resulting in that venerable hand-drawn look. For some adults, the film may occasionally stray a bit in the direction of whimsy, but I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker.

‘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.