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Movie Reviews


‘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.

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.