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Olivia Coleman (second from left)

Olivia Coleman (second from left)

“LONDON ROAD” My rating: C+ (Opens Sept.  23 at the Tivoli)

103 minutes | No MPAA rating

“London Road” is a musical documentary.

About a serial killer.

Although it is enacted and sung by professional performers, Alecky Blythe’s screenplay zeroes in on a real-life incident.

During the Christmas season of 2006 the suburban town of Ipswich, England, was terrorized by a serial killer who murdered five women in six weeks.  A 48-year-old fork lift driver who lived in Ipswich was arrested and convicted of the killings.

But the killer — Steve Wright — isn’t even seen in this Rufus Norris-directed feature.  The film is entirely focused on Wright’s neighbors, middle-class folk living on London Road.  All of the film’s dialogue/lyrics come from real interviews with townspeople, as well as TV news coverage and police reports.

“London Road” bears more than a little resemblance to “The Laramie Project,” the stage play about the 1998 hate crime murder of gay man Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.  That script was also developed from interviews with authorities and everyday people.

What emerges is an oddball sort of musical entertainment, one steeped in sociology and psychology.

For Julie, a single mother of teenage girls (played by the ubiquitous Olivia Coleman, a familiar face from her work in “The Lobster,” “Broadchurch,” “The Night Manager” and many other TV shows and films), the serial killer on at least one level is performing a public service. All of his victims  were prostitutes who in recent months had congregated in the neighborhood, much to the disgust of the locals.

Continue Reading »

Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning

Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning

“20th CENTURY WOMEN” My rating: B (Opens wide on January 20)

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In his 2011 film “Beginners,” writer/director Mike Mills presented a fictionalized portrait of his father, who at age 75 announced that he had cancer and, by the way, was gay, too.

With “20th Century Women” he does a similar service for his mother, delivering a funny and emotionally substantive look at an unconventional household of feminists in the mid-20th century.

Much as Christopher Plummer won a supporting actor Oscar as the father in “Beginners,” Annette Bening is gaining awards buzz as the divorced matriarch in “20th Century Women.”

Set in the ’70s, the film centers on 55-year-old Dorothea (Bening) and her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).

Dorothea is a curious case, a chain-smoking, mildly eccentric traditionalist in her personal life but a low-key crusader when it comes to social issues. (That conflict is reflected in the musical soundtrack, which pits the likable Talking Heads against the snarling punk of the Germs and Suicide.)

Dorothea lives in a big crumbling house undergoing perennial restoration. She’s got a hunky, laid-back boarder, William (Billy Crudup), who serves as carpenter, mason and auto mechanic.

There’s another renter, the henna-headed Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a blend of punk and hippie sensibilities who is undergoing a cancer scare.

And then there’s the young beauty Julie (Elle Fanning). Two years older than Jamie, she uses his bedroom as her refuge from an unhappy home life and a series of apparently joyless sexual couplings. At night she often enters through his second story window, scrambling up the construction scaffolding that surrounds the house.

Jamie is desperately in love with Julie (so are those of us watching the movie), but she keeps it platonic. She needs a friend and sounding board, not another young dude who wants to paw her. (“It was so much easier before you got so horny,” she sighs.) Continue Reading »

Isabelle Huppert

Isabelle Huppert

“ELLE”  My rating: B+ 

  130 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Isabelle Huppert has made a career of playing prickly, disturbed, often downright unpleasant figures.

For “Elle” this  reliable fixture of French cinema has taken everything she’s learned in nearly four decades of screen acting and created a character who is charismatic and compelling even as she engages in behavior that most of us would find morally questionable and psychologically twisted.

She more than deserves her Golden Globe win.

Paul Verhoeven’s film begins with the sounds of a violent assault. The fiftysomething Michele (Huppert) has been attacked in her Paris home by a masked intruder who beats and rapes her.

Michele doesn’t report the incident to the cops. Instead she cleans up the mess, trashes her dress, takes a bath, and gets herself tested for STDs.  New locks, a hatchet, and some pepper spray — she’s good to go.

David Birke’s screenplay (based on Philippe Djian’s novel) blends Hitchcockian suspense with one of the deepest character studies the movies have given us in ages.

Most women would be incapacitated by such an attack.  Not Michele. As we learn, she is tough, smart and ruthless.

With her partner  Anna (Anne Consigny) she runs a successful firm where programmers half their age crank out sex-and-violence-drenched video games. “When a player guts an orc,” she tells her staff, “we need to feel the blood on his hands.”

Michele views the world around her — and the lesser beings that inhabit it —with a sense of irony that stops just short of contempt. She can be funny, charming…and she’s certainly attractive.  But apparently she needs no one except her indifferent cat. Continue Reading »

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield

“SILENCE” My rating: C+ 

161 minutes |MPAA rating: R

The trouble with passion projects is that sometimes the passion isn’t felt beyond the small group of die-hard creators involved.

So it is with “Silence,” a film Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for at least 25 years.

This epic (almost three hours) adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel takes on the issues of faith and mortality Scorsese raised with his first major film, 1974’s “Mean Streets,” issues he has returned to [and to which he has returned] often during his long and celebrated career.

This story of Jesuit priests risking their lives to bring Christianity to 17th century Japan is visually beautiful and impeccably mounted.

But it is less an emotional experience than an intellectual one — and by the time the film enters its third hour, more than a few viewers will be wishing for the simple pleasures of a samurai swordfight.

Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) cannot believe reports that their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has spent years in Japan, has committed apostasy, rejecting the church’s teachings.

They convince their superiors that they must travel to Japan — where an anti-Christian purge is in full swing — to both learn the truth about Ferreira and to minister to Japanese converts, who for the better part of a decade have practiced their religion in secret.

Their mission is filled both with inspirational moments and abject terror. They spend most of their time hiding from troops under the command of the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), an arthritic old fellow with a steel trap mine.

Suspected Christians are given the opportunity to renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. After this token display of rejection they are free to go on privately practicing their religion. Continue Reading »

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

Octavia Spencer, Taranji P. Henson, Janelle Monae

“HIDDEN FIGURES” My rating: B+

127 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

A piece of  fact-based historical uplift that flirts with sappiness but never succumbs, “Hidden Figures” is a late addition to the 2016 awards race.

The story it tells — largely unknown until the film’s publicity drive kicked in a few weeks ago — is kinda jaw dropping. And the three lead performances instantly land on the list of Oscar contenders.

During the early days of the American space program — back when a mechanical computer took up an entire floor of an office building — NASA hired two dozen mathematically gifted African American women to perform  complex calculations using nothing more than their brains and slide rules.

These women were referred to as “computers” — that was their official job designation.

Despite being second-class citizens both on and off the job, they made possible John Glenn’s breakthrough orbital flight and gave the U.S.A. a fighting chance in the space race.

Writer/director Theodore Melfi (he was behind the sublimely funny Bill Murray starrer “St. Vincent”) balances the private stories of three of these women against the grand historic sweep of those years. The film works equally well as a satisfying celebration of personal triumph and as a symbol of national pride.

The screenplay (with Allison Schroeder) wastes no time in illustrating the times.  Three “computers” are on their long daily commute to their jobs in north Virginia when their car breaks down.  The white highway patrolman who investigates their stalled vehicle at first exhibits the overt racism of the times.  Only when he learns that the three are helping Uncle Sam beat the Commies to the stars does he drop the attitude and ensure they are sent safely on their way.

Once at work, the women must put up with more crap.  The space program (it wouldn’t take the name NASA for several years) and its white management practice what might be called “racism with a tight smile.”

The African American women work in their own building separate from everyone else. There is minimal interaction between them and the engineers and scientists who daily shower them with mathematical problems.  Like the field hands of a Southern plantation, they produce the wealth but get none of the credit.

Continue Reading »

Lewis McDougall

Lewis MacDougall

“A MONSTER CALLS” My rating: B- 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The makers of “A Monster Calls” work so hard to avoid anything resembling sentimental manipulation that the film runs the risk of being emotionally bland.

Blending psychological insight, fantastic images and the most painful of human conditions, this Spanish/U.K. production is nothing if not ambitious.

In describing how a 12-year-old British boy copes with the looming death of his single mother, this film from Spanish director J.A. Bayona wades into some serious territory. But despite a late-breaking emotional crescendo that will have all but the coolest viewers reaching for a hankie, I found much of the film to be curiously detached.

Conor (Lewis McDougall) — described early on as “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” — has some of the usual adolescent problems, including a trio of schoolyard thugs who revel in beating him up every day.

Things are no better at home where his loving Mum (Felicity Jones) is sinking into chemo-misery while his brittle granny (Sigourney Weaver, attempting but not really mastering an English accent) exudes about as much warmth and sympathy as a prickly pear.

Small wonder that Conor finds refuge in his own imagination. “You’re always off in your own little dream world,” observes one of his classroom tormentors. “What’s there that’s so interesting?”

A lot actually. Every night Conor is visited by a monster, a giant tree creature that uproots itself from a hilltop churchyard and comes stomping to his bedroom window.

Continue Reading »

Sunny Pawer

Sunny Pawer

“LION” My rating: B+

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Half Dickensian epic, half heart-wrenching domestic drama, “Lion” tells a real-life story so unlikely that it stretches credulity.

But it happened.

In 1986 five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawer, in one of the most astonishing performances by a young child ever captured on film)  was living with his widowed mother and two siblings in a rural area of central India.  His mother worked as a laborer (she literally lifted rocks all day); Saroo and an older brother stole lumps of coal from passing trains,  trading them for food.

On one nighttime outing, Saroo was separated from his brother and found himself locked inside an empty passenger train being driven more than 1,000 miles to Calcutta to be decommissioned.

Little Saroo didn’t know his family’s last name or the town he hailed from. Worse, he spoke only Hindi, while the Calcuttans spoke Bengali.

For months the child lived on the street — begging, stealing, avoiding capture by criminals seeking child prostitutes. After several close calls Saroo found himself in an orphanage where, miraculously enough, he was paired with an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman).

Relocated to middle-class comfort in Tasmania, the lost boy seemed to have washed up in paradise.  Not even the addition to the family of his troubled adopted brother, Mantosh — like Saroo an Indian orphan but with severe emotional and social issues — could seriously erode the fairy-tale quality of Saroo’s good fortune.

(By the way, John and Sue seem pretty good candidates for sainthood.)

Continue Reading »

Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington

“FENCES” My rating: B+

138 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington has  never given — and may never again give — a performance as deep and revelatory as he does in “Fences.”

This screen adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning drama — directed by Washington — offers the ideal match of performer and part, allowing the actor to sink his teeth into a role so  perfectly  balanced in subtlety and grandiosity as to reduce most film acting to the level of cardboard cutouts.

The dialogue is rendered in a sort of mid-century black urban dialect, but the effect is nothing short of Shakespearean. In its power and complexity “Fences” feels like an African American “King Lear.”

Set in the late 1950s in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s drama centers on Troy Maxson (Washington), a man fiercely determined to keep his dignity while fighting his own set of demons.

A minor star of baseball’s Negr0 leagues, Troy was too old to benefit from Jackie Robinson’s integration of the majors, and that missed opportunity still rankles him. Now he works as a city trash collector and is noisily wrangling for a position as a truck driver, a gig usually restricted to whites. Troy sees that discriminatory policy less as a social injustice than as a personal affront.

Smooth talking but essentially combative, Troy nurses old hurts that gnaw at his manhood. He can be outwardly friendly and garrulous, a raconteur and an entertainer. But he can turn on a dime if the wrong button is pushed, and then his belligerent, dark side flashes. Troy  invariably has a loquacious argument to justify his transgressions, but push him too hard and the dominating and intimidating side of his personality steps up to slap down his critics.

Wilson’s screenplay (actually it’s his stage play, with the addition of just one line of dialogue) provides Troy with an assortment of friends and family members who serve as his audience and occasional victims.

His wife Rose (a stunning Viola Davis) is a friendly, outgoing woman who  has learned how and when not to push her explosive spouse. Often they seem true equals; at other times it’s obvious that Rose must walk on eggshells around her man. Continue Reading »

Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt

Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt

“PASSENGERS”  My rating: C

118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The problems plaguing the futuristic “Passengers” can be crystallized in the film’s mutating marketing campaign.

For months the film’s trailer has sold a story about a century-long intergalactic space flight during which two passengers — played by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt — awaken prematurely from hibernation.

Faced with a lifetime with just each other (their thousands of fellow travelers will slumber on for another 90 years), these two must fashion a new existence for themselves — Adam and Eve in their own mechanical Eden.

This week a new “Passengers” ad campaign hit our TV screens. It’s selling the film as a sci-fi romantic comedy.

Am I the only one who smells desperation?

In truth, “Passengers” is more interesting than either approach suggests. But having established a crushing moral conundrum as its premise, the filmmakers don’t know what to do with it.

Jim (Pratt) is among 5,000 passengers and 250 crew members snoozing their way to a colonized planet on the other side of the galaxy. He awakens from his slumbers to be told by hologram guides that the ship has arrived at its destination.

Except that the arrival is actually 90 years in the future, and Jim has the vast ship to himself. His sole companion is a robot bartender (Michael Sheen) programmed only for small talk.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Jim is overwhelmed by loneliness. His beard and hair grow shaggy. Though he is a mechanical engineer, he cannot put himself back to sleep or interfere with the ship’s automatic functions.

Even an SOS sent back to Earth will require 55 years for a response.

And then, another passenger, the beautiful Aurora (Lawrence) awakens in a way I won’t spoil, but the issues it raises spoil the movie. Continue Reading »

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

“JACKIE” My rating: B

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Gotta give Natalie Portman props for climbing out on a limb.

In “Jackie” the Oscar winning actress (for “Black Swan”) takes on the iconic role of Jackie Kennedy.

It’s one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t deals:  Try too hard to hit all the familiar notes and  you get an impersonation, not a performance.  But stray too far from the public image and audiences no longer relate.

 

Well, Portman has the Jackie audio-visuals down — the hair, the pink pillbox hat, those breathy/halting vocal patterns. And if she doesn’t give us a definitive study of who this woman was (do any of us really know the answer to that one?) she provides a compelling center for a often gripping film.

The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (who earned his political bona fides as a producer for “Today” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews”) unfolds in the week after J.F.K.’s assassination as the new widow sits down to a series of interviews with a journalist (unnamed but clearly based on White House insider Theodore H. White) played by Billy Crudup.

Jackie’s motives are fuzzy.  She wants to get her side of the story out, but puts all sorts of off-the-record restrictions on which of her statements can be made public. Perhaps she’s simply looking for an impartial listener against whom she can bounce conflicting emotions  that range from profound grief to rage. (She asks her interviewer if he’d like her to describe the sound of a bullet tearing through her husband’s skull.)

Around that core setting this film from Chilean director Pablo Larrain offers a series of impressionistic moments from one of the most traumatic weeks in American history. For those too young to have experienced those dark days of November, 1963, the film captures the anguish, fear and outrage unleashed by the murder of a President.

There are also flashbacks to seminal moments in Jackie’s past, particularly the famous live TV tour of the White House. Only this time we’re allowed to eavesdrop on what went on during the commercial breaks…according to “Jackie,” the First Lady was terrified of the whole enterprise, with her fears coming through in a brittle, vaguely anesthetized vocal delivery.

The film’s depiction of the assassination is hair-raising. We’ve been there dozens of times in other movies, but never from the point of view of Jackie, cradling her husband’s smashed head in her lap as chaos erupts around her.

And the machinations that followed the killing as the nation prepared to lay their leader to rest tell a story many of us have never heard.  Fearing a broader conspiracy might still be in play, the Secret Service nixed the idea of a slow funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery.  But that’s precisely what Jackie demanded and got — a tribute to her dead husband that made potential targets of the new President, her own family and numerous world leaders.

That steely will is new to the public perception of Jackie, and suggests a stronger, more assertive personality than we expect.

There are things in “Jackie” that don’t work — particularly Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Robert Kennedy. He doesn’t look or sound like the man he’s portraying, and those discrepancies take us out of the picture.

| Robert W. Butler

LLL d 29 _5194.NEF

Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling

“LA LA LAND” My rating: B+

128 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

From practically its first frame “La La Land” announces that it’s not going to be your routine movie experience.

In one long, impossibly complicated moving shot, several hundred motorists — stranded by a traffic jam on an L.A. freeway — spontaneously break into dance, boogying on their car roofs, leaping, prancing and singing the new song “Another Day of Sun.”

Yes, it’s a musical.

Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old auteur who displayed his love of both cinema and jazz with 2014’s stunningly intense”Whiplash,”  here attempts nothing more than to take on the long tradition of Hollywood musicals.

“La La Land” is a bittersweet romance, a valentine to jazz and our collective memories of classic movies, and a sterling example of state-of-the-art filmmaking. Small wonder it received a leading seven Golden Globe noms and is a front-runner for Oscar’s best picture.

Our guy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a Miles-and-Coltrane-loving jazz pianist who dresses in ’50s retro Sinatra style, drives a pristinely restored land-shark convertible and dreams of running his own club.

For now, though, he miserably plinks out Christmas carols at a supper club, incurring the owner’s wrath by embellishing familiar tunes with bebop digressions.

“I’m letting life hit me until it gets tired,” he rationalizes.

Our girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who pours java at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. Mia throws herself into dispiriting auditions, where her heartfelt emoting is often rudely interrupted by the casting director’s cellphone and gofers delivering lunch.

As with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they meet cute, dislike each other, meet again and click, their deepening relationship encapsulated in a couple of brilliantly choreographed (by “So You Think You Can Dance’s” Mandy Moore) numbers: an exuberant dance on a hillside drive in Griffith Park at sunset, and a gravity-free after-hours  pas de deux in the park’s famous observatory. Continue Reading »

rogue-one-at-act“ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY” My rating: C+

133 minutes | MPAA rating: R

After nearly 40 years of Wookies, Jedis and Imperial storm troopers, am I finally over the whole “Star Wars” thing?

The sad truth is that I was underwhelmed — sometimes flat-out bored — by “Rogue One,” the latest addition to the “SW” universe.

And here’s the thing…it’s  not a bad movie.  Certainly not bad like the three George Lucas-driven prequels were.

“Rogue One” is reasonably well acted and technically flawless. Moreover, it’s an attempt to make a more adult, racially-diverse “Star Wars” film, a stand-alone tale that is darker both thematically (it’s like an intergalactic Alamo where everyone goes down fighting) and visually.

Nevertheless, “Rogue One” is emotionally lifeless. I didn’t care.

Director Gareth Edwards and the producers and writers have worked so hard to hit familiar buttons of “Star Wars” mythology that the resulting film feels generic, as if it were directed by a committee rather than a single visionary individual.

The plot, for those who have been living in the spice mines of Kessel, follows the efforts of a team of rebel spies to steal the plans for the Death Star, an enterprise that will result in the destruction of said moon-sized weapon by Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” movie.

Our heroine is Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose scientist father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken from her to develop the Death Star.  After years of crime and imprisonment, Jyn is given an opportunity by the Rebel Alliance. She will be part of a team tasked with finding Galen and getting those precious plans.

They’re a mixed bag of idealists and pragmatic warriors.

Foremost among them is Cassian (Diego Luna), the ostensible head of the team who, unbeknownst to Jyn, as been secretly ordered to assassinate her father, lest his genius bring the Death Star to completion.

Chirrut (Donnie Yen) is a blind swordsman who relies on The Force to battle enemies. A pretty obvious nod to a subgenre of samurai films, he’s got a grouchy partner (Wen Jiang) who fights with a monstrous hand cannon.

Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) is a pilot who knows his way around the Empire’s military outposts.

Best of the bunch is  K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a towering droid made by the Empire but reprogrammed to serve the Rebel Alliance.  Apparently K-2SO also was given a microchip for sarcasm and irony, which he exercises regularly at the expense of his human cohorts. Continue Reading »

Casey Affleck

Casey Affleck

“MANCHESTER BY THE SEA” My rating: A-

137 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Doesn’t life provide us with enough grief? Do we have to buy movie tickets to experience more of it on the big screen?

It’s an understandable sentiment … and completely wrong in the case of “Manchester by the Sea.”

Brilliantly written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”) and featuring a major-league lead performance from the ever-surprising Casey Affleck, this riveting, soul-wrenching feature is about how we deal — or don’t — with grief.

Yeah, it’s heavy. It’s also unexpectedly funny, deeply moving and almost unbearably wise when it comes to the labyrinthine workings of the human heart.

We first encounter Lee Chandler (Affleck) on the job at a Boston-area apartment complex. In return for handyman chores — hauling trash, blowing out drains — he’s allowed to live in a monkish cellar room. Lee is a prickly sort who often rubs tenants the wrong way. At night he drinks until it’s time to instigate a barroom brawl.

Clearly, something’s eating at this guy.

When word arrives that Lee’s older brother, Joe, has died of a heart attack, he reluctantly returns to the Massachusetts fishing village of his youth to settle affairs. There Lee discovers that he has been named as the guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

He’s totally unprepared.

Lonergan’s screenplay is a sort of psychological mystery that alternates scenes of Lee in the present — struggling with the horny teen for whom he is now responsible, encountering faces from his youth — with his troubled past, depicted in flashbacks that drift in and out without warning.

In these scenes from Lee’s earlier life we see him working a fishing boat with his brother (Kyle Chandler) and get glimpses of his home life with wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and three small kids.

He’s friendly, even borderline jolly.

Clearly something traumatic occurred between then and now. Continue Reading »

Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving

“LOVING”  My rating: A

123 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

An emotional powerhouse that will leave audiences drained and exultant, “Loving” is the best film I’ve seen so far in 2016.

This latest film from Jeff Nichols, the poet laureate of rural Southern life (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”), is a lightly fictionalized depiction on the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, who in 1959 were convicted of violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws.

Eventually their case led to a Supreme Court decision that dismantled legislation banning mixed-race marriages.

“Loving” works so well as much because what the film isn’t as for what it is.

Writer/director Nichols eschews courtroom maneuvering and big speeches about civil rights. “Loving” is almost exclusively told from the vantage of the Lovings, two unremarkable individuals in extraordinary circumstances.

The film may be about big issues, but it is a spectacularly intimate experience.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter (he’s white, she’s black and Native American) grew up in a corner of Virginia where different races were united by limited educational and economic opportunities.

Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a crew-cut bricklayer who spends his weekends backroad drag racing with his African American brother-in-law.

Mildred (Ruth Negga) is an expectant mother radiating quiet grace and dignity.

They know Virginia law bans mixed-race unions, which is why they drive to nearby Washington D.C. to be married. But, really, who in their bucolic backwater cares?

That complacency is rudely shattered one night when police officers storm into their rural home, drag them from their bed and lock them up in the county jail.

Richard — shy and unassertive — is shamed by the sheriff (Marton Csokas) for betraying his race and violating God’s law: “He made a sparrow a sparrow and a robin a robin. They’re different for a reason.”

Richard can only hang his head and take the abuse. He hasn’t the intellect or the words to defend his love. Continue Reading »

Eddie Redmayne

Eddie Redmayne

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”  My rating: C

133 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s some magic in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” but it’s all courtesy of the special effects and design departments.

Dramatically speaking, this attempt to expand the “Harry Potter” franchise is stillborn. Not even the usually screen-dominating Eddie Redmayne can give it a compelling head or heart.

Based on an original screenplay by “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling (who also produced this film),  “Fantastic Beasts…” is a prequel unfolding in the 1920s. This setting gives the set and costume designers plenty to play with, and their vision of Jazz Age New York City — and the parallel wizarding world that coexists with it — is rich and evocative.

Would that the same could be said for the story and characters.

Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a British wizard who comes to the Big Apple with a small suitcase filled with fantastic creatures. Eventually we learn that he’s a sort of Marlon Perkins on a mission to preserve magical species on the verge of extinction. Much of the film consists of chase scenes in which Newt tries to recapture escapees from his luggage.

Colin Farrell

Colin Farrell

The first one, involving a platypus-like creature that gobbles up jewelry and precious metals, is mildly amusing. Things go downhill from there.

Newt finds that America’s wizarding world is in crisis. The Magical Congress of the U.S.A., the governing institution, has been fighting a losing battle to keep wizardry a secret from the Muggles (only the Yanks call them No-Mags…as in “no magic”). But their cover is being blown by the depredations of some sort of malevolent magical creature that is leveling entire blocks of Manhattan.

Newt’s guide through North American wizardry is Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a sort of bob-coiffed lady detective who has taken it upon herself to police these mysterious happenings.

And he unwittingly gets a sidekick, a roly poly and somewhat bumbling human named Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, who immediately begins stealing scenes from his Oscar-winning costar. In fact Fogler’s disbelieving No-Mag is the single best thing in the film, and his romance with Porpentina’s psychic sister  Queenie (Alison Sudol) provides the only charm and genuine emotion.

Something’s amiss when the second bananas eclipse the leads.

Continue Reading »

Hailee Steinfeld

Hailee Steinfeld

“THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN” My rating: B

204 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Teen angst has always been with us, but it’s rarely been captured on film with the insight  and hilarity on display in “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Hailee Stienfeld, who won an Oscar nomination for her first movie (2010’s “True Grit”), seems likely to snag another one for her performance as  Nadine, a 16-year-old whose emotional wisdom lags way behind her book learning.

“I just had the worse thought,” she confides. “I have to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Nadine joins a short list of adolescent film heroines (like those of “Juno” and “Ghost World”) who have done heroic battle with the inanities of teenage life. And she has more than little of Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield percolating through her bloodstream.

But as with those characters, behind Nadine’s assured bluster there’s an awkward child utterly terrified at the notion of adulthood.

Kelly Fremon Craig’s film starts with a backstory — how Nadine lost her beloved father to a heart attack. She resents his absence every single day, and the injustice of his passing leaves her riding an emotional razor blade.

She has found a substitute of sorts with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), her history teacher, whom she engages in combative, provocative banter. He finds Nadine exasperating and self-absorbed, but keeps being drawn back to her sardonic wit. These two could trade verbal punches all day long.

“The Edge of Seventeen” (a generic title that sounds like something generated by a computer program) centers on two major plot lines, neither of which may seem like a big deal to adults but which to Nadine are the alpha and omega of her existence.

The first is a betrayal by her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who has had the temerity to fall for Nadine’s big brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Darian is a handsome senior jock — probably a Republican for crying out loud. He represents all the things about high school that Nadine despises.

And now Krista has gone over to the enemy.  It’s enough to make a girl act out in inappropriate ways. Continue Reading »

Amy Adams

Amy Adams

“ARRIVAL” My rating: B+

116 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

In “Arrival,” space aliens — as they have so often in our cinematic past — come to Earth with questionable intentions.

Only this time their reception is less Ridley Scott than Stanley Kubrick.

“Arrival” may be the most thought-provoking science fiction film since “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Like Kubrick’s cryptic classic, it will leave some viewers puzzled and perhaps dissatisfied. In lieu of ray guns and souped-up space jalopies, director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies,” “Prisoners,” “Sicario”) depicts massive societal and personal dislocation and ruminates about the very nature of time.

Happily, “Arrival” does all this with a final emotional jolt that will linger in the viewer’s mind for … well, maybe forever. Great movies can do that.

The adventure begins with a dreamy, time-leaping sequence of a mother (Amy Adams) interacting with her daughter from infancy to adolescence. On the soundtrack this woman, Louise, talks about beginnings.

Then we’re taken to the present day where Louise, a world famous linguist, arrives in her college lecture hall to find that practically nobody has come to hear her talk about the Portuguese language. The absences are soon explained — 12 magnificent spaceships (they resemble gigantic elongated eggs, or maybe black mango seeds) are now hovering at various points around the globe.

In just a couple of brilliantly conceived and edited minutes Villeneuve evokes the shock and widespread disruption caused by the realization that we are not alone.

Populations panic. Stock markets tumble. There are runs on bottled water and batteries. Looting and rioting.

Yes. This is exactly what would happen.

For Louise it gets personal when a military bigwig (Forest Whitaker) arrives at her doorstep to announce that her country needs her. Mankind must figure out how to converse with the newcomers. Continue Reading »

20s

Trevante Rhodes as the twenty something Chiron

“MOONLIGHT” My rating: B+ 

110 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Think of  Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” as an African-American variation on Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It is an epic chronicle of childhood giving way to adolescence, and adolescence becoming a lonely adulthood.

The difference is that “Boyhood” was pretty much straightforward storytelling, while “Moonlight” is pure poetry. It is, in short, a genuine black art film, filled with beauty and horror, small comforts and big challenges.

Through the character of Chiron, a young Floridian played by three actors of different ages, writer/director Bennett gives us a deeply personal story which, without belaboring the point, can stand for the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young black men.

It’s not about drugs or poverty or gang life per se, and there’s no obviously political agenda (in fact white people are almost never seen), but “Moonlight” cannot help folding those socially relevant topics into its narrative.

At the same time the movie is less about facts (it’s filled with unanswered questions) than about feelings. It’s about a few seconds of blessed respite during a suffocatingly tense day, about water and sand and tropical heat, about activity fearfully captured out of the corner of one’s eye.

In one sense it’s practically documentary without the usual big dramatic speeches (the film’s protagonist is incapable of verbal grandstanding), but captured in a swirling riot of camera movement, color and conflicting sounds.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little as he’s called by just about everyone, he’s hiding in an abandoned apartment building, having been pursued by schoolyard bullies. As his name suggests, Little is small. Also shy, withdrawn, mistrustful and uncommunicative.

He’s rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug lord, who provides safe escort and takes the boy to his apartment and his nurturing girlfriend Teresa (KCK native Janelle Monae, making a seemingly effortless transition from pop stardom to film acting).

Over the course of weeks and months the cocaine slinger and his woman will become Little’s surrogate parents, providing food, shelter and — as weird as it may sound — examples of more-or-less responsible adulthood…something painfully lacking in Little’s relationship with his  increasingly drug dependent mother (Naomie Harris).

Ali (sure to be honored as a supporting actor Oscar nominee) makes of Juan a deeply complex figure. He’s a criminal, but his relationship with Little is one of selfless nurturing.  Countless films have prepared us for Ali to use the kid as part of his drug business, but that never happens.

Instead he takes the boy to the beach and gently coaxes him into learning to float on the rocking waves. When Little asks, “Am I a faggot?” Juan answers with profound sincerity that Little may be gay, but he’s no faggot.

Other life lessons follow.  “No place in this world ain’t got black people,” Juan declares.  “We were the first people here.”

And especially:  “At some point you gotta decide for yoursdrelf who you gonna be.” Continue Reading »

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

“DOCTOR STRANGE” My rating: B-

115 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

At this stage of the game Marvel movies have fallen into a predictable pattern, especially the third-act city-leveling smackdown (it’s like it’s guaranteed in the Constitution or something).

About two years ago I decided I was over the whole superhero thing. Unless, of course, you can show me something new.

“Dr. Strange” takes me halfway there, giving us a spell-casting protagonist who has more in common with Harry Potter than your usual Spandexed bicep bulger.

It’s got a solid first hour in which our ego-driven hero (see “Iron Man”) recognizes  the errors of his ways and gets his head turned around.

And a second hour in which a lot of shit gets blown up.

The wild card here is Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS’s current Sherlock and an actor of such range and integrity that I’m willing to give a chance to just about any project to which he lends his name.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. Even among his self-aggrandizing colleagues he’s noted as a self-serving asshole who peers down his aquiline nose at lesser mortals and lives the life of a solitary genius.  In the past he had a fling with surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his most enduring relationships are with his fancy sports car, plush apartment and his own self.

A highway accident leaves Strange with crushed paws. Unable to hold a scalpel, he sees  his life dripping away and goes on an international hunt for some sort of treatment that can reverse his physical infirmities.

Which is how he ends up in Katmandu in an esoteric school run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and looking like a visiting space alien).  The Ancient One and her lieutenant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put our hero through a physical and mental marathon, breaking down his sense of self, opening him up to life on the astral plane, and filling his head — and the screenplay — with enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to make Scientology seem a viable option.

 

Continue Reading »

Andrew Garfield

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss

“HACKSAW RIDGE” My rating: B+

131 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Old fashioned” in the best possible sense, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a real-life World War II combat drama that has it both ways.

It may be the most violent film ever released by a major studio, being horrifyingly realistic in its depiction of combat in the South Pacific.

At the same time it is soul-shakingly inspiring.

Brutality and spirituality are unlikely bedfellows, which makes the ultimate triumph of “Hacksaw Ridge” all the more remarkable.

In fact, the film instantly elevates director Mel Gibson back to his one-time status as a major filmmaker. Say what you will about Gibson’s misbehavior and misplaced beliefs, the guy has got the stuff.

Like “Sergeant York,” the reality-inspired classic about the World War I hero, “Hacksaw Ridge” centers on a conscientious objector who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. It even follows that earlier film’s basic narrative, dividing its running time between our hero’s life Stateside and his grueling combat experiences.

The difference is that unlike Sgt. Alvin York — who finally put aside his C.O. status and became a one-man juggernaut, killing at least 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others — Desmond Doss practiced non-violence even in the midst of the most ghastly carnage imaginable.

With bullets whizzing around him — quite literally up to his knees in blood and guts — this Army medic singlemindedly went about his business of saving his fellow soldiers.

We meet young Desmond (Andrew Garfield) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Dad (Hugo Weaving) is an unshaved alcoholic still tormented by the sight of his friends being blown to bits during the Great War. Mom (Rachel Griffiths) is often on the fist end of her husband’s anguish.

As a boy Desmond is traumatized after losing his temper and striking his brother  with a rock. Swearing to never again harm another human, he joins the the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose pacifist doctrines prohibit its members from carrying weapons.

Continue Reading »

Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

Nate Parker (center) as Nat Turner

“THE BIRTH OF A NATION” My rating: B+

120 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The first provocation in Nate Parker’s provocative debut feature comes with the title.

“The Birth of a Nation” was, of course, the blatantly racist (though artistically daring) 1915 silent film that President Woodrow Wilson said was “like writing history with lightning.”

Parker’s film — he co-wrote it, directed it and plays the lead role — appropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s epic celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Except that Parker’s “Birth” is more a case of writing history with dignity and sorrow.

His subject is Nat Turner, the Virginia slave who in 1831 led a two-day rebellion that left as many as 60 whites dead. In the aftermath more than 200 blacks were murdered out of fear and retaliation.

It’s a fictionalized biography that follows Turner from childhood — he grew up playing with the white boy who would become his master, and despite his slave status learned to read and became an accomplished preacher — to his death on the gallows.

As with any film set in the antebellum South, we get plenty of pain (Jackie Earle Haley plays a slave catcher who exudes toxic cruelty).

But this “Birth” is no mere wallow in atrocity. Parker devotes much of the film to depicting familes and universal experiences.

So while the screenplay by Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin follows Turner’s slow radicalization, it also deals with the tiny joys and pains of just existing.

That may be why, despite scrupulously accurate art direction, much of the movie is composed of close-ups. Parker appears obsessed here with the landscape of the human face and how it registers joy, pain, fear and yearning. Slavery cannot be blithely dismissed as a “peculiar institution” when you can look deep into the eyes of those on the stinging end of a whip.

Continue Reading »

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender

“THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”  My rating: C+ 

  132 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-13

There’s a world of weeping on display in “The Light Between Oceans.”

The good news is that most of the sobbing is done by Alicia Vikander.  If you’ve got to stare for two hours at a tear-stained face, it might as well be that of this Oscar-winning actress. She makes suffering almost transcendent.

The not-so-good news is that in making its transition from best seller to big screen, M.L. Stedman’s story has lost a good deal of its power.

For all the lacerating emotions displayed by Vikander and co-stars Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz, relatively little of it is experienced by the viewer.

What was deeply moving on the printed page seems mechanically melodramatic when dramatized.  You want to be moved, but can’t shake the feeling that mostly you’re being manipulated.

After four years in the trenches of World War I, Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) returns to his native Australia a hollow man. Seeking solitude and time to rediscover himself, he signs up as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island, a windswept hunk of rock 100 miles from the nearest coast.

But he won’t be alone for long. In one of the most satisfying passages in Derek Cianfrance’s film, he meets, woos and weds Isabel (Vikander), a local girl who seems to relish life on the island. Their’s is a civilization of two…the only thing that could make it better would be a baby to share the experience.

Fate has other plans.  Isabel suffers a miscarriage (during a hurricane, no less) and later gives birth to a stillborn child.  Things are looking pretty glum.

And then a rowboat floats in on the tide. Inside is a dead man and a baby girl. Continue Reading »

Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch

Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch

“THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE” My rating: B- 

96 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In general, gruesome viscera and good acting make for strange bedfellows.  But they get along quite nicely in “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.”

The action of Andre Ovredal’s claustrophobic thriller takes place almost entirely in the cellar morgue of a rural Virginia funeral parlor.

The father-and-son team of Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden spend a stormy (naturally) night dissecting the body of a beautiful young woman brought in by the local sheriff.

The cops have found three members of a local family murdered in their home. And down in the basement they discovered the nude, half-buried corpse of a girl (Olwen Kelley).  They have no clue as to who she is — she’s designated a “Jane Doe” — how she got there or what caused her death.

Answering that last question is the job of Tommy and Austin, who methodically and dispassionately go about the gory business of taking the young woman apart, piece by piece.

Almost immediately there are mysteries.  Though there are no signs of trauma on her body, her wrists and ankles have been shattered (the result of shackles?). Her tongue has been cut out. There are traces of peat under her nails. The morticians discover sexual trauma. (Perhaps she is a victim of sex traffickers?)

Once she’s cut open things get weirder. There are scars on her internal organs. And the inside of her body cavity is covered with tattoos of rune-like symbols.

Continue Reading »