Review: Inferno



A decade ago I saw at the cinema the film version Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Highly anticipated due to the success of the book, the film was considered a disappointment by many (although a big box-office hit) although I enjoyed it for what it was. While it never reached a level of profundity it perhaps desired, in terms of a throwaway mystery it was satisfying, with the mysteries worked out by main character Robert Langdon quite fun and the history and scenery of old Europe giving it a cultural aspect unusual in Hollywood big-budget films.

I didn’t see the 2009 followup ‘Angels And Demons’ and hadn’t really given any recent thought to any of the Dan Brown books/films, but because of circumstances I had the chance to see the third film in the series Inferno’ last night at the cinema and took it, hoping that would provide the same level of entertainment that The Da Vinci Code did. Alas, it was not to be.

The film dives right into the action with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awaking in an Italian hospital having suffered injuries and amnesia after being apparently attacked. Still groggy, he is rushed out of his hospital room by the doctor taking care of him (Felicity Jones) when an assassin attempts to kill him. Eventually it becomes clear it’s all associated with a plot by wealthy geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) to severely reduce the world’s population. But how can Langdon save the day, not only still unwell but with everything especially as most things aren’t what they seem?

Among the many things ‘Inferno’ gets wrong, probably its biggest one is forgetting how Langdon’s using his historical knowledge of ancient culture and artefacts to work out mysteries and provide knowledge was the most entertaining aspect of TDVC. We do get occasional mystery solving and bits of knowledge (you do learn where the word ‘quarantine’ comes from) but far too little.

And what we get instead isn’t impressive. Director Ron Howard – perhaps trying to compensate for the thinness of the material – frantically overdirects the film’s many action scenes and endless horror nightmares using every cinematic trick he knows. But instead of these scenes being exciting, the action scenes feel incoherent and uninteresting and the nightmare scenes are so overhyped they almost descend into parody territory. In his desire to make the film cutting-edge, Howard makes the film and his own directorial style seem distinctly old-hat.

Indeed a lot of this film seems to be based around things that would’ve been considered clichéd generations ago, starting with the central character having amnesia… an amnesia that of course that doesn’t impact the plot when required.

Even in minor details the film feels hackneyed. Whenever the film moves to a different location, we not only get the name of the city displayed but the time displayed. If the film made use of its race-against-the-clock concept it might be of value, but instead it almost feels like something you’d see in an Abrahams/Zucker film. And of course whenever a character uses the Internet or play a YouTube it occurs instally just as it never does in real life.

Also, we see a scene where there’s video evidence of Langdon stealing a precious artefact (Langdon can’t remember due to his memory) and I’m still not clear how this was resolved. As well, would a geneticist like Zoborist really be a billionaire?

There aren’t many positives to be had from ‘Inferno’. Irrfan Khan is enjoyable as a mysterious high-level security operative, the film gets a bit more interesting in the closing 25 minutes once a revelation is made about a major character and the scenery of various European cities is lovely to look at on the big screen.

But overall, just about everything about ‘Inferno’ seems tired, uninspired and dreary; even Tom Hanks can’t do much to save it. In the lengthy career of Ron Howard, this would have to go down as one of his weakest directorial efforts.

Review: The Birth of a Nation


The Birth of a Nation is not a perfect film, but it is an important and necessary one. For whatever sins first-time director Nate Parker makes, and it’s not many, I think of the seemingly endless number of black people murdered by police, the clueless TV idiots who say that slavery wasn’t so bad, or that black people should get over it, or the morons who proudly wave a Confederate flag.

I haven’t read that many reviews of the film, so I’m not sure where the vitriol comes. Is it because of Nate Parker’s past? I don’t review people, I review films, and if Parker isn’t a great person I don’t know, but he’s made a good film. The weak box office probably hurts it for Oscar consideration, but it does deserve a few nominations.

Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece in telling the story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, played by Parker. Nat is owned by a relatively kind family. The matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches him to read, and he becomes a lay preacher. When his owner dies, his son (Armie Hammer), whom he played with as a child, is almost like a colleague. When they pass by an auction and Nat realizes that the woman on the block is going to be sold as a sexual plaything, Nat gets Hammer to buy her. He will end up marrying her.

It’s his calling as a preacher that starts to turn Nat. Hammer is hired by neighboring plantations to have Nat preach to their slaves, reading carefully selected parts of the Bible that pertain to slavery. But Nat sees that he has it easy–the slaves he sees are treated worse than animals. Hammer starts to drink and is in debt, and begins to see Nat as rebellious. He loans out another slave’s wife as a whore for another white man, and then the final straw comes when Nat baptizes a white man. Hammer has him whipped.

Nat then, with just a few men, organizes a rebellion, and kills 60 white people. It is a short-lived revolution, though, as soldiers end it when the slaves try to steal munitions from an armory. But Nat Turner has lived on as a symbol (there were other slave rebellions, notably by Denmark Vesey), and in this movie he’s a guy who just can’t watch and take it anymore.

This should be required viewing for those who say that slavery wasn’t so bad. Of course, right-thinking people know it was a horror and a permanent stain on the American psyche, but even seeing such outrageous things as a man having his teeth knocked out so he can be force-fed through a funnel can only hint at the terror. We do see the dichotomy between the field slave and the house slave, as Hammer’s valet (Roget Guenver Smith), a light-skinned black, prefers to keep the status quo and tells Turner that by his actions he has killed them all. But the film captures the anger that can only stay welled up so long.

As a director, Parker makes some great choices and some dubious ones. I thought his inclusion of an anachronistic song, Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” which was about lynching, was great. Other decisions, such as the obvious placement of a stained glass cross in an important scene, or a butterfly gently flapping its wings on a hanged black man, were straining things. I can’t blame him for placing the armory in the appropriately named town of Jerusalem–that was true.

He was helped greatly by cinematographer Elliot Davis. Much of the film takes place at night, a time when slaves could more freely move about, but also be abused more easily. Davis uses natural light often, and some shots are stunning, as when Turner, still tied to the stock at which he was whipped, is surrounded by candles put out by his compatriots. A beautiful day-time shot is a seemingly endless field of cotton, shown to young Nat when he is introduced to field work.

I don’t know enough about Turner to know how much is true. I suspect that a character played by Jackie Earle Haley, who bedevils Turner from when he was a child, is a fictional character meant to be a composite villain who reaches a satisfying end. But that’s the way of historical films–they are never one-hundred percent accurate, or they might as well be documentaries. I would like to see a PBS show or something on the real Nat Turner just to see what was true and what was not.

Parker is fine as Turner, and he surrounds himself with a good supporting cast, especially Mark Boone Junior as a preacher who likes to take a drink. What is disappointing is that he doesn’t spend much time developing the female characters. His wife, played by Aja Naomi King, is really more of a plot device than a character (she is beaten and raped, by Haley, of course). Gabrielle Union, who plays the slave pimped out to a white man, doesn’t even have a line. This was apparently a decision shared by Parker and Union, but it reinforces a stereotype that black women have no power (the story goes, when black women joined The Black Panthers back in the day, they were mostly asked to make coffee).

But still I was moved by The Birth of a Nation, and was glad Parker had the gumption to make it (he also wrote the script and produced). It’s a must-see.

Opening in Las Vegas, October 14, 2016


Not much of interest this week, other than an indie by a British director about American aimlessness. That’s American Honey (78), directed by Andrea Arnold (the director of the excellent Fish Tank, also about a teenage girl). Getting rave reviews for the star, Sasha Lane, but loses points for starring Shia LaBeouf and being 2 hours and 43 minutes long. Ty Burr: “Ironically, the film itself is as gentle and unexploitative as they come. Yes, it deserves the rating, and yes, it depicts teenagers doing things the grown-ups would rather not admit they actually do, but it does so with a poetic curiosity and a sense of what it’s like to be young, poor, and rootless — both future-less and free.”

The box-office winner this week is The Accountant (51), a generic-looking thriller that seesm to perfectly use Ben Affleck’s dead-eyed stare. Nick Shager: “Seemingly primed to deliver daffy thrills, The Accountant instead goes about its noble-killer business with all the excitement of an IRS audit.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Kevin Hart film, and I have seen enough of his stand-up to know I don’t like him, but the kids do. Therefore, we have Kevin Hart: What Now? (61), filmed in front of an audience of 50,000. Yes, 50,000! Tirdad Derakhshani: “Part of the problem lies with the venue. When it comes to standup, bigger is not better. One-man shows work better in smaller spaces. In his bid to proclaim his giant stature as an entertainer, Hart loses himself.”

This week’s bomb is Max Steel (23), which probably didn’t earn back the catering costs this weekend. Something about a kid who discovers he has powers–gee, that’s original. Frank Scheck: “As the stuntmen duke it out and we see close-ups of the two actors making silly faces, it’s hard not imagine a Mystery Science Theater 3000 feature in the making.”

Desierto (51) seems interesting–a Spanish-language look at the border mess, with Gael Garcia Bernal, but getting lukewarm reviews. Todd McCarthy: “If the story is meant to represent a microcosm of the immigration problem, it’s woefully reductive. If it’s meant to be first and foremost an action thriller, it does have a few nice moves to offer.”

Finally there’s Shin Godzilla (68) a Japanese reboot (and why not, they invented the character) that’s getting good notices and should thrill any monster-movie fans. The trailer is awesome. Joe Leydon: “The Original Gangsta Lizard gets a largely satisfying reboot in Shin Godzilla, a surprisingly clever monster mash best described as the “Batman Begins” of Zilla Thrillers.”

Films that opened in USA on Oct 7-9, 2016


Know it’s late but always like to keep a record of the films that opened in the US since this blog started, especially because if we see one of these films we can post a comment in the related thread:

The Girl On The Train (IMDB rating 6.7) – A big hit in America last weekend, and an even bigger hit here in Australia (where it was heavily marketed for weeks). Not really of interest to me and after seeing the trailer, even less so. Interesting to note that in supporting roles are Alison Janney, Laura Prepon & Lisa Kudrow – all who had roles on highly-successful TV series in the late 90s/early 00s era.

The Birth Of A Nation (5.6) – This was such a ‘hot’ film coming out of Sundance that many were talking about it being a major Oscar contender for months. But controversy over events from star/director Nate Parker’s past appear to have ended that speculation, with the lacklustre opening box office not helping. The oddly low IMDB rating suggests something similar to the Ghostbusters remarke; people who haven’t seen it piling on it because of Parker’s past, or perhaps the film’s ideology in his heavily politically charged year in the US.

Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life (5.8) – Has a low IMDB rating but the trailer for this school comedy actually makes it look pretty fun. Interesting trivia note: this is the first film for director Steve Carr to get a ‘fresh’ RT rating after 8 rottens.

Premam (8.4) – Indian romantic drama

The Greasy Strangler (5.8) – Saw a headline suggesting this offbeat black comedy may be the weirdest movie ever and after seeing a trailer, they may be right! Seems to be worth a look

Asura: The City Of Madness (7.0) – South Korean crime thriller
Under The Shadow (7.5) – Horror film set in 1980s Iran.

The Battle Of Algiers (8.1) – Appears to be a reissue of the great 1960s historical war film. Was lucky enough to see this on the big screen several years ago and highly recommend it – my abiding memory of it is a quieter scene where the Colonel in charge of the occupation (under fire from media over his conduct of the occupation) asks the media whether they support the occupation; when they say they do they’re exposed as not really being oppositional at all.

Being 17 (7.3) – French drama

Newtown (5.5) – Doco on how a town recovers from a mass shooting. The user comments on the IMDB site for this are rather disconcerting.

Blue Jay (7.4) – Romantic drama (filmed in a week) in seemingly mumblecore style written and starring one of the prominent members of that style, Mark Duplass. Also starring Sarah Paulson who was sensational in the great OJ mini-series. Looking at the trailer and it being filmed in B&W, reminded me a bit of the late 00s film In Search of A Midnight Kiss which I reviewed here many years ago

Theo Who Lived (7.2) – Doco on an American journalist captured by Al-Qaeda.

The Hollow (5.3) – US murder investigation thriller.

Homeland (N/A) – War-related film about a citizen of war-torn Syria living in Sweden.

Oscar 2016, Best Actress: Strawberry Blondes Forever

Emma Stone in “La La Land”

This year’s prospects for the Best Actress Oscar are pretty deep, compared to other years. They are especially good for actresses of color, but may end up being dominated by redheads. I’d bet the farm that the winner will fit in one of those categories. Now that Toronto and New York are over, more pictures have been seen by those that beat the drums.

In alphabetical order:

Viola Davis, Fences: She’s a shoo-in if here isn’t a category dispute. She won the Tony for this role, but in the Supporting Actress category. The studio may want to push her for Supporting, where she would probably be the favorite. She’s way overdo for an Oscar.

Ruth Negga, Loving: The film doesn’t seem to be getting the reception that it seemed like it would on paper, but Negga, as one of the participants in the Supreme Court case that found anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, seems like the best bet for a nomination.

Natalie Portman, Jackie: This film kind of came out of nowhere for Oscar bloggers, but is getting buzz for not only Portman, but for Best Picture. It covers the few days after JFK’s assassination. Portman is a previous winner, but some are suggesting she still may win.

Emma Stone, La La Land: This redhead’s your favorite as of now, a well-liked actress who is getting rave reviews for the film that is now in the catbird’s seat for Best Picture. It is also possible she (and her co-star Ryan Gosling) could be nominated in the Best Song category, as they each wrote a tune for the film. That would be unprecedented.

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins: This is a light role for Streep, and if nominated it would be her twentieth nomination. She’s probably on the bubble, and we’ll have to see if any other actresses supersede her. I think she was terrific, though, and wouldn’t begrudge her another nomination.

Also possible: Amy Adams, Arrival or Nocturnal Animals (redhead); Annette Bening, Twentieth Century Women; Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane (redhead); Isabelle Huppert, Elle (redhead); Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures.

Review: Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)



When trying to understand the significance of a great filmmaker, sometimes it’s more insightful to look at their less successful films or when their career is in decline. A good example is famed writer/director Billy Wilder and his 1964 film ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’.

Wilder had many peaks during his lengthy and illustrious career but his run of three exceptional films from 1959 to 1961 – ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’ & ‘One, Two, Three’ was never bettered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s career never reached such heights again and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ was made when Wilder’s career was beginning its steady decline, culminating in 1981’s abysmal ‘Buddy Buddy’.

But ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is probably more valuable for study anyone interested in Wilder’s career as it showcases his significant strengths as a filmmaker but also the weaknesses that began to develop in his work from this point onwards.
The plot of ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ sees Orville Spooner (Ray Waltson)as a small-town frustrated piano teacher looking to break out of his dreary lifestyle by becoming a famed songwriter with friend Barney (Cliff Osmond). Their opportunity arises when they dismantle the car of popular singer Dino (Dean Martin, obviously playing a variant on himself) driving through town. But because of Dino’s voracious sexual appetite, Orville is obliged to send his wife out of town and have local prostitute Polly (Kim Novak) pretend to be her. But things get only more complex from there.

‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fascinating mix of old-style and modern cinema. Watching the film in its black & white photography, long takes and limited camera movement, the film could easily pass for a film made 10, even 15 years before.
But whereas its filming style wasn’t ‘modern’, its content certainly was. In fact, the film not only feels modern by 1964 standards, watching it today one is surprised by how it didn’t just stop at innuendo but actually followed through with multiple infidelities carried through by central characters. Even in this era of ‘raunchy’ comedies, if a mainstream film like this were made today it wouldn’t go as far as ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ does.

Also, like most of Wilder’s post-1961 films, ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ feels slower and longer (at around 124 minutes) than it needs to be. Perhaps this is because Wilder was first and foremost a writer and was reluctant to condense his words when possible and didn’t have the deftness the best directors have to make a film more succinct without any value being lost.

Probably the film’s biggest problem though is the casting (or miscasting) of Ray Walston as Orville. In a role crying out for Wilder regular Jack Lemmon, Walston displays none of the vulnerability or likability required to pull off a difficult role. Indeed, an early comic scene where he chases a music student out of his home out of paranoid jealousy leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of the way Walston plays it. One wonders if a more likable central performer had been in the role, that all of the claims of moral indecency wouldn’t have surfaced?

But for all that’s wrong with ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, there is a lot that’s right with it and that includes Wilder’s script (written with long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond). It may be not the best script they ever wrote but compared to many of today’s comedies that almost try to make virtues of having no sense of timing or narrative, it feels like a comparative masterpiece. One of the refreshing aspects of a Wilder film is how well-organised and structured they are. And ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is very well put together from a plot structure point of view with all the main characters reaching resolutions of some kind.
Wilder/Diamond scripts always felt well-structured plot wise in that they accommodated narrative and key character resolutions and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is no exception. And their famed comic one-liners are backed up by lots of nice little details; for example how a local hardware store is incorporated deftly into the film.

Apart from the Walston,, the cast does a pretty good job and it bats pretty deep with the likes of John Fielder, Alice Pearce and even Mel Blanc appearing in small roles. Dean Martin is obviously having a ball mocking his own persona and Kim Novak (someone who I’d previously felt was a dull performer) gives the film zest as Polly.

A fascinating part of the film from a sociological perspective is how the dream of the central characters is to become great songwriters as they were not only financially successful but were revered figures in American culture. Indeed, many of the most famous ones like Cole Porter were household names. And yet just as the film was getting made the new wave of popular musicians like The Beatles (who are referenced in the film) and Bob Dylan were becoming famous for not only being great performers but writing and composing their own material. As a result the role of the pure songwriter/composer was – while not redundant – going to be far down the pecking scale when it came to fame and fortune.

Back to Billy Wilder, why did his career gradually decline from mid-60s onwards when his skills, cynicism and preparedness to take on ‘adult’ subjects suggested he could’ve prospered in the permissive Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is – as already mentioned – a technique issue as his old-style filmmaking would’ve seemed out of whack with the increasingly inventive, risk-taking and ground-breaking style of 1970s cinema.

But more significantly while Wilder was always prepared to attack aspects of American society, it would usually only go so far. Often he’d direct his scorn towards those on the lower rungs of society as being full of deviousness and hypocrisy such as struggling screenwriters, scheming lawyers or those trying to make a quick buck. But Wilder never seemed to direct his criticism at American society as a whole and its institutions that helped create a culture develop where ordinary citizens would act so cravenly. And in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s that tended to criticise American society overall and show more empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Wilder’s satire felt more brittle and nasty instead of incisive as it had once been.

Nevertheless, despite these issues ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fine film worth seeking out, especially for those despairing at the standards of modern mainstream Hollywood comedies.

Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief


To Catch a Thief, release in 1955, is mid-level Hitchcock, and is a kind of travelogue, or luxury porn. Set on the French Riviera, it’s strongest features are the stars, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, who never looked better.

Grant is John Robie, who was a cat burglar before the war. He escaped prison and worked for the French resistance, and was paroled. He is living a quiet life in a villa (he says he grows grapes, but how he got so rich is a question) when a copycat strikes, robbing rich women of their jewelry. The police suspect it’s him, so, as the old saying goes, “It takes a thief to catch a thief” and Robie works to nab the criminal.

The film doesn’t really have a lot of Hitchcockian touches. I did like the opening, when we get a closeup of a travel poster extolling the beauty of France and then cut to a screaming woman, who has just found an empty jewelry box. We then see a black cat prowling French rooftops in between robberies.

But other than that, and one of Hitchcock’s best cameos (he’s sitting next to Grant on a bus, staring straight ahead and stone-faced) this is not a particularly strong film. What keeps it alive is a certain bon vivance, mostly supplied by some supporting players–John Williams, as a stuffy English insurance agent who decides to trust Grant, and Jesse Royce Landis as Kelly’s mother, who provides some great lines (she would later play Grant’s mother in North by Northwest). There is also a lot of double entendres between Kelly and Grant–she’s after him, until she realizes he’s a thief, but of course all will be well.

Interestingly, this is the second film I’ve seen of Hitchcock’s, after Notorious, in which Grant rides with a woman who drives fast and makes him nervous (it was Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, who was drunk). Grant also drives drunk (he is force-fed alcohol) in North by Northwest, and in Suspicion, Joan Fontaine is taken on a wild ride by Grant, thinking he’s going to push her out of the car. It’s long been established that a boyhood incident made Hitchcock afraid of going to jail, but I also suspect he wasn’t a fan of automobiles, either.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 30, 2016


I start with the latest Tim Burton film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (59), with another spate of mixed reviews. This one seems more Burton-ish than ever, but I’m wondering if this guy has lost the knack of stepping outside of himself. I once read of him, “great art director, not so great director.” Ed Wood still remains his best film, I think. Feel free to suggest yours. Todd McCarthy: “For a time, an appealing gentleness prevails that’s rooted in this unique inter-generational romance, a feeling augmented in particular by Purnell’s slow-blooming flower of a performance, and if the film had remained focused more on the improbabilities of this love story, it might have emerged as something rather special.”

Movies like Deepwater Horizon (67) trouble me. Peter Berg specializes now in making films about catastrophes that focus on small, individual events that make us admire courage and humanity and all that good stuff. If he made a movie about the plague it would be about a plucky doctor who managed to save two or three people. Making a movie about the BP oil spill, one of the most dastardly corporate incidents ever, by focusing on the decent people who worked the oil rig, seems to me to turn a blind eye to what really mattered. But that’s just me. Peter Debruge: “For a movie in which you can’t follow what’s going on for 75% of the time, Deepwater Horizon proves remarkably thrilling.”

Masterminds (49) is a comic heist movie with Zack Galifinakis (in a Bruce Vilanch wig) and a host of SNL actors. It practically screams home video. If you want to see a good movie about an inside job at an armored car robbery, rent Criss Cross of 1949. Sara Stewart: “I cracked up here and there watching this broad heist comedy, but it wasn’t laughter I felt great about. Director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) has always gone for geeks and oddballs, but this film mostly punches down at characters for being poor, unfashionable and stupid.”

Putting my James hat on, I’m kind of surprised Queen of Katwe (73) is opening wide here, after a limited release last weekend. No matter how good, it doesn’t seem likely that a film about a Ugandan girl chess prodigy will pack them in. But it does seem worthwhile. Katie Rife: “In some ways, the more novel element is the film’s depiction of chess, which in Katwe is a popular sport on the level of football. And while that might seem unlikely, it’s accurate, at least in the wake of Mutesi’s success.”

In limited release this week, there’s Kate Winslet in The Dressmaker (47), also starring Judy Davis, set in the Australian outback. A. O. Scott: “Unfortunately, and despite its promising start, The Dressmaker doesn’t move much beyond the level of well-costumed playacting.”


Opening in Las Vegas, September 23, 2016


Thisweek we have another unnecessary remake, The Magnificent Seven (54), which itself was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Word is that this will be a huge hit, breaking the September record for openings. I guess that’s due to Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. I will likely pass. Matt Singer: “The group…make a fine crew. But the rest of the movie doesn’t find enough interesting wrinkles on the old formula to merit a reboot.”

The only other major release this week is for the kids, Storks (56). Do kids still think storks deliver babies? I think that was on its way out when I was a kid. But it’s apparently valid enough to make a movie. Interestingly, the stork myth goes back to ancient civilizations, and is present in the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythologies. Neil Genzlinger:”This film, directed by Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland, is a harmless enough way to occupy a youngster for an hour and a half. It’s just not especially rich in extraordinary characters or moments.”

A couple of limited releases hit here today. The more fascinating may be Max Rose (37) Jerry Lewis’ first film in twenty years. He’s 90, and many fans of Borscht Belt shtick are still obsessed with him, but he kind of rubs me the wrong way. His best appearance, other than The Nutty Professor, was in Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Glenn Kenny: “As conventional and stiff as Max Rose itself is, Lewis’ performance in it is full of virtues: he’s committed, disciplined, and entirely credible.”

Finally is The Hollars (53), directed by actor John Krasinski about a gasp! dysfuctional family. The only reason to see it may be Margo Martindale, a long-overlooked character actress who is getting early Oscar buzz. Marjorie Baumgarten: “A standard-issue family reunion dramedy, The Hollars has several genuine moments of human interaction that are near-magical to observe because they feel so plucked from real life.”


Oscars 2016, Best Actor: Who Wants Thirds?


The putative front-runners for the Oscar for Best Actor this year are both two-time winners, and both have already cemented their status as Hollywood legends. One of them seems a sure thing for a nomination, the other is in a movie that no has seen yet, but seems to have Oscar written all over it. But could a first-time winner sneak in?

Right now, barring Fences being an absolute disaster, four of the Best Acting nominees feel fairly certain, in films that have already been seen and pleased audiences. The fifth spot could go any number of places.

In alphabetical order, here’s my take:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea: This movie was a Sundance hit and is eagerly anticipated. Affleck, who has one nomination under his belt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) seems likely here, if his recent legal problems don’t hamper him (he was sued for sexual harassment; there was an out-of-court settlement).

Ryan Gosling, La La Land: As of today, La La Land may be the favorite for Best Picture. Emma Stone is getting most of the accolades, and just may be the favorite for Best Actress (that’s coming up right here next month) but Gosling may be along for the ride for his role in a musical. When actors do something different from their usual pesonas voters take notice. Gosling has one nomination also, for Half-Nelson.

Tom Hanks, Sully: Believe it or not, but Hanks has not been nominated for 16 years, not since Cast Away. He only has five nominations total, and has been passed over for what were thought sure-fire nominations in recent years. But Sully is a hit, and Hanks is the major part of it. Could he be the second man to win three Best Actor Oscars (after Daniel Day-Lewis)? I wouldn’t be shocked.

Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation: This is my going out on a limb pick, and it wasn’t so until recently. But revelations about Parker being charged with rape (but acquitted) have cast a pall all over the film. However, there seems to have been a backlash against the backlash, with Parker appearing at screenings and receiving ovations. Time may cool things down. But don’t put any money on it.

Denzel Washington, Fences: Again, Fences has not been seen by any press, and Washington’s previous two directorial efforts garnered zero Oscar nominations. But there’s a lot of hope for this, as it has a black cast and given the cultural climate would ease a lot of wounds if it here a hit. Washington has won two Oscars, one for Supporting Actor (Glory) and one for Best Actor (Training Day).

Also possible: Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk; Joel Edgerton, Loving; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden; Michael Keaton, The Founder; and Miles Teller, Bleed for This.

Review: Snowden


It’s a funny thing about Snowden–it’s a competent thriller with, of course, political overtones (Oliver Stone made it, after all) and I have no beef with it, but a day after seeing it it doesn’t stick with me. I can still remember shots from Nixon and Natural Born Killers and even W., but Snowden may be the most conventional film Stone has ever made.

There has already been a film about Edward Snowden, and that was the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, which had three journalists and Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong as he gave them information and they published it. Some of those scenes are re-enacted, which is strange given we’ve seen the real thing. So Stone has expanded the story, telling us about Snowden’s earlier days, when he was a gung-ho Bush supporter, how he grew disenchanted with the methods of government intelligence, and how he was influenced by his girlfriend.

This is all well and good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent Snowden, down to the almost perpetual fringe of beard on his chin and the at times infuriating earnestness, and I am once again impressed by Shailene Woodley, who takes the part of “the girlfriend” and makes it something much more. Having seen Woodley take part at the Dakota Access protests recently crossed into my thinking, and it helped me buy her as a liberal.

But something is missing. We get a little of it–the most memorable scene is when Gordon-Levitt is called into a video conference with his mentor, Rhys Ifans, whose image is projected on a wall, about twelve feet tall, looming like a Big Brother. I think the entire film is summed up in that scene, as what Snowden revealed, that the U.S. government was listening and reading private conversations, emails, and texts, is the very definition of Big Brother.

I was also interested in some of the nuts and bolts of working for the CIA and NSA. There’s a mountain in Hawaii where you really get x-rayed before you come in, and spies these days are computer jockeys, likely to wear cargo pants and bowling shirts instead of black trench coats.

Stone clearly admires Snowden, who gets a cameo at the end. While others called for harsh punishment (Trump called for his execution, Clinton demanded his arrest, and Obama was not a fan) it’s interesting to see how time changes things–it’s possible that Obama may pardon him. The film comes then, at an interesting time then, but it doesn’t really make a statement. Oh, you may want to put a Band-Aid over your Web-cam, and don’t email or text anything that you don’t want Uncle Sam to read, but we knew that already, didn’t we?

Opening in Las Vegas, September 16, 2016


A little something for everybody this week. Rom-com, horror, and some Oscar  bait.

The likely winner among new films at the box office is Blair Witch (45), described as a sequel  but perhaps more a remake of th 1999 hit, The Blair Witch Project. That earlier film divided audiences among those who said “nothing happens” and those that realize the directors were actually on to something new in the horror genre, which has since been done to death (the found footage genre). This film is not found footage, and it ignores the horrible Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which I somehow ended up seeing twice). I have an interest in this, but will probably wait for home media. Matt Singer: “Blair Witch does deliver the requisite shocks demanded of a horror movie for a multiplex audience, but maybe it’s time for filmmakers to stay out of these woods for a while — at least until there’s a new technology for the Blair Witch to mess with.”

As far as Bridget Jones’s Baby (60) goes, I saw the first one but not the second, despite how hard poor Renee Zellweger works to make this character interesting. I suppose some people will be interested to see her new face, or to see the old gag about not knowing who the father is, or see Colin Firth’s career somehow go from an Oscar to this, but I’ll skip it. Conor O’Donell: “In spite of its slightly excessive runtime and a handful of millennial-pandering beats, Bridget Jones’s Baby is brought to term by the buckets of undeniable charm and charisma present in its performances.”

Snowden (58) is Oliver Stone’s take on the whistleblower who is either a hero or a traitor, depending on your political stance. If you’ve seen Citizenfour it may not be necessary to see this, unless you want to know more about Snowden’s girlfriend or to see what tricks Stone has up his sleeve. Stone has had an erratic career, especially this century, but there’s usually something interesting going on. Gregory Ellwood: “As a piece of filmed entertainment Snowden is certainly a watchable endeavor, but Stone and screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald’s script is often an odd mix of hero worship, conspiratorial thriller and cringe worthy dialogue.”

Complete Unknown (60) is a good name for this film, because it’s not often a movie that I’ve never heard of opens, especially one starring Rachel Weisz and Michael Shannon. I can’t quite figure out what it’s about from the summary, but it looks intriguing and the cast can’t miss. Lanre Bakare: “Unfortunately, with the big reveal having arrived in the first act, the film isn’t much more than an elongated debate that leaves you thinking: so what?”

Review: Sully


Clint Eastwood’s career as an octogenarian director has been inconsistent to be sure, but it’s instructive to compare his last two films, one of them I hated (American Sniper) and one I loved (Sully). Both of them are about heroism, and that heroism basically is doing one’s job well. But while Chris Kyle was killing people and lying about his record, to all accounts “Sully” Sullenberger was simply doing his job, which meant looking out for the lives in his charge.

Sully, the simple title of the film, works on many levels. It is a taut thriller, even though the entire world knows how the main event turns out. It is an effective legal drama, especially because most of the world did not know that part–that Sullenberger, while receiving adulation in the media, was evading being scapegoated for his water landing on the Hudson after a bird strike. Simulations showed that he could have returned to LaGuardia, where he took off, or landed at nearby Teterboro, but his gut told him otherwise.

Also, it is an acting showcase for Tom Hanks. Hanks, now sixty, has moved on to a different sort of role, as he has showed in Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, and Bridge of Spies. In all of these roles, plus Sully, he bears a weight. It’s hard to imagine this is the same actor who started with light comedy. I haven’t seen Hologram for a King but that’s the same kind of role, a Death of a Salesman type role. Hanks is no longer the class president of Hollywood, he’s the dean.

I believe Hanks is in every scene, and he nails it. We Americans know what Sullenberger really looks like, but when we see the real man at the end he’s the one who looks like a fake. Hanks effectively captures a man who is torn between the world wanting a piece of him because they love him and another group of people who want his head on a platter. It’s impossible to imagine what Sully went through, but Hanks seems to have figured it out.

I also liked Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s blunt first officer. There a bunch of fine character actors, like Jamey Sheridan and Chris Bauer, on hand, and Laura Linney does nicely with a thankless role that has her always on the telephone and never in a scene with Hanks. But this is Hanks’ show, and Eastwood’s, who brings in this flight in swift fashion, with spectacular effects.

It’s certainly no coincidence that Sully was released on 9/11 weekend. There are scenes of an airplane flying low over New York City, and we all can feel what that must have been like, a mere eight years after a much more disastrous outcome. This is like the anti-9/11, when numerous people (especially the multiple boats that were on the Hudson) reacted immediately to the emergency, but this time with no lives lost. You, like I, may get a little tear in your eye.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 9, 2016


This week’s major opening is Sully (76), Clint Eastwood’s take on the “Miracle on the Hudson.” I remember nothing but admiration for Captain Sullenberger, but apparently that isn’t the whole truth. Getting strong reviews; it should be Oscar bait (especially for Tom Hanks) and a popular success. Ty Burr: “Whether you want to accept it or not, Eastwood remains one of the best and most quixotic filmmakers we have, torn between jingoism and doubt, exceptionalism and despair.”

The Disappointments Room (tbd), not screened for critics, looks like a generic haunted house movie, roping Kate Beckinsale in as lead. But these things are the biggest money-makers in the business. The most profitable film this summer? Lights Out.

When the Bough Breaks (tbd), also not screened for critics, is another of a growing number of films for the African America community. This one seems like a mix between The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Fatal Attraction.

The Wild Life (36) is an animated film that tells the story of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of the animals around him. Looks pretty bad, but if it gets one kid to actually read Robinson Crusoe it’s worth it. Roger Moore: “The colors are vibrant, the sea, palm trees, birds, bird-feathers and Crusoe’s red hair are almost photo-realistic. But as a kids’ cartoon, Wild Life is a an utter dud.”