HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Nine

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Jackrabbit Slim – 54
James – 48
Marco – 38
Juan – 26
Joe Webb – 12
Rob – 11
Nick – 4

HAGEBOC – WEEKEND OF JANUARY 20TH, 2017.  

What will Split earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #1

What will xXx: Return of Xander Cage earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #2

What will The Founder earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Answers are due on Friday, January 20th by noon EST.  Good luck!

Review: Elle

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Elle, which recently won two Golden Globes, is a disturbing, interesting, but not entirely satisfying psychological thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven with an electrifying performance by Isabelle Huppert. I left the film figuratively scratching my head. What did I just see?

The film begins in black, with the sounds of a struggle. Then we see a cat, calmly watching as its owner is raped. The woman is Huppert, her assailant is wearing a ski-mask. He leaves, and she calmly cleans up the broken vases and takes a bath, the blood from her invasion soaking the bubbles. As she’s taking a bath, your mind is screaming–“you’re destroying evidence,” but she has no thought of reporting the crime to the police.

Turns out Huppert is the CEO of a video game company that creates very violent games, and she is the daughter of an infamous mass murderer. She thinks about revenge, and purchases items to protect her, like mace and an ax, and when the perpetrator leaves her little notes and texts suggesting he’s closer to her than she thinks, she doesn’t really freak out, I mean, not like I would.

What Huppert and Verhoeven do in this film is make a victim of a crime a horrible person. There are many subplots (too many) that show her as an awful human being. She is disgusted by her elderly mother’s romance with a younger man. She is sleeping with her best friend’s husband. She isn’t helping matters with her son, who is having a baby with a monstrous young woman (when it becomes obvious that the child is not his, she is the only one who points it out). But because she is being stalked by some kind of psycho, we cut her some slack. A lot of slack.

Then the film takes a turn that I imagine might anger many feminists–it angered me. I don’t want to go into it, but let’s just say when she finds out who her rapist is (and I figured it out pretty easily) she doesn’t react the way we want her to, or the way the film is marketed. This isn’t so much a revenge film as a film about a woman who is seriously fucked up, long before she was raped.

Other than Huppert’s clever performance, Elle is far too sordid and unpleasant for me to recommend.

Review: Silence

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If you know that Martin Scorsese, early in his life, wanted to be a priest, you can understand why one of his passions was bringing Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence to the screen. It is about Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and their struggle to avoid apostatizing themselves in the face of persecutors.

This is a stunning film, both visually and intellectually. Within there is a mini-course on theology, and while some scenes seem redundant (there is a bit too much torture and execution for my tastes–we get it) it is almost always gripping, despite it’s near three-hour length.

Silence follows a familiar trope in films, from The Searchers (one of Scorsese’s favorite films) to Saving Private Ryan–the search and rescue film. A priest, played by Liam Neeson, is forced to apostatize (that is, renounce his faith) by the inquisitors of Japan, who are Buddhists and outlaw Christianity. Word of this reaches the head priest in Macao (Ciaran Hinds). Both of these characters, I was interested to read, were real people.

Hinds briefs two young Jesuits (who are fictional and played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They don’t believe that Neeson has given up his faith, and are determined to track him down, even though it is highly dangerous for them to set foot in Japan. They go anyway, led by a guide (Yosuke Kubozuko) who has apostatized many times, and will many times again, believe he can be absolved by confession. The two priests find a small community of Christians living in hiding.

The title Silence comes from the fundamental trouble with the priests; faith–why is God silent in the face of such suffering? It also shows how Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is rooted in suffering, and that the promise of paradise after death comforts those that are suffering. It becomes a test, led the inquisitor (a very good Issey Ogata), and a simple one–deny your faith, and you will go free. If you do not deny it, you will die. He takes this further after Garfield is captured–if he will renounce his faith, Ogata will let many Christians go free. If Garfield refuses, they will be killed.

The film, while at times being very violent, is mostly talk. There are many conversations about faith and absolution–between Garfield and Driver, Garfield and Ogata (their conversations are central to the film) and then a stunning scene between Neeson and Garfield, where Neeson explains why Christianity can not take hold in Japan (today only about one percent of Japan is Christian). In a way, Silence is like My Dinner With Andre with the topic as religion with the chance that one of their heads will be cut off.

The acting is impressive. Garfield has had a good year, with this film beside Hacksaw Ridge, in two very different roles (though both about devout men). Driver, who suddenly seems to be all over the place, has a smaller role but I think a more interesting one, as he plainly struggles more with his faith, while Neeson really only has a cameo but knocks it out of the park. The Japanese actors are all terrific, especially Ogata, who is a man who smiles as he tells you you will be tortured.

Silence has a few false endings, but I think ends with the right shot, which I certainly won’t reveal here. I think how one views the film will depend on their own religious beliefs. As a nonbeliever, I kind of felt sad that so many people went to hideous deaths out of a sense of duty to Jesus Christ, but at the same time I had to admire their courage. I would have said anything to stay alive, but just crossed my fingers behind my back.

Opening in Las Vegas, January 13, 2017

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Lots of expansions of Oscar bait this week, plus some usual January trash.

The long-awaited Martin Scorsese film, Silence (79) is the top release this week. Scorsese has wanted to make this movie for nearly thirty years. As someone who has seen all of Scorsese’s film (and I do mean all) I’ll be there tomorrow, even though it’s an almost three-hour film about missionaries in Japan (seems more Kundun that Mean Streets).

Live by Night (48) the fourth feature of by Ben Affleck, seems to be his first dud. That’s too bad, because I read the book and kind of wanted to see it. Reviews indicate what I suspected–there’s too much in the book for a two-hour movie. He should have made an epic or a miniseries. It’s an old-fashioned gangster tale, and yes, it takes place in Boston (among other places).

Speaking of Boston, Patriots Day (70) is getting decent reviews, except in the Boston area (there’s some gripes about Mark Wahlberg playing a composite character). I can’t see myself actually paying money to see a Peter Berg film. I did that once for Very Bad Things and got what I deserved. I may see it on home video.

Elle (89) just won Isabelle Huppert a Golden Globe, as well as Best Foreign Film. While Huppert, a great actress who has never been nominated for an Oscar, may get one, the film will not, as it’s not on the shortlist. Anyway, the film is a highly regarded if violent film from Paul Verhoeven. When’s the last good movie this guy made?

The January trash starts with Monster Trucks (41), which seems like an idea based on putting the words monster and truck together and going from there. So, these trucks have actual monsters in them. Not my cup of tea.

Sleepless (28) shows how far Jamie Foxx has fallen. Topic for discussion: can Foxx’s career be saved? Typical cop film. Set in Las Vegas. May have to rent someday to see if any local landmarks are used.

Finally, The Bye Bye Man (35) seems to be an attempt to cash in on the Slender Man rumors as well as the creepy clown phenomenon. Tonights showings will be full of teenagers.

 

 

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Eight

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Jackrabbit Slim – 48
James – 40
Marco – 22
Juan – 16
Joe Webb – 12
Rob – 11
Nick – 4

HAGEBOC – WEEKEND OF JANUARY 13TH, 2017.  

What will Monster Trucks earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #1

What will Live By Night earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #2

What will Silence earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #3

What will Patriot’s Day earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #4

What will Sleepless earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #5

What will Bye Bye Man (I seriously don’t even know what this is) earn from Friday to Sunday?  Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points.  2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Answers are due on Friday, January 13th by noon EST.  Good luck!

Opening in Las Vegas, January 6, 2017

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Two leftovers from 2016 and 2017’s first new release! And of course it’s shitty.

Sorry to say, but Hidden Figures (74) looks dreadful. It’s certainly a worthy story–African American women who were mathemiticians helping the space program, now getting their due, and it may pick up some Oscar nominations, but the trailer makes it seem like a pandering exercise in “see, black women are smart, too.” Anybody who doesn’t know that already doesn’t deserve to be able to go to the movies. I’d much rather see a documentary on the subject.

A bit more intriguing to me, though I probably won’t see it in a theater, is A Monster Calls (76). It looks like a variation on the very popular theme of the beleaguered kid having his own personal bodyguard to wreak havoc on his enemies. When I was a kid I longed to have a robot like the one in Lost in Space to avenge myself against bullies. “Danger, Will Robinson!” I have a feeling the monster in this film is just inside the kid’s head, but I don’t know for sure.

The fifth in the series, Underworld: Blood Wars (20) is a typically horrible film that gets released the first weekend of the year. I guess it’s counter-programming for all the good movies that are out there now. “Gee, Martha, there’s so many of these durn quality films out there, I want to see something really stupid.” Well, here you go. I actually saw one or two of these movies on DVD just to see Kate Beckinsale. I’m not dead, you know.

By the way, not all January releases used to be terrible. The Grapes of Wrath was actually released in the first week of January, 1940, when all types of movies were released at all times of the year. Topic for discussion: what’s the best movie you can rememeber that was released in January? (and I don’t mean an expansion of a movie released in December).

Review: Lion

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After watching Lion I thought about when people say a movie is “manipulative.” Usually that’s not a compliment, but I think all movies and books and plays are manipulative. The creators are trying to make us feel a certain way, to set us up for the cry, the laugh, or the thrill. When someone says a movie is too manipulative, it’s usually because the manipulation is obvious. A good movie manipulates you without you even knowing it. Lion is a movie where you feel manipulated at every turn.

Lion is not a bad movie. It’s directed competently by Garth Davis in his debut, and he is able to incorporate Google Earth as part of the story without it seeming completely ridiculous. The acting, especially by Dev Patel, is strong. But the script by Luke Davies, and even the entire premise, is full of road signs telling us how to feel and when.

The story, which is true, has a little Indian boy following his brother to take a train to a job. The older boy leaves his brother to sleep on a bench, but the little brother gets curious and finds himself on an empty train, where he falls asleep. He awakes on a moving and empty train, with doors that won’t open. The train finally stops in Calcutta, a thousand miles away. He doesn’t know his mother’s name (and she is illiterate) and butchers the name of his home town.

He ends up in an orphanage, where he is taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows up to be Dev Patel. He has a pretty nice life, though the couple adopt a second Indian child who has a lot of problems. But when Patel gets to be in his twenties he starts to think more about his family left in India, and how they must have gone crazy looking for him. Some friends, including his girlfriend, Rooney Mara, urge him to use Google Earth, because he remembers certain things about the train station. He gets obsessed, looking at every train station within a certain radius of Calcutta.

So what, exactly, is the point of Lion? We know how this puppy is going to end from before we even take our seats, if we read anything about it or even look at the poster. Is it simply to have a good cry? Is it to highlight the atrocious way India takes care of its children (an end card states that 80,000 Indian children go missing every year, which kind of startled me, not because of the number, which is horrible, but because the film was not a polemic)? I’m not really sure. Okay, I did get teary at the end–it would be hard not to unless you have a piece of coal for a heart, but I hated myself for it.

Lion is really a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with top-drawer talent. For people who like that sort of thing, go for it. But it’s being mentioned as a Best Picture Oscar contender and this is very wrong. Patel, should he get a nomination, would be worthy. Kidman has a weepy scene that may earn her a nomination, but it’s only because she’s Nicole Kidman. An unknown actress wouldn’t get a sniff.

 

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Seven

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I’ll send a reminder out to everyone this week, although I’m sure everyone just got caught up in the weird, timeless period between Christmas and New Years.

SCORES AS OF 1/3/17:
James – 40
Jackrabbit Slim – 32
Marco – 22
Juan – 12
Joe Webb – 12
Rob – 9
Nick – 4

HAGEBOC – WEEKEND OF JANUARY 6TH, 2017.  

What will Hidden Figures earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #1

What will A Monster Calls earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #2

What will Underworld: Blood Wars earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Answers are due on Friday, January 6th by noon EST.  Good luck!

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I’m not a Star Wars geek–there were many characters in Rogue One: A Star Wars story that have appeared in other Star Wars films, but I didn’t recognize them (except for the crustacean-like Admiral, who memorably said “It’s a trap!”). Therefore, there may be many subtleties I missed. But the first “stand-alone” Star Wars picture was a well-done action yarn, with an especially strong last act.

In the grand scheme of things, Rogue One falls just before Star Wars IV: A New Hope, or to everybody else the first Star Wars. In fact, for those coming cold into this film there might be some confusion (my girlfriend, who had only seen Star Wars VII last year, had to be filled in at several points). So stand-alone is a bit of a misnomer, because events in this film lead directly to the next film.

That event is stealing the plans for the Death Star, which is blown up in Star Wars IV (sorry for the 40-year-old spoiler). At the outset of this film, a scientist (Mads Mikkelsen) who is essential to building the Death Star, is forcibly returned after trying to disappear. His wife is killed by the villain of his piece, a project manager of sorts who is constantly looking for approval. Played by Ben Mendelsohn, he seems right out of every office I worked in.

Mikkelson’s daughter escapes, and is raised by a rebel (Forest Whitaker, in a very bizarre performance). She grows up to be Felicity Jones, and she’s something of a juvenile delinquent, but a defecting Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) delivers a hologram that indicates that Mikkelsen has intentionally built a flaw into the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance uses a hotshot pilot (Diego Luna) and his droid (Alan Tudyk) to use her to get to her father and the plans to the planet-size weapon.

Whew. That’s all established in the first act, the rest is a mixture of comic book dialogue and spaceships fighting each other. This is where the film is least interesting–the transformation of Jones and Luna (who starts to see her as something more than just as a cog) is too melodramatic–but when Jones and Luna get a little team together, including Ahmed, Donnie Yen as a Zatiochi-like blind swordsman, and Jiang Wen, who looks like Genghis Khan, the film started to click (the diversity of this group was very refreshing, also).

The last act may contain the most memorable scene of the character who has appeared in seven of the eight Star Wars films–Darth Vader. He has a kick-ass fight scene that really gets the blood pumping. Of all the characters in this series, he may be George Lucas’s greatest creation, seen only in shadow at first, but introduced by his theme song (does any movie character have their own recognizable theme?).

I am certainly not going to spoil the end, but don’t expect a direct sequel. I take it the next film is about Han Solo’s early years, and then we get Star Wars VIII. But this film, directed competently by Gareth Edwards, as there is no end in sight for the number of stories that can be told.

A quick word about using CGI to resurrect dead characters: Peter Cushing, who died many years ago, was sort of photo-shopped into his film as General Tarken, a part he played in the first film. Apparently they had permission from Cushing’s family, but I don’t like it. The CGI is not entirely convincing. And (read no further if you haven’t seen the film yet) the inclusion of a young Carrie Fisher as Princes Leia was especially disturbing. Of course, when the film was released Fisher was very much alive, but seeing her like that after her death was jarring. There’s nothing they could about it, of course, but I’m just sayin’.

1966: Qui Tacet Consentire

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1966: It was the year Star Trek and Batman debuted on television. Charles Whitman, in the first mass murder in U.S. history, killed 16 people from a tower at the University of Texas. And Adam Sandler, Halle Berry, and J.J. Abrams were born.

At the movies, it was still the era of biggest is better. The number one film at the box office was The Bible: In the Beginning, and second was Hawaii, both almost three hours long. British films were also prevalent, earning many Oscar nominations and occupying a golden age for that country that has never really returned. Two of the five nominees for Best Picture were British, including the winner.

alfie_originalAlfie was one of the British films nominated, and it was the star-making turn for Michael Caine, who plays an amoral cad who seduces a number of women and treats them quite badly. It’s only Caine’s performance that lets us tolerate his bad behavior. It was directed by Lewis Gilbert and written by Bill Naughton, based on his novel and play. It also starred Shelley Winters as what we might today call a cougar, and Jane Asher, who is now best known as being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend while he was in The Beatles. Also known for it’s theme song, “What’s It All About?”

russians_are_comingThe Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is something of an unusual film when it comes to Best Picture nominees–it’s a farce. A Russian sub gets grounded off the coast of Massachusetts, and panic sets in among the locals. It was directed by Norman Jewison, with a script by William Rose, who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which bears much resemblance to the tone of this one. Alan Arkin received an Oscar nomination for his film debut as a Russian sailor, and it features a host of other well-known actors, such as Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith, and Jonathan Winters. It’s one of my favorite comedies.
the_sand_pebbles_film_posterThe Sand Pebbles is a very typical film of the era, a lumbering road-show picture, three hours in length. Directed by Robert Wise, it tells the story of a U.S. gunboat trying to keep the peace in China in the 1920s. It starred Steve McQueen, who earned his only Oscar nomination. The parallels to the Vietnam War are there if you look for them. Interesting about McQueen–he had a persona as the outcast for almost his whole career. It’s not too many modern stars who played basically the same role over and over again.

whos_afraid_of_virginia_woolfOne of the splashiest films of 1966 was Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, the star-studded adaptation of Edward Albee’s scathing play about marriage. The directorial debut of Mike Nichols, the stars were two of the most famous people on the planet, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as the constantly warring Martha and George. Sandy Dennis and George Segal are the unsuspecting guests that stop in for a nightcap. There is perhaps more drinking in this film that any other ever made. Taylor and Dennis won Oscars for their roles.

220px-a_man_for_all_seasons_1966_movie_posterThe winner for Best Picture was A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinneman. A very British, very stately, very PBS sort of film, it tells the story of Sir Thomas More, played by Oscar-winner Paul Scofield, as he defies King Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. This period of time has been seen in many films and TV shows (such as The Tudors and Wolf Hall) but this was one of the first (other than the sillier The Private Life of Henry VIII). Robert Shaw makes a robust king.

All of these films have something to their credit–there’s no clinkers here–but my vote would have gone for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which still manages to be viscerally exciting fifty years hence.

Other notable films that year that some might think should have nominated were Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and, of course, Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

 

Review: Jackie

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I was born during the Kennedy administration, so Jackie Kennedy (and later Onassis) was always one of the most famous women in the world while I was growing up, until her death in 1994. But she was also mysterious, rarely giving interviews. I remember the first time I heard her speak, in a clip from her ballyhooed television tour of the White House. It was shocking–she had a breathy, baby-doll voice, sounding all the world like an empty-headed debutante. But she was much more complicated.

Jackie is an interesting film, directed by a Chilean, Pablo Larrain, and starring Natalie Portman as the recently widowed First Lady. The framing of the film is an interview by Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup, but credited only as “the Journalist”) that Jackie gives him a week after the assassination. It was in this interview that she mentioned JFK’s habit of listening to the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Camelot, thus supplying America a metaphor for his presidency.

On the surface, what he have here is a movie about a woman planning a funeral. The events are from the landing in Dallas to the funeral itself, then the interview, with flashbacks to the tour of the White House. The players are all there: Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, along with actors representing LBJ’s assistant Jack Valenti (who would for years be the head of the MPAA), Lady Bird Johnson, and Greta Gerwig as the White House social secretary and Jackie’s school friend. Jackie is determined that he not be buried in Massachusetts, but at Arlington, and that there be a procession from the Capitol to the church.

While this is the skeleton of the film, Jackie is really about iconography and legacy. For someone my age, and perhaps those younger, there are many touchstones of our collective memories–the pink suit, bloodied, and the pillbox hat, the caisson carrying the casket, the riderless horse, the image of the Lincoln speeding away, JFK cradled in Jackie’s arms after she instinctively tried to grab a piece of his head from the trunk of the car. I was astonished that Larrain and screenwriter did not include John-John’s salute, which for many Americans was too much to bear.

Through her grief, Jackie is aware that she is molding a legacy. We see her in her private moments, and there is almost a feeling of uncomfortableness. She takes a shower, the blood washing off her skin. She smokes incessantly, though she tells Crudup pointedly that she does not smoke–she has full editorial control of the interview.

The film is short, and is mostly a collage of images, told out of order, a portrait of grief and legacy-building. Portman nails the voice, as well as being very convincing in her duality–the public face, and the private woman who is nobody’s fool.

Jackie isn’t quite the film I expected. It has an experimental feel to it. It’s very talky, with a long scene between Portman and a priest (John Hurt) on the nature of suffering. This film is not cheerful, and is much more thoughtful than entertaining, but for Baby Boomers it will have resonance.

HAGEBOC 2016 – Week Six

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Kind of a weird week as there isn’t much in the way of new releases or expansions.

I’m not entirely sure when the contest will be stopping because I really would like to keep rolling through the sludge of early January (we MUST have a contest the week Monster Trucks opens!) and the wide expansions of things like Live By Night, La La Land, Hidden Figures, The Founder, etc.  Even January 27th looks like an interesting weekend to tackle.

SCORES AS OF 12/27/16:
James – 32
Jackrabbit Slim – 24
Marco – 22
Juan – 12
Joe Webb – 12
Rob – 9
Nick – 4

HAGEBOC – WEEKEND OF DECEMBER 30TH, 2016.  

What will Sing earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #1

What % will Passengers fall this week?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Bonus #2

What will Fences earn from Friday to Sunday?  (Closest wins 4 points, second closest 2 points. 2 bonus points for being within 250k)

Answers are due on Friday, December 30th by noon EST.  Good luck!

Opening in Las Vegas, Christmas Weekend, 2016

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I’m in Michigan visiting the family, but most of these films are opening nationwide Christmas weekend across the country.

I just reviewed Fences (78) below. Denzel Washington: great actor, Denzel Washington: director, not so great. Should get a few Oscar nominations for acting.

Passengers (41) is the big team up of two of today’s hottest stars: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, and it appears to be a dud. Probably will wait for home video for this one.

Favorite headline this week was the New York Times review of Why Him? (38). “Why Him? Why This Movie?” James Franco has fast become a warning to not see a film.

Jackie (81) is Oscar bait for Nataline Portman as Mrs. Kennedy, and is getting all-around good reviews. On my must-see list.

Lion (68) is the kind of movie I usually avoid–boy is adopted by Australian parents, tries to find his real family in India, but Nicole Kidman (not much of a fan of hers) and Dev Patel have Oscar buzz.

Sing (60) seems to be an aminated version of American Idol, which means I will probably never see it. Lots of big names in the voice talent, though: Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, and Jennifer Hudson

Worst movie of the week seems to be Assassin’s Creed (36), as we still wait for a good movie to be based on a video game. Topic for discussion: what is the best film based on a video game, or have there been none?

 

Review: Fences

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Here’s what I learned while watching Fences: Denzel Washington is a great actor, and this is one of this greatest performances, but Denzel Washington is not a great director.

August Wilson’s play was years in the making. He wrote the screenplay well over a decade ago (he died in 2005) and insisted that it be directed by a black director. Finally Washington got it made, and it is a showcase of great acting and some brutally powerful dialogue. But Washington’s ham-fisted direction, along with an ending that defies belief (I’ve never read or seen the play, so I don’t know if that was Wilson’s idea) hamper what could have been a great film, but it merely a good one.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman in Pittsburgh in the late ’50s. He is bitter, because he was a great baseball player but never got a chance at the Majors (he says that Jackie Robinson couldn’t have even made some of the teams he played on). He has a devoted but weary wife (Viola Davis) and a teenage son (Jovan Adepo), who wants to play college football, but Washington doesn’t trust that football will do right by him (to show how different times were then from now, when a college scholarship for an inner city black youth is like a golden ticket). He also has a son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby) who is a musician, which Washington doesn’t approve of.

Washington mostly sits in his backyard, drinking gin and telling tall tales with his friend and co-worker (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He talks about wrestling with Death for three days and three nights. He has also been building a fence for ages. This is the central metaphor of the play and film, signifying the title. Henderson tells him at one point, “Fences can keep people out, or they can keep people in.”

There are some highly-charged moments in the play, dealing with circumstances I don’t wish to spoil, since I didn’t know they were coming. But Washington makes no real attempt to “break open” the play, including only a few minor scenes that are not set in his house or yard. I’m not a person who believes a film based on a play has to be broken out, but Fences seems claustrophobic. Of course, maybe this was Washington’s intention. I’m sure it was not his intention to have strangely framed scenes, with characters wandering off a distance before cutting to a close two shot of them, or characters at the edge of a frame for no particular reason. There is also some instances of weather to heighten dramatic effect, something I find to be lazy.

But as for Washington’s performance, wow! This cements his status as one of the great American actors, ever. He’s made some bad movies, sure, and even possibly some bad performances, but this character is fully realized, and every emotion is etched on his face. He’s a voluble character, but it’s his few quiet moments that ring with me. Davis is no less his match, and surely will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She has a couple of big scenes, letting Washington know where their relationship stands.

The screenplay has some very funny dialogue, too, but a few stagey scenes that don’t work, such as Washington telling his best friend and son how he left home at the age of fourteen. Surely that would have come up before in their relationships, but it needed to laid out as exposition for what would come next. It’s a bit clumsy,

Fences is a crowd-pleaser, and it is great to see a film about the black experience in America by a black director with a black cast. As the film is full of baseball metaphors, Fences is a clean single, but not a home run.