This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2016


“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2” - Of the four “Hunger Games” films, this finale is unfortunately the worst, a real stinker. The film tells of the final battles of the rebels vs. the army of Panem’s Capitol, led by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) seems a reluctant hero and leader of the rebels, and the expression-less Jennifer Lawrence looks like she was getting bored by the whole thing. What’s really pathetic is that at least half, if not more, of the film is performed in the dark, so much so that it’s difficult to tell one character from another in those scenes. The film runs for well over two hours and concludes with a surprise that will be surprising only to those who haven’t read the books. Shockingly, after almost two hours of dreary scenes of the rebels running or talking in the dark (engaging in another Hunger Games of sorts against the gamemakers of the Capitol), the end of the battle is so rushed that later commentary among the characters is needed to understand fully what happened. The supporting cast is also somewhat lifeless with some of the stars of the previous films (such as Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth) hardly getting a chance to open their mouths. And I hate to point out that Julianne Moore’s performance as President Coin, has to be one of the weakest of her career. C- (3/24/16)


“Bridge of Spies” - I remember quite well when Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy pilot, was shot down and captured by the Soviets in 1957, and when the swap of the convicted spy, Rudolf Abel, for Powers was accomplished in 1962. I even remembered the attorney James Donovan who negotiated the swap and later ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in New York as a Democrat against Republican Senator Jacob Javits. So, remembering the headlines, it was a great pleasure to see these events beautifully recreated by Steven Spielberg in this powerful and dramatic film. Tom Hanks is superbly effective as Donovan, a lawyer who courageously took Abel’s case knowing that it could adversely affect his career and life, and later even more courageously ventured into the walled East Berlin in order to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. And it is a joy to hear Donovan’s arguments in favor of the Constitution and justice for an alleged Soviet spy. But is even more a joy to watch the brilliant and incredibly subtle performance of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, a performance that happily won him an Oscar as best supporting actor. I urge readers to see this film, not only for the performances and the story, but also to witness the attitudes of the judge in the Abel trial, an attitude of virtual contempt for the Constitution similar to that which produced people like Sen. Joseph McCarthy and led to things like the adoption of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on our money. A (2/29/16)


“Spotlight” - This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about real and effective journalists. When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives in 2001 as the new editor of the Boston Globe, he encourages his Spotlight team of reporters (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James) to begin an intensive investigation of the Boston Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), and its cover-up of an extremely longstanding priestly child abuse scandal. At first, the reporters, who must battle the power of the Church in Boston as well as court orders making it difficult for them to obtain details, believe it is about a single priest (John Geoghan) who was transferred from parish to parish to cover up his sexual abuse of over 100 boys dating back to the 1970s. Ultimately, however, they learned that the scandal covered approximately 6% of Catholic priests in Boston (and possibly elsewhere). The ensemble cast is outstanding, with Mark Ruffalo’s performance especially powerful as a man on a mission. Also distinctive in the cast are Stanley Tucci, as an attorney who represents sexual abuse victims but is limited by legal ethics from giving the reporters what they need, at least initially, and John Slattery as Benjamin Bradlee, Jr, the Spotlight Team’s immediate boss. It should be noted that the Spotlight Team ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their reporting on this astounding story. This movie honors them with an extremely intelligent portrayal of just what they accomplished. A (2/26/16)


“Spectre” - Considering that I first saw a James Bond movie (“Doctor No”) in 1962, it’s rather amazing that I’m still watching them in 2016. “Spectre” is one of the better Bond films of recent vintage. Why? It’s hard to say except that Daniel Craig as Bond seems a little more in sync with the classic Bond, Léa Seydoux is a charming and attractive heroine and love interest for 007, and the often annoying Christoph Waltz (as Blofeld) is not on the screen enough to be bothersome. Then there is the rather enjoyable and exciting opening scene during the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, and a pleasant and more productive use of the excellent Ben Whishaw as Q. Finally, there is a brief but pleasant scene involving the gorgeous Italian actress Monica Bellucci. This Bond film lasts close to 2 1/2 hours and kept my interest throughout. Also of note in the cast were Ralph Fiennes as M, and Naomie Harris as a somewhat different Moneypenny. B+ (2/13/16)


“The End of the Tour” - In 1996, a novel by an Illinois man named David Foster Wallace was published, called “Infinite Jest.” This novel was over a 1,000 pages long. The critical response ranged from raves to complete pans (Professor Harold Bloom of Yale called it “just awful.”) It is said that Wallace’s writing has influenced younger writers who came after him. Unfortunately, Wallace, suffering from depression, committed suicide in 2008 at age 46. After the publication of “Infinite Jest” in 1996, Rolling Stone Magazine sent writer David Pinsky to Illinois to interview Wallace for an article. Pinsky and Wallace apparently spent several days together, including at a book signing in Minneapolis which ended Wallace’s book tour. This film is a re-creation of the days Pinsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and Wallace (Jason Segel) spent together. As portrayed in the film, Wallace, who had a thing about wearing headbands, lived in a rather mundane suburban house with his two dogs. Pinsky and Wallace seem to hit it off and the film consists essentially of their conversations during their days together. They are shown simply chatting, walking in the snow near Wallace’s home, and visiting Minneapolis where they are driven by limo driver Patty (Joan Cusack) and greeted and hosted by two young women, Julie (Mamie Gummer) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner). Wallace is certainly not portrayed as an intellectual. The conversations are pleasant but not terribly deep. A bit of jealousy develops on both sides (Pinsky angry that his girlfriend--played by Anna Chlumsky--back in New York talks on the phone to Wallace for a half hour, and Wallace angry that Pinsky appears to be showing an interest in Betsy, whom Wallace dated in the past). When Wallace, Pinsky, Julie, and Betsy go to the movies in Minneapolis it’s not to see an art house film, but rather a highly mediocre thriller. All the members of the cast do a decent job, and the characterizations and conversations are mildly entertaining, but I know one thing from watching this movie. There is nothing about the portrayal of David Foster Wallace that would make me want to read his book. C+ (1/18/16)


“Irrational Man” - Woody Allen, who produces approximately one film a year, usually has something to say in his films (which he writes as well as directs). Here, I have the feeling that Woody Allen was talking mostly to himself about existentialism, and I doubt that he got much of anything across to the audience and certainly nothing humorous. Joaquin Phoenix is Abe, a philosophy professor who is depressed and drinking, when he comes to Braylin College. In class, his comments demonstrate his cynicism about life and philosophy, but that doesn’t stop two women on campus from becoming very intrigued with him. First, there’s the married Rita (Parker Posey) who virtually throws herself at him. Then there’s the beautiful student, Jill (Emma Stone), who, despite having a loving (but quickly jealous) boyfriend, Roy (Jamie Blackley), begins to develop a crush on Abe because, frankly, even while depressed he’s a lot more interesting than Roy. Abe likes both women but in a tepid sort of way due to his depression. But then, sitting in a diner, Abe and Jill overhear a woman complaining about a domestic court case and how she is being treated by the judge, and Abe gets a dangerous, but thrilling (to him) idea that reinvigorates his life in a clichéd Hitchcockian sort of way. Unfortunately, I found “Irrational Man” rather pointless and dull. There was no chemistry between Phoenix and his two female co-stars. The plot was full of holes and rather silly. And to make it worse, Allen sets the film in Newport, RI, but hardly shows off its beauty. And quite unusually for Woody Allen, he uses a piece of music (“The In Crowd” performed by the Ramsey Lewis Trio) over and over to the point of annoyance. C- (1/16/16)


“The Martian” - This is a brilliant sci-fi film, maybe one of the best and directed by one of the best, Ridley Scott. The setup is simple. A group of American astronauts are on Mars performing scientific studies when a gigantic storm arrives and the captain (Jessica Chastain) decides to depart before their landing vehicle is toppled by the winds. But before they can depart, some of the astronauts go back out into the storm to recover equipment and one, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is blown away and the crew assumes that he’s dead. They take off without him. And then we see Watney wake up and begin the very long and lonely process of survival on a planet just a few million miles from home. Damon’s performance, mostly alone, is outstanding. Although one would think Watney would be depressed, Damon portrays him as extremely clever and able to face his awesome situation with humor (which is the only--weak--explanation for the film winning the Golden Globe for Best Comedy). Most of the film consists of Watney’s efforts to survive, whether by preserving and improving his equipment or by growing food. And ultimately he must make contact with NASA back on earth if he is to survive until the next scheduled Mars visit in four years. The film is beautifully photographed. The sets are spectacular and realistic and the scenery certainly makes you feel that Watney is alone on the Red Planet. The supporting cast is also first rate, including the NASA support group, led by Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis; and the flight crew which includes, in addition to Chastain, Kata Mara, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, and Sebastian Stan. While many of the elements in the film have been explored before in other films, the combination of those elements here, plus the first-rate performances and cinematography, makes this a truly memorable film. A (1/14/16)


“A Walk in the Woods” - Back in the late 1990s, the writer Bill Bryson went on a hike along the Appalachian Trail with a friend he called Stephen Katz. At the time, Bryson was in his mid-to-late 40s. And now we have a movie version of Bryson’s book, starring Robert Redford, who is in his late 70s, as Bryson. Apart from the wrinkles on his face, Redford manages to carry off an impersonation of a younger man who becomes obsessed with the goal of hiking the Trail. Nick Nolte, looking and sounding somewhat decrepit, plays Katz, and Emma Thompson appears briefly and with charm as Bryson’s British wife, Catherine. There’s nothing really memorable here, other than some good scenery and a few barbs thrown back and forth between the two main characters. Bryson and Katz stumble and bumble along the parts of the Appalachian Trail they manage to walk, and even at one point find themselves on a ledge with no way up by themselves. Of course, they are rescued and manage to survive the rest of the way. Kristen Schaal has a funny turn as a fellow hiker who loves to point out all the mistakes Bryson and Katz are making. C (1/11/16)


“Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” - I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise, the person, but I must admit that he gets himself into some exciting action movies and performs a variety of very spectacular stunts. This “Mission Impossible” is without a doubt the best of the lot: least complicated story, best stunts, and excellent cast. In fact, I’d say that this “MI” was better than any James Bond film in recent memory. The opening scene of “Rogue Nation” rivals any recent opening James Bond scene in excitement and humor. The plot, as always, is somewhat clichéd. The government has decided to rid itself of the IMF force and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is an outcast. The government refuses to believe his story that there is a terrorist group known as The Syndicate. So, of course, Ethan and his colleagues find themselves proving their assertions. With the excellent support of William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Ethan Hunt finds himself performing, well, impossible missions. And to make it even more tantalizing, the film introduces the lovely Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Is she good or is she bad? Well, you’ll have to see the film to find out, but the Swedish actress, Rebecca Ferguson (“The White Queen”), gives a stirring, and yet subdued performance as a woman of mystery. A- (1/7/16)


“Sicario” - There’s a lot of death and violence in this film about the Mexican cartel and the US-Mexican border, but it’s a surprisingly low key and passive film considering it’s subject matter. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI agent who leads a team searching for lost people, and she certainly finds them and more violence, especially in and near a house in Arizona. Soon thereafter, she is offered the chance to join a mission on the border led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who, Kate guesses, is not an American. Refusing to give her a clear explanation of just what’s going on, Graver and Alejandro lead Kate into Juarez, Mexico, over her puzzlement and questions about the legality of their actions. “Sicario” is essentially about an honest officer (Macer) who finds herself drawn into a police situation about which she has serious questions. All three leads are effective in their roles, Blunt as a tough agent possibly in over her head; Brolin as the ultra-confident leader of the mission; and Del Toro as the mysterious foreigner who has an ax to grind. Directed by Canadian Denis Villenueve (“Incendies”) and written by actor Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario” is a smooth, unique and effective mystery that, of course, all comes clear in the end. B+ (1/5/16)

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