This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of April to June 2016


“The Danish Girl” - This film tells the rather unusual (for its time) fictionalized version of the true-life story of two married painters, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerde Wegener (Alicia Vikander). It is the 1920s, and when Gerde (tired of waiting for her model Ulla (Amber Heard)), asks Einar to dress in female clothes, she sets off a transformation that can’t be stopped. Einar, a successful Danish painter, gradually realizes that he is a woman named Lili Elbe. “The Danish Girl” presents the slow and painful transformation which ultimately was climaxed by one of the first sexual reassignment surgeries. Alicia Vikander (who won the Oscar for this role for best supporting actress although she was really the leading actress in the film) and Eddie Redmayne (who was nominated for an Oscar for best actor, after winning the previous year for his amazing portrayal of Stephen Hawking) are both brilliant and provide profoundly sensitive portrayals: Vikander as the supportive and yet pained wife (no real explanation is given for why Gerde stood by Einar/Lili for so long) and Redmayne as the puzzled but delighted man/woman whose desire for change was unstoppable. “The Danish Girl” begins at a leisurely pace, possibly a little too leisurely, but the rather curious story ultimately convinced this viewer, as Einar disappears and Lili emerges. The supporting cast is strong, including Ben Whishaw (“Q” in the current James Bond films) as a man attracted to Einar/Lili, and Matthias Schoenaerts (“Far From the Madding Crowd”) as the supportive Hans Axgil, an art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend, and Sebastian Koch ("Homeland") as the doctor who performed sexual reassignment surgery. A- (6/28/16)


“Joy” - I’ve never been a fan of TV home shopping, but the story of Joy Mangano was intriguing, especially played by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence. The problem with this film about Joy, whose last name is never mentioned, is that director/writer David O. Russell took some liberties with the script (originally written by Annie Mumolo, but virtually totally rewritten by Russell) that it’s a pretty much a fictional version of Joy’s story. Yes, as in real life, Joy is a divorced woman (who is very friendly with her former husband) with children and problems, who invents the “miracle mop,” and ultimately sells it in droves on QVC when she is given the opportunity to appear live on the channel on behalf of her own product. But there is also a somewhat fictional crazy family, led by Robert De Niro as her father, Virginia Madsen as a fictional version of her mother (absurdly obsessed with soap operas), Diane Ladd as a somewhat fictional version of her grandmother, and Elisabeth Rohm as an apparently completely fictional and nasty half sister, Peggy. Then there are a variety of incredible and rather stupid errors (legal and otherwise) Joy makes in setting up her business, making one wonder how this woman could be smart enough to ultimately wind up with a multi-million dollar corporation. And finally there is the apparent fictional resolve leading to the real-life success of Joy Mangano. That said, while the film is not exactly enthralling drama, it is still watchable. The cast is excellent. Jennifer Lawrence is appropriately enthusiastic (and frustrated) as events unfold. Robert De Niro does a fine job as the father who both helps and hurts Joy’s undertakings. Edgar Ramirez appears as Joy’s ex-husband (seemingly a better best friend than a husband). And Bradley Cooper is the fictional Neil Walker (a composite, apparently), head of QVC, who seems just a little too nice for someone in his position. B- (6/26/16)


“Trumbo” - Not long after World War II, the US developed an obsession with Communism that came close to turning this country into a totalitarian state. The so-called patriots of the right created the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a Congressional committee that cared little for the Constitution and especially the First Amendment, and Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence as he demagogued his way into infamy by claiming there were Communists around every corner in the government. As portrayed in the film, an empty-headed gossip columnist (and former second-rate actress) named Hedda Hopper (played with cynical charm by Helen Mirren), along with fake patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) (who, unlike some of the people he morally abused, never got closer to a battlefield than a movie set) led the fight to stigmatize and destroy the livelihoods and lives of people in Hollywood who had aligned themselves with the rights of workers and unions and had made the unfortunate choice of joining the Communist Party. The result was the Blacklist. One of the major victims of this obsession was Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), one of the leading screenwriters in Hollywood. Bryan Cranston is brilliant as the calm and cool Trumbo who wound up in federal prison for a year because he refused to answer the outrageous and offensive questions of HUAC’s chairman, J. Parnell Thomas (later, appropriately, a felon for committing a real crime), about his personal beliefs and organizational choices. “Trumbo” reveals how Dalton Trumbo, once out of prison, managed to develop a system of writing screenplays under pseudonyms that allowed him and several of his blacklisted colleagues to earn a living. “Trumbo” also explores Trumbo’s personal life and interaction with and support from his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and children, including his eldest daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning). The supporting cast is strong, including Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, who initially supported the blacklisted writers, but ultimately collapsed in front of HUAC; Alan Tudyk as writer Ian McClellan Hunter; and Louis C. K., as the writer Arlen Hird (said to be a composite of several of Trumbo’s left-wing writing colleagues). The film also celebrates the courage of two men who effectively destroyed the Blacklist by hiring Trumbo and listing him on their film’s credits. One was Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) for the film “Spartacus,” and the other was Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) for “Exodus.” A (6/14/16)


“The Revenant” - Alejandro G. Iñárritu is one of the most interesting and dynamic filmmakers of our time (“Birdman,” “Babel,” and “Amores Perros”), and he has here created a sublime film about the extremely harrowing mostly true-life tale of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American frontiersman and fur trapper, who in 1823 survived what should likely have been certain death at the hands of a grizzly bear only to be abandoned by his fellow trappers, especially the lying and greedy John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Although the film is based partly on a novel by Michael Punke and with embellishments added by the filmmakers, Hugh Glass was indeed real and his story is epic. From the opening scene in which Glass and his fictional half-Indian son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), are wading through river-swept woods in search of prey, to Glass’ battle with whitewater rapids in a freezing river, to his confrontations with the Arikara led by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), a chief who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, to the generally spectacular scenery of snow and mountains, the film is breathtakingly photographed even though the color is muted in part apparently to add atmosphere to the scenes of the snowbound north. “The Revenant” (essentially defined as someone who “returns”) was filmed primarily in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, but with scenes shot in Argentina, Mexico, Arizona, and Montana. The cast is excellent, including Domnhall Gleeson as the head of Glass’ expedition, Captain Andrew Henry, and Will Poulter as the young American frontiersman Jim Bridger, although I did have some difficulty with Tom Hardy’s strange mumbling accent. A (6/6/16)


“Brooklyn” - Based on the novel by the Irish writer Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” is a lush romantic tale of a young Irish woman, Ellis (pronounced Allish) Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who leaves her mother Mary and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), behind and travels to live in Brooklyn in the early 1950s for a job and rooming house arranged by a warm and caring American-Irish priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). “Brooklyn” is an agreeable exploration of the fears and anxieties of uprooting oneself from one’s native land and heading, hopefully, for greater prospects in a new country. Gradually, Ellis’ expression changes from tight-lipped to warm and charming as she finds friendship in her rooming house (under the watchful tutelage of her landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, played by Julie Walters), comfort in her job (with the support of her boss, Miss Fortini, played by Jessica Paré of “Mad Men” fame), education in college, and ultimately romance with a respectful young Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen). Saoirse Ronan is a lovely young actress who wonderfully portrays the emotions that Ellis experiences, especially when a tragedy occurs and she must return to Ireland and its romantic and vocational temptations. It’s very hard to take one’s eyes off her when she’s on the screen (which is most of the time). Highly recommended. A (5/16/16)


“The Big Short” - This is essentially a true story, something most viewers would likely wish were not true. Why? Because this is a horror story, just not about witches, ghosts, and ghoblins. Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, “The Big Short,” based on Michael Lewis’ book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” is the story of the unbelievable fraud and corruption at the highest levels of the financial world that almost destroyed our economy in 2008 and which has gone virtually unpunished since. The film notes that most of the financial institutions responsible for this mess were saved by bailouts of taxpayer money, that the CEOs of our biggest financial institutions were rewarded with gigantic bonuses, and it hints that the same practices that led to 2008 are returning. “The Big Short” does its best to explain the technicalities of the housing bubble and just what was going on in the mortgage subprime market by introducing characters who became aware of what was happening and who bet large sums against it. Leading off we meet the eccentric Michael Burry, M.D. (Christian Bale), of Scion Capital, who analyzed the mortgage market and realized that it was relying on a base of garbage loans that would ultimately collapse the entire market. Although his investors thought he was insane, Burry stuck to his guns and the word got out to the others in this story, including Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and Mark Baum (Steve Carell) (pseudonyms for real members of the financial world who successfully shorted the subprime mortgage system). The film is directed wonderfully by Adam McKay (previously primarily known for Will Ferrell-type comedies) with humor and elan. The cast is outstanding but Steve Carell is particularly brilliant as the obsessive and outspoken Mark Baum. This film should be required viewing for all Americans and especially those who believe that a certain billionaire candidate for president “tells it like it is.” No, just the opposite. But this film does tell it like it is and too many Americans are astonishingly ignorant of how fraud and corruption almost brought us to utter economic disaster in 2008. A (5/11/16)


“Steve Jobs” - This film, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, can be viewed two ways. As a biopic of the real Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, it’s a failure. But if you look at it as a virtual stage drama about a nasty fictional character named Steve Jobs (who bears some resemblance, although not much, to the real Steve Jobs), the film is successful. It’s been pointed out in numerous articles and reviews that the story presented on the screen is full of holes. There is no attempt by the filmmakers to make Michael Fassbender look or sound anything like the real Steve Jobs (except possibly that Fassbender is wearing a black turtleneck for his stage presentation near the end of the film). He is presented as an unmitigated jerk who seems to lack any normal human sensibilities. The entire story takes place over a period of years but only before stage introductions by Jobs of (1) the original Macintosh in 1984, (2) the NEXT computer in 1988, and (3) the original translucent iMac in 1998. Beginning with the opening scene in which Jobs, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ primary aide and friend at Apple, and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), an Apple engineer, are freaking out over a glitch in the computer presentation of the original Macintosh in 1984, the film never shows any of Steve Jobs’ successes at Apple and makes the viewer wonder how Steve Jobs ever became a billionaire. But the film didn’t come across to me as a real biopic. Rather, it seemed far more like a stage play with a great deal of dramatic dialogue. The Steve Jobs of the play interacts powerfully with Hoffman, Hertzfeld, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Perla Haney-Jardine as the 19 year old Lisa), Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), Lisa’s mother, and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the man Jobs appointed as CEO of Apple and who later engineered his departure from the corporation. The acting is first-rate and the drama on-screen is riveting. But the problem, as noted, is that it’s pretty much fiction. B+ (5/9/16)


“The Hateful Eight” - Quentin Tarantino’s penchant for violence in his films is well known (starting with “Reservoir Dogs”), and if you’re looking for that you won’t be disappointed by this film, although you'll have to wait a bit. Strangely, Tarantino decided to make this film in Ultra Panavision 70mm, which makes it ultra-wide and perfect for beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, only a small part of the film takes place outdoors in the beautiful scenery, with the rest inside a wood frame building in the middle of a Wyoming blizzard. As the film opens, we see a stagecoach driving through the snow only to be halted by a man standing in the snow with a few dead bodies at his feet. We soon learn that on board the coach is a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his bounty, a killer known as Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and they are headed for Red Rocks where Daisy will hang and Ruth will earn a small fortune as a result. The man in the snow is another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who, after convincing Ruth that he’s okay, soon joins them on their journey toward Red Rocks. But before they ever get to Red Rocks, they find themselves, along with another snowbound rider, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), soon to be sheriff of Red Rocks, at a stop along the coach route known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. And there begins the mystery, as inside this godforsaken place in the Wyoming wilderness are a group of very dubious characters, including a former confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a hangman (Tim Roth), a Mexican (Demian Bichir), and a cowboy, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). And there are a few other characters thrown in for good measure (including one played by Channing Tatum). When an attempt is made on the lives of those present, “The Hateful Eight” turns into an Agatha Christie mystery of sorts with Samuel L. Jackson symbolically playing the detective role. Needless to say, however, things deteriorate. Tarantino’s concept is interesting and original and the performances are dead-on, literally and figuratively. However, the film runs close to three hours and drags, especially at the beginning. The introduction is very slow and verbal, with most of the action occurring in the last hour. Tarantino obviously, as noted, is obsessed with violence and it’s hard to tell whether the is trying to make a point or just enjoys having his characters get knocked off in as violent a fashion as possible. B (4/18/16)


“Star Wars-The Force Awakens” - Like the James Bond series of films, “Star Wars” films seem to go on and on. Some have been terrific (the original Episode IV in 1977) and others have been bombs. “Star Wars-The Force Awakens” which is Episode VII, is among the more entertaining of the more recent films in the series because it pretty much ignores the political issues and concentrates on a group of new characters, including a roly-poly droid, BB-8 (the real star of the film), and a lot of humor. In this episode we find that the Empire has been succeeded by the evil First Order which has no compunctions about killing innocent creatures. One leader of the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), manages to escape after providing his droid, BB-8, with a map of the whereabouts of the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). When one of the First Order’s troops (Finn, played by John Boyega) is outraged by what he sees, he deserts and finds himself teaming up with a young woman-scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has found BB-8 (who now loyally follows her around). It doesn’t take long before we are introduced to one of the First Order’s leaders, a Darth Vader impersonator of sorts, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) whose goal is to find the droid and, ultimately Luke Skywalker. But the real fun happens when some old friends arrive, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (now a general in the Resistance) (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo’s sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and of course C-3PO and R2-D2. It goes without saying that the special effects are, as usual, spectacular, and make the plot move along quickly. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver all do a fine job and are thus welcome additions to the long list of Star Wars stars. B+ (4/8/16)


“Carol” - Based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”), and directed by Todd Haynes (“Far from Heaven” and “I’m Not There.”), “Carol” is the story of two women in the New York of the 1950s who are immediately attracted to each other during a casual meeting at a department store. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a sales clerk who makes eye contact with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an attractive blonde woman in a fur coat who is soon buying a train set from Therese as a Christmas present for her young daughter, Rindy. After they begin to meet, it becomes clear that Therese is a young woman uncertain about her life choices and contemplating her future, while Carol is an unhappily married woman with a history of a previous lesbian relationship with Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). If being lesbian has been a difficult status in recent decades, it was far more of a social problem in the 1950s, when women in general were subject to much greater restrictive mores and laws. And Carol in particular soon discovers this in her domestic battle with her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). In her inimitable fashion, Cate Blanchett is breathtaking as a woman struggling to maintain her life while being driven by a desire that was in so many ways considered unacceptable and immoral in the America of the 1950s. Rooney Mara is equally outstanding as a young woman being wooed by a man (Jake Lacy) but trying to come to grips with this new attraction she feels for someone of her own gender. The film contains realistic 1950s sets and is enhanced by a soundtrack of music from that decade. A (4/7/16)

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