This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to September 2016


“Labyrinth of Lies” - An initial shock in this film, based on a true story, comes early when it demonstrates that many Germans had little or no idea about Auschwitz in 1958, 13 years after the war ended. Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling) is a young prosecutor working on traffic violations, when he overhears the pleas to a group of prosecutors of a man who has observed a Waffen-SS official from Auschwitz working illegally as a schoolteacher. Those pleas fall on deaf ears, except those of Radmann. It isn’t long before he takes on, with the support of the Attorney General (Gert Voss), the mountainous task of learning the names of the Nazi officials at Auschwitz, finding evidence of their crimes, and finding witnesses to testify at a criminal trial. “Labyrinth of Lies” dramatically reveals the kinds of pressures existing in Germany to forget the Nazi era and the Holocaust, especially as many former Nazis were still around and often in high places. The film offers a side love story that wasn’t wholly necessary but provides balance to the details of the horrors of Auschwitz. One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs when Radmann and Thomas Gnielka (Andre Symanski), a journalist, travel together to Auschwitz to kneel and read the Kaddish (prayer for the dead), yarmulkes on their heads, in honor of a Jewish friend’s twins who were murdered by Dr. Josef Mengele. (In German with English subtitles). B+ (9/10/16)


“Now You See Me 2” - I didn’t expect much from this film since the original was pretty weak, and I certainly didn’t get it. What attracted me was the potential for some magical scenes and a nice cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Lizzy Caplan, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson, Daniel Radcliffe, Dave Franco, and Michael Caine. But even such a cast is not capable of making much out of the silliness portrayed in the film. In the original, “Now You See Me,” a group of magicians known as the Four Horsemen are used to sting a businessman and gain revenge against a magic debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). In the sequel’s opening moments, we see the background which ultimately led one of the main characters to seek vengeance on Bradley (who was arrested by the FBI at the end of the first film and is in prison as the sequel begins). This time, the quartet of magicians are not presented as being quite as magically prolific as in the first film (the biggest stunt is flipping a card around among the group as they evade security experts during a theft of a computer chip attached to the card), but they do wind up pulling off a fairly predictable stunt in the Thames River in London near the end, thus tricking the businessman of the first film (played by Michael Caine) and his son (played by Harry Potter, oops, Daniel Radcliffe). Of the Horsemen, Lizzy Caplan steals the show. She replaced Isla Fisher from the original film and her performance provides pretty much the only pizzazz the film has to offer. C- (9/9/16)


“Miles Ahead” - Directed by, partly written by, and starring Don Cheadle as Miles Davis, “Miles Ahead” is a somewhat impressionistic portrayal of the great trumpeter during one of his least productive periods when he was occupied primarily with substance abuse. Early in the film, Davis meets the fictional Dave Braden (Ewen McGregor) who introduces himself as a “Rolling Stone” reporter intent on interviewing Davis. But as the film deteriorates into a semi-violent comedy of sorts with Davis seeking the return of a recording tape stolen by a record company official, Braden is there at virtually every turn to offer Davis a sounding device for his thoughts. With flashbacks showing a time in which Davis was functioning well and met and married his first wife, Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the film seems intent on knocking down the reputation of a great artist by emphasizing his flaws (including abuse that led Frances to ultimately leave him). C+ (9/6/16)


“Macbeth” - An abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth,” lots of dark gloomy outdoor scenes of death, a battle that would have fit well in “Game of Thrones,” the three weird sisters who didn’t seem much like witches (at least the ones I always imagined), and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene without the sleepwalking. That’s pretty much what you get with this film version of Shakespeare’s drama, directed by Australian Justin Kurzel, about a man who is encouraged by a witch’s prophesy and his wife’s desires to commit regicide in order to become king himself, and who, through guilt or torment turns into a murderous tyrant suffering his own downfall as a result. Michael Fassbender as Macbeth gives a strong performance, somewhat more powerful than that of Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. David Thewlis appears as Duncan, a part far too small for his talents. Also of note in the cast are Paddy Considine as Banquo and David Hayman as Lennox. B ((9/1/16)


“Concussion” - Imagine being asked to play Russian Roulette with a pistol which has four chambers but only one bullet. What chance would you be taking of dying from a bullet to the head? 25%? Well, that’s close to what NFL players have to consider because according to the closing credits of this film, 28% of NFL players will develop significant mental symptoms from concussions, including CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which has led to the deaths, including by suicide, of several retired NFL players in recent years. “Concussion” is based on the true-life story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith, excellent in probably his best role), a Nigerian born pathologist, who examined the body of Mike Webster (David Morse), (a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who died at age 50 in 2002), and ultimately chose to have Webster’s brain examined because he could find no other cause for his strange behavior prior to his death. The result was the first of several findings of significant brain damage from concussions in NFL players, including Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, and Dave Duerson, all of whom died as a result of the brain damage and the effect on their psyches. “Concussion” does a fine job of portraying the efforts to discredit Dr. Omalu, making it quite clear that the NFL did everything in its power to avoid accepting Dr. Omalu’s findings, including claiming that there was absolutely no evidence to support his scientific findings. Interestingly, the story of Dr. Omalu’s discovery of CTE should have been enough for the film. Alone, it would have made a fine story, but Hollywood being Hollywood, they had to include the unnecessary side story of Dr. Omalu’s romance with Prema Mutiso (a woman from Kenya) who ultimately became his wife, and was played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”). Also in the cast were a quite serious and effective Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, the former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who ultimately supported and worked with Dr. Omalu; Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Omalu’s boss and supporter; Arliss Howard as Dr. Joseph Maroon (also a Steelers physician but presented as a staunch opponent of Dr. Omalu’s findings), and Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner. It’s obvious that even the evidence documented by Dr. Omalu will not turn off millions of American football fanatics, but it has turned off at least one fan. Me. A- (8/22/16)


“Zero Motivation” - This Israeli film is a black comedy about female soldiers in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) at a remote desert base. Told in three segments, the film centers around Daffi (Nelly Tagar) and Zohar (Dana Ivgy) who are assigned to “administration” (i.e., clerical work and coffee serving) under the relatively weak command of Rama (Shani Klein). Records are askew, there’s paper everywhere, and Zohar spends most of her time playing computer games. What we have here is a solid case of ennui and military anomie. Daffi is desperate to transfer to a base in Tel Aviv; Rama is desperate to be promoted; and Zohar appears to have given up out of desperation. Zohar, in fact, provides some of the most humorous scenes when her lethargy pushes her to really “clean up” the office under orders from Rama. The middle segment involves Zohar’s attempt to flirt with a male soldier in order to end her virgin status. But this is not a typical romantic segment. With an additional excellent performance by Tamara Klingon as Irena, a soldier of Russian origin, the cast is excellent. This is not your typical comedy, whether foreign or otherwise. (In Hebrew with English subtitles). B+ (8/17/16)


“45 Years” - Charlotte Rampling plays Kate Mercer, a woman who has been married to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for 45 years and they are about to celebrate the event with their friends. But then a letter arrives informing Geoff that the body of a girlfriend from 50 years before (she died in a mountain accident in Switzerland) had been found in a glacier. For whatever reason, Geoff’s memories of this long lost girlfriend create an aura of discomfort in the marriage. In classic European movie fashion, “45 Years,” directed by Andrew Haigh, is essentially made up of conversation between Kate and Geoff in and around their rural English home, with some additional excellent conversation on the side from Kate’s friend Lena (Geraldine James). Charlotte Rampling is perfection as the wife whose happiness and marriage stability is suddenly (and somewhat strangely) impacted by the news contained in the letter. Her expressions tell all. Tom Courtenay, on the other hand, has the difficult task of playing a somewhat flaky elderly man; so flaky that it’s hard to tell just what emotions he’s really experiencing. Charlotte Rampling received an Oscar nomination for best performance by an actress for this role. B+ (8/1/16)


“Eye in the Sky” - Remember those classic philosophical/ethical questions involving the issue of whether it would be appropriate or acceptable to kill one innocent person in order to save many others? “Eye in the Sky” is the embodiment of that issue. The setup: Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is a British officer who has been tracking British citizens who are known terrorists. When these terrorists are discovered in a house in Kenya and seen (through the eyes of a digital flying insect-shaped drone) to be preparing vest bombs for suicide attacks, Colonel Powell requests that she be allowed to launch a drone missile at the house, killing the terrorist occupants, including two British and one American citizen, to avoid the deaths of many at the hands of the suicide bombers. Colonel Powell suffers as her British and American superiors make a variety of legal, ethical, and moral decisions about whether to approve the kill. But then there’s a glitch. A young Kenyan girl sits at a table right outside the targeted house, selling loaves of bread baked by her mother. It seems obvious to all that she will be what is known as “collateral damage” in the strike against the terrorists. Realistic or not, “Eye in the Sky” explores these intriguing philosophical and ethical issues in some detail. It is interesting to note that a South African director (Gavin Hood) and British writer (Guy Hibbert) portray a representative of the US Secretary of State as the most cold-blooded of those giving advice on the issue, whereas the British appear generally to be far more shaken by the implications of what they are doing. Helen Mirren gives an intense performance as the frustrated officer simply dying to kill the terrorists as soon as possible regardless of the "collateral damage." The cast is good, including the late Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson; Aaron Paul as Steve Watts, the drone “pilot;” and Jeremy Northam as a British official. B+ (7/13/16)


“ I Saw the Light” - If you’ve ever heard classics like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Jambalaya,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” you’ll understand that this film biography of Hank Williams portrays one of the more significant figures in 20th Century popular and country music. Portrayed with grit and realism by British actor Tom Hiddleston (“The Night Manager”) (who also does a fine job singing Williams’ songs), Hank Williams was extremely talented but also self-destructive primarily due to alcohol abuse. The film begins with Williams’ marriage to Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen) and carries through to his very untimely death on January 1,1953 at the age of 29, the result of alcohol, pain medication, and a weakened heart. Williams is shown rising to fame and glory but despite this failing to appear for concerts and ultimately being fired by the Grand Ole Opry due to his unreliability. Both Hiddleston and Olsen do a wonderful job of portraying the deep southern accents and musical culture of the 1940s and early 1950s. Although there are several enjoyable performances of Hank Williams’ classics, including a touching version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hiddleston near the end, the script seems to give just a little too much emphasis to the negative in Williams’ career over the positives. Hank and Audrey are constantly fighting and, after they divorce, Williams has an affair with Bobbie Jett (Wrenn Schmidt) that leads to the birth of a daughter (Jett Williams) while at virtually the same time marrying young Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), a marriage that lasted less than three months due to Williams’ unfortunate demise while on the way to another concert. B (7/8/16)


“The Winding Stream” - While I’m not much of a fan of modern-day country music, I have always been interested in the original roots music that came out of the southern mountains and helped lead to both folk music and rock and roll. This well done documentary explores the story and family connections and disconnections of The Carter Family (A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister Maybelle, later known as Mother Maybelle Carter) who came out of a small town in southwestern Virginia in the 1920s and began a great tradition of folk/country music that ultimately led to the likes of Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, Maybelle’s daughter. With an introductory performance by John Prine, “The Winding Stream” uses vintage movies, interviews, and animation to tell the somewhat sad story of how A.P. lost his wife by devoting too much time to roaming the mountains to find songs for the Carters to sing. But it also reveals how the Carter Family extended down through generations to include people like Anita Carter, Carlene Carter, and, by extension, Johnny’s daughter (by a previous marriage), Roseann Cash (who provides a beautiful performance at the end of the film). Songs heard include “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and making appearances are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Pete Seeger, Sheryl Crowe, George Jones, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Hank Williams. B+ (7/7/16)

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