This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of October to December 2016


“A Hologram for the King” - Based on the Dave Eggers’ novel and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), “A Hologram for the King,” tells the rather odd and unusual story of Alan (Tom Hanks), a salesman sent to Saudi Arabia to sell a holographic communications system to the king. What is most strange is that Alan doesn’t appear to have done any research into what he might expect in a country like Saudi Arabia, as he looks rather dumbfounded by what he sees and experiences, at least at the beginning. And what he experiences initially is a form of Middle Eastern blasé (in other words, bureaucracy) which offers Alan the possibility of a long stay in the desert. What’s also unusual about this film, apparently intended to be some form of economic commentary, is that it turns into a romance involving Alan and a Saudi doctor (Sarita Choudhury) who treats him for a lipoma on his back. Finally, I should mention one more odd aspect of this film and that is in the casting. When he arrives in Riyadh, Alan hires Yousef, a Saudi driver to take him to his business destination in the desert where the Saudi king is planning to build a new city. Yousef becomes a significant and quite humorous character in his banter with the frustrated salesman. Why is this unusual? Well, Yousef is played admirably by Alexander Black, an American actor from New York City. B- (12/27/16)


“Captain Fantastic” - This is an unusual American film, directed by Matt Ross (actor in "Silicon Valley" and "Big Love"), because it raises a number of social issues for the viewer’s consideration. Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his six children live in a forest in Washington State, where they are very well home-schooled in classic subjects, progressive thought (they honor Noam Chomsky, for example), and in the essence of survival in the wild. When we first see them hunting a stag and going about their daily activities, we begin to wonder about the mother. Well, it isn’t long before we discover that the mother has been seriously ill, cared for by her parents in another state, and has died. Knowing that his late wife’s father (Frank Langella) is hostile to him and his radical life-style, Cash has to consider the dangers of taking his children to their mother’s funeral in another state to try to enforce her will that, as a Buddhist, her funeral not be religious and that she be cremated and not buried. The heart of the film is a road trip in which Cash and his children leave the forest and travel into the real world. Along the way, a lot of the progressive concepts and lifestyle choices Cash and his wife have taught their children, are challenged. “Captain Fantastic” is not a perfect film (I particularly disliked a scene, inconsistent with the basic theme, in which Cash has his children steal food from a grocery store) but it is charming and thoughtful in ways that American films rarely are. Mortensen is outstanding as the idealistic father. And the film has some delightful performances by the actors playing the young Cash children, including George MacKay (“11.22.63”) as the oldest, Bo; Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso, as the two oldest daughters; Nicholas Hamilton as the middle son, the rebellious and angry Rellian; and Shree Crooks, full of pizzazz, who is delightful as the youngest daughter. A- (12/24/16)


“The Magnificent Seven” - The scenery is gorgeous (a great deal filmed in New Mexico) but the plot is virtually one long and ultimately dreary gun battle. Based on the classic 1960 film of the same name starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Eli Wallach, the story is pretty basic American western cowboy fare. The town of Rose Creek, a classic wood-framed western town on the frontier, but with nearby mines, has been taken over by a businessman, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), a monstrous bully who has no compunctions about killing. After her husband is shot down in the street by Bogue, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seeks out and hires a government warrant officer, Chisolm (Denzel Washington) to fight Bogue and his men. Chisolm proceeds to round up six others and they head for Rose Creek and what will undoubtedly be a deadly battle. There isn’t any acting worth noting in this film, although some of the characters are unusual. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio all do workmanlike jobs. Peter Sarsgaard, not often seen in roles of this type, does a good job as a cold-blooded monster. The biggest novelties in the film are the clever defensive maneuvers used by the seven to defend Rose Creek. C+ (12/22/16)


“Florence Foster Jenkins” - Sometimes life can be a comedy and “Florence Foster Jenkins” seems to prove that to be true. Based on the story of an upper-class New Yorker who lived in the first half of the 20th Century, this film offers us Meryl Streep portraying one of her silliest and most unbelievable (and yet real) characters. Florence Foster Jenkins thought she could sing at an operatic level and forced herself on unsuspecting audiences. But while her voice may have sounded like Lily Pons to her, to everyone else she shrieked flat pitchless notes. She even went so far as to record herself and gleefully give away her recordings to friends and others, and to schedule a concert at Carnegie Hall. Meryl Streep, as always, transforms herself into this puzzlement of a woman who seems utterly oblivious to how ridiculous she is being. Hugh Grant does a fine attentive job as her strangely devoted husband, a British actor named St. Clair Bayfield (who, for reasons that become obvious in the film, maintains a mistress, played by Rebecca Ferguson, on the side). And most amusing is Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) who appears as Cosmé McMoon, a musician with serious aspirations who finds himself embarrassingly exposed to the world as Florence Foster Jenkins’ piano accompanist. But there’s one more delightful performance and it comes from Nina Arianda (a Tony Award winning actress) as Agnes Stark, a blonde bombshell who at first can’t control her hysterics upon hearing Jenkins’ “singing,” but later becomes supportive when things turn ugly at Carnegie Hall. B+ (12/14/16)


“Jason Bourne” - What could be more exciting than lots of mindless action? Right? “Jason Bourne” returns Matt Damon as the mysterious Bourne who seems always capable of outwitting the CIA, although he does have a habit of losing his female cohorts along the way. With Tommy Lee Jones as CIA Robert Dewey; Vincent Cassel as the CIA “asset;” Julia Stiles as Bourne’s friend and helper, Nicky Parsons; and Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee, a CIA insider who eventually begins to realize that something is rotten inside that illustrious organization, “Jason Bourne” takes on a somewhat empty-headed thrill ride chase through a variety of locations, from Iceland to Las Vegas. The scenery is wonderful, the script is not. And the cast is questionable. Jones and Cassel play clichéd characters seen in dozens of thrillers. Julia Stiles is fun as Bourne’s helper but doesn’t have a great deal to do. Alicia Vikander, who has been outstanding in other recent films, including “The Danish Girl,” seems to be underplaying her role as a CIA insider with a change of heart. And Matt Damon? Well, he's always reliable, but unfortunately in this case fairly reliably dull. C+ (12/6/16)


“Indignation” - Based on the novel by Philip Roth, “Indignation” takes place during the Korean War and introduces us to Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant young Jewish boy from Newark, NJ, who has been working for his overbearing father (Danny Burstein), a butcher, but decides to get away by attending a Christian college in Ohio. At the college, Marcus finds himself at odds with his two (Jewish) roommates and is offered an opportunity to join the only Jewish fraternity at the college. But it is the beautiful but damaged young woman Marcus meets, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) who plays a major role in Marcus’ college experience and ultimately his life. It doesn’t help at all that Marcus is suffering an inquisition from the Dean (Tracy Letts) who seems to know just about everything going on in Marcus’ life. The script is outstanding, coming from a Philip Roth novel, and the acting is superb. Logan Lerman (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) is a revelation in his first truly serious adult role. Sarah Gadon is ideal as the beautiful young woman with a lot of unfortunate baggage. And Tracy Letts, who always seems to play annoying characters, does a fine job of balancing encouragement and intimidation in his talks with Marcus. B+ (11/27/16)


“Our Kind of Traitor” - Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) are on vacation in Marrakech when Perry meets a Russian named Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) and are ultimately drawn into Dima’s attempt to escape the Russian mafia and protect his wife and children as well. Perry and Gail, reluctant at first to get involved, find themselves drawn deeper into the plot and gaining in confidence as well. The three stars, plus Damian Lewis (“Homeland” and “Billions”) as a British intelligence officer doing what he can to help, are all a pleasure to watch. This is based on a novel by John Le Carré and it shows in the high level intrigue back in London ultimately revealed by Dima. B (11/23/16)


“The Man Who Knew Infinity” - With enthralling performances by Dev Patel (as Srinivasa Ramanujan) and Jeremy Irons (as G.H. Hardy of Cambridge), “The Man Who Knew Infinity” tells the real life tale of a mathematician whose genius was compared to that of Beethoven. Ramanujan is shown creating astounding mathematical formulas with barely a formal education only to have to beg for a clerical job in his native Madras, India. Although married (his wife is played by the lovely Devika Bhise), he and his wife barely knew each other before Ramanujan finally connected with Professor G.H. Hardy of Cambridge University in England. The film portrays the difficulties Ramanujan had in this alien (for him) location, the problems of leaving his wife behind in India, and the hostilities of locals and university academics with which he had to deal. Both Dev Patel (“The Newsroom”) and Jeremy Irons give riveting performances as mathematical geniuses trying to figure out the other’s mind and culture. A- (11/8/16)


“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years” - With a great deal of footage, including performances, that I had not previously seen, this film, directed by Ron Howard, is a refreshing review of the Beatles phenomenon. From their early days in Liverpool and playing in clubs in Munich, to their travels to the US and around the world, the film emphasizes the growing burden on the Fab Four as they dealt with ever-growing and ever-menacing crowds. Certainly, after you’ve viewed this film, you’ll understand why the Beatles retreated to London and limited themselves to producing recordings during their final years together. Aside from the obvious interviews with the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and recordings of John Lennon and George Harrison, the film contains some fascinating comments by Elvis Costello, Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg, and Sigourney Weaver (and even includes a brief video of a young Sigourney Weaver at a Beatles concert). One of the more interesting commentaries comes from Larry Kane who, as a young newsman, traveled with the Beatles on their first USA tour. B+ (10/29/16)


“Café Society” - Once again, the difficult choices of and obstacles to romance which face his hero is at the heart of this latest Woody Allen film. Allen provides a wonderful cast, intriguing and interesting characters, sensuous scenery, and cinematic locations (Hollywood and New York). The film begins with the arrival of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man from the Bronx, in Hollywood to seek employment with his successful uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a movie star agent. It isn’t long before Bobby is being shown around Hollywood by his uncle’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and a friendship begins to grow into romance. But, of course, there’s a catch as there usually is at the heart of every romance in a Woody Allen film. There’s also Bobby’s east coast family, consisting of his somewhat overbearing parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) and his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Mix these altogether, and you have the most entertaining Woody Allen film since “Blue Jasmine.” Jesse Eisenberg is delightful as a cool if initially insecure young man on the make and Steve Carell is perfect as the busy distracted uncle with a secret. The cast includes the always excellent Parker Posey, and Blake Lively. B+ (10/25/16)

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