This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of July to December 2017


“Mudbound” - This film really takes us through the literal and societal mud in the heart of the Jim Crow South. It’s the story of two families, one white, one black, on an ugly rural Mississippi farm during and just after World War II. Directed by Dee Rees, an African-American woman, “Mudbound” introduces us first to the McAllan family, poor white landowners who live in something close to a hovel. Among the McAllans are the nasty Henry (Jason Clarke); his unhappy but stoic wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) who married Henry despite a lack of love; Henry’s handsome and far more pleasant brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund); and the miserable racist McAllan father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks of “Breaking Bad”). The black family, who rent land from the McAllans, consists of the father Hap (Rob Morgan), who finds himself having to do the unpleasant bidding of Henry, the landowner; the mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) who actually becomes a McAllan servant; and their independent-minded son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). “Mudbound” gets off to difficult start with a confusing scene shot mostly in the dark as the McAllan brothers are seen digging a grave for their father. But the story quickly goes back in time to the beginning of the war when Jamie and Ronsel both leave to fight in Europe. When they return (Jamie with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism), and befriend each other, the bitter local racism is exposed, especially when Pappy and the local white males (KKK members all) discover that Ronsel had a child with a white German woman during the war. “Mudbound” is an admirable, but grueling and depressing story, which is enhanced by strong performances, particularly from Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, and Garrett Hedlund. B+ (12/30/17)


“Atomic Blonde” - In this thriller, Charlize Theron plays a (literal) knockout blonde named Lorraine Broughton who is a British secret service agent. After the murder of another British agent in Berlin (the film takes place right at the end of the cold war), Broughton is sent to Berlin to find and bring back a valuable list of agents that the dead agent was supposed to obtain from an East German Stasi official (named Spyglass and played by the ubiquitous Eddie Marsan), with the help of another British agent, David Percival (James McEvoy). But it’s clear to the viewer and to Broughton that her arrival in Berlin is no secret to the KGB and East German agents, and it certainly doesn’t help that her bleach blonde looks stand out from any crowd she happens to be in. And havoc ensues. The action scenes ultimately overwhelm the film to the point that when there is an attempt at a surprise ending (or two), it fizzles rather than shocks. Also of note in the cast is John Goodman as a CIA agent, Toby Jones as Broughton’s superior, and Sofia Boutella as a French agent and Broughton’s sometime lover. C+ (12/24/17)


“Dunkirk” - In May and early June 1940, hundreds of thousands of British and French troops found themselves pushed by the German army back to the beaches at Dunkirk, a French city on the English channel. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), with astounding cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and a perfect dramatic score by Hans Zimmer, “Dunkirk” provides a vision of war as hell that has rarely been shown in films other than in the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan.” But this isn’t the story of a battle; rather, it’s a story of survival. Beginning with a chase in the town in which several soldiers are killed but one survives and makes it to the beach, “Dunkirk” provides an incessant portrayal of the terrors that come with the fear of almost certain death. The film concentrates on several elements: (1) the struggles of the young soldier from the opening scene, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), and his fellow soldiers (played by, among many others, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles) to escape from the beaches or to survive having their boats shot out from under them by German planes; (2) the trip across the channel on a small yacht captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a 17 year old helper, George (Barry Keoghan), along with many other similar small boats, to help rescue the British troops, (3) the decisions and observations of the British officers, led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), and (4) the efforts of British spitfire pilots, led by Farrier (Tom Hardy), to wipe out the German fighter planes in order to save the troops on the ground. This is a brilliant breathtaking film which comes close to revealing one of the worst nightmares one could possibly imagine. Also of note in the cast is Cillian Murphy as a soldier rescued from the sea by Mr. Dawson and his crew, and who then in his anger and frustration commits a deed which results in an innocent’s death. A (12/23/17)


“Logan Lucky” - Steven Soderbergh, director of “Logan Lucky,” probably thought he had a brilliant idea. Bring together a cast of first-rate actors to do a heist film and it would be magical. Well, he was partly right. The cast is outstanding, led by an incredibly amusing Daniel Craig (the current James Bond) as Joe Bang, a southern hick, and an “in-car-cer-a-ted” prison inmate, who is hired to provide an explosive charge in a theft of a great deal of money at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Let me back up a moment because the film also stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, the mastermind of the heist; Adam Driver as his one-handed bartender brother, Riley Keough (yes, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Mellie Logan, their tough sister; Katie Holmes as Jimmy Logan’s ex-wife; Seth MacFarlane in an amusing role as a British race car driver named Max Chilblain; and Hilary Swank as an FBI agent investigating the heist. Provding additional amusing performances are Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid as Joe Bang’s brothers, Sam and Fish. With a script written by Rebecca Blunt, the film takes us through the various detailed machinations which the crew performs to carry out the theft of pneumatically blown money, including a rather humorous prison breakout and riot. But, unfortunately, there are some serious negatives. First, “Logan Lucky” is a little over-the-top in portraying virtually every character with a severe redneck accent. Second, the details of the heist are just a little too much to believe. Third, the plot becomes confusing, especially at the end when seemingly inconsistent details are provided and the solution not well-explained. And, fourth, the film drags, especially in the second hour which seemed to take forever. But overall, “Logan Lucky” has some merits, especially Daniel Craig’s performance as a tough tattoed American southerner, which has to be seen to be believed. B (12/13/17)


“Wonder Woman” - Having heard some good things about this film (it was just named one of the ten best of the year by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times), I had to see it. And so I must say that I was rather disappointed. I don’t mind an occasional superhero thriller and was particularly curious to see how Wonder Woman would evolve, but the script is deadly, the pacing is awful, and the action is either almost non-existent for a large part of the film or over-the-top at the very end. Gal Gadot does her best as Diana, the daughter of an Amazon, who saves Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a watery death in WW I (it was WW II in the original comic) and then accompanies him to the front to destroy Ares, the god of war, and save the world from war. Chris Pine seems to do nothing more than guiding Diana and stopping her from doing embarrassing or inappropriate things (she’s never been away from the island of the Amazons before). Connie Nielsen portrays Hippolyta, Diana’s mother, and Robin Wright appears briefly as Antiope, Diana’s ill-fated aunt. Also appearing in primary roles are Danny Huston as the German general, and David Thewlis as Sir Patrick, a British official. The positives of “Wonder Woman,” from the perspective of the male-dominated movie industry, are the fact that it was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins (her first major film), and concerns a female superhero. Other than that, unfortunately, the film is something of a bore. C (December 2017)


“Ghost in the Shell” - This is a superhero film of sorts based on a Japanese comic strip. What makes it strange in a Japanese setting, considering current politically correct attitudes, is that virtually all the primary characters are played by westerners. Scarlett Johansson is Major, a woman who has been told that her brain was saved following a severe accident, transplanted into a newly created body, and who has been turned into a cybernetic force for good. Pilou Asbæk (“Borgen” and “Game of Thrones”) is her cybernetic sidekick, Batou. Juliet Binoche appears as Dr. Ouelet, the woman who created Major. Major and Batou gleefully battle against evil until one day Major discovers a secret that turns her against her creators. Although loaded with the standard features of this sort of thriller, I found “Ghost in the Shell” entertaining, particularly because of Scarlett Johansson’s charisma. B+ (November 2017)


“Wind River” - Way back in the 1960s, I visited the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. A gorgeous place, the vistas are reflected in this interesting film from writer/director Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water”). At the heart of the film is the discovery of the body of a young Arapahoe woman found frozen in the wintry mountains of the reservation. She is found by a Fish and Wildlife Service hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), and soon an FBI agent arrives in the form of Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). It’s clear quickly that Banner is not the most qualified for investigating such a crime in such a location, but joined by Lambert, they eventually solve the case. Lambert, having lost his own daughter tragically, finds it necessary to make up for his own loss by finding who killed the young Indian woman. Jeremy Renner does a fine job of portraying a man accustomed to life in the wilderness. Also in the cast are Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, and Gil Birmingham, all Native American actors. B (November 2017)


“Miss Sloane” - There are those who believe that over-the-top acting is what is at the heart of “great acting.” While often it is, on many occasions it’s just the opposite. In this film, Jessica Chastain, a fine actress, plays what I can only describe as a Type AAA personality, so over-the-top in fact that it’s almost painful to watch and listen to her. In fact, I was wondering if she needed to gargle after this performance to save her throat. Chastain is Elizabeth Sloane, an obsessive Capitol Hill lobbyist, who, it appears, will do just about anything to win a victory for her cause. Working for a firm led by George DuPont (Sam Waterston), she receives an offer from the NRA to attract more women to guns. But she seems to have an inkling of integrity and puts down the NRA cause, ultimately switching to a firm led by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) which advocates for gun control. But while this is going on, we see scenes (obviously later in time) in which Elizabeth Sloane is being seriously interrogated on Capitol Hill by a US Senator (John Lithgow). The reason for Miss Sloane’s appearance on the hill ultimately becomes clear and leads her to something close to a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” moment, but it's ultimately too late and unsatsifying in this political thriller of sorts, especially when we see where Miss Sloane is living in the final scenes. Jessica Chastain is supported by a good cast, including Alison Pill and Michael Stuhlbarg as a couple of DuPont’s underlings, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a fellow gun-control advocate. Jake Lacy gives an amusing performance as a gigolo. B- (9/15/17)


“Julieta” - With bright and colorful cinematography (something I always consider a big positive in films), a first-rate script, a wonderful cast, and crisp direction (as usual), director Pedro Almodóvar tells the story of Julieta (played by Emma Suarez as the middle-aged Julieta, and Adrian Ugarte as the younger Julieta), a woman almost broken by the unexplained departure of her daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), while still in her late teens. Although about to move to a good life in Portugal with her artist boyfriend, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), Julieta runs into one of her daughter’s very close childhood friends, Bea, on the streets of Madrid. Told that Bea has seen Antia (and that she has three daughters), Julieta abandons Lorenzo and decides to stay in Madrid, moving back into the building where she had lived with Antia, and hoping for a letter from her daughter (not seen for more than a decade). Out of desperation and depression, Julieta begins to write her daughter a letter, telling her the story of how she met Antia’s father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), how he met his fateful end, and her anger and frustration at her daughter’s mysterious abandonment of her mother. Pedro Almodóvar is a great director (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Volver,” “Talk To Her,” and “All About My Mother,” to name just a few) who often concentrates on the issues surrounding the female characters in his films. Here we have an excellent portrayal of another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and how fate has affected her life. (In Spanish with English subtitles) A- (8/31/17)


“20th Century Women” - Although it received some favorable reviews and has a very good cast (especially Annette Bening), “20th Century Women” is rather tiresome. Bening plays Dorothea, an insecure 55-year old mother of a 15 year old boy (Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann) in Santa Barbara, California, in 1979. Living in an older house that needs repairs, she has boarders, including William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who helps with improvements around the house, and Abbie Porter (Greta Gerwig), a photographer. Her son Jamie seems fairly normal for his age, but then Dorothea gets the very strange idea of asking Abbie and young Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s very close but platonic teenage friend (she sleeps with him but without sex), to assist her in raising her son. Not surprisingly, the results aren’t quite what Dorothea apparently had in mind. Watching “20th Century Women,” I felt as if I had dropped in on a rather dull real-life situation that made little or no sense. The acting is good, the script is dull and the story seems rather pointless. And certainly the title is a little pretentious. C+ (8/3/17)


“The Salesman” - This winner of the most recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is the product of the Iranian writer and director Ashgar Farhadi, who previously directed the excellent “A Separation” which also won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (in 2012). Once again delving into human issues involving a couple in Teheran, “The Salesman” centers on Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rama (Taraneh Alidoosti) who are actors performing in a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (Emad is also a teacher). When the building in which Emad and Rama reside is condemned, they find another apartment with the help of a fellow actor (Babak Karimi). Not realizing that the previous tenant of the apartment was a prostitute, Rama, while taking a shower, accidentally lets in a former client of that prostitute and is attacked. Farhadi uses “Death of a Salesman” and an Iranian story about a man turning into a cow, as background for the story of the deterioration of Emad and Rama’s relationship as Emad becomes more and more obsessed with finding Rama’s attacker. When he does, it’s definitely something of a surprise. “The Salesman” is beautifully filmed and acted. While I would have chosen one of the other nominees for Best Foreign Language Film (either “Toni Erdmann” or “A Man Called Ove”) “The Salesman” remains an outstanding production from a leading director. (Primarily in Persian with English subtitles) B+ (7/27/17)


“The Lost City of Z” - Based on the excellent book by David Grann and directed by James Gray, this film takes us back to the early part of the 20th Century when Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British major, was brought to the Royal Geographic Society in London and talked into exploring and mapping the controversial border between Brazil and Bolivia in order to improve his status in society and the British military. Leaving his wife (Sienna Miller) and children behind, Fawcett, accompanied by Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and others, managed to do the job and, at the same time, avoid death as they were attacked by native tribes while traveling on the river which constituted the border. But while there, Fawcett found evidence of what he concluded was an ancient advanced civilization and upon returning to London, broadcast to the RGS that he was intent on finding “Zed,” the British pronunciation for “Z.” “The Lost City of Z” examines the mindset of a man intent on returning over and over to extreme dangers and deprivations, both in travel and in jungle environment, in order to achieve his goal. While the film doesn’t show every attempt by Fawcett to explore the Amazon jungle, it does a fine job of revealing Fawcett’s obsession, interrupted for a time only by World War I. The cast is excellent. Hunnam is ideal as the haunted Major (later Colonel after WWI) and Sienna Miller is also outstanding as a woman who supports her husband and tries, at one point, for equality by asking to come along only to be firmly rejected. Angus McFadyen (“Turn: Washington’s Spies”) also offers a chilling portrayal of James Murray, a man who accompanied Fawcett on one trip but should never have been there, and who then tried to undermine Fawcett’s reputation. A- (7/20/17)


“Jackie” - This is a character study of a world famous figure during a period of horrible distress. Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy before, during, and just after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). The film begins with the arrival of a journalist (Billy Crudup) at one of the Kennedy homes in Massachusetts not long after the events of November 22-25, 1963. The journalist is there to interview Jackie and soon finds that the interview is strictly under her terms. Directed by Pablo Larrain and based on a screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (“Allegiant” and “The Maze Runner”), the film soon includes flashbacks to Jackie’s famous television White House tour in happier times, and the events of the notorious November weekend. Natalie Portman provides a dynamic portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, although it might have been better had she toned down the breathless accent to some extent. The film portrays Mrs. Kennedy as naturally shocked and distressed, but still in control despite the attempts by a variety of men in power, including her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard, not sounding much at all like RFK), to tell her what must be done with regard to the funeral of the assassinated president. Under Pablo Larrain’s direction, there is a distinct attempt to philosophize, both in the journalist’s interview and in conversations between Jackie and a priest (John Hurt) and it clearly emerges that Jackie began the “Camelot” portrayal of her husband’s presidency. But the heart of this film is the presentation of the horrifying events of the assassination and Jackie’s dramatic and sorrowful return to the White House to prepare both for a funeral for her murdered husband and her departure from what had been her home since January 1961. I could find no indication that there is historical support for Jackie’s actions and conversations after the assassination and must conclude that this came from the imaginations of the director and screenwriter. Of note in the cast is Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s friend and social director Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as Lyndon Johnson, Richard E. Grant as William Walton, and Max Cassella as an overbearing Jack Valenti. B+ (7/4/17)

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