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

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“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)

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“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)

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“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)

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“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)

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“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)

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“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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