This page contains reviews of films seen during the months of January to March 2018


“Murder on the Orient Express” - The thing that came to mind as I watched this film is that it was Kenneth Branagh’s homage to Kenneth Branagh. The story is simple enough. A group of eccentric characters board the Orient Express in Istanbul, including Agatha Christie’s great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (Branagh). The train hits a snow bank in the Alps and is delayed while rescuers arrive. Meanwhile, one of the characters has been stabbed to death at night and Poirot is called upon to solve the crime while the train sits helplessly in the snow bank. In a relatively short time, Poirot makes an inordinate amount of amazing discoveries about the passengers and ultimately reveals who killed the dead person. The film has a first-rate cast, including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Leslie Odom, Jr., Judi Dench, and Olivia Colman. However, it is directed by Kenneth Branagh who seems to be at the heart of virtually every scene, including one ostentatious scene in which he is seen walking on the top of the snow-capped train. Some of the outstanding actors are barely seen in the film. I’ve read the opinions of some who felt that the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot, was vastly superior, but I don’t recall that film well enough to compare them. I’ll just say that this film is fairly humdrum, despite the cast and some nice scenery (even if mostly not the real thing). (Primarily in English with a few substitled sentences) C (3/11/18)


“Faces Places” - In this Oscar-nominated documentary, the great French New Wave director, Agnes Varda (89 years of age), and photographer and street artist, J.R. (he prefers to remain anonymous), go on a road trip throughout France to take photos and post them in murals on the sides of old buildings, trains, a water towers, a barn, shipping containers, and the like. They travel in a truck with an image of a camera on the side and meet a wide range of interesting characters in the French countryside. They invite individuals to sit in a photo booth within the truck and a large paper image emerges through a slot in the side of the truck. How is this done? Who knows? But it’s magic, especially when J.R., and his crew set up scaffolding, paste the photos onto the sides of structures, and create unforgettable sights. In this absolutely charming documentary, J.R. and Agnes Varda get along great, engaging in delightful banter. The only time there seems to be any difference of opinion is when Varda asks J.R., to remove his ever-present sunglasses. The two meet, greet, and photograph a wide range of people, including farmers, factory workers, and the wives of dockworkers. This is a one-of-a-kind adventure and it’s hard to imagine anyone watching this film and not having a big smile on their face. The film ends with Varda and J.R., traveling by train in hopes of meeting Varda’s old friend and colleague, Jean-Luc Godard. Are they successful? You’ll have to watch to find out. (In French with English subtitles) A- (3/7/18)


“The Shape of Water” - Writer/director Guillermo del Toro certainly has an active and vivid imagination and here he tells a fairy tale with a theme exploding with humanity and romance. It’s his own “Beauty and the Beast.” And he's admitted that it was inspired by "The Creature from the Black Lagoon." The fairy tale nature of the story is enhanced by a green hue in the cinematography and sets that seem real and yet exaggerated. Fairy tales usually are better off told as quickly as possible, but this one tends to drag a little in the second half and ultimately turns into something of a thriller. But nevertheless it is an unusual experience, especially in its visuals which include vivid underwater scenes. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at a secret government facility in or near Baltimore in what appears to be the late 1950s. She works closely with her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), and in doing so discovers that the facility has possession of an amphibian male creature (Doug Jones) who lives in water but can stand on two legs. Elisa’s fascination with the creature grows as she discovers that it can communicate with her (although she is mute) and appreciates music. Ultimately, Elisa learns that the nasty and self-centered head of the facility, a character named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), plans to kill the creature for experimental purposes. You can imagine what happens next. Sally Hawkins does an incredible job portraying a woman able to express herself fully through signs and expressions. She is aided by the wonderful Richard Jenkins as her friend and neighbor, Giles, a struggling commercial artist. Michael Shannon seems to have made a career of playing nasty characters (although he was just the opposite in the recent TV series “Waco.”) Also in the cast is Michael Stuhlbarg as the mysterious but caring Dr. Hoffstetler, and Nick Searcy (“Justified”) as the pompous General Hoyt. This film has received a large number of Oscar nominations, including for Best Film and for the performances of Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. (Subsequent to my writing of this review, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture.) A- (3/3/18)


“Darkest Hour” - In what can only be described as a companion piece to another Oscar nominated film, “Dunkirk,” Gary Oldman gives the performance of his career as newly selected Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is May 1940, and the House of Commons has rejected Neville Chamberlain for “appeasing” Adolf Hitler. Churchill is named PM and immediately takes an aggressive stance on fighting the Nazis who were on the verge of taking over the European continent and destroying the trapped British army at Dunkirk. But he is under intense pressure from both Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who continue to argue that the only recourse is to negotiate a peace with Hitler. Before our eyes, Gary Oldman literally becomes Winston Churchill in a tour de force performance, supported by the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as the loving but slightly cynical Clementine (Clemmie) Churchill. The film contains a marvelously charming scene in which Churchill takes the Underground and gets advice from members of the public which he uses to support his ultimate position to fight the Nazis: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” A (3/1/18)


“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” - There are two Denzel Washingtons in this film. The first is a lawyer named Roman J. Israel, Esq., and he’s out of his time. He has spent his long career writing briefs for his partner, who did the court work. It’s the present but he’s inappropriate as an attorney for a variety of reasons: he sports an Afro of sorts and he’s dressed like a schlump. His sport jacket is too big, reflecting his lack of interest in money. And, physically, he looks and walks awkwardly. I kept having the feeling he was going to turn into someone like Urkel. The other Denzel Washington, also in the form of Roman J. Israel, Esq., speaks articulately and intelligently and obviously has spent his life concerned about justice, the fairness of the legal system, and the way it has treated African-Americans. He has a photographic memory and is described by one of the other lawyers as a savant. When Israel’s law partner suddenly becomes incapacitated (and ultimately dies), Israel is turned out of his own firm by his partner’s family which has asked attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell) to deal with ending the firm. And this is where the first flaw in this film occurs. Israel rejects Pierce’s offer of a job, and seeks one, unsuccessfully, with a civil rights activist group being run by the admiring Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo). Then suddenly Israel shows up at Pierce’s firm to start a job as if nothing had happened. No explanation given. This is not the only strange segue in the film, either due to problems with the script or the film editing. And then the story takes another strange turn, with Israel doing something so unethical as to contradict the essence of his character, although it can be chalked up to desperation at his circumstances. Denzel Washington, nominated for an Oscar for this performance, is always an experience to watch. His power and charisma dominate the screen. Colin Farrell, usually seen as a tough street-wise character, shows off his acting talents as a slick, clean-cut, and well dressed head of a major law firm. Carmen Ejogo provides a pleasant performance as the civil rights activist who takes a liking to Israel despite his idiosyncracies. This is a curious film, but still, despite its flaws, worth a viewing. B (2/25/18)


“Lady Bird” - Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is an intelligent Catholic high school senior, if not the best student. She’s open and honest, including about the name she has given herself, and has a pretty good idea what she wants, at least as far as college is concerned. Her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) can’t seem to ever say anything right and Lady Bird wonders whether her mother actually likes her. Lady Bird’s out-of-work father, Larry (playwright/actor Tracy Letts), is soft-spoken and thoughtful. The three exist on the “wrong side of the tracks” in Sacramento, CA. Writer/director Greta Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, has made a wonderful movie about realistic characters in a realistic human situation. This coming-of-age film, nominated for a Best Film Oscar, is about things that really matter in life: family, love and romance, anger, goals, and friendship. The cast is outstanding and, in addition to the film itself, Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, and Laurie Metcalf are all worthwhile Oscar nominees. But the remarkable cast also has fine performances from Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s friend, Julie; Lucas Hedges (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as Lady Bird’s first romantic partner; Lois Smith as a sensible school nun; and, to a lesser extent, Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”) as Lady Bird’s second boyfriend of sorts. This is fine and intelligent film-making at its best. A (2/22/18)


“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” - Everything about this film is top-notch: the script, the cinematography, the humor, the cast, and the theme. With outstanding and memorable performances from Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” tells the story of a woman who is frustrated by the lack of progress in the local police’s efforts or lack thereof to solve her daughter’s rape and murder several months earlier. As a result, she hires a local advertising company to post her signs on three old billboards along a road near her home to ask local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) why there has been no progress. One would think the billboards would be a harmless effort by a frustrated mother, but no, the installation of the billboards wreaks all kinds of havoc in the local community. The film makes a point about the the crazy world we live in and the disturbed reactions of so many people in that world to something as simple as three signs. Frances McDormand is literally brilliant, as usual, as Mildred, the stiff-lipped and slightly deranged mother. A Frances McDormand performance is always a sight worth seeing. Sam Rockwell is incredible as the nasty racist and violent cop, Dixon, who is driven by anger and his weird mother, until he finally sees some light towards the end. And Woody Harrelson is wonderful as the cheerful, intelligent and thoughtful police chief who is dying of cancer and ultimately uses his misfortune to try to achieve some good. Others notable in the cast are Lucas Hedges (“Lady Bird” and “Manchester by the Sea”) as Mildred’s son, Robbie; John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, Charlie; Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the young man who rents the billboards to Mildred; Clarke Peters as a police officer who appears late in the film; and Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as a dwarf who tries to befriend Mildred. This is one of those films that you see and know, almost instantly, was made by truly talented and outstanding filmmakers, including director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”). A (2/13/18)


“The Florida Project” - This film is a conundrum. From what I’ve seen, it has received some excellent reviews as a serious movie about children in a rundown motel in Orlando, Florida. My reaction: it is an agonizing film to watch with little or no plot. Instead what we see is a young ill-bred 6 or 7 year old girl named Moonee (Brooklyn Prince, in her first film), daughter of a multi-tattooed and rather disagreeable prostitute (Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, also in her first film), running around wildly, screaming most of the time, and leading her friends towards extremely annoying mischief, including destroying property, spitting, stealing, begging, and setting a house on fire. The primary setting is a cheap motel located on one of Orlando’s ugly commercial strips. The only plot, if you can call it that, involves the motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who must constantly deal with Moonee and her mischief, as well as the variety of annoyances created by her irresponsible mother, Halley. The film has some virtues, including outstanding cinematography (Alexis Zabe), scenes of the children running or walking by colorful and quite amusing commercial facilities along the otherwise nightmarish Orlando strip, and excellent performances, if you can call yelling, screaming and being obnoxious a performance. Willem Dafoe, one of my favorite actors, is a pleasure to watch (the only pleasure in the film) as the soft-spoken and patient motel manager who tries his best in horrible circumstances. D+ (2/9/18)


“American Made” - The title seems appropriate. It’s the incredibly sleazy somewhat true-life story of the ill-fated Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to fly into Nicaragua and take photos, who then gets recruited to smuggle drugs for the Medellin Cartel (Pablo Escobar) and who ultimately finds himself doing the bidding of the DEA, Oliver North, and, indirectly, President Ronald Reagan, by smuggling drugs to the Medellin Cartel and photographing them being aided by Nicaraguan Sandinista officials. Reagan is shown gleefully showing the photos to the public and thereby exposing Barry Seal to the wrath of the Medellin Cartel. Barry Seal is played by Tom Cruise, who seemed to enjoy his many scenes as an airplane pilot. But the essence of the film seems aimed justifiably at discouraging the viewer from having any faith in our “justice” system and a good portion of the federal executive branch during the Reagan Administration. Cruise is basically the whole film. The rest of the cast, including Sarah Wright as Seal’s wife, Domhnall Gleason as a CIA recruiter, and Jesse Plemons as a police officer, made little impression. C+ (2/3/18)


“Wonderstruck” - Rose (Millicent Simmonds in her first role) is a young deaf girl in 1927. Her portion of this film is in black and white and resembles a silent film with a lovely score. Rose dreams about her absent mother (Julianne Moore), a stage and film actress currently appearing in New York. And so Rose leaves for New York from her home in Hoboken, NJ, and ultimately finds herself together with her brother Walter who works at the Museum of Natural History just off Central Park. Rose’s 1927 black and white scenes alternate with the color scenes of Ben (Oakes Fegley) in 1977. Ben is a young boy in Minnesota who has just lost his single mother (Michelle Williams) to an auto accident, and who has also lost his hearing due to an accident. But Ben’s main concern is finding his father, whose identity his mother withheld. Finding a book in his home with a bookmark of a New York bookstore and with a love note on the back to his mother from “Danny,” Ben sets out for New York and also ultimately finds himself at the Museum of Natural History exploring a wonderful room with a new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), whose father works there. With the help of documents he finds, and information provided by Jamie, he believes he can find his father or at least evidence about him at the bookstore he was seeking out. This enchanting film is a fairy tale of sorts. The two children do things that one might not expect them to be able to do in reality, and a few amazing coincidences take place. But that’s okay in a fairy tale like this (which is directed by Todd Haynes, a man who has made serious films like “Carol” and “Far From Heaven”) which has a magical entrancing feel as we follow the two, 50 years apart, in their explorations of New York City, and which has a lovely heartwarming ending when the two come together in 1977 (the adult Rose now played by Julianne Moore). Millicent Simmonds, who has been deaf from infancy, does a wonderful job for a first-timer and Oakes Fegley is a professional. This is a delightful film for all ages. A- (1/30/18)


“Blade Runner 2049” - How many ways are there to say that this is a very disappointing film? The story is told in as dense and obtuse manner as possible. I had to read an online narrative of the story before fully understanding who some of the characters were and what was going on. Suffice it to say that it’s 30 years after the events in the original “Blade Runner.” Ryan Gosling plays “K,” an updated replicant (a bioengineered android of sorts) police officer who searches out and destroys older out-of-date replicants, much as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) did in the original. But when he finds and destroys one, K makes a discovery that leads to concerns about the possibility of a war between humans and replicants. K, with the help of his hologram girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), who seems to have more personality than any of the “real” characters in the story, travels from one site of nuclear desolation to another. LA, K’s home, is a gray fogged-in miasma. Ultimately, K’s travels and investigations [he gets into trouble with his ill-fated boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) for doing this] lead him to what used to be Las Vegas and to a meeting with Rick Deckard, once again at the heart of the story. Aside from the generally opaque nature of the film, the biggest problem is simply that it runs on and on, 2 hours and 44 minutes to be exact. At least 44 minutes too long. Of note in the cast are Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Edward James Olmos (Gaff, from the original), and Jared Leto as the replicant creator. Sylvia Hoeks, a Dutch actress, provides an interesting performance as Luv who is bent on stopping K from accomplishing his self-appointed mission. C- (1/25/18)


“War for the Planet of the Apes” - I became interested in this film when one of my favorite movie reviewers, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, listed it as being one of his 10 best films for 2017. I had previously seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but skipped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” What could make this film (the seventh with the words “Planet of the Apes” in the title) so worthy? Well, it’s truly ironic. What does it is the humanity of the apes. First of all, the title is misleading. This is not really a war movie. Two groups of humans are battling each other and at least one is trying to kill off the apes. But the heart of the film is the effort of the apes, led by Caesar (the incredible Andy Serkis), the most advanced and articulate chimpanzee, to survive. And they are doing it without a desire to destroy mankind (which is shown as doing a darn good job of destroying itself) but rather to simply get away and live their own lives. Part of the magic (and it is truly magic) of this film, is the digital motion capture technology that allows actors to play the roles of the apes in special outfits for which technological CGI experts later add the images of the ape characters. The fact that the ape characters look so true to life and are able to demonstrate genuine emotions and feelings is a tribute to the technological advances of the movie industry’s visual effects people. As for the plot, after a group of human soldiers, under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), kill off many of the apes, including Caesar’s wife and son, Caesar and his ape cohorts find themselves horrified to discover a prison facility for the apes which brought up thoughts of concentration camps with apes forced into labor without food and water and other apes turning on their own kind to curry favor with the humans. The most charming characters, aside from Caesar, are Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). Among the apes we also see a rescued young human girl, later named Nova (Amiah Miller), who becomes part of the ape world. The film makes tribute to several older Hollywood films (“Bedtime for Bonzo,” for example), and clearly pays some homage, as noted by A.O. Scott, to “Apocalypse Now” and Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in the form of Woody Harrelson's The Colonel. A- (1/24/18)


“Everest” - The lure of mountain climbing is beyond me. It seems rather suicidal and this dynamic true life and harrowing film about the 1996 Everest disaster confirms that feeling. Back then, not long after going on the Internet, I followed this story online, and later read Jon Krakauer’s excellent book on the subject, “Into Thin Air.” Through the magic of film-making “Everest” seems incredibly realistic although there isn't much of what we might call a plot. It centers on mountaineer Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealander whose wife Jan (Keira Knightley) was pregnant at the time of Hall’s Everest expedition that turned deadly. But it’s also about Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who was in charge of a similar expedition on the same day as well as a slew of mountain-obsessed characters, including Hall’s base camp operator, Helen Wilton (Emily Watson); a Texas doctor bent on making it to the top, Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin); and Krakauer himself (played by Michael Kelly) who asks the other climbers (and I would too): “Why?” The cinematography is gorgeous, although the scenes in which the storm hits Everest during the climb down are dark and difficult to see. The cast includes Sam Worthington (“Avatar,”); Elizabeth Debicki (“The Night Manager”); John Hawkes; and Robin Wright. One of the characters blamed in Krakauer’s book for delays on the mountain, Sandy Hill Pittman (Vanessa Kirby of “The Crown”), is barely shown in the film. Suffice it to say that eight people died on Everest on that fateful day in May 1996. What’s fascinating with regard to the lure of mountain climbing is that since then (according to Wikipedia) another 150 people have died attempting to climb Everest. B (1/23/18)


“A Quiet Passion” - Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea” and “The House of Mirth”) wrote and directed this insightful film into the life of the somewhat mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon). Beautifully filmed, with a simple script spoken by the characters in virtually a poetic pace, “A Quiet Passion” tells the story of the reclusive and unusual poet from her school days (played as a young girl by Emma Bell) through her death. Cynthia Nixon demonstrates why she is an acclaimed actress (her readings of Dickinson’s poems are lovely), and she is supported by one of my favorite actresses, Jennifer Ehle, as her sister Lavinia (known as “Vinnie.”) Growing up in Amherst, Massachusetts, with a somewhat domineering father (Keith Carradine), Emily and her sister are attached to the household, Emily more so than Vinnie. In fact, both women never married and died at the family home. “A Quiet Passion” demonstrates how Emily worked in private writing ultimately memorable poetry, with little recognition outside the home, and her gradual change into a person who avoided others to the point of obsession. B+ (1/12/18)


Victoria & Abdul” - It just seems natural to have the great Judi Dench as the great Queen Victoria. And it’s not the first time. Back in 1997, she played Victoria in “Mrs. Brown,” and just to complete the picture of her versions of royalty, she was Queen Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). Dame Judi’s incredible talent is present early in this film as she makes herself look haggard when she falls asleep at a royal dinner table only to revive with life in her eyes when she meets the unusual (for her) Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Karim is an Indian Muslim chosen by Raj authorities to travel from Agra (site of the Taj Mahal) to England to present the Queen with a special coin. Carefully instructed by the pompous palace authorities not to look directly into the Queen’s eyes, Abdul does so anyway and a long and close friendship begins. From servant to munshi (teacher), Abdul progresses in his relationship with Victoria to the consternation and anger of those officials close to the Queen. Although it’s never clear exactly why Victoria favored Abdul (all the written communications between Victoria and Abdul were burned by Victoria’s son Bertie--King Edward VII--upon her death) the film, directed by Stephen Frears (“Filomena” and “The Queen”) seems to imply a growing awareness of the outside world by Victoria (Empress of India) and her repugnance at the racism rampant in her family and administration. Abdul himself is not portrayed in a completely favorable manner as he seems rather self-absorbed, especially when it comes to his compatriot, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who wishes to return to India but never makes it. The film has a cast of the usual outstanding British performers, including the late Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby, Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, and Simon Callow in an unusual scene as the composer Puccini vocally performing some of his own work. But most memorable is the British comedian, Eddie Izzard, as the nasty Bertie. Ultimately “Victoria & Abdul” is a satisfactory portrait of a little-known bit of British royal history. B+ (1/8/18)

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