Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange Review

Marvel movies almost always are fun, exciting ventures and their plots have just enough sciency stuff to stimulate the mind, as long as we don't prod too deep.  Doctor Strange has all of the fun and an extra shot of humor, but what sets it apart--and makes it fresh and interesting, even to hardcore Marvel veterans--is the foray into Eastern mysticism and its confluence of mind, body, and spirit.

Still, as a newby to the character, I afraid I'd soon be lost in the lore.  The filmmakers take care of us.  First, it's an origin story, and Director Scott Derrickson presents exposition as complement to action so we are entertained as we learn.  Second, so we can cut right to the story, he typecast the ensemble: Need an arrogant hero?  Here's Benedict Cumberbatch.  How about a bad guy?  That's easy, Mads Mikkelsen.  OK, here's a stumper--a strange, ethereal, and unique Sorceress Supreme, AKA The Ancient One.  Tilda Swinton.  Damn, you're good!  It must be said that some fanboy purists wanted an old Asian man in that last role, as it was in the comics, but I contend that any movie is better with Tilda Swinton.

The story opens, establishing Dr. Stephen Strange (BC) as the world's pre-eminent neurosurgeon, and he knows it.  Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), brainy and effervescent, loves him in spite of that.  One night, on the way to a speaking engagement his speeding car crashes and his hands, the tools of his trade, are crushed beyond reclamation.  Devastated, he spends his grand wealth, hoping for a miracle.  During rehab, Strange learns of a seemingly impossible cure.  The desperate Strange will try anything, so he spends his last dollars on a pilgrimage of sorts to Nepal, where a Samurai-like warrior, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), delivers him to the Ancient One.  AO is no doctor, though, and this is no hospital, but rather a training center that teaches students to overcome the ills of the body with the mind and, as added perks, they develop martial arts and magical skills--and humility.

Once healed of both mangled hands and over-inflated ego, Strange's goal is to return to his medical practice, but the Ancient One and Baron Mordo see in him the ally they need to face down their Machiavellian nemesis Kaecilius (MM) and his minions.  These bad guys and girl are in the service of a super being of truly Lovecraftian proportions and origins, and when they show up Strange learns he has gifts he never imagined.  Heroics, plot twists, and skullduggery ensue, leading to a satisfactory conclusion (be sure to stay through the credits for not one but two tantalizing epilogues).

One of the strengths of this film is the cast, and as if the aforementioned actors weren't enough, Michael Stuhlbarg as rival surgeon Nick West, Benedict Wong as the Sanctum Sanctorum librarian, and Benjamin Bratt in a small but important cameo round out an ensemble that seems to truly enjoy their work.  The special effects are Inception-like and the big baddie brings with him a color scheme straight out of Peter Max, all of which gives a very trippy feel to the film.  Usually, a script written by committee is a bad sign, but Jon Spaihts and his four elves cobbled out 115 minutes of almost seamless enjoyment, with one qualifier: time-bending is part of the story, and one plays with time at his own peril--there is one big coulda, woulda, shoulda and several small ones therein; we'll leave it to the viewer to identify them.  All in all, though, Doctor Strange is time well-spent.

8 out of 10


Some may dismiss Arrival as another "aliens--friend or foe?" film. That would be a mistake. As Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) directs Eric Heisserer's and Ted Chiang's screenplay, Arrival is an intricately woven web that captures us emotionally and intellectually, and its killer payoff ending makes the viewer reevaluate everything that transpired before. That ending also elevates it from a good drama to the upper echelon of its genre, alongside films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And like the best science fiction, it addresses the human condition and critical events of the day; in this case, the importance of surmounting nationalist and cultural barriers to face problems that affect humanity.
Amy Adams is Louise Banks, a world-renowned linguist haunted by the death of her daughter. One day, on her way to teach a class, she finds the campus in chaos. Military jets fly overhead; news stations broadcast the arrival of a 1,500-foot tall alien craft, hovering above the ground at twelve random locations around the globe. In short order, Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up to recruit her to lead a linguistics team in learning the purpose of the aliens. On the way, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), charged with heading the scientific part of the team. They, along with a group of military men get right to work, entering the craft on what seems to be an impossible task, a task that gains urgency as Chinese Gen. Chiang (Tzi Ma) is moving in favor of a military option, and CIA operative Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) is not about to let anyone else get the upper hand. The slim hope for the team is an emotional connection Louise seems to have developed with the aliens.
To say more would be to say too much, so we will only add that Arrival's deliberate pace is offset by the intellectual stimulation of the plot and the satisfaction of wonderfully synergistic filmmaking--Villeneuve is emerging as one of the great working directors. The story provoked the most post-film discussion and speculation our group has enjoyed in a while, and the performances, as one would expect, are uniformly excellent. But, this is Amy Adams' movie. Adams, possibly the best current actress never to have won an Oscar (though five times nominated), gives an understated performance that hits all the right emotional notes. In this year of so many great female performances, it may not pay off on the awards circuit, but it should not be missed.
8.5 out of 10
FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Hell or High Water

Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) teamed for Hell or High Water, and their effort earned a nomination for "Un Certain Regard" at the Cannes Film Festival.  This low budget, low profile heist film deserves the accolades.

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard pull on ski masks and pull off an amateurish if effective robbery of Midlands Bank. We soon learn that the self-same bank holds the mortgage on their family homestead, and the interest on the loan is such that Toby is losing ground and facing foreclosure.  He comes to the philosophical conclusion that poverty has become "genetic" in America, the genetic engineers are the bankers, and unless something drastic happens, it will never change for his family.  The homestead is the only thing Toby has, and he sees promise in the land, if only he can pay his debt and ensure the legacy for his estranged wife and two sons.  He is as bright as his plan is desperate: he plots to enter small branches of Midlands Bank in the morning when they open, take small amounts of untraceable bills from the cash drawers, and exit quickly without hurting anyone.  The idea of repaying his debt to Midlands Bank with its own money is an irony too juicy for him to resist.  Toby has enlisted his brother Tanner (as wild as Toby is bright), a man with some experience in robbery and the prison tattoos to show that he wasn't very good at it.  It doesn't take radar for us to pick up that this recruitment is a fateful choice.  And there is just enough radar to their plan that it catches the eye of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a crafty and grizzled Texas Ranger.  As Marcus explains it to his partner and straight-man Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), it's a small but smart plan, and Marcus decides to spend the final days before his retirement solving the crime rather than sitting behind a desk.  As Marcus and Alberto press on, the gap closes on Toby and Tanner, thanks to Marcus' experience and intuition.  The banter and the revelations along the way between Rangers and brothers bring us closer to them, and we pull for all of them to come through all right.  The bankers are the bad guys, after all.  But justice is justice, after all. 

Chris Pine is the only actor playing against type, a smart to move for the crucially handsome actor who so vividly plays Captain Kirk in the latest iteration of Star Trek.  He sells the role, and while his screen mates don't take the same risks, they are so good and blend so well that it doesn't matter  The crazy glint in Ben Foster's eyes risk leading him to the role of "that dangerous guy."  Gil Birmingham, as the Mexican-Comanche Ranger, falls into the stereotypical "sidekick" role: the competent deputy who stoically bears the brunt of his partner's verbal abuse.  And finally, Jeff Bridges, mumbling amiably through a reprise of the Rooster Cogburn role he played in the Coen brothers version of True Grit.

Bridges, playing Marcus Hamilton as Rooster Cogburn, might be a more telling bit of casting than first meets the eye.  The film is derivative, but that is not an insult, considering the source material.  Like Sicario, one of my favorites films from last year, Hell or High Water falls along the continuum leading to the ultimate modern Western: No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers four-Oscar masterpiece. 

These are logical comparisons. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan obviously has Cormac McCarthy envy.  McCarthy wrote the novel, No Country for Old Men, and Joel and Ethan Coen were the perfect pair to pen the adapted screenplay.  In writing Sicario, Sheridan captured No Country for Old Men's impending doom and suspense, but none of its black humor; in Hell or High Water, his entertaining screenplay has wry lines and some outright laughs, but in achieving that it sacrifices urgency and suspense.  And neither film captures the deep existential longing for Old West principles that McCarthy and the Coens mined. 

Mackenzie's direction enhances and fine-tunes Sheridan's strong screenplay.  As he did in his compelling prison drama, Starred Up, he immerses us in the gritty realism of both setting and story and getting the most out of his cast.  In several scenes, he uses local citizens, and his touch is such that they blend seamlessly with the actors.  Perhaps it is Mackenzie's objective British sensibilities that allow him to cast a desolate beauty to the harsh landscape and a Robin Hood-like nobility to the desperados, but his greatest strength is social commentary, wherein he channels Bertrand Russell in addressing the rapacious effect of the America's banking industry on the working class: "Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate."  Both cops and robbers recognize that, and therein lies the ambivalence with which we accept their fates.

8.5 out of 10

FilmZ with Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Cafe Society

It seems we can't discuss Woody Allen films without addressing his personal baggage.  I can separate the person from his or her art when I like the art enough. That doesn't put me above those who detest Woody and boycott him; I completely understand.  While I despise Jared Leto, Ray Lewis, Ethan Hawke, and have recently added Clint Eastwood to my personal boycott, I give a pass to Ben Rothlisberger, Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, and others.  As Val's Doc Holliday famously said, "It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds."

Yes, as a Woody Allen fan, I stand accused, yet I find his 47-film career curious.  Hell or high water, he makes a movie a year.  In his first two decades of filmmaking, Woody hit on all cylinders with a brilliant and eclectic string of films, most based in New York City. Since then, he's expanded his geography but had as many misses as hits.  In the past decade, only three have been worthwhile, although those three are excellent: Vicky Christina Barcelona is a beautiful romantic comedy; Blue Jasmine, Woody's re-imagining of A Streetcar Named Desire, has IMO the single best performance ever by an actress in Cate Blanchett's Jasmine; and Midnight in Paris is in Allen's top five ever.

In Cafe Society, he plows familiar fertile soil.  As he no longer acts in his films, Woody inserts himself into the soul of the protagonist,  Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is so much like Woody Allen anyway that he doesn't have to dig deep into his thespian toolkit.  Bobby grew up in a typical Allenesque neurotic New York Jewish family: a whining, cynical father (Ken Stott); a devout, browbeating mother (Jeannie Berlin); an affable but homicidal brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a fretful, shrewish sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her Leftist, milquetoast husband Leonard (Steve Kunken).

Bobby dreams of a career in the movie industry, so his mother sets him up with Uncle Phil (Steve Carell, who replaced Bruce Willis--fired by Woody Allen for bad behavior), an agent and deal-maker to the stars.  At Phil's office, he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and it's love at first sight with the beautiful, down to earth girl who, alas, loves another man.  Bobby also meets Rad Taylor (Parker Posey) another talent broker with connections in Hollywood and New York cafe society who, along with Uncle Phil, make sure he, too, is well connected.  Still, the disillusioned and lovelorn Bobby remains unsatisfied.  Events flow from Hollywood to New York and a new woman, Veronica (Blake Lively) to complicate matters.  

Cafe Society is Allen's first digitally-captured movie, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives the Golden Age Hollywood and New York a rich and vivid rendering.  The movie is well-cast, and the actors who portray Bobby's family provide gleefully mad, colorful figures.  Steve Carell and Parker Posey, as one would expect, stand out, although Blake Lively is inexplicably given little to do.  Kristen Stewart, however, carries on Allen's string of eliciting strong performances from his leading ladies.  Narrated by the auteur himself, Cafe Society is a bittersweet musing of the road not taken, it's melancholy tone brightened by Allen's signature existential humor. 

Unfortunately, we've seen much of this before.  Woody used to cast himself--and more recently his spirit-characters--as wimpy, neurotic losers who through sheer force of will become irresistible to an array of beautiful women.  It strains credulity to believe that both Stewart and Lively would be attracted to Eisenberg.  (But then, Angelina Jolie once married Billy Bob Thornton, so what do I know?)  Set-pieces of old, like the lobster dinner from Annie Hall, have a madcap choreography that builds to a comic crescendo; an early scene from Cafe Society between Bobby and a first-time hooker strains for those same qualities but achieves only frantic annoyance.  Even the wonderful philosophical quotes have lost their zing: from Cafe Society, "Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer;"  quote from Love and Death (1975): "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he is evil; I think the worst that you can say is that He is an underachiever."  So, Cafe Society is a double-edged sword: it seems unoriginal, but it's still pretty good because Woody Allen is ripping off a brilliant social observer named Woody Allen, and it gains points for its cast, most notably Kristen Stewart.

7 out of 10


Love and Friendship

For those of you looking for a date night movie, this one is a gem.   Writer-Director Whit Stillman adapted the Jane Austen novella, Lady Susan and stars Kate Beckinsale, in the role of her career, with support from several wonderful British actors and Chloe Sevigny as her American-born/British-wed best friend Lady Alicia Johnson. This romantic comedy has less heart-wrenching romance than typical Austen fare, and that which it has bears a wicked venom; at the same time, it has more comedy, punctuated by caustic one-liners and lunatic set pieces.  Think of it as Evelyn Waugh's satire meets Monty Python's surreal humor.

Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale), escaping scandalous rumors, visits the bucolic estate of her  in-laws, the naive Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his suspicious wife, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon (Emma Greenwell).  There, the charismatic seductress sets her sights on Emma's brother, the callow Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), despite the fears of his sister,  The DeCourcys' parents see through the icy vamp, as does Alicia's husband, Mr. Johnson, who doesn't have the decency to die and has threatened to return his wife to her Connecticut origins if she continues her friendship with Lady Susan.  To her chagrin, Lady Susan's daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark) shows up, followed by her unwanted suitor, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), a blithering idiot who upsets matters as much with his insane soliloquies as Lady Susan does with her charms.

The brief (92 minute) runtime races by on the wings of fascinating dialogue you'd better listen to closely lest you miss lines like Lady Susan's blithe observation, "Facts are horrid things" or Martin's monologue about which two of the Twelve Commandments would best be shed or his introduction to peas as a dinner item.  While any competent actress could fill Sevigny's shoes, Kate Beckinsale sells Lady Susan as an upper crust femme fatale who controls the people and events around her. Tom Bennet's Sir James Martin as a daffy suitor brings hilarious theater of the absurd. And, in Morfydd Clark, we might be seeing the birth of the next Saoirse Ronan.  Whit Stillman's script and direction might lead us into a work that some may find shallow, but these are, indeed. shallow people, so: mission accomplished.

8 out of 10

The Jungle Book

Disney's new, live-action/CGI update of their 1967 cartoon classic; this time, they opted for a live Mowgli (Neel Sethi), working with a natural world made live through actors mimicking animals using motion-capture VFX, augmented by Jim Henson Company puppets, and "locations" created through computer-generated VFX. Director Jon Favreau wrangles it all into a highly entertaining rendering of the Rudyard Kipling story (look for scars in the shape of an "r" on Mowgli's chest and a "k" on his left shoulder as a salute to the author).
As you will remember, Mowgli is an orphaned "man-child," found by a panther named Bagheera (played with military dignity by Ben Kingsley), who takes the boy to be raised by a pack of wolves, headed by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (Lupita Nyong'o). One day at the watering hole, Mowgli is discovered by Shere Khan (a menacingly evil Idris Elba), a tiger with a hatred of men and a penchant for murder. Mowgli's life suddenly in danger, Bagheera spirits the boy away, in hopes of dropping him off at the man-village, with Shere Khan in hot pursuit. The friends become separated and Mowgli begins an adventure of self-discovery in which he encounters creatures both lethal and buffoonish, including the python, Kaa (a sultry, sinister Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the Bear (Bill Murray, playing Bill Murray), and a gigantic orangutan King Louie (Christopher Walken, sounding like a Bronx mafioso). Naturally, creatures and events hurtle toward an exciting conclusion.
The Jungle Book has met with raves by both critics and audiences, whose only consistent criticism is that of changing the gender of Kaa, the python. Favreau explains that the character list was top-heavy with males, which begs the question: why make the deadly trickster a female when he could have done the same with the brave badass panther, Bagheera? Make no mistake, Ben Kingsley is wonderful in the role, but, after all, the female big cats are the hunters.
Speaking of performances, Murray and Walken were inspired casting choices, their voices and personalities perfectly matching their characters. Their only drawback comes when they are asked to sing iconic tunes originally performed by iconic voices--Walken's "I Wanna Be Like You" pales in comparison with Louie Prima's 1967 rendition; Murray's "Bare Necessities" is done in by the ill-advised decision to allow Sethi--who couldn't carry a tune in the Ganges Basin--to hijack the duet, taking it into cringeworthy realms. The only other song from the original is Scar-Jo's coolly mesmerizing "Trust in Me," which plays over the end credits. After her performance as Kaa, which follows her work as the computer Samantha in Her, it's fair to say that Johansson could make a career in voice work, but who would want that? Special note should be made of Garry Shandling, excellent in his last role as the cute and quirky porcupine, Ikki.
Less impressive are Esposito and Nyong'o as the wolfpack leaders, who are uninspired and forgettable. Perhaps it is unfair, comparing their voice work to big personalities like Murray, Walken, Elba, and Kingsley, but there it is. Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi is adorable, but he rarely moves beyond line-recitation--to be fair, nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay's brilliant performance in Room may still be too fresh in my mind.
This is a very good movie that both children and adults will enjoy. But if you are able, find the 1967 cartoon version.

2016 version: 7.5 out of 10.
1967 version: 10 out of 10.

I'm sorry this review is late.  My researcher, Guy S. Malone, Researcher, has been severely injured.  The poor fellow was wandering a meadow and fell on some pears, causing several deep lacerations between his shoulder blades, a mysterious accident because A) there were no pears around to cause the fall, and 2) typically, pears do not cause deep incisions, no matter how hard you fall on them. Police are baffled.

I feel terrible because only twenty minutes earlier he and I quarreled over the fact that he had not provided background material for my Love and Friendship review.  He claimed I had never told him I wanted it.  However true it may be, it is no excuse for negligence.  Will my travails never end?

Amazing Movie Predictions for 2016

Hey Kids,
Based on extensive research and my petty personal prejudices, I've made some Amazing Movie Predictions for 2016. I've also added links, in case you want to find out more about a film.
I absolutely guarantee that all of these predictions will be either right or completely off base. Enjoy.
Yrz Trly, John
1) The breakout star of 2016 will be Nate Parker. I've mentioned him before in the context of the must-see "The Birth of a Nation." He wrote, directed, and stars, leading to prediction 1a) he will hit the rare trifecta of getting three well-earned Oscar nominations, and 1b) the movie itself will end up with a Best Picture nom.

2) Ang Lee, who has made some of the most beautiful and stirring films of our time will strike again with "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." Bravo Squad, decorated Iraqi War veterans whose bravery might not be exactly what it seems, a reality Billy faces while home in the US shortly before redeployment.

3) The biggest non-franchise blockbuster of the year will be "Passengers," a romantic thriller with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as travelers on a 120-year journey in space, accidently awakened out of hyper-sleep and facing a life with only their chemistry to sustain them as they try to save a malfunctioning ship.

4) Don Cheadle is another Oscar triple-threat as writer, director, and star of "Miles Ahead," a bio-drama of Jazz legend, Miles Davis.

5) "Jason Bourne" will make us remember how freaking great the Bourne trilogy is. If you haven't experienced "Identity," "Supremacy," and "Ultimatum," see them before this release on July 29.

6) The newest Tom Hanks-led Dan Brown adaptation, "Inferno," will meet with a lukewarm critical reception, but audiences will like it, and its basic theme--the threat of Global overpopulation--will replace Climate Change as the new apocalyptic crisis.

7) The testosterone-fueled heroics in the movie "Deepwater Horizon" will overshadow the environmental catastrophe of the events, trivializing one of the worst eco-disasters of our time.

8) The screen adaptation of the best-seller "The Girl on the Train" will be the vehicle that drives Emily Blunt to a much-deserved first Oscar nomination, as a depressed woman who lives life vicariously through a couple she sees every day from the window of her commuter train. Until something shocking happens.

9) Tom Hanks will shake off the ennui of "Inferno" to shine in Clint Eastwood's "Sully," about the pilot who saved all of his passengers by belly-flopping his disabled plane onto the Hudson River.

10) Oliver Stone's "Snowden" will justify our paranoia and conspiracy theories six weeks before we get to vote for a new President.

11) Another film adaptation of a best-seller, "The Light Between the Oceans," will cement Alicia Vikander's status as an A-list star as she plays the wife of a lighthouse keeper who finds a baby, alone and adrift off the coast of Australia.

12) The unnecessary remake of "The Magnificent Seven." Denzel Washington, great; Chris Pratt, great; Ethan Hawke ... Ethan Hawke? That weenie? WTF? Oh well, looks like this time the bad guys win.

13)  "Loving." I don't know if it will make major theaters, maybe just arthouses, but I think it will be a sneaky smash, in the running for Best Picture, Actor (Joel Edgerton), and Actress (Ruth Negga).

Eye in the Sky

The effectiveness of Eye in the Sky as a political thriller goes beyond simple suspense; it makes the viewer think and feel.  Deeply.  That the feeling part comes as the result of some emotional manipulation can be forgiven because it forces us to personalize, to really empathize, with those most affected by war.

Helen Mirren (in a role originally written for a man) is Col. Katherine Powell, a British officer in London has been trying to capture radicalized UK citizen Susan Danford for six years.  From Hawaii, an American image analyst confirms that Danford and two other "most wanted" terrorists are holed up in Nairobi, along with two recruits.  As she organizes her operation, Col. Powell is in contact with drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) at his base in Nevada to watch from high above and Jamah Farah (Barkhad Abdi) on the ground in Nairobi with remote-control cameras ingeniously planted in robotic birds and beetles.  Meanwhile, in Whitehall, Lieut. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) monitors the operation with members of the Prime Minister's administration.

Events become complicated when Danford and her associates relocate to a terrorist stronghold too hot for commandos to raid.  Farah bravely follows from the ground as Watts continues to monitor from the sky. With the new location, Col. Powell explores lethal military options as her superior, Gen. Benson, works through the political and bureaucratic quagmire involved with staging a drone attack in a country with whom neither Britain not the US is at war.

Soon, surveillance reveals two discoveries: one that makes a drone attack imperative, and another that makes it inconceivable.  At this point in this most immersive film, we, the audience, vicariously face a military, ethical, and philosophical Hobson's choice.  We examine our own humanity, an analysis summarized best in a line uttered by the incomparable Alan Rickman in what is, sadly, his last film.  Eye in the Sky, though manipulative at times, haunted me for days until I realized that there is no level of humanity in war.

8.5 out of 10

10 Cloverfield Lane

Director Dan Trachtenberg, in his first feature film, working from a taut, suspenseful script written by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and two others, gave us quite a few jolts and surprises. It kept us guessing up until the last ten minutes when it then betrayed us like Santa Claus did when we thought we were unwrapping an 18-year-old single malt only to find Jenga inside.
As the film opens, our heroine Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is fleeing across the rural Southland at night. She gets a call from her recently-jilted fiance Ben (voiced by Bradley Cooper--at first, I thought he had misdialed Jennifer Lawrence) pleading for Michelle to return to him. She hangs up, effectively isolating herself from the world. A sudden car accident renders her unconscious, and when she awakens she is handcuffed to a pipe, an IV tube stuck in her arm, and she is staring at blank concrete block walls and a double-locked metal security door wondering what the hell happened.
Enter Howard (John Goodman), who claims to have saved her, not only from the accident but also from a vaguely described invasion--"Russkies" or aliens, using poison gas or biological agents, he isn't sure. Howard has brought her to his well-equipped if Spartan bunker along with Emmett (Short Term 12's John Gallagher, Jr.), a field hand who has worked on Howard's farm. Emmett is a nice, good old boy who has a courteous Southern manner and some big regrets. Goodman's Howard is a conspiracy nut whose nuttiness isn't limited to conspiracies. He's a twitchy powder keg; much of the tension revolves around the question of how malevolent his intentions. But the movie belongs to Winstead, whose Michelle sees herself as the type of person who always runs away from problems, but in the strict confines of the bunker, she finds grit, resourcefulness, and an indomitable will.
I first saw Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the 2010 cult favorite Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film that featured a number of young stars, among them, Brie Larson, who recently won just about every Best Actress award for her role in Room, another movie about a young woman's claustrophobic confinement by a psychopath (there's even a skylight in both movies). Part of me wonders if Winstead saw Room and wondered what the hell happened.

6 out of 10


Carol is romantic. Wait, that's too simple; maybe capitalize the "R" and add that the film's romance is suffused with a rich blend of sight, sound, story, and atmosphere.
It's the holiday season in early 1950s New York. The nostalgic filter, the color palette that emphasizes greens and creams, the clothing, and the leisurely pace evoke our warm recollection of the simple perfection of the Eisenhower Era. The moral code of the time is not simple perfection, just perfectly simple: conform to society's norms, a dictate that forces some to live a lie. A young department store clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara) meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), a striking older woman who is shopping in the toy department for her daughter's Christmas present. The magnetism is immediate if subtle; the attraction palpable if reserved. That's how their relationship develops, each woman working through the obstacles presented by her own life: Therese wants a career as a photographer even as her boyfriend pushes her to go to Europe with him; Carol heading for a divorce from a husband (Kyle Chandler) who resents her lack of affection.
Credit Director Todd Haynes and his leading ladies that the film never portrays its characters as lurid or lustful. They fall in love, and it is natural and real. Cate Blanchett is regal, yet vulnerable, a soul in pain, yearning to be a good mother and live her life honestly. Rooney Mara (who seems like the reincarnation of a young Audrey Hepburn) is innocent, yet brave, as she seeks to discover her identity.
The film was nominated for a slew of awards, including six Oscars. Mara, who won Best Actress at the Cannes is really a co-lead in Carol, and it is category fraud that the was placed in the Supporting Actress category. Blanchett, as always, is Blanchett, arguably the top actress working today. It was also up for Adapted Screenplay, (from the novel, The Price of Salt), and its nominations for Cinematography, Costume Design, and Original Score attest to the aforementioned overall beauty of the film.

8 out of 10


Unlike other Marvel movies, Deadpool is irreverent, raunchy, rude, crude, and violent.  It's an entry and an origin story in its own right.  It's also a satire of superhero movies and at he same time a loving homage whose irreverence makes us laugh at them even as it reminds us why we love them.

Ryan Reynolds is Wade Wilson, former special forces operative who performs altruistic services to pass the time.  Make no mistake, though, Wade is an anti-hero whose good deeds provide cover to commit petty larceny, felonious assaults, and snarky insults.  He hangs out with kindred spirits at a seedy bar, whose barkeep is what passes for his best friend.

Early on, he meets the love of his life, a badass prostitute named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, who coincidently was a badass concubine in the cult TV showFirefly).  Their torrid love is interrupted by a singular tragedy, which precipitates events that make this human mayhem machine even more lethal and drives a simple plot of vengeance.

Deadpool is Stan Lee meets Quentin Tarantino.  Foul-mouthed characters deliver current cultural references, rapid-fire jokes and over-the-top cartoon violence.  Self-aware and self-referential, Deadpool is a joke that it's already in on, and it has no problems breaking the fourth wall to make sure the audience is in on it, tit; in fact, at one point, he breaks the "sixteenth wall" (you'll see).

8 out of 10

Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar!, is Joel and Ethan Coen’s loving lampoon of Hollywood in the early-'50s.  Josh Brolin's film noir studio executive/problem solver keeps us moored to the Coen's version of reality on a stroll through popular film genres of the time:

George Clooney, the star of a Biblical epic, has been kidnapped by a mysterious group that turns the political climate of that era on its head. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johannson as an Esther Williams type isn't quite the All-American girl, Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly song-and-dance man tap dancing around a secret, and a host of cameos from the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton as twin rival gossip columnists, and a hilarious turn by Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking film editor (setting up the best joke of the movie).

But the biggest revelation is heretofore unknown (to me, anyway) Alden Ehrenreich as a lariat-twirling singing cowboy trying to transition to sophisticated Cary Grant-style comedy while dating a Carmen Miranda.

7.5 out of 10

The Oscars 2016

Below are my picks for the 88th Academy Awards, to be presented on Sunday, February 28, 2016.  As always, we have thumbnail sketch of the contenders in each category, followed by my predicted winner, and in some cases, the film or individual(s) I think should win.
In the hottest horse race of recent Oscar years The Revenant—Academy leader with a whopping 12 nominations—is the front-runner.  It is, however, more to be appreciated than enjoyed: visually dazzling, but unremittingly grim and violent, and, essentially, a revenge movie.  It does have an advantage over its closest competitors: The Big Shortand Spotlight in that they are social-issue movies which, for that reason, could split votes, allowing The Revenant to slip in for the win.  Mad Max: Fury Road came in second with ten nominations, but it is more likely to win technical awards.  Room, is a respected little film that could shock.  The remaining films—Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn,and The Martian—as good as they are they won’t win.
            Will win:  The Revenant

            Should win:  The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, or Spotlight.
Another tough call, this time between two: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (The Revenant) and George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road).  Inarritu, who won last year for Birdman, hopes to become the first director in 65 years to win two years in a row.  Miller’s film sprung totally from his imagination and was brought to the screen with minimal CGI. The other nominees—Lenny Abramson (Room), Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Adam McKay (The Big Short)—can relax and drink champagne.
            Will win:  Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

            Should win: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Leonardo DiCaprio has been better in several films, but he has never sacrificed so much for a role as he did for The Revenant.  Besides, everyone feels Leo is due.  The other performances—Brian Cranston, (Trumbo), Matt Damon (The Martian), Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs), and Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl)—were very good, but Leo is pre-ordained.

            Will win and should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
In a category stocked with excellent performances, Brie Larson, as “Ma” in Room, has been the clear frontrunner since September.  Possible spoiler is Saoirse Ronan as the young Irish immigrant in the charming indie, Brooklyn.  Powerful perennial contenders Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) are unlikely winners because both won Oscars in recent years—2014 and 2013, respectively.  Respected veteran Charlotte Rampling’s recognition for 45 Years is in the nomination.
            Will win:  Brie Larson

            Should win: Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan
Until recently, this had been one of the most competitive fields.  Each actor—Christian Bale (The Big Short), Tom Hardy (The Revenant), Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), and Sylvester Stallone (Creed)—garnering significant support.  Lately, though, Stallone has punched his way to the top with a string of precursor awards.  Should he win, it will be the first time an actor has won the Oscar twice for playing the same character.  Considering the practice he has had over the years, it hardly seems fair.
            Will win: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
            Should win: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
An icon in Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), a comeback kid in Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), a surprise in Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), and two leads misplaced as Supporting in Rooney Mara (Carol), and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl).  Favorites are respected veteran Winslet and up-and-comer Vikander, who worked on six films this past year, including another award winner as an android in Ex Machina.
            Will win and should win: Alicia Vikander
Five diverse contenders: Cold War-era prisoner swap intrigue of Bridge of Spies, claustrophobic sci-fi suspense of Ex Machina, animated working of a young girl’s mind of Inside Out, crime-busting investigative journalists of Spotlight, and the controversial hagiographical origins of NWA in Straight Outta Compton.  It should come down toSpotlight or Inside Out, but
            Will win and should win: Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy.
Four of the five films in this category—The Big Short, Brooklyn, The Martian, andRoom—are nominated for Best Picture.  The fifth, Carol, the 1950s-set story of forbidden love between a shop girl and a beautiful older woman, still enjoyed six other Oscar nominations and critical acclaim.  All are worthy, but only one explains esoteric details of a financial tragedy in a clear, humorous way.

            Should win and will win: The Big Short—Charles Randolph, Adam                                                  McKay.  From Michael Lewis’s book.
It seemed Sicario’s Roger Deakins would finally win after 13 Oscar nominations.  Then came Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, and it became clear that he will win for the third year in a row (Gravity in 2015 and Birdman in 2015).  Of all The Revenant’s nominations, this is the one that is most deserved.  Carol’s colorful rendering of the early 1950s, the 70mm IMAX treatment of The Hateful Eight, and the imaginative chase of Mad Max: Fury Road are relegated to also-ran status.

            Will win and should win: The Revenant—Emmanuel Lubezki
This category goes a long was toward determining our understanding of a film, as well as its flow and whether or not we are checking our watches, even during an otherwise terrific film.  At times, The Revenant, for all of its action, plods, and Star Wars: TFAbattles seem interminable.  On the other hand, Spotlight’s methodical investigation is lean and well paced.  But the top contenders here are Mad Max: Fury Road, a never-a-dull-moment race from beginning to end; and The Big Short, its ebb and flow and changes of pace following Swill clock precision.
           Will win:  Mad Max: Fury Road

            Should win:  The Big Short 
Movie scores work hand-in-hand with cinematography and editing to create the atmosphere the director intends, and each nominee here stands out: the bittersweet, romantic strains in Carol; the slow-boil intrigue of Bridge of Spies; the thrumming, gut-wrenching unease in Sicario; the wry, twanging Western edge of The Hateful Eight.  I take issue with John Williams’ excellent Star Wars: TFA because it has a “been there, done that” feel that has already been awarded.  Look to six-time nominee Ennio Morricone, the Italian who makes iconic Western music FTW.

            Will win and should win: The Hateful Eight—Ennio Morricone
And in other categories:
COSTUME DESIGN:  Will win/should win: Cinderella
MAKEUP AND HAIR:  Will win/should win:  Mad Max: Fury Road
PRODUCTION DESIGN:  Will win/should win:  Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST SONG:  Will win/should win: “Til it Happens to You” from The Hunting            Ground  Diane Warren and Lady Gaga
SOUND EDITING: Will win: The Revenant; Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
SOUND MIXING:  Will win: The Revenant; Should win: Mad Max: Fury Road
VISUAL EFFECTS:  Will win:  Mad Max: Fury Road; should win: Ex Machina
ANIMATED FEATURE:  Will win/should win:  Inside Out
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:  Will win/should win: Amy
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:  Will win/should win:  Son of Saul


I finally got to see Room, the only Oscar-nominated film I hadn't seen before Sunday.  Based on the 2010 best-seller by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay,Room, as directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is a taut, claustrophobic psychological thriller.  It's a slow burn story of Ma (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (newcomer Jacob Tremblay) whose world exists within the confines of a garden shed. 

How did they get there? Who is confining them?  The answers to those and other questions reveal slowly as we adjust to the close confines and strictures of their world.

And "world" it is to Jack, who has known no other.  The ways Ma has rationalized that world to her son, and to herself, are part of the psychological study that makes up the most compelling aspect of Room.  How a child develops in a stunted world; how an abductee deals with the trauma of long-term imprisonment and abuse; the tests and strengths of the human spirit--these are the aspects of the film that draw us in.

The conduits of that magnetism are the two leads.  In one of the most competitive of recent Lead Actress performances, it's difficult to argue with the touching balance of vulnerability and strength that Brie Larson portrays as Ma.  And I don't even know what to say about Jacob Tremblay's Jack.  Never have I seen a child perform so convincingly.  To think that he achieved no Academy recognition when his performance was clearly superior to other children who have received nominations is an indictment of the system.

7.5 out of 10

The Coen Brothers

With the release of Hail, Caesar! today, I thought it would be nice to remember the enjoyment the Coen brothers have given me since 1984 (kind of the opposite of the Koch brothers).  Here is my ranking of their films I have seen, it's important to note that I mever met a Coen film I didn't respect, so I can recommend every one on this list:

1)  Fargo (1996) - 3 Oscar noms., Won Orig. Screenplay
2)  No Country for Old Men (2007) - 4 Oscar noms, won Picture, Dir., Ad. Scr.
3)  The Big Lebowski (1998)
4)  Miller's Crossing (1990)
5)  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - 1 Oscar nom., Ad. Screenplay
6)  True Grit (2010) - 3 Oscar noms, incl. Best Picture & Adapted Screenplay
7)  Blood Simple (1984)
8)  Raising Arizona (1987)
9)  Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
10) Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
11) Burn After Reading (2008)
12) Barton Fink (1999)
13) A Serious Man (2009) - 2 Oscar noms, Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay

[I have not seen The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and The LadyKillers (2004)]

The Coens also have an Original Screenplay nomination this year for Bridge of Spies, and they wrote the Adapted Screenplay for Unbroken last year.


In 1952, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves Ireland to find her fortunes in Brooklyn, thanks to her sister Rose's appeal to an Irish Priest (Jim Broadbent) who runs a program for immigrants in the US.  Eilis is set up with a job and a room in a boarding house for young woman run with an iron fist by prim and wisecracking Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters). 

Brooklyn is the story of the immigrant experience torn from the Old Sod and planted in a new world--her hopes, fears, triumphs, and tribulations.  And we see the romance of first love, complicated by two suitors, an Italian American (Emory Cohen) and an Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson), both magnetic on screen with Ronan. 

I first heard of Brooklyn when it entered the Sundance Film Festival with little notice but received adulation, followed by a hot bidding war for distribution rights, a justified gamble for a film whose budget was so tight that a date to Ebbets Field is discussed but not seen.  It has earned over $30 million and has been nominated for three Oscars: Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay--Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, Wild) adapted Colm Toibin's best-selling novel, and most significantly a marvelous performance from 21-year old Saoirse Ronan, who owns our heart from beginning to end.

8 out of 10

The Big Short

Excellent black comedy that had many LOL moments and a terrific ensemble, especially an autistic Christian Bale and a neurotic Steve Carell.  Three parallel stories drive the fast-paced plot about four men who predict the 2007 US housing credit crisis and financial meltdown. 

This is complex stuff, though.  To make dolts like me truly understand what was happening, the film-makers had the inspiration to break the fourth wall: They used real people, speaking directly to the camera--pairing Selena Gomez with an Economics professor, Chef Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie (who was in Wolf of Wall Street--to provide metaphors that both entertained and educated.  

In the end, the movie may have been too glib by half.  Maybe that was necessary, though, because The Big Short cements any anti-Wall Street, anti-government, anti-unchecked Capitalism feelings one might have. Brad Pitt is producing some very important movies these days, and this one should be required viewing before anyone goes to the polls this fall.

9 out of 10

The Revenant

My son Brian has been eager to see The Revenant, so he and I went.  It was an excellent film, and I can recommend it strongly, with the warning that it is grim, humorless, with graphic violence, and about fifteen minutes too long, and I have no desire to see it a second time.

So, why do I recommend it?  It is a work of art that you can't look away from, a film that has to be seen on the big screen. The cinematography and editing make it a beautiful and immersive experience.  It felt like I was part of the film rather than a viewer, and the scene transitions are wonderful.  Instead of cutting or fading, the camera focuses on the wind whipping a storm across mountain tops, or snow dripping from tall pines.  There are also some, "How did they get that?" shots: a close-up of ants climbing on top of each other to get from one rock to another; an avalanche on a distant mountain, perfectly framed during a climactic scene.  God, it's gorgeous!

The cast is great: Leo will finally get his Oscar (though he has been better in other films, like Gilbert Grape and Django).  Tom Hardy is typically amazing, disappearing into his character.  Domnall Gleason (who has been in every movie this year), and Will Poulter as the young (famous mountain man) Jim Bridger, provide admirable support.

The Revenant would be a neat double feature with Jeremiah Johnson, and it is similar in beauty and tone to Sicario.  I'm guessing it will unseat Spotlight as the Best Picture favorite.  As a work of art, The Revenant deserves the esteem; however, as a movie, I prefer Sicario, Spotlight, and a few other films we've seen this year, including several not nominated for Best Picture.

7 out of 10
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