Movie Reviews & Staff Picks
20th Century Women
4 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
The lives of three generations of women are explored in 1979, amid a changing social landscape in Southern California. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her son without a father in the picture and also becomes a mother figure to Abbie (Greta Gerwig) a young adult woman who rents a room in their home. The third woman is Julie (Elle Fanning) the best friend of Dorothea’s teenage son, who sneaks into their house at night to platonically share a bed with Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann).
Each character is undergoing a unique identity crisis. The mother is at a point in her life where love seems like a faraway dream. Abbie, the renter, finds solace in punk culture and is starved for attention and love. The teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is caught in the middle of the three women’s lives, as he tries to assert his individuality and ability to make life decisions. Concerned that he needs a role model to teach him how to be a man, his mother enlists the help of the other two women to provide support and guidance for his pathway to adulthood.
The film reflects deeply on the relationship sphere for women post-feminism. The women represent three generations who are forging their way through a dualistic culture that is both supporting their progress and hostile toward their power. The mother does not want to see the younger women take their freedoms for granted.
“20th Century Women” may only speak to a certain audience; maybe those who have grown up in non-traditional households, were raised by single mothers, or those who had unusual influences during their coming of age. For the right viewers, it could open a cathartic landscape and a place for self-exploration of identity and the meaning of relationships.
3,5 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
The bombing during the 2013 Boston Marathon was an event that shook the city to its core, but also created a collective sense of community around the survivors and first responders who experienced the aftermath. “Patriot’s Day” builds up vignettes of lives that would change following the act of violence. Moments in the lives of families and spouses create a somber recognition of the fragility of life.
Mark Wahlberg plays Tommy Saunders, a cop who must attend the marathon as part of a disciplinary action for bad behavior. We quickly forget his feelings of resentment over the assignment when tragedy strikes.
The manhunt for two suspects shuts down Boston for a few days as law enforcement works to stop their plans for more violence. A building sense of tension and a sustained feeling of realism help the action scenes to embroil the viewer in the midst of the chaos.
Director and co-writer Peter Berg shows the empowering strength of the survivors, how they have adapted to life with missing limbs and emotional scars. A husband and wife who survived together are portrayed in the film and then honored at the ending, telling their story of healing and how their injuries actually benefitted their lives.
Berg’s third collaboration with Mark Wahlberg may be his best. His previous films “Lone Survivor”, “Deepwater Horizon” also took historical events in American history, uncovering a soul and meaning in the tragedies. The continued emphasis on realism, personal stories, and parallel plot lines make “Patriot’s Day” a worthy film for mature audiences.
3 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
Pittsburgh in the 1950s becomes a potent secondary character in Denzel Washington’s latest acting and directing venture in “Fences”. Playwright August Wilson places his characters within a world where racial tension is palpable and there’s anger about injustice in employment and national sports.
Viola Davis plays Rose, the wife and mother who bears a burden of not being able to live out her own life. She’s trapped with domestic responsibilities and a husband who does not fully realize his abusive behavior and subtle misogyny. Denzel Washington plays her husband Troy, the breadwinner of the family who expresses bitterness about his responsibility of providing for his family. Washington delivers convincing monologues that reflect the tough life that Troy has braved. There’s allusion to Troy having an alcohol problem, but we never see him so inebriated that he is stumbling or incoherent. His falling back on the bottle may symbolize an inability to deal with whatever emotional trauma happened earlier in his life.
All of the main actors appeared in the acclaimed broadway production (with the exception of Jovan Adepo as Cory). Through their intense work to perfect those performances, they appear very natural in the film adaptation. The story focuses on the dynamics of family life and the tension brewing between Troy and his son, as Cory is eager to assert his identity and take steps towards a career in football.
Troy discourages his son’s football dreams for reasons that have more to do with himself than his son’s possibility for athletic scholarships and success. He fears that his son will face racism by pursuing a career in sports.
Scenes are long and drawn out, with interesting dialog, but it’s too apparent that the film is not functioning as a typical dramatic film. Wide shots of the characters are used and we don’t get up close and personal often enough. Other than the street, backyard, and porch scenes, there is little intimate detail that allows the viewer to get ‘lost’ in the world. This slice of life is so confined within the family home and street, that we don’t often see the characters interacting with the outside world.
This is the 3rd film Denzel has directed, after “Antwone Fisher” and “The Great Debaters”. “Fences” probably has the most deep source material, exploring the trials of family life and a marriage in jeopardy. This faithful adaptation creates long scenes that don’t always have a dramatic payoff. The story only has two climaxes, and in-between we spend everyday moments with these characters that are more fitting for the stage instead of the screen.
3 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
In the days following JFK’s assassination in 1963, America looked to their surrogate mother for guidance on how to process the shock and grief of losing their leader. “Jackie” tells a different kind of narrative that jumps back and forth in time between Jackie’s interview with a reporter a week after the tragedy and the moments of the shooting.
We sympathize with her obsessions about how her husband’s funeral would be remembered by the public and whether or not should would make a public appearance with her children. People close to her were pushing her to stay out of the public’s eye, but she knew that was not enough. Natalie Portman takes on the persona of Jackie, donning a unique accent and a role that was probably more demanding than anything in her career so far.
The acting here is both the best of times and the worst of times. The filmmakers have painstakingly recreated the White House tour that was broadcast for millions to see in 1961. The tour was emulated shot-for-shot, which creates an opportunity to step back in time, but it makes Portman’s acting here feel wooden and often forced. She might be concentrating on too many things at once: maintaining a difficult accent, moving on exact marks, and mimicking Jackie’s body language.
Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy provides a more subdued reaction to familial death. He places blame on himself for the sequence of events that lead to the parade in Dallas. Sarsgaard expresses a great deal of inner turmoil that only comes out brief moments of frustration. The only thing really lacking is Bobby’s missing accent. In the scenes where he and Portman are talking, his normal speaking voice paired with her crafted accent is distracting.
The camera work is compelling, with mostly subdued color tones that echo another time. For the White House tour shots, a special camera was used that created a grainy appearance to match the broadcast television footage from that era. The up close moments of Jackie’s face during her pain and the atmospheric walk through the cemetery to chose JFK’s resting spot are just a few of the moments where the camera successfully pulls us into her universe.
The strongest moments capture Jackie facing her sorrow alone and Portman is strongest here. She weeps in front of a mirror while wiping blood from her face and the extended cut for this shot made me feel uncomfortable, as if I needed to reach out and console her. Back at the white house she slowly sheds her bloody clothing and while showering her tears mingle with droplets of water, a sequence that only works in this length in an art film.
A lot of risks have been taken in telling Jackie’s story of pain following her husband’s death. Chilean director Pablo LarraÃn creates a vision of her world that is filled with extended human moments that are difficult to watch. Since he is viewing her story without the framework of an American, there is creative freedom to find his own perspective about what she went through as a widow, mother, and as a beloved public figure.
4 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
Far removed from cozy neighborhoods and suburbs are the the lives of young blacks and minorities whose daily life is one of survival. Young Chiron is bullied at a young age and actor Alex R. Hibbert expresses more than words in the gaze of a boy who is seeking acceptance and love. His mother is a crack addict and his father is out of the picture.
Through the performances of three actors, we experience slices of Chiron’s life at 11, 17, and 25. During his coming of age, all three of these time periods express pivotal moments in his life: awareness of his sexuality, taking courage and standing up for himself, and finding healing in reconnecting with one of the only peers to treat him with dignity. While these are all tough challenges for a teen living in a rough neighborhood, they cross cultural boundaries, showing that the path to adulthood is riddled with insecurity, emotional highs and lows, and deep core needs as human beings.
At age 11 he’s befriended by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who welcomes the boy into his home and provides a sanctuary from his unhealthy life at home. The anguish of seeing his mother in a pattern of self-destruction is expressed deeply through the eyes of young Chiron. He says very few words, but through careful direction, he doesn't really need to; his silence is more powerful than dialog.
Much of the film is painful to watch, especially as the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is bloodied by one of his friends while standing up for himself. This friend was the one peer he was able to open up to and express his deepest feelings. Director Barry Jenkins creates intimate moments with characters where they are put in vulnerable positions, reflect on their condition, and try to create deep connection with friends and protectors.
The cinematography steeps us in Chiron’s world, getting close during moments of fear and fortitude, and using light as a sculpting tool when he is hiding in a crack hole from bullies, or about to have his first intimate contact. Cinematographer James Laxton has many credits to his name, but this is the first significant recognition for his work, and I expect we’ll see more beautiful, intimate camera work in future films that reach award-show status.
With a tiny $5 million budget by Hollywood standards, a new masterpiece of cultural cinema has been made, but one that crosses boundaries of race and sexual identity. “Moonlight” carries a deep sadness, but also a longing for hope that can transcend trauma and pain. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Manchester By the Sea
4 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
With Oscar season culminating this month, one of the films up for 6 Academy Awards was sadly missed in the theaters by the average American moviegoer. “Manchester By the Sea” is a dramatic masterpiece that provides a canvas to examine some of the most difficult moments of the human experience. Death, separation, guilt, and grief are explored through the eyes of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a working man who has chosen a life away from his family.
Lee’s life is devoid of joy and he does handyman work for an apartment complex with a matter-of-factness that limits his interpersonal connections. When a woman spills beer on him intentionally at a bar to break the ice and introduce herself, he brushes off the possibility of having an extended interaction with her. We see glimpses into the beauty of everyday life in the moments of shoveling snow and tossing colorful items into a dumpster that breaks the bleakness of winter.
When Lee’s older Joe (Kyle Chandler) brother suffers a heart attack, he leaves for Manchester, Massachusetts, but he’s unable to say goodbye to him. In the morgue Lee says farewell in his own way. There is something odd about how he seems to be holding a tremendous of amount of pain beneath the surface. In his brother’s will, Lee learns that his brother secretly made him the guardian of his teenage son, which doesn’t seem extreme at first, but eventually Lee’s current life shows him emotionally unfit to be a father figure.
Lee must juggle the ramifications of his brother’s sudden passing by being a temporary guardian while legal matters are worked out. He comes into contact with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) at the funeral and the tiniest expressions on Affleck’s face signal that he is creating an inner world for the character. We see their personal transformations over time and Randi has moved on, but her trauma comes to the surface when she tries desperately to connect with Lee. Williams crafts a believable mother, wife, and friend who opens deep emotional wounds to try and comfort her former husband.
The tragic past surrounding Lee’s family is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks that seem cut in time to take the audience back while he is daydreaming about these memories. He was a father to two girls and deeply loved his wife. He had a great relationship with his nephew and was involved in his adventures up until his family situation changed.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan deeply explores tragedy, but he also plants seeds of hope within a script that should stimulate both sadness and compassion for patient viewers. A story is revealed that juxtaposes how two people have coped with loss and a recognition that eventually we all must deal with death in our own way. It’s one of the best difficult films to watch I’ve seen in my lifetime. Affleck and Williams’ performances are landmarks in their career and powerful enough that their pain is our pain.
The Edge of Seventeen
4 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
Angsty dramas about the experience of the American teenager have a way of winning hearts when they are done in an authentic and earnest way. Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) plays Nadine, a seventeen year old girl whose life story of feeling like an unwanted oddball with a tragic past comes to a head when her best, and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) suddenly starts dating Nadine’s older brother.
There’s great exploration about the ego-driven behavior that teens can have because they feel unfairly treated or that no one is listening to their grievances. Nadine acts selfishly in demanding that her best friend chose between their friendship and dating her brother. She wants her best friend all to herself and deep down is jealous that she is unable to garner the attention of her crush.
As unwarranted as Nadine’s behavior appears, she still manages to be a likeable character because most people have experienced jealousy or self-loathing during their teen years. Her isolation after breaking off her friendship is fraught with bad behavior and an eventual realization that she wants to change but doesn’t know how. Teens and young adults can relate to this experience of isolation because most of us have been there during the coming of age years. The musical backdrop is filled with an eclectic selection that features works by Billy Joel, The Pixies, Aimee Mann, Beck, and more handpicked tracks that are not merely fodder for selling a soundtrack album.
Topping out a great cast is Woody Harrelson playing her history teacher Mr. Bruner. His snarky responses to Nadine’s griping are some of the best dialog written for the film. He shrugs off her one-on-one therapy sessions, but becomes more understanding as her situation swings more extreme. Not everyone had a high-school teacher they felt they could relate to, but Nadine finds the callous exterior of her teacher strangely endearing.
“The Edge of Seventeen” is full of heart and it’s the best landmark teen drama since Emma Stone in “Easy A”. First time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script fills each character with enough depth to bring them full circle as they play their parts in Nadine’s transformation. There’s just enough suggestive content and coarse language to give the film an R-rating, which is a little ironic, because the people who would benefit most from seeing the film are probably right on the cusp of adulthood. Older millennials will probably also absorb the wisdom of how technology has changed both the way young people reach out for connection and choose to isolate themselves.
4 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
In 1950’s America, marrying outside of your race was illegal in Virginia and a number of other states. Richard and Mildred Loving’s relationship could have landed them in prison if they had chosen to stay in the state. They covertly traveled to Washington DC to get married.
When Mildred was pregnant with their first born, police officers illegally entered their home as they slept, arrested them, and held them in jail. After pleading guilty they agreed to leave the state for 25 years and could not return together.
Their story unfolds slowly, intimately, showing how their lives are interwoven with both families and that they experience heartache when forced to uproot their lives in Virginia to stay married. Even within her own community, Mildred endured damning looks from her neighbors who disapproved of her marrying a white man. They begin a new life together for their family in Washington DC, accepting that the cost of their marriage freedom means living away from their parents.
Renewed hope arrives years later in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington is televised. A freshman lawyer for ACLU contacts them with hope that their case could be heard by the Supreme court. I was glad to see that the film did not fall back on an unnecessary dramatic showdown with the halls of the Supreme Court, but rather showed that Loving family continued their lives as usual.
Director Jeff Nichols has hit dramatic gold again with this tale of social justice. His previous films “Mud” and “Midnight Special” also contain a level of character development that’s sorely lacking in most films that make it to wide release. The basic arc of the story contains enough human depth that there’s no need to artificially introduce climaxes.
“Loving” is an intimate window into the lives of two people who simply wanted to raise a family in peace. Throughout the film tender moments between Mildred and Richard reveal their deep love for one another. An inferior film would have used overly melodramatic moments to hammer the meaning and emotions into the audience’s heart. Their courage is explored in the highs and lows of their entanglement with the legal system and their eventual vindication with the Supreme Court striking down anti-miscegenation laws. Without specifically referencing recent equality laws in the U.S., the film’s heartbreaking story reminds the audience that bigotry in public service has a limited lifespan.
The Light Between Oceans
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
In a tale of love and loss, Michael Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a veteran of World War I who has returned home to settle down to a life of self-seclusion on Janus island as a lighthouse keeper. At first he resists the romantic gestures of Isabel (Alicia Vikander) a woman on the mainland who tries to peel away the dispassionate outward expression that Tom wears.
Within five minutes of the opening it’s clear that the cinematography creates a rich world, capturing natural light and the emotional waves of the two leads. The seaside environment provides bursts of color during sunsets that are rare among the films mostly subdued color palette. Beyond the artistry in the camera work, the film’s greatest strength is the ability of the Fassbender and Vikander to contain so much in their expressions. Fassbender has a soulfulness behind his eyes, an inner world that conveys much of the character’s struggle for normalcy. Vikander takes us through the throes of love and pain as she becomes a mother. At times we both pity her and wish that she could overcome her torment.
While back on the island, they begin exchanging letters and Tom allows his heart to open to Isabel. They wed with the understanding that Tom will continue his post on the island and they will build a family there together. The story took too much time getting to the second act, where Tom and Isabel try several times to have children and are grief stricken by multiple miscarriages. After the second miscarriage, a baby in a boat washes ashore and they decide to keep the child, after Isabel convinces Tom that ‘we’re not doing anything wrong’. This sets into motion something that will haunt them in the future.
The timeless themes of love and heartbreak are explored in a somewhat predictable framework, where they will face consequences for bringing a child into their family that did not belong to them. It almost feels modeled after a classic Greek myth.
“The Light Between Oceans” is a slow drama, the kind of film you need to be in the right emotional space to appreciate. Its beauty and nuanced performances are worthy of the right audience, but be prepared wait for nearly an hour to experience the central conflict. The story takes extra time to unfold the feelings of its protagonists and leads to an ending that pulls the heart in multiple directions at once.
1.5 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
The fate of most of the world’s population is at stake when an eccentric billionaire leaves behind a hidden virus intended to wipe out most of humanity and permanently remedy overpopulation. Tom Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, an expert in art history, symbolism, and a puzzle solving wiz, that you may have seen in “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons”.
Langdon awakens in a hospital struck with amnesia and a head wound, and he experiences nightmarish flashes of scenes from Dante’s Inferno. Suddenly people are out to kill him, setting into motion several elaborate chase scenes that weave through Italy. Running with him is Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) and she is a better character than the bulk of the players that are so transitory that we can’t get lost in the plot maze with them. Jones does the best she can with this role and even though it’s nowhere near her best films, her earnestness does help move the plot along.
Tom Hanks has done very few bad films since achieving fame in Hollywood, but I’d like to hope that he was either contractually obligated to take on this film or maybe he did it as a favor to director Ron Howard to continue continuity with the character.
The real strength of the film are the historic landmarks used as plot devices: the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and several areas in Florence. The spectacle of these locations captured for a dramatic film, however weak, was beautiful enough to keep me minimally engaged while I lost interest in the characters. There are a few plot twists that make a last ditch effort to save the film.
Screenwriter David Koepp adapted “Inferno” and he was already working within a framework that was too flawed to effectively translate a pop-thriller book to the screen. It doesn’t have enough character depth for mature viewers to care about the heroes and the chase sequences are yawn worthy after too many have already happened.
This is the least compelling of all three films adapted from Dan Brown novels. “The Da Vinci Code” was propped up by a more compelling plot and the acting chops of Ian McKellen and Audrey Tautou. “Angels and Demons” had an exciting story, memorable scenes, and tie-ins to Vatican secrets. While Inferno’s predecessors had lower disasters at stake, both had more compelling villains and moments that actually make the viewer care what happens to the characters.
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
With recent political upheaval around the world, as consumers of mass media we need to be more vigilant in seeking true, hard facts. A sad and disturbing legacy of Holocaust denial goes back decades, but came to an important crossroads in 1998 when historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is sued by David Irving (Timothy Spall) for libel. Her book “ Denying the Holocaust” asserted that Irving intentionally promoted false facts about the Holocaust to deny its occurrence.
Lipstadt encounters resistance from her own Jewish community members in fighting Irving in court. Their heated discussion around a dinner table is one of the best scenes in the film that takes place outside the courtroom. Deborah also goes with her legal team visit to Auschwitz. The gray weather and cold tones capture a somber, chilling atmosphere and a recognition that the site of one of the worst atrocities in human history remains as historical landmark and shrine for the victims.
Irving attempts to use tiny construction details to put holes in the story of Auschwitz being used a camp for mass extermination. Fortunately, the larger picture has so many irrefutable facts that Irving, rather than the Holocaust, ends up being the ultimate subject on trial.
Free speech and the necessity to fight untruths are resounding themes in the film that are met with resistance so that the audience also feels under pressure, as Lipstadt did in the years leading up to her appearance in a London courtroom to defend her book.
“Denial” takes moment in history that should not be taken lightly when our zeitgeist of misinformation campaigns and denial of scientific evidence to further political agendas infiltrates the common sense of everyday Americans. It’s not as powerful a film as it should be, but hits enough of the right chords to feel that victory over bigotry has been won.
The Birth of a Nation
2.5 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
Films set in early America have a way of pulling at our heartstrings. Our Founding Fathers declared that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet they were slaveowners who limited equality to their fellow white males. Some used passages from the Bible to justify prolonging the bondage of thousands of men, women, and children stolen from their homeland.
Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born a slave in Virginia and during the film we see his curiosity for the world of reading open up a seed that would lead to his ascent as a leader and revolutionary. Inadvertently, the wife of his master may have been instrumental in Nat’s ability to summon strength and courage from the good book. She didn’t want him reading other books ‘only meant for white folks’, but one book was enough for Nat. Writer/Director/Actor Nate Parker has found a unique voice in this film, though his acting strength is counterweighted by moments that feel better fit for a made-for-TV movie than a serious piece of cinema.
There are moments of brutality that reflect the times of slavery, but shockingly, the owner of Nat’s family, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) is more kind hearted than his neighbors, protecting Nat from some of the nastier members of the community.
Well into the story, Nat’s owner turns suddenly from a man with higher moral standards than his fellow slave owners into a belligerent drunk that doesn’t hesitate to let one of his slaves be raped by a neighbor. This is a major flaw in the film, because even though we see the financial threads of his plantation unraveling, he becomes an almost unrecognizable villain overnight. His fall, while necessary to allow the audience to accept his upcoming death at the hands of Nat, takes a shortcut that cannot be ignored.
The slave revolt, while only lasting two days, became the deadliest slave uprising in the United States. For decades Turner was remembered as a radical killer, but placed in the greater context of history, fighting for freedom with violence has happened in many revolutions across the world.
3.5 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
The worst oil rig disaster in U.S history may seem like a distant memory now because it happened almost seven years ago. For the families of the Deepwater Horizon crew, the accident still carries deep scars. 11 people were killed and the ensuing blowout lasted 87 days, causing an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mark Wahlberg plays engineer Mike Williams, who expressed reservations about beginning drilling when an essential safety test was brushed aside by the BP company men on board the rig. Both he and rig supervisor James Harell (Kurt Russell) are uncomfortable with the situation, but burdened by the weight of weeks of schedule delays and millions of dollars
The heightened sense of anticipation is tested several times before the oil well actually blows. We know what's going to happen, but the editing still succeeds in creating nail biting tension from the tests before the blowout occurred to the last moments of rescue.
Director Peter Berg brings a similar style used in “Lone Survivor”, with walls of sound and an immersive environment brought to life by one of the largest sets ever constructed. Two million pounds of steel and other materials were used to recreate the rig. The level of realism achieved creates a somber reminder that the horrific events on Deepwater Horizon were not only preventable, but could be repeated if greed outweighs safety. This is one of the most intense films not involving war I've seen in my lifetime.
by Bayard Lewis
4 out of 4 stars
In 1962 New Wave French filmmaker Francois Truffaut set out to interview Alfred Hitchcock about his creative process as a director. Until that time Hitchcock was viewed by many in the cinema world as a mere entertainer and not a serious creative artist. Through their week long session, Hitchcock reveals insights into his process of crafting iconic images.
His first experiences as a filmmaker were during the era of silent pictures and the style of storytelling with facial expressions, symbolic objects, and careful sequencing would echo throughout his body of work. Current master filmmakers David Fincher (The Social Network), Martin Scorcese, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata) and others recount their admiration for Hitchcock in his stylistic choices and ability to captivate audiences with minimal, but effective imagery.
This is a museum trip of sorts, a journey connecting decades old works to today's cinematic geniuses that were irrefutably influenced by Hitchcockian elements. The ability to ‘contract or extend time’ was one of the primary techniques Hitchcock mastered to tell his stories. Many moments from “Vertigo”, “The Birds”, and “Psycho” explore the psychological subtext and possibly surprising religious themes that are woven throughout. For any lovers of film history or the process of filmmaking, “Hitchcock/Truffaut” provides a steady stream of ‘ah ha’ moments and a deeper reflection on the emotional hooks within Hitchcock’s works that made them timeless.
The Best Video Releases of 2016
by Bayard Lewis
(In no particular order...)
This modern day fairy tale examines the pressures of life in a near-future world where single people are treated as undesirables, then turned into animals if they are unable to find suitable companions. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star in this dark comedy about finding love and acceptance. (Some content may be disturbing to young viewers.)
The Big Short
In this dramatized true story, a stellar adapted script and cast sheds light on a group of financial market wizards who shorted the housing market in anticipation of its collapse. Excellent, thought provoking dialog, parallel storylines, and well-paced editing elevate this otherwise basic story to one of the year’s best films.
Follow a group of disenfranchised youth as they tour America selling magazine subscriptions. This indie film is brimming with beautiful cinematography, reflections on life in America, and a look at microcosms within our society that are often brushed aside. (For mature audiences: contains explicit sexual content.)
Hell or High Water
A modern western filled with great on-screen dynamics features Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster leading a stellar cast. Like most great crime dramas, it doesn’t require action throughout to be interesting or appealing. Along with “Slow West”, this is the best Western since Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”.
The life of a young college freshman in the 1950’s is turned upside down when he meets a woman at a conservative university in the midwest. Self-perseverance and battling prejudice are just a few of the great themes explored by “Indignation”. Tense dialog scenes and a coming of age story will captivate young and old audiences alike as Logan Lerman plays in the role of his career.
A family of children raised away from society must return to the normal world after their mother dies unexpectedly. Viggo Mortensen plays the father figure in a pleasantly offbeat drama about the importance of taking risks, standing up for your beliefs, and questioning the system. The film is packed with memorable scenes and quotable dialog, but not at the expense of the story.
Stop motion animation reaches new highs as adult characters portrayed by puppets actually mirror the emotions of their human counterparts. Acclaimed writer Charlie Kaufman brings another tale of relationship woes to life with wit and self-deprecating humor. “Anomalisa” explores timeless musings on love, happiness, and existential crisis. See it twice, because the first act contains so many mysterious elements that need the second and third acts to reveal their purpose.
This intense story of the drug wars near the Mexican border explores the pressures on both sides of the system. A by-the-book FBI agent (Emily Blunt) discovers that the lines between good and evil blur as the battlefield sways between investigation and offensive action. The haunting score, striking cinematography, and expertly choreographed action sequences create a compelling, intense experience. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin guide us through a hazy world where people tasked with fighting crime take a Machiavellian approach.
Swiss Army Man
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star in this offbeat buddy film that finds comedy in the human experience, but also things like the flatulence of a reanimated corpse. The wild and creative imagery will dazzle you and the unabashed reflections on human intimacy and coming of age make a deeply moving and endearing story.
The story of mountain man Hugh Glass is recounted in vivid, sometimes gruesome detail as he survives a bear attack and a forced burial. What “Saving Private Ryan” did for the beaches of Normandy, this does for the American West, but the continuous action and invisible camera cuts elevate it to a sensory experience rarely achieved in cinema. Filmed entirely with natural light under intense conditions, “The Revenant” recounts a story of survival that is altogether brutal and meditative; finding a balance between violence and communion with nature.
More great films of 2016 that didn’t make the list:
Boy and the World
Bridge of Spies
Eye in the Sky
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Lady in the Van
4 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
This road film about disenfranchised youth took me by surprise when seeing it on the big screen. It could have been an unbearable three hours, but not a minute is boring in this documentary-style drama about a teenage girl who leaves a tumultuous family life and joins a crew of youth selling magazines door-to-door.
In her debut acting role Sasha Lane as ‘Star’ is mesmerizing. She is vulnerable and yet unafraid to share her spirit with the world. Star and her cohorts represent an often unexpressed longing that American youth have for deeper brotherhood and a departure away from life focused on material possessions and achievement.
Opposite Sasha Lane is Shia LaBeouf as Jake. They share an unusual bond and through their eyes we see beauty and pain, love and loss. LaBeouf gets a unique opportunity to share his talents away from the crop of big-budget action flicks. Riley Keough plays Krystal the intense, sometimes wicked boss of the crew and her scenes with Star are some of the best in the film.
Fearless camera work reinforces the emotional havoc the characters navigate as they attempt to reconcile their discontent with society. The camera almost never settles, consistently moving, sharing intimate details of these young men and women’s journey in an alternative lifestyle. The imagery and emotions engaged more than just my sense of sight and hearing, making me feel as if I could reach out and touch these characters.
(This film carries an ‘R’ rating and contains several scenes with strong sexual content.)
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
It’s been three years since Edward Snowden exposed the American government’s massive surveillance programs and fled to Russia. Oliver Stone recounts his story beginning with Snowden’s medical leave from the army and entry into the CIA, using out of sequence storytelling to deliver a compelling look at one of the most important figures in the new millennium.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Snowden as a likeable genius, albeit one with initial naivete about the government’s methods of collecting information. Eventually he grows uncomfortable with the unethical nature of surveillance operations, including blackmail. His girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) endures a rollercoaster ride as with him as the secret burden on his conscience grows heavy. They have playful chemistry on screen together and both have feelings that the viewer can validate as Snowden grows closer to blowing the lid on the NSA’s data collection programs.
The film waves a wand with a little too much slickness and a big budget, but it does not overly sacrifice the window into the lives of Snowden and his partner Lindsay Mills. “Snowden” is an entertaining film that touches on the humanity of the man, whom many of our leaders have labeled a traitor.
It’s a sobering reminder about the serious issues surrounding right to privacy and unconstitutional spying. To learn more about the story in his own words, check out the documentary “Citizenfour” which contains the testimony recorded by the camera crew in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room.
3.5 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
Emergency water landings for planes have almost always ended in tragedy. In January 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger saved the lives of over 100 passengers by quickly using years flight experience to disregard the directions given by air traffic control when a bird strike disabled both engines.
Tom Hanks takes on one of his best dramatic roles in recent years as “Sully”. Just days after the incident the captain is grilled by FAA investigators who question his decision to land in the Hudson River, rather than at two nearby airports. Even though his instincts saved the lives of every passenger aboard, the story reveals intense dreams riddled with guilt and nightmarish scenarios.
The level of realism during the flight sequences creates an engrossing world, where the viewers fly alongside Sully and the copilot Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart. They make split second decisions that buck convention, and the film insinuates that Sully may have been one of the only pilots skilled enough to achieve a water landing of this magnitude.
Hanks and Eastwood take what could have been a lackluster ‘B movie’ in the wrong hands and instead shaped it into a compelling character piece that ranks among the better films of 2016. Moments of the story are carefully repeated, but each time we learn new insights about the characters that solidify the case for heroism. Telling the story out of sequence prevented the plot from drifting into a murky medium of melodrama. The villains of the film may have an agenda driven by insurance adjustment and they nearly manage to convince us that Sully’s intuition was dead wrong.
Sully goes up against two FAA officials who are convinced he made the wrong decision and try to prove errant judgement with computer simulations. As the story wisely shows, what good are simulations if they don't accommodate the human factor? The writing carefully walks a tightrope between introducing too much technical jargon and not giving intelligent audiences enough information about the flight to make an informed decision about the hero’s actions.
Director Clint Eastwood leads us toward a courtroom drama of sorts, where Sullenberger and copilot Skiles must defend their actions in front of a panel capable of ending their careers as pilots. We know their vindication is coming, but Eastwood has timed the exciting plot turns just right to avoid sending our interest into a tailspin.
Southside with You
3 out of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
In the western world many relationships start with a first date. It’s usually a make or break few hours that determines whether two people find a spark of attraction. “Southside with You” takes a small but important slice of life from Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in Chicago. It's a simple premise that could have fallen prey to overt political correctness or melodrama.
Barack was fresh out of Harvard Law School and doing a summer internship at the same law firm where Michelle was an associate. We learn that he had previously tried to meet her outside the office a few times without success. Even on their first outing, she keeps telling him ‘this is not a date’.
The heart of the film is that it doesn't shy away from showing personal weaknesses. Obama struggled with having a father he saw as a failure and Michelle worked for a law firm that was not involved with the type of cases she felt made a difference. They both cared about social justice and that thread brought them together.
There is just enough humor sprinkled throughout this short story. Barack is smoking in his car just before he picks up Michelle and sprays breath freshener inside his mouth and the front of the car. Once in the car, she is a little disturbed by a rusty hole in the floor. He jokes about how “hazy” his memories are of high school because of overindulgence in marijuana.
Sharing intimate details of their family life begins to the deconstruct the walls they put up to avoid revealing their frailties. The story took awhile to romance me as a viewer, but the payoff was worth the wait. Even if you are not an Obama devotee, this movie may charm you with a look at who these two people were before entering the political sphere. It’s beautifully rendered in the warm glow of a summer afternoon.
Most of the powerful moments are in the second half, so be patient and enjoy the little nuances, especially the quiet moments when they were on the verge of disconnecting entirely. It's a short but significant story told with tenderness, a film that finds edge in vulnerability; and the magic that occurs when two people let their guard down enough to truly see one another.
2.5 stars of 4
by Bayard Lewis
Nine years after “The Bourne Ultimatum” Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne, a superhuman ex-CIA black ops agent. The original three films were expertly made and maintained a level of interest in the character that did not diminish over time, so this addition to the series has a high benchmark to meet.
We learn more about Bourne’s father and the secrets behind his initial family entanglement with the CIA. Although family ties could be a strong plot hook, the story is not as well developed or intriguing as any of the first three films. Yes, there are thrilling, intense moments where Bourne is on the run from multiple assailants and is able to outwit them with lightning fast movements. He swipes a molotov cocktail in the midst of a violent protest and uses it as a barrier between himself and the agents on his tail. Despite two or three excellent action scenes, the lead up to all the fast paced mayhem is rather dull.
Tommy Lee Jones replaces other seasoned actors (Brian Cox, Joan Allen, and David Strathairn) as the ranking CIA officer. He will stop at nothing to assassinate Bourne and protect a new covert surveillance program to amass data on every American. Jones is lukewarm in this role, because inadequate details are revealed about his motives or justification, compared to previous villains.
Alicia Vikander (of “Ex Machina” fame) as CIA operative Heather Lee is truly the best aspect of the film. Her character maintains a cloudy agenda throughout the story, as she puts pressure on her superiors to capture, rather than kill Jason Bourne. She juggles the young, unfettered charisma of a new agent and the fortitude needed to survive an agency besieged by political upheaval.
The director of the second and third Bourne films, Paul Greengrass, wrote and directed again for this film. Although his trademark documentary style camerawork is still present and keeps sections of the story buzzing, it only achieves momentary thrills, almost never resolving to bring us deeper into Bourne’s psyche or the shadow world of the CIA.
Bourne wages a battle that teeters between self preservation and the defense of ideals. Matt Damon does everything he can within this limited script, but sadly his character does not receive any significant development in this, hopefully final film. Overall, it’s a more mature piece of entertainment than most of the action blockbusters, but it certainly doesn’t deliver much worthy of the Bourne namesake.
2.5 of 4 stars
by Bayard Lewis
Woody Allen’s latest story, “Cafe Society,” goes back in time to the posh era of 1930s Hollywood and New York City. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) – a young man that Allen could have played decades ago, albeit one with less angst and social anxiety – journeys to Hollywood looking for new opportunities with hope his studio-head uncle can help him land a job.
Steve Carell plays Bobby’s uncle Phil, and the two men become unwittingly entangled in a love triangle with Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Yet “Cafe Society” almost never presents a definite sense one of the two men is more worthy to win the girl, a significant flaw that may prevent some viewers from getting pulled into the story.
While Eisenberg is without a doubt the best member of the cast, Stewart gets an unusual opportunity with a story that takes her character through a journey of conflicted love and escapes some previous typecasting in the “Twilight” series. She’s an actress I wouldn’t really picture in an Allen film, but she exudes a charm and innocence that makes us understand why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly.
Seeing 1930s Hollywood in all its lavishness took me by surprise. The extensive costume design and locations selected fulfill Allen’s goal to take the viewer to another time and place, forgetting the woes of the modern world. The golden light and broad array of colors are captured by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who fills every frame with a classical lighting style echoing the Hollywood of yesteryear. Storaro was also behind the camera for “The Last Emperor” and “Apocalypse Now.”
“Cafe Society,” a love letter to the 1930s, is beautiful on the surface, but lacks the character depth we’ve come to expect in Allen’s best films. There are no edgy characters here: they don’t have the quirks to make them interesting, deeper relationship woes or existential musings to make the viewer analyze their own life. It’s almost as if someone has taken Allen’s writing fingerprint and erased too much of what makes his work endearing and authentic.