2017: Part 3

Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta. Notes from October 9, 2017: Beatriz at Dinner might not literally be the “first great film of the Trump era,” as the poster states – doesn’t that honor belong to Get Out? – but Miguel Arteta’s film certainly is a beautifully made, sharply incisive dramedy observing the many divisions in American society. We follow an eventuful day in the life our protagonist, Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who works as a holistic healer at a cancer treatment center and also as a masseuse to an upper-crust clientele in southern California. Late one afternoon, Beatriz drives from Santa Monica to Newport Beach for a massage appointment with a rich housewife, Kathy (Connie Britton). The two women seem to have a personal bond: Kathy’s daughter, Tara, was stricken with cancer as a teenager and Beatriz’s care and friendship helped Tara on the road to recovery. When Beatriz finds that her old car won’t start and that she can’t leave Kathy’s house just yet, Kathy invites her friend to stay for a dinner party that she and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), are throwing for some of his colleagues and their wives. This is the point at which the story’s wheels really begin to turn.

As the guests arrive at the house, Beatriz struggles to fit in with conversation topics that concern only the rich, white social circle. Despite engaging in chitchat that she enjoys, it is clear that the other visitors – including Shannon (Chloë Sevigny), Alex (Jay Duplass) and Jeana (Amy Landecker) – consider her a bizarre anomaly encroaching on their comfortable territory. As the dinner progresses, Beatriz finds herself locked in a war of words with Grant’s boss, Doug Strutt (the incomparable John Lithgow), a Trumplike tycoon who flaunts both his wealth and his contempt for anyone of a lower social class (or perhaps a darker skin tone) than him. Beatriz tries to enlighten her companions with her memories of growing up in a Mexican village that was destroyed by an American construction company that never followed through on its building plans, but the only feedback she receives is disinterest.

Beatriz at Dinner’s mood changes as our heroine becomes increasingly aware that Kathy and Grant’s home is a hostile environment. The film shifts from comedy to drama as Beatriz’s confrontations with her adversaries become ever more emotionally charged. It’s too bad that Mike White’s script loses its satirical edge, but this is necessary to show Beatriz’s evolution over the course of this tense and upsetting night. Many viewers have argued that the film’s ending is a letdown, that it suggests – in a “bigger picture” sense – that acquiescing is the ultimate solution when one is faced with a bully or an outright villain. But if you consider Beatriz’s own story, just focusing how much she longs to return to a past that no longer exists (as evidenced in the themes of the song she performs for the dinner guests), the conclusion of her arc makes sense.

It’s amazing to realize how rare it is to see Salma Hayek in a performance like the one she gives in Beatriz at Dinner. The successes and failures of her career have always seemed to be predicated on how much makeup her characters wear and/or how tight and revealing their clothes are; occasionally she gets an opportunity, like in Frida and in Beatriz at Dinner, to show her power as an actress. In Beatriz, she wears no makeup; her hair is tied in a straightforward ponytail; her outfit is a utilitarian work ensemble. Without all of the usual distracting accoutrements, we can concentrate on the simple, striking impact of Hayek’s face, which radiates so much grace and strength in every frame. Even if you think you disagree with the political messages of Beatriz at Dinner, please see it for its extraordinary spotlight on Salma Hayek, as well as the poetic cinematography of Wyatt Garfield.

Brawl in Cell Block 99. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Notes from October 25, 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a brutal action thriller that is definitely not for all appetites, but if you can tolerate the extreme levels of violence – the film is unrated, but the MPAA would have slapped it with an NC-17 warning – you will be rewarded with some of the most memorable acting, writing, cinematography and fight sequences of any film that has been released this year.

Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a former boxer who loses his job at the local auto shop in the film’s first scene. He is a physically intimidating protagonist; besides being a 6′ 5″ man whose bald head is adorned with a cross tattoo, Bradley rips his wife Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car apart with his bare hands after he comes home early and discovers that she has been having an affair for the past three months. The only way that the couple can salvage their fractured marriage is for Bradley to return to his former career as a drug runner. This decision seems dangerous for both Bradley and Lauren, who are both recovering addicts, but when the film cuts to “eighteen months later,” the pair are living happily in a bigger, fancier house and expecting their first child.

As we know from the film’s title, however, this paradise will not last. Bradley and some new business partners he doesn’t trust are involved in a police ambush, which results in him shooting his comrades to prevent them from injuring the police. Despite the good intentions behind Bradley’s actions, he is found guilty of the murders and is sentenced to seven years in prison. While in jail, Bradley is visited by a mysterious, German-accented man (Udo Kier, the incomparable king of genre cinema), who shows Bradley photo evidence that Lauren is being held hostage and the only way Bradley can save her is to kill a certain inmate in Cell Block 99 of the Red Leaf detention center, a maximum-security facility for all the most depraved criminals.

Moments after the conversation with the “Placid Man” (as Kier’s character is called in the end credits), Bradley sets himself up by attacking several corrections officers. Branded a severe threat to his fellow prisoners and staff, Bradley is immediately transported to Red Leaf, where he meets sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson, literally twirling his mustache in malicious delight). A few more skirmishes finally bring Bradley down to the fabled Cell Block 99, where the most psychotic convicts reside. This odyssey, which by now has reached mythical proportions, culminates in a series of supremely gory conflicts between Bradley and some unexpected opponents, some images of which I may never be able to remember without feeling ill. This viciousness is necessary, however, since Bradley is a man on a mission and if he doesn’t complete the Placid Man’s assignment, his wife and unborn daughter will pay the price.

So what makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 so worthy of your time? First, there’s Vince Vaughn’s performance. He anchors the film not only as a physical presence but with solid acting and a sharp wit (my favorite: in an early scene he refers to a young woman’s tight and short blue jumpsuit as “zesty”); humorous dialogue provides much-needed emotional ballast during the film’s relentlessly grim bloodbaths. (Also, for the record: Vince Vaughn has not magically transformed into an excellent actor with Brawl. His dramatic talent has been evident for years, as people have known since his indie days in the 90s and – my personal favorite – in the bar scene from Into the Wild.) Don Johnson and Udo Kier give that extra-special “character actor” touch to roles that are vaguely defined by a general sense of evildoing, and I also enjoyed seeing another veteran of film and television, Willie C. Carpenter, as “Lefty,” the friendly lifer who tries to help Bradley assimilate to prison conditions on his first day there. Finally, as the icing on the cake, there are the aesthetics of Brawl in Cell Block 99. Like the 70s exploitation films that clearly influenced writer-director S. Craig Zahler, Brawl features a soundtrack of soul/Motown songs, including brand-new tracks by some bona fide legends, the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Visually, the film benefits from cinematographer Benji Bakshi‘s eye for framing and contrasting light/shadow.

If you’re willing to give Brawl in Cell Block 99 a try, more power to you. Some may say that it is a film made in bad taste, but then again aren’t most delicious indulgences unhealthy at their core?

Ingrid Goes West. Directed by Matt Spicer. Notes from September 23, 2017: Ingrid Goes West is one of the surprise gems of the year, a satire about social media mania that asks us to consider the limits any of us would go to just to feel loved and important. Matt Spicer’s film skewers the millennial generation’s habit of creating Instagram celebrities who boast of carefully curated lives, but we also see a thought-provoking exploration of the lengths some people will go to in order to stave off loneliness.

When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), she’s busy pepper-spraying a bride at a wedding party. Ingrid’s anger at not being invited to the event is irrational; she only vaguely knew the other woman through Instagram, but in Ingrid’s mind, they were good pals. After Ingrid’s stay in a mental health treatment center, we quickly realize two crucial details about her: she spent a number of years as her mother’s caretaker (I think the film implied that Mrs. Thorburn died not long before Ingrid met her Instagram “friend”) and she easily develops intense attachments to other people. As Ingrid resettles into her empty house and tries to find a new purpose in life, she discovers a magazine article about an up-and-coming Instagram “influencer,” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), and before we know it, Ingrid is grabbing her $60,000 inheritance from her mom’s will, moving out to Venice Beach, California and trying to figure out how to meet her current obsession.

After renting a house that’s owned by a young screenwriter, Dan (an exceptionally charming O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Ingrid dyes her hair the same color as Taylor’s (blonde), changes her wardrobe to dress more like her new hero, reads the novels that Taylor mentions loving on Instagram and visits the same eateries and shops that Taylor frequents. An accidental run-in with Taylor at a bookstore is almost disastrous – it would have been, had Taylor deigned to pay attention to such a klutzy commoner – but Ingrid quickly devises a new plan for actually meeting Taylor. One break-in and dog theft later, Ingrid is formally brought into the Sloane house, genially returning “lost” pup Rothko and ingratiating herself into the world of Taylor and her artist husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell).

Ingrid and Taylor become fast friends, shopping, partying and spending time at a Joshua Tree retreat. Reluctantly, Ingrid also gets closer to Dan, who sees something more like the “real” her than the version of Ingrid that she pretends to be for Taylor and Ezra, but at the same time, a visit from Taylor’s irritating brother, Nicky (a scene-stealing Billy Magnussen), threatens to undermine Ingrid’s new way of life. Throughout the story there is tension as to whether Ingrid’s feelings for Taylor border on psychotic, and whether circumstances might result in a violent outburst; the third act of the film certainly ups the ante and takes our protagonist in several disturbing directions.

The entire cast of Ingrid Goes West does excellent work, but Aubrey Plaza in particular shines in a performance that shows her emotional range, which up to now has not always been reflected in her choice of roles. (She made me cry in the last few minutes of the film, which not every actor can do.) Ingrid is not always likeable, but she is achingly human in every complicated moment. We may not understand or agree with Ingrid’s intentions – she probably doesn’t fully comprehend them either; moreover, the film is ambiguous as to whether she is romantically inclined toward Taylor – but Ingrid’s need for human connection in a world that used to shut her out for being “herself” is a desire that we can all recognize. Ingrid Goes West illustrates how easy it is for people to hide behind façades that they believe are preferable to their natural selves; the absurdity of the situations is sometimes hilarious, but just like real life, sometimes the pain of maintaining that meticulously designed existence is heartbreaking.

Lucky. Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Notes from October 17, 2017: Legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton capped his career with one last transcendent performance in Lucky, an introspective dramedy that honors its ninety-year-old protagonist with a heartfelt showcase. Lucky (Stanton) is a World War II veteran who lives a bare-bones existence in a small Southwest town, a place where the vistas are not unlike those seen in an earlier masterpiece starring Stanton, Paris, Texas (1984). Over the course of a few days in Lucky’s life, we see him interact with friends and foes alike, including rakishly dressed senior citizen Howard (David Lynch – no relation to Lucky’s director), life insurance salesman Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), married barflies Elaine and Paulie (Beth Grant and James Darren), diner owner Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr., in a role reminding me a lot of when he played a physician on “Portlandia”), fellow WWII vet Fred (Tom Skerritt), waitress Loretta (Yvonne Huff) and bodega clerk Bibi (Bertila Damas).

The screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja was obviously tailor-made for Harry Dean Stanton, whose character often mentions his recollections of growing up in Kentucky, clearly autobiographical tidbits from Stanton’s own upbringing; Lucky’s atheism and his other philosophical musings were probably inspired by Stanton’s beliefs as well. The story moves slowly, perhaps too slowly for some viewers, but for anyone who knows and appreciates Stanton and the many wonderful characters that populate the cast, Lucky is a gem. The film’s beautiful performances – including a bravura monologue by David Lynch’s character about his abiding love for his pet tortoise, and a scene set in a diner in which Stanton and Tom Skerritt compares WWII stories, a poignant moment reminiscent of a similar scene in David Lynch’s 1999 film The Straight Story – and the cinematography by Tim Suhrstedt create a compelling portrait of a one-of-a-kind man. Thanks for the memories, Harry Dean – there was no one else like you.

Unforgettable. Directed by Denise Di Novi. Notes from September 19, 2017: Unforgettable has the plot and acting of a histrionic Lifetime TV movie, but it gives Katherine Heigl an unexpectedly satisfying role that stretches her acting muscles far beyond the scope of her usual rom-com performances. Heigl plays Tessa Connover, the psychotic ex-wife of David Connover (Geoff Stults), a businessman who is about to marry our protagonist, Web designer/editor Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson). David has convinced Julia to leave New York and move in with him in his California house, which also means getting to know David and Tessa’s young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). Naturally, David has no idea how angry Tessa is over their divorce or what lengths she will go to ensure that Julia leaves the Connover family alone permanently.

Conventional melodrama fuels the character developments and plot twists in Unforgettable, hurtling the story toward certain inevitable conclusions. David is an exceedingly boring character, straight out of the Lifetime handbook for cardboard-cutout boyfriends. As is the case for heroines in many of that network’s soapy thrillers, Julia is trying to rebuild her life after having been in an abusive relationship, hiding this history from David because she wants to appear “strong” and forget the fact that she was once a victim. It is also no surprise that David and Julia have been fooled by Tessa’s pristine façade; underneath the flawless makeup, tightly tied-back ponytails and crisp white dresses, Tessa is a deeply manipulative person who targets Julia in such a way that David begins to think that Julia is crazy for disliking (then being terrified of) Tessa. Still, the film takes pains to illuminate the source of Tessa’s pathology: her mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd), drilled both the drive for perfection and the fear of failure into her daughter. As cruel as Tessa is, she is pitiable since we understand that she has been victimized too.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for Unforgettable to receive any honors come awards season, but Katherine Heigl should be commended for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I think she may have played a somewhat similar role in the dark comedy Home Sweet Hell (2015) – a film I haven’t seen but am now interested in – but Unforgettable should earn Heigl some new fans and, with any luck, more complex characters to play. I’m also curious to see what Denise Di Novi directs next; Unforgettable is her first feature, but she has been a producer since the early 1980s, helping make such modern classics as Heathers, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Little Women and A Walk to Remember.

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2017: Part 2

Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Notes from August 9, 2017: Two weeks ago, I saw Dunkirk in a 70mm IMAX show at my favorite IMAX venue, the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 theater in Manhattan. As I have probably said numerous times in earlier reviews, that screen provides the definitive IMAX experience for viewers in New York City. I was doubly excited in this instance because I went to Dunkirk with a good friend of mine who did not grow up in New York and who had never been to this particular IMAX theater. (I am happy to report that she was indeed astonished by the immensity of the screen, even more so since we were sitting in the last row, almost exactly in the center.) I mention all of these details because they helped inform how I processed the overwhelming magnitude of Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

From the moment the film started, I was firmly ensconced in the narrative. I felt as though I were actually in the movie. Every heart-pounding tremor boomed out of the sound system and was transferred directly into my seat. It was easy to be captivated by the simple story of young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) since his struggle is universal: to survive. The close-ups of Tommy were breathtaking in IMAX, although perhaps I was specially attuned to them because I often study and write about the impact of faces and bodies in cinema. It is for this same reason that I was also blown away by the performance given by Aneurin Barnard as another of the main soldier characters, Gibson. Barnard has marvelously expressive eyes, a real gift for him to have as an actor since Gibson moves through his scenes in silence.

Indeed, much of Dunkirk’s intensity relies on visuals and on the actors’ abilities to express themselves without dialogue, just like in silent cinema. The subtlest changes in a person’s face can shape a language of their own. You may hear from other viewers and critics that Dunkirk’s characters lack development and the story lacks the types of expected dramatic arcs that accompany traditionally fleshed-out characters, but I do not believe that filmmakers “owe” those details to an audience, nor do I need to know those aspects of a character’s life, either past or present, in order to care. I identified with Tommy as he fought his way through obstacle after obstacle; he felt fear and panic, and I know those emotions intimately. I have been fortunate never to have experienced warfare firsthand, but the fact that Christopher Nolan’s film allowed me to connect so strongly with its soldiers, sailors and heroic citizens is an extraordinary achievement.

Besides Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Harry Styles in a reasonably successful film debut), who are the soldiers we follow on the beach, the film also observes two high-up military officials, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), as well as the valiant work done in the air by pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) and by sea via the civilian vessel captained by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and one of Peter’s schoolmates, George (Barry Keoghan, who will be seen as the young lead of Yorgos Lanthimos’ next film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in November). Another key member of the cast is Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), the unnamed British serviceman who is found in the Channel by the Dawson boat and whose experiences at Dunkirk have left him shell-shocked. All of these performers do incredible work, but Murphy is especially affecting.

Don’t be fooled by reviewers who say that Dunkirk has no one protagonist, though. In spite of the tripartite storytelling created by Nolan (as we have seen throughout his career, he is obsessed with narratives about the manipulation of time), there is no doubt that Tommy is at the center of the action. He is the first character we pay attention to in the film, and the last person we see onscreen. Other characters carry their sections of the narrative, but Tommy is the beating heart of our viewing experience. Christopher Nolan has compared Fionn Whitehead to a young Tom Courtenay, and I absolutely agree.

It should go without saying – although I will say so anyway – that the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (he has shot several big-deal movies in the last decade: Let the Right One In, The Fighter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Interstellar, Spectre) and the editing by Lee Smith (he has cut every Christopher Nolan film dating back to Batman Begins) are top of the line. Think pieces from the past few weeks have criticized various aspects of Dunkirk, including the lack of diversity and the fact that the characters refer to “the enemy” rather than Nazis or Germans, but one of the most crucial components of artistic license is the ability to tell a story from the perspective of one’s choosing. First, Nolan’s choice of language does not negate the evilness of the Nazis, and second, I do not believe that Nolan intended to depict the entirety of the Dunkirk experience. We do not see the faces of every single person on the beach. Instead we concentrate on four soldiers, two pilots and three civilians. Their stories are their own, not anyone else’s (even though Tommy was evidently written as an Everyman figure). No film should be held to the same standards expected from a comprehensive, thousand-page textbook.

Tonally, Nolan’s film is closer to the mood of World War I stories like Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory or the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, rather than what we usually expect from modern films made about World War II. The brilliance of Dunkirk isn’t just in how it portrays the effects of psychological trauma on soldiers who are barely old enough to shave, let alone fight and die in battle; it is also in the knowledge that Tommy and his comrades must reckon with two opposing truths, the importance of the Allied cause versus the utterly cruel and harrowing realities of combat. World War II movies don’t have to show limbs flying everywhere, like in Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge; we know that that happens in war. But Dunkirk still communicates the lows and eventual highs of this historic evacuation by showing pain, doubt, loss, but throughout it all the strength of the human spirit. I applaud the bravery of examining the grotesque nature of war seen through the eyes of young men while simultaneously acknowledging how necessary it was for World War II to be fought and won by the Allies; one does not cancel out the other. Therein lies the significance of the film’s final shot and the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s latest masterpiece as a whole.

Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Notes from September 10, 2017: Following Godzilla, the second creature feature in Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse is Kong: Skull Island, a suitably larger-than-life take on everyone’s favorite giant ape. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts turns the clock back to 1973, when the US was split between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who opposed it, each side vehemently defending its stance. Bill Randa (John Goodman) leads a group of scientists (including Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz and Tian Jing) and an antiwar photographer (Brie Larson) on a top-secret mission to Skull Island, aided by a jungle tracker (Tom Hiddleston), a lieutenant colonel (Samuel L. Jackson) who is angry that Americans are leaving Vietnam, and a number of soldiers (including Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Jason Mitchell) who are on their way home from Saigon when they are asked to do this one last task for the government.

No one but Bill Randa realizes the dangers that inhabit Skull Island – and even he doesn’t know exactly what to expect – so the team of explorers is in for the world’s rudest awakening when the helicopters attempt to make landfall. Mighty Kong is on the rampage and many soldiers lose their lives, but it turns out that Kong is actually the territory’s protector; the real threats are the “skullcrawlers,” beasts that could definitely give you nightmares. Kong is the last line of defense against those other ancient predators, and no matter how much the humans try to help, it is up to the king to save the day.

Kong: Skull Island is a decent popcorn experience, a mainstream diversion that consistently entertains you for two hours, but I have one major bone to pick with Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Comparisons with Apocalypse Now are apt; certainly many other critics have noted the aesthetic homages that Kong pays to Coppola’s classic; but Kong tries way too hard to drive home the idea that it is somehow better than the standard mainstream adventure flick. Vogt-Roberts one pretentious film school lesson after another into the proceedings, whether it’s the rapid-fire editing by Richard Pearson, the cinematography by Larry Fong (especially in the scene where we first meet Tom Hiddleston’s character in a neon-lit bar, but elsewhere in all the super-saturated greenish-gold tones on the island) or the wall-to-wall soundtrack of choice 60s/70s rock songs. Any one of these elements would be impressive, but the onslaught of everything altogether seems to say “Isn’t this movie so much better than its predecessors?” A young filmmaker should focus more on getting good performances out of his actors – only Samuel L. Jackson and a particularly well-cast John C. Reilly as a World War II vet who has been stranded on Skull Island since the 1940s – than on whether he has crammed in all the techniques you might see on a professor’s checklist.

Once Upon a Time in Venice. Directed by Mark Cullen. Notes from July 29, 2017: I should probably be more cautious about which films I decide to which simply because a favorite actor is in the cast. Case in point: Thomas Middleditch, the absurdly talented star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Cinematically I am sometimes rewarded, as with the irreverent joy of his performance in The Bronze, while other times I witness the career-low stupidity of the Hangover rip-off known as Search Party; Once Upon a Time in Venice is much closer to the latter than the former.

Middleditch plays John, the younger partner in Steve Ford’s (Bruce Willis) vaguely shady detective agency. Los Angeles gumshoe-ing aside, this ain’t exactly The Long Goodbye. The comedy here plays to the lowest common denominator, substituting dick jokes, pornographic graffiti and needless sex scenes for nuance, wit or even a hint of film noir-style cool in the many action sequences. The humor is supposed to arise from us all laughing warmly at Willis being too old and grizzled for his role, but that gag has run its course.

The plot is primarily concerned with Willis and Middleditch retrieving Willis’s stolen dog from various drug dealers, a narrative which last year’s Keanu employed first (albeit with a kitten) to more amusing effect. Jason Momoa earns a few chuckles as a cocaine kingpin called Spyder, and Adrian Martinez scores in his small role as one of Willis’s beleaguered compadres, but I have no idea why Famke Janssen took the thankless and boring job of playing Willis’s sister, nor do I understand what John Goodman is doing in this movie as Willis’s best friend, Dave. The part requires nothing of Goodman except to play a more stoned version of his sidekick character from the Big Lebowski. I am similarly puzzled as to why Kal Penn, Elisabeth Röhm, Billy Gardell, Christopher McDonald, Ron Funches and David Arquette contributed cameos, but I guess there’s not much point in my asking further questions of this disappointing movie.

P.S. One of the few funny lines: Thomas Middleditch’s character describes himself as “I’ve been told I’m a bit of a young Roger Daltrey, if he spent a lot of time with computers.”

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Directed by Jon Watts. Notes from July 30, 2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a good selection for a diverting night at the movies; it delivers high-octane action without ever quite reaching the emotional heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy or even the schmaltz of the Andrew Garfield-starring reboots. It’s not Tom Holland’s fault that I’ll only ever be able to see Tobey Maguire as Marvel’s beloved webslinger, so I commend Holland for giving us a spirited and thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of Peter Parker.

Jon Watts’ version of the classic superhero story focuses on young Peter facing off against disgruntled former engineer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), better known as Vulture. Keaton growls and sneers, but he does not add much more than that to the film, although he and Holland engage in a tense, violence-free conversation in perhaps the film’s finest scene. Holland explores Peter’s struggle to handle the complexities of first love and his duty to protect innocent lives with fresh-faced charm; it is easy to empathize with him, although I find it interesting that the film never once mentions Peter’s childhood, his parents or an Uncle Ben. (Am I forgetting crucial information mentioned during Tom Holland’s debut as Peter in Captain America: Civil War?)

In the footsteps of Rosemary Harris and Sally Field, Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May with a more youthful energy and sense of humor. Contrary to the amount of promotion that Zendaya did for Homecoming, her character (“Michelle”) is not Peter’s love interest; that role goes to Laura Harrier, the tall and graceful performer who plays Liz, another of Peter’s classmates. Harrier doesn’t get too many chances at character development here, but I appreciated her efforts.

Where Homecoming falls short is in its sense of purpose. It is the third “first” Spider-Man film in the last fifteen years, and it does not improve upon previously employed formulas for cinematic success. In spite of Vulture’s penchant for high-tech gadgets capable of vaporizing opponents, I never actually got a sense that the villain (about whose backstory I know remarkably little – the comics probably would have informed me, but the film certainly didn’t) or his weaponry posed a grave threat to New York or to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, Homecoming triumphs in the casting of its smaller roles: televised appearances by Chris Evans as Captain America, constantly reminding school kids of the importance of education, safety and other virtues; Jacob Batalon as Peter’s endlessly encouraging best friend, Ned; Tony Revolori (last seen by me as Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Flash, a minor nemesis from Peter’s high school; Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, who will presumably become the Prowler in the sequel; Tyne Daly in a brief appearance as a domineering authority figure at the beginning of the film; a fun cameo from Hannibal Buress as a disinterested gym teacher; and Martin Starr as the teacher in charge of Peter’s debate team – for my money, Starr delivers the funniest line in the movie (you’ll know it when you see/hear it). Maybe whatever good vibes Spider-Man: Homecoming operates on are courtesy of the “Freaks and Geeks” reunion of Starr and one of Homecoming’s screenwriters, John Francis Daley. I won’t mind more of these Tom Holland-led Spider-Man adventures as long as talents like Daley are working behind the scenes.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. Notes from July 21, 2017: Now the record holder for the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman at $750 million and counting, Wonder Woman proves that the story of DC Comics’ most enduring superheroes can be told with genuine emotion and plenty of awesome action, not compromising one for the other.

Gal Gadot brings tremendous strength and likeability to her portrayal of Diana (later known as Diana Prince), Princess of Themyscira. Diana grows up on that isle, surrounded by powerful women like her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and General Antiope (Robin Wright). Diana is so inspired by them that she decides she must train to become a warrior too. When circumstances bring American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to Themyscira when he is trying to outrun the Germans – outside of the island’s sheltered atmosphere, the real world is embroiled in World War I – he joins forces with Diana, who is convinced that the God of War, Ares, is the cause of the international destruction. What ensues is a series of battles that test Diana’s courage, physical power and her understanding of love.

Gadot is well-matched by Pine, who has become my favorite of the various Chrises (Evans, Pratt, Hemsworth) thanks to his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots and as the co-lead of one of last year’s finest films, Hell or High Water. Pine brings charm and intelligence to the role of Steve Trevor, as well as having real sparks with Gadot. Both actors bring a ton to the table, in addition to the character arcs created by story writers/screenwriters Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs. Other commendable performances are given by Danny Huston as Ludendorff, head of the Nazi faction that Diana and Steve are hunting; David Thewlis deftly plays Sir Patrick, the Parliament legislator who supports Diana’s quest to stop Ludendorff; Lucy Davis as Etta, Steve’s bubbly secretary; Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner and Eugene Brave Rock as the other members of Diana and Steve’s undercover cadre; and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru, the unstable scientist responsible for the German military’s most dangerous chemical weapons.

Wonder Woman is not entirely as successful a project as I hoped it would be, given that most of the plot’s twists and turns are easy to figure out ahead of time. There is no denying, however, that the film is a completely entertaining and emotionally engaging package. It is rare for Hollywood to produce such an inspirational and empowering blockbuster.

P.S. I’m tempted to say that Wonder Woman reminds me of Pop Culture Detective’s “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope, since Steve Trevor is the first man in Diana’s life and she almost instantly develops feelings for him (and, we presume, he doesn’t have to worry too much about disappointing her in their love scene since she has no prior experience), but Diana also upends the trope; instead of blindly following Steve and believing anything he tells her, for example, she often questions him and rebels against his line of thinking. Their relationship is ultimately built on respect. Besides, as all viewers of Wonder Woman will recall, our heroine is well-versed in literature on sex and sexuality. Diana knows she doesn’t need a man in order to find physical/emotional fulfillment; she wants Steve and that makes all the difference.

P.P.S. More real talk: Diana wants to believe that a god run amok is responsible for the madness of World War I, but the reality is so much scarier: mortal human beings were capable of creating that cesspool themselves, a war that could have been avoided since it never should have escalated as it did.

2017: Part 1

Band Aid. Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Notes from July 5, 2017: After a decade of producing films and co-writing screenplays, in addition to her blossoming career as an actress (currently starring on the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces”), Zoe Lister-Jones makes her directorial debut in Band Aid, which she also wrote and stars in. Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play Anna and Ben, a suburban husband and wife who are on the verge of divorce. In an attempt to save their marriage, they decide to channel their anger into songs by forming a band in their garage and letting the arguments inspire some musical creativity. An excessively kooky neighbor, Dave (Fred Armisen), joins Anna and Ben on drums, and before long the couple begins to see a future for themselves both personally and professionally.

All of the different roads to success are rocky, and some of Anna and Ben’s problems are mediated by Dave, some of Anna’s friends, a marriage counselor (Retta) and Ben’s mother (Susie Essman). These scenes of marital discord show Zoe Lister-Jones’s strengths as an actress and director, although the writing is occasionally mediocre; a scene near in the end of the film in which Anna’s post-traumatic stress over a miscarriage is explained in heavy-handed generalizations about femininity and motherhood that seem to have been culled from Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. The comic and tragic sides of the narrative are unequal in their respective developments and Fred Armisen (as delightfully weird as you would hope) seems to be acting in an entirely different universe from his co-stars, which is more often distracting than quirky. Even so, most of Band Aid’s music hits the right notes, particularly the wonderful “Love and Lies” and the energetically cathartic “Mood.” I also appreciate that Zoe Lister-Jones worked with an all-female crew, resulting in some first-rate cinematography by Hillary Spera (High Road, Black Rock, Wildlike). Band Aid isn’t likely to sweep any stages come awards season, but it’s a more than pleasant enough way to spend an hour and a half.

Baywatch. Directed by Seth Gordon. Notes from June 30, 2017: You can guess it just from knowing that the movie exists: the 2017 big-screen reboot of Baywatch was created solely for the purpose of objectification. There are no stunning new revelations made about the sexual/emotional natures of men and women, the value of teamwork or the importance of integrity; there is just the awareness of the camera constantly finding excuses to gawk at well-flaunted body parts. I could pick apart the finer points of the plot concerning the crime-fighting Florida lifeguards played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (one of the most likeable dudes in the movies, it goes without saying), Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Jon Bass and others – I’m sure that critics with more patience than I have noted the wasted opportunities of casting Rob Huebel and Oscar Nuñez in boring roles that could have been played by not-comedic actors – but what I really want to discuss is the level of audience participation in the theater where I saw Baywatch, and how it intersected with desires for objectification.

Three vital issues could be gleaned from the screening where I saw Baywatch, all information provided by the tweens/teens sitting in the row directly behind me:

  1. Internalization of Hollywood’s standard attractive/unattractive binary: Zac Efron’s reverse uncanny valley abs give him a “desirable” body (the loudest of the girls screamed “Zac Efron! Bae! He’s mine, guys!” during the opening credits), whereas Jon Bass’s physique automatically goes beyond the “undesirable” range into “ewwww, disgusting” territory (the noises that the girls made at the sight of his chest were pitched somewhere between groaning and terrified shrieking)
  2. Weird noises made when Pamela Anderson made her cameo at the end of the film (during which she does not have a single word of dialogue, by the way) lead me to believe that young people don’t know who Pam Anderson is and/or they have deeply judgmental feelings about her looks (what a shock, people complaining about a fifty-year-old woman’s appearance)
  3. The worst and most confusing of all: toward the end of the film – I can’t remember which exact scene, but it was something making plain that Priyanka Chopra’s villainous plans were about to fail – one of the girls behind me made the comment, “Yeah, take that, you slut!” (The other girls giggled in response, maybe out of embarrassment but possibly in agreement.) What is it about Chopra’s character that connotes slut? Did the main tween read the character’s confident, unabashed sexiness/sexuality as the defining quality of her badness? Did race/ethnicity play any part in the tween’s conclusion about the character? What does this remark tell us about how young girls perceive girls and women in media today?

The avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren once said that the advantage of an “amateur production” over a Hollywood movie was that a smaller project is not “expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes.” Baywatch is precisely the type of big-budget time-waster that Deren opposed, designed to be a silly and fun exercise in surefire entertainment. Should I wish that I could have turned my brain off and enjoyed the stupidity more, or should I be glad that I have the voice of Maya Deren whispering in my ear, reminding me that there is always more than one way to tell a seaside story?

P.S. In fairness to Baywatch, there was no way it could ever have lived up to the precedent set by the greatest beach-action flick of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s pulse-poundingly awesome masterpiece Point Break (1991).

Fifty Shades Darker. Directed by James Foley. Notes from July 4, 2017: Who would I be kidding if I said that I was ever going to read E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy? I have too many other things to do, like watch more movies, listen to music and read novels that are actually worthy of my time. But I bothered to watch Fifty Shades of Grey just so I could get my toe in the pop-culture door concerning this particular worldwide phenomenon, and as bad as it was it wasn’t actually the worst film of 2015, so I figured that I might as well give the second installment of the franchise a chance too.

Blandly hunky gazillionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and perpetually nervous book-editing intern Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) return in this sequel, which is frustratingly devoid some of the stylistic touches of Grey’s director (Sam Taylor-Johnson). The film also suffers from a comparatively more boring soundtrack: the first film had a pair of genuinely catchy pop tracks, Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and the Weeknd’s “Earned It,” whereas Darker’s main theme, “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” is a thoroughly passionless duet between Zayn Malik and Taylor Swift. Darker observes the complications of Anastasia and Christian pursuing a “normal” relationship rather than their previous S&M-based affair. Before long, two of Christian’s former partners resurface, including a mentally unstable submissive (Bella Heathcote) and the much older woman who initiated Christian into sadomasochistic sex, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger). Anastasia meets both of these women; violent encounters ensue.

Assuming that you can survive the onslaught of melodrama and the various sex scenes that are never a fraction as arousing as the series’ reputation indicates, Fifty Shades Darker is actually a fairly painless viewing experience. I like Dakota Johnson more with each film of hers that I see, so that’s a net positive; Jamie Dornan continues to bring little more than abs to his role, but he showed a fair amount of promise as an actor in last year’s overlooked WWII thriller Anthropoid, so I place the blame on E.L. James, screenwriter Niall Leonard and  director James Foley (who did strong work at the helm of the film At Close Range and also S2 E17 of “Twin Peaks,” which fans will remember as the pine weasel/fashion show episode) for Dornan’s blankness in the Fifty Shades films.

P.S. What Fifty Shades Darker lacks in eroticism, at least it makes up for in a line-for-line homage to Working Girl.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele. Notes from April 21, 2017: Believe the hype: the directorial debut by Jordan Peele (”MADtv,” “Key & Peele,” Keanu) is both a mordant satire of horror cinema and a truly disturbing window into the grotesque realities of racism in America. Get Out is a film that you definitely need to see in a movie theater, preferably a crowded one, since it’s a story that really benefits from a receptive and responsive audience. Reactions will undoubtedly differ depending where you live – I saw it at a three-quarters-full screening in a Regal multiplex in Manhattan – but I bet that no matter where you are, your fellow moviegoers’ collective feedback is as much a part of the experience as the film itself.

British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whom I last saw in the film Sicario a year and a half ago, plays our protagonist, a twentysomething African-American man named Chris Washington who works as a photographer and who agrees to go with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), to visit her parents in the countryside for the weekend. Rose is white, and she has not told her mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), or her father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), that Chris is black. Rose insists, however, that race is not an issue with her family; early in the film she declares that her dad “would vote for Obama for a third term if he could.” As soon as Chris and Rose arrive in her hometown, though, it is obvious that something is amiss. We know from the film’s opening scene that all is not well in suburbia, when we see a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) attacked and abducted on a quiet street, but it takes time for us to see the full effect of that act and its many ramifications.

All of the aforementioned actors in the film give fine performances, but I must also highlight Caleb Landry Jones, who does a pretty good Heath Ledger impression as Rose’s mumbling, scraggly-haired, clearly unhinged younger brother, Jeremy; Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, Rod; Stephen Root as one of the Armitages’ many friends, Jim Hudson; and my personal favorite supporting actor, Betty Gabriel (a newcomer to me, and this film made me an instant fan!), as Georgina, the Armitages’ housekeeper and a woman who holds more than a few secrets. My favorite shot in Get Out is an extreme close-up on Gabriel’s face, an image that every person who has seen the film will instantly recall.

Besides the incredibly powerful messages that Get Out bears about racial hatred and stereotypes taken to gory horror-movie extremes (although they’re not too far removed from actions we have seen or can imagine in real life), the film also revels in similarities and homages to numerous iconic motion pictures both in and out of the horror genre; at times I recognized kindred spirits in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Last House on the Left, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and, reaching beyond the cinematic realm to the literary world, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” (Incidentally, if you are familiar with Stephen Root’s career, you will be reminded of one of his earlier film roles when his character appears in Get Out. I won’t say anything further to spoil the entertainment factor.) (Additionally: there is an instance when a character listens on an iPod to the theme song from a certain film classic of the 1980s; nobody in my theater laughed out loud, but trust me when I tell you it’s a perfect moment that crystallizes exactly what Jordan Peele wanted to get across in that particular scene.) It is obvious that Jordan Peele has not only the creativity but also the technical skill to be considered one of Hollywood’s most exciting and thought-provoking new directors, capable of developing cinema that is both enjoyable for the masses and rich in meaning – an ability that not every young filmmaker can claim.

Snatched. Directed by Jonathan Levine. Notes from June 20, 2017: The only way for me to see Snatched was on the big screen with a friend four weekends ago, since I’m not certain that I would make the effort to watch it on TV myself. I won’t deny that I have some fun watching Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer play a mother and daughter who reconnect after years of storminess when they go on a trip to Ecuador that soon leads to them being kidnapped and subsequently running all over Colombia. Snatched mines more genuinely amusing comedy than I expected from the ridiculous situations that Schumer and Hawn find themselves in, and I appreciated the supporting performances by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack as two resourceful women vacationing at the same resort as our two heroines, Ike Barinholtz as Schumer’s uncomfortably weird older brother, Christopher Meloni as the hypermasculine adventurer who tries (and fails) to help the ladies on their treacherous journey and Al Madrigal as a well-meaning but incompetent worker at the U.S. embassy in Bogota.

As disappointing as it is that Snatched sticks with expected stereotypes for the South American drug lord villain and his henchmen, there are some funny moments mined from the predictability. The opening scene is great (I won’t spoil the punch line), and there’s a ridiculously entertaining encounter with a tapeworm later on in the film. Also, as a woman, I appreciate Amy Schumer’s physical presence onscreen; I don’t recall her size ever being the focus of any jokes, and it’s refreshing to see her walk around a few times in a bikini without having to display any embarrassment or shame. Snatched is full of clichés about learning to love and accept yourself and your family, and very little of the humor felt fresh, but overall I found the film more enjoyable than nearly every critic led me to believe.

2014: Part 9

Diplomacy. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Notes from December 3, 2016: Diplomacy is the first film I have seen by world-renowned German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff, and I am deeply impressed. Compressing the tense, suspenseful events of a single night in August 1944 (in Nazi-occupied Paris) into the span of 84 minutes, Schlöndorff explores the cat-and-mouse-game played by Swedish-French diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) as he tries to convince General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup) to abort the Nazi plan to destroy Paris by dynamiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, other landmarks and the banks of the Seine, which would not only signal the annihilation of Paris’s extraordinary culture/history but also cause catastrophic flooding, the collapse of the city’s entire infrastructure and the deaths of over a million people.

Dussollier and Arestrup display masterful acting in what is essentially a two-person show with most of the film’s scenes confined to the general’s hotel room/office headquarters. The two men engage in a deadly dance as they argue for and against saving one of the world’s greatest metropolises, as well as its entire civilian population; we witness a complex and emotional debate as to which side “must” prevail. Perhaps the single-room setting that we are trapped in for the majority of the film betrays Diplomacy’s theatrical origins (Schlöndorff and Cyril Gely wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of Gely’s 2011 play of the same name), but Schlöndorff and his talented cast and crew created a compelling drama that should prove riveting even if you are not familiar with this particular World War II incident. You already know the outcome of the film, but Schlöndorff’s production is as tense and anxiety-ridden as if the ending were a surprise.

Lucy. Directed by Luc Besson. Notes from May 20, 2016: (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Between 2013 and 2014, Scarlett Johansson made three films that have been described as the posthuman trilogy: in Under the Skin she plays an alien trying to become human, in Her she plays a computer trying to become human and in Lucy she plays a human who eventually becomes a computer. Johansson is our most beautiful blank slate: she’s great at being able to wipe her face of emotion – or, if not totally, then close to it – and she allows us, the viewers, to project meaning onto that blankness. (The same goes for Johansson’s voice-only work in Her, but in terms of what she could stimulate in Joaquin Phoenix’s character, as well as in us, through speech.) These performances were described in 2014 by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis as “expressive of elusive, tantalizing, otherworldly stardom itself.” That being said, I loved Under the Skin and for the most part couldn’t stand Her.

Lucy, the story of a young American woman in Taipei who is coerced into becoming a drug mule, falls somewhere in the middle. Given that the illegal substance pushes our protagonist’s brain and body toward 100% of their capabilities, transforming her from a normal woman into a telepathic super-assassin, the film is abundantly entertaining and moves by at a rather fast clip. It is also a film that gets by on a paltry bit of logic, forcing the audience to swallow every plot turn with the world’s largest grains of salt. Every narrative decision can be shrugged off because the story is a sci-fi fantasy dreamed up by Luc Besson. That doesn’t make everything OK, but Besson demands total attention from the word go, so there is no room for us to hesitate. You just have to stick with Johansson and see what she will do as she hunts all over Taiwan for a cure.

The film’s flaws stick out painfully – Besson’s characterizations of the white American heroine versus stereotyped Asian male villains, for one – and it’s disappointing to see Morgan Freeman in yet another of his trademark kindly/all-knowing father-figure roles, but Lucy is worth seeing for its concept, if not the incomplete end result. (It should be noted that Amr Waked’s performance as Johansson’s police-captain accomplice is also quite good and film editor Julien Rey does a great job of holding the film together.) And Damon Albarn’s song “Sister Rust,” which plays over the end credits, is certain to unnerve you, which is exactly as it should be at the conclusion of such a creepy tale.

October Gale. Directed by Ruba Nadda. Notes from October 7, 2016: My recent dive into director Ruba Nadda’s filmography has come to an end now that I have seen her fourth, most recent film, October Gale. It is a step up from her third film, the tepid thriller Inescapable, but for some reason Nadda insists on sticking to this particular genre that she has not yet come close to mastering. I’m not sure why Ruba Nadda has not tried making more films like Sabah (2005) and Cairo Time (2009), both of which are lovely romances; perhaps that’s why October Gale tries to merge both thriller and romance elements in an attempt to do a hybrid form which unfortunately doesn’t work.

If the film had simply been a Nicholas Sparks-style drama about an older woman (Patricia Clarkson) getting over the death of her husband (Callum Keith Rennie in tedious flashbacks) by finding love with a younger man (Scott Speedman), Nadda might have found some interesting territory to explore. Instead, Speedman appears on Clarkson’s doorstep (it’s a cottage on an isolated island, naturally) as a bullet-ridden victim of a nasty foe (played by Tim Roth, who puts in a small but entertaining appearance as a total psycho), so the film goes from a slowly-paced one-woman show to an erratic suspenser, a zero-to-sixty shift that doesn’t feel remotely plausible. It’s to Clarkson’s and Speedman’s joint credit that they have a decent amount of chemistry, but that’s definitely no thanks to Ruba Nadda’s script. If she is so intent on directing thrillers, she ought to work with a screenwriter other than herself; if not, Nadda should stick to crafting films based on character development and interpersonal connection rather than on shoot-’em-up action.

Pride. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Notes from January 4, 2017: Pride is the kind of movie that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and more than a little teary, telling the story of the L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) coalition that raised money and fought alongside striking coal miners in Wales in the 1980s. Ben Schnetzer does an excellent job as Mark Ashton, the real-life figure who headed the movement to help the Welsh communities; so realistic is his accent that if you didn’t already know that Schnetzer is a native New Yorker, you would absolutely believe that the actor, like his character, hails from Northern Ireland.

George Mackay, another impressive young actor, also does fine work as Joe, a quiet young man who starts the film being afraid and almost ashamed to be gay and by the story concludes, he has found his voice and proudly embraces his sexuality. Andrew Scott, Dominic West, Joseph Gilgun and Faye Marsay play some of the other major figures in L.G.S.M., while character actors Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine (one of the UK’s most underrated actors), Jessica Gunning, Menna Trussler, Lisa Palfrey and Rhodri Meilir do wonderfully as the most prominent members of the small Welsh town that struggles to accept the LGBTQ group’s assistance. Pride hits all the obvious notes about underdogs triumphing against an unjust system, and you may roll your eyes at the cheesiness of a few scenes, but the numerous strong performances and the film’s copious amounts of warmth and humor make the end result immensely likeable by the time the story concludes.

X-Men: Days of Future Past. Directed by Bryan Singer. Notes from May 14, 2016: I’ve been thinking about wanting to see X-Men: Apocalypse when it comes out two weeks from now, and by coincidence I noticed that Days of Future Past was going to be on TV late last night/early this morning, so I tuned in. Full disclosure: I don’t remember its predecessor, X-Men: First Class (2011), particularly well, nor have I seen the original X-Men trilogy released between 2000 and 2006. I don’t really have much to say about Days of Future Past other than that it was passable entertainment. I gave up trying to understand what was going on after about ten minutes; the plot probably shouldn’t even matter since, like all Marvel superhero movies, you know that the story will end with the heroes saving the day. The end. (Note: X-Men: Apocalypse, the sequel which came out last year, is an improvement.)

2016: Part 5

Deadpool. Directed by Tim Miller. Notes from December 30, 2016: Reviewing the long-awaited starring vehicle for one of Marvel Comics’ most loved creations, Deadpool, presents a conundrum: if you like the film too much, then you might sound like a delusional fan who has chosen to overlook or not even notice flaws, and if you fail to show respect and admiration for the film, then you are a critic who is considered “old” (in spirit if not in age), out of touch and worse. Which of my opinions will be accepted and which will be torpedoed?

I will say this: it is obvious that Ryan Reynolds is the only actor who could possibly play Wade Wilson/Deadpool. He’s a mercenary who is quick-witted and foulmouthed in equal measure, an unstoppable (literally, he’s immortal) antihero who fires one-liners off as rapidly as he does his bullets. As the opening credits state jokingly, the film contains the clichéd characters we have come to expect in a big-budget action movie, including a “hot chick” love interest (Morena Baccarin), a “comic relief” sidekick (T.J. Miller, whom I always adore), “a British villain” (Ed Skrein) and a “moody teen,” a member of the X-Men team known as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). That these amusing labels are displayed while Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” plays sweetly on the soundtrack is one of the finest moments in the film, a great juxtaposition of sarcastic humor and an unironic love of corny pop music (later in the film, Wade Wilson reveals that he is a huge fan of Wham! and George Michael; his admission of profound fandom is now bittersweet after Michael’s recent passing). I wish that the rest of the film had lived up to the promise of that initial sequence.

At the risk of sounding like a 24-year-old fuddy-duddy, I don’t think that Deadpool’s R-rated language makes the comedy wildly funny for anyone except adolescents. I am not a person who considers curses puerile or offensive in cinematic storytelling, so I don’t carry some ancient bias with me in that regard, but if the bulk of Deadpool’s comedic impact is predicated on the idea that naughty words should make you giggle, then there is an unquestionable deficiency going on behind the scenes. I know, I know, I’m supposed to read the comics and I should understand how faithfully the film recreates Wade Wilson’s somewhat twisted sense of humor, but I can’t help feeling slighted. Where’s the value in hinting at the outset that stereotypes might be subverted, if said stereotypes remain unchanged in the film? Morena Baccarin’s character, Vanessa, serves no purpose in the plot other than to be the girlfriend whose life begins and ends with Wade, while Ed Skrein, as archvillain Ajax, whose sole existence relies on perpetrating acts of supreme evil so rote that they must have come out of a handbook. Sure, that’s fun to watch, but in the end, if you care more about the cool tunes on the soundtrack than about the characters, then what was the point?

P.S. The casting department deserves extra credit for getting Leslie Uggams to play Wade’s roommate, a blind and cranky senior citizen known as “Blind Al.”

Hail, Caesar!. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Notes from December 28, 2016: Like another film from 2016 that I recently saw, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! has an appealing visual style but the story rings hollow. Hail overflows with so many performers – some are famous, others are veteran character actors and a few are up-and-comers – that the narrative suffers. (Wes Anderson’s smash hit from two years ago, The Grand Budapest Hotel, stumbled because of the same problem.) In theory, a comedic period piece set in 1950s Hollywood that concerns an exhausted studio chief (Josh Brolin), a kidnapped movie star (George Clooney), a group of Communist screenwriters and studio players (Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson) with secrets that they don’t want the public to know would add up to brilliance. Instead you are left intensely disappointed that the story does not offer any surprises; the Coens do not provide the viewer with new commentary on the politics of that era, nor is there any emotional depth with which to connect to most of the characters. At times the film is reminiscent of another dramedy about the dark side of the American Dream, Pennies from Heaven (1981), especially in the scene where two of Hail’s main characters sing a few lines from “The Glory of Love,” a song which was featured in an elaborate musical number near the end of Pennies.

The only truly worthy performances in the Coens’ film belong to Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a young actor who has carved a niche for himself as a singing cowboy but who is abruptly thrust into the world of drawing room dramas, and Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurentz, the polite but frustrated director whose job it is to turn Hobie into a respectable leading man in a more critically-acclaimed branch of cinema. Ehrenreich and Fiennes share a scene depicting a hysterically funny elocution lesson. If only another wonderful cast member, Wayne Knight, had as much screen time to devote to the role of “Lurking Extra,” one of the two men who kidnap Clooney at the beginning of the film; evidently the Coens’ Hollywood, a Dream Factory at the height of its power, cannot fulfill every wish.

Lion. Directed by Garth Davis. Notes from December 30, 2016: For years I have asked myself why I cry so much during movies, even when I am viewing something that I do not consider a masterpiece. It was not until recently that I realized the answer: empathy. I empathize with characters’ situations to the point that if they experience an event that is sad or even traumatic, I feel those emotions so intensely that I weep, even if at the same time I recognize that the filmmaking is flawed. This is the case with Lion, a melodrama about family and racial identity which is designed to wrench as many tears as humanly possible from its audience. (I doubt that the Weinstein Company would have produced the film if it didn’t have the label “Oscar bait” written on it as boldly as if inked in Sharpie.) A five-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) when, while Guddu briefly leaves Saroo at a train station while he goes off to find work, Saroo boards an out-of-service train that departs the depot and transports the frightened boy to Calcutta, fifteen hundred miles from his Khandwa home. The rest of the first half of the film follows Saroo’s struggles to find an adult who can help him find his mother (Priyanka Bose), including a deceptively kind prostitute (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a sex trafficker (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a sympathetic social worker (Deepti Naval) at a center for lost/abandoned children. The second, and more deeply histrionic, half of the film concerns Saroo’s adoption by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who want to give the boy a better life on Tasmania.

Abruptly fast-forwarding twenty years later, Saroo has grown up (now played by Dev Patel) and attends a college for hotel management, where he meets and falls in love with an American student, Lucy (Rooney Mara in the thankless role of “stock girlfriend,” zigzagging between acting as either a generically compassionate figure of support or a shrew who nags Saroo for being emotionally/physically distant). Saroo constantly questions his place in the world as an Australian man with a long-suppressed Indian heritage; he is haunted by dreams of his mother and Guddu, and the incredible pain of having been kept apart for decades. And so Saroo battles with himself over whether he should try to find his birth mother, fearing the effect that it will have on the Brierleys. (Saroo’s adoptive parents already have their hands full with another Indian son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has a long history of psychological/emotional problems and issues with substance abuse.) It takes an absurdly long time for Saroo to decide what to do, which might be true to life, but his inertia doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.

Saroo’s and Mrs. Brierley’s challenges as conflicted individuals give actors Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, as well as young Sunny Pawar (who continues to appear throughout the film in flashbacks) some excellent showcases, sure to earn them Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominations at the upcoming Oscar ceremony. And certainly the film is always gorgeous to look at, photographed in appropriately pretty but somber golden-brown tones by Greig Fraser (Bright Star, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher). But despite the fact that Garth Davis’s film is based on a true story – screenwriter Luke Davies has adapted his script from the real Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home – I cannot help wondering how many of the critics and viewers who praise Lion and its central child actor have never seen Satyajit Ray’s “Apu” trilogy (surely Subir Banerjee, young star of Pather Panchali (1955), set the gold standard for Indian films about the earliest years of boyhood) or Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), a devastating tale about a boy abandoned by his family, forced to join the circus to make money and then left to fend for himself on the streets of Mumbai without any means of locating his home. That Ray’s and Nair’s films are works of fiction should not minimize the impact of Davis’s Lion, but it is a little difficult to be wowed by the cinematic rendering of a story that is too similar to those of more powerful productions.

P.S. The film ends with a song by the queen of cheesy “inspirational” anthems, Sia. You could argue that this choice of artist has some connective tissue linking it to Lion since Sia is Australian, but it would have been so much nicer to hear music by an Indian performer; it would have solidified the notion that Saroo had returned to his roots.

Money Monster. Directed by Jodie Foster. Notes from December 31, 2016: Although I will fall short of meeting the goal for this year’s 52 Films by Women challenge (Money Monster is number forty-one for me), I decided that for my last Netflix DVD of 2016, I would give Jodie Foster’s latest directorial effort a try. Having seen her other three films – Little Man Tate (1991), Home for the Holidays (1995) and The Beaver (2011) – I knew that Money Monster would be vaguely enjoyable but not intellectually stimulating, the cinematic equivalent of a McChicken sandwich. The plot follows a disgruntled working-class New Yorker (British rising star Jack O’Connell, overshooting the mark on his Queens accent) who has just lost his life savings after a particular stock crashes, and therefore holds the Jim Cramer-esque money-management show host (George Clooney) – whom he considers responsible – hostage at gunpoint. All this happens live on the air, which is probably supposed to be exciting yet it feels tired from the get-go. Didn’t Network cover similar ground forty years ago? Haven’t films been commenting on the evils of corporate greed for decades? The presence of Julia Roberts as the TV show’s producer does not help matters either; like Clooney, Roberts contributes star power rather than brilliant acting to the film, a performance that may impress you with its mediocre but unwavering commitment to entertainment value (stars always know how to turn on the ol’ 10,000-watt smile, even in horrid situations), but which you never forget is acting that lacks depth. On the other hand, Lenny Venito did a pretty good job as Clooney’s cameraman, which just goes to show you how much more agreeable it can be sometimes to watch a talented character actor than most of the bright white-toothed megastars of Hollywood.

As one A.V. Club user comment put it best: “I adore Jodie Foster as an actor, but I have to admit, as a director she kind of fulfills the late film critic Pauline Kael’s comment of actors who direct Starting at the Top, so they didn’t learn how to direct a movie before they’re given a chance to.

“Usually When Actors Direct, they’re good working with actors (because they’re one themselves), love big juicy scenes the actors can sink their teeth into (because those are the kinds of scenes they love to play), are madly in love with tricky camera moves and editing (to make their movies look “cinematic”), and have a miserable sense of flow and pacing (because those get in the way of all that acting and the camera moves!). There’s also that desire to Save the World – from Those Other Bad Guys, Who Bear No Resemblance To Anybody Working on the Movie!

“It’s why most actors who turn movie directors work well on character pieces, but suck at action and suspense. There are exceptions, obviously – both Clint Eastwood and Jon Favreau seem to be able to direct films pretty well, and Jonathan Frakes and Lucy Liu have a pretty good grip on directing series television. But for every one of them, there are dozen of William Shatners or Robert De Niros, who might be okay directing theater but shouldn’t be let near a director’s chair on a film or television set.”

Weiner. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg. Notes from December 31, 2016: I spoke too soon when I thought that I was done with my year of watching films directed by women; I have just done a double feature of two films that actually worked quite well together: the recent documentary Weiner, about disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s bid for New York City mayor in 2013, and Doris Wishman’s Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), a semi-documentary about the title star (a well-known burlesque queen in her day) deciding to abandon her career (here playing a slightly altered version of herself, an actress in presumably non-sexploitational films) in order to find peace in the paradise of a Florida nudist camp. Two different stories, both directed or co-directed by women, and yet they both present ways in which a celebrity can deal with attention-seekers, the obligations of fame and its accompanying pressures. Blaze Starr, or rather I should say the onscreen presentation of her, sought shelter from notoriety, while Anthony Weiner ran towards it again and again.

I cannot avoid feeling a level of connection – low though it might be at this point – with the saga of Anthony Weiner since he represented my district of Brooklyn and when I graduated from elementary school, I received the Anthony D. Weiner Award, which includes a commendation for “outstanding dedication to family.” Seriously, this happened.

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(It should be noted that Weiner did not show up at the ceremony. I was disappointed to shake a vice principal’s hand instead.)

The real star of Weiner is not the man himself but his wife, Huma Abedin. If there were an award for best acting in a nonfiction film, she would absolutely win. So much of the narrative is focused on her reactions to her husband, intense waves of frustration that emanate from her in scene after scene as new scandals keep breaking and she realizes that her husband has lied to her once more. Even though Weiner does not break ground cinematically – Chicken People and One More Time with Feeling were this year’s superior documentaries – the film is entertaining from start to finish and it tells a fascinating story about what it means for a man to be addicted to human interaction (not just as a public servant but also via the digital access granted by glowing screens) to the extent that it destroys his existing personal and professional relationships.

2016: Part 4

Anthropoid. Directed by Sean Ellis. Notes from December 22, 2016: Numerous critics raked Anthropoid over the coals this past summer, presumably because it is now considered near impossible to make a World War II-related thriller unless you have the panache of a Spielberg or a Tarantino. In truth, filmmaker Sean Ellis shows a great deal of potential here; despite having missed his previous featujares – Cashback (2006), The Broken (2008) and the highly praised Metro Manila (2013) – I suspect he has a long career ahead of him. Pulling triple duty as director, screenwriter and cinematographer, Ellis shows a definite flair for action sequences and getting good performances out of his cast. The second half is far superior to the first, but that’s to be expected in a film that you want to focus more on the war effort than on romantic subplots.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubis, a pair of Slovak and Czech soldiers respectively. They parachute into the Czech countryside and enter Prague with the task of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was third in the Nazi hierarchy’s command, behind only Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. This extraordinarily dangerous mission is carried out with the help of a number of Czech contacts, including “Uncle” Hajský (Toby Jones), Adolf Opálka (Harry Lloyd), Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and Marie Moravec and her son A’ta (Alena Mihulová and Bill Milner). Gabcík and Kubis are further assisted by two women posing as their girlfriends, Lenka (Anna Geislerová) and Marie (Charlotte Le Bon); naturally, each couple falls in love for real. These relationships threaten to drag the film into the realm of soggy melodrama, but once the day of the assassination plot arrives, the narrative really takes shape. (It helps that both Murphy and Dornan do well in their roles, especially noteworthy since Jamie Dornan must be trying extra hard to prove that he can be more than Christian Grey.) Once the film gets to the climactic scenes set in a church, Ellis displays some incredible subtleties of emotion in the midst of fast-paced, brutal warfare. There is a moment when, after having heard a particular gunshot ring out (I won’t explain the context), a single tear streams down Murphy’s face – it is a shot so painfully beautiful that I had to rewind the movie to experience it again.

In one of the DVD’s special features, Cillian Murphy described the film’s gut-wrenching conclusion through the lens of its impact on the outcome of the war: “It’s kind of like the movie has, sort of, two endings, do you know? There’s the one, tragedy, and then the one that is also tragic but in the greater scheme of things, it’s a victory. So it’s fascinating and it kind of stays with you, and again that’s another yardstick by which I measure movies. They shouldn’t be disposable. They should leave, like, a residue on your skin and on your psyche for a few days or a few weeks. That’s, to me, what cinema should be about.” I couldn’t agree more.

Captain Fantastic. Directed by Matt Ross. Notes from December 23, 2016: Written and directed by the great Matt Ross (he plays Hooli mastermind Gavin Belson on “Silicon Valley”), Captain Fantastic tells the engaging story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a man who has raised his six children (George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell) in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, somewhere in Washington. The kids’ mom, Leslie (Trin Miller), who has suffered from depression from years, commits suicide at the beginning of the film, a death which sets the rest of the film’s events in motion. Because Leslie dies in a city hospital, her parents (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) take over plans for the funeral and try to keep “crazy hippie” Ben and his children away with threats of arrest over “child abuse.” (Besides being homeschooled in the wild, the kids spend their days “training” – vigorous exercise, rock climbing, hunting and skinning game, etc.) The film asks many questions of both the main characters and the viewers: who is right in this situation? Is Ben right to prepare his sons and daughters for being able to adapt to any situation that Mother Nature might throw at them, or are the grandparents right about wanting the kids to experience “normal” interactions in “civilized” society?

Ross handles these issues skillfully and elicits excellent performances from his actors. Naming the anticapitalist adult protagonist “Benjamin Cash” is a tad on the nose, but other than that screenwriting glitch, I really enjoyed Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of this dad who just wants to do right by his family. I was also impressed by the actors who played the six children, particularly George MacKay as eldest son Bo, Nicholas Hamilton as rebellious teenager Rellian and Charlie Shotwell as one of the youngest kids, inquisitive son Nai. Kudos also goes to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (he must be 2016′s MVP since he also photographed Elle and Jackie), who contributes top-notch work, particularly in the forest scenes. For all I know there could be other films this year that discuss Buddhism, the numerous achievements of Noam Chomsky (the Cash family celebrates his birthday in place of Christmas) and detailed analysis of the novel Lolita, but surely none of them does so as well as Captain Fantastic.

Jackie. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Notes from December 15, 2016: Does it matter whether an actor looks like the person he/she/they are portraying in a biopic? Except for the iconic haircut, Natalie Portman does not physically resemble Jackie Kennedy in the new film Jackie, but Portman’s performance is so intense and nuanced that she became the woman in every possible way; it is difficult to imagine any actress doing more remarkable work than her during this awards season. Jackie is a film about trying to understand the unthinkable – a First Lady who witnessed her husband’s gruesome assassination happen right in front of her, and who then had to figure out how to carry on with the whole world watching her – and attempting to simultaneously show a sliver of Jackie’s soul while also keeping her at a distance, a celebrity whom we will never truly know. Larraín allows us to walk in Jackie’s shoes and get inside her head while also viewing her from afar, half a century after the events in the film took place. Madeline Fontaine’s costumes, Stéphane Fontaine‘s cinematography and the production design, art direction and set decoration by Jean Rabasse, Halina Gebarowicz and Véronique Melery recreate the physical atmosphere of the early 1960s, but perhaps the film’s most vital asset is the music composed by Mica Levi, a moody and heavy set of minor tones not unlike Levi’s score for the sci-fi horror tale Under the Skin (2013) – a fitting connection since Jackie is, in its own way, a story of both horror and ghosts. If there is a film more emotionally devastating than Jackie in theaters right now, then I have yet to see it.

Keanu. Directed by Peter Atencio. Notes from December 24, 2016***: As a fan of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key since their days as cast members on “MADtv” and also for their work on their Comedy Central show “Key & Peele,” I was expecting big things from their first starring film vehicle as a team. Unfortunately Keanu falls flat most of the time, trying so hard to entertain us with its parodies of action movie tropes that the comedy is often deflated before impact. Peele plays a depressed artist/photographer whose outlook brightens after a kitten appears on his doorstep (and whom he immediately names Keanu – specifically because of the Hawaiian word for “cool breeze,” not the name of the actor.) It turns out that the feline belonged to a bunch of drug dealers who have just been murdered by a pair of assassins called the Allentown Brothers (also played by Key and Peele); when the killers ransack Peele’s house to steal the kitten, Peele and his straitlaced cousin (Key) spend their weekend in the company of gangsters, impersonating the Allentown Brothers in the hopes of getting Keanu back from another drug lord, Cheddar (Method Man).

Keanu doesn’t lack for action, but jokes about black and Latino cultural stereotypes can only go so far. The two inspired subplots are the scenes involving Will Forte as Jordan Peele’s cornrow-wearing pot dealer (at one point Forte pleads with a gunman to spare his life because “I know everything about hip-hop!”) and the running gag depicting Keegan-Michael Key’s character as a massive fan of George Michael; at one point Key experiences an amusing drug-induced fantasy during which he believes he is a part of Michael’s “Faith” music video, and also sees a vision of Keanu the kitten voiced by – you guessed it – Keanu Reeves. Just for those sequences, the film might be worth seeing, but otherwise you will be disappointed.

***This write-up was done before George Michael passed away. That doesn’t retroactively change my view of the film, however, since I already appreciated the scenes that incorporate his music.

Midnight Special. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Notes from December 26, 2016: As a huge fan of Jeff Nichols’ four other films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Loving), I had high expectations for the sci-fi drama Midnight Special. Alas, the film is easily the weakest of Nichols’ features, substituting his usual emphasis on strong, well-developed bonds between characters for bigger-budget, overambitious flashiness.

Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst play the parents of a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has otherworldly powers that cause him to emit extreme amounts of white light from his eyes and hands. It is never explained how he obtained this ability or why he would have been born with it since as far as we know, he was indeed born to Dunst (rather than being found on a doorstep or in a cornfield like Superman). Sam Shepard appears briefly at the beginning of the film, playing Lieberher’s adopted father; Shepard runs a creepy religious cult and he is Dunst’s father, another unexplained yet important point since Dunst and Shannon apparently met when they were both involved with the cult – just how did Shepard get hold of Lieberher? Is Shepard actually the boy’s legal guardian? Nichols never gives us the details.

Midnight Special’s narrative focuses on a dangerous trek that Shannon, Dunst, Lieberher and Joel Edgerton (in an excellent performance as a childhood friend of Shannon’s) make to do something never fully explained. Shannon knows that Lieberher has to be brought someplace by a certain date, but when and how did Lieberher ascertain this knowledge? The film skirts particulars by requiring us to assume that Lieberher can do anything and learn anything just by being special and having an infinite reserve of alien faculties. As always, Jeff Nichols’ actors do fine work – also including Adam Driver as an FBI analyst, Bill Camp as a lackey who is willing to kill for Shepard and David Jensen as another of Shannon’s buddies, who ends up doing more harm than good – and Adam Stone, who has photographed every Nichols film, contributes his impeccable eye for framing and lighting to the cinematography. There are moments when the score by David Wingo (who has composed for all of Nichols’ films except Shotgun Stories) adds much-needed gravitas to the baffling plot, but technical elements cannot completely salvage a muddled story. Sometimes films work because of a je ne sais quoi that allows the filmmaker to express an enigmatic sense of beauty; consider Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). If a film’s unanswered questions only confuse and irritate the viewer rather than provoke and illuminate, though, little can be done to improve the experience.

2015: Part 11

City of Gold. Directed by Laura Gabbert. Notes from December 10, 2016: Should a critic be easier or harsher when assessing the merits of a documentary about a member of the same profession? Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief food critic for the Los Angeles Times, is chronicled in this pleasant but underwhelming film by Laura Gabbert (Sunset Story, No Impact Man: The Documentary). The film presupposes that its audience either has no knowledge of the history of food criticism or no problem accepting the basic premise that Gold is a one-of-a-kind gastronomical observer of the human condition. Some of Gold’s forerunners make appearances, including Calvin Trillin and Ruth Reichl, but of course there are others whom Gabbert overlooks – two names that immediately come to mind are Nika Hazelton and Mimi Sheraton (fun fact: my mother sat next to Mimi at the recent alumni gathering for the 75th anniversary of Brooklyn’s Midwood High School; they spent about twenty minutes talking). Jonathan Gold has the advantages of being younger than those pioneering women and writing now in 2016, but the film focuses so claustrophobically on the subjective narrative that Gold is the first and only critic of his kind that Gabbert leaves no room for any other interpretation (or truth). In fact, the most interesting part of the film was when Gold, while being interviewed by a radio DJ for a “Favorite Songs” playlist, analyzed the history and meanings of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” giving me pause to wonder why Gold didn’t go in for music criticism instead.

The Dressmaker. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. Notes from September 28, 2016: Having never seen any of filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s work before (although I have wanted to see Proof and How to Make an American Quilt for quite some time), I could only judge 1950s period piece The Dressmaker on its own merit. (I suppose that that is ideally how criticism is supposed to work anyway.) While Kate Winslet is fierce and fabulous as the couturier who returns to her small Australian hometown of Dungatar with revenge on her mind, and some of the other cast members also add to the local color (including Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Barry Otto, Alison Whyte and Kerry Fox), the film is a jumbled mess of genres and themes with a wildly uneven tone. There are gorgeous costumes designed by Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson (I’m mad about this red dress that Kate Winslet wears and Sarah Snook’s Saturday night soirée gown) and Donald McAlpine’s cinematography includes some excellent images and framing, so I’m glad that I saw The Dressmaker on the big screen, but the film’s decision to veer crazily into intense melodrama toward the end is preposterous.

P.S. The two elderly, New York-accented women sitting behind me gave the critique of the year as the end credits rolled: “Did you like it? No, it’s the strangest thing I ever saw!”

P.P.S. For those who have seen the film: a bunch of people behind me (including the aforementioned women) couldn’t remember, or didn’t understand the word for, the grain involved in a crucial scene in the second half of the film. Are there really adults who have never heard of sorghum, or were they just particularly bad at understanding the Australian accent in this instance?

Hello, My Name Is Doris. Directed by Michael Showalter. Notes from December 12, 2016: I’ll say it upfront: Sally Field is an incredible actress. Even in a film that falls somewhat short of her boundless talent, Field is able to transcend scripting limitations and create a multilayered character who is more than just a bundle of quirks, cat-eye glasses and 60s-girl-group-style hair extensions. As Doris Miller, a senior citizen who works as an accountant for a trendy magazine and who falls in love with a new, much younger coworker in the office (Max Greenfield), Field hooks us from the first minute. Much of the film’s comedy emanates from cringe-inducing situations involving Doris’s weird characteristics and the awkwardness of scenarios revolving around her making a fake Facebook profile (there is a great scene in which Doris, drunk and sitting around in her bra, rants online while the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” plays on the soundtrack), hanging around electronica concerts and knitting circles in Williamsburg, attempting to befriend airheaded colleagues (Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Lyonne, Rich Sommer) and visiting a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) who tries to convince Doris, a lifelong hoarder, to clean and then move out of her recently deceased mother’s house. I was reminded of the older woman/younger man relationships in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – who says that age has anything to do with true love and beauty?

Some of the best scenes are the dramatic ones, however, like the two separate and highly emotional confrontations that Field has with her self-centered younger brother and his even more awful wife (Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey) and with her longtime best friend (Tyne Daly). Field won’t get an Oscar nomination for her performance, but when you watch her discover social media, dance to modern music, experience confusion over common communication gestures or interact with unusual celebrities in her inimitable fashion, you know with certainty that after more than half a century she is still one of the best players in the game.

Joy. Directed by David O. Russell. Notes from November 19, 2016: Mark me down as surprised: I remembered Joy getting mixed reviews when it came out last year, and my feelings toward David O. Russell regarding I Heart Huckabees (one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I have ever had), Silver Linings Playbook (which I initially liked, but it doesn’t hold up) and American Hustle (wildly overrated, except for Bradley Cooper’s character) are less than positive, but I actually ended up enjoying his latest effort. Finally I have seen a film that has built on the promise that we got from Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone – not completely, mind you, but there’s no question that by focusing Joy entirely on Lawrence, rather than making her a co-lead or a supporting character, she has the opportunity to develop a character with considerable depth. (Let’s not speak of her anemic performances in the X-Men series, which I blame largely on the screenwriters and directors for offering Lawrence so little with which to work.) Critics have argued that Lawrence was too young to play title character Joy Mangano, a woman who turned a difficult middle-class existence as a divorced mother of two with endless bills and mortgages to pay off into success as the inventor of the Miracle Mop. This is true, but I still thought Lawrence did a good job of making Joy a character we can root for. Some of David O. Russell’s narrative interjections about feminism are too clichéd to be effective, but the pacing (which I thought was just fine, unlike other critics) and the supporting players – Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini (marvelously villainous), Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, cameos by Ken Howard and Paul Herman – keep things moving. Joy has not converted me to Hollywood’s supreme fandom of Jennifer Lawrence, but I’m definitely closer to approaching it now than I was before.

Sisters. Directed by Jason Moore. Notes from September 28, 2016: Fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would surely enjoy this comedy; all the other viewers… not so much. (My opinion lies somewhere in the middle.) Tina and Amy have a lot of fun as an irresponsible sister and a boring/do-gooder sister respectively, particularly since the film primarily revolves around a raucous farewell party at the old family home (which parents Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are selling), leading Amy and Tina to switch their usual behavioral roles. The bulk of the film’s humor arises from Amy’s increasingly inebriated attempts to connect to a potential boyfriend played by Ike Barinholtz (best described by one IMDb user as “cute in an attainable way, not a Ryan Gosling way”), who is luckily a pretty good match for her, both temperamentally and comedically. Additional good moments in the film come courtesy of Maya Rudolph, John Cena and John Leguizamo, who also attend the big bash, and Chris Parnell as the victim of Tina Fey’s terrible eyebrow-styling in her home salon at the beginning of the film. Sisters is not a great film, but there is an unmistakable charm in its being easily disposable entertainment, satisfying for at least the two hours when you are watching it.