Noelle


Passing Santa’s torch isn’t as easy as Tim Allen made it out to be.

(2019) Holiday Comedy (Disney PlusAnna Kendrick, Bill Hader, Shirley MacLaine, Julie Hagerty, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Billy Eichner, Maceo Smedley, Diana Maria Riva, Anthony Konechny, Michael Gross, Billy Griffith, Aliza Vellani, Amital Marmorstein, Ron Funches, Gary Sekhon, Edwin Perez, Anna van Hooft, Sean Amsing, Steven Rudy, Jagen Johnson, Alvina August. Directed by Marc Lawrence

 

Whether you call him Santa Claus or Father Christmas, we have always had an idea of who and what St. Nicholas is. Jolly, red outfit, sleigh, mittens, a sack full of presents, generally a fun guy to be around.

In this new Christmas wannabe classic, the office of Santa has been handed down from father to son in the Kringle family for generations. Sadly, the old Santa has died, leaving his son Nick (Hader) as heir apparent. The problem is that Nick is much more suited to be a yoga instructor than Santa. He’s terrified of reindeer, claustrophobic in tight places (like chimneys) and can’t steer the sleigh to save his life. His sister Noelle (Kendrick) is much more adept at all these things; she also instantly understands every form of communication from American sign language to French. She also can tell by looking at any kid if they’ve been naughty or nice, and knows instinctively what present they want – in a bit of a running joke it’s usually an iPad.

With Christmas approaching, the pressure is on Nick to get his act together. When Noelle suggests he take a weekend trip to “somewhere sunny and warm,” he takes her up on it – only to decide he’s going to stay there and never return to the North Pole. Christmas is in serious jeopardy and everyone blames poor Noelle, going so far as to take away her Kringle family discount at the local hot chocolate bar and souvenir stores.

Stung, she heads to Phoenix where she thinks her brother might be, accompanied by an adorable CGI baby reindeer named Snowcone and a less adorable elf named Polly (MacLaine, who seems helplessly typecast in grouchy roles these days). Aided by a handsome private detective (Ben-Adir) who is spending his first Christmas as a single dad who is understandably not looking forward a Christmas separate from his son (Smedley) who is spending the holiday with his mom who has since remarried. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, a tech-oriented Kringle cousin (Eichner) is proposing changes that might just ruin Christmas forever if Noelle doesn’t find Nick and persuade him to put on the red coat and make his Christmas Eve run.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this. Most of the ideas it has have been horked from other films that are way better than this one (Da Queen characterized this as “a not funny Elf) like Arthur Christmas, f’rinstance. There is enough product placement in the movie to make an old capitalist’s heart warm and toasty, which might rub progressive sorts the wrong way but then again, when you think about it, Disney is essentially a massive product placement for itself.

That said, the movie isn’t without its high points. Kendrick is an engaging performer and nobody does adorable quite as well as she does except for maybe Amy Adams in her prime. On a personal note, I’m always up to see MacLaine in anything, even if I’d love to see her do something in which she doesn’t play a curmudgeon which seems to be all she’s cast as these days. Hader hits all the right comedy notes in his performance and the movie really hums along during his training sequence – had the movie continued more along those lines, this might have become the Christmas classic it so desperately wants to be.

The big problem here is that this feels very much like a Disney Channel film in all the most negative aspects of their programming. Insipid pop soundtrack, really groan-inducing Christmas-themed jokes (“Oh, my garland!”) and a plot that seems to be dumbed down so that even ten-year-olds are rolling their eyes. Of course, Noelle should be the replacement Santa; nobody who isn’t brain dead can figure that out.

The subplot of rethinking gender roles is probably not going to play well with the Fox News crowd (some of whom are already trolling reviews elsewhere) but it at least gives some food for thought in a meal otherwise full of empty calories.

REASONS TO SEE: Interesting subtext on gender roles.
REASONS TO AVOID: All the negatives of Disney Channel fare.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally intended for theatrical release, but Disney decided to put it on their brand-new streaming platform to give it additional value.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney+
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A New Christmas

F(l)ag Football


A band of brothers.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Abramorama) Cyd Ziegler, Wade Davis, Jared Garduno, Drew Boulton, Tall Paul, Christophe Faubert, Joey Jacinto, Roc, Shockey, Shawn Rea, Molly Lenore, Brenton Metzler, Jeremiah Phipps, Jim Buzinski, John, Alon, Brian, Duffy, Juan Gibbons, Neil Giuliano. Directed by Seth Greenfield

 

There is a misconception of gay men that they are limpwristed and effeminate who are more into figure skating than football. The truth is that there are all sorts of gay men; some are indeed more in touch with their feminine side but there are others who are just as macho as Mike Ditka.

The National Gay Flag Football League grew out of pick-up games that gay men put together to play football. Many found playing football in any sort of competitive manner to be uncomfortable for them while others wanted to use it as a means of meeting new people with similar interests. Something unexpected happened however; the teams of predominantly gay players began to bond. Like, really bond as brothers. Starting in New York City, the idea of gay leagues began to catch on in cities around the country. Eventually, the National Gay Flag Football League was born.

A competitive tournament of gay teams around the country culminating in a championship game was the brainchild of sportswriter Cyd Ziegler, himself an ultra-competitive football player. His team, the New York Warriors, became the dominant team winning three Gay Bowl championships in a row. In Gay Bowl IX however, they were dethroned by the Los Angeles Motion led by – Cyd Ziegler who had moved out to the City of Angels.

The Warriors, led by team captain Wade Davis (a former NFL player) were chomping at the bit to regain the title that they’d lost. The Motion, sporting two of the best quarterbacks in the league in reigning MVP Drew Boulton and Christophe Faubert, were just as motivated to repeat. The dark horse was the Gay Bowl X hosts the Phoenix Hellraisers, led by quarterback Joey Jacinto who has a cannon for an arm and Jared Garduno, the team’s heart and soul.

The documentary follows the three teams as they prepare for the weekend event. We hear from the players, many of whom found the acceptance here that they couldn’t find in the gay bar and club scene. As the movie goes on some of the players talk openly about their coming out and some of those stories are heartbreaking. Davis tells us that his extremely religious mother, whom he had been especially close to as a child, essentially washed her hands of him. Los Angeles captain Brenton Metzler talks humorously of how his sister, a lesbian wishing to deflect her parents attention away from herself, outed him against his wishes.

There are a lot of clichés about football, how it builds character and forges bonds not unlike those forged by soldiers. One of the movie’s chief successes that as the movie goes on we begin to realize that these aren’t just gay men; they’re men period. Just like straight men. No difference whatsoever. Well, other than the fact that they prefer men as romantic and sexual partners.

A word about the latter; the tagline for the film “A documentary about coming out…and scoring” does a disservice to the movie. Throughout the film the players make it clear that there is nothing sexual for them about playing the game; it’s all about the competition and the game itself. Their minds aren’t going to “His tush sure looks good in those jeans” for the most part. The sexual innuendo of the tag line contradicts this stand and reinforces the perception that gay men have no control of their sexuality. Well, no more than straight men do anyway. Come to think of it, the film’s title doesn’t do its message any favors either. These men are as tough as nails regardless of their sexuality but I suppose that since the point is trying to change perceptions of gay men that to a certain extent their sexuality has to be part of the equation but still it feels like they could have been a bit more sensitive to the film’s overall message that these are talented, hard-working and masculine football players who happen to be gay. Their sexuality is part of who they are but it isn’t the only thing that defines them.

The movie spends an inordinate time at player practices to the point of tedium. The cumulative effect of this is that when the actual games are played, it becomes anticlimactic to the viewer. Other than the actual championship game, little time is spent on any of the other games that go on in the tournament (the winning team and runner-up will have played seven games in the course of three days which is grueling for any kind of athlete) other than brief snippets and scores. We don’t really see the results of all the practicing until that championship game and even then we don’t really get a sense of the teamwork that goes on.

I’m not sure that this is essential viewing from a cinematic standpoint but from a social standpoint this film is a teaching moment, serving to humanize gay men and put faces on them that aren’t necessarily RuPaul’s (although some of the Phoenix players don dresses to put on a charity fundraiser drag show). Anything that is going to help break down stereotypes is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Your perception of what gay men are might get changed. The outing stories are heartbreaking in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Far too much time is spent observing practices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sports violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most recent Gay Bowl was played in Washington DC. The 2017 edition will be played in Boston.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hearing is Believing

Phoenix Forgotten


A billboard you don’t want to see your image on.

(2017) Horror Sci-Fi (Cinelou) Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson, Matt Biedel, Ana Dela Cruz, Mackenzie Firgens, Jay Pirouznia, Marc Marron, Don Boyd, Tony Duncan, Richard Cansino, Hector Luis Bustamante, Joseph J. LaRocca, Larry Toffler, Cynthia Quiles. Directed by Justin Barber

 

Some may remember the notorious Phoenix Lights that on March 13, 1997 were witnessed by thousands of Phoenicians. Some in the UFO community consider it one of the most important sightings in history; others pass it off as military planes in formation dropping flares. Either way, it is still something of a mystery.

Three teens – Josh Bishop (Roberts), his crush Ashley Foster (Lopez) and their mutual friend Mark Abrams (Matthews) decide to head towards a remote area of the Arizona mountains to investigate the lights a week later. Their car was found abandoned by the side of the road but the three young people were never seen again.

Twenty years later Sophie (Hartigan), the younger sister of Josh, comes back to Phoenix to help her mom (Strittmatter) move. She comes across some of the videotapes her camera-obsessed brother took, including those of the lights themselves and decides to make a documentary of her brother’s disappearance. She interviews as many subjects as she can including her dad (Jordan) and other interested parties. At length she discovers a badly damaged camcorder found in the desert with the tape in it amazingly intact – which may solve once and for all the mystery behind the disappearance of the three teens.

The movie is in reality two separate movies; the story of the three teens told through their own videos, and Sophie’s investigation, which is a more standard storytelling method. The more interesting of the two is surprisingly the found footage. Barber has recreated it well, making it look like it was recorded on a camcorder circa 1997 complete with wavy lines, static and shaky cam. It looks real authentic as does the environment depicted; kudos to Barber for that.

The three “teen” leads are all as they tend to be in low budget horror movies attractive and do at least an adequate job of performing. Lopez in particular seems to have some screen presence and might well be on her way to a bright future in the business.

The thing here is that it borrows a little bit too much from The Blair Witch Project, even one of the character’s names is present. The plot is just about identical, adding elements from last year’s Blair Witch to sweeten the pot, substituting the Arizona desert for the Maryland woods. Imitation is of course flattery and in all honesty Phoenix Forgotten does imitate well, but if you’re looking for something more, you might end up disappointed.

Speaking of disappointing, the special effects are pretty poor for a film of this caliber – although they do get the aging of the found footage right. Mostly the effects consist of colored lights, wind machines and wires and it would have looked primitive back in 1997. In 2017, well, it’s simply not good enough. With maybe a little bit larger budget they could have done a more realistic job.

Still, the movie delivers where it needs to. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this assessment; the movie disappeared without a trace (much like its protagonists) at the box office and the critical reception was less than enthusiastic. I liked it though; there was plenty that worked that I can recommend it to horror fans and to thriller fans alike. Sci-fi fans might have issues with the subpar special effects. Phoenix Forgotten is likely to be forgotten judging on the overall lack of interest in it (there are only six reviews up on Metacritic; most major releases have anywhere from 20-45) but it doesn’t deserve to be.

REASONS TO GO: The found footage is cleverly utilized, making it more palatable. I got a bit of high school nostalgia watching this.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are nothing to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of peril and terror as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The footage of the Phoenix Lights was digitally simulated and then saved onto VHS tape. It was then converted back to digital. The analog effects are a result of this process and help to integrate the CGI into the era-proper technology.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING:7/10
NEXT: The Discovery

Top 10 of 2015


2015 Top 10After what I thought was kind of a down year in 2014, the overall quality of the movies I saw in 2015 went on the rebound and in general, I thought there were far better films in general than the year previous. A little more interestingly, I also thought that there were fewer movies that I’d give 10 out of 10 for this year, which is a bit of a dichotomy; better quality overall, but fewer slam dunks.

However, the films on this list were all as good as you’d find on the lists of any year previous with the top spot going to a movie that I thought was far and away the best film of the year – but oddly enough, very few people have seen it other than on streaming services. We’ll get to that in a moment, but the movies that followed were still of very high quality and are worth seeing every one.

While studio movies have tended to continue going with the traditional distribution model; a wide theatrical release followed by VOD/home video release once the movies are out of the theaters, then onto a premium cable outlet. They are still tending to avoid streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, although Lionsgate and Paramount have bucked that trend. With Netflix flexing its muscles more and more with indie films, having made some pre-emptive deals even before films were screened at Sundance, something tells me that the majors may start following suit and putting their films on streaming sites or even creating their own. It may not be this year but as more and more people go with Netflix and Chill, it makes good sense for the majors to start looking at that audience more carefully.

As with previous years, you can learn more about each movie on the top 10 list by clicking on the title to access my initial review, or clicking on the photo of the movie to go to the movie’s website or Facebook page when available. The other information given in each entry should be self-explanatory, with box office and critics’ scores available to help you give an idea of how audiences and film critics alike responded to these films.

As always, the list is entirely arbitrary. How I rank these movies today isn’t necessarily how I would rank them tomorrow. I am also ignoring half-points from the initial ratings so you might see a 9.0 ranked ahead of a 9.5. It’s my list. Deal with it. In any case, at the end of the day the order the films are ranked in is unimportant save for the number one movie of the year. The thing to remember is that all of these films including the honorable mention films are all of the highest quality and you can’t go wrong seeing any of them. Hopefully this list will suggest a few to you that you might have missed during the year or didn’t get distribution in your home town. Many of them will be already out on home video or VOD, while a few may still be in your local theaters. Do yourself a favor and try and see as many of these as you can. You won’t regret it.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are a number of movies that didn’t quite make the cut of the top ten. I thought I’d add them here so you can get an idea of which ones came close, were considered and ultimately not chosen. Again, I will stress that all of these are quality films worth seeking out if you’re looking for entertainment, enlightenment or insight. I didn’t include links here but if you want to read my reviews of any of these, simply type in the title into the search field and have at it. So, in no particular order;

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Stepped Out of a Window and Disappeared, Love and Mercy, The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest, A Brilliant Young Mind, Straight Outta Compton, My Life in China, 3 ½ Minutes, The Wrecking Crew, Bone Tomahawk, Sicario, Welcome to Leith, Mad Max: Fury Road, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Inside Out, The End of the Tour, Stink!, Gett: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem, Room, Grandma, Phoenix, Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story

It Follows

10. IT FOLLOWS

(Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Released March 23, 2015 19-year-old Jay has just graduated from high school and it is a summer of transition – soon she’ll be going away to college and it is time for one last hurrah with her friends before they scatter, each to their own place. Everything is perfect; except they are being stalked by something terrifying and supernatural. After having had sex with a seemingly nice young man, Jay has attracted a supernatural entity to her and it is coming ever closer. Her only chance is to have sex with someone else and send the entity after them, although if it kills them it comes back after her. How do you escape the inescapable?
WHY IT IS HERE: An extremely clever concept, for one. After an acclaimed run at Sundance, the movie was given a very brief limited release but the numbers were so astounding that Weinstein hurriedly arranged for a wide release. The movie went on to be one of the more acclaimed horror movies of recent years.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The climactic swimming pool battle.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.7 million domestic, $20.3M total (as of 1/19/16).
BUDGET: $2M.
GENRE: Horror
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix. Stream on iTunes/Amazon/Vudu/M-Go. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play.

Star Wars The Force Awakens

9. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

(Disney) Daisy Ridley, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendolyn Christie. Directed by JJ Abrams

Released December 18, 2016 Three decades after the events of the first trilogy, the Empire is rising again and is being faced by a small but determined Resistance. With a new and improved weapon being brought to bear on the peaceful but ineffective Republic, unlikely new heroes will combine with familiar ones to take on a villain so heinous that he rivals even Darth Vader.
WHY IT IS HERE: The anticipation for this movie was enormous and when it finally arrived, it proved to be one of those rare films that was worth the wait. Everything about this movie worked and everything about it pleased fans who went back to see it again and again and again. It is already the all-time domestic box office champion and has a shot at dethroning the all-time global champ. In short, Star Wars is back.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The confrontation between father and son.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $859.0 million domestic, $1.8B total (as of 1/19/16),.
BUDGET: $200M
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Still in wide release

The Hateful Eight

8. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

(Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bechir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Channing Tatum. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Released December 25, 2015 A bounty hunter with a reputation for bringing in his quarry alive – to be hanged – is escorting a young woman to the Wyoming town of Red Rock but is forced to stop at a stagecoach stop high in the mountains, stranded by a blizzard. There are others there, some apparently innocently enough, others of suspicious character. By the time the snowfall ceases, there will have been a reckoning of Biblical proportions.
WHY IT IS HERE: Despite controversy over alleged racism and misogyny, this is still a well-crafted cracking story that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Seeing it in the nearly extinct 70mm format was a rare treat but beyond all the noise surrounding it, at the end of the day this is a movie that sucked me in and kept me there.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Major Marquis Warren and Chris Mannix get some well-deserved payback for John Ruth.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $49.6 million domestic (as of 1/23/15), $86.7M total.
BUDGET: $44M
GENRE: Western
STATUS: Still in wide release.

Beasts of No Nation

7. BEASTS OF NO NATION

(Netflix/Bleecker Street) Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Affadzi, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Fred Nii Amugi. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Released October 16, 2015 Agu, a young boy in a civil war-torn African nation, is forced to become a child soldier for a charismatic warlord. Convinced he is going straight to hell for all the atrocities he is party to, we watch as his soul becomes more and more tainted, his eyes more and more lifeless. When hope for anything better is gone, what more is left but obedience?
WHY IT IS HERE: There is a realism here that is missing from other films that are similarly themed. It helps tremendously that both Elba as the warlord and young Abraham Attah as Agu deliver searing performances that will remain as indelible impressions for a very long time to come. I thought Elba was a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, although the Academy didn’t agree. This is one that the Academy got wrong.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Young Agu’s rage finally breaks free.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $90,777 domestic (as of 1/23/15), $90,777 total..
BUDGET: $6M.
GENRE: Drama
STATUS: Available exclusively on Netflix.

The Big Short

6. THE BIG SHORT

(Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong. Directed by Adam McKay

Released December 11, 2015 In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, a brilliant medical doctor turned hedge fund manager discovered the terrifying truth; that American banks and other financial institutions were relying heavily on securities based on mortgages, securities that had always been considered stable and rock solid but had been filled with mortgages that were almost certain to be defaulted on. Other managers discovered the same truth and while some tried to raise the alarm, others moved to profit off of the information.
WHY IT IS HERE: A sobering look at how unregulated greed damn near brought the world economy to its knees with the even more sobering warning that those running those same banks and securities firms – who were never punished for their actions which often crossed the line of securities laws – are involved in the same behaviors once again, having failed to learn their lesson the first time mainly because the American taxpayers bailed them out. Although it is admittedly hard to find heroic the actions of those who eventually profited from the human misery that came of the 2008 financial meltdown, this has become perhaps the ultimate cautionary tale to come out of the 2015 movie year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The mentor of a pair of young ambitious hedge fund managers tempers their enthusiasm by explaining the real-life consequences of their success.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $54.2 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $72.7M total..
BUDGET: $28M.
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in wide release.

Brooklyn

5. BROOKLYN

(Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath. Directed by John Crowley

Released November 4, 2015 In the 1950s, a young woman in a small Irish village leaves for New York, knowing that she has no future at home. However, she is best by homesickness and finds life in the Big Apple lonely and unsatisfying, but eventually she meets an Italian man at a church dance and is slowly won over by her persistence. However, bad news from home will send her packing back for Ireland where she’ll be courted by an eligible bachelor and where she finds she is fitting in more than she ever had before, but where will her heart lead her; to stay in her native land or to return to the man she loves in America?
WHY IT IS HERE: An award-worthy performance by Ronan in the lead role for one. Crowley, working off of a script by Nick Hornby, has delivered a lyrical and moving paean both to Ireland and America. Beautifully shot, rendering the sweet Irish countryside as well as the charms of Brooklyn, well-acted throughout and buoyed by a terrific script, this remains one of the most charming and lovely movies of the year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Two lovers are reunited.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $26.4 million domestic (as of 1/24/15), $34.5M worldwide.
BUDGET: $10M
GENRE: Romance
STATUS: Still in limited release.

Spotlight

4. SPOTLIGHT

(Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Tom McCarthy

Released November 6, 2015 At the Boston Globe, the Spotlight investigative journalism team begins to look into allegations of covering up for a single Catholic priest who was accused of pedophilia. As their investigation widens, they discover to their horror that the problem is widespread on a global level. In a city where the Catholic Church is an immense political and social force, they encounter resistance to their investigation but their perseverance will lead to a scandal that will shake the very foundations of one of the oldest and most powerful institutions in the world.
WHY IT IS HERE: This may be the most realistic film about print journalism ever made. The emotional impact of the story itself cannot be overestimated as we see victims recount their harrowing experiences and the devastating aftermaths. The ensemble cast is made up of some of the most accomplished actors in the business and while Keaton and Ruffalo have been getting the lion’s share of the acclaim, the truth is that the performances here are outstanding top to bottom. It is fitting that one of the best-written films of 2015 was the movie about journalism.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The Spotlight team begins to realize the enormity and the impact of their story.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $33.2 million domestic (as of 1/27/15), $34.5 million total.
BUDGET: $20 million.
GENRE: True Life Drama
STATUS: Still in general release.

The Martian

3. THE MARTIAN

(20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara. Directed by Ridley Scott

Released October 2, 2015 The first manned mission to Mars has to be cut short when a massive storm heads for the landing site. As the team of astronauts scurries to get their things stowed and the landing vehicle launched, one of their number is struck by flying debris and apparently killed. Reluctantly his team leaves without him but in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s not quite dead yet.
WHY IT IS HERE: This tale of survival is certainly one of the best films of the year and is in my mind superior to other reality-based sci-fi films like Gravity for a number of different reasons. Not only is the science far more accurate than other films of this ilk, it has an Oscar-worthy performance by Damon, a terrific cast behind him and one of the most edge-of-your-seat plots you’ll see in this or any other year.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Matt Damon “sciences the shit” out of a problem.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $227.7 million domestic (as of 1/28/16), $598.6 million total.
BUDGET: $108 million.
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Download from Amazon/iTunes/ Vudu/M-Go/Google Play.  Stream from Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent DVD/Blu-Ray from Netflix the week of February 7.

Ex-Machina

2. EX-MACHINA

(A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeton, Gana Bayarsaikhan. Directed by Alex Garland

Released April 10, 2015 A young programmer wins a company competition that spirits him to a weekend at the reclusive founder’s fortress-like mountain hideaway. There he discovers that the tech wizard is working on something game-changing; an artificial intelligence in a robotic body, taking the form of a beautiful woman. However whatever the plans are that both men have for her, she may have an agenda of her own.
WHY IT IS HERE: This speculative science fiction film made on a budget that probably didn’t cover the costs for massages and manicures on Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the smartest and most provocative movies to come out this year. I was completely done in by Vikander’s performance which was outstanding and kicked off an amazing year for her in which she’s been transformed into one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Isaac and Gleeson also performed solidly, leading into a year when both of them also emerged as names to look out for.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Caleb and Nathan have a conversation on a glacier.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $25.4 million (as of 1/29/15), $36.9M total.
BUDGET: $15M
GENRE: Science Fiction
STATUS: Available on home video. Download on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Stream on Amazon/iTunes/Vudu/M-Go/Google Play. Rent Blu-Ray/DVD on Netflix.

Message From Hiroshima

1. MESSAGE FROM HIROSHIMA

(Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki. Directed by Masaki Tanabe

Released August 4, 2015 The atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima was a watershed moment in modern history. We read about in history books, but that really doesn’t come close to telling us what it was really like. This amazing documentary collects some of the few still-living survivors of the blast and details their stories, complimented with some excellent computer graphics that reconstruct what Hiroshima looked like before the bomb fell.
WHY IT IS HERE: There is no movie, no documentary, no television show, no book and no social interaction that will affect you as much as this movie will. It will literally change your life. Seeing a beautiful, vibrant city come to life before your eyes – and then to watch the astonishing destruction, hear the account of people who were children at the time explain what it was like to lose parents, friends, brothers and sisters – to see the emotions still raw 70 years later, is absolutely unforgettable. The movie barely got any sort of theatrical release and is mainly available on Hulu, but it’s also available on DVD. This should be required viewing for not just our political leaders, but for everyone human. Never again.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Basically, every one of the survivor’s stories.
CRITICAL MASS: Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: N/A
BUDGET: N/A
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Currently available on home video. Stream from Hulu.

New Releases for the Week of December 11, 2015


In the Heart of the SeaIN THE HEART OF THE SEA

(Warner Brothers) Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Benjamin Walker, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland. Directed by Ron Howard

Many believe that the greatest novel ever written was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. What most people don’t realize is that the novel was based on an actual event that occurred aboard the Essex, a New England whaling ship, in 1820. Their incredible story, not only including their encounter with a vengeful whale, but the aftermath in which those that didn’t perish in the attack were forced to do the unspeakable in order to survive.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Adventure
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence and thematic material)

Phoenix

(Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter. With the Second World War over, a concentration camp survivor, hideously disfigured in the last days of the war, has her face surgically reconstructed but is not quite the same as before. She searches for her husband, only to find he may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis in the first place. When she does find him, he doesn’t recognize her – but involves her in a scheme to get the inheritance from the wife he thinks is dead. This played last month at the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival and proved to be so popular that the Enzian added a week-long engagement. You can read my review of it here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief suggestive material)

Phoenix (2014)


Just one look was all it took.

Just one look was all it took.

(2014) Drama (Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Trystan Pűtter, Michael Maertens, Imogen Kogge, Felix Römer, Uwe Preuss, Valerie Koch, Eva Bay, Jeff Burrell, Nikola Kastner, Max Hopp, Megan Gay, Kirsten Block, Frank Seppeler, Daniela Holtz, Kathrin Wehlisch, Michael Wenninger, Claudia Geisler-Bading, Sofia Exss. Directed by Christian Patzold

Some people will do anything to survive, even throw the people they love under the bus. Some people will do anything for those they love, even refuse to believe they’d throw us under the bus despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Nelly Lenz (Hoss) before the war was an acclaimed singer in Berlin. However, she is part-Jewish, enough so that she is arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Before the camp is liberated, she is shot in the face by the Nazis and left for dead. Fortunately she survives but she needs reconstructive surgery on her face. Even though her surgeon tells her that making her look like she did before would be difficult, she opts to be herself rather than look like someone different.

Part of the reason for this is that she wants to be with her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) again. However her good friend Lene Winter (Kunzendorf) tells her that her husband, who was arrested two days before Nelly was, was released hours before her own arrest and likely betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly refuses to believe this though and goes looking for her musician husband through the rubble of Berlin – and eventually finds him in a seedy nightclub named Phoenix.

However, astonishingly, Johnny doesn’t recognize her. However, her resemblance to his wife is enough that he hatches a scheme. You see, Nelly had a sizable fortune when she was arrested, but there’s no proof of her death so Johnny can’t collect it. If he can mold this woman to be just like Nelly, she can sign for that inheritance and split it with Johnny. She agrees to the scheme, only to get close to her husband.

She’s walking a very fine line, knowing that if he discovers her true identity there could be trouble. However, she keeps doing as he says while looking into the allegations Lene brought up. The day comes when she is to reveal herself as Nelly – what will she do and how will Johnny react?

This is a brilliant bit of filmmaking by Patzold, who is becoming one of the best directors in Europe. He sets a mood of tension and keeps it going throughout the movie, not so much that you feel that if it isn’t broken you’ll just explode but enough so that you feel a lovely discomfort throughout. He also has crafted a wonderful allegory of guilt and rebirth that is just as relevant now as it was during the period this is set.

His regular collaborator Nina Hoss is absolutely sensational here. A lot of critics have complained that it was slightly implausible that a husband wouldn’t recognize his wife, but clearly Nelly was deeply changed by her experiences. She is hunched over, wrapping herself in her arms as if the terror of her experience hadn’t faded even though her ordeal was over. Her performance is densely layered and is at the heart of the movie; it’s not that Zehrfeld (another frequent Patzold cast member) doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that Hoss is amazing.

The rest of the cast, like Zehrfeld, is solid, but it’s Hoss’ show. They are all a little zombified by the effects of the war; dead expressions that come from being a defeated nation, something that perhaps Americans might not understand directly. The expressions of the American soldiers are much different; we can see a clear difference between the victors and the defeated. Like just about everything else, this is subtly set so that you have to work a little bit to get the actual meaning of what Patzold is presenting to you visually. This is what makes him such a marvelous director.

The setting of a mostly destroyed Berlin is perfect; the rubble is ripe for a resurrection, and Nelly, as ruined in her own way as Berlin is, makes an excellent allegory. War destroyed a beautiful woman and a beautiful city; they both had the option of becoming anything they wanted but had to excise the demons of their past first. Berlin’s transformation would take much longer, but Nelly’s transformation was in many ways more profound.

This is a movie that succeeds on a lot of different levels, from the easily seen to the more subtle. Certainly it gives the audience a whole lot to think about. The ending, incidentally, is just about perfect, from the way it is executed, the camera angles and the expression on the faces of the actors. It wasn’t the way I expected it to end for sure, but it was the right way for it to end. The great ending is very rare these days so when one comes along, it is much appreciated.

Phoenix is a revelation, notice that here is a director who is to be reckoned with. This will likely be showing up on Netflix and other streaming services shortly – it’s American release was back in July although here in Central Florida the Enzian is reportedly considering booking it for early December – and it’s very much worth checking out once it does. Few movies will leave you as breathless as this one does especially after you consider the ending you just saw as it fades to black and are left jaw dropped and mind blown.

REASONS TO GO: High tension. Hoss’ performance is outstanding. Ending is incredibly good.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoss has appeared in five of Patzold’s seven films thus far.
BEYOND THE THEATER: VOD (Check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flame and Citron
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Burnt

Pick of the Litter – July 2015


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Ant-Man

Ant-Man

(Disney/Marvel) Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll. Only two months after their blockbuster success with Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel is right back in the saddle with the final chapter in their Cinematic Universe Phase II. This one is a bit controversial within the fan community as fan favorite director Edgar Wright left the project over the proverbial “creative differences” to be replaced by Peyton Reed (who was also considered for Guardians of the Galaxy by the way). There are those who think that Wright’s version was too funny for Marvel; there are others who think just the opposite. Whatever the reasons are, Ant-Man is an interesting choice at this stage in the Marvel game; one of the original Avengers, he never really took off on his own. Once again it will be curious to see whether he connects with the moviegoing audience – but given Marvel’s track record, it seems the smart money will bet on the House of Ideas coming out ahead. July 17

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Jimmys Hall

Jimmy’s Hall

(Sony Classics) Barry Ward, Francis Magee, Aileen Henry, Simone Kirby. Master director Ken Loach brings to the screen this film based on true events. An Irish political activist who owns a meeting hall wherein political discussion is encouraged, but also (horrors) dancing is forced to flee during the Red Scare of the 1920s. Eventually he returns home from America to care for his ailing mother, vowing to lead a quiet peaceful life but as he sees the cultural oppression brought on by politicians and the Catholic Church, he knows he can remain silent no longer. He reopens the hall, knowing that the repercussions may be devastating. Given the control of our lives seems to rest in the hands of the politicians and evangelical Christians these days, the movie has particular resonance. July 3

10,000 km

10,000 KM

(Broad Green) Natalia Tena, David Verdaguer. A Spanish couple is separated when Alex gets a medical internship in Los Angeles while Sergi is left behind in Barcelona. The two try to keep their romance blossoming over the Internet, but distance can breed divergence. This debut film by Spanish director Carlos Marques-Marcet takes romance to the next level and modernizes it in the age of social media. The movie that has quietly been racking up global critical acclaim and is one of the first American releases by new distributor Broad Green. July 10

Strangerland

Strangerland

(Alchemy) Nicole Kidman, Joseph Fiennes, Hugo Weaving, Maddison Brown. In this Aussie thriller, a teenage girl disappears and in a small town on the edge of the desert, that is no laughing matter indeed. As her desperate mother tries to find her little girl, the lid is opened on a Pandora’s box of secrets involving her daughter, her husband and her own infidelity. One of the many movies that got a distribution deal out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it has fallen a bit under the radar compared to other bigger profile films but judging on the trailer and the quiet but insistent buzz, this might turn out to be one of the more memorable films from that Festival to make it out into theatrical distribution this year. July 10

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence

(Drafthouse) Adi, Joshua Oppenheimer. In Indonesia in 1965, a brutal military coup led to the death of a million people, a genocide that even today the government of Indonesia has essentially turned its back on. Some of the atrocities committed during the period were documented in Joshua Oppenheimer’s amazing documentary The Act of Killing which was my number one movie of 2013. Now comes this companion piece in which the family of a victim of that genocide confronts the killers of their family member. July 17

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment

(IFC) Olivia Thirlby, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Billy Crudup. In 1971, Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo selected 24 male students to play prison guards and prisoners in a mock prison set up in the basement of the psychology building. The results of that experiment were chilling and had the entire world talking about it. While there have been movies based on the events that took place there, this is the first one to tell the true story of the experiment. This looks to be one of the more intense cinematic experiences of the summer. July 17

A Gay Girl in Damascus The Amina Profile

A Gay Girl in Damascus: The Amina Profile

(Sundance Selects) Sandra Bagaria, Tom MacMaster. As the Arab Spring picked up steam in that heady days of May 2011, a courageous blogger named Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari started a blog titled A Gay Girl in Damascus began reporting on events there as someone who apparently had intimate knowledge of the organizers of protests in that city. On June 6, 2011, it was reported that Amina had been forcibly abducted from the streets of Damascus by three armed men who took her in a van bearing the name of the President’s brother. An outpouring of protest from international sources put pressure on Syria to release the young lesbian woman. However, the story then took a turn that nobody expected. July 24

Phoenix

Phoenix

(Sundance Selects) Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf, Kirsten Block. At the conclusion of World War II a badly disfigured woman is rescued from the concentration camps and given facial reconstructive surgery. She goes in search of her husband – who may have been the one who betrayed her to the Nazis and now is cooking up a scam to have this woman, who resembles his wife but can’t possibly be her, collect on her inheritance and split the money with him. A stylish thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock from renowned German director Christian Petzold. July 24

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon

(Showtime) Marlon Brando. One of the greatest actors of his generation, or of any other, was Marlon Brando. This documentary features Brando, from a variety of interviews, talking about his own life and philosophies. Notoriously reticent, these recently discovered tapes are a gold mine and coupled with home movie footage and behind the scenes footage from his great movies, fans and non-fans alike will be able to get a glimpse of one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th Century completely uninhibited. While this is going to be primarily aired on the Showtime premium cable network, there will also be a brief theatrical release in New York City and possibly elsewhere. July 29

Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

(Magnolia) William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett, John Lithgow. During the 1968 Presidential election, essayist and conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and novelist, essayist and liberal commentator Gore Vidal were hired to provide political commentary for ABC News. Both men were urbane, literate and patrician but putting them together was like bringing together gasoline and a lit match. The two traded insults and often the insults turned ugly. The two men genuinely disliked one another, but both men reflected the best of their respective ideologies of their day. July 31